Published by Tuesday, December 4, 2018 Permalink 0

by Marlena Spieler

I come from a land — California — where lemons grow on trees. To buy them in a store would be ridiculous since they grow outside your window. And if you don’t have a lemon tree, your neighbor does and will share them with you. In season, there really are lemons everywhere.

Once, I wrote a humorous-ish front-page column for the San Francisco Chronicle about how there are lemons everywhere in the Bay Area, and that every time I pass a tree, I stash one or two in my handbag. They ran a cartoon of me dressed up as a burglar, reaching into lemon trees.

Lemon Stand Naples by Jonell Galloway

Emails flooded in saying: we have a tree! Come pick our lemons anytime! I became a huge fan of Lemon Ladies Orchard, visiting them when I am in the area (they mail order the most beautiful, fragrant lemons you can imagine). But — there is always at least one “but” — I also got a nasty, legal-sounding email from a local sheriff stating the code for the law I was breaking, and that if I tried to do that in his county, I would be swiftly arrested.

There is more to my love of lemons than theft, however. I take, but I also give. One of my joys is planting lemon trees. If you have a birthday or a wedding or give me any reason to give you a gift, for instance, if I stay with you, I might purchase one as a thank you. Throughout northern California, I have left a trail of lemon trees, a legacy that warms my heart. Since I can’t grow citrus in northern Europe — and believe me, I’ve tried — I do the next best thing and plant them any and everywhere else. 

Lemons in Midair

Loving lemons might be inherited; my grandmother held the belief that they were a miracle cure for most things, often mixed with honey. Add water and drink for a sore throat. And for coughing? Add cognac. Skin breakouts? Mix lemon, honey, and oatmeal for a facial mask. In summer, she would rinse my hair with lemon for sun-streaks. And of course, one didn’t drink tea without a nice, fresh lemon to squeeze in.

Besides medicinally, lemon was our favorite flavor for sweets: cakes layered with lemon curd, lemon meringue pie, and tender pound cake drizzled with lemon glaze, holes poked on top of the cake so it could soak right down to the bottom, becoming almost crisp on top, and moist, oh so moist, within.

Lemon Curd

And how can I forget lemon pudding cake? A soupy, tangy lemon sauce topped with a lemony cake; like magic, it baked from one batter into this all-encompassing symphony of textures, in the key of lemon. We called it simply “lemon fluff.” My grown-up version was a cold lemon mousse that I made and made and made and made when I was first learning to cook. I thought I would make it forever, then one day I stopped. Often I think I will make it again, and then I can’t remember anything about the recipe. #regret

It wasn’t until I left home that I got an idea of how many ways lemons could be eaten — sometimes, even in chicken or vegetable soup — and I couldn’t wait to tell my grandmother. Sometimes you might think something is a lime, but it’s really a green lemon.

Lemon Pudding Cake

I traveled the Mediterranean and lemon was always there for me. In Greece, a plate of lemon wedges was always on the table. Squeeze it onto . . . whatever you like. Mixed with raw egg and stirred into sauces and soups, it is perhaps Greece’s most iconic dish: avgolemono. Fresh lemon is there for salads, either leaves or chopped vegetables, and it is there for cooked vegetables, hot or cold. And of course, lemon is there for fish. Always for fish.

Avgolemono, creamy Greek lemon and chicken soup

In Sicily, the olive oil-lemon sauce (with oregano) transformed my fish-eating life for the rest of my days, though the lemon salad of Procida was a strong contender in that category. I also discovered that as much as I love buttery or olive oily pasta, I love it even more with lemon (shameless plug: I wrote about creamy lemon spaghetti for The New York Times). Most rich and buttery dishes are better with lemon, including Hollandaise sauce, or any creamy pan sauce. So too things already lemony are usually better with more lemon; just a whisper always makes me want more. 

Spaghetti al Limone

It was, therefore, a surprise to discover that the whole world didn’t love lemons quite as much as I (and Mediterraneans) did. Moving to the U.K., my new eaters weren’t used to the sharp, sour flavor, and also, lemons were simply expensive. I looked and looked and looked, but in East London, they were not growing on trees; nor are they in Hampshire, where I live now. 

