31 December 2014

Walnut  Thumbprint Cookies

Christmas in our house means a big batch of my sister-in-law Marge's walnut thumbprint cookies, a recipe handed down from her Aunt Helen back in the 1950s. They don't last long, so it's a good idea to double, triple or quadruple the recipe.

For roughly two dozen cookies you need: 

3/4 cup (72 grams) finely ground walnuts (whacking them in a little mixer works fine; set aside)

1/2 cup  (227 grams) soft butter

1/4 cup (55 grams)  packed brown sugar

1 egg yolk (save the white in a bowl)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 (128 grams) cup all purpose flour 

1/4 teaspoon salt


Preheat oven to 375 (190C), gas mark 5, Moderate) degrees 

Mix together the butter, brown sugar, egg yolk and vanilla. Then add the flour and salt and mix. The dough should be fairly thick and a bit sticky.

Beat egg white(s) with a fork. Grease your baking sheet.

Form the dough into balls about an inch across; roll in the egg white and then in the ground walnuts. They should look something like this:

After five minutes, remove from oven and put a thumbprint in the centre of each cookie. Do it quickly so you don't burn your thumb.

They should end up looking like this:

Bake for about 8 minutes more or until they take on some colour. Cool on a wire rack or dish towel, then spoon out thick dabs of butter creme frosting (butter, powered (icing) sugar, vanilla and milk, and food colouring) in the thumbprint. You could also use jam, or melt chocolate into them. Then watch them disappear!

10 July 2014

Ready for agretti?

It’s a vegetable of many names. When we bought it in our Umbrian village market they called it agretti, but you’ll also hear the same thing called roscano, ariscolo, riscoli, or liscari, or rospici, or barbe di frate (friar’s beards) or maybe even the inexplicable senape del monaco (monk’s mustard). At first sight we suspected it was some sort of onion or chive. The Italians soon set us straight. ‘It’s greens’ —like spinaci only better. Try some!'

So we did. The taste is slightly salty, faintly bitter, but nice; what makes it unique and addictive is the consistency: not mere boiled leaves in your mouth, but something more like fine Asian noodles—think of it as linear spinach. Besides being delicious, agretti are astoundingly virtuous: low calories, lots of iron, calcium, and other minerals, lots of vitamin B3 and C. It’s mildly diuretic, mopping up those awful triglycerides and cholesterol in your blood. Popeye could have beat the whole Red Army with a can of this.

You’ll seldom find agretti in other European countries. There isn’t even a name for it in English; it’s often referred to as ‘saltwort’, but it’s really only one of many varieties of saltworts. For years we became so accustomed to doing without agretti that we almost forgot about it. Fortunately though, you can grow your own if you have a reasonably warm climate. In Italy they get to be over two feet high. In our southwest France garden (with a climate similar to the Carolinas) they’re a little smaller, but just as good. They like a lot of water. Get the seeds from Semilandia in Italy (these worked very well for me), Franchi-Seeds of Italy (UK) or any number of online sites in the U.S.

Though they look flimsy and spindly, they don’t shrink in cooking like other greens. In fact the garden space you allot to agretti will be more productive than spinach or chard. The seeds can be a problem. Lots of gardeners complain about low germination rates, and the seeds do not keep very long. Yours might fail one year, and be brilliant the next.

So what do you do with it? Facilissimo: pull off the green bits and the most flexible parts of the stems, and throw out the rest of the stems.  Wash it off well in a colander. Boil it for a few minutes, throw on a little olive oil and a squirt of lemon. Or better, boil it for three minutes, drain, and then sauté it with very little oil, lemon and maybe some garlic.

Agretti are becoming very trendy in Italian restaurants these days, though there really aren’t any classic recipes. It’s great as a side dish with any kind of seafood, or (like its close cousin salicornia, marsh samphire) with seafood antipasti. One popular salad features agretti and smoked salmon. You can put it on pasta (try it with dried tomatoes), or in an omelette or quiche. Use it in Asian dishes too. The Japanese saltwort oka hijiki , or ‘land seaweed’, is practically the same thing; the Japanese like it as a cold salad with soy sauce or vinegar.

