Articles in Recipes

Peppery Steak, Potato and Arugula Salad, adapted from

After tasting many of the Puglia’s big, herbacious olive oils on a recent trip to Italy, I was keen to use them at home in New York. In the heat of the summer, with the arugula in my garden ready to pick, an Italian-inspired beef salad seems just right for a one-dish meal that is satisfying, easy and shows off the oil in a simple dressing.

From steak au poivre to steak salad

Now, when I want to be grilling outdoors as much as possible, I am reminded of steak au poivre, which today seems out of fashion. (It’s a recipe with a fiery kick, so easy to make that I once cooked it regularly in the galley of a sailboat.) The French original is pan-roasted in butter, treated to cream and cognac, and ignited. This slimmed-down version, seared over charcoal and sliced thinly, is layered over a bed of greens and boiled potatoes and dressed with the oil, lemon — both juice and zest — and the requisite dollop of Dijon. The perfect natural green is arugula, with its peppery bite. For a soft contrast, use a layer of buttery-fleshed fingerling potatoes. Then, capers with their spikes of flavor are scattered over all.

These bold extra virgin olive oils, with their scents of chicory and marjoram, temper the sting of the pepper, the acidity of the lemon, the tang of the mustard, the briny bursts of the capers, and bring the components together in a dish that gives new meaning to meat and potatoes.

 

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DC_1.HerbsAromaticsSteakSalad
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Herbs and aromatics for the steak salad. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Peppery Steak, Potato and Arugula Salad

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 or 5 servings

The salad is particularly tasty made with charcoal-broiled beef cuts, including flank, strip or shell steak. Sear it well on both sides, but take care not to overcook it. Cold boiled or roasted beef can be substituted, but won’t have the peppery bite. You can use leftover potatoes if you have them available, or boil fresh ones in the time it takes to cook the meat.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons, or to taste, whole peppercorns
  • 1 pound flank, strip, shell or other boneless steak, whole, about 1-inch thick
  • 1 pound small fingerling, Red Bliss or new potatoes, scrubbed
  • 4 ounces fresh arugula, washed
  • For the dressing:
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or more, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
  • 1 generous teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
  • 1 large clove garlic, smashed
  • fine sea salt to taste
  • For the topping:
  • 1 tablespoon drained small capers, or coarsely chopped large capers, or 12 caper berries
  • 1 teaspoon fresh parsley or chives, minced (optional)

Directions

  1. On a cutting board, spread out the peppercorns between two pieces of wax paper. Use the dull side of a meat mallet, or a rolling pin, to gently crush them. The peppercorns should be cracked, not ground. Press them into both sides of the steak.
  2. Prepare a charcoal or a gas grill, or preheat a broiler. Sear the meat well on both sides, cooking it through to the desired doneness. Transfer it to a cutting board and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. Using a sharp chef's knife, cut it across the grain into very thin slices.
  3. While the meat is cooking, cover the potatoes with cold water and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until tender but not mushy. Drain and immerse in cold water to cool. Drain well and slice into approximately 1/8-inch rounds.
  4. Blend all the dressing ingredients. Toss the arugula lightly with 1 tablespoon of the dressing and arrange the greens on a shallow serving platter. Arrange the sliced meat and potatoes over it, and dab with a little more of the dressing. Scatter the capers on top. If you are using parsley or chives, sprinkle 1 teaspoon over the potatoes. Pass the remaining dressing and additional olive oil at the table.

Main photo: Peppery Steak, Potato and Arugula Salad, adapted from “Antipasti: The Little Dishes of Italy” by Julia della Croce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Grilled skewers of scallops and shrimp. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Grilled shellfish always make the best appetizer. Once the grill fire is going there are a wide variety of things you can do with shellfish that cook quickly, make minimal mess, are wonderful for satisfying hungry party guests, are ridiculously easy and, most important, are delicious.

In these two examples, one with oysters and one with shrimp and scallops on skewers, everything is assembled simply. When planning portions, I generally figure on three oysters per person and one brochette of shrimp and scallops per person with one shrimp and one scallop on it. Remember, these are appetizers so there is no need for tons of food — that will come later. The instructions below assume you have made a grill fire first.

Shucking oysters

If you are not adept at shucking oysters (see my video) and if no one is around to open them you can cheat a bit by washing the oysters very well, which you should do in any case. Next, place them into a pot with a half-inch of water, cover, and turn the heat to high. All you are trying to do is get the oysters to relax a bit, not to open them or steam them, so this might take only a minute or two. Remove the oyster shells and, with an oyster knife or handle end of a spoon, pry them open completely, leaving the oyster in its shell, and then follow the recipe.

