The announcement was delivered via sandwich. Specifically, an Instagram photo of a crusty loaf slathered in pumpkin and piled with prosciutto. “Living in Italy for a while,” was how comedian Aziz Ansari captioned the picture for his fans in February 2016, before warning them to prepare for way more deliciousness ahead.
The piles of pasta that followed? Turns out it was all critical research for his Emmy-winning sitcom “Master of None.” Season two, which debuted on Netflix this spring, opens with church bells clanging in Modena, the very same spot where Ansari scarfed down that tasty panino. His character Dev – who’s taking a break from New York – is apprenticing at Boutique del Tortellino, befriending guys named Giorgio and repeatedly saying the word “allora.” (It translates loosely to “well” in Italian. As in, “Well, this is making me hungry.”)
For a foodie like Dev, the location makes sense. Anyone who’s ever tasted Modena’s namesake balsamic vinegar drizzled on a salad has heard of the town. And it’s known as a place to go for serious eats, including the three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana, which topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016. Spoiler alert: Its celebrity chef, Massimo Bottura, makes a cameo in episode two.
On the outskirts of town, visitors can tour 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia to see how Parmigiano-Reggiano is made.
But Modena’s not an obvious Italian destination for tourists in the way that, say, Florence is. I know this because I live in Florence, which is basically an American college campus covered in Renaissance art. Tired of tripping over spring breakers, my family decided to spend a weekend following Ansari’s trail of bread crumbs and pumpkin.
The train ride to Modena, with a quick change in Bologna, took less than an hour and a half. And there we were, following Google’s instructions to turn left toward the Baroque palace built in 1634 – because, you know, we’re in Italy. (On the show, Dev jokes that it’s “the first ever McDonald’s PlayPlace.”)
In an homage to classic Italian films, that first episode in Modena was shot in black and white. I figured in real life, it couldn’t possibly feel as charming. That was wrong. The short trip to the city center is on wide, spotless sidewalks shaded by pretty porticoes. I braced myself to leap out of the way of a taxicab until I realised the driver was rolling to a lazy stop. And it was one of the only cars in sight. Everyone we passed was strolling or cycling with a smile. We could hear an accordion playing softly down the street, and it didn’t even feel cheesy.
“Can we move to Modena?” my husband asked while sipping a macchiato from a shop that lured him in with its “vasta selezione.”
Our 2-year-old daughter expressed a similar sentiment an hour later when she woke up from her nap to discover we were mid-lunch along the cobblestoned Piazza XX Settembre, and she had a prosciutto panino of her own waiting to be devoured. I opted for a bruschetta topped with Gorgonzola, cherries and balsamic. When it arrived, I felt inspired by Ansari. I had to take a photo. (There’s a reason it’s called an Instagram “feed.”)
From our table, we could peek into Mercato Albinelli, a covered market with stalls hawking every delicious morsel the Emilia-Romagna region is known for – including, of course, tortellini, the filled, ring-shaped pasta that’s said to have been inspired by Venus’s belly button.
On “Master of None,” Dev’s visit there involves a whole lot of sampling. That seems to be par for the course, especially if you happen to bring along a toddler who says “ciao.” We beelined to a display of baked goods to pick up some amaretti di Modena, traditional chewy almond cookies, and the man behind the counter also sneaked my daughter a twisted breadstick. We ventured toward crates of leafy produce, where she took an interest in the fresh peas. So a woman cracked open a pod and invited her to sample the tender bits inside. The cheesemonger across the aisle knew how to compete: He handed her a piece of chocolate.
The snacking isn’t really so naughty, I decided as we were huffing our way up the 290-foot Ghirlandina. The gleaming white-stone tower, topped with an octagonal spire, is considered the symbol of Modena, and climbers are rewarded with bird’s-eye views of the town – a sea of rust-coloured roofs and walls painted peach, lemon and tangerine. We also got to see a copy of the “stolen bucket,” a prized artifact since it was snatched from a Bologna well during a battle in 1325.
Mercato Albinelli is a grocery shopper’s fantasy.
That’s fairly recent history, considering the origins of the cathedral next door. Construction started in 1099, and some of the building materials date back to Roman times when Modena was “Mutina.” Architect Lanfranco and sculptor Wiligelmo created the Romanesque masterpiece – which, along with the tower and the adjoining Piazza Grande – are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Another duo clearly appreciates their work: Ansari and co-star Eric Wareheim filmed a pasta-fueled music video to go with Kanye West’s “Famous,” and it ends with a lingering shot of them riding one of the cathedral’s column-supporting lions.
There are other important religious sights in town, including the synagogue with its celestial blue, star-covered ceiling, built beside Piazza Mazzini, which once served as the town’s Jewish ghetto.
And then there’s Museo Enzo Ferrari for folks who worship the Prancing Horse.
The complex built upon the birthplace of the race car driver turned entrepreneur is just one of several museums in Italy’s “Motor Valley” dedicated to flashy automobile brands. Also nearby are Maserati and Lamborghini collections. There’s a second Ferrari museum about 30 minutes away in the suburb of Maranello, which is also home to the Ferrari factory. Both have vast showrooms filled with cars and replicas of Enzo Ferrari’s office.
Unsure of which to visit, we signed up for Discover Ferrari & Pavarotti Land, a group tour with an intriguing motto: “Slow food, fast cars.” It promised admission and transportation via shuttle bus to both Ferrari museums, the house of the late, great tenor Luciano Pavarotti – a Modena native, who died there in 2007 – plus tastings of wines, balsamics and meats.
It seemed like a disjointed itinerary until we arrived at stop two: Gavioli Antica Cantina, which boasts 220 years of making Lambrusco, a fizzy, inexpensive varietal that you’ll get when you order the house wine in Modena. (As we are informed multiple times during our trip, it’s necessary to balance the fatty cold cuts that dominate the local diet.) On display is a large photo of Pavarotti clasping a bottle. Just beyond the tasting room is a museum that celebrates regional wine and automotive history – starting with a taxi so old-school that it was pulled by a horse.
The connection here is Modena’s extreme pride in everything it produces, whether it’s an engine, a singing voice or a slice of salami. The prevailing view is that if it’s from the area, it’s the best.
That theory was confirmed on our final morning in town, when my family cabbed over to 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia, a dairy responsible for a sizable chunk of the world’s Parmigiano-Reggiano. Our tour group gazed through windows at workers clad entirely in white hunched over tanks, each holding 1,200 liters of milk. Our guide explained that their output is closely monitored by one person, who can determine quality through her highly developed sense of touch. Anything she deems unacceptable is sent to the pigs.
After a stop in the earthquake-resistant storeroom – where we got to hold the special hammer used to identify duds during the aging process – it was time to taste the stuff.
And, allora, it was delicious
Sampling olive oils at Oroliquido with the boutique’s owner, Ana Segovia. “Olive oil is not just a fat that you cook with,” she said.
From my home in woodsy New Hampshire, memories of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter always seem cast with a golden glow. It’s evocative and mysterious, a place where narrow, mazelike streets wind between stone buildings, and laundry and Catalan separatist flags hang from tiny balconies. Boys kick a soccer ball in an alley, and trees heavy with oranges grow next to the gothic Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi. There are ancient Roman walls, ruins of the Temple of Augustus and a Viceroy’s Palace with ivy-covered columns in a sunlit Renaissance courtyard. Inside the imposing cathedral, 13 white geese wander the medieval cloisters to remember Saint Eulalia, a martyred 13-year-old girl.
And of course, there are churros – also golden – crispy, sugary and hot. Never forget the churros.
Sweet treats at the La Colmena bakery.
In fact, my husband, Brian, daughter Chloe and I prioritised churros – and food in general – during our four-night April stay in Barcelona, shamelessly skipping such must-visit sites as Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished Modernisme masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia basilica, in favour of culinary endeavours.
