Friday, November 14, 2014

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Messa and Raphael, Tel Aviv

In many ways, they're like day and night. Raphael is a refined, airy space overlooking the sea with a dining room recently updated to be more streamlined and casual -- and the food is fresh, unfussy Mediterranean fare executed with perfect technique: classic. Messa is a funky, sophisticated boite where the food dazzles as much as the room -- whitewashed and oversized and communal in the dining room, and all black and sleek and hip in the bar-lounge area. In this comparison, Raphael is day, and Messa is most definitely the night. But while the chefs' aesthetics and cooking styles may differ, and the dining rooms of the two spots have very different feels to them, Raphael and Messa share an expert approach to redefining what Mediterranean and Israeli food is, and can be. In this, both restaurants move Israeli cuisine forward, and front and center on the world stage. Indeed, SAVEUR magazine just named Tel Aviv as one of the world's top dining destinations. It's about time they caught on -- though honestly, I'd prefer to keep this little culinary gem between us!

Let's start with Chef Raffi Cohen's delicious, pared-down cuisine at Raphael. Cohen has worked in top kitchens around the world, including l'Arpege in Paris, Nobu in NYC, and with Marco Pierre White in London. He honed his craft at the restaurant at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem at the ripe old age of 23. And he credits much of his formative cooking chops to his Moroccan grandmother, from whom he draws his North African and French culinary influences. He's a Jerusalem boy, but since 2001, Cohen has been running Raphael in Tel Aviv, and the urban hub is the better for it. The dining room as had a makeover in recent years, and it's a lighter, brighter place to eat. Linens have been replaced with wood tables and cream-colored mod leather chairs. Overhead drop lights have replaced linen-covered oversized ceiling lamps, and the overall feel is cool, almost Scandinavian. The giveaway as to your actual location is in the view overlooking Tel Aviv's famous beachfront.

Raphael offers an interesting menu of that Sephardic French/North African-influenced food of Cohen's youth, mixed with some Ashkenazi Jewish staples. All of these dishes are elevated versions of classic home cooking, or they're whittled down to a simpler, cleaner version of a complicated, ingredient-heavy recipe. The stuffed cabbage appetizer is a trio of a taste bomb on a sauce of labneh (fresh, tangy yogurt-like cheese) infused with dill. The cabbage rolls were cold, stuffed with a bulgar wheat falvored with herbs, raisins, pine nuts, and black olives, and was perfectly sweet-and-sour. Normally, stuffed cabbage is a heavy dish, a meal in itself. These mini versions were a wonderful light appetizer and just what the doctor ordered on an unusually stormy afternoon in January.
A warm salad of barely-sauteed calamari was tossed with red and golden tomatoes and peppers, red onion, fruity olive oil, and white beans, and was as bright and fresh and delicious as the photo makes it seem. Fresh mint brought the dish from excellent to superb. These offerings were first courses in what is a very economical "business lunch," as it's dubbed in this city: a prix fixe, usually three-course lunch for a great price. You don't have to be talking shop to enjoy the Restaurant Week-style menu offerings, however. And the menus are simple abbreviated versions of dishes from the a la carte menus, so you can often try the restaurant's most renowned dishes, usually for around $35 or so, all in.

To best explain why I love Raphael, let me describe my first experience with it. It was 2011, and the dining room back then had a muted elegance to it. The lights were dim, I managed to get a last-minute 10 pm reservation, and it was the first place I headed once I'd checked into my hotel a few doors down. I remember the bread served was incredibly delicious and restorative, just what I needed at the time. I was coming to Tel Aviv, and back to Israel, after a 13 year hiatus, taking some time to myself after the roughest year of my life, personally. It was also the first time I'd ever vacationed completely by myself. I found Raphael to be an elegant enclave where I sat, dined, and just thought, in silence. I scribbled some notes in a small notebook I'd brought with me from Rome, feeling slightly self-conscious about sitting at a two-top alone. Maybe they'd think I was working as a restaurant critic (only partly true), as long as they didn't ask me questions. I ate lots of that bread and started the meal with a delicious fish carpaccio of some kind, with a lovely Israeli white wine (lovely white wine is a recurring theme in my Israeli dining experiences). But it was the main course that sticks in my mind. It remains there because it was so simple: Mediterranean cuisine, steps from the Mediterranean itself.
The sauce hit all the right fresh, briny, acidic notes, comprised of olives, tomato, capers, parsley and mint, over a perfectly-cooked piece of local drumfish. Eating it, I knew exactly where I was. That time, there was a bit of okra in the mix -- a vegetable, I came to discover, that Israelis use quite frequently in their cooking. When I ordered the same dish a year and a half later, it was almost exactly the same, but without the okra. It was still perfectly cooked. And it came with the same side of buttery, creamy potato puree' that should be set forth as an example of how potato purees are to be made now and forever after for all time. Seriously. Those were some transformative potatoes! But beyond transformative, they were utter comfort. This food to me, especially on that balmy July evening, was a virtual, warm, engulfing Mediterranean hug when I really needed it. It's a taste memory that I've kept in my mind and on my palate ever since, and I've tried to reproduce that meal for clients to enjoy back in New York, 6,000 miles from where it changed me, just a little bit, years ago. 

