Taste Trekking

Gumbo z’herbes

With gumbo, you do watcha wanna; trying to pin down an exact recipe is like searching for gators in bayou swamp water. The mention of gumbo might conjure up thoughts of shrimp, chicken, and andouille sausage, but the beauty of the catch-all stew is that there are infinite ways to make it your own based on your mood or whatever is fresh or on hand that day. Creole seafood gumbos often include crab or oysters, while versions from Cajun country make use of venison, squirrel, and alligator. And then there’s gumbo z’herbes, a venerable sub-category of its own within the gumbo family.

Like the majority of gumbos, gumbo z’herbes uses the “holy trinity” (onion, bell pepper, and celery) as its foundation and Cajun seasoning as its primary spice. However, as its name – a shortened form of gumbo des herbes – suggests, its main ingredient is a hodgepodge of greens. According to Louisiana lore, every green you add to the gumbo signifies a new friend you’ll make that year. This past week, I used collards, mustard greens, curly kale, Lacinato kale, and dandelion greens, but you can use whatever combination of leafy greens you like – spinach, chard, turnip greens, chicory, beet greens, carrot tops, cabbage, sorrel, parsley… Gumbo z’herbes is a kale smoothie I can handle.


There are as many different histories and meanings attached to gumbo as there are recipe interpretations. It’s generally agreed that gumbo z’herbes originated as a meal made during Lent. Traditionally, Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays in the 40-day period after Fat Tuesday, so some say the gumbo emerged as a meatless alternative that could feed families on these Friday evenings, especially on the main day of fasting, Good Friday.

For Leah Chase, chef and owner of the legendary New Orleans soul food institution Dooky Chase, gumbo z’herbes is eaten on Holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. Her version has seven different kinds of greens matched by seven different kinds of meat, and is meant to fortify its eaters for the day of fasting to come. Others claim that nine types of greens should be used to symbolize the nine churches visited by Catholics in New Orleans as part of their traditional Good Friday pilgrimage. Regardless of the day or the exact number, everyone agrees that an odd number of greens should be used to signify good luck.


Gumbo achieves its trademark consistency through three different thickeners: okra, filé, or a roux. Cooked okra’s slimy texture may be off-putting to some, but it is actually a treasured binder between chopped vegetables and broth. Filé is a powdered form of sassafras leaves, a contribution made by the Choctaw Indians to Cajun cooking, and is added to gumbo to thicken the stew once it finishes cooking, shortly before serving. Roux, on the other hand, speaks to French culinary influence in Creole cooking. In this method of thickening soup, flour is slowly stirred into fat and cooked to either a light or dark brown color.

Gumbo z’herbes often calls for filé as its thickening agent. However, in the version of gumbo z’herbes below, which is a combination of different recipes I’ve come across, I make a roux for a base, then add okra for some variety in texture. I also add shrimp, since they liven things up while keeping everything Catholic-friendly. Happy Friday!


Gumbo z’herbes
Serves 8

5 bunches of greens
1 green pepper
4 celery stalks
1 white or yellow onion
1 bunch green onion
1 clove garlic
1 pound okra (about 4 cups chopped)
1 – 1 ½ pounds medium sized shrimp
2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil (I recently tried out olive oil to attempt a healthier version and was actually surprised to discover it works well)
2/3 cup flour
1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning (my personal favorite is Slap Ya Mama, but you can make your own with cayenne pepper, paprika, salt, oregano, and black pepper)
1 bay leaf
2 whole cloves
Generous pinch of allspice
Salt & pepper

