Miz Chef

Cooking Up a Healthy Life


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Pallotte Cace e Ova

Abruzzo

This is the second installment in my Regions of Italy project. It’s Pallotte Cace e Ova, or Cheese and Egg Fritters.

The original recipe called for extra virgin olive oil for deep frying. I find this a bit nutty. In the first place, extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point, which means that the risk of burning is quite high. (You can argue with me about that if you want, but I’ve seen olive oil scorch way too quickly, so I stick with that belief.)

Second, extra virgin olive oil so expensive that the thought of filling a pot with 3 or so inches of it makes me dizzy. Also, the general belief is that so much of the flavor of extra virgin olive oil is lost when it’s heated, and so it’s not worth using to cook, which is why I use regular olive oil even for sauteing. So, for deep frying, I prefer to use peanut or some other cooking oil. But I’ll leave that choice up to you.

The fritters can be eaten by themselves, but are often served with tomato sauce. Having said that, I found that a spritz of lemon made them taste fabulous. Enjoy! Continue reading

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Pasta con le Fave

Abruzzo

The first recipe in my Regions of Italy project is Pasta con le Fave, or Pasta with Fava Beans. This dish is typical of the Vomano valley of Abruzzo. Although the original recipe calls for marjoram, fresh marjoram can be difficult to find. Oregano is related to marjoram and is more readily available. Note that it’s also stronger in flavor, so you may want to cut back a little on it, if strong herb flavor isn’t your thing.

The pasta called for here is maltagliati, which literally means “badly cut.” They are flat, very wide, short noodles that look like someone got drunk, took a pair of scissors, and went crazy on some dough. You may have a difficult time finding this pasta (although it may be available where specialty Italian products are sold), so you can improvise: cook some pappardelle, place them in a bowl, and use kitchen shears to snip them into squares.

The original recipe did not indicate how well the onion should be sautéed, so I decided on soft and translucent. It also said nothing about whether or not to skin the fava beans. Now, here’s the thing about fava beans. When you remove fresh favas from their pods, they have a skin, or jacket. Although this skin is edible, it can sometimes be tough and cause gas. It’s a much more pleasant experience to eat favas without their skin. The creators of this recipe may have assumed that the readers know to remove the skins, but that’s not always the case. So, I’ve included that step in my instructions.

This is very much a peasant dish, but it’s regal in its simplicity and respect of ingredients. Enjoy! Continue reading


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The Regions of Italy Project

Hi, all. I’ve been on a bit of hiatus the past several weeks because…well, life. But I’m jumping back in with a new project.

Several years ago, I purchased a massive book called La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine), published by Rizzoli Publications. It’s a compendium of thousands of recipes from the 20 regions of Italy.

I had this idea to work my way through this bookfiguratively through Italybut it’s an impractical goal. In the first place, many of the recipes call for regional or Italy-specific products that would be impossible to get here, even with the internet.

Second, many recipes hinge on the inclusion of products that I simply wouldn’t use, whether I can get them or not. I will not cook, for example, organ meats. And since I keep my meat intake in general to a minimum, many of these dishes would be just too much.

Third, it would take me years to make all of them.

So, I took a practical, reasonable, and (for me) enjoyable approach to this little venture. I decided to choose four recipes from each region. I based my decisions not just on dishes that I thought I would enjoy eating, but those that seemed different in some way from my everyday fare, those that sounded intriguing in some way, or those that take a different approach to a familiar dish.

Although I can’t share the recipes with you word for word (because that would be copyright infringement), since these are traditional regional recipes, I can share the ingredients with you and some basic preparation instructions, according to what I believe they should be. And I say that because…

As I started working with the recipes, I began to see a problem, which is that the instructions are, here and there, somewhat vague. I wasn’t always sure how long I should cook something, or what result I was supposed to be looking for. For example, one recipe says to heat olive oil in a pan and to sauté pancetta and onion, but it doesn’t say to what point. Is the onion just supposed to soften and get translucent? Is it supposed to get lightly brown? Deeply brown?

So I realized that I had to just use my instincts on some of these recipes, and I will share will you what I feel are the most suitable preparations.

The 20 regions represented in the book are Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Emilia-Romagna, Fruili-Venezia Guilia, Lazio, Liguria, Lombardia, Marche, Molise, Puglia, Sardegna, Sicilia, Toscana, Trentino-Alto Adige, Umbria, Valle d’Aosta, Veneto.

I’m going to go through the regions alphabetically, starting with Abruzzo. However, another thing I realized is that I was going to have to make some of these recipes out of order based on the seasonality of the ingredients required. So, later on, while I’m in the middle of alphabet, perhaps in Lombardia or Molise, a recipe from Basilicata might come up. Or perhaps while I’m in the midst of doing Toscana or Umbria, recipes from Lazio or Puglia might surface.

