Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tuscan White Bean Soup



This smooth soup or velouté is the height of simplicity nevertheless any diner eating it will ask you for the recipe because its taste is soothing and delicious. You can find this recipe and a couple of hundreds more in my new book The Best Soups in the World. Tuscans favor a variety of small white navy beans, called cannellini beans, and use them to make a thicker version of this soup into a spread for crostini (toast points) as an antipasto. If you leave the carrot out, the soup will be whiter.
1 cup (1/2 pound) dried white beans
1 leafy sprig fresh sage
Salt to taste
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped fennel bulb (optional)
For the garnish (choose 1)
Twelve 1-inch squares thinly sliced pancetta, cooked until crispy
1 cup croûtons, fried in olive oil until golden
1/2 cup cooked tiny shrimp
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
1. Place the beans in a pot with 1 sprig sage and cover with water by several inches, but first pull off two leaves of sage from the sprig and set aside for later. Bring to a boil over high heat, salt lightly, and then cook at a boil until tender, about 1 1/2 hours, replenishing the water when necessary.
2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring, the onion, garlic, celery, carrot, and fennel, if using, until soft, about 6 minutes.
3. Drain the beans, saving 4 cups of the cooking liquid. Place the beans in a blender with the vegetables from the skillet and 4 cups of the cooking liquid. Blend until smooth. Transfer to a clean pot, add the 2 leaves of sage, and turn the heat to low. Cook until bubbling and hot, about 5 minutes. Serve hot with one of the garnishes.
Makes 4 servings

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Soups from the Mediterranean


Paparòt is an interesting spinach soup from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the region of northeastern Italy, and is far more exciting than its humble list of ingredients would indicate. It’s a spinach soup made with fine cornmeal flour used as a thickening agent. Paparòt, in the dialect of Friuli, means “pulped” used as a noun (in other words “pulped soup”) and indicates that the spinach is treated like a pesto but is pulped by chopping rather than pounding in a mortar. The kind of cornmeal to use is the one used for polenta, and I prefer the slightly coarser one because I enjoy the resulting gruel-like texture. The taste is surprisingly rich and filling.

The recipe is in my latest book THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Best Soups in the World


This December my newest book THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD will be published. This is my 14th book and one of the most fun to write. The title came about partly because I simply spent so much time choosing ones that would go in and so many that didn’t make the cut. Here’s a sample recipe:

Dubrovnik Fish Soup

The proximity of the Italian peninsula and the naval dominance of the Venetian Republic during the Middle Ages resulted in a perceptible Italian culinary influence along the Dalmatian coast, where fish soups are called brodet in Serbo-Croatian, from the Italian brodetto. But this recipe came to me by way of someone calling it in Serbo-Croatian, čorba, deriving not from the Italian, but the Turkish and Arabic words for “soup.” It’s a simple fish boil called riblja čorba na Dubrovaćki naćin, a soup from Dubrovnik which will be successful if you have a good mix of fish, at least four kinds, and a whole fish from which to make the broth. A good mix would be a whole striped bass, whole porgy (scup), and fillets from bluefish, cod, and salmon. You can ask the fishmonger to fillet the whole fish for you, keeping the heads, tails, and carcass for the broth.

3 1/2 pounds mixed fish steaks, pieces, heads, carcasses (see above), including whole fish, cut-up
12 cups water
Sea salt to taste
1 cup dry white wine
1 large ripe tomato (about 1/2 pound), peeled, seeded, and chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup medium grain rice

1. Place the fish heads, tails, and carcasses (1 to 1 1/2 pounds all together) in a large pot and cover with 6 cups of the water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 1 hour. Strain the fish broth through a cheesecloth-lined strainer and set aside. You should have about 1 quart fish broth.
2. Pour the remaining 6 cups of water into a large pot and season with sea salt. Add the wine, tomato, parsley, oil, peppercorns, and bay leaf and bring to a rolling boil. Add the fish pieces to the boiling broth one at a time and boil furiously for 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, bring the reserved fish broth to a boil in a medium-size saucepan, add the rice, and cook until almost tender (times vary, so keep checking). Turn the heat off.
4. Put about 2 or 3 tablespoons of the cooked rice in each individual serving bowl using a slotted ladle. Ladle the fish with broth over the rice and serve.

Makes 4 servings

Friday, November 13, 2009

La Serenissima


Business was good in the fourteenth-century Mediterranean and that meant towns got bigger. Venice was soon the most important city in the Mediterranean. Venetian ships were in the thick of it, and their agents were located in both gateways to spices, silk, and other products of the East, name, Syria and Egypt. The success of the merchants of Venice depended on these gateways, Syria perhaps being the more important of the two, assisting in the growth of the ancient city of Aleppo, the terminus of a number of trade routes. The riches made from this trade with both Syria and Egypt was incredible because the demand was incredible. Venice did have manufactured products to trade, but in reality, it sacrificed all its valuable metal currency to meet the powerful demand for black pepper, spices, drugs, cotton, linens, and silk. The trade between Egypt and Venice, usually transshipped through Crete, was intense even in 1350. Crete was an entrepôt for spices from Beirut and Alexandria, too. As Venice grew richer, people flocked to the city and its territories, and had flocked perhaps for some time if we consider the purported origin of the name Venice: from veni etiam, come and come again. These were halcyon days for Venice in terms of trade, for Syria and Egypt were both part of the Mamluke governance, a Muslim Egyptian dynasty, at this time and the historical turning point of the Ottoman victories of 1516-17 had not yet occurred, “so Venice slept the sleep of the rich,” as French historian Fernand Braudel put it. Today, Venetian cuisine seems to have passed by its love of spices and most dishes eschew them. But spices or not, no one will forget a proper Venetian risotto, a dish that likely evolved from a rice soup. In Italy, a person who laughed easily was said to have eaten rice soup, a play on words: che aveva mangiato la minestra di riso (he had eaten laughter/rice soup).

THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD
is coming in December. Order Now!

