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Italiando

Flowers for Delia

Flowers speak. Red roses, desire; daises, innocence; hydrangeas, gratitude—there’s a whole language of blooms, one that came in handy in Victorian times, when “talking bouquets” could say the unsayable. But with the plants we eat, we tend to listen more to the hanging fruits and sprouting veggies than the flowers. Zucchini blossoms are here to change that, together with a nonna named Delia.

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Zucchini flowers are just as edible as their fruits. The blossom tastes (surprise) like a bite of squash condensed in its thin orange membrane—faintly sweet, sort of grassy. For being so delicate, they pack a punch of flavor and color on a plate.

Italian cooking has long embraced the flower’s versatility: it can be added to frittatas and risotto, put on pizza, stuffed and deep-fried, batter-fried on its own, even tossed raw in salads. Different regions have preferred methods, but all share a common frugality—that Italian virtue of letting nothing go to waste, of making scraps sublime.

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Nonna Delia with Tina, her favorite chicken (“Tina La Gallina”)

My introduction to zucchini flowers was through Nonna Delia, my aunt Monica’s grandmother who lived in the Piedmont region of Italy. She was a living archive of kitchen and garden wisdom, “a nonna with a capital N,” as my aunt says. One of her signature dishes was stuffed zucchini flowers, which she prepared in a way I have yet to see anywhere else beyond her kitchen. Instead of stuffing the flowers lengthwise, she filled them three-fourths of the way, then folded over the ends of the petals to form a compact little bell with a flat base. This method allows all the sides of the blossom to brown evenly while cooking, without the stuffing spilling out. Her filling didn’t have any rich cheeses, but was more of a trick to stretch whatever meat was on hand using simple ingredients like milk and stale bread—a carryover from harder times, which she transformed into a kind of luxury.

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Nonna Delia’s blossoms hit all the right notes: they’re satisfyingly salty from the ham and pan-fried oil, but still light and zippy with the flecks of fresh parsley; to round it out there’s the quirky reminder of squash that comes from the flower. To me, beyond taste, they say happiness in being resourceful.

Nonna Delia died in August 2009, in the last weeks of zucchini season. I worked with my aunt to write out her recipe for stuffed flowers, with estimates for American measurements. In this quick moment before summer’s petals shut, here’s the recipe:

Nonna Delia’s Zucchini Flowers
Fiori di zucca della Nonna Delia

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A note on the flowers:

When you add zucchini flowers to a dish or fry them whole, you don’t have to worry about finding wide-open blossoms. But when you stuff them, that becomes key—so it’s best if you can pick the flowers yourself. Get to the garden early in the morning, when the first sunrays sweet-talk the petals open. You can cut the female flowers that grow directly off of the zucchini, as well as the male flowers that have their own stem (these tend to be more plentiful, and the stem is helpful when stuffing). Catch them later on and they’ll be stubbornly shut (pulling the petals apart is a disaster).

Back in the kitchen, rinse the flowers and rest them facedown on a towel. (Here, I’m always reminded of the dance of the flowers scene in Fantasia—admiring the elegance of these grand dames on their dance floor, it’s easy to forget that this recipe was born from pinching pennies.) Right before filling, carefully remove the pistil from the middle of the flower, without tearing the petals. I usually have the most luck here by slightly twisting the pistil out with my thumb and forefinger.

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Filling ingredients (for about 20 flowers):

  • Day (or so)-old bread (about ¾ of a large loaf)
  • Milk (2 to 3 cups, depending on how tough the bread is)
  • Fresh parsley (about a half a bunch)
  • 2 egg yolks (ideally, Tina’s)
  • Prosciutto cotto (about 1/3 lb)

Note: Prosciutto cotto is the Italian version of basic ham. (We’re used to seeing more of prosciutto crudo, which is cured, as an Italian import. “Crudo” = uncooked, “cotto” = cooked.) Prosciutto cotto is light but packed with flavor, so a few slices go a long way. You can find it in the deli sections of European-leaning grocery stores (Gran Biscotto is a good imported brand that I’ve come across). Ask the meat cutter to cut a thick slice rather than individual paper-thin slices; that will make it easier to dice. If you can’t track down any prosciutto cotto, you can substitute any leftover meat you might have on hand.

  • Freshly grated parmigiano cheese (about ¼ cup)
  • Breadcrumbs (if necessary, about ¼ cup)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil

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  1. Remove the crust from the bread and discard. Break the bread into big chunks and transfer it to a bowl (this will make it easier to drain later on). Pour the milk over the bread, making sure that all of the bread is covered. Let the bread soak for at least 5 minutes (you can start chopping other ingredients in the meantime). Once softened, gently squeeze the bread to drain excess milk.
  1. Finely dice the prosciutto and chop the parsley.
  1. In a large bowl, mix the bread with the prosciutto, parsley, and salt and pepper, to taste. Add two lightly beaten egg yolks and the parmigiano cheese. The filling should be soft but not runny; if it’s too liquid, you can stir in some breadcrumbs to thicken.
  1. Carefully remove the pistils from the zucchini blossoms. Using your hands, fill the flowers so the filling rises above the point where the petals begin to break off from the base. Fold each petal flat over the filling to seal the flower, creating a bell shape with a flat base. Place facedown on a plate.
  1. When all the flowers are stuffed, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Once the oil is hot, place the stuffed blossoms facedown in the skillet. Cook for about a minute, then rotate on each side for an additional minute or so, just until the flower is lightly browned all over.
  1. Remove from skillet and set on a plate lined with paper towel blot the oil. Serve when still warm.

