Category Archives: Travel

Hadrian’s Villa Update

My dad was the one who always did the serious research for our travels, though he never considered it a chore, as it was his heart’s delight. Among the places his research turned up that he wanted to visit, the first time we went to Italy as a family, was Hadrian’s Villa (or Villa Adriana in Italian), which is about 20 miles outside of Rome. Even at 15 years of age, and with not particularly great experience of the world, I could tell this place was special. It was, in fact, mind-blowing. The huge, sprawling villa covers 250 acres—because the ruler of the Roman Empire needed more than a nice palace—there were ponds and monuments and buildings everywhere.

I was delirious. Like my dad, I loved history, and I took tremendous delight in “running around in ruins,” as I stated it back then. The day we spent there was one of my favorite memories (among many) of that trip.

The reason it came to mind today is I just saw an article in Gastro Obscura about the villa—or, rather, about the ancient olive trees that grow there. Apparently, there are no trees like this anywhere else in the world. Local farmers now make oil from those trees, though it’s only available to visitors at the villa. But That almost constitutes a reason to return to Italy.

If you’re interested, here is the link to the story. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/emperor-hadrian-villa

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Thoughts from Milk Street

Among the magazines I get, only one is what I would call “pure fun.” The other magazines are either largely for research or in some cases are potential outlets for my own writing. But Milk Street magazine—or more completely, Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street—is for pleasure. It combines two of my favorite pursuits: food and travel.

In addition to travel tales and insights into destinations, there is also an Editor’s Notes entry in each issue, and while not every one is an eye opener, and I even occasionally disagree with Kimball, more often than not, I find some interesting insight or a well-phrased reflection that resonates. This is actually from a couple of years ago (I rarely throw out good food magazines), but it’s something I just opened to and thought it was worth sharing. So here from the Nov.–Dec. 2019 issue is the passage that I wanted to pass along—because it’s so true. And I like to think that understanding this will help folks actually come to have a greater appreciation and respect for their own culinary traditions. Because other than a few tools and some spices, we’re more alike than we are different.

Kimball wrote: “The world is not exotic; it’s just life in a different place. Spend a little time in Croatia, Galilee or Tunis and you realize that the cooking is practical, not romantic. People make the best they can out of whatever is at hand.

“And so you end up drinking arak or mezcal at a table a long way from home, but it’s the same everywhere. It’s the one where we come to drink, eat and celebrate what makes us human.”

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Florentine Steak

When lemon pepper seasoning first appeared in U.S. markets, I had a good idea what might have inspired it. Thanks to dad’s job with the airlines, I’d gotten to Italy quite young (first trip, age 15). Dad always did a huge amount of research before trips, so we knew—in addition to history, art and language—what foods to eat and where to find them (kind of sounds like I take after my dad). One specialty that dad particularly wanted to try, and which we managed to enjoy in a few different restaurants during our ten days in Florence, was bistecca alla fiorentina—Florentine steak

As I often found in Italy back then, a lot of dishes were finished at the table—and as one who loves ritual and process, that always delighted me. Even the simple whisking of oil and vinegar dressing directly over the salad delighted me.

Florentine steak was part of just such a ritual. A thin steak was salted and cooked over charcoal quickly at high heat, with the result being meat that had flavorful char on the outside but still had a pink interior. In some restaurants and trattorias, the grill was visible from the dining area. The steak moved swiftly from fire to plate to table, where the waiter would squeeze fresh lemon juice over its surface and then grind over it an abundance of fresh, black pepper. It was wonderful.

I think the taste of charcoal is indispensable to the success of this dish. But if you have a charcoal grill and a thin (about ½ an inch) steak, you might want to try this. Salt applied to the steak before cooking is the only seasoning other than the lemon and pepper – but the lemon should be actual lemon, not bottled lemon juice (and I use bottled juice often, just not here) and freshly ground black pepper.

And if you visit Italy, while Florence remains famous for steaks, know that many upscale places now target tourists rather than locals, and the steaks are often very thick. Not a bad thing, by any means, but a different experience. But it’s simple enough to not have to wait for that trip abroad. Buon appetito.

