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;]

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

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
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


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]