For the shrimp, the ideal size is medium, about 41- to 50-count per pound. Of course, if you have access to fresh shrimp with their heads (that is, never frozen shrimp) by all means use them, removing the shell but keeping the head on. Frozen shrimp should be defrosted in the refrigerator.

Oysters creole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Oysters creole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Too many people buy frozen shrimp as if all shrimp are the same. They’re not, so look at the package to see where they originate. My personal preference is large and extra large shrimp from India or Bangladesh. I’m not sure what they’re doing to make them taste better, but they do. Shrimp from Mexico, Vietnam, and Ecuador are pretty good, too, and I always love Florida rock shrimp but not for this preparation.

For the scallops, you’ll want to use the large sea scallops rather than the tiny bay scallops that cook too fast.

Oysters Creole

Yield: 6 appetizer servings

Ingredients

½ cup (1 stick) butter

2 tablespoons Creole seasoning, such as Tony Chachere’s or Paul Prudhomme’s

24 oysters, shucked

Directions

1. Melt the butter and stir in the Creole seasoning.

2. Shuck the oysters and arrange them on the grill. Spoon some seasoned butter over each and cover the grill. Grill until some of the butter is bubbling, then spoon the remainder on and continue grilling, covered, until the edges of the oysters begin to curl slightly. Remove and serve.

Grilled Skewers of Scallops and Shrimp

Make sure the scallops and shrimp on the skewer don’t touch.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 pound medium shrimp, shelled

1 pound sea scallops

Juice of 1 orange

½ cup dry white wine

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup finely chopped fresh oregano or 1 tablespoon dried

Freshly ground black pepper

6 (10-inch) wooden skewers

Directions

1. Place the shrimp and scallops into a 9-by-12-inch ceramic or glass baking pan and add the orange juice, white wine, olive oil, oregano, and pepper to taste. Leave to marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for 2 hours. Remove from the refrigerator 15 minutes before grilling.

2. Skewer the shrimp and scallops so they don’t touch, reserving the marinade. Place onto the grill and cook, turning occasionally, until the shrimp are orange and the scallops a light golden brown, about 20 minutes. Baste with the marinade during grilling. Serve hot.

Main photo: Grilled skewers of scallops and shrimp. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad. Credit: Sasha Martin

No American picnic is really complete without a bean salad. Black beans, green beans or kidney beans, often blended with garbanzos and onions in a light vinaigrette, make for the dreams of many a midsummer picnic. These salads complement roast meats like nothing else and are light, quick and healthy additions to any meal.

Roast meats in the form of kebabs and chops rule menus across western, central and southern Asia. With these kebabs come rice, bread or naan, and usually a light vegetable or bean salad. My favorite of these salads comes from Pakistan and uses garbanzo and northern white beans in a sweet-and-sour vinaigrette of grape-seed oil and white vinegar seasoned with a bit of sugar, black pepper and chilies. Other ingredients include onions, tomatoes, red bell peppers and cilantro. Variations on this theme can be found on stops along the Silk Road with a different combination of beans or lemon juice in place of white vinegar.

Pakistan had an important place on the Silk Road connecting the overland routes with the maritime sea routes. An often-used north-south route running the length of the country connected the Southern Silk Road at Kashgar, China, with Pakistan’s port in Karachi. From Karachi goods could be shipped southeast to Goa, west to ports in Persia or Arabia, up the Red Sea to Egypt, or down the coast of eastern Africa. The road between Kashgar and Karachi is still there today, at least as far as Islamabad, in the form of the Karakoram Highway.

Karakoram Highway. Credit: Laura Kelley

Karakoram Highway. Credit: Laura Kelley

The earliest parts of the Silk Road also ran through northernmost Pakistan and connected the jade mines in western China to the lapis mines in northeastern Afghanistan. Trade in those minerals across the Badakhshan corridor began more than 4,000 years ago. So, from the second millennium B.C., the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, goods from across the region were flowing through Pakistan along with people, cultures and ideas. To this end, the city of Taxila, just west of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, was the site of one of the world’s earliest “universities” where, since the sixth century B.C., learned men traveling the Silk Road came to study.

The Silk Road and Pakistani food

In addition to their ideas, the people traveling the Silk Road also brought their food cultures. Modern Pakistani cuisine is a unique blend of influences from India, western and central Asia, Arabia and the Levant states of the Middle East. The foods from Pakistan’s Sindh and Punjab provinces are most closely related to Indian food, and the curries and other dishes can be quite spicy. Dishes from Pakistan’s two western provinces have commonalities with cuisines of Afghanistan and central Asia. Given the historical importance of the port at Karachi, there are also a few Southeast Asian and Pacific influences, evident in a big way in the use of coconut products, and lime instead of lemon, especially in the south.

The Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad is probably of Arab or Levantine origin given the number of similar salads from those regions. Those salads, however, usually use lemon juice as a souring agent and often contain kidney beans or broad beans, either alone or in combination with other beans. The use of vinegar instead of citrus for souring is probably a Central Asian influence, although it is difficult to be certain.

Chickpeas have been part of the human diet since Ancient Mesopotamian times and believed to have originated in Syria or southeastern Turkey based on the number of wild related species known from these areas. They are rich in protein, carbohydrates and soluble fiber as well as potassium, phosphorus and calcium.

A great deal of the salad’s special flavor comes from grape-seed oil in the dressing. This oil, often extracted after processing for winemaking, is light and sweet and brings the flavor of the grape arbor. A very high flashpoint makes it great for braising and cooking because it’s so difficult to scorch. It also is high in polyunsaturated fats, with 1 tablespoon accounting for 19% of the U.S. recommended daily requirement of vitamin E. It is available in most Persian and Mediterranean markets as well as many large grocery chains. Don’t substitute it, unless there are no options. The added flavor is worth going out of your way to make the purchase.

This salad is moderately spicy when made, but it mellows a lot after marinating. I like to prepare it in the morning, or by noon, and let it rest in the refrigerator for two to three hours. It’s best chilled, but not too cold, so consider taking it out of the fridge and letting it sit at room temperature before serving.  I have never met anyone who doesn’t like this salad, especially when it complements steak, chops or other grilled meats.

Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Total time includes at least 2 hours to allow flavors to blend.

Ingredients

  • 1 (15-ounce) can northern white beans or butter beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 1 large onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium red pepper, cored and minced
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 green chili peppers, minced
  • ⅓ cup white vinegar
  • ⅓ cup of grape-seed oil
  • 1 to 1½ tablespoons sugar
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 medium bunch fresh coriander leaves, minced

Directions

  1. Combine beans, chickpeas, onion, red pepper, tomato and chili peppers into a large bowl. Then whisk together vinegar, oil, sugar, salt and pepper and when well blended, pour over the bean mixture. Mix well.
  2. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Just before serving, fold in fresh chopped cilantro leaves and stir gently.

Main photo: Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad. Credit: Sasha Martin

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Willy Wonka might not agree, but not all chocolate is created equal. To find out what makes the difference between a $1 candy bar and an artisanal, single-origin chocolate, I went to Tuscany, Italy, to tour the headquarters of Amedei, a four-time winner of the Oscars of chocolate — the coveted Golden Bean award. There I went on a guided tasting of chocolate that Food & Wine Magazine calls “the world’s best.”

My visit began with a tasting of the various Amedei products, including tiny bars called Napolitains, assorted handmade pralines, and finally the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted, dense and rich with a hint of toasted almonds.

Amedei is the only Italian chocolate company that supervises chocolate production at every stage, from growing the cocoa bean to the finished product. During the visit, Cecilia Tessieri, owner of the Amedei chocolate company, explained chocolate’s complexity and gave an insider’s peek at how the pros taste chocolate.

Chocolate tasting tips

Tessieri says that to truly appreciate fine chocolate, you must use all five of your senses.

See. Start with your eyes. Great chocolate should have a nice sheen, but not be too glossy. Too glossy means that instead of using only expensive cocoa butter, less costly vegetable oils were added.

Hear. Break off a piece. Do you hear a snap? That’s a sign that the cocoa butter was properly crystalized.

Smell. Fine chocolate offers lovely complex aromas, and depending on where it’s from, may show off hints of toasted almonds, honey or dried fruit. Defective or lesser chocolate smells burnt or metallic.

Touch and taste. Put a small piece of chocolate onto the center of your tongue, but don’t chew! Fine chocolate has multiple flavor levels and chewing doesn’t allow time for them to reveal themselves. Cocoa butter is solid at room temperature, but soft at body temperature, giving us the chance to experience the silky feel of the chocolate as it melts in the mouth.

How chocolate is made

The visit continued with a video on harvesting chocolate and then a tour through Amedei’s facility for converting cacao beans into award-winning chocolate. “It all starts with the cocoa beans,” said Cecilia, holding a handful of aromatic toasted cocoa beans. A single cacao tree bears about 30 usable pods each year, yielding roughly 1,000 cacao beans, enough for about 2 pounds of chocolate.

The mature pods are handpicked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans, which must remain intact to maintain a full chocolate flavor.  When a cacao pod is first opened, it has no hint of chocolate fragrance. Instead, the white fruit pulp has a lovely peach and tropical flower aroma and a fruity tart-sweet flavor.

