Articles in Cuisine

A Tunisian woman picks olives in the fields. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

Ari Weinzweig got a front-row tasting of Tunisian extra virgin olive oil five years ago, while visiting a sun-drenched Tunisian family farm that’s been making oil since 1891. How did it taste?

“Delicious,” says Weinzweig, co-owner and founding partner of Zingerman’s Delicatessen, now part of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Michigan. “It’s kind of buttery with a little bit of pepper at the end. It doesn’t really overwhelm the food. It adds complexity and flavor.” Weinzweig likens the flavor to southern French oils, “or in a way to the gentle but full flavored oils of eastern Sicily.”

Today, Zingerman’s is among many U.S. retailers selling that oil, from Les Moulins Mahjoub, operator of a 500-acre farm about 25 miles west of Tunis. It’s among a number of quality Tunisian olive oils increasingly landing on global store shelves — this from a country that is the No. 2 olive oil producer, behind Spain.

 A break from the past: from barrels to bottles

Tunisian olive oil has been described as "kind of buttery with a little bit of pepper at the end." Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

Tunisian olive oil has been described as “kind of buttery with a little bit of pepper at the end.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

A decade ago, much of Tunisia’s olive oil was sold in bulk — think barrels — to Italy and Spain. There, it was blended with other olive oils, and resold under non-Tunisian labels. That’s changing.

Tunisian olive oil makers, many of them artisanal producers, are bottling and labeling their oils. They’re winning medals at international competitions — and giving Tunisia needed hard currency. “This is the future for Tunisia,” says Malek Labidi Debbabi, brand manager at Safir, a Tunis-based provider of olive oil.

It’s happening in a nation that underwent a revolution in 2011. Protesters ousted an autocrat. He was replaced with an elected government. The uprising inspired Arab protesters elsewhere, and put Tunisia on the map. Now, Tunisian olive oil companies aim to capitalize the nation’ new-found attention. It’s about branding. “This is what we are looking at — a brand that says: ‘Made in Tunisia,’ ” says Ikhlas Haddar, a director at Tunisia’s Ministry of Trade. (Full disclosure: The Tunisian government paid for my trip.)

A global olive oil producer

Tunisian olive oil makers, many of them artisanal producers, are bottling and labeling their oils. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

Tunisian olive oil makers, many of them artisanal producers, are bottling and labeling their oils. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

 

This year, Tunisia became the world’s No. 2 olive oil producer, displacing Italy. Credit a bumper olive crop — output quadrupled — and a poor crop in Italy. Much of the oil is sent abroad. On average, Tunisia exports 150 thousand tons of olive oil a year, including 16 thousand tons of bottled oil, according to the government. In 2006, exports of bottled olive oil accounted for 1% of exports, according to government officials, who want that percentage to rise to 30% within a couple of years.

The government says 80 Tunisian olive oil brands are exported. They go to the United States, Europe, Japan, Russia, South America and elsewhere. Cecilia Muriel, owner of Medolea, an award-winning producer about 20 miles south of Tunis, says: “I have a label. I have an identity. I have a story. … Things are changing, and we have better and better olive oil.”

In the United States, retailers selling Tunisian olive oil include Dean & Deluca, Trader Joe’s, Cost Plus World Market, Amazon.com, Kalustyan’s and Food Town. Quality brands include Terra Delyssa and Rivière d’Or.

Tunisian olive oil in the kitchen

At Primo restaurant in Rockland, Maine, Melissa Kelly drizzles her food with Tunisian olive oil. Credit: Copyright Greta Rybus

At Primo restaurant in Rockland, Maine, Melissa Kelly drizzles her food with Tunisian olive oil. Credit: Copyright Greta Rybus

Melissa Kelly, a James Beard award-winning chef, is a Tunisian convert, using Les Moulin Mahjoub oil in her Rockland, Maine, restaurant, Primo. “I really love the flavor — the spice to it,” Kelly says.

At Primo, Kelly uses the oil to garnish whipped ricotta served with focaccia and fava beans. “It balances out the sweetness of the ricotta,” she says. Similarly, Kelly drizzles the oil on pasta sauced with a red pepper and pork ragù: “The oil’s peppery note balances out the sweetness of the red pepper.”

An olive oil-centric cuisine

At the heart of shakshouka, a poached egg and spicy tomato dish, is olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

At the heart of shakshouka, a poached egg and spicy tomato dish, is olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

The ingredients for “Brand Tunisia” include: 80 million olive trees dating back 3,000 years; a climate ripe for olives; and an olive oil-centric cuisine. Think of the spicy chili paste harissa — great on anything, from meat to veggies — and the poached egg and spicy tomato dish shakshouka.

“You can’t imagine that food without olive oil,” says Mediterranean food authority Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of  “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil.”  She notes Tunisians use their oil for frying, baking, garnishing and making many dishes — from couscous to fish soup. “It’s the DNA of the cuisine.”

Majid Mahjoub, Les Moulins Mahjoub general manager, says: “All of our cuisine is built around olive oil. The olive oil reveals all the tastes.”

Olive oil primes the economy

The olive sector accounts for 20% of agricultural jobs in Tunisia. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

The olive sector accounts for 20% of agricultural jobs in Tunisia. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

 

Olive oil exports account for 40% of Tunisia’s agricultural exports, and 10% of total exports, according to government data. The olive sector accounts for 20% of agricultural jobs.

Olive oil employs about 270,000 people, says the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has helped Tunisian olive oil companies switch from bulk to bottles. The agency says olive oil is Tunisia’s No. 5 source of foreign currency earnings.

“It’s a pretty substantial sector for the country’s economy,” says Fariborz Ghadar, professor of global management, policies and planning at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.

Tunisian Orange-Olive Oil Cake (Gâteau à l’Orange)

Blood Orange Olive Oil cake

This delicious orange-olive oil cake is a favorite recipe from the Mahjoub family, who make it with a blood orange called maltaise de Tunisie, which gives the cake a beautiful red blush color. Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 5 minutes

Yield: 8 servings (one 9-inch cake)

From The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health” (Bantam, 2008), by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Reprinted with permission from the author.

This delicious orange-olive oil cake is a favorite recipe from the Mahjoub family, makers of very fine extra virgin olive oil and other traditional products in northern Tunisia. The Mahjoubs make it with a blood orange called maltaise de Tunisie, which gives the cake a beautiful red blush color, but when I can’t get blood oranges, I make it with small thin-skinned Florida juice oranges. (Thick-skinned navel oranges won’t work.) It’s important to use organically raised oranges, since the whole fruit, skin and all, is called for; otherwise, scrub the oranges very carefully with warm soapy water.

