Blu Aubergine Blog

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Citrus

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Normally, at this time of year, the citrus season is winding down. But with the numerous nor'easters to hit us in late March, a lot of the U.S. still looks like it's in the throes of winter. The especially awful flu season this year has run unabated, too, so our need for the Vitamin C that citrus provides is still as relevant now as it was in mid-January. Sigh.

Still, the days are thankfully longer now that we've sprung forward, and at least with April's approach, we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. But for now, the variety of citrus fruits available to us is a great bridge to get us from cold months and snowy storms over to budding life and milder weather. Citrus just tastes like the sun, doesn't it? And I've found that using it in unexpected ways, in both savory and sweet dishes, allows us to sprinkle a little sunshine throughout our meals, throughout our weeks.

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We've long had winter access to Florida and California citrus (I'm partial to Florida, as I'm an east coast gal myself). My father occasionally sends me "care packages" of wooden crates filled with grapefruits and oranges, salve for my soul during my months of harsh hibernation in Manhattan. I eat these out of hand, or scoop out the sections of a grapefruit as a mid-morning snack. But I also use the grapefruit (ruby red, mmm) in my work, like in the homemade grapefruit-rosemary sorbet that I paired with the pine nut tart at left.

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A close sibling of the grapefruit in use and flavor is the pomelo. It's more dry than the grapefruit, so the sections peel out with less mess. And the actual pieces of pulp are large and pull apart easily. Pomelo is used in a lot of southeast Asian cooking, often paired with savory and spicy dishes like the spicy grilled river prawns and pomelo salad I once ate poolside in Bangkok. Pomelos are also a part of the Vietnamese salad with shredded chicken and cabbage that I love so much -- it's often replaced by grapefruit here in the States, but the original uses pomelo. Other large citrus that we use mostly for their skin or rind or juice -- and really, above all, we often use their scent -- are the citron, bergamot, calamansi, ugly fruit, and the etrog. Since we're focusing on what we eat and drink from the citrus species, we'll skip the details on these guys. They do provide the flavor for some delicious drinks, liqueurs, and vinegars however. Another time, another post.

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In Italy, I look forward to two types of citrus showing up in the markets. One is clementini, or clementines, which always signal to me the approach of the winter holidays. Christmas in Italy means that pretty much every household has a gorgeous painted ceramic bowl full of clementini on the kitchen or coffee table. The second type of citrus I pine for until winter is the Sicilian blood orange, known as arancia rossa in Italian. Their flesh ranges in color from fuchsia-tinged bright orange to deep, dark magenta. These sweet, barely-acidic babies become happily ubiquitous at the end of the calendar year and throughout winter. They're in salads -- particularly those of Sicilian origin, like the blood orange-fennel-olive salads I love at this time of year. They're in desserts. They go into spremute, or freshly-squeezed juices sold in bars and in markets all over Italy. They're also great paired with prosecco, for a gorgeously colored aperitivo cocktail that's better than any mimosa you've ever experienced.  

They're squeezed into vinaigrettes and made into sauces -- they happen to pair really well with steak fish to brighten a typical white wine sauce. They're an unexpected touch anywhere you'd normally use lemon or regular orange. They're delicious seared on the grill and paired with pork or duck. They're also great candied, dipped in chocolate. The possibilities are pretty endless, actually. And they're accessible now that they've become popular in the U.S.

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And then we have the other categories of orange-skinned citrus. Mandarins and tangerines are often slightly sweeter versions of oranges, larger than clementines but just as delicious and versatile. They're great paired with pomegranate in a spremuta, and my vendors in Campo de' Fiori in Rome have been selling these alongside their market stall now for years. Of course, the smallest of all these orange cousins is the kumquat -- a slightly tricky fruit, but one that can actually be eaten whole, peel and all (these are thin-skinned little guys), and do really well sliced and cooked in a sugar syrup so they're softened, half way to marmalade. 

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This kumquat syrup can be made into a compote with the addition of other fruits, it can be made into a chutney with spices and some savory elements, or used as a flavoring syrup with an herb or two to be used as the base for a cocktail or to be topped off with sparkling water. Kumquats also do well included in other dishes like the composed salad here, with shaved fennel, beets, wild asparagus, avocado, and sunflower seeds on a bed of Greek yogurt. Other varietals of orange-skinned citrus like the satsuma, the tangelo, and various cross-breeds have been flooding the citrus market in recent years. I try to sample these fruits when I see a variety I've not yet tasted, and I have to say I've liked just about everything I've tried.