The pulp and the beans are pulled out of the pod and placed in a container, often a simple wooden box lined with banana leaves, where it is left for seven to nine days. The beans ferment in the pulp’s juices, infusing them with additional flavor. They are then spread out to dry in the sun for about a week where they are gently turned, often by women on tiptoe, in what Cecilia calls the “the cacao dance.”

When the beans arrive at Amedei, Cecilia begins the process of converting these precious cacao beans into chocolate.

1. Cecilia does a “cut test,” slicing a sample of the beans in half to confirm their quality. Cacao beans must be perfect to be included in Amedei chocolate—uniform and smooth.

2. Then they are roasted in special proprietary indirect fire equipment.

3. After that, the concasseur, or nibbing machine, separates the husks from the beans to obtain tiny bits of cacao beans, the “nibs.”

4. Next, the nibs are ground into a thick paste called cocoa mass. I tasted the warm, fragrant mass and found it perfect, but Cecilia explained that it was still too acidic and dense. The missing crucial step is called “conching.” a slow, gentle grinding process lasting 72 hours that results in a silky smooth chocolate with perfect flavor. Finally comes tempering, melting the chocolate to just the right temperature to crystallize the cocoa butter. At this stage, the chocolate is ready to be made into the various Amedei products.

 

Cacao pod

Cacao pod
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Mature cacao pods are hand-picked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans. Credit: Amedei.

From around the world

Cru, a French term meaning “growth,” refers to wines from a particular area. Since the ’80s the term is also used with other products that change flavor depending on where they’re made, including beer, whisky and chocolate.

“Chocolate can taste very different depending on where it comes from,” explains Cecelia during our tour. She scours the globe in search of the very best tasting beans. She illustrated those differences in a guided tasting of Amedei’s Cru line, which includes chocolates made exclusively from cocoa beans from various countries, explaining the special aroma and taste of each:

Grenada

Delicate, creamy taste with a lovely long-lasting finish.

Madagascar

Smells like hot chocolate with hints of lavender and herbs.

Rich with lovely hints of citrus and mint that almost tingles on the tongue.

Ecuador

Delicate roasted cacao aroma and the intriguing scent of a forest in the fall. The taste is just as complex, with a sequence of flavors revealing themselves, from green tea to pistachio and almonds to tropical fruit.

Jamaica

Fabulously complex aroma of dates, figs, apricot jam and ginger with a touch of carob, olives and freshly cut wood. The taste delivers all that the aroma promises, with the tang of candied orange peel and jam and richness of butter. Deep dark chocolate taste, yet not at all bitter.

Trinidad

Gourmet aromas of cocoa powder, Cuban cigars and a summer garden filled with fresh tomatoes with a taste of walnuts, vanilla and sweet persimmons.

Venezuela

Delicate aroma of sugar, warm melted butter, dried fruit and sandlewood. Naturally nutty taste of hazelnut, walnut, almond and cashew with slightly spicy hints. Intense flavor that is long lingering and rich.

Groups of at least four, and up to ten guests, can schedule a tour of Amedei in Italy. For information and reservations, go to their website, call 011-39-0587-48-4849 or e-mail office@amedei.it

There is one Amedei store in the United States, so if you can’t get to Italy, you can visit their shop at 15 East 18th St. in New York City, which features daily free samplings.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina (5-Ingredient Italian Chocolate Cake)

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 8

This flourless cake has a crisp, macaroon-like top layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses just a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust. It’s made with only five ingredients, so be sure to use only quality chocolate like Amedei. A must-try classic! Recipe is in "DOLCI: Italy’s Sweets" by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011)

Note: The cake's total time includes 20 to 30 minutes of rest time.

Ingredients

  • 7 tablespoons, 3 ½ ounces, unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
  • 7 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cacao or higher, preferrably Amedei
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 2 tablespoons potato or cornstarch

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch spring form cake pan .
  2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small bowl, either in the microwave or over a saucepan of gently boiling water.
  3. In a large bowl beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Add the chocolate-butter mixture and beat until creamy. Add the potato starch and mix until well combined.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.
  5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 20 minutes, until just set in the center. Don’t over-bake.
  6. The cake will continue to set as it cools. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit.
  7. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman

I am not a licorice-lover — far from it — but I have become fanatic about the anise-scented fennel.

The first hint came when I had it slow-braised with a roast and reduced to a mild, sweet, and meltingly delicious vegetable with just the barest hint of anise. The next step was roasting it with Parmesan cheese, which only a fool would turn down. My conversion experience came when I was presented with thinly sliced raw fennel, served in a bowl of lemony ice water, after a meal in Sorrento, Italy.

