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Oceania’s ‘Marina’ features fine dining five ways

Grand dining room on Oceania's Marina
Experienced cruisers expect a Grand Dining Room—and that’s exactly what Oceania Cruises (oceaniacruises.com) calls its spacious and glittering Continental dining venue. It has the requisite fine linens and crystal chandeliers. A full armada of water and wine glasses gleam on the tables. The menu borrows a little from Italy and a lot from France. It includes a few Jacques Pepin signature bistro dishes (steak-frites, roast chicken, poached salmon). Or diners can go fancier with lobster bisque and venison medallions. The menu even proffers spa-inspired “healthy living choices,” such as steamed artichokes, chicken consommé, and simple roasted fish. In short, there’s a little something for everyone in a very pleasant and lively room with excellent service. Although the GDR is larger than most other restaurants on board the Marina, it is only one of many fine dining choices.

Jacques aboard Oceania Marina

Dinner with a French accent at Jacques

Although he consults to the entire Oceania dining program, Jacques Pepin’s personal stamp is most pronounced in the restaurant that bears his name. Jacques serves what might be called the greatest hits of French cuisine, from baked escargots with garlic butter or foie gras terrine with candied black cherries to bouillabaisse or baked onion soup topped with stringy Gruyère. The classic preparation of Dover sole makes superb dinner theater—the waiter fillets it tableside before serving. The dessert menu is a delectable class in French pronunciation: baba au rhum, pot de crème, mousse au chocolat, tarte au pommes, and—of course—crème brûlée a la lavande.

Photographing the lobster at Toscana on Oceania Marina

Mangiare come un italiano at Toscana

The menu at Toscana is nominally Tuscan, but the kitchen balances the Tuscan grill with a choice of no less than ten pastas. They are all beautifully executed in generous portions, making them suitable as secondi instead of primi. The risottos (asparagus or lobster) arrive with the rice slightly soupy and al dente. (Bravo!) The grilled veal chop with wild mushrooms is a quintessential representation of the Tuscan countryside. One of the most popular dishes at Toscana (besides the incredible breads) is the lobster fra diavolo served over fresh tagliolini. Presentation is so striking that even in the romantically low light, it’s hard to resist taking a photo (above).

Polo Grill on Oceania Marina

Polo Grill celebrates American steakhouse

The steakhouse is possibly North America’s greatest contribution to the worldwide constellation of restaurant types. Polo Grill is arguably better than many steakhouses found back on land. It serves generously cut and perfectly cooked beef, veal, and lamb. (Three people at our table one night ordered filet mignon—one medium rare, one medium, and one medium well. They arrived at the table exactly cooked, which is no mean feat since meat keeps cooking between kitchen and table.) Polo also has the full range of rich salads—Caesar prepared at the table among them.

Beet appetizer at Polo Grill on Oceania Marina

But Polo truly excels in the attention paid to sides and appetizers. The napoleon of roasted beet layered with garlic goat cheese and dressed with a Champagne and truffle vinaigrette (above) was a work of art that tasted as good as it looked. Side dishes even included lobster mac and cheese. Huge porterhouse steaks are a big hit at Polo, but it seemed like every table had at least one person wearing a bib and a satisfied smile while tucking into an entire steamed Maine lobster.

Red Ginger dining room on Oceania Marina

Red Ginger conjures flavors of East Asia

All the specialty restaurants can be booked by advance reservation, and some passengers make those reservations when they buy their cruise tickets. As a result, Red Ginger is one of the hardest reservations to score aboard the Marina. With glittering gold walls, a proliferation of shiny lacquer, and the dramatic spot lighting, it is also perhaps the most glam of the shipboard dining rooms. The sharing plate of appetizers called “Skewers, Sushi, and Tempura” sets the pan-Asian tone for the menu. It’s easy to mix a Southeast Asian spicy duck and watermelon salad with a second starter of Japanese tuna tataki, as shown below.

Red Ginger plates on Oceania Marina

The main courses at Red Ginger are similarly international. They range from rib-eye beef prepared as Korean bulgogi to a roasted rack of lamb rubbed with seven spices. The lobster that’s such a big hit in Polo, Toscana, and even Jacques, makes a cameo at Red Ginger as lobster pad Thai. The tamarind and lime make it sweet and tart at the same time—an excellent way to treat the rich flavor of lobster. One of the culinary classes focuses on Red Ginger favorites. The lobster pad Thai recipe below is exactly as it’s taught.