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Chakchouka

In most fields of study, one finds that a standard has been established or recognized, something against which other things are measured. In the world of food, when it comes to judging and classifying substances as complete and assimilable, the standard is the egg. It possesses all the amino acids needed for growth, and is rated as having the highest biological value of all common foods (96 on a scale of 100). A hen’s egg also supplies all the essential vitamins except vitamin C, and most of the essential minerals in sufficient amounts to affect metabolism. Consume two eggs, and you have met half of your daily requirement for proteins and vitamins. Toss in a piece of fruit and some whole-grain bread, and you pretty much have a perfect meal.

Of course, eggs are by no means limited to breakfast. Most cultures have numerous recipes that employ these dandy little nutrient bundles. In the egg recipe below, tomatoes and peppers offer that bit of vitamin C that completes the nutritional profile of an egg meal. This recipe is actually old enough to predate some of North Africa’s current political boundaries. It is indigenous to a region called the Maghreb (or Magrib). This Arabic word means the West, and refers to the region of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Once known to the ancients as “Africa Minor,” and long including Moorish holdings in Spain, the Maghreb now comprises essentially the Atlas Massif and coastal plain of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Chakchouka

4 large onions, sliced
3 Tbs. olive oil
3 large sweet green pepper, cut in strips
4 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 Tbs. vinegar
1-1/2 tsp. salt
6 eggs

Sauté onions in oil in a large frying pan until golden brown. Add pepper strips and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomato, spices, vinegar, and salt and blend well with onions and pepper. Simmer until the vegetables are quite soft, about 30 minutes.

Make six indentations (the back of a ladle may make this easier) in the vegetables. Carefully break an egg into each indentation. Cover the frying pan and cook over low heat until eggs are well set, about 10 minutes. Serves 6.

Notes: When I cook this for myself, I just break one or two eggs in a corner of the simmering vegetable base. Then I refrigerate the rest of the veggies and simply reheat a portion of them when I’m hungry, adding the eggs as veggies begin to bubble.

In the Maghreb, this might be served with spicy sausage on the side, and bread or rice would certainly be a reasonable accompaniment.

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Seasons Flashback

Roughly a decade ago, I posted about Seasons of My Heart, the lovely cooking school I went to during my second trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. It was a remarkable experience.

I still get emails from Susana Trilling, who runs the school, mostly encouraging me to return, but the most recent one included the update that there is now a YouTube channel for the school. Just a few videos so far, but this one was a fun trip down memory lane, as it shows the energy and great food of one of her classes, something my still images couldn’t quite convey.

Of course, if you’re interested in more details (because I did SO much more than what is shown in this video), you can visit my original post. Because, if you like good food, and enjoy a bit of history thrown in, this is an excellent destination.

https://worldsfare.wordpress.com/2010/03/06/seasons-of-my-heart/

Buen provecho.

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Porotos Granados

When people talk about food from the Americas, the ones that come up in conversation most often are chocolate, tomatoes, chilies, corn, and potatoes. Maybe avocadoes. But I don’t remember ever hearing anyone mention beans. (They might get mentioned when people speak of the “three sisters”–corn, squash, and beans–but they don’t usually get mentioned on their own.) Perhaps it is because they are so foundational, it’s hard to imagine a world without them. But the beans known as common beans, or haricot beans, are indigenous to the Americas. Everything from dainty French haricots verts to kidney beans or pinto beans in your chili are members of the family. The Etla Valley in Mexico is named for its black beans. The great northern bean was developed in North Dakota. All of them common beans.

The cranberry bean, a variety of borlotti bean, is an heirloom bean that appears to have arisen in the Andes, possibly Colombia, though these beans had spread across the Americas early on and are now grown worldwide. They have a creamy texture and nutty flavor–and they are great in this dish.

Porotos granados, a dish from Chile, is of Indian origin, porotos being the word the indigenous people used for cranberry beans. The recipe contains the New World staples of beans, corn and squash, and is perfect fare for late summer (when corn is ripening) through autumn.

