Articles in Tradition

Tonkatsu kare, or pork cutlet with curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

After several days in Japan, every foreign traveler notices that the Japanese love kare-raisu or curry rice as much as they do sushi and ramen. This dish of an aromatic but not very spicy curry sauce served with rice and protein can be found throughout the country, from the largest cities to the smallest remote mountain villages. There are entire restaurants specializing in kare-raisu, small family-run operations and large restaurant chains. The strange story of how this distinctive dish came to be a Japanese favorite starts with the British, their navy, and a Japanese physician’s observations on malnutrition.

After Japan emerged from centuries of isolation with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese government decided to model its newly developing navy after all aspects of the British navy, including the training of its officers and sailors. Around the same time, Japanese doctor Kanehiro Takaki, who had studied at an English medical school, was appointed as a navy physician. Takaki’s mission was to conquer the mysterious disease beriberi, which was very common among Japanese naval officers and seamen.

During his stay in England, Takaki did not see many cases of beriberi in the British navy. And he noted that the British sailors’ protein-rich diet that also included wheat bread — foods rich in vitamin B, which we now know is required to prevent beriberi — was very different from Japanese sailors’ simple diet of fish, vegetables and rice. He concluded that malnutrition was the cause of the beriberi epidemic and that the addition of such proteins to the diet could solve the beriberi problem in the Japanese navy. Takaki returned to Japan and worked to persuade the navy that it should adopt a Western diet containing protein for the sailors. Nutritious, filling and easy to make in a single pot, kare-raisu was perfect for the navy kitchen and was soon adopted by all branches of the navy. It became the custom in the navy to serve kare-raisu at the end of each week.

Also in that period, great changes were occurring on the Japanese culinary scene. The ban on meat eating that had been imposed on the commoner population was finally lifted. New ingredients such as butter and milk were introduced to the Japanese kitchen. The Emperor himself promoted Western-style meals, with the hope of building a stronger and taller Japanese population. Under these conditions, new Western-style dishes, collectively called yoshoku, were born, and some of these new creations were adopted by the navy kitchen. Kare-raisu, directly inspired by the curry-spiced stew dish served in the British navy, was one. This is how curry rice came to Japan from India by way of the British navy.

Here is an early kare-raisu recipe published in 1906 from the “Kaigun Kappo Jutsu Sankoshoor Navy Cooking Technique Reference Cookbook.

1. Cut meat, carrots, onions and potato into cubes.

2. Heat beef fat in a stock pot and cook flour.

3. Add curry powder, stock, meat and vegetables, and cook over low heat.

4. Add salt to taste.

5. Serve the curry sauce over steamed rice with pickled vegetables.

It is not at all different from the recipe in general use today.

Japanese curry with vegetables

Vegetables with rice and curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

In Tokyo, kare-raisu was first served to the public at high-class, white-tablecloth restaurants. Diners often dressed in Western attire and, wanting to be seen as modern, ate their curry with knives, forks and spoons, not the usual chopsticks. It is recorded that in 1877, Tokyo Fugetsu-do, a Western-style restaurant, served kare-raisu and its price was 8 sen (8 cents).

A few decades later, a different style curry was born in Tokyo. This new curry dish came directly from India by a rather serendipitous route. Ras Bihari Bose, an Indian activist, fled to Japan in 1915 when his plan with colleagues to overthrow the British Raj failed. But Japan was part of an Anglo-Japan Alliance, and Bose was not safe. Luckily, he fell under the protection of Aizo Soma, a businessman known for his benevolent activities. Soma owned and operated Nakamuraya, a store in Tokyo that produced newly introduced bread products along with the traditional Japanese sweets. Bose tasted Japanese kare-raisu while he was in hiding under Soma’s protection, but criticized it as “not at all authentic.” He proceeded to help Soma develop a more authentic Indian curry recipe. The result, Indo-kare, was introduced to Soma’s customers in 1927 at his new café-restaurant, which still exists.

Today kare-raisu and Indo-kare share the same popularity in Japan. My favorite kare-raisu is, of course, my mother’s curry. Her version is in between the European and Indian styles of curry. Beautifully caramelized onion with commercially prepared S&B Curry Powder and some flour in oil was cooked with carrot, potato, apple in chicken stock for more than four hours. As the sauce cooks, she checks the flavor several times and adds seasonings such as salt, sugar and shoyu (soy sauce). I followed my mother each step, tasted it as the curry cooked down and learned the very best flavor, texture and color in the prepared dishes. The end result was a velvety, brown, lightly thickened, aromatic sauce. Below is my recent kare-raisu recipe, inspired my shrimp curry recipe in my book  “The Japanese Kitchen.