Ingredients

Butter and flour for the cake pan

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 small organically raised oranges, preferably blood oranges (about ¾ pound)

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 large eggs

1 ½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Confectioner’s sugar (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform cake pan.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda.

3. Slice off the tops and bottoms of each orange where the skin is thick and discard. Cut the oranges into chunks, skin and all, discarding the seeds, which would make the batter bitter. Transfer the orange chunks to a food processor and pulse to a chunky purée. Add the olive oil, pouring it through the feed tube while the processor is running, and mix to a lovely pink cream.

4. In a separate large bowl, beat the eggs until very thick and lemon colored, gradually beating in the sugar. Beat in the vanilla.

5. Fold about a third of the flour mixture into the eggs, then about a third of the orange mixture, continuing to add and fold in the dry and liquid mixtures until everything is thoroughly combined.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325 F and bake 30 minutes longer or until the cake is golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

7. Remove and let cool. Then invert on a cake rack and dust lightly, if you want, with confectioners’ sugar.

Main photo: A Tunisian woman picks olives in the fields. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

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Abdelatif Reda, 30, engages with one of his regular customers. He has been selling his product since he was 13. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

RABAT, Morocco — Like fans lining up for concert tickets, Abdelatif Reda’s customers patiently wait. If his small cart in Rabat’s old medina is unmanned, its young owner, they speculate, must be out for his afternoon prayer. But he will return, as he does every day after 5 p.m., to sell his homemade cheese.

Age-old market

Abdelatif Reda removes his cheese, which resembles an iced cake, from a basket. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Abdelatif Reda removes his cheese, which resembles an iced cake, from a basket. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Rabat’s medina is a pastel-washed huddle of squat shops and walls running across lines drawn in the 17th century. Here, soap is sold in reused water bottles. Vendors’ blankets display rusty sprawls of lamps, utensils and pots. Residents function on an intimate system of commerce, rotating among their favorite shop owners amid the stutter of moped engines and roil of street life in the medina. And although nearby chains such as Carrefour offer chilled dairy selections, Reda’s cart is, for many, their first choice for cheese.

“Competition is a fact,” said Reda, 30, whose daily inventory fits onto a single rolling cart. “But quality is a question.”

Reda began making cheese when he was 13, learning from his father and older brothers before him. Upholding the family legacy left little time for formal education, so Reda dropped out of school to make cheese full time.

Over the years, his cart has attracted medina regulars and converted supermarket-goers. Some customers travel from as far as away as Casablanca or Meknes, more than an hour away, to try the freshly made cheese, which tastes like a lucky meeting between mozzarella and Greek yogurt.

Cheese is breakfast, teatime treat

Bread, topped with cheese, butter, honey or jam, is a common breakfast and snack option in Morocco. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Bread, topped with cheese, butter, honey or jam, is a common breakfast and snack option in Morocco. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

The Author


Zoë Hue
Zoë Hue is currently studying at New York University Abu Dhabi where she serves as editor-in-chief for the university's publication, The Gazelle. When she has free time outside her pursuit of a literature degree, Zoë dabbles in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies.

The Photographer


Eloise Schieferdecker

Eloise Schieferdecker is an undergraduate at Bennington College in Vermont where she studies documentary photography and video. Eloise grew up in Westchester, New York.

“[Reda’s cheese] is the first thing that I opt for with ghraif [a traditional Moroccan pancake],” said Badrdine Boulaid, 35, who lives in Meknes. “It’s becoming the most important thing served at breakfast and teatime.” The cheese is often paired with toast, olive oil and smears of jam.

Reda refuses to disclose his recipe, though many have asked him to share. He will say only that his process is a complex one, requiring fine manipulation of many different factors such as water temperature, milk quality and even weather.

The cheese comes in quivering white domes, which Reda separates into thick, buttery chunks with quick flicks of his knife. Prices are determined by the final say of Reda’s old metal scale, and customers accept their bags without argument or haggling.

“We prefer certain vendors because we know the source of [their] product,” said Yahya Boutaleb, 24, on his familiarity with the medina’s markets. “We know the produce comes from good farms.”

This familiarity is key to commerce in the medina. Boutaleb’s father, for example, receives a text from his fish vendor whenever a particularly good catch comes in.

It’s all in the name of freshness, which Moroccan chef Alia Al Kasimi describes as a non-negotiable aspect of Moroccan cooking.

A veritable culinary ambassador for her home country, Al Kasimi got her start making cooking videos with her grandmother and posting them on YouTube. Her quick, chirpy how-tos explaining traditional cuisine had an instant fan base with American-Moroccan families.

“If you notice, in Moroccan cuisine, there are not really many spices or ingredients that mask the flavor,” says Kasimi, who has hosted episodes of TV’s “MasterChef” in Morocco. “So the freshness of the ingredients is extremely important.”

Buy fresh, buy local

Using an old-fashioned scale and weights wrapped in paper, Abdelatif Reda makes sure his customers get the right amount of cheese. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Using an old-fashioned scale and weights wrapped in paper, Abdelatif Reda makes sure his customers get the right amount of cheese. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Because of this emphasis on ingredient quality, trust is an important factor in food commerce. “My grandma would go to the market every other day, or every day if she needs to, as if she’s trying to buy what just came out of the earth,” Al Kasimi says. “There’s this pride of how fresh it is.”

Increasingly, this traditional relationship between sellers and buyers has had to compete with well-lit — and air-conditioned — supermarkets within Wal-Mart-style megastores. Unlike the medina’s clumped knot of alleyways and twisty roads, these stores are spacious and organized. The Marjane retail empire is particularly formidable, with  32 branches and 600,394 square feet of space in Morocco.

Al Kasimi says this may be changing the importance that Moroccans place on freshness, adding that while her grandmother feels compelled to stop by the market several times a week, her mother goes just once a week. Al Kasimi admits that her friends in Morocco often prefer the frozen-food aisle at the local grocery store to places like the medina.

Ready to eat

Abdelatif Reda’s cheese is regularly enjoyed by many Moroccans from inside and outside of the medina. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Abdelatif Reda’s cheese is regularly enjoyed by many Moroccans from inside and outside of the medina. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Reda is fortunate that he doesn’t need to worry about defection. Moroccan cheese like his must be made fresh. And unlike traditional French cheeses, it doesn’t age. It has a tangy quality of newness that goes bad if not gobbled up quickly.

