Articles in Travel

For a Fish and Chef gala at the Aqualux Hotel in Bardolino, Italy, Chub cooked three ways, with cucumber, watercress and creme fraiche, as served by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

At a time when sea stocks are widely under threat, savvy chefs are turning their attention to the gourmet potential offered by freshwater fish. And when the catch is from Lake Garda in this glorious region in the north of Italy, where the scent of Mediterranean citrus meets sweet Alpine meadows, it gives the food-loving traveler even more reason to visit a place whose classical beauty captivated German novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe among many others.

Popular holiday destination

Hotel Lido Palace, Riva del Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Hotel Lido Palace, Riva del Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Garda has long been a popular holiday destination for both the families of Verona, many of whom have elegant holiday villas strung out along the shore, and for northern Europeans coming south to seek tranquility in the sun, crystal clear air, and bracing mountain and water pursuits.

It’s a heady, romantic destination with a Grand European Tour history although today’s visitors are less likely to be found sedately sketching castle ruins and more likely to be jogging, playing golf at world-class courses, paragliding, diving, sailing or simply having a zen moment on the shore of Italy’s largest lake.

The food has accents from the three Italian regions that border the lake — the Veneto, Lombardy and Trentino — but the defining ingredients remain lemons, olive oil, wine and fish from the lake.

Fishing on Lake Garda

Char, pike and trout on sale in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Char, pike and trout on sale in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

For centuries, fishing was one of the mainstays of Gardenese life. From a peak of 700 fishermen earning their living from the lake in the 19th century, there are now only about 120. Although fish stocks are plentiful, some diners still need to be persuaded to try an alternative to the variety of fish that arrive from the nearby Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. Some small-scale fish farming also occurs: in the Trentino foothills of the Dolomites, the family-run Trota Oro farms trout, char and chub, which they also sell smoked and marinated.

Fish & Chef is an annual gastronomic festival of cookery shows and gourmet meals held in the early summer and designed to highlight the produce of the region. Michelin-starred hotels and restaurants participate in friendly competition and tickets to the gala dinners are quickly snapped up by enthusiastic locals and visitors alike.

It’s a recognition that increasingly, chefs from both Garda and the rest of Italy and Europe are exploring the exciting possibilities of cooking with environmentally friendly freshwater fish such as rainbow trout, pike, carp, perch, bleak, tench, char and freshwater sardines. If lucky, you may find some rare brown trout, although the fishing is subject to tight restrictions.

Fish & Chef competition

Serving char lightly smoked over cedar wood at the Hotel Regina Adelaide in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Serving char lightly smoked over cedar wood at the Hotel Regina Adelaide in Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

At this year’s festival, the sixth, Chef Marco Sacco of the two Michelin-star restaurant Piccolo Lago in Verbena created a stunning arrangement of sushi for the Fish & Chef gala dinner held at the lovely Hotel Regina Adelaide hotel in Garda. And at the Aqualux Hotel, Bardolino, pale, lean chub took a star turn served three ways with cucumber, watercress and crème fraiche at a dinner cooked by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star Restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany.

On a more quotidian level, nearly every trattoria and osteria serves a version of bigoli con sarde — rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil.

Everyman’s version of bigoli con sarde

Bigoli con sarde -- rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Bigoli con sarde — rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Ironically — and sadly — the most iconic product of Lake Garda no longer exists. Garda lemons were once famous throughout Europe for their alleged medicinal properties, acidity, thin skin, intense perfume and flavor, but the variety was lost when the last trees failed to survive a particularly cold winter in the 1980s. Even before then the writing was on the wall for the most northerly growing citrus region in Europe, an improbable industry created by a determination that has been called “a dogged madness.”

Lemons were brought to Garda by monks in the 13th century. They grew well in the Mediterranean-style microclimate and in the 17th century the construction of vast lemon houses orlimonaia” made this the most northern commercial lemon-growing region in Europe. The towering, terraced structures of wooden beams, stone pillars and glass sheets were designed to protect the fruit from winter frosts. Disease, competition from the south, some exceptionally cold weather and the discovery of synthetic citric acid, however, would later destroy the industry.

