Articles in Tradition
As warm weather tempts Americans to launch our annual outdoor-cooking adventures, most of us are too content with traditional American fare for the grill. Steaks and burgers are fine, but to wow the crowd consider some Italian classics well-suited for the All-American grill, including a rabbit recipe from the region of Molise.
Rabbit has lost some of its mid-century popularity, but it used to be eaten much more by Americans who were of the Greatest Generation, the generation that served in World War II.
Memorial Day is not merely the American holiday that honors the men and women who died in service to their country in the U.S. military. It’s popularly thought of as the opening day to the grill season. This year you can try something a bit different than hamburgers.
Here’s a recipe from the region of Molise in Italy, which may be familiar to some Italian-Americans.
It’s quite easy and always a surprising hit. I’d serve it with some grilled vegetables and a nice spring salad made with fava beans, asparagus, artichoke, peas and lettuce, for example, simply dressed with a vinaigrette.
Rabbit once an American staple
The preparation is called coniglio alla Molisana, grilled rabbit and sausage skewers in the style of Molise. There are all kinds of recipes in Italy for rabbit, wild rabbit and hare. In Sicily, they grill wild rabbits with a marinade of olive oil, garlic, vinegar and oregano.
Grilling suits an Italian classic
In central Italy, hare is spit-roasted with olive oil and flavored with bay leaves, parsley and cloves. Sometimes the grilled hare is served with a sauce made from the liver and blood of the hare and chopped onions, stock, wine and lemon juice.
In Sondrio in Lombardy, a preparation called lepre con la crostada is a spit-roasted hare that is then stewed in cream and crushed macaroons. Calabrians like to marinate the hare in vinegar and scallions overnight and then skewer the meat with pancetta and bay leaves before grilling. This is the version popular in Molise.
Grilled Rabbit and Sausage Skewers (Coniglio alla Molisana)
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Several handfuls of fresh or dried rosemary, oregano and marjoram twigs
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1 rabbit, 3 pounds
1 pound mild Italian sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
12 paper-thin slices prosciutto (about 1/4 pound)
12 large fresh sage leaves
Four 10-inch wooden skewers
Olive oil for basting
1. Prepare a low charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill for 15 minutes on low. Toss several handfuls of mixed dried or fresh herb twigs onto the fire or use the receptacle for that purpose provided with gas grills.
2. Because there is not an abundance of meat on a rabbit, slice the meat very close to the bone, using a boning and paring knife and trying to keep the pieces as large as possible. (Save the bones for the rabbit stock.) Put the rabbit and sausage pieces in a mixing bowl and toss with the parsley and rosemary, salt and pepper to taste.
3. Lay a piece of rabbit on a section of a paper-thin prosciutto slice and roll up. Skewer the rolled-up rabbit with a sage leaf and a sausage piece, in that order, until all the ingredients are used up.
4. Place the skewers on the grill and cook, turning occasionally, until golden brown, about 1 hour. Baste with olive oil during grilling.
Variation: Alternatively, instead of rolling the rabbit pieces in prosciutto, cut the prosciutto into 1/8-inch thick squares of 1 inch and skewer with the rabbit and sausage.
Add a spring salad for a seasonal hit
Main photo: Grilled Rabbit and Sausage Skewers (Coniglio alla Molisana). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
Malbec is to Argentina as the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco: impossible to imagine one without the other. Yet this deeply colored, exuberant purple grape that is automatically associated with Argentina came originally from France. Known as Cot in its original homeland, Cahors, where it continues to play a leading in the wines of that region, it was brought over by French agronomist Michel Pouget in 1852.
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But it’s in the vineyards all along the eastern edge of the Andes that the Malbec vine has really found its feet. There are now more than 30,000 hectares (76,000 acres) planted throughout Argentina — six times as much as in its homeland.
In its adopted home, the grape is celebrated for its ability to make huge quantities of juicy, fruity, uncomplicated red wine at a fair price — perfect for the upcoming barbecue season. But there’s a new wave of Malbecs that merit more than the obligatory char-grilled steak.
On a recent visit to Mendoza and Salta, two of the country’s most significant wine regions, I found (aside from a warm welcome and some gorgeous wines) a buzz of excitement, plenty of experimentation and a firm belief in what has become Argentina’s signature red wine grape.