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stew for Thousand and One Nights


Ṭājin Qamama
Smothered Lamb Stew
Ṭawājin, the plural of ṭājin or tagine, are a category of Moroccan-style dry stews similar to what the French call etouffée (which actually means “smothered”) or etuvé, a slow braise with very little liquid. A ṭājin is also the name of the shallow handle-less earthenware cooking vessel with its cone-shaped earthenware cover in which the eponymous preparation is made. The Arabic word ṭājin derives from the Greek teganon, meaning a frying pan. Among the tagines are several variations: qidras are tagines made with samna (clarified butter) or fresh butter cooked in an earthenware marmite with lots of chopped onions until they are a purée. The seasoning might include black pepper and saffron. Dishes cooked in olive oil can be known as miqlāya or muqawly.
A tagine can be made with a variety of ingredients. The Berbers make tagines also, such as tqellia, made with tripe; lmorozia, made with meat and eaten with honey; nnhorfez, made with turnips cooked in oil; bestila, chicken cooked with saffron; and gobber dahro, made with carrots cooked in water and prepared with flour.
Rafih Benjelloun, a Moroccan-American chef from Atlanta, tells me that tagines are special preparations shared with neighbors in Morocco, a tradition that still persists. Khaled Lattif, who is from Casablanca, told me that a tagine is best when covered and cooked over very low heat for many hours without ever peeking under the cover.
The tagines called qamama are said to be those made with lamb and onions. Qamama is an old Arabic word used in the Thousand and One Nights to mean a particular kind of lamb preparation. A man brought a lamb to be butchered and had given it to a naqib (an honorific title). He cooked it by making qamama, which seems to be a process of wrapping the lamb, or perhaps it meant to smother the lamb. In any case, the method was also known in medieval Arab Andalusia because the Morocco-based historian al-Maqqarī ( c. 1591-1632) describes this lamb dish in Córdoba. (Although al-Maqqarī was writing in the seventeenth century, scholars generally recognize him as being reliable for details of the earlier period of Islamic Spain).
This recipe is typical of the rich tagines that would be served as part of a banquet and, as in all of the Arab world, would traditionally be eaten with small morsels of bread to convey the food to the mouth. The enormous amount of sugar in the recipe harks back to a medieval time when sugar was thought of as a spice.
3 pounds lamb shoulder on the bone, trimmed of excessive fat
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions (about 2 pounds), grated or finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ cup sugar
2 pinches of saffron threads, lightly toasted and finely crumbled or powdered in a mortar with a little salt
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup water
1 cup golden raisins
1. Place the lamb in a tagine, enameled cast-iron casserole, Dutch oven, or earthenware casserole with a cover along with the olive oil, onions, garlic, ginger, ¼ teaspoon of the cinnamon, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, the saffron, salt, pepper, and water. Toss so all the pieces of meat are coated, then bring to a boil on a burner over medium-high heat, using a heat diffuser if using an earthenware casserole or tagine. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover, and simmer until the meat is tender, about 2 hours. Remove the meat from the sauce and set aside.
2. Increase the heat to medium-low, add the raisins to the casserole and continue cooking until the sauce is thick and unctuous, about 45 minutes. Tilt the casserole and spoon out any fat that has collected. Remove the sauce from the casserole to a measuring cup or mixing bowl.
3. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
4. Return the meat to the casserole and arrange on the bottom. Cover with the sauce, sprinkle with the remaining 6 tablespoons sugar and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon. Place in the oven until the lamb is falling off the bone and very tender, about 1 hour. Serve hot.
Makes 4 to 6 servings

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Best Lentil Soup in the World



What I consider one of the best soups in the world and not just the Mediterranean is shurba al-'adas, lentil soup. This is a soup made by countless cooks in the Levant. My recipe came from my former wife Najwa and I first published it in A MEDITERRANEAN FEAST. It was there that Fran McCullough and Molly Steven discovered it to put in there book The 150 Best American recipes: Indispensable Dishes from Legendary Chefs and Undiscovered Cooks (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). It is a soup that I simply could not leave out of my newest book due to come out in December THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD. It's a popular soup in what used to be known as Greater Syria (Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and parts of Jordan). It's based on brown lentils of course and homemade chicken broth (preferably). Try making shurba al-'adas, you'll be pleased all around.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Soup from Corsica



For the next few months I'll be focusing on soups. My newest book to be published by John Wiley & Sons, THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD, will be coming out in December. I had enormous fun writing that book and my appreciation for soups grew. There are so many, just from the Mediterranean alone, that people don't know. Take for instance the soups from the island of Corsica. Although a department of France, Corsica has its own culture and language, related more to Italian than French. The food of Corsica is rustic. For instance, many cheeses on the island don't have names, they're simply called "cheese." This goes for soups too, many simply called "soup" (minestra). A good example of a rustic Corsican minestra is also known as soupe paysanne (country soup). There's a recipe here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Soups of Morocco



Harīra (ﺣﺮﻳﺮﺔ)is a traditional soup made in Morocco to observe the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month of the Muslim calendar that celebrates the first revelation of the Quran. The soup itself is originally a Berber dish, also known in Algeria. In fact, in tenth-century Tunisia the soup known as samāsāhiyya was a synonym for harīra.

There are many variations of this soup, not only because there are many families, and many different families of different economic classes, but also because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar and Ramadan falls during different months of the year so the seasonality of ingredients changes. A summer Ramadan soup will be different from a winter Ramadan soup. Moroccans make this particular harīra when Ramadan falls between October and December. The first decision you have to make is if you want a version with meat or not. Both the meatless and the meat version are traditional. The cooking should be slow and long.

Harīra exists throughout the Maghrib, but it is this Moroccan version that seems to be the most famous.
Traditionally one eats dates and elaborate honey cakes called shabā’k (or shabā’kiyya) or mahalkra with the soup. Some cooks add pasta or rice, chicken liver or gizzards, dried fava beans, or yeast (in which case the flour mixture in Step 4 is not used) in addition to the elements below. Or rare spices such boldo (Peumus boldus syn. Boldea fragrans, Peumus fragrans) called balduh al-faghiya in Arabic, the berry of a slow-growing evergreen in Morocco that is used in place of caraway. The tomato mixture in Step 2 and the flour and water mixture used in Step 4 is known as the tadawīra in Morocco. Great souvenirs to bring back from Morocco are the little earthenware soup bowls used to eat harīra.

Soups in Morocco tend to be supper dishes, heavy and filling, and not as a first course. In Morocco, when one encounters a soup served as a first course that is most likely a French influence.

You can read more about Ḥarīra and find the recipe in my new book THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD to be published in December by Wiley.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Learn to Cook


My colleague and good friend Martha Rose Shulman and I have started a cooking school in Venice, California. Here's what we're trying to do (it comes from the web site of the cooking school):

Have you ever exclaimed “I just don’t have time to cook?” Are you one of the many people who never learned to cook because your mother (or father) didn’t cook? Is buying prepared food or eating out no longer a viable alternative for you? You’re not alone.

Our mission at Venice Cooking School is to teach you how to make dinner and how to enjoy doing it. Our three unique cooking class series – LEARN TO COOK, RECIPES FOR HEALTH, and MEDITERRANEAN CUISINES – will empower you to put delicious food on the table every day. You’ll learn the simple techniques, cooking methods and foods that we love, and build a repertoire of dishes that you’ll be proud to make for your family and friends.

