Articles in Tradition
An abundance of corn in farmers markets is a delight and a challenge. Having already grilled platters of corn on the barbecue and boiled armfuls of shucked ears, it is time to invent another way to enjoy one of summer’s most delicious vegetables. Borrowing the flavors of elote, a Mexican classic, turns grilled corn into a salad that will delight everyone at the table.
Mexican street food delight
Travel in Mexico and you’ll encounter street vendors selling a great number of delicious food snacks. One of my favorites is elote, or corn on the cob, in which an ear of corn is cooked, dusted with dry cheese and seasoned with chili powder and fresh lime juice. The ear of corn is always served whole, sometimes resting in a paper dish or with a stick in the bottom like a corndog.
Elote is delicious but messy to eat. First there is the matter of the whole ear of corn, which takes two hands to manage. And, with each bite, the finely grated Cotija cheese tends to float off the corn and drift onto clothing.
Cutting the kernels off the cobs makes the seasoned corn so much easier to enjoy. In Mexico there is a corn kernel snack called esquites, which employs some of the seasonings used in making elote. This recipe is different because no mayonnaise is mixed with the corn. Mexican Corn Salad can be served as a light and refreshing entrée topped with a protein or as a side dish accompanying grilled vegetables, meats, poultry and fish. The elote salad is the perfect summer recipe.
The best way to cook corn on the cob is a topic of heated debate. There are those who will only boil corn, others who will only grill it. I have seen elote prepared both ways. My preference is to strip off the husk and grill the ear so that some of the kernels are charred, adding caramelized sweetness to the salad.
Just the right cheese
What gives elote its distinctive flavor is the combination of finely grated dry Mexican Cotija cheese, spicy chili powder and fresh lime juice. Powdery when finely grated, Cotija cheese is salty so you may not need to add salt when you make the corn salad. Often described as having qualities similar to feta and Parmesan, Cotija tastes quite different.
Mexican Corn Salad
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes
Total time: 25 to 30 minutes
Yield: 4 entrée servings or 8 side dish servings
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
4 large ears of corn, husks and silks removed, washed, dried
1/2 cup finely grated Cotija cheese
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
3 cups Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, chopped
2 limes, washed, quartered
1. Preheat an indoor grill or outdoor barbecue to hot.
2. Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil into a flat pan and season with sea salt and black pepper.
3. Roll the ears of corn in the seasoned olive oil to coat all sides.
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4. Using tongs, place the corn on the grill, turning every 2 to 3 minutes so that some of the kernels char, being careful not to burn the ears.
5. When cooked on all sides, remove and let cool in the flat pan with the seasoned olive oil.
6. To cut the kernels off the cob, use a sharp chef’s knife. Hold each ear of corn over the pan with the seasoned oil and slice the kernels off the cob.
7. Transfer the kernels and the remaining seasoned oil into a large mixing bowl.
8. Add Cotija cheese, chili powder and parsley. Toss well.
9. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the salad and toss.
10. Serve at room temperature with lime wedges on the side.
Notes: Adding finely chopped Italian parsley to the seasoned corn kernels brightens the flavors. Cilantro can be used instead of parsley to give the salad a peppery flavor.
Traditionally, mayonnaise is slathered on the elote or mixed into esquites before adding the cheese and chili powder. I prefer to use olive oil to give the salad a lighter taste.
To use as an entrée, top with sliced grilled chicken, shrimp or filet of fish.
The salad can be prepared ahead and kept in the refrigerator overnight. In which case, do not add the Cotija cheese or parsley until just before serving.
To create a large, colorful salad, just before serving, toss the seasoned corn and parsley with quartered cherry tomatoes, cut-up avocados and butter lettuce or romaine leaves.
After tossing, taste the salad and adjust the amount of Cotija cheese and chili powder.
Main photo: Charred ears of corn on a grill. The corn will be used in a Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Soba is a delightfully tasteful and nourishing noodle. Originating in Japan, soba is made with buckwheat, and the nutrient-rich noodle is associated with longevity and eaten year-round.
While soba is traditionally eaten plain with dipping sauce and herbs or in a hot broth, the noodle is finding its way onto Western plates because of its versatility and good flavor.
In more Westernized preparations, soba works great in salads and can work just as well with pasta sauce or pesto sauce. Some Japanese and Italians will raise their eyebrows, but why not?
Soba salad — a perfect summer food
I was a traditionalist when it came to soba until I had my first encounter with a soba salad. This happened while my mother was visiting from Tokyo one summer back in the early ’80s, during a heat wave. We accepted a lunch invitation from her Japanese schoolmate, Mrs. Hoffman, who lived in Thousand Oaks, and it turned out Mrs. Hoffman was making us soba for lunch.
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As Japanese, we were, of course, expecting zaru soba — cold soba served with dipping sauce and herbs. But when the soba was served, it came in a form that neither my mother nor I had ever seen before — mixed with her garden tomatoes and greens and dressed with a vinaigrette in a big salad bowl.
We were both in shock, to put it lightly. We thought Mrs. Hoffman had become too Americanized and had bastardized our classic noodle. Mrs. Hoffman tossed the salad in front of us and plated the oil-coated soba and vegetables. This was her American husband’s favorite lunch, she told us.
At first, we were skeptical. But my mother raised me to try everything, so I did, and she did as well. The salad tasted surprisingly delicious. The earthiness of the soba gave the salad texture and umami flavor. The tomatoes added a nice sweetness.