Besides, he says, there is no time to check out the competition when he must spend the first part of his day making his product and the rest of the day selling it. He also insists he will not eat any cheese he has not made himself.

To learn how to make your own fresh Moroccan cheese, watch Al Kasimi’s video and check out her recipe for Moroccan cheese spring rolls.

Zoë Hue and Eloise Schieferdecker spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program. They produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, which is mentoring the next generation of global correspondents while producing under-reported stories for top-tier media around the world.

Main photo: Abdelatif Reda engages with one of his regular customers. He has been selling his product since he was 13. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

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Main illustration: Café French: La Cocotte, La Coquette, Coco And Colette. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson today takes us from the luxe cafes of the Belle Epoch (1871-1914) to the louche cafes of its shadowy underbelly, the demi-monde, or “half-world” of bohemian poets, avant-garde artists, students, prostitutes and hustlers of every stripe. These cafe styles straddled the cultural divide between bourgeois respectability and decadent debauchery in fin-de-siècle Paris.

From the late 17th century onward, perhaps in response to Francesco Procopio’s invention of Café Procope (1676) as a showcase for Parisian glamor, fashion and style, the more subversive functions of the cafe as a public forum for radical political, philosophical and artistic thinking found caffeinated expression, even scandal and revolution, in Paris’ growing inventory of cafes.

Coffee as aphrodisiac

In pre-Procope Paris, coffee was primarily an exotic Oriental beverage with powerfully stimulating properties, mostly served in private homes. Doctors of the period even prescribed coffee as an aphrodisiac. Thus, the first cafes to emerge served as platforms for amorous as well as artistic and political liaisons.

By the 19th century, the entry of elegant women from the finest Parisian salons into cafe society proved to be one of the most profound social advances credited to Parisian cafe culture. Women, respectable or not and everything in between, entered at both ends of the spectrum, from high to low. From the chic cafes lining Baron Haussmann’s Grands Boulevards to the seedier cafes filled with artists and poets on both banks of the Seine, Paris’ internationally notorious filles de joie plied their trade to a hungry clientele.

Voulez vous poulet avec moi ce soir?

In French, the terminology we generalize in English as prostitutes (hookers, whores, call girls, street walkers and tramps) is far more nuanced and hierarchical, from the lowest pute, poule (chicken), morue (cod) and grue (crane) to the top of the line courtisane, whose many virtues are brilliantly portrayed in Susan Griffin’s “The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues” (2001).

Veritable celebrities, les courtisanes were also known as cocottes, grandes horizontales and demi-mondaines. Slightly lower in status, perhaps, were the poules de luxe (expensive chickens) and the belles de jour (“afternoon delight”), though I claim no authority in these saucy parsings.

The overlap between sexual and physical hunger is quite literal in French. A cocotte is both a courtesan and a shallow baking dish. Though not to be confused with a coquette, a flirtatious girly-girl decked out seductively in fashionable accessories, both cocotte and coquette derive from “cock” (coq in French), a chicken and a seducer.

Gourmandise and Gourmandine

Perhaps the least known conflation in French of nutrition and procreation — life and more life — are two related words, gourmandise and the more obscure gourmandine.

Cafe French note on a pomme cocotte

Gourmandise in English and French is derived from gourmand, which can mean gluttony (greediness) or an appreciation of refined food (delicacies). Older than “gourmet” (early 19th century), “gourmand” (late 15th century) shares etymological links to the Old French gloton.

Note that gluttony is one of Catholicism’s seven deadly sins. The meaning is nicely explicated by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his list of variations: eating too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily, too wildly. I haven’t seen a better definition of our contemporary term in English for excessive gastronomical enthusiasm: foodie.

Gourmandine, a corruption of gourgandine, is yet another quasi-gastronomic synonym for prostitute, mostly found in French literature. In her book on the birth of Paris as the luxe capital of the world (“The Essence of Style,” 2005), Joan DeJean points out that “gourmandine” was also the name of a new (early 17th century) bodice that revealed a woman’s undergarments (lingerie). Her book cleverly connects the birth of haute couture in the court of Louis XIV to the evolving function of the cafe as a showcase for coquettish (if not “cocottish”) women and their seductive à la mode fashions.

Couture, Coco and Colette

The word “couture” is interesting in this context. It means “stitched together” (seam), and contains the root “co” which, as we saw in our previous Café French lesson, indicates in Latin, “with.”

Ironic that arguably the two greatest French women of the arts to emerge in the Belle Epoch period were both “cos”: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954). Never mind that they are co-Gabrielles, too. Their celebrated lives (and romances) bridged that same cultural divide we began our lesson with — the moral depths of Paris’ demi-monde and the dizzy heights of bourgeois Parisan luxe.

Ironic also that couturier Chanel, whose dessins modernes liberated women from their gourmandines, earned a double “coco” (child slang for little chicken) as a nickname. Was this a reference to a lyric from the popular song she notoriously sang as a young cabaret singer, or her experience as a young cocotte (her first marriage was one of convenience, as English would have it), or her early years as an industrious seamstress?

Cafe French 9 Translation Exercise. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Like Coco, our second French “co,” the proto-feminist Colette, spent her early years as a performer. Colette’s most popular novels in English are “Gigi” and “Chéri,” both centered on the lives of cocottes or ex-cocottes. By the end of her life, Colette was living in a glamorous Palais-Royal apartment overlooking Paris (next door to Jean Cocteau!) where kings and queens had lived centuries earlier.

Of course, semantic analysis can’t always explain the fickle and often funny trajectories of history’s ironic narratives; nor why words, like memories, are created, vanish and, on occasion, return. Hard not to conclude, while nursing a grand crème at Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice, where world cinema’s “Belle de Jour,” Catherine Deneuve, often strolls past, that the spectacle we call history is merely our vain attempt at explaining a vast unfolding of incomprehensible coincidence.

Main illustration: Café French: La Cocotte, La Coquette, Coco And Colette. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

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Armenian chef Grigori Karleni Antinyan, center, with culinary students at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

In Turkey, it’s börek; in Israel, burekas, flaky layers of phyllo dough stuffed most commonly with cheese, spinach or minced meat. And the savory pastry isn’t the only thing the two cuisines have in common.