Venice Cooking School at St. Joseph Center in Venice, California is the creation of two prolific, award-winning cookbook authors and cooking teachers, Clifford A. Wright and Martha Rose Shulman. Between them they have published close to fifty cookbooks, and they have taught cooking classes to sold-out crowds all over the United States. Shulman and Wright are emphatically home cooks with years of experience. They test their recipes in their own kitchens and are themselves parents feeding children of different ages.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Spices in Moroccan Cooking







[Photo: Marrakech spice market, Clifford A. Wright]

In the Mediterranean today, one finds the spice markets, for the most part, in the Muslim countries, the Latin and Greek Mediterranean having given up cooking spices long ago. Today, one can still smell the allspice, cardamon, cloves, and various bahārāt mixtures in their burlap bags and satchels while strolling through the Sūq al-Baḥramiyya and Sūq al-Sakatiyya in Aleppo. In Alexandria, another important Levantine spice market, one could buy all kinds of spices, and in Morocco the cuisine is an ode to spices even today.

An example is the fish marinade or relish known as sharmūla. Moroccan cooks, to cook thicker cuts of fish, use a kind of relish-marinade of finely sliced or torn herbs and spices called chermoulla, tchermila, chermoula, or charmoula, which are various transliterations for sharmūla , ﺷﺮﻣﻮﻟﮥ , derived from the word meaning “to tear lightly.” Some cooks gently heat the sharmūla in a pan or liquefy everything in a blender. The marinade is also used with chicken. The suggested amounts in parentheses are in case you decide to put everything in a food processor.

1/2 cup very finely chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves (1 1/2 cups loosely-packed whole leaves)
1/2 cup very finely chopped fresh parsley leaves (1 1/2 cups loosely-packed whole leaves)
6 garlic cloves, peeled and very finely chopped
1 small onion, peeled and very finely chopped (1 whole small onion)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
6 to 8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon hot paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon powdered saffron or a pinch of saffron threads, lightly toasted in an oven, and ground in a mortar
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix all the ingredients together and refrigerate for 1 hour before using.
Makes about 1 cup

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Cheeses of Languedoc



Roquefort is world famous, but there are other delightful cheeses from the Languedoc, though few are imported into this country.

[Photo: Cheeses of the Languedoc, Pavé de la Ginestarié is in the foreground. Thierry Bordas, Ladepeche.fr]

I enjoyed the tiny goat cheese called Pélardon, once recommended for jaundice, and Cabécou, a small round goat’s milk cheese with its hint of grass and milk, but also Pavé de la Ginestarié, a fermier cheese (farm made) from the Tarn, a region of Languedoc in the hills, where Albi is the capital. It is a creamy yellow-white goat cheese that was pleasant with a slight taste of straw, and not as distinctive as the Anneau de Vic-Bilh Tarn, a fuzzy, strong-tasting goat cheese from the Pyrenees with a rind of natural mold powdered with charcoal that sticks to the top of your mouth. Pas de l’Escalette is a cow’s milk cheese from the Rouergue, a region of the Aveyron, part of the Massif Central, where Roquefort comes from. It is a crusty-skinned, mild, and familiar-tasting type of cheese. Pérail, from Larzac in the Rouergue, is a ewe’s milk cheese with a smooth texture like very thick cream and a velvety flavor. Laguiole-Aubrac is a straw-colored, cylindrical, pressed cow’s milk cheese with a grayish rind and strongish flavor, also called fourme de Laguiole, made in the small village of the Rouergue. Its strong and rich flavor is said to come from the milk, from the Aubrac cows, and the kind of vegetation eaten by the cows, and its production has been regulated since the twelfth century. A very old preparation, soupe au laguiole, is an oven-roasted soup layered with this cheese, cabbage, bread, and chicken broth. Another cheese is Picodon de Saint-Agrève, a small and soft goat’s milk cheese from the Vivarais in Languedoc. The name comes from the Occitan word for “spicy,” although the taste is very dry rather than spicy. For finding these cheeses try www.igourmet.com or artisanalcheese.com.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Fennel Salad from Tunisia


When asked about food in the Mediterranean I sometimes start off with a mention of Tunisia because so few people know anything about this Arab country on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and its spicy food. Fewer still have been to Tunisia or eaten its food. That's a shame because it has a cuisine that is historical, has great depth, is exciting and enticing, and perhaps most importantly very do-able in an American kitchen. A simple place to start is fennel salad to which I sometimes add a can of good quality imported tuna in olive oil. this is a nice time of the year to try it.

[photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Linguine con Vongole


When I was a teenager in Long Island our favorite restaurants were Italian. Many years later I realized

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

that they weren't Italian restaurants but Italian-American restaurants and that there was a difference. But there was one dish that was the same whether you had it in Long Island or Naples and that was linguine con vongole, linguine with clams. The menu offered "white" or "red," meaning with or without tomato sauce. I preferred white. Linguine con vongole to this day remains one of my favorite pasta dishes. When I make it I never can decide whether I want to leave whole clams in their shells on top or remove them. Both ways are great. To make this spectacular dish visit the recipe here. For a story about the best linguine con vongole ever read this.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Forgotten Mediterranean: Libya


Libyans will tell you that their region was always too poor to have developed a cuisine. Like much of the cooking in Egypt, everything appears vaguely familiar, from other regions. The Italian influence is strong, especially in restaurants, and Libyans eat lots of pasta. Whether this was the result of the Italian occupation or an addition to a pre-existing substratum of macaroni cookery, as I believe to be the case in neighboring Tunisia, is uncertain.

[photo: kitchengardener.org]

Contemporary Libya can be divided into the historical regions of Tripolitania to the west and Cyrenaica to the east. Sirte, in the middle, could be considered the "couscous line" of North Africa. That means, to the west of this line couscous is a staple food and the people eat couscous from here all the way to the shores of the Atlantic, while to the east of the line, to the Suez, couscous is occasionally eaten, but is not a staple food. Libyans living to the east of the line eat mostly Egyptian-style food, although their olive oil consumption today is the highest in the world, at seventy grams a day, about twice that of the Italians.