Hiroko's Chicken Curry

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup canola oil
  • Half medium white onion, chopped in food processor
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, chopped fine in food processor
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped fine in food processor
  • 2 tablespoons Japanese S&B curry powder or Madras curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • About 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
  • 2½ cups chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons Tamari soy sauce
  • Sea salt
  • About ¼ cup apricot jam
  • About 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 2 chicken thighs and legs, skin attached, cut into 6 to 7 pieces
  • Half lemon
  • Cooked rice (short-, medium- or long-grain rice)

Directions

  1. Cook the onion in heated oil until it is lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Add the ginger and garlic and cook 1 minute more.
  2. Add the curry powder, turmeric and flour and cook until it is smooth. Add 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add an additional 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add the remaining ½ cup of the stock and stir with a whisk. Add the tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, tamari, sea salt, apricot jam and light brown sugar.
  3. Cook the curry sauce about 1½ hours -- longer is better. When the sauce is cooked halfway, squeeze the lemon half into the curry sauce and throw the used lemon into the sauce.
  4. Heat a little oil in the skillet and brown the chicken pieces on both sides.
  5. Transfer the chicken pieces to the curry pot. Cook the chicken in the sauce for 20 to 30 minutes over very low heat, covered.
  6. Serve the curry over hot, cooked rice.

Main photo: Tonkatsu kare, or pork cutlet with curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo 

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Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Consuming whole grains is making us healthier eaters. Take rice, which since ancient times has been one of the most popular grains eaten around the world, particularly in Asia.

Many Japanese  people, including myself, are making the switch from white rice to brown rice, opting for unmilled or partially milled. Brown has become the new white — for its purity, if you will.

The brown part, the bran and the germ of the grain, contains all the good stuff — protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Besides its nutritional value, brown rice is better than white rice because it keeps you full for a long time and it takes longer to digest compared with white rice. This is because white rice is mainly starch, which turns into sugar when it goes into your digestive system. In fact, Japanese people are dieting on brown rice to lose weight and detox.

It helps to know how to cook brown rice to ensure optimum flavor and texture — nutty, sticky, aromatic and sweet. What I look for in my brown rice is good moisture and stickiness, but not mushiness. I also want my rice to be flavorful in its natural state and tasty even at room temperature.

What is the best way to achieve this perfect balance for rice? Japanese people will give you a variety of answers, but many cooks are still searching for the best method. After all, we have been spoiled eating white rice.

You need to know that it takes a little longer to cook brown rice because it has another layer of skin. The idea is to soften it. Basically, all it takes to cook brown rice is water and a little salt. I don’t use any oil or butter when cooking rice as Western cooks do, but that’s optional. The main question is the vessel in which the brown rice is cooked. You are looking at about an hour to cook rice from prepping to done, no matter what you use. Here are several options to consider.

Pressure cooker

I love cooking brown rice with a pressure cooker. Many brown rice aficionados swear by it. The rice comes out nutty, sticky, sweet and shiny — all the qualities I am looking for.

Cooking it in a pressure cooker does not require soaking, and it doesn’t take too much water to cook the rice. You’ll want a ratio of about 1-to-1.5 rice-to-water. While cooking, you’ll have to keep an eye on the pressure cooker while the pressure is building and you must handle the pressure cooker with care, so you don’t burn yourself. These tasks may be challenging for some cooks. Also, each pressure cooker works slightly differently, so you need to follow your manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

Using a pressure cooker is faster than other methods as well, about five minutes to prep the rice and 35 minutes to cook it, including the steaming.

Donabe clay pot

The donabe — a Japanese clay pot — has been used in Japan to cook rice and other dishes since ancient times. Sitting around the wood-burning stove waiting for the rice to cook in the donabe was one of my favorite childhood pastimes with my grandmother.

Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

The grains love the even heat of the clay pot — the individual grains literally stand up when rice is cooked in a donabe. The donabe method is easier than you may think, but I know of two American friends who broke their donabes before they even cooked a grain of rice in them. A donabe needs to be seasoned properly, similar to using a tagine.

The donabe method for cooking rice is straightforward: The rice is soaked overnight in the pot with the measured water. The water-to-rice ratio is about 1-to-2. The rice is cooked to a boil over medium high heat for 30 to 35 minutes. The lid must be closed, and no peeking is allowed during cooking. Then, the heat is turned off and the rice rests for another 30 to 40 minutes. Still, no peeking until the timer goes off.

This method will give you a nutty, aromatic rice with good texture. Cooking brown rice in a donabe pot is a slow process, but the method is pleasing to the eye and palate. A good source for donabe pots is Toiro Kitchen.

Electric rice cooker — the no-brainer method

Rice cookers were invented in the 1950s in Japan. They had a life-changing effect on Japanese cooks like my mother and grandmother because they allowed them to walk away from the pot.

The rice cooks rather perfectly each time, so long as you allow it to soak beforehand and hit the water-to-rice ratio right. In a rice cooker, it can range between 1-to-1 and 1-to-1.2. The rule of thumb is to allow at least 20 minutes for soaking.

In recent years, rice cooker companies have come up with more advanced devices that look and think like robots. Some rice cookers come with a cast iron or clay inner cooker — ultra-modern technology enveloping old-fashioned equipment. They come with timers and various cooking settings for everything from porridge to sushi rice to brown rice. Some can even be used to bake bread. Costs can range from $150 to $800.

