Articles in Recipes

Polenta pasticciata, in

Corn polenta has traveled the globe to become a staple in world-class restaurants. Yet for more than 400 years, it sustained the peoples of Italy’s poor northeastern regions. Its origins go back even further, to the pulmentum of the Romans that was a mainstay of the commoner. Prior to the 17th century — before corn was transplanted to Italy from the New World — this porridge was made from hulled and crushed grains of various kinds, including farro (also known in English as “emmer”), barley and millet as well as chestnut, fava bean or chickpea flour.

Polenta as a staple

After maize took firm root in the soils of northern Italy, it became the primary staple. It wasn’t eaten fresh but rather dried and ground into polenta. For four centuries, it alone kept the wolf from the door for the common people in Veneto and Lombardy. In the 1800s, it became fashionable for the wealthy to eat it until it was ubiquitous at every meal, accompanying virtually every dish, as bread does today in other regions.

The poor ate it plain — there was often little else to eat. The upper class added condiments to it or made it into elaborate baked dishes called pasticci. Eventually, cornmeal infiltrated central and southern Italy, including the island of Sardinia, where my ancestors ate it with tomatoey stewed lamb tripe or layered with meat sauce and sheep’s cheese, much like lasagna, in a baked dish called polenta pasticciata.

In its simplest guise, polenta is served “loose” as a side dish, like its close cousin, the grits of the American south. It can be flavored simply with a dribble of olive oil or butter and Parmigiano cheese for a dish called polenta unta. Cooks in Italy’s Alpine regions like to slather it with soft cheeses such as runny gorgonzola dolce or taleggio. Often, it provides a bed for soaking up the tasty juices of cooked meats (such as sausages) or vegetables, for instance sautéed mushrooms. Or it might be turned out onto a marble slab, allowed to set, then cut into pieces that have countless uses. When fried or grilled, they become crostini di polenta, polenta “toasts.” For pasticciata, the squares are layered with a sauce and topped with cheese before baking, much like lasagna.

Traditional and modern cooking methods

Cooking polenta in the traditional copper paiolo is still a daily ritual in some parts of the polenta belt (Veneto, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Lombardy), though restaurant chefs typically replace the wooden stirring tool, called a bastone, with an electric stirring mechanism that attaches to the pot. For home cooking, a sturdy wooden spoon will do, provided it has a long handle to prevent splattering and/or burning your hand. (The whisk is not commonly used in Italy, but I have found that a heavy professional grade one is ideal for turning out a fine, lump-free polenta.) You’ll also need a heavy-bottomed pot.

But the real secret to perfect results lies not so much in the equipment as in the method. Continual stirring in one direction (clockwise, according to tradition) transforms cornmeal into billows of creamy golden polenta. The addition of the grains in a slow, steady stream a pioggia, “like rain,” assures that they are incorporated smoothly. If the polenta seems to be drying out before it is cooked, a little boiling water is added to keep it soft and easy to stir. Polenta is ready when it pulls away easily from the sides of the pan with the spoon. (The COOK’s test kitchen developed a microwave technique that requires minimal stirring to accompany an article I wrote in 1989 that received much attention, and some years later, Marcella Hazan published a recipe titled “Polenta by No-Stirring” in her book “Essentials of Italian Cooking,” which produces good results. I recently asked Victor Hazan, the late author’s husband and collaborator, about it, and he explained the derivation of the method. See my post on Forktales for the details.)

Polenta may be yellow or white, depending on the maize variety. Both are milled into fine or coarse grinds. The fine type is preferred for loose polenta. The coarse grind produces pleasantly gritty, rustic-style polenta that the Italians say can be sensed sotto i denti, “under the teeth.” It is ideal for cutting into pieces, as described earlier. (Note that the American type of cornmeal typically used for muffins or cornbread is not interchangeable with polenta; it is a different product entirely and will produce an inedible, cement-like porridge if cooked in water.)

Nowadays, there is another factor to consider. “Instant” polenta, which is pre-cooked before it is dehydrated, has virtually replaced the long-cooking kind — even in Italy. Although one can get it on the table much more quickly, it doesn’t compare to the richly flavored, silky original that can take 40 minutes or more to cook. Like so many “new and improved” foods, convenience is put ahead of quality and flavor. However, quick-cooking polenta does work well in dishes with several components, so you can have success making my maternal grandmother Giulia’s polenta pasticciata with either variety. Nonna Giulia Esu died long before I was born, but her recipe for this provincial Sardinian dish was one of her jewels that was passed down by my mother.

Nonna Giulia’s Polenta “Lasagna” With Pork and Red Wine Ragù

Note: The finest pecorino (sheep) cheeses are produced in Sardinia, Lazio and Tuscany. You can find the young, semi-soft varieties at most fine cheesemongers; alternatively, you can substitute Spanish Manchego as directed.