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Since you can’t predict the number and size of blossoms you’ll find in the garden (or market), you might have leftover filling. It’s Piemontese tradition to use any leftovers to make friciulin—little fritters made by pan-frying balls of filling in an oiled skillet. Truly, nothing goes to waste!

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Taste Trekking

Canned, sealed, delivered

Canners, those brave souls who sweat it out over stoves in August, will take an ingredient at its very peak and suspend it in glass – a snow globe of summer, where it showers dill leaves and mustard seeds. It’s a compact little world, protected from the forces of ageing that nab the rest of us on the other side of the glass.

With a pry of the lid, this world spills out, catapulting you to different lands and different seasons, some foreign, others familiar. Wild blueberry jam can carry you to the forests of Maine; San Marzano tomatoes can plant your feet in the volcanic soil at the bottom of Mount Vesuvius; oil-packed anchovies can sit you down in a smoky Spanish tavern.

Canning has always been a matter of survival: transforming summer’s bounty into winter rations, taking the perishable and making it almost immortal on the supermarket shelf. But for all of its practicality, it’s an intensely nostalgic chore. People seal memories and places in with fruits and vegetables to revisit later on – they make these feelings edible.

Greg Brown says it best, in his half-song, half-campfire story kind of way:

She cans the pickles, sweet and dill
She cans the songs of the whippoorwill
And the morning dew and the evening moon
‘n’ I really got to go see her pretty soon

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A few weeks ago, four jars landed on my doorstep: two pillars of heirloom tomatoes, and dill pickles and pepper jelly – summer globes from Whiting, Vermont. They had made the journey from a place where chickens cross the road as they please and a hound dog asks you constant questions with her curious wet nose; where dud tomatoes go flying in the air from a trap and twigs glow in the dark.
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That place is Fast Hitch Farm, a colonial-era property in western Vermont. It’s probably the only organic farm I know where Oreos are plunged into a deep fryer.

To my friend Donner Carr (the smilin’ sunglasses-wearer above), it’s home. After graduating from McGill, Donner bought the farm with his dad, Donner Sr. They raise chickens and turkeys, and grow tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatillos, sweet corn, cabbages, hot peppers, garlic, and basil – with the goal of someday outputting their own homemade pesto. And all of this is done in whatever free time they manage after their day jobs. While they gradually gear up to make the farm commercially viable, Donner works as a nutrient management planner, crop advisor, and fertilizer applicator to pay the bills. 

When I twist open the jars, I’m transported to Fast Hitch’s red barn. Looking out at me from just across the road is the main house; from this angle, you wouldn’t guess it could hold the fifteen plus people that come to stay each New Year’s Eve. The side porch of the house spills out onto the lawn, with its wildflowers and pear trees, and chickens running from stray croquet balls. If you wander off a little farther, you can sneak through the patch of woods that hugs the big pond, which sounds like bullfrogs in the summer and skates slicing through the ice in winter. On the other side of the house, there are the rows of vegetables that soak up all these sights and sounds and scents and eventually find their way into jars. I think to myself: I’ll take some more tomatoes and a ride in the back of a pickup, some more hot peppers and a crackling bonfire, some more pickles and a midnight swim.

The jars remind me of all of the work that the Carrs put into their farm in their spare moments – all of the elbow grease that goes into building this world tucked behind the main road that cuts through Whiting, and their generous impulse to share it. The life of a farmer is hard, but the Carrs make it look easy to those of us who stop by.

So it’s with a big thank you to the guys at Fast Hitch Farm that I share these recipes; may they help get you through the tail end of winter like they did for me.

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Fresh-Canned Pizza Sauce
Fast Hitch tomatoes speak for themselves – they barely need any seasoning – so they’re a perfect reason to make this incredibly fast pizza sauce (you can use other good quality canned tomatoes, but they may not have the same taste of lawlessness as the Fast Hitch variety). Drain the tomatoes, reserving the liquid to use later in a soup. Crush the tomatoes with your hands, then add some torn basil, a few pinches of salt, and a generous glug of olive oil. Spread in a thin layer over rolled-out pizza dough, and top with slices of fresh mozzarella or burrata cheese. Bake at 450° for about 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the crust, until the crust crisps up and turns golden brown. A few minutes before you pull the pizza out of the oven, add some fresh whole basil leaves on top.

A bonus recipe for another Fast Hitch favorite: Don’s Brie Bomb. Spread a generous layer of Fast Hitch Farm serrano pepper jelly over a round of brie. Then wrap the cheese in puff pastry dough (crescent roll dough works fine), tucking the ends underneath and setting it on a baking sheet. Bake at 350° for about 30 minutes, or until the dough turns golden brown. Serve immediately, with a bunch of crackers or bread. The lack of a picture is testament to how this flies off the plate.

