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Upma Improv

Oat-Groat Upma

Whenever the subject of breakfast comes up, I always feel like I'm harboring a dirty little secret. I don't know exactly what people expect me to eat, but as a food blogger, food writer and generally adventurous cook and eater there's an expectation that my breakfast should at the very least be interesting. Surely I've encountered so many unusual morning foods in my time that a few have wiggled their way onto my own breakfast plate... right?

Sadly, no. While I've eaten all kinds of exotic things for breakfast while on the road, when breakfast is on home turf and up to me I tend to rotate between three quite unspectacular things. These are: cereal, usually granola or müsli, sometimes homemade but just as often not; whole-grain toast with either jam or honey; and smoothies, usually featuring bananas, yogurt and whatever looks to be on its last legs in the fruit bowl. On the odd morning that I'm feeling extremely ravenous I'll whip up some oatmeal, and occasionally on weekends there might be some form of eggs. Whether it's weekday or weekend, though, and whether I'm peckish or famished, one thing never changes: at least part of the meal must be sweet. It's like an unwritten rule in the canon of breakfast law that the day must start with sugar, and until recently it never even occured to me to question it.

Chances are, more than a few of you will find the idea of sweet breakfasts odd. Maybe not my fellow Americans, or Western Europeans for that matter, most of whom probably share my feeling that breakfast isn't breakfast without an insulin boost. Beyond that, though, that the majority of the world's population eats savory things for breakfast. Across Asia people eat rice porridge topped with things like pork and pickled vegetables. In Jamaica they eat ackee and saltfish, sautéed greens and fried bread. In Egypt they eat stewed fava beans. In Japan they eat rice, fish and fermented soybeans. In India they eat everything from potato-stuffed parathas to steamed rice cakes with lentil soup. In other words, there are billions upon billions of people eating exclusively spicy, sour and salty foods to start their day, and as I sat there, slurping down my bowl of peach-melba müsli, it got me thinking: if I'm really as intrepid an eater as I'd like to think, why on earth don't I work on broadening my palate at the start of the day rather than just at the end?

As I discovered, early-morning palate-broadening is easier said than done. I did try: for a week I forced myself to eat nothing but savory food for breakfast: leftover rice and stir-fried vegetables from dinner, arabic flatbread wrapped around olives and cucumbers, instant Tom Yum soup in creamy shrimp flavor. I even drank my coffee bitter. On the one hand, I felt great; with nothing but slow-acting carbs in my system, I stayed full well past lunchtime. Sometimes, I even skipped lunch entirely. The strong, salty flavors also seemed to kick-start my system much more quickly than my usual fare. On the other hand, though, I walked around all week feeling like something wasn't right. I didn't wake up looking forward to breakfast, I found that I put off eating it until my stomach was practically digesting itself, and afterwards I felt full but somehow unsatisfied. It was like I was wearing someone else's shoes, and though they fit, they rubbed in all the wrong places. I kept thinking that in another day or two my appetite would start to acclimate, but when on day eight I woke up craving a frozen-blueberry smoothie like it would be laced with heroin, I simply couldn't keep it up.

To be honest I was shocked and ashamed by my stomach's stubborn inflexibility, though I'm hoping it has something to do with going cold turkey rather than easing myself into this new way of eating. But I can't second-guess myself too much on timing since it did have one very positive outcome: in scrambling around for a week's worth of appetizing, sugar-free morning meals I made the acquaintance of a delicious new addition to my culinary vocabulary called upma.

Upma, in case you don't know, is a breakfast dish from southern India. In its traditional form it's made by cooking fine semolina with a few vegetables and pulses into a kind of savory porridge seasoned with fried ginger, mustard seeds and curry leaves. The internet is littered with variations on the general theme, though, with everything but the spices seemingly optional, so I decided to use the idea as a sort of take-off point for something a bit more flexible. My version was inspired in part by my own tastes, and in part by the container of cooked oat groats committing hara-kiri in the back of my fridge. However untraditional, it worked spectacularly, tasting kind of like a cross between a savory oatmeal and an Indian-spiced fried rice. The only thing that bothered me was that I found it a little time-consuming for a weekday breakfast, but having the grains pre-cooked definitely helps, as does chopping the vegetables the night before. Once those two tasks are out of the way, upma is actually very quick to throw together, and what you'll find yourself eating is quite unlike anything you've tasted at this early hour: pungent nuggets of ginger and fiery chilies bumping up against sweet green peas, buttery cashews and caramelized onions, all held in check by plump, chewy grains that despite their new clothing seem to retain all the wholesomeness of a bowl of hot cereal.