“You find a vast use of fresh vegetables, greens, spinach, olive oil, light fresh cheese, goat’s milk, and black pepper [in both countries],” says Tel Aviv-based chef Ruthie Rousso. Like Turkey, she noted, “Israel gets most of its fish from the Mediterranean, and enjoys the [same] climate and the produce which comes with it.”

Turks and Israelis have few opportunities to revel in their shared gastronomic heritage, however. Political tensions between the two erstwhile allies have been running high over the past six years, with reconciliation attempts thus far unsuccessful.

Judge from Israel’s version of ‘Iron Chef’ sees connection

Chef Ruthie Rousso. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

Chef Ruthie Rousso. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

“Many Israelis wouldn’t dare go to Turkey these days. And I believe it’s [true] the other way around as well. What a loss,” says Rousso, who served as a judge on Israel’s version of the “Iron Chef” cooking show.

But Rousso and others believe culinary similarities might just be a way to bring people back together — not only from Turkey and Israel, but from other countries with strained relationships as well.

The Food for Diplomacy project, for which Rousso served as a guest chef in November, was initiated at Kadir Has University in Istanbul to test this theory.

“Turkey has so much in common with other countries in the region in terms of our history and culture, the food we make and the ingredients we use,” says project coordinator Eylem Yanardağoğlu. “We wanted to use food as a bridge, to create an atmosphere where even difficult issues can be discussed.”

Since the project’s initiation last fall, Kadir Has University has hosted chefs from Armenia, Israel, Syria and Ukraine, who cook with students from the school’s culinary institute and then prepare a meal of their country’s cuisine for a mixed group of diplomats, businesspeople, journalists, artists and other community members.

Through tensions, a focus on common themes — and tastes

Armenian chef Grigori Karleni Antinyan with Turkish culinary students. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

Armenian chef Grigori Karleni Antinyan with Turkish culinary students. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

The first event focused on the Republic of Armenia, a country with which Turkey has no formal diplomatic relations as a result of ongoing historical and political disputes. Award-winning Armenian chef Grigori K. Antinyan prepared traditional dishes ranging from putuk, a thick mutton-and-vegetable stew cooked in individual clay pots, to klondrak, a dessert of dried apricots stuffed with cracked wheat. A keynote speaker encouraged dialogue among the diners about how diplomatic challenges might be overcome.

“We’re not claiming we’ll be able to solve the Turkey-Armenia issue through food, but this type of cultural diplomacy can help us see the common themes we have with other countries rather than just the problems,” says Yanardağoğlu. She notes that active efforts are being made by NGOs and other universities in Turkey and Armenia to increase communication and interaction between the feuding countries’ peoples.

Chef Mohamad Nizar Bitar says he wanted to participate in Food for Diplomacy to raise awareness of Syria’s rich cultural heritage among people in Turkey, where more than 1.7 million Syrians have taken refuge from their country’s civil war. Bitar, who has established a successful chain of Syrian restaurants and bakeries in Istanbul, also wanted to cast a more positive light on the refugees whose ongoing presence is causing increasing tension in Turkey. Once Turkish people try Syrian food, he says, they particularly love falafel, hummus and fattoush, a flatbread salad.

Plating up diplomacy with Greece

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was an honored guest at Food for Diplomacy’s Greek dinner in Istanbul. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was an honored guest at Food for Diplomacy’s Greek dinner in Istanbul. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

The most recent Food for Diplomacy event, held April 14, focused on Greece, Turkey’s Mediterranean neighbor and frequent political rival. In the future, Yanardağoğlu hopes to send Turkish chefs to Armenia and Ukraine to continue the cultural and culinary exchange, and to create a booklet of regional recipes featured at the dinners.

Chef Rousso, who has traveled to countries from Ethiopia to Vietnam to cook and talk about Israeli food as part of what she calls her own “culinary ambassadoring,” says Turkey was her biggest challenge yet.

“The tension between the two countries made it an adventurous task,” she says. But her signature “Israeli-style” roast beef served with hot green chili oil, cherry tomato seeds, olive oil, coarse salt and tahini on the side was a hit with Kadir Has’ culinary students, and Yanardağoğlu says the dinner discussion was a success as well.

“I think everyone was a bit tense at the beginning of the [Israel] event, but as dinner went on, they started to relax and bring their guard down,” she says about the evening’s guests, who included members of the Israeli diplomatic mission and Istanbul’s dwindling Jewish community, as well as Turkish journalists and a former ambassador.

“Unfortunately there were no Turkish officials who participated in my event, but I had the chance to work with Turkish students and meet the local media, and I was so impressed,” says Rousso. “These kinds of meetings open people’s eyes on both sides; if we can agree about food, maybe we can agree about other matters as well.”

Main photo: Armenian chef Grigori Karleni Antinyan, center, with culinary students at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

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A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

The diet world is a very crowded place, and advice is constantly changing. But, very slowly, we’re coming to realize what the physicians of Greek antiquity well understood — that “food” is far more than something we put in our mouths and swallow. In fact, the ancient diet of the Cretans is once again gaining favor.

What is the Cretan diet?

A eureka moment early in our own societies’ attempts to understand the relationship between food and health took place 70 years ago. In wealthy America, heart disease was on the rise. A U.S. researcher, Ancel Keys, discovered that in war-torn Europe, especially in poverty-stricken Crete, heart disease was relatively rare. He concluded that it was  because of the Cretans’ diet and way of life. The timing of his study has since been criticized (the Orthodox Church observes many fasts and, in the 1940s, these were strictly adhered to), but the general good health of the people was there for all to see.

I first visited Crete just 20 years after Keys. I was there as a student volunteer on an archaeological dig. It took me more than a day to reach the dig (there was, then, less than 40 miles of tarmac road on the entire island). It was a two-hour walk to the nearest village, and this Crete wasn’t much different from the island Keys experienced. In the weeks I spent there, I felt much healthier than I had at home in London. I knew that the reason for this was the food, and the sharing of our tables with friends and strangers. In short, it was because of the Cretan diet.

Sorting fact from fiction isn’t easy

In the intervening years, a great deal has been written about the benefits and dishes of various diets, especially the Mediterranean diet. The subject of food attracts huge research grants and promotional fees from commercial companies. Unsurprisingly, the core finding in that original research on Crete — the link between local foods, food production, enjoyment of food and good health — has disappeared under a pile of lab-inspired markers and recipes.