We scouted out briny, meaty gooseneck barnacles at La Boqueria Market; haunted the Jewish Quarter El Call in search of a certain restaurant known for its cheap and tasty local drinks; savoured a sweet slice of blood-red cake, festooned with icing roses, to celebrate the city’s annual Saint George’s Day; and wandered the stalls at a neighbourhood farmers’ market in tucked-away Placa del Pi sampling local cheese, and honey. We happily soaked up the culture of Catalonia – the autonomous Spanish region of which Barcelona is the capital – with its food and drink.
But our trip’s gastronomic zenith was the nearly five-hour Gotico Brunch Tour with Barcelona Food Tour guide Kaye Pineda, a Barcelonan by way of London who led us through the Barri Gotic with an effervescent enthusiasm for everything we tasted.
Of course, Spain is known for its tapas, wine and late-night dinners, so the idea of “brunch” in Barcelona might seem incongruous. But Kaye assured us that we’d get an authentic taste – and sip – of Barcelona, no matter the time of day.
“Don’t worry, just because it’s brunch doesn’t mean there won’t be any alcohol. It is Spain,” she joked as we met in late morning outside of the 168-year-old bakery La Colmena.
She welcomed us by passing around a bag of tiny, sugarcoated and anise-flavoured doughnuts called bunyols de quaresma, which are popular among Catalans during Lent, before heading around the corner for a cortado – one shot each of espresso and milk. Our group of nine walked and ate, passing through Placa del Rei, said to be where Christopher Columbus met King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella when he returned home to Spain from the New World; stopping inside the sun-dappled courtyard of the Viceroy’s Palace; and gazing up at strange gargoyles, such as an elephant and unicorn, jutting from the edge of the Barcelona Cathedral. Kaye sprinkled the tour with bites of information about the area’s history and architecture, but never strayed too far from food.
Stuffed squid at Tapeo in the city’s artsy El Born neighbourhood.
The sweets-heavy morning continued with a stop at a candy shop to sample torro – a soft nougat made with egg whites, honey and almonds, which Kaye always brings home for family in England at Christmas. And next, churros and hot chocolate, or xurros amb xocolata, as it’s spelled in the Catalan language.
We packed into a tiny xurreria, watching a white-jacketed cook behind the counter extruding churro batter into a deep vat of scalding-hot fry oil. He let the churros sizzle until they were crispy and golden, then scooped them into paper bags along with a generous coating of granulated sugar. Grease stained the bags as we carried the hot churros next door to La Granja, where we ordered mugs of thick, bittersweet chocolate and sat at tables topped with white marble, dipping our churros into the hot chocolate.
La Granja, which opened in 1872, felt profoundly Old World with its narrow dining space, dim lighting, uneven ceilings, exposed brick and stone walls, one of which is ancient Roman. I’ll never get over how casually and unexpectedly the ancient world pops up in modern life across Europe.
After the sweets, it was onto the savory at Oroliquido, a sleek-looking olive oil boutique, where we sampled peppery, first-extraction oils that burned our throats – a mark of quality, said owner Ana Segovia.
“Our idea at the shop is to show you that olive oil is not just a fat that you cook with, but is a beautiful juice that to us is liquid gold,” she said.
Up next: Meat! Specifically, jamón, Spain’s famous dry-cured ham, at Enrique Tomás, where we shared plates of Catalan sausage called fuet, chorizo, lomo, cheeses and thinly sliced, ultra-premium (not to mention pricey and highly regulated) jamon Iberico, made from pampered, acorn-fed pigs raised on the Iberian Peninsula. We washed the salty, fatty, spicy meats down with cold, bubbly cava, Spain’s answer to champagne and prosecco.
After all that tasting, it was hard to believe that we still had a sit-down brunch ahead of us, but after a short walk to the nearby artsy neighbourhood El Born, we settled into a long table at Tapeo, where chef Daniel Rueda dazzled us with modern takes on classic Catalan tapas like thin and crispy artichoke chips, stuffed squid, eggplant with honey, and grilled octopus with pureed chickpeas, plus excellent wine.
The standout dish was fideua – a Catalan version of paella that uses short, angel-hair-thin pasta instead of rice – that was black and briny with squid ink and cuttlefish, and made even richer with a creamy aioli served on the side. Deliriously full, we said our goodbyes.
That night, we stopped back into Enrique Tomás, and were disappointed to learn that we couldn’t bring any jamon home with us to the United States. I told the woman who worked there how sad I was to hear that.
“But you live in America,” she said. “You are lucky.”
I smiled and nodded. “Except no jamon,” I replied.
“Cosmopolitan for you, jamon for me,” she said with a shrug and a smile back. And I laughed in agreement, leaving the shop wondering whether she’d ever find her way to the United States to drink up some of our culture for a little while, too.
Charles Phan, seen at his home kitchen in 2012, helped support his family when he was a teenager.
When chef Charles Phan was 16, he made Thanksgiving dinner for 10: his parents, aunt, uncle and five younger siblings. The family had recently arrived in San Francisco, having escaped Vietnam in 1975 after the fall of Saigon and landing in Guam. With recipes from Gourmet magazine, he cooked turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, green beans, gravy, cranberry sauce and apple pie. The meal bombed. “I was trying to get them to embrace the culture,” Phan recalled last month. “My mom made some curry in case I botched the dinner, and I made rice to go with the gravy. So we had that, instead.”
Phan kept cooking because he had to; each parent worked two jobs, so he was the one to get dinner on the table, mixing his mother’s traditional Vietnamese recipes with American ingredients. But he had never cooked professionally when he opened the Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1995. If he had been told as a teenager that in 2004 he would win the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in California, and that in 2014 the Slanted Door would win the national Beard award for Outstanding Restaurant, he would have laughed.
Particularly because his initial aim was decidedly more modest: to open a crepe shop. He had found the ideal space in the derelict Tenderloin district, but the landlord refused him; too many Vietnamese restaurants were nearby. “And the rest is history,” Phan noted wryly. The crepe behind that early dream, a banh xeo, meaning “sizzling cake,” is an adaptation of the classic, a nod to Vietnam’s longtime French rule, that has been part of Phan’s history since childhood. When I met him at the University of California, Berkeley, his alma mater, we ate it together as he told me his story.
I found Phan outside Wurster Hall, an ugly concrete building that houses the College of Environmental Design, where he studied architecture. At 55, he is tan and fit, wearing jeans and an impossibly white T-shirt, and he banged at a metal grill with a hammer. He is opening a Vietnamese cafe called Rice & Bones here this month, and as is his wont, he tends to his restaurants’ spaces as meticulously as their menus. The food will change daily (black bean spareribs, chicken congee), serving students and the general public. “When I went to school here I gained a lot of weight,” Phan said. “We will provide filtered and carbonated water free, but no soda.”
We sat down inside, but Phan jumped up repeatedly to answer questions from someone with a wrench or a tape measure in hand. “I chose the name Rice & Bones,” he said, “because early on when I used chicken with bones, I worried that people wouldn’t buy the food. Everyone wanted boneless 20 years ago. It was a different public back then. Using bones is flavourful and frugal and says everything about making beautiful things with very little.”
That was a skill thrust upon him, one he has spent a lifetime perfecting. Like many refugees, Phan is a chameleon; displacement requires the center to shift in order to survive. He can seem to disappear before your eyes, or when the mood strikes, sparkle so insistently you can look nowhere else. He grew up in Da Lat in the central highlands of South Vietnam and lived above the general store his parents owned there. When North Vietnam invaded in 1975, the family made it onto a cargo ship. “When we were safe in international water,” he recalled, “my mom brought me to the top of the ship and said, ‘From now on you need to be in charge of this family and take care of your siblings.’ I was 13. My childhood ended that day.”
In Guam, the family lived in a refugee camp of 400,000. Eventually, Larry Tecker, a local attorney, and his wife, Karen, sponsored the family so they could leave the camp. “There were barracks of beds and we were lined up like puppies,” Phan said. “They were going up and down the rows to pick one. I was with my aunt and uncle, she worked for the Teckers as a nanny. Karen chose me. I said, ‘Do you want to see my other family? Maybe you want them, too?’ She took all of us.” How did he get the name Charles? “Karen took the six of us to the doctor and just decided to name everybody,” he said. His given name was Toan.