If any dish can be considered a "national" dish, it is either bazīn or shūrbat Libiyya. Bazīn is an old preparation, a kind of polenta made with semolina and water and sometimes yeast, found along the southern Tunisian and Libyan littoral. It is related to the simple meal of barley flour, olive oil, and water called basīssa, known since medieval times by people in North Africa. This was a preparation that the fourteenth-century philosopher Ibn Khaldūn called the "first food" of Ifriqiya (Tunisia) in his Prologomena. The dish can also be made with fish. Bazīn is often made for the Id al-Kabir, the holiday feast celebrating the sacrifice of Abraham, in the Sfax and Sousse region of Tunisia. This recipe was given to me by Professor Lisa Anderson, a scholar of modern Libya at Columbia University, who tells me that it "summarizes Libyan cuisine, such as it is." Shūrba means "soup," and this is Libyan-style soup. It will appear in my forthcoming book THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD.

Yield: Makes 4 servings
Preparation Time: 1:45 hours

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon samna (clarified butter)

1 large onion, finely chopped or grated

1 pound boneless beef chuck, trimmed of fat and cubed

6 very ripe plum tomatoes (about 1 pound), peeled, seeded, and chopped

2 tablespoons tomato paste

5 cups water

1/2 cup cooked chickpeas, drained

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves (about 1/2 bunch parsley)

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon bzar (see Note)

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup pastina (soup pasta)

1 teaspoon dried mint

1. In a medium-size casserole, heat the olive oil with the samna over medium-high heat, then cook the onion, stirring, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the beef and cook on all sides until brown, 2 to 4 minutes.

2. Add the tomatoes, the tomato paste dissolved in 1 cup of the water, the chickpeas, parsley, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, bzar, and salt and cook for 10 minutes. Add the remaining 4 cups water and cook, covered, until the meat is tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Add the pasta and cook, uncovered, until done, about 10 minutes. Just before serving stir in the mint.

Note:

The Libyan spice mix known as bzar is usually made of equal parts of black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, turmeric (or zedoary (Curcurma zedoria) or galangale), ground ginger, and a smaller part cumin. Mix together a 1/4 teaspoon each of black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cumin to make the bzar for this recipe. If making a larger quantity, use all the spices mentioned.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Simple Cooking for the Summer



[photo: Clifford A. Wright]

One of the delights of summer cooking is that one naturally, it seems, keeps things simple. Why not? We don't work as hard or shouldn't, yet we like a flavorful and memorable dish that won't tax the cook. We sometimes can get Santa Barbara prawns, also called spot prawns, fresh with their heads on. The local fish stores sells it at the ridiculous price of $26 a pound which I don't buy. But sometimes the guy from Santa Barbara comes down with a truck full of prawns to sell at one of the local farmers markets and we can get them for $4 a pound. This is when I make spaghetti with shrimp and scallops. It's quite easy and will take you about 45 minutes to get on the table.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Swordfish in September










When we lived in Massachusetts August and September were the months for grilled swordfish. I would have to say that along with bluefish it was our favorite fish. Today, we can't get bluefish at all on the west coast and swordfish is prohibitively expensive, so nostalgia is the inspiration here. Swordfish are big pelagic billfish found widely distributed throughout temperate, subtropical, and tropical waters of the worlds oceans and seas. Swordfish are found in coastal as well as in oceanic areas and are the only member of the family Xiphidae. We always cooked swordfish in the Sicilian style which I find to be the best way, and that usually meant grilled. We liked our swordfish cut one inch thick, but Sicilians prefer it thinner, maybe a half inch thick. The thinner slices is what you'll need to make this once common recipe in our household, involtini di pesce spada. It's really a don't miss.

[Photo: Swordfish in the Vucciria market, Palermo, 1989, Clifford A. Wright

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Memorable Summer Fish Soup


This savory fish soup called shūrbat al-samak (fish soup) is popular along the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf (called the Arabian Gulf by Arabs).

[photo: Clifford A. Wright]

The recipe will appear in my forthcoming book The Best Soups in the World (Wiley). It is spiced with a spice blend known as kabsa, which also gives its name to a famous dish of Saudi Arabia kabsa bi’l-dajāj, a chicken, rice, and nut dish seasoned with the kabsa spice mix. The kabsa spice mix is described in the note below and you can use the excess spice to season some chicken for baking. The soup is also seasoned with dried limes known as loomi (lūmī) popular in the cooking of Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf states which gives prepared dishes a delightful tang. These sun-dried limes known as loomi are available through www.daynasmarket.com and Aleppo pepper is available at www.penzeys.com and many Middle Eastern markets. The shrimp of the Gulf are famous, and before oil (the black kind) was exploited, the shrimpers and pearl divers of the Gulf drove the economies of the small and then poor sheikdoms.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 tablespoons finely chopped onions
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
5 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped
Pinch of saffron, crumbled
1 dried lime (loomi or lūmī) or 1 small fresh lime left in a 200 degree F oven for 3 hours
1 teaspoon kabsa spice mix (see Note)
6 cups fish broth
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 pound large shrimp, shelled
1/2 pound red snapper or sole fillet, cut in half
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)
1. In a pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the onions, stirring, until translucent, about 2 minutes.
2. Add the Aleppo pepper, garlic, tomato, saffron, loomi, and kabsa mix and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the fish broth and tomato paste and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the shrimp and fish, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the shrimp are firm and orange-red and the fish is ready to flake, about 5 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve with a sprinkle of cilantro.
Note: To make the kabsa spice mix, blend together 1 ½ teaspoons cayenne pepper, ¾ teaspoon ground cumin, ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon, ½ teaspoon ground cloves, ½ teaspoon black pepper, ½ teaspoon ground cardamom, ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg, ½ teaspoon ground coriander, and, optionally, ½ teaspoon ground dried lime (loomi) or fresh and very finely chopped lime zest.
Makes 4 servings

Monday, August 24, 2009

Good Food on Mom's 90th

A small group of friends and family gathered over the weekend to celebrate my mom's 90th birthday.

[Photo: Michelle van Vliet]

My mom is scary; she's so energetic she wears out young children. I decided to keep the food very simple, partly because my mom freaks out if anybody does too much work for her. I had to give her a lecture the day before about graciousness in case anyone gave her a present. We had a raucous good time and I made a San Giuseppe-inspired feast of sweet Italian sausage and pepper heros, a very simple tomato salad consisting of only a mixture of very ripe Early Girls and beefsteak tomatoes dressed with snipped fresh basil, olive oil, and salt. We had tortilla chips with a salsa that my girlfriend Michelle made that was perfect and lots of beer, wine, and sodas. The sweet Italian sausages were plump and fat, the way they should be so that every bite squirted when you bit into it. The red and yellow bell peppers and the onions had been sauteed in olive oil and a little garlic until very soft and slightly caramelized. I laid the sausages and pepper in a pan for people to concoct their own heros. I used store-bought hoagie rolls which worked very well and set them next to the sausage pan. It's important to use soft rolls with heros because if you used hard rolls the sausage would slip out. Next to that was some very high quality imported provolone to lay onto the hot sausages so they would melt. The cake was store-bought, but really good: a lemon hazelnut meringue cake from the Rose Cafe in Venice, California; my mom loved it.