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Italiando

A tale of two nonnas

People say that to learn how to cook, you must find a grandmother.

I never met either of my grandmothers, since they died before I was born. So when I came across an article from the 1970 Waterloo Courier tucked between the pages of a scrapbook, I thought I had struck gold.

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In this “Shop Talk” featurette, my grandmother, Mary, stands in her kitchen, sharing her trademark Italian recipes: ricotta and spinach ravioli, spaghetti sauce, zucchini casserole. Here was my culinary ancestor preserved in print, offered up to the world (or at least the townspeople of Waterloo, Iowa). I began to see the ravioli already, piled high in her painted bowl that I took with me to college – ricotta-filled pillows for my dreams of maternal heritage.

“Italian-American Auxiliary Presents Fashions of Today and Yesterday.” Grandma Mary Amelang (nee Stabile) is seated center-right, in peasant dress and shawl.

“The Italian-American Auxiliary Presents Fashions of Today and Yesterday.” Grandma Mary Amelang (née Stabile) is seated center-right, in peasant dress and shawl.

I knew that my grandmother was part of that defining story of melting pot America from the early 1900s. Her Campania-born parents passed through the fabled gates of Ellis Island, where her maiden name became “Sta-BILL” instead of “STAH-bee-leh.” Then they moved from a tenement on Little Italy’s Mulberry Street to the greener pastures of the meatpacking Midwest. Love, or something like it, struck in the form of goofy Merle Amelang, who hailed from a ramrod-straight German family in Iowa. And from this, the world as I know it began to take shape: three boys and a girl, the motley crew of uncles, aunt, and Dad that has witnessed my own growth – just high-schoolers in this article.

I asked the four siblings about Mary’s Courier-worthy ravioli but, as I made my way down the list, I realized that the flat responses weren’t just worsening senior moments; these ravioli were simply not a thing in the family. Spaghetti sauce was a common enough sight on the dinner table, and lasagna and mostaccioli made appearances on special occasions, yet no one remembers seeing their mom stuff dough with this filling. Instead, my aunt recalls Mary borrowing the ravioli rolling pin for the article photo shoot – and she’s pretty sure they didn’t even have ravioli for dinner that night.

Beyond the “Mamma Mia!” beehive-and-pearls kitsch, there was a real mystery. Maybe my grandma was playing the writer, or the writer was playing the reader, but somewhere, something had been lost in translation.

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Left: Mary Stabile Amelang, Right: Liliana Lavino Minato

I began to think of my other grandmother, Liliana, on my mother’s side, who was born, raised, and died in a two-horse town called Cossato, nestled in the Italian Alps. This is a woman who spent a week cooking in preparation for a visit from a Roman telephone operator; she had invited him to the mountains for a hunting trip as a thank-you for putting her in touch with my mom, who was at college far away in the Midwest, long before the age of Skype. Lavish Piemontese spreads of antipasti were Liliana’s strong suit. I wondered how she might react to Waterloo’s idea of “typical dishes Italian cooks are expected to prepare.” Indigestion was a strong possibility.

I looked at the recipes through Nonna Liliana’s eyes: what were meatballs doing over stuffed pasta? Is “raviola” even a word? Why would someone need a whole can of tomato paste? Who in God’s name would put sugar in tomato sauce? Were they trying to ruin it by cooking it for four hours?

I realized that these nonnas would have probably butted heads if they had ended up in the same kitchen. I needed to break up this fight.

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From the Plains to the Alps, the nonnas on skis.

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A young Mary Stabile and Liliana Lavino.

All the trouble lies in that single word: “authentic.” It will turn an Italian into a snob, an American into a sap.

Italians starting over in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century created a whole new culture, one that was a natural offshoot of the traditions of the homeland and an adaptation to new conditions in turn-of-the-century America. Whole cans of tomato paste were stirred into a sauce to embolden the watery taste of standard-grade tomatoes (in Italy, instead, paste is sold in tubes like toothpaste, meant to be used in small amounts). Sugar found its way into the pot in an attempt to resurrect the sweetness of formerly local San Marzano tomatoes. Vast quantities of meat from the American heartland took center stage in new renditions of pastas and mains. Sauces were simmered for hours with handfuls of garlic cloves to coax as much flavor possible out of less-fresh ingredients. This was Italian-American cooking, not Italian – equally valid, just different. And Italians will get testy with slip-ups in this vocabulary.

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Left: Mary & the first three of the brood standing in front of their home in Waterloo, Iowa, with snow goddess sculpted by Merle (my dad is on the left). Right: Liliana & her three children posing in front of the family home in Cossato, Italy (mom is on the bottom step).

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The women and their men: Mary and Merle to the left, Liliana and Giuseppe to the right.

But even when you’re careful with your definitions, authenticity is tricky. Are Grandma Mary’s “raviola” authentically Stabile family fare? Where is the line between authentic Italian and authentic Italian-American?

These truths are hard to pin down, maybe even impossible. Sometimes recipes fail us. And sometimes we forget that, behind the glossy page, there is much measuring, glazing, carving, browning, and skimming at work. Life is never as neat and effortless as a recipe on a food blog might have us believe – just like the rest of social media.

