The ackee fruit's nutty taste combines with sharp salt cod to create Jamaica’s national dish. Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from

We all know the cliché that opposites attract and, in what could be called a fruitful marriage of opposites, two vastly different ingredients from opposite sides of the world are perfectly paired in Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and salt fish.

Ackee and salt fish is not just the national dish  —  it’s the favorite breakfast of every Jamaican across the globe. What makes this dish original and surprising is how well two distinct ingredients combine to create a dish that’s complex and simple, subtle and bold and, ultimately, delicious. The delicate nutty taste and soft texture of the fruit ackee tempers the sharp, saltiness and firm dry texture of salt fish.

With the addition of our standard “Jamaican seasonings”  — Scotch bonnet pepper, garlic, thyme, green peppers, onions and scallion, and served with a side of avocado, fried ripe plantain, steamed calalloo and “Johnny Cakes” or fried dumplings –  this extraordinary dish is a feast for the palate and a breakfast you won’t soon forget.

Although the pairing of ackee and salt fish makes for a beautiful union, some unions are not meant to be monogamous. As well as ackee and salt fish work together, we also love to cook them separately, pairing them with unexpected ingredients and flavors. For instance, ackee loves bacon, gets along very well with curry, has great synergy with Parmesan and has a seamless connection with coconut. Salt fish, while less gregarious, complements yam, parties well with lime and forms a perfect bond with cilantro and flour dumplings of any kind.

From West Africa to Jamaica on a slave ship

Ackee, for the uninitiated, is a savory fruit with a thick red skin that forms a sealed pod when unripe. Once ripened, the skin opens to reveal a beautiful petal-like shape containing three or four yellow pegs topped with a single black seed. Native to West Africa, the fruit originally came to Jamaica on a slave ship — it is believed that many slaves would carry the ackee seed as a talisman for good luck.

Unfortunately, ackee has a bit of a bad rap as the bad boy of Caribbean cuisine because it can potentially be poisonous if incorrectly prepared. For many years, like another famous Jamaican export, its importation to the United States was banned. Be assured, however, that it is perfectly safe to eat, although Jamaica seems to be one of the few countries in the world that dared to try to figure out how to do so — leaving us as the only island in the Caribbean where it’s part of the daily diet.

To render ackee safe for consumption, the skin must be open before picking. The pegs, once removed from the pod, are then prepared by removing the seed and a red ‘thread’ embedded in the flesh of the peg. (This is the poisonous part.) The fruit is then boiled in salted water.

Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, right, collaborated on their cookbook.

Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, right, collaborated on their cookbook. Credit: Courtesy of SKaan Media / 2 Sisters and a Meal

Outside of Jamaica, ackee is readily available in cans and can be found at online groceries and mainstream supermarkets throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Freshly cooked ackee is creamy and buttery with a mild nutty taste that’s neutral enough to absorb the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with. When raw it has a waxy texture but canned ackee, which is already cooked, has a more mushy consistency. In any of its forms, ackee is a great ingredient to have fun with in the kitchen as it can be prepared in many interesting and unexpected ways. For instance — ackee tacos?

Salt cod preparation takes time

Salt cod, known as salt fish in the islands, is cod that has been preserved by drying after salting. It is a staple in the cuisine of almost all Caribbean islands and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Salt cod was a part of the Triangular Trade that developed between Europe, Africa and the Americas, tying its history to that of sugar, slavery and rum in the islands.

High-quality North American cod was always sold in Europe. But traders also sold a lower-end product of poorly cured salt fish called “West India cure” to plantation owners in the Caribbean. The West Indian planters had no desire to dedicate any land to the production of food for their slaves and instead relied on imported salt cod as a cheap form of nourishment.

In exchange, European traders received sugar, molasses, rum, cotton, tobacco and salt, which they took back to North America and Europe. Trade in salt cod from Nova Scotia was so high that, in 1832, the Bank of Nova Scotia opened in Halifax to facilitate the thriving trans-Atlantic trade. By 1889 the Bank of Nova Scotia had become the first bank to expand outside of the United States or United Kingdom when it opened a branch in Kingston, Jamaica, to support the lucrative trading of rum, sugar and fish.

To prepare salt fish it must be soaked in fresh water for at least an hour; it is then boiled till the flesh of the fish flakes easily. If still too salty, it is boiled some more, drained, scraped of its skin, flaked with your hands and, only then, does the laborious task of picking out the bones begin. Although deboned and de-skinned cod is certainly available in many markets, in the Caribbean we still like to do it the old way — because it’s so much more fun.

In honor of this beloved Jamaican breakfast dish, we share two breakfast/brunch recipes, that celebrate each ingredient on its own. We encourage you to expand your breakfast horizons and give these a try — any time day or night.

Ackee and Bacon Quiche

Prep Time: 35 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings, 1 (8-inch) quiche

Ackee and Bacon Quiche

Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from "Caribbean Potluck," permission by Kyle Books

In this dish we combine a traditional quiche custard with pure Jamaican love by adding our national fruit (and popular breakfast item) ackee and crispy bacon. Throw in tons of flavor with the Scotch bonnet, scallion, tomato, garlic, thyme and Parmesan cheese, and you have a winning brunch. If you don’t have coconut milk on hand, use 1½ cups heavy cream instead of the cows and coconut milk mixture.

Ingredients

    For the quiche crust and custard:
  • ½ pound (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 pound all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling pinch of sea salt
  • Up to ¼ cup ice water
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ½ cup canned coconut milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • Dash of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Sea salt
  • For the Ackee and bacon filling:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
  • ½ Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), seeded and minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (8-ounce) package bacon, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons sliced scallion
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme, chopped
  • ¼ cup finely chopped tomato
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped bell pepper
  • 1 (18-ounce) can ackee
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. To make the quiche crust, combine the butter, flour and salt in a bowl with your hands until crumbly. Add just enough ice water to form a dough and knead until it comes together. Form into a ball, then, on a floured surface, roll the dough into a round about 14 inches in diameter. Transfer to an 8-inch quiche pan and press the dough gently into the bottom and sides. Weigh down the dough with raw rice on a piece of waxed paper and prebake for 20 minutes. Set on wire rack to cool until ready to fill.
  3. Meanwhile, to make the custard, in a medium bowl combine the milk, coconut milk, eggs, mustard and nutmeg and whisk together thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to bake.
  4. To make the filling, heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Toss in the onion, Scotch bonnet and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the bacon and sauté for about 5 minutes. Spoon off the excess fat and stir in the scallion, thyme, tomato and bell pepper; cook another 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Add the ackee,season with salt and pepper, and mix in the Parmesan. Let cool.
  5. To assemble the quiche, place the ackee and bacon filling in the pastry shell and smooth the top. Pour the custard over the filling, distributing it evenly with a fork. Return the quiches to the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until the custard has set. Cool slightly before serving.