Lobster pad Thai at Red Ginger on Oceania Marina

LOBSTER PAD THAI


Serves 2

Ingredients

For sauce

1/4 cup tamarind juice
2 tablespoons each palm sugar, fish sauce, nam prik pao (Thai chili-garlic paste), and creamy peanut butter
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon ginger juice

For pad Thai

2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons ginger juice
1/4 cup scallions, thinly sliced on diagonal
1/4 cup leeks, thinly sliced on diagonal
1 cup lobster pieces
2 eggs, beaten
4 cups rice noodles, softened
1/2 cup bean sprouts
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
4 lime wedges
1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts

Directions

Whisk together all the sauce ingredients until smooth. If needed, thin with warm water. Reserve.

Line up the ingredients in order, with 1/2 cup of the prepared sauce between the eggs and the noodles.

In a wok over high, heat the peanut oil. When the oil is hot, begin adding the garlic, ginger, scallions and leeks to the wok in sequence. Use two spatulas and continuously toss to cook evenly and keep ingredients from burning at high heat. Slide the vegetables up the sides of the wok and sear the lobster. Slide the lobster up the sides of the wok and add the egg to scramble.

When the egg is just cooked, bring back the vegetables and lobster and add the ½ cup of the sauce, noodles and bean sprouts. Using the spatulas, gently toss the ingredients to cover them with sauce, adding more if needed, being careful not to break the noodles. When heated through, divide among two serving dishes. Finish with the sesame oil, lime wedges and peanuts.

24

03 2017

Jumping ship for a taste of the port

Ana Svoboda shows ginger at Blue Harbor Tropical Arboretum, part of an Oceania shore excursion
When Oceania Cruises (oceaniacruises.com) culinary director Kathryn Kelly designs the culinary shore excursions for Marina and her sister ships, she asks herself one essential question. “Where would I like to go if I had one day in this port?” she says. In Europe, the answer might be a visit to a winery or a three-star restaurant. In the western Caribbean, culinary expeditions are more likely to focus on local foods and foodways.

Arboretum looks to future of Roatán food


We joined Kelly for the “Honduran Farm & Ocean to Table Experience.” This shore excursion on the island of Roatán starts at the Blue Harbor Tropical Arboretum (blueharbortropicalarboretum.com). The plantings on this 160-acre property represent most of the economically significant plants of the growing zone, including several species of fruit trees. Walking through the grounds, general manager Ana Svoboda (above with ginger) points out familiar fruits like guava and mango and less familiar cacao, mangosteen, and custard apple. (Red cacao and coffee are among the key crops in Honduras, but coffee grows poorly at low altitude, so it’s not part of the arboretum.)

Lettuce at Blue Harbor Tropical Arboretum's hydroponic farm

While the plantings represent Roatán’s botanical past, the facility’s extensive hydroponic farm is an investment in the future. Roatán is part of the MesoAmerican Reef system, second only to the Great Barrier Reef, so fresh water is at a premium. Hydroponics uses only 10 percent of the water required for conventional farming.

The farm focuses on high-value lettuce, other salad greens, and herbs. Annual production is 70-80,000 heads of lettuce alone. By growing in waist-height “rows,” the farm maximizes its succession crops. It harvests every 53 days. The organic produce—Blue Harbor uses organic fertilizers and no pesticides—is sold to local restaurants and supermarkets, and some to nearby islands. The facility also sells cashews and citrus fruits from the arboretum groves.

Chef Samuel on Oceania shore excursion in Honduras

Going big on shrimp for cooking


Roatán is known for its succulent pink shrimp. The large, sweet, and almost iridescent species played a starring role in the cooking demonstration given by Chef Samuel, a quiet mountain of a man, on Big French Key. The chef bought them from fishermen setting their nets about 70 miles south. To show the versatility of the shrimp, he prepared them three ways.

He first made cocktail shrimp with an accompanying sauce. He prepared the shrimp by peeling away the shell, leaving just the tip of the tail. He cut down the groove in the back and removed and discarded the “vein,” or alimentary tract. He heated salted water to a boil, cut a large lime in half and squeezed half for its juice. He added both halves of the fruit to the water to cut the fishy flavor and aroma. The shrimp simmered just three minutes. The cocktail sauce was equally simple. He sautéed diced tomato, minced garlic, chopped onion, and parsley. When the mixture was cool, he added a small Scotch bonnet pepper and puréed in a blender.

Chef Samuel with homemade grater on Oceania shore excursion
His second preparation was garlic shrimp. In very hot oil in a frying pan, he quickly cooked some minced garlic to flavor the oil. The shrimp—again, shell off except for the tip of the tail—cooked up in just a minute or two.