“My introduction to Guam was Chef Boyardee,” he said. “I used to love it. On the ship we ate canned sardines and mackerel and tomato sauce. I still put that on rice. I think it’s the greatest food in memory.” Along with those crepes.
“Right behind my mom’s general store was the crepe shop,” he recalled. “It was inside an army tent with a hole cut at the top for smoke. There was a hot pan, they’d pour the batter, it would sizzle. They’d cook it, then put the lid on to dry it out and make it crispy. It was a charcoal stove, and they’d move the pan from one burner to the next, for less and less heat. You see a lot of street food in Vietnam, but that crepe was the champ. It’s like all of Vietnam on the plate: the herbs, the vegetables, the fish sauce.”
In 1977 the family relocated to San Francisco, where a friend assured them a beautiful apartment awaited. “It turned out to be two studios for 11 people in the Tenderloin,” Phan said. ‘The men went in one room, the women in the other. We slept crossways on the bed. Dad found jobs in Chinatown as a janitor and dishwasher, so we moved there.”
By the time Phan was 16, he was attending Mission High School and working four nights a week as a bar back and busser. “I was bringing home as much money as my mom, who was a seamstress,” he said. “Everyone was relying on me.” He enrolled at Berkeley in 1982 but dropped out in his third year to protest a steep tuition increase. He helped his family with a sewing shop they opened to service local designers. Phan also designed his own clothing line and owned a retail store before going bankrupt in 1992. “We got too big, and a lot of people didn’t pay us,” he said. He briefly sold software, courted his dream of a crepe shop and, once thwarted, found the space that would become the Slanted Door.
“My hunch was that the Vietnamese dishes my mom made at home would be popular here if made with quality ingredients,” Phan said. His face darkened. “But let’s be realistic,” he continued. “Twenty years ago I had to ask, ‘Are white people going to eat this? Will they pay me for this?’ I would sell a whole fish, and people would be upset to see the eyes and the bones. It was about trying to survive as a business.”
Well, as he said, the rest is history. The Slanted Door moved to the tony Ferry Building in 2004, expanding from 100 seats to 250. Phan has opened two casual spinoffs, both called Out the Door, and a bourbon bar called Hard Water. A Slanted Door is to open in Los Angeles next spring, near the Staples Center. And next summer, a Slanted Door is to open in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace.
The dried mung beans need to be soaked for 30 minutes. The crepe batter needs to rest for at least 20 minutes, and up to overnight. The dipping sauce can be refrigerated up to 1 week in advance (or up to 2 days, if using lemon juice instead of vinegar).
From Phan, chef-owner of the Slanted Door in San Francisco.
For the dipping sauce
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar (may substitute fresh lemon juice)
1/2 cup water
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 or 2 red Thai chiles, stemmed and minced
For the crepes
1/2 cup dried mung beans (see headnote)
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk, stirred before using
2 cups white rice flour
1 cup cornstarch
4 cups water
2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced (white and light-green parts)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
12 ounces boneless pork loin, cut into 1/4 inch-thick slices
12 ounces medium shrimp, shelled, deveined and cut lengthwise in half
1 medium white onion, cut from top to bottom, and then into thin half-moon slices
3 cups fresh bean sprouts
Red leaf lettuce and mint leaves, for serving
For the dipping sauce: Combine the fish sauce, sugar, vinegar and water in a medium bowl, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Stir in the garlic and chiles (to taste). The yield is about 1 cup. The sauce is ready to use, or it can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
For the crepes: Place the dried mung beans in a bowl and cover with water. Soak for about 30 minutes, until they are softened. Drain the beans and transfer them to a blender. Add the coconut milk and puree until smooth. Transfer the bean puree to a large bowl and whisk in the rice flour, cornstarch, water, scallions and turmeric, and season lightly with salt. The batter will be thin; let it rest for at least 20 minutes or refrigerate overnight.
Pour about 1 cup of oil into a small dish. Dip a silicone brush in it and then use it to grease a 10-inch nonstick skillet set over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add a couple of slices of the meat, a couple of shrimp and a few slivers of onion – all on one side of the skillet. Cook for 30 seconds, then turn them over and cook for 15 seconds on the second side.
Stir the crepe batter, then carefully pour about 2/3 cup of it into the pan, tilting it slightly so the batter coats the bottom and a bit of the sides in the pan, but pork, shrimp and onion stay in place.
Scatter 1/4 cup of the bean sprouts on the side with the shrimp and onion. Increase the heat to medium-high; cover the skillet and cook for about 1 minute, until set. Uncover and brush some oil around the sides of the crepe (to help crisp the edges). Cook for 1 more minute or so, until the bottom of the crepe is golden and crisp.
Use a spatula to gently fold the empty side of the crepe over the filling, then slide the crepe onto a plate. Repeat with the remaining crepe batter, shrimp, onions, bean sprouts and more oil. Serve the crepes as soon as they are cooked, with lettuce leaves, mint and the dipping sauce.
Nutrition | Per serving (without the dipping sauce, using 6 teaspoons oil): 290 calories, 17 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 65 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar
This skillet dinner is the kind of recipe everyone should have tucked in their back pocket. It is simple cooking at its best – a one-pan meal that is nearly effortless to prepare, made with everyday ingredients that come together quickly. You can summon the energy to make it even when you come home feeling too tired to cook. The payoff in flavor, beauty and satisfaction is a windfall.
To make it, saute chopped shallot (or onion, if you prefer) and summer squash in a large skillet; add a can of white beans, water and then big chunks of fresh salmon, grape tomatoes, tarragon and lemon zest. In about five minutes the fish is cooked, the vegetables and beans are tender, and, with a final squeeze of lemon juice, the whole dish is infused with the flavour and fragrance of the citrus and herb seasonings.
The meal has a summery feel, with summer squash, tomatoes and herbs at their peak this time of year, but the ingredients are available year-round, making it an anytime pleasure.
LEMON-TARRAGON SLAMON AND WHITE BEAN SKILLET
This flavourful one-pan dish is nearly effortless to prepare, made with everyday ingredients that come together in just minutes. It has a summery feel, with summer squash, tomatoes and herbs at their peak then, but the ingredients are available year-round, making it an anytime pleasure.
From nutritionist and cookbook author Ellie Krieger.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped shallot
1 medium zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch dice
One 15-ounce can no-salt-added cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup water
1 1/4 pounds skinless salmon fillet, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 cup grape tomatoes, each cut in half
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest and 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the shallot; cook for about 1 minute, until softened.
Add the zucchini and cook for 1 minute, then add the beans and water. Once the mixture is bubbling at the edges, add the salmon, tomatoes, tarragon, lemon zest, salt and pepper stirring gently to incorporate. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for about 4 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until the salmon is just opaque and the vegetables are tender.
Drizzle with the lemon juice and serve.
Nutrition | Per serving: 370 calories, 34 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 17 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, 400 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
You could go your whole life without cutting up a whole raw chicken. But if it’s one of your favoured proteins – and America eats more chicken per person than any other nation on Earth – learning how to do so is a smack-your-forehead, no-brainer endeavour. It’s even a little empowering.
We have gotten awfully used to the convenience of buying cut-up chicken parts, which found a place in retail markets more than five decades ago. Today, two-thirds of the chicken we consume has been dismantled by someone else, and we are paying dearly for the service. Some peg the parts’ rise to our penchant for lean breast meat, while others say it’s because we shudder at the thought of carving up a pink, fleshy body.
“We are a white-meat, boneless-skinless country,” says Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, a lobbying group with such serious intentions that it has relegated poultry recipes to its allied websites. His assessment is accurate and data- driven: We go for the wings and breasts. That means more of our dark-meat and other chicken parts are shipped abroad where they are prized, rightly so, for their flavor. One out of every five pounds of commercially raised meat chickens is exported. Sustainably savvy, but sad.
Nobody taught you. It seems intimidating. Well, you can call up one of dozens of how-to videos online, narrated by the precise language of Martha Stewart or the folksy patter of a Kraft Foods kitcheneer. Play a few in succession, and you will find the same technique, give or take an airline breast here and an order-of- business there. The moving hands use big chef’s knives or poultry shears. Step by step, one side and then the other. Still, we are not motivated. What will it take?
“We would love to know the same thing,” says Daniel Salatin. “The average American family could save thousands if they bought whole chickens and cut ‘em up themselves.”
He is operations manager for Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia, where his family and famous firebrand farmer father, Joel Salatin, run a sustainable “clean meat” enterprise. They say they sell 8,000 to 12,000 pastured chickens a year, with an eight-piece package priced at $4.65 per pound – a buck more per pound than their whole birds. But Polyface’s boneless, skinless chicken breast halves cost $14 per pound. That price was calculated to offset any loss of sales on less-popular parts and to achieve the same revenue that the farm’s whole birds generated. Still, breasts are their top seller.
“We didn’t start cutting up birds until the early 2000s,” Salatin says. There was a kind of perfect storm, as he sees it: Older, thriftier generations were doing less cooking. Families decreased in size. People lost the art and had the money to have someone else do the cutting. Plus, they were told that lean chicken was a more healthful meat option than beef. The almighty factor is, of course, convenience. But when that is compared with the combined benefits of menu versatility, stretching food dollars and the surprising ease of the divvying itself, though, DIY butchery deserves consideration. “A home cook with a family can make three meals from one whole chicken,” Salatin says. “But you’d have to know what you’re doing.”
Brian Patterson knows what he’s doing. He has broken down thousands of whole chickens. Start to finish, it takes him about two minutes, working at a smooth and steady pace. Washington-area cooks know him as the “Knife Skills Guy” at L’Academie de Cuisine, where the former restaurant chef taught culinary cuts on onions, carrots, tomatoes and mangoes in recreational classes at the school’s suburban Maryland locations. A whole chicken, typically a 2 1/2-pounder, was the pièce de résistance.
When his instruction moved to the school’s professional culinary program, he found that his students had no more experience cutting up whole birds than the home cooks. Teaching them that skill has almost become a mission for him. The chef is all for removing some of the distance between people and processes of modern food: “It was a critter. You get to understand the structure, which is valuable for someone who’s carving a roasted bird as well,” Patterson says.
More of his pro-cutting logic: The bird stays fresher longer when it is whole. Super of the chicken council is not so sure about that, but he does say that the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service set standards for, and began sampling, raw chicken parts for pathogens such as campylobacter and salmonella only in the past few years (as of February 2016); similar standards had been in place for whole birds since 1996.
If you eliminate the stress, They Will Cut.
That’s the takeaway lesson from my hands-on experience with newsroom colleagues. Over the past four months, sessions of five mostly millennial volunteers at a time spent an hour with me after work in the WaPo Food Lab – their own knives in hand, to help familiarise the process of breaking down a bird. We made sure their tools were sharp enough for the task and not too large, because when you know how to cut up a chicken into eight or 10 pieces, you don’t need to hack through a single bone.
Their reasons for wanting to learn were mainly
1. conquering poultry fears in a non- intimidating situation, 2. augmenting their life skills and 3. saving on food costs. Heartening!
The anatomy of the bird, being symmetrical, gives folks an immediate opportunity to practice what they have just learned. Remove one wingette, then do it again on the other side. One leg quarter, then the other. Treasures were uncovered along the way: Chefs and informed cooks know about the bird’s two “oysters” – those dime-size disks of dark meat that sit in pockets on the underside. They are a tasty treat and a test, in Patterson’s universe, of carving competence. The fact that the tenderloins were attached to the breast produced an “aha” moment every time. (“That’s where they come from?”) One buoyed participant figured the new skills would help with his Thanksgiving turkey carving, and he was right. Each group noted how easy the task was, and the word “empowering” was mentioned more than once. Some knew the non-meaty parts are good for making stock and that the skin can be fried into crisp, sinful snacks. I bought chickens from different vendors and stores along the way, which prompted discussions about variations in skin color and tone, size and presence of a giblets packet – the liver, heart and/or gizzard. (Large-scale processors tend to sell those off for other uses; small-scale farmers may sell them separately or upon customer request. But lately, none of those pieces are in high consumer demand.) The subject of whether to rinse the chicken came up often. The Food and Drug Administration says no, as splashed water can spread bacteria. I understand the impulse to wash, because birds treated with a salt-solution for packing look like they are in need of a shower. But a few minutes of verticality over the garbage can, plus a pat-down with paper towels, will make them suitable for handling.
Poultry shears work, especially when you want to spatchcock, or butterfly, a whole bird by cutting through the backbone. Chicken on the bone cooks faster that way. For cutting chicken into parts, a six-inch knife with a thin, flexible blade is preferable. But ever since I watched the famous French chef Michel Roux break down a couple of chickens using my $5 serrated paring knife, I have followed suit.
You cut through skin to expose joints, which can be bent till they pop. You can cut close to that cartilage without brute force. You also cut along some thin lines of fat, as professionals do in seam butchery. Bones lend flavor, so leaving them in will improve the taste of most cut-up parts. But once you head down this road, you can see how the meat of a chicken thigh is easily teased away from the bone with short cutting strokes, attached marginally by cartilage at the top and bottom.
Americans eat an average of 91 pounds of chicken per person per year, according to the NCC’s Super. Even if we embraced the DIY bird breakdown, would we know what to do with all of it? Isn’t just buying the bits we eat more economical in the long run than creating waste?
Again, a little education can do wonders, and looking into the chicken habits of other cultures is a fine place to start.
“As a Filipino of a certain age, I learned how to kill the chicken, bleed it and cut it up when I was growing up,” says Annie Cabayan Wilderman. As an assistant manager at Capitol Hill Poultry in Eastern Market, she sees people buying more parts than whole chickens, and she cringes at the thought of all those backs and necks going to waste: “There is no focus on how to mitigate it in this country.”
BBQ CHICKEN SKEWERS
The marinade/basting sauce turns bland chicken breast into something quite flavourful. These can be cooked on an outdoor grill as well (medium-high heat).
You’ll need to soak 8-inch bamboo skewers in water for 30 minutes before grilling.
Calamansi (calamondin) is a type of tart orange, and its juice or extract is typically available in bottled and frozen form at Filipino markets such as Filipino Global Supermarket in Falls Church.
MAKE AHEAD: The chicken needs to marinate for at least 3 hours and up to overnight.
Adapted from Patrick and Helen Healy, owners of Pinoy Kitchens catering (pinoykitchens.com), which sells on weekends at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.
1 cup low-sodium soy sauce
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/4 cup frozen calamansi juice (see headnote; may substitute a 50-50 mix of fresh lime juice and fresh orange juice)
1/4 cup minced garlic (cloves from 1 head)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (no tenderloins), cut into large chunks
Combine the soy sauce and brown sugar in a mixing bowl, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Stir in the calamansi juice, garlic, pepper and ketchup until well incorporated. Reserve 1/4 cup of the marinade, separately, for basting; stir the oil into the 1/4 cup of reserved marinade.
Add the chicken to the mixing bowl and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to overnight.
Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Once it’s quite hot, skewer the marinated chicken pieces close together. Discard any remaining marinade in the bowl.
Place them on the grill pan and cook for 8 to 12 minutes total, turning them and basting with the reserved marinade-oil mixture every few minutes. You’re looking to achieve a rich mahogany brown and an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.
Customers, seen from above at a two-level location of Dublin chain Peacock & Green, discuss matters of the office over cups of afternoon tea.
A nice cuppa isn’t new to cool, rainy Ireland. The republic drinks more tea per capita than any other nation but Turkey – a fact that won’t surprise visitors who have arrived at one of its traditional bed-and-breakfasts and immediately been offered a fresh pot. Still, global coffee culture has jabbed at classic black tea’s popularity over the past decade, and scores of third-wave coffeehouses have opened in Dublin. In recent years, demure and comforting tea has slugged back in the Irish capital.
