World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Month: July, 2004

Say Cheese Please!

humbolt_fog_smToday is Cheese Lover’s Day. Well it really was on Wednesday but I had some problems finishing this post of a technical nature. Anyway, I’m not sure who determined this special event or for that matter how I know this fact. But there are electronic greetings for the holiday so it must be real. Fact is every day should be a cheese day. Nothing’s more divine than a loaf of bread, accompanied with cheese, olives and wine.

Cheese is many things. It can be comforting in the form of a grilled cheese or macaroni and cheese or elegant in the form of a cheese soufflé or as a dessert as is traditionally practiced in the European culture. Today, most of us have access to handmade cheeses. Living in Northern Californian artisanal and farmhouse cheese are a constant in the mix of the bounty we reap at farmer’s markets, natural food stores and in local restaurants.

California has been making cheese for as long as it’s been making wine. Today, the state produces a lot of cheese as a by product of our high milk production.

Cheese making started in the American colonies in the year 1611 near Rome, NY. Today most Americans prefer a hard or semi-hard table cheese to a crumbly and creamy cheese. Cheddar appears everywhere–burgers, Tex-Mex dishes, and twice baked potatoes.

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RENGreat writing, great cooking, seemingly natural born gifts for some of us capture my attention and admiration. The Italians would call this sprezzatura. What a word when said with the embellishment of gusto of a native speaker. I came across this word in this Sunday’s Boston Globe Ideas section in reference to a new cultural publication entitled, n+1. The newspaper describes the journal:

Newsstand browsers will immediately notice the journal’s longing for that halcyon era in which the anti-Stalinist left joined high-modernist litterateurs in the pages of Partisan Review. The stark red cover of n+1, which advertises such essays as “Against Exercise,” “Palestine, the 51st State,” and “Philosophy of Pop” in sans-serif type, is itself a self-conscious homage to the postwar American moment. But to read the contents of the journal — “The Intellectual Scene,” for example, knocks both The New Republic and The Weekly Standard and denounces Dave Eggers and his crew at McSweeney’s and The Believer as a “regressive avant-garde” whose stylistic innovations mask a prissy moralism — is to recognize that the sweet science of the literary brawl has been revivified.

I was more intrigued by the lack of sprezzatura with the use of the word. So feeling humbled I went in search of a definition. In short it means “an assumed air of doing difficult things with an effortless mastery and an air of nonchalance.

The longer academic rambling I found on the Washington State University literary arts section refers to the Castiglione Baldassare the writer of the Renaissance period on the Renaissance his most significant tome being The Book of the Courtier which outlines the ideal man aka The Renaissance Man or

a uomo universale , or as a person expert in a wide variety of knowledge and skills. Most important to the cultured person is a certain ease or facility with situations, knowledge, love, and skills; Castiglione called this quality sprezzatura, and the idea stuck to the aristocratic sense of self for the next several centuries. In fact, the twentieth “cool” is ultimately a descendant of Castiglione’s aristocratic sprezzatura.

So are there any true renaissance men or women today? Someone who is expert in several disciplines?

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¿Qué vino?

American’s restaurant traditions are built around French dining customs. This partially explains why we often want wine with dinner. That, and there’s nothing like a glass of wine to complement a dish. However it becomes particularly challenging with certain foods from countries that don’t have a tradition of drinking fermented grapes at the dinner table such as India and Mexica.

Jill Gubesch is the sommelier at Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo in Chicago. Rick Bayless put out the challenge and she has responded with suggestions for pairings. In her mind, “wine is absolutely the most perfect match for the complex, varied dishes Mexico’s classic cooks have turned out for centuries.”

Power Nut

nuts1Due to the recent eating fascination of all things low carb nuts are now the new power food. Most are low in unsaturated fats and are a good source of protein, fiber and give a boost to energy levels. Hazelnuts in particular are a versatile nut. I like them best of all because of their distinct somewhat sharp taste.

Historians believe this nut to have originated in Asia which would make it one of the oldest agricultural food crops. Greeks and Romans once prized hazelnuts for their medicinal properties. The Celts equated hazelnuts with concentrated wisdom and poetic inspiration. Lore tells us that St. Patrick rid Ireland of serpents with a rod or branch of hazel. Magician’s wands are traditionally made out of the wood of this tree. There’s a lot of power and strength here.

Fast forward to today and we’re calling hazelnuts well, filberts. Let’s set the record straight. They are not the same but are close cousins. The misnomer may be thought by some historians to have originated from the Old English name, “full beard,” because of the long husk that entirely covers the nut in some varieties. Others thought the name was derived from St. Philibert; August 22, the day dedicated to the saint corresponds to the time, in England, of the ripening and harvesting of the earliest filberts er, ah, hazelnuts.

No matter, what we do know for sure is that there are over 100 known varieties grown throughout the world with the majority grown in Black Sea coast area of Turkey. In the United States, Oregon accounts for 99% of all hazelnut production in the United States primarily in the Willamette Valley. The best, though I’ve never tried them, come from Italy’s Piedmont region.

