Articles in Tradition

Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Yo Endo would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know a lot about wine. What he does know is how to sell things. His last job was marketing tennis equipment, which took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas; great restaurants — and wine, of course.

Today, Endo manages Cafe Triode, a cozy restaurant near the giant Tokyo Dome, home for Japan’s beloved Giants baseball team. The surrounding neighborhood is best known for the ultra-luxury La Qua spa, sporting goods stores, used bookstores and inexpensive restaurants catering to baseball fans and university students.

I stumbled onto the café while looking for a quiet escape from the rain during a business trip to Japan’s capital. Endo took my dripping umbrella and escorted me to a small wooden bar near the back. A hunk of Serrano ham anchored one end of the bar, and soft jazz played.

Women in Japan’s workforce is growing

Traditionally, the after-hours scene in Japan has been dominated by izakaya bars catering to salarymen. Beer, sake and whiskey are the favored drinks, and the vibe is usually loud and smoky or expensive — or all of the above.

Cafe Triode offers moderately priced wine, tasty nibbles and jazz — a perfect place for happy hour with girlfriends. And that’s exactly what Endo is aiming for.

Though Japan lags behind much of the developed world in female employment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to increase the percentage of women in the workforce. This includes providing more affordable childcare and encouraging companies to adopt family-friendly policies, such as flexible work schedules.

It also means finding a place for those women to unwind after a hard day at the office. “There’s an increasing need for working women to have a girls-only night out for a drink to strengthen their solidarity,” Chikako Hirose, a spokeswoman for Pronto Corp., recently told Bloomberg News. Pronto is reportedly expanding its Di PUNTO chain of wine bars to at least 26 outlets by the end of 2015.

There are other reasons the wine industry is chasing the female market. Women in Japan still make most of the household buying decisions, and they are more likely than men to attend wine tastings and classes, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Sixty percent of Japan’s wine experts are women.

Old-world wines dominate this market. Although Japan buys wine from 55 countries, just 10 account for about 98 percent of the imported volume, according to the USDA report. Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the favored varietals. Sparkling wine is also growing in popularity, and “wine on the rocks” is being touted as a refreshing alternative on a hot summer’s day.

Endo sees these trends at Cafe Triode, where the majority of his customers are couples or young female professionals. When he first opened his café, his wine list included a range of wines divided by country, varietal and price. But he discovered most of his young customers would spend a long time agonizing over the menu and then end up somewhere in the middle, where they would have just a few bottles to choose from.

Cafe Triode still sells bottles of wine for as much as 19,000 yen ($159) but now offers a large selection of wines for 4,100 yen ($34) a bottle. During my visit, that included two California Zinfandels from Peachy Canyon and Ravenswood chosen by Endo’s wine broker.

American wines are slowly finding a market. In 2013, the United States held an 8.6 percent value share of Japan’s imported wine, up from 7.7 percent the previous year, according to the USDA. But U.S. vintners face significant barriers. A stronger dollar and high import duties push them into a higher price bracket, and Japanese consumers prefer wines with a lower alcohol content than most American wines offer.

By offering a “Reasonable Selections” list representing many different varietals and wine-growing regions, Endo hopes he can encourage wine newbies to experiment. “Everyone finds it very easy to make a choice, and it’s also easy to control the budget,” he said.

Armed with a glass of the house red wine (600 yen or $5), I turned my attention to Cafe Triode’s multi-page English menu, which married two of my favorite cuisines: Japanese and Italian.

Meat platter is most popular on menu

The most popular menu item is the Triode assorted meat platter delivered on a large wooden board with five types of meat (1,950 yen or $16.35). Other tantalizing offerings include dumplings made from fish and shrimp wrapped in yuba (tofu) skin (1,190 yen or $9.98), codfish and scallop pie (1,190 yen or $9.98) and Tajima beef rump steak (1,500 to 1,800 yen or $12.58 to $15.10 per 100 grams). Tajima is the strain of black Japanese Wagyu cattle that produce the famous Kobe beef.

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Endo, an easygoing man with an impish smile, started me out with a fig paired with a dollop of mineoka dofu. This delicate palate cleanser, made from an ancient recipe developed by Buddhist monks, isn’t tofu. It’s actually made from milk, arrowroot starch and sesame paste. Rich and creamy with just a hint of sesame, I resisted licking the tiny pottery dish and settled on the Saikyo-yaki (Kyoto-style) grilled duck salad (980 yen or $8.22) for my entrée.

Working out of a kitchen the size of my bedroom closet, Chef Yoshimi Imazu quickly worked his magic, preparing paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese and duck marinated in a sweet white Saikyo miso on a bed of crisp greens.

My visit to Cafe Triode was just another reminder that you can travel well in Japan without breaking the bank. That, combined with that tasty salad, was enough to lure me back one last time before I left Tokyo.

Main photo: Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: It doesn’t get any respect. It gets a bad rap. Cabbage never gets mentioned as one of the hip vegetables like kale. It’s not a super-vegetable like broccoli rabe. It’s not an adorable vegetable like baby Brussels sprouts. It’s not a “cool” vegetable. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned. I mean, they make sauerkraut from it.

All those cooler vegetables just mentioned, though, owe their existence to cabbage. The big green head we associate with cabbage today was not always what cabbage was. Today there are hundreds of varieties of cabbage that have developed from the progenitor cabbage, called the wild cabbage, including the many forms of cabbage and further horticultural developments such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoliflower, broccoli rabe and kohlrabi.

Botanists divide the cabbage into five groups. It is the head cabbage, green, red, crinkly-leafed or Savoy cabbage, that I’m speaking of. But there are some 400 varieties of head cabbage.

The cabbage is probably native to the Mediterranean, but in Roman times the head cabbage we think of as cabbage today did not exist. The Romans had only leafy cabbage, probably kale. There are some obscure references by Roman naturalists Pliny and Columella to what has been taken by some to be head cabbage. These descriptions refer to heads of the plant being a foot in diameter, but it is not at all clear whether this refers to a compact headed cabbage that we know today or is simply an expression referring to the above ground portion of the plant.

The wealthy citizens of Rome, in the period after Cato the Elder (mid-second century BC), thought of cabbage as poor people’s food as we know from the description in Juvenal’s satire when he described the difference between the food that the patron ate, namely olives to garnish an excellent fish, and the food of the client, who finds cabbage in his “nauseous dish.”

It seems that the head cabbage we know today was developed in Germany in the 12th century. Soon it would be the single most common plant in the medieval garden.

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

It’s not a popular vegetable today, but it is a vegetable that does draw the curious cook. The most obviously intriguing thing to do with cabbage is to separate the leaves and then stuff them by rolling them up. There are many great preparations for cabbage from sauerkraut, to kimchi, to coleslaw, and every culture has a recipe for stuffed cabbage. Here are two recipes for cabbage lovers from cabbage-loving Slovenia and Croatia, next door to Italy.

Braised Cabbage

Cabbage is a very popular vegetable in the Balkans, served raw, in the form of sauerkraut and cooked in a variety of ways. In the northern part of the former Yugoslavia, today’s Slovenia and parts of Croatia, cabbage may be cooked with sour cream or tossed with noodles and smoked bacon. In Bosnia or Montenegro, it might be cooked with tomatoes. This recipe from Slovenia is typically served as a bed for a roast duckling.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water

1 cup dry white wine

One 2-pound green cabbage, cored and sliced as thin as vermicelli

15 peppercorns

8 juniper berries, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the bay leaves and cook until they begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and very carefully add the tomato paste and wine, which will spurt and splatter rather dramatically.

2. Continue cooking for a minute then add the cabbage, peppercorns, juniper berries and thyme. Mix so the cabbage is covered with sauce.

3. Add the lemon juice and continue to braise over medium heat until the cabbage softens, 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the cabbage is completely soft, about 45 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

These cabbage rolls are a winter specialty known as arambašici in their home of Sinj, a town near the Dinaric Alps on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Traditionally, this casserole of stuffed cabbage leaves is made from a whole head of cabbage that has been prepared as sauerkraut. Each sauerkraut leaf, or as in this recipe cabbage leaf, is stuffed with beef, pork and bacon, and flavored with lemon zest, onion, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Each roll-up is separated from the other with pieces of pršut (Croatian prosciutto) and smoked tongue.

Arambašici can be made with fresh cabbage leaves or grape leaves, too. My recipe uses fresh cabbage, which is the easiest to find and is what a cook from Sinj would use in the summer. Many cooks also like to make the casserole in the evening and then reheat it the next day, and you should consider doing that as it is delicious.

The casserole cooks a long time so the meats are very tender and the cabbage leaves become silky. The smoked bacon, smoked pork, smoked tongue and prosciutto can all be picked up at the deli counter of most supermarkets.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 4 hours

Yield: 20 to 26 rolls, or about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 large green cabbage (about 2 3/4 pounds), central core removed

1 1/4 pounds boneless beef neck meat or beef chuck, finely chopped

5 ounces smoked bacon (preferably) or lean slab bacon, finely chopped

2 ounces beef fat (suet), finely chopped

6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or neck meat, finely chopped

2 large onions, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Grated zest from 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or beef fat for greasing

One 4-inch-long beef marrow bone (optional)

1 ounce smoked pork (any cut), finely chopped

2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced into strips

2 ounces smoked tongue (optional), thinly sliced into strips

1 cup water and more as needed

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 300 F.

2. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt and plunge the whole cabbage in and cook until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the beef, bacon, suet and pork. Add the onions, garlic, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well with your hands.

4. Arrange a cabbage leaf in front of you with the stem end closest to you. Place 2, 3 or 4 tablespoons (depending on the size of the leaf) of filling on the end closest to you, then roll away once, fold in the sides and continue rolling away until you get a nice, neat package.

5. Continue with the remaining cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls side by side, seam side down, in a lightly greased 13- x 9- x 2-inch casserole (you may need to use two casseroles), making sure you leave some room for the beef marrow bone. Sprinkle the chopped smoked pork over the cabbage rolls.

6. Place the prosciutto and smoked tongue slices (if using) between the cabbage rolls. Pour the water over the cabbage rolls and cover with aluminum foil. (The casserole can be refrigerated at this point to bake later.)

7. Bake until the cabbage rolls are very soft, slightly blackened on top and bubbling vigorously, about 4 hours.

8. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature and serve as an appetizer the next day.

Main photo: Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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A hangover cure can help ease the pain next time you over imbibe. Credit: iStockPhoto

Hangover cures — they’re never there when you need ‘em. Not that you (or I) are of in need for yourself — perish the thought.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of post-festive brotherly love, a recommendation or two might come in handy for those who — ahem — might have been on the wrong side of a midwinter indulgence and are looking for a simple restorative mouthful, liquid or otherwise.

