Food March 2008

Simple Pleasures

Three Tuscan recipes to welcome spring

Willinger’s “sweet and sour chicken bites,” a recipe from a chef in a southern Tuscan village, also focuses on a very few direct flavors—here rosemary and sage, the two resinous herbs that power many Tuscan dishes, particularly bean dishes—and turns them into a greater whole. The bite-size honey-and-vinegar-glazed nuggets of boned chicken thigh, skewered with toothpicks, make terrific party food. Or, like the soup, they can be the basis for dinner for a few days (the recipe is easily doubled). They go well with, say, vegetable stir-fries, and would also be a good main course served over not-so-Tuscan rice: you’ll be reminded of teriyaki, although they’re made without a drop of soy sauce or its sometime surrogate, balsamic vinegar (and with very little salt).

For a substantial hors d’oeuvre for four to six people or as a main course for two, cut four boneless, skinless chicken thighs into one-inch pieces. (It’s quick and easy to bone thighs yourself.) Mince together one garlic clove, smashed and peeled; a teaspoon each of chopped fresh rosemary and sage leaves; and a half teaspoon each of fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Coat the chicken pieces with the dry rub, cover, and leave them in the refrigerator to marinate for at least two hours or overnight. When you’re ready to cook, make the glaze by stirring together two tablespoons of mild honey with a quarter cup of white-wine vinegar. (I had red, and it turned the pieces an appealing mahogany color.) Melt the honey into the vinegar either in a small saucepan over a low flame, or in a covered bowl for a minute in the microwave.

In a medium nonstick skillet, heat two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil over a medium-high flame and sauté the chicken pieces, stirring to brown them lightly and evenly. Add two tablespoons of dry white wine and continue sautéeing until the wine evaporates. Then add the honey-vinegar mixture, turn up the heat, and keep the pieces moving until the mixture forms a thick, shiny glaze that coats each one without burning at the bottom of the pan. The mixture will start to thicken after 10 minutes, and the dish should be finished after another five—you want each piece cooked through. The hot little nuggets are chewy and irresistible.

The Companion’s longest entry on nuts is devoted to walnuts, which Riley describes as “an object of veneration for centuries, associated with the revelries and cults held around the summer solstice.” Italian Jews have a knack for flourless walnut tortes, which show off one of the country’s finest, though least recognized, products (hazelnuts get the attention) and are ideal for Passover as well as for the increasing number of people who avoid eating wheat flour. The area south of Naples grows exceptional walnuts that can redefine your idea of how they should taste.

The best torte I know, torta del re (“king’s torte”), comes from Edda Servi Machlin’s Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, one of my favorite cookbooks and a record of the vanished culture of the once largely Jewish village of Pitigliano, in the hills of southern Tuscany. Like most tortes, that truly regal cake requires lengthy beatings of egg yolks and whites; many also call for nut flour, which is hard to find. Willinger’s recipe, from a cook and innkeeper named Lucia Botte, who lives in the walnut-growing region of Basilicata, uses plain chopped nuts and egg whites (sugar is the third main ingredient). I had to try the recipe as soon as I read it, for the same reason Willinger insisted on watching Botte make the torte: it starts with a technique I’d never seen, cooking whites over a flame with sugar. This is tricky, though less so if you start with very low heat; I had to make the recipe twice before recognizing its virtues. The cake is low and not as delicate as more-laborious tortes. It’s as much a nut bread as a cake, and very good with tea. Fresh walnuts are essential for its pleasantly soft and light texture. You can substitute any nicely fresh and soft nuts; pecans would be excellent.

To make the torte, which will serve six to eight, heat the oven to 350˚ F and place a rack in the middle. Line the bottom of an eight-inch springform pan with a piece of baking parchment or wax paper cut to fit; lightly oil the paper and the sides of the pan. Measure two cups of fresh whole walnuts and chop them. The recipe says “coarse.” How coarse? Finer than bagged chopped walnuts: a bit smaller than Rice Krispies—or, to use a Passover analogy, the size for haroset, the walnut-and-sweet-wine “mortar” whose arrival is a high point of every seder.

In a small saucepan over very low heat, stir together three egg whites and one-third cup sugar with a wooden spoon. If you keep the heat very low, the whites won’t start to coagulate into long strands, as they do in stracciatella, egg-drop soup (and as they did on my first try). Instead, the mixture will slowly become an off-white slush; after about eight minutes, it will begin to pull away from the bottom of the pan as you stir. After 10 to at most 15 minutes, it will resemble loose cream of wheat or grits. When all the whites are opaque, turn the mixture into a two-quart bowl and stir in the chopped nuts. The whites will just coat them and will have the texture of spackle. In another bowl, which should be clean and dry, whip three more egg whites with a good pinch of salt until they mound and form soft peaks. Watch them carefully as soon as the beater starts to leave swirling tracks; don’t overbeat, or the mixture will begin to break like a melting glacier. The peaks should be firm but not pert.

Mix half a cup of the beaten egg whites into the nut mixture and then use a spatula to carefully fold in the rest in two or three additions. The batter won’t be light and airy, but it will spread easily in the baking pan. Sprinkle it evenly with two tablespoons of sugar and bake for an hour, until a toothpick or a fine knife comes out clean and the top is a light golden brown. Let cool.

Because the torte is barely sweet, it needs dressing up with whipped cream and fruit—ideally, the season’s first strawberries, albeit trucked in from someplace warm. The veil of crunchy sugar and the soft nut pieces, sweet on their own, make it very easy to nibble. Unlike the almost endlessly extendable lentil soup, this won’t last for days.

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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