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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Fresh-squeezed lemonade at The Desert Bar in Parker, Arizona. Credit: Copyright Seth Joel 2015

There may be no better example of a destination watering hole than the one on the site of the abandoned Nellie E Mine outside Parker, Arizona. Ken Wardlow’s Desert Bar is in such a remote location in the Buckskin Mountains that just getting there is an adventure. But it’s no secret to communities up and down the Colorado River from Blythe to Lake Havasu, whose residents party there every Thanksgiving weekend, or to the snowbirds who come from all over the country in January: Pull into the parking lot and you will see license plates from Alaska, Illinois, Washington, Oregon and Nebraska. The accents you hear of German gentlemen cooing over showy 1,000 horsepower ATVs will confirm that this place is an open secret among Europeans, too. Then you enter the bar and meet 300 new best friends.

In 1983, Ken Wardlow had three things: a piece of property he had owned since 1975, a liquor license and a great imagination. He built a 12-by-12-foot shack with three walls and called it the Nellie E Saloon. Customers with a thirst for its Wild West aura began coming in droves, and by 1989 the shack had been replaced by a solid structure. It has been growing organically every year since. Now known as the Desert Bar, it’s a three-level complex with tin roofs, multiple seating areas, bars, kitchens, bandstands and a dance floor that you reach by a covered bridge spanning an actual gulch. It has no address other than its coordinates (34 degrees 12.05.14 North, 114 degrees 08.55.87 West), and it relies on its own wells, solar panels and twin cooling towers. In short, it is entirely off the grid.

The Desert Bar’s curiosities don’t end there. It is rarely open — only on weekend afternoons, before sunset, mid-autumn through mid-spring (that is, when the average temperature hovers below 100 F). To reach it, you have to join the line of Jeeps and pickups that creep along five dusty miles of primitive road. (Unless you have a quad, dune buggy, side-by-side or dirt bike, do not accept the challenge of the treacherous back way. Better to enjoy that drama through some daredevil’s head cam on YouTube.) So why is this bar so wildly popular? Well, there’s cold beer and lemonade that’s squeezed to order. There’s perfectly prepared American comfort food like hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken sandwiches to energize you for the journey home. You can indulge your secret longing for a basket of deep-fried pickle spears, or go all the way with the fritto misto of pickles, onion rings, mushrooms, jalapeños and freshly cut fries unfairly known as the “junk basket.” Try it, just the once…

But in the end it’s the atmosphere, not the menu, that makes all the difference. As the regulars arrive, they grab the shaded table they will occupy until sunset, while the newcomers wander around in awe. Cameras and cellphones capture the abandoned cars and fire trucks strewn around the property, the three bars, and the open-air ladies’ room constructed of rusting metal plates. Women — and, if the coast is clear, the occasional man — linger in here taking photos of the 30-mile view through the glassless picture windows. Hands down, the most-photographed structure is the trompe l’oeil “church.” Constructed from steel plates in 1991, it contains just one room under the three-story, copper-topped steeple, lined in stamped tin with two arched openings. And yes, destination weddings take place there regularly.

The words that customers use over and over to describe The Desert Bar are “fun” and “unique.” For the first-timer, two miles on the bone-rattling road to its door are enough to make you question all the praise. But once you see that steeple up ahead you know it is going to be worth the trip. Fun? Just walk up into the hills behind the bar and listen to the buzz of conversation and laughter filling the canyon. Unique? Without a doubt. Guaranteed you have never spent a Sunday Funday in such a hospitable bar surrounded by such inhospitable mountains.

Main photo: Fresh-squeezed lemonade at the Desert Bar in Parker, Arizona. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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Lightly Poached Skrei With Leek Butter, Puy Lentils, Kale and Pumpkin Seeds. Recipe courtesy Norwegian Seafood Council. Credit: Copyright Norwegian Seafood Council

Every time I buy cod I am reminded of my stint as a young political television researcher. During the UK-Icelandic “Cod Wars,” I was charged with getting a suitable specimen to act as Exhibit A. I knew enough to realize it would not come in preprepared steaks, but I was not expecting the 6-foot-long marine monster freshly arrived from Fleetwood Docks.