My Tiger rice cooker comes with a load of fancy features, but I use only the buttons for basic rice and brown rice. It’s a reliable machine. I should explore the other buttons. You can also buy rice cookers made in China that cost less than $30 but still cook a decent bowl of rice. You can find them at Target and Costco, among other retailers.

Stove or oven method

The simplest way to cook brown rice is on the stove top or in the oven. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Le Creuset and Lodge make Dutch oven pots with a lid that you can place in the oven.

Baked brown rice comes out slightly moister and stickier than the stove top method. Here are the recipes for both, if you want to see which you prefer. Just like all the other rice recipes, no peeking is allowed while steaming the rice.

Stove Top Brown Rice

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 60 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice

2¾ cups of water

¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)

Directions

1. Combine rice, water and salt in a heavy pot and bring to a boil.

2. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook for 45 minutes.

3. Remove from heat with the lid on and let stand for 10 minutes to allow for further steaming.

4. Fluff with a rice paddle or fork. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls (this portion makes 4 onigiris) and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.

Baked Brown Rice

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 60 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2½ cups water

1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice

¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)

Directions

1. Bring water to a boil and preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the brown rice in an 8-inch square dish or a 7½-inch-by-2¾-inch Le Creuset pan baking dish.

2. Pour boiling water over the rice, cover tightly with aluminum foil and put it in the oven to bake for 45 minutes. Do not peek.

3. Remove from oven, toss the rice with a fork or rice paddle, put the cover back on and let the rice stand for 10 minutes.

4. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.

Main photo: Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

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Josefina Santacruz cooks Asian food in Mexico City. Credit: Peter Norman

Chef Josefina Santacruz loves more than anything to eat. With an avid interest in Mexico’s traditional cooking, what she likes best is “street” or common, casual food. “I love garnachas, sopes, tacos — above all I like anything as long as it’s good, clean and high quality,” she says.

While she cooks for a living, she considers herself a professional eater. A capitalina — born in Mexico City — Santacruz studied at the prestigious CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked kitchens at home and abroad, notably as executive chef at New York’s Pámpano. She also has hosted Spanish-language television cooking programs.

Maintaining an avid interest in Mexico’s traditional cooking, she is a vocal proponent and aficionado of street food. Currently she runs the kitchen at Sesame, located in Mexico City’s fashionable Roma neighborhood. Sesame’s eclectic menu features simple street food-style items from Asia. Classic dishes such as pho and siu mai are neither toyed with nor deconstructed, just artfully and lovingly reproduced. It is a kitchen without precedent in previously Asian-food-starved Mexico. We sat for a chat out on the sidewalk terrace one quiet, breezy afternoon, surrounded by turn-of-the-century mansions and passers-by walking their dogs or returning from a yoga class at the nearby Buddhist center. A far cry from the urban chaos people associate with the world’s fourth-largest metropolis. Santacruz doesn’t see Mexican and Asian cuisines as all that different as our conversation reflected.

With a background in Mexican and classic European cooking, and a strong political interest in our traditions, how and why did you get into Asian cooking?

Well, I went to CIA and studied classic European techniques and traditions. But I always loved my national cuisine and missed it when I lived in New York. Being in New York and London, I discovered Asian food — I was especially taken with Thai and Indian. And I took a class at CIA in Asian techniques. Then after traveling to Asia, I realized that its food has many similarities to Mexican cooking, most importantly that the best food is found on the street and is cheap. That’s something I really believe about our cuisine!

How is what you cook related to traditional Mexican cuisine?

So many ingredients used are in common, like cilantro, chilies, ginger, many spices, fruits. It’s the way of combining them that makes things taste different.

What are your favorite dishes at Sesame?

Ay, ay, ay! That’s like asking which is your favorite child! I do love the dumplings, the lettuce “tacos” of beef, and a dish I invented that’s kale with tofu. Mostly I try to reproduce typical street food that we don’t have here in Mexico as “authentically” as possible, that is, true to how they are done in their countries.

People here are only just learning about Asian food that isn’t sushi or American/Chinese. And they’re open to it. I’ve been to India, Cambodia, Vietnam and China and am planning to go to Thailand this year, but I’ve had amazing Thai food in London and New York.

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Gyoza, a type of pot sticker, at Sesame restaurant. Credit: Peter Norman

What is your latest ingredient obsession? 

I think it must be kaffir lime. It’s the queen of herbs, so unique and perfumy! And something we don’t know here. Once again, in Mexico we use many unique varieties of citrus including lime and orange leaves, so the idea of using leaves to flavor sauces is similar to our traditions.

Where do you like to eat when you’re not working?

On the street! Without a doubt, it’s street food. I don’t eat Asian, nor, for the most part, in fancy places. I love Mexican street food — it’s the best.

What’s your ideal meal?