We both loved the soba salad that day, and I’ve grown to appreciate a good soba salad. When I make it myself, I use greens, sliced radishes, fava beans, scallions and whatever fresh vegetables I find at the farmers market or in my garden. I serve the salad with a simple vinaigrette. (See recipe below.) I toss the soba with the vegetables at the last minute, so it doesn’t get mushy.
What’s in dried soba?
While dried pasta tastes pretty darn good, dried soba tastes, for the most part, rather flat and flavorless. Most dried soba fails because manufacturers make a wheat noodle containing only a token amount of buckwheat and still call it “soba.”
According to Japanese standards, dried soba noodles can be called soba only if they contain at least 30% buckwheat flour. Apparently, these standards were set during World War II, when soba production was low.
A few Japanese and American brands, such as Koma Soba and Eden Foods Soba, produce a 100% dried buckwheat noodle. They can be found in some health food stores as well as some Japanese markets, such as Nijiya , Mitsuwa and Marukai. You can’t beat fresh soba noodles, but these dried noodles will give you the traditional Japanese taste of the buckwheat noodle.
Packed with nutrients and flavor
Soba has played a medicinal role in Japan since ancient times. Buckwheat has an amino acid composition nutritionally superior to all cereals, surpassing oats, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Japan during the 17th century, buckwheat helped cure a large outbreak of beriberi, a disease caused by a vitamin B deficiency that results from eating too many refined foods such as white rice.
In addition to its healthful qualities, soba is sought after in Japan for its nutty flavor and good chew, although not too much is known in the West about its delicate flavor profiles.
Like other crops, buckwheat is known to take on the terroir of the land. Kitawase buckwheat from Hokkaido, Japan, is lightly fragrant and chewy, whereas Ibaraki’s Hitachi Akisoba is robust.
Soba made with fresh buckwheat flour tastes vastly different in flavor and texture than its dried counterpart. In the fresh version, you taste the nutty and roasted tea-like flavors of the buckwheat.
It’s faster and simpler to make soba than pasta, because it requires no resting time and the only other ingredient besides flour is water. Fresh noodles cook in less than 2 minutes.
When I make soba, I like using a flour mixture with a ratio of 8 parts buckwheat and 2 parts wheat flour called ni-hachi style soba, which has been a practice in Japan for more than 400 years. The added wheat gives the gluten-free buckwheat structure and stability.
Not all buckwheat flour you find in the U.S. makes good soba, because the milling is sometimes done poorly or it sits on the shelf too long. If the flour runs through your fingers like sand, it will not make good noodles. You should be able to clutch it your hand and form a peak.
In the United States, you can buy fresh, stone-milled, aromatic and coarse buckwheat flours and ni-hachi style soba flour from Anson Mills. I like to blend these varieties to make my own flour mix. You can also find soba-grade flour in Japanese markets such as Cold Mountain from Miyako. Whatever kind you buy, store it in the refrigerator.
Once you have made soba a few times, you can use 100% buckwheat flour instead of the 80% buckwheat-20% wheat mix. For those who are gluten intolerant, substitute tapioca flour for wheat flour in your dough.
Ideas for soba salad
Many Western chefs and food writers incorporate soba into their cooking. Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison has written an insightful book called “Vegetable Literacy” that will educate you about vegetables, especially the chapter about the knotweed family, which includes buckwheat as well as rhubarb and sorrel. She includes in the book a recipe for a visually stunning and delicious Kale Soba Salad With Silvered Brussels Sprouts and Sesame Dressing. The salad is what initially turned me on to kale, and I frequently serve it at my soba workshops, because it’s always a hit.
Yotam Ottolengi’s cookbook “Plenty” includes a recipe for a sweet and summery Eggplant and Mango Soba Salad, which has become Yotam’s mother’s ultimate cook-to impress fare. Mango and eggplant? Weird, I first thought. But I was wrong. His plentiful use of herbs like cilantro and parsley and use of sweet and lime garlic vinaigrette in soba breaks all cultural barriers. Everyone loves this soba salad, and so do I.
Easy Soba Noodles for Beginners
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: Less than 5 minutes
Total time: About 25 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
12 ounces (350 grams) ni-hachi soba flour (premixed buckwheat flour and wheat flour)
6 ounces (175 grams) boiling water (45% to 50% of the total weight the flour)
1 cup (125 grams) flour for dusting (use tapioca or cornstarch flour.)
2 gallons water to cook the noodles
For making the noodles:
1. Combine the flour and boiling water in a bowl, massaging the mixture, first with a wooden spoon then using both hands, until well combined. Continue to work the dough until it forms a single mass.
2. Transfer the dough from the bowl to a cutting board. Working quickly and using the heels of your hands, continue to knead firmly until a smooth dough forms. (If the dough feels dry, lightly wet the tips of your fingers with more water, brushing them against the surface of the dough and continue kneading until smooth). The process will take about 4 or 5 minutes, and the final dough will be a little soft and smooth but not sticky.
3. Form the dough into a smooth ball.
4. Dust cornstarch or tapioca flour on a large cutting board. Place the dough ball on the board and lightly sprinkle cornstarch or tapioca flour over the top. Using your palm and the heel of your hand, flatten the ball into a disk about a half-inch thick.
5. Use a rolling pin to roll the disk into a rectangle about 1/18-inch thick.
6. Generously dust cornstarch or tapioca flour over half the dough, then fold the undusted half over, like closing a book. (The cornstarch or tapioca flour keeps the dough from sticking together as it is cut.)