7 July 2014

Malta’s Tomato Epiphany

We simply don’t get to Malta often enough. The last time was in spring 1980, in fact, when the food in the restaurants was pretty bland. But I remember the crusty bread was delicious. 

Back in Malta again in 2014, the bread was still as delicious as ever, but what came as a revelation (at least to me) were the things that you could dip or spread on it. At Gululu, in the seaside resort of Saint Julians, an excellent restaurant featuring updated Maltese country cuisine, they served generous helpings of four for a starter: ricotta and lemon zest; broad beans mashed with garlic and olive oil; black olives and garlic, very like tapenade; and anchovies and capers, very salty, pungent and delicious. 

What a wonderful way to start a meal, and no wonder the staff at Gululu were turning people away at the door.

On our first trip to Gozo back in 1980, one of the factoids that stayed with us was how Malta’s rural little-sister island was famous for ketchup; in fact these days you can go on a tour and learn about wide number of foods produced on the island—honey, fruit jams, sun dried tomatoes, pulses and Gozitan cheeselets. I was there on a Sunday so had to give it a pass. Next time!

In Gozo’s citadel of Rabat, or Victoria, we sipped Gozitan wines and had a platter of goodies at Ta' Rikardu, a wine bar and local institution. The delightful owner Rikardu has a farm nearby, and produces nearly everything he served,  including sun-ripened and sun-dried tomatoes from his garden, juicy olives and the fattest capers I’ve ever seen, along with his own fresh and aged cheeses, some of which go into his plump ravioli.

A few minutes' drive away at Ta’ Mena, Malta’s first agroturism estate, celebrity chef George Borj treated us to the estate’s lovely white, red and rosé wines, and introduced me to apogee of Maltese tomato-dom, modestly called ‘Sweet Tomato Paste’, artisanally made with tomato pulp preserved in the original pre-refrigeration method, dried and stirred and dried and stirred, with sea salt and sugar. 

The result, spread on bread, was tangy, sweet, rich and utterly delicious. It didn't only taste like a tomato, it tasted better.  A true tomato epiphany.

And as George Borj added, it keeps up to 20 years in the fridge—but there's no way it will last that long.

19 May 2014

How the Greeks Invented Hash

The longest word in the Greek, or for that matter any language, was invented by Aristophanes in his comedy Ecclesiazusae, the ‘Assemblywomen’. It’s a hell of a play, something so sardonic and up-to-date it would work on the stages of New York or London today. In it, the women of Athens take over, instituting a golden age of communistic rule and free love, except that before a man could spend a night with a young pretty girl, he had to submit to all the old, wrinkled, randy ones.

It seems the end of the play is lost. As we have it, Aristophanes leaves us pretty much in limbo, with the citizens of the new democratic paradise rushing to the dining hall to get a seat for a taste of:


Scholars plumbing the depths of this word have discovered within it salt fish, rotted dogshead, honey, thrushes, pigeons, crabs, chicken wings, rabbit, ‘sharp sauce’, blackbirds, new wine and much else. One careful critic has defined it as ‘a hash composed of all the leftovers from the meals of the leftovers from the meals of the last two weeks’.

The rest of the story is provided by Eugene Field, the American poet and philosopher  best known for The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat and Wynken, Blynken and Nod. In a column for the Chicago Daily News, Field discussed the heretofore unknown fate of the famous, long-winded dish:

We have it from private sources that this name was discontinued by royal order soon after Theseus took the throne. It happened in this wise: When Theseus came back from his bull-fight with the Minotaur he naturally strolled into a restaurant in the basement of the Parthenon and asked for a plate of the fashionable dish. Before the waiter had time to pronounce the word the king was almost starved to death. He had just strength enough left to draw his antestylographic pen from his vest pocket and write a royal order in these words: "Henceforth and forever let lopadotemach-etc. be called hash, under penalty of death." The order has never been revoked.