After the program, no one wanted to go near the blooming thing, so I smothered it in newspaper, crammed it into the boot of my car and did what any sensible Jewish girl would do — took it home for mother. “Oh, just cut it up and bung it in a pan and fry it,” I said breezily. Thanks to her old-school upbringing, she did not flinch: she simply rolled up her sleeves and gutted, scaled, skinned, chopped and filleted while I made my excuses and left.

It’s cod, but not cod as we know it

I was reminded of the superlative taste of that fish when I sampled Skrei (pronounced skray). It sounds like a reggae dance or a fiendishly difficult quiz question, but to those in the know, Skrei is one of the best things to come out of Norway since the Vikings. Indeed, it’s cod, but not cod as we know it.

Skrei swims onto our plates directly from the icy-clear waters of Norway’s beautiful Lofoten Islands. It is a Scandinavian dream of a fish: sweet, bright white flesh with a supple texture scored by fat lines that melt away during cooking and allow the fish to break into tender, opalescent flakes. Rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, Skrei is healthy, wholesome and versatile. It also has an amazing life history.

Between January and April, millions of Skrei migrate thousands of miles from their home in the Barents Sea to the islands to reproduce. Only the very best — fully grown and immaculate — qualify for the brand’s seal of approval, a  special tag fastened to the dorsal fin.

Cod might have been off the sustainable menu in recent years due to overfishing in the northeast Atlantic and United Kingdom waters. But in northern Norway, Skrei ticks all the environmental boxes and is a reflection of the high-management standards of Norwegian fisheries, which banned discards years ago. Most Skrei are caught with longlines from small boats, and the Barents Sea now provides Norwegians with the largest growing cod stock in the world.

Skrei can be eaten both raw and cooked. Serve it lightly cured and thinly sliced with olive oil, lemon, dill and sea salt, or roast it with braised fennel and anchovy to bring out the delicate but full flavor. The most popular way in Norway to prepare Skrei is simply poached or baked with boiled potatoes and steamed carrots. Alternatively, Norwegians like to eat it with cod roe, tongue and liver, boiled potatoes, crispbread and aquavit.

‘Skrei is a great addition to my  menu’

Available at specialist outlets in Europe and the United States, Skrei is a chef magnet. Michel Roux Jr. features the fish while in season at his two-Michelin-star Le Gavroche restaurant in London and is a committed fan. “I think it is fantastic, a glistening, super-fresh cod with beautiful, translucent flakes. I think it is one of the finest products of the sea, and is both truly sustainable and has a unique legacy,” he said.

Ben Pollinger of Oceana Restaurant in New York City adds, “Skrei is a great addition to my menu. It’s sustainable, great quality and unique. I enjoy working with it (and) the customers enjoy it (too). … People are getting more adventurous with food, so this is a good way to (try) new things.”

Also in New York City, Marcus Jenmark at Aquavit shares that sentiment. “Skrei is an essential fish in the Nordic region and its cuisine. New Yorkers are always looking for seasonal and high-quality product, so it is fun … to combine those elements and serve something authentic, extremely seasonal and new to New York guests,” he adds.

UK fish specialist and chef Mitch Tonks of the Seahorse Restaurant in Devon also became a Skrei convert after a trip to Lofoten. “In my search for the finest ingredients for my restaurants, I have discovered this mighty cod, one that I know I can serve with an absolute guarantee of sustainability. I won’t be surprised if Norwegian Skrei is the next big thing.”

Cod willing, of course.

Skrei Glazed in a Whiskey Teriyaki

Created by Michel Roux Jr. of Le Gavroche and Simon Hulstone of The Elephant for the Norwegian Seafood Council

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 2 hours

Total time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

3 teaspoons honey

3 teaspoons superfine sugar

2 1/2 cups mirin

1 cup whiskey (peaty or smoky is best)

1 or 2 chilies finely chopped, to taste

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped

4 cups soy sauce, Kikkoman preferred

1 thick fillet of cod, with the skin on

Directions

1. To make the teriyaki sauce, begin by putting the honey and sugar in a large pan and cook until caramelized, then add the mirin and whiskey, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes

2. Take off the heat and add the chilies, ginger and soy sauce. Once completely cooled, strain

3. Trim and pin bone the Skrei fillet, then marinate in the teriyaki for one hour

4. Drain the fillet and place in a tray with some of the marinade. Put under a broiler; baste often with the marinade. The fish should take about 15 to 20 minutes to cook through and be glazed.