Lemons of Garda

Lemons growing in the renovated Limonaia del Castel, Limone, Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Lemons growing in the renovated Limonaia del Castel, Limone, Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The original variety of Garda lemon is also virtually extinct, grown only by a few private citrus enthusiasts. Most of the lemons sold in the region come from Sicily and southern Italy or are a modern hybrid, but the tradition of using lemons in conserves and limoncello lives on.

Thanks to the mild microclimate, Lake Garda is also the most northerly region in Europe to produce olive oil. The extra virgin is characteristically delicate and fruity, and is protected by the Garda DOP mark. “Molche,” the residue from olives after they have been pressed, is traditionally used in bread and cakes.

Olive oil cake

Torta di Molche, or olive oil cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Torta di Molche, or olive oil cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

One of the stellar olive oil labels in Garda, indeed in Italy, is the boutique olive oil farm of Ca’ Rainene. The award-winning range includes Garda Orientale, extracted from a blend of indigenous olives — Casaliva, Lecino and Pendolino — grown and pressed on their own land. Medium fruity, with perfectly balanced bitter and pungent components, it has a delicate almond note typical of the Garda cultivars. The farm also produces Drizzar, made solely with olives of that name: Fruity and complex, it is superb with fish, game and vegetables.

The hills north of Verona are the land of Valpolicella, but closer to Garda the classic wine to look out for is Custoza, a full-bodied white wine usually drunk young but that is starting to be appreciated when a little older. Bardolino is a light red wine and Chiaretto, the rosé version. There are 80 types of soil in the region that make for extremely “fresh” wines, perfect as an aperitif or to drink with fish.

The last word should go to Goethe: ” … I wish I could get my friends beside me to enjoy together the scenery that appears before me … the beautiful Lake Garda. …”

I’ll raise a glass of Custoza to that while I work out the Italian for “Gone fishing.”

The shores of Lake Garda

Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Lake Garda, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Main photo: For a Fish and Chef gala at the Aqualux Hotel in Bardolino, Italy, Chub cooked three ways, with cucumber, watercress and creme fraiche, as served by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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

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

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

Coffee as aphrodisiac

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

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

Voulez vous poulet avec moi ce soir?

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

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

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

Gourmandise and Gourmandine

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

Cafe French note on a pomme cocotte

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

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

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

Couture, Coco and Colette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

China Ranch is a thriving oasis of boutique date palms that began with the whimsical planting of an ornamental garden nearly a century ago. To the casual traveler driving north from Baker to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in California, it is nearly invisible; you must look out for the signs for the Old Spanish Trail and follow it into a steep canyon, through bare, rough hills and exhausted talc and gypsum mines. There, watered by a creek running south to the Amargosa River, is the improbable sight of 1,500 fruit-bearing trees.

China Ranch 100 years ago

In 1920, Vonola Modine moved with her husband from nearby Shoshone to the property then also known as The Chinaman’s Ranch after an industrious, possibly mythical Chinese rancher called Ah Foo. She wanted some trees to line their new roadway and ordered seeds from the date industry burgeoning near Mecca in the Coachella Valley. They arrived in a wooden box by rail. She had never seen a date palm nor tasted a date nor heard the old adage that the fruits “like their feet in water and their heads in fire.”

The Modines wound up selling China Ranch shortly after the palms were planted. For the next 50 years, successive owners’ attempts to establish hog, sheep and alfalfa farms all failed — even as the original date palms flourished into magnificent trees. In the 1970s, Vonola’s relatives by marriage, the Brown family, repurchased the land — and in 1989, Brian Brown, her grandnephew, realized he had the “water and fire” to create the perfect conditions for a viable date farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, began focusing all their efforts on developing and expanding the garden.

China Ranch today

The original seeds sent to China Ranch were brought to California by agricultural pioneers bearing offshoots from Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Baluchistan, Morocco and Egypt. But date palms grown from seeds never replicate the parent plant, so the trees in the original grove yield hybrid dates that are unique in the market. Brown has continued to reproduce these happy accidents, including the dark, moist Black Beauty; the sweet Gourmet; and the soft, caramel-colored China Ranch Hybrid. The Browns also introduced new date palms and now have 15 varieties such as Dayri, Halawy, Bahri, Hayany and Khadrawy growing on 25 acres. Their crop is in sharp contrast to that of the huge commercial enterprises, which tend only to produce the Medjools and Deglet Noors that your grandmother served at Christmas.