Per Se Vines
Edy del Popolo’s microwinery Per Se Vines has just 1.5 hectares (barely 4 acres) of vineyards in Gualtallary, a top appellation in the Valle de Uco south of Mendoza, and the first harvest was in 2012. Plantings are principally Malbec with a little Cabernet Franc, and wines combine the two in varying proportions.
“I like non-interventionist viticulture” is how del Popolo explains his wine-making philosophy. “I want the place to express itself without my fingerprint showing.”
Per Se Jubileus (mainly Malbec “with a few bunches of Cabernet Franc thrown in”) is a joyous wine with good, ripe tannins, while La Craie (a Malbec-Cab Franc blend) is restrained elegance overlaid with subtle hints of orange and lemon zest.
Fincas y Bodegas Montechez is another new venture in Mendoza’s Valle de Uco but on quite a different scale with 100 hectares (250 acres). In the prime appellation of Altamira, serried ranks of newly planted vines — every row drip-irrigated and draped in anti-hail netting — stretch as far as the eye can see, framed by the snowcapped Andes.
The aptly named Vivo is a bright, lively Malbec, briefly aged in used French and American oak barrels and designed for early drinking. Reserva is discreet and elegant after a slightly longer spell in used barrels, while Limited Edition, with 16 months in all French oak (new and used), is the aristocrat, dark and brooding and promising a long and distinguished life.
The Lagarde estate in Luján de Cuyo comprises about 245 hectares (619 acres), including a parcel of 100-year-old Malbec vines. Founded in 1897 and one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza, it nonetheless looks resolutely forward — “Honoring the past, imagining the future” is the house motto, explained Sofia Pescarmona, who runs the estate jointly with her sister, Lucila.
They were the first in Argentina to introduce Viognier, the aromatic Rhone white. Their house pink, 50 percent Malbec and 50 percent Pinot Noir, is a delight with all the fruit and fragrance that’s missing from many a rosé. On the Malbec front, there’s a whole slew of juicy 100 percent varietals (Primeras Viñas, Guarda, Lagarde and Altas Cumbres ). For a special occasion, look for the super-elegant blend Henry Gran Guarda, a very Bordelais mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.
Bodega Colomé is hidden away up a bone-shaking track in a remote and spectacularly beautiful valley in the northwestern province of Salta, close to the Bolivian border. Wine growing here, at 2,300 meters (7,000 feet) above sea level in desert-like conditions with an annual rainfall of barely 120 millimeters (4 inches), is not for the fainthearted.
Established in 1831 and now owned by Hess Family Wine Estates, Colomé produces several whites, including Salta’s signature wine Torrontés and three Malbecs: Estate, a Malbec-rich wine with a small proportion of other red varieties; Auténtico, 100 percent Malbec, unoaked and unfiltered with rich red fruit flavors; and Reserva, made with fruit from vines aged between 60 and 150 years, with a two-year spell in new French oak barrels and one more in bottle.
Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya
Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya is a boutique winery in Salta’s Calchaquí Valley, a joint venture between the Etchart family and French winemaker Michel Rolland. The estate’s 20 hectares (50 acres) used to be planted largely with Torrontés, the finely aromatic white grape that thrives in the rarefied altitudes of the northwest. Nowadays Malbec rules, plus Cabernet Sauvignon and a little Tannat.
Ranked by Wine Advocate as one of Argentina’s top five wineries (Parker points abound here), they make three impressive reds in which the Rolland fingerprint is clearly visible: opulent and mouth-filling Malbec Yacochuya has a little Cabernet Sauvignon added to the mix and is aged in new oak; San Pedro de Yacochuya is a dense and delicious 100 percent Malbec; and the impressive Yacochuya made from 60-year-old Malbec vines is one to cellar.
José Louis Mounier, one of Salta’s most celebrated winemakers with an impressive track record working for many of the region’s top wineries, is responsible for wine making at Bodega Tukma in Tolombón, south of Cafayate. The estate has about 25 hectares (62 acres) of vineyards scattered throughout the Calchaquí Valley, with red wine production centred on Tolombón.
The entry-level Malbec Reserva is an uncomplicated, fruit-forward Malbec that’s perfect with a plate of empanadas, while Gran Corte, a blend with Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon for which the grapes are rigorously selected and the wine aged for one year in new French oak, calls for your best piece of bife (steak).
Consult www.wine-searcher.com for worldwide availability and prices of all wines mentioned.