I had for so long taken them for granted . . . their new (to me) rarity gave a sharp sense of loss, and made me long for them; it dawned on me that I wouldn’t automatically, always, just be surrounded by lemons. Life felt very different.

But one day I came home from a trip to Naples and unloaded my backpack: lemons. Lemons, lemons, and more lemons. They were fresh and fragrant, and now, they were sitting in a bowl on a table in my London kitchen. 


Bowl of Lemons on Table

There, they glowed, golden, in the grey London winter light (because citrus has the good manners to be in season smack dab in the middle of winter). Just to gaze at that bowl of lemons lifted my spirits.

Reaching out, I held one in my hands. Its skin felt smooth, and I touched it to my face and inhaled its sweet aroma, then scraped its skin a little with my fingernail and the whole room filled with the scent of lemon. It was like a reunion with an old friend. From now on, I decided, I would always have a bowl of lemons in my kitchen to reassure myself (of so many things, mostly of where lemons grow). Having fresh lemons means the Mediterranean is in my kitchen, and my grandmother is there, too.


Matisse Still Life Oranges Lemons

Although lemons last well on a table, so that you can admire them and sniff their aroma as you walk by, to keep them longer and prevent them from molding, they should be stashed in the refrigerator.

Then there is preserving: as with many fruits and vegetables, it not only prolongs their lives but adds another dimension — often pickle-like, such as the traditional Moroccan way of salt-curing. This lemony-salty-sour juicy pickle is so refreshing to have on hand, a bit olive-like, with an intense lemon flavor. I use them in traditional Moroccan and Middle Eastern dishes, but also in western dishes, especially tuna salad.

There are so many different types of lemons. In California, we grew up eating mostly Meyer lemons, sweeter and less acidic than Eureka, which is the one most cultivated commercially in the U.S. A childhood treat was to pierce the skin of a lemon just big enough for a straw, and insert a candy stick of any flavor, the kind that has a hole in the middle, then suck up the sour juice through the candy straw. It was kind of thrilling.

Still Life with Lemons

Italy has probably more types of lemons than anywhere else: Sorrento, Amalfi, Procida, and the juicy Sicilian lemon. But Sicily is not the only Mediterranean island that grows abundant lemons. A few years ago I spent several weeks on the Greek island of Zakynthos with friends; it was lemon season, everything we cooked and ate was lemon. Throughout the village, I was given the name Limonia (which is a popular name on nearby Cephalonia). We squeezed the juice, stuffed the lemon shells, candied the skins, and one day sliced the lemons thinly and froze them in a layer of sugar for a crisp frozen cookie-like treat.

Lemon Meringue Pie

The lemon rind itself was so mild and tender that I began to use it to wipe up sauces on the plate, instead of using bread. Tasty, and oh so much less calorific. When I occasionally return to the village, I am still known as “Little Limonia.”

But enough about me, this is about the lemon, right? For maximum juice, try rolling a lemon on a hard surface before you squeeze it. And though I once saw this “trick” claimed by a famous celebrity chef as his own invention, I’ve known it forever: my grandmother taught me, as we were gathering lemons from her garden.


Marlena Spieler was born in Sacramento, California, and has written more than 70 cookbooks. She has contributed to Bon Appétit and Saveur, and wrote the award-winning food  San Francisco Chronicle column, “The Roving Feast.” Her life and career have been focused on cooking, tasting, and sharing stories about food. She lives in the U.K. Her book A Taste of Naples: Neapolitan Culture, Cuisine, and Cooking was published in October 2018 by Rowman & Littlefield.


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Venice: The Alternative to Italy’s Pasta

Published by Tuesday, October 16, 2018 Permalink 0

by Jonell Galloway

No, I’m sorry. The staple of Venice is not pasta.

Yes, in Italy, they eat pasta, but Venice and the neighboring Veneto region are relative newcomers to both pasta and Italy. Venice and the Veneto, which the Venetian Republic dominated for centuries, only became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866 to escape the rule of the Austrian Empire, imposed after the Napoleonic Wars. Before that, the people of the Veneto didn’t speak much Italian; they primarily spoke Venetian. The Italian language and customs? They’ve adopted those, including pasta, relatively recently.

