Foraging basket with wild greens asparagus and dock. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Spring has finally lifted her sleepy head, and while your garden veggies may not yet be ready to harvest, there are edible wild greens popping up all over that will enable you to enjoy the fresh foods you are craving.

Wild plants are hardy and can handle the weather swings that often come with spring. Take a few minutes to look at the ground, and you may be surprised at how many tasty edibles are right at your feet.

Just make certain to follow the three golden rules of foraging. First, never eat any plant you’ve not identified with certainty. Second, don’t eat anything you suspect has been sprayed or grows in contaminated areas. And finally, harvest sustainably, with an eye to the greater environment. Grab a local guidebook, and see how many of these wild greens of spring you can add to you kitchen.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion, the iconic weed, may be one of the most versatile in the kitchen, as it can be eaten root to tip. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Dandelion, the iconic weed, may be one of the most versatile in the kitchen, as it can be eaten root to tip. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Sure, you already knew you could eat the leaves of these familiar wild greens, may have even seen them at the grocery store, but did you know that every part of the dandelion is edible?

You can cook the root like you would a carrot, if it is tender enough. If the root is tough, it can be chopped, dried, roasted, and enjoyed as a coffee-like beverage. The crown of dandelion, where the leaves meet the taproot can be a delightful vegetable, cooked and eaten as a side dish, or thrown into stir-fries.

The flowers can be put straight into salads for a pop of color and bitterness, or fried into fritters. Even the long flower stalks can be boiled like noodles, if you have enough on hand.

My favorite dandelion recipe is to prepare a pizza with a salt-and-pepper garlic crust, baked with prosciutto, cheese and eggs, and graced with a generous handful of raw dandelion leaves once it emerges from the oven.

Mustards (multiple genera)

Wild mustards, relatives of broccoli and kale, bring zest and bitterness to recipes. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Wild mustards, relatives of broccoli and kale, bring zest and bitterness to recipes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Wild plants in the Brassicaceae family are botanically related to some of the most common commercial vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, turnips and kale. Wild mustard plants sometimes have a stronger flavor than their grocery store cousins, but you can use that to your advantage by pairing them with equally strong flavors.

Locally, I use musk mustard (Chorispora tenella) in much the same way as arugula, enjoying it with a bold blue cheese dressing as salad or stuffed into sandwiches. Another favorite is white top mustard (Lepidium draba), which stands in nicely for broccoli rabe in the classic pasta dish with sausage.

The trick with mustard plants is often in knowing at what stage to eat them for best flavor, which is something you can find out from your local guidebook. The great advantage of wild mustards is that they are often invasive in nature and can be harvested in large quantities.

Dock (Rumex spp.)

If you like the lemony flavor of sorrel, you may well enjoy dock, which can substituted for spinach in all of your favorite recipes. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

If you like the lemony flavor of sorrel, you may well enjoy dock, which can substituted for spinach in all of your favorite recipes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Dock can often be recognized by its tall fruiting stalk, which turns rust-colored when it dries out. If you’ve got dock nearby, seek out its newly unfurled leaves, staying away from any that are touched with red or purple, which may indicate bitterness. Because of its high oxalic acid content, dock is best enjoyed cooked.

Lovers of sorrel will immediate recognize a similar lemony green taste in dock. It makes a very nice last minute addition to all manner of soups, and is also a natural in egg dishes.

Knotweed (Fallopia japonica, F. sachalinensis, and F. bohemica)

Invasive knotweed looks a bit like asparagus when it is newly emerged, the best time for harvest. Its hollow shoots are tart and tangy, somewhat like rhubarb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Invasive knotweed looks a bit like asparagus when it is newly emerged, the best time for harvest. Its hollow shoots are tart and tangy, somewhat like rhubarb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

In most places outside of Asia, knotweed is considered unwelcome, even pernicious. It has taken a stronghold in several areas of U.S. Because it is reviled as an invasive, you must take great care to harvest knotweed from a place you are certain has not been sprayed. But if you find a clean area to harvest knotweed, you will be able to snap off the earliest growth of this plant and take advantage of its tart flavor.