Trini-Style Salt Fish and ‘Bake’

Prep Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Trini-Style Salt Fish and "Bake."© 2014 by Ellen Silverman from "Caribbean Potluck," permission by Kyle Books

Trini-Style Salt Fish and “Bake.” Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from “Caribbean Potluck,” permission by Kyle Books

All our islands cook salt fish (salt cod) in one way another for breakfast, lunch and even dinner. As our childhood years were spent in Trinidad we favor this Trini version known as “buljol.” Salt fish is often served alongside some kind of fried dumpling, some fluffy and large others smaller and more dense. In Jamaica we serve salt fish with Johnny Cakes, small round fried dumplings. Other countries such as Trinidad and Guyana call them bake. Here we pair this traditional Trini saltfish with our version of a bake — a hybrid recipe inspired by the bakes served in Trinidad, Guyana and Belize. If you have any left over, these little breads can be great topped with cheddar cheese and Guava jam or even just butter and jam.

Ingredients

For Trini-style salt fish (Buljol):
2 cups salt fish, boiled, picked and cleaned
½ cup chopped tomato
¼ cup chopped onion
1 Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), minced without seeds

Olive oil

1/4 cup cilantro

Salt and black pepper

For our version of bake:
2 cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup water
¼ cup milk + 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon
2 cups vegetable oil

Directions

1. Combine salt fish with tomato, onion and the Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet) in a small bowl. Heat olive oil in a small pan. When very hot, pour it over the salt fish mixture. Add cilantro and season with salt and black pepper as required. Allow to rest at room temperature for about one hour.

2. Sieve together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Rub butter into flour until combined. Gradually add water and milk and mix well with hands until a dough or mass is formed. Knead for about five minutes until smooth.

3. Roll the dough into pieces the size of golf balls (should get about eight pieces of dough), and allow them to rest for about half an hour. Roll it out with a rolling pin or bottle to a 4-inch disk and slice a line in the middle so that it will cook more quickly. Fry in oil, turning over once. When it floats, it is ready.

4. Drain and serve with salt fish. These are also great paired with cheddar cheese and guava jam, or even just butter and jam.

Main photo: The ackee fruit’s nutty taste combines with sharp salt cod to create Jamaica’s national dish. Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from “Caribbean Potluck,” courtesy Kyle Books

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Chocolate ravioli make for a sweet treat.

Pasta lovers, save room for dessert. Pasta can be enjoyed not just as a first course, but for dessert too! Pasta as a sweets course may sound trendy, but Italians have been making all sorts of desserts with it for centuries. From cutting-edge modern creations to traditional almond-pasta pie from Emilia, there are hundreds of sweets made with every shape of pasta, from angel hair to ziti. Plus, dozens of dessert ravioli.

Modern pasta desserts

Want a change from the same old, same old? Jumbo pasta shells coated in cocoa is one of my favorites from the many modern pasta desserts in Italy today. Luca  De Luca and the team at the Garofalo pasta company near Naples taught me this recipe while I was in Italy researching my book “Pasta Modern.” “Pasta shells can be filled with almost anything: vanilla custard, chocolate pudding, panna cotta, semifreddo, sorbet, granita, whipped cream and fresh berries, yogurt and honey — there are endless possibilities,” Luca said.

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli” is a popular line from “The Godfather,” showing just how popular the Italian dessert is. As anyone who’s ever tried knows, making cannoli shells is a huge challenge. It’s hard even for the most experienced home cooks. But now there’s a fun solution: cannoli made with pasta instead! Mezzi maniche, “half sleeves,” or little pasta tubes, are boiled then fried to create a crunchy, tasty container for the creamy sweet ricotta cannoli filling. They are a perfect pop-in-your-mouth, one-bite size. The fried mezzi maniche pasta are even good plain! Toss them in sugar and serve them with melted chocolate or with ice cream.

Spaghetti Sundae, a really fun, whimsical, kid pleaser, is spaghetti tossed in melted chocolate and served just like a sundae, deliciously cold-topped with your favorite sundae fixings.

It’s so simple you don’t even need a recipe. Just melt chocolate with a little olive oil and toss it with cooked pasta. Then top with any of the usual toppings: whipped cream, chopped nuts, sprinkles. Olive oil helps make the chocolate easier to melt, even in the microwave, and creates a super silky sheen. Olive oil also keeps the pasta from sticking together once it cools.

Fried pasta desserts

In Italy they have a saying, Fritti sono buoni anche gli zampi delle sedie — “Fried, even chair legs are delicious.” Pasta is certainly at the top of the list of delicious fried treats.

There are fried pasta desserts in almost every region of Italy. In Sicily, they fry a little forkful of angel hair and serve it topped with honey and chopped pistachios. It’s like a pasta cookie, crunchy on the outside and chewy in the center. In Tuscany and central Italy, they make a variation by frying thicker tagliatelle noodles nests, called nidi di tagliatelle per Carnevale. To make them, a few strands of fresh egg noodles are clumped into a little nest and fried. Since the noodles aren’t boiled first, only fresh egg pasta, not dried pasta, is used because it is softer. In Tuscany, the treat is created using chocolate noodles, made by incorporating cocoa powder into the pasta dough. The fried nests are drizzled with brandy-infused warm honey and topped with toasted almonds. In Emilia-Romagna, the nests are simply topped with confectioners’ sugar.

Dessert ravioli

Almost every region has its own sweet dessert ravioli, tortelli or mini-calzone recipes, with variations in fillings and shapes. Too difficult for me to recreate, but delicious for you to try if you are ever in Italy, are the chocolate ravioli filled with chocolate ricotta mousse and served in fresh strawberry puree from Osteria Pastella in Florence.

Ravioli filled with pureed chestnuts, chocolate, espresso, rum and ground nuts, caggiunitte, are an Abruzzo specialty. Lombardy’s specialty pasta dessert is fried tortelli filled with either jam or chocolate. I especially like the earthy combination of pureed chickpeas and jam filling in panzarotti con ceci of Puglia and Basilicata. Usually, ravioli can be tricky to make, because you have to get the dough very thin and seal them carefully since they’re going to be dashed about in rapidly boiling water like tiny ships in a storm. But because these ravioli are baked rather than boiled, you can make them thicker and don’t have to worry about them opening. It’s an easy way to work with dough.