Brown works eight days a week: It is hard physical labor, from trimming the crowns, and battling 4-inch thorns to clearing the offshoots and pollinating the female trees by hand. And help is scarce in the harsh Death Valley environment. There are no palmeros, as the skilled workers who have enabled date production in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century are called, here. Some dates are harvested in the khalal stage, just before they ripen, and others at ripeness; the entire harvest period extends from August to February. The work during these six months can be punishing; in late summer, the temperature can soar to 120 F and the black flies bite through your clothing.

The fruit of family labor

Then the picked fruit must be sorted. Perfect specimens are for eating, while the funky-looking ones are for cooking, eventually macerated to produce a date paste used by bakers, raw-food chefs and upscale Las Vegas restaurants that value local sourcing. And thanks to the wild success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, home cooks are in hot pursuit of ingredients such as date molasses too. Specialty-food agents come to China Ranch in search of unusual dates to supply stores all over California, while employees at the ranch store make converts of casual visitors with cool, thick date shakes and date-nut bread baked daily from Bonnie Brown’s secret recipe. Bonnie also runs an eclectic retail shop and an online mail-order operation that ships gift boxes of fresh dates all over the country.

The farm has an unexpected sideline as well. The Dayri palm, originally from Egypt, puts out long, straight, symmetrical fronds that make perfect lulavs, which are used in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. For the past seven years, rabbis have come from as far as New York to select and cut some 300 of these fronds. Despite their inconsistent harvest and light yield, Dayris will always be grown here.

Little did Vonola Modine know that her ornamental trees would be an inspiration to Brian Brown nearly 70 years after she planted them. She returned to China Ranch in 1991 to see the glorious mature palms that now line the path leading to the Browns’ great adobe home — and you should see them, too. The setting is bizarre, but the dates are sublime.

Main photo: The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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Otramanera's fresh sardine fillets dressed in a fruity papaya salsa augmented with a cilantro purée and crowned with edible flowers. Credit: Copyright Nicolas Gilman

Fine dining in Cuba might sound like an oxymoron. For decades, wisdom has been that restaurants on the impoverished island were mediocre at best, and that a good meal was hard to find. This was true as recently as a couple of years ago. But, even before the island nation’s relations with the United States thawed, the gastronomic scene had been changing, and chefs have made huge strides in offering a wider range of quality restaurant options.

The Cuban government, in the desperate years after the Soviet Union pulled its support from the island, sanctioned the private ownership of small restaurants called paladares, which means “palate.” Situated in homes, these humble kitchens, limited to a few tables, provided simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. The scarcity of all but the most simple meats, rice and beans, and a strict policy that forbade the offering of seafood kept them from competing with government-owned establishments.

In 2012, however, the state relaxed the rules and paladares have moved up to the next level. While simple mom-and-pop places abound, a new crop of elegant venues for creative chef cooking have begun to challenge the island’s reputation for culinary blandness.

One of the first in this vein was La Guarida, located in the apartment in which the renowned film “Fresa y Chocolate” was filmed. Several dining rooms, filled with kitchy knickknacks and movie memorabilia bustle with locals and foreigners. The menu, which includes a small wine list, strives for international creativity but doesn’t always hit all the marks. Still, La Guarida opened to doors to wider possibilities.

Then Le Chansonnier arrived. Set in a late 19th-century mansion in Vedado, it was restored by chef and owner Héctor Higuera Martínez (who has since moved on to Atalier). The dazzling décor was decidedly postmodern. The small, astutely chosen menu featured duck, lamb and fish, all of whose sources were nearby and local by necessity. Patrons included government bigwigs, foreign visitors, journalists and a handful of locals with enough disposable income to afford the relatively steep prices.

Others followed in rapid succession. The ultra cool El Cocinero is perched on the roof of an extinct factory that houses a complex of galleries and boutiques. Casa Pilar oozes sophistication.

Doña Eutimia specializes in artfully prepared traditional dishes, as does Mamá Inés and Nao. O’Reilly 304 does home-style cooking in a laid-back boho setting, ’60s rock creating a funky and fun ambience.