Today, some of us can buy Cretan olive oils and cheeses in our stores. These give us the good flavors of the island and the advantage of being able to consume cheeses made with milk from animals that have roamed free over herb-covered hills, but it isn’t the whole story. We can follow the Cretan diet (from the Greek, diaita, meaning “way of life”) to our advantage wherever we are by enjoying a large diversity of foods that are grown or gathered locally, that are at the peak of their seasonal (nutritional) best and that excite us with their different flavors and textures. This holds true for fish and meat, too. They both have seasons, based on the breeding habits of the animals and fish, and their ability to feed well.

Thus, what are now the two most serious Orthodox fasts — Lent (March, lamb-breeding season) and August (when it’s hot and the land is parched) — have their roots in a way of life that was followed long before Christianity. This attitude to true sustainability (which ensures future life) exists on Crete even when food is plentiful, and some of the most appreciated island foods are what we generally consider to be “lesser” fish and meats – octopus and other seafood, tiny fish, snails, offal and small game.

What the Cretan diet can do for you

But we’re not Cretans, so why should we want to follow their diet? There’s one particular reasons why I like to: It means I can rely on my own judgment as to whether something is “good for me,” as I can always check the 4,000 years of food wisdom that has passed down from those smart, early inhabitants of Crete, the Minoans. Following a few simple tenets, and stocking your pantry with some quality ingredients, you, too, can create for yourself the Cretan diet.

Use olive oil like a Cretan

Until a generation ago, Cretans consumed around five times more olive oil than other Greeks, and Greeks consumed per capita the most olive oil in the world. To an islander, all olive oil is extra virgin, and only consumed in the year of its production. There’s plenty of evidence now that olive oil (extra virgin and fresh) is a “super food,” so much of the Cretans’ good health can be traced to its copious use in island kitchens. For those of us without an olive tree, it’s not quite so simple. Extra virgin olive oil is not only expensive, it’s rare for the current season’s product to reach our stores. So we lose out on what is its greatest value for us. One solution is to build a relationship with a producer and buy direct.

Love those green leaves, the wilder the better

A neighbor of mine on Crete was able to identify more than 60 wild greens and herbs. She knew exactly where and when to find certain species, and how they were best served. She was well known locally for her remarkable skill, but every Cretan cook could — and many still can — identify a dozen or so wild greens. Wild greens contain more, and a greater variety of, nutrients than garden- or commercially grown greens. Many of the best garden greens, as far as nutrients and flavor, end up on the compost heap — beet, turnip and radish greens. Farmers markets are now a good source of these greens and others, and many of us enjoy foraging in the countryside, wherever we are. Turned into salads or side dishes, Cretan-style, with plenty of olive oil, they make very good eating.

Look for sheep-milk and goat-milk cheeses

Not only do Cretans have an admirable capacity for consuming olive oil, they are also among the world’s largest consumers of cheese. But their cheeses are different from many available in our stores. Made with milk (mostly sheep, some goat) from animals that eat a melange of wild herbs and greens, and graze outside year-round, they possess nutrients that are missing from cheeses made with highly processed factory-farmed milk. If you can’t buy Cretan cheeses, seek out cheeses made with milk from pasture-raised cows or goats.

Measure herbs with your hand, not with a spoon

Measuring spoons are unknown in traditional Cretan kitchens. Your hand is the perfect measure for herbs and spices. You see what you are adding to a dish and, with dried herbs and spices, the heat of your palm releases their wonderful aromas, in the process delighting you, the cook.

Sweeten the natural way

Honey is another “super food” that Crete has in abundance. With only a few days a year without sunshine and much pesticide-free land, bees have a good life on the island. Honey is more than sugar-sweetener — it has nutritional and medicinal qualities, too. But only when the bees have a healthy environment. A good substitute is local honey from bees that have enjoyed pesticide-free pollen.

Give your gut a helping hand

Yogurt made from the milk of animals that have grazed on herbs or grass and the necessary “friendly bacteria” is a very different food from the commercial yogurts that have a shelf life of weeks. Its bacteria are alive and ready to do their good work, keeping your gut in good order. These bacteria are even more valuable to us now, with so much of our foods being highly processed.

Cretan yogurt, made from sheep/goat milk, is thick, creamy and utterly delicious but, at the moment, travels only as far as Athens. It’s easy to make your own at home; for the best results, use full-fat organic milk. Other ways, Cretan-style, to keep your gut healthy is to include naturally fermented (wine) vinegar, pickles, fish and cured olives in your culinary repertoire.

Drink like a Cretan, too

Existing right at the heart of the ancient “wine world,” it’s no wonder wine is as much part of a Cretan’s diet as olive oil. Like olive oil, wine to a Cretan is a drink made that year from grapes nearby (village wine) and consumed with gusto. Appreciated as it is, village wine takes getting used to, so it’s good news that, today, some of the island’s wineries are winning medals on the world stage. Well-made, modern Cretan wines are particularly interesting when made with the island’s unique, and sometimes ancient, grape varietals. On Cretan tables, wine and food are inseparable. Wine is a digestif, and a way of welcoming all to the table — there’s always plenty of it on Cretan tables.

A Minoan storage pot

A Cretan storage pot (pithoi) can contain grain, pulses or olives. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

Staples for the ‘Cretan shelf’ of your pantry

  • Olive oil: extra virgin
  • Olives: brine-cured, young and green, salt-cured, plump and fleshy, sweet and tiny
  • Capers and caper leaves, salt-packed
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Sea salt, fine and coarse
  • Spices: allspice, ground; cinnamon, sticks and ground; coriander seeds, whole and ground; cumin, whole and ground; black peppercorns; sumac, ground; nutmeg; cloves; vanilla
  • Dried herbs: rigani (Greek oregano), marjoram, rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves
  • Dried fruit: currants, small dark raisins, large plump sultanas, figs, prunes
  • Honey: Cretan mountain sage, orange blossom, Hymettus
  • Nuts: whole unblanched almonds, walnuts in the shell, pine nuts, unsalted pistachio nuts, hazelnuts (filberts)
  • Seeds: melon, pumpkin, sesame
  • Dried pulses: garbanzo beans (chickpeas), white beans (great northerns, cannellini), green lentils, brown lentils, yellow split peas, butter (large lima) beans, black-eyed peas
  • Preserved lemons
  • Preserved fish: salted anchovies, sardines packed in olive oil or brine, tuna packed in olive oil, oil-cured bonito (lakertha), sun-dried or smoked mackerel or octopus, smoked eel
  • Preserved grape leaves