Note: Serve with a very fine “spaghetti” of white turnip that has been lightly cooked and dressed with some of the marinade and some sesame oil, and grilled vegetables, such as mushrooms and zucchini, basted with the teriyaki.

Lightly Poached Skrei With Leek Butter, Puy Lentils, Kale and Pumpkin Seeds

The buttery soft flesh of Norwegian Skrei lends itself perfectly to this comforting simple supper. Recipe courtesy of the Norwegian Seafood Council.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 cup Puy lentils

2 large leeks, washed and green ends removed

1 stick unsalted butter

1 packet of kale

Salt and pepper

Juice and zest of 1 unwaxed lemon, plus 1 extra lemon for garnish

1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 Skrei fillets, with the skin on

Salt and pepper, to taste

Handful of pumpkin seeds, plain or lightly roasted if you prefer

Directions

1. Cook the lentils according to the instructions on the packet until they are al dente. If you prefer, cook them in chicken or vegetable stock this will add more flavor to the lentils, but it’s not essential.

2. Place the butter in a medium sauté pan and warm until completely melted.

3. Slice the leeks into 2-inch discs, then add them to the butter and cook slowly until very soft, about 10 to 15 minutes. Keep warm on a very low temperature while preparing the rest of the dish. Remove a couple of spoonfuls of the leek and butter mixture; set aside as garnish.

4. Wash the kale, removing the long thick spine in the middle of the leaves, and finely chop. Add the kale to the leek and butter mixture, gently toss over low heat until the kale is coated in the mixture. Make sure not to fry the kale or it will go crispy.

5. Drain the Puy lentils and add them to the kale mixture, toss a few times and taste. Add the lemon juice; season to your liking with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm while you cook the fish.

6. Drizzle a spoonful of vegetable oil in a large sauté pan; heat until the oil sizzles. Pat the fish skin dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper; place the fish fillets skin side down in the hot oil. Sauté the fillets for about 5 to 8 minutes, depending on thickness, until the flesh of the Skrei is nearly opaque throughout.

7. Season the top of the fish. Using a spatula or fish slice carefully turn the fish and finish cooking for about a minute. Squeeze a little lemon juice on the fish.

8. To serve, place equal amounts of the lentil, kale, and leek and butter mixture on each plate; place a fillet on top of the lentils. Top with a small spoonful of the leek and butter mixture that was set aside earlier; sprinkle with pumpkin seeds before serving.

Main photo: Lightly Poached Skrei With Leek Butter, Puy Lentils, Kale and Pumpkin Seeds. Recipe courtesy Norwegian Seafood Council. Credit: Copyright Norwegian Seafood Council

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Carrots can pair nicely with traditional Middle Eastern flavors. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto

Here’s a vegetarian idea — carrots with tahini. Think hummus, only with the mild sweetness (and vitamin A) of carrots.

The Middle East has an ancient tradition of meatless dishes. As the 13th-century cookbook “The Description of Familiar Foods” shows, Christians in the Arab world approached Lenten cuisine differently than did the Europeans, replacing red meat not with fish (since the eastern Mediterranean is relatively fish-poor) nor with almonds (which probably didn’t have the same luxury appeal as they had for, say, the French, since one might have an almond tree of one’s own in the backyard). Instead, they mimicked the richness of meat by stewing vegetables long and slow with oil. This tradition survives in Turkey as a class of dishes called yağlı yemekler, and it eventually entered French cuisine under the name légumes à la grecque.

Some of the fast-day recipes in “The Description” use sesame oil rather than olive oil, and this gave me the idea of replacing the meat with sesame paste, better known as tahini. You want heft and meatiness? Tahini can handle that, as any hummus eater knows. (But as any hummus cook knows, tahini separates easily and must be thoroughly stirred up before use.)