If anyone can supply the original recipe, we offer a small prize.

27 April 2014

Anyone for frattaglie?

                                                           a traditional carnacuttaro (photo: alexdevil)

The exasperating, confusing and delightful city of Naples is the kind of place that leaves memories unlike any others. A lot of ours, from back in 80’s when Naples was rather more Neapolitan than it is now, involve the streets of decaying palazzi and bad hotels around Piazza Garibaldi and the train station. Frantic, louche, grimy and full of surprises, the gargantuan piazza was lined with trattorie, most of them pretty good—some of them still are. Market stands sold contraband Marlboros and contraband cassettes. Once I watched a gaggle of street children with firecrackers, trying to toss them through the windows of passing police cars. 

On many occasions, this piquant world was our home. The hotels were full of character, like the Fiore on Via Milano, the one with the world’s fattest cat, signs in Polish, and a tiny elevator that required an obsolete aluminum ten lira coin before it would consent to move. Even the place that (we later found) more commonly rented by the half-hour tried to smarten itself up a little when a nice young American couple with a baby appeared. Family atmosphere, Neapolitan style. 

One constant fixture on the Piazza, at the corner of Via Milano, was a little three-wheeled farm truck with a custom-built white platform on the back. The platform was built up on steps as a kind of Busby Berkeley wedding cake, each level edged with green plastic foliage. Each bore a row of steel spikes, on which were arrayed pale, boiled pieces of pig: trotters, snouts, organs, testicles, and others we could only guess. Above each, at a rakish angle, was a neatly impaled slice of lemon. 

You couldn’t take your eyes off it. And we couldn’t bring ourselves to ever try it either. They say the taste for frattaglie (offal) goes back to the Bourbon monarchy, when the king’s French cooks would toss the nasty bits off the palace balconies to the Neapolitan rabble, shouting Voila les entrailles! Hence another local name for offal, zendraglie

Today though, the smuggled Marlboros and the street boys of Piazza Garibaldi are gone, and so is the carnacuttaro, or pere e musso (‘foot and snout man’, as people called them) of Piazza Garibaldi. Nowadays the sellers of frattaglie in Campania and beyond are most commonly seen around Sarno and Nocera Inferiore, back behind Vesuvius, where they are a fetish dish, and everywhere else at parish and village festivals, when people’s folkloric feelings sometimes overcome more modern tastes. They chop up the bits and serve them in a paper cup with a skewer and your choice of fennel or lupins or peperoncini. Besides the lemon, the latest fashion is to offer a splash of tequila on top.  

If you can’t find a carnacuttaro on the street or at the festivals, there’s an old shop for frattaglie and tripe that has metamorphosed into a famous trattoria, right in the heart of Naples on Via Pignasecca: Le Zendraglie. But we still haven’t succumbed to the charm. Maybe next time. 

The Forgotten Vegetable

                            Curly kale, decorating the early 16th-century cloister of Cahors cathedral

Try and explain kale to a Frenchman! Chou frisé? ‘I’ve heard of it.’ But he’s never seen it. You can’t find seeds to plant it here, and no restaurant south of the Loire would ever dream of sneaking it into a menu. 

Meanwhile, the humble kale is all the rage among the dissipated yuppies of America’s coastal metropolises. It’s a cultural cycle. In the Depression, their grandmothers badgered their kids into eating it because it was good for you. So their moms wiped the horrible thing out of their memory when good times came back, and now their grown children are rediscovering it and finding it’s not so bad after all, especially when simply sautéed with olive oil and garlic. 

Kale, lowly kale, is the Sinatra of vegetables; it’s been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet—a pawn and a king. If you’re not familiar, it’s really just a cabbage; the word ‘kale’ is the same as the German kohl or the Dutch kool. Scientifically, it’s the acephala sort of cabbage that does not make a head, just floppy leaves. There are countless varieties, all closer to the original wild cabbages, and they have nourished us at least since Roman times. 