You mean like your ideal last meal? Well, it wouldn’t be caviar or foie gras or any of that. Maybe some amazing quesadillas. Definitely a bunch of small plates to share. I like the idea of tasting many unusual flavors.

What’s the most memorable meal of your life?

I would say the first time in my life I walked out of a restaurant and thought “Oh, my God, if I die now I will go happy!” was at Daniel in New York. I had eaten an amazing risotto with saffron and lobster. That was definitely it.

Where do you see the restaurant scene headed here in Mexico City?

It’s getting much better. When I was a kid, it was mediocre Italian, French or Spanish food. There were hardly even any nice Mexican places! Now, there is much more variety, and more important, the chefs are finally recognizing the incredible riches we have as far as local ingredients, and taking advantage of them. Also, although a few more pretentious restaurants are more concerned with the “look” than with taste, we’re returning to the idea that eating is to enjoy, it’s about pleasure. There are so many new places opening up that there’s fierce competition amongst them, which is a good thing.

And in Mexico in general?

Although the best restaurants were always in Mexico City — we are, after all, the center of everything commercial, economic, cultural — it’s great to see all these great “chef” places happening in the provinces. Monterrey, Guadalajara, Puebla, Mérida, Oaxaca, Tijuana — they all have very good restaurants, often celebrating their local regional cuisines. This is a great thing; it makes me happy.

And what are your life plans?

Ha, to keep cooking! I’m involved in a new place nearby called Barra Criolla. And I’d love to have a place that serves small plates of interesting things. I don’t know, couscous, dumplings, like “Around the World in 80 Days” kind of cooking. I don’t do fusion: To “fuse” two or more cuisines well you have to master all of them. I don’t pretend to do that. What I do do is interpret. Of course, no matter how traditional the recipe for a dish I make is, it’s going to be my interpretation of it that I end up with. I want people here in Mexico to be able to taste foods from other countries and have the experience you would have if you were there. That’s my dream.

Main photo: Josefina Santacruz cooks Asian food in Mexico City. Credit: Peter Norman

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Meng Yang of China’s Fuijan Chunlun Tea Group presents a traditional tea pour at the 12th annual World Tea Expo. Credit: © Seth Joel

In an annual rite, tea professionals from around the globe gather each year at the World Tea Expo to unveil new products, attend workshops and network with their peers. With the United States now the second largest tea importer, this year’s show was held in Long Beach, Calif., attracting an estimated 200 exhibitors and 4,000 buyers.

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At World Flavorz Spice & Tea Company's booth, the aroma of rose petal, lavender, marigold, cornflower, apple and papaya was intoxicating. Credit: © Seth Joel

As people sifted through bins of loose tea, aromas filled the air at the expo. Like wine connoisseurs, they had their own jargon — such as “dirty socks” and “swamp” to describe the blends. I followed my nose to the World Flavorz Spice & Tea Company booth. The Malibu-based wholesaler specializes in teas that blend notes of fruit with floral fragrances. With names like Green Tea Lavender Rose and Island Paradise it’s easy to imagine why some call tea “the new black.”

Of course, not everything was new. Few things are more artistic — or traditional — than the Chinese tea ceremony. Meng Yang of China’s Fujian Chunlun Tea Group brewed a delicate green tea using the Chaou method. It uses cooler water, which helps maintain the tea’s integrity for tastings when viewing and sniffing are important.

Back amid the vendor hubbub, wholesalers showed off sexy new brew bottles, traditional clay teapots, single pot drippers, digital gooseneck kettles, infusion tea pitchers, bag-less tea and disposable tea infusers. The goodies went on and on. You may see some of them the next time you visit a local tea house. While you’re there, remember to use words like dirty socks and swamp.

Main photo: Meng Yang of China’s Fujian Chunlun Tea Group presents a traditional tea pour at  the 12th annual World Tea Expo. Credit: © Seth Joel

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Cheese at Neal's Yard Dairy. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Back in the late 1970s, the cheese industry was just that: a commodity-style big agriculture business. Over the past 40 years, however, an offshoot of wholesale cheese manufacturing began to bloom, giving birth to the robust artisan cheese movement we know today. One little shop in London is, in part, responsible for this transformation.

Neal’s Yard Dairy, originally tucked into a charming courtyard in Covent Garden, is widely recognized as one of the finest purveyors of farmstead and artisan cheeses in the world, but its path to getting there started in an unassuming storefront, selling bulk cheeses of unclear origin.

Cheese shop seeks out handmade cheeses

In 1979, recent food science graduate Randolph Hodgson stumbled upon a job in Neal’s Yard Dairy’s fledgling London cheese shop. The dairy made several fresh cheeses as well as crème fraiche and Greek-style yogurt. Hodgson procured additional cheeses from a wholesaler to round out its offerings but found he knew very little about their sources. This made them difficult to sell in the method that the shop employed — offering detailed tastings to customers.

