Crush of the Week: Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi

The prolific musicians on being 'the other,' the profound similarities between food and music, and biscuits vs. scones

“Music and food is where the cultural mixing happens in a positive way. It’s where people come together naturally, it’s where you can see it in a way that’s not threatening, you can tell the story of how people mix in a way that doesn’t threaten socioeconomic and sociopolitical hobby horses, and so that’s one of the reasons why we do what we do, musically speaking.” — Rhiannon Giddens

“In Italian, we say all’occhio, which means, ‘with your eye.’ You see with your eye. And it’s like, of course you see with your eye, but if you’ve done it twenty times, you know with your eye what it’s supposed to look like.” — Francesco Turrisi

When we first started Food with Mark Bittman, one of my goals was to (at least sometimes) have guests who were not food people, but interesting people who were interested in food — that includes a large swath of humanity, but it’s great to have people who I admire and who want to talk about food and their professions. So one of my first dream guests was Rhiannon Giddens, who is one of my favorite musicians, a fantastic singer, and literally a genius — she won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. Her mission is to lift up people whose contributions to American musical history have previously been erased or ignored and to work toward a more accurate understanding of America’s musical origins. I’m giddy about Giddens’ music (sorry).

Giddens now collaborates a great deal with the wildly talented multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi (he is also her life partner), who was called a “musical alchemist” by the Irish Times. He left his native home in Italy more than twenty years ago to study jazz piano and early music at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. He currently performs on piano, accordion, harpsichord, organ, various lutes, cello banjo, frame- and goblet drums. (And, as you’ll see, it sounds like he’s an amazing cook.)

So, here you go, dreams do come true: On this week’s episode, I’m joined by both Giddens and Turrisi. (If you haven’t listened to their music, I encourage you to hit pause here and do so; you might want to start with their latest album, They’re Calling Me Home. And once you do that, you’ll want to see them live; lucky for you, you can do that!)

The recipes featured in the episode are below. Please listen, subscribe, and review! And remember to call us on 833-FOODPOD (833-366-3763) OR email us at bittmanpod@gmail.com with all your food-related questions.

Thank you, as always. — Mark

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Couscous Salad with Fennel and Raisins

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes

Delicate and fluffy couscous is so quick cooking, this salad can be considered almost last minute. It’s worth the extra few minutes to make the vinaigrette since the flavors are absorbed more evenly into the pasta than if you dress with separate oil and lemon juice. This is really good with fregola, the large and heavily toasted couscous from Sardinia.

Ingredients

  • 2½ cups cooked couscous, regular or whole wheat

  • 1/2 cup port or red wine

  • 1/2 cup raisins

  • 1 large fennel bulb

  • 1/4–1/2 cup Lemon Vinaigrette (recipe below)

  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds

  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

1. Put the port in a small pot over medium heat and warm until steaming but not boiling. Add the raisins and soak until they’re plump and tender, 5 to 10 minutes. When the couscous is ready, fluff it with a fork and let it cool a bit.

2. Trim the fennel, reserving a few of the feathery fronds for garnish. Cut the bulb in half lengthwise, then slice each half thinly.

3. Put the raisins and port in a large bowl with 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette and the fennel seeds; whisk to combine. Add the couscous and fennel and toss gently until they’re evenly coated. (At this point you can let the salad sit for up to an hour; in fact, it will benefit if you have the time.) Taste and adjust the seasoning, and add more vinaigrette as you like.

Lemon Vinaigrette

Makes: About 3/4 cup
Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice

  • Salt and pepper

  • 1 tablespoon chopped shallot (optional)

Instructions

1. Put the oil, lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and lots of pepper in a blender and turn the machine on; a creamy emulsion will form within 30 seconds. (A tablespoon of warm water will help the mixture emulsify.) Taste and add more vinegar a teaspoon or 2 at a time until the balance tastes right to you.

2. Add the shallot if you’re using it, and turn the machine on and off a few times until the shallot is minced within the dressing. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve. This is best made fresh but will keep, refrigerated, for a few days. (Bring it back to room temperature and whisk briefly before using.)

— Recipes from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

Couscous Salad With Fennel And Raisins
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Buttermilk Biscuits

Makes: 6 to 12, depending on size
Time: 20 to 30 minutes

The best biscuits are made with cold butter, which produces flakiness, and buttermilk, which supplies a welcome tang and the best rise. For an especially delicate crumb, use cake flour. These biscuits are easily adapted to lean sweet or savory, but the classic is great with macerated berries, or fruit jam, or paired with eggs and bacon.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose or cake flour, plus more for shaping

  • 1 tablespoon baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 5 tablespoons cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch slices

  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk or yogurt

Instructions

1. Heat the oven to 450°F. Mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and work it into the flour mixture, breaking it into tiny pieces with your fingers until the mixture looks like coarse meal.

2. Add the buttermilk and stir just until the mixture comes together and forms a ball. Spread some flour (about 1/4 cup) on a clean work surface and turn the dough out onto the flour. Knead the dough a few times, adding a little more flour to your hands only if the dough is very sticky.

3. Press the dough out 3/4 inch thick and cut out 1½- to 2½-inch rounds with a biscuit cutter or sturdy drinking glass. Put the rounds on an ungreased baking sheet. Press together the scraps, pat them out 3/4 inch thick, and cut out more biscuits. Repeat once more if possible.

4. Bake for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on size, until the biscuits are golden brown. Transfer the biscuits to a rack and serve within 15 minutes or wrap in foil and keep in a 200°F oven for up to an hour.

— Recipe from How to Bake Everything

Buttermilk Biscuits
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