In the Middle Ages, kale was king. All over Europe, it was a staple of the peasant diet. Even so, very few cookbooks even mention it. The nobles didn’t care for vegetables. Things that grew close to the ground were for groundlings. Birds and fruits that lived in the clear air were proper fare for noblemen. 

That didn’t stop kale from becoming a surprise star of Gothic sculpture. One of the most charming features of the great French cathedrals is the way they incorporate familiar common plants into the sculptural schemes of the portals, vaulting and capitals. In the early Gothic it was a celebration of spring. Notre-Dame in Paris is carved in plantain, cress and celandine; look closely at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and you’ll see buttercups everywhere. 

In the 15th century, the botanic whim of Gothic art was moving on to other things, including vegetables. The French variety of chou frisé with its elegantly curling leaves fitted the artistic mood perfectly (chicory, thistle and seaweed were popular too). The late Gothic flamboyant style made the old peasant fodder into something elegant and ethereal. There’s lots of it at Rouen cathedral, and closer to us in the Lot, the cloister of Cahors cathedral (see above) is a kale garden in stone. 

Somehow, kale fell out of style. Maybe it was the Reformation and Counterreformation; maybe the importation of such new foods as potatoes and tomatoes from the new world, or more productive round-headed cabbages. Kale held on in Protestant Scotland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and north Germany. In the Catholic south, it nearly disappeared. In France today it is unknown, and most people use chou frisé to mean Savoy cabbage.  

In Italy, one important variety called cavolo da foraggio is still around, but you won’t Google any recipes for it, though you will find mentions of the plant as ‘food for beasts’. 

We disagree. In fact we planted some in our garden last September, courtesy of the firm Seeds of Italy. It didn’t do anything but grow. By springtime there were leaves like Brobdingnagian dinner plates. They’re tough, but sautée them for about twenty minutes with oil and lots of garlic, and they are pretty tasty. 

Wild sea-kale growing near Plymouth, England (from geograph.org.uk) looks a lot like the Italian cavolo da foraggio we just finished from our garden. 

In Tuscany, at least, they are still very fond of one variety of kale: cavolo nero, or cavolo lacinato, or Tuscan kale. If you’re in a reasonably warm climate, this is a great thing for filling up the spaces that appear in your garden in late summer. For us at least, it soldiered on through the winter and into the following spring and provided a good return with no effort. The only drawback, as with most kale, is that you can cook the central spine of the leaf all day without making an impression. It has to be cut out, which is tedious. 

Tuscans are earnest folk and immune to tedium (spend some time there and you’ll start to notice...). So cavolo nero is a main ingredient in the humble but much-beloved weekday dish called ribollita, so called because it is basically yesterday’s leftovers ‘re-boiled’. We won’t bother with a recipe right now; there are millions of them online, each one different, but the basic principle is always the same: a bunch of kale and a nearly equal amount of verza (Savoy cabbage), chopped onion, tomato, white beans, and breadcrumbs or croutons. And whatever else at the bottom of the fridge you’re trying to get rid of. 

The white beans are a familiar refrain. Along with pork, they’re something that goes naturally well with kale. We’ll try to come up with a good recipe soon. 

18 April 2014

Cassoulet à la Dany Chouet

                                                                            A beautiful end of March at Malcournet

It was Monday, the last day in March, when Dany Chouet (the 'midwife of modern Australian cuisine') and Trish Hobbs recruited their dear friend Appley Hoare, Australian friends Jim and Ann who were staying nearby and ourselves to help burn the garden rubbish at the bottom meadow of their gorgeous garden at Malcournet. The bribe? Dany's famous cassoulet, one of the favourite dishes served back in the day at Trish and Dany's much loved restaurant, Cleopatra, up in the Blue Mountains of Australia.