Messa is one of my favorite restaurants I've ever experienced, and I've eaten all over the world. When I say "experienced," that's what I mean: it's an upscale restaurant, to be sure, with delicious and inventive food. But its neighboring bar (where you can eat as well, though I think it's best for drinks) completes the "package" and allows you to spend an evening in the Messa environs without needing to go elsewhere. The setting is sleek and gorgeous. It's not wholly original -- I've eaten, or lodged, in some similar environments, with Schrager spots like the Modrian in L.A. and Asia de Cuba coming immediately to mind. But these count among some of my favorite places to frequent over the years, as well (let's all take a moment to bemoan the closure of Asia de Cuba in the Morgans Hotel in NYC: end of an era!). There is something to be said for a setting in which you actually feel more beautiful. Everyone and everything around you oozes sexiness. The main restaurant is part communal table lined with tall white bar stools, part series of dining nooks separated by curtains and oversize modern-baroque chairs that resemble thrones (this shouts out anyone can be king or queen for the length of a meal!). It is all a whitewashed affair with gossamer draping and candelabras, and everything is just-right. The lighting is flattering. The rooms are comfortable and spacious. The music is at the ideal volume and sets the mood perfectly. The restaurant is staffed by servers who know the menu and its chef inside and out, who have a grasp of Israeli and New and Old World wines, are warm and friendly and helpful, and also happen to look like they could do double-duty as runway models on their off nights.  
And then, of course, there's the food. The restaurant's style could be dubbed Luxe Levantine, and it's an interesting mix of Middle Eastern, Sephardic, classic French, and Mediterranean culinary influences that comprise what has become "New Israeli" cuisine. Chef Aviv Moshe is an autodidact of Kurdish ancestry who was born in Jerusalem 40 years ago. He started his on-the-job training at Chateau Ein Karem in his home city in '92, which explains the French/Provencal flourishes in his dishes. Like Cohen, he is heavily influenced by his grandmother's cooking, which is also North African. With her, Moshe was able to see how to utilize exotic spices and blends and apply them to cooking with local staples like eggplant, tahini, pomegranate, and labane (a yogurt-like cheese). Moshe and three partners debuted Messa with the ambition to redefine what new Israeli cuisine -- and an amazing dining experience could be in Tel Aviv -- a decade ago now. It's been one of the focal points of fine dining in this beachside city ever since, attracting an eclectic client base, from Paul Anka to Lady Gaga, Rudy Giuliani to Roberto Cavalli.

At Messa, the menu is fairly large, which can often be an indicator that what comes out of the kitchen is unfocused, hit-or-miss. But not here, not from what I've seen. The dishes are original, the flavor pairings often unique, the technique accomplished. And the service and presentation are typically flawless. I ordered a foie gras appetizer which was seared to caramelized and served with a Valhrona white chocolate-vanilla bean sauce (not as strange as it may sound: foie and sweet flavors pair well together), with hits of lemon and balsamic, paired with a vodka-based lemon shooter of some kind. Odd at first, but anything that pairs one of my favorite rich foods with one of my favorite brisk alcohols to cut the richness of the liver -- well, it's alright with me. Plus, it's fun! It was a lighthearted approach and presentation to a dish too often mired in the seriousness of its rich history and taste. 
My friend Jessica ordered an app on special that evening, which was an interesting take on all of the countless versions we see of beets with goat cheese. The beets were half way to pickled (beets in Israel are a very common accompaniment to salads and sandwiches, so seeing them pickled or made into a slaw is familiar to locals), and the goat cheese was not a soft, crumbling affair but a nice, solid slice of an aged chevre, placed atop the beet salad with herbs. Simple and lovely. And I'd be remiss in covering the many gorgeous offerings for appetizers if I didn't mention at least one of the seafood apps. There was a delectable barely-seared tuna dish, basically sashimi, with an eggplant roll, mushrooms, and chevre cheese in a pomegranate broth: delicious. Now that dish has become the tuna served with "raw shakshuka" and a six minute egg, which sounds wonderful. And there's a gorgeous raw yellowtail starter with sumac-dusted onions, caramelized eggplant and wasabi sorbet. You can't have a restaurant of international acclaim, these days, without some nod to Japan and its sushi culture. And that's fine with me, especially when the seafood you have to work with is as fresh and delicious as it is in Israel.