This is a project I’m doing for fun and to indulge my love and passion for Italian food, so I’m not holding myself to any hard-and-fast rules. My only goal here is to capture the essence of each recipe, sample these regional foods, and maybe introduce you, dear readers, to the cuisines of Italy.

I hope you try these recipes, too, and keep the traditional foods of the Old World alive.

 


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Hoppin’ John

Hello, everyone! As we approach the end of another year, many cultures around the world begin their preparations for carrying out traditions that will ensure good luck, good health, and prosperity in the new year (at the very least, they can’t hurt). Food always—pretty much without exception—plays a part in these rituals.

Soba Noodles

In Japan, for example, it is customary to eat soba noodles during the New Year’s celebration to ensure a long life, symbolized by the long noodles. In Spain, 12 grapes are eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve—one for each month of the year—and it is hoped that the grapes are sweet, which is considered a harbinger of a sweet year ahead. In Austria and Germany, they eat little marzipan pigs, which are considered good luck. In the Philippines, they make a lot of noise on New Year’s Eve, banging pots and pans, to ward off evil spirits. In Greece, they smash a pomegranate at the front door to spill the seeds, symbolically spreading wealth.

In many countries, legumes are popular for New Year’s because they swell when cooked, symbolizing increased financial prosperity. Lentils are used in Italy and Brazil because they are round like coins. In the United States, black-eyed peas are popular (the musical group and the legume) and Hoppin’ John, which features that particular legume, is a staple New Year’s dish in the South.

Recipes for Hoppin’ John first began appearing in cookbooks in the 1840s, but the origins are a little murky, and possibly a little unfortunate. Black-eyed peas are native to West Africa, and it’s believed that they were brought over by slave traders as part of their cargo. Naturally, the crops were planted in the South, and became an important commodity. Some believe that eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s is actually a carryover of a 1500-year-old tradition of consuming them by Sephardic Jews on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

The beans themselves represent coins, and there’s one version of this tradition that calls for hiding an actual coin in the Hoppin’ John—bringing the finder good luck—as well as filling a bowl with beans and coins and leaving it on the table for some benevolent spirit in exchange for granting good fortune.

But why is it called Hoppin’ John? There are several stories. One says that there was an old man who hobbled around and sold peas on the streets of Charleston, and the dish was named after him. Another says that children would hop around the dinner table, eagerly anticipating the serving of this dish. A more likely story is that it comes from a French term, pois pigeons, meaning pigeon peas, which are a big part of Caribbean culture.

Hoppin’ John is traditionally made with pork and served with rice. In many countries, pork, for some reason, is considered lucky to eat on New Year’s (marzipan is not the only kind of pig that Austrians and Germans eat for New Year’s). Rice flourished in the hot, steamy South (it was dubbed at one point Carolina Gold). Bring all three of these elements together, you’ve got one lucky dish. Also, Hoppin’ John is often served together with collard greens, because it represents money. Cornbread, too, is considered lucky because of its “golden” color (you get the idea).

I’ve made different versions of Hoppin’ John, with and without greens, with and without meat, with rice and with other grains… This is probably the simplest version I’ve cooked. The nice thing about it is that you can make it ahead of time and freeze it, then defrost it in time for New Year’s Day. By the way, unlike other dried beans, black-eyed peas do not need to be pre-soaked. You can, if you want to cut down cooking time, do a quick-soak method by bringing the peas to a boil in a pot of water, letting them boil for 2 minutes, then letting them sit in the water for an hour off heat. But, frankly, if you’re going to do all of that, you’re not really saving any time, unless you want to do this the day before. In my opinion, not worth it. Just let the Hoppin’ John cook for an hour, and it’s a done deal.  

Whatever traditions you have for New Year’s—or whether you have any at all—I’m wishing you all a healthy, happy, prosperous New Year. I wish for peace and tranquility, honor and compassion, and above all, respect for all living beings.

Hoppin’ John

Makes 6 servings.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste

6 cups vegetable broth
1 small green bell pepper, chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped carrot
2 large celery ribs, chopped
1 cup chopped tomatoes, liquid reserved
3 cups dried black-eyed peas
1 or 2 dried bay leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup minced fresh parsley
2 teaspoons fresh minced thyme or rosemary (or both), optional

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large saucepan. Add the onion and ¼ teaspoon of the salt, and sauté over medium-high heat until soft and translucent.Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Drop in the tomato paste and stir it in until it’s well blended, then let it cook for a minute or two, until the bottom of the pot starts to brown.Pour in a little bit of the broth to deglaze the pot and scrape up the brown bits with a wooden spoon. Let this cook until the liquid has evaporated.Add the bell pepper, carrot, celery, and ½ teaspoon of the salt and sauté until all the vegetables have softened but are still firm.Pour the liquid from the tomatoes into a measuring cup and add enough water to make 1 cup. Add this to the pot. Pour in the broth, and add the beans, bay leaves, remaining salt, and black pepper. Mix well.Bring this to a boil; lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, about 1 hour, or until the beans are tender but not mushy. If the pot dries out before the beans are cooked, add more water or broth and stir it in. Stir in the parsley and other herbs and taste for seasoning. Add more salt and/or pepper, if you like.

