Elemental Cooking

Swedish Cabin

Our Swedish travels took us very far north, into Sammi land, to visit with Jogge and Nina at their summer cabin. The small town of Overkalix is not far from the Arctic Circle, a land of cold rivers fed by snowmelt from the mountains, many lakes, and forest. Nina and Jogge’s cabin is reached by ferryboat, and then a 10-minute boat ride to a small landing beach. The lake was once a river flowing through the forest…tannin-dark and ringed with marshland. This part of Sweden is home to moose and reindeer, salmon swimming from the sea upriver, moss and lichen-covered rocks, and many trees twisted from winter wind and ice. The landscape is elemental and spare, and filled with deep silence.


Jogge warned us, “It is very rustic…no electricity, no running water, no road…” But we are prepared. We lived this way for six years in the Boomer Bill cabin. Cooking here is like the landscape– elemental and spare. There is a direct connection with earth, fire, and water.


We caught small fish from the lake. Jogge salted them and put them in the cold storage pit under the house until we were ready to cook them over an open fire. We scraped the blackened skin off and pulled the sweet white fish off the bones on to thin toasted flatbread. That’s it. What more do you need?

Cooking with Fire

Freshly caught lake fish and an open fire are not always at hand. Later on our trip, Beth and Annalie showed us how to make delicious roasted fish in the oven or over hot coals in an outdoor grill. Place a thick fillet of mild white fish (Beth used cod) in the center of a large rhubarb leaf. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cover with thin rhubarb stalks. Wrap the leaf snugly around the fish and tie it to make a package. Roast the fish in the oven at 375 degrees F. for 15 to 20 minutes (depending on thickness), or on a grate or metal pan over indirect heat in a covered charcoal grill. I used the same method for whole trout at home. The rhubarb leaf is not edible, but it imparts an earthy, lemony flavor to the fish. The roasted rhubarb stalks are superb.

Whole Trout stuffed with Herbs

Whole Trout

When frost comes, foil takes the place of rhubarb leaves, and lemon stands in for the rhubarb stalks. Herbs enhance the delicate flavor of trout, and the results are aromatic and juicy. Our end-of-season trout are quite large and perfect for baking. If you are using smaller trout, make a separate package for each one.

Ingredients: whole, cleaned trout(s), extra virgin olive oil, salt, freshly ground black pepper, 2 lemons, thinly sliced garlic cloves, sprigs of fresh rosemary, parsley, mint, fennel, and/or thyme, dry white wine, and aluminum foil

Place the trout on a square of aluminum foil that is large enough to fold and seal into a package. Rub the inside and outside of the fish with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with lemon juice inside and out. Place the garlic slices and herb sprigs into the cavity of the trout. Close the trout and place thin slices of lemon on top. Drizzle 1 or 2 Tbs white wine over the fish and fold the foil closed so that no liquid can escape. Place the foil wrapped fish on a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees F. for about 10 minutes per inch of thickness of fish. A large trout takes about 20 minutes; the flesh should be just opaque. Transfer the fish and all the juices to a platter.

This is especially good served with crusty bread for dipping and a bright green herb pesto: Finely chop a handful Italian flat-leaf parsley, a few fresh mint leaves, a little fresh thyme, and 2 garlic cloves. Add a big pinch sea salt and 4 Tbs toasted walnuts or pine nuts. Continue by hand or with a mortar and pestle to make a rough paste. Scrape the mixture into a bowl and add extra virgin olive oil to the desired consistency.

Trout with Bread

Another night at Overkalix we had a feast of reindeer meat and vegetables seasoned with wood smoke from the fire. Our appetizer was baby chanterelles sautéed in butter on toast.

Mushrooms with Bread

Jogge’s Reindeer Stroganoff

Ingredients: 1 lb. reindeer or venison tenderloin, 1 onion. 2 garlic cloves, 5 or 6 crushed juniper berries, 1 or 2 minced fresh hot chiles, 8 oz. sliced fresh button mushrooms, 1 cup thick Turkish or Greek yogurt

Cut the meat into very thin slices and season it with salt and black pepper. Warm 2 Tbs olive oil in a large skillet with 1 finely chopped onion. Sauté the onion over medium high heat until softened, 5 or 6 minutes. Add the finely chopped garlic and sauté 1 minute. Add the meat, chile, and juniper berries. Sauté 2 or 3 minutes. Transfer to a warm plate. Add 1 1/2 Tbs oil to the hot pan and sauté the mushrooms 5 or 6 minutes. Add the meat back into the skillet and toss with the mushrooms. Reduce the heat, add the yogurt, and stir until warm through. Serve

I made a version of this meal with tenderloin of “wild” goat (an escapee that lived in the forest for four months) and fresh shitake mushrooms. I followed Jogge’s method, briefly searing the thinly sliced meat with onion, chile, juniper berries, and garlic. I sautéed the sliced mushrooms separately, tossed the two together, and we ate it wrapped in fresh tortillas…with yogurt sauce and salsa.

Beth and Annalie’s Yogurt Sauce

Stir together 1 cup thick Greek-style, Bulgarian, or Russian whole milk yogurt with 1/2 tsp freshly toasted and ground cumin seed, 2 tsp minced garlic, a pinch of salt, and 4 Tbs chopped fresh herbs (mint, parsley, cilantro, lemon balm, chives…).


Traveling the Silk Road


We liked the Caspian Olives with Pomegranate (a.k.a. “Silk Road Tapenade”) so much that it was eaten before I got a photograph. So, I had to make it again. This time I had a big bunch of coriander (cilantro) and plenty of mint. I chopped the herbs, olives, and chile by hand and used the mortar and pestle to mash the garlic and salt to a paste. I left the walnuts very chunky and used dried cranberries as a stand-in for the pomegranate. I much preferred the chunkier, hand-chopped version

Salmon with TapenadeThe new tapenade made a perfect topping for pan-seared salmon–and was even better with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Najmieh Batmanglij, the author of Silk Road Cooking, suggests using the tapenade with flatbreads, or as a topping for rice or pasta. I think it would be very good stirred into tiny pasta like Greek orzo or Israeli couscous. But it also occurred to me that the de-constructed tapenade made a very good collection of ingredients for a pilaf or grain salad. So that’s what I made.

Start the pilaf by sautéing 1/2 cup chopped onion in 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil for a few minutes. Stir in 1 cup farro (a very pleasing grain that is sort of like a cross between kamut and barley) and toast the grain in the oil for a couple of minutes. Add 2 cups water and cook the farro like rice: let the water boil down until it almost meets the level of the grain, reduce the heat to very low, cover the pot, and steam until all the water is absorbed. Farro takes about 35 minutes to cook. Allow the grain to sit, covered, 10 minutes after you turn off the heat. Fluff with a fork and transfer to a serving dish or bowl.

PilafWhile the grain cooks, prepare the other ingredients. I used basically the same ingredients as for the tapenade, but changed the proportions. This pilaf got about 1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves (or substitute parsley), 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, a couple of Tbs chopped chives, a few chopped fresh oregano leaves, 1/2 tsp toasted and ground cumin seed, a few grinds of black pepper, one minced jalapeno, 1/4 cup dried cranberries in lieu of pomegranate seeds, a handful of chopped green olives, and maybe 1/2 cup of toasted walnut pieces. Stir these ingredients into the rice and season with salt and fresh lemon juice to taste.

Other grains could replace the farro: Brown or white basmati rice, long or short-grained brown rice (short is best if serving at room temperature), Bhutanese red rice, kamut, wild rice, wheat berries, quinoa, barley…I often like a blend of different grains in pilaf or grain salads, but they should be cooked separately because the cooking times are not always the same.

If I were serving this as a salad, I would most likely add more chopped herbs and vegetables. Diced carrot, fennel, sweet pepper, tomato, celery, avocado…whatever is fresh and available. Save the toasted nuts for last, to keep them crunchy. Drizzle the salad with extra virgin olive oil and a little fresh lemon juice before serving.





Southern Italy and La Cucina Povera

IItalian Agriturismo‘m starting with the food of Southern Italy because Drew and I traveled there with dear friends Joe and Suzy last October. We stayed in two agriturismo  accommodations (farms that have room and board for guests), one amid the wheat fields near Foggia and the other down the Adriatic coast in a region of ancient olive trees, vineyards, almonds, and rock. Both of our hosts (Domenico and Gerardo) grew up near the land they now farm and are passionate about the traditional cooking of Puglia. The meals they serve are prepared with locally produced cheeses, meats, fruits and vegetables, and wine and olive oil from their own farms. All of these taste of this ancient land, the sun, and the rich volcanic soil.

Large Olive Tree - Suzy DesLauriersThe cooking of Southern Italy is traditionally La Cucina Povera–the food of poor peasants, or La Cucina Rustica–simple country cooking. What could be better? This is the food that first got me interested in cooking.  Cooking with few ingredients, but much creativity and love. The few ingredients are full of flavor, and treated carefully with patience and attention. To cook this food, Domenico says, “you must feel the food, you must be present, and you must feel the spirit (of the place).”

Garden of Lush Vegetables - Suzy DesLauriersSo what did we eat in Puglia? Lots of little dishes adding up to an elegant and delicious meal. We were served Italian style, in courses, with plenty of time to appreciate each offering. The following menus don’t look very povera, but they all stem from traditional peasant cooking and illustrate the Southern Italian genius for turning humble ingredients into fine fare.

(Photograph Note: Large Olive Tree & Garden of Lush Vegetables were taken by, and are property of, Suzy DesLauriers)


Menus from Serra Gambetta (recipes below and to come)

 Fava e Chicorie

(puree of fava beans with wild chicory greens)

Frittata di Zucchini

(zucchini frittata)

Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce

Grilled Steak with Roasted Onion

Green Salad


Italian bread

Chicory greens with Egg and Cheese

Orecchiette with tomato sauce

Braciole al Sugo

(meat rolls in tomato sauce)

Salad of garden lettuce and shaved fennel

Grapes and Pears



Ricotta forte

Tapenade of sweet red pepper

Risotto with zucchini and flowers

Carrots with mint

Eggplant Parmigiana

Jam Tart


Crepes with zucchini stuffing

Gratin of Fennel

Pasta with Broccoli

Cheese plate

Tomato Salad

Tart of Pears and Ricotta



I’m introducing some Italian words here because I think they are so beautiful, and because I think they help the cook understand how to build flavor. The battuto is the name for  chopped aromatic ingredients (onion, garlic, carrot, celery, parsley…) that create a flavor base. When those ingredients are cooked in a skillet with fat (olive oil, butter, or flavorful fat rendered from a pork product), the battuto becomes the sofritto. More magic occurs  in the next step, insaporire–“bestowing taste”. I love this description  of how you add other main ingredients to the sofritto and cook them over brisk heat to completely wrap them in the flavor elements of the base.

Allowing sufficient time for these steps–battuto, sofritto, insaporire  (it’s like breathing)–is perhaps the most important thing you can do to create satisfying flavor. Ingredients for a sofritto vary, but whatever they are, don’t dump them all into the pan at once. Add each ingredient in its turn.

Gerardo Cooking


Fava BeansFava e Chicorie: This is the signature peasant dish of Puglia. I loved that Gina picked the greens for our dinner from the untended land beside the garden. The wild chicory can be replaced by cultivated chicory (see garden notes), broccoli rabe, mustard greens, chard or spinach. Dried, peeled yellow fava beans are used for the puree.

Cooking the fava beans: 1/2 lb dried fava beans makes about four servings. Be sure to use favas without skins. Rinse the beans, then put them in a pot with water to cover by several inches. Let them soak for at least 8 hours. Drain, and put the beans back in the pot with water to cover by two inches. Bring them to a boil, reduce the heat, and maintain a low simmer for 1 hour (or until they become very soft – Domenico says they take 3 hours on a very low fire). When the beans soften and begin to fall apart, they can be beaten with a spoon or potato masher to make a puree. Add salt to taste and continue cooking  and stirring until they make a very smooth puree (or use a food mill or blender). The fava puree we ate was like a very thick soup.

When we ate this dish at Serra Gambetta it was so delicious I thought it had more flavorings than just chicory and fava beans, so when I made it at home I added garlic and chile. Domenico says there is no garlic or chile, just olive oil (very flavorful) and salt.

Cooking the greens: You’ll need one bunch (around 1 lb.)of greens from the list above. The bitterness of greens like chicory, broccoli rabe and mustard is mellowed by blanching. Drop the rinsed and trimmed greens into a pot of boiling salted water. After two minutes, drain and chop. Heat 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 1 Tbs minced garlic and 1/4 tsp red chile flakes in a 10-12-inch skillet over medium heat. Cook about 2 minutes to soften the garlic. Add the chopped greens and toss to coat with the oil. Turn the greens frequently until heated through and tender. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Stir the greens into the fava  puree or serve them separately for each person to add as they wish.

Serve the fava and greens in soup bowls, with a delicious extra virgin olive oil or olio santo to drizzle on top. Garnish with oven-dried tomatoes (recipe to come).

Olio Santo (hot chile oil) is oil infused with dried red chiles. Warm 1/2 cup olive or grapeseed oil with 2-3 Tbs dried red chile flakes gently over low heat just until small bubbles rise around the chile. Turn off the heat and transfer into a small glass jar or bowl. Let stand at least 1 hour, preferably a day, before using.

TomatoeQuick Tomato Sauce: The tomato sauce we ate in Puglia was chunky and fresh-tasting. It’s cooked briefly–less than 20 minutes–so it keeps its bright, sweet tomato flavor. You can make it with garden fresh, red-ripe tomatoes in season, or use home preserved or best-quality canned plum tomatoes (I won’t say they have to be Italian, but in my experience they are the best).

Ingredients: 3 to 3 1/2 lbs fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (or 1 qt home-preserved tomatoes or 1 28-oz can whole canned plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano), 2 1/2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup finely chopped onion (optional), 2 garlic cloves (lightly smashed or thinly sliced or chopped), 1/4 tsp red chile flakes (optional), 1 to 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt, 2 Tbs chopped parsley leaves or 6-8 fresh basil leaves.

Heat the oil with the onion in a wide saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Stir for about 5-6 minutes to soften the onion. Add the garlic  and chile and  saute 1 minute. Add the tomatoes (crush the canned tomatoes with your hands, like the Italians, or use a wooden spoon) and the salt. Raise the heat a little to maintain a brisk simmer and stir occasionally for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how thick you like your sauce. Add the parsley or basil at the end of cooking.

Use this sauce on pasta or pizza, or use it to braise meatballs or braciole, to make ragu, add to beans or soups, or as a base for other sauces.

Braciole al Sugo (meat rolls in tomato sauce): This is a good example of taking ordinary ingredients and turning them into something elegant and special…and stretching a small amount of meat in the process. Both the cooks at Serra Gambetta and Gerardo prepared this dish for us. It can be made with various cuts of meat (braciole means cutlet): pork shoulder, fresh ham, thin pork chops, beef round, or veal shoulder. The slices of meat are pounded very thin, rolled up around a mixture of flavorings, and grilled, braised or baked. Gina and Jessica used fresh ham stuffed with a mixture of sauteed onion, carrot, celery and garlic, grated pecorino, and minced pork. They baked the rolls in the oven. Gerardo made veal rolls filled with garlic, parsley, and Parmesan, and braised them in tomato sauce. My version borrows from both–an experiment.

I used thin-cut boneless pork chops, because that’s what I had on hand. I pounded the chops (about 1 lb.) to make 8 rectangles measuring roughly 3×5 inches and about 1 cm. (a little more that 1/8 inch) thick. I sauteed onion, carrot and celery (about 1/2 cup each) in extra virgin olive oil about 5-6 minutes, and stirred in a Tbs. chopped garlic. I left a few Tbs. of the vegetables in the skillet, and mixed the rest with chopped parsley (a few Tbs.) and grated Parmesan (1/4 cup). The meat is sprinkled with salt on both sides, topped with 2 or 3 spoonfuls of the filling, and rolled up. Using toothpicks to hold them together is easier than twine.

While I was rolling up the meat, I stirred about 3 cups of quick tomato sauce (or use 3 cups crushed canned tomatoes) into the skillet with the sofritto and turned the heat to medium low. They got a pinch of red chile and some salt, as well.

In another skillet, I heated another couple of Tbs. olive oil over medium -high heat–enough to make the meat rolls sizzle when they hit the pan. The rolls get browned on all sides, about 5 minutes in all, which is enough to cook them. I rolled them around in the tomato sauce and let them sit there until the pasta was done. The rolls went on a plate, and the sauce went on the pasta.

Next time, I’ll grill the rolls and put a little pancetta in the filling.

To make the meat rolls with a longer-cooking cut of meat, you follow much the same procedure. After the rolls are browned, add 2 lightly smashed garlic cloves or 1/2 cup diced onion to the pan and saute a minute or two. Add 1/4 cup red wine and stir to release any crusty bits from the bottom. Add 1 qt. crushed canned tomatoes and salt to taste. Bring to a simmer. Cook on the stove top or bake in a 300 degree  F. oven for an hour, until the meat is very tender. Turn the rolls occasionally as they cook.

PastaPasta with Broccoli: Perfectly simple and very delicious! I am generous with the broccoli and it tastes so good fixed this way it’s easy to eat up any extra.

Ingredients: 8 oz. dried pasta (ziti, fusilli, penne, farfalle, cavatappi…), 1 lb broccoli crowns, 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1 Tbs. finely chopped garlic, 1/4 tsp. red chile flakes, salt and pepper, freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

Extra: 1 cup bread crumbs toasted in olive oil, or 1/2 cup toasted walnuts

Cut the broccoli into florets and drop them into a big pot of boiling water for about 3 minutes. Scoop them out and leave them in a colander to cool. Stir the pasta into the boiling water. Heat the olive oil, chile, and garlic in a large skillet or dutch oven over low heat, stirring for a minute or two until the garlic softens. Chop the broccoli and stir it around in the garlic oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. When the pasta is done, drain it and toss it with the broccoli. Put it in a serving bowl and sprinkle the top with the breadcrumbs or walnuts. Serve with plenty of grated cheese.