Here are two versions of my idea. The first is modern in style; in effect, it’s hummus made with carrots instead of chickpeas. It’s bright and savory and has a charming salmon color. The other gets its exotic, intoxicating sweet-sour flavor from honey, vinegar and sweet spices. It’s based on the medieval dish sikbâj, which was always flavored with vinegar and saffron, whatever other ingredients it might contain. In the late Middle Ages it traveled to Europe, where it evolved in two directions: aspic (which requires the use of meat, of course) and the Spanish preparation of cooked vegetables dressed with vinegar known as escabeche. Both words, aspic and escabeche, come from sikbâj, by the way. (Take my word for it.)

It’s clear that tahini existed in the Middle Ages, because cookbooks of the time call for it in a number of recipes — but none contain carrots. I can’t say that either of the following dishes has ever actually been made in the Middle East, but that has not stopped me from giving them plausible Arabic names.

Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright Charles Perry

Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright Charles Perry

Carrots With Tahini (Jazar bi-Tahini)

Prep time: 4 to 5 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

1 onion

2 tablespoons oil

1 pound carrots

2 cups water

1/2 cup tahini (stir before measuring)

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Directions

1. Peel the onion and slice half of it crosswise as thinly as possible (reserve the remaining half onion for another use).

2. Pour the oil into a frying pan and heat for 2 minutes or so over high heat. Add the onion slices and fry for 10 minutes, stirring often to separate the rings and prevent uneven browning. Reduce the heat to medium and stir continuously until golden brown, about 5 minutes more. Transfer the onions to a paper towel to drain. Pick out any excessively browned bits.

3. Peel and trim the carrots and chop roughly. Bring the water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the carrots and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, transfer to a food processor and purée, about 40 seconds.

4. Add the tahini, lemon juice, salt and cumin to the carrots. Process until smooth, 20 to 30 seconds. Adjust the seasonings to taste. To serve, garnish with the browned onions.

Carrot-Tahini Escabeche (Sikbâj Muzawwar)

Prep time: 4 to 5 minutes

Cooking time: 35 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients 

1 onion

2 tablespoons oil

1 pound carrots

2 cups water

10 threads saffron

1/2 cup vinegar

1/4 cup honey

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 cup tahini (stir before measuring)

2 to 3 sprigs mint leaves

Directions

1. Peel and chop the onion. Pour the oil into a frying pan and heat for 2 minutes over high heat. Add the onion and fry until golden, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring often. Transfer the onion to a paper towel to drain.

2. Peel and trim the carrots, then cut into chunks about 1/3-inch long.

3. Pour the water into a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the carrots and cook until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain the water and transfer the carrots to a bowl.

4. In a separate bowl, crush the saffron to powder with the back of a spoon and dissolve it in the vinegar, then add the honey, cinnamon and coriander. Add the tahini and thoroughly stir everything together. Adjust the vinegar, honey, spices and salt to taste.

5. Mix the carrots and fried onion with the tahini-saffron sauce. To serve, garnish with mint leaves.

Main photo: Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright 2015 Charles Perry

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Photo: Bottle of sake with a traditional ceramic carafe and small cups known as o-choko. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

The dogma about sake today is that high-quality versions must be served chilled, but that is a total misconception. In fact, there are many quality sakes that are best enjoyed warmed.

It’s true that sake, a traditional Japanese rice wine, was once consumed warmed if its quality was not good enough to be appreciated when chilled. But sake has gone through a dramatic change in quality in Japan in the last 50 years.

In the 1970s, specific yeasts that could produce delicate, sophisticated aromas and flavors in sake were developed. This accelerated the creation of high-grade ginjo sake. Made with highly polished rice, ginjo sake is lower in acidity, more fragrant and possesses elegant flavor. Because of the delicacy of its flavors, it should not be warmed.

I believe that the development of ginjo sake was hugely influenced by the introduction and growing popularity in Japan of wine from Europe and America. French, European or American meals served on white tablecloths with forks and knives accompanied by wine were seen as sophisticated and modern.

So when the new ginjo sake arrived on the scene, style-conscious drinkers became convinced that all good sake should be consumed cold or chilled.

But some traditional sake lovers shunned ginjo sake because of its lack of acidity and rich flavors. Some sake brewers also went against the trend and focused on producing quality traditional sake, which is high in acidity that is bold and round in flavor. They are known as junmai (100% rice sake), yamahai, kimoto and honjozo (alcohol added) sake. These varieties are well suited to be enjoyed in a different range of serving temperatures.