Dublin’s fresh tea offerings include expanded products, from hibiscus to matcha, often delivered with Irish wit. A spate of stylish urban cafes also take the brew outside its old bounds of home and prim tea rooms, giving tea new cachet with millennials and foodies.
Former software engineer Oliver Cunningham, 41, helped start the wave when he drew on his time backpacking and working on Indian and Vietnamese tea plantations to found Wall & Keogh in a former hardware shop in 2011. His cafe now serves a changing roster of 150 exotic teas. Wall & Keogh has also become Dublin’s highest-profile tea wholesaler, supplying about 120 of even the most serious coffee shops, plus the Irish headquarters of companies including Twitter and Airbnb, with their loose-leaf offerings.
Coffee had gotten “pretty aggressive,” Cunningham said, sitting back with a pot of nettle tea one of his baristas identified just by its smell. But “there’s a real strong link to tea in Irish culture,” he added. “Even though coffee culture is booming, when you go home, you always have tea. Tea is like a classic tailor-made suit. Coffee is something new and trendy you buy off the peg. So no, I don’t think tea is panicking. It’s confident on its Chesterfield chair.”
Wall & Keogh serves teas with such in-your-face names as Virile Man, Pineapple Express and Rooibos Unicorn Tears alongside porridge, house-made granola or avocado toast rather than dainty pastries. Music alternates between acid jazz and electronica in the slate-gray cafe, set in the trendy, techie Portobello neighbourhood.
“We always get asked whether we do afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches. We wanted to strip away all of that,” Cunningham said. “Everything is tailored to take away the granny-with-a-blue-rinse aspect of tea.”
A crew of millennial Dublin housemates took off on “tea-pusher” Mrs. Doyle, the housekeeper on the classic Irish comedy “Father Ted,” in 2012 to create a popular line of Mrs. Doyle’s Teas. “Sure, and didn’t our Lord himself on the cross pause for a cup of tea before giving himself up for the world?” Mrs. Doyle would say on the TV show, giving the title priest his own pause. The tea line her character inspired ranges from “Decent Irish Breakfast” to “Chill Out Peppermint” to best-selling “Hangover” and “Happy” varieties, all packaged for next-gen appeal.
The friends launched Mrs. Doyle’s Teas at Ireland’s Electric Picnic concerts as a charity fundraiser. They continue to sell thousands of cups, including a hangover variety and some that are infused with rum, at festivals with entertaining twists. Co-founder Vivian Pucher, a 24-year-old business strategist, was a sensation on Twitter last year when she dressed as Mrs. Doyle at the London Coffee Festival. The team surrounded her in mock-protest of coffee, carrying picket signs that read: “Down with this sort of thing.”
The company recently developed a Mrs. Doyle’s Irish Cream liqueur as well, and following afternoon tea, Pucher hit a favorite local pub, O’Donoghue’s, to talk drinks.
“The branding does the work for us. Irish people totally love it,” Pucher said. “Right now with coffee culture, people take care with what they consume. That’s where tea fits in really well. We bring in something fun.”
Teas the likes of Wall & Keogh and Mrs. Doyle’s are increasingly available in the well-designed coffee shops that have made big inroads into Dublin. Clement & Pekoe, for one, gives the two bevs equal billing in its Creative Quarter cafe, which is brightened by skylights, filled with neo-soul music and outfitted with a front stoop for people-watching and industrial racks of Teekanne teapots and Uji Hikari matcha pouches in the back.
Fumbally, a funky lunch spot and neighbourhood hub, grows its own lemon verbena tea and serves Wall & Keogh-sourced varieties, one with a distinct bacon flavour.
“There is definitely a better understanding, little by little, of tea,” co-owner Luca D’Alfonso said as he stood under the cafe’s minimalist cord-bulb-and-wire lighting, taking an order for an ultraheavy iron pot of the smoked tea. “It started with wine, then coffee, and now we are just entering with tea.”
In Smithfield, a working-class area on an upswing, tiny coffee stand Proper Order gives tea a reverent brew. Owner Niall Wynn, 28, presented boiling water and green leaves in what looked like a French press, advising: “The first infusion will be light, citrusy, with a grass tang. The second infusion will be way more citrusy, with a bit of candied lemon.”
The special prep was logical, given that Wynn holds a master’s degree in chemistry and is Ireland’s 2017 national-champ barista, slated to represent the country at the World Barista Championships in November.
Proper Order sells 40 cups of tea per day, up from two per day when the micro-shop opened last year. “I knew little or nothing about tea before I started,” Wynn said, explaining how he’d learned from the world-class steeping at London’s Postcard Teas. “I realised it’s as complex, if not more complex, than coffee. Coffee’s still our main bag, but tea is on the rise.”
Next, Wynn is investing nearly $3,500 in a new under-counter boiler that rapidly brings water to different temperatures for different tea varieties.
Other spots almost completely dedicated to tea have opened in the past few years. Burlap-heavy, patchouli-scented Joy of Cha brews world teas for the backpacker set in Temple Bar. Peacock Green & Co. feels like a wealthy aunt’s redecorated parlor, with ornate gold and teal wallpaper, two dozen kinds of tea in glass jars and slabs of cake for customers ranging from a uniformed schoolgirl to dignified older gents. And Oolong Flower Power offers a meld of afternoon-tea culture and evening lounge, pouring mate and red wine to drinkers lounging on Chesterfield sofas. Its dozens upon dozens of tea varieties include Dirty Dancing and Irish Cream.
Two men discussed Heidegger over cups at Oolong on a recent afternoon. They turned out to be philosophy grad students at Trinity College and University College Dublin: Benjamin Errington, 37, a native Briton in a polo shirt, and Damien Lennon, 45, a pierced-up Irishman whose teenage daughter introduced him to the cafe.
Tea has long been a cultural fixture on the British Isles, the two agreed, but a decade ago two guys might’ve felt odd meeting for drinks anywhere but a pub. They reflected a bit about how Irish tea now feels both modern and classic.
“There’s been a definite cultural shift,” Errington said. “Tea shops are actually quite cool. Coffee’s taken off all over the world, but tea – it feels homey, a bit like you’re in your own house.”
One in 8 couples has difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a baby to term, leading more than 11 percent of women in the United States to use fertility services. In my private nutrition practice, I’m seeing more and more clients in their 30s and 40s who are trying to get pregnant and want to make sure their eating habits help their chances of conception and support a healthy pregnancy.
Most of what we know about the effect of nutrition on fertility is courtesy of a study based on data from the landmark Nurses’ Health Study. The “fertility diet” study followed nearly 18,000 women who were trying to conceive, and tracked their nutrition and lifestyle habits over eight years. Participants followed a diet including plenty of plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains and beans, as well as protein-rich foods, healthy fats and a bit of full-fat dairy. The researchers observed that a specific eating pattern was linked to having a 66 per cent lower risk of ovulatory infertility and a 27 per cent lower risk of infertility from other causes. While this study doesn’t show cause and effect, it does provide us with some valuable insights into nutrition and fertility.
If you’re over- or underweight, getting to a healthy weight range is one of the most important steps you can take to boost your fertility. There appears to be a “fertility zone” for weight. To get your BMI, or body mass index, visit the National Institutes of Health website and use its BMI calculator. If you’re overweight, losing 5 to 10 per cent of that weight can positively affect fertility. About 75 per cent of overweight women who struggle with fertility have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), so it’s important to get checked by your doctor to have any health issues resolved and/or managed.
This emphasis on weight doesn’t mean it’s time to crash diet. Food scarcity (a.k.a. dieting) negatively influences your fertility. It makes sense from a biological perspective: Your body needs to know the food supply is reliable and nutritious before bringing a baby on board. A recent systematic review found that a balanced eating plan that promotes gradual weight loss is better for fertility than drastically cutting calories.
Men also need to follow a healthy eating plan and get to a healthy weight to boost fertility. Being overweight can have a negative impact on testosterone levels, sperm count and motility.