Torta Riccolina

Torta Ricciolina, or angel hair pasta pie. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan

Angel Hair Pasta Pie (Torta Ricciolina)

From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Baking Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Angel hair pasta, seasoned with chocolate and almonds, bakes into one of the most unusual, delicious pies I’ve ever tasted.

To make this classic Bolognese dessert, you absolutely must use fresh, not dried, egg pasta. If making your own pasta seems daunting, buy ready-made fresh instead. Most supermarkets sell ready-made fresh.

This is a great make-ahead dessert, as it’s much better the day after, once all the flavors have melded.

Ingredients

8 ounces, about 1 1/2 cups, whole blanched almonds

3/4 cup granulated sugar

Zest of 1 lemon

2 ounces, about 1/3 cup, finely chopped candied citron or candied orange peel

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 pie crust, store bought or homemade

8 ounces fresh thin egg-pasta, such as tagliatelline or angel hair, store-bought or homemade

6 tablespoons butter, thinly sliced

1/3 cup rum

Directions

1. Grind the almonds and sugar in a food processor until it resembles coarse sand. Pulse in the zest, candied citron or orange peel, and cocoa powder until well combined. Divide into 3 parts.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a 9- or 10-inch pie pan with the pie crust. Pot lots of holes in the bottom and sides of the crust with a fork.

3. Divide the pasta into three parts, with one part being slightly larger than the other two.

4. Line the pie pan with the larger portion of pasta and sprinkle with 1/3 of the almond mixture. Lift the pasta with the tip of a knife so it is loose and free form. Do not press the pasta down. Dot the pasta with thin slices of the butter.

5. Top with another layer of pasta sprinkled with a third of the almond mixture and more butter. Repeat for a third and final layer.

6. Loosely cover with aluminum foil, bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking uncovered for another 20-25 minutes until the top is golden and the center set.

7. Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle the top of the pie with the rum. It will hiss and absorb quickly, with most of the alcohol evaporating, leaving just a lovely aroma and flavor.

8. Allow to cool to room temperature. Serve, preferably after it’s rested overnight or for 24 hours, topped with confectioners’ sugar.

Dessert pasta shells

Jumbo pasta shells coated in cocoa. Credit: “Pasta Modern” by Francine Segan

Chocolate Stuffed Shells (Conchiglioni dolci al cacao)

From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 24 large shells, serves 4 to 6

Use just cocoa powder for unsweetened shells that become a gorgeous reddish-brown color, or sweeten the cocoa powder with confectioners’ sugar for a lovely dark-colored sweet shell. Using a teaspoon, fill the shells with anything you like. Pictured here is milk chocolate and dark chocolate pudding.

Other fun options:

Ice cream, slice of banana, dollop fudge sauce and chopped nuts for a mini sundae

Ricotta, sugar, mini chocolate chips for a soft cannoli

Mascarpone cheese, sugar and drop of coffee for an instant tiramisu

Cream cheese, fruit jam and fresh fruit for Italian-style cheesecake

Ingredients

24 jumbo shells

Salt

1/4 cup cocoa powder

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

Fillings and garnishes: about 2 cups total of gelato, custard, whipped cream, fruit, yogurt, etc.

Directions

1. Cook the shells in lightly salted boiling water until al dente and drain.

2. For sweeter shells, put the cocoa powder and confectioners’ sugar, to taste, into a sturdy plastic food storage bag. Toss the shells, a few at a time, into the bag until fully coated with cocoa powder. For less-sweet shells, toss them in just cocoa powder. Fill with anything you like.

cannoli pasta bites

Mezzi maniche, or little pasta tubes, are boiled then fried to create a crunchy, tasty container for the creamy sweet ricotta cannoli filling. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan

Cannoli Pasta Bites (Mezzi Maniche Dolci)

From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Try this recipe once and, like me, I bet it will become one of your go-to desserts.

There are lots of ways to vary it. One of my favorite variations is to fill the fried pasta with mascarpone cheese sweetened with sugar and then dust with instant coffee granules and cocoa powder, for a riff on tiramisu.

Ingredients

1 cup ricotta

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon finely chopped dark chocolate or mini chocolate chips

1 tablespoon minced candied orange peel

Pinch of ground cinnamon

1/4 pound mezzi maniche

Salt

Vegetable oil

Optional garnishes: chopped pistachios, chopped candied cherry or orange peel, cocoa powder or chopped chocolate

Directions

1. In a bowl, using a fork, mix the ricotta, sugar, chocolate, candied peel and cinnamon until well combined. Refrigerate until ready to use.

2. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until very tender, about 1 minute longer than al dente. Drain the pasta well. Meanwhile, heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil in a very small saucepan until hot, but not smoking. Add half of the pasta and fry until golden and crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Repeat with the remaining pasta.

3. When room temperature, roll the fried pasta in granulated sugar, then fill each with the ricotta mixture, either using an espresso spoon or by piping it in with a pastry bag. Garnish, if you like, with chopped pistachios, candied orange peel, grated chocolate or other toppings.

 

Sicilian Pasta Chips

In Sicily, they fry a little forkful of angel hair and serve it topped with honey and chopped pistachios. Credit: “Pasta Modern,” by Francine Segan

 

Sicilian Pasta Crisps (Pasta Fritta alla Siciliana)

From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Twirled forkfuls of honey-sweetened spaghetti, crunchy on the edges and soft in the center — scrumptious and a snap to prepare.

Ingredients

1/3 pound angel hair pasta

Salt

Sunflower or other vegetable oil

1/4 cup honey

Zest of 1/2 orange, or 2 tablespoons finely minced candied orange peel, 2 teaspoons orange blossom water

Pistachios, finely crushed

Ground cinnamon

Directions

1. Cook the pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain.

2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the honey, orange zest or candied orange peel, orange blossom water and 2 tablespoons of boiling water.

3. Put about 1/4 inch of oil in a small frying pan and heat until hot, but not smoking. Twirl small forkfuls of the pasta, drop them into the hot oil, and cook until golden and crisp at the edges. Turn, and cook on the other side for just a few seconds. Drain the pasta crisps on a plate lined with paper towels.

Arrange the pasta crisps on serving plate. Serve warm, drizzled with the honey mixture and topped with a sprinkle of pistachios and a pinch of cinnamon.

