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Pleasures of Pantelleria

In the salted caper room at Bonomo and Giglio on Pantelleria


One of my favorite ingredients – whether sprinkled on pizza, tossed into a salad or paired with olive oil and lemon to adorn grilled fish – are capers.  Slightly sweet, mostly salty with a tangy bite capers add a bright note to many dishes.  

Caper plants clinging to the earth bound for Bonomo and Giglio 

Capers are the unopened flower buds of bushy plants that cling to stonewalls or are cultivated close to the ground. On the tiny Italian island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily just 36 miles from the coast of North Africa, the volcanic soil and Mediterranean sun produce high quality capers prized for their flavor. “They are the best capers and I like them because they are cured in salt and not pickled,” says chef Piero Premoli of Pricci Restaurant. Premoli is featuring a menu of Sicilian dishes throughout October including a cured tuna with capers and the region’s classic caponata stew with eggplant and capers.
Olives, tomatoes, onions, basil and olive oil love in Pantelleria

Pleasures of 


If you haven’t been to Pantelleria or even heard of it, join the club.  I was invited by a non-profit food and nutrition organization called Old WaysPreservation and Exchange Trust to join a group of writers and culinary experts for a symposium to discover the island’s uniquely healthy food and lifestyle habits.  
It’s a desert out there. The island of Pantelleria gets very little rain fall. 
The rocky island is pummeled by the wind forcing olive trees, grape vines and caper bushes to lie low growing outward not upward. Citrus trees are cradled in walled gardens to protect the fruit.

“There’s still a little magic out there,” says Phil Meldrum of Food Match a specialty foods importer attending the symposium. “When you find something with a taste particular to that area it gives me goose bumps.”

 Pantelleria capers on freshly caught swordfish makes me swoon. 
Stone cliffs, stonewalls, stone buildings, and piles of stone create a harsh landscape surrounded by the crashing sea. Minimal rain means cactus blooms and bougainvillea blooms offer the only color. 

“It was frozen in time,” says dietitian Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant Powered Diet, “We had very little red meat. It’s primarily a plant based diet that’s nutritionally really balanced with carbs from pastas, healthy fats from almonds, olives and olive oil and dishes flavored with herbs, fennel and capers.”  
Sharon Palmer and I enjoying ‘studying’ nutrition on Pantelleria.
Other common cooking ingredients included eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes. Since cows were not a traditional part of farm life here, there is very little cheese and pasta dishes and potatoes are sprinkled with seasoned bread crumbs instead of parmesan.  
Just so you believe me. Pantescans add breadcrumbs to pasta.
Palmer notes, “We had traditional dishes handed down through the generations in an isolated farming environment so we had what they have there.” 
Even though there is a tradition of sweet cookies made in intricate patterns and shapes, the principal sweetener is made from reducing grape juice not refined sugar. 
“It’s nice that the healthiest traditional eating patterns happen to be the most delicious,” says Sara Baer-Sinnott, President of Oldways.   

Mediterranean Medicine

The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet – rich in vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, seafood and olive oil – are well documented. Dietitian Kathy McManus, Director of the Department of Nutrition at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston says, “Since this diet is not low in fat people enjoy the foods more, lose more weight and they tend to eat more vegetables because they can add olive oil.”  The Mediterranean lifestyle leads to longevity, too. 
Olive oil contains more than healthy fats, it’s rich in plant nutrients and antioxidants to promote good health.
Ligia Dominguez, MD of the University of Palermo says, “We want an active life in old age not frailty. The Mediterranean diet is high in antioxidants which can add years to your life and life to your years.”

Dominguez says being “kissed” by the sun for at least 15 minutes a day boosts vitamin D levels naturally and getting enough sleep is important too. “I took a nap every day in Pantelleria,” admits Baer-Sinnot, “It’s the joy of resting to reduce stress.”

Grape harvest bonanza during my stay on Pantelleria.

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Chefs Experiment with Flavors

Marinated Anchovies with Pink Grapefruit and Black Pepper
Five and Ten in Athens, GA
2012 James Beard Nominated Chef Hugh Acheson  

Dining duos such as onion and garlic, oregano and basil or lemon and pepper are flavor combinations we’ve gotten used to tasting together. But, there’s a delicious new world of flavor match making going on today as chefs season with a touch of surprise. Step aside lemon-pepper. At Five and Ten restaurant in Athens, chef Hugh Acheson’s new take on citrus paired with a bit of heat arrives with seafood. An appetizer of marinated anchovies and pink grapefruit segments dusted with black pepper is marvelous mix of briny fish with slightly bitter fruit and a hit of cracked pepper. Anchovies, by the way, are an excellent source of heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and these tiny fish are very low in mercury so you can eat them often. Diving into Acheson’s anchovy dish is far more fun than taking fish oil pills.

Fresh Look at Taste

Culinary Nutritionists
Andrea Canada, Natalia Hancock and Kristy Lambrou
at Rouge Tomate, NYC

Do you like hot sauce on oysters? Most folks eat them that way. But, oysters on the half shell at Rouge Tomate in New York are topped with a pineapple, ginger and mint. Marmalade of shallots and prunes perks up poultry. Lemongrass-ginger oil with jalapeno pairs with fresh fish. Natalia Hancock, culinary nutritionist with Rouge Tomate, works with executive chef Jeremy Bearman to find flavor combinations which are not only mouth watering they have to be healthful too. “There’s nothing better than when the worlds of nutrition and food collide.” While the seasonal dishes are designed to fit within a healthy range of calories there are no numbers on the menu. Hancock, trained as a chef and a dietitian, says the food philosophy at Rouge Tomate prioritizes the quality of calories, “I choose certain ingredients for a dish not just because they taste good together but because they improve the overall nutritional profile of the recipe. A bit of olive oil in a sauce helps you better absorb vitamin A, for instance, in the vegetables.” Another example of this nutritional synergy is a sauce made from a puree of green olives and avocado.

Flavor Focus

Sometimes appreciating a specific flavor means finding it in a variety of forms. In their annual Flavor Forecast, chefs and other food experts at McCormick &Company identified the “quest for the ultimate” as one of 2012’s trends. For example, combining Meyer lemon with lemon thyme, Limoncello and Lemon Peel is described as the “ultimate lemon” taste experience. Flavors known for their cooling effects such as dill, mint, melon and cucumber are combined to create the “ultimate refresher.” At Five and Ten diners can find a new way to satisfy their fish with lemon craving with Rainbow Trout stuffed with thinly sliced fennel and preserved lemons. At Seasons 52, the spring menu brings lemon to the table in a new way with Steelhead Trout in a lemongrass sauce.

World View

Borrowing from the spice cabinet of world cuisines continues to inspire cooks to try new things. McCormick’s chefs identify Korean pepper paste and Moroccan harissa as flavors showing up in everything from barbecue to baked vegetables. Chef Marvin Woods, author of The New Low-Country Cooking which explores the influence of Africa, France, Spain and the Caribbean on southern regional cooking says “It’s great to extend your knowledge. There are no boundaries and its like ‘Wow! They did that!’ and makes you want to run with it.” Woods, who shares healthy southern recipes on his website www.chefmarvinwoods.com such as Lamb Burgers with Orange and Mango Ketchup, says “Too often people think they will lose something when they hear its ‘healthy food’ but you’re adding fantastic flavors with spices and herbs.”

Spice Savvy Cooking Classes

The Cook’s Warehouse – Midtown Location

“Favorites from Masala Farm”: April 5th 7pm-9m

Indian Cuisine: Chef Suvir Saran, author of three cookbooks on Indian Cuisine.

“Red Hot Chilies”: April 10th 7pm-9pm

“Cooking with Chilies” Chef Nancy Waldeck and Cultural Anthropologist Deb Duchon

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