As a confirmed fennel fanatic and evangelist, my tip for first-timers or skeptics is to try fennel that has been mellowed out through cooking. Chances are you will soon find the sweet, delicately nuanced aroma and flavor of raw fennel also enticing.

Five reasons to love fennel

  1. It’s versatile. You can’t really go wrong with fennel, whether you cook it or eat it raw. And all three parts — the base, stalks and feathery leaves  — are edible. The bulb is the part most commonly used, cooked with meat, braised on its own, or used in salads or on sandwiches. The stalks can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as you would herbs such as parsley, dill, or tarragon.
  2. Easy to prepare and enjoy raw. You can slice fennel thinly, and mix with a vinaigrette on its own, or toss with a green salad or potato salad. It’s fast, simple, and delicious.
  3. Easy to cook. For those who don’t like the anise scent and flavor of fennel, try cutting the bulbs into large chunks, and roast them under a chicken or other meat or fish. And no one I know can resist fennel lightly sautéed in wine, cooked in cream, or roasted in the oven with Parmesan.
  4. Low calories and high nutrition. One cup of sliced fennel has only 27 calories, but large amounts of vitamin C, folate and potassium.
  5. Its phytochemicals promote health and may fight cancer.  Fennel contains many health-promoting phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemical compounds such as the antioxidants rutin and quercitin, and other kaempferol glycosides that also give fennel strong antioxidant activity. But perhaps the most interesting phytonutrient in fennel is anethole — the primary component of its volatile oil, which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has reduced inflammation and helped prevent cancer. One study showed that anethole stopped breast cancer cells from growing. Researchers have also proposed a biological mechanism that may explain these anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects by showing how anethole is involved in the shutting down of an intercellular signaling system, thus stopping tumor growth.

Of course, the main reason to love fennel is that it is delicious. One of the simplest ways to cook it is this recipe from Jane Grigson’s “Vegetable Book.” Grigson also turns out to be a fennel fanatic, and notes: “My favorite fennel dish, the best one of all by far. The simple additions of butter and Parmesan — no other cheese will do — show off  the fennel flavor perfectly. The point to watch, when the dish is in the oven, is the browning of the cheese. Do not let it go beyond a rich golden-brown.”

Fennel Baked With Parmesan Cheese

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings as a side dish

Ingredients

6 heads fennel, trimmed, quartered

2 tablespoons butter

freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons (or more) grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions

1. Cook the fennel in salted water until it is just barely tender.

2. Drain it well and arrange in a generously buttered gratin dish.

3. Be generous, too, with the pepper mill.

4. Sprinkle on the cheese.

5. Put into the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown and the fennel is bubbling vigorously in buttery juices.

Fennel Salad

You can make this salad as simple or as fancy as you like. Adding sweet dates and salty capers or olives make it exotic, but when you have fresh fennel all you really need is a light vinaigrette.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 0 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, by hand or with a mandoline

Black olives, capers, dates (about 2 tablespoons each, or to taste), optional

Juice of one lemon

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

1. Rinse the fennel and slice very thinly. Also slice the dates and olives, if you’re adding them.

2. Toss the fennel with the dates, olives and capers.

3. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together with a pinch of salt and pepper.

4. Dress the salad and toss to coat well.

Main photo:  Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Balsamic cherry pie

Driving along shoulderless highways in northern Michigan, it’s hard to miss row after row of Montmorency cherry trees loaded with fruit waiting to be baked into pies or squeezed into a liquid elixir that scientists and doctors assign superfruit status.

With more than 2 million cherry trees, Michigan produces over 70% of the country’s tart cherry crop, and July is the start of the season for a fruit that has been credited with controlling cholesterol, lowering weight and boosting heart health. Not to mention being at the heart of a mean cherry pie.

The tart cherry’s superfruit status is due to its high levels of an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which is also responsible for the cherry’s intensely sour flavor and bright red color.

Tart cherries might well deserve a medal for their healthy attributes, but I’d much rather test their ability to satisfy my craving for the yin-yang balance of sweet and tart enveloped in one glorious double-crusted pie. That’s because tart cherries, not sweet, have always been the basis for the best cherry pie. Bakers can control the amount of sweetness with sugar and the tangy essence of tart cherries keeps the pie from becoming cloyingly sweet.

In a part of the country where any proper pie judge will tell you that cherry pies are not to be trifled with, I decided to go out on a limb and conducted a loosely structured pie contest of my own. In traditional measure, blue ribbons become a battle between best crust and most cherry-packed (but least gooey) filling, and awards only go to those that deliver both.

