Better Breakfasts: A Love Letter to Skyr

billowy clouds of skyrEven though I am, sadly, growing more lactose intolerant by the day, I love dairy products dearly — perhaps more than ever. Luckily, there are some that I can still consume without too much unpleasant consequence (including kefir, certain aged cheeses, butter, and some yogurts) and I am deeply thankful that one of my most beloved of all — a glorious Nordic product with a nutritional profile that sounds like the stuff of myth — is still within my safe zone. [Cultured dairy products in general are easier for the lactose intolerant to stomach, because the bacteria digest some of the milk sugars for you. And strained cultured dairy products are even easier still, since much of the remaining sugars are strained away along with the watery whey.]

I first discovered skyr ten years ago, on a summer trip to Iceland to visit some friends. When my friend Eyjolfur brought me to a local Krónan supermarket, I was as thrilled as I always am on a first visit to a supermarket in a new country. (Hint: pretty darn thrilled.) Salty black licorice coated in chocolate: wild! Jugs of whey: Who knew you could buy that? But what really caught my eye was an entire refrigerated wall full of colorful tubs of endless flavors of what appeared to be yogurt. “Not yogurt,” said Eyjo. “Better than yogurt.”

Better than yogurt?! This, I had to try. I’d actually never been the hugest yogurt fan until I’d moved to Italy the year before, but discovering that yogurt was not necessarily a watery, gelatinous, preservative-filled substance tasting of chemicals and sugar was quite a revelation. Italian brands such as Mukki and Parmalat already knocked any U.S. brand on its ass, but I fell quickly and deeply in love with Müller, an incredibly rich, creamy German brand with flavors that sounded (and tasted) like a dessert list: coconut, banana, pineapple, lemon, coffee, walnut, hazelnut, chocolate chip, and my favorite, “crema Chantilly” (whipped-cream flavor!). And all with very short and easily comprehensible ingredient lists. No gelatin or other weird fillers. No artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. And so my obsession with European yogurt began. It was also in Italy that I first tasted mind-bogglingly thick, smooth Greek yogurt (and on a trip to Greece I was fortunate enough to try the real deal).

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When Eyjo and I got back to his place and set up our Icelandic breakfast, I sampled the blueberry-strawberry skyr that we’d bought and found that he was right: This stuff relegated all those others (wonderful though they are and remain) to the second tier of fermented dairyland. Skyr was even thicker, creamier, richer, and more velvety than full-fat Greek yogurt, and without yogurt’s characteristic strong sour tang. Plus it had more protein than even a strained yogurt like Greek yogurt. And yet — via some sort of Viking black magic — it was entirely fat free. How was this possible??

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As Eyjo informed me, skyr is not really a yogurt at all, though it has been marketed as one since it was introduced to the UK and the US. Yogurt is made by fermenting whole, low-fat, or skim milk with bacterial cultures. Greek yogurt is made by then straining the liquid whey and concentrating the milk solids, resulting in a thicker texture, less sugar, and more protein. While many yogurts are generally well-tolerated by those cursed with lactose intolerance since the bacteria digest most of the lactose (milk sugar) as part of the natural fermentation process, any strained yogurt is even easier to digest since much of the remaining lactose gets strained away as well.

Skyr, meanwhile, also starts with milk fermented by bacterial cultures (different cultures than those used to make yogurt, however), but it is made from skim milk that has already had the cream separated out (to make butter). Rennet is also added to this fermented milk so that it coagulates, and the liquid whey is then strained away, leaving only the milk solids. This makes skyr, technically, a fermented soft cheese.

skyr.is skyr

First available here in 2005, skyr is still slowly making its debut in the U.S. My favorite brand, Skyr.is, is the only one currently sold in this country that’s actually made in Iceland. Though only available in four flavors here (plain, vanilla, blueberry, and strawberry) and only in Whole Foods markets in select regions, it is authentic, made with milk from grass-fed Icelandic cows.

There are a couple of American-made, skyr-inspired products on the market as well, which are more widely available: Siggi’s (made in New York by an Icelandic immigrant named Siggi) and a newcomer called Smári (made in California by an Icelandic immigrant named…you guessed it…Smári). I’ve tried both, and while I think Siggi’s tastes like a very good strained yogurt, to me it’s not quite the same as either the skyr that I tried in Iceland or the imported skyr. It has a thinner consistency, slightly lower protein content, and a more sour taste — closer to Greek yogurt.

