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  • 02/26/13--00:30: Dulce Patria
  • Sopa de Tortilla (Tortilla Soup)-photo
    by Nicholas Gill
    Using the plate like a canvas, chef Martha Ortiz, daughter of the celebrated Mexican artist Martha Chapa, crafts vivid designs at her Mexico City restaurant Dulce Patria, adding brilliant strokes of color and delicate textures that reveal the rich layers of Mexican history and her own personal experiences. The garnishes atop vibrant tortilla soup and its squash blossom kin (below right) evoke magical-realist still lifes; a husk stretches like a plume from an inkwell in a bowl of nouvelle esquites, a street snack of corn sautéed in butter and aromatics. Each course spins a chapter in a fanciful Mesoamerican tale.

    See the recipe for Sopa de Tortilla (Tortilla Soup) »

    Dulce Patria
    Anatole France 100, Mexico City, Mexico

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    Finding Mortadella-photo
    by Jamie Feldmar
    Is there a luncheon meat more maligned in the public imagination than bologna? Even in New York, where high-low edible mash ups are practically de rigueur (seriously, we have an artisanal mayonnaise shop here), bologna has largely escaped a makeover. While other cafeteria-era favorites have been gussied up and repackaged as hip, bologna remains at the bottom of the totem pole, ignored in favor of artisanal pastrami and gourmet hot dogs. Maybe it's because of this American prejudice, but I've never been able to understand what makes mortadella-bologna's Italian cousin-anything special. That is, until I visited Emilia-Romagna.

    Emilia-Romagna's capital city, Bologna-affectionately nicknamed la grassa ("the fat") is the birthplace of mortadella, an emulsified pork sausage dotted with squares of solid fat, whole peppercorns, and pistachios, that predates American bologna (which takes its name from the city) by about two thousand years. Mortadella is an artisanal product under PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) designation; it's enjoyed daily by legions of Italians, and it suffers none of the lowbrow connotations that plague its American counterpart. I was excited by the prospect of visiting a town that takes its cold cuts seriously, and I soon learned that mortadella's history is as rich as its taste.

    In Bologna's Archeology Museum, there is an ancient Roman funeral pyre depicting men grinding a pig into paste with a mortar and pestle. It's not as morbid as it sounds-the carving is crude, at best-but the people of Bologna love to point out that they've been making the best sausage since antiquity. The Guild of Sausage Makers was established in 1376, and its cousin, the Confraternity of Pork Brothers, was recognized by Pope Paul V in 1615. Bolognese butchers were required to stamp their mortadella with a special seal depicting a cup filled with salt.

    The Guild of Sausage Makers was established in 1376, and its cousin, the Confraternity of Pork Brothers, was recognized by Pope Paul V in 1615.
    Many of those butcher shops still stand today, run by families who've been encasing meat for generations; some were founding members of the Guild. They know what they're doing. I, however, didn't, so I asked David Simoni, the third-generation co-owner of Simoni Butcher Shop, to show me how mortadella is made. He couldn't take me to their top-secret meat-mixing lab lab on the outskirts of town, but he did offer to show me a grainy, lo-fi video of sausage production-how the sausage gets made, as it were.

    Mortadella is 70 percent lean pork (usually shoulder), minced and whipped into a fine paste with salt, pepper and myrtle berry, then gently combined with chunks of pure pig fat. ("It looks like pink ice cream!" exclaimed Simoni as we watched the camera zoom in on the churning pork mix.) The paste, with square fat chunks left intact, is pumped into casing and tied off, then wrapped strategically with white string to help it cook evenly. The string-tying is an art in itself: "When I was learning to tie, my mother found oranges wrapped in string," Simoni said sheepishly. The bulky tubes are hung, steamed, then rinsed with cold water before they're ready, a process that takes about three days.

    Mortadella comes in many shapes, from softball-sized balls ideal for smuggling past customs officials to hulking, meter-long logs, big enough to knock a baritone clean out. In Emilia-Romagna, the sausage is served at any and all times, as a snack or on a platter, in paper-thin slices on crostini or bite-sized chunks in a bowl, or even whipped with ricotta to make a spreadable mortadella mousse. "I've never met anyone from Bologna who didn't like mortadella," shrugged Alessandro Tamburini, whose family-run grocery has been in the same corner in Bologna since 1932. It's easy for even an outsider to see why: salty and smooth, with a distinct porky aroma, the sausage is almost compulsively snackable.

    And while Bolognans are undeniably proud of their product, they don't fetishize it: mortadella is just a fact, simple and true. Butchers and residents were bemused by my interest in the stuff, answering factual questions but were at a loss to articulate whether mortadella meant something more. I tried to explain where bologna lies in the collective food consciousness back home, but they waved my anecdotes off. "Mortadella is not bologna," said one Italian historian I asked about the depiction of the funeral pyre. "Why do Americans always want to compare what you have to others?" she scoffed. "You are in Bologna now, and mortadella is what matters."

    See a recipe for whipped Mortadella Smear »

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    Mandarin Oriental's Room Service-photo When I check into Paris's Mandarin Oriental, I never want to leave my room; some days, I barely do. I just stay in my robe, dining grandly on the stellar room service. Mornings bring city-themed breakfasts. A dashimaki omelette and grilled sea bream make up the Tokyo repast. Eggs, coffee, and a pastrami sandwich? New York, of course. The Parisian petit dejeuner features croissants, Bigorre ham, and champagne. Midday is for international grazing. At midnight, I call down for a snack: a vibrantly spiced nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) and the ultimate nightcap, a bittersweet chocolate mousse. I sleep like a baby.

    Paris Mandarin Oriental
    251 Rue Saint-Honoré
    Paris, France

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    Bradley's Corner Cafe-photo
    by Kerri Conan
    Pie heaven just might be in Topeka, Kansas, at Bradley's Corner Café, where there are never fewer than 20 crimp-crusted beauties on offer at a time: pies of perfectly caramelized summer peaches, bracingly sour apple-cranberry, countless riffs on classic pecan. My favorite, available year-round, is the peanut butter-chocolate pie: Beneath a cloud of meringue lie layers of creamy peanut butter mousse and semisweet chocolate pudding-so thick I marvel that the servers manage to slice it.

    See the recipe for Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie »

    Bradley's Corner Café
    844 North Kansas Avenue, Topeka, Kansas

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    Solyanka (Russian Sweet and Sour Beef Stew)-photo
    by Leah Koenig
    When I first decided to visit South-Western Bathhouse and Tea Room, a banya (Russian for bathhouse) in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, I fully anticipated the whacking I received with a bundle of birch branches in a sweltering 158-degree room. What I didn't expect was to be sitting in my bathrobe in an adjoining restaurant devouring some of the best Russian food I've ever tasted. But in Toronto, home to tens of thousands of Russian immigrants, banyas have long been known for their excellent Russian home-style cooking. Since opening their bathhouse last year, husband and wife Victor and Valentina Tourianski have fed customers like me such staples as okroshka, a cold soup made with radishes, cucumbers, bologna, and the fermented rye drink kvass; and solyanka, a meaty soup whose sweet and sour broth is flavored with pickles and capers. Patrons wash it all down with homemade mors, a chilled sweet-tart drink made of cranberries and sugar. So good is the food here that the Tourianskis have developed a following of customers who forgo the banya altogether and come just to eat. Valentina is beloved for her sour cream cakes known as smetannik, and layered honey tortes called medovik, and Victor is known for his garlicky borscht. While these foods are satisfying on their own, I've learned from experience that they're best enjoyed after a long hot steam, when they can be consumed with shriveled fingers, and a purified heart.

