Friday, October 30, 2015


It's that time of year again: Halloween is upon us. This season reminds me of growing up in central New Jersey, visiting apple orchards and pumpkin farms to pick out what would become our jack-o-lanterns with my brothers and my parents. And a treat in which we'd indulge -- aside from our actual trick-or-treating (were were only allowed 3 pieces of candy per day from our loot, so we had to choose wisely!) -- was roasted pumpkin seeds.

We'd carve our pumpkins with the help of our parents, and sometimes, our family friends as well. We'd gather neighborhood kids and clean out the pumpkins in our back yard, lots of newspaper spread out beneath us. One year, we were lucky enough to have our friend Larry Calcagno, a wonderful and talented painter, come out to New Jersey from Manhattan, to help us carve some very artistic jack-o-lanterns. As you can see in the photo at left, I am supervising him, just to make sure he's, you know, doing it correctly. (I love this photo because it's so sweet, and so...seventies). Bottom line, it was a great community and family activity of which I have the happiest of memories. We prepared the seeds quite simply. We'd roast them in the oven, sprinkled with a little salt when they were done, dry and toasty and slightly browned at the edges. We knew we were doing a good thing by not letting the seeds go to waste. What I didn't know as a kid was how good pumpkin seeds actually are for us. The seeds themselves are nutrient-rich, with lots of protein, dietary fiber, niacin, iron, zinc, manganese, magnesium, and phosphorus. Fun fact? The earliest known evidence of the domestication of pumpkins and squash varietals dates back to between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago -- predating other "New World" crops like maize (corn) and beans. Pumpkin seeds are truly the perfect, healthy, (South, Central, and North) American snack!

So, what to do with the seeds once they're freed from the slimy gunk of the pumpkin's flesh? It's best to rinse them off, rubbing them together in your hands under running water. Some recipes suggest boiling the seeds for 8 or 10 minutes before baking them, but that's a step you can skip if you're short on time. You can dry them off in dish towels or with paper towels, or simply by spreading the seeds out on a cookie sheet or baking pan on a layer of parchment paper, and baking in the oven. Once the surface water has evaporated, you can mist them or sprinkle them with some vegetable or olive oil, or with a little pumpkin oil to amp up the pumpkin flavor. Once they're toasted and have turned a golden color, you can toss them with sea salt. If you'd like to add even more flavor -- and healthful benefits -- you can add some smoked paprika, cumin, turmeric, and a drizzle of Worcestershire sauce, or make them a bit sweet with a dusting of cinnamon, ground ginger, and a drizzle of maple syrup. Either way, these spices add to the anti-inflammatory and sugar-regulating properties of the seeds themselves. And, once they've cooled, you can simply store them in ziploc bags and they stay fresh for several days. 

You can also incorporate pumpkin seeds into your cooking, both savory and sweet. I love to sprinkle pepitas, as they're known in Latin cultures, over my autumn salads and vegetable dishes. They're an important ingredient in Mexican moles, giving body to the sauce along with their flavor. I add them to salsas and green sauces: pulsed in a food processor for a few seconds with some olive oil, tomatillos, jalapeno and roasted garlic, and you have a great sauce for everything from tacos to roasted pork loin. A whir in the blender with some parsley, cilantro, red onion, garlic, and scallions, and add some vinegar and olive or pumpkin seed oil, and you have a great sauce for grilled fish and meat dishes. And, in one of my favorite fall iterations of a pumpkin seed-enhanced dish, I make a pumpkin seed brittle. It's great on its own, but it is also a tasty and gorgeous topper and "accessorizer" to my famous pumpkin cheesecake. It makes for a fabulous ending to an autumn meal or Thanksgiving feast.