Smari skyr

I found Smári to be much closer to Icelandic skyr in terms of texture and nutritional profile, though it’s still tarter — and more yogurt-like overall — in terms of both taste and texture. It does offer the additional benefits of being organic, however, and made with milk from grass-fed cows. I’m not sure that the U.S.-based skyr makers use rennet as there’s no mention of it on their websites — I wonder if perhaps that’s why they don’t resemble the Icelandic skyr as much as you’d expect? Or it could be due to different bacterial cultures.

All this is not to say that I no longer love Greek yogurt (Fage is my favorite brand) or regular yogurt. I still have love for them all, and sometimes prefer them. But skyr is still not as well known in this country as it should be, especially for those looking for the most protein bang for their caloric buck. And in a super thick and creamy texture, to boot. Skyr is so thick and creamy, in fact, that sometimes it’s a bit hard to eat an entire 6-ounce container of it. (But I have a fantastic solution for that, which I shall reveal soon in an upcoming post! Stay tuned.)

For the purposes of this comparison chart, I’m only comparing plain skyr and yogurts with nothing added, because that’s how I prefer to buy them, and add my own fruit or other flavorings. Skyr.is is, sadly, only available in plain, vanilla, strawberry, and blueberry in the U.S. (in Iceland the flavor varieties are breathtaking and seemingly endless), Smári offers the same flavor options, and Siggi’s is available in many unusual flavors, including: grapefruit, orange & ginger, pineapple, and peach.

NUTRITION STATS COMPARISON (per 6 oz/170 g)

Calories

Fat

Protein

Sugars

Calcium

Organic

Grass-Fed

Skyr.is Plain 110 0 g 22 g 6 g 20%

Y

Smári Pure 100 0 g 20 g 6 g 20%

Y

Y

Siggi’s Plain* 90 0 g 17 g 4.5 g 23%

Y

Fage 0% Greek Yogurt – Plain 100 0 g 18 g 7 g 20%
Stonyfield Organic Plain Nonfat Yogurt 80 0 g 8 g 12 g 25%

Y

Y

Dannon All-Natural Plain Nonfat Yogurt 80 0 g 9 g 12 g 30%
*NOTE: Siggi’s is sold in 150-g (5.3-oz) containers, at 80 calories for plain; I scaled Siggi’s data up for comparison purposes, as all the other brands are sold in 170-g (6-oz) portions.

Some of my favorite ways to enjoy either skyr are:

  • with a handful of fresh blueberries and a dollop of lemon curd
  • topped with fresh raspberries, blackberries, or sliced strawberries
  • with a generous spoonful of blueberry-vanilla-chia jam (recipe coming soon!) and sprinkled with Ezekiel 4:9 cereal (which closely resembles Grape Nuts in appearance and flavor, though it’s  more nutritious)
  • in place of sour cream or yogurt in toppings and recipes (it’s particularly wonderful in baked goods, keeping them rich and moist without adding any fat)
  • in a smoothie (e.g., with kefir, bananas, and cocoa powder)
  • drizzled with olive oil and za’atar and eaten with pita bread and some of my homemade kibbeh
  • mixed with chopped mint leaves, Persian cucumbers, and a little salt
  • stirred together with a dollop of spicy Indian mixed pickle

Have you tried skyr yet? How do you like to eat it?

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A Tasty Trip up North – Part I – New Hampshire

My friend Anastasia and I decided to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip to New Hampshire and Maine last week, and fortune favored our trip with unseasonably warm weather: a cloudless, sunny sky and temperatures in the mid 60s. We started out the day with a leisurely hike through Bradley Palmer State Park in Topsfield, MA, and then continued with a walk along Plum Island Beach. On the way to Plum Island, we stopped in a small seaside town and I was fascinated by a sandwich board outside of a store advertising 25-cent hot dogs. Twenty-five cents?! Whoever heard of such a deal? Further investigation, however, revealed that the hot dogs in question were decidedly 7-11-ish in nature and probably not worth even 25 pennies. Disappointment. And apparently over half a million persons have so far been disappointed by these dogs.