  1. Wash greens, remove any tough stems, and tear into large pieces.
  2. Place the greens in a large pot with about 3 cups of water and some salt. Cook over medium-high heat until the water starts to simmer, stirring occasionally, then tightly cover with a lid. Turn down the heat and let cook for about 10-15 minutes. Depending on the size of your pot, you may want to divide the greens in two batches for this step, or add the greens to the pot in stages as they cook down.
  3. While the greens are cooking, start prepping your other vegetables: dice the green pepper, onion, and celery, mince the garlic, and chop the green onions and okra.
  4. Once the greens have cooked down, put a colander over a large bowl and drain them, reserving all the cooking liquid. Puree half of the greens in a food processor or blender. Chop the remaining half into small pieces and set aside.
  5. Make a roux: Heat oil or butter over a medium flame in the large pot. Gradually sprinkle in the flour while stirring continuously with a whisk, taking care to keep the roux from burning. Cook, constantly stirring, until the roux takes on a dark caramel color and smells nutty. If you’re not in a hurry and are looking for an arm workout, cook over low heat for about 45 minutes, armed with a beer in your other hand. If you’re pressed for time you can cheat by turning up the heat and cooking for about 15 minutes.
  6. Once your roux has browned, add the “holy trinity” (onion, celery, and green pepper) to the pot, together with the green onions and garlic. Cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring often. When the onion begins to turn translucent, add the okra and Cajun seasoning. Continue to cook, turning down the heat slightly, for 10 minutes or so, letting the vegetables brown.
  7. Add 3 cups of water and the reserved liquid from the greens to the pot, followed by the pureed and chopped greens. Turn up the heat and bring the gumbo almost to a boil. Add the bay leaf, cloves, and allspice, along with salt and pepper to taste, and stir well. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and let cook for about an hour or longer, stirring occasionally.
  8. When you are about ready to serve, add the shrimp and let cook 5-10 minutes.
  9. Serve the gumbo in a bowl over a bed of rice. For an extra spicy and vinegary kick, add some Green Tabasco.

While it simmers:

Songs celebrating NOLA and its food

Dave Bartholomew, Shrimp & Gumbo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxVcNYsKwLA

Dr. John, Mama Roux: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3n3CShvEWWs

Louis Armstrong, Struttin With Some Barbeque: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSbRs2TjVKs

James Booker, Piano Salad (probably the only salad you’ll have in New Orleans, if you’re not counting Bloody Marys): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUup6vXI6aE

Clifton Chenier, Jambalaya (On the Bayou):  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfuOet2mDRM

Cousin Joe, Chicken a la Blues: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCqbdgg8xd4

Professor Longhair, Red Beans: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CMz9WX1pfI

Louis Jordan, Saturday Night Fish Fry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGiJ0bUzuaw

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, I Ate Up The Apple Tree: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qQuqjkRdGg


Snow day braise

Days like these are made for slow-cooking…


When I’m snowed in, one of the meals I crave most is the rabbit my grandpa would cook when I visited him in Piedmont during winter. The skillet of rabbit he would bring to the table may have looked humble compared to a whole roast chicken or slab of brisket, but it was full of flavor, tasting like the chestnuts the animal would feed on throughout the fall.

Arguably the most popular and widespread version of rabbit in Italian cooking is coniglio arrosto, which translates to “roasted rabbit.” Technically, the meat is braised rather than roasted, meaning it is initially seared over high heat, then simmered slowly with small amounts of liquid – a way of cooking meat that allows it to remain juicy as it develops an irresistibly caramelized skin.

Each region of Italy is associated with its own unique embellishments to coniglio arrosto, depending on the availability of specific seasonal ingredients and the characteristic foods produced within the area. In Liguria, for example, the meat is typically prepared with black olives, one of the main products of the coastal region. At the foothills of the Alps in Piedmont, where corn is plentiful, coniglio arrosto is often served alongside polenta or, in the spring months, lightly sautéed sweet peas. Regardless of the variations between different regional adaptations, coniglio arrosto, with its rustic informality, is an expression of the value of simplicity and making use of readily available ingredients.

My grandpa had grown up eating the coniglio arrosto cooked by his mother and raised in the farm where his family lived. The family recipe has been passed down not on a piece of paper, but through observation and practice, becoming more of an instinct than a formula. Here is how I’ve learned it, in approximations:


Nonno Beppe’s coniglio arrosto

1 rabbit, cut into pieces (for those in the D.C. area, I found some Maryland-raised rabbit at Harvey’s butcher shop at Union Market)
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 cloves of garlic
Salt & pepper

1. Heat olive oil in a skillet with the garlic. Add the rabbit, seasoning the exposed side with salt and pepper. Sear over high heat for about 5 minutes, until browned. Turn, seasoning the other side, and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Depending on the size of your pan, you may want to sear the rabbit in two batches to avoid overcrowding the pan.