The bullshot — boiling beef consommé cooled with a generous measure of vodka — comes well-recommended as the morning pick-me-up on England’s Yorkshire moors in grouse season, while Scotland’s heather bashers consider the oatmeal caudle — runny porridge with cream and whiskey — more geographically appropriate.

Which is not to overlook those who swear by yak butter and hot tea as the antidote to overindulgence in fermented mare’s milk when traversing the Khyber Pass, or those intrepid 19th-century travelers through the wilds of Africa who reported termites toasted in an earth oven as the only way to cure a hangover induced by overindulgence in fermenting baobab fruit.

To each her own.

Soupe a l’oignon

Lunch at Domecq. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Lunch at Domecq. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald cured a Parisian hangover with onion soup with the porters in Les Halles, the central produce market in the good old 1930s, when men were men and women were — let’s just not go there.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 to 35 minutes

Total time: 40 to 45 minutes

Yield: 2 servings (You should never hang over alone.)

Ingredients

3 large onions, finely sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil or (better yet) goose fat

1 pint beef broth

Salt and pepper to taste

For finishing:

Sliced baguette, toasted

Gruyere or cantal cheese, grated (optional)

Directions

1. Fry the onions very gently in the oil or goose fat in a soup pan until soft and golden but not brown. Stir regularly, allowing at least 20 minutes.

2. Add the beef broth and allow to bubble up. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary.

4. Ladle over slices of toasted baguette in bowls. You can also place the bread on top of the soup, sprinkle with grated cheese and slip the bowls under the grill for the cheese to melt and brown.

Katzenjammer

A beef and potato salad is the hangover cure in the new wineries of Vienna. Try to remember to put the meat into its marinade the night before so it’ll be ready in the morning.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Resting time: 3 to 4 hours or overnight

Total time: 15 minutes, plus resting

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

For the dressing:

4 tablespoons seed or nut oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon mild mustard

Pinch of sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

For the salad:

2 slices cold boiled beef, cut in matchstick-sized pieces

2 cold boiled potatoes, sliced

1 pickled cucumber, chopped

For finishing:

2 to 3 tablespoons beef broth (optional)

1 egg yolk

Chili powder or hot paprika

Directions

1. Whisk together all the dressing ingredients in a small bowl.

2. Dress the beef, potatoes and cucumber with half the dressing. Allow the mixture to marinate for a few hours or overnight.

3. Whisk the rest of the dressing into the egg yolk to make a thick emulsion, dilute with a little beef broth or warm water to a coating consistency and spoon over the beef mixture.

4. Finish with a generous dusting of chili powder or hot paprika. There’s nothing like the fiery capsicums to set a person’s metabolism back on track.

Aigo boullido

An oil-and-garlic broth flavored with sage and fortified with egg yolk and pasta serves not only as a remedy for overindulgence but as cure-all and stomach-settler for pregnant women and babies. L’aigo boulido sauvo la vido (Garlic broth saves lives), as they say in Provence.

Prep time: 10 minuntes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

4 fat fresh garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 sprig of sage

1 level teaspoon salt

5 teaspoons (25 grams) vermicelli or other thread pasta

1 egg yolk

Directions

1. Simmer the garlic and olive oil in 2 cups of water for a half-hour, or until the volume is reduced by half.

2. Add the sage and bubble up until the broth turns a pretty yellow.

3. Add salt and vermicelli and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, fork up the egg yolk in a small bowl, then whisk in a ladleful of the hot broth. Stir the broth-yolk mixture back into the pot so the egg sets in strings. Bon appétit.

Zabaglione

Italy’s version of restorative eggnog — basically, egg and wine combined to make a spoonable fluff — was a remedy long before it became an elegant dessert. No need to cook it if you’re going to eat it right away. The usual strictures on raw eggs apply, but I guess you know that anyway.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

4 eggs

4 level tablespoons caster sugar

4 tablespoons sweet wine (such as Marsala, Madeira or Valencia)

2 to 3 almond macaroons (optional)

Directions

1. Whisk the egg yolks and whites together until fluffy.

2. Sprinkle in the sugar gradually until the mixture is white and light.

3. Continue whisking as you trickle in the wine.

4. Pour into two tall glasses over crumbled macaroons — or not — and eat with a long spoon without delay or the eggs and wine will separate. If this should happen, no need to panic. Simply whisk the split mixture into another egg yolk in a bowl set over simmering water and it’ll cure itself.

Main photo: A hangover cure can help ease the pain next time you over imbibe. Credit: iStockPhoto

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Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty -- rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery -- is part of the celebration of the beginning of the harvest season known as Makara Sankranti in India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Celebrations, festivals and food are prolific on the Indian calendar. With life’s hustle and bustle, I tend to weed out those that are difficult to fit in or lose their symbolism in our transported life in the United States.

Sankranti — marking the launch of India’s harvest season — usually is one of them.  But a coconut changed my mind this year.

Sankranti refers to the passage of the sun from one Zodiac sign to another. On Jan. 14, this transition happens from Capricorn to Aquarius, called Makara on the Hindu calendar. Makara Sankranti marks the beginning of the “auspicious” period for Hindus when non-devotional activities — such as festivals and weddings — can be held after a month-long “inauspicious” period dedicated to devotional activities alone.

It’s also the beginning of longer days. I believe that a modicum of practicality is rooted in many such traditions and longer days — especially in times when there was no electricity — made for more enjoyable festivals.

Practicality also put an end to my irreverence toward Sankranti this year.