Hot Dogs - 25 cents

Hot Dogs

By the time we reached our hotel in Seabrook, NH, we were famished and in the mood for some seafood (Nastia’s statement on the subject: “I love seafood: I see food, I eat it.”). We flipped through the binder of local restaurant menus at the hotel and decided on Master McGrath’s, a pub/restaurant that promised — besides “Dining & Spirits” — some local color.

Master McGrath's - Seabrook, NH

Master McGrath’s – Seabrook, NH

As soon as we stepped through the doors into the dimly lit interior, I was charmed. The dark wood paneling, heavy velvet drapery, and dusty, fringed lampshades brought to mind some sort of cross between a bordello and a medieval roadside tavern.

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I noticed that all of the other diners were elderly and whispered to Nastia that this, in my opinion, was definitely a good sign. An exceedingly friendly innkeeper with a Quasimodo-ish air showed us to our dark wood booth and handed us large menus in sticky vinyl folders. Since we were, according to our hotel’s description, “minutes from the beaches of New Hampshire,” we skipped right over the menu sections entitled “All Time Best Bets,” “Our Program,” and “Hot Box” (is this a menu section or a punishment reserved for unruly diners?) and went straight to “Seafood.” We ordered the Fresh Broiled Scallops ($15.99) and Baked Haddock ($14.99). Both included a trip to the salad bar and were served — coated in breadcrumbs and topped with lemon butter — in brown-and-white ceramic ramekins dating back to at least the 1950s. The fish was fantastic: light, flaky, and tender — not overcooked as fish served in 50s-era ramekins so often is. The scallops were large, sweet, and flavorful, but just the tiniest bit on the rubbery side. Both dishes were accompanied by a pile of flaccid, greyish-green beans that had, unfortunately, had the life cooked out of them. But that’s how they cooked green beans in medieval times, so what the heck did you expect? In any case, two thumbs up for Master McGrath’s — if I ever again find myself in Seabrook, New Hampshire with a  hankering for broiled fish, I know where to go.

scallops

We closed our New Hampshire evening with a bottle of red wine, some excellent blackcurrant dark chocolate, and a hot tub. If only every evening could end that way.

Afternoon Tea at the Wolseley

My list of “Things I Absolutely Have to Do in London” is not very long, but one of them is to have a proper afternoon tea, preferably somewhere really posh. It being my birthday, it seemed the perfect time to check this one off the list. After a little research, my friend Francesca and I decided to try The Wolseley on Piccadilly Street in the West End (can you get any posher?). As soon as we walked through the heavy glass doors, I knew we’d chosen well; we found ourselves in a gorgeous, cavernous Art Deco salon (once an automobile showroom) with soaring ceilings, gleaming black and gold geometric planes, and glittering mirrors. As I looked around, I half expected to see Jay Gatsby and Daisy whispering to each other over one of the black marble tables.

We shared the full Afternoon Tea (£22.50. A simpler option is the traditional “Cream Tea,” which includes tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam for £9.75), with Francesca choosing English breakfast while I opted for jasmine green tea. We each received a generously-sized antique pot with a well-worn wooden handle and a printed tea label. Charming!

Along with the tea pots, we each received a strange silver contraption with a swinging wire basket that was apparently intended for filtering the tea in some manner; we couldn’t figure out exactly which manner. I was about to just drop the thing into my giant tea cup when I spotted the nattily dressed British men at the next table using theirs correctly: Lift by the handle; turn your wrist 90 degrees so that the cup-shaped stand swings to the side; pour tea through the filter basket to catch the loose leaves; flick wrist again so that the cup swivels back into place (neatly catching any drips) and can be used to hold the strainer upright on the table. Got it. (This brilliant apparatus is available for purchase for the trifling sum of  £63.00 — http://www.thewolseley.com/tea-strainer.)

Shortly after, our three-tiered tea tower was placed on our table with a flourish. The dapper, freakishly tall waiter carefully explained each of the five finger sandwiches and the three tea cakes in an unidentified foreign accent so thick he might as well have been speaking another language. We managed to identify the sandwiches by color and taste: 1) smoked salmon and butter, 2) cucumber and butter, 3) celery and roasted toe-mah-toe, 4) cold chicken salad with tarragon, and 5) egg and cress. On the second level were the little cakes: a slice of mini Battenberg, a tiny round Victoria sponge, and a beautiful doll-sized raspberry tart. On the top level, nestled under a heavy, elaborate silver dome topped with a tiny pine cone-shaped knob, were two small currant scones.

