Articles in Recipes

Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni With Chitterlings). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Virtually everyone who has been to Italy has been to Rome, but not everyone who has been to Rome has had Roman cuisine. Most of the famous foods of Rome, such as pizza, fettuccine alfredo or spaghetti carbonara, either were invented for tourists or came from elsewhere.

The Romans eat in a way that is nearly hidden from the tourist. Their meals are heavy on offal and first-course pasta dishes.

Italian cookbook author Anna Gosetti della Salda boldly declared “la cucina romana doesn’t exist,” but I’m not sure I agree. She goes on to explain that it can’t be said to exist because “no Roman ever created those masterpieces of culinary art that are the pride of almost all other regional cuisines of Italy. Despite this the fact remains incontestable that you eat well in Rome and the food is good and almost everywhere.”

Paolo Monelli, who was one of Italy’s most distinguished journalists, was also honest in his appraisal of the cuisine of Rome, declaring it “the most plebeian that exists in the peninsula; flavorful, of course, aggressive, multicolored, but rural, created by the taste of goat-herders, of cowboys, buffalo herders, and the incivility of the recipes from the ghetto.”

The most succinct summation of la cucina romana, although insipid, was that of food writer Ada Boni who said that “la cucina romana è una cucina semplice, sana, nutrient e saporita” (Roman cuisine is a cuisine that is simple, healthy, nutritious and flavorful). A dish of pasta and offal would be an example.

‘Fifth’ quarter of the cow

Pride of place of a dish that strikes to the soul of Roman cuisine is rigatoni co’ la pajata, a unique recipe made from the small intestine of the suckling calf. In Romanesco dialect, rigatoni co’ la pajata (or pagliata) can be translated as rigatoni with chitterlings. It is probably the most unique dish of Rome utilizing a component of the quinto quarto, the “fifth” quarter of the cow (that is, the head, tail and offal). It is without doubt a dish derived from cucina povera, the cuisine of the poor.

It is made from cow or calf chitterlings, that is, the duodenum, the small or first part of the intestine where the enzymatic breakdown of food occurs. Roman gourmets call for beef believing that beef is more flavorful than veal.

However, unique to the dish is the fact that although the intestine is washed and thoroughly cleaned, the chyme is not removed so when it is cooked there is a rich, creamy and slightly sour taste mixed with the tomatoes of the sauce. The chyme is the semiliquid mass of partially digested food that passes from the stomach through the pyloric sphincter into the duodenum of the cow. The process of cleaning the duodendum is quite laborious because one does not want to lose the chyme, but that is the job of the butcher and the cook merely has to prepare the dish.

For four to six people you need 4 pounds of chitterlings. In the United States you will probably have to use pork chitterlings and those from Louis Foods are ideal. Lardo is cured pork fatback (not lard, which is called strutto in Italian) and can be found in better supermarkets such as Whole Foods and in Italian markets. Some domestic American companies are also making lardo.

Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni with Chitterlings)

Prep time: About 10 minutes

Cooking time: 3 3/4 hours

Total time: About 4 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

One 5-pound package cleaned pork chitterlings, cut into 4-inch pieces

1 tablespoon pork lard or olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced

1 celery stalk, chopped

1/4 pound lardo, prosciutto fat or pancetta, or a mixture of the three, chopped

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups dry white wine, separated

One 28-ounce can tomato purée

Bouquet garni, tied with kitchen twine, consisting of 10 sprigs parsley and 1 sprig rosemary

1 clove

2 1/2 cups water

1 pound rigatoni

1/4 pound Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano cheese, freshly grated

Directions

1. Place the pork chitterlings in a stockpot, cover with water, bring to a boil over high heat and boil for 1 hour. Drain; once cool, cut into pieces half the size and set aside until needed.

2. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the lard over medium heat, then cook, stirring, the onion, celery, lardo and garlic until soft, about 6 minutes. Add the chitterlings, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until sticking to the bottom and turning light golden, about 6 minutes. Add 1 cup wine. Once the wine evaporates, add the tomato purée, bouquet garni, clove and water. When the liquid starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring and moistening with the remaining white wine until tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The sauce should be dense though, so continue cooking if necessary.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta to a large serving platter and spoon the chitterlings and sauce over it; serve with the cheese.

Main photo: Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni With Chitterlings). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

Although cauliflowers are sold in our supermarkets all year round, this beautiful member of the wild cabbage family (Brassica oleracea) is at its bright and healthy best in early spring. Cauliflowers harvested at that time have had the benefit of a longer growing season (about 80 days, instead of 50 days for their summer-grown counterparts), allowing their valuable nutrients more time to develop.

The cauliflower, whose name derives from the Latin caulis (stem) and floris (flower) is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers. The edible part of the plant, the head of tender stems and flower buds, is known as a curd. Similarly to broccoli and calabrese (close relatives), the cauliflower stores nutrients for the developing flowers at the base of the buds, so a fresh, crisp curd is packed full of vitamins and minerals. Its Latin botanical name, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis (meaning cluster, or grapelike), is an apt description of this remarkably clever vegetable, which grows with a protective layer of leaves curled around its head.

