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From Anchovies To Walnuts: Edward Behr's Ultimate List Of '50 Foods'

For food to be amazing, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Sit down with a fresh baguette, olive oil to dip it in, some luscious goat’s milk cheese to top it with and a few thin slices of dry-cured ham, and you could be in heaven. A few fresh figs on the side would be the perfect complement.

cabbage
Credit The Penguin Press
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The Penguin Press
"The prime complement to cooked cabbage is butter," Behr writes. "The savory, rich side of cabbage responds to goose or duck fat as well as to onions, garlic, and chestnuts."

At least, that's how Edward Behr, founding editor of The Art of Eating magazine, feels.

Monday, Nov. 18 at Noon and 7PM, Behr joins us to discuss his new book, 50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste. From anchovies to walnuts, Behr informs us on how to choose, use and enjoy these essential foods.

Behr will be appearing Tuesday at Claire's Restaurant in Hardwick for a five-course dinner and discussion. And at Norwich Book Store on Wednesday at 7 PM.

Read an excerpt of 50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste by Edward Behr:

Chestnuts Aren't Only for Roasting

Hot chestnuts, with their delicate, luxurious aroma of honey, straddle the line between savory and sweet. Only fresh chestnuts in the weeks after the harvest carry such clear flavor. Toward the end of September, the remarkably hostile, spiked green husk splits open to reveal, typically, two to four ripe nuts inside their brown shells. By Christmas, the quality is already in decline. The old way to keep chestnuts through the year is to dry them, which takes away much of the flavor. The nuts become as hard as the hardest wood, because where other nuts are filled with oil, chestnuts store energy for a future plant as starch. And they differ from other nuts because they’re eaten only cooked (though they’re harmless raw). If you mash the cooked chestnuts into purée, their soft starchiness requires lubrication with fat or liquid or both—milk, cream, butter, chicken stock, which are all impeccable complements.

In the West, we eat the European chestnut, Castanea sativa. (The Chinese eat the sweet Chinese chestnut, C. mollissima; the Japanese eat the sweet Japanese chestnut, C. crenata. Americans used to eat the American chestnut, C. dentata, until it was almost entirely eliminated by blight in the 20th century; a resistant version has been bred at last, based on a small percentage of Chinese, and it’s possible that chestnuts will once again take their place in eastern North American forests.) The European chestnut probably originated in the Transcaucasus and from there spread to Asia Minor and Europe, growing among hills and low mountains. The trees shun limey soils in favor of acidic ones; they like heat in summer, followed by rain before harvest.

camembert
Credit The Penguin Press
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The Penguin Press
"Buying a Camembert is usually an act of faith," writes Behr. "If you're able to feel it, look for a degree of softness that suggests the cheese is fully creamy without flowing."

In English, we have the single word “chestnut,” but Italian and French have the general words castagna and châtaigne and the specific ones marrone and marron, to describe a superior variety of chestnut, generally containing just one seed. Chestnuts from other sorts of trees have two or three seeds folded together within the same shell. Marroni and marrons are often bigger, and they’re what you need if you want whole chestnuts. Modern hybrids, which have been created especially in France, bear bigger, more beautiful marrons. Better flavor, though, comes from older varieties, without regard to size.

In Europe, the main producer is Italy, with the largest number of chestnuts coming from the hills of Campania. The many Italian kinds are tied to particular places — more than forty in all. The one with the greatest reputation, and possibly the best, is the small, delicate marrone del Mugello, from the area of the Mugello in Tuscany, northeast of Florence. This variety is best appreciated roasted in the oven. One fall I visited Palazzuolo sul Senio, a town so deep in the Mugello that the dialect spoken is not Tuscan but Romagnolo, that of the adjoining region. At a hillside agriturismo with an old, out-of-use, stone seccatoio for drying chestnuts, I ate marroni with porcini mushrooms, a combination of the season.

The starch and flavor make chestnuts good partners with meat and, particularly, with different forms of cabbage. Old European recipes are mostly savory, not sweet, if only because so many of them come from the countryside, where sugar used to be a luxury. In various regions, chestnuts were important sustenance for the poor. Especially when a meager crop made wheat a luxury, dried chestnuts were ground and baked into bread. In Italy, the chestnut tree is l’albero del pane, “the bread tree.” Chestnut polenta is older than maize polenta. Chestnut flour mixed with wheat flour made and sometimes still makes certain kinds of pasta and gnocchi. Mixed with grated cheese and nutmeg, mashed chestnuts sometimes fill tortelli, which are served with butter and more cheese. Whole chestnuts are sometimes cooked as a ragoût, which in France might mean simmered in water or white wine with onions, garlic, smoked bacon, a clove, a branch of fennel, and several branches of parsley.

figs
Credit The Penguin Press
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The Penguin Press
"David Karp, the fruit connoisseur and writer who haunts Los Angeles farmers' markets, has said, 'The fig lover develops almost a mystical rapport with his fruit, alert to the many external hints -- striated or stretch-marked skin, a touch of sunburn, and a drop of honey at the bottom' -- revealing perfect ripeness."

All the charms of chestnuts are evident in a smooth soup, thinned with milk and chicken stock and often flavored with leeks and celery. The outstanding addition to the soup is butter-fried croûtons — so underappreciated and so little used, so mistakenly out of fashion. (I don’t make them as often I should.) Cooked to golden at the last minute and thrown on top, their effect isn’t heavy but toasty and crunchy, a textural counterpoint. Soupe aux marrons from the region of Bourbonnais in central France takes a different tack: onions, carrots, turnips, and celery are cooked with a mere fat handful of chestnuts, and all goes through a sieve; added last are crèmefraîche and chervil. One of the best ways to eat chestnuts is as a thick purée, like a more interesting form of mashed potato, especially good with turkey, goose, or wild boar.

From 50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste by Edward Behr. Copyright Edward Behr, 2013. Excerpted by permission of The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company.