A farmstead cheese called Devon Garland arrived one day from Hilary Charnley, which was intriguing to Hodgson because now he could put a cheese with a cheesemaker. He went to the farm to learn more, and Charnley suggested other local cheesemakers to visit in the area. Suddenly the door opened up to new opportunities for both Neal’s Yard and farmstead cheeses from the British Isles. He came back laden with cheeses from the Devon countryside and, in the process, learned more about how cheese is made, aged and handled.

From there, Neal’s Yard Dairy grew to include more handmade cheeses from the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the backrooms and bowels of the store became areas for maturing and storing the cheeses. Each cheese was prominently labeled with the name of the cheesemaker and where it was from. Knowledgeable cheese mongers waited on each customer, finding out what they liked and giving them tastes of whatever they wanted to try.

Because the cheeses are properly pampered, the freshness and flavor is unparalleled. “Neal’s Yard Dairy has played a critical role in supporting and promoting fine British cheese,” cheese expert and food writer Janet Fletcher said. “I think of it as a highly reliable brand. Randolph Hodgson has been a tireless advocate for traditional methods and quality, and his influence has been enormous. Montgomery’s Cheddar, Colston Bassett Stilton, Lincolnshire Poacher, Duckett’s Caerphilly … a lot of these classic British cheeses would not be known in the U.S. if not for NYD.”

But Hodgson did far more than just find great cheese made down on the farm. Neal’s Yard Dairy was, and still is, committed to preserving and promoting traditional cheeses as well as improving the public’s awareness and appreciation of them. The goal has always been to create a market for these heritage cheeses and support a livelihood for the people who make them. And it is precisely this model that encouraged others to jump into the artisan cheese business — making, selling or both.

Sue Conley and Peggy Smith from Northern California’s Cowgirl Creamery spent time at Neal’s Yard before they opened their operation. In fact, the first time they actually made cheese was at the dairy. It was 1995, during a visit to learn about all the facets of the business: cheesemaking, retail, aging and wholesale.

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Cheeses at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. Credit: Brooke Jackson

“A light went on for us during that trip,” they write in their recent book “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.” “We looked at each other and said, ‘We could do that too — we can find cheesemakers in California and create a venue where their products can be sold!’ ”

With the increased focus on slow food and the diversification of the dairy industry in many countries because of the low cost of milk, more people are making cheese than ever before. Twenty years ago, the U.S. had about 75 artisan cheesemakers; now they number in the hundreds. Likewise in the British Isles, where a massive artisan and farmstead cheese revival began in the latter half of the 20th century with more creative dairy people hopping on the bandwagon each year.

Neal’s Yard Dairy has encouraged many of these folks and helped them learn their craft. That influence has spread across the pond, according to Fletcher. “The cheesemakers that NYD nurtured have certainly inspired our [U.S.] cheesemakers,” she said.

Cheese lovers visiting England must make a pilgrimage to Neal’s Yard Dairy, a temple to all things that really matter about cheese. Stepping into the shop near Covent Garden (a second store is located at the Borough Market), the unmistakable barnyard aroma of cheese surrounds you, and wheels and wedges of the stuff create turrets and towers on every available surface. Cheese mongers slice tastes of anything you take a fancy to, and the quality and freshness rate among the top taste experiences for any cheeses sampled. The Colston Bassett Stilton, a cheese I’ve eaten often, had a cleaner flavor and creamier texture than I’d ever encountered, and several cheddars sampled were superb.

Although it may be foolhardy to assume Neal’s Yard Dairy is responsible for the explosion in artisan and farmstead cheesemakers in Britain and the U.S., its continued influence on this burgeoning business is undeniable.

Main photo: Cheese at Neal’s Yard Dairy. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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Spaghetti with Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Forty years ago, I took my young family to live in the hill country between Tuscany and Umbria, Italy. Our mountain neighbors were all self-sufficient farmers, raising almost their entire food supply themselves. They grew vegetables and beans, harvested chestnuts and mushrooms, raised pigs, chickens, rabbits and sometimes sheep. Only salt and pepper for curing pork, coffee and infrequently a piece of chocolate came from a shop in town, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.

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Of course they made wine — thin, sour stuff — and pressed their olives to make musty, fusty oil (pork fat was much more to their liking). And they grew their own wheat, threshed it and had it ground into flour for the unsalted bread that was then and still is today a Tuscan staple without which no meal is complete. Sometimes, in fact, bread was the meal, maybe with a thin slice of prosciutto or guanciale from the family pig or a dribble of rancid oil to add flavor.

So wheat was the primary crop, the survival mechanism on which everything else depended, and the annual harvest in July was a moment fraught with anxiety that erupted into celebration once the anxiety was relieved. Our valley had one threshing machine, and it went from farm to farm, each day fetching up in a different place, and the farm folk followed it. When it arrived at our neighbors’ farm, people descended for miles around to help with the hot, dirty, tiring work of the harvest and take part in the feast and dancing that followed.

I think about all this now because it is once again harvest time in the Mediterranean. The wheat harvest begins in North Africa in June, rolling north, across Anatolia, Italy, and Spain, as the tall stalks fall to the cutting blades. The landscape that was green a month earlier is bleached now with the color of ripening grain and then golden with the chaff left behind after the harvesters have come through. Our neighbors no longer grow their own wheat, but the harvest is still critical throughout Tuscany.