I went for the scones first since they were still warm from the oven. They were, in a word, heavenly. Tender, moist, light, and buttery on the inside — crisp and browned on the outside. I slathered mine thickly with clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam (both also handily labeled for the uninitiated). The clotted cream was fantastic — it didn’t have the unpleasant sticky consistency of others I’ve tried — instead it was light (If that word can be used to describe a substance that clogs your arteries with a single glance…that’s why it’s called “clotted” cream, right?), smooth, and fluffy. The jam was lovely, too: neither too sweet nor syrupy.

We attacked the sandwiches next. I enjoyed the chicken salad the most — the cool chicken was tender and shredded into generously sized chunks. The other sandwiches were perfectly acceptable, but nothing to write on the Internet about.

And finally: the tea cakes. Battenberg cake is a favorite of mine, so I tried that first. The checked pieces of sponge cake, though alarmingly artificial in color, were moist and pillowy, held together with a thin layer of apricot jam and wrapped in a sheet of dense marzipan that had the same satisfying, firm, fine-grit texture as a bite of Play-Doh. Not that I’ve ever eaten Play-Doh. Next? Victoria sponge. Another favorite! Or should I say, favourite. Although it’s called sponge, this cake does not have the same light, airy texture as a North American sponge cake. It’s sweeter, moister, and denser, a bit closer to what we know as pound cake. The whipped cream that billowed out from between the wee cake layers as we bit into them was absolutely perfect: again, extremely rich cream that somehow tasted ethereal. And all balanced out by a dollop of the homemade strawberry jam. We saved the raspberry tart for last and it turned out to be a wise decision, since it was the best of all — a crisp, buttery tart shell filled with a spoonful of smooth, creamy custard piled high with huge fresh raspberries, velvety-matte under a coating of tiny silvery hairs and bursting with bright red sweet-tartness. “Sono contentissima!” (I’m so happy!) Francesca murmured, and I concurred.

It might all sound too girly for words, but I noticed that the muscular British men seated to our left ordered the exact same thing (wearing pink shirts, no less) and it didn’t seem to threaten their masculinity in the slightest.

We ended with a visit to the ladies’ room, suspecting that it would be as elegant as all the rest, and we were not disappointed: more vast expanses of black marble and mirrors, accented with glimmering gold.

Forget breakfast at Tiffany’s. Tea at the Wolseley is a sure-fire cure for the mean reds, any day.

Farmers’ Market Friday: Chive Blossoms

Today I was entranced by the stacks of small, clear containers packed with fluffy, lilac colored chive blossoms at the Siena Farms stand. They’re beautiful, have a lovely onion-y scent, and feel almost weightless in your hand. I’d never seen them before! I bought a package and when I got home with them this evening we ate them fresh, just broken up and sprinkled into a salad. They tasted wonderful: like chives but slightly sharper. The man I spoke with at the Siena Farms stand told me that he likes to batter and fry them. I haven’t tried that yet, because I always like to try something new in as simple a preparation as possible to really understand what it tastes like first. But it sounds great — sort of like a high-end “Awesome Blossom.” I would use the same batter that I learned to make in Florence for frying fresh sage leaves and zucchini blossoms, because it’s a very light, airy batter that would lend itself well to these delicate flowers.

Fried Chive Blossoms

1 egg, separated (you will use both the yolk and the white)
1 cup flour
dry white wine
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 pint of fresh chive blossoms
salt
oil for frying

Lightly beat the egg yolk. Stir flour into the egg yolk to mix. Add a little bit of white wine, about 1/2 tsp at a time, to thin the batter to a reasonable consistency for dipping and frying. Grate a pinch of fresh nutmeg into the batter. Whip the egg white until it forms soft peaks and gently fold it into the batter. Dip the chive blossoms gently into the batter (note that they must be dry or the battery won’t stick), shaking off any excess batter, and deep-fry until lightly golden. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate, salt lightly, and serve immediately.

Farmers’ Market Friday: Green Garlic

Spring has finally, officially returned and with it, the Copley Square Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a few days, I will start my fantastic new job at America’s Test Kitchen, and since I will only be working half-day Fridays all summer (!!!!), I’ll be able to visit the market on my way home, and early enough in the day that it should still have a good selection. Last year, I had to content myself with whatever dregs were left at the end of the day, and most stands were usually already packing up to leave by the time I arrived at the market. I can’t understand why farmers’ markets in the Boston area have hours that make them practically inaccessible to anyone who works full-time, particularly if you consider their astronomical prices.

This first week, not all of the usual stands were there yet. I saw Old Friends Farm, Iggy’s Bread, and a new fresh-pasta stand, Nella Pasta. At the Siena Farms stand, I was fascinated by the beautiful, long stalks of green garlic. I’d never cooked or eaten it before, so I decided to give it a shot. My goal is to try one vegetable or fruit that is completely new to me each week; I love the challenge of figuring out what to do with it. Green garlic — a young garlic plant harvested before the lower part of the stalk has begun to form the bulbous head of garlic cloves — is a particularly ephemeral item that is only available for a few short weeks in the early spring.

I took the stalk of garlic home, somehow managed to angle it into the fridge (it was nearly two feet long, from the roots to the tips of the leaves), and noticed that the leaves started to wilt soon after. The woman I’d spoken to at the farm stand had told me that the dark green leaves are inedible, in any case. You can only eat the pale green and white parts of the stalk, just like with leeks.

Green garlic can be used raw or cooked. I sampled a small piece raw to see how it tastes. The plant itself gives off a strong garlic scent, and it definitely tasted garlicky, but it’s milder than raw garlic cloves, and with less of a pungent, bitter edge. I decided to cook the garlic into a soup with a bunch of young sweet-pea shoots that I’d also bought at the market. The soup that I made turned out absolutely delicious, tasting of springtime, although it wasn’t as smoothly textured as I’d have liked. I blended with an immersion blender for several minutes but could not get the pieces of pea shoot any smaller. Adding dairy (such as cream or crème fraîche) to the soup might help give it a more velvety texture, but I wanted to keep it light and spring-y.

Green Garlic and Sweet-Pea Shoot Soup

(Serves 2)

1 TB unsalted butter
1 stalk green garlic (white and pale green parts only), finely minced
2 cups water or broth (vegetable or chicken)
1 bunch sweet-pea shoots
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
a squeeze of fresh lemon juice

  1. Melt the butter in a medium-sized stockpot over low heat, and then add the green garlic.
  2. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until softened and translucent.
  3. Add water or broth; season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Cover pot and bring to a boil, then toss in the pea shoots, cover again, reduce heat and simmer gently for about 5 minutes, or until shoots are wilted and tender.
  5. Puree using an immersion blender, blender, or food processor.
  6. Stir in lemon juice and serve immediately.

This would also be nice served topped with a dollop of crème fraîche, either plain or flavored with fresh mint.

William Woodville: „Medical botany“, London, J...

Image via Wikipedia

Fiddlehead Ferns…Spring?

Fiddlehead Ferns with Browned Butter and Prosciutto

Even though it still looks and feels more like early winter than late spring around Boston, an intriguing local springtime item has suddenly appeared in the produce section of my local Shaw’s (of all places)…fiddlehead ferns. I had never bought, cooked, or eaten them before but was really curious to try.

I decided to cook them as simply as possible in order to see how they tasted. I searched a bit for recipes and ended up using the recipe for “Fiddlehead Ferns with Browned Butter and Prosciutto” that I found here: http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/4789959.

I liked the texture of the ferns, crisp and with a bit of snap to them. The flavor is hard to describe — the closest I can come to putting it in words is to say that they taste like the forest. The only feature about them that I found off-putting was their appearance. I hate to say it, but they really did look too much like coiled-up caterpillars for my liking. They will not be available for long, and maybe I’ll try them again next year (perhaps battering and frying them would make them more appealing?).

Don’t Turn the Spurtle Widdershins

 

Porrige Spurtle

Porrige Spurtle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It sounds like a nonsense word straight out of “Jabberwocky,” but a spurtle (or “spirtle”) is a Scottish cooking implement with a history dating back to the 15th century, closely intertwined with that of porridge (we know it as “oatmeal”), the traditional staple food of Scotland. It’s a wooden dowel used to stir the oats during cooking to prevent the formation of lumps and to create a thicker, creamier porridge. The origins of the name are murky, although the Oxford English Dictionary points to the Latin spatula as a possible root.

Early versions of this instrument were made from a thin, straight branch of a tree, and usually turned from hardwoods such as beech, oak, chestnut, or ash. Scottish housewives who didn’t have a spurtle might have used a rung from a ladder.

They are typically about a foot long, an inch in diameter, and cylindrical, with one rounded end. Usually somewhat tapered at the stirring end, spurtles are often shaped at the handle end in the form of a thistle, a national symbol of Scotland.

As with all wooden cooking tools, treating a spurtle with mineral oil before use and after each wash will keep it in good condition and lengthen its lifespan.

According to tradition, only the right hand should be used for stirring porridge, and it should only be stirred in a clockwise direction, as stirring “widdershins” (or counter-clockwise) was believed to invoke the devil and bring bad luck.

Today this stirring stick lives on — at least in name — in the “Golden Spurtle”: the World Porridge-Making Championships held annually in the Scottish Highland village of Carrbridge, although the rules do not specifically require the use of a spurtle in the competition.

Of course, you don’t specifically need a spurtle to make porridge at home either — the handle of a wooden spoon will do just as well, but it is important to stir oats frequently during cooking to help disperse the starches, which makes for a thicker, creamier bowl of cereal.

Traditional Scottish Porridge

Makes 3 cups

The conventional cooking method is a lengthy endeavor requiring upwards of half an hour. Soaking the ingredients overnight allows you to have breakfast on the table within 15 minutes. Serve with individual bowls of milk, cream, or buttermilk for dunking each spoonful of porridge before eating. Porridge can also be served with brown sugar, jam, honey, syrup, or molasses. Other time-honored conventions: For reasons that have been lost to the mists of time, porridge must always be referred to as “they” or “them” and must be eaten while standing up, using a bone spoon. If you’ve only ever eaten rolled oats (the flattened grains used in “instant” or “quick-cook” versions), which can easily turn into a gummy paste when overcooked, you may be pleasantly surprised by the nutty flavor and chewy texture of steel-cut oats.

Ingredients:

Porridge

Porridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3 cups cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup steel-cut oats (known as “pinhead” oats in Scotland)
1 1/2 cups milk, cream, or buttermilk (optional, for serving)

  1. In a medium saucepan, bring water and salt to a boil.
  2. Stir in oats and boil for 1 minute.
  3. Cover and let stand overnight at room temperature.
  4. The next morning, uncover, stir well, and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
  5. Reduce heat to low and simmer 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently with a spurtle (or the handle of a wooden spoon), until the porridge is thick and creamy and the oats are tender.
  6. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for a few minutes before serving.

Deep Winter Locavore CSA

Watermelon radishes from the first Red Fire Farm Deep Winter CSA share

Today is the first day of the Red Fire Farm Deep Winter CSA and I can’t wait to see what we’re getting! My friend Denise and I decided to split a share. If you’re not familiar with the acronym, it stands for “Community-Supported Agriculture” and is a relatively new (in the U.S., anyway) scheme where you pay for a seasonal subscription to a local (and often organic) farm, in return for a weekly or biweekly share of the farm’s produce.

Strangely enough, this is the first time I’ve ever joined a CSA, although they are very popular in the Bay Area. For various reasons, I was never able to either get on the list in time (some fill up quickly) or find one with a pick-up or delivery scheme that was convenient for me. Now that I am living in Boston, I am particularly excited about this “deep winter” version, since, unlike in California, the outdoor farmer’s markets have long since shuttered for the season — the seemingly endless winter season. There’s a joke that in New England, there are only two seasons: winter and “the other six months.” I didn’t realize how spoiled I was in California until I moved here to face the harsh reality of frozen ground from November through May. Spring comes slowly here. To truly eat locally in this area for the winter months would be a pretty grim prospect, largely limited to root vegetables, winter squashes, apples — for as long as they would last, and preserves. I haven’t seen our first share yet but word on the street is that it contains spinach, celeriac, butternut squash, cilantro (with the roots, I hope!), pickles, rutabagas, and radishes. The reason I’m yearning for cilantro roots is that the roots are an essential ingredient in many Thai dishes, but they’re usually cut off and discarded here in the U.S. before sale, making them very difficult to find. So whenever I do manage to find some cilantro with the roots still attached, I store them in my freezer until the next lucky break.