As Dany wrote in her award-winning book, So French

In the South West, the Cassoulet, symbolic dish of Occitanie, has achieved national mythical status, and has as many recipes as communes.  It is a complete meal, does not need anything before and very little after, except maybe a small glass of Armagnac.  The cassoulet, one of my favourite meals to cook, gathers together all the ingredients I love.  The haricot beans, such a wonderful dry vegetable, give the creaminess, and act as a liason between the meats and soak up all the flavours, laced with tomato.  The roasted pork stays moist and becomes tastier, the confit is in its’ best surroundings.  And I rolled up my two star ingredients, garlic and parsley, into the pork skin. 
My cassoulet is far from being ‘Catholique’ as we say in French (or according to the rules) and is not made in the traditional way, but as Prosper Montagné (famous Occitan chef, author of the Larousse Gastronomique) said:  ‘only badly informed people say there is only one way to make cassoulet’.
It's a very hearty dish, and Dany and Trish reckoned that March (unusually mild this spring in France) might mark the end of cassoulet-eating season. It's also not something one does at the spur of the moment, so just to document the process we asked the girls to take some pics. So here is how Dany's three step recipe goes (omitting the essential pre-step of ordering the proper cuts of pork from one's friendly local butcher).

Step 1. The Marinade

½ head of garlic, peeled
1 bunch flat-leafed parsley
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small neck of pork (scotch fillet)
1 kg lean pork belly
800g pork skins, without fat
1.5 litres dry white wine
black peppercorns
1 large bouquet garni (fresh thyme, parsley stalks, bay leaf)

The day before:  Finely chop half a head of garlic and parsley and mix well together.

Remove excess fat from pork neck and tidy the meat by trimming.  Pierce holes along the meat and insert salt, pepper and the garlic and parsley mixture deep into the meat.  Tie up with string like a roast.  Leave the skin on the pork belly, remove bones but reserve them for use later.
Arrange the pork skins flat on the board, season normally with salt and freshly ground pepper then spread thickly with the garlic and parsley mixture.  

Roll up like a thick sausage and tie with string at 1.5 cm intervals.

Place the three cuts of meat in a large container.  Cover with 1.5 litres of white wine, sprinkle over one tablespoon of whole black peppercorns and immerse the bouquet garni.  Cover and place in the refrigerator.  Before going to bed at night, turn the meats around in the marinade.

Step 2: preparing the dish: 

1 kg white Great Northern or cannellini  beans
1 whole brown onion, studded with 2 cloves
1 bay leaf
250g smoked pork speck, diced
60g duck fat
3 medium carrots, diced into 1 cm cubes
3-4 large onions, diced small
4 large very ripe tomatoes peeled deseeded and chopped (or 800g tinned Italian peeled tomatoes)
½ head garlic, peeled
1.5 litres chicken or pork or duck stock.
The bones reserved from the pork belly.

On the day, or one day ahead of serving:  Place the beans in a large pot, cover generously with cold water, add the studded onion and the bay leaf.  Bring to the boil and cook for about 30 minutes.
Strain the beans into a colander and refresh in cold water. Discard the onion and the bay leaf and leave the beans to drain.

Take the meat from the marinade and strain.  Heat oven to 200 degrees C and roast the neck only, basting often with a little of the marinade.  Cook for about one hour and 15 minutes, then remove and set aside.  Collect the roasting juices and set aside for use later.
At the same time in a large thick-based pot, fry the smoked speck with duck fat until golden, then add diced carrots and onions.
Sauté gently for about 15 minutes without browning.  Add the tomato flesh, reduce to a nice, thick consistency.  Season with freshly ground black pepper only.
Add the drained beans, mix together with the sauce, pour in the remaining strained marinade, and bring gently to the boil.
Bury the pork belly and skin roll into the beans, as well as the bouquet garni and the reserved pork bones.  Chop the garlic and add to the beans.  Bring the level of liquid up with the chicken stock, until it rests about 2 cm above the beans.