Five reasons to drink your sake warm

1. Warming sake helps to blossom its natural flavors and fragrance.

2. Warming sake balances its sweetness, acidity and astringency.

3. It is wonderful to consume warmed sake with meals during the cold winter. It’s like mulled wine, but with no added sugar.

4. Warmed sake is absorbed by the body more quickly, so we can “feel” it sooner and control the amount we drink.

5. Without learning how to appreciate warmed sake, we can never say that we have a complete understanding of this wonderful beverage.

Certain groups of sake can be enjoyed at nine different temperatures. This may seem intimidating, but according to Hiroshi Ujita, president of Tamanohikari Brewery in Kyoto, there is no strict rule on warming sake. Each sake lover in Japan has a preferred temperature for a particular sake.

How much to warm the sake is also influenced by the season, the temperature of the dining room and the temperature of the dishes that will be consumed with it. You can find temperature guidance on warming sake in my book “The Sushi Experience,” but here is some guidance on four easy to master-and-understand sake temperature levels that you can use to begin exploring the joys of warmed sake. Consider these levels and try them on your favorite robust flavorful sake: Body temperature (hitohada), 98 F; lukewarm (nurukan), 104 F; warm (jokan), 113 F; hot (atsukan), 122 F.

I suggest that before using real sake, you practice recognizing these temperatures with some warm water and a thermometer. It won’t take you long to distinguish with a touch of liquid on your hand between the four levels I have suggested. If you decide to try warming sake, follow the very basic instructions in the recipe.

Sakes made for warming

Here are some recommended sakes to start on your warmed sake adventure. If you start with this group, you will fall in love with these warmed beverages for the rest of your life. The recommended temperature is only a guideline. As Ujita advises, explore different temperatures to see what you prefer, and have fun with it.

1. Tamanohikari Yamahai: This sake comes from the 342-year-old Tamanohikari Brewery. After the war, a rice shortage forced brewers to produce sake with less rice and added alcohol. In 1964, Tamanohikari Brewery was the first company to revert from its postwar poor sake production method to the original, traditional method using 100% rice-produced sake. Tamanohikari Yamahai has good acidity, umami and round body. Recommended at 98 F.

2. Tengumai Yamahai: This sake comes from the 192-year-old Shata Shuzo Brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture. The name Tengumai implies that everyone wants to dance after drinking this sake. Acidity is high with slight astringency and strong aroma. Recommended at 98 F and 113 F.

3. Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo: This sake comes from the 211-year-old Kokuryu Brewery in Fukui Prefecture. The company has been developing robust tasting ginjo sake that has been designed to be consumed warmed, going against the major trend of chilling ginjo sake. Warming Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo enriches the characteristics of sake — roundness, robustness and refined flavor. Recommended at 98 F.

The next time you are dining at your favorite Japanese restaurant, try ordering your sake warmed to your preferred temperature.

How to warm sake like a pro

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 2 to 3 minutes

Ingredients

Sake

Flask

Medium-size pot

Thermometer, optional

Directions

1. Transfer sake into a flask, filling to 90% of the flask.

2. Add cold water in a medium pot, enough to submerge 80% of the flask, and bring it to a boil.

3. Turn off the heat and add the flask in the center of the pot and leave it until the preferred temperature. It will take about 1 to 2 minutes to heat to 98 F. If you want to warm it a bit more, leave it for an additional minute.

4. Warmed sake should be served in a small sake cup and consumed while it is nice and warm.

Tips

  • Use a little ceramic or heat-proof glass flask that can hold about 1 cup of sake.
  • Use a pot of boiling water to warm the sake; don’t put it in a microwave oven.
  • Enjoy warm sake in a small ceramic o-choko cup, or a small heat-proof glass cup.
  • As a beginner, follow the temperature guidelines above. Be careful not to overheat the sake; the modestly warm temperatures I have suggested are best.
  • Enjoy different temperatures and find the preferred one for your selected sake.

Photo: Bottle of sake with a traditional ceramic carafe and small cups known as o-choko. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

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