My hunch is that the Courier writer learned of Mary’s family background and upcoming trip to Italy through the Waterloo grapevine, and then pitched an idea for a feature, envisioning something along the lines of The Godfather kitchen scenes. She probably wanted to spice up the usual spaghetti-and-meatballs routine that had already began to charm its way into the heart of Americans – hence the ravioli. And Grandma Mary would have called around, asking friends and family for a recipe. Tack on some mentions of the Old Country, and you’ve got yourself an exotic write-up. No one specific’s fault, just a reflection of the times. It’s an editorial mistake that has been made countless times as we explain immigrant kitchens from all over the globe.

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Curious spirits: Mary and Liliana on their travels.

But there is sincerity in the article, perhaps just not in its measurements. Grandma Mary wanted to affirm her connection to the country of her forbearers, with the same curiosity that has me turning the pages of old scrapbooks. As the Courier reports, it led her to host an exchange student from Turin named Raffaella.

Less than an hour’s drive from Turin sits Cossato, where Nonna Liliana encouraged my mom to take off for the States. Mom ran into Dad, and with my arrival the Italian and the Italian-American became even more muddled.

Years later, I retraced my mom’s steps and moved to Turin, where I met up with Raffaella. She led me through the porticoed walkways of the city and gave me my first taste of burrata cheese. As she told me what a great time she had in Waterloo, Iowa, the sap and the snob battled it out inside me. I knew more about my grandmothers than I had thought.

And so the strange dance between homelands continues, always with plenty to eat.

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Nibbles of history

Winter sprouts surprises

The endive is a hardy little leaf that has much to tell us in wintertime. It refuses to be bullied by the season: where other plants suffer, in darkness and the cold, the endive thrives. The journey from seed to shoot is a long and painstaking one. It begins, strangely enough, with a chicory seed.

Together with the usual round of early crops, chicory seeds are planted in spring. But by the time we pop English peas and pluck peeking radishes, only the roots of the chicory plants are harvested – any leaves are cast aside. The roots are laid to rest for as long as 10 months, like knobby sleeping beauties, until they’re brought to a cave-like home – a place where you might expect to find gloriously moldy wheels of cheese – nestled in dirt, and finally allowed to sprout. This underground process is called blanching, since only the very tips of the leaves that poke out of the earth develop color.

It’s impressive to see a bunch of full-grown endives with the roots still attached – they are as big and dense as the cones of leaves they support. Or, to put it another way, the leaves can only be as big as their roots. Laying the groundwork, the endive reminds us, is just as important as the results to come. It’s an investment in slow growth, an edible hint that the slogging productiveness of winter has a sunnier payoff.

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The endive is a child of neglect. Some claim that it was discovered by a Belgian farmer after the War of Independence in 1831. Before setting off to fight in the war, the farmer had stored chicory roots in his cellar, with the plan to roast them for coffee upon his return (in Europe, dried and roasted chicory roots have long been mixed with coffee to cut costs; the French brought the tradition with them to New Orleans, where it’s now one of the city’s culinary trademarks). When the farmer returned home, he found that the roots had sprouted leaves, thankfully gave one a try, and was struck by its fresh crunch and bitter bite.

Others say that the endive was stumbled upon by a gardener at the Brussels Botanical Garden in the mid-1800s. He had forgotten about his chicory plants, which where sitting in a dark warehouse for several months, sprouting surprises.

Either way, we have a Belgian to thank for this accidental discovery, which is why the plant’s common name in English is “Belgian endive” (back in the Low Countries, it’s called witloof, or white leaf, and has the nickname “white gold”). Its English name is misleading though, because endive as we know it is not really endive; it’s chicory – a grouping of plants comprised of radicchio and other bitter leaves. The actual endive genus, instead, includes frisée and escarole.

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Belgians’ yearly consumption of Belgian endive averages about 18 pounds per person; the French follow with 8, and the Dutch with 7. Americans, instead, have a more timid relationship with bitter greens, averaging only 4 leaves per person each year. Rather than being intimidated by bitterness, Europeans are spurred on by this flavor in the kitchen, and prepare endive in many ways: a Frenchman might bake it in a blanket of béchamel and Gruyere; an Italian might braise it with garlic and olive oil; a Belgian might enjoy it raw in a salad with apples and walnuts or shallots and mayonnaise. Cooking endive tempers its bite, while leaving it raw challenges you to bounce other flavors off its bitterness, adding something sweet, something salty, and something nutty to the mix.

The leaves of Belgian endives have a natural elegance that lends itself well to accepting this challenge in a simple appetizer. In a sustainable version of that catering mainstay, the wonton soup spoon, the leaves can be used as little boats to hold a dollop of something tasty.

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The endive is a reticent participant in this boat-making endeavor, since it holds its leaves close, unwilling to shed its many layers. But if you trim the stem a couple of times as you peel them back, the leaves can be coaxed apart without breaking. Remove the leaves one by one and watch the core shrink, like a miniature Russian doll, until the boats become too small to hold the filling (you don’t need to throw away the core; it can be cut in half and throw into a salad, or dipped in hummus for a quick snack).