From your refrigerator or freezer

  • Cheeses: graviera, aged kephalotyri, manouri, myzithra, brine-stored feta
  • Yogurt: sheep milk, good-quality cow’s milk
  • Fresh or frozen filo sheets: you can store fresh filo for up to 2 days, frozen filo for up to 4 weeks

In your herb garden

  • Flat-leaf parsley, cilantro (fresh coriander), thyme, rosemary, bay laurel, marjoram
  • Fennel, dill, mint (many varieties, including “garden,” small-leaf), small-leaf basil, sage, lovage, savory, chives
  • Rose- and lemon-scented geranium leaves

Beet Greens With Latholemono

Beet greens are only one of a huge variety of wild or garden greens Cretans bring to the table. You can substitute turnip greens, radish tops, amaranth greens, water spinach, ruby chard or mustard greens (charlock) for the beet greens, and use a sauce of olive oil and red wine vinegar in place of the lemon juice.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the green

Total time: 7 to 10 minutes

Yield: 6 for a meze serving, 4 as a side dish

Ingredients

1 1/4 pounds beet greens

For serving

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or to taste

Coarse-grain sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Lemon wedges

Directions

1. Rinse the greens in several changes of cold water. Remove any tough stalks from the greens and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces.

2. Steam the greens. Or place them in a non-reactive saucepan, add 4 tablespoons boiling water, and cook, stirring once or twice with a fork, for 1 to 2 minutes. Take care not to overcook. Drain well in a colander, pressing the greens against the sides with a wooden spoon.

3. To serve, transfer the greens to a platter and lightly fork them to lift and separate the leaves. Add the olive oil and sprinkle with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature, with lemon wedges.

Note: Prepare turnip greens and radish tops the same way as beet greens and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Break off the tender sprigs of leaves from water spinach and mustard greens and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Amaranth greens and young ruby chard take only 1 to 2 minutes to cook. Take care not to overcook.

Main photo: A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

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My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna - egg curry - as a picnic treat for Bengali's New Year. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

In mid-April, the people of Bengal — a region straddling Bangladesh and parts of India, including my hometown in West Bengal — celebrate the Bengali New Year.

Bengalis of all religious persuasions celebrate this secular holiday with music, song and, of course, plenty of good food. So today I share with you food. Lots of it. Twenty-six Bengali dishes, to be precise

It’s only appropriate to go all out, food-wise, on naba barsha, as Bengalis call the holiday. Food in Bengali is synonymous with all events and happenings. But for festivals like the one for the new year, Bengalis go the whole nine yards on the dinner table.

People also buy new clothes and other new items with the belief that something done at the beginning of the year repeats itself year-round. Bengali traders crack open fresh new account books called the haal khata on this day.

A new year ahead, with taxes behind us

Ironically, the Bengali New Year, which falls during a season when the U.S. tax deadline looms, originated in the Mughal Empire, when it marked a fresh beginning after the collection of taxes.

So, celebrate the end of tax season with me by delving into this regional cuisine.

Bengal, with its west monsoon climate and proximity to rivers, offers a diet rich in fish, greens, rice and vegetables. Its seasonings are distinct and prominent with the use of mustard, poppy seeds, ginger and a Bengali Five Spice Blend consisting of mustard, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and fennel. This seasoning is called panch phoron: panch means five and phoron means tempering.

The Bengali meal ranges from light to heavy courses, with a sweet and sour chutney to cleanse the palate before dessert.

This slideshow offers an insight into some of the most traditional dishes on the Bengali table.

Starting the new year with a family recipe that travels well

The fact that the holiday lands midweek this year puts a wrinkle on food celebrations.

This year, however I’ve resurrected a well-seasoned egg dish that my grandmother used to call her “picnic dimer dalna” or picnic egg curry.

Our “picnics” consisted usually of multilayered lunch boxes, filled with puffy fried breads known as luchi and drier curries like alur dom. In our family’s case, it included these eggs, since my grandmother felt that we should get our protein as growing children.

This dish travels very well, and actually improves as leftovers. My children now love this as a special breakfast treat and it can be enjoyed with toasted bread almost as much as the luchi, which can be difficult to pull off on a school-day morning. The eggs, however, can be made the night before.

This particular recipe is also known as Kosha Dimer Dalna. The word kosha in Bengali refers to slow-cooked and refers to the slow-cooked onions in the dish.

This year, if you feel that you just might need an excuse for a new beginning and an opportunity to revisit your New Year’s resolutions, join the Bengalis in celebrating our Bengali New Year.

Kosha Dimer Dalna (Egg Curry with Clingy Caramelized Onion Sauce)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 to 50 minutes

Total time: 65 to 70 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons oil

3 medium-sized onions, sliced

1 tablespoon grated ginger

2 to 3 cardamoms

2 medium-sized tomatoes

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper, or to taste

8 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Chopped cilantro to garnish

Directions

1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and add in the sliced onions. Cook the onions on low heat, until they gradually wilt, soften and turn golden brown. This process will take about 30 to 35 minutes, but should not be rushed.

2. Add in the ginger and stir well.

3. Add in the cardamoms, tomatoes and red cayenne pepper. Cook for about five minutes until the mixture thickens and the tomatoes begin to soften.

4. In the meantime, make slits on the sides of the eggs and rub them with the salt and the turmeric.

5. Mix the eggs into the tomato mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, until the eggs are well-coated with the onion base.

6. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.

Main photo: My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna or egg curry as a picnic treat for us when I was growing up in Kolkata in India’s West Bengal province. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

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Main photo: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard's salpícon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Landry.

It’s not easy to capture an entire country’s cuisine in one cookbook — especially when the author lives 3,000 miles away. So when Amalia Moreno-Damgaard began writing her cookbook about Guatemalan cuisine, she knew she would have to make compromises. The challenge was finding substitutes that wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the cuisine.

Peppers can be used instead of chilies. It’s fine to use store-bought chicken broth instead of making your own with chicken bones. To make a meal healthier, oils can be substituted for lard — a trick Moreno-Damgaard learned from her grandmother many years ago in Guatemala City.

The Author


Martha Landry is a social media intern for Round Earth Media. She is also a Travel Ambassador for GoOverseas and photo corps member. In the future, Landry hopes to be an environmental journalist.

Martha Landry is a social media intern for Round Earth Media in St. Paul, Minn. She is also a Travel Ambassador for GoOverseas and photo corps member. In the future, Landry hopes to be an environmental journalist.