Hats off to the French, though, for giving cauliflower (chou-fleur, or cabbage-flower,) a prettier, and horticulturally more correct name, than the rather pedestrian Anglo-Saxon “flower on a stalk.”

Mysterious origins

There is disagreement over the origin of the cauliflower. Some say it was developed by 11th century Arab gardeners, or by Romans a thousand years earlier. But the wild cabbage grew throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean and, with its tendency to produce “freaks,” prototypes of the cauliflower probably originated spontaneously in different places. Curious gardeners have since, through seed selection, improved nature’s work and we are now reaping the benefits.

Medieval Italian kitchens and, later, those of Louis XIV of France, served stylish and elegant cauliflower dishes. Catherine de Medici is said to have appreciated the lovely vegetable, and to have introduced it to France to help alleviate arthritis. But its earlier French name, chou de Chypre, suggests it arrived from Cyprus and Cypriots are, understandably, happy to claim its origin. For the past 200 years, the cauliflower has been a popular winter vegetable in northern Europe, but without its former prestige in serious kitchens. Until now.

Hardly humble

With cauliflowers piled high in our markets, this inexpensive and highly nutritious brassica is at last losing its humble status and taking its rightful place on our tables. A reputation for being bland and soggy is the fault of the cook, not of the cauliflower. Its very gentleness is the perfect foil to many fine flavors, and it takes only a few minutes to cook.

“Organic” and “local” have real meaning when selecting cauliflowers: snails, aphids and caterpillars love them, so pesticides are often used and, once harvested, their nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly. Most cauliflowers are attractively creamy-white, but we also have wonderfully colorful varieties. Buy cauliflowers that smell and look fresh, with deep-green, outer leaves and tight heads; avoid brown-spotted white ones, or dull-looking purple, yellow or green heads. Size doesn’t affect flavor, but age does: older cauliflowers taste and smell stronger.

Richer in vitamins and minerals than any other brassica, cauliflowers are an excellent source of vitamin C, folic acid and potassium; a very good source of niacin, copper, manganese and vitamins A, K, B5 and B6; and a good source for protein, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamins B2 and B3. Raw, they are even better.

Avoid nutricide

Cauliflower cooks quickly: Keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. After this time, cauliflower loses 20% to 30% of its phytochemicals; after 10 minutes, 40% disappear. Where possible, cook in ways that don’t commit nutricide – in soups and stews, grilled or baked. In its wonderful ability to host spicy flavors, some of the best preparations for cauliflower can be found in the kitchens of the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean. With winter soon drawing to an end, it’s time to enjoy the vegetable that has spent the past three months developing the nutrients we need to take us into a healthy spring.

The cauliflower is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers.

Cauliflower cooks quickly: keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

 Simple Greek ways to serve

  • Serve raw or lightly-steamed small florets with a dip of mashed anchovy, capers, herbs, and olive oil or with hummus, small radishes and young wild green leaves.
  • Mix thinly sliced cauliflower florets and fine-julienned carrots with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, lightly chopped flat-leaf parsley, and Greek oregano (rigani ).
  • Dip small florets in a light garbanzo-flour batter and gently fry the fritters in olive oil; serve with olive oil and lemon juice mayonnaise, olives, and lemon wedges.

Cauliflower à la Greque

À la Greque (French for “in the Greek style”) describes a method of cooking, one that presumably a French cook/traveler admired and added to his/her own kitchen repertoire. There are many versions of this popular dish, but most are a pale imitation of the original Greek creation. Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find and, for a lightly spiced dish, prepare two hours ahead; for a more mellow taste and texture, leave overnight in the marinade.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 12 minutes

Total time: 17 minutes

Yield: 8 for a meze serving, 4 as a vegetable dish

Ingredients

4 cups small cauliflower florets

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons dried coriander seeds

1 cup dry white wine

3 bay leaves

1/2 tablespoon aromatic honey such as Hymettus

1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns

Coarse-grain sea salt to taste

For serving:

4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon lemon zest, in very thin strips, optional

Lemon wedges

Directions

1. Trim most of the stem from the florets and cut an “x” in the base of each with a small sharp knife. Blanch 1 minute in boiling water, drain, and set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the coriander seeds and florets in a single layer and stir with a wooden spoon to coat with the olive oil. Add the wine, bay leaves, honey, pepper and salt. Bring just to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until tender.

3. Transfer the contents of the pan to a nonreactive bowl and set aside until cool. Cover the bowl and shake it gently to redistribute the marinade.

4. To serve, taste the marinade. If more salt is needed, combine with the parsley. Transfer the cauliflower to a shallow serving bowl and pour over most of the marinade (strain it first, if you prefer). Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest and serve with the lemon wedges.