2. Add white wine and rosemary sprigs, then cover the pan and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. Once the wine has been absorbed, add about 1/4 cup water. Continue to check on the rabbit to see when the liquid has been absorbed, adding 1/4 cup at a time when the pan is dry.


3. When the rabbit is almost done (fork-tender), continue cooking without the lid for about 10-15 minutes, until all the liquids are absorbed. On a snow day, serve with polenta.



Orange spelt cake

Smell, it’s said, is our most powerful sense. Just one whiff can transport us through time and space, bringing to life those experiences archived back in the deep recesses of our memory – a departed grandparent’s cooking, an exotic meal from faraway travels, our first childhood encounter with a strange and exciting fruit. In the gray days and ice storms of winter, the smell that I find most powerful is that of fresh oranges. I’m thinking about that moment when you first break through the peel; a bright burst of citrus suddenly hits the air and color seems to come streaming in, gradually diffusing throughout the room.

Nature has a funny way of giving us what we need just at the right time. That’s exactly the joy of seasonal eating, the fact that the bounty of citrus in the U.S. overflows at the very point of the year when we desperately crave sunshine. Lately I’ve been getting my fix with a recipe for an aromatic orange spelt cake. It’s a humble little dessert (or breakfast item), almost like a cornbread, but with uplifting notes of citrus – and it also happens to be sugar and dairy-free.



Orange Spelt Cake
Adapted from Little Upside Down Cake

1/2 cup sunflower oil
2 oranges (Minneolas are my favorite for this recipe)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 2/3 cup spelt flour
1/2 cup ground almonds
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
Handful of golden raisins

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a baking pan (springform, loaf, bundt – whatever tickles your fancy) with olive oil.

Roll the oranges on the countertop with the palm of your hand – it will break open some of the “juice pockets” (that’s my technical term for membranes), making it easier to squeeze all of the juice from the fruit. Zest the oranges before cutting them in half and juicing.

In a large bowl, stir the zest and juice together with the sunflower oil and maple syrup.

In a smaller bowl, combine the dry ingredients (spelt flour, ground almonds, baking soda, and salt), then fold into the wet mixture, stirring in the raisins at the end.

Pour the mixture into the pan and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top turns golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. If the top colors before the inside sets, cover with aluminum foil for the remaining time in the oven.


Taste Trekking

Mile End memories and le bagel

Where else can you find a family-owned Italian cafe, a hipster cocktail lounge, Hasidic Jews walking to synagogue, and a mechanical bull all in the same 5-block radius but Montreal? The city is an ideal blend of North American and European style, spiked with colorful multicultural flair and feisty Quebec nationalism – the perfect conditions for a thriving food and nightlife scene.

Looking back at the 4 years I spent in Montreal as an undergrad student, what stands out most in my mind are the experiences I shared with friends exploring the city and the culinary joys it has to offer: late night poutine and late morning Bagel Etc. brunches, potluck picnics in Parc Jeanne-Mance, lazy afternoons with Portuguese chicken, boisterous dinners at BYOW restaurants on Duluth, Mile End cafe study sessions with coffees and pain au chocolat, homemade paella and sangria nights, waiting in line at Schwartz’s for smoked meat sandwiches, descending upon the free samples at Marché Jean-Talon on weekends, making friends with the bakery around the corner from our Esplanade apartment together with my roommates and getting free leftover bread whenever we passed by on our way home from the bars –


So when my close college friends and I spent this past weekend in the city, it was pretty much an excuse to revisit our old haunts, trying to fit as many foods and drinks as humanly possible in a 48 hour window. It’s all a blur of Le Cendrillon cheese spreads, local rabbit, bagels and lox, ducks-in-cans, PEI oysters, maple syrup cheesecake, brunch upon brunch… If there’s one place where excess reigns supreme in the middle of winter, it’s Montreal.

2014-01-12 05.29.17

Thanks to my friend Lauren for having the wherewithal to capture this moment at La Banquise amidst fierce fork battling.

In the spirit of nostalgia, I thought I’d share something I wrote back in my McGill days that I was reminded of while walking through the Mile End:

Bagel Wars

Ask an American where the sacred provenance of the bagel lies, “New York City, of course!” will be the answer. Ask a Canadian? Entirely different story.

