Tuesday, March 22, 2016

RECIPE: Vietnamese Chicken, Grapefruit, and Cabbage Salad

Vietnamese may be my favorite of all the various and wonderful Asian cuisines of the world. And though it breaks my heart that I've still not made it to Vietnam, to actually taste the cuisine in its country of origin, I swear that I will, one day soon, make it to that southeast Asian "motherland" of fine food and gorgeous landscape. Until then, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant for culinary escapism happens to be just a few miles down the road from my parents' home in Boca Raton, Florida at La Tre (yes, this restaurant really is THAT good), and I have the owner's brother's out-of-print cookbook, from when his brother ran a sister restaurant in Connecticut. For some dishes, like this one, I no longer need the recipe -- that's how often I make this amazingly delicious and simple salad. But I'll provide my version of it now, for my readers.

This is a salad that's equally delicious in winter as it is in the summer. It's always refreshing, but it's also reminiscent of the Sicilian fennel-blood orange-olive salad that I'm so fond of in winter months.
This is when the citrus in the U.S. is at its peak, so enjoying this salad between Thanksgiving and Easter will get you that wonderful Florida grapefruit -- or even pomelo, which was probably the original fruit used in this dish -- at its sweetest and juiciest. Called goi-ga in Vietnamese, this salad is easily prepared and tossed in a flavor-rich, balanced, umami-packed dressing. It feels indulgent, but really, it's an incredibly healthy, light meal, or precursor to one. 

(Serves 6-8)

3 large poached and chilled chicken breasts, shredded
1 large carrot, grated into thin strips or julienned (optional)
1/2 head of green or napa cabbage, finely shredded
1/4 small head red cabbage (if desired), finely shredded
1/2 medium red onion, very thinly sliced
2 large pink grapefruits or pomelos, peeled and sectioned
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
2 TBS. chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup toasted chopped peanuts

Simple marinade:
2 TBS. white vinegar
3 TBS. sugar
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup water 

Nuoc Cham Dressing:
Mix all ingredients, heat to a simmer, then remove from heat, and chill in fridge for an hour.
1 small red chile, minced (or 1.5 teaspoons dried chile flakes)
1 TBS. white vinegar
1/2 cup Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam) 
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 cup light brown sugar 

- Prepare both the marinade and the dressing and set aside.

- In a large bowl, combine the cabbages, carrot, and onion. Dress with marinade, and set aside to soften for 10 minutes.  

- Drain off most of the marinade and add the Nuoc Cham dressing. 

- Add the shredded chicken and grapefruit sections, and toss to coat.

- Place the salad on a platter or large flat bowl, add the fresh herbs and peanuts, and serve.  

Friday, March 11, 2016

QUICK BITE: Pasticciotto Leccese

I'd been to the Salento area of Puglia a few times before I'd heard about a local pastry specialty called Pasticciotto Leccese. And then I finally tasted the thing -- normally considered a breakfast item (often paired with the local coffee finished with almond milk) -- at which point I thought to myself, where have you been all my life?

I am a chocoholic and not big on sweets senza chocolate, to be honest. I make a few exceptions (carrot cake, cheesecake, and fruit pies, oh my!) -- when the sweet is done really well, or is simply delicious enough to warrant my chocolate waiver. Pasticciotto Leccese, consider yourself waivedAs I said, this is really a breakfast item -- the perfect "Continental" breakfast pastry, much more interesting than your standard cornetto or croissant. There is a firm but creamy center of the pastry, a cooked pastry cream that, in many versions I tasted, had a mild hint of almond in it (something that wouldn't surprise me as an ingredient in the pastry cream, considering the Salentini's fondness for almond milk in place of regular dairy milk).
The crust of the pasticciotto is no ordinary pasta frolla (never a favorite of mine), the standard dough for Italian pastries. Frolla owes its bright yellow color to the gorgeous Italian orange egg yolks, and the particular flavor is thanks to the addition of its signature orangeflower water. The pasticciotto dough is more delicate, tender, and flakier. It's firm enough to hold the pastry cream center within its walls, but lard in the dough is what makes this baby so damned different.
The pasticciotto was created in a small town south of Lecce (as in "Leccese"), called Galatina, in the mid-18th century. Pasticceria Ascalone -- still in business and cranking out the pasticciotti -- lays claim to their invention. Supposedly it was to earn favor among other local townspeople. Let them eat pasticciotti! There are, of course, variations on the classic. My favorite variation (no surprise here) is the chocolate pasticciotto Leccese. Some are filled with Nutella, which is equally delicious.
My friends Monica and Marcello, who were residents of Salento and owned the B&B where my friends and I stayed a few times in recent years, introduced me to this delicacy for breakfast one morning, and it completely changed the way I viewed breakfast in Italy. Which is to say, colazione in Salento is a thing of beauty: fresh fruit (often figs picked from the tree), great coffee and tea with almond milk, and pasticciotto Leccese. This is my morning happy place.

