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In the town of Crema, less than an hour east of Milan, they make a stuffed pasta that goes by the straightforward name of tortelli cremaschi. The name, however, is about the only straightforward aspect of this local specialty. Federico Fellini may have famously said, “life is a combination of magic and pasta.” But even the great filmmaker himself could not have dreamed up tortelli cremaschi, which must be the most Felliniesque pasta in Italy.

While the pasta itself follows a basic egg-and-flour recipe, the ingredient list for the ripieno (or filling) reads as follows: amaretto cookies (nearly a pound); candied citrus; raisins; mint candies; grated lemon zest; grated Grana Padano cheese; nutmeg; Marsala wine; mostaccino, a local cookie that is sort of like a ginger snap.

Allow me to address a few of your questions: No, I am not making this recipe up. No, this is not a child’s fantasy creation. Yes, this being Italy, there is an Accademia del Tortello Cremasco, a self-appointed organization, with officers, that governs the recipe’s correct preparation. Yes, tortelli cremaschi tastes as bizarre as you’d imagine.

How do I know all this? Because once, about a decade ago, I made the mistake of preparing tortelli cremaschi for people who were not citizens of Crema.

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“It’s not about a recipe,” said chef Riccardo De Pra. “It’s about a concept.” He was talking about spaghetti alla carbonara, the humble bachelor’s dish of pasta, eggs, and bacon that he serves “deconstructed” at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Dolada, in the foothills of the Alps, overlooking the serene Lago di Santa Croce. On the last evening of a very strange trip, I ate De Pra’s deconstructed spaghetti alla carbonara, paired with a profound Piemontese white wine made from an ancient grape called timorasso that had been rescued from near-extinction, and I wondered seriously if I would ever find my way home.

I’d been stranded in Italy for several days. This was in the spring of 2010, when an Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name of Eyjafjallajokull erupted, spewing tons of ash and causing havoc for air travel. Many, at the time, called Eyjafjallajokull the worst disruption in the history of transportation. My trip was supposed to be a four-day jaunt to visit wineries in the Veneto, focusing on Prosecco, Soave, and Valpolicella. The plan: jet in; visit a dozen wineries in four days; jet out; return home; write article. Like millions of others during that shutdown of European airspace, I hadn’t factored a volcano into my plans. So the airline canceled my Sunday morning flight from Venice, with the earliest possibility of return on Thursday. MORE

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Who says you can’t have chocolate for dinner? I don’t mean devouring half a dozen Twix bars and counting it as a meal. Polishing off an entire carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream by yourself doesn’t count either. I’m talking about using chocolate as an element in a savory dish. Yes, chocolate playing the role of something besides sweet.

When we think about chocolate, we almost always think of desserts. But chocolate, in its raw form, is anything but sweet. And utilizing it as a savory ingredient is anything but new. Over 2,000 years ago, before it was ever combined with sugar to make the confection we’re most familiar with today, the Aztecs and Mayans consumed chocolate in the form of a thick, bitter drink. Cacao beans were fermented, roasted, and then mixed with water and spices to make xocoatl, from which chocolate originally got its name. Chocolate has been, and can be, more than just a candy or dessert.

Incorporating chocolate into your dinner meal isn’t as challenging as you’d imagine. Plenty of savory foods have a natural affinity for cocoa-based flavors. Consider the classic pairing of chocolate with spices and chilies in a Mexican mole sauce. Or take gamey meats like lamb and venison, which marry well with cocoa-driven richness. Often times, the bitter notes in dark chocolate work to highlight hidden flavors and assert depth in a dish that was otherwise missing it.

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When my sister was 14 years old, she stopped eating meat. We were always a household that was big on vegetables, so it wasn’t too much of a hardship, but when meat-centric holidays like Thanksgiving rolled around, it was a little bit more of a challenge.

One year, my mom sprang for a tofu roast that was pressed into the shape of a turkey. Other years, we did fanciful things with sautéed mushrooms, roasted acorn squash, and toasted nuts.

Eventually, my sister returned to the poultry-eating fold, but over those years I learned a lot about making main dishes that were both suitably celebratory and free from meat.

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There is no better late summer treat than a ripe, juicy, misshapen heirloom tomato. When they’re in season, I eat them at every meal. In the morning, I scramble eggs and top them with cubes of tomato. For lunch, I cut tomatoes into thick wedges and stack them on top of sturdy slices of mayonnaise-spread toast. Come dinnertime, I make tomato salads, pasta sauces, spicy salsa frescas, and even cocktails.

This week, I’ve pulled together some of my very favorite tomato-centric dishes for a full-on tomato supper. MORE

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For the last 11 years, I’ve lived in the same apartment in Center City Philadelphia. It has many admirable qualities, including good neighbors, giant closets, and a dreamy location. The one thing it does not have is any outdoor space. This means that when summer rolls around, I have two options when it comes to making classic grilled dishes. I can borrow access to a Weber or I can find a way to fake it in my kitchen. MORE


Mac Attack

Creative twists on a crowd-pleasing classic


I was 12 years old when I learned that macaroni and cheese didn’t have to come from a box. Until that point, mac and cheese was something that my mom bought occasionally and tucked away for those evenings when my sister and I were home with a babysitter. It was cheaper than a pizza and even a 15 year old with basic cooking skills could make it. We never had mac and cheese made from scratch because my mom could not bear to sit down to a meal that starred a dish made solely of noodles and cheese.

Then one night, an old friend of my parents’ came to visit, with four of her six children in tow. After a quick glance at our pantry, Lusana began to make a colossal batch of homemade macaroni and cheese to feed the kids. I watched in fascination as she made a creamy sauce, poured it over broken spaghetti noodles (it was what we had) and baked it until it bubbled and browned. A single bite and I was forever sold. MORE

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So many of my foundational food lessons came from family members. My grandma Bunny taught me about meringues, while my other grandmother showed me how to shove slivers of garlic into roast beef to enhance the flavor. My mom is responsible for my everyday food knowledge (along with my basic canning skills) and my dad shared everything he knew about fried eggs, pancakes, waffles and the art of the chocolate chip cookie.

I wish I could tell you that I learned to make béchamel and cheese sauces from an aunt or a kindly neighbor, but sadly, the truth is that all the credit for that particular skillset goes to Rachael Ray, circa 2002. MORE

Viva La Vegan

Alfredo: A Love Affair

A vegan version of the pasta classic that's just as rich as the original.


Vegan alfredoI fell in love with Alfredo at age 11. After dithering painfully over dozens of options at an Italian restaurant, my mother wisely commanded: “Order the Alfredo. You’ll like it.”

I obeyed, but I was skeptical. At that age, I recoiled from any new food. The fettuccini part was, of course, safe and familiar, but slathered in a cream-based white sauce instead of the usual red, it became suspect. When my plate arrived, I encrusted it with Parmesan, praying that a thick coating of cheese might make it more like the pasta dishes already part of my small repertoire. But, after a single bite of those buttery, peppery noodles, I never looked beyond the word “Alfredo” on any menu again. I didn’t care what gnocchi was or how to pronounce “pasta fagioli.” In the realm of Italian American cuisine, I had found my soul mate.

And our bond was bliss until I became a vegan eight months ago.  MORE