 For second courses, we had an equally-difficult time deciding what to try, but Jess went for the classic Moroccan style fish with homemade couscous (here, the grandmother's North African influence in full bloom). The broth of the fish stew was thick and bright red with harissa paste and tomatoes, a contrast to the pale, fluffy couscous beside it. It was as delicious as you might expect. Paul stuck to seafood and chose a light sea bass dish with shallot ravioli and porcini foam, which was beautiful and light, but very savory.
I went for something a little more substantial with the veal cheeks. These were served with root vegetables and crispy gnocchi with a sweet spice broth. This dish was as rich and hearty as it sounds, but it was a cool, rainy night outside, we were settled in here at Messa, nothing to do but enjoy our time between now and the end of the evening when we'd climb into a taxi and head home. So yes, foie gras and veal cheeks made sense at the time. Dessert was equally as rich, a study in dark, milk, and white chocolate of varying degrees of temperature and consistency (oh, that all studying and degrees were chocolate-based!). It didn't photograph well, but trust me when I say it went down easily.
The amazing thing about a place like this one is that once dinner and its accompanying prosecco are over with, you can hop down out of your incredibly comfortable chairs or bar stools, head through a pair of double-glazed, curtained glass doors, and enter into the bar part of Messa. And it's a shock to the senses, in the best possible way. It's completely black: the walls, the chairs, the tables, the napkins. The bar is a deep gray-brown marble and the lighting is quite dim with a few spotlights and bedside table-style lamps on the bar for illumination. The central bar is long and rectangular, and there are cushy cocktail tables and banquettes along the perimeter. And oh yeah, there's a trippy blue-black film projected on the far wall, with images of people's heads morphing into each other. There is a window that looks onto the white dining room, for contrast, but overall the feeling of the place is dark exotic drinking den. And the bartenders are, as most Israelis, quite friendly but can keep their space from you when wanted. They have a great cocktail list that features Israeli-friendly ingredients. I had a vodka cocktail with citrus, pomegranate, and mint which was I had another. Ostensibly, you could start your evening with a pre-dinner drink here, dine in the white room, and come back here for post-prandial cocktails, and you will have passed a very happy portion of your day here. Like I said at the beginning, Messa is an experience.
87 Ha-Yarkon (King David Tower)
Tel Aviv, Israel
Phone +972 3.522.6464

19 HaArba'a Street
Tel Aviv, Israel
+972 3.685.6859

Thursday, November 6, 2014

RECIPE BY REQUEST: Cumin-Herb Grilled Lamb Chops

Occasionally I will post some photos online of a dish I've made, either for clients or for myself, that elicit responses on social media, from likes to Yum! to looks delicious to Please post a recipe for this dish, my mouth is watering! It is for this last response that I am starting a new series on my blog called "Recipe By Request" -- and I'm happy to announce that the first in this series is here.

I made this dish for some of my very best clients, this summer out in the Hamptons. It was a balmy evening, and the grill was calling to me (not hard to hear, considering how massive the grill was at the house!). I was in the mood for some savory Mediterranean cooking, so I made a series of dishes that paired grilled meats with cooling salads. The dish here -- lamb chops with a North African touch -- I served over a salad that tosses together parsley (I love using this herb like a salad green. It's so palate-cleansing and bright.) with sliced red onions, chick peas, and pomegranate arils. This salad would be at home in Morocco, but equally at home in Andalusia, Spain, or Italy, Provence, or Israel. I think it pairs really well with the smokiness and warm spices on the lamb chops, and matches the herbal notes in the rub as well. Tying everything together is a great-quality extra-virgin olive oil. 

You don't have to grill these chops to make them at home -- you can use a grill pan or even just sear them in a hot frying pan (cast iron would be best), or even bake them. The important thing is to play with them, mix and match the ingredients in here to your personal taste. I guarantee you this dish, however modified, pared-down or amped-up, will be a favorite player in your arsenal of deceptively easy, flavorful dishes.

Cumin and Herb-Spiced Lamb Chops
Serves 8 people

With lamb chops, especially if they're being grilled, it's best to leave the fat on the bone instead of trimming it. This keeps the meat moist while cooking and adds flavor. 

2 medium onions, peeled, quartered

3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves with clean, tender stems
1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves with clean, tender stems
1 cup fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 small chili pepper with seeds (anything from jalapeno to bird's eye Thai chili), roughly chopped
1 teaspoon ras-el-hanout (North African spice mix)
Kosher salt
24 untrimmed lamb rib chops (approximately 5 pounds)
Olive oil

- Place onions, garlic, cilantro, parsley, mint, cumin, paprika, chili pepper, ras-el-hanout, salt, pepper, and olive oil in a food processor until very finely chopped. This should make a flavor paste that is thick but easily spreadable.

- Place lamb in a large dish and rub with spice and herb mixture. Cover and chill at least 2 hours.
- One hour before cooking, take the marinating lamb chops out of the fridge and bring to room temperature.
- Prepare grill for medium-high heat and oil grate. 
- Grill lamb to desired doneness, about 3 minutes per side for medium-rare. Let rest at least 5 minutes before serving.

*Can be served with a salad of flat-leaf parsley, chick peas, sliced red onion, and pomegranate arils. Toss with extra-virgin olive oil and salt and line a platter with the salad. Place the lamb chops on top and it's a real show-stopper of a presentation!

NOTE: Lamb can be marinated 12 hours ahead. Keep chilled.