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This appetizer with gorgonzola, walnuts, and balsamic glaze is an Italian-inspired combination, but you can run with this idea in any direction: beets and goat cheese, caviar and crème fraîche, curried chicken salad, lox with ricotta and capers. Just embrace the bitter chill, and eat more endive.

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Forays into Foraging

The squawking ‘shroom

Neon pulses from a fallen tree. Coral, tangerine, red-orange all spill out of the log in ruffled waves, white foam building underneath. How could this much color grow out of so many forest greens and bark browns? More than appetizing, these scalloped layers appear radioactive. But you’re actually looking at 20 lbs of free chicken.

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This is the chicken of the woods mushroom, one of nature’s playful tricks. The chunk pictured here, spotted on a hike in Virginia, is a nearly 20 lb arm-straining mass, more akin to a whole roasting chicken than a box of button mushrooms. These mushrooms can range anywhere from a small cluster to a hulking 100 lb bracket –stumbling upon a large specimen can satisfy a whole season’s worth of mushroom cravings.

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You’re most likely to come across chicken of the woods in the fall, though you can sometimes spot a few throughout the summer. There are a handful of different varieties of the mushroom, but the two most sought-after edibles are Laetiporus sulphureus and L. cincinnatus, both of which usually pop up on decaying hardwood trees and logs in the Northeastern U.S. They are easily recognizable by their bright orange color and fan-like shape – the mushroom body, or “shelf,” is formed by flat layers, with color that fades towards the outer edges. And if you look at the underside of the shelf, either yellow or white in color, you should see small pores, not gills. Because it has no dangerous look-alikes, chicken of the woods is a good mushroom for beginners to seek out; mycologist extraordinaire and author of Mushrooms Demystified David Arora includes it in his “foolproof four.”

Chicken of the woods needs to be cooked to be edible. Specialists also advise making sure that the mushroom’s host tree is hardwood, noting that species growing on eucalyptus or conifers may cause “gastric upset” – nothing deadly, just unpleasant and avoidable. Once you track down a chicken of the woods, remember the spot where you found it: it will continue to regrow in the same place until it kills its host tree and then depletes all the nutrients from the wood, so you may very well have a reliable stockpile for several years.

The name “chicken of the woods” may have you thinking of hen of the woods, also known as maitake, but the two are distinct. Maitake earned its nickname from its exaggerated ruffles which resemble a hen’s tail feathers. Chicken of the woods, instead, has a more bewitching connection to poultry – take a bite and, like Alice in Wonderland, you’ll be sent careening down a rabbit hole to, well, chicken. Some detect a hint of lemon that reminds them of crab or lobster – and the coral outer color of the mushroom, which holds when cooked, no doubt adds to this effect. But more than anything else, it’s the chewy, sinewy texture – just like a grilled chicken breast – that squawks.

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This mushroom masquerade is testament to how texture can trump taste, often with no particular logic behind it. More than taste, texture is the reason people are completely turned off by certain types of food – bananas, ickily mushy; okra, eerily slimy; aspic, uncannily giggly. But texture can also be sublime: feather-light mashed potatoes, the crystals in a quality chunk of parmigiano, meringue that dissolves on the tip of your tongue with a faint fizz.

In China, there is a word for these memorable encounters: kou gan, or “mouth feel” – a term often reserved for the singular gristly, slippery, elastic sensations of such beloved specialties as shark’s fin, goose intestines, chicken feet, and sea cucumber. North American attitudes tend to be more suspicious of odd textures. Mushrooms are famously held in contempt, in contrast with most other parts of the world. Only recently has offal begun to overcome its stigma and land on sought-after plates.

Big Food is well aware of just how particular we are about texture. Food companies have zeroed in on our quirks and turned them into a science – “food rheology,” which has now introduced terms like “mouthfeel” to our own language. Experiments in this realm categorize people according to their texture preferences (one divides consumers into categories of “smooshers,” “crunchers,” or “suckers” – at the end of the day, we’re just animals smacking on food), and a whole psychology of texture has emerged, full of its own emotional associations. Studies show, for example, that people tend to think soft or smooth foods have higher calorie counts than hard of rough foods. Texture is also being studied as an indicator of quality perception in food – like pulp giving the impression that orange juice is fresh-squeezed.

With chicken of the woods, you can use the power of texture to your advantage to make a range of dishes that will have everyone thinking “tastes like chicken” while pleasing vegetarians and carnivores alike. You can sauté the mushroom with olive oil, garlic, and parsley for a light pasta sauce, simmer it with tomatoes in a hearty ragù, stir it into creamy risotto, or fold it into eggs and Gruyere for a fluffy quiche.

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But perhaps most impressive of all is chicken of the woods’ ability to hold its ground in a veg-friendly schnitzel, or “cotoletta” in Italian. Breaded and pan-fried, the mushroom won’t have you thinking about what you’re missing, like mourning juicy beef when biting into a Portobello burger. And, unlike soy bacon and other “meetz,” you won’t be faced with a list of mysterious ingredients that rivals the Magna Carta.

If you’re lucky and stumble across a big chicken of the woods (and are still standing after carting it back down the mountain), you can save any extra not used that week by cleaning it and then dehydrating or freezing it, so you can enjoy it throughout the off-season. It’s best to cook the mushroom before freezing, since cooking after defrosting will leave you with more watery and less flavorful bites.