[Photo: Clifford A. Wright

Monday, August 17, 2009

Patates Brava - Potato in a Catalan Manner


Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is now also thought of as the culinary capital of the world by many. There's a good argument for this because Catalan cuisine is after all the foundation to the deconstructive gastronomy invented by Ferran Adria and his disciples. One mentions Catalan food to a foodie and the immediate response is Adria or El Bulli, his restaurant. But Catalan food is also a home food and magnificent preparations are possible for the home cook with even modest skills. I'm quite a fan of one preparation in particular, patatas brava. Patatas brava is a classic Catalan potato dish but these days it’s transformed into a very popular tapa in Barcelona bars. Restaurant chefs get into the act too and all sort of interpretive variations occur. The one I had at the Florian restaurant in Barcelona at Bertrand i Serra 20 in the early 1990s was demonstrated by the chef and owner Rosa Grau and her sous-chef Enrique Martin, who encased the potatoes in allioli. A more involved preparation as seen in the photograph is prepared by Chef Sergi Arola of the Arola restaurant in the Hotel Arts in Barcelona. The brava sauce is the tomato sauce. In more careless versions of patatas brava the brava sauce is made with ketchup and mayonnaise.
[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Friday, August 14, 2009

Amazing Grill


I grill a lot during the summer. Here in southern California where I live I could grill in the winter too, but out of an old native Northeast habit I don't. As a professional food writer and author of a grill book (GRILL ITALIAN, written 12 years before Mario Batali's Italian grill book) people assume I have some Cadillac of grills. I don't. As a townhouse dweller with only a tiny roof-top deck, I grill on an itty-bitty, cheap, falling apart kettle grill. It works. We eat well and through the magic of organizational skill I can grill complicated food for eight people on this Lilliputian grill. What to grill? I like to suggest food that people don't normally think of and recipes that they might not be familiar with. Succulent fat pork chops in a marinade typical of northern Italy with fennel and juniper berries is always a winner and worth a try. It's called Costolette di Maiale alla Griglia in Italian. Try it here.

[Photo: Kim McDougal]

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Good Cookbooks Teach How to Cook


Although I teach cooking classes and people seem to love them, I will tell the students that one of the best ways to learn to cook is by using cookbooks. They don't have to be beginner cookbooks (very few of exist). I also don't recommend chef/restaurant cookbooks because they are not appropriate for the home cook (most of them anyway). I usually recommend books that provide a certain cultural perspective on the type of cuisine someone is interested in. Right now, there is a resurgence in interest in classic French cuisine as a result of the popularity of the movie JULIA & JULIE and bookstores report a rise in sales of Julia Child's classic MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING. But there are other more manageable cookbooks for the home cook interested in French home cooking such as Richard Olney's SIMPLE FRENCH COOKING, any of Patricia Wells' books, Michael Robert's PARISIAN HOME COOKING, or Martha Rose Shulman's PROVENCAL LIGHT. The reason a cookbook is a good place to start is not merely because it provides "ideas" but because a good cookbook will give you the essence and confidence necessary for the understanding required to cook from a particular cuisine. You do it over and over and suddenly you will actually be able to tell someone the difference between the food of Normandy and the food of Provence. You will get not only ideas but the IDEA. I try to write cookbooks like this and my next book out in December, THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD, will give you the introduction to a world of delicious soups.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Devil's Chicken in the Summer


In the region of Lazio in Italy a grilled chicken is prepared called pollo alla diavolo, chicken devil-style, meaning it uses black pepper or chile for a piquant taste. But one should understand that an Italian cook's conception of piquant is very mild compared to an American familiar with, say, Mexican food. The name of this recipe, said to have originated in Rome, is applied to two very different methods. In Rome and Florence (in Lazio and Tuscany, respectively) cooks like to coat the chicken with olive oil, lemon juice, and lots of black pepper before grilling; hence the name alla diavolo, or hot as the devil. In southern Italy the use of dried chile is more common and the chicken is marinated in white wine and sage and then grilled and served with salt and pepper.

In either case, the common technique is to split the chicken open down the middle of the back, spread it out, and flatten it by heavy pounding on the breast with the side of a cleaver or a mallet. This is called spatchcocking. The chicken must be basted constantly with butter or olive oil so that it doesn’t dry out. When finished, it has an appetizing golden-brown sheen.
[Photo: giallozafferano.it]

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Imam Fainted


In my continuing celebration of the tenth anniversary of the publication of A MEDITERRANEAN FEAST I'd like to go back to an old favorite of Turkish cuisine, the Imam Fainted. The imam fainted, imam bayildi, is the name of one of the most famous of Turkish zeytinyağlı dishes (olive oil foods). It may have medieval roots, if we consider that the zeytinyağlı dishes, which are usually eaten cold, fit the prescriptions of the dietetic theory of humors that was the basis for medical theory at that time. It was customary to eat cold and moist foods in the summer during medieval times because that counteracted the hot dry humor of summer that caused an increase in bile, so the Galenic theory stated. Visit the recipe here for more on the dish and a recipe fro preparing it.
[Photo: The Bosphorus Restaurant, Winter Park, Florida]

Monday, August 3, 2009

Summer Grill: Lamb and Cherries


There is a special kind of cherry found around Aleppo in Syria known as St. Lucie's cherry (Prunus mahaleb L.), which is a small, bitter, crimson-colored black cherry. The cherries are used in a popular preparation from Aleppo called, simply enough, kabab bi'l-karaz, kebabs with cherries. You can use either canned sour cherries or any fresh pitted cherries. This recipe is a version in which the lamb meat is ground first as kafta. The difference between kafta and kebab is that both can be skewered and grilled but kafta is ground meat and kebabs are chunks of meat. The picture is of kafta in Morocco.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Reflections on a Beer Summit


Why read tea leaves when you can read beer choices? VP Biden drank a Buckler non-alcoholic beer. He's either watching his alcohol intake or his weight or both. Or he doesn't like having alcohol in the middle of a hot day. Buckler is one of the best of the non-alcoholic beers so as long as it's cold but not too cold it's an excellent choice for hot summer day. Professor Gates had a Sam Adams Light, a good choice and it's also local for him too. It's a fine beer although I never personally understood "light" beer based on calorie intake. If you're worried about calories cut corners elsewhere. On the other hand if you like light tasting beer get a wheat beer or a pilsener. This is what Sgt. Crowley did, drinking a Blue Moon beer, a wheat beer made in Golden, Colorado. It's a very nice beer for a hot day, not too heavy and good tasting. President Obama drank Bud Light. He either likes this excuse for a beer, what me and my boys call horse piss, or he was super-conscious of the message of the beer he chose for the TV audience. All in all, Crowley and Gates looked like they chose the beer they actually wanted to drink.
[Photo: New York Times]