Friday, October 31, 2014

QUICK BITE: Suppli' and Demand

When asked by Americans why most Italians are thin, despite their seemingly incessant carbo-loading and indulging in 4-hour marathon dinners, I usually respond thusly: "Italians don't snack." And while this is mostly true, they do have their fair share of snack-like substances -- small bites and appetite whet-ers that certainly entice, if not so much in between meals as at the start of them. But Romans, oh, the Romans! They, of course, have a few exceptions. Roman pizza al taglio, or by the slice, makes a nice snack at any time -- particularly pizza rossa: red pizza, the thin crust barely slicked with tomato sauce, olive oil, and sea salt. Gelato counts as something Italians eat not only for dessert, but also mid-day, around 5 or 6 p.m., still several hours before dinner but not quite aperitivo hour. And then there are SUPPLI'.  
Not to be confused with arancini, which are the sometimes-stuffed risotto balls of Sicilian origin, suppli' are an entirely Roman invention, something that harks back to the Eternal City's now-defunct friggitorie (little shops or stalls specializing in fried foods). Today you can find suppli' in pretty much any Roman pizzeria, whether it's a pizza al taglio shop or a sit-down pizzeria that only fires up its wood-burning oven for dinner. It's become tradition in Rome to have fritti before the pizza, and so you can witness happy Romans all over the city tucking into little plates of various fried items (more on those in another post), including suppli'. 

The version in Rome was supposedly originally made with risotto and a meat ragu', but now the typical suppli' is made with risotto and tomato sauce, with a bocconcino ("small mouthful": a tiny ball) of mozzarella in the middle. This is the surprise -- suppli' as a name, curiously, comes from the French word for surprise -- in the middle. The mozzarella melts when the rice ball is dipped in egg, coated in bread crumbs, and deep fried. When you break the suppli' in half, the melted mozzarella forms a string that stretches and looks like a telephone wire, hence its full name: suppli' al telefono.

Now, you can find these delicious delicacies at any decent Roman pizzeria, as stated earlier. But arguably the best spot for them is at a place technically called "Sisini La Casa del Suppli'," known simply as I Suppli', in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood. There are no chairs in this little buco (hole in the wall). There are now 2 tall tables at which you may stand and eat your suppli' or your pizza. This is no-frills. But it's absolutely delicious, and downright cheap. Their pizza al taglio at I Suppli' is justly famous around the city. Of course, they make several pizzas with interesting toppings and their pizza with potatoes and rosemary is among the best, though I go strictly for their margherita pizza.
They don't always have some at the ready, so if I don't see any I'll ask when the next pizza -- a huge rectangular slab of hot, crispy, chewy dough bathed in tomato sauce and more mozzarella cheese than I generally prefer, but here, I say bring it on! -- will be sfornata, or taken out of the oven. (Side note: one little reason I love the Italian language? Sfornata literally means 'un-ovened.' The "s" before an already-existing word often makes the word a negative or opposing version of itself. How cool is that?). Anyway, the margherita pizza is great, and I always get enough to fold over like a sandwich and eat it while strolling the neighborhood. 

The rotisserie chicken at I Suppli' is delicious as well, perfuming the surrounding streets of the zona, and worth considering for a convenient dinner option along with some oven-roasted potatoes and sauteed cicoria greens. But really, the name above the door says it all. It's I Suppli, so that's what you have to try, without fail, when you make the trip here. They're plenty good at room temp, and Romans are happy to eat most foods at this moderate temperature. But they're another experience when piping hot.
Ask them to warm it up for you, if you don't catch a batch fresh out of the fryer. This way, you get the full experience of the melted mozzarella "surprise" in the middle, and to my mind, the full taste experience. You may have to wait a few minutes for it. You will most likely have to wait in line for it. But, good things come to those who wait, and this is never more true than when you're waiting for some delicious bite of food in Italy, vero

And a little tip: if you're headed there at lunch or dinner time, try to get there on the early side. They do sometimes run out, demand for suppli' (haha) being what it is at mealtime. Buon suppli'!

Via San Francesco a Ripa 137
00153 Roma, ITALY
+39 06 589 7110

    Friday, October 24, 2014

    BOOKS: Massimo Bottura in-person & Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef

    Massimo Bottura is, for a chef who trained, lived, and worked in Italy for many years, like I did -- well, he's a deity. But for me, it's not just because he's a three Michelin star chef, with a CV that includes time working with Ferran Adria' and Alain Ducasse. And it's not because he hangs around with the current culinary hipsters like Rene Redzepi, or Wylie Dufresne and David Chang (both of whom were at the 92nd Street Y event I attended last week: Dufresne in the discussion with Bottura, and Chang in the audience, serving up some friendly heckling). For me, it's more of a big-picture thing. By that I mean that he's an excellent, creative chef who intellectualizes food but is also quite playful. He knows the parameters within which he's working (conservative, traditionalist food culture in Modena, Italy), and he pushes the limits to make these traditionalists reconsider what he's doing with Italian food. He's not the first or only chef to work this way, but he's among the very few who do it well, and successfully. He's also greatly inspired by art in its many forms, and is a great collector of modern art. Hell, he's argued his cooking philosophy with Bob Dylan. In some ways, he's the culinary counterpart to his buddy Maurizio Cattelan -- playful, sometimes cynical, counter-cultural, he strives to change what you think you know about his artistic medium (in this case, food). Bottura even titles his dishes, as if they're opuses -- and indeed they are: edible art.
    Take, for example, his "Bollito Not Boiled," which is what he created after much thoughtful consideration of the traditional (northern) Italian dish, bollito misto, which originated in the area of his home town. This is normally a series of different boiled parts of the cow, often including tongue and other "off cuts," served with the broth and a salsa verde (green sauce) and sometimes a number of other condiments like mostarde and various piquant potions. When it's good, it's really good, and when it's not done well, it can, to say the least. But though it made sense centuries ago, economically, to boil meat to get the broth and extend the food for several meals this way, today it's often on menus as a matter of keeping tradition alive. Bottura wanted to challenge this. He'd worked in New York City for a time, and his wife is from New York, so he recreated this most traditional of Italian dishes as an ode to the time he spent in the city's Central Park. So. He takes various cuts of meat and cooks them sous vide to elicit the most flavor and best texture from the meats. He shapes these like little skyscrapers, placing them on the plate with a salsa verde (green sauce) foam for the trees, and a peperonata lawn with little anchovy people on it. It's cute and quirky and sticks to the core flavors of the dish while turning it on its head. He explained this all to us, an audience filled with New Yorkers, and his love of and enthusiasm for this city was clear.

    I was lucky enough to meet Bottura in person and have him sign my copy of his book -- in Italian. He was very sweet and laughing and enjoying everything the whole time, which was really refreshing -- especially since he's on a mega book tour, and he's been running around for weeks like a crazy person, with engagements all over New York (cooking with other top chefs from Italy and the U.S. for Eataly NYC's

    Identità Golose).

    His book, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, is filled with anecdotes about his most famous dishes, and the thought process and technical work that goes into them. It's not a cookbook in the traditional sense. And while I own many cookbooks, I don't read them for their recipes or accuracy in measuring out ingredients, and I don't recommend cookbooks based on these criteria. But I rarely follow recipes. Instead, I look to cookbooks for inspiration, for interesting ingredient pairings, for general procedures if there's some new dish or cooking method I'm trying out. I peruse the stories behind the food, the history of dishes in cultures about which I'm curious, places maybe I've recently visited or am longing to explore. And then I create, based on this information, co-opting it for my purposes, re-working a point of something I found of interest in a recipe or a food story. I realize I am not your average home cook, so if you're looking for practical recipes and time-tested accuracy, look to Mark Bittman or Julia Child, or Nigel Slater, all of whom are fabulous in their own ways. But if you're excited, like I am, to take a peek into the mind of a creative genius, then Bottura's book may interest you. There are recipes in the back for everything, but that's almost besides the point.

    I'm loving it so far, though I have more to go. And I am looking forward to devouring some of his iconic dishes on my next Italian sojourn, when I will, per forza, eat in his amazing Trattoria Francescana in Modena. My stomach is already grumbling...

    Monday, October 13, 2014

    SEASONAL FOODS: All things Orange

    It's October -- a lovely month, my birthday month, probably my favorite month of the year. The weather has cooled off from the steamy days of summer, but it's still great weather for walking and exploring the city (or country!). I correlate October with other "O" words, especially ORANGE. When I think of this month and the real beginning of autumn, I think of orange leaves, sunsets, sweaters, brilliant flaming fires in the fireplace, and above all else, delicious orange food. What does orange food offer? Besides a great variety of delicious fruits and vegetables, many of them seasonal to autumn, orange foods boast carotenoids, which are fat-soluble nutrients that produce the orange, bright yellow, or red color in the foods that contain them. The best known carotenoid is beta carotene, which our bodies convert to Vitamin A when it enters our bloodstream. Orange foods are, on the whole, anti-inflammatory and full of nutrients that fight aging and skin issues, they help sharpen our vision, they aid in weight loss with a high fiber and low caloric content, and often help our digestive and immune systems. They help fight cancers and cardiovascular disease and basically amp up our systems to work at their most efficient. 

    Trips to the farm stand this time of year are wonderful: this is when harvests are at their most bountiful, and a stroll through a well-stocked farmer's market provides a sensory explosion (more on this later in my seasonal "MARKETS" blog post). October offers a vast variety of orange and orange-tinged foods, many of which are outlined for you below, along with their key nutritional benefits, and some ideas on dishes to prepare with the excellent orange primary ingredients... 

    Carrots: Rich in vitamin A, they help ward off various types of cancer, they prevent macular degeneration, slow down cellular aging, and keep skin clear. I love roasting whole baby carrots, tossing them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses and some sea salt, and baking them at 400 degrees until charred on the outside.

    Papaya: This fruit is known for the wonders it works on digestive health, and serves as an immunity booster. It also contains digestive enzymes that make all food go down a lot easier. Try it out of hand, or in fruit smoothies. Green papayas are great in Thai salads, though they don't share the same healthful properties as regular papayas.