As a final preparation, Chef Samuel made coconut shrimp. They were truly heavenly, in part because he grated a fresh coconut using a distinctive island-style grater. It consists of a large can punctured with nails to make sharp bumps, as shown in the photo above. It made quick work of the coconut. Chef Samuel dipped the shrimp in beer and milk-based tempura batter, rolled them in coconut shards, and deep-fried them in 375°F oil until golden brown. Wow!

Coconut shrim in Honduras on Oceania shore excursion

Since most of us don’t have a deep fryer at home, Chef Kathryn Kelly has come up with this pan-fried version.

CHEF KELLY’S COCONUT SHRIMP


Serves 2

Ingredients

1/2 cup chickpea flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup bread crumbs (preferably panko)
1/4 cup dry shredded coconut
6 to 8 jumbo shrimp (10 to 12 count), deveined, whole with tail on
Sunflower or peanut oil, for frying
Lime wedges

Directions

Set out three small, shallow aluminum trays. Pour the flour in the first tray, the beaten eggs in the second, and the bread crumbs and coconut flakes in the third. Dry the shrimp with paper towels.

Dredge a shrimp in the flour. Gently shake off any excess. Dip the shrimp in the egg, turning the shrimp so it is completely coated. Dip the shrimp in the bread crumb and coconut mix, turning and pressing gently so it is completely coated. Repeat with the other shrimp. Allow the coated shrimp to rest and set for 15 minutes.

Line a plate with paper towels. Heat the oil in a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat. Oil depth should be half the thickness of the shrimp. When the oil is hot (365°F to 375°F), carefully place the shrimp in the pan and fry until the bottom halves are golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully turn the shrimp and fry until the other halves are golden brown, about 3 to 4 more minutes. Transfer the shrimp to the towel-lined plate to drain. Serve with chili garlic sauce (easily found at the grocery store), lime wedges on the side, and enjoy!

21

03 2017

When life gives you lemons, make limoncello cakes

Kathryn Kelly leads Oceania cooking class
“Acid is as important to a chef as a knife,” executive chef Kathryn Kelly (above) tells her culinary class aboard the Marina. “Use acid instead of salt to bring out the flavors in food.”

Kelly is such a believer in gastronomic acids that she builds an entire cooking class around the signature tart fruit of the Mediterranean: the lemon. She calls the class “Amore—Love of Lemons,” and it’s a zinger. In two hours, up to twenty-two students learn to make egg-lemon soup, limoncello, preserved lemons, fennel salad with preserved lemon, lemon risotto, chicken scallopine al limone, drunken limoncello cakes, and lemon-basil gelato.

When Oceania Cruises (oceaniacruises.com) decided to make food the centerpiece of their voyages, the founders knew they needed more than good fine-dining restaurants. In this age where every experience needs a DIY component to make it seem authentic, they committed to a full-fledged on-board cooking program. And they found just the right person to run it. Kelly was teaching at the Culinary Institute of America in 2010 when Oceania Cruises wooed her to serve as culinary enrichment director.

She designs and often leads culinary shore excursions as well as the cooking classes. When the ship is at sea, the center usually offers two classes per day. When it is docked, there’s usually only a single class. Since passengers can sign up for classes when they book their cruises, many classes are fully booked before the ship ever leaves port.

Cooking class aboard Oceania cruise

Intensive classroom experience


The state-of-the-art culinary education center has eleven combination prep and cooking stations, each of which will accommodate two students. The instructor—Kelly or another chef—demonstrates dishes at the front of the room where overhead mirrors and video screens allow every student to see what’s going on. Typically the teacher runs through a recipe, then sends the students back to their stations to execute.

Kelly notes that the popularity of the lemon class is exceeded only by the “Fish Master Class.” It teaches students how to handle six different fish and shellfish and prepare a striking dish with each. “A lot of people hesitate to cook fish at home,” Kelly says. “This class gives them the techniques and the confidence.”

The lemon class is full of bonuses—like a quick lesson in proper pan-frying technique when making the chicken scallopine with lemon and capers. “You want the oil just half the thickness of the meat. When you flip it over, no part gets double cooked and you don’t get a brown line down the middle.”

Or, when cooking risotto, she has every student bite down on a grain of rice at the eight and one-half minute mark. It provides a sensory memory of the point where the risotto is exactly half done. (Done properly, her risotto recipe cooks exactly seventeen minutes.)

The rustic little cakes for dessert are a special treat. She cautions that the thick dough should be placed roughly into the ramekins. “That way it cooks up with lots of holes and crannies to soak up the limoncello!”

Cook tests cakes in Oceania culinary class

DRUNKEN LIMONCELLO CAKES


Kelly says that she adapted this cake from her great aunt’s recipe. Any liqueur or liquor will suffice to make the soaking syrup, but limoncello is lighter and fresher than most.

