My mother always made sure there was something to eat in our Christmas stockings, like an orange in the toe — a reminder, she said, that in her Maine childhood it might be her only orange of the year. Also tucked in there would be a little package of maple sugar shaped in the form of a pilgrim man or woman. I always ate the pilgrim’s head first, in one bite, while my sister nibbled slowly, from the feet up, and savored the sweet, annoyingly, all day. “Mmm, so good,” she would murmur after I had finished mine.
Nowadays I look for other food treats in the stocking I hang by the chimney with care. The ideal stocking gift should be, of course, small, but exquisite and possibly quite expensive. Best of all would be a couple of ounces of Iranian caviar with a mother-of-pearl spoon for sampling, but that’s not likely these days.
Instead I could be happy, more prosaically, with a jar of some exotic and unusual spice that can’t be found on supermarket shelves, something like piment d’Espelette, the remarkable crushed or ground red chili from the Basque Pyrenees of southwest France with its own AOC (appellation d’origine controlee). I like to keep a jar of this next to my stove to be liberally scattered over soups and stews, atop cabbage-y things such as Brussels sprouts but especially on any egg dish, poached, boiled, scrambled or fried. One importer calls it “fiery,” an unfortunate choice of words because it really isn’t. Piment d’Espelette is warm rather than hot, and profoundly fragrant, like a freshly roasted red pepper but with the kick, slight but unmistakable, of a true chili. A 25-gram jar costs $11 from Market Hall Foods in Oakland, Calif. Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich., has 25 grams (just under an ounce) for $16, and Amazon offers 1.4 ounces for $11.
Another great flavor booster, this one from Sicily, is estratto di pomodoro, sometimes just called ‘stratto or ‘strattu in dialect, a rich, thick quintessence of tomatoes that puts any other tomato paste to shame. Traditionally, Sicilian housewives crush tomatoes into a paste, which is spread on boards and dried over several days in the intense September sun to a thick concentrate that is then packed in jars with nothing but sea salt and a protective layer of extra virgin olive oil. Maria Grammatico’s estratto di pomodoro is made by this renowned pastry chef from the hilltop village of Erice in far western Sicily. Maria’s pastries are deservedly praised (see Mary Taylor Simeti’s fascinating culinary biography, “Bitter Almonds“), but her estratto di pomodoro might well make her fortune. There’s a lot of industrially produced stuff, but makers such as Grammatico still insist on old-fashioned, handmade, artisanal processes. Hers costs $11 for a 100-gram (about 3.5 ounces) jar at Market Hall Foods, while Zingerman’s has a similar product from southern Sicily called Strattu, $12 for 180 grams (6 ounces), and gustiamo.com offers Lorenzo Piccione’s Pianogrillo Estratto di Pomodoro, deliciously flavored with Sicilian bay leaves, at $40.50 for 12.3 ounces. These may look expensive — and they are — but just a dollop stirred into a chick pea stew or a pasta sauce, or melted in olive oil in a saucepan at the start of a recipe, will light up a dish with all the brilliance of the Sicilian sun. Use a little at a time and cover what remains in the jar with a thin layer of olive oil — extra virgin, of course.
Finally, my all-time favorite flavoring, ever since I found it when I first went to live in Tuscany a good many years ago — wild fennel pollen, polline di finochietto, gathered from the umbelliferous blossoms of wild fennel late in summer just after the flowers have peaked. This is the secret and distinctive ingredient that flavors Tuscan pork dishes from fresh sausages to cured finocchiona, studded with chunks of tender pork fat, to porchetta. (My daughter uses heroic quantities at her Porchetta shop in Manhattan’s East Village.) It has an incredibly deep, penetrating fragrance that smells — and tastes — exactly like a Tuscan meadow on a hot August afternoon. Note that this is wild fennel — related to but quite different from the kind of bulb or Florentine fennel that gets sliced into salads. It has the same anise or licorice notes but … well, quite simply, it’s wilder. It’s terrific in rabbit dishes too, especially roasted in a Tuscan wood-fired oven, and with certain types of seafood — think grilled scallops or flavoring a handsome zuppa di pesce, fish stew. At $14 for a 1.5 ounce jar of Francioni Fiore di Finocchio at Market Hall Foods, it’s not cheap — but that’s part of the charm of these elusive flavors. At Zingerman’s, a 45-gram (about 1.6 ounces) jar is $30.
To complete your gift, pop in a card containing one of these recipes.
Samki harra: Lebanese ‘hot’ fish
The heat in this dish doesn’t come from the stove but from the warmth of crushed red chili peppers. In Lebanon, where the dish is a favorite, they might use Aleppo red peppers, but I like piment d’Espelette, the deeply fragrant chilies grown in the Basque country of southwest France. In its homeland, samki harra is often made with whole fish; first sauteed then flaked into big pieces, the skin and bones discarded. Since it’s hard to find whole fish these days, I’ve adapted it for thick fillets of white-meat fish, such as cod, haddock or snapper. Even swordfish steaks are great with the walnut sauce flecked with red chili bits and green cilantro. (Red and green — does that make it a perfect Christmas dish? Perhaps.) Samki harra would be great on a holiday buffet, since traditionally it’s served at room temperature or a little warmer. You could also saute the fish and make the sauce ahead, then combine them at the last minute before serving.
To make six to eight servings, you’ll need about two pounds of thick fillets of white-meat fish, plus a little flour for dusting the fillets before frying them.