Sweet Chickpea Ravioli (Panzarotti con Ceci)

From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 45 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 4 dozen

Ingredients

For the filling:

1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (canned, or 4 ounces dry, soaked overnight and boiled until tender)

1 cup best-quality cherry jam

2 to 4 tablespoons sweet liqueur such as Amaretto, limoncello, mandarino, or a combination

Zest of 1/2 lemon

Honey or sugar, to taste

Ground cinnamon, to taste

1 egg

For the dough:

16 ounces, about 3 1/2 cups, all-purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup white wine

2 tablespoons olive oil

Confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. For the filling: Process the chickpeas through a food mill until you get a nice thick, smooth paste. Then mix in the jam and liqueur to taste. Stir in the zest and cinnamon to taste, and then add sugar or honey, if you like. Once you have tasted it and are happy with the flavor, then mix in the egg. You can make the filling several days ahead. Refrigerate until ready to use.

2. For the dough: Sift the flour, sugar and salt onto a clean work surface and make a well in the center. Heat the wine in a saucepan or in the microwave. Pour the oil and 1/4 cup of the wine into the well and incorporate the flour, a little at a time, until dough forms. Add warm water, a little at a time, if the dough feels tough. Knead the dough until smooth. Put into a plastic bag or wrap in plastic wrap.

3. To assemble: Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.

4. Spread out a large clean cotton cloth onto a work surface for assembling and cutting the ravioli.

5. Leaving the rest covered, take a small section, about an 1/8 of the of dough, and either pass it through a pasta maker (#3 hole size, not thinner) or use a rolling pin to create a 3 to 4-inch wide strip of dough. Make just 2 strips at a time, so you can fill and cut the ravioli without having the waiting dough get dry.

6. Lay a sheet of dough onto the cloth and drop a tablespoonful of the filling on the sheet, about 1 1/2 inches apart. Top with another layer of dough. Using your fingers, press the top layer of dough around the filling and using a ravioli cutter, cut out square-shaped ravioli. Repeat until you’ve used up all the dough and filling.

7. Put the ravioli onto the baking sheet and bake for about 25 minutes until golden.

8. Eat warm, sprinkled with powdered sugar or cold dipped in honey or mosto cotto or vin cotto.

Main photo: Chocolate ravioli make for a sweet treat. Credit: Osteria Pastella

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Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

Thousands of years ago, pioneers among the central Malayo-Polynesian-speaking populations are believed to have traveled across the Indian Ocean and brought plantains, water yams and taro to India. Now, they have become central to the vegetarian cuisine in the Kerala region of southwest India.

Plantains are a variety of bananas from the plant Musa paradisiaca, which have thicker skins than regular bananas. Plantains are also sometimes called cooking bananas. Even when ripe, they are not very sweet, and they are not eaten raw.

The plantain rules at Kerala’s most important festival, Thiruvonam (or Onam for short), celebrated in late August or early September (depending on the lunar calendar) by Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike. The big event at Onam is the sadya (feast), which is served on fresh, green banana leaves around noon. Although rice is the centerpiece of the feast, several dishes both sweet and savory are prepared with plantains, each with its own taste and texture.

In every cuisine, there are certain dishes that make the menu more complete and more festive. They may not have the status of a course in and of themselves, but without them, the meal would lose some of its festive appeal. Two signature dishes of Onam Sadya are the deep-fried, salty and crispy golden yellow plantain chips and their sweet counterpart, sarkkara upperi, thick slices deep-fried and drenched in jaggery syrup. No matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious. Locally called upperi, but better known as banana chips, it is the favorite snack of Kerala and provides the crispy crunch to traditional feasts.

And then there is kaya mezukkupuratti, cubed green plantains cooked with salt and turmeric and then pan-fried over low heat in coconut oil until they fully absorb the flavor of the curry leaves and oil. It’s a dish that’s as unfussy and simple as you can imagine.

Plantains useful in curries

There are two types of curries made with just plantains for the Onam feast. They are also found in the signature mixed vegetable dish aviyal. One of the curries, varutha erisseri, is made by cooking chunks of green plantain in a sauce of golden brown toasted coconut. It has a complexity and aroma peculiarly and delightfully its own. The word “curry” often evokes a sense of tropical spiciness. Kerala’s cuisine is known for its variety of spicy curries, but there are also some mildly sweet, tropical fruit curries that are cooked in a mellow coconut and yogurt sauce.

The fruit curry kaalan is made by cooking ripe plantain slices in a thick coconut and yogurt sauce sweetened with jaggery and garnished with mustard and fenugreek seeds and fresh curry leaves.

Steamed ripe plantains are another must at the Onam feast. And, finally, rounding out the menu is a delicately smooth and creamy pudding — pazza pradhaman — made with homemade plantain jam cooked in coconut milk sweetened with jaggery and garnished with crushed cardamom and toasted coconut pieces.

Though not necessarily a part of the Onam feast, other plantain treats can be found in Kerala: sun-dried ripe plantains and banana fritters made with thin ripe plantain slices dipped in a mildly sweet batter and deep-fried.

Plantain Chips

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: 20 servings

Making deep-fried chips at home is not a difficult task. Thanks to food processors, slicing is a breeze. It is important to use oil that can be heated to high temperatures. The oil must be well heated before adding the sliced plantains for frying or otherwise, oil seeps in and will make them soggy. Hot oil sears the surface to a firm crispiness. For serving at feasts, they are generally quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into thin triangular slices. To serve as a snack, they are cut as full rounds or as half rounds. But no matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious.

Ingredients

  • 6 firm green plantains
  • 6 cups vegetable oil
  • ½ cup concentrated saltwater (*see directions below)

Directions

  1. Peel off the thick green skins from the plantains, and wash them to remove any dark stain from the outside. Pat them dry with paper towels.
  2. When making the smaller, triangular chips, halve the plantain lengthwise, and cut each piece lengthwise again. Then cut each piece crosswise into thin slices. For the round chips, cut the whole plantain crosswise into thin rounds. A food processor comes in handy for cutting them into thin rounds. Fit the processor with the 2mm blade and slowly feed the peeled plantains through the top. This blade cuts the plantains evenly.
  3. Heat the oil in a heavy wok or deep-frying pan to 365 F.
  4. When the oil is hot, spread the plantain pieces evenly in the oil and deep-fry until they are golden and crisp, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add a teaspoon of concentrated saltwater to the oil, and cover the pan with a splatter screen. The water will really splatter and make a lot of noise.
  6. In a minute or so, when the water has stopped sputtering, remove the cover. By now, all the water should have evaporated, and the crispy fries will be golden and evenly salted.
  7. Drain well, and store in airtight containers. The best way to drain deep-fried plantains is to use a cake cooling rack placed over a cookie tray. The excess oil will drip through the cooling rack and fall onto the cookie tray.
  8. *Add one tablespoon of salt to a half-cup of water, and stir well. If there is no salt sediment at the bottom, add more salt, and stir until there is some salt residue left at the bottom and the water is saturated with salt.