Friday, March 4, 2016


Roman broccoli, cauliflower, and Roman specialty puntarelle (cleaned chicory stems) in the market in Rome.
We're still suffering through winter weather (yes, snow in New York City today, people!)
But the cold outside doesn't mean we can't enjoy some wonderful produce -- and specifically, winter vegetables -- indoors in our kitchens. There's beauty in their variety of flavor but also in their shapes, sizes, colors, and uses. It's never been easier to "eat the rainbow" of colors in vegetables alone, and many of these items are hearty enough to make into a soup, to pair with the rich meat stews of the season, or to skip the meat altogether and enjoy these gifts of nature on their own as a substantial, diet- and environment-friendly alternative to animal proteins. Below are some great options, as well as some ideas as to what to do with these wonderful winter veggies:

- Radicchio tardivo: This elegant, elongated variety of radicchio di Treviso comes from northeastern Italy around the town of Treviso in the Veneto. It has slim leaves that are white and tipped with burgundy, a result of a second "forced" growth process when the harvested heads are placed in growing tanks with flowing water for a second growth; they're then harvested late (hence "tardivo"). Their crisp, bitter leaves are a thing of beauty, and work especially well in dishes of the area, like a risotto or pasta with radicchio, gorgonzola, and walnuts. This veg is great grilled, or oven-roasted with a little balsamic and a sprinkling of sugar to take away the bitter edge. It's also great in a winter salad with endive and perhaps some kale or watercress.

- Celery root, or Celeriac: This is quite literally the root of celery, but as a root vegetable it's got a bit of starch to it. You can slice into matchsticks to enjoy raw in a salad, or cook it with a potato or two to make a healthier, lower-carb version of mashed potatoes 
(trick: the lack of gluten in the celeriac makes its substitution for mashed taters a great healthy upgrade, and you can put it in a food processor for a smooth puree without the gummy mess of potatoes alone). This also means it makes a fabulous soup -- it's great comfort food in cold weather, especially with some fried leeks and a drizzle of maple syrup on top.

- Cauliflower: Much has been made lately of the previously-lowly, pale head of cauliflower, and with good reason. This pallid cruciferous vegetable is actually really healthy for us, and is incredibly versatile. Cook the florets as is traditional and you can toss them with pasta, pine nuts, and raisins in olive oil with a splash of wine and you have a great pasta dish, Sicilian in origin. Pulse in a food processor and you have gluten-free couscous. Roast whole in the oven rubbed with olive oil, salt, and spices, and you have an excellent main course meat stand-in (You can also slice the cauliflower into "steaks" and serve vegetarian versions of steak preparations: cauliflower au poivre, anyone?).

- Broccolo romano, or Romanesco: This is what Romans refer to simply as a "broccolo" -- they think the dark green version that is our standard is "broccolo siciliano" (Sicilian broccoli). This is a popular side dish in Rome, cooked until meltingly tender in olive oil, with garlic and peperoncino. Mammamia! It's also tossed with pasta, and served in the disappearing-but-traditional Roman soup, broccoli ed arzilla made with stingray and roman broccoli in broth -- really delicious.

- Winter squash: This family includes butternut, spaghetti, acorn, delicata, and on and on. Roasted with just a drizzle of olive oil, a few cloves of garlic, and a sprinkling of sea salt, winter squash are healthful and a great substitute for potatoes alongside proteins. They can be pureed into amazing soups. They can be roasted alongside other vegetables. They can become filling for pastas like ravioli. Spaghetti squash can be served like its namesake pasta, in place of the pasta itself! And delicata squash can be served skin-on, for extra ease in prep...and extra fiber. These nubby veggies are versatile and amazingly delicious, and even the seeds should be saved, cleaned, and roasted to make into a healthy snack, to sprinkle on salads, to grind into a pesto...even to candy for dessert!

- Brussels sprouts: These mini-cabbages named after a Northern European city (still a mystery) have caught on again since the "new" century, and have become a ubiquitous side dish in restaurants from Manhattan to Minneapolis. And good for them! Because they're very good for us, another cruciferous veggie full of fiber and vitamins. I make mine with pancetta, shallots, balsamic or sherry vinegar, and a touch of honey -- and they're a perennial Thanksgiving favorite.

- Cabbage: Big brother to the brussels sprouts above, cabbage is another healthful, incredibly versatile veg. There are many varieties, including regular green or white cabbage, red cabbage, and savoy cabbage with its slightly curlier, thinner leaves. Cabbage can be shredded and eaten raw, as in cole slaw, or cooked, as in stewed cabbage (I like mine sweet-and-sour, like they make it in central Europe, stewed with some vinegar, salt and sugar). It can be fermented and transformed into kimchi, or simply eaten as part of a salad. It can be stuffed with ground meat or vegetables and stewed for stuffed cabbage or other savory packets or spring rolls. It's also great in a simple soup with a veggie broth, brightened with the acidity of a splash of vinegar. 

- Beets: Another underdog root veggie we root for (food pun!), the beet was and is still "having a moment" on menus across America. These former outcasts have experienced a renaissance, and I'm happy about that, because they're gorgeous and packed full of vitamins and antioxidants, and they make a great soup (borscht), a great salad ingredient, and a great side dish.
They're a substitute for the deep ruby color of raw beef, so vegan tartares now have new life. They can be golden or fuchsia or swirly candy-cane colored (chioggia beets), they can be sliced thinly or fried into chips or served julienned in a salad with lots of carrots and pistachios and fresh herbs and warm spices like cumin and ras-el-hanout...They pair really well with those carrots, but also with goat cheese and ricotta cheese, with nuts and herbs, they're great dressed with vinegars or with sweet-sour pomegranate molasses or silan date syrup for a Middle Eastern-North African vibe, and they're great in Central and Eastern European preparations, with dill and meat and potatoes and flaky smoked fish...they're as versatile as they are pretty, and as inexpensive health powerhouses, they can't be...well, you know...

Enjoy the healthy vegetable variety that comes with the winter season, and get your fill while you can!