Enjoy this seasonal ingredient, and HAPPY HALLOWEEN, everybody! 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SPECIALTY FOODS: Rome's Antica Caciara

On Via San Francesco a Ripa, one of the main arteries leading to the heart of Trastevere, sits a renowned alimentari -- a specialty food store from which you can smell tangy wafts of cured meat and salty aging cheese at a 50 meter distance. Antica Caciara is an old-school shop in an old-school neighborhood, as referenced by its name. Cacio was the term for cheese (aged sheep's milk cheese, to be exact) in Rome before cheeses from cows, goats, and sheeps were all classified as cheeses, or formaggi, in 1920. This shop dates to 1900, ans so predated that law. Hence the term "Caciara" -- cheese shop, in Roman.  I've wandered into this Trastevere institution on many an afternoon, without a shopping list in mind -- just an idea of wanting some salumi (cured meats) and formaggi (cheeses), and maybe a bag of rigatoni or a box of spaghetti, and a few other key ingredients that would allow me to throw together a pasta for dinner. Simple, nothing more and nothing less. But when you're dealing in Roman food, specifically, the few items in the "ingredients" column of any recipe are of utmost importance, often because they are the two or three flavors that make the dish. Cacio e pepe is a pasta with basically just pecorino cheese and black pepper to it. Carbonara? Eggs, guanciale (cured pork jowl), pecorino, and black pepper. Amatriciana? Tomatoes, guanciale, onion, and pecorino with peperoncino optional. Saltimbocca is just veal scaloppine with prosciutto and sage, with a white wine sauce consisting of wine, butter, and little else. So where do you go for these fine ingredients (aside from the butcher shop for the veal)? The best local alimentari you can find. And that's what Antica Caciara is.

You can find delicious dried pasta and fresh eggs here. You can find all of the canned goods (San Marzano tomatoes, Sicilian tuna, etc.) you need for a pasta or a salad. There is a selection of sott'olii (products preserved in oil), like sundried tomatoes, olives, artichokes, and mushrooms. There is bread, always bread. But most important are the meats and cheeses. Since this is Rome, the aged hard cheese of choice -- for eating on its own in chunks, or grating on pasta, or accompanying fava beans in the springtime -- is pecorino romano. Roman aged sheep's milk cheese: saltier with more of a bite than parmigiano reggiano, not unlike Romans themselves. The fresh cheese of choice here is ricotta (a by-product of the pecorino-making process, naturally), here made from sheep's milk (and sometimes from cow's), always delicious. This is tossed in pastas and baked with vegetables into timbales. It's the main ingredient in the delicious Roman cheesecake, torta di ricotta. And it's perfect as is, spread on crostini with some fresh figs and a little aged balsamic. Really, there's very little you can't do with ricotta.

As for the salumi, of course prosciutto is always popular. But in Rome, the guanciale reigns supreme, particularly in the local pasta dishes I mentioned above. And Antica Caciara has the cured pork jowls hanging in the doorway, giving off their spicy funk. Who can resist? Not I. Romans love their guanciale and I became a part of the fan club very early on. I always had a guanciale ready for consumption in my fridge, lovingly wrapped in a muslin dish towel, so it was protected but could breathe. I was always ready to slice off a few pieces of the unctuous pork, to toss in the pan until the pieces became crispy and the rendered fat could be used to cook veggies or to start a pasta sauce with its porky goodness. There are other meat items here, of course, not the least of which is coglioni di mulo -- which means "mule testicles" but are really from the pig (no grazie!). But guanciale is the specialty and what tempts me most here. 
Whatever you choose, you can rest assured that you will be taken care of at Antica Caciara. And if you're lucky, you'll be waited on by the most cordial Roman I have ever encountered, Roberto Polica, the owner who has worked in the shop since he was 13, and inherited it from his family. The sheep's milk cheeses are made from the milk of his uncle's farm outside of Rome. Can you get more local than that? "Si, signora. Con piacere, signora. Qualcos'altro, signora?" He is charmingly formal and well-mannered, and always reminded me a bit of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. He is, simply put, the sweetest and most dedicated alimentari owner you could ever hope for. Stop in and say hello the next time you're passing through Trastevere!