Main photo: Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

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Orecchiette are easy to make. Credit: Copyright 2015 Christine B. Rudalevige

My children have favored orecchiette since they realized they could suction these little ear-shaped pasta to the roofs of their mouths. Demonstrating this titillating feat to other eaters violates both the no-playing-with-your-food and the no-talking-with-your-mouth-full dinnertime rules, certainly. But nonetheless, the ticklish sensation and noisy release of said suction always reduces the table to giggles.

From the cook’s point of view, the cupped-shaped pasta nestle bits and pieces of chunky, quickly thrown-together sauces inside their curves for flavor surprises throughout the meal. And the somewhat chewy texture gives eaters more satisfaction than short weeknight dinner prep times typically provides.

Until a month ago I always bought dried orecchiette, literally translated from the Italian as ear (orecchio) plus small (etto). That was true until chef Ilma Jeil Lopez showed me how easy these little suckers are to make. Lopez and her husband, chef Damian Sansonetti, own Piccolo, a tiny but trendy Italian restaurant in Portland, Maine, where they make all of the pasta they serve.

Orecchiette go from raw ingredients to swimming in the sauce in about 30 minutes flat. Truly, I kid you not.

Orecchiette is the easiest pasta in the world to make, chef Lopez told a group of adult students who had traipsed through knee-high snow banks into her restaurant early on a cold Saturday in January to glean from her information about cooking and baking with different types of flours.

Step 1: Measuring the ingredients

Lopez’s recipe for orecchiette requires only four ingredients: equal parts “00” flour (very finely ground soft wheat flour), semolina flour (a courser ground durum wheat flour typically used to make dried pasta) and water (Lopez suggest 225 grams of each flour and 225 milliliters water), and a generous glug (about 10 milliliters) of flavorful olive oil. The recipe includes no eggs to complicate the matter like most other fresh pasta formulas.

Step 2: Making the dough

The ingredients are combined in a bowl, kneaded into a ball on a clean surface until the dough is smooth inside and out, and rested for 5 minutes.

Step 3: Forming the little ears

Chunks are sliced from the dough, rolled into snakes, sliced into thumbnail-sized pieces, and deeply indented with a fingertip. That last bit is meditative if you do it alone, or works as a good distraction while trying to extract information out of your teens. Either works for me.

Should you want to make a double batch, fresh orecchiette freeze well. To do that, spread them out on a sheet pan and freeze them on the pan first. Once they are frozen, you can put them in plastic bags.

Step 4: Making the sauce

Orecchiette’s roots are in the southern Italian region of Puglia, where they are dressed in a simple sauce of blanched broccoli rabe that is cooked in the same water as the pasta, sautéed garlic and red chilies, and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Chef Lopez served her students orecchiette with a mélange of pre-roasted vegetables, browned butter, orange zest and shaved Parmesan. I like mine best with a pancetta-driven carbonara sauce as it comes together very quickly.

Step 5: Cooking the pasta

Handmade orecchiette cook in a boiling pot of heavily salted water. They do you the courtesy of floating to the surface when they are ready to eat, which typically takes only 2 to 3 minutes.

Easy cleanup

One of the bonuses of this type of pasta comes on the flip side when cleaning up. Other than sprinkling a baking tray with a skim coat of semolina flour to house the orecchiette while they await their turn in the pot, there is no extra flour to coax out from between the rollers of a pasta machine, wipe off the counter, sweep up from the floor, or shake off your clothing.

From the quick start to the easy finish, what’s not to love about these cute little ears, even on a weeknight?

Orecchiette With Roasted Vegetables and Brown Butter

This recipe is one adapted from what chef Ilma Jeil Lopez, who owns Piccolo in Portland, Maine, taught cooking class students how to use the orecchiette they made so easily with their own hands.

Prep time: 25 minutes (plus 30 minutes if not using pre-roasted vegetables)

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes (60 if not using pre-roasted vegetables)

Yield: 4 generous servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes

1 cup roasted cauliflower, roughly chopped

1/2 cup greens, sautéed in olive oil, roughly chopped

1/2 cup roasted tomatoes, roughly chopped

1/2 cup roasted eggplant, roughly chopped

1/4 cup sautéed onions, roughly chopped

Salt and pepper

1 pound orecchiette

Orange zest

1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

Directions

1. Place a large pot of salted water over high heat.

2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. The butter will foam and then start to brown.

3. When it starts to brown, stir in red chili flakes. Cook for 15 seconds and then stir in cauliflower, greens, tomatoes, eggplant and onions.

4. Stir gently until sauce is heated through. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Cook orecchiette (2 to 3 minutes if fresh, according to packaged instruction if dried) in the large pot of salted water.