7. Generously dust another crosswise half of the dough with cornstarch or tapioca flour and fold in half again.
8. Starting along the short, folded side of the dough, slice it into very thin (about 1/16 of an inch) noodles.
9. Keep the noodles loosely covered with plastic wrap while you boil the water for cooking.
For cooking the noodles:
1. Bring a large pot of water (at least 2 gallons) to a boil over high heat.
2. Gently dust off the excess dusting flour from the noodles by gently tapping them against the cutting board. Drop the noodles into the boiling water.
3. Keep the water boiling vigorously to prevent the noodles from sticking together. Cook the noodles to al dente, about 90 seconds. (Timing will vary depending on the thickness of the noodles. Thicker noodles will need to cook longer.)
4. Remove the noodles to a strainer set in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.
5. Prepare a second bowl of ice water and transfer to the second bowl to remove any surface starch and shock the noodles, then drain or strain them.
6. Serve immediately with your favorite salad dressing, dipping sauce or pasta sauce.
Lemon Miso Vinaigrette
Prep time: About 5 minutes
2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon fresh ginger juice
1 tablespoons white miso paste
1/2 teaspoon cane sugar
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
1. Whisk together all the ingredients and blend well.
2. Store in the refrigerator and use as you would any vinaigrette.
Main photo: Soba salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai
If the heel of the Boot, Apulia — Puglia in Italian — has long lagged behind other Italian regions in terms of modernization, parts of it have nonetheless become havens for the likes of royals, film stars and cognoscenti. How could it be otherwise for a peninsula surrounded by 500 miles of coastline and lapped by the pristine waters of two seas? Still, its heart beats to an ancient tempo, heedless of the increasing tourist invasions. This is Greek Italy, and it is steeped in its past. Nowhere is that more striking than at the Pugliese table.
Once upon a wine
On a recent tour of the region’s wineries with an American delegation of importers eager to learn about the ambitious undertakings of a new breed of producers, I found vintners at once devoted to the preservation of their traditions and determined to make unique world-class wines. Whereas previous generations geared their production toward volume of output for foreign markets (mainly France as well as northern Italy) at the expense of quality — a practice that goes back to the Phoenicians — today’s winemakers tend relatively small vineyards and grow native grape varietals barely known outside the immediate area. The consensus among the dozen buyers in our midst was that the wines were good — some very, very good — while selling for less than other wines in their class.
Terroir, terroir, terroir
Climatic conditions vary throughout Puglia. On the northern plateaus, known collectively as the Murge, the winters are temperate and the temperatures cooler than they are in the Salento, the bottom of the heel, which can be convection-hot in summer, though cooled somewhat by the play of sea currents and breezes blowing across the Adriatic from the Balkans. But overall the region is perhaps the hottest in Italy, baked by the favugno, as the dry wind that blows in from Africa is called here.
In step with their forebears, many of the vintners I met said that, by working with the natural conditions and the native grapes that thrive there — such as Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia — they avoid the soil-punishing practices of modern growing techniques. “We are linked to the traditions of our area,” said Dr. Marina Saponari, sommelier at Valle dell’Asso in Santeramo in Colle, Bari, a limestone plateau in the Murge. “We don’t irrigate or add water at all, because too much humidity causes fungus; we work with the soil, not against it, (plowing) in a horizontal direction to retain the moisture naturally.” “Besides,” said Giuseppe Bino, an oenologist at Vigneto Amastuola in Martina Franca, “organic methods are so much better for your health. And when the wines are aged naturally, you taste real grapes.”
Filippo Montanaro of Vigneto Amastuola, on the Ionian side of the peninsula, described his family’s dedication to organic practices as a way to at once revitalize abandoned agricultural lands and recover an indigenous archeological site that dates to the Bronze Age. Subsequent civilizations inhabited the same high plateau, a strategic point overlooking the Gulf of Taranto from which, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Greece and Calabria. Amastuola’s vines and fruit orchards today carpet the soil in which the Greeks planted grapes and olive trees 2,000 years ago. On the estate, a 15th-century masseria — an ancient Apulian farmhouse where raw ingredients were processed into everything from wine and oil to dairy products, salumi, bread and preserves — is being restored to function as it once did, said Montanaro, whose father, Giuseppe, acquired the 100-hectare estate (almost 250 acres) in 2003. The family has launched an ambitious restoration, including the revitalization of long-neglected 800-year-old olive trees. “Family tradition is very important,” said Giuseppe Sportelli, commercial director and husband of Ilaria (one of three Montanaro siblings that help manage the property), explaining that the monumental project was not just work but a “passione.” Giuseppe Montanaro himself finds that explanation inadequate. “It goes beyond enthusiasm,” he explained, “It is the desperation that the man of the south feels that makes miracles like this happen.”
Food of the ancients
Like these winemakers, local chefs also honor the past, looking to the ancestral cooking of their grandmothers for inspiration. I learned the Pugliese mantra of “homegrown and homemade” early, from my paternal grandparents — poor emigrants to America from the very landscape I have described. Some things have changed since they abandoned the fields of Toritto, in which they had toiled as sharecroppers, for lack of enough food for themselves. And some things have not. “Our cooking is based on a paisana (peasant) tradition,” said Anna Gennari of Conzorzio Produttori Vini Manduria, a 400-partner cooperative of Primitivo grape growers in Manduria. “The cooking was simple and not much different throughout the provinces because Puglia was poor,” said Saponari, who is not only a sommelier but also a well-known cooking teacher in Bari.