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: About 1 hour

Total time: About 2 1/4 hours

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the sauce:

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, minced

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 carrot, chopped

1 small celery stalk with leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon pulverized fennel seeds

1 pound ground pork

½ cup good-quality dry red wine

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 (35-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained, seeded and chopped, juices reserved

3 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

For the polenta:

7 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

2 cups fine- or coarse-grained imported Italian yellow polenta or “quick-cook” polenta

Olive oil for preparing work surface and baking dish

To assemble:

1/2 pound semi-soft pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna (or Manchego aged three to six months), shredded

Directions

For the sauce:

1. Warm the oil in a skillet. Stir in the onion, garlic, carrot and celery and sauté over medium-low heat until vegetables are soft, 12 to 15 minutes.

2. Add the fennel seeds, pork and continue to sauté until the meat colors lightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Stir in the wine and allow to evaporate (about 1 minute).

3. Dilute the tomato paste in a few tablespoons of the reserved canned-tomato juices and add it to the skillet, followed by the tomatoes with another 1/2 cup of the reserved juices, basil and salt. Stir well. Partially cover and simmer over the lowest possible heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently. The sauce should become thick and fragrant. If it seems to be drying out, add a few more tablespoons of the reserved tomato juices.

For the polenta:

1. While the ragù is simmering, bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. (Keep a kettle of boiling water on the back burner should you need extra.) Add the salt.

2. Stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon, add the polenta in a slow, constant stream to prevent lumps from forming. Simmer, stirring constantly, until the polenta is very thick and creamy and pulls away from the side of the pan, about 40 minutes. If you are using quick-cook polenta, you may need to add a little boiling water to ensure that it doesn’t get too thick. (You can also cook it longer than the instructions specify in order to obtain a creamy consistency — up to 20 minutes or so, adding more boiling water as needed.)

3. Use a rubber spatula dipped into hot water to spread the polenta out into a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Let set until cooled completely and firm, about 15 minutes. Cut into even 3-inch-by-4-inch rectangles; set aside. Lightly oil a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.

To assemble:

1. Heat the oven to 450 F.

2. Arrange half the polenta pieces on the bottom of the baking dish. Top them with half of the sauce and spread to cover. Sprinkle half the cheese over the sauce. Repeat with another layer of sauce, followed by the remaining cheese. Bake until heated through and the cheese is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into pieces and serve.

Main photo: Polenta pasticciata, in “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul,” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books). Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

Read More
Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast. Credit: David Latt

The pursuit of a healthy diet is frequently lamented as an exercise in deprivation. Often the ingredients that must be given up are ones that delight the palate and excite the soul. Chef Paul Fields saw no such deprivation when he signed on to be the chef at the upscale, gluten-free Inn on Randolph in Napa, California. He serves a breakfast of Beluga lentils with roasted vegetables, sausage and a poached egg.

The Napa Valley is renowned for quality vineyards and award-winning restaurants. The city of Napa is less well-known. Recently in the news because of an earthquake that caused considerable damage in the downtown commercial district, the city is reviving and becoming a locus for inventive chefs and quality accommodations.

Fields is one of those chefs drawn to the valley’s bounty of agricultural products. He prides himself on being a good purveyor. He collaborates with local farmers and has a garden on the property so the produce he cooks comes fresh and organic to his kitchen. For him, no matter what a guest’s dietary restrictions might be, his goal is to create nutritious, well-plated delicious meals.

In search of a breakfast that would do just that, Fields turned to an old favorite: lentils.

Hungry guests about to begin a day of wine tasting, cycling or hiking in the valley need a hearty meal. Often regarded as low on the culinary totem pole, lentils are a heritage legume, mentioned in the Bible and served around the globe as a source of low-cost protein that is rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. It is cultivated in a rainbow of colors and sizes including the Red Chief, the brown Pardina, the Crimson and the French Green. For his signature breakfast dish, Fields uses the glossy black Beluga lentil.

Fields accomplishes a bit of magic with what some might call the most prosaic of ingredients — a handful of lentils, a carrot, a piece of squash and an egg. A combination of contrasting flavors and textures, the dish is delicious and visually beautiful, a good way to begin the day.

Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast

In addition to being gluten-free, the dish can be vegetarian-vegan when the butter, sausage and egg are omitted.

The organic Beluga lentils that Fields uses come from the Timeless Food company based in Conrad, Montana. To add heat without spiciness, dried cayenne peppers cook along with the lentils and charred onion.

Adding to the convenience of the dish, the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausages may be cooked beforehand and reheated just before serving. Only the poached egg should be prepared at the last minute.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, roughly chopped

1 whole dried cayenne pepper

1 cup black Beluga lentils

2 1/2 cups water

4 carrots, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, cut on the bias or into rounds

1 cup squash (butternut or acorn), washed, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch chunks or long slabs

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 sausage links, chicken apple sausage or use what you like from your local market

1 tablespoon sweet butter

5 tablespoons sherry vinegar, divided

4 large eggs

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, heated over a low flame, reduced to 1 tablespoon

2 tablespoons micro-greens (kale, chives, pea shoots), washed, dried and Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped

1/2 cup parsley leaves, washed, dried, roughly chopped

Directions

1. In a large saucepan or small pot, heat ½ tablespoon olive oil. Sauté the onion over medium heat until lightly charred. Add dried cayenne pepper and continue sautéing 5 to 6 minutes. Add lentils and water. Stir well.

2. Bring to a simmer and cook for 25 to 35 minutes uncovered or until the lentils are a little softer than al dente. Set aside.

3. Preheat oven to 450 F. Toss carrots and squash with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, season with sea salt and black pepper.

4. Place on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat sheet or parchment paper. Using tongs, turn after 10 minutes and cook about a total of 15 to 20 minutes or until al dente. Remove and reserve.

5. Large sausages can be prepared whole, in which case the skin should be punctured all over with a sharp paring knife so the sausages do not swell during cooking, or cut into 1/2-inch rounds or 2-inch bias-cut pieces. Heat a sauté pan over a medium flame. Place the sausages into the pan and sear on all sides, using tongs to turn them frequently. When the sausages are cooked, remove from the pan, drain on a paper-towel-lined plate and reserve.

6. Heat a large sauté pan. Transfer the lentils from the pot to the sauté pan. Simmer to reduce the liquid by half. Add butter and combine with the lentils’ broth to create a sauce. Stir well.

7. Add 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar to brighten the flavors. Taste and adjust the flavors using sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a bit more butter and vinegar. The sauce should be thick, so, if needed, simmer a few minutes longer to reduce excess liquid.

8. Fill a medium-sized sauce pan or a small pot with a quart of water. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons vinegar, which will help coagulate the egg white around the yolk. Bring to a simmer.

9. If the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausage have been prepared ahead, reheat.

10. Open an egg, being careful not to break the yolk. Stir the hot vinegar water before sliding in the egg. The gentle vortex helps shape the egg.

Cook 3 1/2 minutes for a loose yolk and 4 1/2 to 5 minutes for a medium yolk. Fields suggests using a kitchen timer so the eggs do not overcook.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the poached egg from the water and drain on a paper towel for 2 to 3 seconds.

11. If possible, heat the plates. Drizzle or use the back of a spoon to mark each plate with a small amount of the reduced balsamic vinegar, which is not only decorative but adds another layer of sweet-acidic flavor.

12. Put the carrots into the pan with the lentils and toss well to coat with the sauce. Place the squash on each plate. Spoon the lentils and carrots onto the squash. Add the sausage and top with the poached egg.

13. Dust with sea salt and black pepper. To add color and a little crunch, sprinkle micro-greens and chopped Italian parsley leaves on top. Finish with sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil.

Serve hot.

Main photo: Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast. Credit: David Latt

Read More
Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry

“Chicken with cheese”: The words conjure up visions of that college-student standby, the fried-chicken melt. But poulet au fromage is something quite different — something elegant and perfectly delicious.

Exemplifying the cookery of early 18th-century France, long before the famous chef Marie-Antoine Carême came along and codified haute cuisine, the recipe appears in “Nouveau Traité de la Cuisine,” Published in the 1740s by a writer who used the pen name Menon. (Note that it wasn’t until the 20th century that chefs regularly began to publish their recipes while they were still fashionable; before then, chefs typically didn’t reveal their secrets until after they’d retired. So published recipes tended to represent the cuisine of an earlier era.)

Haute cuisine standards

Anyway, poulet au fromage is a delightful dish with a family resemblance to the 19th-century haute cuisine standard veal Foyot. In both cases, meat is simmered with broth and white wine and then baked under a covering of Gruyère (or Swiss) cheese; the ingredients meld into a concoction with a savory, sophisticated flavor.

But there are differences (besides the obvious fact that veal Foyot contains veal, which is expensive and troubles some people on ethical grounds). Poulet au fromage includes a substantial amount of herbs, which was more characteristic of French food in the 18th century than it was in the 19th (and is perhaps a little more to our present-day tastes). And it does not include fried minced onions, as veal Foyot does. If you felt like discreetly sprinkling some lightly fried onions on the chicken before adding the final cheese layer, however, I would be willing to close my eyes.

Menon’s recipe calls for a whole chicken, but the chickens of his day were younger and therefore more tender than those we can conveniently get in our supermarkets. I substitute chicken breast; to make up for the slight loss of flavor due to the absence of bones, I tend to add a bit of bottled chicken base.

Properly, the herbs should be added in the form of a bouquet wrapped in cheesecloth. But if you do that, you have to transfer everything to a saucepan, because in a frying pan the liquid will nowhere near cover the bouquet. It’s therefore more convenient to add all the herbs loose; given that are no other ingredients in the cooking liquid, they’re easy enough to strain out later.

Poulet au Fromage

Prep time: About 20 minutes

Cook time: About 1 1/2 hours

Total time: About 1 hour 50 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken breast

2 ounces butter

3/4 cup dry white wine such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc

1/2 cup chicken broth

3 sprigs parsley

2 shallots, sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

3 whole cloves

1 bay leaf

2 small sprigs fresh thyme

3 leaves fresh basil

Salt and pepper

1 pound Swiss or French Gruyère cheese, grated

Directions

1. Remove any bones and skin from the breasts, pound them with a kitchen mallet to flatten and cut them into pieces 1 1/2- to 2-inches square. Melt the butter in a large pan and fry the pieces in two batches until lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

2. Add the wine, broth, parsley, shallots, garlic, cloves, bay leaf, thyme and basil along with salt and pepper to taste. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, loosely covered, for 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 475 F.

3. Remove the meat from the pan. Strain the cooking liquid and transfer half of it to a 2-quart casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the cheese, add the chicken pieces and the rest of the cooking liquid, and top with the remaining cheese. Cover the baking dish tightly and bake until the cheese is entirely melted, 10 to 12 minutes.

4. Raise the temperature to 500 F, remove the cover from the casserole and return to the oven until the cheese has begun turning brown in spots, 5 to 7 minutes.

 Main photo: Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry

Read More
Passion fruit. Credit: iStock/Kesu01

It was in Hawaii that I got my first exhilarating taste of passion fruit. The Maui market vendor’s knife expertly sliced through the mauve skin at the top of the egg-sized fruit, revealing bright orange innards that reminded me of salmon roe. He quickly carved the sliced-off cap of the fruit into a scoop, and dipped it into the glistening orange mass to offer me a taste.

The first thing I noticed was the intoxicating tropical floral aroma. Then, at the first contact with my tongue, came the explosion of bright clean citrus with just enough sweetness to cut the sour. In the tangy gelatinous goo were many small crunchy seeds, which provided a nice textural contrast.

One slurpy bite led to another until the mauve skin was an empty eggshell. But I craved more, and so bought a whole bag of passion fruit, known as liliquoi in Hawaii, and snacked on them the rest of the day.

Later I learned that the passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) is native to South America, probably originating in the southern region of present-day Brazil. It was there, in the 16th century, that Spanish Catholics named it Flor de las cinco llagas, flower of the five wounds. Other missionaries expanded on this, and saw in the beautiful flower’s parts a way to teach indigenous people about the torture (passion) of Christ. The five anthers at the tip of the male parts represented the five wounds of Christ, the vine’s tendrils were the whips, the three female stigmas the three nails in Jesus’ hands and feet, and the 10 petals and sepals were the apostles, excluding Judas (for obvious reasons) and Peter (for not so obvious ones).

High in vitamins

Although the missionaries saw violence and suffering in the passion flower, its huge and elaborate blossoms have more pleasure than pain in their voluptuous beauty. The showy corolla highlights the architecture at the center, where the prominent female parts (stigmas and styles) float over the top of the male stamens. And the fruit that develops from this gorgeous flower is full of goodness — high in vitamins A and C, potassium, dietary fiber and iron.

Passion fruit in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman

Passion fruit in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman

For all its goodness, however, like so many plants and animals introduced into the delicate Hawaiian ecosystems, the passion fruit had invaded all of the Hawaiian islands a mere 50 years after it was introduced in 1880. Due to a plant virus, and high labor costs, the few passion fruit farms disappeared shortly after they were planted. Although there are no commercial passion fruit plantations in Hawaii today, the vines can still be found in people’s yards and in wild areas, and the fruits are used extensively in foods and drinks. During my Hawaii sojourn, I had the pleasure of drinking fresh liliquoi juice, and also indulged in passion fruit cheesecake, jelly, smoothies and margaritas.

While passion fruit grows well in California, Florida and other southern states, it generally can’t take the cold winters of the temperate zones. The one exception is the Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), which is native to North America, and is the state wildflower of Tennessee. The most cold-hardy of the passion fruit family, it grows well in zones 7-11, and even as far north as zones 5-6, if you mulch it heavily before winter.

Shop around

The name Maypop might have come about because the plant pops out of the ground in May and dies back in winter, ready to pop out again in May. Others say the name comes from “maracock,” which was the Powhatan Indians’ name for this plant.

Passion fruit.

Passion fruit. Credit: Terra Brockman

If you live in the southern U.S., especially California or Florida, you will most likely be able to find passion fruit at your local farmers market. You also have a good chance of finding them in the produce section of ethnic grocery stores. If you strike out, you can find frozen passion fruit pulp in many grocery stores, or order it online.

Or you can grow your own. The vigorous, vining plant is often used as an ornamental screen, or can provide shade cover on a pergola. With its showy flowers and delicious fruit, what’s not to be passionate about?

Passion Fruit Smoothie

The bright, strong taste of passion fruit makes it a great addition to any smoothie. It’s especially good with creamy, custardy fruits such as mango, banana or cherimoya.   Of course, you can use whatever fruits or greens you have on hand, but here’s a starter recipe.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: About 2 servings

Ingredients

3 passion fruits
1 banana
1 cup cubed apples, pineapples or other fruit
2 cups spinach or other greens
8 ounces coconut water, orange juice, or other juice

Directions

Cut the passion fruits in half and scoop all of the innards into the blender. Add all the other ingredients and blend. Because passion fruit has a lot of seeds, use a powerful blender at its highest speed to get a smooth smoothie.

Main photo: Passion fruit. Credit: iStock/Kesu01

Read More
Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: It doesn’t get any respect. It gets a bad rap. Cabbage never gets mentioned as one of the hip vegetables like kale. It’s not a super-vegetable like broccoli rabe. It’s not an adorable vegetable like baby Brussels sprouts. It’s not a “cool” vegetable. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned. I mean, they make sauerkraut from it.

All those cooler vegetables just mentioned, though, owe their existence to cabbage. The big green head we associate with cabbage today was not always what cabbage was. Today there are hundreds of varieties of cabbage that have developed from the progenitor cabbage, called the wild cabbage, including the many forms of cabbage and further horticultural developments such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoliflower, broccoli rabe and kohlrabi.

Botanists divide the cabbage into five groups. It is the head cabbage, green, red, crinkly-leafed or Savoy cabbage, that I’m speaking of. But there are some 400 varieties of head cabbage.

The cabbage is probably native to the Mediterranean, but in Roman times the head cabbage we think of as cabbage today did not exist. The Romans had only leafy cabbage, probably kale. There are some obscure references by Roman naturalists Pliny and Columella to what has been taken by some to be head cabbage. These descriptions refer to heads of the plant being a foot in diameter, but it is not at all clear whether this refers to a compact headed cabbage that we know today or is simply an expression referring to the above ground portion of the plant.

The wealthy citizens of Rome, in the period after Cato the Elder (mid-second century BC), thought of cabbage as poor people’s food as we know from the description in Juvenal’s satire when he described the difference between the food that the patron ate, namely olives to garnish an excellent fish, and the food of the client, who finds cabbage in his “nauseous dish.”

It seems that the head cabbage we know today was developed in Germany in the 12th century. Soon it would be the single most common plant in the medieval garden.

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

It’s not a popular vegetable today, but it is a vegetable that does draw the curious cook. The most obviously intriguing thing to do with cabbage is to separate the leaves and then stuff them by rolling them up. There are many great preparations for cabbage from sauerkraut, to kimchi, to coleslaw, and every culture has a recipe for stuffed cabbage. Here are two recipes for cabbage lovers from cabbage-loving Slovenia and Croatia, next door to Italy.

Braised Cabbage

Cabbage is a very popular vegetable in the Balkans, served raw, in the form of sauerkraut and cooked in a variety of ways. In the northern part of the former Yugoslavia, today’s Slovenia and parts of Croatia, cabbage may be cooked with sour cream or tossed with noodles and smoked bacon. In Bosnia or Montenegro, it might be cooked with tomatoes. This recipe from Slovenia is typically served as a bed for a roast duckling.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water

1 cup dry white wine

One 2-pound green cabbage, cored and sliced as thin as vermicelli

15 peppercorns

8 juniper berries, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the bay leaves and cook until they begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and very carefully add the tomato paste and wine, which will spurt and splatter rather dramatically.

2. Continue cooking for a minute then add the cabbage, peppercorns, juniper berries and thyme. Mix so the cabbage is covered with sauce.

3. Add the lemon juice and continue to braise over medium heat until the cabbage softens, 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the cabbage is completely soft, about 45 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

These cabbage rolls are a winter specialty known as arambašici in their home of Sinj, a town near the Dinaric Alps on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Traditionally, this casserole of stuffed cabbage leaves is made from a whole head of cabbage that has been prepared as sauerkraut. Each sauerkraut leaf, or as in this recipe cabbage leaf, is stuffed with beef, pork and bacon, and flavored with lemon zest, onion, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Each roll-up is separated from the other with pieces of pršut (Croatian prosciutto) and smoked tongue.

Arambašici can be made with fresh cabbage leaves or grape leaves, too. My recipe uses fresh cabbage, which is the easiest to find and is what a cook from Sinj would use in the summer. Many cooks also like to make the casserole in the evening and then reheat it the next day, and you should consider doing that as it is delicious.

The casserole cooks a long time so the meats are very tender and the cabbage leaves become silky. The smoked bacon, smoked pork, smoked tongue and prosciutto can all be picked up at the deli counter of most supermarkets.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 4 hours

Yield: 20 to 26 rolls, or about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 large green cabbage (about 2 3/4 pounds), central core removed

1 1/4 pounds boneless beef neck meat or beef chuck, finely chopped

5 ounces smoked bacon (preferably) or lean slab bacon, finely chopped

2 ounces beef fat (suet), finely chopped

6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or neck meat, finely chopped

2 large onions, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Grated zest from 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or beef fat for greasing

One 4-inch-long beef marrow bone (optional)

1 ounce smoked pork (any cut), finely chopped

2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced into strips

2 ounces smoked tongue (optional), thinly sliced into strips

1 cup water and more as needed

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 300 F.

2. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt and plunge the whole cabbage in and cook until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the beef, bacon, suet and pork. Add the onions, garlic, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well with your hands.

4. Arrange a cabbage leaf in front of you with the stem end closest to you. Place 2, 3 or 4 tablespoons (depending on the size of the leaf) of filling on the end closest to you, then roll away once, fold in the sides and continue rolling away until you get a nice, neat package.

5. Continue with the remaining cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls side by side, seam side down, in a lightly greased 13- x 9- x 2-inch casserole (you may need to use two casseroles), making sure you leave some room for the beef marrow bone. Sprinkle the chopped smoked pork over the cabbage rolls.

6. Place the prosciutto and smoked tongue slices (if using) between the cabbage rolls. Pour the water over the cabbage rolls and cover with aluminum foil. (The casserole can be refrigerated at this point to bake later.)

7. Bake until the cabbage rolls are very soft, slightly blackened on top and bubbling vigorously, about 4 hours.

8. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature and serve as an appetizer the next day.

Main photo: Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Read More
Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty -- rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery -- is part of the celebration of the beginning of the harvest season known as Makara Sankranti in India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Celebrations, festivals and food are prolific on the Indian calendar. With life’s hustle and bustle, I tend to weed out those that are difficult to fit in or lose their symbolism in our transported life in the United States.

Sankranti — marking the launch of India’s harvest season — usually is one of them.  But a coconut changed my mind this year.

Sankranti refers to the passage of the sun from one Zodiac sign to another. On Jan. 14, this transition happens from Capricorn to Aquarius, called Makara on the Hindu calendar. Makara Sankranti marks the beginning of the “auspicious” period for Hindus when non-devotional activities — such as festivals and weddings — can be held after a month-long “inauspicious” period dedicated to devotional activities alone.

It’s also the beginning of longer days. I believe that a modicum of practicality is rooted in many such traditions and longer days — especially in times when there was no electricity — made for more enjoyable festivals.

Practicality also put an end to my irreverence toward Sankranti this year.

How cracking a coconut changed my attitude

In my house, I had a fresh coconut that I had forgotten about, just in time for the January festival. I broke open the coconut, an action that is believed to bring good luck. As I looked at the pristine white meat that rested on my shelf in all its glory, I realized the fortune it brought me: an opportunity to celebrate Sankranti as it is traditionally done in my native Bengal. With pithey: warm, gooey rice and coconut dumplings.

In Bengal, the colloquial name for the Sankranti festival is pithey parbon, or the festival of the pithey. Pithey is a sweet dumpling that is either steamed or fried and typically made with rustic ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty: rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery – an unrefined brown sugar made from date palm sap.

The process of extracting date palm jaggery is similar to tapping maple syrup, and I often use maple syrup instead. It is not as deeply flavored, but closer than other sweeteners that I have easy access to. The ingredients, despite their simplicity, result in delightful delicacies that are time-consuming but well worth the effort.

Depending on the chef’s enthusiasm and energy, an assortment of these are made for friends and family.

I have fond memories of my grandmother and her sister making these for the family, as I often interrupted their progress by sneaking in and stealing handfuls of sweet, freshly grated coconut or moist and sweet golden jaggery that left my hands sticky and warm.

Pithey traditions in Bengal

The first batch of pithey is usually placed in a container and floated into the river or offered at a temple in an attempt to appease the harvest gods.

In rural Bengal, the farm community begins the day with an homage to the barn and dhenki, or rice storage urn. The women throw a handful of rice over their heads as an offering to the gods, and the urn is welcomed as a symbol of prosperity and hope for a good harvest.

Living with the vagaries or nature, most predominantly the monsoon, this community is respectful about the importance of a good and successful harvest. There are a number of other rituals, such as tying the barn doors with hay and decorating the house. All are practiced in hope of a good harvest.

For the Makara Sankranti festival, some Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

For the Makara Sankranti festival, Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration for Indian festivals. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

When I cracked open the coconut this year in my home, the thought of the warm, sweet dumplings it could bring me held the promise of all things good on that frigid day.