    Butternut squash: This dense, orange squash is high in fiber and potassium, and helps build and preserve bone strength. It's incredibly versatile, and little do most people know, but the canned "pumpkin" sold across America for pumpkin pie? It's really a butternut squash puree. You can oven roast the peeled pieces of the squash for a homemade puree for baking if you're a DIY-type. Or use the roasted butternut in salads with vegetables, grains, and fruits.You can whip the roasted squash in a food processor to make a topping for crostini, as in the photo here, where I've made many of my clients' fall favorite: butternut squash crostini with crispy pancetta, parmigiano, and sage. You can also boil the peeled butternut squash with some veggie stock until it's soft, and then use an immersion blender to turn it into a healthy and nutritious soup -- no cream needed.
    Pumpkin: There are many varieties found across America and Europe, but the typical pumpkin that's good for eating is on the small side and is more squat than round, or cylindrical like the butternut squash. Pumpkin keeps your eyesight sharp, aids in weight loss, and its seeds protect us from heart disease - -and they're a delicious snack when roasted. One of my favorite dishes of the season is pumpkin ravioli (which can also be made with butternut squash), with the roasted puree filling hand-made fresh pasta dough. I cook them simply with a butter and sage sauce, and top with either parmigiano and toasted hazelnuts, or with a crumbling of amaretti cookies to bring out the sweetness of the pumpkin. And speaking of sweetness, pumpkin sweets are a fabulous way to make desserts a tad healthier in the autumn months. Menus all over are stuffed with pumpkin donuts, pumpkin spice cupcakes and layer cakes, pumpkin panna cotta, and one of my personal favorites, pumpkin cheesecake. The photo at right is dressed with a cinnamon sour cream topping, candied rosemary, sugared pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds), and pumpkin seed brittle.

    Sweet potatoes: These tubers are rich in Vitamin A, which is anti-inflammatory and keeps skin clear. Roasted in the oven is a great, simple way to have them, and peeled and fried is a healthier alternative to french fries. But I love them peeled, grated, and turned into sweet potato latkes. Perhaps it's the innate Jewish mother in me, but I think these savory little pancakes are delicious, especially as I serve them at cocktail parties, with a chipotle sour cream and topped with wasabi caviar. They certainly lend themselves to sweet iterations -- hold the onions in the latke prep, and add a dash of cinnamon instead. Top with homemade apple sauce or pear butter.
    Cantaloupe: Though this is mostly a summer melon, you can still find it into the fall. It's high in vitamins A and C, and in beta carotene. It's great on its own, blended as a cold soup, or sliced and wrapped in some prosciutto for a light lunch.

    Apricots: These are also mostly a summer stone fruit, but you can sometimes find them into the autumn months, and you can certainly find them dried throughout the year (though obviously sugar content rises in the dried version). This fruit is high in iron, fiber, and potassium. And they work really well both with sweet preparations and as a savory accompaniment to meat and poultry dishes.
    I make crostini with ricotta, herbs, and fresh apricots. I use fresh or dried apricots in North African meat tagines and a dish I make that my parents flip for, a Moroccan chicken I make with apricots, almonds, chick peas, and North African spices over couscous. I also do a brined, grilled pork chop that's juicy enough to stand on its own, but it's brought up to another level when served over an apricot-red pepper sauce, brightened with citrus and vinegar and a pop of spice. I serve it all with wilted kale for a delicious meal in the summer or fall.

    Golden beets: All beets are wonderfully healthy for us, but golden beets are particularly healthy (and beautiful!) and full of fiber and potassium, and they prevent constipation. Another plus: their color is lighter and stains less than the traditional magenta beets -- an added benefit if serving them in a "white tablecloth" setting. They can be roasted, blended into a soup (golden borscht!), or served sliced raw into a salad. They pair well with bitter greens like arugula, and their sweetness also pairs well with cheeses, from goat cheese to a potent blue cheese.

    Guava: This tropical fruit is orangey-pink, and has high levels of lycopene, making the fruit heart healthy and anti-cancer, particularly effective in preventing prostate cancer. It's also high in potassium. This is great as a juice on its own or mixed into smoothies.

    Mangoes: This fruit is high in beta carotene, and helps to prevent prostate and skin cancers. It's great, when ripe, to eat out of hand, or to serve sliced with some coconut rice pudding. The sorbet is actually a really healthy treat as far as desserts go, and you can find mango in fruit shakes and Indian lassis (kefir yogurt-fruit drinks), which do wonders for your intestinal tract and also supply probiotics to keep the good bacteria in your tummy in good health.

    Turmeric: Though technically not a food you'd eat on its own, turmeric is a rhizome (like ginger) that seems to be the wonder-food of the year. Its anti-inflammatory properties are well-established, and it helps to prevent kidney and cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. In its powder form, it's a part of most curry mixes, and it's sometimes dubbed "poor man's saffron" because it lends its bright orange-yellow color to dishes like rice and stews where saffron is too costly. But it's also great used like ginger as a flavor base for meat and fish stews, soups...even juiced with some apples, lemon, and ginger to make a great post-workout replenishing drink. 

    And of course, in speaking about orange foods, I'd be remiss not to name the one food actually named for its color: the orange. Fall is not prime season for this citrus fruit, but drinking a glass of orange juice has become how so many Americans start their days, and it is very versatile, especially when its season rolls around in early winter. It doesn't have the A-vitamins many orange foods have, but it's quite high in Vitamin C and folate, so it's great to incorporate into the diet of women who are expecting, or hoping to expect in the near future. You can use orange zest to liven up dishes, its juice to cook into sauces and soups, as a stand-alone drink, or as part of a smoothie or even a cocktail. The possibilities are vast.

    I know I'll be getting my fill of ORANGE FOODS this autumn, and happily so. October is the peak month for so many delicious food items that if we remember to eat in season, we'll be that much closer to eating a healthy, well-rounded diet. Just remember: O. October. Orange. It's simple. Get it while you can! 


    Thursday, October 2, 2014

    ESCAPES: Puglia, ITALY, Part 1: The Salento -- Lecce area

    I remember a couple of years ago, while strolling the streets of London, a bus drove past me plastered with an image of a sunny coastline and a voluptuous, bronzed, Latin-looking model in a bikini, with the word "Puglia" written in large letters at the top. I chuckled at the idea of the region of Puglia spending countless euros on an advertising campaign touting the charms of a region I would prefer remain a secret -- especially from the masses of tourists looking for, as it's often been deemed, "The Next Tuscany."
    No. No, no, and no! First of all, Puglia is nothing like Tuscany. I love Tuscany, and I love Puglia, but they're more dissimilar than they are alike. Tuscany is rolling hills and vineyards and farm land for miles, all central Italian greenery and picturesque landscape. Puglia is a different beast, more ancient Greek than Renaissance chic, more arid-by-the-sea than lush fecundity. Where Tuscany has diminutive olive trees planted alongside its grape vines, the land in Puglia is covered with large, old olive trees with craggy, knotty trunks that look like they've been around for millennia (and they likely have). The land is mostly flat, and you're never very far from the sea, whether it's the Adriatic on the east coast, or the Ionian on the west (interior) coast. So much depends on the wind for the weather, and locals are acutely attuned to it. 

    The locals, in fact, are a very interesting facet of daily life in Puglia. They are deeply entrenched in tradition, and speak a dialect closer to Greek than any recognizable Italian. They are reserved with strangers until they get to know you a bit, and then they treat you like family. They are religious and superstitious, they celebrate countless festivals and holidays. There is a sense of civic pride and the streets are clean. And though there is some organized crime here, they say it never really took hold in Puglia as in other regions in the south, because la gente parla: people talk, and so secrets can't be kept so well.

    As for the local cuisine, much depends on the wild vegetation and aquatic resources of the "heel of the boot" -- where, incidentally, about 40% of Italy's olive oil is produced. And this oil is good. Very good. It's used to saute' vegetables and to make breads and pizzas. It's drizzled on pastas and seafood fresh from the turquoise waters of the nearby Mediterranean. It's stirred into soups and stews, and even churned into gelato. For the most part, this is cucina povera (cooking of the poor) at its most innovative. The local grains are turned into world-famous breads -- the "Pugliese" loaf is even hawked as far away as Citarella in the east end of Long Island. Even the burnt flour from the process of prepping wheat fields after the "good stuff" has been cultivated isn't wasted on the less fortunate here, who have traditionally turned this burnt grain ("grano arso") flour into a darker, chewier, slightly toasty-flavored pasta. As fate would have it, this has become the newest, dare I say 'hippest' pasta for in-the-know italophiles and restaurateurs, though it's still fairly hard to come by stateside. So take advantage if you see it on a menu in Puglia, and try it. 

    This Pugliese town is known, outside of Rome itself, as the capital of baroque in Italy. It's also the unofficial capital of the Salento. The local sandstone is soft and therefore more easily sculpted, and artists have taken advantage of this to create intricate, elaborate carvings in the architecture. The piazza del Duomo is a breathtaking example: accessed by a narrow entrance, you enter and as the piazza opens up, you're confronted with a cathedral (12th century), a palace (15th century), and a seminary (18th century) that seem to shine so brightly during the day that they reflect the sun, and at night, seem to glow from within. The basilica di Santa Croce is another baroque gem in Lecce's town center. 
    Also of interest is the 2nd century A.D. Roman Amphitheater in piazza Sant'Oronzo -- subterranean and excavated in the 1930's to expose a perfect horseshoe amphitheater with seating for 15,000. In the photo here, it's set up for a summer concert series, a unique experience if you happen to be in town. The city itself is a small, elegant, lively, laid-back university town with boutiques, bars, and restaurants aplenty.
    There are a few elegant hotels in the historic center from which you can explore the area. The Patria Palace Hotel is a well-located traditional upscale Italian albergo with gorgeous green Murano glass chandeliers and a fabulous rooftop terrace overlooking the Santa Croce basilica. The Risorgimento Resort is a more modern and stylish spot with a restaurant, wine bar, and rooftop garden. Airbnb also offers a number of great options in and around Lecce, for those travelers who want to feel at home in an apartment or B and B without the services of a 4- or 5-star hotel. These lodgings can be a great value, too.
    As for food in Lecce? There are plenty of great options, mostly for food that tends toward the casalinga (housewife) style. It's homey, it's hearty (pasta with beans, potatoes, and mussels is a delicious local specialty, but an Atkins nightmare), and it's often vegetarian-friendly. Both Alle Due Corti and Cucina Casareccia are restaurants that seem like a relative's home -- albeit a relative who's superb in the kitchen. Dishes like orecchiette (the Pugliese regional pasta, "little ears") with cime di rapa (turnip greens), and the vegetable dish of cicoria e fave (sauteed chicory greens and pureed fava beans) are classics of the area. Seafood tends to be prepared very simply, either crudo (raw) as in a tartare or carpaccio, or a simple local fish like sarago, cooked in a salt crust and filleted and served with local, top-quality olive oil. For breakfast, try the deservedly-famous pasticciotto leccese, a sort of mini-pie with an almond-flour crust and a creamy filling, ranging from almond cream to Nutella. 

    BEYOND LECCE  The small towns surrounding Lecce (many of which have "Lecce" in their names), range from charming hamlets to antique ghost towns, and many are worth exploring. Getting out of the city of Lecce allows you to see the countryside of the Salento, and out to the beaches -- both the dramatic, rocky eastern coastline and the western, interior Ionian coastline and its sandy beaches. I recently traveled to the Salento to attend the wedding of some dear friends of mine in Muro Leccese.  They rented a few houses next to each other for their guests arriving from all over Europe, North America, and the Middle East. The houses felt more like they were plucked from a Greek island, or from the medina in Morocco, mazes of limestone and white stucco, narrow hallways and staircases, lemon trees and creeping bougainvillea. The wedding itself was held at the nearby Botanical Gardens, La Cutura, in Giugianello (province of Lecce). This gorgeous former estate is home to the largest collection of succulents in Italy, and was a truly enchanted setting for the wedding, with dinner and dancing afterwards.
    The following day, I prepared a brunch for about 100 guests in the kitchen of those rented villas -- a task that was challenging, fun, and something I couldn't have done without the incredible help of my (mostly) willing help (grazie a tutti quanti)! We served both local dishes (orecchiette with sausage and turnip greens) and dishes from elsewhere in Italy and overseas. It was a sweltering, mostly-sunny, collaborative, memorable afternoon with my trusty crew/amore/dear amici. And of course, the days leading up to that afternoon in prep -- many market trips, searching, inquiring, schlepping, organizing, cooking, more schlepping...a true authentic experience in the mezzogiorno!

    And where did we come to rest our weary heads after a long day trekking around the Salento? I wouldn't stay just anywhere. I prefer the likes of Salindia Boutique Bed and Breakfast. It's extremely personal but you are still "hosted" in a Pugliese home. My lovely friends from Rome, Monica and Marcello, run Salindia ("Sal-" for Salento and "India" for Monica's Indian heritage). The married couple set up shop in Caprarica di Lecce, a small village of 2,000 inhabitants roughly 15 minutes south of Lecce. They found a run-down 17th century farmhouse (actually two, which they connected), saw the potential beauty there, and painstakingly refurbished this plot of land in the center of town, turning it into a little heavenly oasis within old stone walls. Their eye for detail is exquisite, and they've managed to stay true to the local whitewashed Greco-Roman aesthetic while intermingling with Italian modern and antique Indian craft. And it works beautifully. There are engraved wood four-post beds draped with Indian silk in the bedroom suites (there are 2), modern bathrooms with deep glass bowl sinks and counters, and stone spa showers with rainfall shower heads. In the common spaces, there are poured cement floors and B+B Italia leather sofas juxtaposed with the original stone fireplaces from 1685, Indian wooden antiques, and colorful mirrored poufs. There is an enclosed back garden for relaxing among the fruit trees and caper bushes, and in the front off of the modern dining room and kitchen, there's the enclosed cortile with a turquoise pool and plenty of space for soaking in the sun. All of this is just steps removed from one of the main streets of the town, though you'd never know it from the inside. And speaking of, you'll get some great insider's advice for things to do and see in and around the Salento, from Monica and Marcello. At the height of the summer season, there always seems to be a sagra, or festival, happening in one of the surrounding towns, or in Caprarica itself. And throughout the rest of the year, there are seasonal festivals and always lots of music of the Salento in the air -- the famous tarantella dance and the pizzica music that accompanies it. (More on this in my next Puglia post).

    A note to travelers: renting a car is a must in Puglia to get around, unless you're planning on staying for only a few days in the center of Lecce. But that would be a shame. Rent a car, explore, see the coast, see the city, see the small towns and countryside. It's not Tuscany, it's different. It's Puglia. And it's still, for now, deliciously under-the-radar.


    SALINDIA Boutique Bed and Breakfast, Caprarica di Lecce. 

    ** Alle Due Corti, Lecce. Via Prato 42. (0832) 24.22.23.
    Cucina Casareccia, Lecce. Viale Costadura 19. (0832) 24.51.78 * Lecce restaurant*
    Botanical Gardens "La Cutura",