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Romantic Andalusia as Inspiration


I have a few go-to recipes when I want to serve people a tapas-like plate or if I need to bring a dish to a party. These are the albóndigas of Andalusia. Albóndigas, the Spanish word for "meatball," derives from the Arabic al-bunduq, "hazelnut," meant to evoke their form and size. The making of albóndigas date at least back to Islamic Spain, for there are several recipes in the anonymous thirteenth-century Hispano-Muslim cookery book Kitāb al-tabīkh fī Maghrib wa'al-Āndalus. In fact, the method of frying and then poaching in the making of Albóndigas a la Andaluza, or poaching and then roasting, as found in other recipes in A MEDITERRANEAN FEAST, I believe is an Arab culinary influence because we find it employed not only in medieval Arabic texts but also in today's kitchen. There's a recipe for you here.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Monday, July 27, 2009

Mystery of Hitchcock and the Raviolo


While researching
A Mediterranean Feast I rented an apartment in Venice where I explored both the cuisine of the city and the region of the Veneto. I was introduced to a kind of unusual ravioli called casunziei ampezzani made in a variety of ways. In Venice one can see these various casunziei at the Pastifico Ca d’Oro on the Strada Nova in Cannareggio. One kind in particular was called casunziei del cadore and was made with beet roots, parmigiano cheese, and smoked ricotta cheese. Casunziei look pretty and have a strong taste. As I dug deeper I discovered that this ravioli, also spelled casumziei, cassunziei, casônsei or casumzieei is simply the name for a kind of ravioli from Brescia in Lombardy and Ampezze in the Veneto. It is much influenced by Austro-Hungarian cuisine. It is usually stuffed with sautéed grated beet roots, poppy seed, and cheese in butter with some salt and pepper. It is also made with turnips. It was first mentioned in La Cronaca di Bergamo at the end of the fourteenth century. Casunziei also makes a rather surprising appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller ROPE. In one scene, as food is laid upon the table where the murdered David is hidden, the brilliant young aesthete, Brandon Shaw played by John Dall, tells Rupert Cadell played by Jimmy Stewart, that one dish being offered is casunziei. As far as I know this is only mention of this kind of ravioli ever in a movie or for that matter anywhere non-food related. [Photo: Amy Seponara]

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Moroccan Fish Tagine


A tagine is the name of an earthenware casserole with a conical lid used for stewing, braising, and casserole cookery in general. North African casserole cookery is a world apart from the cheese-laden casseroles typical of American cookery. The conical lid allows the steam produced by the ingredients to rise and collect on the interior walls, dripping back down into the food. There is a Moroccan fish tagine I like to make with any firm-fleshed white fish steak and the Moroccan relish known as sharmula. You can follow the recipe here and once you do you'll find the recipe for the sharmula too. [Photo; taginecooking.blogspot.com]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

TENTH ANNIVERSARY Book Reviews:A Mediterranean Feast | Travel | Smithsonian Magazine

2009 is the TENTH anniversary of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year A MEDITERRANEAN FEAST. Read a review from that time. Book Reviews:A Mediterranean Feast | Travel | Smithsonian Magazine

Is That Fish Fresh?


The fish in the picture was taken at the Athens Central Market in Greece and shows small tsipouris, gilt-head bream, aligned on ice for the customer. They are bent from rigor mortis, demonstrating in that fact a superior freshness. In most of America today fish is not sold whole let alone fresh. Fish tends to be sold already filleted and skinned and there is no way for anyone to tell if a fillet is fresh. It's barely possible to tell if a whole fish is fresh if sodium benzoate has been used to preserve the fish. The best way to tell if fish is of high quality is based on repeated purchases from a respected fishmonger. Taste will always tell the truth. The highest quality fish will usually be sold to high quality fish restaurants, next to other restaurants, then to high quality fishmongers, then to other fishmongers, and finally the lowest quality fish will be sold to supermarket fish departments with a few exceptions such as Whole Foods markets.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Friday, July 17, 2009

Farro, Again

I have revised my entry on farro below, based on comments and questions made about what it is.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Razor Clams


Although we once pulled razor clams from the mud flats of Wellfeet on Cape Cod and cooked up some magnificent dinners, for the most part Cape Codders are not fond of the bivalve and rarely eat it. The razor clam is too chewy and tough to be served on the half shell so it is always cooked. One needs to go to the Mediterranean to find a proper razor clam. They are so-named because their shells look like a straight razor. A most delightful method with razor clams can be had at one of the lunch counters in the Boqueria market of Barcelona. The razor clams are placed on a hot griddle and cooked with only olive oil, parsley, and garlic. They are called vavelas a la plancha (or navelas, sometimes); it’s a treat not to be missed. If you see razor clams offered at your fish market buy them; buy all of them.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Thursday, July 9, 2009

What is Farro?


Farro, an ancient wheat grain, has become quite popular these days among ingredient-driven chefs and cooks. With this new found interest a lot of misinformation has also come along. I’m not sure when it began, but possibly as a result of a misinformed article written by Heidi Julavits in a New York Times Sunday magazine piece from November 2008. Julavits made a classic mistake often made by food writers in relying on morphological characteristics in trying to understand wheat taxonomy as has her source popular food science writer Harold McGee. Modern germ plasm research has superseded morphological characteristics as a means of taxonomic identification for a variety of reasons and studies using DNA-based molecular markers such as random amplified polymorphic DNA markers (RAPD), simple sequence repeats (SSRs), and amplified fragment length polymorphisms (AFLPs) are needed to settle these types of questions. Wheat taxonomy is quite complex and one must make a distinction between dipolid, tetrploid and hexaploid wheats, then between hulled and naked grain and finally between wild and domesticated. Julavits' article, partially titled “farro is not spelt” is based on morphological distinctions of the most amateur kind. The reason McGee made a mistake too, calling "farro the Italian word for emmer wheat" (which it is not, although you will find Italians using it to refer to any ancient wheat be it spelt or emmer), is because he too was considering morphological characteristics as opposed to looking at hexaploid and tetraploid wheats. Here is what all this is:

Emmer wheat is domesticated hulled grain wheat of the tetraploid group with 28 chromosomes represented by three subspecies whose Latin binomials are Triticum turgidum L. subsp. diococcum (syn. T. diococcum Shrank); T. ispahanicum Heslot; and T. turgidum L. subsp. paleocolchicum.