Main photo: Some of Colomé’s oldest Malbec vines, planted in the mid-19th century and grown on pergolas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style
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
“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
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
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.
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“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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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 Food” published 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
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
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
Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.
For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.
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When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.
Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.
While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:
- Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
- Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
- Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
- Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
- Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.
Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.
Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck
The Sunday before Easter is the little-known holiday Cheese Sunday, a day of traditions that survived in a Ukrainian community marooned in Slovakia by the stroke of the politician’s pen following the end of World War II.
In Eastern Europe, hidden away in the Soviet sphere behind the Iron Curtain, half a century of state-imposed communism in the workplace failed to obliterate regional differences at home — in spite of efforts to standardize culinary habits by limiting official food supplies to factory canteens.
The miracle was that when the Iron Curtain was finally rolled away, people had not forgotten the dishes appropriate to festivals such as Easter, the most important feast day of the Orthodox Church calendar. And if the recipes themselves had vanished, there were minority populations on the wrong side of the border — any border — who had been left to continue their traditional ways of life throughout the communist years as long as they didn’t pop their heads over the political parapet and give the authorities any trouble.
Ukrainian community continues Cheese Sunday traditions
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Among these inadvertent repositories of national habit were the Ruthenes of Ladomirova, a farming community of Ukrainians marooned in a far corner of Slovakia along the foothills of the High Tatras, a mountainous region noted for wolves and bears. A hard-working, self-sufficient farming community, the Ruthenes, at the time of my visit in 1991 — shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain — continued to live more or less as they always had, stocking their own store cupboards and selling the surplus on the unofficial market in Svidnik, the only town of note in the region.
Svidnik was dull as ditch water by day but merry enough on a Saturday evening, when the wine cellar under the railway arch served as a gathering point for the town’s youth, Ruthenes among them. There they could enjoy loud pop music, flirting, dancing, slightly fizzy white wine and fast food — a slab of sheep-milk cheese fried in a crisp jacket of breadcrumbs served with a dollop of creamy sauce speckled with dill.
“This is what is called chicken Kiev but is made with cheese and is eaten with sauce tartar,” explained Katrina, my self-appointed translator, a Slovak-speaking Hungarian anthropology graduate studying the Ruthene lifestyle but keen to practice her English — or possibly a political operative keeping an eye on the crazy foreigner attempting to communicate with a sketchbook and paint box.
The following day, the last Sunday before Easter, all was revealed when Mama Anna, the matriarch and memory keeper of the Ruthene community in Ladomirova, prepared the same dish — cheese Kiev with tartar sauce — as the traditional recipes for Cheese Sunday.
The proper cheese for the dish, Mama Anna explained, is dried-out sheep’s milk kashkaval from the previous spring, which must be eaten up to fulfill the obligation to empty the cupboard before Good Friday. The sauce, a savory custard made with the first rich milkings from the household cow and eggs from hens just come back into lay, delivers a message of good things to come.
Whatever its place of origin — or even the thoughts expressed through good food set on the table to welcome strangers — the combination works. Celebrate your own Cheese Sunday with the traditions of the Ruthenes of Ladomirova and raise a glass at this festival of renewal to the hope that peace may come to a divided people who don’t deserve what they get.
Mama Anna advises that some people like to add chopped dill and other flavorings such as chives and pickled cucumber and onion, but she herself prefers it to taste of itself, the goodness of spring.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: Makes about 3/4 pint, enough for 4 to 6 servings.
3 egg yolks
1/4 pint (1/2 cup) soured cream
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon mild mustard
A squeeze of lemon juice or white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons seed or vegetable oil
1 wineglass white wine
2 tablespoons sweet, thick cream
1. Whisk up the yolks, soured cream, sugar, salt, mustard and lemon juice or vinegar in a small pan, and cook the mixture over a gentle heat (or in bowl over boiling water), stirring all the time, until it begins to thicken like a custard.
2. Leaving it over the heat, whisk in the oil as if for a mayonnaise, then whisk in the wine and sweet cream.
3. Remove from the heat as soon the steam no longer smells of alcohol. Let cool a little and serve warm
In the lambing season, the ewes are brought down from the hill and milked three or four times a day by hand so the newborns are not deprived of their share. Last year’s cheese, by now too hard to eat uncooked, melts to a creamy softness in its crisp jacket of breadcrumbs. Any mature hard cheese will do, though it’s easier to coat if you slice it ahead and leave it in a warm kitchen for a few hours for the surface to dry and firm.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 2 servings as an entrée or 4 as a starter plate.