6. Drain pasta and add it to sauté pan. Gently stir. Check to see if it needs additional salt and pepper.

7. Grate orange zest over pasta and top with cheese shavings. Serve immediately.

Main image: Orecchiette are easy to make. Credit: Copyright 2015 Christine Burns Rudalevige

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Main photo: Black-Eyed Peas Salad. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

I used to think of black-eyed peas as a purely American food, much loved in the South. Despite the time I spent living in Austin, I’ve never made them the way Texans do, using ham hocks or salt pork for flavoring, and I’ve had more than one run-in with staunch traditionalists who have challenged — even berated — my vegetarian approach.

Even now that I’m not a strict vegetarian (albeit it’s the way I eat most of the time) I prefer black-eyed peas that have not been simmered with pork products. I love their earthy depth of flavor and I have never thought, “Gee, these would be really great if they just had some pork to flavor them.” They have plenty going for them on their own.

As I’ve researched the cuisines of the Mediterranean over the years, I have learned that these beans are an important staple in that part of the world, especially in Greece and North Africa. They are the backbone of some of my favorite Mediterranean dishes.

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa. According to cookbook author and Zester contributor Clifford A. Wright, they had arrived in the northern Mediterranean by about 300 B.C. and were cultivated by the Romans. The beans traveled to South America with the slave trade, but they came to North America via the Mediterranean. They are much loved in Greece, where they are stewed in abundant olive oil, often with greens, or used in lighter salads or bean dishes and seasoned with wild fennel, mint, dill and parsley.

In Tunisia, a country with a rich repertoire of vegetable stews or tagines where you are not likely to see pork with beans (because of Muslim dietary rules), black-eyed peas are simmered with abundant spices, vegetables like greens and fennel, and lots of fresh herbs — cilantro, parsley, mint. The spicy bean tagines are ladled over couscous. These dishes are complex, with an array of seasonings — harissa, caraway and coriander seeds, cumin and garlic.

But my favorite black-eyed peas are the ones that I make year after year. I cook the beans with onion, garlic and bay leaf, then toss them while warm with a cumin-infused vinaigrette, chopped bell peppers, and lots of cilantro. The balance of flavors is perfect. It’s a traditional good-luck dish on New Year’s Day, but it never fails to leave me feeling optimistic about the future — no matter the time of year.

Black-Eyed Peas Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette

You can serve this salad warm or chilled. I often make the beans several days ahead, marinate them in the vinaigrette, and add the chopped pepper and cilantro after I reheat the beans in the vinaigrette.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish

Ingredients

For the beans:

1 medium onion, cut in half

1 pound black-eyed peas, washed and picked over

2 quarts water

2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced

1 bay leaf

Salt to taste

For the dressing and salad:

1/4 cup red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

1 garlic clove, minced

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 teaspoons lightly toasted cumin, ground

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup broth from the beans

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large red bell pepper, diced

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Combine the onion, black-eyed peas and the water in a soup pot or Dutch oven and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any foam from the surface of the water. Add the garlic, bay leaf and salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons). Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Taste and add more salt if desired. Cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until the beans are tender but not falling apart. Remove from the heat. Remove onion halves and bay leaf. Carefully drain the beans through a colander or strainer set over a bowl and transfer to a large salad bowl. Measure out 1/2 cup of the bean broth.

2. In a pyrex measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, and mustard. Whisk in the bean broth, then the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir the dressing into the warm beans. Stir in the red pepper and cilantro, and serve, or allow to cool and serve at room temperature.

Greek Black-Eyed Peas With Wild Fennel

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish

Ingredients

1 pound black-eyed peas

1/4 cup olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups wild fennel leaves, chopped

1 15-ounce can tomatoes, drained and pureed in a food processor

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Additional chopped fennel for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Wash and pick over the beans. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and fennel leaves and cook, stirring, for a minute, until the garlic is fragrant and the fennel beginning to wilt. Stir in the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the black-eyed peas and enough water to cover by an inch, and stir together. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 30 minutes.

2. Add salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons) and freshly ground pepper, and continue to simmer until the beans are tender, another 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve warm or hot, garnished with additional chopped wild fennel if desired.

Couscous With Black-Eyed Peas and Chard

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours

Total time: up to 2 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

Chard stalks, diced

4 large garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted and ground

1 teaspoon caraway seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 cups black-eyed peas, rinsed

2 tablespoons harissa (or more to taste; substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper if harissa is unavailable), plus additional for serving

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Salt, preferably kosher salt, to taste

1 to 1 1/2 pounds Swiss chard, stemmed, washed thoroughly in 2 changes of water, and coarsely chopped

1 large bunch parsley or cilantro (or a combination), stemmed, washed and chopped

2 cups couscous, reconstituted and steamed until fluffy and hot

Directions

1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy casserole or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt, the chard stalks, garlic and ground spices, and stir together for about a minute, until the garlic is fragrant. Add the black-eyed peas and 3 quarts water, and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add the harissa or cayenne, the tomato paste and salt to taste, cover and simmer another 15 to 30 minutes, until the beans are tender and fragrant. Strain off 1/2 cup of the liquid and set aside to add to the couscous when you reconstitute it.

2. Stir in the chard a handful at a time, allowing each handful to cook down a bit before adding the next. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes, until the chard is tender and fragrant. Stir in the parsley and/or cilantro and simmer another few minutes. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt, garlic or harissa as desired.

3. Reconstitute and warm the couscous while the black-eyed peas are cooking. Shortly before serving, transfer to a wide serving bowl, such as a pasta bowl, or directly to wide soup plates. Spoon on the black-eyed peas and greens with plenty of broth, and serve, passing additional harissa at the table.

Main photo: Black-Eyed Peas Salad. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner's sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl

When it comes to Carnival, overindulgence is the whole point: too many parties, too much booze and, in just about every Catholic country, great platters of fried sweet dough.

Carnival doughnuts are omnipresent across Catholic Europe and parts of the Americas. In Lyon and Strasbourg, France, square yeast-raised beignets are made for the holiday; in Spain you will find rosquillas de carnaval (a dense, doughnut-shaped treat) and all sorts of other buñuelos; in Italy each region has its own fritelle di carnevale. The one-word explanation? Lard.

Christians were supposed to abstain from meat products for the 40 days of Lent, and doughnuts were traditionally fried in hog fat. As every good Catholic knows, you need to sin before you can repent. So, if you’re going to spend six weeks restraining your urges, you might as well make a good reason for it.

European doughnuts: happy excess

For ordinary people, doughnuts became associated with happy excess during a time when all the rules of their miserable existence could be inverted, when a measly diet of stale bread was replaced by mountains of fresh-fried doughnuts.

But few are as obsessed with Carnival or fried dough as the Venetians. Year round, you can find delicious krapfen (jelly doughnuts) there, but in the lead-up to Lent, the fried dough repertoire increases exponentially. Bakery windows are full of frittelle di carnevale, which depending on the pastry shop, take two very different forms: airy yeast-raised fritters chock-full of raisins, pine nuts, citron and, occasionally anisette or grappa (see recipe); or fried cream puffs that enclose a variety of creamy fillings.

I can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Europe’s doughnut orgies take place in the depths of winter. The sugar and the fat are better than any high-tech undergarment.

I had a chance to test this out during a ski trip to Innsbruck even as Fasching (Carnival) was reaching its delirious peak. Here, in the alpine Tyrol, locals celebrate by parading through the streets in masks worthy of a Brothers Grimm nightmare and by eating mountains of Faschingskrapfen, or Carnival doughnuts. Even as I got off the train, I was greeted with stands loaded down with plump raised doughnuts, some filled with preserves, others with custard, chocolate cream or even eiercognac, a boozy eggnog custard.

According to my friend, Austrian food historian Ingrid Haslinger, they’ve been frying up these yeast-raised pastries here for centuries. In the days when sugar was a luxury reserved for princes, the mountain folk would dip their krapfen into bowls of prune and apple butter. Now everybody can indulge in the sweet-filled variety.

I was pleased to find piles of Carnival doughnuts even at the mountaintop ski lodge. In these harsh conditions, they are not merely a snack but rather lunch itself. Following the lead of local skiers, I sat down to a spicy goulash soup as appetizer and continued with doughnuts for my main course (one filled with apricot and the other with chocolate, if you must know). Winter never felt so right.

The perfect pre-Lent indulgence

The doughnut as Carnival food, something that you gorge on before the gray days of Lent, isn’t entirely an alien concept in the United States. The Pennsylvania Dutch keep a firm grip on the centuries-old tradition of frying up enormous batches of Fastnachts in anticipation of Ash Wednesday just like their ancestors did in southwest Germany and parts of Switzerland. The Fastnacht is typically a yeast-raised doughnut (sometimes with potato added) cut in the form of a diamond, often slashed and opened in the center to allow it to cook faster and a larger surface area to get crisp.

You find similar recipes in Alsace and neighboring regions today. Fastnacht (literally “fast night”) is a German word for Shrove Tuesday and in the parts of the old country, these Carnival pastries were (and are) called Fastnachstküchle. The plain folk there shortened the name but kept the recipe and at least the doughnut part of the pre-Lenten tradition; Carnival is certainly not the festival of folly that it can be in Catholic Germany.

One rule that is universal, though, no matter where you find the doughy treats and regardless of name: Too much is never enough. You’ll have plenty of time to repent.

Frittelle veneziane (Venetian Carnival Fritters)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 4 to 6 minutes per batch

Yield: About 2 dozen

Ingredients

2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) golden raisins

1/2 cup anisette liqueur

1/4 ounce (1 packet) active dry yeast

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tepid water

1 large egg

9 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Large ping (1/8 teaspoon) salt

1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) pine nuts

1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) chopped candied citron

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Oil or lard for frying

Confectioner’s sugar

Directions

1. In a bowl, combine the raisins and anisette. Cover with plastic wrap and soak at least 4 hours or overnight.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the water and yeast. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the egg. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, granulated sugar and salt.

3. Using a paddle attachment, beat the flour mixture into the water-yeast mixture on low speed. Beat 5 minutes on medium to make the batter very smooth — it should be somewhat thicker than pancake batter.

4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm location. Let stand until the batter has doubled in volume,  45 to 60 minutes. Stir in the raisins, pine nuts, citron and lemon zest.

5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil to 350 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer and are without a built-in thermostat, check the oil temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.

6. Lightly oil 2 tablespoons, then scoop about 2 tablespoons of batter in one spoon and slide it off with the second. A small oiled ice cream scoop works well, too. Fry about a half-dozen at a time, turning occasionally until cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool — enough so you can pick them up. Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. The frittelle are best served warm. Leftovers can be frozen and reheated in a 350 F oven.

 

For more on doughnut history, check out Michael Krondl’s most recent book: “The Donut: History, Recipes and Lore from Boston to Berlin.”

Main photo: Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl 

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Barley, Chanterelle Mushroom and Pinot Noir Risotto -- elegant, simple, delicious. Credit: ©TheWeiserKitchen

Some ancient grains get all the press. Quinoa, freekeh, and spelt are the darlings of the food world these days, especially in the United States — and rightfully so, since they were ignored for millennia. But one ancient grain seems to lag behind: barley. Plain ol’ barley never makes a Top 10 list. It needs a spunky dance partner and great choreography to be seen. Mushrooms have often been its companion for comfort food — think of all the savory mushroom-barley soups. But wild mushrooms, exotic and even more flavorful than the cultivated variety while still just as earthy as barley, may serve as the most perfect partner of all.

During the chill of January, foraging for comfort food is often a search for simple, earthy foods — like barley and mushrooms. But these foods can also be rich and elegant, intriguing and satisfying, old and new. Sometimes all it takes is one little change to make a comfort-food dish special.

Barley and mushrooms, ancient foods

Barley is no newbie to the food scene. There is no way to overstate its importance in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant (present-day Iraq and the Middle East). Wild barley was an integral part of the human diet, so much so that it became a domesticated crop. It was the basis for a key everyday comestible that is still popular today: beer.

In Europe by the Middle Ages, barley was the flour of poor man’s bread and the filler in Scotch broth. It was — and remains — a common food for livestock. Notwithstanding the changes in the world around it, domesticated barley is, in essence, a simple whole grain with plenty of nutrients. And it has countless culinary benefits.

There is a good reason why barley’s long time partner is the mushroom.

An ancient, originally wild food, mushrooms are fungi, and are incredibly healthy — high in B and D vitamins, selenium, copper, potassium and antioxidants that appear to protect DNA at the cellular level. Some of these benefits can be found in common button mushrooms and their close cousins, baby bellas, criminis and portabellos. But mushrooms are more than that. They are a natural flavor enhancer. All mushrooms contain glutamic acid, a version of the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Wild mushrooms, or those that were once wild and are now cultivated (called “exotic” by growers), burst with all of these benefits. No wonder wild ones have been popular across Europe, Asia, the United States and India for centuries. Each variety of wild mushroom has its individual charms. The one I used for this mushroom-barley risotto is the chanterelle.

Chanterelles, a sexy and mellifluous a name for fungus if there ever was one, evokes images of five-star French chefs cooking up lavish, sophisticated and warming dishes. To many a chef and connoisseur, chanterelles — golden and floral, earthy and fragrant — are in the same pantheon as morels and truffles. Chanterelles have even been considered male aphrodisiacs, with the 11th-century Normans in Britain serving them at wedding feasts to the grooms. Widely found in both Europe and the United States, fresh in season and dried year-round, the lightly peppery, softly fruity chanterelle is an ideal candidate to gussy up the Plain Jane barley.

The wine that links all the flavors

The element that can put it all together? A wine born from the same soil as those wild mushrooms. Barley risotto style is now a restaurant mainstay. But when the mushrooms in the risotto are the prized chanterelle and the wine is Willamette Valley — what you have is dinner alchemy.

Willamette Valley, Oregon, where chanterelles have long grown wild and are now cultivated, is a well-regarded region for producing fine grapes and even finer wines. The Pinot Noir grapes grown in the Willamette Valley are characterized by robust notes of black raspberry and bogs, of vanilla and cloves. The old cooking adage “if it grows together it goes together” is certainly true with Pacific golden chanterelles and Willamette Pinot Noir. Pairing these two is not for the faint of wallet. But the cost of the barley balances that out a bit.

And that wine — ooh — that wine is the essential link tying, literally binding, the mushrooms to the barley. All together, chanterelles and barley become something genuinely soul satisfying. The flavors and textures support and encourage each other, revealing the best they can offer. Perhaps that is what a plate-mate, a bowl-mate and soulmate should always be.