Serves 4

Ingredients

Limoncello Syrup

1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 cup limoncello

Cakes

1 tablespoon plus 4 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 cup almond meal
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 cup fine semolina
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup sugar
Zest of 1 lemon

Directions

For Limoncello Syrup

In a small saucepan over medium, melt the sugar in the water. When cool, add the limoncello. Divide the simple syrup into four small soaking bowls, large enough to hold small cakes but not much larger.

For Cakes

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter four 6-ounce ramekins using 1 tablespoon of the butter. Cut parchment paper lifts (1-by-8-inch strips) and place two in each ramekin in a crisscross pattern.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the almond meal, flour, semolina and baking powder. In another medium bowl, mix the remaining 4 tablespoons butter, egg, vanilla, sugar and lemon zest. With a spatula, fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture and blend into a thick batter. Spoon one-quarter of the batter into each of the ramekins and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until thoroughly cooked (instant read thermometer registers 210°F in the center).

Soak the Cakes
Remove the cakes from the oven and allow them to cool slightly for 3 minutes. While they are still warm, but not hot, lift the cakes from the ramekins and place in the small bowls with the limoncello syrup mixture. Allow the cakes to soak up the syrup for 15 to 30 minutes.

To Serve
Lift the cakes from the bowls and place on small plates. Top with gelato. (Kelly makes lemon-basil gelato for hers.) Here’s how it looks:
cakes and gelato in Oceania cooking class

18

03 2017

Cruising with an appetite on Oceania Marina

Oceania Marina at dock in Key West
Despite an industry-wide upgrade to shipboard dining in recent years, few cruise lines dare to make the culinary experience a brand signature. But Oceania (oceaniacruises.com)—the middle sister in the Norwegian-Oceania-Regent family—has embraced the plate. We sailed the western Caribbean aboard Oceania’s Marina in February and can report that it was a tasty trip.

Oceania Marina galley
The Marina‘s galleys were designed before the rest of the ship. With a capacity for 1,250 passengers, she has the largest number of square feet of galley space per passenger of any comparably sized vessel afloat. That translates into a massive central galley and smaller galleys for each of the individual restaurants and for cabin service. Marina was originally planned at 54,000 gross tonnes, but the finished galleys pushed her over 60,000.

Master chef Frank Garanger aboard Oceania Marina
During our sailing, Marina had more than 140 cooks aboard. Jacques Pepin, the former personal chef of Charles de Gaulle, is the gastronomic godfather of the Oceania line, and contributed to the line’s culinary vision. Two chefs who are members of the prestigious Maîtres Cuisiniers de France (MCF) oversee the galleys directly. One of them, Frank Garanger (above), explained the organization. “We hire young cooks from all over the world and bring them up in the system of the classical kitchen,” he said. “It’s the same system you’d find in any five-star restaurant in Europe.”

Master chef Laurent Trias aboard Oceania Marina
Laurent Trias, also an MCF, showed us the library of more than 2,000 recipes. Binders fill shelf after shelf. Each recipe includes detailed directions and photo of how the finished dish should be plated. We did some quick math and realized that the galleys were producing about 25,000 individual meals each week.

Great taste cooked to order

bread basket at Toscano aboard Oceania Marina

Twenty-five cooks deal entirely with pastry, and the bread ovens aboard Marina would be the envy of many a bakery ashore. Working almost entirely with French flour, the bakers create all the baguettes, rustic loaves, beignets, croissants, muffins, and even bagels served morning, noon, and night at the various shipboard restaurants. (That’s the bread basket at Toscana pictured above.) Maybe getting to see the bakery skewed our perception, but we found breads and pastries uniformly superb throughout our voyage.

Dining room at Jacques aboard Oceania Marina

Even the offerings in the buffet restaurant (Terrace Cafe) are a cut above most cruise food. But Marina also has six fine-dining restaurants, including Jacques (pictured above), featuring the food of Jacques Pepin. Restaurant themes range from Italian to French country and steakhouse to pan-Asian. Only one—a wine and food tasting restaurant—carries a surcharge, though all require reservations. We’ll be writing about some of the options in a later post.

Fortunately, gastronomy is a participatory sport aboard Marina. The ship’s culinary center is a state-of-the-art culinary classroom for a hands-on cooking school at sea. Port excursions also include some culinary expeditions—foraging for local foods, visiting local restaurants, trying local dishes. (More to come on those subjects, too.)

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14

03 2017

Tenderness and restraint are key to pizza love

Executive chef Rosario Del Nero at Medford branch of Bertucci's
We had always assumed that good pizza required a certain amount of drama. Showboat pizzaiolos sometimes toss the dough into the air, spinning it to stretch to size. In Naples, guys slap the dough around back and forth on the counter as if they were Jack Nicholson working over Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (“she’s my daughter, she’s my sister…”).