Otramanera steps up dining in Havana

Most recently, in August of 2014, Otramanera, perhaps presenting the best cooking to date, was inaugurated. It’s set in a sleek ’50s ranch-style house, its chef trained in Catalonia.

But all of the chefs interviewed pointed out the daily uphill battle they face trying to keep stock of the most basic ingredients, as well as deal with less than expertly trained staff.

While perhaps it’s early to proclaim the birth of the “Nueva Cocina Cubana,” it seems clear that the dining scene in Cuba is in the midst of a revolution of its own.

Main photo: Otramanera’s dishes, prepared by chef Dayron Ávila, include fresh sardine fillets dressed in a fruity papaya salsa augmented with a cilantro purée and crowned with edible flowers. Credit: Copyright Nicolas Gilman

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A traditional breakfast at Anguilla Guest House includes coconut dumplings, fried salt cod and fresh avocado. Credit: Copyright Ramin Ganeshram

With winter still holding much of the country in its clutch, our thoughts wander to warmer climes — sandy beaches with picture-perfect palms swaying in the breeze. On this side of the world, nowhere answers that description better than the Caribbean islands.

And as thousands flee to the Caribbean for the heat and resort fun, culinary adventure tends to be low on the list. The sentiment is understandable. Except for a few islands noted particularly for their unique multiethnic, multi-ingredient styles of cuisine — here I’m thinking about Trinidad & Tobago, Puerto Rico, Cuba and French islands such as Guadeloupe — most visitors know island food only as the overpriced hotel fare that mimics mid-level American restaurant offerings.

So it was that on a recent visit to the tiny island of Anguilla in the Lesser Antilles that I was disappointed but not surprised to find what I thought was a lack of true, native food culture available to visitors. Not blessed with the abundance of produce or even seafood as many of its sister islands, Anguilla is most noted as a semi-private playground for the wealthy and perhaps the best historic example of the resort-type dining experience.

For Caribbean food in Anguilla, skip the resorts and hotels

As a food culture writer and a person of Caribbean descent, this wasn’t good enough. I set about trying to find hidden native food gems to which I could relate. I was fortunate to find some at the modest but lovely Anguilla Great House beach resort on Rendezvous Bay, an old-school West Indies-style hotel, where proprietor Will Fleming served me a traditional breakfast complete with fried salt fish, coconut dumplings and fresh avocado.

But it was in my larger search for truly Caribbean meals that I was surprised at what I found: a vibrant food culture in the most unexpected place, and one that melded a modern culinary trend with the spirit of local culture and vibrancy. A burgeoning of food trucks — in the best Portland, Oregon, style — are helmed by native chefs trained at the island’s best resorts.

What visitors find at these establishments is an eclectic mix of Caribbean flair and world cuisines — everything from barbecue to Mexican to soul food to vegetarian fare. While nearly all the food is imported to the island via boat from nearby St. Maarten, many chefs make use of local seafood, particularly the abundant and succulent island lobsters. It’s not a surprise to see them turn up in everything from tacos to barbecue to soup.

Because Anguilla is small — its capital city, The Valley, can be traversed on foot in less than a half-hour — most food trucks remain in close proximity to each other. Not surprisingly, every third person is someone’s relative or cousin, which makes the island not only refreshingly friendly but immersed in a sense of hospitality that is clearly apparent in the careful preparation and presentation of the food at these roadside stands.

Perhaps best of all is that the food trucks of Anguilla are as equally democratic as their stateside counterparts: What you’ll find is freshly prepared food, unique in culinary styling, at reasonable prices — a great option for those hoping for a taste-filled Caribbean getaway that won’t break the bank.

The number of food trucks grows monthly, among them Meals on Wheels, Rawlie’s Food Van, Wendy’s Food Van and J & S Snoconette, while the early precursor to this moveable feast — the beachside snack stand — is still thriving. All the food trucks take U.S. dollars, as does most of the island. These were among my best finds:

Run by two former resort chefs, Hungry’s Food Van melds traditional island preparations with American food trends. While you’ll find goat soup, bull foot soup and conch soup, you can also choose from an extensive quesadilla menu with fillings ranging from smoked salmon to traditional cheese and vegetables. The best by far is the Lobster Quesadilla, which makes use of local lobster and is a steal at $14 featuring more lobster than any traditional New England lobster roll.