At the very least though, even if you can’t find chicken of the woods, or if you can’t bring yourself to eat something growing out of a log, I hope this recipe helps inspire you do some more double takes as you walk throughout your day – you may be speeding by some free chicken.

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Ingredients:

2-3 eggs (depending on size)
¾ cup breadcrumbs
About 1 teaspoon of seasoning – I used a mix of oregano, paprika, salt, and pepper
About 1 tablespoon olive oil
About 1 tablespoon butter
8 chicken of the woods “steaks” — To get a “steak,” break apart the mushroom into chunks by slicing each scalloped layer where it connects to the main core. Trim off any woody (often closer to the core) or waterlogged (sometimes at the thinner outer edge) parts, and wipe off any dirt with a cloth. Then slice the pieces into planks, flat on each side and roughly ½ inch thick (see picture below). I ended up with steaks just slightly smaller than my hand – depending on how large the steaks are you can pan-fry them in one or more batches to make sure they don’t get too crowded.

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  1. Beat the eggs in a shallow bowl, and mix breadcrumbs and seasoning in a second shallow bowl or plate.
  2. Fully coat the mushroom steak in the egg (hold it above the bowl for a second so any extra can drip off) and then the breadcrumbs. Repeat with the three remaining steaks.
  3. Heat half of the olive oil and half of the butter in a wide-based skillet. Once the butter has stopped foaming, add the mushroom steaks.
  4. Cook the steaks over medium-high heat for about 5-7 minutes per side, depending on thickness, until the breadcrumbs are browned and crispy. Watch the butter to make sure it doesn’t burn, adjusting the heat if necessary. If cooking in batches, transfer steaks to platter and cover to keep warm while cooking the remaining mushroom steaks
  5. Heat the remaining butter and olive oil, and repeat with the remaining steaks.
  6. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.

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Nibbles of history

The Creole Chesapeake: Fishing for Peppers in Baltimore and D.C.

Seafood has long been the stuff of Maryland’s soul. As it reaches back into the coastline, almost splitting the state in two, the great Chesapeake Bay has given Maryland an edible identity of blue crabs and bivalves – so much so that a feisty crustacean makes an appearance on my state driver’s license, as integral a part of my personal records as my address and eye color. Now, however, the region famed for its shells and pincers has begun to look to a little hot pepper as the key to its culinary past and future.

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In the 1800s, backyard Baltimore gardens were brought to life with splashes of color: streaks of creamy white, yellow-green, burnt orange, eggplant purple, and chili red dangling from green and white splotched leaves – the fish pepper plant. Chopped fresh or dried and ground, the pepper lent its smoldering heat and sweet undertones to Chesapeake seafood dishes full of Creole personality, rivaling even that of legendary New Orleans.

Like African staples such as okra and sweet potatoes, the fish pepper followed the course of slave ships to land in the mid-Atlantic. From the 19th to early 20th centuries, the plant was at the heart of the truck farming industry that sustained much of the African American community throughout the Chesapeake – a lifeline especially for the large free black population in the Baltimore area before the Civil War. It tells an agricultural history of the area different from that of cash crops and instead focused on smaller-scale farms and gardens, with truck farmers driving around the Bay supplying ingredients to the teeming network of crab and oyster houses.

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Port Tobacco, Charles County, Maryland, c1936-7. Library of Congress.

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Farmers sharing a truck on market day, 1942. Montgomery County, Maryland. Library of Congress.

The symbiotic relationship between the fish pepper and local seafood joints is what gave the plant its name. In its early stages, before it transitions through a spectrum of bright colors, the fish pepper pod is white. This quality made it a sought-after ingredient for cream-based seafood sauces, where it adds kick without muddying the color – the ultimate secret ingredient. Bushels of peppers were sold stacked next to seafood stalls in markets, the pairing as second nature as tomatoes and basil.

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July 1938. %22House in Negro section of Baltimore, Maryland.%22 Crabs and clams to go, please. Medium-format nitrate negative by John Vachon

Photo by John Vachon. Baltimore, Maryland, July 1938. Credit: Shorpy Archive

Long before Old Bay Seasoning became Baltimore’s trademark spice, the fish pepper, along with other Afro-Caribbean ingredients, combined with European and Native American traditions to form a vibrant Chesapeake cuisine. “You had these three strands interweaving and creating something that was Creolized in the sense that they combined to create something that was wholly new,” said Spike Gjerde, chef and owner of the Baltimore restaurant Woodberry Kitchen, in a conversation with NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi.

While New England was seen as more of a symbolic extension of Europe, taking its style cues and food traditions from the Old World, according to Gjerde, the Chesapeake was, from its early days, simply perceived as tobacco country. Without this conscious project of nation-building, the workers of Maryland-area fields had the opportunity to grow and cook a range of foods in their backyard gardens to actually feed themselves. Cookbooks like Mrs. Benjamin Otis Howard’s 1873 Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen and Harry Franklyn Hall’s 1901 300 Ways to Cook and Serve Shellfish speak to the uniquely Chesapeake style that emerged, featuring recipes for terrapin soup, crab gumbo with okra, Maryland fried chicken, and broiled oysters – dishes often relying on the fish pepper for their sassy flavor.