Durum wheat, the go-to choice for pasta

A lot of this wheat, especially in the hotter, drier parts to the south, is hard durum wheat (Triticum turgidum, var. durum), the venerable species used for so many traditional Mediterranean preparations, from bulgur (burghul) to tarhana to couscous to pasta. American cookbook writers used to claim durum semolina was difficult to work in the home, that you needed special heavy equipment to turn it into pasta. But in fact, throughout the south of Italy, especially in Puglia, hard durum wheat, as semola or semolina, is regularly used in home kitchens to make orecchiette and other traditional pastas. And the great breads of Altamura and Laterza get much of their character and their golden color from being made with locally grown durum wheat, using a slow-rising lievito madre (what we might call sourdough) and baked in a wood-fired oven.

Italian law requires all commercial pasta to be made from durum wheat, one reason why Italian pasta in general is of such high quality. The government is concerned with maintaining quality because Italians are world-champion pasta eaters — between 26 and 28 kilos (61.6 pounds) per capita annually depending on the study. And most of that is commercial or boxed pasta (called in Italian pasta secca).

A more useful distinction to keep in mind, however, is the one between industrial and artisanal pasta. The artisanal product is generally of much higher quality, and, like most artisanal things, costs more, a reflection of greater care in production. To qualify as artisanal, pasta must be made at consistently low temperatures (no higher than 122 degrees F) from start to finish, extruded through bronze dyes (producing a roughened surface) and dried slowly. Low temperatures keep the wheat from cooking, so it retains its pale color; the high temperatures and Teflon dyes of industrially produced pasta result in a golden yellow color and a sleek, plasticized surface.

Gragnano, a small city south of Naples, has been at least since the 18th century one of those places Italians cite for high-quality artisanal pasta. Why? Several historical reasons — access to excellent durum wheat through the port of Amalfi, just over the Lattari mountains on the Golfo di Salerno; clean, fresh water cascading from those same mountains to power the grist mills that ground the grain; and a constant flow of brisk breezes to dry the pasta, which once hung on rods in the streets of Gragnano until it was ready to ship to hungry Naples across the bay. Nowadays, Gragnano has a coveted Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) from the European Union, a certification that pasta with that seal has been made according to precise regulations.

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Threshed wheat. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Pastificio Faella is one of nine Gragnano producers that make IGT pasta. I spent some time recently in Gragnano with Pastificio Faella’s Sergio Cinque. As we toured the factory, Cinque described the various phases of drying and the importance of each one. “If it’s not done properly,” he said, “there’s a real risk of fermentation and that will result in pasta with an acid flavor.”

But it was the perfume of wheat that imbued the small factory with its warm, nutty, slightly dusty fragrance. To understand the high quality of artisanal pasta, Cinque suggested this test: Prepare equal quantities, say 100 grams, of ordinary commercial pasta and Pasta Faella. Bring two pots of water to a boil and add the pasta, one to each pot. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes and then measure.

You’ll find, he said, that the Faella pasta will expand notably in the water, while ordinary pasta will remain the same. That’s because under high-temperature drying, a crystallization — another word is plastification — takes place, and the pasta doesn’t absorb water at the same rate. What that means is that artisanal pasta is more easily digested and gives a greater sense of satiety with less of the actual food.

I left with a kilo package of Faella’s excellent spaghetti tucked under my arm. When I got home, I turned it into this pasta dish, a variation on one in my daughter Sara Jenkins’ lovely cookbook, “Olives and Oranges.”

Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 or 3 pints (1½ pounds to 2 pounds) mixed small tomatoes—cherry, grape and currant
  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • About 1 pound (500 grams) spaghetti, preferably IGT Gragnano
  • Handful of chopped fresh arugula, leaves only (discard tough stems)
  • ⅔ cup grated or shaved bottarga or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

  1. Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
  2. While the water is heating, add the oil to a large, heavy skillet and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot (but not smoking), add half the tomatoes, sprinkle them quickly with salt and cook, tossing the skillet, until the tomatoes start to wrinkle and collapse. Add the rest of the tomatoes and continue cooking and tossing for another 2 minutes. (Yes, some of the tomatoes will be more cooked than others—that’s the point.)
  3. Push the tomatoes to one side and add the garlic to the pan. As the garlic starts to soften, mix it in with the tomatoes, gently pressing the tomatoes to release some of their juices. When the sauce is thick, remove from the heat and add a pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Keep the sauce warm until the pasta is done.
  4. Add a big spoonful of salt to the pasta water and let it come to the boil again, then plunge in the pasta and give it a stir with a long-handled spoon. Cover the pot until the water returns to the boil, then remove the lid and let the pasta cook vigorously until done—about 10 minutes.
  5. Prepare a warm serving bowl by adding some pasta water to the bowl to heat it up, but don’t forget to tip the water out before you add the pasta to the bowl.
  6. Drain the pasta, transfer to the warm bowl and immediately toss with the warm tomato sauce, stirring in the arugula. Toss again, then sprinkle with the bottarga or cheese and serve immediately.