Just across the border, the bagel is often included among iconic Canadian foods and is occasionally referred to as a national treasure. But, unlike the ubiquitous Canadian bacon and maple syrup, Canada’s bagel allies itself more with the Quebecois city of Montreal and its Jewish neighborhoods than the whole country.

The very name of the prized baked good attests to this specific loyalty – it has been christened the “Montreal bagel” or “Montreal-style bagel” rather than the “Canadian bagel.” Just as (and, to a certain extent, because) it is difficult to reach agreement on the exact history of the iconic food, it is difficult to determine its exact cultural territory. It frequently finds itself at the center of what is often referred to as “bagel wars,” in which bagel appassionatos attempt to stake claims to the baked good and define what it means to be authentic.

Strangely, the Montreal bagel serves as a point of unity and contention among native Montrealers, as citizens join together to fortify their defense against outer threats to the integrity of their city’s bagel. But they are also divided by the internal disputes rooted in the rivalry between the city’s two main bagel factories and, on a more symbolic level, the bagel’s ethnic identity.


Rue Saint Viateur Ouest.

From the Old Country to the Mile End

For the most part, Montrealers believe making their bagels at home is almost impossible, so the popular conception surrounding their production is that they must be made at special bakeries committed to the traditional method of wood oven baking and honey-water coating (as opposed to the New York version made with salt, boiled in plain water, and baked in a standard oven). In particular, Montrealers champion the Fairmont and St-Viateur bagel factories as the two long-standing locations where the “true” bagel is produced according to the method introduced by Jewish immigrants, and dismiss any other reproductions as inferior knock-offs. Both bakeries are resistant to the notion of standardization, since no two of their hand-made bagels are the same.

Though the exact details of its history both abroad and within Montreal are contested, it is agreed that bagels originate from the Jewish enclaves in the Old Country of Eastern Europe. The introduction of the bagel to Montreal through the early establishment of the Fairmount and St-Viateur bakeries, respectively launched in 1919 and 1957 by Jewish entrepreneurs, is generally rooted in the heavy influx of Jewish immigrants who brought their traditional bagel-making technique from Eastern Europe to Montreal during the late nineteenth century, and the consequential development of one of the most traditional Jewish communities in North America.

Montreal’s relatively lax fire code is also cited as a reason for the bagel’s success in the city, since the characteristic wood-burning ovens which ensure the singularity of the Montreal bagel are banned in other cities. Nurtured by a thriving immigrant Jewish community and less stringent regulations, Fairmount and St-Viateur bagel factories were immediately associated with their home city, as they were named after Mile End neighborhood streets rather than their parent Jewish families.


Inside St-Viateur Bagel.

Vive Montréal

Staking a claim to the baked good, native Montrealers often use a territorial rhetoric when discussing the bagel. The Gazette, for example, refers to the baked good as “ours,” declaring to Toronto: “You’ve got the banks. But we’ve got the bagels.” The Montreal bagel helps unify city natives under a broad, common identity, cursorily patching the divide between Francophone and Anglophone culture.

However, there are also fissures within the seeming unity of the city, like the rivalry between the Fairmount and St-Viateur factories. In the competition between the two bagel sites, authenticity emerges as a key issue, and there is an impulse to ascribe a single location with the status of originality. In the words of Canadian food writer Erin Zimmer, “the two bagelries are only a few blocks apart so picking one doesn’t usually involve convenience—it’s about loyalties.”

Both bagelries were established by Jewish immigrants of Eastern European origins. Fairmount is very much a family operation: everything must meet founder Grandfather Isadore’s standards, and the bakery remains distinctly family business. In contrast, St-Viateur is now owned by Joe Morena, a Southern Italian immigrant whose 45 years of experience makes up for the lack of Jewish family ownership. Purist Montrealers remain staunchly dedicated to whichever bagelry they see as most genuine, and, in either case, the bagel signifies a loyalty to old-school Montreal culture. 

Inside Fairmount Bagel - what to choose?

Inside Fairmount Bagel – what to choose?

Poutine, Tourtière, and…Bagels?