Main photo: Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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The duck is prepared table side at La Couronne. Credit: La Couronne

In the town of Rouen in Normandy, France, there is a dish that should not be missed. It is canard a la rouennaise a la presse — pressed duck. Here is how my husband and I discovered and enjoyed this culinary experience this summer.

Rouen is a charming historic Norman town 80 miles north of Paris with a well-preserved and meticulously reconstructed (from war damage) old-town district. The Seine flows through town, dividing the historic section and the postwar new one.

This summer we visited the town to see the Cathedral Notre-Dame of Rouen, which inspired Claude Monet; learn the history of Joan of Arc in the place of her death; and take long walks from one historical site to another through narrow streets and small plazas. And, of course, we were ready to savor some good, local meals to complement our time in Rouen. Canard a la rouennaise a la presse was the natural first choice. We made a reservation at La Couronne, taking note of the warning in a guidebook about the price of the dish — “if you can afford it.”

La Couronne is housed in a beautiful half-timbered inn claiming to be the oldest inn in France. It was transformed into a restaurant in the 19th century. When the present owners, the Cauvin family, took over the restaurant in 1989, they did research on the building and found evidence that the space they use as a wine cellar dates to the 12th century.

Entering this old establishment with a dark wood ceiling and walls and windows enclosed by heavy drapes made us feel we were transported to the age of Joan of Arc. An elegant maitre d’hotel, Dominique Boucourt, ushered us to our table, and without hesitation we ordered the canard a la Rouennaise a la presse and good Bordeaux.

Table-side preparation adds to showiness of pressed duck

Canard a la rouennaise a la presse, which was quaintly translated as “squeezed duck in Rouen style” on the English menu, was invented at the beginning of the 19th century by executive chef Henri Denise at L’Hotel de la Poste in Duclair, near Rouen, according to Sacha Cauvin, the son of the current owner and manager of the restaurant. Paul Hamlyn, publisher of “Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia,” writes that “the recipe for pressed duck owed much of its immediate success to the Duke of Chartres, who commended it highly in Paris.” In Paris it became famous, but its ancestral home is Normandy.

Canard a la Rouennaise a la presse from La Couronne. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Canard a la rouennaise a la presse from La Couronne. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

While nursing a glass of wine, I realized our duck dish would be mostly prepared and served at our table, because at a distant table I could see Boucourt in action — carving the duck, pressing the carcass, cooking the fillets, preparing the sauce and serving the dish to a young couple mesmerized by the smooth operation.

Boucourt returned to our table with a side table full of cooking equipment — a chopping board, knife, tabletop cooker and machine called la presse used to squeeze the blood and juice from the carcass. He proudly presented us a very lightly oven-baked, plump Rouen duck, and then the show began.

He first removed the breast and legs from the body, removed the skin from the breast and then cut the meat into slices. Every procedure was done with such professionalism and speed that my sipping of wine stopped just so I could pay close attention. Boucourt moved on to cooking the sliced breast meat in a saucer over the stove on his table. Flamed cognac was added to the fillets. After setting the cooked breast meat aside, he filled the inside of the presse with the duck carcass. He closed the lid and screwed down the pressing element, and the blood and juices ran down into a silver bowl. He then placed another cooking saucer over the fire and poured in red Burgundy. When the wine began to simmer, he added the blood and duck juices. A chunk of butter followed, and the sauce was cooked down. The flame flickered up, and the aroma of the fragrant sauce hit our noses and made our stomachs growl. Boucourt finished the sauce with a little salt and pepper, and the previously flambéed duck slices were added to the sauce to flavor them.

Within a few moments, the beautifully presented dishes were served to us. The meat itself was flavorful and tender, and the strong but delicately aromatic, rich blood-wine sauce was heaven sent as the perfect accompaniment for the duck. While enjoying the dish, Boucourt’s finely tuned, flawless preparation flashed back to my mind. This year is his 33rd serving canard a la rouennaise a la presse, the longest such tenure in the history of La Couronne.

Some of the staff at La Couronne, including maitre d'hotel Dominique Boucouat (at right). Credit: La Couronne

Some of the staff at La Couronne, including maitre d’hotel Dominique Boucourt, bottom right. Credit: La Couronne

The La Couronne kitchen uses duck from Duclair, 11 miles west of Rouen. This duck originated in and near Duclair, and breeding standards for these birds were established in 1923. This is not the highly bred, much heavier variety known as “Rouen duck.” That is a different bird. Ducks from Duclair are slaughtered at the age of 10 weeks using a method that keeps the blood inside the body.

Using blood in food preparation is not a practice of the Japanese kitchen that is my own discipline. When I prepare duck, I take particular care to remove the blood. So I thank Rouen, La Couronne, Boucourt and canard a la rouennaise a la presse for providing me this precious experience and new knowledge that is now a part of my cooking knowledge and life.

The recipe presented here is not for the Rouen pressed duck, but for duck cooked the Japanese way. This is certainly different from canard a la rouennaise a la presse, but is an excellent easy way to prepare and enjoy duck as an appetizer course.

Mushigamo (Steamed duck)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 appetizer-size servings

Ingredients

  • ½ cup sake
  • ½ cup mirin
  • 2 tablespoons usukuchi shoyu (light-colored soy sauce)
  • 2 tablespoons shoyu (regular soy sauce)
  • 1 large boneless half duck breast
  • Hot mustard paste for serving

Directions

  1. In a saucepan, combine the sake, mirin and both of the shoyu and bring the mixture to a simmer. Transfer the liquid to a steamer-safe container large enough to accommodate the duck.
  2. In a heated skillet, add the duck, skin side down, and cook until the skin is golden. Turn the duck over and cook until the other side is golden.
  3. Add the browned duck to the prepared liquid in the container. Transfer the container to a steamer and cook for 12 minutes. Remove the container from the steamer, and remove the duck from the cooking liquid, reserving the liquid in the container.
  4. Insert a grilling skewer through the duck breast and hang the breast over a bowl for one hour to allow any blood to drain from the meat for disposal. Return the duck to the cooled cooking liquid and refrigerate overnight.
  5. The next day, remove the duck from the cooking liquid and slice thin. Serve the duck in six portions each with a dab of hot mustard paste.