Via di San Francesco a Ripa 140 A/B
00153 Roma 
Trastevere neighborhood
+39 06 581.2815

Friday, October 16, 2015

RECIPE: Shakshuka

The name is wonderfully poetic: shakshuka. Shahk-SHOO-kuh. It means "a mixture," and it's a dish of north African origin -- one that's been fully embraced by Israeli culture, enough so to become something like a national breakfast dish. Shakshuka is to Israelis what bacon-and-eggs is to Americans. Its name may have Berber roots (chakchouka is a vegetable ragout), though shakshek means to shake in Hebrew, Berber, and Tunisian Arabic -- so the word's origin may in fact be ancient (and extinct) punic in origin. That's a dish with some history behind it! Its popularity in Israel, however, can be traced to the Tunisian and Maghrebi Jews who emigrated to Israel by the hundreds of thousands in the 1950s. Versions of, and variations on, the dish exist all over the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds, from Spain to Turkey, Yemen to Libya to Egypt...even over to Mexico. 

The common thread is eggs cooked in a vegetable sauce, often tomato-based and spicy, but not exclusively. Here, I will focus on a few iterations that are Israeli, that I've either eaten in Israel or made myself, inspired by Israeli versions of this savory dish. The photo at right was taken at Benedict, a chain of restaurants in Tel Aviv open 24 hours a day and serving breakfast food. There's nothing better than a night out of drinking in the bars and along the beach in Tel Aviv, followed by shakshuka and Israeli salad with pita bread and various dips and sauces, all downed with a glass of champagne at 4 am! But this breakfast-all-day dish is also great as a light lunch with a green salad, or as a dinner: it's vegetarian, kosher, and gluten-free (as long as you don't sop up the remaining saucy goodness with some bread, which would kind of be a shame to miss out on...but if you're going low-carb or gluten-free, this dish sans bread product is ideal). I recently made the dish for my boyfriend's family visiting from Texas -- heavy on the peppers, as I had an abundance of them -- and they loved the dish. I've been wanting to share this favorite of mine, so this past weekend's brunch was a reminder and inspiration for the recipe below.

Now, the dish itself has so many variations that it's impossible to claim that one way of cooking it is the absolute 'original'. It's a dish that's meant to be switched up, modified, pared-down or gussied-up according to personal taste, seasonality of ingredients, and the whims of the cook preparing it. Dr. Shakshuka is a classic spot just inside the walls of the old city of Jaffa, at the south end of Tel Aviv along the Mediterranean. The Libyan owners prepare their Tripolian version of shakshuka, with plenty of variations, and the atmosphere is rustic and charming. This is a great spot to try the dish for the first time. But for armchair travelers and those who may never make it to the "Holy Land," here are the basics: the classic version has a tomato base. When tomatoes are in season, summer and into early fall, use fresh tomatoes. In cooler months, use the best quality canned tomatoes you can find. It's the same thing I tell all of my cooking students about making a great tomato sauce for pasta.

And, as for consistency and flavor, I've found that the best results actually come from a mix of in-season, ripe and juicy fresh tomatoes with a touch of canned, top-quality San Marzano tomatoes, mixed together. If you use great tomatoes, there's no need for the addition of tomato paste. I also add peppers (usually red peppers, or a mix of red and yellow), as well as onions and a bit of garlic. Plenty of chili pepper, anything from fresh jalapenos to dried Calabrian Italian chilis, but you can experiement to taste. I also usually add a bit of za'atar, a spice blend from the region consisting of dried herbs like thyme and oregano, plus sesame seeds and sumac powder. Cumin and coriander are also nice touches. I always finish with some fresh parsley, and sometimes fresh cilantro too, though scallions and/or chives are a nice finishing touch as well.

It must also be noted that a major variant on the dish is green shakshuka. I know, I know -- you were just getting a grip on the original version! But trust me, you'll want to experiment with the green version too. The base here can be anything green but it's particularly good with a green tomato base, or a tangy tomatillo base (tomatillos are not green tomatoes! They are actually part of the corn family, husked as they are, but that's another discussion). The tomatillos would be cooked down much like tomatoes, with onions and green peppers and garlic and chilis, and then once the eggs are nearly cooked, you add a little fresh spinach, as in the photo here (taken at another cute cafe in northern Tel Aviv). Maybe some arugula or other greens for a nice touch, and you're done. You can even add a glug of green tabasco if you want to carry through the theme. And if you really want to go all-out, as I did when I made an elaborate Israeli brunch for my extended family in Florida not long ago, you can pair the green and red shakshuka side-by-side for comparison. Each version has its devotees, but either way I think you'll find it's a great addition to any home cook's repertoire. L'Chaim!