The degree of association of the Montreal bagel with Jewishness is also a point of contention. Together with smoked meat, the bagel is a distinct product and signifier of Jewish Montreal – tellingly, the Fairmount bagelry includes matzo bread on its daily menu. But Montreal’s Jewish community has severely shrunk since the 1970’s, giving way to increasing Portuguese influence in the Mile End neighborhood, where the local synagogue is now a Portuguese community center.  The insistence on sponsoring the authentic Fairmount and St-Viateur bagelries, and, by extension, the traditional methods they embrace, speaks to an agenda of conservation involving the Montreal bagel. The bagelries have become sites of pilgrimage where nostalgic patrons can get a taste of the old Jewish Montreal they used to know.

The Montreal bagel doesn’t solely appeal to those of Jewish descent, though. You are just as likely to come across a hockey jock standing in line for his order at St-Viateur after a night of drinking, since the bagelries are open until the wee hours of the morning.


Case in point: 3am bagel run.

Interestingly, bagels are very popular amidst the French-Canadian population of Montreal, even though the history of their relationship with Jewish immigrants has been fraught with strife. French-inspired embellishments to the bagel – bagel with feves au lard, bagel with les frites, bagel with les oignons ronds – abound in neighborhood restaurants and cafes, and some people take issue with what they see as a Quebecois appropriation of Jewish culture. Will the Montreal bagel join poutine in the ranks of traditional Quebecois food?

As McGill University sociologist Morton Weinfeld puts it, “It is not clear whether Francophones register that deli is something Jewish. It’s an adopted cultural item. They can be eating smoked meat and completely disassociate it with Jews. Jews are the crazy ones in black hats, les maudits juifs, and they’ll say it while eating a smoked meat sandwich.” With regards to the bagel, it seems ethnicity can be hard to digest.

Native Montrealers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, share a commitment to the traditional method of preparation that distinguishes their bagel from its puffier New York counterpart. Although it offers Montrealers an opportunity for unity, the masking of the bagel’s Jewish history in favor of a cohesive Montreal identity can be problematic. Ultimately, though, the Montreal bagel’s lack of fixed territory gives it the promising potential to be a bagel of many tastes.


Fresh for less

I haven’t been able to look at kombucha the same way again after reading Kelly Maclean’s hilarious article about shopping at Whole Foods: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-maclean/surviving-whole-foods_b_3895583.html. Many of her descriptions ring true, especially after my experience working at a food co-op – in Seattle, no less (prime territory for passive aggressive shoppers having nervous breakdowns about the way you packed their avocado in their bike bag).

Maclean definitely has a point; stores like Whole Foods can have a paralyzing effect on your bank statement, with all their promises of salvation in the guise of exorbitantly priced kale chips. But just because you’re in a natural foods store doesn’t mean you have to spend $313 on groceries. Avoid buying the $10 bag of hand-pressed artisanal crackers positioned strategically near the cash registers – eating the whole thing in attempt to cope with the trauma of having just navigated the supplements aisle will make you feel equally as miserable as downing a bag of Lay’s from Safeway.

Instead, go into grocery shopping with a game plan. Take advantage of the bulk section, and try to plan your meals as much as you can, stretching ingredients accordingly (if you know you want to roast chicken one day, make soup with the bones the next). I wrote an article for this month’s issue of the co-op’s newspaper, The Sound Consumer, about budget-friendly strategies for grocery shopping. Though some tips are specific to the co-op itself, most are applicable to any natural foods store: www.pccnaturalmarkets.com/sc/1401/pcc-budget.html

Regardless of the type of budget I’m on, my priority is always buying quality produce. Here are more tips on cost-effective ways to buy and use produce, building off some of the points raised in the article:

1. Go with what’s in season.

Fruit and vegetables that are in season generally cost less. Here’s a useful state-by-state guide to growing seasons in North America: http://www.eatwellguide.org/i.php?id=Seasonalfoodguides. Consider buying large quantities at a discount, if possible. During the winter, root vegetables like potatoes, squash, and onions will keep for relatively long periods of time. And in the summer, you can freeze extra fresh berries and sliced fruit for later months – when frozen at their peak, they’ll taste better than the anemic-looking versions sold during wintertime.


2. Prioritize what to buy organic.

If you can’t afford to buy all organic produce, decide where you can get by with conventional alternatives. The Environmental Working Group has identified the fruits and vegetables that are most and least contaminated by pesticides, the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen”: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php. You can use these lists as a guide to help you determine where to splurge on organic items. It makes sense to spring for organic berries and other fruits with edible skins, rather than onions. Of course, this reasoning doesn’t address the environmental rationale behind buying organic, but if you’re a student on a strict budget it’s a good way to start.