Papa Lash's food van. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Anguilla Tourist Board

Papa Lash’s food van. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Anguilla Tourist Board

It’s worth a stop at Papa Lash’s not just for the popular Caribbean patties, a flaky turnover with a vegetable filling, but to meet the dynamic and friendly owner. With extremely reasonable prices, Papa Lash has long served the local foods to schoolchildren, natives and tourists alike.

Most Anguillans will tell you that if you want barbecue, go to Ken’s. The stand, which is strategically set in the center of downtown, is only open on weekends, and those in the know plan their end-of-week activities around opening hours. The ribs are what to order. Wash them down with a homemade ginger beer or sorrel (hibiscus) drink.

While a number of food trucks or “vans,” as they are called in Anguilla, focus on specialized food, such as Chanboo’s, which is noted for soul food, others, like Slyco’s Food Van, are similar to a diner or fast-casual restaurant, but with all the food made fresh to order. Burgers, fries, wings and pasta make up the menu. And you’ll find extremely reasonable prices — a hot dog is $2.50 U.S. and an order of Buffalo wings and fries is $6.

With each visit to a new food truck, I began to reassess my idea of “Caribbean food.” The fact is that the Caribbean, like America, is a settled land — in some cases voluntarily, but not in others. The people of the West Indies have long adapted to making do and making the best of what can be had. The Anguilla food trucks, with their eclectic fare, are doing just that, and made me realize I had found my real Caribbean fare after all.

Main photo: A traditional breakfast at Anguilla Guest House includes coconut dumplings, fried salt cod and fresh avocado. Credit: Copyright Ramin Ganeshram

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A platter of

Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.

For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.

Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.

While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:

  • Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
  • Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
  • Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
  • Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
  • Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.

Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.

Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck

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Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

The jalapeño vs. the serrano: What exactly is the difference between the two most popular fresh chiles in the U.S. and Mexico?

Both are vibrant emerald green, with the larger jalapeño looking like a serrano on steroids. Jalapeños tend to be beefier, while serranos are more slender. Both have a torpedo shape that tapers to a point and curved green stems and smooth skins with no soft spots or wrinkles.

Bigger not always better when it comes to chiles

And as with almost all chiles, the rule of thumb applies: the larger the chile, the milder it is. In this case, the larger jalapeño is milder than the spicier serrano. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Sometimes bigger is just, well, bigger.

Jalapeños and serranos belong to the common Capsicum annuum family of peppers and can easily be found year round in most supermarket produce sections thanks to domestic and imported crops. Jalapeños (named after the city of Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, sometimes spelled Xalapeños after the local spelling of Xalapa) measure about 4 inches long and an inch wide at the stem end. Serranos (translates to “from the mountains” because they were first grown in the high-elevation mountains of Puebla, east of Mexico City) measure about 3 inches long and a half-inch wide at the stem end.

Their flavors are similar, and I find an excellent way to appreciate any subtle differences is to taste them when they turn bright red. That’s when they are at their peak of ripeness and when their spice intensity drops and they become slightly mellow, almost sweet. I always look for red-ripe chiles in late summer at farmers markets.

Make salsas to compare jalapeños and serranos

A favorite way to understand their differences is to make two simple table salsas (see recipes below). Choose either green or red for both chiles, and remove the seeds from both to control the unadorned (no onion, cilantro, etc.) heat.

When choosing between the two for a recipe, decide whether you’re looking for a lot of green flavor or more spice with less vegetable taste. For example, when I whirl up fresh fruit table salsas I choose serrano because I want the specific fruit flavor to be front and center but with plenty of backup chile heat. I choose green jalapeños for tomatillo salsas where a spicy chile with plenty of green bean vegetable flavor adds to the green sauce. Of course, they can be used interchangeably; add less serrano or more jalapeño and you’re all set.

After jalapeños and serranos ripen and turn red, they are dried and sometimes smoked. For size comparison, there are about 8 dried jalapeños per ounce or 11 dried serranos per ounce. A good rule of thumb is 10 pounds of fresh chiles weigh 1 pound when dried. The dried form of each chile has a different name: a dried, red jalapeño is a jalapeño seco and a dried, red serrano is simply called a chile seco.