How cracking a coconut changed my attitude

In my house, I had a fresh coconut that I had forgotten about, just in time for the January festival. I broke open the coconut, an action that is believed to bring good luck. As I looked at the pristine white meat that rested on my shelf in all its glory, I realized the fortune it brought me: an opportunity to celebrate Sankranti as it is traditionally done in my native Bengal. With pithey: warm, gooey rice and coconut dumplings.

In Bengal, the colloquial name for the Sankranti festival is pithey parbon, or the festival of the pithey. Pithey is a sweet dumpling that is either steamed or fried and typically made with rustic ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty: rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery – an unrefined brown sugar made from date palm sap.

The process of extracting date palm jaggery is similar to tapping maple syrup, and I often use maple syrup instead. It is not as deeply flavored, but closer than other sweeteners that I have easy access to. The ingredients, despite their simplicity, result in delightful delicacies that are time-consuming but well worth the effort.

Depending on the chef’s enthusiasm and energy, an assortment of these are made for friends and family.

I have fond memories of my grandmother and her sister making these for the family, as I often interrupted their progress by sneaking in and stealing handfuls of sweet, freshly grated coconut or moist and sweet golden jaggery that left my hands sticky and warm.

Pithey traditions in Bengal

The first batch of pithey is usually placed in a container and floated into the river or offered at a temple in an attempt to appease the harvest gods.

In rural Bengal, the farm community begins the day with an homage to the barn and dhenki, or rice storage urn. The women throw a handful of rice over their heads as an offering to the gods, and the urn is welcomed as a symbol of prosperity and hope for a good harvest.

Living with the vagaries or nature, most predominantly the monsoon, this community is respectful about the importance of a good and successful harvest. There are a number of other rituals, such as tying the barn doors with hay and decorating the house. All are practiced in hope of a good harvest.

For the Makara Sankranti festival, some Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

For the Makara Sankranti festival, Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration for Indian festivals. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

When I cracked open the coconut this year in my home, the thought of the warm, sweet dumplings it could bring me held the promise of all things good on that frigid day.

It is easy to find frozen grated coconut in the aisles of our local ethnic supermarket. However, if you are looking for something comforting on a chilly winter day, consider picking up a whole coconut and grating it yourself to use in my recipe for Gokul Pithey, adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”

Gokul Pithey — Bengali Coconut Dumplings in Golden Syrup

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time:  40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 12 servings, about 12 dumplings

Ingredients

For the syrup:

1 cup dark maple syrup

1/2 cup water

2 to 3 cardamoms

For the fritters:

1 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut

3/4 cup grated jaggery or raw cane brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder

1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)

1 cup all-purpose white flour

1/3 cup rice flour

1/2 cup milk

Oil for frying, such as grape seed or canola oil

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, bring the syrup, water and cardamoms to a simmer for 10 minutes until a thick syrup is formed.

2. While the syrup is cooking, in a separate pan heat the coconut, jaggery, and cardamom powder on low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes, until a fragrant sticky mixture is formed.

3. Add the ghee and lightly fry the mixture until it turns pale golden. Remove from heat and allow it to cool.

4. Shape into walnut-size balls and flatten them slightly.

5. In a mixing bowl, beat the flours and milk into a thick batter, adding a little water if needed. (The batter should be thick enough to adhere to the coconut balls.)

6. Heat some oil in a wok on medium heat. Dip a coconut ball in the batter and place into the oil, cooking a few at a time.

7. Cook on medium low heat until a golden, crisp coating is formed, turning once.

8. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and dip into the syrup. Let the balls rest in the syrup for about 2 minutes, then remove and serve hot.

Main photo: Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery,  is often served during the celebration of the Indian harvest festival known as Makara Sankranti. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples

We’ve come a long way since the days when Americans thought Italian cuisine meant spaghetti or ziti in rivers of “marinara” set on red-checkered tablecloths. Even if mistaken notions persist about what genuine Italian cooking really is, we’ve embraced every new pasta that has come our way (think squid-ink fettuccine or agnolotti al plin), and we’ve become more sauce savvy, too. Amatriciana and puttanesca are commonplace in restaurant and home kitchens alike, and “carbonara” is a household word from New York to Nebraska. Arrabbiata, cacio e pepe, aglio e olio — you name it, we love them all.

Nevertheless, the canon of pasta-and-sauce pairings has remained something of a mystery outside the borders of Italy. The immense number of different shapes is daunting to us foreigners; out of sheer exasperation, we find ourselves asking, “Why so many?” There are “priests’ hats,” “wolves’ eyes” and “horses’ teeth,” “church bells,” “little loves” and “kiss catchers.” It is not enough to make pasta bows (farfalle); there must also be little bows (farfallette) and much bigger bows (farfalloni). There are not only small reeds called cannelle, but also very small reeds, large smooth reeds and large grooved reeds. Some shapes have more than one name (penne lisce and mostaccioli, for example, are one and the same).

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

The roots of this maccheroni madness go back to the fierce rivalry among dried-pasta manufacturers in 19th century Naples, where the southern Italian pasta industry mushroomed during the Industrial Revolution. At one point about 1,500 pastifici competed for business, engaging in price wars or introducing ever-newer products to lure customers to their brand. But probably more than anything, the seemingly endless variations reflect the expansive nature of the Italian people — their imagination and love of show.