    See the recipe for Solyanka (Russian Sweet and Sour Beef Soup) »

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  • 02/23/13--00:32: Cheese to Cherish
  • Gozo Cheese Tart Recipe-photo
    by Victor Paul Borg
    Wintertime is the rainy season on the tiny Maltese island of Gozo where I grew up. That's when the rolling hills and valleys of the craggy isle turn a bright, lush green, and where as a child, I spent many a winter day with my Aunt Lucia, milking the two sheep that resided in an outbuilding in her yard, then using that milk to make the freshest, most delicious cheese I've ever tasted. We would coagulate the milk with rennet for about 25 minutes, then spoon the creamy mass into cylindrical containers with screened bottoms that allowed the whey to drain away from the curds.

    There wasn't much to the process, but because Aunt Lucia and I made it ourselves-and because its subtle, grassy flavor hinted at the verdure of our island-it was special.

    In the evenings my mother and I would use the cheese to enhance all sorts of dishes. We stewed it with cauliflower and potatoes, or tossed it into a salad of seasonal vegetables alongside crusty bread and fruity olive oil. In preparation for summer, when the island turned arid and the sheep's hay diets made their milk less palatable, we would dry the cheese outside for a few days in homemade boxes screened with mosquito nets. In its dried form, it took on a more rustic flavor, one I always found pleasantly pungent and gamy. I remember how we would grate it over minestrone soups and platters of Mediterranean antipasti, including the sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and capers my father would pickle himself. It was the only cheese we ever ate in my family, and we never grew tired of it.

    We were not unique in this respect. For years the only way for those in rural Gozo to enjoy the pleasures of cheese was to make it themselves. And while the island is now home to modern supermarkets that stock dairy products from all four corners of the earth, people here hold on tight to their rustic traditions. They continue to keep sheep in their small yards or pastures, and to make the cheese, no longer out of necessity, but because it's delicious-so much so that it's considered a delicacy. It is often sold to specialty stores and local wine bars, where it is served in its dry form, pickled in vinegar and coated with black pepper.

    Still, one of the most traditional dishes made with the cheese is eaten at home, a hearty pie studded with fresh green peas and made for special occasions and family gatherings. It's a recipe that is passed down through the generations here, and one that encapsulates the flavors of this beautiful island, where, I've come to understand, I spent a childhood more rare than most.

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    Pizza con Stracciatella di Burrata-photo
    by Andrew Sessa
    As an Italian-American with Neapolitan roots, I used to think there was nothing better than what my cousins called mutz: a ball of fresh, milky mozzarella. But that was before I discovered burrata: silky-soft sacks of mozzarella filled with stracciatella, strands of mozzarella bathed extravagantly in cream. I had a further formaggio revelation last year after I moved to Rome and discovered pizza con stracciatella di burrata at the just-opened Eataly. The crust is made from stone-ground flour and topped with handcrushed tomatoes, crisped in a superhot oven, then seasoned with salt and olive oil. Then they explode a globe of burrata all over it. The result is messy and gooey, hot and cold, the creaminess of the stracciatella contrasting with the slight acidity of the tomatoes. A bit of basil doesn't hurt either, but it's the quality of the burrata that matters most.

    Via 12 Ottobre 1492, Rome

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    69 Colebrooke Row-photo
    by Ceil Miller Bouchet
    1. Duke's Bar at Duke's Hotel
    A classic dry martini from this clubby watering hole will likely be among the best you've ever tasted. Head bartender Alessandro Palazzi has been elevating the libation to an art form since 1975, winning over such aficionados as James Bond series creator Ian Fleming, who was once a regular. A symphony of muted conversations, clinking ice cubes, and the rattle of a martini trolley pushed by a white-jacketed bartender adds to the ambiance.

    Duke's Bar
    St. James's Place, London SW1A 1NY
    Tel: +44/207/491-4840

    2. Bassoon Bar at the Corinthia Hotel
    With its 1920s art deco interior, this lavish candlelit lounge features era-appropriate live jazz and fresh takes on classic British cocktails, including a Pimm's Cup made with fresh homemade lemonade, and an English Tea Punch, a blend of gin and white vermouth infused with lavender, mint, elderflower cordial, and jasmine tea.

    Bassoon Bar
    Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2BD
    Tel: +44/207/321-3200

    3. Artesian Bar at the Langham Hotel
    In a gorgeous barroom with an Orient-meets-Occident décor, head bartender Simone Caporali pours ingenious rum cocktails, including the namesake Artesian Punch, a fruity blend of Pampero Aniversario dark rum, Calvados, pear brandy, and freshly squeezed pineapple juice. Drinks here all feature whimsical garnishes, such as miniature alligator heads.

    Artesian Bar
    1 Portland Place, London W1B 1PN
    Tel: +44/207/636-1000

    4. 69 Colebrooke Row
    This spirited Islington venue serves some of London's most culinary cocktails, such as a twist on the bellini made with a purée of dried apples, dry cider, apple juice, and hay topped with Prosecco, and a Woodland Martini dashed with maple, cedar, and sequoia bitters. The always crowded barroom boasts an Italian film noir décor, complete with vintage Campari posters.

    69 Colebrooke Row
    69 Colebrooke Row, London N1 8AA
    Tel: +44/754/052-8593

    5. Coburg Bar at the Connaught Hotel
    With its wood-paneled walls, wingback chairs, and blazing fireplace, this Mayfair bar is an ideal setting for a London nightcap. Try the White Lady, a classic British tipple made with gin and equal parts lemon juice and Cointreau, shaken then strained-a perfect way to say cheerio and good night.

    Coburg Bar
    Carlos Place, Mayfair, London W1K 2AL
    Tel: +44/207/499-7070

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  • 02/23/13--00:44: Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan
  • Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan-photo
    by Nathalie Jordi
    Though I've visited so many great food bazaars in Japan, for my money, the centuries-old Nishiki market, located in the old imperial capital of Kyoto, is the country's most picturesque. Within the six-block covered arcade, shopkeepers entice housewives in full kimono, local kaiseki chefs, and curious tourists with katsuobushi (dried bonito), freshly roasted green tea, and Kyoto-style confections. I, too, am tempted by everything here, but I have my favorites. On the outskirts of the market, I love to browse Ichihara Heibei Shōten (81/75/341-3831), a well-ordered boutique where thousands of chopsticks are organized by type of wood (cedar, bamboo, birch), use (eating, cooking), and style (seemingly infinite). And I've spent a small fortune on knives at Aritsugu (81/75/221-1091), a former samurai sword manufacturer that dates back to the 16th century. Their hand-hewn carbon-steel blades are suited to ultraspecific tasks such as cutting soba noodles or slicing tuna. When the thirst hits me, I drop by Tsunoki Sake (81/75/221-2441), where eighth-generation sake merchant Teruo Fujii facilitates collaborations between rice farmers and sake brewers that culminate in unique flavor profiles such as creamy apple with hints of malt. Then I join the line at Kon-Na Monja (81/75/255-3231) for airy soy milk donuts eaten fresh from the fryer. For a more substantial bite, my choice is Iyomata (81/75/221-1405), run by a 20th generation vendor, who transforms fresh fish from the market into platters of beautifully arranged sushi, sashimi, and other delicacies. Afterward, I linger over the eye candy at Kanematsu (81/75/221-0088), a shop that exhibits premium produce the way Neil Lane displays diamonds: Outrageously plump wasabi roots recline in a lavish running-water bath, while pricey white strawberries luxuriate in custom jewel boxes. After perusing the bottom floor of the Daimaru department store (81/75/211-8111), where the food emporium is packed with soy sauces, endless platters of vegetable tempura, and, best of all, an entire mushroom department, I end my visit at nearby Miki Keiran (81/75/221-1585). Their delectable rolled egg-and-dashi omelettes are made by chefs who theatrically toss them high in their pans in a show of true culinary theater.

    Nishiki Market
    Nishikikōji-dōri, between Teramachi and Takakura, Kyoto

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    Regina Mark, Mee Sum Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge-photo
    by Jane and Michael Stern
    We hit the road a lot for food. But we consider ourselves lucky when we are at home, as we live just a morning's drive from Fall River. Though the old mill city is in southeastern Massachusetts along Mount Hope Bay, eating there is like eating in a foreign country. Half the population is Portuguese-American, the descendants of 19th-century mill workers, plus many late-20th-century arrivals, and the Portuguese food is outstanding. But beyond that cuisine's classic kale soup and bacalhau assado (roasted salt cod), the city's tables abound with dishes found nowhere else in America-some of them exist nowhere else in the world. The erstwhile textile center of the nation-and home of Lizzie Borden, notoriously acquitted of the 1892 ax murders of her father and stepmother-is a gold mine for unique regional foods.

    On menus, not all the vernacular specialties seem unusual. Hot cheese-ho hum, right? No way. The hot cheese sandwich found at diners here is a pungent gem of grated sharp cheddar typically served not quite melted for a texture resembling soft scrambled eggs. At J.J.'s Coney Island, a polite weenie joint (management forbids swearing), the molten cheese assumes a buttery luxe when topped with the chili meat sauce used on the Coney Island hot dog.

    The beefy chili makes magic when combined with crisp raw onions and a squirt of yellow mustard atop a frank in a fluffy bun
    That chili dog variant is found in places from southeastern Massachusetts to the Pacific Coast. In the hot dog shops of Fall River, as in those of neighboring Rhode Island, the meat sauce tends to be more significant than the dog itself. Across the street from J.J.'s, at Nick's Original Coney Island Hot Dogs, the beefy chili makes magic when combined with crisp raw onions and a squirt of yellow mustard atop a frank in a fluffy bun. If you doubt the sway of this transcendent sandwich, observe the large number of customers who take advantage of Nick's "Buy 5, Get 1 Free" offer.

    A sign on Nick's window advertises chouriço, pronounced "shore-eese" and served grilled, sliced, and piled in a bun. Although the smoky, garlicky Portuguese sausage doesn't want for cheese or Coney sauce, that's frequently the way people get it at Nick's, and it is common to include french fries in the bun. Called "chips," thanks to late-1800s British Isles immigrants, the fries are a Nick's specialty. Whole spuds cut to order are put into an age-burnished Autofry machine that spits them out sizzling hot.

    Another UK contribution can be had at Hartley's Original Pork Pies, a take-out shop whose individual deep-dish pies were designed when the shop opened in 1900 for a handheld midshift lunch at the mill. Hartley's also makes French meat pies (a beef, pork, and mashed potato medley influenced by the tourtière of the French Canadians who came here about the same time as the Brits), Friday-Saturday salmon pies for the city's large Catholic population, and chouriço pies. Proprietor Allen Johnson, who bought the place from the Hartleys 40 years ago, often arrives at 3 a.m. to roll out dough (made with lard) and press it into English-made tins. The pork pie filling consists of nothing more than ground pork, salt, and pepper; although gravy is available, the one-two punch of moist, savory meat and flaky crust needs no condiment.

    Photo by Todd Coleman
    As good as these out-of-hand meals are, it's not all quick eats in Fall River; the 97-year-old Liberal Club is no hot dog joint. It is a social club and function hall. Regulars come for shots and beers in its dark taproom, and couples linger on Saturday nights over highballs, prime rib, and fried lobster tails in a dining room outfitted with Red Sox memorabilia. The menu offers chouriço, as well as "chouriço meat": thin slices of marinated pork loin, juicy and fragrant. Other Portuguese-American standouts include conch salad, shrimp Mozambique in a judiciously spiced, garlicky sauce, and grilled beef tenderloin topped with a fried egg and pickled cayenne peppers. When appetizers arrive-crunchy fried smelts and big chouriço-stuffed quahog clams-the waitress asks if you want oil and vinegar to go with them. "You do!" she said the first time we ate here and looked puzzled by the apparently mundane offer. Out came a gravy boat of marinade so crowded with herbs, minced garlic, and chopped green onion that each spoonful was a savory bouquet delicious enough to spread on dinner rolls.

    For dessert? While you can find plenty of nice regular donuts in Fall River, why would you want one if you can have a freshly made malassada? To produce this airy Portuguese fritter, the sweet dough is stretched fairly flat, fried until golden brown, then liberally dusted with granulated sugar. With an espresso at Barcelos Bakery, it's heaven. Known as the place Emeril Lagasse started his culinary career washing dishes, Barcelos turns out a full inventory of Portuguese baked goods: sweet breads, custard pies, cod fritters, and pasteis de feijao, aka bean cakes, made here with caramel sauce and puréed red kidney beans. It is not easy to explain a bean cake, but if you can imagine a chewy tart that is just this side of sweet and also protein-rich, there you have it.

    The city's most singular dish, however, is of a different origin altogether. "Have you had our Fall River chow mein before?" asks the waitress at Mee Sum Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, a 60-something Chinese place on the south end of town. It's a question she needs to ask because of the two things that make this chow mein unique: the way it is served, which is on a burger bun, and the goodness of its noodles.
    The sandwich is a fascinating textural swirl: soft and crunchy, wet and brittle
    Thin and elegant, fried until wicked crisp, those noodles are an ideal foil for brown gravy laced with celery and onion. The sandwich is a fascinating textural swirl: soft and crunchy, wet and brittle. It became Fall River's favorite 5-cent meal in the late 1920s, shortly after the local Oriental Chow Mein Company began distributing its one-of-a-kind noodles to the city's Chinese restaurants. For those who want to try it at home, the company has sold its Original Hoo Mee Chow Mein Mix for nearly as long as it's been in business.

    It makes sense to eat the sandwich with a knife and fork. But some locals get theirs wrapped tight in wax paper; in the heat, the noodles soften, approaching the consistency of lo mein, and the gravy binds the whole thing together. Eaten this way, Fall River chow mein is mischievously delicious, a high-water mark of ersatz Cantonese cuisine that-except as an oddity at the New York hot dog house Nathan's of Coney Island-is little known anywhere else.

    Devotees feared the chow mein sandwich might go extinct in 2009 after a fire knocked the local Asian noodle factory out of commission for six months. Regina Mark, who runs Mee Sum with her husband, Kenny, told us that after the blaze, Chinese restaurants around town sought replacement noodles from New York and Boston, but none were close to the Fall River standard. So the Marks started making their own. "People were coming in for ten and twenty pounds," Regina said. "They were calling from Florida and Virginia to have them shipped. We hardly were a restaurant anymore. We were becoming a noodle shop! But we had so many customers who wanted-who needed-chow mein, and there was nowhere else to get it." She added, unnecessarily in this town of idiosyncratic delights, "Not Fall River chow mein, that's for certain."

    Barcelos Bakery
    695 Bedford Street
    Tel: 508/676-8661

    Hartley's Original Pork Pies
    1729 S. Main Street
    Tel: 508/676-8605

    J.J.'s Coney Island
    565 S. Main Street
    Tel: 508/679-7944

    The Liberal Club
    20 Star Street
    Tel: 508/675-7115

    Mee Sum Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge
    1819 S. Main Street
    Tel: 508/678-9869

    Nick's Original Coney Island Hot Dogs
    534 S. Main Street
    Tel: 508/677-3890

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    Kitchens in Havana-photo
    by Ellen Silverman
    For the past two years I've been taking photographs of the kitchens of Havana, Cuba. I started almost accidently. On a visit to the island in December of 2010, I met a Cuban photographer named Carlos Otero Blanco. We discovered that we shared a passion for interiors-Carlos had recently self-published a book of photographs of bedrooms from all over Cuba, and I'd started shooting kitchens in New York. For each of us, these rooms had a certain pull and charisma. We decided to try taking pictures of kitchens in Havana-a spontaneous shared undertaking that turned into an ongoing solitary project.

    Photo by Ellen Silverman
    Each morning during my visits, I walk the city's streets, wandering into the courtyards of once grand buildings and knock on doors at random, never knowing what I'll find when people open their doors. Some apartments open onto large, airy kitchens; in many, the kitchens are barely there. In one building I saw a hallway in which a table holding a two-burner gas cooktop and a cutting board created a kitchen where there had been none.

    What start out as tentative conversations with the inhabitants often turn into absorbing encounters. One morning I stopped to talk to a woman as she was entering her house. After protesting that her kitchen was not worthy of a photograph, she waved me in. I walked into a space full of life and color, with paint and brushes laid out on the dining table and coffee brewing on the stove. She and her husband were painters, and I lingered for hours over a bottle of wine, talking with them about art. On another day, wandering near the Malecón-the broad esplanade that runs along the harbor-I entered a building and walked up five narrow flights of stairs, knocking on doors as I went. No one admitted me. At last I reached an apartment occupied by two sisters in their 80s, Gertrudis and Elena, who had been living there on the fifth floor for more than 50 years. They were delighted by my mission and graciously allowed me to shoot the tiny tile-walled nook where they cooked together.

    I was at first drawn to the graphic simplicity of the Havana kitchens-the bold hues and clean, empty surfaces. It was only after returning several times that I started noticing how there was a distinct lack of food on the counters in this country where the basics have long been scarce, and how much of the richness of the spaces came, paradoxically, from wear: The rooms were furnished with old things, frayed things, things in constant use.
    I was at first drawn to the graphic simplicity of the Havana kitchens-the bold hues and clean, empty surfaces
    But I also noticed how each kitchen told the story of those who lived there. Even in the photographs without people in them, the spaces conveyed their presence: You can see how someone had lavished attention on an arrangement of plates, how they had set a table for lunch, or how a little plastic flower was positioned just so-how someone had worked to make things pretty or put things in place. And however minimal the kitchen, each one was equipped with essentials: a pressure cooker in which beans were bubbling, a small stove-top coffeepot, and a gas cooktop-sometimes with a pot of rice simmering on top of it. These kitchens might be spare, but they're beautiful-and, I think, vital emblems of those who live, and cook, within them.

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  • 02/28/13--02:30: Oysters in Virginia
  • The Oyster Regions of Virginia-photo
    by Nidhi Chaudhry
    I met my first oyster when I was 12 and decided that we would never be friends. I was at a swanky seafood restaurant in Milan, Italy, with my meat-and-fish loving family who had been trying, unsuccessfully, to cure me of my staunch vegetarianism. I don't know why they thought oysters on the shell would do the trick, when much more appetizing-looking fare had failed. The one oyster (flown all the way from France, I was told) that was forcibly put on my plate looked raw, slimy, and highly suspect. I clung to my noble notions of vegetarianism and the oyster lived to see another plate.

    Thankfully, judgments made on the brink of adolescence are seldom indubitable and last year, as part of a gradual process of abandoning vegetarianism, I patched up with the oyster. I ate my way through crowded oyster happy hours across Manhattan, starting with the usual-mild Hama Hamas with a touch of horseradish, briny Wellfleets with a squeeze of lemon and meaty Blue Points with a hint of cocktail sauce. How wrong I had been about oysters! They weren't slimy or suspect, they were soft and surprising, every oyster differing from the next-some brash with seawater, others delicate with mild sweetness, soft, chewy, sometimes earthy. While hunting for the different flavors of this delectable mollusk, I came across a heartening story of oyster resurrection in Virginia. Once a region that satisfied many oyster cravings among European royalty as well as affluent Americans of the late 19th century, the state saw decades of declining oyster populations due to overharvesting, disease and pollution. By the mid-1900s, Virginia oysters had entirely disappeared from our menus and tables.

    Switch to present day, and Virginia is now once again a place that raises many happy oysters, thanks, in part, to a growing number of aquaculture oyster farms that can supply all year through (they grow triploid oysters which don't spawn in the summer and are grown solely for consumption). And even though these Virginian mollusks are of the same species as all other east coast oysters, Crassostrea Virginica, they're distinctly different in taste, even amongst themselves-since degree of salinity, algae content and other qualities of the water they grow in greatly modify the flavor of these bivalves. So much so, they're divided into seven oyster regions, from the length of Virginia's Eastern Shore, into the Chesapeake Bay, coastal rivers and down to the Lynnhaven Inlet of Virginia Beach. They're all delicious enough to rival better-known varieties from Long Island to British Columbia-plump and pillowy meat, nestled in deep, brittle shells, with a burst of creamy buttery-ness as soon as you bite into them and a mildly sweet finish-the kind of oysters that make me so grateful I got over my adolescent aversion.

    A Guide to the 7 Oyster Regions of Virginia

    Region 1: Seaside

    Raised on the Atlantic side of Virginia's eastern shore, the full flavored oysters from this region pack an extremely salty punch. But if you chew the firm meat long enough, the saltiness washes away to reveal a sweet buttery finish with that ocean-oyster flavor. The famous Chincoteague oysters fall within this region. Look for: Sewansecott, Shooting Point Salts, Misty Point, Broadwater Salts, Olde Salts, Indian Rock

    Region 2 and 3: Bayside Eastern Shore

    Grown in creeks and tidal waters in the bayside of Virginia's Eastern shore, these oysters are exposed to waters with relatively lower salinity. Since region 2 is further north and therefore away from Atlantic waters, oysters from there have a mild saltiness that melts into a distinctly sweet and buttery finish as you chew on the tender texture. Oysters from region 3 on the other hand balance the salty and the sweet perfectly, with just a hint of ocean tastes and a clean finish. Look for: Pungoteague creek (2), Nassawadox Salts (3), Henderson Bros. Oysters (3), Watch House Point (3)

    Region 4: Upper Bay Western Shore

    If the kind of oysters you like tends towards the less-briny variety (some might call it bland), then region 4 is for you. Fed by the Sweetwater of the Potomac River and its estuaries as well as the headwaters of the Rappahannock River, these oysters have only the slightest hint of saltiness and a slight sweetness. They're creamy and meaty enough though to be wonderful when fried. Look for:Bevans oysters, Fleets Island Oysters, Little Wicomico Oysters

    Region 5: Middle Bay Western Shore

    One of the most balanced and savory of all Virginia oysters, these have a sweet, buttery mineral rich taste with a medium saltiness and a crisp light finish. Look for: Rappahanock River Oysters, Parrot Island Oysters, Urbanna Creek

    Region 6: Lower Bay Western Shore

    Drawn from the waters of Mobjack Bay and York River mixed in with a healthy influx from the Atlantic, the oysters from this region are plump, briny, and sweet with a clean, crisp finish. Saltier than Region 5 but not as salty as the Atlantic oysters, these are the quintessential Chesapeake Bay oyster. Look for: York River Oysters, York River shell oysters, Stingray oysters, Goodwin Island oysters

    Region 7: Tidewater

    Once coveted around the world, served to presidents and royalty for their size, saltiness and gentle zing, the Lynnhaven oysters from this region are the most exciting part of Virginia's oyster comeback story. Very salty with a slightly sweet and smooth finish, they are most impressive for their large size. Look for: Lynnhaven Oysters

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  • 02/28/13--22:00: Food Lover's Library
  • Cereal Foods and How to Cook them-photo
    by Steve Friess

    My understanding of American culinary history was turned on its head after visiting the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive. It was there I learned how Jewish American cookery was once celebrated more for okra-based gumbos than matzo ball soups, and how, back in George Washington's day, the apples in apple pie were often substituted with, oddly enough, peas. Located inside the University of Michigan's William L. Clements Library in Ann Arbor, the collection is home to more than 20,000 items, including cookbooks dating back to the 1500s, early Chez Panisse menus, vintage advertisements, even an 1888 Manhattan saloon map. Its origins date back to the 1970s, when Jan Longone started amassing culinary ephemera for a mail-order bookshop she ran out of her house-a business that counted Julia Child and Craig Claiborne among its customers. Jan and her husband, Dan, donated their bounty to the university in 2000. Valuable as it is, Longone, who still curates the archive, remains its greatest asset, a woman whom James Beard once credited as having "codified American culinary history."

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    Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China-photo For more information on visiting Chengdu, visit the City of Chengdu's website,, or


    6 Jixiang Street, Qingyang District. Inexpensive. This nook is packed every morning with folks wolfing down owner Handsome Ma's yu xiang pai gu mian (fish-fragrant sparerib noodles) and wontons in chile oil.

    Ming Ting
    30 Yijiefang, Waicaojia Alley (86/28-8331-5978). Inexpensive. This so-called "five-star fly restaurant" made its name with pig's brain mapo tofu and other offal dishes but also makes a spicy heye jiang rou, bacon steamed in lotus leaves.

    Shu Zi Xiang
    Multiple locations ( Inexpensive. Chengdu people love hot pot-a boiling cauldron of spicy broth in which you dunk and cook a variety of meats and vegetables-and Shu Zi Xiang makes some of the most flavorful.

    128 Farming Unit 1, Sansheng Township, Hongsha Village (86/28-8467-8067; Inexpensive. On weekends many residents of Chengdu head to the countryside for leisurely meals at nongjiale, or farmhouse restaurants. Orange is one of the best; try the suan ni bai rou, sliced pork belly dressed with garlic and chiles.

    Tian Ci Liang Ji
    Ma An Jie No. 68, Jin Niu Qu (86/28-8333-3288). Inexpensive. This popular restaurant is famous for its many chicken dishes, flavored with chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. In winter, be sure to try ren shen ji tang, a delicious chicken soup with ginseng and wolfberries.


    Museum of Sichuan Cuisine
    8 Ronghua North Alley, Gucheng Village, Pixian County (86/28-8791-8008; Admission: $3. A short drive from downtown Chengdu, this museum, a grand structure encompassing exhibitions as well as a decent restaurant, offers a serious look at the history of Sichuan food from ancient times to the modern era.

    Wuhou Shrine
    231 Wuhou Shrine Street (86/28-8555-9027, This shrine to a royal adviser is a beloved piece of Chengdu history-and Jinli Street, which leads up to the ancient sanctuary, has dozens of food vendors serving Chengdu-only snacks such as dou hua, soft tofu topped with chili oil, black vinegar, peanuts, and scallions.


    Loft Design Hostel
    4 Xiaotong Alley, Qingyang District (86/28-8626-5770; Rates: $10 for a shared room, $34 for a private room. A converted printing house, the Loft is filled with a lively mix of guests, from Chinese students to wandering foreigners. Bike rentals for hostel guests make it easy to explore the city center.

    Hakka Homes
    Kehua Beilu, South Chengdu (86/139-8190-9901; Rates: $28 for a two-bedroom apartment. A collection of short-term rental apartments-from studios to two-bedrooms, each with a kitchen-in a lively part of the city near Sichuan University.

    Shangri-La Chengdu Hotel
    9 Binjiang East Road, Jinjiang District (86/28-8888-9999; Rates: $200 for a double. This luxurious tower on the banks of the Jinjiang River is easily the nicest place to stay in Chengdu. The hotel's upscale restaurant, Shang Palace, features classic Sichuan dishes, including a richly flavored mapo tofu.

    Back to Capital of Heat: Chengdu, China »

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    by Matt Gross
    I was walking down a narrow street in the suburbs of Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province, when I spotted what I'd been hoping to spot for days: a tricycle. No ordinary conveyance, this; it was a mobile food vendor of the sort that specialized in dou hua, super-soft tofu drenched in black vinegar and chile-infused oil, topped with scallions, peanuts, pickled turnips, and fried shallots. The vendor ladled tofu from a basin in the back of the trike into a little plastic bowl, seasoned it, and handed it to me. With a thin plastic spoon, I scooped up a bite and put it in my mouth. Heaven. The tofu was warm and silky, with a hint of smoke, against which the garnishes were a rainbow of salty, sour, pungent contrast. Far too soon, my bowl was empty.

    It was then that I noticed my tongue was on fire, burning with the heat of a thousand chiles, a spiciness known in Mandarin as la. I felt droplets of sweat form on my cheeks. The spice swelled and pulsed. Behind the la was a citric flavor and a numbing sensation that tingled the sides of my tongue; it at once protected me from the power of the chiles and, somehow, increased my sensitivity to it. This was ma, the effect produced by Sichuan peppercorns, called hua jiao in Mandarin-little dusky pink fireballs that are actually the dried seed husks of the prickly ash tree.

    Those two flavors-ma and la, Sichuan's signature combination-were precisely what I'd come to Chengdu looking for. See, I'm a chile fiend. My pantry features an entire section devoted to dried peppers from Thailand, China, Mexico, India, Kenya, and Israel, and my refrigerator shelves sag with unlabeled bottles of homemade hot sauces. I'm neither macho nor masochistic, and while I could lecture you on Scoville units, capsaicin, and endorphins, I'll keep it simple: I think heat makes food taste better.

    Credit: Ariana Lindquist
    In this regard, the food of Sichuan has always held a talismanic appeal for me, ever since my first taste of truly authentic Sichuan cooking at a restaurant in Taipei a decade ago. No other cuisine, to my mind, makes such liberal use of chiles while at the same time achieving such complexity and balance. For years I sought out Sichuan food wherever I could find it-in New York, in Los Angeles, and beyond, chasing that chile-fied buzz. Finally, I resolved to visit the heat at its source. But while I'd come in pursuit of ma la, once here, I found that this famous spiciness is but one piece of a multifaceted cuisine. Among the Chinese, this southwestern province is considered the home of the country's most sophisticated food, a place where cooks are known to unite strikingly disparate flavors (see Flavors of Sichuan) in a single harmonious dish. Today the nexus of this cuisine is Chengdu.

    The city of 14 million inhabitants lies on a vast fertile plain some 50 miles east of the Tibetan plateau foothills. Chengdu sits virtually in the center of the province, a circumstance that aided the city's rise; it was in Chengdu's teahouses that silk traders and traveling officials lingered on their journeys, lending the city a sensual, cosmopolitan air. Nowadays that legacy expresses itself in a vibrant, even frenetic, food culture, which recently earned Chengdu a UNESCO "City of Gastronomy" designation, the first in Asia.

    No other cuisine makes such liberal use of chiles while at the same time achieving such complexity and balance
    Chengdu has its share of overdevelopment, with skyscrapers replacing quaint downtown neighborhoods and cookie-cutter housing developments sprawling into the distance, but even so, the city possesses a laid-back vibe that stands in contrast to the world-ruling auras of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. As soon as I arrived, I checked into a hostel near the city center, and proceeded to eat my way across town.

    In the early morning hours of my first full day in the city, when the streets around the hostel were serene, I went for a run, skirting the edge of People's Square, Chengdu's geographical center, until I reached the banks of the mist-shrouded Jinjiang River, one of four waterways that interlace the city. As I crossed bridges, I dodged grandmothers returning from crack-of-dawn market excursions, lugging jugs of rapeseed oil, used for frying, and shopping bags overflowing with greens. On my way back, I bought pork buns from a little shop called Hanbaozi. Through its wide take-out window, I could see cooks stuffing soft white wheat-flour buns with ground pork seasoned liberally with Sichuan peppercorns. With every bun I ate, that tingly numbness-the ma-crept farther across my tongue and palate. An order of four buns, plus a glass of warm soy milk, made a very good breakfast.

    Credit: Ariana Lindquist
    Or a good first breakfast. After I showered, I wandered over to Chunyangguan, one of the city's myriad noodle shops, where dozens of wooden tables and chairs were set out in front of a low concrete building. By nine o'clock, nearly all were filled with customers. I sat down, and the laoban, or boss, came over to take my order. With my limited Mandarin, I asked for what everyone else seemed to be having: yu xiang pai gu mian, or fish-fragrant sparerib noodles. In moments I was slurping down a bowl of thin white wheat noodles nestled in a dark broth tinged red with chile oil and studded with nuggets of spareribs. A dash of black vinegar added a note of sharpness.

    Fish-fragrant sparerib noodles, it is important to know, do not smell or taste like fish. Rather, "fish-fragrant," as I learned from the laoban, a no-nonsense middle-aged former salesman who introduced himself as Ma Yingjun-Handsome Ma-refers to the ingredients typically used in cooking fish here: garlic, ginger, scallions, and, often, pickled chiles. Fish-fragrant dishes are frequently stir-fried, but Handsome Ma's yu xiang pai gu mian was more complicated, beginning with a stir-fry and segueing into a long braise. The aromatic dish, an invention of Handsome Ma's, blew me away. I slurped through the bowl in seconds. Then I looked around at the neighboring tables to see what else to try.

    The next thing I spotted was a small bowl filled with steamed egg custard, topped with a spoonful of ground pork and chopped ya cai (pickled mustard greens). The egg itself was preternaturally light and creamy, and when I asked Handsome Ma how it was done, I couldn't believe the simplicity of the preparation: just eggs, beaten and steamed. They offset the noodles perfectly.

    This was my first taste of how meals worked in Chengdu. For every complicated dish there was an accompaniment of mellow yet transcendent flavor
    This combination was my first taste of how meals worked in Chengdu. For every complicated, labor-intensive dish, such as the fish-fragrant noodles or Handsome Ma's excellent hong you chao shou (spicy pork wontons in red chile oil), there was an accompaniment that involved just two or three ingredients of mellow yet transcendent flavor. This balancing act took place in meal after meal. Later that afternoon in a suburb of Chengdu, I ventured a taste of ma la rabbit heads, a surprisingly delectable treat that was possibly the spiciest and most complexly flavored thing I'd ever eaten, and it, too, was paired with a simple porridge of rice and purple sweet potatoes-wonderful.

    I spent the next day exploring Chengdu's many neighborhood markets, studying the local chiles. The varieties were mind-boggling: I found xiao mi la, a sharp-tasting hot pepper reminiscent of a Thai bird's-eye chile that infuses braises with vivid heat; chao tian jiao, or "heaven facing chiles," used sun-dried, wok-toasted, and then coarsely ground; erjingtiao, deep green or red peppers that are pickled and minced for a mildly spicy seasoning; ye shan jiao, chiles ranging from purple to green in color that grow wild in the mountains; and more.

    Given the abundance of chiles here, I found it hard to believe that people in Sichuan only really started cooking with them in the 19th century, 300 or so years after they were first imported from the New World. The fact is, chiles were just one felicitous addition to an ancient cuisine that has always placed great value on bold flavors. Before chiles arrived, cooks often paired Sichuan peppercorns with the sour red fruit of the Japanese Cornelian cherry tree. Chiles, when they finally came along, must have felt something like the missing piece of a very old puzzle.

    Credit: Ariana Lindquist
    Chiles are also a key ingredient in another bedrock element of Sichuan cooking, douban jiang, a powerful dark red fermented paste of erjingtiao chiles and broad beans that is responsible for the deep umami flavor and penetrating heat in dishes such as Sichuan's famous mapo tofu and ground beef or pork braised in a fiery ruby red sauce. Chile bean pastes of various types are produced all over China, but the best, I was told, come from Pixian County, just outside of Chengdu.

    To learn more about the chile paste, I paid a visit to Pixian County's Museum of Sichuan Cuisine, where I beheld, sitting outside in the courtyard, row upon row of open-topped clay pots containing fermenting chiles and beans on their way to becoming douban jiang. A manager of the museum's classical collections, Ding Shibing, explained why Pixian is ideally suited for producing the ingredient. In other parts of the country, chile bean paste makers regularly have to add water to their fermenting product to replace moisture lost to evaporation. Not in Pixian, where the ancient irrigation system that turned Sichuan basin into an exceptionally fertile area-a marvel of hydraulic engineering completed in 256 B.C. and still in use-helps to maintain sufficient ground humidity to keep the paste from drying out as it ages. Dujiangyan, as the vast network of canals is named, not only ensures the country's best douban jiang, but earned Sichuan the enduring moniker, the Land of Plenty.

    Chengdu people make the most of their bounty and the remarkable local larder it yields-not just chiles and those peppercorns but a cornucopia of fruits, cultivated and wild vegetables, and more
    Chengdu people take that to heart. They make the most of their bounty and the remarkable local larder it yields-not just chiles and those peppercorns but a cornucopia of fruits, cultivated and wild vegetables, and more. They are as obsessed with food as you'd imagine for a people whose native poets immortalized the cuisine (11th-century bard Su Dongpo on fatty pork: "Simmer slowly/With a little water"). These poets have contemporary counterparts in characters like "Super Piggy," one of Chengdu's many food bloggers.

    "I am a sichuanese man. If I am not eating something, I must be thinking about what to eat," said Super Piggy, whose real name is Xu Yun, when I met him for lunch one day. We were eating offal, beloved in Sichuan, at Ming Ting, one of Chengdu's "fly restaurants," bare-bones eateries said to attract diners like flies. Over lunch-pigs' brains braised with tofu and douban jiang; pigs' kidneys stir-fried with a mountain of chives-Yun, a trim man in his mid-30s, waxed philosophical, quoting Plato as easily as Chinese poets. As our conversation turned to the cooking of Chengdu, he said that if I really wanted to experience the city's cuisine, I'd best get into the kitchens of its home cooks.

    Credit: Ariana Lindquist
    The next day, I visited Yun's father, Xu Shengguo, a retired engineer who'd cooked for his family for decades. With practiced efficiency, Shengguo whipped up hui guo rou, pork belly stir-fried with chile paste, dou chi (salty, black fermented soybeans), and garlic scallions. As the ingredients sizzled, the chile smoke rising from the pan nearly made me sneeze. Shengguo also produced yu xiang you cai, using the fish-fragrant technique on rape greens. He finished by making ma yi shang shu, literally, "ants climbing a tree," a homely dish of glass noodles stir-fried with ground pork. We sat and dug in, and between the crisp and spicy pork belly, the tender and slightly bitter you cai, and the slippery glass noodles, the meal was as complex and balanced as anything I'd eaten out in the city. But it was also casual, just Papa Piggy preparing dishes he knew intimately and riffing on classics. At home, it seemed, Sichuan cuisine was a style, an approach that encouraged innovation, not a rigid canon. I was bowled over.

    I spent the rest of my stay seeking out invitations to eat in people's homes, where I encountered this deliciously freewheeling approach to cooking, grounded in the basic flavors of Sichuan but relaxed and improvisational, again and again. One evening Guo Wei-Wei, a young dimple-cheeked writer, had me over to dinner at her brand-new apartment, where she broke down a five-pound rooster, fried some of the meat with shredded young ginger and chiles, and stewed the rest of it with carrots and douban jiang, yielding one chicken two ways-both of them delicious.

    On my last night in Chengdu, I went to a dinner party hosted by Ivy Hui, an avid home cook. When I arrived, Hui was preparing sweet and sour fried meatballs made from not just pork but, of all things in landlocked Chengdu, oysters, which lent an ingenious note of brine. Hui also served spareribs that had been braised in lu-a mix of spices such as cassia, star anise, and fennel seed-and then deep-fried and tossed in a hot wok with generous handfuls of xiao mi la chiles. The ribs had a complex flavor that combined the must of a spice market, the fatty punch of barbecue, and a penetrating heat-a masterfully Sichuanese balance of power.

    As I devoured the spareribs I could feel the familiar heat-the ma and la that had brought me here-rising in my face. With my chopsticks I plucked a slice of raw cucumber from a plate and crunched it in my mouth. A counterpoint to the frenzy of flavors that surrounded it, the cool vegetable quieted my palate just long enough before the chiles beckoned once again.

    See 8 Sichuan recipes in the gallery »

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  • 03/05/13--22:59: The Tomato in Winter
  • The Tomato in Winter-photo
    by Mia Cabana
    The flu-ravaged and freezing Northeast hasn't been a terribly fun place to spend time this winter, so when the opportunity came to decamp for a weekend to Sarasota, Florida, my bags were packed before you could say "sunshine." I departed for the land of warmth and vitamin C, visions of beaches and orange groves dancing in my head. When we touched down to blue skies and balmy air, I sent up a small prayer of gratitude. Swimming pools, wine tasting, and pink sunsets (at normal twilight hours, not 4 in the afternoon) filled the weekend, but the highlight-particularly to my palate, dulled by months of cold-weather root vegetables-was a 7 a.m. foray to the Sarasota farmers' market that proved to be more than worth the early wakeup call.

    At the market, which was founded in 1979 and pitches its tents every Saturday from 7 a.m to 1 p.m., rain or shine, along North Lemon and State streets, the overwhelming visual impact was of red. Baskets of perfect red strawberries. The red-painted sides of the life-reviving Java Dawg coffee truck. And most of all, the tomatoes: amazing, awe-inspiring, plump red tomatoes.

    Disillusioned by many a broken, vine-ripened promise, I've been boycotting winter tomatoes for years. No matter how tempting they look in the store, once I get them home they're unfailingly dry, hard, and bland. But I homed in, with tentative joy, on one particular table at the Brown's Grove Farms stand, full of tender tomatoes the size of my fist, streaked with the almost imperceptible variations in color that come from ripening in honest-to-goodness sunshine. These were the real deal-and in that moment, I realized that the best part of this trip wasn't going to be freedom from the burden of a wool coat or the chance to dig my toes into some sand.

    The best part was going to be eating things that back home in New York, I wouldn't be experiencing again for months.
    The best part of Sarasota in winter was going to be eating things that back home in New York, I wouldn't be experiencing again for months.

    Delighted as I was by the tomatoes on display, my happiness deepened when I learned that Brown's Grove Farm is one of the suppliers for Jack Dusty, a newly opened restaurant at the Sarasota Ritz Carlton, where-luckily for me-I was planning to have dinner that very night. Without even seeing the menu, I knew I'd be ordering every tomato on it.

    The atmosphere at Jack Dusty is cool, blue, and seafaring-the restaurant takes its name from the nautical slang referring to the crew member responsible for overseeing the ship's stores and dispensing the daily ration of grog-with a suggestion of waves and sailing history as briny and fresh as sea spray. Settling in to my seat, glass of Prosecco in hand, I began my mission to put some summer in my mouth.

    At the top of the list-and the menu-was the tomato burrata salad. Being primed all day, and then being presented with the idea of pairing tomatoes with a creamy-smooth ball of delicious dairy fats-for me, this was a certain kind of heaven. Served on a bed of spicy arugula, the tomatoes, lightly oven-cured to emphasize their sweetness, were mellowed perfectly by the rich burrata.

    Pairing tomatoes with a creamy-smooth ball of delicious dairy fats-for me, this was a certain kind of heaven.
    Next up was another salad (who says you have to stop at one?) in which tomatoes played a bright supporting role to cubed watermelon, with chile flakes adding just the right amount of heat, and a sweet, citrusy Meyer lemon oil adding a bit of the flavor of Florida to the plate.

    Jack Dusty's executive chef, Dwayne Edwards, stopped by our table, suggesting that I order the kitchen's daily greens, sourced from the farmers' market. A mix that included spinach and chard, served with fluffy, salty grits-deliciously tender, cooked with mellow garlic and a slight tang to the broth (more tomatoes? I can only dream). Delicate but distinct, the greens not only provided my palate with a burst of phytochemical perfection, but also gave my jaw a break from the robust leaves and tough stems I'd grown used to over the cold months.

    To finish, another warm-weather treat: summery sorbets made with local citrus and berries, cleverly served sealed in individually labeled cans. My favorite of the flavors was a strawberry-lemon mix, bright and yet smooth-I remembered the heaping piles of local lemons at the farmers market and the vermilion abundance of strawberries, their combined flavors an ideal end to the meal, at once cooling and filled with the memory of the morning's warmth.

    Boarding my plane back to New York the next day, I braced myself for-among other things-the cold, the need for inventive layering of clothing, and gray skies that darken early. I also prepared myself for a return to winter eating: kale and root vegetables awaited me at home, stalwarts that fuel my cooking until spring's first shoots appear months later. But I also carried with me a secret: two quarts of strawberries, safely wrapped up in my luggage. They would be gone too quickly once I arrived home, but while they lasted, they would be perfect.

    See scenes from the Sarasota Farmers Market in the gallery »

    Sarasota Farmers Market
    Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
    Main andamp; North Lemon Streets
    Sarasota, Florida

    Jack Dusty
    1111 Ritz Carlton Dr.
    Sarasota, Florida 34236

    Mia Cabana is a freelance writer and former librarian living in Brooklyn, whose travel habits are influenced by a lifetime of watching educational programming on PBS.

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  • 03/11/13--00:00: Beautiful Bento
  • Bento boxes-photo
    by Kenneth Wapner
    My introduction to bento-Japanese lunch boxes-took place under less than ideal circumstances. It was 1986, and I'd been hired to teach English at a school in Tokyo-a job that began two days after my wedding. I reported to work jetlagged and discombobulated, only to find that the very next day there would be an overnight trip for new faculty to a spa hotel by the sea. The trip was mandatory. My wife was not invited.

    The next morning, we new recruits lined up to board a hired bus outside the school building. Each of us was handed an envelope containing spending money (here you go kids, have a good time) and a carry-on lunch bag. I plopped down in my seat and opened the bag to discover a lidded box. What's this? I thought. Had Mom packed our lunch? Indeed, she had. (Or rather, my employer had.) I opened the lid, and found an array of enticing, colorful bite-sized treats in a grid of compartments. I eagerly sampled the items. I would be stretching it if I told you I remember exactly what they were, but I do remember that they took the sting off of having to leave my wife behind.

    This was the first of many, many bento I would eat during that year in Japan. Bento were sold at convenience stores, department stores, supermarkets, even at the Kabuki theater, where their contents could range from broiled beef to chirashi (raw fish), usually served over rice and with a side of vegetables simmered in stock and some slivered Japanese pickles. They were a delightful way to get to know Japanese cuisine.

    I was particularly intrigued by ekiben, the bento sold at train stations. Ekiben are bento at their most exciting: they're usually based on local specialties-up north, you might find a bento featuring snow crab; down near the city of Kobe, you'll find ekiben featuring that region's famously marbled beef. There are over 5000 train stations in Japan, and over 1,600 varieties of ekiben. These regional railway bentos are one of the pleasures of train travel in Japan.

    This week, several New York Japanese restaurants are preparing regional variations of ekiben, drawing their inspiration from varieties served at stations all over Japan, from Hokkaido to Kyushu (see eight of the bento available for puchase in New York this week in our Beautiful Bento Slideshow). March 19-­21, ekiben will also be featured at a three-day event at Grand Central Station. (For more information, visit

    See 8 of New York's most beautiful restaurant bento boxes in the gallery »

    Kenneth Wapner is a freelance book editor, packager, and agent, and an author and journalist who once apprenticed with a sushi chef and lived in Japan. He now lives in Woodstock, NY.

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  • 03/15/13--01:00: America's 50 Best Donuts
  • America's 50 Best Donuts-photo
    by Jane and Michael Stern
    America's great donuts are fragile and heavyweight, old-fashioned and artisanal. Aside from the fact that a warm one is taste-buds heaven, we're always on the lookout for donuts because the search leads to the kind of joints we love best, where eaters of every stripe enjoy a pastry so unfussy that it flouts utensils and rarely even comes on a plate. A good donut in hand with a steaming cup of coffee is democracy for breakfast.

    See 50 of our favorites in the gallery »

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  • 03/20/13--00:30: Nowruz: A New Day
  • Nowruz: A New Day-photo
    by Farideh Sadeghin
    Saffron rice. Mountains of fresh green herbs. Bowls overflowing with fruits and nuts. These are my favorite memories from childhood, intermingled with laughter and arguments, love and tears. The dualities that abound in Persian culture and cuisine pervade Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, as they do my memories. Nowruz is not a religious holiday, but a time of dancing and feasting to celebrate the change of seasons, death and re-birth, good and evil, and renewal for the year to come. Falling on the vernal equinox, Persians spend the weeks leading up to this event preparing for the ancient tradition. There is a massive spring cleaning, new clothes are purchased, and lentil sprouts are planted. But most importantly, there is the food, which takes on highly symbolic meaning during the holiday.

    Each household lays the haft seen, or New Year's table, to welcome the New Year. Literally meaning "Seven S's", each item included in the haft seen begins with the letter "S" and symbolizes one of the seven guardian angels: somagh (sumac) represents light and the color of the sunrise; serkeh (vinegar) symbolizes age and patience; samanou (a sweetmeat made of germinated wheat) symbolizes affluence; sabzi (lentils growing in a dish) is for rebirth; seeb (apple) for health and beauty; seer (garlic) for medicine; and senjed (dried lotus fruit) represents love. A huge spread is prepared, including such favorites as Dolmeh (Stuffed Grape Leaves), Kuku Sabzi (Leek and Herb Frittata), Ghormeh Sabzi (Kidney Bean, Veal, and Herb Stew), and Baghali Ghatogh (Lima Beans with Egg and Dill); these dishes are chosen for their use of eggs (again, for fertility) and green vegetables, symbolizing the colors of the season and the awakening of the earth that comes with the spring. There is also usually a fish dish, for abundance. And of course, no meal would be complete without the pastries-soaked in honey, covered in pistachios, and enjoyed with tea-my version of happiness.

    But the festivities don't end there. The 13 days following Nowruz are spent visiting family and friends, and on the 13th day, there's a big outdoor feast. The newly-grown lentil sprouts are tossed into a stream, and any evil spirits or thoughts are symbolically thrown away with them. We start the New Year fresh, rejoicing in the abundance of the spring season, and ready to make new memories.

    See Farideh's recipe for Iranian Dolmeh (Stuffed Grape Leaves) »
    See classic Iranian recipes in the gallery »

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    69 Colebrooke Row-photo
    by Ceil Miller Bouchet
    1. Duke's Bar at Duke's Hotel
    A classic dry martini from this clubby watering hole will likely be among the best you've ever tasted. Head bartender Alessandro Palazzi has been elevating the libation to an art form since 1975, winning over such aficionados as James Bond series creator Ian Fleming, who was once a regular. A symphony of muted conversations, clinking ice cubes, and the rattle of a martini trolley pushed by a white-jacketed bartender adds to the ambiance.

    Duke's Bar
    St. James's Place, London SW1A 1NY
    Tel: +44/207/491-4840

    2. Bassoon Bar at the Corinthia Hotel
    With its 1920s art deco interior, this lavish candlelit lounge features era-appropriate live jazz and fresh takes on classic British cocktails, including a Pimm's Cup made with fresh homemade lemonade, and an English Tea Punch, a blend of gin and white vermouth infused with lavender, mint, elderflower cordial, and jasmine tea.

    Bassoon Bar
    Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2BD
    Tel: +44/207/321-3200

    3. Artesian Bar at the Langham Hotel
    In a gorgeous barroom with an Orient-meets-Occident décor, head bartender Simone Caporali pours ingenious rum cocktails, including the namesake Artesian Punch, a fruity blend of Pampero Aniversario dark rum, Calvados, pear brandy, and freshly squeezed pineapple juice. Drinks here all feature whimsical garnishes, such as miniature alligator heads.

    Artesian Bar
    1 Portland Place, London W1B 1PN
    Tel: +44/207/636-1000

    4. 69 Colebrooke Row
    This spirited Islington venue serves some of London's most culinary cocktails, such as a twist on the bellini made with a purée of dried apples, dry cider, apple juice, and hay topped with Prosecco, and a Woodland Martini dashed with maple, cedar, and sequoia bitters. The always crowded barroom boasts an Italian film noir décor, complete with vintage Campari posters.

    69 Colebrooke Row
    69 Colebrooke Row, London N1 8AA
    Tel: +44/754/052-8593

    5. Coburg Bar at the Connaught Hotel
    With its wood-paneled walls, wingback chairs, and blazing fireplace, this Mayfair bar is an ideal setting for a London nightcap. Try the White Lady, a classic British tipple made with gin and equal parts lemon juice and Cointreau, shaken then strained-a perfect way to say cheerio and good night.

    Coburg Bar
    Carlos Place, Mayfair, London W1K 2AL
    Tel: +44/207/499-7070

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