3. Reduce food waste. 

Once you’ve spent money on produce, make sure you store it properly. No matter how cheap something may be, it’s money lost if it goes bad before you get the chance to cook it.

Store produce in the crisper, and only wash before eating or cooking. Avoid storing fruits and vegetables together, since fruits often emit high amounts of ethylene, a gas which speeds up the ripening process, making nearby vegetables spoil faster. Keep onions, potatoes, and squash in cool, dark containers outside of the fridge, but take care to separate onions and potatoes – onions encourage potatoes to ripen more quickly. Tomatoes shouldn’t be refrigerated either. Fresh herbs like cilantro can be stored in a glass half full of water in the fridge, with an optional plastic bag on top. Or, if not used regularly, they can be divided in smaller portions and frozen in ice cube trays for later use. For a comprehensive list of how to store a variety of fruit and vegetables, visit: http://www.thekitchn.com/a-guide-to-storing-fruits-vegetables-tip-roundup-176308.

Also ensure that you’re using all the edible parts of your vegetables. Tara Duggan’s book Root-to-Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable is a great resource: http://www.food52.com/blog/8140-tara-duggan-on-root-to-stalk-cooking. Use beet greens in a frittata, or sauté with sausage. Stir fry broccoli stems, or incorporate them into salads. Save the potato skins discarded from a recipe to make crispy chips with bacon. And, most importantly, make your own stocks with bits of discarded produce, like corn cobs, leek greens, fennel ends, and onion skins. Look towards Louisiana for inspiration in stretching your ingredients as far as possible: one of the essential foundations of Cajun & Creole cuisine is fish stock, made with shrimp and crawfish shells. Once you get the hang of it, scraping by with scraps will become gastronomic genius.

Share any other tips below!


Cin cin!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my elders, it’s that you never need much of an excuse to enjoy a glass of prosecco.

Meet Giuseppe and Liliana Minato, my grandparents on my mother’s side:


In true Minato style, the dapper couple is making short work of a bunch of bubbly. This shot was taken sometime in the late 1960s, but it shows a familiar scene: bottles strewn across the table, with sweets and savory pastries laid out for the taking – or as it’s called in Italy, a brindisi. 

brindisi is a celebratory toast, a way of honoring family and friendship over a drink. It can be as formal or spontaneous as you like; anywhere from a baptism reception to an unexpected visit from a neighbor is an appropriate occasion to toast to health and happiness, especially during the holiday season. Swinging by your great-aunt’s apartment to say hello on the way back from an errand? She’ll promptly whip out a plate of cookies and a bottle of prosecco. A friend pops by to pick up their kid who you’ve babysat for the day? Now’s a good a time as any to open up that bottle of wine you’ve been saving in the cantina. Dropping off a Christmas present at your second cousin’s house? Time for a cocktail!

That being said, Italy, on the whole, is not a nation of raging alcoholics. Yes, it’s totally acceptable to toast anytime beginning at about noon, and theoretically you could transition from your morning cappuccino (acceptable until strictly 11am) directly to booze, but most tend to stick to prosecco earlier in the day, because it’s a lighter, less alcoholic option.

Prosecco, a white sparkling wine, has been getting a lot of press these days since its popularity in the U.S. is rising, while champagne is slightly lagging by comparison. The main differences between prosecco and champagne are the type of grape used (Glera for prosecco, versus Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and/or Pinot Meunier for champagne, with a few exceptions), the geographical area in which the varietal is grown, and the method of fermentation (champagne is fermented for a second time in bottles, while prosecco is usually poured in large vats after the first stage).

Though now it’s also made in other areas of Italy, like Friuli-Venezia Giulia, prosecco production has been long-rooted in the Veneto region, which claims Venice as its capital city. Because of its access to top quality sparkling wine, Venice is the birthplace of many fizzy cocktails, like the famed bellini, which mixes prosecco with fresh peach juice. (My grandfather Giuseppe’s family was Venetian, so I suppose my love of fizz is partially genetic.)