Abandoned agricultural storage building in a rice field in northern Italy


In contrast to most of Italy, the Veneto’s main starches are polenta and rice; pasta appears, but only on the odd day. Dine out with a Venetian and you can be sure he’ll order risotto or eat a dish served with polenta as a side. And sometimes, potato gnocchi.

In the Roman Empire — and even now in Italy — “polenta” consisted of what we call “mush” or gruel, but it can be made from almost any grain, corn polenta being the most widely marketed.
Millet, also eaten as porridge, grew wild in Europe as far back as 4000 B.C., so the first Venetian polenta was certainly millet mush. Thanks to millet’s short time to harvest, it was most likely the crop of the earliest, post-nomadic farmers inhabiting the Veneto.

A kind of emmer wheat had grown wild and was domesticated early on. It was mainly eaten as gruel or flat bread, and sometimes made into beer.
Corn arrived late on the scene, brought back from the New World, and eventually replaced millet. Until the end of World War II, residents of the Veneto ate mainly white-corn polenta, a variety called biancoperla. This corn is hardy, although its yields are lower than the yellow most commonly found these days. If you see white polenta in a restaurant, it is often a sign of quality, since it is not only rare, to the point of being given Presidium status by Slow Food, but more expensive.

Three varieties of rice from the Veneto

Rice was introduced to the Veneto by Benedictine nuns in the sixteenth century and the oldest variety carries the name of the village where the abbey was located, Grumolo delle Abbadesse. Rice caught on to the point that in the same century, Marc’Antonio Sarego, a wealthy man from Verona, sold a large estate to buy up marshy lands to grow rice. More investors, many from the city of Venice, followed his example, and thanks to their profits, many of the Palladian villas were built.

Potatoes and sweet potatoes arrived from South America later in the sixteenth century. Several varieties of potato, including those from Cologna and around Vicenza, Padua and Verona, are highly valued and referred to as patata veneta. Sweet potatoes are grown near the riverbeds in the region around Brenta. Those of Anguillara are most prized.

With the introduction of other grains, millet became the staple of the poor or fodder for livestock, while wheat, a wild grass that had long been cultivated, became the rich man’s grain of choice. Nowadays, the Veneto is full of Triticum of many kinds: hard wheat, soft wheat, winter wheat, summer wheat, and spelt, as well as buckwheat. There is bread on every table, usually made from bleached white flour, although more sophisticated bakers use buckwheat, spelt, corn, rye, barley, corn, and several other types of wheat and grains from the region.

Multiple grains from the North of Italy

The plains of the Veneto are a treasure-house of grain and the Venetians make full use of the diversity in their cuisine. Many varieties and colors of each exist, including the IGP-protected black rice known as Vialone Nano Veronese. Belluno in the north is known for its ancient variety of barley, dating back to the time of the original Veneti inhabitants, and Verona for stone-ground Bramata corn polenta, coarser and not precooked.

So in plain talk and culinary terms, what does this mean? It means a style of cuisine based on these grains, mixed with a panoply of other products from the sea and land.

Corn polenta is eaten as a side dish or a main dish mixed with meat, and sometimes with fish or seafood. It’s either eaten soupy, or sometimes left to cool, then fried until crispy. It can be coarsely ground, as in the case of Bramata, or finely ground into white cornmeal. Polenta is eaten as a porridge made with milk, called polentina; as polenta pastizzada, layered with meat similar to lasagne; or as polenta con osei  or połenta e oxeli, served alongside small game birds.

Grilled polenta, served as a side dish in the Veneto

Baccalà alla vicentina, made with the stockfish (dried cod) common throughout the Veneto, is served with a semi-runny white polenta, and fegato alla veneziana, calf’s liver with onions, with either grilled or creamy white polenta. Baccalà mantecato, a mousse made with stockfish, oil, milk, and garlic then laid on a cake of fried polenta or bread, is served in the wine bars of Venice as a cicchetto, the Venetian version of tapas.

In the Polesine, the area just south of Padua and Venice, white corn has historically been preferred over the yellow. Polenta alla carbonara, made also further south in Le Marche, contains Bramata cornmeal and guancialePolenta con i ciccioli, often served as an hors-d’oeuvre with drinks, is rendered pork fat cooked with polenta. For a seasonal appetizer, schie, tiny grey lagoon shrimp, are nestled atop a bed of white polenta.