Fiery hot, the small, 1½-inch chile seco has a slight citrus flavor and is usually found ground (sometimes called tipico and balin) and added to cooked sauces for heat.

A dried and smoked red jalapeño is a chile chipotle. Other dried and smoked chipotles are called morita and meco. The morita is a dark red, almost black, shiny, smoky, leathery chile that can vary in length from an inch to 4 inches. Many smaller moritas are canned in adobo (a chile-tomato sauce) and called chiles chipotles en adobo. The easy-to-use chiles are readily available in 7- to 8-ounce cans. After removing a few for a recipe, you can freeze the rest. The usually larger meco is smoked at least twice as long and turns medium brown with the look of an old, fuzzy brown tobacco leaf. Aficionados relish its spicy, super-smoky qualities.

The prized red-ripe, fresh jalapeño called huachinango (the same name as the famous Gulf red snapper fish because its stripes simulate the fish scale pattern) comes from central Mexico, mostly around Puebla and Veracruz. Usually found during the hottest summer months, it is easy to identify the coveted, 4- to 5-inch beauty, which has thin white lines running vertically on its skin. When dried and smoked, the thick-skinned delicacy becomes an extra-large, expensive chipotle meco grande with a subtle chocolate aroma.

Mail-order sources

Melissas.com: Melissa’s sells fresh and dried chiles. 5325 Soto St., Vernon, CA 90058. (800) 588-0151. Hours: 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays

Spices.com: Spices Inc. is a mail-order company that sells dried chiles. (888) 762-8642

Simple Green Chile Table Salsa Taste Test

If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing these salsas. Choose either all green or all red chiles for both jalapeños and serranos.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 1/3 cup of each salsa.

Ingredients

2 ounces (1 or 2) fresh jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

2 ounces (3 or 4) fresh serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

Corn chips or warmed corn tortillas

Directions

1. Put the jalapeño chiles in a blender jar. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into a serving bowl.

2. Rinse the blender jar.

3. Put the serrano chiles in the blender. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into another serving bowl.

4. Taste with corn chips or warm corn tortillas.

Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa

If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing this salsa.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes about 2 cups.

Ingredients

1 very ripe Mexican papaya, about 12 inches long and 6 inches in diameter

2 Mexican (aka Key) limes, juiced (about 3 tablespoons)

1 medium (3 inches) white onion, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

2 serrano chiles

1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves

Directions

1. Cut the papaya in half vertically. Scoop out the black seeds from one of the halves. Peel it and chop it, measuring out 3 cups chopped fruit. Put it into a blender or processor. (Wrap the remaining fruit in plastic and save for another use, such as smoothies or slices with a squirt of lime.)

2. Pour the lime juice on the papaya. Blend 5 seconds.

3. Add the onion, sugar and salt and whirl again 5 seconds. Pour the slightly chunky mixture into a serving bowl.

4. Stem and mince one of the 2 chiles and stir it (with seeds) into the papaya along with the cilantro. Taste. If you want a spicier salsa, stir in more of the remaining minced chile. Adjust salt or lime juice if necessary.

Notes: Don’t process the salmon-colored papaya, green chiles and cilantro together all at once or they will turn into an off-putting brownish mash (although the taste will still be great).

Save the papaya’s black seeds. Rinse and then dry them on a baking sheet in a low oven (200 F) for about an hour. Cool completely. The spicy seeds can be ground like peppercorns.

Main photo: Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright Nancy Zaslavsky

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A traditional Yemeni meal of lahuh and stew. Credit: iStockphoto / lenazap

Yemen is a remote and little-known country, closed to the outside world for centuries and still not very accessible. Not surprisingly, it has a distinctive cuisine.

A bit of cultural background

The Roman name for Yemen was Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia, partly because of its wealth: It stood athwart the main spice and incense routes. Another reason for the name was that Yemen is the only part of the Arabian Peninsula to get substantial rainfall. Located on the Indian Ocean, it’s exposed to the monsoon winds, and the Yemenis make the best use they can of the resulting precipitation. In some places, the hillsides are terraced, as in Southeast Asia. However, even this agricultural benefit is not enough to support the country’s population. For centuries, half of its adult men have worked abroad. (There are a number of Yemeni farmworkers in California’s Central Valley.)