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When it comes to a delicious acidic kick in cooking, limes are probably my star ingredient. They bring ceviche to life, they cut the richness of grilled meats in Mexican tacos and fajitas, they are pivotal in Southeast Asian marinades and dips, and they're the perfect finishing agent for freshly cooked seafood and freshly grilled veggies like corn on the cob -- I love smothering corn in a miso-lime butter. Limes are a must on any cocktail bar (dark and stormy, anyone?). Lime is also a wonderful ingredient for desserts. 

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A truly well-made slice of key lime pie is hard to beat. The key limes are deliciously tart and work well in tropical cuisine that matches the environment in which they're grown. Lime sorbetto is ultra-refreshing. And lime curd is delicious, and pairs well with berries, like in my raspberry-lime-ginger tart at right. We're now starting to see the availability of other varieties like finger limes in specialty markets these days. These are to regular limes what pomelos are to grapefruit, and are excellent when the pulp is used in savory preparations. Kaffir limes are amazing, particularly in southeast Asian cuisine, but they're relatively dry and so are best used for their aromatic zest and above all, for their gorgeous fresh leaves. Nothing, for me, compares to the flavor kaffir lime leaves impart to curries and stews and soups. And dried limes are a big part of the flavor profile in Persian cooking, a cuisine I love and am learning more about all the time.

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And then, of course, we have the lemon. I could write an entire post alone on lemons -- and I will, at some point. Having honeymooned last year on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, we walked through a pergola of lemon trees just to get from our suite to breakfast each morning in Anacapri. My friends had luscious lemon trees in the back yard of their B+B in Puglia. Even my friends with more than a corner of terrace space in Rome have citrus trees. And I've used lemon leaves in my cooking as well - they're great for wrapping things in and grilling. The amazing Italian lemons themselves go into everything from a light salad dressing to sauces for seafood to desserts and cakes and gelato and sorbetto and mmmmm, granita. They are served alongside tea (tè al limone) as well as a bistecca alla fiorentina. But lemons from all over the world help to add flavor to marinades and ceviches and meringue pies and tarts and candies, and anything at all that needs a little brightening of flavor.

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They are a part of the sgroppino, an after-dinner drink which I've already highlighted on this blog here: http://bluaubergine.blogspot.com/search?q=sgroppino -- but it's so delicious it's worth mentioning again. And the lemons of the Amalfi coast have long donated their rinds to the best cause of all: limoncello.  What lemons have added to our world of drinks alone makes them worthwhile! Limonana, the Israeli slushie drink of lemon and mint, is a refreshing glass of wonderfulness, improved upon by the addition of a little vodka. And the coccolimone drink and grattachecca sold on the streets of Rome in warm weather are a revelation.

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With the creation of the meyer lemon, which is a cross between a lemon and an orange, we have a best-of-both-worlds situation which allows us an interesting, mellowed citrus flavor to utilize in both sweet and savory. Lemon bars are given a tweak, and meyer lemon curd adds interest to the coconut cake and chocolate tuile at left. They're great in sauces and to make an aioli ethereal. Grilled and squeezed on seafood, they lend amazing dimension. There's very little a regular lemon can do that a meyer lemon won't improve. Give them a try the next time you find them in the market. In fact, pick up as many citrus varieties as you can get your hands on, then store them in the fruit bin in your fridge, and go in search of recipes that utilize these wondrous, versatile fruits. They'll help you bring on the spring!

 Haricots verts with almonds, beets, and orange supreme

Haricots verts with almonds, beets, and orange supreme

 Branzino topped with meyer lemon aioli, over roasted artichokes and sea beans

Branzino topped with meyer lemon aioli, over roasted artichokes and sea beans

 Moroccan honey-citrus cake, orangeflower citrus, roasted figs, sweetened yogurt

Moroccan honey-citrus cake, orangeflower citrus, roasted figs, sweetened yogurt

 Lemon sole over beluga lentils and wilted chard, roasted citrus beurre blanc

Lemon sole over beluga lentils and wilted chard, roasted citrus beurre blanc

 Southeast Asian style soft-shelled crabs with citrus-cucumber nuac mam, citrus segments and butter lettuce

Southeast Asian style soft-shelled crabs with citrus-cucumber nuac mam, citrus segments and butter lettuce

 Rustic Italian flourless lemon-almond-poppyseed cake, four berry sauce, lemon sugar whipped cream

Rustic Italian flourless lemon-almond-poppyseed cake, four berry sauce, lemon sugar whipped cream

 

 

 

 

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Winter Veg

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.

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- 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!

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Cranberries

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Cranberries

I've always loved the taste of cranberries. At the age of 6, I was a precocious little thing, turning my nose up at orange juice (what kid doesn't like OJ?) and requesting cranberry juice of my inevitably surprised servers at diners and delis everywhere. Our family vacation destination each August for my entire childhood was Cape Cod, and I think I especially loved our time there because cranberry products were everywhere: cranberry juice was de rigeur at pancake houses all along the Massachusetts coast, and cranberry fudge was a local delicacy we could really only find on the Cape. And speaking of Cape Cod, when I got older (though let's be clear, not old enough), cranberry juice was my mixer of choice with vodka, for a Cape Cod or a Sea Breeze.

Then, a few years after I became of legal drinking age, Sex and the City hit New York and the world, and you can bet I was slugging down Cosmopolitans in 1999! I even brought the drink to Rome, where I taught bartender friends how to make the perfect Cosmo -- though it was a challenge at the time.

You had to really hunt to find two of the key ingredients: cranberry juice and limes (times have really changed in Rome since then -- I like to think I had a hand in the availability of cranberries and limes thanks to my persistent bugging of market owners all over Rome's center!).

It's back in America where cranberries have a real history. They're a perennial holiday favorite, starting off the season with cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving -- and they've been around for centuries. In the 1672 book New England Rarities Discovered, cranberries are described as a "sauce for the Pilgrims, cranberry or bearberry" (bearberry because bears ate the berries)..."that grows in salt marshes that are overgrown with moss. The berries are of a pale yellow color, afterwards red, as big as a cherry...with sower [sic] astringent taste...They are excellent against the Scurvy...The Indians and English use them mush, boyling [sic] them with sugar for sauce to eat with their meat..." And so not much has changed since then. The classic sauce is wonderful -- simply the berries cooked with sugar until they burst. I sometimes like to add orange zest and a little port to add a sophisticated touch to my sauce, but for the most part I like the cranberries to speak for themselves. 

In 1787, James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson while he was stationed in France, asking for background information on constitutional government to use at the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson obliged, sending Madison several books on the subject and asked in return for distinctly American gifts that he missed (foodie that Jefferson was): apples, pecans, and yes, cranberries.

In the U.S., Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries, with over half of American production. And yes, Massachusetts is number two. My native New Jersey is number three in the country (making NJ not just the garden state, but also the bog state, apparently!). Small volume production occurs in Argentina, Chile, and the Netherlands, in the "old world." 1816 marked the first commercially grown cranberries in the States in East Dennis, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. When cultivated, cranberries are grown on low trailing vines atop great sandy bogs.

Nutritionally speaking? Raw cranberries have plenty of vitamin C, dietary fiber, and the essential mineral manganese. They're also a source of polyphenols, currently under active research for their cardiovascular benefits, their cancer-fighting agents, and their capacity to bolster the immune system. Cranberries have been valued for decades for their ability to help prevent and treat urinary tract infections.

Recent studies have also suggested that this powerful berry may promote gastrointestinal and oral health: its phytonutrients are effective in lowering unwanted inflammation, and this extends specifically to the stomach, colon, and the mouth and gums. This miraculous little native American berry may even help aid in recovery from stroke, and lower LDL and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. Clearly, the cranberry packs a powerful, healthful punch!

I even add the berries to my beautiful, red-and-green holiday brittle, using shelled pistachios and dried cranberries as the chewy, crunchy bright spots in the caramelized sweetness of the brittle itself. What's most important? Get creative! Use cranberries where you might have used raisins, cherries, pomegranate, figs, nuts, marmalade, maple syrup, orange or apple juice...the possibilities are practically endless. I've known since the age of 6 that cranberries are delicious -- and now I know, we know, that they're also a smart food choice. Eat, drink, and be berry!

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Dana Klitzberg at Wednesday, December 23, 2015

SEASONAL FOOD: Watermelon

When I think of late summer, the dwindling heat of end-of-August, I think of lazy days by the pool, happliy exhausting days on the beach, and backyard barbeques in the 'burbs. All are heavenly. And what food best represents these languid last days of the hottest season of the year? For me, the answer is simple: watermelon

The watermelon is the edible fruit (botanically speaking it's a kind of berry called a pepo) from a vine-like flowering plant that hails from southern Africa. Its cultivation harks all the way back to the second millennium B.C., in the Nile Valley. Watermelon seeds were found at the tomb of King Tutankhamun, and the fruit is mentioned as a food eaten by the ancient Israelites while in bondage in Egypt. The fruit was cultivated on the Indian continent by the seventh century, and had spread to China by the tenth.

China continues to be the world's largest watermelon producer, by a lot, today -- they account for about 50% of the world's production. It was the Moors who introduced watermelon (and a whole slew of other great things!) to Europe; evidence suggests that it was cultivated in southern Spain, in Cordoba and Sevilla, in 961 and 1158, respectively. From here its cultivation spread throughout Southern Europe, and by the 17th century, watermelon had become a fairly widespread garden crop on the European continent. We have the European colonists, and their slaves, to thank for the introduction of watermelon into the U.S. and the New World in general -- Spanish settlers in Florida in the late 16th century, on up to Massachusetts, and later Peru, Brazil, and Panama. Today, the fruit is grown in 44 U.S. states, with Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, and Arizona leading the charge. The largest melon on record, however, was grown in Tennessee in 2013, weighing in at a heaving 350.5 pounds!

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Nutritionally speaking, watermelon isn't vitamin or nutrient-dense in the classic definition of the terms. But the beauty is this: it's 91% water, contains 6% sugars, and is low in fat and calories, so for the caloric intake, it's a decent source of fiber and vitamin C. But new evidence suggests that watermelon has several additional nutritional and health benefits. Watermelon flesh is quite high in carotenoid phytonutrients, specifically lycopene, and has been moved up to the front of the line, alongside tomatoes, in recent studies on high-lycopene foods. What does lycopene do? It's especially important for cardiovascular health. Bone health, too.

It's an antioxidant and contains anti-inflammatory properties, so it potentially fights off all kinds of disease and inflammation that is the breeding ground for disease and chronic illness. Recently, scientists have become interested in the high citrulline content of the fruit as well. Citrulline is an amino acid generally converted by our kidneys into arginine, another amino acid -- which helps improve blood flow and general cardiovascular health. There's also hopeful evidence that this amino acid conversion process might help to prevent fat buildup in fat cells by blocking a particular enzyme activity. Things are looking up for watermelon fanatics!

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As for watermelon preparation and ways in which to enjoy the fruit, other than slices out of hand? It's actually incredibly versatile in both savory and sweet preparations. Watermelon "steaks" work well on the grill, even as served with grilled meats. One of my favorite summer dishes I've prepared in recent memory is a sort of riff on a Vietnamese pork chop dish.

I marinate thinly-sliced pork chops in a fish sauce, soy, and rice wine-based marinade, then toss them on the grill and reduce the marinade for a sauce. I serve them on a bed of greens (watercress is my favorite) with fizzled shallots, cilantro, watermelon cubes, and pickled watermelon rind. The combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures is heaven! 

Of course, simple preparations like my watermelon-feta-mint skewers and "cocktail sandwiches" is an easy snack. And there's this snack in salad form -- a dish that's become somewhat ubiquitous on menus in urban centers and beach locales all over. But it's still delicious and refreshing, particularly on a hot August day.

I like my watermelon salad with arugula and/or microgreens, salty feta (but not too much), and a kicky rice or sherry wine vinaigrette. Add some jalapenos and I'm even happier.

Mint is a must, cilantro is a bonus. Sorrel is a nice variation. Watermelon pairs nicely with cucumber (technically another member of the melon family), and both take well to heat -- as in the spicy kind, from hot peppers. This is true even in cocktails. We all know the trick of a hollowed-out watermelon with vodka-soaked melon balls, or "tapping" the green rind and turning the watermelon shell into a keg for cocktails. These are fun ideas, no doubt. But fresh-pressed watermelon juice with your liquor of choice and additional goodies makes for a sophisticated cocktail, without being hokey. 

Ditto the pulverized flesh of the melon. And for dessert, or a drink, or a cocktail-dessert hybrid? Freeze the pureed watermelon pulp to make granita, the Sicilian shaved ice and the world's original slushie frozen treat. Just add a bit of simple syrup to the pureed melon -- equal parts sugar and water, heated and cooled -- if it needs a little added sweetness (though ripe melon should be plenty sweet on its own). Pour into a tray or pan and pop it in the freezer, periodically mashing it up with a fork when it starts to freeze. Scrape, and serve. Here, liquor is optional, but ooooh, is it a good choice! It's the quintessential summer food, in any of its forms. Enjoy the season!