This year, I’ve started to substitute pomegranate juice for the peach nectar to make a holiday twist on the classic. I aim for about 3 parts prosecco to 1 part pomegranate, though if you prefer your drink a bit sweeter you can increase the amount of juice. Seeking out pomegranate juice that isn’t from concentrate will make a big difference in the flavor. Here is my dear friend Gen, making the drink look pretty:


So, friends of the blogosphere, here’s a virtual brindisi to wish you a Happy New Year! You may already know Salute! (“Health!”), but this year why not try toasting with another way of saying “Cheers” in Italian: Cin cin! (pronounced “chin-chin”). An Italian friend once explained to me that saying Cin cin is meant to complete the sensory experience of your drink. You see the drink’s color, smell its aroma, touch it to your lips, and taste its flavor – but how can you hear it? That’s why you clink glasses, exaggerating the sound with the onomatopoeic Cin cin. Music to my ears.


Fruit of the gods

Not much has changed since I was a youngster – you can still find me in the kitchen, though I’ve graduated from my Tupperware mixing bowl:


One thing that has changed, however, is my love for persimmons.

Whenever my parents and I travel to Northern Italy for Christmas, persimmons are nearing the end of their season, still persistently lending their festive red-orange color to otherwise bare yards. Throughout the season, from October to December, they’re so plentiful and are literally falling off trees, dragging down branches with their plump promises of sweetness. By the time we roll into town, friends and family have already reached the limit of how many persimmons they can possibly stomach. Knowing my dad’s unfailing love for the fruit, the neighbors promptly start their procession with overflowing baskets over to my aunt and uncle’s house, relieved to be handing over the torch.

Maybe I was too distracted by the panettoni and pandoro, or maybe there just weren’t any left after my dad got to them, but for some reason I never appreciated persimmons until recently. They’re part of the shrub and tree genus Diospyros, a Greek word that translates to “divine food” or “fruit of the gods.” And rightly so –  they taste like an otherworldly mix of apricots and honey.


Though their high price may dissuade you from buying them on a whim, persimmons are becoming more widely available in grocery stores here in the U.S. The two main varieties you might find for sale are Hachiya (above) and Fuyu. Small and squat, similar in shape to a tomato, Fuyus can be eaten just like an apple, skins included. Hachiya persimmons, on the other hand, are only edible when they become very soft, almost mushy, otherwise they’re too bitter. It’s not recommended to eat their skins, though my dad is undeterred by them – then again, he’s also known for eating the entire apple core, seeds included. I find they taste sort of cottony and opt to do without, scooping out the inside with a spoon.

Persimmons are so richly sweet that they are plenty decadent on their own, without any extra flourishes. Even so, I came across a dessert idea in this month’s Bon Appetit that piqued my interest, and it has become a new favorite:


Persimmons with Greek Yogurt, Honey & Pistachios

Simply spoon some Greek yogurt in a bowl, top with persimmon slices and crumbled pistachios, and drizzle with honey.

The tart yogurt cuts the sweetness of the persimmon and honey beautifully, and the pistachios chime in with an unexpected crunch. The combination is a nice antidote to all the heavy holiday fare this month. Forget the berries with ice cream you may be missing from summer – this will make you glad to hunker down and welcome winter.

Eating Words

More words to chew on

Roses? They’re actually heads of lettuce, at the Piazza delle Erbe market in Verona.

As a follow-up to my list of proverbs, here are a few common descriptive phrases in Italian making use of food as a metaphor. These modes of expression are tucked into all kinds of conversations, showing how knowledge and respect for food are deeply ingrained in the daily life of Italians. And above all, they speak to an imaginative spirit, one that finds meaning and humor in the everyday act of eating. Lots more where these came from:

Essere alla frutta   |   To be at the fruit
Fruit is the last course in an Italian meal, so the phrase refers to being at the last stage of a phase, or reaching the end of the rope. At the height of Berlusconi’s power, you could hear many an Italian lamenting “siamo alla frutta” – we’ve reached our limit.

Spuntare come funghi   |   To pop up like mushrooms
i.e. Farmers’ markets in that area are popping up like mushrooms.

Essere una pentola di fagioli   |   To be a pot of beans
To talk incessantly, like a boiling pot of beans.