Do not stir the mixture any more.  Let it simmer, covered, for at least one and a half hours, maybe more, checking the meats with a skewer to see if they are done.
Remove the meats from the pot as soon as they are cooked.  Set aside with the roast pork neck and let cool.  If they are to be used the day after, let them cool and keep well covered and sealed in the refrigerator.  Pour beans out of the pot into a bowl and stir to equalise the flavours.  Discard the bouquet garni and the pork bones.

Step 3, serving the cassoulet: 

6 thick pork sausages, Toulouse type, cut in half
12 confit duck legs 
about 1 cup breadcrumbs
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1 bunch flat leaved parsley, chopped

Heat the oven to 200C. Half fill a large earthenware oven dish with the beans, thickly slice the roast pork and the pork belly, slice the skin roll thinly, grill the pork sausages on one side only, remove the duck legs from their fat.

Arrange in alternating slices, embedding into the beans the duck legs, pork neck slices, belly slices, skin slices and sausages (place grilled side on top).  

Bury all meats halfway into the beans and pour the roast pork jus all over.

Mix together the breadcrumbs, one large crushed clove of garlic and chopped parsley and sprinkle generously all over the top.  

Drizzle a little liquid duck fat on top of the breadcrumbs to crisp them.

 Bake in the oven for  30-40 minutes, until golden brown on top, very hot, and sizzling around the edges. Serves 8-12 people.  (Can be re-heated the next day). 

While all this lovely bean and meat alchemy was happening in Malcournet's kitchen, the bonfire down at the bottom of the meadow had nearly burned out.

Time for a glass of rosé after all our labours, and piping hot cassoulet in the garden. The heady aroma of beans, duck and pork made our mouths water. 

It didn't all fit in one clay pot, so there was a mama and a baby cassoulet. 

The  delicate harmony of the flavours in the cassoulet was absolutely delicious!

It was one of those perfect spring days. Music was provided by a nightingale warbling in a nearby tree, and as we wended our way home just before the sun went down, we all hoped that the spring bonfire cassoulet becomes an annual event. Thank you, Dany and Trish! Their book So French is packed with similar delicious recipes (and great stories!); pick up a copy on Amazon—it's now available on Kindle, too.

19 January 2014

Hell's Kitchen

One of the joys of travelling in distant lands is discovering new foods, and in our guides we always included a special chapter dedicated to local cuisine and booze.

That said, in our Guide to Hell—now updated with plenty of pizzazz as an ebook (for links, see our website), the section on food is comparatively brief. If the demons in Hell’s kitchen serve up anything, it’s sinner, generally boiled in a giant pot or roasted on a spit.

But Hell is the only place where the Eating Out section merges with Getting There, in the form of Gluttony. Yet few people know that Gluttony is a relative newcomer among the Seven Deadly Sins:
Ambition was the original Mithraic sin, but when it changed sides and became a virtue, Gluttony was called up from the second division to take its place. For centuries, this new arrival languished in the back row as a trivial sin, a caricature of a fat pink boojwah in a fancy restaurant. Gluttony charged back into Top Sin Status with the near-simultaneous invention of three-speed tractors, cheese-corn twisties, high-fructose corn syrup, corn dogs, caramel corn, corn-fed feedlot cattle, triple-dip ice-cream cones and above all that relentless and irresistible seducer of nations, the potato chip.
Of course, the one essential piece of advice is that daytrippers to Hell should pack their own lunches:
For those planning just a short stay, though, it's important not to touch a bite, or take a sip. If you don't believe us, take it from the Celts, the Lapps, the Jews, the New Caledonians, the Greeks, the Cherokee, the Maori, the Kwakiutl and dozens of other peoples around the globe. Folklore and mythology of all times and places agree: once you have supped with the denizens of the underworld, you're one of them, and you'll never get out.
Persephone's abduction by Hades provides the best-known example. One pomegranate seed accepted in a weak moment was all it took (some say it was seven; seven is a very important number in Hell). What was Hades doing with pomegranates? No one has come up with a convincing explanation for that one; pomegranates are usually associated with fertility; some scholars have claimed that the apple in the Garden of Eden was really a pomegranate.