Archive for August 2008

Her name is Rosalba Lo Greco and she cooks for Barone Pietro Beneventano at his agriturismo, or farmhouse inn, Case del Feudo, outside Siracusa. She learned to cook, Rosalba says, from watching her grandmother. My mother was a terrible cook, she told us, but every summer she sent me to spend three months with my grandmother in Piazza Armerina and she was a great cook. I’m passionate about good food—I love to cook, I love to feed people. To cook just for the sake of cooking, no—they say what I cook is pretty good, for me it’s just normal. And they’re the smallest secrets that make the difference—for instance, the eggplant in a caponata, it should be a little crunchy, it should have character...

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East of Palermo on Sicily’s north coast is a fishing village called Porticello where the day boats go out every morning to harvest what’s in the nets that were set the day before. Chef Franco Crivello has his restaurant here—he calls it Frank the Fisherman, Francu U Piscaturi, but its proper name is Trattoria del Arco and Franco is truly a chef, not a fisherman at all.

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In the hills north of Ragusa—the Monti Iblei, they’re called—there’s an unusual restaurant that’s famous all over Sicily – maybe all over Italy – famous because nothing is served here but pork. In fact, the restaurant’s motto is: Qui si magnifica il porco—here pork is glorified. And it’s true. From the time it was founded by the great-grandparents of Salvatore LaTerra, Ristorante Majore (My-YORE-ray) has existed by, for, and about nothing but pork, and much of the time pork cooked over live fire, which might be the best way of all.

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Surrounded as it is by three seas—the Tyhrrenian, the Mediterranean, and the Ionian, it’s no wonder that seafood plays a prominent role on the Sicilian table. The variety is simply astounding—anchovies and sardines, squid, calamari and octopus, a huge variety of mussels and clams, tiny sweet shrimp and big, meaty red shrimp, mackerel, prized red mullet, familiar fish like grouper and unfamiliar varieties like scabard fish, a great favorite, or... Eels, a great flavor boost for a zuppa di pesce or Sicilian fish stew.

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Different climates, different terrains, mean that even a product as simple as cheese is produced in dozens of different varieties from mountains and valleys, from the sea coast and from inland plateaus, all over Sicily. Francesco Guccione, who, with his partner Boni, has a tidy shop called La Dispensa de Monzu in Palermo, is an expert on all these varieties, many of which are sold in the shop—the name of which you could translate as “The Butler’s Pantry.” We asked him to sort through the panoply of Sicilian cheeses and tell us something about the best.

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At the opposite end of the island, on the very slopes of the Etna volcano, the Benanti family is also proving that old vines and new ideas go hand in hand to produce superior wines—so superior that in 2007 Benanti was named winery of the year by the prestigious Italian magazine Gambero Rosso.

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Nearby, in Trapani, we discovered something the Arabs brought to Sicily—or so they say—when they occupied the island more than a thousand years ago. This is couscous. Pino Maggiore, chef and owner of the trattoria Cantina Siciliana in the heart of Trapani's old ghetto, showed Steve Jilleba, executive chef at Unilever Foodsolutions, how it's done and Mary Taylor Simeti, an American writer who has lived in Sicily and written about its food traditions for a good 40 years, helped us to understand it.

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Travel with Mai Pham, (pronounced "My fahm") a chef, cookbook author and Vietnamese food authority, through the street-food stalls of Hanoi and the floating markets of the Mekong.

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Our culinary adventure in Vietnam ends in Ho Chi Minh City, still informally known as Saigon. Ingredients and cooks from all over the country converge on this hustling city, the country’s largest, and despite Saigon’s wealth of sophisticated restaurants, there may be no more enjoyable place to eat in town than at the Ben Thanh Market. At its no-fuss food counters, diners can feast on steamed rice rolls or bun cha, (Boon Cha) grilled pork with rice noodles.

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Fusion food is nothing new. On the streets of Vietnam, sidewalk vendors sell a popular sandwich that reflects the country’s history in every bite. Banh mi, (Bahn Mee) Vietnam’s version of a baguette sandwich, shows the obvious influence of both China and France, countries that had a long presence here. Stop at a street cart some afternoon and treat yourself to a traditional banh mi. Made on an airy baguette spread with mayonnaise—that’s the French legacy—the banh mi includes a variety of Vietnamese charcuterie, depending on the maker and the customer. Chinese-style roast pork is customary, but a French-style pâté scented with star anise may be an option, too. Secret sauces are often part of the ritual, with the Vietnamese contribution last: crunchy onions, sliced chilies, fresh herbs and pickled vegetables. Without them, it’s not banh mi.

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The slender, serpentine profile of Vietnam extends nearly 1,000 miles from north to south, but measures just thirty miles across at its narrowest. Bordered by China to the north, and Laos and Cambodia to the west, this lengthy country can boast an astonishing range of landscapes and climates. In the chilly north, near the China border, tribal people inhabit spectacular mountains known as the Tonkinese Alps (TAWN-Kin-Ease). In the cool central highlands, coffee plantations thrive, while in the tropical south, banana trees lurk in the lush jungle valleys and miles of pristine beaches draw vacationers to the coast.