Cornmeal is not limited to savory dishes. In Padua and Rovigo, smejassa, a sweet focaccia made with cornmeal, aniseed, and fruit, appears on the feast of St. Martin and Christmas Eve. In bakeries and at home, zaletti, also known as zaeti in the Venetian language, are prepared with finely ground cornmeal, butter, and raisins. The Veronese make Tressian, a cornmeal cake known as Amor Polenta in other places in the Veneto. Pinza Dolce Veneto, a cake eaten at Epiphany, combines cornmeal and wheat flour with dried fruit such as raisins, figs, and dates, and is flavored with grappa, fennel seeds, and orange zest. In the countryside around Verona and Vicenza, during Carnival, they eat polenta fritelle, sugar-coated fritters, called fritole in Venetian.

Polenta, dried corn and corn on the cob

Rice (riso) and risotto are eaten all over the Po Valley and north of Italy. Long-grain rice is used for soups and desserts, and shorter-grain, high-starch rices that stick together when cooked for risotto. These include Arborio, Baldo, Carnaroli, Maratelli, Padano, Roma, and Vialone Nano, among others. Risotto is cooked differently from plain rice or pilaf and from boiled rice in that it is never boiled. A soffrito is made from fat and shallot or onions. Rice is added to this and stirred until it toasts. White wine is then poured in and cooked to absorption, and finally, broth is added ladle by ladle until the rice is cooked. Butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano are usually tossed in at the end.

In the Veneto, risotto is almost like rice soup, a consistency referred to as all’onda, and quite different from the version popular in the rest of Italy. The rice must be firm (al dente), not soft or over-cooked, while the risotto itself should have a creamy consistency. It is eaten with a spoon, normally as a starter or primo, sometimes as a main dish. Venetian risotto might be seasoned with seafood, meat, or seasonal vegetables, but care is taken not to mix too many flavors at once.

By far the most celebrated risotto in Venice is risi e bisi, made with fresh spring peas using a special method. It is said there should be as many peas as there are grains of rice, but because peas are expensive and labor-intensive, that rarely happens. In the Veneto, unlike in the rest of Italy, the peas are mixed into the risotto instead of served on top. Asparagus, strawberries and grape risotto are savory, made with garlic, oil, and parsley, and finished with Parmigiano, depending on the area. Porcini mushroom risotto is a classic, and radicchio, the king of Veneto vegetables and available all year long, is another favorite, although it’s not often found in restaurants.

Risi e bisi, a spring specialty

In risotto al nero di seppie, squid ink dyes the white rice black. The Burano specialty risotto de — the best I’ve had was on this lagoon island of fishermen, where it’s made to order — is prepared using goby fish, and is rare enough in Venice proper. Traditionally made with lobster, shrimp and squill, risotto ai frutti di mare is the star of most tourist restaurants, and you’ll often fall upon risotto ai gamberi, i.e., with shrimp. Due to the length of cooking time, it is more often than not microwaved and therefore served overcooked, so take care to order it in a top-notch restaurant.

Vegetarians will love pumpkin risottorisotto alla zucca or de suca, served as a savory starter.

Risotto is sometimes made with meat. Chicken liver risotto is seasoned with sage. I’ve even had risotto made with expensive Amarone wine instead of the classic white wine.

Every respectable cook in the Veneto makes homemade potato gnocchi. You can always recognize when they’re homemade because they’re hand-shaped and irregular. Gnocchi with tomato sauce will please even the most finicky eater, and if you see granseola (spider crab) sauce, go for it because it’s rare and entails much labor.

Making homemade gnocchi

Potato polenta is mixed with chestnut flour and seasoned with salami, meat, cheese, and a variety of other ingredients in neighboring German-speaking Trentino. Riso e patate, a common poor man’s food, especially in winter, is cooked in meat broth. It dates from the Austrian occupation.

Sweet potatoes bear many names in the Veneto: patata americana (Italian) or mericana (Venetian language) or patata dolce or batata. It’s rare to see them in restaurants, but around Padua, they may pop up in homes as gnocchi, pies, and even risotto, much in the same way as pumpkin. In Padua, sweet potatoes also appear in the form of a cake with pine nuts. Even the famous gastronome, Pelligrino Artusi, included a recipe for sweet potato pie with almonds in his nineteenth-century survey of Italian cuisine, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

And finally, pasta. Venetian cuisine does not entirely omit pasta from its starch pantheon.

Pasta e faxioi, or in Italian pasta e fagioli, a hearty soup traditionally eaten in the countryside, now found in simpler city restaurants as a starter, combines fresh or dried Lamon beans from Belluno — a kind of borlotti — with pancetta, potatoes, and other vegetables, and a small pasta such as macaroni or ditalini, seasoned with rosemary.

Legend has it that bigoli, the most prevalent pasta in the Veneto, saw the light of day in Padua in 1604 when a machine called a bigolaro was patented for making vermicelli and “long pasta,” made with soft wheat, water, and salt. Durum wheat and buckwheat versions came later.

Bigoli, the Veneto’s “fat” spaghetti

Bigoli in salsa or en sarde, considered a dish of “atonement” according to Catholic tradition in Venice, is consumed on Christmas Eve, Good Friday and Ash Wednesday, and is now found in practically any true Venetian restaurant any day of the week. It is made from fileted sardines or anchovies, depending on the catch, and marinated for at least 24 hours in white wine vinegar, slow-cooked onions, pine nuts, and raisins, with many variations on this theme. Sarde sauce can be eaten as cicchetti, the traditional small plates eaten in Venetian bars, served on bread or a bed of polenta, or as a sauce with bigoli or other pasta.

The lagoons of the Veneto are full of ducks and other wildfowl so bigoli con anatra or bigołi co’ l’arna in Venetian, originally from Padua and Treviso, is a ragù of duck, including the duck liver and innards, traditionally cooked in its own fat and served over bigoli. It’s slow-cooked, so not common in restaurants, but pure delight. Seeing it on a menu is generally a sign of the authenticity of the restaurant.

Ask someone from Vicenza what pasta their grandmother made and they’re likely to say gargati, a macaroni-like egg pasta made from a mixture of hard and soft wheat. Gargati con il consiero is made with strips of pork fat, white wine, onions, parsley, nettles or other herbs, and tomatoes. Today, mixed ground meat might also be added, and the same sauce might be found on bigoli or in lasagne.

Gargati macaroni

Tortellini di Valeggio, found in the region of Verona, are stuffed with Grana Padano cheese and ground pork and chicken, and are cooked in meat broth.

Many of the dishes listed here are only found in people’s homes or in select restaurants in the region or cities I mentioned. The list of dishes can serve as reference as you travel around the Veneto.

In Venice proper — a destination for unaware tourists in search of pasta and pizza, thinking it’s like the rest of Italy — you won’t find many traditional Veneto recipes, but if you do, go for it. It means that the cooking was probably inspired by a nonna from the region.

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On the Chocolate Trail: The Iconic Chocolate Chip Cookie

Published by Thursday, March 3, 2011 Permalink 0

by Christina Daub

A Brief History of the Chocolate Chip Cookie

Did you know Massachusetts has a state cookie? It’s the chocolate chip cookie, an invention attributed to Ruth Graves Wakefield of the widely known Toll House Inn. Legend has it that having run out of her standard Baker’s chocolate, she broke up a bar of Nestlé semisweet and added it to her favorite recipe, Butter Drop Do cookies.

Chocolate chip cookie

Kathleen King in family bakery, Tate’s Bake Shop, in Southampton, New York.

The reaction by travelers was instantaneous. Soon her recipe was published in the local newspaper, positively affecting sales of Nestlé semisweet bars. Then the fictitious Betty Crocker featured Wakefield’s Toll House chocolate chip cookie on the radio program, “Famous Foods from Famous Eating Places,”  prompting Nestlé to invent the semisweet morsel in 1939. In exchange for using the recipe on the back of their semisweet bar and morsel bag, she was given a lifetime supply of chocolate chips.

The chocolate chip cookie’s nationwide fame can be attributed to home bakers in Massachusetts who sent scores of the addictive Toll House cookies to GIs abroad during World War II. The soldiers shared and pretty soon orders were coming in from across the country.


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