The hollow shoots of these wild greens make an excellent crisp pickle, or can be cooked into savory sauces to be paired with game meat. Knotweed can also stand in any place you’d use rhubarb. Take care not to put trimming from knotweed into your compost, so as not to further spread it.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

Asparagus is an excellent plant to begin your foraging journey, because it looks identical to that which can be purchased at the store. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Asparagus is an excellent plant to begin your foraging journey, because it looks identical to that which can be purchased at the store. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

 

One of the kings of wild spring foods, you can stalk the wild asparagus just like outdoorsman Euell Gibbons did. The asparagus that grows wild in the U.S. is actually the same species sold in stores. It escaped from gardens at some point, and is technically considered feral for that reason.

The key to finding asparagus in the wild is learning to recognize the bushy yellow-gold color of the previous year’s plants. Once you have that pattern down, old fence lines, former farm land and irrigation ditches are often your best bet for finding asparagus.

Main photo: Foraging basket with asparagus and dock. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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Pan-Seared Scallops With Sherry Vinegar Reduction. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Nestled in its elegant, fan-shaped shell, the lustrous and translucent scallop is one of the ocean’s greatest beauties. When removed from its protective housing and placed in a hot pan, grill or oven, it transforms into one of the culinary world’s most delectable foods.

Thanks to its plump and juicy yet firm flesh, mildly sweet flavor, ease of preparation and overall sustainability, this bivalve has become one of my go-to seafood choices.

When talking about scallops, I usually mean sea scallops. I most often see this type in refrigerated seafood cases and on restaurant menus. Larger than the other category of scallops, bay scallops, they range in size from 1 1/2 inches to 9 inches in diameter. They are farmed on coastlines around the world and harvested year-round, making them widely available and relatively affordable.

Their tiny relation, the bay scallop, grows to only a half-inch in diameter. Sweeter and more tender than sea scallops, the bay scallop is less common and, as a result, costs considerably more.

Whether classified as bay or sea, all scallops filter feed on plankton. To do this, they draw in particle-filled water, strain out the plankton for consumption and then push out the cleaned water. They share this tidy method of eating with clams, mussels and oysters, the other members of the bivalve family.

Scallops score high on sustainability

Scallops have a good sustainability rating. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Scallops have a good sustainability rating. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

The ability to filter impurities from water means scallops are considered eco-friendly creatures. Their lack of dependence on fish feed and predilection for eating from the bottom of the food chain further increases their good environmental standing. Good for the environment and likewise safe for consumption, they can be enjoyed by both children and adults at least four times a month.

Unquestionably, I appreciate the scallops’ solid sustainability rating. What I also like is how little effort is needed to prepare them. Unlike other bivalves, I never have to shuck a bunch of scallops.

Simple ways to boost scallops’ flavor

Scallops pair well with many flavors and foods, making them a versatile choice. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Scallops pair well with many flavors and foods, making them a versatile choice. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Because their shells never close completely, scallops spoil easily. To avoid the risk of spoilage, fishermen shuck the scallops right after harvesting them. Everything but the meaty abductor muscle — and, if you live outside the U.S., the orange-colored roe sack — is discarded.

U.S. consumers know the pearly abductor muscle as a scallop; in America this is what we cook and eat. Elsewhere people have the choice of buying and cooking scallops with or without the roe intact. Having tried it both ways, I have to vouch for the use of the rich, slightly salty roe. It adds complexity to and also balances out the scallop’s mildly sweet flavor.

Because I don’t have the option of including the roe, I sometimes toss in an extra ingredient or two to boost the scallops’ taste. Herbs such as basil, chervil, parsley, tarragon and thyme and seasonings such as cayenne, black and white pepper, salt, brandy, vinegar and dry white wine complement this shellfish. So, too, do avocados, bell peppers, carrots, chilies, corn, garlic, ginger, shallots, lemons, limes, mushrooms, spinach and tomatoes. This is a companionable and versatile seafood.

Tips for buying scallops

Consider odor, color and luster when buying scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Consider odor, color and luster when buying scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

When shopping for scallops, I consider odor, color and luster. The flesh should smell sweet rather than pungent or fishy. It should have a bright sheen and appear somewhere between pale pink and light beige in color. Unless soaked in a solution, which increases its weight and, therefore, cost, a scallop will not appear bright white.

Additionally, the meat should not look flabby but instead be firm and well formed. Floppiness or limpness is another sign the shellfish has been languishing in liquid. Because I don’t want to pay more for less and, more important, buy seafood that’s been bathing in preservatives, I ask my fishmonger for dry-packed or untreated scallops.

Lastly, I request either diver-caught sea scallops from Mexico or farmed sea scallops; as you might suspect from the name, diver-caught indicates a diver has hand collected the bivalves from the ocean floor. Both methods of harvesting have low environmental impact.

Because I’m one of those uptight buy-right-before-cooking cooks, I tend to prepare my scallops as soon as I return from the market. If I have to deviate from this practice, I immediately refrigerate the scallops. They will keep for up to two days in the refrigerator.

Cooking methods

Pan searing is one of several cooking techniques that bring out the flavor of scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

Pan searing is one of several cooking techniques that bring out the flavor of scallops. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

When cooking scallops, I have a plethora of techniques at my disposal. These include sautéing, pan searing, grilling, broiling and poaching. Along with serving them on their own, I’ve put them in gratins, seafood pies, stir-fries, ceviches, tartares and stews. Light and flavorful, they are a wonderful, all-purpose seafood.

This spring enliven your cooking with simple, tasty scallops. They’re good, and good for you!

Pan-Seared Scallops With Sherry Vinegar Reduction

This recipe is from “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013) by Kathy Hunt.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 scant tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons minced shallot

1 cup sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon light brown sugar, firmly packed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound large sea scallops

Sea salt to taste

Freshly ground white pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small frying pan, heat the olive oil on medium. Add the minced shallot and sauté until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

2. Pour the sherry vinegar into a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and stir in the brown sugar and shallots. Simmer until the liquid has thickened and reduced to 1/2 cup or 1/3 cup. When finished, the sauce will be syrupy in texture. Set aside. (Note: You may want to reheat this slightly before dressing the cooked scallops with it.)

3. In a large, nonstick frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil on high. Add the scallops, season with salt and pepper and reduce the heat to medium-high. Sear the scallops until brown on the bottom. Flip them over and fry the other side until browned. Depending on the size of your scallops, the cooking time will take between 6 to 8 minutes total.

4. Place the scallops on the dinner plates. Drizzle the shallot-sherry vinegar reduction over the scallops. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Pan-Seared Scallops With Sherry Vinegar Reduction. Credit: Copyright Kathy Hunt

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California's wine woes continue to mount. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto/Avalon_Studio

For the second time in two weeks, the California wine industry is under fire. First, it was a class-action lawsuit aimed at inexpensive wines with moderately elevated levels of arsenic. Now, it’s cooties. And they’ve been spotted in the proverbial good stuff.

Cooties — formally Cutius terrebilis, a childhood condition associated with social dysfunction, formerly believed to be something people grow out of naturally by the time they are teenagers — have apparently been detected in a broad cross-section of California wines.

Curiously, the cooties-bearing wines are not connected by their region of origin or varietal makeup, but rather by their rating on the so-called 100-point scale, popularized during the 20th century but inexplicably still finding traction in lesser-evolved pockets of the U.S. wine scene today.

Dr. Isiah B. Wright — who holds degrees in medicine, enology, viticulture, psychology and statistics — revealed his research yesterday at a news conference where he also announced he is not initiating a class-action suit. Wright explained that the presence of cooties is fortunately limited to wines that have been rated 90 points or higher, and is not as pernicious or contagious as it can be in elementary schools and summer camps.

Symptoms of cooties

Symptoms of cooties transmission from wine to humans are subtle, and mostly psychological rather than systemic. “Given that said ratings are purported to provide guidance, and in turn confidence, in the drinker, the 90-point wines are particularly risky,” Wright continued. “Exposure to too many could leave imbibers with subconscious anxiety, a creeping doubt, if you will, that their own taste in wine is merely pedestrian.”

He went on to explain that, unfortunately, 90-point wines are “about 9 cents a dozen these days,” and thanks to complicity of online and traditional retailers too lazy or too unsure of their own palates to review wines themselves, these ratings have proliferated to the point where exposure is difficult to avoid.