Main photo: The duck is prepared table side at La Couronne. Credit: La Couronne

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Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The rise and fall of fettuccine Alfredo is a story of a simple dish taken from its home and embellished with flourishes before sliding into culinary familiarity, dullness and bastardization.

Although it has its roots in Roman cuisine, it is nothing but a restaurant dish in Italy and America. Fettuccine Alfredo became a classic of Italian-American cooking, but today is often served as third-rate tourist food in the Little Italy emporiums catering to them in America’s cities.

This wasn’t always true. In the 1940s and 1950s, fettuccine Alfredo was a signature dish of continental-style French-service restaurants where waiters, with a flourish, would prepare the dish tableside in a chafing dish.

The classic story of its origins is that the dish was invented in a Roman trattoria on the Via della Scrofa near the Tiber River by Alfredo di Lelio, who opened his restaurant in the early part of the 20th century. He invented the dish for his wife, it is said, after she gave birth and lost her appetite.

The dish became famous to Americans after Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s in 1927 and raved about his preparation called fettuccine Alfredo. It was in America that cream started entering the recipe and that fettuccine Alfredo began its descent to a thick, heavy, glop of pasta. The original, although meant to be rich, was also light and silky because all that was used was butter and Parmesan cheese: cream and eggs were never meant to be used.

Interestingly, Italians do not refer to this dish as fettuccine Alfredo — or when they do they’re well aware of the American connection — but rather fettuccine al triplo burro, fettuccine with triple the amount of butter, the name of the original dish. Even more interestingly, two great cookbooks on Roman cuisine Ada Boni’s “La Cucina Romana” and Livia Jannattoni’s “La Cucina Romana e del Lazio” do not mention fettuccine Alfredo, indicating that it never was part of Roman cooking but is culinary fantasy.

The dish should be made with fresh fettuccine, but dried works just fine as well. The quality of the butter and cheese in fettuccine Alfredo are paramount. I recommend the Parmigiano-Reggiano butter made from the same cow’s milk the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from and which you must also use.

Fettuccine Alfredo

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound fresh fettuccine
  • ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • ½ pound (about 4 cups) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing saving ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the butter into thin pats or flakes and transfer half of them to a warmed large oval silver platter where you will do the final tossing. Place the cooked pasta over the butter, sprinkle the cheese on top. Toss, sprinkling some reserved pasta water. Add the remaining butter and toss, adding the pasta water to make the pasta look creamy. You will be tossing for 2 minutes. Sprinkle on the black pepper if desired. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Green chile. Credit: Ruth Tobias

In the Southwest, the green chile harvest is well underway. Throughout New Mexico and my home state of Colorado, locals are ransacking the roadside stands, where roasting drums rumble incessantly, and stacking their freezers with bag upon bag of the long, blackened pods. Soon and often, they’ll be chopped and added to omelets, burgers, quesadillas, breads and countless other dishes, and even used by home brewers in beer. But above all, they’ll be reserved for batches of, well, green chile.

Though you will sometimes see the word spelled “chili,” the strong preference for the Spanish term in these parts is only natural. A majority here take “chili” to mean the spicy beef stew (with or without beans) so beloved in Texas, while green “chile” refers not only to any number of unripened strains of Capsicum annuum but also to a concoction whose versatility partly explains its significance to Southwestern cuisine.

Green chile recipes come with many variations

Other than the peppers themselves, its list of ingredients is up for fierce debate. It may be vegetarian or contain pork, though if you ask three cooks which cut is best you’ll get four answers. And while garlic, salt and pepper are virtually non-negotiable, just about every other potential component has its champions and detractors, from onions, tomatoes, tomatillos and chicken broth to herbs and spices like cilantro and cumin.

Green chile can be thin or thick; it functions as a filling, sauce and/or stew at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even if they’ve heard of it before (and many haven’t), newcomers to the Southwest are often startled by green chile’s ubiquity.

For that matter, many New Mexicans — who consider the stuff their birthright — balk at the notion that Coloradans have a century-old green-chile tradition of their own. (Case in point: the good-natured controversy that occurred between state officials after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock included green chile in his 2014 Super Bowl wager with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.) In their view, the Colorado version, based primarily on crops from Pueblo, could only be a pale imitation if not an outright theft of their richer heritage, centered on the famed Hatch pepper and extending to an appreciation for red chile — made with the dried pods — that Coloradans don’t especially share. (In New Mexico, when you order any dish “Christmas-style,” you’ll get it with both red and green chile.)

Chiles in a roasting drum at a stand on Federal Boulevard in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Chiles in a roasting drum at a stand on Federal Boulevard in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Michael Bartolo begs to differ with that assessment. According to the Colorado State University researcher, DNA testing has shown that “what’s grown in the Pueblo area is unique. It’s not really related to anything grown in New Mexico.” In fact, “its nearest relatives are from the Oaxaca region of Mexico.”

While the term “Hatch chile” is a catch-all for several varieties grown in and around the town of Hatch, N.M., “Pueblo chile” is basically synonymous with two types: the Mirasol, named for the way its root points toward the sun, and an adaptation called the Mosco, Bartolo’s own cultivar. As Bartolo explains, “Over 20 years ago, I collected some seeds from my uncle, Harry Mosco, and began making selections over about five years. I was looking to increase yield and produce a lot of big fruits with thick meat, making them more amenable to roasting.” He adds that Pueblo crops benefit from higher diurnal temperature shifts than their New Mexican counterparts, which aid in the development of sugars for fruitier flavor profiles. (And Bartolo has “new varieties in the pipeline as well,” including one called the Pueblo popper: “Imagine a large, roundish pepper that doesn’t have a huge amount of heat, to be used more for stuffing.”)

Truth be told, the likelihood that most people could taste the difference between chiles grown on either side of the state line is slim to none. So don’t worry: If roasting stands don’t exist where you live, you should still be able to find one cultivar or another that will suffice, including Anaheims (which were brought to California from New Mexico, though they tend to be milder than their Southwestern cousins).

Here is a basic recipe for green chile, one that emphasizes the flavor of the key ingredient itself. To that end, I personally prefer pork loin over fattier cuts. On this template, however, you can begin to build more complex variations as you please.