Notes

If possible, select from an array of little grape and cherry tomatoes, mixing them up for a colorful presentation. We like to serve this with grated bottarga (salted and dried fish roe) on top, but you could also serve it with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Main photo: Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Bruschetta with Umbrian olive oil. Credit: Sue Style

Little, landlocked Umbria is not the obvious choice for those looking to vacation in Italy. For many people, all roads lead to Rome. For others it’s the Amalfi Coast, or Tuscany, the Cinque Terre or even Puglia. But Umbria has many trump cards and plenty to recommend it, especially in summer. Here are five reasons to place the region high on your bucket list.

Because it’s not Tuscany, though it’s right next door

If you’re the kind to prefer the challenge of crab to the sweet simplicity of lobster, then you may be one to favor Umbria over its better-known neighbor. Umbria is Tuscany’s country cousin, gently rustic with a clutch of unshowy, medieval hilltop villages — think Montefalco, Spello and Bevagna — set in rolling green countryside and framed by swathes of silvery olive groves and holm oak forests. It has fewer busloads of tourists and more mindful travelers (like you and me).

To feast on summer truffles

Known locally as scorzoni – the name evokes their rough, almost warty peel (avere la scorza dura means “to be thick-skinned” — these fragrant tartufi are harvested by faithful truffle hounds between May and August. Summer truffles are not so crazily scented (nor as crazily priced) as their winter or white counterparts, but they still pack a seductive punch. Buy them fresh or put up in jars from any of the tiny Aladdin’s-cave delicatessens that are such a tempting feature of Umbria’s towns, packed with strings of sausages, red onions, peppers, hunks of local cheese, bags of pasta and other delights.

At La Vecchia Farmacia just through the Porta Vecchia leading into beautiful, earthquake-ravaged Nocera Umbra, la mamma does a mean antipastone (jumbo-sized antipasto) of local cured meats, melon, sharp sheep’s-milk cheese with crunchy honey and a succulent truffle omelet thrown in as a wild card, followed by strangozzi, robust ropes of typically Umbrian pasta showered with tartufi.

For the exciting wines from Umbria

Italy has a dizzying number of grape varieties, few of them household names and many barely known outside their immediate vicinity. Umbria has its fair share of these strictly local varieties, which are well worth seeking out.

Grechetto was used traditionally in white blends, but is increasingly made as a varietal. The resulting wine can be anything from pale straw colored to a deeper gold with citrus-like, peachy aromas and a good backbone because of its naturally high acidity.

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Summer truffles in a jar. Credit: Sue Style

With Trebbiano Spoletino, things get even more interesting. Not to be confused with boring old Trebbiano (aka Ugni Blanc) from anywhere else, the Spoletino variety gives honeyed, golden wines of distinctive character and a mind of their own. Traditionally in Umbria (and still today in some wineries), Spoletino vines were planted at the foot of mature trees, up which they clambered — they were known as vigne maritate, vines that are “married with” the trees.

The Umbrian red to look for is Sagrantino, distinguished and meaty with deep color, pronounced cherry and blackberry flavors and good tannins: a wine to have and to hold.

Taste a selection with a simple meal at Il Pinturicchio in Spello, whose owner, Mirko Trippa Buono, is a member of the Italian Sommeliers Association. Or for a lesson in what’s on the move in the Umbrian wine world, book a tasting at Arnaldo Caprai, a large (336 acre, 136 hectare) winery with a slick, state-of-the-art tasting parlor and wine shop outside Montefalco, where Marco Caprai has made it his business to explore and experiment with these age-old Umbrian varieties, especially Sagrantino, and bring them to their fullest expressive potential.

For a drop of Umbrian DOP olive oil

The region’s gorgeous, herbaceous extra virgin oil is pressed from Moraiolo, Frantoio and Leccino olives. The area between Assisi and Spoleto is regarded as one of the best sub-regions in the Umbria DOP (protected designation of origin), and you’ll find countless places dotted along the Strada dell’Olio (olive oil route) where you can taste and buy EVOO, ready for drizzling over your next batch of bruschetta.

Le Case Gialle above Bevagna and Marfuga in Campello di Clitunno are two of the top, prize-winning producers, both of them with an agriturismo (farmhouse bed and breakfast) attached. Also worth a visit is the Fondazione Lungarotti belonging to the eminent Lungarotti winemaking family in Torgiano, which includes both a Museum of Olives and Oil (MOO) and a Wine Museum (MUVIT).

For the spirituality

Most people flock to Assisi, but it can be quite a challenge to keep hold of the spiritual dimension there, surrounded as you inevitably are by the nervous chatter of umbrella-chasing tour groups. An early morning visit will spare you the worst of the crowds and give you a few quiet moments to enjoy the superb scenes from the life of St. Francis frescoed onto the walls of the Upper Church.