Today, Yemen is the 37th poorest country in the world. It has potential tourist attractions, particularly in its impressive architecture — the Yemenis seem incapable of putting up a dull building, even when they use cinder block — but poverty and, recently, sectarian violence have kept it from drawing many visitors.

Although the country is best known to gourmets for producing coffee, most Yemenis can’t afford to drink it. Nearly all the beans are exported, and the locals instead drink a tea made from the husks, called gishr. It tastes like green coffee beans, I’m sorry to report — which is probably why it’s always flavored with spices — and contains no caffeine. For a caffeine-like kick, the Yemenis chew a local narcotic called qat (also pronounced gat or chat). It’s supposedly addictive, but I’ve chewed with wealthy Yemenis who could presumably afford the best and I found it about as stimulating as an espresso or two. I’ve concluded that people chew qat because it’s the principal social activity. (Women do it too, but in separate rooms.)

The fundamentals of Yemeni cuisine

After its spice and then coffee industries collapsed, Yemen was entirely isolated from the outside world for many years before 1963, when there was a revolution that devolved into the continuing period of instability. As a result, very little has been written about its cuisine, and all that most Westerners know about it comes from the cookery of the Yemenite Jews of Israel. Probably the best-known Yemeni food is a spice mixture/sauce whose name, s’hug, means “ground” in Arabic. There’s no canonical recipe; it can be made with just about any combination of ground, chopped or crushed flavorings. In the country’s capital, Sanaa (where they use the plural form of the word, sahawig), it’s usually chopped tomatoes, chiles and onions — essentially identical to Mexican salsa cruda.

Yemenis retain a medieval tradition of cooking in pots carved from soapstone; they prefer stone to metal because it doesn’t add any flavor to the food. Stoneware takes a while to heat up, much like cast iron (though it doesn’t have to be seasoned); it is also surprisingly sturdy, even amid leaping flames in restaurant kitchens.

Traditional dishes

The most common main dish is stew (marag), often including tomato and potato and usually flavored with fenugreek. The Yemenis are the world’s biggest consumers of fenugreek, mostly known to us from commercial curry powder and artificial maple syrup. They eat so much of this spice (which belongs to the legume family) that it contributes measurably to their protein intake. They prepare it by soaking the seeds in water for a couple of hours to soften them and leach out some of their bitterness, then whipping them to a froth with ground leeks. A dollop of this pale-green foam is often served on top of marag. The result is curious — imagine chili con carne garnished with bitter applesauce — so it takes some getting used to.

Because of the popularity of qat, Yemen is one of the few Middle Eastern countries with a tradition of sit-down restaurants. But these are far from fine-dining places — the customers are all in a hurry to get something in their stomachs before a chew, so the scene tends toward a roiling chaos of people calling out their orders (usually the only choices are beef marag or chicken maragand wolfing down the food.

In homes, you may find a wider range of dishes, such as duqqa, which is chopped meat and onions braised with parsley, or mkashshan, chicken stewed with browned green onions. Because of the country’s poverty, though, the diet is heavily based on grain, featuring lots of gruels and porridges and dishes containing bread.

Fortunately, bread is the cuisine’s strong suit. There’s an excellent flaky bread called mulawwah, which has a curved shape from the way it’s stuck on to the wall of the tandoor. For my taste, the finest Yemeni bread is lahuh (pronounced la-HOOH, with both h’s strongly articulated), a spongy, crepe-like product similar to Ethiopian injera but with an attractive crunchy quality of its own. As injera is preferably made with Ethiopia’s native grain t’ef, lahuh is made with Yemen’s indigenous white sorghum (dhura baida), which accounts for 80% of the country’s grain production. It resembles a cornstalk bearing popcorn balls instead of ears.

So there you go. If you find yourself in Yemen, try to get some mulawwah or lahuh with your marag. And if somebody offers you qat, say, “Oh, heck, why not? But only as long as you’re paying, partner.”

Main photo: A traditional Yemeni meal of lahuh and stew. Credit: Copyright  iStockphoto/ lenazap

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