Not that I want to mislead you into thinking upma will be much like a bowl of hot cereal; for better or for worse this is a pretty exotic breakfast experience. If you already love salty, spicy things at this hour you'll probably be in heaven. If, however, your tastes lean more to mine you might want to lessen the blow with some fruit or yogurt alongside, or perhaps a mug of sweet, milky tea. Then again, you could also just put off making upma until later in the day - I can tell you from experience that it also makes a easy, filling and fragrant lunch or dinner. And don't worry, I'll be the last one to pass judgment if this is how you end up preferring it.

Upma Improv

I don't make any claims to authenticity here, but I doubt that will bother anyone; most people seem eager to put their own spin on upma. This is a great use of leftover cooked grains, but you can certainly cook them to order too. The seasonings are also fully modifiable depending on availability and personal taste - omit the curry leaves if you can't find them, for example, or the garlic if you'll sharing breathing space with sensitive co-workers later in the day. Likewise use the vegetables as guidelines: maybe throw in some frozen green beans or a leftover cooked, cubed potato if you have one on hand. If you're short on time, skip the browning of the onion and just throw it in with the garlic and ginger for a few minutes; if you have the time, though, the sweetness of caramelization adds a lot of depth. As for how to eat it, I loved it both hot from the skillet and barely warm a few hours later, and if you're hankering for a little more protein, a fried egg goes great alongside. Oh, and one last thing: upma keeps beautifully in the fridge, so make a big batch and eat it over several days, heating it briefly in the microwave or in a lightly oiled skillet.
Serves: 4

2 tablespoons dried unsweetened coconut
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup (50g) raw cashew halves
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
1 1-inch (2.5cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1-2 hot green chilies, minced (optional)
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
4-5 curry leaves
1 medium carrot, chopped
1/2 cup (70g) frozen peas
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
salt, to taste
2 cups (500ml) leftover cooked grain of your choice (oat groats, rolled oats, wheatberries, farro, quinoa, millet, rice...) or 1 cup (250ml) uncooked, boiled in plenty of salted water
until chewy-soft
large handful fresh cilantro/coriander, chopped
lemon juice, to taste

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and toast the coconut, stirring constantly, until golden. Remove and set aside. Add the oil and cashews to the skillet and fry, stirring constantly, until the cashews are golden and fragrant. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. If you're not pressed for time, add the onions to the pan and saute until golden and caramelized in spots, about 12-15 minutes, and then add the garlic and ginger and fry for about a minute. Otherwise, add the onions, garlic and ginger all together and fry for about 5 minutes, until the onions are soft. Add the chilies, mustard seeds and cumin and fry, stirring constantly, until the mustard seeds begin to pop, 1-2 minutes. Add the carrot, peas, tomatoes and a generous pinch of salt, and stir for 3-4 minutes, until the tomato begins to soften and collapse. Add your grains and stir for another couple of minutes, until any stray liquid has evaporated and everything is sizzling. Stir in the reserved coconut and cashews, the chopped cilantro and salt to taste and remove from the heat. Squeeze some lemon juice over the top and serve.


The Italian Farmer's Table

Ah, March. Without a doubt, the month that most makes me wish I had a remote control that could fast-forward to the end of all this winter unpleasantness, these last few weeks when the season digs in its heels and stubbornly refuses to leave. I know there are many places on earth where March isn't that bad, where spring is already knocking at the door (or, even further south, where summer is still lingering), but from my vantage point it couldn't get much worse. At last count there is at least another month of winter to endure, possibly two if we get really unlucky. And I'm not putting my money on luck after the winter we've had, in Europe the coldest for 50 years. 50 years, can you imagine? Here in Germany snow fell almost uninterruptedly from mid-December until about a week ago (and is falling again as of about five minutes ago! grrrr...). Poor Lily must think she's been exiled to Siberia, out of the frying pan and into the freezer. Not long ago I stepped outside and realized I had forgotten what it felt like to walk on surfaces not covered with ice.

We all have coping mechanisms to get us through to the end of winter. The lucky ones buy a plane ticket, pack a bag and jet off someplace warm. Others cozy up to a bottle of wine every night. I, of course, turn to cookbooks. But not just any cookbooks - those that transport me, even without stepping into the kitchen, to someplace I'd rather be. Like, say, Italy.

I have a lot of cookbooks about Italy, but today I want to tell you about a new one, a book I probably wouldn't know about if I hadn't been sent a copy by the authors, Matthew Scialabba and Melissa Pellegrino. Before I tell you what this book is, though, let me tell you what it's not. It's not an introduction to Italian cuisine, or a comprehensive survey of food from boot-strap to toe. It's not a compilation of long-lost family recipes or a whimsical treatise on how to live la dolce vita. They assume you already have plenty of books that do all these things. It is an exploration of one fascinating aspect of Italy's gastronomic landscape: the agriturismo.

Agritourism is a pretty recent concept, but it's had a tremendous impact on food culture in Italy. Its existence is also one of the reasons I love the country so much. Agritourism was conceived in the mid-1980s as a way to help keep farming on a small scale viable. At a time when farming everywhere was moving towards conglomerates and corporations, small farmers in Italy hit upon another avenue for profit: open the farms up to tourism, providing lodging, meals, and the chance to experience a centuries-old way of life. It was a stroke of genius, and in the last twenty-five years the scheme has ballooned as increasing numbers of farms join in, and increasing numbers of travelers discover the unique delights of experiencing Italy this way. Though the quality and range of facilities agriturismi offer range from very basic to quite luxurious, thanks to a requirement that agriturismi must make more money from their farming activities than from tourism they are all real working farms, where visitors can get their hands dirty and get to know people who are actively working to preserve Italy's centuries-old farm-to-table heritage.

And this being Italy, guests do not go to bed hungry. I'd go so far as to say that staying in an agriturismo is the next best thing to having your very own Italian grandmother. In my experience this is a way to taste home cooking of the sort travelers rarely do - only that this is better than home cooking, since few home cooks, even in Italy, have their own farms out back providing an endless bounty of fresh (and often organic) vegetables and fruits, meat, cheese and olive oil for the table. And unlike more traditional restaurants who must keep an eye on the bottom line, agriturismi can't make too much money from feeding people, and the small numbers they feed means they can focus on quality rather than quantity. All this means is that what they offer is some the most delicious, affordable, and inventive food you'll eat in the entire country. Exactly the kind of food that has been deserving its own book for a while.

Thanks to Matthew and Melissa, one now exists. They are a husband and wife team, Americans with Italian heritage who met while both were living in Italy. While there, they fell in love with the humble hospitality and delicious food of agriturismi and decided to spend several months researching them, working in fields and kitchens, making friends and cajoling family recipes out of expert cooks. The book that resulted is part travel guide, part cookbook. Eight regions in northern Italy are represented, from Liguria and Piemonte in the west through to Friulia-Venezia Giulia and the Veneto in the East, and a total of thirty agriturismi. For each one there is an introduction to the people who run it and history behind it, an overview of the farm and facilities, and, most importantly, a selection of recipes. The recipes are as varied as the agriturismi they come from: ricotta-stuffed tomatoes from a centuries-old farmstead in the Ligurian hills, chicken crusted with lavender and pancetta from a farm powered with sustainable energy in the Lombardian countryside, goat cheese gnocchi with walnut sauce from a high-mountain dairy farm in Valle d'Aosta, wild boar ragù from one of the most reknowned wineries in Emilia-Romagna. All the recipes are authentic, uncomplicated, and offer a tantalizing sample of the flavors unique to each of these corners of Italy.

I have easily two dozen things bookmarked in this lovely book, but when it came time to pick one to share with you I kept turning back to this risotto and its unlikely combination of flavors. Laced with onions caramelized in port and topped with nuggets of blue-veined Gorgonzola, it's one of the specialties of a hazelnut-growing agriturismo in Piemonte called Ca' Villa, all of whose recipes tempt me with their flair and imagination. It didn't disappoint; the combination of sweet wine, pungent onions and creamy cheese made for one of the most exciting risottos I'd eaten in years. Manuel agreed, even though having 'issues' with blue cheese he swapped out the gorgonzola for a soft goat cheese, which was sensational too. We ate it out of big bowls with nothing else but a big green salad, but I think it would be exquisite served in daintier portions as the primo piatto of a big Italian feast.

Of course the best way I can imagine eating this risotto would be on the terrace of Ca' Villa itself, but until we find a way to make that happen, I highly recommend settling down with a bowl of it in one hand and this book in the other for a little late-winter armchair escape.


News flash! It seems that this little ol' website has been nominated for 'Best Culinary Travel Blog' over at Saveur Magazine's inaugural food blog awards. Since I've been reading this wonderful magazine for its own culinary travel features for as long as I can remember I'm just tickled pink. Of course I would love to have your vote, so if you feel like giving it to me head on over to Saveur where after (a quick and painless) registration you can cast it in nine different categories. Thank you!



Risotto con Cipolle Caramellate e Gorgonzola (Risotto with Caramelized Onions and Gorgonzola)

Serves: 6-8
Source: The Italian Farmer's Table by Matthew Scialabba and Melissa Pellegrino

6 tablespoons (90g) unsalted butter
3 large red onions, thinly sliced
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup (250ml) ruby port
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
2 cups (400g) Arborio rice
1/2 cup (120ml) dry vermouth or white wine
4 cups (1 liter) chicken broth
1/4 cup (30g) freshly-grated parmesan cheese
4 oz (120g) crumbled Gorgonzola (other types of blue cheese would surely do in a pinch, or try goat for a non-blue option)

In a heavy 10-inch sauté pan, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the red onions and cook for about 5 minutes to soften. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt, cover the pan, and reduce the heat to low. Continue to cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the port. Simmer the onions and let the port reduce until completely dry, about 25 more minutes.

Meanwhile, make the risotto. Heat the chicken broth in a small saucepan to a simmer. In a heavy 12-inch straight-sided sauté pan, add 2 tablespoons of butter and the yellow onion and sauté over medium heat until the onion is tender and translucent but not browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat with the butter. Cook the rice until opaque, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let reduce until dry. Add the chicken broth, one ladle at a time, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the broth has been completely absorbed by the rice. Continue to ladle broth into the risotto in the same manner, one ladle at a time, and continue stirring until the rice is creamy and al dente, about 15 minutes.

Stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter, the parmesan cheese and the caramelized onions. To serve, spoon the risotto into shallow bowls and sprinkle the top with the Gorgonzola.


For the One You Tart

Chocolate Truffle Tart

I'm embarrassingly ambivalent about a lot of holidays, and big ones at that. I can't remember the last time I did anything for Easter (maybe an egg hunt when I was a kid?), and most years I consider it a miracle if we end up having something fancier than pasta for Thanksgiving dinner. Valentine's Day should be the same story - I mean, I detest all kinds of kitsch and forced sentiment - but try as I might I never seem to be able to ignore it. Nearly every year, despite my better judgment and my insistence that this year we're definitely not buying into the holiday hype, some kind of celebratory treat materializes in my kitchen. Obviously I'm either an incurable romantic, or I just can't pass up an opportunity to eat chocolate. I suspect it's the latter.

Then again, it could be because I'm always subconsciously trying to make up for the one Valentine's Day we missed completely. I don't mean that we forgot to celebrate it one year, I mean that once it simply did not exist. At least not the way days normally do with a start and an end and twenty-four hours in between. And it wasn't just any Valentine's Day, it was that all-important first Valentine's Day Manuel and I were going to spend together after more than a year of long-distance love. What happened was that we were flying to Australia, and realized only after buying our tickets that instead of celebrating our first Valentine's Day Down Under like we'd planned, we'd be stepping onto a plane in London on February 13th and disembarking 20 hours later in Sydney -- on February 15th. Where did the 14th go? I don't know, but somewhere over Thailand we decided to crack open the box of chocolates we had brought and celebrate as best we could. Except that being crammed in like sardines with dozens of other people kind of puts a damper on romance, so instead of feeding each other truffles at 30,000 feet we ended up sharing them with about twenty of our nearest neighbors. We certainly made a lot of new friends, but it wasn't exactly the kind of Valentine's Day you dream about in the flush of new love.

So possibly to make up for that, or possibly just because I like chocolate, even if we don't do anything else ostensibly romantic on February 14th there's always something containing copious amounts of the brown stuff to look forward to. It's funny, actually, since I've never found chocolate to be more conducive to romance than, say, vanilla or caramel, but whatever - I'll take any excuse I can get. Oh, but there's also something a Valentine's Day dessert should definitely not be: too much work, since while the jury might still be out on chocolate's effect on romance, the effect on romance of slaving away for hours preparing a too-complicated dessert is quite well established.

In a nutshell, then, I believe a great Valentine's dessert recipe must be two things: deeply chocolaty and ridiculously easy. In other words, something like this tart I dug out of the archives over at Gourmet. There isn't much to say about it other than that it's pretty darn perfect, a fierce hit of chocolate in an elegant, easy-to-assemble package. It reminds me of a classic French ganache tart, with a couple of important differences: the crust, a crunchy bed of ground-up cookies, is every bit as good as a pâté sucrée but about one-sixteenth as difficult, and the filling - while every bit as intense as it should be - is softer, silkier, and rounded out with an addictive hint of salt.

I imagine you could doll up this tart in many ways: a splash of your favorite booze in the filling, a drizzle of raspberry sauce, a spoonful of whipped crème fraîche on top. Then again it doesn't really need any of these. In fact, I'll go so far as to say it doesn't even need a fork and plate, that provided you remember to pre-cut the slices, your fingers will do just fine. You never know, this could be handy in case you happen to be celebrating the holiday someplace where forks and plates are in short supply - in bed, say, or crammed into an airplane seat at 30,000 feet. Though if it's the latter, you might want to cut the slices a bit smaller to make sure you have enough to go around.

Chocolate Truffle Tart

Reading this recipe's reviews on epicurious, the biggest hurdle seems to be the pan size. If you don't have an 8-inch springform, which seems to be rather uncommon, you have two options. You could increase the proportions by about 50% and use a 9-inch springform, but keep in mind that will make a LOT of tart - this thing is rich. If you don't want to be eating this tart until Easter, you could use a normal 8-inch cake pan lined with a round of parchment on the bottom; once the tart is cold you should be able to turn it out onto a plate in one piece. Otherwise you could just use these amounts in a 9-inch springform and have a thinner tart. If you do this, though, you'll most definitely need to reduce the baking time; I would start checking after 12-15 minutes. And regardless of what size pan you use, you want to stop baking it when the edges are puffed but the center still looks wobbly and liquid. That's the only way to get the promised 'pudding-like' texture.
Serves: 10
Source: slightly adapted from Gourmet (R.I.P.)

For crust:
1 1/2 cups (ca. 150g) finely ground chocolate wafer crumbs (or plain wafer/cookie crumbs plus about 2 tablespoons cocoa powder)
6 tablespoons (90g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For filling:
8 oz (225g) 60%-cacao chocolate, or 7 oz (200g) 70%-cacao chocolate, coarsely chopped
6 tablespoons (90g) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup (80ml) heavy cream
1/4 cup (50g) granulated sugar
scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

an 8-inch (20-cm) round springform pan

Put the oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. Wrap a sheet of foil around the bottom of the springform pan (in case of leaks). Lightly butter the sides.

Stir together the ground wafers and butter in a bowl until combined, then pat mixture evenly onto the bottom of the pan and 1 1/2 inches (3.5cm) up the sides. Bake until the crust is slightly puffed, about 10 minutes, then cool completely on a rack, about 15 minutes. Leave the oven on. Pat the crust back into shape if it has slumped.

Melt the chocolate and butter in a saucepan over low heat, stirring until smooth, then remove from the heat and cool 5 minutes. Whisk together the eggs, cream, sugar, salt, and vanilla in a bowl. Whisk the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture until combined.

Pour the filling into the cooled crust and rap the pan once on the counter to eliminate any air bubbles. Bake until the filling 1 inch from edge is set and slightly puffed but center wobbles when pan is gently shaken, 20 to 25 minutes. (The center will continue to set as it cools.)

Cool the tart completely in the pan on a rack, about 2 hours. Chill, uncovered, until the center is firm, about 4 hours. Serve cold for a firmer texture or at room temperature for a softer one.