Remove the bay leaves and serve with rice or cornbread, or on its own.


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Release of World Party!!

World Party Front CoverAt long last, I can finally announce the release of my latest cookbook, World Party: Vegetarian Appetizers, Hors d’oeuvres and Party Plates.

Thai Peanut Dumplings

Thai Peanut Dumplings

This is both an excitement and a relief because this book has been on a long and arduous trip. I first got the idea for it, and began researching recipes and cuisines for it, in 2002. I spent many years testing and developing recipes to duplicate the dishes I’d read about and sampled, but in such a way that they would stay true to the originals as much as possible while making them meatless.

M'Baazi

M’Baazi

I started with a list, and that list grew and grew. Over the years, I added recipes, deleted recipes, changed recipes, and in a few cases I was so determined to make a particular recipe work that I just kept testing and testing until I came up with the right result. Sometimes a recipe simply didn’t work and I tossed it. Occasionally I would discover that I’d confused one dish for another, and sometimes I had a recipe that I couldn’t find the proper name for in its originating culture. In those cases, I researched high and low on the internet and in books and magazines, asked friends and coworkers if they knew, asked friends to ask their friends and coworkers if they knew, posted questions in special interest groups on Facebook, etc. I found out the answers to some, and found out that I had others all wrong.

An Indian Feast

An Indian Feast

As I met and talked to more and more people from different cultures, my list expanded but, oddly, also shrank. So many cultures have more common threads than we imagine, and as I started to examine my recipes, I began to realize that there were more similarities than differences. It was a fascinating and educational journey I went on.

Pot Stickers

Pot Stickers

The one thing I’ve learned from this project, if nothing else, is that no matter what clothing people wear, what religion they practice, what rituals they perform, what kinds of jobs they hold, or how much money they have, we are more similar than we are different. You can see this in the very similar dishes that are shared between nations, with maybe just a spice or two, or a cooking method, differentiating them.

Arepitas with Black Bean-Corn Salsa

Arepitas with Black Bean-Corn Salsa

Eating is the one thing that every single human being on earth must do to survive, so it’s no wonder that food is the common bond across the planet. No matter where you go in the world, a signal that you are welcome is the offer of food. When you are a guest at someone’s home, it always gives your hosts tremendous pleasure to feed to. It is the global sign of hospitality, and many customs and rituals were created around food. In some places, to refuse food is an insult, or to not finish it all is a sign of poor manners. Some cultures expect you to belch loudly when you’re done to show that you are satisfied.

Food always brings brings people of the world together.

Australian "Roo" Burgers

Australian “Roo” Burgers

It’s my hope that through food, we can find common ground and sit at the table together to share a meal.

So take a trip around the world. If you can’t do it physically, do it in your kitchen and at your table. Try new recipes and explore new flavors, and invite your friends and loved ones to share in the journey. Most of all, enjoy it. Peace.

A Spanish Feast

A Spanish Feast

 

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Tuscan Kale-Bean Soup with Fregola

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Tuscan Kale

Tuscan kale is a beautiful specimen of the kale family. The leaves are long and dainty looking, and look really pretty in a garden. But like standard kale, the leaves are hearty and the stems tough. Thick stems should be cut off and the leaves need to cook for a substantial amount of time (versus greens such s spinach or chard, which cook down in a few minutes).

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Umbrian Cicerchia Soup

cicerchia soupThere’s one thing I love about Eataly, the Italian market in Chelsea in New York, and it’s not the prices. It’s the fact that you can get products that have been imported from Italy, things that you wouldn’t otherwise find, at least not easily.IMG_5261

During one particular perusal of the market, I found cicerchia, an Umbrian hybrid of chickpeas and fava beans. Ceceri means chickpeas, so I imagine that cirechia is a playful word meaning “in the realm of chickpeas.” Italians love playing with their words almost as much as their food.

It’s probably a good thing, though, that cicerchia isn’t available widely. According to Vorrei Italianfood, they contain a neurotoxin and should not be eaten every day over a prolonged period of time (alhough I don’t know what that means.)IMG_5245

I wasn’t sure what to do with them, though, as this was not a common product, at least not in the region where my family is from (Basalicata). Ultimately, I decided to use them in a typical Umbrian dish: chickpea soup.

If you’re able to get your hands on cicerchia, try this recipe—it’s light but filling and scrumptious.
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