Serves 4-6
I usually allow 2 eggs per person, but let appetite be your guide. Also, a cast iron skillet is really best for this dish, though even nonstick works well.
3 TBS. olive oil
2 red peppers, cored, seeded, and sliced into 1/4-inch wide strips
1 fresh chili pepper (jalapeno-level heat), or 1 tsp. dried chili flakes
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped (or left whole if you want just a light garlic flavor)
4 medium-sized vine-ripened fresh tomatoes (in season)
14 oz. canned chopped San Marzano tomatoes
1.5 TBS. kosher salt
1 tsp. sugar
black pepper to taste
1 tsp. Hungarian (sweet) paprika
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. za'atar (optional)
8-12 fresh organic eggs
2 TBSP. chopped fresh flat leaf parsley and/or fresh cilantro

- Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and peppers and sauté over medium heat until softened, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the chili pepper and fresh tomatoes and cook to combine flavors, another 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes. 

- Add the canned tomatoes (make it a full 28-oz. can if you're not using any fresh tomatoes). 

- Stir in the salt and pepper, sugar, paprika, cumin, coriander, and za'atar, and cook for 15 minutes, covered, to soften all the ingredients to the saucy stage. 

- Uncover and crack the eggs into the tomato mixture. Cover and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the whites of the eggs are opaque and the yolks are cooked to your preferred consistency.

- Sprinkle with the fresh parsley/cilantro and serve hot.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

ESCAPES: Nice, Cuisine Nicoise, and the Cote d'Azur

I love late September in the south of France. The dwindling days of summer here mean languid, sun-dappled afternoons napping on the pebbly beaches along Nice's corniche, strolling the cobblestone streets of the Old Town (Vieux Nice) or the Cours Saleya, shopping for lavender soap, gorgeous fruit candies, or golden-green Provencal olive oil. You can still get some late-season sun in the afternoon, break for lunch seaside or in town, and return for a swim in the electric blue waters (surprisingly brisk) as beach umbrella shadows grow long. And the food -- ahh, the food of Provence is arguably at its peak at this time.

Some background: Nice was a part of the (Italian) kingdom of Savoy, then briefly a part of France, from 1792-1815, then returned to Piedmont-Sardinia (Italian, again) until it was re-annexed by France in 1860, just a decade before Italy became an independent and organized nation in 1870.
Before that, the Cote d'Azur down to San Remo and on to Genova and the Ligurian Riviera -- it was all an Italian-speaking, pasta-eating stronghold. Going back much further, Nice is one of the oldest human settlements in the world, home to nearby terra-amata, one of the first spots where humans were known to have used fire, dating from the Lower Paleolithic age (about 400,000 years ago!). It was an ancient Greek city (probably named for the Greek god Nike, after the Greek victory here, versus the Ligurians). But, like many places that eventually became strategic ports for the Roman empire, Nice skewed Italian. And after all of its history and numerous occupations, Nice still self-identifies as a formerly Italian city that embraces the Italian way of life as much as the French: controversial to the people of France, perhaps, but an obvious preference to the Italians.

As far as cuisine is concerned, Nicoise and Provencal food echoes more of the Ligurian and Piemontese cooking than that of any French region. It's big on fresh, local ingredients (olive oil, anchovies, produce, etc.), but also the classic salt cod from Northern Europe, as Nice was a port along the trade route. Local dishes include the famous Salade Nicoise, Pissaladière (a savory tart with caramelized onions, anchovies, and olives), Socca (chickpea flour pancakes), Stuffed Nicoise vegetables, Ratatouille (vegetable stew), and Daube (a Provencal beef stew made with red wine). 