Barley Risotto With Fresh Chanterelles and Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

This special-occasion dish is impressive to serve and even better to eat. It showcases a classic Italian cooking technique applied to humble pearl barley and highlights the quality and unique flavors of fresh wild chanterelle mushrooms. The result is extravagantly delicious and memorable, worth every penny and every stir.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as a meal, 6 as a starter

Ingredients

2½ cups low-sodium mushroom broth

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 large shallots, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice

Leaves of 6 sprigs fresh thyme, minced (about 2 teaspoons, see Kitchen Tips)

1 cup pearl barley

2 cups Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (see Kitchen Tips)

1 pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms, sliced, cut into bite-size pieces

1 large fresh bay leaf

½ teaspoon kosher salt (see Kitchen Tips)

1 (7-ounce) package fresh baby kale, thinly sliced

½ cup freshly grated Gruyère cheese

¾ cup sour cream or crème fraiche

1 teaspoon truffle salt (see Kitchen Tips)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, bring the mushroom broth to a simmer.

2. Meanwhile, in a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the butter and heat until it melts. Add the shallots and thyme, stir to coat, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 to 3 minutes, until the shallots are translucent and the edges are just beginning to brown. Add the barley and cook, stirring to coat, for 2 minutes.

3. Increase the heat to high, add the wine, and cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until it has been fully absorbed into the barley. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the mushrooms and bay leaf, and stir well.

4. Add 1/2 cup of the warm mushroom broth and cook, stirring for 4 to 5 minutes, until the liquid is almost absorbed. Add the salt and stir. Continue adding the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and cook, stirring continuously but gently for 2 to 3 minutes, until it is nearly absorbed into the barley. Repeat until all the mushroom broth is used.

5. Cook for about 30 minutes more, until the barley is al dente. Add the kale, stir well, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the leaves are completely soft. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the Gruyère cheese and sour cream. Remove from the heat, remove the bay leaf, sprinkle with the truffle salt and pepper, and stir well. Spoon into wide, shallow bowls and serve immediately.

Kitchen Tips

1. To remove the leaves from a sprig of fresh thyme, hold the sprig (or a few) at the top with one hand, and with the other hand, grasp the stem with your thumb and forefinger and gently slide your fingers down the stem. The leaves will be pushed against the direction they grow in, and will come off easily.

2. For more information about Pinot Noir grapes and wines: http://www.pinot-noir-wines.com/

3. If you don’t have low-sodium mushroom broth, you can omit this extra salt.

4. Salt to which very small pieces of dried truffle have been added is called truffle salt. It is used to add richer flavor.

Main photo: Barley, Chanterelle Mushroom and Pinot Noir Risotto — elegant, simple, delicious. Credit: ©TheWeiserKitchen

 

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When your husband loves risotto, lobster and steak, Lobster Risotto and filet mignon offer a great twist on surf and turf. Credit: Carole Murko

Nine years ago my husband was diagnosed with celiac disease. The diagnosis was a godsend as his symptoms displayed evidence of something much worse. When the test results were in, we celebrated. We were also quite giddy that he would become well again with the elimination of gluten. What a fabulous prognosis — no drugs, just elimination.

In an interesting twist of fate, our Icelandic mare, Valkyrie, had birthed a foal on the same day as Jim’s diagnosis. We named her Gaefa, which means good luck and good fortune, both of which we felt were in ample supply.

Nine years ago gluten intolerance and celiac disease were not yet mainstream. As you might imagine, stripping my pantry of wheat was both a joyous and sad day for me. Afterall, my one-half Italian being craved homemade pasta, breads and treats. But my sweetheart’s disease was not a death sentence. It was a mere inconvenience. And, I, by golly, would master gluten-free cooking. And I have.

Myriad gluten-free foods

There are myriad foods that are naturally gluten free. Take risotto for one. Steak for another. Greens. Fruits. Chocolate. The list goes on and on.

Here is a perfect gluten-free Valentine’s Day Dinner. My sweetie is happy, and so am I!

Lobster Risotto

Filet Mignon

Arugula Salad With Balsamic Vinaigrette

Flourless Chocolate Cake

I like to create menus that reflect both my culinary acumen, and the love I have for the recipients. There truly is nothing, and I mean nothing, better than watching someone relish what you have cooked for them. This menu is tailored to Jim. He loves risotto, he loves lobster and he loves steak. These recipes provide a great twist on surf and turf as the lobster risotto makes a lovely side to the filet mignon. The arugula salad complements the meal by adding a peppery green, dressed with a sweetish balsamic vinaigrette.