That’s no way to treat a lady.

Rosario Del Nero shapes pizza dough “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” says Bertucci’s executive chef Rosario Del Nero, “Dough is a living thing. You must treat it gently.” He slips a bench knife under a half pound round of pizza dough and carefully transfers it from the covered proofing box to a bowl of flour. Turning the dough over to coat the surface, he moves it gently to a marble counter. He begins to prod the dough with his fingers, stretching the round into a flatter piece. “I’m transferring the heat of my body to the dough,” he explains.

“Once the dough is fermented and rested [see previous post], you can’t reshape it,” Del Nero explains. “It’s full of air. You don’t want to disturb the structure.”

With the heat of his hands, he pushes from the center out to the edges, turning the dough all the time. In seconds it stretches a little, then a little more. “It’s best when you use your body heat,” Del Nero says. “You can use a rolling pin, but the texture will be a little different.”

He scatters some semolina meal on a long-handled wooden paddle and lays the pliant dough on top. (Bertucci’s has three sizes of peels and three weights of dough to make the three sizes of pizza on the menu.) Then it’s time for the fun part: topping the pizza.

Getting dressed for the show


Bertucci’s has dozens of toppings, all neatly arrayed on the counter of the open kitchen. But Del Nero says, “When it comes to toppings, less is more. You don’t want to overwhelm your pizza.”

Rosario Del Nero slices pizzaHis personal favorite combines chunky tomato sauce, a sprinkle of pecorino Romano cheese (in part for its saltiness), freshly roasted thin slices of eggplant, and some small balls of fresh mozzarella crushed between finger and thumb. When it comes out of the beehive brick oven (about three minutes), he sprinkles it with a chiffonade of fresh basil and brushes the bare edge of the crust with olive oil. “The oil releases its aroma when it touches the warm bread,” he says. Bertucci’s uses an olive oil that volatilizes at 140°F—about the temperature of pizza crust as it comes from the oven.

Under Del Nero’s direction, we made a similarly restrained pizza with tomato sauce, artichoke hearts, crushed cloves of roasted garlic, and the same small balls of mozzarella. He guided us to wiggle the soft pizza off the paddle onto the oven floor, then to use a metal peel to retrieve it from the 600°F oven. The oven is so massive, he says, that it takes two days to get up to heat. At home, the best (though still not adequate) substitute is to use a pizza stone and make sure it is preheated a long time.

In the glass


Del Nero endorsed our artichoke and garlic pizza, bestowing the Bertucci’s black olive seal of approval. As we sat down to eat, he said that he prefers wine with pizza. “Beer is too yeasty,” he believes.

We tasted a few of the wines he was about to introduce with some new menu items. Both were from the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. The “Votre Santé” pinot noir is named for Coppola’s grandmother, who grew up in French Tunisia and always offered the classic toast when she raised a glass. The Diamond Collection “Claret” is a Bordeaux-style blend dominated by cabernet sauvignon and lightened by petite verdot. The fruitier pinot noir was spot-on with the eggplant, while the more austere claret cut through the unctuousness of the roasted garlic.

Given that both Coppola wines are widely available and reasonably priced, we may try the same combinations at home. They won’t be the same, of course, without the brick oven—or the passionate good company.

10

02 2017

Perfecting pizza, one ball of dough at a time

Melissa Surber delivers chicken marengo pizza at Bertucci's in Medford
Rosario Del Nero bites into a slice of pizza and savors it for a moment. “It’s not Neapolitan, it’s not Roman,” he says. “It’s rustic, provincial Italian pizza. It’s not as wet as Neapolitan, which is what most people have, or as thick as Roman.”

He is not even considering the toppings. Del Nero focuses on the dough that cooks up into the crust. It must be just so. “Flour, water, yeast—it’s simple,” he says. “But the secret ingredient is time. You cannot rush the yeast.”

He pulls out a piece of paper and a pencil and draws a graph. “X is quality,” he explains. “Y is time.” He draws a curve that peaks at about 40 hours. “Anywhere between 36 and 48 hours of slow rising in the cooler, the dough makes perfect pizza.”

Rosario del Nero enjoys a slice of Bertucci's pizzaA native of the Valtellina valley in Lombardy, Del Nero was the original chef of Bertucci’s when the chain began expanding beyond the original pizzeria with bocce court in Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. After more than a decade away from the group, he returned to Bertucci’s last August as executive chef and culinary vice president. Ever since, he has been infusing the 85-restaurant group with his passion and his discipline to make a superb and consistent product. He invited us to the Medford, Massachusetts, location for a lesson in his philosophy and practice of pizza.