Ferreting out the best the region had to offer, I sampled options from The Cherry Hut, a 92-year old pie-making institution in the little town of Beulah (8 points for cherry-packed filling), to local behemoth Cherry Republic (9 points for crunchy, tender crust). Naturally, I couldn’t avoid including a few farm stand options in between. In the end, a roadside pie spiced with a bit of balsamic vinegar took the prize for my personal favorite. Cask-aged balsamic, which delivers its own magic blend of sweet and tart, was the perfect complement to the fruit and provided a deep base of flavor to the freshly harvested cherries.

But after all that pie, I was feeling a bit sleepy, and no wonder. Did I mention that tart cherries contain melatonin, a natural hormone that helps you sleep at night?

Cherry Balsamic Pie

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: 12 servings

The winning farm stand pie inspired my interpretation of the classic Michigan cherry pie. I’ve blended a rich, cask-aged balsamic vinegar into the filling and added a bit of Fiori di Sicilia, a blend of floral, citrus and vanilla essences, to keep the flavors bright.

Ingredients

  • Pie dough, enough for two crusts, chilled
  • 3 pounds, pitted fresh or frozen (do not thaw) tart cherries
  • ⅓ cup Pie Enhancer (or 6 tablespoons flour)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons cask-aged balsamic vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
  • Egg
  • Sparkling sugar

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out enough dough for one crust and place in 9- to 10-inch deep dish pie plate, leaving a 2-inch overhang. Return to refrigerator while assembling filling to keep dough cold.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, toss to combine cherries, Pie Enhancer or flour, sugar, salt, balsamic vinegar and Fiori di Sicilia. Fill pie dish and return to refrigerator again while preparing top crust.
  3. Roll out remaining pie dough and trim into 1-inch slices. Weave for latticework and gently transfer over filling. Turn lower crust up and over edges of lattice and crimp with fingers or fork.
  4. Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
  5. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, crust will be golden brown and fruit will be gently bubbling when done. Remove to rack to cool.

Notes

Not one to cling to tradition, when I find a new ingredient that is a big improvement over my old ways, I embrace it. Such is the case with King Arthur Flour’s Pie Enhancer, which I use to thicken fruit pies. A blend of superfine sugar, modified corn starch (aka Instant Clear Gel) and ascorbic acid, it sets the pie juices but avoids that gluey texture that flour sometimes imparts. But follow your own tradition and if flour works best for you, then substitute 5 tablespoons of flour for the Pie Enhancer and increase the amount of sugar in the filling for a total of ⅓ cup sugar.

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A tatin of new potatoes. Credit: Kerrin Rousset

New potatoes are the summer cook’s best friend. Firm and waxy with a wonderful sweet flavor and gossamer-thin skins, there’s no need to peel them — in fact it would be criminal to do so, for loads of flavor and much of the goodness lurks just under the skin.

All they need is a good scrub and — voilà — they’re good to go. Drop them into a pan of judiciously salted water, bring to a boil, cook till tender and serve with fresh butter and snipped mint leaves.

Plenty of ways to enjoy new potatoes

Boiling is not the only way to go with new potatoes. Because they keep their figure when cooked, they respond well to roasting or baking. For real drama and a winning dish that never fails to draw gasps from guests, try a “tatin” of new potatoes baked under a salty, herby crust. The whole thing is inverted for serving, like a tarte tatin, to reveal the spuds in all their golden glory. Or cut them almost in half, slide a bay leaf into the cut, drizzle with olive oil and roast till golden.

And remember that new potatoes come in many colors; any potato that is harvested early, be it white, gold, russet, red or purple, qualifies as new. A dish of purple potatoes mixed with brilliant green sugar snap peas and anointed with a little melted butter makes an arresting summer statement.

 

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New potatoes with bay leaves. Credit: Sue Style

“Tatin” of New Potatoes With an Herby Salt Crust

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 1 to 1¼ hours

Total time: About 1½ hours

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

18 to 24 medium-sized new potatoes

14 ounces (400 grams) flour

14 ounces (400 grams) kosher salt

1 tablespoon dried herbes de Provence or thyme

2 egg whites

A scant cup (about 200 milliliters) warm water

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 425 F (220 degrees C). Scrub the potatoes, but do not peel them.

2. Mix together the flour, salt and herbs in a large bowl.

3. Make a well in the center of the flour mix and add egg whites.

4. Add the water, gradually draw in the flour and salt from the sides and mix together till it forms a stiff dough.

5. Knead on a floured surface till smooth — if too sticky to your hands, add sprinkles of flour. If too dry, splash on a little more water and work it in.

6. Cut a piece of baking parchment to fit the bottom of a 12-inch (30-centimeter) cake pan.

7. Arrange the potatoes close together in the pan to form a flower shape and drizzle with olive oil.

8. Roll out the crust thickly on a floured board to the same diameter as the pan.

9. Lay it on top of the potatoes, tucking it inside the pan edge so there’s no overhang and the potatoes are snugly encased beneath the dough.

