WHAT? A hot soak for your veggies. Bagna cauda, Italian for hot bath, is a very old dish with a Piedmont pedigree. Once considered a poor man's meal, bagna cauda has become one of the region's most popular foods. The "bath" is a tangy sauce made from garlic, olive oil, and anchovy; butter is often added in as well. To keep the sauce hot, it's typically served over a flame. Raw, or sometimes lightly cooked vegetables, cut into bite-size pieces, are dipped into it using a long-pronged fork. In Piedmont, fennel, cauliflower, cabbage, and red peppers are the veggies of choice, but any vegetable that's good to eat raw works well with bagna cauda, too.
WHAT? Sweet science. The name is credited to Delmonico’s chef Charles Ranhofer, who is said to have christened the dessert to commemorate America’s 1867 purchase of Alaska. The concept—frozen ice cream insulated from heat by meringue—probably came from American scientist Benjamin Thompson (later Count Rumford), who in 1804 was investigating the resistance of beaten egg whites to heat, although a few years earlier, Thomas Jefferson served something similar at a White House dinner, according to a guest at the meal. To make a Baked Alaska, sponge cake is topped with ice-cream, which is, in turn, covered with meringue. The dessert is baked for a few minutes in a very hot oven until the meringue is golden. It then must be eaten immediately. James Beard was not a fan. “This has become a signature for elaborate dining in this country and is a dessert that causes ohs and ahs wherever it is presented,” he wrote in American Cookery. “I think it is greatly overrated, but it is part of American life.” What, we wonder, would he make of molten chocolate cake?
WHAT? Splitsville, USA. When you place one scoop each of strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate ice cream atop a banana sliced from stem to end, pour on hot fudge, pineapple chunks, and strawberry sauce, toss on a handful of nuts, smother the whole concoction with whipped cream, and plop on a maraschino cherry, you are unlikely to think of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, or Wilmington, Ohio. That is, unless you hail from either of those towns, which both lay claim to being the birthplace of the beloved banana split. Many split specialists believe that it was David Strickler—an apprentice pharmacist with sophisticated soda-jerk skills—who brought these ingredients together in 1904 at Tassell Pharmacy in Latrobe. Wilmingtonians will have nothing to do with this legend, however. They contend that it was restaurateur E. R. Hazard who dreamed up this delicacy in 1907, enticing Wilmington College students with his creation. Wilmington holds an annual Banana Split Festival, at which 430 gallons of ice cream and 3,500 bananas were consumed last year. Still, Strickler’s son is certain that it was his father who conceived the dish, which was always held in high esteem: “Years ago, when a guy took his best girl out, he bought her a banana split. Other girls just got ice cream cones.”
WHAT? The proof is in the pudding. This creamy-and controversial-concoction was invented in the early 1970s at the Hungry Monk restaurant in Jevington, a town in East Sussex, England. In an attempt to create an easy, foolproof toffee dessert, chef Ian Dowding boiled condensed milk for a few hours to make a soft toffee, which he poured into a shortbread crust and topped with a layer of bananas and coffee-laced whipped cream. The Hungry Monk's owner, Nigel Mackenzie, came up with the name, which is a portmanteau made up of its two main ingredients-banana and toffee-and can also be spelled banoffee, banoffie, or bannofy. After the recipe's appearance in The Deeper Secrets of the Hungry Monk cookbook in 1974, the dish became a dinner party staple. Banoffi pie eventually gained such popularity that several British supermarket chains created their own version of the popular pudding and marketed it as an American product, much to the dismay of Dowding and Mackenzie. In 1994, in an attempt to prove his restaurant's claim to the recipe, Mackenzie offered 10,000 pounds to anyone who could find a similar recipe that predated the Hungry Monk creation. The challenge was unmet, prompting an apology from supermarket giant Marks and Spencer.
WHAT? If cake grew on trees. Baumkuchen (literally “tree cake”) is a traditional pastry from Germany made in an unusual way. A loose batter enriched with ground almond or almond paste is poured over a long tube that turns above an open fire or other heat source, rotisserie–style. When the batter is cooked, another layer is poured on, creating concentric layers of cake that resemble the rings of a tree when the cake is cut. Likely originating in Berlin, the cake’s popularity reached its zenith in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when sugar became plentiful. Perhaps because of its allusion to nature, baumkuchen is currently experiencing a renaissance in Japan, where you can find versions of the cake everywhere from the fanciest department store food halls to the no-frills lifestyle retailer Muji.
WHAT? Buzz creator. Although health foodies and alternative-medicine gurus have been championing the benefits of bee pollen and other apiarian products (like propolis and royal jelly) for years, these days an increasing number of chefs are pollinating their dishes. Depending on whom you believe, the pale yellow pearls of pollen are considered a super food, rich with amino acids, vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and K, and 28 minerals. But the reason pollen is being sprinkled on cheese plates, desserts, and other dishes is what Amanda Hesser of The New York Times described as its "super-sweet floral" flavor. In fact, Hesser was talking about Colin Alevras's near-perfect cheesecake when she wrote that description, and he's the chef who'll be using bee pollen this month at the House.
WHAT? Edible baggage. These precious bite-sized packages first came into vogue in New York City in the 1980s after Barry and Susan Wine, owners of the Quilted Giraffe, visited France. During their trip, a chef at Vieille Fontaine outside Paris served the Wines something he called un aumonière (an alm’s purse), an appetizer of caviar and crème fraîche bundled up in a little crêpe and secured with a thin strip of chive. The Wines were so taken with the dish that they brought it home to New York, changed the name to a beggar’s purse, and began serving it at their restaurant. It is rumored that chef Wine insisted his guests use no hands or utensils when eating the purse; instead, specially designed handcuffs were brought out to constrain diners while they leaned over to pick up the package with their lips or teeth, and then stood to eat the morsels in one bite. The dish has since evolved to include other fillings—many of which are too decadent for paupers.
WHAT? Renaissance cocktail. Invented by venerable Venetian restaurateur Arrigo Cipriani in 1948 to commemorate the founder of the Venetian school of painting, Giovanni Bellini, the cocktail is still served only in white peach season at Cipriani’s legendary Harry’s Bar in Venice. To make a proper Bellini, fresh, ripe white peaches are puréed and strained to produce a sweet juice that’s combined with Prosecco, the local sparkling wine. Although the proportion of juice to Prosecco in “official” printed recipes varies, according to Claudio Ponzio, who has been head barman at Harry’s for more than 30 years, one third juice to two thirds Prosecco produces the right balance. Just for the record, using any fine Champagne to make a Bellini is a waste. Although the deft use of light is one of the hallmarks of the Venetian school—into which Vittore Carpaccio and Tiziano “Titian” Vicellio are also grouped—the sparkle of a Bellini cocktail outshines any painting of the period.
WHAT? Sesame seeds by another name. West African slaves introduced the seeds to America (along with okra, yams, and black-eyed peas), and the Nigerian name for them, "benne," stuck, at least in the American South. The Africans considered the seeds lucky. Today, benne wafers--thin cookies/crackers made with sesame seeds--are closely associated with Low Country cooking, a style of cooking centered in Charleston, South Carolina. And they're often served at Kwanza too.
WHAT? Swiss blanc de noirs. Although Switzerland may not come immediately to mind when you think of the great wine-producing countries of the world, in fact they make some pretty good grape juice. Hugh Johnson describes the politically neutral, Alpine country's wine production as "small but impeccable." He also notes, "The Swiss are loyal to their own local wines, without pretending that better things do not happen in France." One of those local wines is Gialdi's Biancospino, a white wine vinified from red Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in the region of Ticino. The Ticino canton is the fourth largest producer of wine in Switzerland, and within the canton, the commune of Mendrisio is responsible for about one-quarter of the total production. Although Merlot is the favored grape of the region, at altitudes of above 1,500 feet, Pinot Noir is better suited.