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Capers

Capers are a curious little flower bud. Their briny touch of heat adds an interesting hit of flavor to sauces, salads, and main courses to which they're added. Caper bushes grow in harsh, semi-arid environments in Morocco, southeastern Spain, Italy, throughout the Middle East, and in parts of Asia and Australia.

The plant thrives in intense daylight and temperatures of over 40 degrees centigrade in the summer -- though it doesn't do so well in cold and frost. Once it takes hold it acts much like a weed, growing through the cracks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, creeping over ancient walls in Rome, and snaking between cobblestones and fortifications in Marrakesh and Damascus.

The caper and its relatives in several European tongues can be traced back to classical Latin capparis, which was borrowed from the Greek kápparis -- the origin of which, much like the plant itself, is unknown but most likely Asian. A different theory traces kápparis to the name of the island of Cyprus (Kýpros), where capers grow abundantly. The Sicilian islands of Salina and Pantelleria are justly famous for their capers in salt. There, rustic, often unpaved roads are lined with makeshift (and sometimes not-so-makeshift) stands selling local capers, often manned by a young boy who picked the capers himself.

The island of Salina is the perfect place for every step in the caper production process, since the salt, too, often comes from the island's own salt flats (hence the island's name). It's the good fortune of nature that capers pair so well with the fruits of these islands: seafood from the surrounding Mediterranean, as well as vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers for which the cuisine of Sicily is renowned.

The caper buds, when ready to pick, are a dark olive green and roughly the size of a kernel of corn. They're plucked from the bush at the bud's base, then placed in a jar and brined in sea salt, or pickled in a salt-and-vinegar solution, and then eventually drained.

Here, we're picking the little guys from a couple of bushes in the walled back yard of the B&B my friends Monica and Marcello run in the Salento region of southern Puglia, Italy. It was June and every day when we awoke, new buds were ready to be picked and put in a small jar, sotto sale("under salt"), as the Italians say. This way they're perfectly preserved for future use -- though it's best to know a little in advance when you're going to need them for cooking, as they do well with several soakings in water to remove the powerful saline intensity they pick up from the salt. 

Harvesting capers can be a labor-intensive, arduous process on a larger scale, since they're too small and delicate to be plucked by machine. It's all done by hand, which is what makes them a pricey comestible. The smallest, called nonpareil, are the most prized of the bunch, and the most frequently used in cooking. Mustard oil (known as glucocapparin) in the capers is released from each bud, which accounts for the bite capers have. When this oil is released, the enzymatic reaction forms rutin, resulting in the crystallized white spots you often find on the surface of the bud.

If left to flower and come to fruit, caper berries are created, which are almost a cross between a traditional caper (bud) and an olive, with lots of tiny, crunchy seeds inside. The caper berries are usually pickled and are often served in Southern Italian and Greek aperitivi and mezze -- perfect pop-in-your-mouth cocktail snacks that, much like briny olives, help to fill the tummy while working up a thirst.

Capers are a distinctive ingredient in Italian cuisine, especially in Sicilian and southern Italian cooking. They're used in everything from salads and pasta salads to meat dishes, fish preparations, and pasta sauces. Two of the most famous uses for capers are in chicken piccata and pasta alla puttanesca.

The latter, of course, is famously named supposedly because it was a pasta dish that was relatively easy for Neapolitan prostitutes ("puttane") to prepare for their clients...(yes, everything -- everything -- in Italy seems to come with a side of pasta!)...the thought being that every single Italian pantry contains, at the very least, canned tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies, and dried pasta. Whether this is true or not is a different story, but I've always loved this culinary origin tale, mostly because it paints the working girl-client relationship as more than just a business transaction, but as one during which they actually break bread, share pasta, have a few laughs, maybe a glass of wine.

Which leads me to this fun fact about capers: in Biblical times, the caper berry was supposed to have aphrodisiac properties. The Hebrew wordabiyyonah (אֲבִיּוֹנָה) for caperberry is quite closely linked to the Hebrew root אבה, which means "desire" (the word even occurs once in the Bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes). Ancient desire, the Wailing Wall, gorgeous Sicilian islands, friendly prostitutes in Naples...as it turns out, the little caper is a mighty flower bud, finding itself in places sacred and profane, arid and lush, throughout history. Something to chew on.    