A Moveable Feast

This afternoon I joined a guided walk through Forest Hills Cemetery led by Anthony Sammarco, a local historian and author of more than forty books on the history of Boston.  This garden cemetery is one of the most beautiful in the country, aside from holding great personal significance for me (my paternal grandparents are buried here), and I was excited by the idea of a food-themed walking tour, replete with tastings! It was a beautiful, brisk, fall day as Mr. Sammarco led our small group through the turning leaves.

We started at the grave of Thaddeus Clapp, the hybridizer of the Clapp’s Favorite variety of pear, a cross between the Bartlett and Flemish Beauty (apparently there is a giant pear sculpture in Everett Square in Dorchester, MA commemorating this accomplishment). This variety was unique because it was an early ripening pear, making the fruit available at a time of year when it was previously unobtainable. While Mr. Sammarco spoke we enjoyed some slices of fresh pear.

Our second stop was at the grave of Samuel Downer (1807-1881), who achieved fame for hybridizing the Downer’s Late cherry, which conversely ripened about a week after the regular cherry season, extending the availability of fresh cherries. Here we sampled fresh cherries, cherry juice, and gummy cherry candies.

Next up on the itinerary was the final resting place of Jacob Wirth (d. 1892), restauranteur and one of the first to introduce “ethnic” food from his native Prussia to the Boston area at his beer hall in Stuart Street, founded in 1868 and the second-oldest operating restaurant in the city after the Union Oyster House. At Jake’s gravestone we enjoyed some apple cider, the original idea of beer apparently having been nixed by someone behind the scenes at Forest Hills.

Next we visited the grave of Maria Parloa (1843-1909), one of the most popular cooking teachers and cookbook authors of the 19th Century, and co-founder of the Boston Cooking School. At Maria’s grave, a basket of mini Hershey’s chocolate bars had been set out, in honor of the chocolate cookbook that Maria authored (although it was for the Walter Baker cocoa company, rather than Hershey’s).

We then made a pilgrimage to the gravestone of Ruby Foo (1904-1950), the owner of Ruby Foo’s Den, one of the first resturants to offer Chinese food to Bostonians.  Considering the state of Chinese cuisine in the Boston area today (one word: dismal), I was quite curious about what types of dishes Ruby Foo might have served to her customers in the 30s and 40s.  Crab Rangoon could not possibly have been one of them, since that peculiarly un-Chinese concoction was actually invented at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco in the late 1950s. Mr. Sammarco informed us that Ruby’s restaurant was quite popular with the local Jewish population, not least of all because they were banned from dining in many other local restaurants at the time.  Could this be one of the reasons for the enduring love that many Jewish people still have today for Chinese food? Or is it that Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Day? At this stop we were offered fortune cookies, another American Chinese food invention (this is fodder for an entirely separate post, so I’ll refrain from commenting further).

We then wandered through the beautifully-landscaped grounds to the plot of S. S. Pierce (1807-1881), the proprietor of a fine-foods emporium that once stood in Copley Square (1887-1958). While munching on cookies, Mr. Sammarco described how Pierce imported upscale foods from around the world and had them delivered to well-to-do Back Bay families by horse-drawn livery coach (Today, Back Bay residents like yours truly use “old lady” wheelie carts to haul their groceries from Shaw’s and Trader Joe’s to their brownstones. Not quite as elegant).

Our final stop was at the plot of the Pfaff family, whose once well-known brewery was at Roxbury Crossing. We learned about the Pfaff brewery and the almost two dozen others that used to stand along Stony Brook from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain. The clear water from Stony Brook (now dry) was used to produce German-style lager beers. By this point, Mr. Sammarco’s assistants had somehow managed to sneak some real ale into the tour, and we enjoyed it on the steps of the Egyptian-style Pfaff Mausoleum.

I had a great time on this tour and learned a great deal – Mr. Sammarco is a vast treasure-trove of historical knowledge and clearly has a soft spot in his heart for anything related to food and dining. I wished I could have spoken to him longer and asked him some questions, particularly about the mysterious Ruby Foo.  I guess I’ll have to do some research of my own!