Cutting-edge Michelin-starred restaurants have been making headlines in recent years for pioneering menus sourced from their local terroir, but Pugliese chefs have always done so. They are weaned on the ancestral flavors and seductive bitterness of wild dandelion greens, mustards, hyacinth bulbs (Muscari racemosum or lampascioni) and other native plants. Unlike in other regions where the tourist routes are more deeply worn, the heritage foods of Puglia — what the Italians call piatti tipici — persist, whether in hotels, simple trattorie or private homes. These include durum-wheat pasta, either fresh or dried, characteristically flavored with cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), simple tomato sauce, or chickpeas; fava-bean purée eaten alongside cooked bitter greens; the ring-shaped breadsticks called taralli, sweet or savory; calzone-like panzerotti and a panoply of other breads and pastries, baked or fried; vegetables, vegetables, vegetables (but little meat); milky fresh cheeses; and fiery peppers — all dressed, naturally, with the numinous olive oil.
Chefs riding the trend for recycling “trash” food could learn something from these old ways: take the traditional pane arso of the cucina povera (“the poor kitchen”), a dark bread made by blending the flour of charred hard wheat with semolina. The custom of incorporating the two harks back to the feudal-estate system, when peasants collected the scorched grains that remained after the post-harvest burning of the fields. Rich-tasting, with a seductively bitter edge, the bread packs 4,000 years of the people’s history into one bite.
Pranzo della domenica: Sunday supper
It’s on Sunday — a customary day of feasting — when Puglia’s cooks pull out all the stops. This is when the meat dishes come out, and the pasta is sauced with ragù, meatballs and braciole.
Gathering together in Bari with the wine buyers, I ate just these braciole — which the locals call bombette (“little bombs”) in the delightful TerrAnima, a Slow Food-endorsed restaurant dedicated to the dishes of the region (its name translates as “Earth and Soul”). If they sound heavy, perish the thought! They are delicate little rolls of meat, lined with pancetta inside and out and stuffed with cheese, garlic and parsley before they are bundled, tied and roasted.
Here’s to the spirit of the pranzo della domenica. Bring on the bombette and by all means, pour the Primitivo!
Bombette (Little Bombs): Stuffed Meat Rolls
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: About 20 minutes
Total time: About 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Note: These appetizers are traditionally made with horsemeat (not for the likes of former equestrians such as myself), but veal or beef are also used. Whichever you choose, ask the butcher to flatten the meat as thin as possible (1/8 inch is ideal) without tearing it — or pound it yourself if you know how.
1 pound cutlets (scaloppine) from top round of veal, cut into 4 thin slices about 4 inches by 8 inches and pounded to no more than 1/8-inch thick, or 2 half-pound pieces boneless beef top round, pounded to 1/8-inch from 1/4-inch thickness
Extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, peeled and bruised slightly
Fine sea salt
Freshly milled black pepper
16 thin slices of pancetta
2 tablespoons fresh minced parsley leaves
3 ounces fresh, semi-soft caciocavallo cheese, cut into 8 matchsticks
Toothpicks for serving
1. Preheat an oven to 400 F. Select a broiler-proof baking pan large enough to accommodate 8 meat rolls without crowding and grease it lightly with olive oil.
2. Use paper towels to blot the meat dry. Cut each piece horizontally into smaller pieces to yield 8 pieces of meat that are about the same shape and size (about 4 by 4 inches). Rub both sides with the garlic clove (which you can then discard) and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
3. Sandwich 1 piece of meat between two slices of pancetta. Sprinkle one side with some of the parsley and arrange a matchstick of cheese crosswise on the center. Beginning at one end, roll it up, gathering the pancetta along with it as you make the roll and tucking in any meat edges that stick out. Secure the bundle with a toothpick and transfer it to the oiled baking pan. Repeat the procedure with the remaining 7 pieces of meat and place in the pan.
4. Slide the pan onto the middle rack of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and change the setting to broil. Turn the rolls over and place the pan under the broiler to color them lightly, about 2 minutes. Take care to keep the pan juices from flaming. Remove at once, pour any remaining pan juices over the rolls and serve immediately.
Main photo: Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in “The Aeneid.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
In the United States, to “get your kicks” we’ve got Route 66. But in Italy, for an unforgettable travel experience follow the ancient Roman “Route” called Via Emilia. This easy-to-navigate highway starts in the northern section of Emilia-Romagna, connecting some of Italy’s most amazing sights with unique gourmet experiences. Click through this slideshow to discover what you’ll find along the route that connects cities rich in art, culture, history and sports cars with world-renowned food and wine.
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Main photo: Have a taste for incredible pasta? Follow Via Emilia in Italy to discover some of the best culinary delights of Emilia-Romagna. Credit: Copyright Emilia-Romagna Tourism Board
May’s massive avian flu outbreak and the resulting egg shortage have many of us scrambling for breakfast alternatives. Those who don’t eat meat yet rely on eggs for protein are particularly hard-hit by this deficit. So, too, are fans of the fast and nutritious simplicity of cracking open a soft- or hard-boiled egg first thing in the morning.
To them and anyone wondering how to keep protein in their breakfasts without the use of eggs or meat, I suggest trying these global dishes.
A staple of Danish cuisine, rugbrød is a hearty, rectangular-shaped, oat- and seed-flecked brown bread. Although usually featured in smorrebrød or an open-faced sandwich, it also makes an appearance on the breakfast table. When served with cheese, smoked fish, fruit preserves or even on its own, rugbrød offers a filling and protein- and fiber-rich start to any day. It contains as much as 9 grams of protein in each slice.
Imagine you’re in continental Europe and do as the Europeans do: Indulge in some cheese with your dawn coffee or tea. High-protein cheeses include such familiar favorites as Parmesan, goat, mozzarella, Gruyere and cheddar. One ounce of these cheeses provides between 8 grams and 11 grams of protein. Pair your morning cheese with slices of rugbrød for an especially lavish treat.
If you’re fond of either the United Kingdom or seafood, you may want to start your day with a plate of savory, protein-filled, omega-3-rich kippers. Known as the king of the English breakfast, the kipper is the mildest of all smoked herring. It has starred in British breakfasts since the mid 19th century. Cooked and then served on buttered toast, kippers are an inexpensive yet nutritious way to kick off the day. A 2-ounce serving has 14 grams of protein.
Not of fan of smoked foods but still crave a flavorful protein for your morning meal? Reach for Scandinavian gravlax. Similar to smoked fish, this salt-cured salmon was born from the need to store seafood in a time when refrigeration did not exist. Thanks to 24 to 48 hours of macerating in salt, sugar and dill, gravlax possesses a velvety texture and luxurious taste. It also has a long history of feeding the hungry in the wee hours of the day. A 2-ounce serving of gravlax contains 10 grams of protein.
Less common but no less delicious than granola, muesli consists of rolled oats, sliced nuts such as almonds and hazelnuts, dried apricots, raisins and bran, wheat germ or seeds such as pumpkin and sunflower. With 8 grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving, this Swiss creation provides a wholesome, protein-packed breakfast with every bite. If you want a bit more complexity, add fresh fruit or honey to your muesli. You can also replace the usual milk on your cereal with yogurt.
Beans on toast
The British Council reports that the United Kingdom consumes more than 90 percent of the world’s canned baked bean supply. Thus, it’s not surprising that another quintessential English offering consists of baked beans spooned over toasted bread. Warm, tartly sweet and with 7 grams of protein per half-cup, beans on toast is a delectable and decidedly British breakfast dish.
With 10 grams of protein per half-cup, the low-calorie soybean curd known as tofu affords not only healthful eating but also versatile cooking. Its benign, mildly nutty taste goes with countless ingredients, plus it performs well with a variety of cooking techniques. It can be scrambled; baked in a quiche; sautéed with vegetables, herbs or spices and served in a wrap; made into a spread; or puréed in a smoothie. The uses of tofu are almost limitless.
Nuts and nut spreads
People around the globe consume nuts and nut spreads as part of their morning routines. At 6 grams of protein per 1-ounce serving, almonds and pistachios rank the highest in protein, followed by walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews and Brazil nuts. As you may know, the familiar peanut is a legume and not a nut. Nonetheless, at 7 grams per 1-ounce serving, peanuts beat the aforementioned nuts for greatest protein content in a nut spread.
Part of both British and North American cuisines, cottage cheese is unripened and unpressed cow’s milk cheese. While mild in flavor, it is surprisingly rich in protein. A mere 4 ounces of cottage cheese contains 13 grams of protein. Pair this subtle food with pumpkin seeds or chopped dried apricots for an especially tasty and nourishing repast.
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Main photo: A bowl of muesli with fresh fruit and yogurt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt
Traditional pickled foods have become increasingly popular, with their palate-pleasing spicy, sour, sweet and salty flavors and varied textures that provide health benefits as well as serving as a digestive aid.
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The most popular traditional pickled foods in America are dill pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi — all of which share one thing in common: They are vegetables pickled in a brine, vinegar or other solutions and then left to ferment, a process called lacto-fermentation. Just the sound of the words make our stomachs feel better.
How does lacto-fermentation work? During fermentation, a beneficial bacteria called Lactobacillus, which is present on the surface of all vegetables and fruits, begins to metabolize its sugars into lactic acid; this is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.
Eating pickled foods in moderation keeps your gut flora healthy and supports immune function by providing an increase in B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, digestive enzymes and other immune chemicals that fight off harmful bacteria.
Pickling: A universal practice
The universe of lacto-fermented foods includes so much more than dill pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi. Since ancient times, people around the world have used this method to preserve vegetables and fruits when refrigeration was not available, and the tradition of pickling has carried on.
The Japanese have a diverse variety of pickles that use solid rather than liquid pickling mediums as such miso, sake lees and rice bran — all of which undergo the process of lacto-fermentation. The result is a distinctly tangy, crunchy and delicious assortment of pickles.
I am particularly fond of the nutty aroma and mild flavor of nukazuke, a traditional Japanese pickling method using fermented rice bran. Like wheat bran, rice bran is the outer layer of the grain that is removed during the milling process. In the U.S., most of the bran gets sold off to produce cattle feed and dog food, but the Japanese use it to pickle any type of firm vegetable, including carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, radish, zucchini, kabocha and burdock. The vegetables are buried in nukadoko, the fermented medium, to pickle for just a couple hours or overnight and reused again. The flavor of nukazuke is not as sour or spicy as kimchi or sauerkraut, but the health benefits are just as high.
How to maintain the nukadoko medium
Maintaining a nukadoko medium involves one crucial task: keeping it alive. You must stir the medium with your hands once a day to aerate it, so the bacteria can breathe and do their thing. It takes no more than a minute of your time, so you can incorporate it into your daily ritual.
Nukadoko also loves the good bacteria that live on your hands, so don’t use a wooden spoon. You will notice the medium has a distinct sour smell, which indicates the bacteria are actively working. I find the smell rather pleasant.
I keep my nukadoko in the pantry, which makes the daily stirring an easy task, but some people prefer to keep it in the garage. When choosing a spot to keep it, be sure it’s a cool place. If you don’t have one, you can keep it in the refrigerator, but the fermentation process will be much slower.
Every family has its own version of nukadoko. In the old days, one of the heirloom gifts a Japanese mother passed onto her daughter as a wedding gift was nukadoko, and it was not uncommon to find a nukadoko that was more than 50 years old.
Sad to say, this custom is disappearing in Japan and convenient foods are taking over. However, a slow movement is underway to restore traditional foods like nukazuke, including here in America. I have third- and fourth-generation Japanese-Americans who come to my pickling workshops to learn how to make their grandmothers’ nukazuke.
Sourcing rice bran in the U.S. is an easier task than I thought, because rice is grown widely in California. You can buy stabilized bran (commonly pasteurized) at Japanese markets or online, or ask your local rice farmer if they have some to sell. I contacted my friend Robin Koda at Koda Farms in South Dos Palos, one of the oldest rice farms in California, and she was happy to supply me with her raw bran, knowing its intended purpose.
One of my students commented that making nuka pickles is a bit like making compost, and it’s true. You will need a clay jar, an enameled pot or glass bin with a lid. I have an enameled pickling jar that’s about 30 years old, and it still works perfectly. The nukadoko medium has a texture similar to a wet sand or soft miso paste. Preparation of nukadoko takes about a week. If you have any leftover rice bran, keep it in the refrigerator or freezer because it is highly perishable.
Making nukadoko may seem a little tedious and time-consuming, but once you have been trained in the medium, you can keep it for years and pass it on to friends and loved ones. That’s what I enjoy doing.
Nuka Pickle Medium (Nukadoko) and Nuka Pickles
2 1/2 pounds of rice bran (nuka)
6 ounces sea salt
7 1/2 cups of filtered water
1 (6-inch) piece of konbu, cut up into small pieces
4 to 5 Japanese red chili peppers, seeded
Discarded ends and peels of vegetables (such as cabbage, carrots, cucumbers and daikon radish, but not onions)
2 garlic cloves, peeled (optional)
For making the nukadoko:
1. Place the rice bran in a heavy cast-iron pan and toast it over low heat. Use a wooden spoon or spatula to stir the bran so it doesn’t burn. The toasting process takes about 10 minutes. Once done, remove from heat and let stand.
2. In a separate large pot, combine the salt and water and bring to a simmer. Mix to dissolve the salt to make a brine. Remove from heat.
3. Slowly add the brine to the rice bran and mix it with a paddle until it reaches a consistency comparable to slightly moist sand.
5. Add konbu, chili peppers and garlic (if using) to the mixture.
For training the nukadoko and pickling:
1. Start by putting various vegetables scraps (try cabbage leaves, eggplant, celery and carrots) in the rice bran bed for about three days to allow them to lightly ferment. Take them out and discard them.
2. Repeat this three or four times, then you are ready to start pickling.
3. The nukadoko will develop a unique aroma and look like wet sand. At this point, a fermenting culture has been established and the nukadoko is alive and contains active organisms such as yeast and lactobacilli. You can now start putting vegetables into the nukadoko for fermenting. To speed the pickling process, you can rub a little salt on whole or large chunks of vegetables such as cucumber and carrots before you put them into the nukadoko. If the nukadoko becomes too wet, just add a little bit of rice bran with salt or a piece of day-old bread. Again, place fresh vegetables into the base for 1 to 2 days. Cucumbers may take only 2 to 3 hours on a warm day and 4 to 6 hours on a cold day.
Tips for maintaining the nukadoko base:
You will need to mix the nukadoko base once a day, turning it with your hand. If it the base feels dry, pour in a little beer. (Flat beer will work fine.)
If your most recent batch of pickles tastes too sour, add fresh nuka and salt (5 parts nuka to 1 part sea salt).
If you are traveling, you should move the nukadoko base to the refrigerator. The bacteria will go dormant, but you can reactivate them by giving the base a stir and leaving it out at room temperature. If you see any mold build up, simply scrape it off and add some fresh nuka to the mix.
Main photo: Nukazuke, or pickled vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai
Summer has yet to deliver its full range of vegetables, but one stalwart crop that keeps on giving is Brassica rapa (from rapum, Latin for “turnip”). Brimming with flavor, this vegetable is known variously in its native Italy as cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), broccoletti di rape or just rape (pronounced räp’-eh), rapi, rappini, friarielli, vrucculi and a gaggle of other aliases, depending on local dialects.
And as “if this is not confusing enough,” says Daniel Nagengast — who imports 700 different heritage seeds to the United States for his company Seeds from Italy — “there are perhaps 15 different cime varieties in southern Italy, and I keep on finding more.” Each has its own physical characteristics, growing patterns and flavor nuances. But what they all have in common is a bold, seductive bitterness in their raw state, not to mention a powerful nutritional profile.
Old varieties are new again
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The old familiar ways with rapini
As much as the vegetable intrigues people, the extent of most Americans’ experience with Brassica rapa is as a side dish cooked with olive oil and garlic. Properly, this basic preparation involves parboiling the greens before sautéing them. First, peel the stems as you would asparagus legs to ensure that they cook at the same rate as the tops. Next, parboil them for two minutes — just long enough to bring out their sweet overtones. Then drain them, saving some of the cooking water. From here, you’ll sauté them with good olive oil, garlic and (optionally) chili flakes, moistening them with a little of the water you have set aside. (You could also change up the recipe by substituting onion and bacon for the garlic and hot pepper, the way Southern cooks make collards, kale and other field greens.) Now you can eat them as is or use them as directed in the recipes that follow.