Green Chile

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours

Total Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Cooking time varies, and can be up to 2.5 hours.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds pork loin
  • 8 garlic cloves
  • 2½ to 3 cups whole roasted green chiles
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 6 tablespoons flour, divided
  • 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Place the pork loin in a good-sized pot and add water until it’s submerged by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a high simmer and cook 1 hour.
  2. While the pork is cooking, mince the garlic and set aside. Remove the roasted skins from the chiles. (You can wash them off, but you’ll lose essential oils in so doing, and they crumble away easily enough without rinsing.) Destem, deseed and chop the chiles crosswise; set aside.
  3. Once the pork is ready, set it aside to cool, reserving the cooking water. (Transfer it to a pitcher if possible.)
  4. In another large pot, heat the vegetable oil on a medium-low burner or flame and add the garlic. When it's golden brown, add 4 tablespoons flour and begin whisking constantly for a few minutes, until it’s a coppery color and smells nutty. It should be thickening as well; if not, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour a little at a time until it’s somewhat thick and bubbling.
  5. Continue to whisk vigorously as you add the reserved liquid to the pot in a thin stream. Next, add the chiles and the tomatoes. Then shred the cooled pork by hand and add it to the pot; finally, season with salt and pepper.
  6. Reduce the heat to low and position the lid to cover the pot loosely. Cook at least one hour, adjusting the seasoning to taste as you go.

Main photo: Green chile. Credit: Ruth Tobias

 

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Fresh ingredients from the garden. Credit: pilipphoto

Let the ingredients speak. It is something my Nana always urged. What better time than late summer and early fall to allow your garden to dictate your menu.

If you are growing vegetables, much of the wait is over. Cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, eggplant, onions and much more are streaming in. Herbs, too, are abundant and running wild — tarragon, basil, lavender, mint, lemon balm, oregano, sage, rosemary, parsley, cilantro. The list is almost endless.

I want to hoard. I am afraid to eat it all for fear there will be no more. But I resist that instinct and step into the garden and let it speak to me. What is ripe right now? What can I preserve for the January meals? What do I want to eat and make right now with my garden bounty? And herein lies the secret — nothing is better than garden-to-table menu making and recipe creation.

Each day I peruse the garden and decide what’s for lunch or what’s for dinner. With the abundant zucchini and onions, and freshly laid chicken eggs, I whip up a simple frittata finished off with assorted herbs. It does the trick for lunch. A dinner could be a lamb burger, prepared with mint and rosemary, and served with an arugula and watermelon salad, and corn on the cob. Perhaps, I will turn tomatoes into a luscious sauce with basil and a touch of cream and serve over fettuccine. Or prepare stuffed peppers with black beans, rice and fresh herbs.

The trick is not to get bogged down with the recipe. Sometimes, if I need a little inspiration, I will page through a few cookbooks and even Google an ingredient. We are lucky to live during a time of readily available recipes. By reading several, it helps trigger creativity. I have included recipes with the hope that they serve as guides, not rules, to inspire you to discover the flavor profiles that work well together. I urge you to have at it in the kitchen. With the freshest of ingredients, you need not fear the results.

Carole Murko's Stuffed Peppers With Black Beans and Rice is inspired by garden-fresh vegetables. Credit: Carole Murko

Carole Murko’s Stuffed Peppers With Black Beans and Rice is inspired by garden-fresh vegetables. Credit: Carole Murko

How a recipe develops

The garden is producing food faster than we can eat it. Other than tomatoes, two of the most abundant crops are kale and corn. One day I had people over for dinner and didn’t have fixings for a green salad so I decided to use my kale. But kale is tough. I remembered reading that salt and lemon tenderized the kale … and the rest is history. My Corn and Kale Salad recipe was born. Simple, delicious and healthy.

Corn and Kale Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings as a side

Ingredients

  • 8 to 10 stalks of kale, stems removed and leaves cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 to 4 ears of leftover corn, kernels removed
  • 1 tablespoon minced tarragon
  • Pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Place kale in your serving bowl. Sprinkle sea salt all over kale and massage into the kale for 1 to 2 minutes. The massaging helps to tenderize the kale.
  2. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and set aside.
  3. When ready to serve, heat up butter in a skillet, add corn and sauté until warm and beginning to brown slightly. Add tarragon and then toss in with the kale.

An heirloom meal’s moment

My friend David Moore asked me to cook up a casual dinner, saying, “In the interest of this being an heirloom meal, I thought you should make corn pudding. It’s our family’s favorite heirloom food.” I said, no problem. I adapted his “non-recipe” into a workable one.

You can only imagine how surprised I was when Moore put the corn pudding on the table. I proclaimed, “Shouldn’t we wait until after the main course?” To which Moore responded, “It is part of the main course.” And I burst out laughing, admitting I thought it was dessert and I even made whipped cream to go on top.
 And boy was it delicious. This is a keeper and I was told it was better than his dad’s!

Corn Pudding

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 to 8 servings as a side

Ingredients
4 ears fresh corn shucked and cut off cob (or 3 to 4 cups frozen kernels, thawed)
4 farm fresh eggs
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup whole milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoon organic sugar
½ stick butter
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons salt

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Butter a square 8-by-8-inch baking dish.
3. Blend all the ingredients in a food processor for about 3 to 5 minutes until corn is nicely blended while still retaining some texture. Pour into baking pan and bake until golden brown, about 35 to 45 minutes.
4. Cool and serve warm as a side or as dessert.

Tarragon Chive Pasta Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 8 servings as a side

Ingredients
1 pound tri-color rotini
¾ cup olive oil, divided; ¼ cup to toss with pasta, ½ cup for the dressing
1 cup scallions, sliced
¾ cup chives, minced
¼ cup tarragon, minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup champagne vinegar
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes to taste

Directions
1. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain and toss in a large bowl with ¼ cup of olive oil. Cool. Add scallions, chives and tarragon.
2. Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Slowly add in the ½ cup of olive oil in a stream until incorporated. Pour over pasta and mix.
3. Best if pasta sits at room temperature for at least 4 hours or chills overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Late Summer Roasted Heirloom Tomato Risotto

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 generous dinner servings or 6 side servings

Ingredients
1 quart cherry tomatoes, halved or 4 cups tomatoes, quartered
3 tablespoon olive oil
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 to 2½ tablespoons of butter or olive oil (I use both, 1-plus tablespoon butter, 1-plus tablespoon of olive oil)
¾ cup of a mix of shallots and onions, chopped 
(I used 2 shallots and 1 small onion)
2 cups of Arborio rice
½ cup white wine
8 cups chicken stock
1 cup Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
 Clean and halve the cherry tomatoes. 
Toss with olive oil, garlic, basil, salt and pepper. Spread over a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
 Roast for 25 minutes.
2. While tomatoes are roasting, heat butter and oil in a large saucepan or risotto pot over medium flame. When butter is melted, add chopped shallots and onions. Sauté for 2 to 4 minutes until translucent.
3. Add Arborio rice and stir to coat thoroughly with butter and oil; continue to sauté for another minute or so. Add white wine and stir until it is completely absorbed.
4. Next, begin the process that makes risotto creamy. Add a ladle of hot chicken broth and stir constantly until it is absorbed. Repeat until most, if not all, of the broth has been used and the rice is tender but not mushy.
5. Remove from heat, add the Parmesan cheese, fold in your tomatoes (which probably came out of the oven 5 minutes or so ago) and serve immediately.

