Last fall, I sat down to dinner with food journalist and author Maria Speck. We met at Erbaluce, a little Italian restaurant near Boston’s Park Square. It was a gathering of new and familiar friends over good food and wine. The place was warm and white and minimally decorated. There were ten or so of us seated at a long table close to the swinging kitchen door. Our server brought small tastings prepared by chef/owner Charles Draghi and as one course flowed into the next, the conversations moved as swiftly as the circular plates passed around the table.
I sat near Maria where we talked about our shared passions for cooking and eating well, namely with whole grains and quality ingredients. We talked about books and publishing and how she came to write her award-winning cookbook (Julia Child Award for First Book Health and Special Diet Award, IACP 2012 Gourmand Awards, winner USA Mediterranean category), Ancient Grains for Modern Meals. While it was one of those nights that could have gone on until sunrise I asked Maria as we all left the restaurant if she’d like to continue the conversation with this interview. She graciously agreed.
A & L: What is your first food memory?
MS: The most memorable food of my early childhood is a Greek wheat berry concoction called Koliva. I was six years old, and my family had gathered at a cemetery to commemorate the recent death of my Greek grandfather. As is customary, someone handed me a small white paper bag, filled with the sweetened Koliva. I completely forgot myself and blissfully dug into the cinnamon and cumin-scented grains, interspersed with roasted walnuts, and sugarcoated almonds.
A&L: Where did you learn to cook?
MS: I have not been trained as a chef. I’m a passionate home cook, and everything I know I’ve learned through failure. I stress this because so many people are afraid to try a new recipe as it might not turn out picture perfect, the way they might have seen it on the Food Network last week. But we all learn by doing and by trying, again and again. That’s how I learned to cook. And if it doesn’t turn out well the first time, it will be better the next. It helps of course that I was raised by a Greek mom who loves good food and who cooks everyday! She says that home-cooked tastes better, and I couldn’t agree more.
A&L: Is there a food or drink that always reminds you of home?
MS: I was raised in Germany and Greece. I love Germany’s chewy and crusty whole-grain breads with their many layers of flavor and texture. I often bake a variation of the no-knead aroma bread from my book which is inspired by German loaves. My Greek side can’t live without olive oil and thick strained Greek-style yogurt.
A&L: Name three things you always have in your refrigerator.
MS: Greek yogurt, Parmesan, and Irish butter.
A&L: Describe the perfect grain-based snack.
MS: I’m not a granola lover per se, but an editor once asked me to create a granola for a breakfast story. The assignment ended up challenging me to come up with a granola I really enjoy. So I created a Mediterranean-inspired recipe using extra-virgin olive oil, which is in my book. It is honey-sweetened and super-nutty with sesame, sunflower, and golden flax seeds, shredded coconut and almonds. And the olive oil adds a lovely subtle fruitiness, taking the snack to a whole new dimension.
A&L: What dishes would you serve from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals for a casual dinner party with friends?
MS: I love to entertain but I don’t like preparing overly complicated meals. Most of the recipes in my book are inspired by the Mediterranean—the beauty of this cuisine is that it is intensely flavorful yet often easy to cook. For starters, I suggest the artichoke rosemary tart in a polenta crust. It comes together without problems, and can be made completely ahead. The next course depends on the season. Right now, I am still using my grill so I recommend the lamb burgers with bulgur. They are highly aromatic with loads of fresh mint and spices. Serve them with a lemony yogurt topping and a simple salad. You could end the meal with a comforting rice pudding with rose water dates, made with soft-textured Chinese black rice. The grain turns a stunning purple when you cook it, and the dessert can be made completely ahead—this is how I like it!
A&L: Do you have a recipe from the book you would like to share?
MS: The artichoke rosemary tart with a polenta crust I just mentioned is a big hit. It is a great starter or a light main dish. Let me know if you try it some day.
Thanks again, Maria!
Artichoke-Rosemary Tart with Polenta Crust
reprinted with permission from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck
Serves 4 as a main course, or 8 as a starter
1 1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/4 cups polenta or corn grits
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese (about 21/2 ounces; use the large holes of a box grater)
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
artichoke cheese filling
1 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup finely chopped green onions (about 3)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 (12-ounce) package frozen quartered artichoke hearts, thawed and drained
2 ounces crumbled goat cheese (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1. To make the polenta crust, bring the broth and the water to a boil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the salt. Using a large whisk, slowly add the polenta in a thin stream, and continue whisking for 30 more seconds. Decrease the heat to low and cover. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon about every 2 minutes to keep the polenta from sticking to the bottom. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes, stirring a few times. The polenta will be fairly stiff. Stir in the cheese, egg, and pepper.
2. Grease a 10-inch ceramic tart pan with olive oil or coat with cooking spray, and place on a wire rack. Have ready a tall glass of cold water. Dip a wooden spoon into the water as needed as you spread the polenta mixture across the center of the pan, pushing it up the sides. Set aside to firm up at room temperature, about 15 minutes, and then form an even rim about 3/4 inch thick with your slightly moist fingers, pressing firmly. No need to fret over this—it’s easy.
3. Meanwhile, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375°F.
4. Prepare the artichoke cheese filling. Place the yogurt, eggs, green onions, parsley, rosemary, salt, and pepper in a 2-cup liquid measure or a medium bowl and combine well with a fork. Distribute the artichoke quarters over the crust, cut sides up, forming a circle along the rim and filling the center (you might not need all the hearts). Sprinkle the goat cheese on top and gently pour the filling over the artichokes. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.
5. Bake the tart until the top turns golden brown and the filling is set, about 45 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and set aside at room temperature to firm up for at least 20 minutes, 40 if you can wait. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut into slices. Serve with more freshly ground pepper on top if you like.
to get a head start: The polenta crust, as in steps 1 and 2, can be prepared 1 day ahead, as can the entire tart. Cool to room temperature, chill for a couple of hours, and then cover with plastic wrap. Allow the tart to come to room temperature before serving, or gently reheat to warm (not hot) in a 325ºF oven for about 20 minutes.
to lighten it up:Use 1 cup non- or lowfat Greek yogurt in the filling instead of whole-milk yogurt.