SEASONAL INGREDIENT + RECIPE: Puntarelle

In many ways, it's the essence of Italian Food: it's seasonal, it's hyper-local, and it's a great use of a vegetable that may otherwise go unused, uneaten, and unappreciated. Puntarelle.

Its season begins as the cold weather descends upon the center of the Italian peninsula, and puntarelle usually don't last much beyond the winter months. Puntarelle means "little tips" in Italian -- these are the tender bottom ends of a specific variety of cicoria, or chicory. Cicoria is a bitter leafy green usually par-boiled and either served cold with lemon or sauteed in olive oil with garlic and chile pepper. It's ubiquitous in Rome, much like sauteed spinach is in Florence. But in the winter months, roughly November to March, Romans focus on the puntarelle, the stems of the chicory plant which are cleaned of any leaves, sliced lengthwise in thin strips, and soaked in cold water until they curl up. 

You'll see older Roman women and men in the markets of Rome working with great dexterity over a bucket of water, peeling and slicing the puntarelle so that customers can buy them already cleaned and ready to use. Much like the beloved Roman artichokes, puntarelle are a labor-intensive labor of love. 

When making puntarelle, one begins with the dressing: an unctuous vinaigrette flavored with ground anchovies, fresh garlic, lemon, and wine vinegar, with a healthy glug-glug of top quality extra-virgin olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Then you mix this in with the cleaned puntarelle, and let it sit for 30 minutes or so. And then? Magic. The greens stay crispy, yet they absorb the flavor of the dressing, which you'll want to sop up with bread after you clean your dish of the greens.

It's a very old Roman recipe -- to my mind, probably assimilated into the Roman culinary canon from the city's Jewish community, because of its telltale use of anchovies (Jewish Romans often used {kosher} anchovies where Roman Catholics would use guanciale, or cured pork cheek, as a salty flavor base in a recipe). The cool thing about puntarelle? It's a super-extra-totally Roman vegetable, so even people in nearby areas like Abruzzo, Tuscany, and Le Marche don't get to enjoy the bitter-savory winter contorno

It's really the original Caesar salad, in a way -- and actually from the land of the Caesars. When in Rome? Head to the Campo de' Fiori market where you can purchase the greens and all the ingredients to make the salad at home. Then head to the famous Forno at the top of the piazza for some warm pizza bianca fresh out of the oven, to accompany the dish. 

If you're lucky, the Forno's sandwich shop, right across the tiny vicolo from the bakery, will be serving Pizza con le Puntarelle: a fabulous sandwich of the pizza bianca stuffed with puntarelle salad. Crunchy, chewy, warm, cool, salty, bitter, with the astringent zip of lemon and garlic...it's a heavenly Roman winter sandwich sure to make anyone a very happy campo-er.

When Rome is not your home? Puntarelle are, as noted, extremely local, though I have been lucky enough to stumble upon a special of puntarelle salad one cold winter night in New York, at the authentic and always-excellent Bar Pitti. When I asked the waiter in Italian where he'd managed to find puntarelle, he responded very simply, "eh, signora: dall'Italia. Ovviamente." From Italy. Obviously.

Puntarelle alla Romana

If you're not one of the lucky few who can get his or her hands on the real deal, you can approximate the texture and bitterness of the puntarelle by thinly slicing a mixture of celery and belgian endive lengthwise, then putting those slices in ice water so they curl a bit. Then mix with the dressing as you would the puntarelle. As with Caesar salad fans, you have those who like it heavy on the anchovies, and those who prefer a less fishy flavor. I think there should be a nice balance of flavor -- using the anchovy liberally, but mashed well, will give the dressing its best consistency.

8 oz. washed & dried puntarelle (sliced chicory stems curled in cold water)

1 clove garlic

1 lemon, for juicing

6 TBS. extra-virgin olive oil

1 TBS. red wine vinegar

1-2 anchovy fillets

salt & pepper to taste

- In a salad bowl, rub the garlic clove over the surface of the bowl and then with the tines of a fork, crush it a bit.

- Add the anchovy fillets and crush them with the fork as well.

- Squeeze the lemon juice over the garlic and anchovies, add the vinegar, and muddle the ingredients so they form a paste.

- Using the fork – or even better, a small whisk – add the olive oil in a thin stream until a vinaigrette forms.