About 8 ounces dried-out cheese
2 to 3 tablespoons strong, plain flour
1 tablespoon paprika
1 large egg
2 to 3 tablespoons milk
4 to 5 heaped tablespoons breadcrumbs (fresh or dried)
Oil for deep-frying
1. Slice the cheese into 4 thick fingers or triangles.
2. Mix the paprika and flour on a shallow plate. Fork up the egg with the milk on another plate. Spread the breadcrumbs on a third.
3. Dust the cheese slices through the flour, dip in the egg-and-milk mixture, making sure all sides are well-coated, and then press firmly into the breadcrumbs.
4. Heat the oil in a heavy pan till a faint blue haze rises — the temperature should be high enough to seal the coating immediately, so test with a cube of bread (it should form little bubbles round the edges and brown quickly).
5. Slip the cheese pieces into the pan, spooning hot oil over the top so the heat reaches all sides. Fry till crisp and brown.
6. Remove to kitchen paper with a draining spoon.
7. Serve piping hot with the tartar sauce for dipping.
Main image: A traditional Cheese Sunday meal of tartar sauce (from left), fried cheese and a dill sauce. Credit: Copyright Elisabeth Luard
Of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, Passover serves as the cornerstone. Family and friends come together at home for a meal disguised as a religious service. It is the time for the annual retelling of the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
The Haggadah, the ancient book that tells the story of Passover, was artfully written as a history with an emphasis on passing on the traditions and the faith of the holiday from one generation to another through rituals and endless glasses of wine. No fools, these early rabbis. They understood that the best way to make sure the symbols endured was to make them edible. (Passover this year begins April 3.)
Boston venture capitalist Andy Goldfarb is a passionate believer in the magic of Passover, and he’s an ardent cook. Goldfarb grew up celebrating Passover with his great-grandfather, Max Fish, in Baltimore. The Passover tradition goes back far in Goldfarb’s family. He recently found a family photo of his great-great-grandfather celebrating Passover Seder in 1930 in Dynow, Poland, showing the direct linkage of 150 years of Goldfarb family members celebrating the Passover Seder.
Passover is a year-round project for the Goldfarb family, beginning with the Etrog marmalade his daughter Jemma makes during the Sukkot Harvest festival in fall and continuing right up to the night of the Seder in spring.
Goldfarb became convinced he could help other Jewish families make Passover as “magical and memorable” for their families as it is for his. He developed the website Breaking Matzo as a kind of resource guide for the Jewish community. He believes that by making the holiday meaningful and fun for all generations, it increases the likelihood of families continuing the Passover tradition generations into the future.
Charoset a traditional symbol of the Seder plate
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At the center of any Passover table is the Seder plate, which is a very specific platter of edible symbols: a roasted lamb shank bone; a roasted or hard-boiled egg; a fresh green herb like parsley; a bitter herb like horseradish; and a bowl of salt water for dipping the herbs in symbolic tears of the slaves. The final element is the charoset, typically a sweet concoction of dried fruits, chopped nuts and wine. Charoset is the only element that requires a recipe, and each family has its own. During the Seder, charoset is eaten on a piece of matzo, and its gritty texture represents the mortar, or cement, the Israelites used to make the bricks for Pharaoh’s pyramids.
Goldfarb has been lucky enough to celebrate Passover with Jewish families around the world. He has been able to learn how each community of Jews, no matter where history and fortune has taken them, adapts Passover by creating a local version of charoset for the Seder table. If there is anything that speaks to the resilience of the Jewish people, it may be the following recipes for charoset, also available on the Breaking Matzo site.
Most American Jews are Ashkenazi, meaning they immigrated to the United States after centuries in Central, Western and Eastern Europe. The Ashkenazi preparation of charoset is considered the “typical,” or classic, charoset recipe, using ingredients that were available in the Eastern European kitchen. Only the proportions vary from recipe to recipe.
Yield: Makes about 4 cups
2 medium-sized tart apples
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar or honey or to taste
2 teaspoons sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz
1. Peel, core and finely chop or grate the apples.
2. Mix with the rest of the ingredients in a bowl.
For several years, Andy Goldfarb lived and worked in Japan. He also traveled in China and studied the Fugo plan, a Japanese program to save Jews from the Nazis by settling them in Shanghai during World War II. Goldfarb found a connection with the wandering Jews of China, who still celebrate the Passover story with this delicious and savory charoset.