It is easy to find frozen grated coconut in the aisles of our local ethnic supermarket. However, if you are looking for something comforting on a chilly winter day, consider picking up a whole coconut and grating it yourself to use in my recipe for Gokul Pithey, adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”

Gokul Pithey — Bengali Coconut Dumplings in Golden Syrup

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time:  40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 12 servings, about 12 dumplings

Ingredients

For the syrup:

1 cup dark maple syrup

1/2 cup water

2 to 3 cardamoms

For the fritters:

1 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut

3/4 cup grated jaggery or raw cane brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder

1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)

1 cup all-purpose white flour

1/3 cup rice flour

1/2 cup milk

Oil for frying, such as grape seed or canola oil

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, bring the syrup, water and cardamoms to a simmer for 10 minutes until a thick syrup is formed.

2. While the syrup is cooking, in a separate pan heat the coconut, jaggery, and cardamom powder on low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes, until a fragrant sticky mixture is formed.

3. Add the ghee and lightly fry the mixture until it turns pale golden. Remove from heat and allow it to cool.

4. Shape into walnut-size balls and flatten them slightly.

5. In a mixing bowl, beat the flours and milk into a thick batter, adding a little water if needed. (The batter should be thick enough to adhere to the coconut balls.)

6. Heat some oil in a wok on medium heat. Dip a coconut ball in the batter and place into the oil, cooking a few at a time.

7. Cook on medium low heat until a golden, crisp coating is formed, turning once.

8. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and dip into the syrup. Let the balls rest in the syrup for about 2 minutes, then remove and serve hot.

Main photo: Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery,  is often served during the celebration of the Indian harvest festival known as Makara Sankranti. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Read More
Spaghetti in a red wine sauce. Credit: Emanuele Lombardo

Sicily is “one of the most exciting wine regions of the world,” according to New York Times chief wine critic Eric Asimov. Robert Parker in Food & Wine magazine named Sicily one of the next emerging wine regions. Sicily’s sunny, hot, dry climate and rich volcanic soil is ideal for wine. Wine has been made in Sicily since ancient Greek times. But in recent years a handful of winemaking families and companies have renewed the vineyards, updated winemaking technology and changed the production from the island’s famed Marsala wine to other world-class table wines.

Stemmari Wines, owned by the Trentino-based Mezzacorona wine company, is one such winemaker. “There is not just one terroir in Sicily,” winemaker Lucio Matricardi explains. “Sixty-two percent of the island is hills where the sun and winds create different opportunities for winemaking. Stemmari has been able to protect and cultivate indigenous grapes like Nero d’Avola and Grillo as well as bring in international varieties like Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio.”

Stemmari, the second winery in Italy to earn eco-management certification, uses green practices throughout the production process to preserve local ecology and ensure quality wines for years to come.

I’m especially fond of Stemmari’s Nero d’Avola, with its deep ruby red color, hints of violet and an irresistible fragrance of strawberries with ripe black cherry notes and lovely mineral undertones. It is velvety, soft and fruity, and goes wonderfully with almost any food. It also is the main ingredient in Spaghetti al Nero d’Avola, a simple-to-make, luscious pasta dish.

Instead of boiling the pasta in water until al dente, this time-honored Sicilian recipe finishes cooking it in red wine. The result is spaghetti with splendidly fruity tartness and lovely mahogany color. The trick to this dish is to add the wine only a few tablespoons at a time, so that it thickens into a glorious, deliciously fruity sweet glaze.

Red wine is added to a spaghetti sauce.

To make spaghetti in red wine sauce, slowly add the wine and toss the spaghetti frequently. Credit: Emanuele Lombardo

Spaghetti in Red Wine (Spaghetti al Nero d’Avola)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings*

Chef Maurizio Botta, of Vecchia Cantina Baroni in Siracusa, Sicily, adds a modern twist to this centuries-old Sicilian recipe and serves it topped with ricotta, garnished with crisp frizzled leeks and sliced almonds for crunch.

Ingredients

1/4 cup ricotta

Salt

Black pepper

Nutmeg

Olive oil

1/2 pound spaghetti

1 small leek, finely sliced

1 cup Nero d’Avola, plus more if needed

2 teaspoons sugar

Pecorino cheese

Sliced almonds

Directions

1. Mix the ricotta, salt, pepper, freshly grated nutmeg to taste, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a bowl until combined. Set aside.

2. Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water for 3 minutes, then drain.

3. Meanwhile, in a frying pan large enough to hold the pasta, fry half of the leek in 2 tablespoons of olive oil on high heat until dark golden, about 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels.

4. Add the remaining leek to the pan, lower the heat to medium, and cook until very soft, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the wine and the sugar and stir to combine. Toss in the par-cooked spaghetti, raise the heat and stir constantly, adding the remaining wine only a few tablespoons at a time. Toss the spaghetti frequently, keeping the heat high, so the wine is absorbed into the pasta. Cook until the pasta is al dente, adding more wine if needed. Stir in 2 tablespoons of grated pecorino until fully incorporated, then taste and season with salt, if needed, and pepper.

5. Top each serving with a dollop of the ricotta mixture, some fried leeks and a sprinkle of almonds.

* Note: This recipe is best prepared in small servings to properly develop the wine glaze. If making enough for 4 to 5 servings, double the ingredients and use two pans.

Main photo: Spaghetti al Nero d’Avola is made with one of Sicily’s red wines and topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese. Credit: Emanuele Lombardo

Read More
extra virgin olive oil potato chips

Spain is a country loved by culinary cognoscente for its extraordinarily diverse range of classics and creativity. But in every restaurant and every casa, there remains one constant ingredient: olive oil. Core to the much-acclaimed Mediterranean diet, its use is so prevalent that olive oil’s healthy values seep into everything. But it was still a surprise when I encountered “extra virgin” potato chips available in pharmacies here, which unlike their U.S. counterparts generally sell only medicine and skin-care products.

Potato chips condoned by medical experts? I needed no more encouragement to go out and test my options. I gathered four chip brands from Spanish grocery stores and the one from the pharmacy, all advertised as “made with olive oil” — most with an alluring cruet of olive oil on the package. A few brands claimed to use 100% olive oil, but only the pharmacy-stocked San Nicasio brand qualified their chips and the oil they fried them in as “extra virgin.”

San Nicasio went a step further, specifying the D.O. of both the olive oil and the potatoes (seriously, a Denominacion of Origen for potatoes?), the low-sodium Himalayan pink salt and the temperature at which the chips were fried in one of the most award-winning oils in the world, made by Almazaras de la Subbetica of Cordoba, Spain. The company clearly was fanatical about the quality of the chip. That all sounded intriguing but it was now time for the true measure — a blind taste test.

First, the smell test for freshness. As most olive oil fans know, olive oil is best when fresh and three environmental factors will have a negative effect on smell, taste and physical qualities: oxygen, light and excessive heat or cold. Rancidity is usually the most obvious signal that the oil has lost its best values. If you’ve ever smelled a stale jar of peanuts or worse yet, bit into one, you know the telltale flavor.

The selection of tested Spanish olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

The selection of tested Spanish olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Cracking open one bag at a time and taking a deep whiff revealed that some brands were past their prime, giving off a flat, almost mechanical aroma or slightly rancid smell, obviously fried with poor-quality oil. Two samples, one from the in-house Hacendado brand of Spain’s largest grocery chain, Mercadona, and San Nicasio had a nice, light aroma of potatoes and the San Nicasio chips smelled of fresh olive oil. It wasn’t until later that I learned the San Nicasio brand seals their airtight bags with nitrogen to avoid having the oil’s quality be degraded by exposure to oxygen. This attention to detail obviously worked.

Next, I evaluated visual cues of color, size and thickness. Two appeared darker and overcooked, the Hacendado and Lay’s Artesanal chips were almost too perfectly platinum blond and the San Nicasio brand was a fairly rich, natural yellow color. From an “eat with your eyes” perspective, I was drawn again to the rich-colored chips.

Finally, the true test of a potato chip: its flavor and crunch. Being all about the same thickness, they each delivered on the crunch test. But the real divide was apparent in the taste. I was looking for lightly salted, true potato flavor and a clean finish that would indicate quality olive oil. I’ll admit the Lay’s Artesanal came in a solid second for lightly salted flavor and crunch and being the largest chip manufacturer in the world, it should have enough experience to deliver the goods. But after all that testing, the San Nicasio chip I found in the pharmacy won across all categories. Healthy, flavorful and downright yummy.

Do you need a prescription from your doctor to indulge in San Nicasio chips? Not likely. But for fans of these thin, crispy wafers, you can at least tell yourself that they’re a health food.

Potato chips and eggs, a Spanish tapa.

Potato chips and eggs, a Spanish tapa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Fried Eggs and Chips

Prep time: 0 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 appetizer servings

Like elsewhere in the world, potato chips are most frequently enjoyed as a side snack to a midday meal or a sporting event. But in Spain, they are often included in scrambled eggs for mid-morning breakfast or paired with fried eggs for a rich tapas experience.

I first tried this dish presented by Spanish chef María José San Román while at Nancy Harmon Jenkins‘ Amorolio event in Tuscany and thought it a stroke of genius. I later discovered it’s a long-standing classic Spanish tapa for the home table. I’ve tried them both ways, but I’m partial to the liquid egg yolk and crispy-edged white atop the whole gooey mess.

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil, 1/4-inch deep in saucepan

2 whole eggs

1 7-ounce bag of best-quality salted potato chips (In the U.S., chef José Andres sells the San Nicasio brand under his own label.)

Directions

1. Heat olive oil until just below smoke point.

2. Gently pour in whole eggs and cook until the white edges are crispy and the yolks still liquid.

3. Plate with a thin layer of chips, topped by the eggs. Break the yolks and sprinkle with more potato chips, giving the dish a gentle mix to incorporate.

Main photo: Extra virgin olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Read More