WHAT? Ebony grain. Not to be confused with other exotic onyx grains, black venus, or venere nero, is Italy’s contender in the raven rice category. Naturally deep, blackish red in color, black venus is actually a cross between the ancient Chinese forbidden rice and an Italian variety. Due to its regal pedigree—Chinese forbidden rice was reserved almost exclusively for the emperor—Italians designated the nutrient-rich morsel “the nobleman’s rice.” Adding to black venus rice’s allure is its tendency to emit the smell of fresh baked bread while it cooks. Often served with fish or by itself, the robust and tasty rice needs only a pat of butter and a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano to reach its full flavor potential.
WHAT? L'originale bubbly. France's oldest sparkling wine has a light, fruity flavor, which has been compared to green apples and cider, and a pleasing bouquet. The appellation applies to wines made in the hills surrounding Limoux in Southern France's Languedoc-Roussillon region. Blanquette de Limoux must contain at least 80 percent of its primary grape, Mauzac, also called Blanquette. Other grapes included in the mix are Clairette, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay; the later is increasingly used to embellish the wine.
WHAT? Roe v. Fish. It doesn't take much of a cognitive leap to suppose that bleak roe comes from bleak fish (Alburnus alburnus). But when you probe a little deeper, you discover that the English term most Scandinavians use for their fish-egg delicacy—löjrom in Swedish, muikunmätiä in Finnish—is misleading. Traditionally, bleak roe actually comes from the vendace (Coregonus albula), a fish once abundant in northern lakes such as Sweden's Lake Vänern, but increasingly harder to find. Sometimes the generic "golden caviar" is used to describe these small, golden-colored eggs that find their way onto Scandinavian tables, often served with potato pancakes, red onion, and sour cream. You'll see it called "whitefish caviar," too. One theory for the confusion is that the word bleak derives from an Old English word meaning to "bleach" or to "whiten," and it was used to describe the light color of the roe as it was used to describe the light, silvery color of the fish.
WHAT? Jamaican brew. “I am unable to suggest any improvement on coffee which is nearly as perfect as possible,” wrote a British coffee expert in 1876 upon examining a shipment of Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica. He is quoted in Culinaria: The Caribbean, which also notes the original coffee planted in this Caribbean nation’s Blue Mountain range was directly descended from plants given to Louis XIV by the burgomaster of Amsterdam in 1713. Though the stellar reputation of Blue Mountain coffee persists, some experts dispute the quality of production today. Still, the coffee’s rarity, its reputation, and its near-cult status in Japan make it the most expensive coffee in the world. Besides sampling it at the Beard House, your best shot at trying some authentic Blue Mountain coffee is in the Jamaican, coffee-flavored, after-dinner liqueur, Tia Maria.
WHAT? South African food talk. Though they sound like the names of the members of the latest pop group from England, these three dishes actually form part of the classic South African culinary repertoire. Bobotie, considered the country's national dish, is really just delicious comfort food. It's a minced meat and dried fruits casserole spiced with cumin, coriander, cloves, and topped with an egg custard. Sosatie are Indonesian-style barbecued meats--traditionally springbok (gazelle) or ostrich, but today more likely chicken or lamb--served with dried fruits and a variety of dipping sauces. Mealie tart is actually a polenta torte layered with an onion and tomato stew. It is safe to say that these dishes have never been served on a Beard House menu before. And since the we can't predict when they will be served again, you had better make your reservations early.
WHAT? Easter brew. According to The Beer Drinker's Bible, bock beers are associated with Easter and originated in Einbeck, Germany, in the 14th and 15th centuries. ("Bock," which means goat in German, may be a corruption of "beck.") Bocks are aged for at least one month. They're full-flavored, exhibit a malty sweetness, and may taste slightly of chocolate. The alcohol content of bock-style beer, about 7 percent, is relatively high.
WHAT? Dixie Dorito. With their quirky Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, Matt and Ted Lee brought this Deep South treat to the attention of New Yorkers less than a decade ago. The Lee Bros. catalogue, which can be found online at www.boiledpeanuts.com, offers lots of tips about the snack, not to mention an “I brake for boiled peanuts” T-shirt. Their peanuts, the siblings promise, “are guaranteed to turn any party into a cultural event.” To make the snack, raw unshelled peanuts (either fresh “green” or dry) are boiled in salted water for as much as two hours. The resulting snack is closer to edamame than to roasted peanuts, and, like edamame, is eaten by popping open the shell and slurping the peanut and salty brine. In many parts of the south, boiled peanuts are sold as a roadside snack. In Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking, Southern food expert John Martin Taylor wrote, “No one knows the origin of our singular treat, but to those who love them, as I do, there is no better snack.”
WHAT? Boiled dinner fit for a prince. This hearty mix of tender meats originated in northern Italy and is considered a menu mainstay of Piedmont, Lombardy, and Emilia. Though it varies slightly by region, the typical mix of seven meats includes beef, veal, chicken, capon, cotechino (a type of sausage), tongue, and traditionally, half of a calf's head. The boiled meats are served with a variety of condiments, but the only one required is bagnetto verde, a blend of parsley, garlic, and anchovy similar to salsa verde. The humble dish was a favorite of Crown Prince Vittorio Emanuele, who was rumored to steal away in the night with friends to the small town of Moncalvo outside Torino to savor the rich, brothy stew. Its time-consuming preparation has brought this modest meal out of the home and into fancy Italian restaurants, where the different meats are often served from specialized carts and carved tableside.
WHAT? State-sanctioned sweet. There are two enduring mysteries about this traditional custard-filled, chocolate-glazed sponge cake: 1) Why is it called a pie? 2) Don't legislators in Massachusetts have enough to do? Let's start with the latter question. In 1996, Boston Cream Pie beat out Indian pudding and the Toll House cookie (created by a Massachusetts restaurant of that name in the 1930s) for the official designation "dessert or dessert emblem of commonwealth." (Chapter 2, Section 41). The chocolate chip (or Toll House) cookie was designated state cookie the following year. (Whew.) Incidentally, the Bay State has a State Muffin, too—the corn muffin. As for our first question, after a good bit of investigation, columnist Tom Harte of the Southeast Missourian wrote that "the best guess is that they were so labeled because they were baked in pie tins, which were more common in 19th-century America than cake pans."(The modern version of Boston Cream Pie is attributed to Boston's Parker House Hotel, which also gets credit for the Parker House roll.)
WHAT? Noble rot. ("What's noble about rot?" the tongue-in-cheek Wine for Dummies asks). Botrytis cinerea causes grapes to shrivel, essentially preempting their transformation into raisins. The fungus thrives in humid weather, rain, fog, and mist, and is a vintner's nightmare unless-and this is key-he or she hopes to make dessert wine. In that case, botrytis is heaven sent. By concentrating the sugar in the grapes, botrytis causes flavors to deepen and intensify. Because acid levels remain high, however, the resultant wines aren't overly sweet. Rather, grapes affected by botrytis produce complex, luscious, aromatic honeyed wines such as the famed dessert wines of Sauternes. While the wine industry has experimented with artificially inducing noble rot, for now, at least, Mother Nature rules.
WHAT? It’s in their blood. Boudin Rouge is the lesser-known cousin of the popular Cajun snack, boudin blanc, a sausage made of pork and rice. What sets this savory sausage apart is the addition of fresh hog’s blood to the mixture before it’s stuffed into the casing, which makes for a denser texture and richer flavor. At a traditional boucherie, a Louisiana festival where a hog is slaughtered and cooked up, the initial stabbing of the animal yields the fresh blood that will find its way into the boudin rouge. Due to health department regulations regarding the use of blood in products, boudin rouge can’t be sold commercially, so tracking down this spicy sausage can be difficult.
WHAT? This drink divine. Although it's hard to ascertain whether Carthaginian queen Dido drowned her sorrows in boukha over the loss of Aeneas, who left her alone near modern-day Tunis while he went off to found Rome, we suspect it would have helped take off the edge. Little known outside the bars of Tunis and Djerba, boukha or eau de vie de figue as it is known in colonial French, has been drunk since Ancient times. It is made from a distillation of figs, to which fig syrup is added. Unlike traditional, clear French eaux de vie, boukha has a sweet, syrupy quality that looks and tastes distinctly of figs. But don't be fooled, it packs a serious punch. Many an unsuspecting tourist has been dealt a deathly blow after a night of Tunisian drinking. On second thought, maybe Dido would have killed herself anyway.
WHAT? A kiss for Hershey's. This sweet, fizzy, red D.O.C wine comes from the small town of Acqui, a few miles west of Asti where the far more famous Italian sweet wine, Moscato d'Asti, is produced. Both are in the wonderful wine-producing region of Piedmont. Wine Spirits magazine described the rosy bubbly in glowing terms: "It has the flavor of fresh raspberries and brandied raspberry-cake filling, the sweetness checked by an earthy acidity. The bright cherry color is provocative, and the flavor is delicious." Beyond that, Brachetto d'Acqui is one of the only wines in the world that matches perfectly with chocolate. We'll drink to that.
WHAT? A little something with your tea. “Amongst all bakery products, the brack is certainly the most Irish,” according to Culinaria: European Specialties. A tea and special occasion bread, brack comes in two varieties: tea brack and barm brack. The former is leavened with baking powder and dotted with raisins that have been soaked in tea. The latter is made with yeast. According to Darina Allen’s Complete Book of Irish Country Cooking, “barm” is derived from the Old English word “beorma,” which was a yeasted, fermented liquor. Brack, meanwhile, comes from the Irish “brac,” meaning “speckled,” presumably for the raisins or caraway seeds, which are also a common ingredient. Barm brack was traditionally baked on Halloween with a wedding ring inside. Whoever found the ring in her slice would be married within the coming year. The bread, Allen writes, was also associated with New Year’s when people tossed chunks of a loaf against their doors to avert poverty in the coming year. Various sources say that brack was originally baked over a peat fire, and that it was baked in an iron pot with hot coals placed on the lid. We’re partial to a recipe from Theodora FitzGibbon’s A Taste of Ireland in Food and Pictures, which suggests soaking the raisins in a combination of tea and whiskey, as her grandmother did, making the bracks “very popular with the gentlemen.”
WHAT? Something new under the sun. The California-based Mann Packing Co., which has trademarked the name “broccolini,” describes it as “an exciting new vegetable!” A cross between broccoli and gai lan (Chinese kale), broccolini also goes by the name asparation, though we agree with Elizabeth Schneider, who wrote in Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini that “If you were seeking a pharmaceutical to deliver hope to the respiratory system, you might check out something with a name like Asparation. It seems unlikely that you’d go shopping for a vegetable.” Whatever you call it, broccolini is sweeter and less fibrous than broccoli, and it has a peppery nuance. Schneider found it “as pretty as asparagus,” and “as versatile as broccoli.”
WHAT? A talking vegetable. This charmingly named British dish is made from mashed potatoes and cooked cabbage. The two are combined, then fried, and the dish is said to bubble and squeak as it cooks. The British, apparently, like to name food after the sound it makes in the pan. Consider, for instance, the singing binny (a griddle-baked spice cake). In Ladyfingers & Nun’s Tummies, Martha Barnette writes that the cake "sings" while baking. Another digression—if you search for bubble and squeak online, you may discover, as we did, a piece of conceptual sculpture (it resembles Erector Set construction) by artist Tom Phillips. He noted that in bubble and squeak a "combination of prosaic leftovers may, by culinary alchemy, produce a unique taste which cannot be arrived at if attempted with fresh ingredients. Thus, unpromising little heaps of dust in which the granules of pigment are mixed with grindings of the various erasers, gain piquancy when filed and phialled." Mmm.
WHAT? Braves’ bread. This simple quick bread is popular among Northwest Coast Indians, according to Beverly Cox and Martin Jacob’s Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking. Its name is said to derive from the loaf’s color as well as its soft, fine-crumbed texture, which resembles fine buckskin. In her cookbook Enduring Harvests: Native American Foods and Festivals for Every Season, E. Barrie Kavasch sensitively details Native American culture and cuisine; she suggests serving buckskin bread with (salmon roe) caviar. That’s a tradition Beard members could learn to love!
WHAT? Irish moonshine. Made from barley, malt, yeast, sugar, and water, Bunratty potcheen weighs in at a whopping 90 proof. But its potency has nothing to do with the fact that it was illegal to sell in Ireland for centuries. As Bunratty Mead and Liqueur explains, it was actually outlawed in 1661 as a way to encourage large commercial stills. Traditionally it was brewed in “small pots” (Potcheen in Gaelic) over peat fires, and the Irish drank it at weddings and wakes. Not long ago, Bunratty got a license from the government to sell it in the Emerald Isle. Maxim described Bunratty potcheen as “rocket fuel from the land of leprechauns,” and predicted it will “revolutionize, as they would say across the pond, ‘getting pished.’” But don’t dismiss it out of hand as something only a frat boy could love. Kevin Kosar of alchoholreviews.com praised the drink’s “fruit nose—almost like raspberries. In the mouth, though, it was spirit, melon and earth.”
WHAT? Critter stew. In his Dictionary of American Food and Drink, John Mariani quotes a recipe for this traditional southern stew that appeared, he says, "not long ago" in the Louisville Courier-Journal. It calls for, among other ingredients, 800 pounds of beef, 200 pounds of fowl, and 20 pounds of salt. Burgoo, it seems, is not something you're likely to whip up at home. Traditionally, it was eaten by Southerners at outdoor celebrations; Mariani notes that the word "burgoo" came to be used for any such gathering. Even today, small towns and churches hold burgoo festivals and picnics, where you can buy the stuff by the cup or by the gallon. Burgoo originated in Kentucky—sometimes called the Burgoo Belt—around the time of the Civil War. According to The Splendid Table, it is close kin of Brunswick stew. Angelfire.com describes the stew as "more of a concept than a recipe." Its ingredients are variable. The meat may be beef, pork, chicken, veal, opossum, rabbit, or squirrel. The vegetables range from corn and lima beans to potatoes and okra. All are thrown together with water into a giant cast iron cauldron over an open fire and stirred and stirred and stirred some more. Many hours later, the thick soupy stew is ready. "Hushpuppies," James Beard wrote in American Cookery, "are an agreeable accompaniment." As for the name, there are as many stories about its origin as there are recipes for burgoo. It could be a corruption of ragoût or of barbecue, or it may derive from a bulgur porridge that was eaten by sailors in the 17th century.
WHAT? Cream cheese. On the outside, burrata appears to be fresh mozzarella. But the inside holds a surprise—an unctuous mix of cream and cheese curds. Burrata originated in Apulia and Basilicata in southern Italy and is one of several pasta filata cheeses. These cheeses—mozzarella, provolone, and cacicovallo are examples—begin with the formation of curd. The curd is heated in hot water so that it becomes melted and smooth, and then stretched, which forms the characteristically smooth surface. Burrata can also be filled with butter or a butter-and-sugar paste, hence its name. Another variation is Burrata di Andria, which is wrapped in the leaves of the aromatic asphodel plant, a member of the lily family.
WHAT? Poseidon’s Plugra. The Peprilus triacanthus, known also as Pacific pompano, is a small fish that rarely reaches more than 10 inches long. Its oval-shaped body is shiny with silvery sides and belly. According to University of Delaware’s Sea Grant website, this little creature from the Atlantic Coasts gets its name from its high fat content and slippery coating that resembles…butter! Its mild-flavored meat is dark, but turns white upon cooking. Fish & Shellfish author James Peterson recommends panfrying and grilling butterfish to obtain the tastiest results. “They’re too small to bother filleting,” Peterson notes, so just rub off the scales, cook the fish, and eat it, making sure you don’t swallow any of the few bones it contains.