When the tour ended I took the opportunity to visit my grandparents, Eugene and Lena St. Onge, in the newer section of the cemetery. My French-Canadian grandfather was a chef, and my grandmother told me that they met when she and a girlfriend saw him slicing turkey in the window of a restaurant in Cape Cod one day.  He was tall and handsome, and my grandmother’s girlfriend said to her, “I bet you can’t make him!” and she retorted, “I bet you I can!” and the rest, as they say, is history…

A Visit to the Mercato Centrale

Mercato Centrale Firenze

Image via Wikipedia

As you wander through the maze of vendors hawking leather goods and souvenirs that crowd the streets of the San Lorenzo area, you may notice a large, grey-and-red structure towering above the stands.  Many visitors to Florence never venture inside this building, either unaware of its contents or intimidated by unfamiliar shopping customs, and in so doing, miss out on one of the city’s greatest gastronomical treasures.

Inside, this cavernous, two-storey space is full of bustling shops and stands offering fresh produce, meat, fish, pasta, bread, local cheeses, wines, herbs, and spices – in short, all of the ingredients for preparing fantastic meals at home, packing a gourmet picnic, or to bring home with you as souvenirs of your visit to Florence. You’ll often find higher quality, greater selection, and lower prices than in many local supermarkets.

The iron-and-glass Mercato Centrale (Central Market) was constructed in 1874 as part of a project to renovate the ancient city center, at the same time as the city’s other indoor daily market at Sant’Ambrogio. It was designed by architect Giuseppe Mengoni and inspired by the Les Halles marketplace in Paris. In 1881, the organization of the stands was entirely changed, resulting in the scheme which continues to this day.

The entire ground floor (piano terreno) is mostly occupied by the butchers (macellerie), delicatessens (pizzicherie), fish vendors (pescherie), and bakeries (forni), as well as several bars, mini-markets, and lunch places.  Most of the fruttivendoli, selling fresh seasonal fruit, vegetables, and flowers, are located upstairs on the second floor, or primo piano.  Amidst the shouts and laughter of the vendors you can make out, if you listen carefully, what’s in season and fresh for the day. Italians eat very seasonally – the best tomatoes are available in late summer, citrus from Sicily in the winter months, fresh figs and melons can only be found in late summer, and fragrant porcini mushrooms can only be had in September and October.

Italian cuisine in general and Tuscan cuisine, in particular, can be quite simple in comparison to some other European culinary traditions. The abundance of such fresh, high-quality ingredients often obviates the need for complex sauces and cooking techniques—the pure flavors are able to stand on their own.

A little help with ordering: sliced meats and cheeses are usually ordered in “etti,” with one etto equaling 100 grams, and 2 or 3 etti being approximately equivalent to a package of cured meat as sold in a supermarket. Produce can be ordered in etti or kilograms, or by number of pieces. One of the few disadvantages of shopping in the market is that you are not allowed to touch the produce on display, but instead must trust the vendors to make selections for you.  Attempts to choose your own fruit and vegetables will most likely be met with stern admonitions from the shopkeepers. However, many vendors, particularly those selling meats, cheeses, and sauces, are happy to let you taste their products before buying.

For those without access to a kitchen or with less time to devote to cooking, many vendors on the first floor also offer a wide variety of ready-prepared dishes (piatti pronti), which can be heated for you and packed to-go, as well as marinated roasts and pre-formed hamburger patties in interesting flavor combinations such as alla carrettierra—with garlic and chili peppers—and “braccio di ferro” (“Popeye”)—made with spinach).

For a quick lunch, the Central Market is a great place to stop, and many who work in the area do so regularly.  Following are some recommendations for meals in the market:

Pork’s: Different fresh pasta dishes offered daily.  Every other day Filippo makes lasagna, and his mother Benita prepares Sicilian specialties.  There is always a large variety of panini and grilled, stewed, marinated, or fried vegetables on display in the glass counter, and they can prepare a platter for you based on your selections.

Nerbone: A Central Market tradition.  Famous for panini made with lampredotto (a form of tripe and a Tuscan specialty) or bollito (boiled beef), as well as a full menu which changes daily.  For your panino you can choose the addition of piccante (spicy red chili sauce) and/or salsa verde (green sauce made with parsley, garlic and olive oil), and whether or not you would like your bread bagnato (dunked in meat broth, French-dip style). Friday’s menu usually features fish.  You can either order your food to take away (da portare via) or eat at one of the tables, next to life-size full-color photos of the friendly staff!

The Central Market in via dell’Ariento is open from 7 a.m. – 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday, (closed on Sundays).