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Lexington Market, Baltimore, 1921. Maryland Historical Society.

The port city of Baltimore was the core of this flourishing Chesapeake food culture, with lively public markets and emerging ethnic neighborhoods (Baltimore was second only to New York for the numbers of immigrants it welcomed through its port in the 1800s). Local culinary historian Michael Twitty even recounts how the writer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. declared the city’s celebrated Lexington Market “The Gastronomic Capitol of the World” when he visited in 1859. But the scene went from bustling to bust as the waters of the Chesapeake suffered from pollution and disease in the mid-1900s, shutting down the seafood houses lining the Bay. With no demand for the spice, the fish pepper fell into obscurity, gradually disappearing from menus and gardens. With it went Maryland’s Creole sense of self – less gumbo and piccalilli, more crab cakes and football.

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Lexington Market, c1850-1900. Library of Congress.

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Lexington Market, Summer 2014

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Lexington Market, Summer 2014

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Lexington Market, c1903. Library of Congress.

Now the fish pepper is finally making a comeback. Very much a part of the urban gardening resurgence in the Baltimore area, the pepper has made its way from the handful of gardeners who saved a few seeds to the back pages of heritage seed catalogues – and then finally to the menus of upscale restaurants where it has become the locally-sourced darling of the Chesapeake dining scene. Today, at Woodberry Kitchen, you can launch a meal with grilled Chesapeake oysters with spring onion-horseradish verjus and fish pepper butter, and then continue on to corn dumplings with fish pepper, charred leeks, and fresh cheese at Volt further afield in Frederick, Maryland.

The pepper has become the rallying cry of those who want to reacquaint Marylanders with their Creole cuisine. Chief among them is Chef Gjerde, who in addition to featuring the ingredient in his restaurant menu produces a fish pepper hot sauce called “Snake Oil” for larger distribution. With Snake Oil, his mission has been “to try and create a pepper sauce that could be identified with a region, the way Tabasco is intellectively connected with Louisiana.”

But Snake Oil goes at $15 a pop. The 6oz bottles are only available at the shabby chic Salt & Sundry (of DC’s trendy Union Market), or at Woodberry Kitchen, tucked in another tony nook of Baltimore – catering to just a certain niche market.

Before his untimely death last year, Michael Kipp, a beloved Baltimore bartender and spice-maker, made a point of not only collecting fish pepper seeds and growing the plant for area restaurants, but also sharing the seeds with inner-city schools, encouraging young people to forge a connection with their heritage in school gardens. Historian Michael Twitty is a staunch advocate for piecing together these “gastronomic genealogies” in African-American communities, seeing it as an opportunity to reclaim their rightful place in history.

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Fish peppers have also begun to spice things up further south in Washington, D.C. Last year, the urban gardening outreach group City Blossoms launched its own Flying Fish Pepper Barbecue Sauce, made with the peppers grown in its public garden, and this spring, Slow Food DC planted a crop at Wangari Gardens. While crab gumbo spiked with fish pepper has yet to take the city by storm, the pepper has enjoyed more formal institutional recognition in its carefully curated gardens: it’s been among the rows of vegetables in the Smithsonian Victory Garden and the White House Kitchen Garden, as well as on the grounds of Monticello down in Virginia. On the international stage, Slow Food has inducted the fish pepper into its Arc of Taste, a listing of endangered heritage plants with hopes of market recovery.

As it trickles down from Baltimore to D.C., the fish pepper suggests that we look at Maryland area seafood in a different light: as the centerpiece of a Creole cuisine which pulled seasonings and ingredients from all different directions, a backyard blend of colors that flourished in the region’s community of crab houses. The revitalization of the pepper is not just a case study in heritage seed awareness but an integral part of Chesapeake Bay conservation, a beam of support for the seafood that has defined this region for centuries but has often been mismanaged. And in its gradual embrace of the fish pepper, D.C., a city-state suspended between regional identities, is hinting it wants to be a part of this rebirth.

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Fortunately, the way to save the fish pepper is to eat it. And the time is now: fish peppers are in season from late July to August. I tracked some down at Five Seeds Farm’s stand at the Columbia Heights Farmer’s Market – show up early; they sell out quickly!

Fish peppers can liven up many a fish, from crab cakes to stir fries, stews to fresh salsas. And like other hot peppers, the fish variety lends itself well to preserving – be it pickled, or dried and ground for later use. Historically, it’s been a favorite addition to piccalilli, a vegetable relish cobbled together from whatever is in the garden at summer’s end (some also know it as chowchow – the definitions vary from region to region and cook to cook).

I updated Mrs. Benjamin Otis Howard’s 1873 recipe for “Piccalilly” – which called for a gallon of vinegar and a pound of salt – with some modern riffs, like John Martin Taylor’s low country piccalilli recipe and the Lee Brother’s southern chowchow recipe. I also added some fresh fennel for variety. Vinegary, spicy, and sweet all at the same time, this piccalilli is a great topping for grilled meat, fish, or veggie burgers.