Following the recipe for porotos is a recipe for pebre. Every country has its at least one special sauce, from remoulade to chimichurri, and for Chile, it’s pebre. Traditionally, pebre is used on only two things—any meat and porotos granados. If you don’t want to bother, the porotos is great without pebre. It is also great with pebre. I eat porotos both ways, with and without, and like pebre well enough that, if there is any left over, I use it with corn chips, in lieu of salsa.

Porotos Granados
16 oz. (approx. 2 cups) dried cranberry beans
2 onions, coarsely chopped
4 Tbs. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. paprika
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, deribbed and chopped (optional)
1 14-1/2 oz. can (approx. 1-1/2 cups) diced tomatoes
1 tsp. basil
1-1/2 tsp. oregano
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
3 cups winter squash (about 1-1/2 lb.), peeled and cut
into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup corn kernels (canned or frozen/thawed)

Rinse the beans, then place in large pot with 10-12 cups cold water. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat and allow the beans to soak for 1 hour. Drain the beans, return to pot and add 7 cups fresh water. Bring the beans to a boil again, reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour.

Sauté the onion in the oil until it is soft. Add the garlic, paprika, jalapeño pepper, tomato, basil, oregano, salt, and pepper and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is the consistency of a thick purée (about 15 minutes).

When the beans have cooked for 1 hour (they should be beginning to get tender), add the tomato purée and the squash and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are completely tender and the squash is mushy (about 25-30 minutes). Stir in the corn and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Serve hot, with pebre on the side. Serves 8.

Pebre
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. red or white wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, deribbed and chopped
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper, or to taste (optional)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt

Combine the oil, vinegar and water in a bowl and beat them together with a fork or whisk. Stir in all other ingredients. Let the sauce sit at room temperature for 2-3 hours, to blend and mature the flavors. Serve with porotos granados, with meat, with anything else you can think of to serve it with. Yum.

(Note: when chopping up something flat and thin, like cilantro leaves, a pair of scissors often works more quickly and more efficiently than a knife.)

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Happy Chinese New Year

For those who use the lunar calendar, today is the first day of a new year. Buddhist tradition in some Asian countries includes a type of annual zodiac that identifies years by 12 different animals, and this is now the Year of the Rat.

I just received an email from a food-related site I follow (Gastro Obscura) relating that a common treat for celebrating the New Year is a stick of candy-coated hawthorn berries–large berries that look like crab apples, the article related. This caught my eye because I first read about these treats, which the article identified as a tanghulu, when I was a child. My mom had given me one of her favorite volumes from childhood, a book titled Little Pear, about a young boy growing up in China. The book had spelled the word tanghooler, but that could simply reflect a difference in the region where the story was set. (For example, the accent in Beijing adds an “r” to the end of a lot of words–kind of like a Boston accent). Anyway, Little Pear loved tanghoolers.

Several years ago, I posted about one of my trips to China, and in that post I mentioned having been very excited to see someone near the outdoor food market in Wuhan selling this treat. Because the hawthorn berries look like crab apples, that was what I’d always assumed they were. And perhaps because of the heavy, bright red candy coating, I couldn’t really confirm that the round fruit lined up on that stick weren’t crab apples. But either way, I was very pleased to have come across this treat from my childhood reading.

It wasn’t Chinese New Year when I was in Wuhan, so I’m guessing it’s a treat that can appear any time there is something to celebrate. But it pleased me then to see (and taste) the tanghoolers, and it pleased me today to encounter them in the Gastro Obscura article. Always a fun surprise to see threads that connect different parts of one’s life. Anyway, here again is the image I posted years ago of the man selling tanghoolers in the market in Wuhan.

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Pozole Rojo

Pozole Rojo is a dish I encountered during my travels in Mexico. It is warming and flavorful, ideal for cold weather and for sharing with friends. However, the reason I developed the recipe below is that it seemed like an appropriate culinary bridge between my book on corn (Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland) and the complement that came out in October 2018 (Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest). Corn and pork define agriculture in the American Midwest, but they also come close to defining the cuisine of Mexico. In fact, it has been said (though it is clearly an oversimplification) that Mexican food is Aztec food plus pigs.

