Category Archives: grains and pastas

Saffron Risotto

saffron risotto

Saffron Risotto

Throughout the centuries saffron has been a symbol of wealth and elegance. Cleopatra used saffron water to keep her skin soft. Roman Emperor Nero sprinkled the streets with saffron water to honor his return to Rome. Persians considered it a tonic for the heart as it was thought to alleviate melancholy. (However, they believed too much of it could produce a state of euphoria and even death from too much laughter!). A spice consisting of the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, it was introduced into Spain by the Arabs, and later cultivated in Mediterranean regions and elsewhere in Europe. In France it was grown by “safraniers” in the sixteenth century. In England, the Essex town of Saffron Walden became the center of saffron cultivation.

Rice was introduced into Italy during the Middle Ages by Venetian or Genoese merchants who traded with the east. The earliest documentation of rice cultivation in Italy dates to 1475. Risotto is specific to northern Italy where rice paddies are abundant.

3 ½ cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ onion, finely chopped
1 cup Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
generous pinch saffron
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus shavings for garnish

Bring stock to a low simmer in a medium pot.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat for 1 minute. Cook onion until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add rice and a pinch of salt. Sauté until rice is translucent, 1 to 2 minutes. Add wine and saffron; bring to a simmer, stirring, until rice has absorbed most of wine.

Add 2 ladles of stock to rice; simmer, stirring, until rice has absorbed most of stock. Continue adding stock, allowing rice to absorb it before adding the next ladleful. Cook until rice is al dente and mixture is a little loose. Stir in butter.

Turn off heat. Stir in grated cheese. Cover and let sit 2 minutes before serving.

Serves 6




As early as 610AD at a monastery in Southern France or Northern Italy, monks used scraps of dough and formed them into strips to represent a child’s arms folded in prayer. The monks offered the warm, doughy bread to children as a bribe if they memorized their Bible verses and prayers. They called it a Pretiola, Latin for little reward. The Pretiola then made its way into Germany where it became known as the Bretzel or Pretzel. Today they are a typical street food in the U.S.

1 ½ cups warm water (110 to 115° F)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
22 ounces flour (about 4 ½ cups)
2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
vegetable oil, for pan

10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda

1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
sea salt for sprinkling

Combine the water, sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the flour and butter and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined. Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl, clean the bowl and then oil it well with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 450° F. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly brush with the vegetable oil. Set aside.

Bring the water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan.

In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto the parchment-lined half sheet pan. (If you’re making rolls, roll into approximately 5×3-inch sections.)

Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 by 1, for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large spatula or spider and return them to the sheet pan. Brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with sea salt.

Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 14 minutes, giving the pans a spin half way through. Let cool at least 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 pretzels
(Perfect recipe by Alton Brown)

Barley and Dandelion Salad

barley and dandelion salad

Barley and Dandelion Salad

This stunning salad was one of the recipes prepared in my recent “Eat Like a Pharaoh” class at the Natural History Museum in L.A. It is delicious and nutritious and most of it can be prepared in advance, making it great for a pot luck or dinner party. A class participant foresaw it revolutionizing his Thanksgiving dinner!

This salad gave me a new appreciation for barley, one of the first domesticated grains in the Fertile Crescent. Along with wheat, it was a staple cereal of ancient Egypt and was used to make loads of different kinds of bread and beer. Barley also figured prominently in Egyptian myths of resurrection. When the plant dies its seed goes dormant before sprouting up into a new plant, making it symbolic of the afterlife. Mummies were often buried with barley necklaces.

Throughout history, dandelions have been used to help cure various medical ailments and were reportedly used by the ancient Egyptians to treat kidney and stomach disorders. Because of their red seeds, pomegranate have long been a symbol of fertility across cultures and time periods.

1 cup barley
1 bunch dandelion leaves, stemmed and coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup pistachios, chopped
pinch ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon zahtar
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon honey
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
¼ cup fresh pomegranate

Cook the barley in salted water according to package directions. Drain and place in a serving bowl.

Add the chopped dandelion, raisins and the chopped pistachios to the barley and combine. Season with the cumin, cinnamon, zahtar, pomegranate molasses, honey, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Garnish with the pomegranate seeds before serving.

Serves 6

Macaroni and Cheese

notes on macaroni jefferson

Macaroni and Cheese

Thomas Jefferson introduced the first pasta maker and Parmesan cheese to Colonial America. Among the few existing recipes in his hand is one for macaroni, then a generic term for pasta. (We can also thank him for the first recipe for vanilla ice cream in the US.) He served a variation of this now all-American recipe at a White House dinner in 1802, a time when it would have been considered pretty sophisticated Italian fare.

The above image is Jefferson’s drawing of a macaroni (pasta) machine and notes from the Library of Congress. Click here to read more. TJ, you’re the man.

1 pound elbow pasta
salt to taste
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk
1 ½ cups Gruyere, grated
3 cups cheddar cheese, grated
pinch nutmeg
salt and pepper
½ cup plain breadcrumbs
1 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated

Preheat oven to 350º F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until not quite al dente, about 7 minutes. Drain, transfer to a bowl, and set aside.

Mix the Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs in a small bowl and set aside.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and whisk in the flour until smooth. Whisk in the milk and cook, continuing to whisk often, until the sauce coats the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes.

Stir in the cheese, one cup at a time and whisk until the cheese is melted and incorporated. Whisk in a pinch of nutmeg, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Remove pan from heat and stir in the reserved pasta. Pour into a baking dish and sprinkle the top with the Parmesan and breadcrumb mixture and bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 25 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 12