According to the Hazelnuts Growers of Oregon the nuts are high in dietary fiber, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, vitamin E, and 80 percent of its total fat is monounsaturated. These “good fats” are believed to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. They also do not contain cholesterol.

Medical documents from about 1,800 years ago detail remedies using hazelnuts. An ointment of burnt hazelnut shells and bear suet was smeared on balding heads; a common cold remedy has the nut mixed with black pepper and a persistent cough was treated with a ground hazelnuts and honey. Not sure if there is any worth in this treatments.

Most of the magic of hazelnuts today is in its most frequent use–baking and confections—particularly in concert with chocolate.

For the record when you’re shopping in your local nut house be it the grocery or virtual shop Oregon nuts are reddish-brown, and the Turkish nuts are more chestnut-brown. It is acorn-shaped and about the size of a grape. The nut’s dark papery skin should be removed by toasting the nuts in a 325°F oven for about 8 to 10 minutes until their skins begin to crack. Watch carefully and closely and smell. When you start to smell them it means the oils are being released. Remove them and transfer the hot nuts to a kitchen towel and vigorously rub them together to remove most of the skin. It’s okay if there is some skin left behind. Let the nuts cool before incorporating into the recipe. It’s convenient too if you do prepare more nuts than you need as they can store easily the fridge or freezer. The baking expert Flo Braker, the author of several definitive books on baking, suggests freezing the roasted hazelnuts as the skins will easily flake off. It works, you just need to anticipate doing it.

My first introduction to hazelnuts came in the form of Nutella. This chocolate-hazelnut spread is to Italians what peanut butter is to Americans and vegemite is to Australians. According to company history, Nutella spread, was created in the 1940’s by Pietro Ferrero, a pastry maker and founder of the Ferrero company. One of the world’s largest chocolate producers it’s treats include Kinder Surprise Eggs, egg-shaped chocolates with tiny toys inside, Mon Cheri chocolates, Rocher chocolates, and Tic Tac breath mints.

Nutella, created during a wartime cocoa shortage, due to war rationing making chocolate a delicacy limited to a lucky few. So Ferrero mixed cocoa with toasted hazelnuts, cocoa butter and vegetable oils to create an economical spread of chocolate which he called “pasta gianduja” (pasta jon-du-ja).

But sole credit can’t be bestowed on Pietro. According to an 1996, Atlantic Monthly article Corby Kummer

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Banana Hazelnut Empanadas

1 large, ripe banana, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 cup Nutella hazelnut spread
2 refrigerated 9-inch pie crusts or favorite from-scratch
pie dough (enough for two 9-inch pie crusts)
2 tablespoons water (for brushing)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Cinnamon ice cream or whipped cream, for serving (optional)

In small bowl, mix banana and Nutella until combined (it will thicken and become stiff).
Set aside.

Divide dough in half. Roll out each half to a 14 x 8-inch rectangle, 1/4-inch thick. Using square or round 3-inch cookie cutter, cut out 8 pieces per half.

Place 1 heaping teaspoon Nutella-banana mixture on each dough cutout. Brush outer perimeter with water and fold dough to make a closed pocket. Pinch edges together with fork. Brush with water and sprinkle with sugar.

Freeze on parchment paper or foil-lined baking sheets for at least 15 minutes. (The empanadas can be made up to this point and frozen for 3 months.)

Bake empanadas until golden, about 20 minutes.

Serve warm with cinnamon ice cream or whipped cream, if desired.

Servings: 16; serving size: 2 pieces

Chocolate Hazelnut Spread

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, April, 1999

Makes 2 cups
2/3 cup (about 2 ½ ounces) hazelnuts, toasted with skins removed
¾ cup sweetened condensed milk
½ cup (3 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
3 tablespoons honey

Process nuts, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally until they have liquefied about 4 minutes. Set aside.

Combine the sweetened condensed milk, chocolate chips, and honey in a heat-proof bowl or in the top of a double boiler, set over a pan of simmering water. Stirring occasionally, heat until the chocolate chips have melted, about 3 minutes.

Add the hot-chocolate mixture to the liquefied hazelnuts, and process until the mixture is smooth about 5 minutes. Transfer the spread to an airtight container. Store in refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Ethnic Food in U.S.

Over at USA Today there’s a flash/video piece on ethnic food in the United States. Although it’s basic in the style of the newspaper it’s broad enough to get a good handle on ethnic resaturant trends in America.

Grains of Paradise


Given it’s name for it’s high worth during the days of the spice trade Grains of Paradise carry a hint of citrus in the aroma and a strong taste of ginger and cardamom. The brown seeds are spicy and somewhat bitter. Paradise in this definition is the West Coast of Africa where locals use it as a flavoring and are known to chew on the nubby bits to keep themselves warm.

The reddish-brown seeds grow in large pods and when harvested are the same size and shape as its close cousin, cardamom.

Known as poivre de Guinee, Malguita Pepper and Alligator Pepper in France it has been around since the Middle Ages where it was used in a mulled wine known as hippocras flavored with ginger and cinnamon. Over time Grains of Paradise were replaced in Europe with black pepper. Too bad it’s so much more complex — sprinkled on potatoes or eggplant it shines.

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