There has been some headline-grabbing buzz that low-carb diets increase fertility. A recent review of low-carb diets and fertility found that of the interventions that have been done, the definition of a low-carb diet varies greatly and often is combined with other interventions. As a result, we don’t know enough about the effect of these diets to recommend them during the pre-conception period. Further, overdoing it on animal protein probably isn’t helpful. The “fertility diet” study found that ovulatory infertility was almost 40 percent more likely in women who ate the most animal protein.
According to Hillary Wright, a dietitian and director of nutritional counselling for the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health at Boston IVF, “The body uses nutrients in plant-based foods to neutralise the effects of toxic exposure, inflammation and more, so it makes sense to emphasise these foods during pre-conception and beyond.”
The researchers looking at the fertility diet found that the more women ate fast-absorbing carbs such as white bread, white rice, potatoes, soda and candy, the higher their risk for ovulatory infertility. They also observed that eating slow-absorbing carbs such as vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils can provide a fertility boost. As an added bonus, a high-fiber diet reduces the risk of gestational diabetes.
Wright advises clients to get their carbohydrates from whole foods and to spread them throughout the day in smaller portions. She recommends making half your plate at each meal non-starchy vegetables, a quarter protein-rich foods and a quarter fiber-rich carbohydrates with some healthy fat.
Getting more vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds means more fiber and phytochemicals in your diet, helping to manage weight, improve health and boost fertility. Taking in plenty of antioxidants from produce also seems to be beneficial for male fertility.
In the “fertility diet” study, consuming one to two servings of full-fat dairy products a day was linked to increased fertility, while low-fat versions showed the opposite trend. It seems that having some whole milk or higher-fat yogurt could positively affect ovulation and conception, because the cream component of milk influences its balance of sex hormones.
Before you start putting cheese on everything and finishing every meal with a bowl of ice cream, note that it’s one or two servings a day, and it’s best to choose nutrient-rich options. Wright advises her clients to use their saturated fat “budget” wisely. If you’re going to have some higher-fat yogurt, put skim milk in your oatmeal.
You also don’t want to get your fat from processed foods, as hydrogenated oils negatively impact fertility. Although the Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of artificial trans fats in processed foods, this doesn’t come into effect until June 2018. Until then, read your ingredients lists and limit anything that has partially hydrogenated oils. Better yet, eat whole foods rather than packaged ones. That’s great advice for anyone to follow.
I used to have all the time in the world to make dinner. See, I was a freelance food writer, and it was my job to obsess about what to cook, how to cook it and how to frame it for an Instagram post. Then I did something crazy – took a full-time legit job as editorial director at cookbook publisher Clarkson Potter. And now . . . those languid days of dinner dreaming are gone, baby, gone.
Even though I cook all the time, I am now one of those single moms who think – on my commute home – about the fastest way to get dinner on the table for my two hungry boys. Typically, I might turn to a baking sheet to roast, braise or bake my way to a one-pan dinner in one clean swoop, as it is efficient, easy and the subject of my next book.
But the weather is steamy, so no-cook dinner, here I come! No stove top, no grill – recipes that are the holy grail of sticky nights like these. Not only will you stay cool and composed, but you also can have the whole meal on the table in 40 minutes, including a no-bake dessert. (Spoiler alert: You do need to melt chocolate in the microwave.)
Here’s a menu’s worth of dead-simple yet sophisticated recipes to see you through the hottest of days.
Heirloom Tomatoes, Cannellini Beans and Snap Peas
Crisp crunch and beautiful colours will pull your guests to the side of the plate where this salad sits.
MAKE AHEAD: The salad, minus its basil and goat cheese, can be refrigerated a day in advance.
From cookbook author and Clarkson Potter editorial director Raquel Pelzel.
12 ounces (about 2 medium) ripe heirloom tomatoes, hulled and cut into bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt OR 1 teaspoon kosher salt
6 ounces snap peas, ends trimmed and pods thinly sliced on a bias (about 1 cup)
1 1/2 cups drained and rinsed canned white beans, such as cannellini (from a 15-ounce can)
1/3 cup fresh basil leaves, stacked, rolled and thinly sliced crosswise (chiffonade), or more as needed
2 ounces fresh goat cheese
Combine the tomatoes, oil and salt in a mixing bowl, stirring gently to incorporate.
Add the snap peas, beans and most of the basil, then crumble the goat cheese over the top. Give the salad a gentle stir, sprinkle with the remaining basil and serve.
Nutrition | Per serving (using kosher salt): 210 calories, 9 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 380 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
Avocado makes a creamy and pretty mayo alternative in this 10-minute recipe, letting the taste of the crabmeat shine through.
Although this is a no-cook recipe, a butter-toasted bun wouldn’t be heresy.
Flesh of 1 ripe Hass avocado
2 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice
1/2 teaspoon salt OR 1 teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces lump crabmeat, picked over to remove any cartilage or shell
2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives or scallions
4 hot dog buns or brioche buns, preferably split on top
Small green leaf lettuce leaves
12 sprigs cilantro, for garnish
Combine the avocado, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt in a medium bowl. Use a fork to mash the mixture until it is semi-smooth, with some chunks.
Gently fold in the crabmeat, the chives or scallions and the remaining citrus juice and salt.
Line the buns with the lettuce leaves. Divide the avocado-crab mixture evenly among them. Top each portion with cilantro sprigs.
Serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving: 240 calories, 16 g protein, 29 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 670 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar
Lentils With Hot-Smoked Salmon
Canned lentils are a convenience item that merits co-star attention here. Serve this spiky-savory salad as a main dish or side.
Hot-smoked salmon has a flakier, more “roasted” texture than cold-smoked, lox-style salmon, though in a pinch, the latter works just fine. Here, it can be flaked apart or chopped and then folded into the salad, or you can simply serve it alongside the lentils.
One 15-ounce can lentils, drained and rinsed
3 radishes, trimmed and cut into thin rounds
1 tablespoon capers, drained and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt OR 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces hot-smoked salmon, skin and pinbones discarded (see headnote)
Combine the lentils, radishes, capers and dill in a mixing bowl. Drizzle with the vinegar, then season with the salt and pepper, stirring to incorporate. Add the oil and toss to coat.
Cut the salmon into 4 equal portions, or flake the salmon into the lentil salad and toss gently to incorporate, then divide among individual plates.
Nutrition | Per serving (using kosher salt): 210 calories, 17 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 770 mg sodium, 8 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar
No-Bake Coconutter Fudge Bars
24 small squares
Chopped dried cherries enhance the chocolaty flavour and richness of this easy dessert or snack.
The chocolate does need to be melted in the microwave, so we can’t honestly call this a no-cook recipe. But making it won’t heat up your kitchen, and that’s the goal.
MAKE AHEAD: The assembled bars are easier to handle with at least 20 minutes of chill time. Store or pack them in a single layer; wrapped well (once they are firm), they can be frozen for up to 1 week.
From “Sheet Pan Suppers Meatless: 100 Surprising Vegetarian Meals Straight From the Oven,” by Raquel Pelzel (Workman, 2017).
1 1/2 cups roasted, salted peanuts
1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1/8 teaspoon salt OR 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
11/4 cups dried cherries
2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter (optional)
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped
2/3 cup low-fat coconut milk
1 1/2 tablespoons liquefied coconut oil
Flaked sea salt, for garnish (optional)
Combine the peanuts, cocoa powder and salt in a food processor; pulse about 10 times (1-second pulses), until finely ground. Add the cherries; pulse about 6 times, until you can squeeze the mixture together without it breaking apart easily. If it seems loose, add the peanut butter and pulse to bind and incorporate.
Line a quarter baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the peanut mixture in the pan. Place a sheet of plastic wrap on top of the peanut mixture, and, using the bottom of a measuring cup, press it into a solid and even layer. Freeze until set, about 15 minutes.
Place the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on HIGH in 20-second increments, stirring between each, until the chocolate is completely melted; this should take a total of about 1 1/2 minutes.