The American versus the Italian approach

Americans are characteristically laissez-faire about pairing rules. James Beard once told me that he saw no reason to be bound by tradition; he believed we ought to be inventive with pasta recipes. By contrast, the Italians are always mindful of the pairing principles derived from a long history of pasta eating. Over the centuries, tried-and-true guidelines have emerged, based primarily on the ingredients in the dough and the architecture of each resulting shape — hard wheat or soft wheat, dried pasta or fresh, long or short, smooth or ridged. Various pastas absorb and combine with sauces in different ways depending on their wall thickness, density and structure.

Meanwhile, sauces — condimenti, as the Italians call themhave inherent texture, flavor and color attributes. The foundation of most is olive oil or butter, given body with tomato purée, meat, vegetables and/or cheese. The art of pairing can probably best be explained by herding all the unruly strands and little shapes into three separate tribes, as it were — each with their own swimming pools or sauces. (Here we will concern ourselves with dried pasta alone.)

Golden rules for pairing dried pasta and sauces

Strands

Lightweight

Capelli d’angelo (“angel hair”), cappellini (“fine hair”), vermicelli (“little worms”), fedelini (“very fine noodles”): Use all in broths or broth-based soups. The latter two, being thicker, are suitable for light, sieved tomato sauces, but none of these long, lightweight pastas can support dense cream-based or meat sauces.

Medium-weight

Spaghetti, spaghettini, spaghetti alla chitarra (“guitar-string spaghetti”), mezze linguine (“half linguine”): This group is sturdy enough for olive-oil sauces such as aglio e olio as well as tomato- or brothy seafood-based sauces that easily slip along the surface.

Heavyweight

Linguine (“long tongues,” aka bavette), perciatelli, bucatini, fusilli bucati lunghi (“long hollow coils”): Because these shapes have more weight than those in the previous subcategories, they will all support a relatively unctuous sauce such as basil pesto, but they are also sprightly enough to consort with sauces suited to medium-weight long pasta. By tradition, linguine is inexplicably inseparable from fish or shellfish sauces, though fluid tomato sauces make a pleasant match, too.

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Tubes

The tubular shapes have relatively thick walls, which make them sturdy enough to support not only chunky tomato-based sauces with or without meat, as well as cheese or cream preparations. (Diagonal cuts are especially handy in this regard.) Despite the versatility of these shapes, the size of the ingredients in accompanying sauces should be kept in mind. For example, wide tubular cuts are big enough to trap meat bits and vegetable chunks (think rigatoni with broccoli and anchovies); not so in the case of petite variants such as pennette (“little quills”). Tubular shapes are also ideal for baked dishes because they hold their shape and firmness during a second cooking in the oven.

Anelli (“rings”), ditaloni (“thimbles”): Ideal for pasta e fagioli and other bean soups because the ring shape nests cannellini beans, lentils and such.

Penne (“quills”), penne rigate (“ridged quills”), penne lisce (“smooth quills”), pennette, rigatoni: These go with olive oil- or butter-based vegetable, meat and tomato sauces and also with cream-based concoctions. Olive oil-based sauces stick to ridged shapes better than to smooth ones. The slimmer pennette are best matched with light vegetable or tomato sauces containing, say, wild mushrooms or eggplant (though traditionalists wouldn’t dream of making pasta alla Norma with anything but spaghetti).

Quirky shapes

Farfalle (“butterflies”): Their delicate “wingspan” suits them to light sauces based on either olive oil or butter, as long as there are no big obstacles in their flight path.

Fusilli, fusilli corti (“short fusilli”), tortiglioni (hollow “spirals”), radiatori (“radiators”), gemelli (“twins”) and various twists: Shapes like these are designed to trap cheese and ricotta sauces or unctuous nut sauces, such as pestos. Ragù and other meat sauces love to collect in their coils, too.

Strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”): These handmade dried forms call for tomato, meat and sausage sauces.

Conchiglie (“shells”), riccioli (“curls”), ruote (“wheels”), lumache (“snails”): Short and stubby shapes such as these work well with hearty sauces featuring meat, vegetables, cheese or cream.

Main photo: Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples, reprinted from “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

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Lentils. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: The end-of-the-year celebrations in Italy last from Christmas Eve all the way to Epiphany on Jan. 6, when La Befana — the good witch — brings toys to virtuous children and lumps of coal to naughty ones.

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Years ago, when I lived in Rome, we used to spend that time in the country. But one year we stayed behind in Rome for the celebrations. Back then, a cherished urban custom was to open the windows at midnight on New Year’s Eve and heave onto the street all the year’s accumulated rubbish, anything to be discarded — old scorched pots and pans, broken jugs and lamps, even small pieces of furniture, and sometimes large ones, too — and guai a chi sta sotto, beware all ye who pass beneath!

On this night, we leaned out a friend’s third-floor window overlooking the via dei Cappellari in vecchia Roma to watch the activity as the bells of all the churches pealed a joyous cascade for the new year and an accompanying crash descended from the neighboring windows. Our friend quickly pulled us inside, though, when across the narrow alley he spied a neighbor with a pistol who took aim and shot out the street lamp, plunging the street into darkness. Such was Roman anarchy 30 or more years ago. We went back to the table to continue eating lentils.

Lentils a good-luck food in the new year

Lentils for the new year is an Italian custom that may well go back to Roman times. In fact, lentils are one of the earliest cultivated crops to garnish our ancestral tables. (Remember Esau, scorning his birthright for a mess of pottage? It was lentils in that bowl.)

Exactly when they became linked to good fortune in the year ahead is not clear, but in Italy the little gray-green disks tarnished with a bronze patina as if they were buried treasure from a pirate’s chest still signify small coins. The more you eat, the more treasure you stand to accumulate in the year ahead. So on San Silvestro, New Year’s Eve, along with tossing trash, we also consumed large quantities of lentils, often with zampone, a succulent, savory pork sausage encased in a pig’s trotter that bathes the lentils in its unctuous juices.