Of course, cooties in humans under the age of 10 are fairly easily treated; once cooties are contracted on the playground, a four-finger squeeze applied within one day by a merciful peer does the trick. In adults, Wright said he knows of two treatments: “The first thing people can do, as a prophylactic measure, is to immediately reject the usage of any wine ratings outside their original habitat, i.e., in the pages of magazines that no one actually reads anyway. This is quite easy, actually. Wine ratings derived almost exclusively by middle-aged men sampling 20 wines at a pop ‘blind’ and without a crumb of food — who would consider their advice useful in real life, where people, food and context are in play?”

The second, he explained, is even simpler: “Pour yourself some wine of the masses — a crisp dry rosé, a humble Prosecco, a refreshing sangria. Go tap a box wine, pound some Pinot Grigio or share a magnum of Merlot. And then — are you listening? — add some food. Adds 10 points to every wine, every time” — especially on April 1.

Main photo: California’s wine woes continue to mount. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto/Avalon_Studio

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Six tips that will help your kids have fun with gardening this summer. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Spring has finally come to our neck of the woods, and we’re beginning to take the tiny shoots from our mini-greenhouse in our basement out into the world. I want my daughters to know where their food comes from, but growing a kid-friendly garden means more than just planting kid-friendly plants.


If you want to get kids to actually eat their veggies, it helps if you get them invested in the process and care of the garden. If your kids see the backyard vegetable garden as “theirs,” they are far more likely to embrace the products: happily eating radishes and arugula that they’ve grown on their own. Here are six tips — tested in our home — to get your kids to embrace gardening and become active agents in creating their own food.

1. Get dirty

Susan Lutz - 6 Quick Garden Tips for Kids

Kids need to dig into the earth and get their hands dirty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Forget the image of white-frocked children basking in a pristine flower bed; that image gets in the way of real gardening. Get your kids dirty as fast as possible. Ask them to dig with hand trowels, sticks or bare fingers, and they will leap at the opportunity. When watering, “accidentally” drench them with a good hosing. They’ll squeal, then beg for more — and watering is no longer a chore but a family frolic. Make mud and get them in it. Over-plant in anticipation of grubby little fingers pulling out the extraneous shoots. A garden shouldn’t be too precious. Good gardening demands some filth, and when kids realize this, they embrace it.

2. Get gross

If your garden doesn't have enough worms, buy some. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

If your garden doesn’t have enough worms, buy some. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Kids love gross, and a garden has it in spades. Ask your kids to find worms, then take the opportunity to discuss their impact on the soil. If your garden doesn’t have enough worms, go buy them and let the kids play with their new “pets” while you’re putting them into the garden. If you want to step it up a notch, create a vermiculture bin and let your kids be in charge of the worm farm. Look for beneficial insects such as ladybug larvae and lacewings. Explain that the reason you wash food that comes from the garden comes down to two words: bird poop. Some kids may react negatively to grossness, but that’s part of the charm. Gross things are both attractive and repulsive to young ones, and finding that fine line where attraction and repulsion equal each other out keeps the kids coming back to the garden.

3. Get creative

Let children name their plants and processes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Let children name their plants and processes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Encourage your kids to rename the plants in the garden. Our girls have dubbed our sage bush as “Hairy Bigfoot Plant.” That name has made the humble herb extremely attractive to our girls and to the neighbor kids — especially after we cut out pieces from a milk jug and made markers for our newly named plants. In fact, our two girls and the neighbor boy run to this plant every morning as they walk to school and actually eat a leaf of Hairy Bigfoot Plant. Without that name, I suspect elementary school kids would not be eating raw sage leaves every morning on the way to school. Have your kids play The Name Game, and they are suddenly personally invested in growing and eating mummy peas (snap peas) and bloody spice balls (radishes).

4. Get a kit

Organize tools, tote bags and buckets into a kit. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Organize tools, tote bags and buckets into a kit. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Kids love kits, so create an easily portable garden set for each child. You can buy them ready-made at the nursery or dollar store … but where’s the fun in that? Ask your kids to choose cheap tools for themselves, or gather the tools you already have and put them in specific kits. We turned milk jugs into garden kits, but a tote bag or plastic bucket works just as well. Add more than just a trowel rake and gloves. Put in a magnifying glass, eyedroppers, specimen jars and other “scientific” tools to deploy in the garden. When it’s time to do some weeding, tell your kids to grab their kits and you suddenly have an eager workforce.