For an altogether different experience, seek out some of the smaller, out-of-the-way abbeys such as the 12th-century Abbazia di Sassovivo outside Foligno, famous for its Romanesque cloister of double columns decorated with marble and mosaic motifs, still a working monastery of the Piccoli Fratelli di Gesú and a haven of peace and tranquility. In the corner of the tiny garden stands a statue of the Virgin. Beside it a sign reads, in Italian, “This space set aside for private prayer,” and then — in English — “No picnic please!”

Main photo: Bruschetta with Umbrian olive oil. Credit: Sue Style

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Hüseyin Aksoy makes akide at the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Inside a weathered storefront surrounded by hardware shops, colorful gems gleam in the dim light — large jars full of hard candies flavored with sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon.

Proprietor Hakan Altanoğlu and his forefathers have been making and selling the Turkish candy called akide şekeri at this shop in Istanbul’s Fatih district since 1865, but the bite-size treat’s history goes back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The empire’s elite Janissary soldiers “presented the grand vizier, other dignitaries and their own officers with gifts of akide sweets as a symbol of their loyalty to sultan and state,” a tradition deriving from an alternate meaning of the candy’s name, writes Mary Işın in her book “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts.” Akide then became, as it remains today for many,”the sweet of choice” at circumcisions, weddings and the Şeker Bayram (literally, “Sugar Holiday”), the three-day festival that will mark the end of Ramadan this year from July 28 to 30.

In the early Ottoman days, the candy, whose name derived from the Syrian Arabic word (akîda) for “to knot” or “to thicken,” was made from grape juice, boiled down into a thick, malleable molasses. Today, the typical sweetener is refined sugar, and much akide is machine-manufactured, but a few traditional şekerci (Turkish candy-makers) continue to make it the same laborious way it’s been done for centuries.

Hüseyin Aksoy and another Turkish candy-maker roll and cut the akide.

Hüseyin Aksoy and another candy-maker roll and cut the akide. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Showing off a burn scar on his arm that he says dates back to the 1970s, longtime şekerci Hüseyin Aksoy stirs a wooden spoon through a copper pot of boiling water and sugar — with just a pinch of cream of tartar —in the kitchen of the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center (YESAM), occasionally sweeping the inside of the pot with a wooden brush to prevent burning. (This is also a good technique to use when making stews, notes YESAM coordinator Banu Özden.)

When the sugar mixture has reduced to his satisfaction, Aksoy carries the copper pot over to a spotless marble slab and pours its contents out onto the smooth surface to cool, periodically poking at the sticky edges and flipping them over with a spatula. With the candy still as hot as 70 degrees Celsius, he winces slightly as he folds in a small bowlful of flavoring — some lemon salt and lemon oil, ground to paste with a mortar and pestle; or perhaps some mastic resin.

Made from the gum of the mastic (mastiha) tree, the resin’s piney flavor is an acquired taste but one important to many Turkish desserts. Another traditional flavor that has, thankfully, gone out of fashion is musk, a secretion of the musk deer imported from Nepal and Tibet. One of the most popular varieties of akide in Ottoman times, musk, Işın writes, was “appreciated as much as a mark of wealth and power as for its fragrance.”

Back at YESAM, the real show starts. Aksoy takes the multicolored lump that has resulted from his folding and kneading, drapes it over a rounded metal bar, and then begins to pull the ends like taffy, tossing them back over the bar repeatedly until the candy gets thicker and its color transforms from glistening caramel speckled with white into a glorious opaque blonde hue.

“The more you do it, the more your hands and fingers get calloused to the heat,” he explains, laughing a bit as he admits that when he was learning the trade 45 years ago, he once dropped the hot candy during the pulling process. “The master şekerci‘s wife hit me with a broomstick for ruining the batch.”

Turkish candy akide comes in such flavors as sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon.

Akide ready to sell. It comes in such flavors as sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Next, Aksoy presses out a sheet of the newly blended mix, adds a layer of unflavored candy he’s kept in reserve, and rolls the two into a thick cylinder. Tugging at one end of the tube, he pulls out thin ropes, cuts them off with scissors and passes them to an assistant to roll into smooth dowels. The whole process must be done quickly, or the candy’s consistency becomes too hard to be useable. Taking a handful of the now-firm candy sticks, Aksoy taps them level on top of a square metal bar set above a bowl, then strikes them rapid-fire with one edge of his scissors to produce tiny cylinders of the finished akide, each with a golden roll of color inside.

Though each of the four to five 10-kilogram batches of akide that Aksoy makes every day yields more than 1,000 candies, a machine can turn out 2,500 kilos daily. He insists the taste and consistency of machine-made akide just isn’t the same as handmade, but şekerci like Aksoy and the Altanoğlu family are part of a dying breed.

“Young people aren’t learning this trade anymore; they don’t like the work, and there are other options for them now,” Aksoy says. “After us, there won’t be any more şekerci.”

Main photo: Hüseyin Aksoy makes akide at the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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