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(Makes about 2 quarts)

5 green tomatoes
1 fennel bulb
1 onion
1 red bell pepper
3 fish peppers

2 cups cider vinegar
1/3 cup water
½ cup brown sugar

Spices:
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon coriander seeds (toasted and smashed)
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
salt to taste

  1. Quarter the tomatoes, fennel, onion, and bell pepper, toss with a generous amount of salt, and let sit overnight (or at least several hours).
  1. Rinse and drain the vegetables, then chop them into small chunks. Cut the fish peppers into thin rings.
  1. Meanwhile, bring the vinegar, water, and brown sugar to a simmer, and let cook for about 5 minutes. Add all of your spices, with more salt to taste, and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes or so.
  1. Add the vegetables, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Process the piccalilli in jars according to your preferred method.

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Sweet and sour, Italian-style

Sitting at the kitchen table, a tacky Italian courtroom show buzzing on TV in the background, I watched my grandfather cut perfect slices of melon. He broke the fruit in half, scooped out the seeds, and swiftly followed the dark green contours of the rind with a knife, creating a plateful of crescent moons. Then, with a gentle confidence, he took each arc in his left hand and, with his right, steered the knife along the curvature of the rind, dipping down as he followed the line where orange disappeared into green. Making his way back up, he steadily drew the knife closer towards his chest, the blade hitting his thumb as a slab of tender sweetness was finally released from its shell.

My 7-year-old self marveled at how this graceful transformation materialized in the rough palms of my grandfather’s hands. Afraid for my thumbs, it was only at this point that I began to help, peeling paper-thin slices of prosciutto di Parma from their wax paper packaging and wrapping one around each wedge of melon, slippery between my fingers, as I assembled little ships with bright orange bows and sterns and hulls of marbled pork. Mirroring what I had seen many times before on Italian tables, I arranged the slices like a flower, the bows of the salty-sweet vessels meeting in the center of a white platter. The whole presentation evoked a sensuality that I could sense but not yet fully understand.

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When I bit into the fruit of my labor that summer day, I puckered at the impact of the first salt-cured layer. My mouth began to water just as the buttery film of pork melted into melon, relieving me of my thirst – only until the same saltiness chimed in as my teeth sunk into the bite once again. Now, I’m struck by how the pairing of these two deceivingly simple ingredients satisfies a craving at the same moment that it perpetuates it, giving you what you want as it takes it away. That’s the pinnacle of desire: to somehow feel both yearning and fulfillment at the same time.

This push and pull enacted on our taste buds is the foundation of sweet and sour sensations, a contrast expressed in a wide range of cuisines around the world, from Indian chutneys to American barbecue. Italians know this flavor as agrodolce, literally “sour-sweet,” a concept introduced to the peninsula by way of Arabs traveling to Sicily. From continent to continent, the interplay between sweet and sour, sugar and salt, is part of our enduring quest for universal balance.

The prosciutto and melon combination has its roots in the writings of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek philosopher and physician celebrated as the father of Western medicine. He classified foods based on four humors – warm, cold, moist, and dry – and believed that equilibrium was needed between warm-cold and dry-moist in order to ensure the integrity of the human body. In medieval times, fruit was understood as cold and moist, and therefore dangerous – even deadly. In his biography of Pope Paul II, the Renaissance writer Bartolomeo Platina suggests that the pope’s death by stroke was on account of his eccentric love of melons (apparently he ate two the night before he died). Yet when paired with warm and dry foods, particularly cheese and salted meat, the threat of fruit was tempered.

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Of course, to achieve ideal balance great attention must be paid to the quality of the two ingredients. The great gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote that melon’s destiny was nothing short of perfection, and for this antipasto only a perfectly ripe Tuscan melon will do. Just slightly different from the cantaloupe we are accustomed to in the U.S., this variety has a rind with ridges, hinting at future slices, and a deeper orange color. At the peak of its summer ripeness, the orb is aromatic and heavy, as if all the July sunlight has been condensed into its juicy flesh.

On the other end of the flavor spectrum, there is prosciutto di Parma, painstakingly cured for anytime from one to three years. These prized haunches are imbued with the flavors of the Parma countryside as they hang out to dry. Cut in gossamer slices, the pork also tastes faintly nutty, since the pigs carefully selected for this noble culinary cause feed on the whey produced by local parmigiano makers.

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Watching my grandfather carve a melon, my mind was far from yin and yang and the meaning of terroir, yet now I realize how much these ideas about equilibrium have guided me both in the kitchen and in my wanderings away from the table. I have felt the push and pull of conflicting desires, sometimes as tension, sometimes as precious harmony. I feel it in my simultaneous impulse to live out of a suitcase and my yearning to build a nest for myself, in my self-reliance but also love of companionship, in my straddling of the Atlantic with one foot resting in the U.S. and the other in Italy. And each day I set out to strike a balance, constructing little boats like that 7-year-old girl at the kitchen table.

Other balancing acts:
Kiwi, fig, date / Prosciutto
Pear, quince / Manchego
Fig, pear / Gorgonzola
Apple / Sharp cheddar
Apricot / Brie
Watermelon / Feta
Cherry, peach / Burrata
Cranberry, strawberry / Chevre
Strawberry, fig / Balsamic vinegar

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