Radicchio di Treviso
[ra-DEE-kee-oh dee treh-VEE-zoh]
WHAT? Legislated leaves. “It would be little short of a crime to describe radicchio from Treviso and Castelfranco as just ‘lettuce,’” insisted Culinaria: Italy. “Here in Italy, this delicious specialty is a vegetable in its own right.” The radicchios are a group of bitter, leafy vegetables, related to chicory, that have been enjoyed in Italy since Ancient times. In order to preserve their integrity, there is a Consorzio Radicchio di Treviso, which verifies by the designation IGP or (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) that the vegetable was grown in one of eight defined geographical areas in the Veneto region. There are two radicchios di Treviso rosso, both of which are red and white: the “precoce,” which comes in the late fall and forms a tight elongated bunch that resembles Belgian endive, and the “tardivo,” which grows between December and April and forms a looser bunch of leaves. Since the late 1860s, radicchios have been treated by a process called imbianchimento, or “whitening”; this light-deprivation treatment, similar to that for endive, heightens the red and white coloring as well as the flavor. All radicchio varieties are celebrated each year in a festival outside of Treviso.
WHAT? Grilled cheese, English–style. In the same family as croques monsieur and raclette, rarebit (literally “rare bits”) takes cheese on toast to a higher level. At one time, cheese and toast were indeed all you needed to make it. But most modern recipes call for melting cheese with ale and mustard, pouring the mixture over toast, and broiling it until bubbling, Rarebit goes by many names, including caws pobi, Scottish rarebit, and Irish rarebit, each reflecting regional variations, such as the addition of wine. Bunny-free Welsh rabbit, as it is also known, is merely a sonic bastardization of rarebit. In the Journal of Antiques, Alice Boss described one legend that explains the names Welsh rabbit and caws pobi, citing as her source “Toasted Cheese and St. Peter,” a tale first recorded in the early 14th century. The story relates that the Welsh were kicked out of heaven because they were unworthy. To trick them into going, St. Peter called out, “Caws Pobi, Caws Pobi” (“roasted cheese”). When the Welsh rushed out of Heaven for a taste, he ran in and locked the gate.
WHAT? Soup-er fish. The ugly, spiny French red rascasse, a type of scorpion fish, has achieved glory in Provence for its starring role in the region’s famed saffron-scented bouillabaisse. In a poem about the hearty fisherman’s soup, the French writer Méry wrote, "For this Phocaean dish, accomplished without fault/Above all is indispensable the rascasse,/Tis true, a very common fish./Served on a grill alone, it does not find favor. But in a bouillabaisse it does exude/A marvelous aroma on which success depends." Without rascasse—which is sometimes incorrectly called "rock fish"—some cooks would rather not attempt bouillabaisse at all. "I have tried time and again to obtain a ‘true’-tasting bouillabaisse in this our New World," wrote Madeleine Kamman. "I started blaming myself until I...used the fish of the Mediterranean and obtained that intriguing and utterly delicious taste from all that rockfish not sold in fish stores in this county." Thus, she does not include a bouillabaisse recipe in The New Making of a Cook (Morrow).
WHAT? Hair-raising herb. Though frequently referred to as Vietnamese mint, hot mint, or Cambodian mint, rau ram is not a member of the mint family at all. More closely related to cilantro, rau ram (polygonum odoratum) is widely used in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, where it is most often eaten raw in salads and noodle dishes. According to Charmaine Solomon’s Encyclopedia of Asian Food, the herb’s fresh, lemony essence is so critical to laksa, the Singaporean seafood soup, that it is known locally as daun laksa (laksa leaf). These slender green-and-purple leaves may be useful for non-culinary pursuits as well: the roots of the closely related Fo-ti (polygonum multiflorum) are used in Chinese herbal medicine to stimulate hair growth.
WHAT? The Scarlet Batter. Although everyone in our office could immediately picture this cake (chocolate, bright red crumb, white frosting), its lineage was surprisingly hard to trace. Few of the usual sources even mention it. (Beard, however, does give a recipe in American Cookery, which calls for red food coloring and cocoa.) Webster's New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts describes it as a four-layer American Christmas cake. That didn't sound right to us, so we dug deeper. An amateur culinary historian friend of ours suggested the cake was originally made from beets and cocoa at a time when chocolate was dear. Cocoa, incidentally, accounts for the cake's velvety texture. Several other sources describe red velvet cake as a traditional Southern specialty. We next called Jennifer Appel, who serves a delicious version at Magnolia Bakery in New York City's Greenwich Village. People think it's southern, she told us, but it actually originated in the 1950s in the heart of Manhattan -- at Oscar's at the Waldorf -- and from there traveled South. Joe Verde, the current chef at Oscar's, confirmed the story, but says when he researched the cake's history in the Waldorf archives a few years ago, he couldn't find a single mention of it. "Still, for some reason it's attributed to us, so we take credit for it," he laughed. The cake's popularity faded in the '70s when red dye No. 2 was linked to cancer. Today, Oscar's serves an updated version, which is made from bittersweet chocolate ganache and is dusted with cranberry powder.
WHAT? Notes to follow do and re. Until very recently, if Americans knew anything about miso at all, they thought of it as a funky health food store item or maybe as the main event in miso soup. Suddenly, this ancient Japanese seasoning is popping up on trendy restaurant menus left and right. Miso is made from dried soybeans, which are soaked, steamed and crushed, then combined with water, salt, and a mold that works in much the same way that a sourdough starter jump-starts bread. Rice or barley may be added to the bean mixture, which is left to mature and ferment, traditionally in large wooden barrels, for several months or years. The end result is a paste roughly the texture of peanut butter. It may be sweet or salty, mellow or robust, mild or pungent, red or white, or dozens of shades in between. Japanese food expert Elizabeth Andoh has likened regional distinctions among miso to those among the wines and cheeses of Europe.
WHAT? Dueling Reubens. They got some noive: Omaha, Nebraska, of all places, claims it invented what may be New York's most famous sandwich-grilled corned beef on rye with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing. The story, detailed in Jean Anderson's American Century Cookbook, says the sandwich was created in 1922 by one Reuben Kolakofsky, a grocer, who concocted it while playing poker with his buddies at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha. The hotel proprietor liked it so much, he added to his menu, and in 1956, so the story goes, a Blackstone waitress submitted the recipe to a national sandwich contest. It was declared the winner, and soon found fame and fortune in delis across America. Wait just a New York minute, screech indignant Manhattanites, who credit the sandwich to one of their own-Arthur Reuben of New York's celebrated Reuben's delicatessen on 58th Street. He is said to have created the sandwich in 1914 for starlet Annette Seelos, then playing opposite Charlie Chaplin. (But Anderson points out, neither the deli nor its Atlantic City predecessor even existed in 1914.) In American Cookery, James Beard does not resolve the food fight, but makes clear his own prodigious appetite, even in the dog days of summer: "The old Reuben sandwiches I remember were made of thickish slices of pumpernickel, corned beef, sauerkraut, chicken breast or turkey breast, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing," he wrote. "They were rather stupendous, but made a perfect summer meal."
WHAT? Coveted crock. "I certainly had never had the happiness of seeing that brown mess spread on slices of bread and butter," recalled Honoré de Balzac of watching his schoolmates eat the savory spread he so desired. A native of Tours, the French literary legend may have belonged to one of the few families that couldn't afford the humble specialty of the region, where the fatty favorite is lovingly referred to as "brown jam." As with other pâtés and terrines, rillettes begin with chopped meat, salted and cooked slowly in fat (the recipe dates back to the 15th century Loire Valley, where it was likely created to use up leftover scraps of pork). The tender morsels are then shredded and stored in ramekins or crocks covered with additional fat. This age-old technique results in a rustic yet deliciously creamy paste that has aromas of garlic, bay leaf, thyme, and wine. Literally translated, rillettes means "plank," which probably refers to its appearance when it is sliced and served cold on crusty bread. Traditionally made with pork, rillettes can also contain goose, duck, or even fish. When he visits the Beard House next week, chef Alan Kwan will be serving rabbit rillettes with pistachios.
WHAT? Catalan hodgepodge. This classic sauce is a specialty of the Tarragona province in the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain. About the only ingredient chefs can agree on is the special red pepper that gives the sauce its name. Some contend the formula should be nothing more than a simple mixture of olive oil, red pepper, and bread, while others liven it up with flavorful ingredients, such as garlic, wine, chili powder, paprika, almonds or hazelnuts, and vinegar to the blend. Regardless of the recipe, the final product is usually a smooth paste, typically served with grilled poultry or fish. Each spring, there is a competition among fishermen in the Serrallo district of the province to produce the best Romesco. Before thousands of spectators, the Romesco-masters—who only pass their secret recipes on to their sons—set to work with their mortars and pestles to compete for the championship title.
WHAT? Retro hors d’oeuvre. When we were growing up, rumaki—a strip of bacon wrapped around a water chestnut and a teriyaki-marinated slice of chicken liver, then broiled—were considered the height of cocktail party sophistication. In American Cookery, James Beard attributes them to the “Polynesian school of cookery… popularized by Trader Vic and his imitators.” (Frankly, we highly doubt any Polynesians ever even heard of rumaki.) But Culinaria: The United States gives credit to late Hollywood hangout Don the Beachcomber, which Culinaria says made rumaki “a California classic.” These days, we can’t really imagine new California classicists like Alice Waters being caught dead with rumaki in her kitchen, but we get a warm, fuzzy feeling when we think about the no-longer-fashionable tidbit, and we find ourselves on the side of Beard, who wrote of rumaki and similar items, “very good some of it is, too.”