Whisk in the coconut milk and coconut oil until smooth, then pour the mixture over the frozen peanut-mixture base, spreading it in an even layer. Sprinkle with flaky salt, if using, and freeze for at least 20 minutes before cutting into 24 squares.
Nutrition | Per piece (using kosher salt): 140 calories, 4 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 40 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar
Salmon and broccoli can cook at the same time in a Tovala oven.
This is what we want in 2017: We want our food to be delivered to us. We want it to be gourmet. We want to know all of the ingredients and where they come from, so we can be sure they are healthful. We want to be able to order it with our phones and use them to cook it, too. We want to make restaurant-quality meals without needing restaurant-quality skills. We want dinner to take less than 15 minutes to make, and we want it to be easy, almost brainless. But not too easy – we still want to put the final touches on it, so it feels homemade.
One start-up thinks it has cracked the code of all of our conflicting culinary desires. Tovala – the name is a mashup of the Italian word for table, “tavola,” and the Hebrew word for good, “tov” – is a smart steam oven and meal subscription service that launched Tuesday; thanks to a Kickstarter and other pre-release efforts, it already has 700 of its $399 ovens in homes and connected to the internet. And by mid-July, CEO David Rabie estimates they will have shipped more than 10,000 meals.
Tovala meals have a bar code that the oven scans to determine the temperature and cook time.
The microwave-sized device is a steam convection oven, an appliance that has long been more popular in Europe, but is gaining ground in the US It has a chamber of water inside the oven that creates steam, which can cook food more quickly – “Heat moves faster through wet air than dry air,” said Rabie – and also produces moist, juicy food.
“I think chicken is a great example. There was this funny moment with our chef, he was trying to push the limits to see how hot it could get without drying it out,” said Rabie. “He got it to 198 degrees. It blew his mind that chicken at 198 degrees could still be juicy.” The recommended internal temperature for chicken, by the way, is much less – typically between 165 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can use the Tovala, which is controlled through an app, for your own recipes, but Rabie says it’s best when paired with the meal delivery service. It costs $36 for three meals a week for one person, or $72 for three meals a week for two, including shipping. That’s a few dollars more than Blue Apron, which charges $59.94 for two – but the difference is that with Tovala, there’s no cooking required. The meals are delivered to customers pre-assembled in metal trays, just like the dreaded airplane meal. But they’re a practical necessity, because all you have to do is pop them directly in the oven, and scan a barcode that communicates the cook time and temperature to the device (for some dishes, you might also be instructed to add a sauce, first). It’s Blue Apron for people who find Blue Apron to be too cumbersome.
“Anyone who has tried Blue Apron and stopped using it is our target customer,” said Rabie. “The meal kits, they pitch themselves as convenient, but at the end of the day, a lot of people don’t want to spend 45 minutes cooking.”
Heating up a Tovala meal takes about 15 minutes, typically. Some of the meals come in multiple trays – salmon in one, broccoli and brown rice in the other – and part of the charm of Tovala is that you can put them both in at once, and they’ll finish at exactly the same time. A few components are pre- or par-cooked, like the rice, but just as many are whole, raw ingredients. Almost all of them are cooked using Tovala’s three capabilities – steaming, then convection cooking, and then finishing the meal off with a few minutes of broiling, to add a little crispness.
Alexander Plotkin, the company’s chief culinary officer, studied at Noma in Copenhagen and Alinea in Chicago, and later developed recipes for corporate clients such as Starbucks, so his meals have mass appeal, but a touch of sophistication. I tried the Thai turkey meatballs with a hoisin glaze, served on cilantro brown rice with roasted asparagus, and was pleasantly surprised: The meatballs, studded with water chestnut, were crunchy and moist, the asparagus wasn’t overcooked, and a sambal sauce finish added a lot of kick. Another meal, miso salmon with roasted broccoli, delivered a velvety-soft piece of perfectly-done salmon. The food is prepped and packaged in a commercial commissary in Chicago.
Some foods work better than others for the meal service.
“We’re limited by our packaging right now. If you were to put steak in one of those trays, it would cook within its juices, it would come out too tough,” said Rabie. “We can solve that by putting a rack within the tray, to elevate it,” something they plan to introduce on a future menu. Their menu changes every week, and there are about five choices available now, with more to come. Dietary preferences, like vegetarianism and the paleo diet, are accommodated. There’s no minimum required commitment for the meal subscription. And they plan to introduce breakfasts and desserts in the coming months – baked egg dishes, breakfast sandwiches, and even a souffle. Like other delivery services, there is a lot of packaging, but at least it’s all recyclable.
You can program your own recipes into the Tovala, too, via its app – and after some experimentation, you can also do multi-step recipes where you steam some veggies and then broil them, for example. The device’s culinary team has already programmed some of these methods in for you: chicken wings, sausage, sweet potatoes, broccoli and shrimp are among the simple recipes Tovala can cook on autopilot. It doesn’t have as many pre-programmed foods as the June oven, but Rabie says they plan to add more recipes in the coming months, as well as community features that will allow users to share recipes.
As food cooks, a vent in the back of the Tovala puffs out little clouds of steam. It made broccoli perfectly – just sprinkle it with some olive oil and choose the broccoli setting in your phone – though its settings for shrimp made them a little firmer than our preference, and its sweet potato setting burned our spuds. And not everything is faster – it took six minutes to make a piece of toast. But it was a sad-looking piece of bread we fished out of a plastic bag in the deepest freezer drawer, and the Tovala brought it back to life, giving it moisture and eliminating all the telltale signs of freezer burn. Still, it seems like the device, unsurprisingly, works best with the delivered meals.
Tovala says it’s going after Blue Apron, but the meals work on another level too: They’re a much-tastier upgrade for people who supplement their cooking with frozen pizzas and skillet pastas, microwave dinners, and other convenience fare. It’s just one of the tech companies that is working to give convenience food a serious upgrade in both style and health: Nomiku, a company that makes a sous-vide circulator, a device for cooking food in a hot water bath, debuted a line of sous vide convenience foods in May. Customers only have to wave their foods over the device to automatically set the cook time and temperature, which is communicated through radio frequency identification.
As for the meal kit delivery business, the competition is growing ever steeper. Blue Apron had a particularly bad week, having priced its shares lower than expected for its initial public offering, and then watched that price dip even further. “Putting stuff that can be bought at the grocery store in a box and selling it at a premium just doesn’t seem like a great business model to me,” wrote Timothy Green for the Motley Fool. “Blue Apron’s financials appear to agree.” But if people are abandoning meal kits because they’re too much work, as Green speculates, they might be attracted to a service like Tovala. It could work well in a small office, too, as a company lunch perk.
“The challenge is that the early adopter demographic. Most of those people have tried [a meal kit] and the novelty has worn off,” said Rabie. “I think the reason they stopped using the service is that they don’t want to cook three meals a week.”
The Fancy Foods Show might sound precious. But it’s actually pretty intense: Every summer, makers of specialty foods from across the globe convene in New York for a massive trade show of their wares, all vying for the attention of buyers from grocery stores and markets. A purchase from Whole Foods, for example, can make or break a brand.
Representatives from major grocery stores stalk the aisles of the Javits Center, sampling salmon jerky and switchel and “goji berry superfood ice treat,” looking for the next big thing. And when you see that many stalls shilling speculoos, for example, it’s easy to see what’s going to be trending in grocery stores next year. If you don’t see these products in your local grocery store, you can always buy them online.