Many variations on the classic Bouillabaisse (saffron-infused seafood soup) exist all along the Cote d'Azur, and you're sure to find some delicious versions in Nice, too -- though the original hails from Marseilles. The version in the photo here had exactly the rich, slow-cooked seafood broth I was craving, laced with saffron and a hint of cognac, and served with rouille, the traditional Provencal accompaniment to fish stews -- sort of an aioli made with saffron, fish stock, a little tomato, and often some monkfish liver. We enjoyed this along the port in Nice, where we had a great lunch on a gorgeous day, under the protection of Le Bistrot du Port's sunflower yellow awning. This is a bustling spot overlooking the docked boats bobbing in the port, which is tucked away a bit down from the main thoroughfare and the Promenade des Anglais. We also nibbled on a light lobster salad with fresh peas, mushrooms and greens, and a grilled calamari entree, with the calamari "fillet" quickly grilled and topped with a warm salad of calamari, tomato concasse, onions, and herbs -- with lots of delicious Provencal olive oil, of course. A light slaw on the side complemented the dish perfectly. When in Nice, I try to eat outside whenever possible, and it's almost always possible in September, which is part of the beauty of visiting at this time of year.

Also near the port is the elegant L'Ane Rouge, a sophisticated jewel with outdoor seating and a refined menu, specializing in seafood. Starters like the chicken and mushroom mousse-stuffed zucchini blossom on zucchini, mushrooms, and citrus, was a completely original way to start the meal. We sat portside, on a crisp clear night, and enjoyed warm and professional service from everyone who passed by our table. Moving forward, we enjoyed main courses like the codfish on ratatouille, a classic and perfectly-executed example of the southern French vegetable ragout, served with a traditional fish in these parts. We also enjoyed the obrine on chorizo-accented white beans with chanterelle mushrooms. The portions are, one might say, discreet. But the food is flavorful enough to keep you sated, and to make you want to try several different courses. Everything is presented beautifully, as well. And though we really didn't have room for a full-on dessert course, the restaurant did provide a sweet ending and an alternative to the usual petits-four format. We each received a small glass filled with a red fruit puree and mascarpone cream, served with an almond tuile and an apricot gelee (very Provence). 

There are lots of lively spots where you can enjoy a nice meal along the Cours Saleya, which is a street running parallel to the waterfront, set back a block from the Promenade des Anglais. By day, this is a bustling food market where vendors also sell famous locally milled scented soaps, colorfully patterned Provencal tablecloth and napkin sets, and various antiques and furniture.
There are some cute bistros that line the street for lunch, but by night, it is a full-throttle central area for alfresco dining. The idea is to avoid places that are begging for your business, with tourist menus printed in four languages featuring photos of the dishes. Go for a place that's a little low-key -- and they do exist if you look for them -- and you can happen on a great meal. I enjoyed a delicious goat cheese and fresh fig tart on puff pastry, with candied pine nuts, tomato, and mesclun greens. Also perfectly Provencal? Seared scallops on eggplant caviar (roasted eggplant and garlic chopped to look similar to caviar) with a white wine sauce.

If you want to learn to cook Provencal specialties, the local cooking school Les Petits Farcis, run by English-mother-tongue Canadian (and friend of Blu Aubergine) Rosa Jackson, is a great option. Rosa offers both food and wine and market tours as well as cooking classes in the heart of Nice, and is a local expert in all things gastronomical. Outside of Nice, there are many charming Provencal towns on the coast and more inland, definitely worth a visit. Of course Cannes is famous for its film festival every spring, but it's worth a visit even without the Hollywood draw. Its port and the convention center where the film festival are held are side-by-side, and the corniche is peppered with cafes and restaurants. Antibes, further along the coast, is a gorgeous little town with a charming cobblestoned historic center where a daily market is held, and is also home to a lovely, intimate Picasso museum worth a visit. Saint Paul-de-Vance, a breathtaking medieval village perched on a hilltop, is famous for its former artists-in-residence (Marc Chagall, for one), as well as its tradition of perfume making, centered in nearby Grasse. Its art galleries and jewelbox shops are lovely and worth a detour from the coast. 

Le Bistrot du Port de Nice
28 Quai Lunel, 06300 Nice
04 93 55 21 70 

L'Âne Rouge
7 Quai des Deux Emmanuel
04 93 89 49 63 

Les Petits Farcis