We eat lentils for luck in the new year to this day.

By the time you read this, New Year’s will have come and gone and the last ring of sausage juice will have been licked clean from my platter along with the last little lentil, but that’s no reason to give up on these tiny, nutritional treasures.

If you’re like me, and like 92.5 percent (I’m just guessing) of American adults, you have made several New Year’s resolutions, at least one of which is to lose weight, improve your diet or go to the gym twice a week. Skip the gym if you will, but why not begin a new diet with lentils? Low in fat and calories and high in protein, fiber and minerals, they will add punch to your resolutions.

Bring the flavor

I should warn you, however, that lentils plain and simple, on their own with no adornment, are considered by some to be one of human history’s most boring foods. They have an earthy flavor, however, that becomes absolutely enticing when it’s countered with something sharp and peppery (chili) or tart and puckery (lemons, preserved or fresh) or snappy and green (fresh herbs of any kind) or, indeed, all of the above.

Sparked with crisp winter vegetables (fennel, celery, scallions, celery root) and bitter greens, they can make an enticing main-course salad; steamed in a carroty, gingery, garlicky broth they are deeply restorative on a cold winter night. And there’s an added bonus: Of all the legumes, lentils are easiest to prepare because they require no soaking and not more than 20 to 30 minutes cooking. Another bonus: You can make a double portion and freeze part so as to have a soup or salad ingredient ready — the smallest lentils will thaw rapidly once out of the freezer.

But what lentils should you use? The varieties presented in well-stocked supermarkets may be perplexing, but they’re easy to sort out. Medium brown or blond lentils are fine, but for flavor I prefer the smallest ones, about a millimeter in diameter and darker in color, sometimes sold as lentilles de Puy or French lentils, though they’re not always from France. I also like Beluga lentils, shiny and black, and especially the tiny lenticchie from Umbria’s Colfiorito plateau at www.gustiamo.com, with a nutty flavor that’s seductive and, as our British cousins say, more-ish.

Red, orange and yellow split lentils are used to make Indian dal, or lentil puree; they will naturally soften into a pleasing mush with cooking. They’re delicious in their own right and not to be discounted by cooks looking for healthy ingredients, but they’re not what we’re talking about here.

For salads and some other preparations, cook lentils in advance, first rinsing them briefly. About a cup of lentils to 2½ to 3 cups of water brought to a simmer, covered and cooked for 20 to 30 minutes should be fine, but the cooking time will depend on the age and size of the lentils, so check frequently after 20 minutes.

Here are several suggestions and a recipe to bring lentils into your new year:

  • Lentil and bulgur soup from Turkey: Cook 1 1/2 cups of lentils in 4 cups of water until tender, then combine with a cup of bulgur wheat that has been soaked in hot water for 30 minutes and squeezed dry. Sauté a couple of sliced onions in olive oil, add a pinch of ground cumin, a pinch of ground red Middle Eastern pepper (Aleppo pepper), salt and black pepper to taste and stir this mix into the soup. Add some ground turmeric if you wish, and garnish with minced fresh mint leaves. Thick and substantial, this soup will keep away coughs and sniffles.
  • Cook lentils with finely chopped carrot, celery, onions and garlic, adding some Tuscan aromatics such as bay leaves, minced parsley, fennel and minced rosemary. When done, combine with pasta or rice to make a complete main dish.
  • Lentil salad: Mix cooked lentils with chopped green olives and a chopped red pepper and toss with slivered bitter salad greens — arugula, chicory frisée and red radicchio would all be good. Or leave out the green olives and substitute some walnuts, coarsely chopped, and slivered scallions — lots of them so it’s essentially a lentil-walnut-scallion salad. Fresh wild mushrooms sautéed in olive oil with a little garlic and parsley make a nice addition to a lentil salad, and if you have a North African-style salted lemon, sliver that to add to the mushroom mixture and stir in a small dollop of harissa.

The above suggestions are all vegetarian, but if you’re what I call an “almost vegetarian,” try my New Year’s lentil-and-sausage dish for a great Sunday supper. Cotechino or zampone are hard to find; instead I use a combination of Toulouse and Italian sweet sausages from my local market, Maine Street Meat in Rockport, Maine. If you can’t get to Rockport, use the best sausages you can find locally.

Gratin for the New Year of Tiny Lentils and Spicy Sausages. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Gratin for the New Year of Tiny Lentils and Spicy Sausages. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Gratin of Tiny Lentils and Spicy Sausages for the New Year

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total: 60 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings, depending on what else is on the menu

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups small lentils

2 whole peeled garlic cloves

1 medium red chili, not too hot

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 chopped garlic cloves

1 chopped medium onion

About 1/2 cup sliced scallions, white and green parts

1 1/2 pounds fresh sausages, sliced about 1/2-inch thick

1 cup dry red or white wine

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Combine the lentils, whole garlic cloves and chili in a saucepan with 4 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook until the lentils are tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. When done, strain the lentils from the liquid in the pan, discarding the garlic and chili, and set aside, reserving the liquid.

2. In a sauté pan, combine the olive oil, chopped garlic and chopped onion and set over medium-low heat. Let the vegetables cook gently until they are very tender, then combine with the cooked lentils and raw scallions. Transfer to a gratin dish large enough to hold all the ingredients.