The word pozole comes from the Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs) pozolli, which means “hominy.” The rojo in the name (Spanish for “red”) both underscores the combined Indian/European influences in the dish and hints at other variations that exist–because not all pozole uses the red chiles found in this dish. (As is true of every dish of any antiquity, there are as many versions as there are people making it, and sometimes even more.)

Hominy is corn that has undergone nixtamalization–that is, it has been processed with lye or lime in a traditional way discovered long ago by the indigenous people of Mezoamerica. Nixtamal is the Nahutal word that refers to the product of the process. It is a process that makes the corn both more nutritious (makes niacin and lysine more bio-available) and able to be stored longer than untreated corn.

Pozole is a delicious, filling soup that, while other ingredients can and will vary, always includes hominy and pork. Traditionally made for large groups, an entire pig’s head is often included in the recipe. I wanted a version that would feed a more modest number of people, and this version makes roughly 6 servings. However, I also wanted the flavor and texture added by the bones and collagen found in the head, so I added a pound of meaty neck bones. It turned out splendidly. Hope you like it as well as I do.

Pozole Rojo

2 lb. stewing pork
1 lb. pork neck bones
10 cups water
2 tsp. salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 onions, roughly chopped
3 15-oz. cans white hominy, drained and rinsed
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
3 dried ancho chiles
3 dried guajillo chiles
1 clove of garlic, whole
Salt and pepper to taste

Garnishes
tostadas or tortilla chips
2 limes, quartered
1 onion finely sliced
cabbage or iceberg lettuce, shredded
sliced radishes

Place the pork, bones, 2 tsp salt, minced garlic, chopped onion, and hominy in a large pot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Skim scum as it forms. Once scum is skimmed, add black pepper. (You lose a lot of the pepper if you add it before skimming.) When water is at a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until the meat is close to falling off the bone, about 1-1/2 hours.

Remove seeds and stems from the dried chiles and discard. Place the chiles in a bowl. After the first hour of simmering the pork, remove enough liquid to just cover the chiles (about one ladleful). Let chiles soak for 30 minutes. Then place chiles, soaking broth, and the final clove of garlic in a blender and puree until smooth.

Remove the soup from the heat and remove the pork to a platter to cool. When cool enough to handle, shred the stewing pork and remove all meat from the neck bones. Return meat to pot, stir in chile paste, and return pot to the heat, and simmer for another hour, until the meat is meltingly tender. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with a selection of the suggested garnishes/accompaniments. (Not all need to be included to still be authentic.) Enjoy.

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Night Markets

I love markets–those tempting, impressive, generally open-air gatherings of vendors selling things they have grown, caught, made, or traded. Any country I visit, I’ll try to find a good market to explore. I’ve wandered through wonderful markets in dozens of countries, from bright, fragrant Mexican mercados to London’s venerable Borough Market to local farmers’ markets from Egypt to Ecuador, as well as the lovely though generally less bustling gatherings near home.

The title of the post, Night Markets, might conjure images of Asian after-dark markets — such as the Temple Street Night Market in Hong Kong or the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar in Thailand. Loved them both. But what I’m thinking of now is the markets that happen late at night/early in the morning and are geared toward supplying restaurants and grocery stores. Probably the most famous one I’ve visited is the astonishing Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. But thanks to this video, I now have two new destinations next time I make it to the UK. Of course, this also makes me want to find out what might be happening closer to home–but I haven’t found those yet, so I’ll have to settle for the video. Hope you find this as fascinating as I did.

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A Kitchen Just for Chocolate

In the 1700s, chocolate was still a drink (as it always had been among the Aztecs), and it still inhabited the realm of privilege. The British had, in the mid-1600s, hit on the idea of adding milk and sugar, which made it much nicer than it been previously, but in the 1700s, it was still not affordable. Chocolate was costly, and the sugar and spices used to improve its taste were also costly. So the man on the street was not consuming chocolate–but the monarch was. In the Georgian Era, which started with George I, Hampton Court Palace actually had a chocolate kitchen, with a chocolate maker on site, to make sure the King always got his morning chocolate. Wonder what a chocolate kitchen looks like? Well, fortunately, the original chocolate kitchen at Hampton Court has been located and can be visited. But if you’re not near Hampton Court, here’s a video. Think I’ll go get some chocolate.

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