Make sure you leave room, because this flourless chocolate cake will knock your socks off. Happy Valentine’s Day! With love, Carole

Lobster Risotto

Risotto is one of the simplest and most versatile of dishes. And while I provide this recipe as a guide, keep in mind you can make risotto without the white wine, with onions if you don’t have shallots, or with just butter, just olive oil and with many different “add-ins.” To celebrate Valentine’s, however, nothing beats lobster.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 20 to 30 minutes

Total time: 40 to 50 minutes

Yield: 3 to 4 servings

Ingredients

1 (1 1/2-pound) lobster (have it steamed at the fish counter to save you a step)

1/2 stick butter

1/2 cup of shallots or onions

1 cup Arborio rice

1/2 cup white wine

4 cups chicken broth, heated

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon fresh pepper

2 teaspoons freshly chopped thyme

Directions

1. Remove meat from lobster, cut into bite-size pieces.

2. Heat butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, add shallots and cook until tender.

3. Stir in rice and stir until coated with oil about 2 minutes.

4. Add the wine and stir until the wine is cooked off and absorbed.

5. Add the broth one ladle at time, stirring constantly until the broth is absorbed. Continue adding broth until rice is fluffy, tender and creamy.

6. Add the Parmesan, lemon juice, pepper and thyme.

7. Fold in the lobster, serve when lobster is warm.

Lobster and filet mignon are the beginnings of a delicious Valentine's Day dinner. Credit: Carole Murko

Lobster and filet mignon are the beginnings of a delicious Valentine’s Day dinner. Credit: Carole Murko

Stove Top Filet Mignon

Prep time: 2 to 3 minutes

Cook time: 8 to 10 minutes

Total time: 10 to 13 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Four 1/2-pound filets

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

Cast iron pan

Directions

1. Bring meat to room temperature.

2. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Heat olive oil and butter on high in cast iron pan.

4. Add filets.

5. Cook 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare filets.

In keeping with all the buzz about the aphrodisiac effect of chocolate, a flourless (hence, no gluten) chocolate cake is the perfect ending to a Valentine's Day dinner. Credit: Carole Murko

In keeping with all the buzz about the aphrodisiac effect of chocolate, a flourless (hence, no gluten) chocolate cake is the perfect ending to a Valentine’s Day dinner. Credit: Carole Murko

Heirloom Flourless Chocolate Cake

I love homemade gifts from the heart. My sweetheart, Jim, has celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease triggered by eating wheat or foods with gluten. So in keeping with all the buzz about the aphrodisiac effect of chocolate, I decided a flourless (hence, no gluten) chocolate cake would be my gift.

This recipe is from the family archives of my amazing friend Deb Mackey, with her note: “Here’s an absolutely FAB recipe for a flourless chocolate cake that is to die for, and can be très elegant, depending on how you gussy it up. I frequently plate it on a swirl of raspberry coulis for especially discerning friends. Everyone I’ve ever made it for has raved, and it became the birthday cake of choice for every man in my life. And for some of their subsequent wives, too, I might add.”

Prep time: 30 to 45 minutes

Cook time: 1 1/2 hours

Total time: 2 to 2 1/4 hours

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

For cake:

12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup unsalted butter

6 eggs, separated, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon Bailey’s Irish Cream

1 pinch cream of tartar

For topping:

2 cups whipping cream

1/4 cup powdered sugar

2 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream

2 ounces chocolate curls

10-inch springform pan, greased (or wax/parchment paper will do)

Directions

For cake:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Melt chips and butter in a bowl over hot water.

3. Beat egg yolks in large bowl (5 minutes, or until thick).

4. Beat in 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time.

5. To the melted chocolate, stir in pecans, vanilla and 1 tablespoon of Bailey’s

6. Beat egg whites with cream of tartar, to soft peak

7. Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Beat stiff, but not dry.

8. Fold 1/4 of whites mixture into the chocolate cake mix.

9. Fold the chocolate mix into the remaining whites mixture.

10. Pour into lined pan and bake 30 minutes at 350 F.

11. Reduce oven to 275 F. Bake another 30 minutes.

12. Turn off oven. Let cake stand in oven with door slightly ajar for about 30 minutes.

13. Remove from oven. Dampen towel and place on top of cake for 5 minutes. Remove the towel.

14. Top of cake will crack and fall. Cool cake in pan.

15. Remove springform when cool. Transfer cake to platter.

For topping:

Whip cream to soft peak. Beat in powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of Bailey’s.

Finish cake:

1. Spoon whipped cream mixture over top of cake and smooth. Sprinkle with chocolate curls.

2. Refrigerate 6 hours. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.

Main photo: When your husband loves risotto, lobster and steak, Lobster Risotto and filet mignon offer a great twist on surf and turf. Credit: Carole Murko

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Sandesh is an Indian version of cheesecake, can be cut into shapes with cookie cutters or formed into balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.

You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.

To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.

In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.

So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.

First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)

Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.

An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’

To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.

All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.

When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.

But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.

A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.

Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way

Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.

I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.

In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.

Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.

That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.

Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh

Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

For the cheesecake:

Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish

1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)

3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon saffron strands

1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)

6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)

For optional garnishes:

Orange sections

Slivered almonds

Chocolate shavings

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.

4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.

7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.

8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.

Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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