3. Set the oven to 400 F.

4. Add the sausage slices to the pan in which you cooked the onions and sauté until the sausages are brown on both sides. Distribute the sausages over the top of the lentils in the gratin dish.

5. If the sausages have given off a lot of fat, remove all but about a tablespoon and discard. Add wine to the sauté pan, raise the heat and simmer the wine, scraping up the brown bits in the pan. Let the wine reduce to about half, then pour over the lentils, adding a little salt and pepper to taste. If necessary, add up to a cup of the reserved lentil cooking liquid — the lentils should not be swimming in liquid but just sort of bathing in it.

6. Transfer to the oven and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the dish is very hot and starting to brown on top.

Note: The dish may be served immediately, but it’s just as good presented a little warmer than room temperature, so it’s perfect for a Sunday buffet. If you prefer, you can prepare all the parts of this ahead, then assemble them and put them into the oven just before you’re ready to serve.

Main photo: Lentils. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Different varieties of turronés, the almond-studded nougat. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

In Spain, the Christmas season lasts from early December until Jan. 6 and features a dizzying array of culinary traditions throughout the extended holiday. Christmas dinners are typically celebrated on the eve with either a traditional bird or a melange of seafood, depending on regional custom. Twelve grapes are eaten at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve to ensure a bit of luck. Cava, the Spanish interpretation of sparkling wine, is imbibed with abandon. A ring-shaped cake loaded with candied fruit (and a hidden toy) and sugar glaze commemorates the Epiphany, or the Feast of the Three Kings, on Jan. 6. But the quintessential signal that it is Christmastime in Spain is the appearance of a traditional candy called turrónes.

Turrónes, an almond-studded nougat, can be found around the world and throughout the year. But in Spain, it has been an essential part of the Christmas tradition for hundreds of years. The southern Valencian region of Alicante is the world production center for this candy, with a history dating to the 15th century. As the story goes, it was invented to satisfy the young Scandinavian wife of a Moorish king who planted hundreds of almond trees in the area in the 1400s for their snowy springtime blossoms that reminded her of snow.

Made from a simple combination of locally grown Marcona almonds, honey, sugar and egg whites, the nougat is created in two traditional styles: hard, crunchy turrónes de Alicante and soft, creamy turrónes de Jijona (Xixona). Each has a loyal following, but both are revered enough as local specialties to be awarded a protected geographic status under European Union law.

While there are recipes for turrónes that seem easy enough, it’s not typically a homemade treat because there are simply too many excellent artisanal choices available to Spanish households. As soon as stores start to transform their aisles for holiday shoppers, all sorts of turrónes magically appear in grocery stores and market stands.

By the 20th century, large-scale turrónes manufacturers were taking the approach of the more varied the flavor options, the better. But seeking the truest traditional form of local turrónes, I paid a visit to Jijona (Xixona), high in the hills above Alicante, where turrónes has been produced since the Middle Ages.

Shortly before arriving in Jijona on a bouncing bus ride, I noticed that large-scale turrónes manufacturing factories lined both sides of the main highway and the Museo de Turrónes was strategically positioned front and center. If there had been any doubt, it was now clear that this was the turrónes mecca. The center of the quiet, meticulously maintained village was filled with turrónes storefronts and artisanal factories spilling into smaller side streets.

Turrónes production window ends just before Christmas

Most production begins in mid-October and only lasts until the week before Christmas. Although my visit was timed during the height of their production cycle, two award-winning turroneros, Ricardo Coloma of Coloma García and Primitivo Rovira, a sixth-generational family member of Primitivo Rovira e Hijos, both graciously provided a glimpse into their multi-step, multiple-day production processes.

Sugar, honey, egg whites and almonds are essential to every turrónes recipe. The process begins when honey and sugar are heated and mixed together for an hour until they become fluffy white syrup. As the heat is increased to a high fire, egg whites thinned with water are added to the syrup and stirred for another hour. If the goal is to make turrónes de Alicante, the final step is to fold in toasted almonds using giant punxe, or hand paddles, and cool it enough press into loaf molds or tart molds to set.

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Sugar and honey being whipped into candy base at Coloma García Artesanos. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

The process for the creamy turrónes de Jijona takes another two days to complete. The candied mixture is chilled on large tables and then run though stone grinders for 20 minutes. The resulting paste rests for a day when it is returned to the stone grinders for a three-pass process and then pounded for 4 to 5 hours over heat with a boixet, a high-speed large pestle that emulsifies the mixture into a creamy paste. One more day of rest in loaf or tart pans, and it’s ready to enjoy. (Watch a video.)

While I expected to be a fan of the crunchy, nutty nougat version that I recalled from childhood candy stores, I was surprised at how addictive the creamy, dense paste of the loaf-style turrónes de Jijona was. It is similar to almond butter but more intense, dense, creamier and richer. Ladened with bags of both, I got back on the bus for the bumpy ride home, no longer entirely sure whether any of it would make it into someone else’s Christmas stocking

Main photo: Different varieties of turrónes, the almond-studded nougat. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Toshikoshi Soba With Kakiage Tempura. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

After moving to the United States, I was fascinated and eventually hooked by the way Americans welcome the new year. There were New Year’s Eve parties peppered with all kinds of excitement: sexy dresses, endless champagne, playful party props, dancing, counting down the seconds and kissing whomever is near while listening to “Auld Lang Syne.” None of these elements — except counting down the seconds — exist in our Japanese tradition. I was brought up in a culture in which welcoming the new year is a spiritually refreshing traditional event, packed with ancient superstitions and customs, that extends from the end of the old year into the first three days of the new.