Rapini and potatoes
For a more complex side dish, combine your garlicky sautéed greens with other vegetables: sautéed cime di rapa alongside a puree of fava beans, or ‘ncapriata, is food of legend in Puglia, brought together with the magic of high-quality olive oil. Chickpeas or white beans also make delicious and nutritious purees for the greens. Probably one of the happiest vegetarian marriages is between rapini and richly flavored potatoes such as Yellow Finns, Yukon Golds or fingerlings. I like chef Viola Buitoni’s way of tossing her sautéed greens with crisply fried tubers, an Umbrian-style dish she calls rapi e patate. If the greens are the feisty part of the couple, the potatoes are the sweet-tempered half.
Not just a side dish
In Puglia, it is common to cook the greens simultaneously with pasta in the same pot and, after draining, tossing them quickly together in olive oil flavored with garlic. Per the Italian tradition whereby meat is a second course, sausages might follow; but for a one-dish variation, I sometimes add warmed, crushed anise seeds and crumbled sausage to the pasta and greens. And there are so many other ways to dish out rapini and pasta. For instance, you can toss your garlicky sautéed greens together with diced bacon, chickpeas and just-cooked short pasta in a wide skillet; I like to use whole-wheat gemelli (“twins”) or penne imported from Italy. Be sure to save some of the hot pasta cooking water; combined with the olive oil and juices from the prepared rapini, it forms a sauce. Pass a cruet of your best olive oil at the table for finishing.
Rapini and seafood
Or consider seafood. The Venetians have a particular fondness for the charms of bitter ingredients, including cime di rapa (to use their term); surrounded by water as they are, they often combine the vegetables they cultivate on the lagoon islands with their Adriatic catch. Here is a heavenly dish I ate in a trattoria some years ago on the little island of Burano. It was originally made with fresh tagiolini and a local species of prawn called cannocchie, but it is just as good with linguine and shrimp (or other types of fresh seafood, such as clams or scallops). Start by parboiling your rapini (save the cooking water) and sautéeing the shrimp in fragrant olive oil with garlic and red pepper in a skillet wide enough to accommodate the pasta later. As soon as the shellfish is lightly colored, add dry white wine and let simmer gently for a minute or two, until the alcohol evaporates. Finally, toss in the rapini, cover the pan and turn off the heat. In the meantime, cook the linguine in the reserved cooking water. Drain, again reserving a little of the water, and add the pasta to the skillet. Toss the ingredients together gently, moistening them with a little pasta water if necessary.
When bitter is sweet: An Asian spin
Author Jennifer McLagan has devoted an entire book to explaining why a taste for bitterness is the hallmark of discerning cooks and educated eaters. “Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity,” she writes in “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes.” I rather like the gentle Chinese way of describing the yin-yang perfection achieved when balancing bitter, salty or sour flavors (yin) with sweet and spicy ones (yang).
“We love bitter melon and flowering mustard greens and things like that,” says Hong Kong-born American chef Rosa Ross, author of “Beyond Bok Choy: A Cook’s Guide to Asian Vegetables” and other Chinese cookbooks. So, for example, in the original Chinese version of the dish Americans known as beef with broccoli, the bitter green called gai lan must be used — but “when I can’t find it here, I substitute Italian bitter broccoli,” Ross says.
Pizzas and pockets
Many pizzerias offer pies spread with vegetables — but they can be more alluring to the eye than they are tasty. A pizza topped with rapini, sausage and tangy cheese is a different, flavor-packed story. To make it, start by preparing your own dough; while it rises, parboil and sauté the greens per our basic recipe and, separately, sauté some crumbled sausage. Spread them both over the dough before baking; scatter cheese on top only in the last few minutes of baking to prevent it from burning. (Mozzarella is too bland in this case, so best to use a young, melting sheep’s cheese or soft Asiago fresco.) You can use the same ingredients as filling for calzones.
On a similar theme, last spring I created a new interpretation of the traditional torta pasqualina (“Easter pie”), a savory pastry made of strudel-like dough filled with spring greens such as chard or spinach. Once again, I used an American-style pie crust because I love its structure and crumb — and I also substituted rapini in the filling, mixing them with egg and freshly grated Parmigiano to yield astonishingly good results. They have so much flavor that no additional ingredients are needed, save salt and pepper. Along with a side dish or two, this pie is substantial enough for a dinner; it can also be cut into smaller servings for an appetizer. I’ve been known to improvise with good frozen puff pastry as well, using the same filling to make small hand pies.
Purees and pesto
We are nearly there, dear reader, but how can we overlook transforming these mighty greens into a purée for eating as is or making into a sauce? If you will first peel the skin from the stalks, you will prevent its fibrous texture from getting in the way of a silky creamed side dish or a velvety pesto. Then cut the stalks into several pieces to make them easier to work with and boil them, along with the leaves and buds, for at least seven minutes. Be sure to drain the greens well before pureeing them in a food processor with a little softened butter or good olive oil. You can eat them just as they are, creamy and hot, seasoned with another dab of butter or dribble of olive oil, plus a touch of coarse sea salt — they’re as good as creamed spinach, even without the roux.
Or, for a gorgeous and delicious alternative to the ubiquitous basil pesto, blend the purée with a touch of garlic; grated, aged sheep’s cheese or Parmigiano; and a little olive oil — because the cooked stems are full-bodied and naturally creamy, you’ll find it unnecessary to use as much oil as many pestos call for. You can also include pine nuts or almonds if you’d like. Like its basil counterpart, rapini pesto should accompany pasta cuts sturdy enough to carry it — linguine, bucatini, medium macaroni, potato gnocchi — or you can stir it into minestrone.