Main photo: Fresh ingredients from the garden. Credit: iStockphoto / pilipphoto

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Lou Di Palo

Four generations of Di Palos have run an Italian specialty market in New York City’s Little Italy, so having Lou Di Palo, great-grandson of the founder, write a guide to Italian ingredients, “Di Palo’s Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy,” is a natural. Each chapter in this fun collection focuses on a specific food with history, buying and storing tips, and recipes. Discover everything you need to know about fresh mozzarella, ricotta, olive oil, espresso and more.

I’ve been shopping at Di Palo’s since I was old enough to ride the subway alone and was charmed by this incredible collection of stories, factoids and advice. The history of a store that’s been a fixture in the neighborhood for more than a century is a fascinating glimpse into the history of Italian food in America. Countless celebrities shop there and some sing Lou Di Palo’s praises on the book jacket, including Ruth Reichl and Pete Hamill. Martin Scorsese wrote the book’s foreword.

Frommer’s wisely notes, “Before there was Mario Batali or Anthony Bourdain, there was Lou Di Palo, a true New York food celebrity.”

Buying ricotta

Below is an excerpt from Di Palo’s book on buying ricotta:

“Like other latterias, we sell ricotta in several shapes: In tall perforated metal tins with a mound of ricotta piled up on top to keep it pressing down, or in squat woven baskets made of plastic. The former are drier and better for cooking or baking, the latter are best when you want to serve ricotta sliced on a plate, drizzled with honey or jam. We also stock imported sheep’s milk ricotta when sheep are giving milk. It is at its best in the spring, when the grass is new and sweet — if you see imported sheep’s milk ricotta in the summer, it’s likely not very good.

“You’ll also sometimes see ricotta forte, or ‘strong ricotta,’ a specialty from Puglia that got its start as a way to use up older product. What vinegar is to wine, ricotta forte is to ricotta. It smells and tastes like a strong gorgonzola. It’s simply fermented ricotta, or ricotta turned a little sour, with a little fresh ricotta added for balance. (We usually don’t eat it fresh, but add it to calzones or stir in a spoonful to tomato sauce.)

“When ricotta is salted and pressed, over time it becomes a solid cheese with a much longer shelf life, though it still retains its fresh, milky flavor. There are two versions, both called ricotta salata, or salted ricotta: One is very dense, dry, and salty and is typically grated onto pasta. The other is more of a table cheese — it’s moister and less salty and very good with slices of fresh tomato or drizzled with olive oil.

“The funny thing is that they usually go by the same name, so you have to ask to make sure you are getting the right one. Sicilians also bake ricotta into a mild cheese called ricotta infor­nata, which is firmer, with a more caramelized flavor. We make it at Di Palo’s too, some­times baked with acacia or chestnut honey.

“In addition to ricotta, one of the most common formaggio frescos made in Italy is called caciotta, and we also make that daily at Di Palo’s. It’s made like ricotta, but we use rennet to break the milk rather than vinegar. The milk is heated to a lower tempera­ture, and then it is also pressed a little more intensely into a basket shape and aged for a day or two. It’s similar to American ‘farmer’s cheese,’ and is a little drier and more solid than ricotta. There is also cacioricotta, which is a dry, denser caciotta made at the same high temperature as ricotta and then salted. It’s usually shaved or grated over pasta.”

The following recipes are excerpts from the book:

Concetta Di Palo’s Meatballs

Yield: 4 servings

My grandmother simmered her meatballs in her sauce, but her real secret weapon was our ricotta. It keeps the meatballs incredibly moist, and adds a little richness. Because she was from Basilicata, she actually used a mix of caciocavallo, or whatever aged pecorino she had on hand, rather than provolone or pecorino Romano, but good quality versions of these two cheeses are much easier to find. Whenever we make these in our store, they go quickly.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound of ground beef, about 20 percent fat to 80 percent lean
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup seasoned bread crumbs
  • ¼ pound grated aged provolone
  • ¼ pound freshly grated pecorino Romano
  • ½ pound fresh, good quality, whole milk ricotta
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup fresh chopped parsley
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 quart marinara sauce

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, mix meat, egg, bread crumbs, cheeses, garlic, and parsley well with your hands.
  2. Roll into small meatballs, about 2½ inches wide, and place onto a sheet pan.
  3. In a large saucepan, heat the marinara sauce over low heat.
  4. Heat an inch of olive oil over medium high heat in a large skillet. Add meatballs, cooking them in batches, if necessary, and pan-fry until browned on all sides.
  5. Place meatballs in marinara sauce and let simmer for 20 minutes.

Concetta Di Palo’s Ricotta Cheesecake

Yield: 19-inch cake

This recipe from my grandmother Concetta is a good example of our cooking philosophy: Let the ingredients speak for themselves. This cake is rich, moist and less sweet than traditional American cheesecakes — a little more complex. We’ve been handing out this recipe since at least World War II — you can tell by the zwieback cookies the original recipe called for. The current ver­sion is on a postcard with a caricature of my father scowling from the back of the store, drawn by Soho artist Jacob El Hanani, who has been shopping with us for decades. We had the same photo screen-printed onto a tile that we placed in our dairy when we renovated a few years ago, so my father could still watch over us as we made the ricotta, just like he used to.

Ingredients
Butter for greasing the pan
2 cups sugar, divided use
½ cup crushed zwieback cookies or graham crackers, plus extra for garnish
3 pounds good quality, fresh, whole cow’s-milk ricotta
6 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 teaspoons orange blossom water
¾ cup of heavy cream

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and butter a 9-inch springform pan.
2. In a small bowl, mix ½ cup of the sugar with the cookies or crackers and then evenly coat the bottom and sides of the buttered pan with the mixture.
3. In a large bowl, beat the remaining sugar and the ricotta, eggs, vanilla, orange blos­som water and cream together until very smooth.
4. Pour mixture into springform pan. To prevent the cheesecake from cracking, place into a larger pan or oven-proof dish and fill it halfway up the side with water.

Main photo: Lou Di Palo at Di Palo’s counter in Little Italy. Credit: Ballantine Books

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