In Japan, New Year’s Eve is as important as Christmas Day in Western countries. It is a solemn moment for us to reflect on ourselves, looking back at the past year. What kinds of sins and mistakes did we commit? Did we do anything especially good? By identifying these elements, we try not to carry bad luck into the new year. We also try to complete unfinished tasks. The new year must be a fresh start, without unwanted baggage from the old year. During this period in the Shinto religion, we observe a change in the god of the year. At the end of the year, we express thanks to the departing god for protection during the past year. On the first of January, we welcome a new god and ask for his favor in the new year.

Nearly all the Japanese population eats soba (buckwheat noodles) on New Year’s Eve. This is one of the superstitions involving new year culinary traditions. When you visit Japan at this time of the year you see signs at restaurants and food stores, many of them written on handmade washi paper with bold ink brush strokes, notifying customers that they will offer Toshikoshi soba, the buckwheat noodles especially eaten on Dec. 31. Toshikoshi soba itself is really nothing special as a dish. It is actually the same soba noodles consumed during the rest of the year.

The tradition of eating soba at the end of each year goes back to the latter part of the Edo period (1600-1868). Because buckwheat flour does not have gluten, the cooked noodles break apart easily. Hence, our superstitious ancestors concluded that eating soba at the end of the year helps to cut off bad luck and bad omens that plagued us during the old year.

If you want to test this superstition or at least participate in a delicious tradition, here is one important reminder: You need soba noodles made from 100 percent buckwheat flour. Japanese and Asian stores in America, and even some American ones, carry soba noodles, but many of them are made from a combination of buckwheat and other flours. These noodles won’t break so easily, so they won’t separate you from last year’s bad luck!

Soba meets its match

Tempura is a perfect accompaniment to soba. My mother prepared a feast at the end of every year, but simple soba noodles with shrimp tempura were the highlight of the meal. The live shrimp were sent to us by one of my father’s patients as a thank-you gift on Dec. 31 for as long for as I can remember. After eating the tempura and soba, all of us were certain of a very healthy, good year.

After the meal, close to midnight, we would head to the nearby Buddhist temple, where the priests performed a special service welcoming the new year for the community. A large bonfire, created for the warmth and for burning old talismans and any unwanted documents from the past, brightened up dark, cold environment. As we watch the fire and listened to the temple bell tolling 108 times, our past sins and errors were dispelled so we could to welcome the fresh start for the new year. People quietly greeted each other with “Omedeto gozaimasu” (Happy New Year), and the voices and people soon disappeared into the dark in every direction. Each headed to enjoy brief sleep before the next morning’s pilgrimage to a Shinto shrine to make the new year offering and prayers. This was followed by the huge New Year’s Day festive feast, Osechi-ryori, a meal packed with additional symbolic and good fortune food items.

If you want to enjoy an important part of our tradition, here is the recipe for Toshikoshi soba. As I mentioned, make sure to secure 100 percent buckwheat noodles for this special occasion. The tempura accompaniment here is called kakiage tempura. Chopped shrimp and vegetables are deep-fried in the form of a delicious pancake.

Dozo Yoi Otoshio! (Please have a good end of the year!)

Toshikoshi Soba With Kakiage Tempura

Adapted from Hiroko’s American Kitchen

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients 

Canola oil or vegetable oil for deep-frying

1/2 cup frozen green peas

1/2 cup eggplant, finely diced

1/2 ounce kale, julienned

5 ounces peeled and deveined shrimp, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons tempura flour or a blend of 80% cake flour and 20% cornstarch

3/4 cup cold water

14 ounces dried soba noodles (preferably 100% buckwheat noodles)

5 cups hot noodle broth

1 tablespoon grated ginger

1 tablespoon scallion

Directions

1. Heat 3 inches of the canola oil in a heavy skillet to 350 F. Place a slotted spoon in the oil and allow it to heat to the temperature of the oil to prevent the batter from sticking to it.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium heat. In a bowl, toss the green peas, eggplant, kale and shrimp with 2 tablespoons of the tempura flour. In another bowl, mix the remaining tempura flour with the cold water. Stir with a fork until smooth. Add the tempura batter to the shrimp mixture and mix with a large spoon.

3. Using the large spoon, scoop 1/4 of the shrimp mixture from the bowl and pour it into the slotted spoon that was warming in the oil. Immediately lower the slotted spoon into the heated oil and submerge the shrimp mixture. Leaving the spoon in place, cook the mixture (kakiage) for 1 1/2 minutes or until the bottom side is cooked. Using a steel spatula, remove the kakiage from the slotted spoon and let it float free in the oil. Cook the kakiage for about 4 minutes, or until lightly golden, turning it a few times during cooking. Transfer the cooked kakiage to a wire rack set over a baking sheet and let drain. Repeat the process for the remaining batter.

4. While cooking the kakiage, cook the soba noodles in a boiling water for 1 minute less than the suggested cooking time on the package. Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse them under cold tap water. Drain the noodles and keep them in the colander.

5. Prepare a kettle of boiling water. Pour the boiling water over the cooked noodles to re-warm them. Drain the noodles and divide them into bowls. Bring the noodle broth to a simmer in a medium pot over medium heat. Pour the hot broth into the bowls. Divide the kakiage tempura among the bowls. Garnish with the ginger and scallions and serve.

Main photo: Toshikoshi Soba With Kakiage Tempura. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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