But don’t even think of using anything other than a corn tortilla. “The tortilla is king,” Moreno-Damgaard declares.

It’s that kind of homegrown knowledge that fills Moreno-Damgaard’s cookbook, “Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen — Gourmet Cuisine with a Cultural Flair,” which was published in 2012. The 420-page cookbook not only provides readers with an array of Guatemalan recipes, it also introduces them to the culture of the country, exploring street foods, breakfast dishes and holiday specialties.

The cuisine highlights Latin American culture, Moreno-Damgaard says, a culture she wants to celebrate. Too often, she says, it’s the stories of violence and corruption that make the headlines.

“Someone needed to go out there and say wonderful things about Guatemala,” Moreno-Damgaard says. She believes she can convey the many positive attributes of her home country by exposing Americans to authentic Guatemalan cuisine beyond the typical rice-and-bean dish.

To gather material for the book, Moreno-Damgaard traveled back and forth from her home in Minneapolis to Guatemala City, where she was born and raised.

“Guatemalan food is a combination of native cuisine and Spanish cuisine, which is the story of Latin America,” she says. And that mixture is a result of four distinctly different regions of Guatemala, each with its own distinct food.

The southern shores offer the freshest seafood; the east produces unique fruits and vegetables; the northern mountains still celebrate Mayan cooking and traditions, and the west coast is home to the Garifuna people — descendants of Africans and indigenous Arawak people from the Caribbean — who bring their own cooking style to the region, including lots of chowders and rice dishes with coconut and plantain flavors.

The woman behind the book

In 1981, Moreno-Damgaard, then just 19, left her home to visit her brother in the United States. She ended up staying, getting her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fontbonne University in St. Louis, and her master’s degree in international business and culture from Saint Louis University. After college, she built a successful career in international banking, holding a variety of senior-level positions.

Since 2001, she has lived with her husband, Kenn Damgaard, in the Minneapolis area.

Sixteen years ago, when their son, Jens, was born, she decided to give up her banking career to spend more time at home. Moreno-Damgaard says she couldn’t imagine missing her son’s first steps or first words. But with quite a bit of free time on her hands, she concentrated on cooking, making it more than a hobby.

Moreno-Damgaard enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Minneapolis/St. Paul in Mendota, Minn., for her professional culinary arts degree in classic French cuisine.

Then she plunged into a professional career, starting out as a cooking teacher — something she continues to do today. She gives cooking demonstrations at culinary events and benefits, as well as private lessons.

“Teaching keeps me on my toes, because I continue to learn,” Moreno-Damgaard says. “You never stop learning, even about an area you specialize in.”

Nora Tycast recently attended one of Moreno-Damgaard’s cooking classes in Minneapolis. Tycast’s three daughters — all adopted from Guatemala — joined her.

The family has attended many of Moreno-Damgaard’s events, Tycast says, because it gives her daughters a chance to learn and identify with their native culture.

“It’s nice for the girls to see a professional chef, and it’s nice (for them) to see someone who looks like them,” Tycast says. “It’s good to have someone (from Guatemala) up in front of them and being an example.”

In additional to teaching classes, Moreno-Damgaard runs her own business and serves on the board of directors for Common Hope, the Latino Economic Development Center, Women Entrepreneurs of Minnesota and Le Cordon Bleu Alumni Association.

Latin American cuisine

When Moreno-Damgaard moved to the Twin Cities, she says it was hard to find Latin American cuisine or interest in diverse foods. She says she missed the tastes and textures she had grown up with.

“When … we first came to Minnesota, we really struggled to find a Latin American restaurant,” she says. “Even a good Mexican restaurant was hard to find.”

Today, Moreno-Damgaard sees more of an appreciation of international cuisine because the Internet has opened up access to different parts of the world, including Guatemala. She said the wealth of information on the Web about different cultures has sparked an interest in foreign countries and cuisines, and the influx of immigrants to the Twin Cities has exposed the local population to Latin American food.

She says she has more to tell people about Latin America, so she’s writing a second cookbook about Guatemala. She plans to detail more specific aspects of the cuisine as well as provide a more in-depth look at the culture. In recent trips to Guatemala, Moreno-Damgaard spent time with chefs — both professional and hobbyists — to gather local knowledge. She also spent time exploring rural Guatemala to more clearly define its regions.

Because of the influences from Spain, the Caribbean and the Mayans, Guatemalan food is “the deepest, the most diverse, and the most delicious” in Latin America, Moreno-Damgaard says. She says the flavors, ingredients and history are the most varied in the region. She is excited to be sharing the cuisine with those who relate to her passion for healthy and flavorful food.

Pepián Negro (Spicy Chicken and Pork Vegetable Stew)

Pepián negro (black pepián) is from Guatemala department, which includes Guatemala City, in the south-central part of the country. It takes its name from the blackened tortillas used in the sauce. There are also red and yellow pepián with varying ingredients, made with turkey, chicken, beef or pork, in Quetzaltenango, Suchitepequez and other regions. All varieties have some ingredients in common, such as pan-roasted seeds, peppers, cinnamon and tomatoes, but they may have different finishing touches. Pepián can be made with any kind of protein. Serve it with Arroz Guatemalteco (Guatemalan vegetable rice) and Tamalitos de Queso (fresh cheese mini tamales in banana leaves), which provide a nice break between spicy bites.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces

1/2 pound pork butt or shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces

2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken stock

1 small, whole yellow onion, peeled and t-scored*

1/2 cup unchopped cilantro, include stems and leaves

1 cup quartered Roma tomatoes (about 2 large tomatoes)

1/2 cup husked, quartered tomatillos (3 to 4 large tomatillos)

1 small yellow onion, cut into thick slices

2 large garlic cloves, peeled

1 guaque (guajillo) chile, seeded

1 zambo (mulato) chile, seeded

Para Espesar (Thickeners)

Choose one of the following:

2 corn tortillas blackened in toaster oven to medium brown, soaked in hot stock for 10 minutes;

or 2 tablespoons instant corn masa flour, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown;

or 2 tablespoons white rice, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown, then soaked in cold water 10 minutes

1 tablespoon canola oil

Sazón (Seasonings)

1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted pumpkin seeds

1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted sesame seeds

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup small cubes of potatoes, cooked al dente

1/2 cup fresh green beans cut into 1-inch pieces, cooked al dente

1/2 cup carrots sliced on the diagonal, cooked al dente

1/2 cup güisquil (chayote squash) cut into 1-inch cubes, cooked al dente

1 cup loosely packed, finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Cilantro leaves, finely chopped, as garnish

Directions

1. In a medium pot, cook the chicken and pork in the stock with the yellow onion and cilantro over low heat until the chicken and pork are done, about 30 to 45 minutes. Remove and reserve the onion and the cilantro. Set aside the pot of chicken, pork and stock.