- Add salt and pepper to taste, or more oil if necessary. Toss puntarelle in vinaigrette and serve.

SEASONAL INGREDIENT + RECIPE: Artichoke: The Prickly Sign of Primavera

artichoke.jpg

Few vegetables say spring like the artichoke. For me, in Rome, it was always the ultimate sign of la primavera, especially where I lived in the Jewish ghetto, which is known for its numerous restaurants specializing in the deep-fried "Jewish style" artichokes in-season. In the U.S., California provides almost 100 percent of the nation’s artichoke crop. Castroville, in Monterey County, calls itself “The Artichoke Center of the World,” and is host to an annual festival held since 1959, which celebrates the perennial thistle. Still, fifty years seems like a drop in the bucket, when we consider the fact that artichokes have been consumed in the Mediterranean region since the sixth century B.C.

From There to Here: A Brief History of the Thistle

Cynara cardunculus, the globe artichoke, is thought to have originated in Northern Africa. Its name comes from the Arabic al-kharshuf or ardi-shoky, meaning “ground-thorny,” which became carciofo (car-CHO-foe) in Italian. A relative of the cardoon, the artichoke was cultivated in Sicily during the Greek occupation, as early as 500 B.C., and eventually made its way to mainland Italy.

It reached Naples in the 9th century, and was supposedly brought north to Florence in the 1460’s by Filippo Strozzi, a wealthy Florentine banker who’d been exiled to Naples by the Medici family. From here, it traveled further north to Venice and then into southern France, reaching Avignon by about 1532. The artichoke spread throughout Europe to eventually flower in Henry VIII’s gardens in the 1540’s, though it had probably always been a staple in the Southern Mediterranean regions historically touched by Greek, and later Arab, influence: Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Southern France.

It was the French who first introduced the artichoke to 19th century Louisiana, and therefore to the American table, though Spanish immigrants are the ones credited with bringing the vegetable to California, where it’s flourished ever since.

When In Rome…

It’s the Roman artichoke, the carciofo romanesco, the Cynara scolymus: a gorgeous, deep purple-and-green globe. Synonymous with the celebrated Roman Spring, it's perfectly paired with Easter specialties like baby lamb, fava beans, asparagus, and spring peas. Anyone who has ever tried an artichoke in The Eternal City knows that there may be no better place on earth to eat one. It is the single most popular vegetable in Rome, and has become the city's culinary symbol.

The two most common local artichoke preparations are alla romana – Roman-style, slow braised in oil and wine with wild Roman mint and pecorino cheese, and alla giudea – Jewish-style, deep-fried twice so the crispy outer petals open up but the heart remains tender within. Unlike botanically similar varieties found elsewhere, the romanesco artichoke is eaten young, before it gets woody. This allows a greater portion of the flower to be edible, though local cooks generally pare down the leaves quite a bit. Romans tend to go straight for the tender heart.

Cooking with Carciofi 

Romans believe artichokes reduce cholesterol, cleanse the liver…and are an aphrodisiac to boot. Whatever their benefits may be, nutritional or otherwise, artichokes are labor-intensive but well worth the work.

A trip to any Roman market in the spring months will reveal numerous carciofare, or artichoke trimmers, in quick action with gloved hands, a sharp knife, and a container of water with cut lemons floating in it: the acidulated water keeps the chlorophyll oxidation to a minimum, so the artichokes remain green and beautiful. Look for artichokes that are heavy for their size, with tightly-packed leaves.

CARCIOFI ALLA ROMANA

4 artichokes

2 lemons

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 TBS. Chopped fresh flat leaf parsley

4 TBS. Chopped fresh mint or mentuccia

½ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated

1 cup dry white wine

2 TBS. Minced olive oil-packed anchovy fillets (optional)

salt & pepper to taste

extra-virgin olive oil, as needed (about 1-2 cups)

-Fill a large bowl with water and squeeze the juice of one of the lemons into it.

-Trim artichoke stems, cut the top of the artichoke bulb off, and peel the outer leaves of the artichoke.

-Carefully scoop out the choke with a melon baller or paring knife.

-As each artichoke is trimmed, put it into the acidulated water.

-In a small bowl, combine the garlic, parsley, mint, bread crumbs, and anchovies, if using. Season with salt & pepper.

-Pat dry the artichokes, stuff the stuffing mixture into the cavity left by the choke and between the leaves. Close leaves over filling.