Farro, the Italian word, is spelt wheat, a domesticated hulled grain wheat of the hexaploid group with 42 chromosomes whose Latin binomial is Triticum aestivum L. subsp. spelta (syn. T. spelta L.)

Ergo, farro is spelt wheat not emmer wheat as claimed by Julavits and McGee.

But let me add more. Many food writers are quite insistent that farro is emmer. They may claim that Italian farmers are known to claim farro is emmer. But what an Italian farmer claims don't make it so. It's true that in the common language (of Italian) farro is a word used for emmer. Italian cytogenetic researchers though don't make this mistake. The GRIN Taxonomy for Plants which provides nomenclature for accessions of the National Plant Germplasm System, of the U.S. ARS is rather clear about this: Farro is not T. dicoccum but T. aestivum L. subsp. spelta. Incidentally, in modern taxonomy T. diococcum has been superseded by T. turgidum L. subsp. diococcum. On farro being spelt and not emmer see www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/npgs/html/taxon.pl?406903.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Soupe au Pistou


This famous soup from Provence is literally “soup with pesto.” But, oh my, how much more it is than that. Rich with vegetables in the late spring and summer it’s one of the most satisfying of soups. And that dollop of pesto is what truly makes the soup remarkable and so much more than vegetable soup. Pistou is the Provençal word for “pounded” derived, just as the pesto of Liguria, from the Latin pestare, meaning the same. In fact, pesto and pistou, are more or less the same thing, a condiment of pounded basil, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil. One of the earliest descriptions we have of something similar comes from the Roman poet Virgil who writes in verse in his Ecolgue II,
“now even the cattle court the cooling shade
And the green lizard hides him in the thorn:
Now for tired mowers, with the fierce heat spent,
Pounds Thestilis her mess of savory herbs, wild thyme and
garlic.”
You will find a recipe in my new book THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD, forthcoming in December published by Wiley.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Gazpacho

It was the bright juicy tomato of my garden, suddenly turned red overnight, that reminded me of gazpacho for the summer.

There are a million gazpacho recipes it seems and every restaurant has a version. So why is it so hard to get right? Part of the reason is that many cooks think it's just a cold tomato-dominated vegetable soup for summer and don't realize that what a cook aspires to is the harmonic balance of an orchestra of flavors that creates a culturally rooted and important soup. It is a soup from Andalusia and I have a wonderful recipe for gazpacho in my new book THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD due to be published in December 2009 by Wiley.

Most gazpachos are, simply, made wrong.



[Photo: Kristin Mowry]

Take this photo to the left of a soup called a gazpacho. It is not gazpacho; this is a cold vegetable soup. The garnishes should never play a major role and never be served in the soup; they are garnishes always served on the side and used in miniscule portions.

Here's a photo of a true gazpacho; notice the orange and not red color, that's a mark of authenticity. The garnishes are not pictured because they are not the essential condition of a true gazpacho.

[Photo: Spanish-Town-Guides.Com]

Monday, June 29, 2009

North African Dry Rub


Americans are notoriously poor at geography, a fact that should scare any parent whose child is thinking of joining the military. Why? Wouldn't you like to know something about where you might die? So how about North Africa? The last time anybody in the U.S. military died in North Africa was in WW II; and they died for a very good cause: the defeat of the Nazis. It's the western part of the southern Mediterranean littoral and comprises the countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. In geography it's known as the Maghrib. It's a nice place to know. So what's a "North African Dry Rub?" This is an American term referring to the kinds of spices used in one of these countries to rub into meat before baking or grilling. In the Magrib there is no such thing as a "North African dry rub." In all the Mediterranean the heaviest use of spices is found in these three countries. The most common North African spices are cumin, caraway, coriander, turmeric, paprika, chile, cinnamon, black pepper, saffron, cubeb, aniseed, and fenugreek. Many others are used.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Friday, June 26, 2009

Soup


My newest book THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD will be published by Wiley at the end of the year. It was fun writing and although I've always loved soups I became even more enamored and excited from the opportunity to test so many more soup recipes than one would normally. Don't ask me for a favorite: that's impossible. But a minestra di fave e dente de leone, fava and dandelion soup, is a soul-satisfying soup made with olive oil, tomato, onions, celery and carrot in chicken broth.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tunisian Food


If you love spicy you'll love Tunisian food. Tunisia is an arid

[photo is of the Tunisian maqruna bi'l mirqaz (sea shell pasta with merguez sausage]

sun-drenched country on the Mediterranean in North Africa. It is rich in Carthaginian, Roman, and Islamic history and its food reflects both its history and what the land bears. The famous chile paste called harisa comes from Tunisia and is used as a condiment. The staple food of Tunisia is couscous but they also eat lots of pasta. One exciting dish is macaroni with lamb and chickpeas, macaroni being the generic term for dried pasta of any shape. A nice recipe to try is nawasar mufawwra, steamed pasta squares with lamb and chickpeas in spicy sauce.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pan-roast


One of my favorite pans is my much used carbon steel pan bought in Gourdon in the Lot in France about 20 years ago. I use it mostly for pan-roasting (or pan-searing). Carbon steel reacts to acidic fruits and vegetables and that's why one can never use tomatoes, lemons, or wine when cooking with it. I often do something very simple with the pan, namely, a nicely charred ribeye steak with a dollop of maitre d'hotel butter on top. Maitre d'hotel butter was a very popular compound butter about forty years ago, but it should be known by every competent cook. Blend together butter, parsley, and lemon juice and place a good-size dollop of it at room temperature on top of the steak.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Friday, June 19, 2009

Raw Sauce


Come the summer many Italian cooks forego the hot stove and make pasta with a variety of raw sauces or salsa crudo. All this means is that the hot pasta is tossed with uncooked vegetables, herbs, or other condiments and it's served. [Photo: Fine Cooking, of a Clifford A. Wright dish]

A very nice recipe is here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What do I do with Kale?


In the Mediterranean kale cries out for soup. In northern Italy a very nice black kale soup is called minestra di cavolo nero e fagioli. It uses a dark leafed kale, a hearty leafy vegetable in the cabbage family, called black kale, Russian kale, or Tuscan kale. I like it with blood sausage. Cook some chopped onions, carrots, garlic, pork belly pieces or pancetta and a four-inch-square piece of pork skin in some olive oil until soft. Add some red kidney beans, maybe 1/2 cup, and about a pound of kale cut into thin strips, and cover with 6 cups of chicken broth. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to very low and simmer until everything is very tender, about 4 to 5 hours. An hour before serving you can add 1/4 cup of soup pasta such as semi di melone. Season with salt and pepper at the end. Cook the blood sausage separately in barely simmering water.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Is Polenta the Same Thing as Grits?