Gochujang and all things Korean
Maybe it’s because we’ve grown weary of Sriracha. But gochujang, a spicy Korean sauce, is going to become a household name, if the Fancy Foods Show is any indication. There were several companies selling it – some from Korean entrepreneurs devoted only to Korean sauces, and others from established companies bandwagoning off of the trend. There was more gochujang in the halls of the Javits Center than could be counted, from brands such as We Rub You, Food Trk, One Culture Foods, Seriously Korean, Divine, and K-Mama Sauce (they just call it Korean hot sauce – and it’s also available gluten-free). Serious Foodie has a gochujang-infused “Korean Lemon Garlic Grill Sauce and Marinade,” which is gluten-free and non-GMO. Hak’s brand of tear-and-pour cooking sauces offers a Korean barbecue packet, and Spice Hunter has a Korean barbecue rub. Mother in Law’s, a kimchi brand that launched its gochujang in 2014, now offers “liquid kimchi” (it’s the liquid from the kimchi fermentation process), a “fermented and probiotic spicy elixir” that they recommend for use in salad dressings. Korean food is also gaining ground in the frozen aisle, where Saffron Road has a “Korean-style sweet chili chicken” bowl, and Korean fusion is on shelves too, in the form of Urban Accents’ Korean barbecue taco sauce.
Chickpeas are the new nuts
Last year’s chocolate hummus trend has manifested itself in a more palatable form: Chocolate-covered chickpeas. Some of them are crunchy, some of them are chewy, and all of them could substitute for your favourite chocolate covered almonds or trail mix when you get in a snack rut. Biena makes crunchy dark chocolate, milk chocolate and salted caramel chickpeas. Lebby, which boasts that it is “totes non GMO,” has a savoury hot chile flavour, and sweet dark chocolate, sesame honey and cinnamon crunch chickpea snacks. Watusee’s “Chickpeatos” take inspiration from another childhood snack – Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Fancy, expensive waters
I drank a few sips of a $25 bottle of “herbal table water” that was packaged to look vaguely like perfume. “This one is uplifting,” the kind woman at the SD Watersboten booth told me, handing me a small cup of what tasted mostly like sugar water. Remember hearing about the water sommeliers of fancy restaurants, who enraged the proletariat and inflamed the Internet trolls? Well, they’ve made their way into packaged goods. Watersboten offers three varieties that all sound like celebrity baby names: Angelica, Blue Vervain and Rhodiola Rosea, described in their marketing materials as “non-habit forming” and “gently mood-enhancing.” Instructions: “Enjoy cold as a cordial, in a long stemmed water glass, over ice in a rocks glass.” But that’s not the only expensive, soul-crushing water offering at Fancy Foods: A few tables down was Tanzamaji “prehistoric water,” which is advertised as being 10 million years old. Bottled in Mwanza, Tanzania, the water comes from the depths of a lake there, which is so deep that it has “not gone through the evaporation/rain cycle in 10 million years,” the company says. It costs $15 a bottle and tastes like water. Before you get out your pitchforks, know that the company provides jobs and clean drinking water for Tanzanians near the lake.
African food has finally been getting more popular in the restaurant scene, so it’s only natural that those flavours would make their way to packaged goods. Serious Foodie has a “West African Paradise” rub, made with grains of paradise, a spice that is also referred to as alligator pepper and has a lemon-pepper flavor. Woodland Foods’ Manitou Trading Company is making a North African Chermoula seasoning, another trendy flavour – traditionally, chermoula is a Moroccan herb sauce that plays well with seafood. They also have berbere spice from Ethiopia, dukkah from Egypt, Libyan pilpelchuma, and North African ras el hanout. Spice Hunter, another brand, has an African spicy garlic blend. Iya Foods, based in Illinois, sells African spice mixes and jarred sauces for dishes like rice and pepper soup.
Because juicing isn’t just for fruit. What makes these drinkable fruit juices different from V8? Branding. Drinking vegetables is no longer juicing, it’s “souping.” Vegetable soups are being packaged as ready-to-drink portable beverages. Tio Gazpacho comes in six flavours: classic, “Del Sol” (yellow tomato, carrot, and pepper), green (kale, spinach, avocado, mint), “Rosado” (watermelon, cilantro, cayenne), corn and “fresa” (strawberry, basil and romaine). Zupa Noma (slogan: “Souping is the new juicing”) has a Whole 30-approved range of soups, from carrot coconut lime to yellow pepper turmeric. Beautifully packaged Fawen soups use organic vegetables and come in beet and cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, and sweet potato and red lentil. And Bonafide Provisions mixes vegetables with another trend of yesteryear: bone broth. Their “Drinkable veggies” soups combine chicken bone broth with herbs and spices in five flavors: spring pea, roasted butternut squash, beets, roasted red pepper, and carrots. As much as you might roll your eyes at the idea of “souping,” these cool, drinkable veggies would be pretty refreshing alongside a salad for a summer lunch break.
Ramen at a restaurant is often a gourmet experience, but ramen at home hasn’t yet shaken its styrofoam-coated Top Ramen college student associations. That’s about to change: There were several companies at Fancy Foods shilling higher-quality ramen. Mike’s Mighty Good sells “craft” ramen cups filled with organic noodles in four flavors: chicken, pork tonkotsu, spicy beef and vegetarian. Wiki Wiki noodles – it means “fast” in Hawaiian – come with a miso or tonkotsu base, and take only 3 minutes to make. The same company that makes them, Sun Noodles – which supplies noodles to Momofuku – also has a “craft ramen” line, which you can buy noodles-only, or accompanied by a miso or shoyu base. It’s free of preservatives and artificial MSG, and the packaging is slightly rustic, as if it were cornbread or wild rice. One Culture Foods offers microwaveable ramen bowls with a variety of influences: In addition to a spicy Japanese bowl, there’s Taiwanese beef, Vietnamese pho and Chinese chicken noodle. The bowls are made with a bone broth reduction, and promise lower sodium than typical ramen bowls.
What, you haven’t heard of birch water? Because coconut water, aloe water, maple water and cactus water are so passe, there were several companies at Fancy Foods hawking water made from the sap of birch trees. Companies like Absolutely Wild claim that the water is rich in antioxidants and electrolytes, has “detoxifying and restorative properties” and “strengthens your body’s immunity.” It’s lower in sugar than coconut water, and tastes less sweet, too: Earthy, grassy flavours are more predominant. Some companies try to enhance it by adding flavours. Absolutely Wild has a matcha birch water, while Treo offers four flavors: peach mango, blueberry, coconut pineapple and strawberry. Säpp birch water also comes in rosehip and nettle. That’s not to be confused with Vermont company Sap!, which makes birch water, maple soda and maple seltzer. Expect to see birch water in the hands of Lululemon-wearing SoulCyclers.
Beyond cold brew
Cold brew, last summer’s drink of choice, is too mainstream now. So 2016, #basic. But we still need an under-the-radar coffee drink that makes us look smarter than all the regular iced coffee drinkers, so there are some new innovations in the canned coffee field. Enter Keepers, a brand of flash-brewed sparkling coffee with a hint of citrus – it’s nicely effervescent. There’s also Sunup, a brand that makes canned green coffee – meaning, unroasted – that, true to its motto, “Tastes like a tea, energizes like a coffee.” (It’s not the same as cascara, another super-trendy drink made from the husks of coffee beans). Both drinks would be very refreshing over ice, sitting on a patio. And the method has shifted over to tea, too: Evy Tea makes flavoured, attractively packaged cold brew tea.
Hey, watermelon is back in! Why it was ever out is a mystery to me. It’s not like watermelon just started being delicious now, but in recent years, it took a back seat to less ordinary flavors like mango, goji berry and acai. For some reason, the flavor is having a little bit of a revival; there were so many watermelon-flavored drinks and snacks at the show. Dry sparkling soda just introduced a watermelon soda. The adorably named Watermelon Road Snack Co. makes a watermelon-lemonade dried fruit snack, and if I took a bag of those to the pool, they’d be gone in less than 10 minutes. I’d also knock back a Suja organic probiotic watermelon juice, or a CideRoad watermelon and mint spritzel (a “switchel with a spritz”), or an Owl’s Brew watermelon radler, or a Daily Greens watermelon-hibiscus “Green-Ade,” maybe while eating a GoodPop watermelon agave ice pop. There’s even DrinkMelon’s organic watermelon water – a beverage that contains “natural electrolytes,” made from squeezing the juice out of a bunch of melons. Basically, they’ve bottled the stuff that dribbles down your chin when you eat a big slice of melon. You can buy it in three flavors: original, cherry and lime.
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