Back to the beginning
It’s only too well-known that a preponderance of American children and adults alike hate vegetables — a fact that people in other parts of the temperate world find puzzling, especially as plants are the very stuff that humans most need for proper nourishment. I could write a book exploring the reasons for this, but consider just one for a moment. Although the theory that children need bland foods until they are old enough to handle more intense flavors is bandied about in credulous circles, experts tell us that the taste for particular foods is developed in infancy. The fare we are fed as children — whether it is good or not — is what we crave as adults. Pastina (“miniature pasta”) with butter is an Italian baby’s first solid food, revisited in adulthood whenever comfort food is in order. When my children were babies, I stirred rapini puree and butter into pastina for them, and they loved it. (Like any pasta, pastina tastes best served piping hot immediately after cooking — but naturally, it should be cooled down to warm for babies.) This is an ideal way to develop an infant’s taste for these miraculously healthful greens.
Main photo: Brassica rapa at the Palo del Colle market in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
Infusing vodka with fruit is perfect for summer and holiday entertaining. Colorful and easy to make, all you do is place the washed fruit into a clean glass jar, pour in the unflavored vodka, cover and store until the fruit has transferred its flavors to the vodka. The resulting infused spirit can be sipped by itself or used in a deliciously refreshing cocktail. That’s it. Wash, pour, cover, wait and enjoy.
Flavored vs. infused
You may have seen vodkas labeled as infused with lemons, oranges, cranberries, pomegranates and raspberries. In point of fact, they are actually flavored artificially. The taste of those vodkas ranges from passable to medicinal.
Creating your own flavors allows you to control the quality and the strength of the infusion. Using a farmers-market-fresh approach will bring a farm-to-table excellence to your cocktails.
How long to infuse?
Generally speaking, soft fruit needs less time to transfer its flavors. Strawberries for instance need only a few hours or a day at most. With quick infusions, taste frequently and strain out the fruit when you have the flavor you want. When the fruit is removed, the infusion stops.
With a firmer fruit such as cherries, infusion can take longer. To make the Italian liqueur limoncello, lemon peels remain in the vodka for several months. When making umeshu, Japanese plum wine made with green plums called ume, the plums take a year to complete the infusion process.
When making infusions, no need to use premium vodkas. The fruit so dominates the flavor, buying affordable vodka is definitely the way to go.
Infused vodkas can be used as the basis of any number of cocktails. Personally, I enjoy them over ice, neat or with a mix of soda water. Simpler is better. The result is deliciously refreshing, especially on a warm summer day.
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Buy good quality, unblemished cherries, preferably Bing cherries because they are fat and sweet. The cherries can be pitted, in which case they will give up their flavor more quickly. But over time the cherries will become less firm. I prefer to keep them whole so they can be served as an adult dessert.
Use glass jars, any size you have on hand. Wash the jars and tops in hot, soapy water and rinse well. Quart juice or canning jars work very well. Use the cherries separately as a dessert by themselves, with plain yogurt or as a topping on ice cream.
The infused vodka can be served cold as a shooter with a cherry as garnish or in a mixed cocktail of your choice. Leave the cherry whole or finely chop when using as a garnish.
Add more vodka when needed to keep the cherries covered. Keep refrigerated.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Infusion time: a week to a month
Yield: two quarts
3 pounds fresh cherries, preferably Bing, washed, pat dried, stems removed
1 quart unflavored vodka
1. Examine each cherry. Reserve for another use any that are blemished or over ripe.
2. Remove and discard any stems.
3. Place the whole cherries into the jars.
4. Fill with unflavored vodka.
5. Cap and place in the back of the refrigerator.
6. Serve cold. Pour the infused vodka into small glasses garnished with cherries (whole or finely chopped) from the jar.
7. Add vodka to keep the cherries covered. Refrigerate.
Umeshu or Japanese Plum Wine
Although frequently called plum wine, ume is actually more of a apricot and umeshu is a liqueur. Available in Japanese and Korean markets, ume are also sold in Middle Eastern grocery stores. Armenians and Iranians eat the unripened plums raw but do not use them to prepare a liquor. In Asia, ume are also eaten preserved in salt and called umebsoshi in Japan.
Sold at a premium price because of the short growing season in the spring, only use green, unripe fruit. Ripe ume should not be used.
Mention umeshu to someone from Japan and invariably they will smile
Traditionally umeshu is made by grandmothers. In the spring when the plums appear in the markets, dull green and hard as rocks, the grandmothers buy up all they can find, place them in a large jar, add rock sugar and shōchū (similar in taste to vodka). The jar is placed under the sink and everyone waits a year until the plums soften and the shōchū has mellowed.
After a year in their sweetened, alcoholic bath, the ume can be eaten. I like to include them in the cocktail, either whole or cut off the pit, chopped up and added as a flavor garnish that can be eaten with a small spoon.
Only use unblemished, unripe fruit.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Infusion time: one year
Yield: 2 quarts umeshu, 2 quarts macerated umeIngredients
2 pounds ume or green plums, washed, stems removed
1 pound Japanese rock sugar
1.75 ml unflavored vodka
1. Wash well a gallon glass jar.
2. Place the ume into the jar.
3. Add the rock sugar.
4. Pour in the vodka. Stir well.
6. Place in a dark, cool area where the jar will be undisturbed for a year.
7. Serve ice cold with macerated ume whole or chopped up as garnish.
Top photo: Bing cherry-infused vodka in quart jars. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt