All is Sparkling for the New Year

Champagne is the obvious go-to for New Years’ bubbles. But there are a slew of other options out there that are both much more affordable and surprisingly appealing. Here are three to think about.

sparkling-vignetteHAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE!

Cava – This Spanish sparkling wine is made in the traditional manner of Champagne (methode traditionelle), mostly near the town of San Sadurni de Noya in Cataluna. Whereas Champagne is made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes, Cava is made from another trio: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo, although Chardonnay is also used nowadays.

Characteristics: In general, Cava tends to be lighter bodied than Champagne, with a good deal of earth and fruitiness.

Our picks: Gran Sarao Brut Cava Penedes

Prosecco – Prosecco is the name of both a grape varietal and the sparkling wine that hail from the Veneto region of Italy. Unlike Cava and Champagne, which are produced using the intense traditional method, Prosecco is made using the simpler tank method. The resulting wine is, consequently, less complex than Cava and Champagne, but still makes a lovely aperitif.

Characteristsics: Prosecco is light and festive and even, in some cases, a bit citrusy. I find it less yeasty in general than other sparkling. It also makes a great base for adding a splish of Campari (or Lillet Rouge) as the Venetians do for a Spritz.

Our pick: Sorelle Bronca Prosecco

American Sparkling Wine – Only sparkling wine that is made in the region of Champagne can be called Champagne, which means that all bubblies in America are termed sparkling wines. But don’t think that means they’re inferior; there are several well-regarded sparkling wine houses in the US making everything from delicate Blanc-de-Blancs to beautiful salmon-colored Brut Roses.

Characteristics: Because American sparkling wine doesn’t come from a specific appellation (and isn’t necessarily confined to a certain method), characteristics vary widely.

Our Pick: Schramsberg Brut Rose Sparkling Wine

Manchego and Nutmeg Gougeres

Gougeres (“goo-zhehr”)–little mini cheese-puffs about as light as air–are the classic nibble with Champagne. (Here, we give them a Spanish spin with manchego cheese . . . try them with a glass of cava.)

manchego-nutmeg-gougeres-recipe4 ounces (1 stick) butter, cut into small cubes
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1-1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated manchego cheese, divided
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine butter, salt, pepper and water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and remove from heat immediately.

Pour in flour and stir with a mixing spoon (mixture will be stiff) for 3-5 minutes, until the dough becomes smooth and pulls away from the sides of the pan.  Stir in eggs one by one, mixing well after each addition, then stir in 1 cup cheese and nutmeg.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Transfer dough to a pastry bag and pipe 2-inch mounds 2 inches apart onto both sheets. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top and bake for 25 minutes, switching pans half way through.

Serve warm or at room temperature, or cool completely and freeze in a freezer-safe zip-top storage bag. (Reheat frozen gougeres in a 375 F oven for 5 minutes.)

Serves 18

Feast without Frenzy: Put People to Work

For whatever reason, I often feel like I have to do everything myself when guests gather—plan, cook, serve, clean (alright, I admit, Christopher does that). But the truth is, involving others in the meal makes them feel  more welcome, more at home. Here are five strategies for putting people to work during the holidays in a way that will bring cheer to all.


  • Let guests get in on the planning. Throw out a theme (our New Year’s meal this year will be entirely white) or a challenge (Iron Chef anyone?) and let guests develop a dish to bring.
  • Put idle hands to work. There are two well-proven truths about cooking for company–1) everyone congregates in the kitchen and 2) many hands make light work. Take a cue and put those hands to work on labor-intensive dishes like rolling or stuffing pasta.
  • Give assignments. Some of my most successful dinner parties have included a “to-do” list for each of the guests. It frees me up from the “what’s next?” bombardment and let’s people contribute to dinner prep at their own pace.
  • Create a make-your-own menu. Some meals just lend themselves to interaction. Homemade pizzas, where guests shape or top their own, and dishes that require individual assembly like tacos or lettuce wraps are great choices.
  • Let others pitch in on clean up. Don’t underestimate the bonding power of doing dishes together . . .

This week, as you plan your New Year’s gathering, consider putting people to work.

Umbricelli with Ginger-Chile Sauce

There’s no denying, this pasta takes time; with three people it took close to an hour to roll out an entire batch. But if you’ve got a lot of hands you want to keep busy, it’s a perfect dish. The rolling becomes relaxing as conversation blossoms around the table, turning out thick and chewy strands that get bathed in a simple, spicy sauce. If you’re in a hurry, make the sauce from scratch and sub dried noodles for the homemade ones.

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup water
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 egg

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon chile flakes
2 cups crushed organic tomatoes
salt and pepper

Pulse together umbricelli ingredients in a food processor until the dough comes together into a rough ball. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 6-8 minutes, until smooth with a slight sheen. Form the dough into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap and let rest for half an hour. Lay a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet and sprinkle with flour. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.

Roll the dough into a flat disc a half inch thick, then slice into strings a quarter of an inch wide. Cut each string into 1 inch long pieces. One at a time, lay a piece of dough on a (non-floured) wooden board and, moving from your fingertips to your palms and back from the inside to the ends, roll and stretch the dough until it resembles a 10-inch long piece of thick spaghetti. Place on the cookie sheet, toss with flour and repeat with the next piece of dough. Continue to fluff pasta with flour in between batches to prevent the strands from sticking together.

To make the sauce. Heat the olive oil over medium high heat and cook garlic, ginger and chiles for 5 minutes, until garlic is tender and fragrant. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, bring to a simmer and cook uncovered for 15 minutes.

When all the pasta is rolled, cook it for 4-5 minutes in rapidly boiling water, until just tender to the bite. Toss with sauce.

Serves 6

Green Holiday Entertaining

We turned once again to our Green Entertaining Expert, Nicole Aloni, this time for tips on how to green our holiday parties a bit. And boy did she deliver; from how to invite to what to imbibe, Nicole shares how to make a softer impact on the environment this season.

green-entertaining-postGo Paperless – This applies to both invites and table. Use an online invite service like evite or pingg to plan your gathering and save a few trees in the process. Other bonuses are the running tally of the guest list and the ability to send reminders as the date approaches. For the table, Nicole suggests opting “for real plates, flatware and glasses” (either yours or rented . . . which can be more cost-effective than you may think) instead of paper or plastic. Otherwise, “look for biodegradable and renewable sources like sugarcane or bamboo.

Go Natural – Nicole recommends decorating with “live plants, bowls of fruit or nuts, or organic, local flowers instead of exotic or imported cut ones.” Branches, too, make dramatic arrangements this time of year, especially when festooned with colorful berries. So put on your decorator glasses and take a tour of the yard or your local nursery before picking up a bouquet at the supermarket; it’s easy to overlook how much a dozen roses imported from Colombia can add to your carbon footprint.

Plan Less Meat – Nicole suggests planning “at least a third of your dishes to be vegetables or whole grains,” she counsels. “Or opt for fish instead.” (See our Feast of the Seven Fishes article for ideas, or browse our Seven Super Sustainable Seafood Picks) But don’t think no meat needs to mean ho-hum. Think Sweet Potato-Kale Bread Pudding and Curried Mussels. Think Edamame Spread and Mushroom, White Bean and Sage Soup.

Smart Pours – “Look for organic and bio-dynamic wines,” says Nicole. “They have improved remarkably in the last several years, both in quality and availability.” Benziger, Parducci, Tandem and Ceago are all good bets. And for the water glass, opt for filtered tap water in lieu of bottled. Slice a variety of citrus to float in the pitchers for a festive flavor and look.

Endive Spears with Roquefort Mousse and Walnuts

These little endive spears are crowd pleasers; packed with flavor despite their diminutive appearance. The cheese mixture keeps for up to five days, so you can prep everything ahead of time and then pipe the mousse into the endive leaves just before people come to the door.

endive-roquefort-spears-recipe6 ounces Roquefort cheese
1/4 cup cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons snipped chives
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 heads endive, 96 leaves
24 walnuts, toasted and broken into pieces

Combine the first 6 ingredients in a blender, blend until smooth. Chill for 20 minutes. Transfer Roquefort mixture to a pastry bag and pipe a teaspoon mound onto the end of each endive spear. Top each with a toasted walnut piece.

Serves 24 (4 spears each)

Feast of Seven Fishes

Ask an Italian what’s on the menu for the holidays and odds are good there will be fish. A lot of fish. For many Italian families Christmas Eve dinner is synonymous with La Festa dei Sette Pesci, the Feast of Seven Fishes. The feast is thought to be an ancient one originating in Sicily and rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat during holy days; another name for the feast, in fact, is La Vigilia, representing the vigil of the birth of Jesus. Speculation as to why it’s a feast of seven fishes runs to numerous biblical interpretations, although there are often as many as nine or even eleven courses included.

feast-7-fishes-postIt’s interesting to note that many of the fishes traditionally included in the feast—like mussels, clams, calamari, anchovies, smelts and sardines—are ones we’d consider “sustainable” today. Which makes sense. The feast originated in fishing communities where “sustainable” wasn’t an ethical debate; it was simply how one lived. Healthy fish stocks meant abundance for your community, food for your family, and continued survival for all.

Local catch was always present on the Vigilia menu, which might mean anchovies or squid in coastal towns or trout in inland communities. Other traditional dishes include baccala or salt cod, eel and octopus (more sustainable choices today might be smoked fish brandade in lieu of baccala and wild Alaskan sablefish instead of eel). But the menu expanded as the Feast migrated, first throughout Italy and eventually overseas; today it’s a thoroughly hyphenated-Italian holiday adapted by each family to fit their own traditions.

One Sicilian friend of mine told of zuppa di pesce (a fish soup similar to Cioppino, a seafood stew familiar to West Coasters) followed by a Christmas turkey ringed with kielbasa (a nod to the Eastern Europeans who married into the family) next to a tray of baked rigatoni and meatballs. Another recalled catching eel (one of the traditional courses) with her grandmother the day before Christmas Eve. Stuffed pastas from Northern Italian grandmothers appear on other tables along with small fish fried in olive oil, and as families became more affluent, more expensive items like oysters or lobsters or langoustines often found their way onto menus.

Whatever the variation of dishes, one aspect of the Feast that seems constant is the boisterous fun that the large family meal entails. From music, to wine, to who’s cooking what, it’s often a meal with many cooks in the kitchen. Wine, sometimes homemade, will generally (and generously) lubricate the day’s activities. A meal that once symbolized abstinence has today come to represent abundance in many ways.

The Feast of Seven Fishes really underscores how many wonderful dishes can be enjoyed while eating with an eco-clean conscience. New insights bring us back, once again, to the wisdom of traditional ways.

jackie-thumbJacqueline Church is an independent writer whose work has appeared in Culture: the Word on Cheese, Edible Santa Barbara, and John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. She often writes about gourmet food, sustainability issues and the intersection of the two on her blog Leather District Gourmet. Currently, she’s at work on Pig Tales: a Love Story about heritage breed pigs and the farmers and chefs bringing them from farm to table.

Linguine with Red Clam Sauce

By Jacqueline Church

In keeping with the Southern Italian tradition, I added chopped tomatoes and a little wine to Rick Moonen’s recipe from his excellent Fish Without a Doubt. San Marzano are traditional; Muir Glen Organics are terrific, too.

linguine-clam-recipe1 cup water
1/2 cup white wine or vermouth
24 topneck or 48 littleneck clams, scrubbed
1/3 cup chopped garlic
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 15 ounce can crushed tomatoes
Sea salt
3/4 pound dried linguine
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Bring 1 cup of water to boil in a large pot. Add scrubbed clams and wine. Cover and steam till clams open.

Line a strainer with cheesecloth and place over a large bowl. When the clams are cool enough to handle, pour the clams into the strainer, catching the broth in the bowl below. Remove the clams from their shells (work over the strainer so the juice is captured) and transfer to a cutting board.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for pasta.

Chop the clams and set aside. In a medium sauce pan, heat olive oil and garlic over low heat for 10 minutes, until garlic is soft but has not yet browned.

Add crushed red pepper, oregano and reserved clam juice. Increase heat and reduce by half. Add crushed tomatoes. Remove from heat and keep warm.

After the pasta water comes to a boil, add linguine, return water to boil and cook for 2 minutes less than the package instructs. Drain and return to pot over medium heat. Toss chopped clams and sauce with pasta and heat for 2 minutes. Toss with parsley and serve.

Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a part of a larger meal

Feast without Frenzy: Make Ahead

The big day is drawing near and, if you’re like me, so is family. In this holiday series on feasts without frenzy, we’ve talked about planning ahead, freezing ahead and keeping it light. Our next strategy for enjoying time together instead of toiling endlessly in the kitchen is making certain dishes ahead.

make-ahead-postSome meals—like sautés and roasts and stir-fries—are prepared a la minute, essentially just before sitting down to the table. Others are more adaptable, allowing you to make them ahead, refrigerate, and reheat when the time is right.

Here are three suggestions for delicious do-ahead meals:

Stews, Braises and Ragus – These dishes range from whole cuts of meat (like the Braised and Glazed Five Spice Beef Short Ribs) to smaller chunks or ground meat simmered into a stew, chili or thick sauce. The beauty is, not only can you make these ahead; their flavor actually improves when you do. Just cook, chill (they’ll keep just fine for up to four days in the fridge), and then gently reheat when it’s time for the table.

Stratas – Breakfasts are tough with company. It’s often either the same-old, same-old cereal and toast, or playing short-order cook to the morning parade. Stratas—like savory bread pudding—are an excellent way to break that cycle, especially when you’ve got stale bread and leftover veggies on hand. Bread, fillings and an egg and milk mixture are layered in a roasting pan and left to soak overnight. The next morning, all that’s left to do is tuck it in the oven for a hearty start to the day.

Salads – Salads don’t hold well when dressed ahead. But having the fixings cleaned, cut and bagged in the fridge is a smart strategy for easy meals or to round out a soup or sandwich. Keep a double batch of a simple dressing on hand along with cleaned lettuce, sliced carrots, peppers and green onions for a fresh, mix-and-match salad that can be assembled in less than a minute.

This week, make a few meals ahead to free up time for family and friends. Happy holidays, all!

Where’s Your Beef Been?

It used to be simple. You’d hear “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner®,” grab a steak, a roast or some burger, cook it and eat it. No questions, no fuss. But then different messages started cropping up. Things like “beef can make you sick,” “you can catch mad cow,” “cattle ranches cause global warming” and “have you seen the way those cows live?” Suddenly a seed of concern and confusion is planted, about how the beef you’re eating affects the health of your family, the health of the earth.

To complicate things further, once you do start to dig deeper into what’s really on your plate you find a morass of terms and labels and legal definitions. Does “natural” mean the same thing as “organic?” (uh uh) Does “grass fed” mean happy cows in a bucolic field in Iowa? (nope again). Here’s a guide (in alphabetical order) to understanding the jargon so that you can decide what’s for dinner.

beef-been-postAll-Natural (or just “Natural”) – An almost meaningless term when applied to meat, “natural” legally refers to any unprocessed (and now even some processed) cut of meat.  The animal may have been confined, fed GMOs (see below), hormones, animal by-products, etc. and still legally bear the label “natural.” Then again, it may have been raised in an idyllic setting roaming free on the prairie. The issue with this term is that you just don’t know what you’re getting by label alone.

Animal Welfare Approved
– Stringent rules set forth by the Animal Welfare Institute (an independent, non-governmental agency) guarantee that farm animals are raised in healthy, natural, outdoor environments where they can forage and raise their young the way they were meant to. Hormone and sub-therapeutic antibiotic (see below) use is not allowed.

Corn Fed
– The vast majority of cattle in this country are raised on corn. They spend their young lives on pasture, but are soon transferred to Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) where they are fattened on corn and soy. The main downside to this is that as ruminant animals (a species of grazing animal whose stomach is divided into four components to allow it to digest grasses and the like), cows aren’t designed to digest corn, which leads to health problems that require antibiotic and hormone use to control. The population density, also, contributes to both ecological and health issues.

GMO (genetically modified organism) – A useful term to know for this discussion because most “conventional” beef is fed a diet of GMO corn and soy, despite the fact that the jury is still out on the political, social, health, environmental and economic impacts of GMOs (more, much more, on the GMO discussion later here on NOURISH Evolution). GMOs are not permitted in organic beef and they have been banned in the EU.

Grass Fed – In 2007 the USDA established a standard definition for the “grass fed” claim, which requires “continuous access to pasture” and prevents animals from being fed grain or grain-based products. It was a good start. Now reinforcement is the challenge.

Grass or Pasture Finished – This term is more about the end of a cow’s life than how it was raised. Grass-finished cattle may have been raised on grain, but put to pasture for a short time before slaughter. There are benefits, though; some studies have shown that allowing two weeks on pasture right before slaughter can cause a cow to shed 90% or more of the harmful e Coli in its digestive tract, reducing the likelihood of infected meat.

No Hormones or Antibiotics – Cows consume 70% of the antibiotics in the US, most of it in their feed, which means they get the drugs whether they need them or not. This can lead to serious problems with antibiotic resistance in cows and humans alike, as well as potential contamination of groundwater. Claims of “no sub-therapeutic antibiotics” mean that cows get antibiotics only if they’re sick, as opposed to as a preventative. As for hormones, Major League Baseball has stricter bans on them than our food system does. They’re used for similar reasons in both cases, though; to get bigger and stronger faster, often putting health in peril.

Organic –Foods that carry the USDA Organic label can, for the most part, be presumed free of GMOs and artificial chemical inputs (like antibiotics and hormones). But chinks are showing in the label’s armor. Many processed foods can carry some ingredients that are not organic, and beef and dairy cattle can be raised in confinement on grain and still be labeled organic. The legal definition still protects consumers, but it is moving further and further from the philosophy that first spawned the term.

Labels are meant to be helpful, but oftentimes—as you can see—they bring more confusion than clarity. One of the best ways to be sure of what you’re getting is to know who’s raising it. Then, if you have a question, all you have to do is ask. Check out the discussion in the Eco Bites group on Sourcing Sustainable Beef for more.

Kurt Michael Friese is the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, serves on the Slow Food USA National Board of Directors, and is editor and publisher of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He’s also chef and co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, a freelance food writer and photographer, and author of A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland.