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Daily Pilot

All About Food: The romance and reality of culinary labels

By Terry Markowitz

7:18 PM PDT, August 5, 2014

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With the plethora of food shows and fancy menus these days, I thought I might clarify some culinary terms. I must confess that a few of these are as new to me as they may be to you.

Berkshire pork: This is purebred swine originating in Britain. It is more marbled with fat and richer in flavor. In the 19th century, some of these pigs were exported to Japan, where their meat is called Kurobuta, which means black pig. Needless to say, it is a lot pricier than "the other white meat" produced here in the U.S.

Cardoon: This is a vegetable of the thistle family. It is a cousin of the artichoke but has a celery-like stalk. It is tasty raw in salads or cooked in soups. It is a staple in Italian cooking.

Cepe: This is just a French synonym for porcini mushroom, since porcinis are getting to be old hat. In its most pretentious form, it is called boletus.

Cocoa nibs: This was new to me, although I had heard them referred to frequently on "Iron Chef." I wasn't sure what they were except they had something to do with chocolate. These are smashed up, unsugared pieces of roasted husked cocoa beans used to enhance the texture of cookies and ice creams without adding too much sweetness.

Chilean seabass: This is a made-up name. It is not a sea bass at all. Its actual name is Patagonian toothfish, but marketers didn't think that was sexy enough. However, by any other name, it is still an endangered species, because it has been overfished.

Fennel pollen: This greenish yellow dust is collected from wild fennel plants and used as a seasoning. It has an herbaceous, earthy funk and is pricey and exotic.

Free-range chicken: I am sure you are familiar with this term, but in practice, it may not be quite what it's cracked up to be. The U.S. Department of Agriculture still has not sanctioned this term for official use. So the label "free range" has no exact requirements. I have encountered several articles that say free range may only mean uncaged, but the chickens can still be cramped together in small outdoor spaces.

Huitlacoche: Fans of Mexican cuisine may know this term. Also known a corn smut, it is a fungus that attacks corn in damp conditions, dramatically bloating the kernels and turning them ash gray. It is considered a delicacy and is usually served as a filling in quesadillas or other tortilla based foods.

Jamon Iberico de Bellota: This deep-red ham sells for $90 a pound or more. It comes from acorn-fed pigs raised on Spain's Iberian peninsula. Not until 2008 was it allowed to be imported into the United States. People wax poetic about it.

Peeky toe crab: A sand or rock crab that sometimes shows up in lobster traps, it yields sweet, pinkish meat. It was once considered a "trash fish" but was redeemed by a fishmonger in Portland, Maine, who is known as chef Daniel Boulud's seafood supplier.

Plugra: This "European-style" butter (made in America) has a higher fat content than regular butter. Chefs like it because it makes pastries tender and sauces more velvety.

Speck: The smoked, dry-cured, boneless ham is indigenous to the Italian Alps. It is usually served thinly sliced with figs or chopped and added to a carbonara sauce like bacon.

Truffle oil: It sounds exotic and expensive, since it is associated with truffles, but serious chefs turn up their noses at the mention of it. Basically, it is overpriced vegetable oil that is fortified with synthetic compounds that mimic the fragrance of real truffles. True truffle oil is made with high-quality olive oil that is infused with flavor from actual truffle shavings.

Verjus: Medieval vinegar variant, made from the non-fermented juice of unripe grapes. Chefs like to use it as an interesting substitute for lemon juice.

TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.