Ashkenazi Charoset for the Seder plate. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of BreakingMatzo.com

Of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, Passover serves as the cornerstone. Family and friends come together at home for a meal disguised as a religious service. It is the time for the annual retelling of the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

The Haggadah, the ancient book that tells the story of Passover, was artfully written as a history with an emphasis on passing on the traditions and the faith of the holiday from one generation to another through rituals and endless glasses of wine. No fools, these early rabbis. They understood that the best way to make sure the symbols endured was to make them edible. (Passover this year begins April 3.)

Boston venture capitalist Andy Goldfarb is a passionate believer in the magic of Passover, and he’s an ardent cook. Goldfarb grew up celebrating Passover with his great-grandfather, Max Fish, in Baltimore. The Passover tradition goes back far in Goldfarb’s family. He recently found a family photo of his great-great-grandfather celebrating Passover Seder in 1930 in Dynow, Poland, showing the direct linkage of 150 years of Goldfarb family members celebrating the Passover Seder.

Passover is a year-round project for the Goldfarb family, beginning with the Etrog marmalade his daughter Jemma makes during the Sukkot Harvest festival in fall and continuing right up to the night of the Seder in spring.

Goldfarb became convinced he could help other Jewish families make Passover as “magical and memorable” for their families as it is for his. He developed the website Breaking Matzo as a kind of resource guide for the Jewish community. He believes that by making the holiday meaningful and fun for all generations, it increases the likelihood of families continuing the Passover tradition generations into the future.

Charoset a traditional symbol of the Seder plate

At the center of any Passover table is the Seder plate, which is a very specific platter of edible symbols: a roasted lamb shank bone; a roasted or hard-boiled egg; a fresh green herb like parsley; a bitter herb like horseradish; and a bowl of salt water for dipping the herbs in symbolic tears of the slaves. The final element is the charoset, typically a sweet concoction of dried fruits, chopped nuts and wine. Charoset is the only element that requires a recipe, and each family has its own. During the Seder, charoset is eaten on a piece of matzo, and its gritty texture represents the mortar, or cement, the Israelites used to make the bricks for Pharaoh’s pyramids.

Goldfarb has been lucky enough to celebrate Passover with Jewish families around the world. He has been able to learn how each community of Jews, no matter where history and fortune has taken them, adapts Passover by creating a local version of charoset for the Seder table. If there is anything that speaks to the resilience of the Jewish people, it may be the following recipes for charoset, also available on the Breaking Matzo site.

Ashkenazi Charoset

Most American Jews are Ashkenazi, meaning they immigrated to the United States after centuries in Central, Western and Eastern Europe. The Ashkenazi preparation of charoset is considered the “typical,” or classic, charoset recipe, using ingredients that were available in the Eastern European kitchen. Only the proportions vary from recipe to recipe.

Yield: Makes about 4 cups

Ingredients

2 medium-sized tart apples

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon sugar or honey or to taste

2 teaspoons sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz

Directions

1. Peel, core and finely chop or grate the apples.

2. Mix with the rest of the ingredients in a bowl.

Chinese Charoset

For several years, Andy Goldfarb lived and worked in Japan. He also traveled in China and studied the Fugo plan, a Japanese program to save Jews from the Nazis by settling them in Shanghai during World War II. Goldfarb found a connection with the wandering Jews of China, who still celebrate the Passover story with this delicious and savory charoset.

Common ingredients in Chinese cuisine that are highlighted in this version of charoset are soy sauce, pine nuts and honey. In contrast with the other regional sweet charoset recipes, this version is slightly savory.

Yield: Makes about 6 cups

Ingredients

1/2 pound of dates, finely chopped

4 apples, finely chopped

1/2 cup pine nuts

3 tablespoons soy sauce

4 tablespoons honey

Juice of one orange

Directions

Heat ingredients in a saucepan until soft and smooth, about 5 minutes. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Moroccan Charoset

Andy Goldfarb discovered that Egyptian Jewish tradition is that the paste of the charoset represents the color of the Nile silt used to make the mortar for the bricks to build the pyramids. A mixture of dates and raisins gives the right approximation.

He became fascinated with other Middle Eastern and North African charoset variations, recipes that use all kinds of dried fruit and even one with bananas. In Algeria, he found a blend of dates and dried figs with cinnamon, nutmeg and sweet red wine. In Iraq, date syrup is mixed with plenty of chopped walnuts. A recipe from Surinam includes dried apples, pears, apricots, prunes, raisins, grated coconut, ground almonds, walnuts and cherry jam. The following are adaptations of traditional Sephardi classics. Proportions vary from one family to another, and the texture can be coarse or smooth, thick or thin.

Yield: Makes about 3 cups

Ingredients

1 pound dates, pitted and chopped (about 3 cups)

1 1/2  cups sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Directions

1. Put the dates in a pan with the wine, cinnamon and cloves and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it is a soft paste (about 5 minutes). Pulse in a food processor if you want a smoother texture.

2. Let it cool and stir in the walnuts.

Variation: A Libyan version is flavored with ground ginger, nutmeg and cloves, 1/4 teaspoon of each spice.

Piedmontese Charoset

The Jews of Italy’s Piedmont region live surrounded on three sides by the Alps, where nut trees dot the scenery. This recipe makes use of the local harvest of chestnuts and almonds and counters the nuts’ richness with the powdery smoothness of egg yolks and a sharp hit of citrus.

Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cup cooked chestnuts

2/3 cup blanched almonds

2 hard-boiled egg yolks

Zest of 1 orange

Juice of 1 orange

1/3 cup sugar

3/4 cup sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz, or an Italian sweet wine

Directions

Finely grind the almonds in a food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend to a smooth paste.

Italian Charoset

Unsurprisingly, every region of Italy has its own version of charoset. The charoset of Padua has prunes, raisins, dates, walnuts, apples and chestnuts. In Milan, they make it with apples, pears, dates, almonds, bananas and orange juice. This recipe is a basic one, but you can be sure every Italian home has its own “classic” charoset recipe, so feel free to play with variations on the theme.

Yield: Makes about 7 cups

Ingredients

3 apples, sweet or tart

2 pears

3/4 cup yellow raisins or sultanas

1 cup prunes, pitted and finely chopped

1 1/3 cups dates, pitted and chopped

2 cups sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz

1/3 cup pine nuts

2/3 cup almonds, finely chopped

1/2 cup sugar or honey

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Directions

1. Peel and core the apples and pear, cut them into small pieces.

2. Put all the ingredients into a pan together and cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the fruits are very soft, adding a little water if it becomes too dry.

Variations: Other possible additions include chopped lemon or candied orange peel, walnuts, pistachios, dried figs, orange or lemon juice, ginger, nutmeg and cloves.

Spanish Charoset

For hundreds of years, southern Spain was the site of a great Jewish Renaissance, where Jews and Muslims lived peacefully together, fostering a cultural flowering that earned the region the title “Ornament of the World.” Ultimately, the Jews were forced from Spain, but the splendor of the enduring Sephardi tradition lives on in this charoset recipe.

Yield: Makes about 4 cups

Ingredients

2 apples

2 pears

1/2 cup Spanish almonds (blanched Marcona if possible)

1/2 cup hazelnuts

1/2 cup walnuts

1/2 cup pistachios

1/2 cup chopped dates

1/2 cup chopped figs

1/2 cup yellow raisins

1/2 cup dry red wine, divided

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions

1. Peel, core and finely chop the apples and pears and place in a large bowl.

2. In a food processor, pulse all the nuts, making sure not to overgrind.

3. Add the chopped dates, figs, and raisins and ¼ cup wine to the food processor bowl. Pulse again briefly, or mix by hand.

4. Add the mixture to the bowl of grated fruit and stir to combine.

5. Blend in the ginger and cinnamon and add as much of the remaining wine to make a smooth paste.

Main photo: Ashkenazi Charoset for the Seder plate. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of BreakingMatzo.com

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Allioli, a Catalan-style garlic mayonnaise. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

When you make your own homemade mayonnaise, it is one of those magical moments for a cook that both surprises and empowers. That mayonnaise is an emulsion and that the process of emulsion works will always amaze you. Once you’ve done it yourself you will feel very competent. Homemade mayonnaise became even easier with the invention of the food processor.

Mayonnaise is simply an emulsion of oil and eggs. An emulsion means, in this case, that egg yolks are forced to absorb oil and to maintain it in a creamy suspension. The first step is to thicken the egg yolks, which you do by running them in the food processor alone. Then you process the oil a very little at a time to start the emulsion. If you add the oil too fast, it won’t happen. There is a limit to how much that egg yolk can absorb and it’s about 2/3 cup of oil. It’s also advisable to make sure the eggs and the oil are at room temperature and that the eggs are fresh.

Because your own homemade mayonnaise will taste better than store-bought, and even better, it will not have preservatives, it’s best to make batches you can finish in about two weeks. For me this is about 1 1/4 cups.

So how do you begin and what oil do you use? First, you need a food processor although you can use a blender, too. You can also whip it in a bowl, but that takes longer and is tiring. Start by procuring the freshest “large” eggs you can, preferably from a farmers market. For a light tasting mayonnaise use a mixture that is two-thirds peanut or vegetable oil and one-third olive oil. For a stronger, even more flavorful mayonnaise one can use all olive oil.

Place an egg and an egg yolk in the food processor and run for 30 seconds. Next, through the feed tube, slowly pour one cup of oil in a very thin, steady stream. You can pour slowly and continuously with the machine running the whole time and it will take about five minutes to empty one cup of oil. If it takes less than that, you are pouring too fast and it may not emulsify. The stream should be constant and very thin.

Once the oil is incorporated, in other words, once you’ve made mayonnaise, incorporate two teaspoons of white wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a little freshly ground white pepper, with a short burst of the food processor. Remove from the processor and store in the refrigerator for an hour before using.

Creative variations

There are three mayonnaise variations I love to make. The first is garlic mayonnaise, sometimes called aioli or allioli, the Occitan and Catalan words, respectively. Take two large cloves of garlic and mash them in a mortar until mushy with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Place them in the food processor and blend with the eggs before you add oil. Use only olive oil.

The second is mustard-flavored mayonnaise that is excellent with chicken, pork and rabbit, or for making sandwiches. Add 2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard to the prepared mayonnaise and blend in a few short pulses.

The third variation I quite like, although I don’t make it often, is oyster mayonnaise. The recipe comes from chef Paul Prudhomme. Combine a small bay leaf, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne, 1/4 teaspoon white pepper, a pinch of thyme and a pinch of oregano.

In a saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon unsalted butter over medium heat and cook 3 tablespoons finely chopped onions and 1 tablespoon chopped celery for 1 minute. Add the seasoning and 3 shucked oysters and reduce the heat to low and cook 5 minutes. Let cook another 15 minutes at medium, remove the bay leaf. Place in a food processor at the same time as the eggs along with 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce.

Fixing mayo mistakes

Two methods can rescue a mayonnaise that didn’t emulsify, or repair a “broken” mayonnaise, a mayonnaise that separated.

In the first, place 1 1/2 teaspoons prepared mustard in a bowl. Remove the liquidy mayonnaise from the food processor and transfer to a large measuring cup. Stir it to mix it up and add 1 tablespoon of it to the mustard, whisking with a wire whisk to make it creamy. Now, drizzle the liquid mayonnaise into this a little at a time, whisking vigorously until you have about 1/2 cup of restored mayonnaise. You must go slowly at first.

In the second method, beat an egg yolk in a bowl with a tablespoon or two of the broken mayonnaise. It will shortly emulsify and then you can whisk in the remaining broken mayonnaise slowly.

The only limit to mayonnaise is your imagination, so go ahead and make anything that appeals to you.

Main photo: Allioli, a Catalan-style garlic mayonnaise. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Chef Antonio Marchello

Today chefs are superstars. Reality TV idols, prima donnas on various food channels, authors of best-selling books, online food gurus, guests of honor of important culinary events … you name it.

But what seem to be most exciting to the public are TV chefs battling against each other. Sure, such shows are entertaining, but what about chefs who can be maestros at their art and communicate without having to feed our thirst for “blood”?

Last summer, I traveled through Europe and I had the pleasure of meeting five chefs who do not need to cook in a boxing ring to be exciting. Each of them communicated in their own style. Meet them, and join the tour.

CChef Linas Samenas taking orders. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Chef Linas Samenas taking orders. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

The independent

Let’s start with Lithuania’s splendid capital: Vilnius. Chef Linas Samenas could not have chosen a better location to express his culinary inspiration than the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Uzupis, a new area cherished by artists and avant-garde people. It is a city within a city, with its own constitution — somewhat serious, often ironic — written on the walls of Paupio Street.

His tiny restaurant, the eponymous Linas Samenas, is open for lunch only, and its menu changes daily. Samenas is on top of everything: He grows all products in his farm, entertains you about his specialties, takes orders, cooks, coordinates assistants and serves the dish at your table with a glass of delicate berzu (birch water). I tried his delicious saltibarsciai, beet root soup with sour cream.

A great chef can run the show solo without being selfish and pretentious.

Chef Martins Ritins cooking the duck. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Showtime at Vincents: Chef Martins Ritins cooking the duck. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Beautiful Riga, Latvia

I went to Riga’s exclusive Vincents Restaurant, where I ordered a beef tartare as an appetizer. Chef Martins Ritins approached to my table, carrying a paper bag.

“I apologize,” Ritins said. “The beef tonight wasn’t recommendable. Fortunately, there is a fine deli close by, and I got some canned tartare. I hope you like it.”

Well, it was just a funny hoax: The can was actually made and labeled for Vincents and once I opened it, I found one of the freshest tartares I have ever eaten, topped with a quail egg.

After this opening number, the chef was ready for the drama. He brought out a metal squeezer, so similar to a Middle Ages torture machine. On the plate was a red wine-marinated and slowly roasted baby duck. A muscular assistant started the squeezing, with no mercy for the bird’s carcass. The duck was served in tender slices with the extracted natural juices copiously irrigating the meat.

The process, emulating the famous “canard au sang” of the prestigious and rather stuffy La Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris, here got a standing ovation from the audience.

A great chef can keep a sense of humor while running the show.

Chef Konstantin Filippou. Copyright Courtesy Konstantin Filippou

Chef Konstantin Filippou. Copyright Courtesy Konstantin Filippou

Vienna’s discovery

The imperial city surprised me with the discovery of Konstantin Filippou, a no-showman chef who leaves the fame to his creations.

There is choreography between waiters and assistants that somehow reminds me of a ballet. The dish delivery is like a religious ritual, from the kitchen to the waiter to the maître d’ who finally lays the plate on the table. Food presentation and ceramics are amazing. Art is in the plate, somehow referring to a Picasso or a Kandinsky.

The taste? Imagine minimalism meets adventure, in total freedom. Lamb tongue with chanterelles, artichokes and orange. Konstantin seems to be very reserved. He doesn’t like to be interviewed, and rarely gets out from the kitchen.

A chef can appear as a creative genius and remain humble.

Chef Pirmas Dublis. Copyright Courtesy 1Dublis

Chef Pirmas Dublis. Copyright Courtesy 1Dublis

On stage

Back to Vilnius. Dinner at 1Dublis.

This is a trendy restaurant where Chef Pirmas Dublis operates in the open kitchen that looks like a puppet theater where the assistants carefully finish the plates cooked in the adjacent kitchen. The ritual is captivating.

Dublis is supervising the action with a perfect harmony of movements and constantly checking the food preparation reflected in the mirror over the kitchen counter. He loves to join the table just seconds before the dish is served and explains the origins of ingredients and the technique he uses. With only 25 seats, intimacy and attention to details are highly valued. In my opinion the biggest hit was the fish stock, crayfish and brown butter.

A chef can offer a show and not be a show-off.

Chef Antonio Marchello’s spaghetti with Gubbio saffron, Sorrento lemon and pecorino cheese. Copyright 2015

Chef Antonio Marchello’s spaghetti with Gubbio saffron, Sorrento lemon and pecorino cheese. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Milan: Antonio, cameras with a mission

Meet the entertaining chef Antonio Marchello, former TV comedian, writer and excellent connoisseur of Italian cuisine, traditional and innovative.

Antonio hosts “Social Kitchen,” a one-hour online show that airs live on Tuesdays (vegan dishes only) and Wednesdays (anything else). Antonio goes online at 8 p.m. Italian time and prepares the dish interacting with fans and amateurs who follow him from home. At 9 p.m. the dish is ready. A quick selfie is sent to the Social Kitchen Facebook page with an invitation of “tutti a tavola!” (everybody eat now!) to enjoy the meal.

I visited him during the show and I tried the spaghetti with Gubbio saffron, pecorino cheese and a zest of Sorrento lemon. Simply divine.

“I love to learn and to teach,” says Antonio. “I hate those commercial cooking shows, but I found the way to compromise and still fulfill my inspiration.”

A chef can have a show online and prefer sharing over fighting.

Main photo: Chef Antonio Marchello. Credit: Copyright Rosanna Curi

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Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

The jalapeño vs. the serrano: What exactly is the difference between the two most popular fresh chiles in the U.S. and Mexico?

Both are vibrant emerald green, with the larger jalapeño looking like a serrano on steroids. Jalapeños tend to be beefier, while serranos are more slender. Both have a torpedo shape that tapers to a point and curved green stems and smooth skins with no soft spots or wrinkles.

Bigger not always better when it comes to chiles

And as with almost all chiles, the rule of thumb applies: the larger the chile, the milder it is. In this case, the larger jalapeño is milder than the spicier serrano. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Sometimes bigger is just, well, bigger.

Jalapeños and serranos belong to the common Capsicum annuum family of peppers and can easily be found year round in most supermarket produce sections thanks to domestic and imported crops. Jalapeños (named after the city of Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, sometimes spelled Xalapeños after the local spelling of Xalapa) measure about 4 inches long and an inch wide at the stem end. Serranos (translates to “from the mountains” because they were first grown in the high-elevation mountains of Puebla, east of Mexico City) measure about 3 inches long and a half-inch wide at the stem end.

Their flavors are similar, and I find an excellent way to appreciate any subtle differences is to taste them when they turn bright red. That’s when they are at their peak of ripeness and when their spice intensity drops and they become slightly mellow, almost sweet. I always look for red-ripe chiles in late summer at farmers markets.

Make salsas to compare jalapeños and serranos

A favorite way to understand their differences is to make two simple table salsas (see recipes below). Choose either green or red for both chiles, and remove the seeds from both to control the unadorned (no onion, cilantro, etc.) heat.

When choosing between the two for a recipe, decide whether you’re looking for a lot of green flavor or more spice with less vegetable taste. For example, when I whirl up fresh fruit table salsas I choose serrano because I want the specific fruit flavor to be front and center but with plenty of backup chile heat. I choose green jalapeños for tomatillo salsas where a spicy chile with plenty of green bean vegetable flavor adds to the green sauce. Of course, they can be used interchangeably; add less serrano or more jalapeño and you’re all set.

After jalapeños and serranos ripen and turn red, they are dried and sometimes smoked. For size comparison, there are about 8 dried jalapeños per ounce or 11 dried serranos per ounce. A good rule of thumb is 10 pounds of fresh chiles weigh 1 pound when dried. The dried form of each chile has a different name: a dried, red jalapeño is a jalapeño seco and a dried, red serrano is simply called a chile seco.

Fiery hot, the small, 1½-inch chile seco has a slight citrus flavor and is usually found ground (sometimes called tipico and balin) and added to cooked sauces for heat.

A dried and smoked red jalapeño is a chile chipotle. Other dried and smoked chipotles are called morita and meco. The morita is a dark red, almost black, shiny, smoky, leathery chile that can vary in length from an inch to 4 inches. Many smaller moritas are canned in adobo (a chile-tomato sauce) and called chiles chipotles en adobo. The easy-to-use chiles are readily available in 7- to 8-ounce cans. After removing a few for a recipe, you can freeze the rest. The usually larger meco is smoked at least twice as long and turns medium brown with the look of an old, fuzzy brown tobacco leaf. Aficionados relish its spicy, super-smoky qualities.

The prized red-ripe, fresh jalapeño called huachinango (the same name as the famous Gulf red snapper fish because its stripes simulate the fish scale pattern) comes from central Mexico, mostly around Puebla and Veracruz. Usually found during the hottest summer months, it is easy to identify the coveted, 4- to 5-inch beauty, which has thin white lines running vertically on its skin. When dried and smoked, the thick-skinned delicacy becomes an extra-large, expensive chipotle meco grande with a subtle chocolate aroma.

Mail-order sources

Melissas.com: Melissa’s sells fresh and dried chiles. 5325 Soto St., Vernon, CA 90058. (800) 588-0151. Hours: 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays

Spices.com: Spices Inc. is a mail-order company that sells dried chiles. (888) 762-8642

Simple Green Chile Table Salsa Taste Test

If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing these salsas. Choose either all green or all red chiles for both jalapeños and serranos.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 1/3 cup of each salsa.

Ingredients

2 ounces (1 or 2) fresh jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

2 ounces (3 or 4) fresh serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

Corn chips or warmed corn tortillas

Directions

1. Put the jalapeño chiles in a blender jar. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into a serving bowl.

2. Rinse the blender jar.

3. Put the serrano chiles in the blender. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into another serving bowl.

4. Taste with corn chips or warm corn tortillas.

Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa

If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing this salsa.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes about 2 cups.

Ingredients

1 very ripe Mexican papaya, about 12 inches long and 6 inches in diameter

2 Mexican (aka Key) limes, juiced (about 3 tablespoons)

1 medium (3 inches) white onion, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

2 serrano chiles

1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves

Directions

1. Cut the papaya in half vertically. Scoop out the black seeds from one of the halves. Peel it and chop it, measuring out 3 cups chopped fruit. Put it into a blender or processor. (Wrap the remaining fruit in plastic and save for another use, such as smoothies or slices with a squirt of lime.)

2. Pour the lime juice on the papaya. Blend 5 seconds.

3. Add the onion, sugar and salt and whirl again 5 seconds. Pour the slightly chunky mixture into a serving bowl.

4. Stem and mince one of the 2 chiles and stir it (with seeds) into the papaya along with the cilantro. Taste. If you want a spicier salsa, stir in more of the remaining minced chile. Adjust salt or lime juice if necessary.

Notes: Don’t process the salmon-colored papaya, green chiles and cilantro together all at once or they will turn into an off-putting brownish mash (although the taste will still be great).

Save the papaya’s black seeds. Rinse and then dry them on a baking sheet in a low oven (200 F) for about an hour. Cool completely. The spicy seeds can be ground like peppercorns.

Main photo: Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright Nancy Zaslavsky

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Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Emily Grosvenor

Mandy Aftel was well on her way to becoming America’s most highly regarded natural perfumer when she started using essential oils in cooking. She had a book out, “Essence and Alchemy,” and a line of beloved natural perfumes she made by hand in her studio. But while on book tour, she was encountering a troubling problem. She noticed that so many of the people she met said they hated perfume.

“As a perfumer, I wanted to be around people who cared about ingredients, and I found them in the food world,” she said. “For me it’s all about how stunning these aromas are and what you can do with them when you know how they work.”

Aftel, who lives directly behind Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, was no stranger to chefs obsessed with using only the finest quality whole ingredients. But what she needed was a chef who cared very much about aroma, and how it shapes how the mouth experiences food. She found that partner in Daniel Patterson, who has since become famous in his own right as a chef, food writer and primary proponent of California cuisine. Aftel took her traveling perfume organ — a suitcase of sorts in which she carries samples of the essential oils she uses in her studio — and shared them with him.

“He was knocked out, especially with the black pepper essence,” Aftel said.

Soon, Patterson began incorporating essential oils in his dishes. The two later collaborated on their first shared cookbook, “Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance.” Since then, Aftel has worked with all manner of people in the food industry to develop aromas for food products based on real, natural essential oils and has become a steady proponent of their use in the home kitchen. More recently, she has developed her own line of essential oil sprays — edible essential oils in an alcohol spray mist — for use in restaurants and home cuisine.

The American food scene has welcomed her approach as a next step in the country’s move back to a more natural relationship with food. A long history exists of using essential oils with cooking. But as with perfume, at the beginning of the 20th century, consumers became enamored of the synthetics because they were cheaper. In the past, people were took active plant material and infused or they were using the essential oils directly. In her new book, “Fragrant,” Aftel has resurrected a number of recipes for staples such as ketchup, which relied heavily on essential oils, and has made the relationship between perfuming and food even more tangible.

“Daniel and I were real trailblazers, because the history had been lost,” Aftel said. “I think it’s so exciting, deeply exciting to have the essence of the plant. It offers insanely creative possibilities and can provide flavor that you really can’t arrive at any other way.”

Aftel discussed how one might go about using essential oils in the kitchen:

What essential oils are safe to ingest?

It’s pretty simple. You should always trust who is providing the oils themselves, but you can eat all of the oils listed on the FDA’s GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe).

Can you give me some examples of situations where the essential oil is preferable to the spice?

There’s really no heat in black pepper oil, for example, it’s all in the peppercorn itself. If you used a lot of black pepper to get that black pepper essence it would be way too hot. But if you use a drop of the oil it’s an amazing flavor unto itself. In the middle of winter you might want the flavor of basil, but you don’t want the texture of basil leaves and the ones in winter aren’t really that good anyway. So you use the oil, and just a drop. When you use these oils it’s like being the master of the universe to use just one drop and have the result be so aromatic and lovely.

Where does one begin? What’s a good way to start?

A very good dark chocolate, say 65% dark at least, and vanilla ice cream can be a great place to start. Here’s the pink pepper. The sprays are really idiot proof — they are drops within alcohol and very easy to use. Drops themselves are just so strong, so you might want to use the drops when you are cooking them into something. But if you’re just doing a finishing then I recommend the sprays. Things like rose essence, cinnamon and vanilla, violet, sarsaparilla, all go great with a good vanilla ice cream. Yellow mandarin, cardamom, great with chocolate. Pear and chocolate. Anything that is creamy and rich is a nice base upon which to start because they have their own vibrant character, but they can blend in. The naturals, for better or worse, don’t last. But then again, people are used to the olfactory equivalent of McDonald’s. If you can isolate the aroma and use it in something or another. I like to keep things as simple and beautiful as possible.

Do you think people really think that much about the quality of their spices?

People are very familiar with some spices, but when they became easy to get, the thing that made them so powerful and amazing became less appreciated. People will buy a giant container of cinnamon and then let it languish in their cupboard for years, not understanding that the thing about the cinnamon is slowly going away, its nature is gone. With oils, you can create your own flavor and retain what is so powerful about the natural ingredient. I think it’s a very creative process.

How do you use essential oils in your home cooking?

I love roasted Brussels sprouts. One of the things I’ve found about beef is it’s great with chocolate. It adds a richness to it, a new flavor. I also love roasted red and green peppers with basil oil. The licorice/anise aspect of it really gets out. Or Foster, my husband, will get a tomato soup and I’ll add a little cinnamon, kind of a Mediterranean mix. I love the experience of changing things just a smidge, it makes all of my food experiences very aromatic.

What about drinks?

Drinks are the bridges from perfume to food. I’m thinking a lot about this for my new book with Daniel Paterson. Coffee, tea, wine, alcohol, these are very aromatic experiences. Citrus rinds. When someone has a drink, they are also smelling it. It’s no fluke that the experience people most associate with drink is very aromatic and very convivial. I think the aromatic aspects of it are what make it so wonderful. People take a lot of liberty with experimenting with drinks, in a way they don’t always necessarily do with food. It’s a wonderful bridge toward learning.

Are the oils better than the spices?

The oils, when they are done well, allow you to appreciate the real identity of the spice. A lot of the oils don’t have the sharpness of the spices. When you use the essential oil, you are actually harnessing the best version of the spice and holding on to it. There’s this awful thing that happens when you have access to things because of our global world. They stop being prized. I don’t think luxury should be attached to status. I like to retool the relationships between things that being available and things being prized. I like to prize that experience and have it drop by drop.

Main photo: Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright Emily Grosvenor

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Court Bouillon is tap water with a little bit of salt, peppercorn, sliced onion, parsley, bay leaf, sliced carrot and something acidic -- often lemon juice, but equally often white wine and occasionally vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Culinary icon Anne Willan has just released “Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen,” a brief compendium of “50 Essential Recipes Every Cook Needs To Know.” This amazing book includes the recipes that are the backbone course for professional chefs and that Willan’s legendary school Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris has been creating since 1975.

Among the dishes are fish aspic, exquisitely specific details on puff pastry and 10 types of sorbet. But one recipe caught my eye: Court Bouillon — or in rough English translation: “Quick Broth.” As a mom who doesn’t have the time for more intricate recipes and whose two young girls don’t have the palates for aspic yet, I liked the sound of that. I called Anne Willan to get her thoughts.


“Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen”
By Anne Willan, Spring House Press, 2015, 133 pages
» Click here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


“It’s very interesting that you’ve chosen court bouillon,” Willan said from her home in Santa Monica, California, “because it’s not something anybody thinks of using nowadays. It really is right in sync with contemporary cooking,” she continued. “It’s very useful because today people always want to cook things healthfully and simply.”

Willan’s definition of court bouillon is simple and clear: “It’s a meatless and fatless broth, so very simple, but something that just adds flavor to whatever’s cooked in it.” The recipe, which is included below, is easy, but I was hoping to get some insider secrets. Willan was happy to comply, although clearly none of this seemed like a big secret to her: “Thinly slice the carrots,” she told me, “so that they give up their flavor in 15 or 20 minutes. Slice the onions fairly thinly, but not to worry about it. The green herbs you just drop in, keep the stems, they have lots of taste.”

The real secret of court bouillon is properly pairing the food being cooked in the broth with a sympathetic acidic ingredient. Traditionally, the acid used in court bouillon would be vinegar, wine or lemon juice. Willan provided more nuanced distinctions: “For whitefish, I’d probably go for wine, because you don’t want too strong a flavor. For darker fish, possibly lemon juice or vinegar because it balances the stronger flavor of the fish.”

In traditional French cuisine, court bouillon is a liquid used for simmering, and then it’s tossed out. But as we discussed using the broth as a part of the meal, Willan became intrigued, because that’s simply part of her cooking ethos. “Never throw anything away,” she said. “When you’ve got lovely cooking liquid from something like a big salmon, do something with it — fish soup with the leftover.”

I could hear her brain begin to click as she explored the Culinary Thought Experiment: “The liquid will have acquired the flavor of what’s been cooking in it,” she said. “So what I would like to do is boil it down, and make a little sauce with it, mount it with butter or something.”

Then her brain went into high gear: “You could do lovely experiments with it. I certainly haven’t gone into it myself, but you could do an Asian court bouillon, or a hot court bouillon. You’d use chili peppers, wouldn’t you? It’s got to be something pure, hasn’t it?”

From the wisdom behind La Varenne

This was more intriguing than interview questions: Willan was asking and answering herself, giving me a view into a creative culinary mind that has long fascinated me as I’ve gobbled up her writings and her recipes from the classic “From My Château Kitchen” to her dish-y memoir “One Soufflé at a Time.” As she brainstormed the possibilities for court bouillon, her encyclopedic knowledge of cooking became clear, as did her passion for food and good eating.

“Perhaps I’d use coriander instead of parsley. And then, what would you use it for? If you push it a little bit, you could use it for a risotto or cooking quinoa. Or even grits or corn meal.”

By the time we were done, Willan had improvised a court bouillon for down-home Southern cooking and an Asian-influenced broth with the addition of soy sauce, cilantro and rice wine vinegar. She cautioned me against using too much chili pepper if I wanted to try a hot version because the flavor of the pepper would concentrate as the broth cooked down. It was an invigorating conversation — an insight into a culinary mind-set deeply rooted in the basics, but excited to jump in and experiment.

I love my copy of “Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen,” and I intend to use it to build those basic skills that every cook needs to know — whether they’re a chef at a high-end restaurant or a mom with kids to feed. And court bouillon seems to be an inspired place for me to start. Check out the slideshow that includes Willan’s secrets and two dishes that riff on the recipe.

Court Bouillon

By Anne Willan, courtesy Spring House Press

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 1 quart

Ingredients
1 quart water
1 carrot, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 bouquet garni
6 peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup white wine or 1/3 cup vinegar or 1/4 cup lemon juice

Directions
1. Combine all the ingredients in a pan (not aluminum), cover and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered 15 to 20 minutes and strain.

Main photo: Court Bouillon is tap water with a little bit of salt, peppercorn, sliced onion, parsley, bay leaf, sliced carrot and something acidic — often lemon juice, but equally often white wine and occasionally vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

“The world doesn’t want to know the truth about gluten,” graduate student Lisa Kissing Kucek joked last July under a tent at Cornell University’s research farm in Freeville, N.Y. Lightning cut the sky, and we, a group of farmers and bakers, dashed for our cars before she could tell us what she’d discovered.

Now we know. Her research, “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” was published recently in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Kissing Kucek and her colleagues reviewed more than 200 scientific research papers to see what is known about how different wheat varieties and our processing methods affect people’s sensitivity to wheat.

The conclusions of her literature review are cautious, far more so than the declarations made in such books as “Wheat Belly,” which considers modern wheat a chronic poison. Kissing Kucek was curious what wheat actually does in the human body and began by looking at gluten and the pathologies associated with it.

“We are missing a lot just by focusing on gluten,” she said. “So to see what actually is going on, I extended that to wheat.”

Her inquiry grew to cover a broad territory, including the problems caused by wheat, how those problems vary by wheat species and variety, and the role of processing methods. It considered everything from celiac disease, wheat allergy and nonceliac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), to fructose malabsorption and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The review pairs well with other Cornell research. The university and its research partners received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2011 to look at heritage wheat varieties. Field trials, lab analysis and baking trials are all part of this grant project, which ends in 2016.

Vintage wheat varieties have captured the imagination of a gluten-shy public, and the paper includes thorough descriptions of wheat kernels and wheat genetics. The material is dense, but Kissing Kucek explains it in an easy to follow video presentation.

Many people have trouble digesting fructose and certain carbohydrates, collectively known as FODMAPS. “These individuals experience bloating and gas when consuming large amounts dairy, high fructose corn syrup, stone fruits and wheat,” she said. “As many foods contain FODMAPS, if these individuals only remove wheat gluten from their diet, their symptoms will likely persist.”

Lynn Veenstra, also of Cornell, surveyed fructan research for the paper. Some of the findings she reviewed were featured in a recent Washington Post article about FODMAPS.

Illnesses like nonceliac wheat sensitivity, IBS and fructose malabsorption can be hard to diagnose. But most of the research points to multiple triggers beyond gluten proteins or other parts of wheat.

Little about gluten is straightforward

Contrary to popular or wishful thinking, old wheats don’t wear halos.

“There is no perfect wheat species that reduces all types of wheat sensitivity,” said Kissing Kucek. However, einkorn is promising because it contains fewer celiac reactive compounds than heritage and modern wheat varieties. Einkorn dates from the very early domestication of staple crops; emmer and spelt are also classified as ancient. Heritage or heirloom grains refer to older seed varieties developed before 1950. Modern grain varieties generally have shorter stalks, which allow the plants to receive heavy doses of fertilizer without falling down in the field.

Different wheat varieties vary widely in their reactivity for celiac and wheat allergy. But we don’t know the effect on wheat sensitivity for many of the old or new wheat varieties used in the United States. Europe is screening more varieties. Yet nothing is straightforward when interpreting natural systems.

Figuring out how gluten works in our bodies is tough. Figuring out how growing conditions or plant variety might affect a crop’s potential to harm us is also tough. Understanding the role processing methods play also needs more research, but there’s enough information to cause concern over a few things.

One item —vital wheat gluten — is common in the food supply, and has the potential to cause reactions. It’s used to bind multigrain breads. A cheap protein and a great emulsifier and binder, it’s also widely used in industrial food processing. Irradiated flour and other baking additives also are cited as worrisome.

However, the paper’s section on processing offers some hope, too. Grain sprouting for instance, could help some people digest the complex proteins that give some eaters grief. Longer fermentation also breaks down proteins that can cause some forms of wheat sensitivity.

Other research questions about wheat and gluten are still being charted. A recent Mother Jones story about research at The Bread Lab of Washington State University suggests that modern baking is a bigger culprit than modern wheat. The publication Eating Well also has a new story on gluten by Sam Fromartz called “Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.” Like his recent book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” the article nicely navigates the maze of fears about eating wheat and gluten.

Kissing Kucek’s “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” maps the research already done. Like any realistic map, the guide offers facts, not commandments of the “Here Be Dragons” sort. Answers might be found, the paper suggests, in turning to traditions.

This confirms what I’ve long suspected: That we need to unravel some of the processing developed over the last 150 years. In that time, we’ve adopted roller milling, which leaves behind most of the bran and germ. While I never fell out of love with wheat or gluten, I’ve grown enamored of the taste of fresh stone ground flour, and the concept of using all parts of the grain. Perhaps there is something that each lends the other, and to us, as we turn this plant into food. I think that the unity of stone milling is essential to healthy utilization of grains. Some professional bakers believe this too, and are working exclusively with fresh milled whole grain flours.

As people negotiate a friendly relationship with bread, I am hoping that my personal truth about gluten might gain scientific ground.

Main photo: Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

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A traditional Yemeni meal of lahuh and stew. Credit: iStockphoto / lenazap

Yemen is a remote and little-known country, closed to the outside world for centuries and still not very accessible. Not surprisingly, it has a distinctive cuisine.

A bit of cultural background

The Roman name for Yemen was Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia, partly because of its wealth: It stood athwart the main spice and incense routes. Another reason for the name was that Yemen is the only part of the Arabian Peninsula to get substantial rainfall. Located on the Indian Ocean, it’s exposed to the monsoon winds, and the Yemenis make the best use they can of the resulting precipitation. In some places, the hillsides are terraced, as in Southeast Asia. However, even this agricultural benefit is not enough to support the country’s population. For centuries, half of its adult men have worked abroad. (There are a number of Yemeni farmworkers in California’s Central Valley.)

Today, Yemen is the 37th poorest country in the world. It has potential tourist attractions, particularly in its impressive architecture — the Yemenis seem incapable of putting up a dull building, even when they use cinder block — but poverty and, recently, sectarian violence have kept it from drawing many visitors.

Although the country is best known to gourmets for producing coffee, most Yemenis can’t afford to drink it. Nearly all the beans are exported, and the locals instead drink a tea made from the husks, called gishr. It tastes like green coffee beans, I’m sorry to report — which is probably why it’s always flavored with spices — and contains no caffeine. For a caffeine-like kick, the Yemenis chew a local narcotic called qat (also pronounced gat or chat). It’s supposedly addictive, but I’ve chewed with wealthy Yemenis who could presumably afford the best and I found it about as stimulating as an espresso or two. I’ve concluded that people chew qat because it’s the principal social activity. (Women do it too, but in separate rooms.)

The fundamentals of Yemeni cuisine

After its spice and then coffee industries collapsed, Yemen was entirely isolated from the outside world for many years before 1963, when there was a revolution that devolved into the continuing period of instability. As a result, very little has been written about its cuisine, and all that most Westerners know about it comes from the cookery of the Yemenite Jews of Israel. Probably the best-known Yemeni food is a spice mixture/sauce whose name, s’hug, means “ground” in Arabic. There’s no canonical recipe; it can be made with just about any combination of ground, chopped or crushed flavorings. In the country’s capital, Sanaa (where they use the plural form of the word, sahawig), it’s usually chopped tomatoes, chiles and onions — essentially identical to Mexican salsa cruda.

Yemenis retain a medieval tradition of cooking in pots carved from soapstone; they prefer stone to metal because it doesn’t add any flavor to the food. Stoneware takes a while to heat up, much like cast iron (though it doesn’t have to be seasoned); it is also surprisingly sturdy, even amid leaping flames in restaurant kitchens.

Traditional dishes

The most common main dish is stew (marag), often including tomato and potato and usually flavored with fenugreek. The Yemenis are the world’s biggest consumers of fenugreek, mostly known to us from commercial curry powder and artificial maple syrup. They eat so much of this spice (which belongs to the legume family) that it contributes measurably to their protein intake. They prepare it by soaking the seeds in water for a couple of hours to soften them and leach out some of their bitterness, then whipping them to a froth with ground leeks. A dollop of this pale-green foam is often served on top of marag. The result is curious — imagine chili con carne garnished with bitter applesauce — so it takes some getting used to.

Because of the popularity of qat, Yemen is one of the few Middle Eastern countries with a tradition of sit-down restaurants. But these are far from fine-dining places — the customers are all in a hurry to get something in their stomachs before a chew, so the scene tends toward a roiling chaos of people calling out their orders (usually the only choices are beef marag or chicken maragand wolfing down the food.

In homes, you may find a wider range of dishes, such as duqqa, which is chopped meat and onions braised with parsley, or mkashshan, chicken stewed with browned green onions. Because of the country’s poverty, though, the diet is heavily based on grain, featuring lots of gruels and porridges and dishes containing bread.

Fortunately, bread is the cuisine’s strong suit. There’s an excellent flaky bread called mulawwah, which has a curved shape from the way it’s stuck on to the wall of the tandoor. For my taste, the finest Yemeni bread is lahuh (pronounced la-HOOH, with both h’s strongly articulated), a spongy, crepe-like product similar to Ethiopian injera but with an attractive crunchy quality of its own. As injera is preferably made with Ethiopia’s native grain t’ef, lahuh is made with Yemen’s indigenous white sorghum (dhura baida), which accounts for 80% of the country’s grain production. It resembles a cornstalk bearing popcorn balls instead of ears.

So there you go. If you find yourself in Yemen, try to get some mulawwah or lahuh with your marag. And if somebody offers you qat, say, “Oh, heck, why not? But only as long as you’re paying, partner.”

Main photo: A traditional Yemeni meal of lahuh and stew. Credit: Copyright  iStockphoto/ lenazap

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