The wrong way


Del Nero certainly turned around our perceptions of pizza crust. Given that we use a home gas oven that works hard to reach 550°F, we thought we had experimented sufficiently to make a pretty good home crust. It used 210 grams of mixed white and whole wheat flour, a teaspoon of sugar, a quarter teaspoon of instant dry yeast, and 150 grams of ice water. We would whirl it up in a food processor and let it sit at least 10 minutes before adding three-quarters teaspoon of sea salt and a tablespoon of olive oil. We’d whirl it up again, then let it rise in an oiled quart container all day, pressing it down when it threatened to spill out.

Listening to Del Nero, we quickly learned that we were doing a few things right and a couple of critical things wrong. Using very little yeast was a plus, but oiling the dough was a no-no.

“You have plants at home? Trying oiling their leaves and see how fast they die,” he said. “Dough is the same way. It has to breathe.”

The right way


Rosario Del Nero inspects pizza dough at Bertucci's Our biggest mistake was rushing the dough. “It has to rise very slowly so it forms tiny air bubbles. The flavor won’t be as good if the dough is rushed,” he said. “You don’t want to punch it down. That’s fine for bread, but you want pizza to be soft and pliable. Punching it makes it tough.”

We felt as if we’d been beating our kids. At home the next Friday, we made dough and let it rise in the vegetable crisper drawer of our refrigerator until after lunch on Sunday. We left it covered on the counter—because “the dough hates air,” as Del Nero told us. It warmed to room temperature in time for us to shape it into pizza for dinner.

The resulting pizza was a revelation. The same recipe was easier to shape and cooked up with a crisp but not crunchy texture. It also tasted much better.

So we went back the next week for more instruction.

06

02 2017

Cradle of Mexican cuisine, Oaxaca relishes mole negro

Onion seller at Oaxaca market
No one escapes untouched by Oaxaca. This lyrical, magical city has been a powerful cultural and trade center for millennia. It is also arguably the cradle of Mexican cuisine. You can always eat well in Veracruz, Mexico City, and Puebla. But in Oaxaca, you feast. Every dish is a taste revelation.

Tomatoes and chile peppers were domesticated in northern Oaxaca around 4500 BC—presumably to spice up all those meals based on beans and corn, which the ancient Oaxacans had domesticated 3,000 years earlier. And Oaxaca continued to expand its larder.

ruins of Monte Alban outside OaxacaBy the time the high culture of Monte Alban (right) arose around 500 BC, the Oaxaca Valley was a crossroads of trade between South and North America. Foodstuffs poured in from as far north as Mexico’s Central Valley and from as far south as the Andes. A millennium later–nearly a thousand years before the rise of either the Aztecs or the Incas–the Zapotec people of Oaxaca were processing peanuts and cacao. They had all the ingredients to make mole, the chile-nut-spice sauce that distinguishes the Oaxacan mother cuisine.

Oaxaca cathedralThe Spanish also influenced the complex cuisine of Oaxaca. Monte Alban had been abandoned for at least seven centuries when Hernán Cortes took the Oaxaca Valley by force in 1521. He soon built a city where he would live out his life as the self-styled Marquéz de Valle de Oaxaca. Despite their cathedral (above), the Spaniards never fully succeeded in conquering the native Zapotec and Mixtec cultures of the surrounding countryside. As a result, Oaxaca is really native Mexico.

But it’s native Mexico with sesame seeds, saffron, pigs, cows, and chickens—thanks to the Spaniards.

Timeless Oaxaca comes to the market


selling tomatoes and fruits at Oaxaca market The ancient face of Oaxaca persists in the Mercado de Benito Juarez, the fresh food market named for the local son who was president of Mexico when Lincoln was president of the U.S. The market occupies two entire city blocks south of the zócalo. (One block farther south is the 20 de Noviembre market, which has amazing food stalls, including a section devoted to grilled meat.)

People start arriving from the countryside before dawn. Some come by truck, some by pack animal, and some on foot. They bring the food they have grown and lay it out for all to see. One seller might have big bunches of onions and herbs, like the woman at the top of this post. Others might display tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers and little limes. Another vendor might lay out rows of delicate squash blossoms, fleshy and yellow. It’s hard to speak with anyone, since most of the country people have Zapotec or Mixtec as their first language. But the beaming pride in their wares really needs no translation.

apple seller in OaxacaA few might even walk in with baskets on their heads, like the woman at right, who was selling the apples she had picked from her trees. To an American or a European foodie, the market looks like a cornucopia of plenty. The Oaxaca Valley is a fruitful land.

The corner of the market where dried chiles, cacao, and nuts are sold also has several mills. Shoppers who know what they are doing will bring a mixture of chiles, cacao, nuts, and spices to be milled into a paste. You can also buy pre-ground pastes to serve as the basis for making mole. In most cases, you simply dilute the paste with some meat broth and simmer long enough to smooth out the raw flavors. Mexican chocolate available in the U.S. replicates the chocolate of the market. It consists of ground cacao nibs, sugar, ground nuts, cinnamon, and often some other spices.

Most people prefer to make their moles from scratch. We’ve written previously about mole amarillo, which is traditional for the Day of the Dead. But one of the deepest flavored moles of all is mole negro, or black mole. There are many recipes for the dish, including some that deliberately burn the chile seeds and then steep them in water for some of the liquid. Traditionally, the dish is made with chilhuacles negros, a black chile grown in the Oaxaca region but not widely exported. Even cooks in other parts of Mexico use a combination of guajillo and mulato chiles to get a similar flavor.

Like many moles, the sauce is fried because water boils at 200° F in Oaxaca due to the altitude. The sauce needs to get up to about 240° F to cook through. Note that our recipe below calls for lard, which is traditional. Peanut or corn oil will work, but the flavor is less authentic. Bacon drippings are a better substitute.

MOLE NEGRO OF OAXACA


Oaxaca style mole negro with pumpkin risottoThis mole is often eaten plain over tortillas that have been dipped in the sauce and then rolled. A sprinkling of queso fresco or crumbled feta complements the flavors.

Ingredients

3 ounces dried mulato chiles (about 5), stems and tops removed
3 ounces dried guajillo chiles (about 8), stems and tops removed
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1/3 cup sesame seeds
6 whole cloves
3-inch stick of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon whole anise seeds
1/2 cup lard
1/2 cup whole, unblanched almonds
1/2 cup raisins
1 cup coarsely chopped white onion
6 cloves garlic
6-ounce can tomato paste
4 teaspoons salt or bouillon powder
6 ounces Mexican chocolate (two tablets Ibarra or La Abuelita), grated
up to 2 cups chicken stock

Directions

Toast chiles in hot frying pan or griddle until softened. Remove seeds, stems, and at least some of the veins. (The veins and seeds contain most of the heat.) Place in medium bowl with boiling water and soak one hour.

Toast sesame seeds in dry skillet over medium heat until golden—about two minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside to cool. Combine cloves, cinnamon, coriander, and anise seeds in skillet. Toast until fragrant (20-30 seconds) and remove to cool.

Heat lard in large cast-iron frying pan over medium heat. Add almonds and cook and stir until brown. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Add raisins to pan and cook and stir until they puff up—about 30 seconds. Remove with slotted spoon.

Process raisins in blender until finely ground. Coarsely chop almonds and add to blender and process until finely ground. Add raw onion and raw garlic and process until finely ground.

Grind sesame seeds in spice grinder. Add to blender. Grind clove and spice blend in spice grinder and add to blender.

Add chiles, about a cup of soaking water, tomato paste, and salt to blender. Process until smooth.

Reheat lard in deep, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Add mole mixture. Stir to cook through and sweeten the raw flavor of onion and garlic. Add chocolate to melt. Stir in chicken stock to reach desired consistency. Cover pan and place in 325° oven for one hour. Remove, stir sauce, and place back in oven for an additional hour. This allows thorough cooking without burning the mole onto the bottom of the pan.

Roll soft corn tortillas in mole and serve with sprinkling of crumbled queso fresco or feta cheese. Pumpkin risotto makes a nice side dish. If drinking wine, choose an assertive and somewhat acidic white, like a young Chilean sauvignon blanc.

03

02 2017

Valpolicella Classico matches chocolate-spiked ragù

Valpolicella with chocolate-spiked ragù
We discovered a Fumanelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2013 nestled among bigger reds in our limited wine storage. Not having a lot of room to hold wine means drinking bottles when they’re ready. With the 2014 already in the market, we figured this welterweight red was ready to go.

Fumanelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2013But what dish would do it justice? The Marchesi Fumanelli family (www.squarano.com) has been making top-flight Valpolicella wines since 1470 at their estate just outside Verona. Perhaps the age of the vineyards (up to 40 years) accounts for the clean flavor and deep fruit expression. The blend has a backbone of 40 percent each of Corvina and the bigger clusters of Corvinone. The rest is Rondinella, which deepens the color and gives the wine more body. The finished wine is aged 8-10 months in French barrique—most of it second and third passage.

We prefer this approach to Valpolicella Classico over the increasingly common practice of adding the pomace from an Amarone pressing to the fermentation of the Valpolicella grapes. (Both wines use the same grapes, but those destined for Amarone are partially dried to concentrate the sugars.) We think the lingering toasted, caramelized Amarone flavor in what is properly called Valpolicella Ripasso often masks shortcomings in the Valpolicella itself. The Classico Superiore approach at Fumanelli lets the grapes speak for themselves.

Fumanelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore is a fine red for sipping, though the hint of ash in the finish (typical of Corvina) cries out for food. A brilliant ruby red, it presents a nose of black cherries and blackberries. Those flavors carry through on the palate—along with the bitter almond or ashen note. It’s velvety in the mouth with a long, satisfying finish.

Finding a dinner dish


Maybe it’s the season, but it seemed a good companion to dark chocolate. But we wanted a savory dinner dish to accompany the wine, so we did a little digging. Savory chocolate often means Mexican mole poblano or mole negro, but both dishes would overwhelm the Valpolicella. Then we stumbled on a recipe that’s been kicking around in magazines and online for the last few decades. It’s a ragù of browned pork, onion, red wine, and tomato, slow cooked and finished with just a little dark chocolate and cinnamon. Said to have originated in Abruzzo, it’s usually served with fresh egg pasta called chitarrina. The pasta is rolled out in sheets and cut on a box frame strung with fine wires like guitar strings.

We’ve made some adjustments to the basic recipe given by Michele Scicolone on page 173 of her masterpiece 1,000 Italian Recipes (Wiley, 2004). Michele calls for using a pound of fresh tagliarini. We made our own fresh pasta (1 1/3 cups flour, pinch of salt, tablespoon of olive oil, 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk), and cut it with the tagliatelle rollers. It weighed about 10 ounces and made two generous dinner entree servings. If you use a pound of pasta, you could serve a less saucy pasta course to four diners. Just don’t forget the Valpolicella Classico.

ABRUZZESE BITTER CHOCOLATE RAGÙ


Ingredients

1 onion, chopped fine
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 pound ground pork
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup red wine
1 1/2 cups crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1/2 teaspoon sugar
pinch of cinnamon

Directions

In heavy saucepan, cook onion in olive oil over medium heat until onion begins to turn golden. Crumble in the pork and continue cooking. Break up meat with spatula. Cook until pork begins to brown. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Don’t skimp on the pepper. You need the flavor to round out the dish.)

Add wine and bring to a simmer for three minutes to burn off the alcohol. Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and water. Bring to a simmer and cook slowly for about an hour, stirring now and then. Sauce should thicken.

Stir in chocolate, sugar, and cinnamon until chocolate melts. Keep sauce warm while cooking pasta. Add cooked, drained pasta to sauce all at once and toss to coat. Add extra cooking water if necessary to achieve a saucy texture. Serve immediately.

31

01 2017

Cheese-loving Americans in good company

Jean-François Marmier with his herd of 60 Montbèliarde cows
Here in the United States, January 20 is National Cheese Lover’s Day. We’re not really certain how this designation originated but there’s no doubt that we Americans have a genuine affection for the food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, each American consumed about 35 pounds of cheese in 2015. (That’s the most recent year for which statistics are available.) And that figure is way up from a little over 14 pounds per person in 1975.

That’s certainly a lot of cheese love. But Americans still have a long way to go to catch up with the French. They consumed more than 59 pounds of cheese per person in 2015, according to the Canadian Dairy Information Centre, which tracks global cheese consumption. That’s the world record, by the way. Denmark, Finland, and Iceland were close behind.

cheese course at Bon Accueil Cheese plays a big role in the French diet and economy, but it’s almost impossible to actually come up with a definitive number of cheeses produced in the country. (Charles de Gaulle once famously lamented the impossibility of governing a country with 246 varieties of cheese. All agree that the number has only grown since the general’s day.) In any case, the number-one selling cheese in France is Comté, the staple of the croque monsieur and a natural for cheese fondue.

Tasty travel in Franche-Comté

Pat had the chance to visit the Comté region where brown-and-white Montbèliarde cows graze in grassy meadows and their milk is transformed into cheese in small cooperatives. (That’s Jean-François Marmier in the photo at the top of the post. The girls are his herd of 60 Montbèliardes.) We could use our stash of Comté just to make croque monsieurs, but Pat discovered that the cheese also adapts well to other recipes. Please see this post for her full account.

20

01 2017

Wishing all our readers peace and joy in 2017

Derry Peace Wall
If Derry, Northern Ireland, can find its way to peace, perhaps so can the rest of the world. When we break bread together, we can embrace all who sit at our table.

31

12 2016