Togliere le castagne dal fuoco   |   To take the chestnuts out of the fire
When you do someone a favor by taking their chestnuts out of the fire before they burn, in spite of their scalding heat, you are getting him/her out of a bind. Or, in a more cynical interpretation, gaining an advantage over others by taking a risk.

Essere come il cavolo a merenda   |   To be like cabbage at snack time
To be irrelevant or out of context. Merenda, or snack time, is a beloved time around 4pm in Italy when you have a snack to tie you over until dinner. A typical snack would be a pizzetta (mini-pizza, more like a pastry) or gelato – nothing involving cabbage.

Fare il pesce in barile   |   To be the fish in the barrel
To be indifferent and avoid taking sides, acting like you can’t hear or see what’s going on around you. In earlier times, fresh fish was stored in barrels, filled to capacity and preserved with salt. The implication is that a fish in such a barrel would be so crowded that it wouldn’t be able to see anything.  

Essere buono come il pane   |   To be as good as bread
It’s well known that bread has very positive, life-affirming connotations – in English, we call it the “staff of life.” To be as good as bread, in Italian, means someone is genuinely kind and altruistic, as pure and golden as fresh bread.

Avere poco sale in zucca   |   To have little salt in squash
Squash, or zucca, in Italian is also slang for head. Gourds are low in salt and, instead, full of water – a watermelon is a perfect example. To have more going on than just a bunch of water in your head suggests that there’s some grey matter there; to have little salt means that you’re a bit daft.

Essere pieno come un uovo   |   To be as full as an egg
i.e. I don’t think I can go for seconds; I’m as full as an egg.

Non fare il salame.   |   Don’t be a salami.
This one is probably my favorite. A nice way of saying don’t be an idiot. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard my Italian aunt say this to my cousin when he’s goofing around. Non fare il salame has more of a masculine connotation; non fare l’oca, or “Don’t be a goose,” is a female equivalent – to be silly, easily distractible, and a little out of it (my other cousin gets this from my aunt, too).


A quiche for Fall

Fresh duck eggs have become one of my new favorite ingredients. They’re more formidable than chicken eggs, with a larger, creamier yolk and a richer taste:


And the high protein levels in duck egg whites also promise fluffier consistencies when used in recipes. If you can find a good source of local duck eggs, they’re a perfect way to amp up your omelettes or make a creamier carbonara sauce. I’ve found that they pair especially well with the wild mushrooms that are in abundance this year in the Seattle area. Here’s a bonus Fall mushroom recipe for a duck egg quiche with chanterelles and Gruyere:


In addition to a pie crust, you’ll need about:

7 duck eggs
1/2 cup cream or milk (you can get away with 2% milk because duck eggs already lend a lot of creaminess)
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1 pound of chanterelles, cut in halves or thirds (before cooking, clean your chanterelles with a damp paper towel, and trim the tip of the bottom stem)
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese (my favorite is Raw Milk Cave-Aged Gruyere)
A few tablespoons of olive oil
Salt & pepper

Start by making your pie crust. For a single quiche, I halve my double crust pie recipe, eliminating the sugar from the dough.

As the dough is chilling, you can get started on the filling. Sauté the green onions and chanterelles in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until the mushrooms brown, and season with salt and pepper. Next, beat the eggs in a large bowl, adding more salt and pepper, as well as the milk/cream.

Roll out the dough and transfer to a pie plate. Add the mushrooms and onions, making sure they are spread evenly, then sprinkle the Gruyere on top before pouring in the egg mixture.

Bake in a 350° oven for about 30 minutes, or when the quiche browns to your liking. If the crust browns faster than the top of the quiche, you can make a protective ring with aluminum foil to prevent burning.

Also – if you don’t have the time or energy to make crust from scratch (though it’s really not that bad!), you can easily make a frittata version – a sort of Italian omelette (frittata comes from the word “fritta,”which means fried, referring to the use of a skillet to make the dish). After sautéing the mushrooms and onions, pour the egg mixture, without adding milk/cream, directly into the same skillet. Cook for several minutes to let the eggs set, lifting the edges with a spatula a few times. Then sprinkle some cheese on top and bake in a 350° oven for about 10 minutes. There’s your less buttery alternative – whether that’s better or worse is up to you!