10. Bake the potatoes for 1 to 1¼ hours or until the crust is golden brown and hard and you can hear sizzling noises from the potatoes.

11. Leave the pan in the turned off oven till ready to serve.

12. Invert a large plate over the pan and carefully turn the tatin out onto the plate. The crust will form a base and the potatoes will be uppermost.

13. To serve, spear potatoes with a fork and lift them off the crust. Discard the crust, which is impossibly salty.

Roasted New Potatoes With Bay Leaves and Olive Oil

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

24 medium-sized new potatoes

24 bay leaves

A drizzle of olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 400 F (200 degrees C). Scrub the potatoes well, but do not peel.

2. Make a deep, lengthwise cut in each potato without going right through and slide a bay leaf inside each one.

3. Brush a little olive oil in the bottom of a baking tin or ovenproof dish just large enough to take all the potatoes in one layer.

4. Arrange the potatoes tightly together in the dish with the bay leaves uppermost, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with more olive oil.

5. Bake the potatoes for about an hour or until golden and fragrant.

Purple Potatoes and Sugar Snap Peas With Herbs

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20-25 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Serves 2 to 3

Ingredients

1 pound (450 grams) small purple potatoes

7 ounces (200 grams) sugar snap peas

1 teaspoon salt

1 ounce (25 grams) sweet butter

A handful of fresh herbs, roughly chopped (try mint, chives and flat-leaf parsley)

Directions

1. Scrub the potatoes well, but do not peel.

2. Trim the sugar snap peas.

3. Put the potatoes in a saucepan with water to cover and the salt.

4. Bring to a boil and boil for 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender when pierced with the point of a sharp knife.

5. Add the sugar snap peas and boil for 2-3 minutes more or until barely tender and still beautifully green.

6. Drain the vegetables, melt the butter in the pan, return the vegetables to the pan and roll them around in the butter till sizzling.

7. Tip the vegetables into a dish and sprinkle with chopped herbs.

Main photo: A tatin of new potatoes. Credit: Kerrin Rousset

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Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Travelers who spend more than a few weeks in Italy likely will find themselves around a local family’s dinner table, sipping homemade liqueur.

Initially invented for medicinal purposes by 13th-century Italian monks, liqueurs (liquore in Italian) have become a source of regional pride, with Italians still drinking and customizing those original recipes today.

In Montelupo, a small town located on the lush, hilly outskirts of Florence, a trio of Italian herbalists have spent the past 15 years sorting through the bounty of Tuscan gardens to create fresh, updated versions of this quintessential Italian drink.

The group, improbably called the Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese (Natural Mycological Group of Empoli), originally formed to go wild mushroom hunting. This being Tuscany, however, they quickly were drawn to the abundant wild herbs, flowers and fruit — lemons, kumquats and apricots – that thrive in their backyard gardens. That soon led the trio to developing liqueurs.

AUTHOR


Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

Limoncello, anise liqueur

Like all good Italians, founding members Pietro Terreni and Nicola Daraio grew up sipping anise liqueur at weddings and limoncello on visits to the Amalfi Coast. Member Andrea Heinisch, originally from Germany, enjoys limoncello and has been crafting variations of it since joining the group 10 years ago. For these three, making a liqueur presents a unique opportunity to be traditional and innovative at the same time.

Liqueur is typically made by infusing near-pure alcohol with natural flavors, then adding ingredients to sweeten the drink and dilute the alcohol content. Nearly every region in Italy produces a distinctive drink that uses local, seasonal fruits and herbs.

The simplicity of this basic liqueur recipe encourages creativity by even the most timid mixologist; and it is wonderfully adaptable to every environment and season.

Terreni sees the use of seasonal fruit as integral to the drink’s lingering aroma. “You have to pick your flavoring materials at the right moment,” he says, “because the summer sun and air all become part of the liqueur in the end.

“When I was little, we used to take fruit to our local pharmacy, where they would prepare it with pure spirits,” Terreni remembers. “Then, during winter when it got really cold, we would have a little glass of this liqueur with a few of the fruits or berries in it.”

Go natural

The group claims their liqueur blends retain their flavor and color longer than supermarket-made brands, because the group’s artisanal preparation methods call for the use of nonsynthetic flavors and colors. Natural ingredients hold up better once the bottles are opened. (Traditionally, Italians keep their liqueur in the freezer and pull it out when visitors arrive.)