- Cut the fillets if necessary into serving pieces and dredge each piece in flour, shaking off the excess. Chop the onions very fine to make 2 cups of chopped onion — you can do this in a food processor if you wish. Add the garlic, also finely chopped, to the onions and set aside. Chop the walnuts very, very fine — almost to a paste (again, easier to do in a food processor) and set aside. Finally, chop the cilantro very fine and set aside.
- Heat at medium high 2 or 3 tablespoons of oil in a saute pan large enough to take all the fish in one layer. When the oil is very hot, add the fish pieces and cook rapidly, moving them around so they don’t stick to the pan. Lightly brown each piece on both sides, remove from the pan and set aside.
- When all the fish is done, rinse or wipe out the pan, discarding the burnt oil. Add 2 tablespoons of fresh oil and set over low heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onions are very soft. Now raise the heat to medium and stir in about 3/4 cup of stock, along with the walnuts, the seasonings (coriander, cumin, piment d’Espelette), a little pinch of salt and some black pepper. Cook over gentle heat for about 15 minutes, adding a little more stock if the sauce gets too thick. In the end, it should be about the consistency of a loose mayonnaise. Finally, stir in the chopped cilantro and the pieces of fish, spooning the sauce over the fish pieces. Cook another 5 or 6 minutes — this depends on the thickness of the fish: If it’s already done all the way through, just 2 or 3 minutes to warm it in the sauce should be sufficient.
- Transfer the fish pieces to a serving dish. Add lemon juice to the sauce in the pan, raise the heat, and cook, stirring, until the sauce has thickened again, then spoon the sauce over the fish and serve.
Cigrons a la Catalana: Catalan chick peas with tomatoes and toasted almonds
This is a great recipe for vegetarians, or for anyone who has had more than enough meat lately (think holidays, people!) The Spanish have more good ideas for chick peas than almost anyone in the Mediterranean. This is one of their best, and it’s a good place to throw in a little Mediterranean sunshine with some estratto di pomodoro.
- Put the drained chick peas in a saucepan and cover with boiling water to a depth of 1 inch. Simmer, partially covered, until the chick peas are tender, about 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the age of the chick peas. Add a little boiling water from time to time if necessary.
- While the chick peas are cooking, toast the almonds and the saffron. For the almonds, either spread them on a cookie sheet and set in a preheated 350 F oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until the almonds are nicely golden all over; or toast them on top of the stove in a skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil. When the almonds are golden brown, chop them. Fold the saffron into a piece of clean white paper and set this paper envelope in a pan over medium-low heat. Keep turning with tongs until the paper starts to brown. Remove and unwrap the saffron, which will have become crisp and dark.
- As the chick peas finish cooking, chop the onion very fine and gently saute it in about ¼ cup of olive oil until it is very soft. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of liquid from the chick peas to the skillet and stir in a tablespoon of estratto di pomodoro. Cook, stirring, until the liquid has evaporated and the onion bits are coated with tomato, then tip the whole thing into the chick peas.
- Crumble the toasted saffron into a mortar or a food processor, along with the almonds and the chopped garlic and parsley. Add a pinch of salt and pound the mixture or process it until it’s a coarse paste, thinning it with a little cooking liquid. Stir the paste into the chick peas. Adjust the seasoning and serve, if you wish, garnished with chopped hard-boiled eggs and more chopped parsley.
Arista di maiale
Tuscan Roast Pork with wild fennel pollen
A good butcher, if informed ahead of time, should be able to provide a pork loin with the rind or crackling attached. It gives a delectably crunchy finish to the roast—but if you can’t find a pork roast with the rind, this is still a fine treatment and a great way to use wild fennel pollen, polline di finochietto.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
1 tablespoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons wild fennel pollen
4 or 5 bay leaves, coarsely chopped
2 4-inch long sprigs fresh rosemary
1 cup dry white wine
- Lay the pork loin out on a counter top, fat side down. Combine all the other ingredients except the wine and chop to a fine mince. Moisten the mince with a tablespoon or two of wine to make a coarse paste and rub the exposed pork meat with most of the paste, reserving a few tablespoons to rub on the outside. Roll the meat so that the flesh part is tucked inside and tie with butcher’s twine every inch or so. (If you managed to find a pork roast with the rind attached, score the rind diagonally before tying, using a very sharp knife, in a pattern of 1-inch squares or lozenges.) Rub the outside fat or rind with the remaining aromatic paste. Set the roast aside to absorb the flavors while you preheat the oven. (The roast may be prepared ahead of time and left for several hours or, refrigerated, overnight before cooking.)
- When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 450°F. Set the pork on a rack in a roasting pan. Roast for 15 minutes, then baste with half the remaining wine. Baste again after another 15 minutes, and turn the heat down to 350°F. Continue basting every 15 to 20 minutes, using the pan juices and adding a little water to the pan if necessary, until the pork is done. After the first hour, lower the oven heat to 300°F. The pork should be done in two hours, or when it has reached an internal temperature of 145°F.
- Remove from the oven and set aside to rest for about 20 minutes, then cut off and discard the twine.
- Meanwhile, transfer the pan juices to a small saucepan and let rest, then skim the fat off the top. Boil down the remaining juices, if necessary, to make about a half cup of thick sauce.
The pork may be served, thinly sliced, with the sauce as a garnish, but it is even better left to cool down to room temperature or slightly warmer, when it is easier to slice thinly. It is also absolutely delicious cold.
Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, including “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean.”