2. Heat a skillet for 2 minutes over medium heat and add the tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic. Adjust the heat to medium-low and pan roast the vegetables until they are charred all over and mushy, about 8 minutes.

3. Separately, pan roast the chilies over medium-low heat for about 3 minutes. Keep a close eye on the chilies, as they burn easily. Then soak the roasted chilies in 1 cup of very hot water for 10 minutes.

4. Combine the roasted vegetables, the reserved onion and cilantro, the soaked chilies, half the soaking water, and 3/4 cup of the hot stock in a blender. Add the thickener of your choice and purée to a fine consistency. The purée should look smooth and velvety.

5. Heat the oil in a medium skillet. Add the purée and seasonings. Add the cup of finely chopped cilantro. Cook for about 3 minutes. Add the sauce to the pot of chicken, pork and stock. Add the al dente vegetables and stir. Simmer covered to blend the flavors, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be medium thin — about the consistency of steak sauce. If the sauce is too thin, cook the stew a bit longer to thicken it. If the sauce is too thick, add more stock or water. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.

6. Serve the stew garnished with chopped cilantro leaves.

* Note: To t-score an onion, make a 1/2-inch-deep, cross-shaped cut at the narrowest end of the onion. The onion remains whole.

Main photo: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard’s salpícon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Landry.

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Spaghetti alla Bolognese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

When searching for the best spaghetti alla Bolognese, the first thing to be said is that by tradition it is made with tagliatelle, a pasta pretty much like fettuccine, and not with spaghetti, although it is quite commonly made with spaghetti.

Tagliatelle con Ragù alla Bolognese, as it is properly called, is one of those dishes that appears on many international menus and often made in an inferior way. Tagliatelle, tagliolini, pappardelle, tortellini and lasagna are some of the pastas made from sfoglia, as they are known in Bologna, that is, the “leaves” of pasta dough made from the finest white flour and eggs.

Legend has it that the tagliatelle shape — strips of pasta about a half-inch wide — was invented in 1487 by Maestro Zafirano, a cook from the village of Bentivoglio, on the occasion of the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to the Duke of Ferrara. The cook was said to be inspired by the beautiful blond hair of the bride.

Despite the appeal of this apocryphal story, history tells us that tagliatelle was invented earlier. Pictorial representations of tagliatelle exist from before this date in the illustrations accompanying the various 14th- and 15th-century Latin translations of an 11th-century Arabic medical treatise, the Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa (Maintenance of health) written by Ibn Buṭlān, a physician in Baghdad, and translated into Latin as Tacuinum sanitati (or Tacuuinum Sanitatis). In the Compendium de naturis et proprietatibus alimentorum, a list of local Emilian nomenclature for foods compiled in 1338 by Barnaba de Ritinis da Reggio di Modena, the entry for something called fermentini indicates that it is cut into strips like tagliatelle and boiled.

My recipe is one of the richest enhancements of the classic ragù from Bologna, which was once much simpler. Two of my children lived in Bologna while they attended the University of Bologna and they have ideas about how to properly make the dish. The meats need to be lean, otherwise there will be too much fat in the sauce. The meat can be ground in a food processor using short bursts or pulses, resulting in a finely chopped effect. The Accademia Italiana della Cucina, the preeminent organization dedicated to protecting Italy’s culinary patrimony, attempted to codify ragù alla Bolognese which, as one can imagine, engendered a good deal of controversy. To codify such a sauce is surely a Sisyphean task because cuisine is not an immutable artifact of culture but a living, changing embodiment of numerous families in a society. It’s also exceedingly difficult to separate the cooking over time of different classes to a point where one could say “this is the true one.”

A study of Renaissance cookbooks does not provide a clear antecedent of the contemporary ragout. Books from that period include ragù-like dishes, but with seasonings that still hold onto the Arab-inspired medieval spicing of rose water, saffron, cinnamon, ginger and sugar. It should also be remembered that the influence of the French may have had a greater role than the Bolognese are willing to admit since the word ragù derives from the French ragoût and Emilia-Romagna was not only Francophile but inundated with French culture over time.

The seriousness with which the Bolognese considered ragù alla Bolognese is wonderfully captured and illustrated in the 14 pages devoted to ragù in Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s “The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Foodpublished in 1992.

Here is my recipe, recreated from the advice of Bolognese, from memory and from my many tastings.

Spaghetti alla Bolognese

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 2 1/2 hours

Total time: 3 hours, 10 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped

1 ounce prosciutto, finely chopped

1 ounce mortadella, finely chopped

3 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in tepid water to cover for 15 minutes, drained, rinsed and finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves

1/4 pound lean beef sirloin, finely chopped (not ground)

1/4 pound lean pork tenderloin, finely chopped (not ground)

1/4 pound lean veal sirloin, finely chopped (not ground)

2 chicken livers, membranes removed and finely chopped

1/2 cup dry red wine

1/4 cup tomato sauce

1 tablespoon water

1/4 cup beef broth

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 1/4 pounds tagliatelle, fettuccine or spaghetti

Directions

1. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium-heat and cook, stirring occasionally, the pancetta, prosciutto and mortadella until the pancetta is soft and a bit rendered, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley and cook, stirring as needed, until the vegetables have softened and turned color, about 10 minutes. Add the beef, pork, veal, and chicken livers and cook, stirring, until browned, about 10 minutes.

2. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Once the wine has evaporated, reduce the heat to low add the tomato sauce diluted with a little water and the beef broth. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cover and simmer for 2 hours. Add the cream and cook another 10 minutes.

3. 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. Transfer to a serving platter. Ladle the ragù on top and serve immediately. (The ragù can be frozen for up to 6 months).

Note: A simpler method is to cook the onion with the celery and carrot in the oil and butter, adding the ground beef, but not the other meats, the wine, salt and pepper, nutmeg and 1 1/2 cups of tomato sauce. Follow the recipe above, eliminating all the ingredients except those called for in this note.

Main photo: Spaghetti alla Bolognese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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