Common ingredients in Chinese cuisine that are highlighted in this version of charoset are soy sauce, pine nuts and honey. In contrast with the other regional sweet charoset recipes, this version is slightly savory.
Yield: Makes about 6 cups
1/2 pound of dates, finely chopped
4 apples, finely chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts
3 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons honey
Juice of one orange
Heat ingredients in a saucepan until soft and smooth, about 5 minutes. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Andy Goldfarb discovered that Egyptian Jewish tradition is that the paste of the charoset represents the color of the Nile silt used to make the mortar for the bricks to build the pyramids. A mixture of dates and raisins gives the right approximation.
He became fascinated with other Middle Eastern and North African charoset variations, recipes that use all kinds of dried fruit and even one with bananas. In Algeria, he found a blend of dates and dried figs with cinnamon, nutmeg and sweet red wine. In Iraq, date syrup is mixed with plenty of chopped walnuts. A recipe from Surinam includes dried apples, pears, apricots, prunes, raisins, grated coconut, ground almonds, walnuts and cherry jam. The following are adaptations of traditional Sephardi classics. Proportions vary from one family to another, and the texture can be coarse or smooth, thick or thin.
Yield: Makes about 3 cups
1 pound dates, pitted and chopped (about 3 cups)
1 1/2 cups sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1. Put the dates in a pan with the wine, cinnamon and cloves and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it is a soft paste (about 5 minutes). Pulse in a food processor if you want a smoother texture.
2. Let it cool and stir in the walnuts.
Variation: A Libyan version is flavored with ground ginger, nutmeg and cloves, 1/4 teaspoon of each spice.
The Jews of Italy’s Piedmont region live surrounded on three sides by the Alps, where nut trees dot the scenery. This recipe makes use of the local harvest of chestnuts and almonds and counters the nuts’ richness with the powdery smoothness of egg yolks and a sharp hit of citrus.
Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 cups.
1 1/2 cup cooked chestnuts
2/3 cup blanched almonds
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
Zest of 1 orange
Juice of 1 orange
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz, or an Italian sweet wine
Finely grind the almonds in a food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend to a smooth paste.
Unsurprisingly, every region of Italy has its own version of charoset. The charoset of Padua has prunes, raisins, dates, walnuts, apples and chestnuts. In Milan, they make it with apples, pears, dates, almonds, bananas and orange juice. This recipe is a basic one, but you can be sure every Italian home has its own “classic” charoset recipe, so feel free to play with variations on the theme.
Yield: Makes about 7 cups
3 apples, sweet or tart
3/4 cup yellow raisins or sultanas
1 cup prunes, pitted and finely chopped
1 1/3 cups dates, pitted and chopped
2 cups sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz
1/3 cup pine nuts
2/3 cup almonds, finely chopped
1/2 cup sugar or honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1. Peel and core the apples and pear, cut them into small pieces.
2. Put all the ingredients into a pan together and cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the fruits are very soft, adding a little water if it becomes too dry.
Variations: Other possible additions include chopped lemon or candied orange peel, walnuts, pistachios, dried figs, orange or lemon juice, ginger, nutmeg and cloves.
For hundreds of years, southern Spain was the site of a great Jewish Renaissance, where Jews and Muslims lived peacefully together, fostering a cultural flowering that earned the region the title “Ornament of the World.” Ultimately, the Jews were forced from Spain, but the splendor of the enduring Sephardi tradition lives on in this charoset recipe.
Yield: Makes about 4 cups
1/2 cup Spanish almonds (blanched Marcona if possible)
1/2 cup hazelnuts
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup pistachios
1/2 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup chopped figs
1/2 cup yellow raisins
1/2 cup dry red wine, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Peel, core and finely chop the apples and pears and place in a large bowl.
2. In a food processor, pulse all the nuts, making sure not to overgrind.
3. Add the chopped dates, figs, and raisins and ¼ cup wine to the food processor bowl. Pulse again briefly, or mix by hand.
4. Add the mixture to the bowl of grated fruit and stir to combine.
5. Blend in the ginger and cinnamon and add as much of the remaining wine to make a smooth paste.
Main photo: Ashkenazi Charoset for the Seder plate. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of BreakingMatzo.com