No. Grits is made from ground hominy with the germ removed (germ is the embryo with the scutellum of a cereal grain that is separated from the starchy endosperm during milling). Hominy is made by soaking corn kernals in a caustic solution (lye) that removes the hull. Polenta can be made from a variety of grains such sorghum, wheat, or millet, but typically refers to that made from cornmeal, "meal" meaning coarsely ground grain.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tapas


Tapas can be grouped into three main categories, according to how easy they are to eat: cosas de picar, pinchos, and cazuelas. Cosas de picar (meaning “things to nibble”)

[Photo: Tapas bar in Seville]

basically refer to finger food, the most famous being the olive-the quintessential Spanish and, in fact, Mediterranean finger food. If a utensil (like banderillas, decorated toothpicks that get their name because they look like the darts used in a bullfight) is required to eat the food, the tapa is called pinchos. Cazuelas (little dishes) are tapas that usually come in sauce, for example, albóndigas (meatballs) or shrimp fried in garlic. All regions of Spain have tapas, although Catalonians have not traditionally eaten tapas and do so now only because of the unification of modern Spain. The Catalans were gastronomically closer to the French and Italians than to the Spanish. The Basques call their tapas pintxos from the Spanish word pinchar, to prick because they were once always served with toothpicks to pick them up. The Spanish proverb comiendo, comiendo el apetito se va abriendo--appetite increases with constant eating, might give you a better idea of what lies behind the culinary experience of Spain.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Laguna Beach Eating


Orange County, California is renowned for being a culinary wasteland. Sure, you might find rave reviews

[photo: Mark Abel]

of some restaurant on the plebian tripadvisor.com web site and even the foodie web sites. But my favorite knowledgeable account of restaurants in Orange County was the person who wrote the following answer to someone's query about where to eat in Orange County: "you don't go to Orange County to eat."

Now, that being said, what you can eke out are the names of acceptable places to eat that provide decent or adequate food in a nice environment, but nothing to write home about. I ate at Ocean Brewing in Laguna Beach, California and it was a very fine experience. A nice brew pub producing their own fresh beer and a menu they called Mediterranean-Italian which was, in fact, Italian. A lovely greeting, nice attentive but not overbearing service, and an almost imperceptible transformation from a restaurant to a DJ-run music blasting dance venue around 9:30 pm.

Laguna Beach is an old California beach town with a real artist's colony and a most delightful location. Today it's a heavy tourist destination and has a somewhat crowded and unreal feeling, but still pleasant as a rendezvous. It's filled with restaurants nearly all of which are unmemorable except for locations (many overlook the sea) and sometimes expertly made drinks.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Molecular or Deconstructive?


The latest by-word in the culinary world is the so-called molecular gastronomy of chefs such as the Catalan Ferran Adria. But did you know that Adria specifically says there is no such thing as molecular gastronomy and that he does not call his cooking molecular? A better--and more accurate--description is deconstructive gastronomy. You can read more in-depth analysis and commentary about deconstructive gastronomy and all the cooking of the Mediterranean by becoming a member of www.cliffordawright.com

What you read here is like the display dessert at a restaurant. Step through the link to the rest of the kitchen, and the pantry, and the field, and the culture that lies behind the food you eat. Visit www.cliffordawright.com and you can see why a blog is only a baby step. Come visit a world of Mediterranean food.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Arugula Simplicity


In this day and age of Ferran Adria-inspired culinary alchemy we can easily forget the sublime joy of the simplicity of so much Mediterranean food. I went to my local farmers market this morning and purely by coincidence one farmer had his leafy bunches of crisp arugula next to a bin of nicely ripe beefsteak tomatoes and it immediately reminded me of a dish I hadn't made in a while.

Arugula is a popular vegetable in Apulia, the province that is the heel of the Italian boot, and it is used as often in stews and pasta dishes as Americans use it in salads. Cavatieddi con la Ruca is a simple dish of cavatelli, a pasta shaped like a cowrie shell, made by throwing the arugula into the boiling water with the cavatelli, draining and then tossing the pasta with tomato sauce and pecorino cheese. That's all it is.

Cavatelli is the pasta Vinny Mancini (Andy Garcia) instructs Mary Corleone (Sofia Coppola) to make, standing behind her in an erotically charged scene from GODFATHER III. Delicious on both counts.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Rotolo


Several regions of Italy claim the rotolo di spinach e ricotta, a large leaf of fresh pasta stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese and rolled into a cylinder. The rotolo from Sardinia is a delightful and easy dish. There is time and labor involved of course, but all in all nothing is too difficult. It's also a crowd pleaser.

One starts by making the fresh pasta, using only flour, water, and salt. While the pasta ball rests one can make the stuffing. I put two pounds of spinach with only the water adhering to it from its last rinsing into a large pot and wilt it over high heat for 5 minutes. I let the spinach drain and cool and once it has, I'll pick up softball sized pieces of the spinach and squeeze all remaining water out. Then we chop the spinach and mix it with a pound of fresh ricotta cheese and 3 eggs.

The ricotta must really be fresh and not from a container in a supermarket. As of this writing supermarkets do not sell fresh ricotta so you need to make it yourself or visit an Italian market. The pasta is rolled out into a thin sheet about 24 inches by 14 inches. The spinach and ricotta stuffing is spread over the pasta sheet and rolled up tightly. Then ends are secured and the whole stuffed rotolo is wrapped in cheesecloth and tied off with twine.

Boil it for 20 minutes in salted water and serve with tomato sauce. It's very nice, very pretty.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Monday, June 1, 2009

In the Beginning...


Mediterranean cuisine is called one of the world's healthiest diets, but very few people will be able to tell you what Mediterranean cuisine is. This blog will hopefully get you started once it's up and running fully.

Specifically, I will be blogging about cooking and the food used in Mediterranean cooking. For the full range of the Mediterranean culinary experience and in the meantime, please visit my web site at www.cliffordawright.com to find your introduction to what the cuisines of the Mediterranean are all about. If you become a member you will have access to a thousand fully kitchen-tested heirloom Mediterranean recipes as well as a monthly and weekly newsletter. I call them newsletters rather than blogs because they are formatted differently, written differently, and have a different purpose than this blog will have.

If you are interested in travel information and restaurant recommendations in the Mediterranean you will do best by Googling the respective places you want to visit. If you want to know more about what might appear on a menu once there or what you should be ordering and eating...then stick around...this is the place.