Each member of the group has his or her own favorite recipes. For example, Daraio favors anything made with fennel (“good for digestion”) and a family recipe for orange-coffee liqueur. Heinisch has experimented with fruits as well as herbs that grow on her property. She recommends fresh mint (with about 1½ tablespoons of anise seeds), thyme (combine with 3 whole cloves, use equal measures of white wine and neutral alcohol and let it infuse for two months), rosemary (use white wine with 2 ounces of neutral alcohol, plus 2 teaspoons of lemon zest), and honey with a profusion of herbs (recipe below).

The three herbalists agree, however, that there is nothing quite like sipping homemade limoncello straight from the freezer after a leisurely lunch on a hot summer day. As the group surveyed the woods near Heinisch’s house, they contemplated ingredients for future concoctions, perhaps using rosehips and lavender. And that illustrates what makes a great liqueur: creativity, experimentation and locally grown ingredients.

Rather than sell what they make, the group exchanges batches — and recipes — with friends.

Tips from the experts

Advice for creating your own liqueur:

  1.  Use fruits, herbs and spices that are free of chemicals. It is best if these items are grown away from roads or grazing pastures, where they could be contaminated by vehicle exhaust, pesticides or animal waste.
  2.  Use ingredients that are in season, for maximum freshness.
  3.  Keep preparation areas and tools, including cutting boards, free of other flavors and chemicals. Jars and bottles should be made of glass and rinsed well. Make sure towels and filtering products (a cheesecloth or metal strainer are best) are cleansed of soap and bleach. (“When I first started,” Heinisch says, “I made the mistake of trying to filter with a regular, clean dish towel. The laundry soap dissolved with the alcohol, and the liqueur tasted like my soap.”)
  4.  Store liqueur in the freezer for best taste and texture.
  5.  In Italy, liqueur are usually made with 190-proof alcohol.

 

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From left, Andrea Heinisch, Nicola Daraio and Pietro Terreni discuss the art of infusing flavor into alcohol.

Cream of Wild Fennel Liqueur

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: About 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

This recipe comes from Nicola Daraio, who brought it to Tuscany from the southern Italian resgion of Basilicata. It tastes like caramel. Substitute water for the dairy and it is more refreshing but a little less indulgent, suitable for the end of a particularly large meal. Total time does not include 3 days to infuse flavor.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
  • Whole leaves and a few stalks of wild fennel; the leaves and stalks should just be covered by the alcohol
  • 4 cups pasteurized skim milk
  • 1 ⅔ cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash and dry the wild fennel. Place the fennel in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid. Cover the fennel with the alcohol and let sit for three days.
  2. Put the milk and sugar in a steel pan, bring to a boil for about 5 minutes, then let cool.
  3. Filter the infused alcohol, mix with the milk-and-sugar mixture, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

Lemon-Saffron Liqueur

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes (plus 15 days to infuse flavor)
Yield: About two quarts

Andrea Heinisch created her lemon-saffron version of limoncello as a winter counterpart to the traditional lemon-only recipe. The cinnamon and clove are classic holiday flavors, while the saffron balances out the tang of the lemons, creating a complex drink that warms you, even when poured straight from the freezer.

Ingredients

3 organic, in-season lemons
2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 whole clove
10 threads of saffron

For the simple syrup:

1¼ cup sugar
2½ cups water

Directions

  1. Wash the lemons, then zest them, taking care to get only the yellow rind, as the white pith is bitter.
  2. Place lemon peels and spices in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid and add the alcohol.
  3. Infuse for eight days in a dry, dark place, gently shaking the jar once a day.
  4. Make the simple syrup by boiling the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves.
  5. After eight days, add the syrup to the alcohol and lemon peels. Let mixture sit for another eight days in a cool, dry, dark place continuing to gently shake the jar once a day.
  6. Filter, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

 

Honey Herb Liqueur
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes (plus six days to infuse the herbs)
Total Time: 20 minutes (plus six day to infuse the herbs)
Yield: 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

Each Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese member has a variation of this liqueur, which recalls the drink’s original medicinal purpose. Consider this a boost for the immune system, with a sweet, herbal taste. As much as possible, use fresh herbs.

Ingredients

3½ cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
½ cup honey
6 basil leaves
5 St. John’s Wort leaves
6 culinary sage leaves
Leaves from 3 small stalks of rosemary
6 mint leaves
6 black tea leaves
6 lemon tree leaves
6 bay leaves
6 chamomile leaves
6 juniper berries
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the simple syrup:

3½ cups water
3 cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash the herbs carefully, place them in the alcohol for six days, turning the container a few times each day.
  2. After six days, make a simple syrup by heating the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves, then add the honey as the mixture cools.
  3. Mix the liqueur mixture and the simple syrup, filter the infused alcohol, place in a fresh bottle, store in the freezer.

Main photo: Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

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