- Place artichokes stem-up in a baking dish and add 1 part olive oil to 1 part white wine to 2 parts water, to almost cover artichoke bulb.

- Cover and cook until tender when tested with a toothpick/skewer, about 45 minutes to an hour (either in oven or on the stovetop).

- Can be served warm or eaten at room temperature, kept in the braising liquid. Serve with lemon wedges.

RECIPE: LA GRANDE MELA: Apples, The Big Apple, and Apple Crumb

Autumn and apples: for me, they go hand-in-hand. The anticipation of heading to the green market in the fall is terrific: poring over the myriad apple varieties, sipping warm apple cider while I stroll along, crisp and colorful fallen leaves under foot. If I can find a good caramel apple, then I'm a sucker for it -- I'm hard-pressed to pass up a chewy, crunchy autumnal treat. And I love an excursion outside of the city for some apple picking, too. When time allows, this is a great fall weekend pastime we in the northeast are lucky enough to enjoy.

And believe me, I don't take this for granted. All the years I lived in Italy, fall had some wonderful food connotations for me: wine harvests, polenta festivals in Umbria...sausages and lentils and pumpkin ravioli. But in Italy, well, they just don't do apples (mele) like here on the east coast of the U.S. And where better than the Empire State, the city known around the world as The Big Apple ("La Grande Mela" in Italian), to revel in autumnal apple-y goodness?

I recently had friends here visiting from Rome, and we happened upon the Union Square greenmarket around lunchtime on a sunny, brisk early November afternoon. They'd had a few minutes to wander through the market before meeting me, and they said, "Dana, we'd forgotten what a real apple tastes like!" They were amazed at the variety of apples, the colors, shapes and sizes, and how some were sweet and fragrant and others were crisp and tart. It was as if they'd tasted an apple for the first time. They bought several varieties to take back with them on the international flight, because as they exclaimed, "you can't find apples like these in Italy!" I reminded them that they were in The Big Apple, after all -- and it all made sense to them. A very funny moment.

Of course, I stocked up on apples as well. My beloved varieties for various uses, from eating out-of-hand to baking in desserts, include Cortland, Braeburn, Rome (named for the town in New York state, not Italy!), Macoun, Honeycrisp, and Staymen Winesap. A love of good apples was ingrained in me from childhood by my father, who considers himself to be a shrewd apple expert. To him, the granddaddy of all varieties is the Ida Red. He carts bags and bags of them from the northeast down to south Florida when he heads down each November, since they're not readily available outside of their local growing area. So yes, I had to get some Ida Reds as well. Some apple cider, too. Maybe some hard cider, good for drinking as well as making sauces for pork dishes. Is apple overload possible? I'm testing the limits!

So, how will I consume all of these apples? Some, I eat with a fresh local Camembert-style cheese called "Bianca" from Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, NY (another greenmarket purchase) -- the cheese slightly melted, the apples sliced, smeared with a little Tuscan millefiore honey on some crusty bread. Others, I'll slice and dip in some homemade salted caramel sauce, a sophisticated version of the street fair favorite. Some apples I toss with caramelized onions and kale, and sprinkle with cider vinegar and a little brown sugar in the pan for a great seasonal side dish to a meat main course.

And then there's my favorite apple dessert. It would seem un-American to diss the staple apple pie. And I do love a good one. But even better, to my taste buds -- and just as American, in the tradition of crumbles, brown betties, slumps, and cobblers -- is the APPLE CRUMBLE. It's simple. It doesn't need a crust. It bakes in about 30-45 minutes and can be eaten warm: no waiting! Perfection.

APPLE CRUMB

(Serves 4)

6 apples, peeled, cored, and cut into slices (about 10 per apple)

8 oz. plus 2 TBS. AP flour

3 oz. granulated sugar

2 oz. brown sugar 

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. salt

4 oz. (1 stick) + 1 TBS. butter, softened to room temp

- Butter individual ramekins or medium, shallow baking dish 

- Toss the apples in a bowl with the cinnamon, 2 TBSP. sugar and 1 TBSP. flour, to coat.

- Distribute apples in even layers in baking vessels.

- Mix softened butter, flour, salt, and sugars until a dough is formed (cookie dough-like in consistency).

- Drop dough on top of apples and bake in 375 degree oven until golden brown and crispy on top, 30-45 minutes. 

- Allow to cool enough so you won't burn your tongue devouring the crumble!

* Great with fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream