In mid-April, the people of Bengal — a region straddling Bangladesh and parts of India, including my hometown in West Bengal — celebrate the Bengali New Year.
Bengalis of all religious persuasions celebrate this secular holiday with music, song and, of course, plenty of good food. So today I share with you food. Lots of it. Twenty-six Bengali dishes, to be precise
It’s only appropriate to go all out, food-wise, on naba barsha, as Bengalis call the holiday. Food in Bengali is synonymous with all events and happenings. But for festivals like the one for the new year, Bengalis go the whole nine yards on the dinner table.
People also buy new clothes and other new items with the belief that something done at the beginning of the year repeats itself year-round. Bengali traders crack open fresh new account books called the haal khata on this day.
A new year ahead, with taxes behind us
Ironically, the Bengali New Year, which falls during a season when the U.S. tax deadline looms, originated in the Mughal Empire, when it marked a fresh beginning after the collection of taxes.
So, celebrate the end of tax season with me by delving into this regional cuisine.
Bengal, with its west monsoon climate and proximity to rivers, offers a diet rich in fish, greens, rice and vegetables. Its seasonings are distinct and prominent with the use of mustard, poppy seeds, ginger and a Bengali Five Spice Blend consisting of mustard, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and fennel. This seasoning is called panch phoron:panch means five and phoron means tempering.
The Bengali meal ranges from light to heavy courses, with a sweet and sour chutney to cleanse the palate before dessert.
This slideshow offers an insight into some of the most traditional dishes on the Bengali table.
Starting the new year with a family recipe that travels well
The fact that the holiday lands midweek this year puts a wrinkle on food celebrations.
This year, however I’ve resurrected a well-seasoned egg dish that my grandmother used to call her “picnic dimer dalna” or picnic egg curry.
Our “picnics” consisted usually of multilayered lunch boxes, filled with puffy fried breads known as luchi and drier curries like alur dom. In our family’s case, it included these eggs, since my grandmother felt that we should get our protein as growing children.
This dish travels very well, and actually improves as leftovers. My children now love this as a special breakfast treat and it can be enjoyed with toasted bread almost as much as the luchi, which can be difficult to pull off on a school-day morning. The eggs, however, can be made the night before.
This particular recipe is also known as Kosha Dimer Dalna. The word kosha in Bengali refers to slow-cooked and refers to the slow-cooked onions in the dish.
This year, if you feel that you just might need an excuse for a new beginning and an opportunity to revisit your New Year’s resolutions, join the Bengalis in celebrating our Bengali New Year.
Kosha Dimer Dalna (Egg Curry with Clingy Caramelized Onion Sauce)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 45 to 50 minutes
Total time: 65 to 70 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
4 tablespoons oil
3 medium-sized onions, sliced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 to 3 cardamoms
2 medium-sized tomatoes
1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper, or to taste
8 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
Chopped cilantro to garnish
1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and add in the sliced onions. Cook the onions on low heat, until they gradually wilt, soften and turn golden brown. This process will take about 30 to 35 minutes, but should not be rushed.
2. Add in the ginger and stir well.
3. Add in the cardamoms, tomatoes and red cayenne pepper. Cook for about five minutes until the mixture thickens and the tomatoes begin to soften.
4. In the meantime, make slits on the sides of the eggs and rub them with the salt and the turmeric.
5. Mix the eggs into the tomato mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, until the eggs are well-coated with the onion base.
6. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.
Main photo: My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna or egg curry as a picnic treat for us when I was growing up in Kolkata in India’s West Bengal province. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya
When searching for the best spaghetti alla Bolognese, the first thing to be said is that by tradition it is made with tagliatelle, a pasta pretty much like fettuccine, and not with spaghetti, although it is quite commonly made with spaghetti.
Tagliatelle con Ragù alla Bolognese, as it is properly called, is one of those dishes that appears on many international menus and often made in an inferior way. Tagliatelle, tagliolini, pappardelle, tortellini and lasagna are some of the pastas made from sfoglia, as they are known in Bologna, that is, the “leaves” of pasta dough made from the finest white flour and eggs.
Legend has it that the tagliatelle shape — strips of pasta about a half-inch wide — was invented in 1487 by Maestro Zafirano, a cook from the village of Bentivoglio, on the occasion of the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to the Duke of Ferrara. The cook was said to be inspired by the beautiful blond hair of the bride.
Despite the appeal of this apocryphal story, history tells us that tagliatelle was invented earlier. Pictorial representations of tagliatelle exist from before this date in the illustrations accompanying the various 14th- and 15th-century Latin translations of an 11th-century Arabic medical treatise, the Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa (Maintenance of health) written by Ibn Buṭlān, a physician in Baghdad, and translated into Latin as Tacuinum sanitati (or Tacuuinum Sanitatis). In the Compendium de naturis et proprietatibus alimentorum, a list of local Emilian nomenclature for foods compiled in 1338 by Barnaba de Ritinis da Reggio di Modena, the entry for something called fermentini indicates that it is cut into strips like tagliatelle and boiled.
My recipe is one of the richest enhancements of the classic ragù from Bologna, which was once much simpler. Two of my children lived in Bologna while they attended the University of Bologna and they have ideas about how to properly make the dish. The meats need to be lean, otherwise there will be too much fat in the sauce. The meat can be ground in a food processor using short bursts or pulses, resulting in a finely chopped effect. The Accademia Italiana della Cucina, the preeminent organization dedicated to protecting Italy’s culinary patrimony, attempted to codify ragù alla Bolognese which, as one can imagine, engendered a good deal of controversy. To codify such a sauce is surely a Sisyphean task because cuisine is not an immutable artifact of culture but a living, changing embodiment of numerous families in a society. It’s also exceedingly difficult to separate the cooking over time of different classes to a point where one could say “this is the true one.”
A study of Renaissance cookbooks does not provide a clear antecedent of the contemporary ragout. Books from that period include ragù-like dishes, but with seasonings that still hold onto the Arab-inspired medieval spicing of rose water, saffron, cinnamon, ginger and sugar. It should also be remembered that the influence of the French may have had a greater role than the Bolognese are willing to admit since the word ragù derives from the French ragoût and Emilia-Romagna was not only Francophile but inundated with French culture over time.
2 chicken livers, membranes removed and finely chopped
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup tomato sauce
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup beef broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/4 pounds tagliatelle, fettuccine or spaghetti
1. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium-heat and cook, stirring occasionally, the pancetta, prosciutto and mortadella until the pancetta is soft and a bit rendered, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley and cook, stirring as needed, until the vegetables have softened and turned color, about 10 minutes. Add the beef, pork, veal, and chicken livers and cook, stirring, until browned, about 10 minutes.
2. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Once the wine has evaporated, reduce the heat to low add the tomato sauce diluted with a little water and the beef broth. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cover and simmer for 2 hours. Add the cream and cook another 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer to a serving platter. Ladle the ragù on top and serve immediately. (The ragù can be frozen for up to 6 months).
Note: A simpler method is to cook the onion with the celery and carrot in the oil and butter, adding the ground beef, but not the other meats, the wine, salt and pepper, nutmeg and 1 1/2 cups of tomato sauce. Follow the recipe above, eliminating all the ingredients except those called for in this note.
Main photo: Spaghetti alla Bolognese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
It’s not easy to capture an entire country’s cuisine in one cookbook — especially when the author lives 3,000 miles away. So when Amalia Moreno-Damgaard began writing her cookbook about Guatemalan cuisine, she knew she would have to make compromises. The challenge was finding substitutes that wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the cuisine.
Peppers can be used instead of chilies. It’s fine to use store-bought chicken broth instead of making your own with chicken bones. To make a meal healthier, oils can be substituted for lard — a trick Moreno-Damgaard learned from her grandmother many years ago in Guatemala City.
Martha Landry is a social media intern for Round Earth Media in St. Paul, Minn. She is also a Travel Ambassador for GoOverseas and photo corps member. In the future, Landry hopes to be an environmental journalist.
But don’t even think of using anything other than a corn tortilla. “The tortilla is king,” Moreno-Damgaard declares.
It’s that kind of homegrown knowledge that fills Moreno-Damgaard’s cookbook,“Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen — Gourmet Cuisine with a Cultural Flair,” which was published in 2012. The 420-page cookbook not only provides readers with an array of Guatemalan recipes, it also introduces them to the culture of the country, exploring street foods, breakfast dishes and holiday specialties.
The cuisine highlights Latin American culture, Moreno-Damgaard says, a culture she wants to celebrate. Too often, she says, it’s the stories of violence and corruption that make the headlines.
“Someone needed to go out there and say wonderful things about Guatemala,” Moreno-Damgaard says. She believes she can convey the many positive attributes of her home country by exposing Americans to authentic Guatemalan cuisine beyond the typical rice-and-bean dish.
To gather material for the book, Moreno-Damgaard traveled back and forth from her home in Minneapolis to Guatemala City, where she was born and raised.
“Guatemalan food is a combination of native cuisine and Spanish cuisine, which is the story of Latin America,” she says. And that mixture is a result of four distinctly different regions of Guatemala, each with its own distinct food.
The southern shores offer the freshest seafood; the east produces unique fruits and vegetables; the northern mountains still celebrate Mayan cooking and traditions, and the west coast is home to the Garifuna people — descendants of Africans and indigenous Arawak people from the Caribbean — who bring their own cooking style to the region, including lots of chowders and rice dishes with coconut and plantain flavors.
The woman behind the book
In 1981, Moreno-Damgaard, then just 19, left her home to visit her brother in the United States. She ended up staying, getting her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fontbonne University in St. Louis, and her master’s degree in international business and culture from Saint Louis University. After college, she built a successful career in international banking, holding a variety of senior-level positions.
Since 2001, she has lived with her husband, Kenn Damgaard, in the Minneapolis area.
Sixteen years ago, when their son, Jens, was born, she decided to give up her banking career to spend more time at home. Moreno-Damgaard says she couldn’t imagine missing her son’s first steps or first words. But with quite a bit of free time on her hands, she concentrated on cooking, making it more than a hobby.
Then she plunged into a professional career, starting out as a cooking teacher — something she continues to do today. She gives cooking demonstrations at culinary events and benefits, as well as private lessons.
“Teaching keeps me on my toes, because I continue to learn,” Moreno-Damgaard says. “You never stop learning, even about an area you specialize in.”
Nora Tycast recently attended one of Moreno-Damgaard’s cooking classes in Minneapolis. Tycast’s three daughters — all adopted from Guatemala — joined her.
The family has attended many of Moreno-Damgaard’s events, Tycast says, because it gives her daughters a chance to learn and identify with their native culture.
“It’s nice for the girls to see a professional chef, and it’s nice (for them) to see someone who looks like them,” Tycast says. “It’s goodto have someone (from Guatemala) up in front of them and being an example.”
In additional to teaching classes, Moreno-Damgaard runs her own business and serves on the board of directors for Common Hope, the Latino Economic Development Center, Women Entrepreneurs of Minnesota and Le Cordon Bleu Alumni Association.
Latin American cuisine
When Moreno-Damgaard moved to the Twin Cities, she says it was hard to find Latin American cuisine or interest in diverse foods. She says she missed the tastes and textures she had grown up with.
“When … we first came to Minnesota, we really struggled to find a Latin American restaurant,” she says. “Even a good Mexican restaurant was hard to find.”
Today, Moreno-Damgaard sees more of an appreciation of international cuisine because the Internet has opened up access to different parts of the world, including Guatemala. She said the wealth of information on the Web about different cultures has sparked an interest in foreign countries and cuisines, and the influx of immigrants to the Twin Cities has exposed the local population to Latin American food.
She says she has more to tell people about Latin America, so she’s writing a second cookbook about Guatemala. She plans to detail more specific aspects of the cuisine as well as provide a more in-depth look at the culture. In recent trips to Guatemala, Moreno-Damgaard spent time with chefs — both professional and hobbyists — to gather local knowledge. She also spent time exploring rural Guatemala to more clearly define its regions.
Because of the influences from Spain, the Caribbean and the Mayans, Guatemalan food is “the deepest, the most diverse, and the most delicious” in Latin America, Moreno-Damgaard says. She says the flavors, ingredients and history are the most varied in the region. She is excited to be sharing the cuisine with those who relate to her passion for healthy and flavorful food.
Pepián Negro (Spicy Chicken and Pork Vegetable Stew)
Pepián negro (black pepián) is from Guatemala department, which includes Guatemala City, in the south-central part of the country. It takes its name from the blackened tortillas used in the sauce. There are also red and yellow pepián with varying ingredients, made with turkey, chicken, beef or pork, in Quetzaltenango, Suchitepequez and other regions. All varieties have some ingredients in common, such as pan-roasted seeds, peppers, cinnamon and tomatoes, but they may have different finishing touches. Pepián can be made with any kind of protein. Serve it with Arroz Guatemalteco (Guatemalan vegetable rice) and Tamalitos de Queso (fresh cheese mini tamales in banana leaves), which provide a nice break between spicy bites.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces
1/2 pound pork butt or shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken stock
1 small, whole yellow onion, peeled and t-scored*
1/2 cup unchopped cilantro, include stems and leaves
1 cup quartered Roma tomatoes (about 2 large tomatoes)
1/2 cup husked, quartered tomatillos (3 to 4 large tomatillos)
1 small yellow onion, cut into thick slices
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 guaque (guajillo) chile, seeded
1 zambo (mulato) chile, seeded
Para Espesar (Thickeners)
Choose one of the following:
2 corn tortillas blackened in toaster oven to medium brown, soaked in hot stock for 10 minutes;
or 2 tablespoons instant corn masa flour, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown;
or 2 tablespoons white rice, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown, then soaked in cold water 10 minutes
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted sesame seeds
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup small cubes of potatoes, cooked al dente
1/2 cup fresh green beans cut into 1-inch pieces, cooked al dente
1/2 cup carrots sliced on the diagonal, cooked al dente
1/2 cup güisquil (chayote squash) cut into 1-inch cubes, cooked al dente
1 cup loosely packed, finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Cilantro leaves, finely chopped, as garnish
1. In a medium pot, cook the chicken and pork in the stock with the yellow onion and cilantro over low heat until the chicken and pork are done, about 30 to 45 minutes. Remove and reserve the onion and the cilantro. Set aside the pot of chicken, pork and stock.
2. Heat a skillet for 2 minutes over medium heat and add the tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic. Adjust the heat to medium-low and pan roast the vegetables until they are charred all over and mushy, about 8 minutes.
3. Separately, pan roast the chilies over medium-low heat for about 3 minutes. Keep a close eye on the chilies, as they burn easily. Then soak the roasted chilies in 1 cup of very hot water for 10 minutes.
4. Combine the roasted vegetables, the reserved onion and cilantro, the soaked chilies, half the soaking water, and 3/4 cup of the hot stock in a blender. Add the thickener of your choice and purée to a fine consistency. The purée should look smooth and velvety.
5. Heat the oil in a medium skillet. Add the purée and seasonings. Add the cup of finely chopped cilantro. Cook for about 3 minutes. Add the sauce to the pot of chicken, pork and stock. Add the al dente vegetables and stir. Simmer covered to blend the flavors, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be medium thin — about the consistency of steak sauce. If the sauce is too thin, cook the stew a bit longer to thicken it. If the sauce is too thick, add more stock or water. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.
6. Serve the stew garnished with chopped cilantro leaves.
* Note: To t-score an onion, make a 1/2-inch-deep, cross-shaped cut at the narrowest end of the onion. The onion remains whole.
Main photo: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard’s salpícon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Landry.
China Ranch is a thriving oasis of boutique date palms that began with the whimsical planting of an ornamental garden nearly a century ago. To the casual traveler driving north from Baker to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in California, it is nearly invisible; you must look out for the signs for the Old Spanish Trail and follow it into a steep canyon, through bare, rough hills and exhausted talc and gypsum mines. There, watered by a creek running south to the Amargosa River, is the improbable sight of 1,500 fruit-bearing trees.
China Ranch 100 years ago
In 1920, Vonola Modine moved with her husband from nearby Shoshone to the property then also known as The Chinaman’s Ranch after an industrious, possibly mythical Chinese rancher called Ah Foo. She wanted some trees to line their new roadway and ordered seeds from the date industry burgeoning near Mecca in the Coachella Valley. They arrived in a wooden box by rail. She had never seen a date palm nor tasted a date nor heard the old adage that the fruits “like their feet in water and their heads in fire.”
The Modines wound up selling China Ranch shortly after the palms were planted. For the next 50 years, successive owners’ attempts to establish hog, sheep and alfalfa farms all failed — even as the original date palms flourished into magnificent trees. In the 1970s, Vonola’s relatives by marriage, the Brown family, repurchased the land — and in 1989, Brian Brown, her grandnephew, realized he had the “water and fire” to create the perfect conditions for a viable date farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, began focusing all their efforts on developing and expanding the garden.
The original seeds sent to China Ranch were brought to California by agricultural pioneers bearing offshoots from Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Baluchistan, Morocco and Egypt. But date palms grown from seeds never replicate the parent plant, so the trees in the original grove yield hybrid dates that are unique in the market. Brown has continued to reproduce these happy accidents, including the dark, moist Black Beauty; the sweet Gourmet; and the soft, caramel-colored China Ranch Hybrid. The Browns also introduced new date palms and now have 15 varieties such as Dayri, Halawy, Bahri, Hayany and Khadrawy growing on 25 acres. Their crop is in sharp contrast to that of the huge commercial enterprises, which tend only to produce the Medjools and Deglet Noors that your grandmother served at Christmas.
Brown works eight days a week: It is hard physical labor, from trimming the crowns, and battling 4-inch thorns to clearing the offshoots and pollinating the female trees by hand. And help is scarce in the harsh Death Valley environment. There are no palmeros, as the skilled workers who have enabled date production in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century are called, here. Some dates are harvested in the khalal stage, just before they ripen, and others at ripeness; the entire harvest period extends from August to February. The work during these six months can be punishing; in late summer, the temperature can soar to 120 F and the black flies bite through your clothing.
The fruit of family labor
Then the picked fruit must be sorted. Perfect specimens are for eating, while the funky-looking ones are for cooking, eventually macerated to produce a date paste used by bakers, raw-food chefs and upscale Las Vegas restaurants that value local sourcing. And thanks to the wild success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, home cooks are in hot pursuit of ingredients such as date molasses too. Specialty-food agents come to China Ranch in search of unusual dates to supply stores all over California, while employees at the ranch store make converts of casual visitors with cool, thick date shakes and date-nut bread baked daily from Bonnie Brown’s secret recipe. Bonnie also runs an eclectic retail shop and an online mail-order operation that ships gift boxes of fresh dates all over the country.
The farm has an unexpected sideline as well. The Dayri palm, originally from Egypt, puts out long, straight, symmetrical fronds that make perfect lulavs, which are used in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. For the past seven years, rabbis have come from as far as New York to select and cut some 300 of these fronds. Despite their inconsistent harvest and light yield, Dayris will always be grown here.
Little did Vonola Modine know that her ornamental trees would be an inspiration to Brian Brown nearly 70 years after she planted them. She returned to China Ranch in 1991 to see the glorious mature palms that now line the path leading to the Browns’ great adobe home — and you should see them, too. The setting is bizarre, but the dates are sublime.
Main photo: The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel
If you celebrate Passover, you’re familiar with this scene: The closing prayers are sung, the last bite of seder brisket is a distant memory, and here you are facing the holiday’s inevitable final ritual:
piles of leftover matzo. This unleavened Passover staple never fails to divide the closest of kin — some claim it’s the best thing before sliced bread, while others dismiss it as gastronomically inferior to sawdust.
But whether you detest the stuff or eat it straight out of the box, by the time Passover ends, you’re probably less than thrilled at the idea of force-feeding yourself bland iterations of the same matzo sandwiches you’ve eaten for a week. Don’t let the “bread of affliction” bring you down! With a little creativity, matzo can be as refreshingly versatile in the kitchen as it is divisive at the dinner table. Here are five easy and delicious ways you can enjoy (or dispense with) your matzo leftovers.
Spiced matzo chips pair nicely with dips and spreads for an easy hors d’oeuvre. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer
1. Matzo is technically already a “cracker,” but let’s be honest, it could get much more adventurous with the term. Coat small matzo pieces in olive oil and sprinkle with any spice combination you prefer: za’atar and cumin; coriander, turmeric and paprika; dried parsley and garlic powder; or rosemary and salt are all good options. Bake in the oven until browned, then serve the newly transformed (read: yummy) chips with your favorite spreads, dips and toppings for an easy snack or hors d’oeuvre.Alternatively, skip the herbs and just add cheese for Passover-friendly “matchos” (I had to).
Crumbled matzo can serve as a bread crumbs substitute. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer
2. Sneak leftover matzo into your dinner and get the added bonus of releasing stress by crushing the crackers with a food processor, mortar and pestle, or your bare hands. With that you have a ready-made bread crumbs substitute. Or take it one step further and combine the crumbs with flour and egg to provide a crispy matzo crust for proteins and veggies. That cardboard-esque matzo crunchiness really comes in handy here.
Matzo pizzas are a great quick snack to eat warm out of the oven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer
3. You know what they say … when not in Rome but wishing you could be, make matzo pizza! Place matzo on a foil-lined baking sheet, using full crackers for a “pie” or small bite-sized portions for snacking. Spread a thin layer of sauce, sprinkle with your choice of cheese and toppings, and bake at 400 F until the cheese melts and the toppings are cooked. If you’re willing to go the extra mile to avoid “crust” sogginess — remember, matzo is more permeable to sauce than normal pizza dough — melt a thin layer of cheese onto the matzo before adding the other ingredients on top.
Sweet and salty chocolate toffee bark is an addictive dessert, with matzo as the perfect crunchy base. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer
4. Want to avoid being the empty-handed seder guest or need a quick treat to serve last-minute visitors? Chocolate toffee matzo bark is a quick and scrumptious solution. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and matzo, mix butter or margarine with brown sugar until boiling, spread the toffee over the matzo and bake at 350 F until the coating bubbles. Take it out, dump chocolate chips on top, spread the melting chocolate evenly and sprinkle with your favorite toppings (mine are sea salt and chopped pecans). Refrigerate, and voila! Your extra matzo is now the perfectly flaky, crunchy base for an addictive bite-sized dessert.
Matzo brie is a warm and comforting brunch option that’s delicious with sweet sides like jam. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer
5. Brunch is a beloved meal all year round, so why neglect it at Passover just because you can’t eat the leavened stuff? Matzo brei is a simple, crowd-pleasing comfort food that’s perfect for any brunch table. Break the matzo into small pieces and run under hot water until it begins to soften (avoid mushiness). Beat some eggs in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and stir the matzo into the eggs. Heat oil or butter in a skillet, pour in the mixture and fry over high heat until golden. Serve with jam, cinnamon-sugar or whatever other sides you fancy and prepare yourself for that warm fuzzy feeling.
Main photo: Matzo pizzas are a great quick snack to eat warm out of the oven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer
I used to think that I already knew about every fattening confection known to man or woman until I watched “The Great British Baking Show,” a television baking contest that recently concluded its current season. This is where I first heard about Povitica (pronounced po-va-teets-sa), a Croatian coffeecake that I was eager to try.
But before I go on about this cake, let me hasten to add that I take pride in not watching television cooking contests because I get angry at the sight of haughty judges taking little nibbles of a dish while anxious and browbeaten young cooks wait for a verdict on their efforts. I dislike watching the power relationship between the mighty judges and the humiliated contestants. Furthermore, since I can’t taste the food being judged, who’s to say that I would agree with the praise or condemnation bestowed upon a dish? Everyone knows that tastes vary, that ingredients and flavors appealing to one person will leave another cold. For instance, were I to judge a contest, any dish containing cilantro or beets would automatically fail with me, but I at least recognize that this isn’t fair.
So, if I dislike cooking contests, then why did I watch and enjoy “The Great British Baking Show”? And why did I find myself eager to bake Povitica, the complicated and gorgeous sweet bread I’d never heard of that was one of the challenges facing the British contestants?
To start with, I find the setup of this British show interesting in that a diverse group of 12 talented amateur bakers are brought in from around Britain to compete for the crown. And I should add that there is no big prize money involved — just the honor of winning. One of the men was a construction worker, and one of the women was a 17-year-old schoolgirl, so the makeup of the group defied stereotypes. I was struck by the sweet natures of the contestants, who routinely helped one another so that if someone finished a bake early, then he or she would pitch in to help another complete a dish.
What I especially liked was that one of the judges, Paul Hollywood, an artisan baker, was terrific at explaining the qualities expected of any of the three baking challenges that occur during each show. Contestants placed their dishes on a table and Hollywood cut them in half before pointing out their successes or shortcomings. He brings important standards to the contest, examining the overall appearance of the product, whether or not fillings and frostings are even and of good consistency and not lopsided or runny, or if a batch of cookies is uniform and not mismatched. Underbaked dough is usually the worst offense and is guaranteed to put a contestant at the bottom of the heap.
As a viewer, I can see for myself the points Hollywood makes, and when a dish hits the mark, his explanation brings new understanding to what successful baking is all about. Of course the flavor of a dish also counts and is discussed, but as I have already mentioned, taste is a matter of opinion and the judges on the show sometimes disagree.
The emphasis in this program on the visual gave me an insight as to why I sometimes watch another reality show, “Project Runway,” where young clothing designers compete for a large cash prize and the chance to show their work at a New York fashion week. Top designers serve as judges and point out the flaws and glories of a given garment, and I learn from their sophisticated sense of design, for I can see what they are talking about.
While I would never attempt to stitch up a garment — sewing machines have always terrified me — I couldn’t wait to whip up Povitica, which turned out to be a challenging yeast product with a tricky shape.
It is similar tocinnamon bread in that the dough is rolled flat, covered with a filling, then rolled and placed into a standard bread pan.
Povitica dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out thin and filled with a mixture of chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber
But with Povitica the dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out extremely thin and then filled with a heavy mixture of chocolate and walnuts, all of which inhibit the rising of the dough. Then, the rolled dough goes into the pan and is intricately shaped so that the finished product, when sliced, exhibits beautiful swirls. My first attempt at Povitica, using an online recipe, was a flop. The dough didn’t rise properly and the finished cake was inedible except for the filling of chocolate and walnuts, which I forbade myself from scraping off and eating.
With my next attempt I added more yeast to the dough and bravely carried on. I made another important adjustment to the traditional recipe by not spreading the rolled dough with butter before putting on the filling, for the slippery butter made it difficult to evenly apply the filling. Instead, I put the butter into the filling so that distributing it over the dough became a cinch.
If I do say so myself, my second Povitica turned out to be a demystified triumph, rising beautifully during the bake and when cut in half exposing the signature swirls of the dish. I will make one again without trepidation, and I now find myself looking forward to next season’s British Baking Show when I hope to learn about even more new fattening treats.
Prep time: 1 hour
Rising time: 3 hours
Baking time: 1 hour
Total time: 5 hours
For the dough:
1 package rapid-rise yeast
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup milk, heated to 115 F
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg
2 1/2 cups flour
For the filling:
2 cups walnuts
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg white
1 teaspoon sugar
Make the dough:
1. In the stand of a mixer fitted with a paddle, add yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar and half of the warm milk.
2. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes.
3. Add remaining sugar and milk, salt, butter and egg, and mix for 30 seconds.
4. With motor running, slowly add flour and beat until smooth and dough is not stuck to the sides of the bowl.
5. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let rise for about 90 minutes.
Make the filling:
1. In a food processor, chop walnuts together with sugar and cocoa until walnuts are finely chopped. Do not grind them to a paste.
2. Heat milk and butter to boiling and pour over the nut mixture.
3. Add egg yolk and vanilla to nut mixture and stir thoroughly.
4. Keep mixture at room temperature until ready to spread on dough.
Constructing the cake:
1. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with butter.
2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out risen dough as thin as you can until dough is at least 15 inches long and 10 inches wide. (I use a tabletop for this.)
3. Spread dough with nut mixture.
4. Starting from the long end, roll dough into a tight cylinder.
5. Place in pan in a U shape and circle the ends of the cylinder over the top of the dough already in the pan.
6. Cover and let rise for about 90 minutes.
7. Beat egg white with a fork until foamy and spread over surface of the cake.
8. Sprinkle top with pearl sugar or with regular granulated sugar.
9. Heat oven to 350 F and bake about 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let cool in the pan.
Note: Make sure filling is spreadable. If too thick, add a small amount of milk before spreading on the dough. Before the last 15 minutes of baking, if cake is brown enough, cover with foil to prevent burning. When ready to slice the cake, it is easier to cut from the bottom or sides.
Main photo: Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber
We’ve all heard some version of the story that has kept us from using pressure cookers. “A second cousin of a friend of a friend of my grandmother’s exploded a pressure cooker once upon a time. Her precious pet poodle lost his eyesight and an ear, and they were picking pieces of shrapnel out of the ceiling for 18 years after.” I knew the story so well that I was convinced it has happened to someone in our family, though upon investigation, I could find no evidence of any of my relatives having ever experienced an exploding pressure cooker.
Still, the vague feeling of unease surrounding pressure cookers followed me well into my adulthood. After watching an Indian friend use a pressure cooker daily, I started to reconsider my fear of them. The idea of being able to make all of my favorite boiled, steamed, and braised dishes in a fraction of the usual cooking time was very appealing. So I did what we all do in this age, I researched pressure cookers on the Internet.
I discovered that modern pressure cookers are different from the ones our grandmothers used. While some are still sold with a weighted jiggling valve, most come with a spring-loaded pressure-release valve, known as second-generation pressure cookers. Third-generation cookers are the new electric models. These modern pressure cookers have redundant safety mechanisms that make catastrophe nearly impossible.
I found that there were some variables to consider. Stovetop or electric? Four-, 6-, 8- or 10-quart pot? Multiple pressure settings or just one? The brand that consistently won comparison testing was out of my price range, so it was a matter of finding the right combination of these variables that would work for me. My research led me to conclude that one could nitpick the details, but as a novice, so long as I selected a second-generation stainless steel model with a stated operating pressure of 15 PSI, I’d be in good shape.
Though electric pressure cookers are credited by some as being responsible for the renewed popularity of the appliance, I quickly eliminated this option. Most electric pressure cookers operate at a slightly lower PSI than stovetop models. Knowing that I was also losing some pressure due to living at high altitude, the combined loss of pressure made this a less desirable option for me.
Deciding on a size
I had thought for certain I’d get an 8-quart model. After all, why wouldn’t bigger be better, especially for making stock, which was one of the main reasons I wanted a pressure cooker? I soon learned that a larger pressure cooker may be too big for my small household for most occasions, and if I really needed to make a greater quantity of stock, the speediness afforded by pressure cooking would make it possible to run two consecutive batches.
Some pressure cookers have low- and high-pressure settings, or in the case of some electric models, many settings. Again, I had initially thought that more would be better. Then I found out that the low setting is mostly used for cooking things such as tender vegetables and desserts. I knew I wasn’t likely to make those foods in a pressure cooker. Deciding to purchase a cooker with only one pressure setting gave me more budget-friendly options.
In the end, I purchased a respectable 6-quart stainless steel stovetop model with one pressure setting for a reasonable price.
To be honest, my first time using my new pressure cooker, despite having read extensively about how safe modern ones are, I was terrified as it came up to heat. I kept picturing that poor poodle and pieces of metal embedded in the ceiling. I didn’t want to stand near it, and seriously contemplated wearing safety glasses.
Now, after several months of using it regularly, I fear my pressure cooker far less than pot handles overhanging the stovetop when kids are around. In the worst case scenario, if I forget to turn down the heat or the vent clogs, the silicone gasket will tear and the steam will escape quickly, but without an explosion. Far from maiming a pet and needing to remodel the kitchen, this would mean investing in a new $10 gasket.
My pressure cooker has simplified my meal preparation throughout the week. I use it to put large quantities of staples into the refrigerator that I can and recombine with fresh vegetables throughout the week to make quick meals. Most weeks, I use the pressure cooker to cook a few pounds of potatoes, a pound of beans, some wild rice, and meaty bones provide pieces of meat and stock.
I’m in awe of the fact that I can cook a roast in an hour, or go from dry, unsoaked beansto a meal in about the same time. These tasks used to take hours, and forethought.
One of my favorite foods to cook with the pressure cooker is wild rice. I had some wild rice in the cupboard that was given as a gift from a friend who harvested it. I’d put off cooking it for an embarrassing length of time because it requires so much time to cook. The pressure cooker cooks it up beautifully in half an hour. Each piece cooks through but remains wonderfully chewy between the teeth. I like it so much that I quickly used all that my friend had given me, and make a big batch every week to eat on its own, to combine with grains, and to add to soups.
Pressure Cooker Porcini Wild Rice
Prep time: 45 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup wild rice
1/2 ounce dried porcini, crumbled
1 head wild Allium bulbils (substitute a clove of garlic)
1 bay leaf
Pinch of salt
3 cups water
1. Add all of the ingredients to the pressure cooker, and give them a quick stir just to make certain everything is wet.
2. Close and seal the pressure cooker, bring it to pressure according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Cook at high pressure for 25 minutes.*
3. Remove the pressure cooker from the heat and let it depressurize on its own.
A tiny amount of water will remain along with the cooked wild rice. This is a good thing because it has kept the wild rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot while it cooked. You can either use or drain it.
*For every 1,000 feet of gain above 2,000 feet in altitude, increase the cooking time by 5%.
Main photo: Mushrooms and wild rice for Pressure Cooker Porcini Wild Rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty
Fine dining in Cuba might sound like an oxymoron. For decades, wisdom has been that restaurants on the impoverished island were mediocre at best, and that a good meal was hard to find. This was true as recently as a couple of years ago. But, even before the island nation’s relations with the United States thawed, the gastronomic scene had been changing, and chefs have made huge strides in offering a wider range of quality restaurant options.
The Cuban government, in the desperate years after the Soviet Union pulled its support from the island, sanctioned the private ownership of small restaurants called paladares, which means “palate.” Situated in homes, these humble kitchens, limited to a few tables, provided simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. The scarcity of all but the most simple meats, rice and beans, and a strict policy that forbade the offering of seafood kept them from competing with government-owned establishments.
In 2012, however, the state relaxed the rules and paladares have moved up to the next level. While simple mom-and-pop places abound, a new crop of elegant venues for creative chef cooking have begun to challenge the island’s reputation for culinary blandness.
One of the first in this vein was La Guarida, located in the apartment in which the renowned film “Fresa y Chocolate” was filmed. Several dining rooms, filled with kitchy knickknacks and movie memorabilia bustle with locals and foreigners. The menu, which includes a small wine list, strives for international creativity but doesn’t always hit all the marks. Still, La Guarida opened to doors to wider possibilities.
Then Le Chansonnier arrived. Set in a late 19th-century mansion in Vedado, it was restored by chef and owner Héctor Higuera Martínez (who has since moved on to Atalier). The dazzling décor was decidedly postmodern. The small, astutely chosen menu featured duck, lamb and fish, all of whose sources were nearby and local by necessity. Patrons included government bigwigs, foreign visitors, journalists and a handful of locals with enough disposable income to afford the relatively steep prices.
Others followed in rapid succession. The ultra cool El Cocinero is perched on the roof of an extinct factory that houses a complex of galleries and boutiques. Casa Pilar oozes sophistication.
Doña Eutimia specializes in artfully prepared traditional dishes, as does Mamá Inés and Nao. O’Reilly 304 does home-style cooking in a laid-back boho setting, ’60s rock creating a funky and fun ambience.
Otramanera steps up dining in Havana
Most recently, in August of 2014, Otramanera, perhaps presenting the best cooking to date, was inaugurated. It’s set in a sleek ’50s ranch-style house, its chef trained in Catalonia.
But all of the chefs interviewed pointed out the daily uphill battle they face trying to keep stock of the most basic ingredients, as well as deal with less than expertly trained staff.
While perhaps it’s early to proclaim the birth of the “Nueva Cocina Cubana,” it seems clear that the dining scene in Cuba is in the midst of a revolution of its own.
Main photo: Otramanera’s dishes, prepared by chef Dayron Ávila, include fresh sardine fillets dressed in a fruity papaya salsa augmented with a cilantro purée and crowned with edible flowers. Credit: Copyright Nicolas Gilman