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Fresh coconut is one of the mainstays of the market. Young coconut, which hasn’t formed a hairy shell yet, is sweet and juicy, and vendors shave it on the spot for use in salads or for a quick snack. Note the clever knife, with its central slit, used to shave fruits and vegetables. It’s the Vietnamese version of a mandoline, and you can pick one up at the market.

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It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Vietnam runs on rice. The humble grain is the country’s most important crop, and the major source of calories in the diet. Vietnam is the world’s second-largest rice exporter, after Thailand, a huge achievement for such a small country. Vast rice paddies blanket the nation, from the terraced highlands of the north to the fertile river valleys of the Mekong Delta. Rural people still work these verdant fields by hand, sowing, weeding and harvesting the grain according to nature’s schedule, in a cycle that defines their way of life.

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In the early morning hours, on side streets and street corners, Hanoi’s hard-working cooks begin setting up their pho stations. A soup, a meal, a national treasure—pho is a widespread addiction. Many Vietnamese start the day with a steaming bowl of this divine noodle soup. Often mispronounced, but immediately appreciated, pho is pronounced like “fur” with a soft “r.” Once the broth is prepared, it takes only seconds to assemble—and not much longer to eat. Truly, pho is a fast food that even a dietitian can love.

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Vietnamese home cooking

For a closeup look at southern Vietnamese cooking, let’s join Mai Pham on a visit to her grandmother and aunt in the village of Quoi Son (Kway son) near the city of My Tho (My Toe). Mai and her aunt will prepare a Southern-style meal featuring water spinach seared with garlic over a brisk wood fire; puffy, fire-roasted rice paper sheets; fluffy steamed rice from the local rice fields, and a rustic dish Mai learned from her aunt. As with much of the best cooking, there’s a secret ingredient.

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Back in his restaurant, Il Cociniero, in the hotel Katane Palace, Carmelo shows us how to make one of Sicily’s most important dishes: A baroque caponata. . . and caponata is one of the signature dishes of Sicily, made with eggplant, and peppers, and tomatoes, and many other ingredients depending on where in Sicily you find yourself. A baroque caponata has a lot more ingredients and. . . we’ll find out what they are. It’s a dish, Carmelo says, that brings together all the different influences on Sicilian cuisine, Arab, Norman, Spanish, and products that arrived after the discovery of America. No one knows what the word caponata means, but it’s related to pisto from Madrid and ratatouille from France in which there’s also this play between vegetables and agrodolce—sweet-sour. There are many variations, a winter version that uses vegetables from the mountains, a spring version that uses asparagus and peas, there’s a version that includes lamb, and even a version that adds lobster to the dish. This is a noble version, a late summer version, that requires 16 hours of preparation. It’s flavored with fresh mint, a little bit of raw garlic, and a few fried capers. Some people add green olives, and some add a little anchovy. What makes it baroque is the addition of other ingredients, like black eggs or drunken eggs, hardboiled eggs marinated in a mixture of 70% red wine and 30% aged wine vinegar; chocolate; and then I add certain seafoods, like these red shrimp, an anchovy, and a few mussels.

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This is the Mediterranean, in the old language it meant the middle of the world “medi-terranea” – and that’s what it was for the ancients, the very center of the known world. Today it’s a delectable center of the culinary world, and at the center of that center is Sicily, right in the heart of the Mediterranean, the largest island, one of the most beautiful places and one of the most exciting regions – where it’s possible to experience the whole delicious panoply of what Mediterranean cuisine is all about.

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It’s an extraordinary thing to us visitors, but in Sicily, ordinary people, trattoria cooks, home cooks, diners in simple restaurants, even school children, expect to find the quality and seasonality and variety that high-end restaurants take for granted.

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Sicily’s culinary history is deeply rooted in salt. The Phoenicians came to Sicily from Tunisia almost 3,000 years ago looking for tuna, and for the salt that they needed to preserve the magnificent fish. They settled close by these salt flats on the western coast of the island between Trapani and Marsala. Salt is harvested from the sea to this day using methods that are just a little modernized from how the ancient Phoenicians did it.

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In Sicilian markets like this one in Catania where we spent time with another top Sicilian chef, Carmelo Chiaramonte from the restaurant Il Cuciniere—the cook-- in Catania Carmelo orders his fruits and vegetables, like his fish, directly from the market, from suppliers who make sure he gets the best – and he knows the qualities of all this materia prima, as it’s called in Italian: This is what Carmelo calls “la stagione misteriosa” the mysterious season of fruits that mature when the weather turns cooler. In September, October, and November in Sicily a whole series of fruits start to mature only when it’s fresher. Apples and pears, but also pomegranates, sorb apples, arbutus berries, jujubes, chestnuts, walnuts—they have a very precise, late season character.

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