5. Get experimental

Do a few scientific experiments along the way. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Do a few scientific experiments along the way. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Make your garden a laboratory, not a display. Ask your kids to experiment with the dirt, the compost, the layout and the results of your planting. Turn gardening into a science experiment. When the plants are coming up, try taste experiments — is this bitter? Sour? Sweet? This type of hands-on discovery helps kids understand that “good” doesn’t always mean “familiar” — so that when your crop is ready for the kitchen, your kids will beg to try to results. This may require you to set aside a part of your garden to be devoted to the kids’ experiments (so that you don’t ruin your entire crop) but their creative/destructive explorations will personalize your garden… and its results.

6. Get dramatic

Let children style their garden pickings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Let children style their garden pickings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Learn a lesson from molecular gastronomy: Presentation and entertainment are part of the full experience of food. When it was time to thin the new shoots of butter crunch lettuce and arugula, we had our girls wash the tiny shoots and arrange them attractively on a platter with small chunks of string cheese and a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. A garden chore suddenly becomes an art project, then a dish of Farm-To-Table Micro-Greens. In the garden itself, use the “experimental” area for play as well as work: Set up scenes, fairy gardens or Lego cities beneath the plants. The “forest” of carrots grows more lush around the tiny family that lives beneath it … then Godzilla descends at harvest time, pulling the trees by the roots as the dolls run and scream in horror. The garden becomes a playground, and the plate becomes a stage, turning the concept of “playing with your food” into a deeper understanding of the earth, growing plants and the process of creating and eating food.

Main photo: Keep the fun factor high when enticing children to do gardening this summer. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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For National Poetry Month, I honor my favorite African-American poets who chose to write about food. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

April is National Poetry Month. For Zester foodies I bring — not a recipe — but a taste of the work of my favorite African-American poets who chose food as metaphor and main ingredient.

“I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun and rain,” African-American poet Kevin Young said in an interview on National Public Radio’s “The Salt” program. “And that’s where food comes from, and so there’s this common link.”

I agree.

Each of these poems is as unique as the poet who cooked them up. One poet seduced you with chocolate. Another wondered why you eat health food. All of them reflect culture with nuanced politics, humor and love.

Rita Dove

The 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry for her work “Thomas and Beulah,” U.S. Poet Laureate (1993 to 1995), National Medal of Arts honoree (2012) and English professor at the University of Virginia, Dove is known for her lyrical style and historical edge.

Rita Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her work "Thomas and Beulah." Credit: Copyright Dan Addison, University of Virginia Communications

Rita Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her work “Thomas and Beulah.” Credit: Copyright Dan Addison, University of Virginia Communications

She also writes about music in “Sonata Mulattica” and dance in “American Smooth.” As I moved into midlife, I acquired an addiction to chocolate. So naturally, I was drawn to Dove’s ode to the confection entitled “Chocolate.” Here’s an excerpt of it, taken from the “American Smooth” collection:

“Velvet fruit, exquisite square
I hold up to sniff
between finger and thumb —
how you numb me
with your rich attentions!”

Maya Angelou

I had the honor of meeting and dining with Angelou several times while living in Oakland, Calif. The nation is still grieving the 2014 loss of our beloved storyteller, writer, activist and author of the 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

Maya Angelou died in 2014 at age 86. Credit: Copyright Dwight Carter

Maya Angelou died in 2014 at age 86. Credit: Copyright Dwight Carter

Angelou delivered the poem for the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.  She was also an extraordinary chef and humorist. Her poem “The Health-Food Diner” — published in “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou” — is a hilarious poke at vegetarians. If you read the whole thing, you will see the humor, too. She begins with raw veggies while ending the first few stanzas fantasizing about meat. But she builds a crescendo to a frenzy of pork loins, chicken thighs and Irish stew. Here’s how this poem opens:

“No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).”

Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander delivered President Barack Obama's inauguration poem in 2009. Credit: Copyright Michael Marsland, Yale University

Elizabeth Alexander delivered President Barack Obama’s inauguration poem in 2009. Credit: Copyright Michael Marsland, Yale University

I met the distinguished Yale professor during the launch of her poetry in the New York City subway at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Poetry in Motion event.

Recently named to the board of chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, Alexander delivered President Barack Obama’s inauguration poem in 2009.

Her “Butter,” included in “The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink,” edited by Young , is a vivid tribute to her mother and the many delectable ways one can cook with butter. Her British West Indian menu includes Yorkshire puddings in the first half of the poem. Here are some opening lines:

“My mother loves butter more than I do,
more than anyone. She pulls chunks off
the stick and eats it plain, explaining
cream spun around into butter!”

Nikki Giovanni

Giovanni is best known as a civil rights poet activist from the Black Arts Movement.

Nikki Giovanni is best known as a civil rights poet activist from the Black Arts Movement. Credit: Copyright Jan Cohn

Nikki Giovanni is best known as a civil rights poet activist from the Black Arts Movement. Credit: Copyright Jan Cohn

She writes about food as memory, sustenance and aphrodisiac. A humorous and serious poet-foodie, Giovanni is known for sharing stories about her grandmother, aunts and mother’s cooking at poetry readings. Her book, “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid,” describes how she went from being the “baby in the family to becoming an elder.” So, while this book is mostly about mourning her loved ones, she spins lovely stories about them through food. This is a must-read for food poetry fans. As she searches for “Utopia” beer to toast her mother’s memory, she explained the correct way to cook grits in “The Right Way”:

“My Grandmother’s grits
Are so much better than mine
Mine tend to be lumpy
And a bit disoriented”

Langston Hughes

Hughes is one of the most celebrated literary figures from the Harlem Renaissance.

Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem" is best known as "A Raisin in the Sun" -- the title of Lorraine Hansberry's acclaimed Broadway play. Credit: Copyright 1952 The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” is best known as “A Raisin in the Sun” — the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed Broadway play. Credit: Copyright 1952 The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

His poem “Harlem” is best known as “A Raisin in the Sun” — the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed Broadway play. This was the top poem mentioned when I asked colleagues to name their top five black poets who told stories through the lens of food. Most everyone in my circle can recite this powerful poem by heart. Here are a few lines:

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?”

If these excerpts have left you hungry for more, check the aforementioned “The Hungry Ear,” which features a multicultural blend of poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters,” Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms,” among dozens of others.

Main photo: For National Poetry Month, I honor my favorite African-American poets who chose to write about food. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

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A platter of

Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.

For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.

Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.

While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:

  • Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
  • Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
  • Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
  • Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
  • Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.

Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.

Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck

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Abby Fisher's 1881 cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

I was born in Harlem, a child of Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants. I witnessed what the women in my family could do with food.

Rarely is our history taught through the lens of food. Yet, it was over the hearth and in kitchens large and small that they impacted our nation’s culture and created economic, political and social independence through ingenious culinary skills.

That is why I honor African-American women cooks for Women’s History Month this March.

The women in my family created and passed down masterful meals from ancient, unwritten recipes. They built communities and paved my way with proceeds from selling sweet potato pies, fried chicken dinners and roti lunches: a Trinidad flatbread cooked on a griddle and wrapped around curried vegetables or meats. My mom made these popular rotis and sold them in box lunches to employees at the hospital where she worked.

Whether they were free or formerly enslaved, the women I descended from cooked their way to freedom and wealth in America.

In their honor, I have chosen to feature two vintage recipes from two of the oldest cookbooks written by African-American women.

Cookbook pioneers

Malinda Russell wrote “A Domestic Cook Book” in 1866. Abby Fisher wrote “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking” in 1881.

Malinda Russell's "A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen" is believed to be the first published cookbook by an African-American author. Credit: University of Michigan/Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive

Malinda Russell’s “A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen” is believed to be the first published cookbook by an African-American author. Credit: University of Michigan/Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive

Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Mrs. Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Both women wrote their books at the behest of friends, fans and patrons.

Mrs. Russell, a free woman from Tennessee and an owner of a local bakery, was known for her pastries. Most of her recipes are European-inspired. Her cookbook also includes remedies and full-course meals. It was published after she moved to Paw Paw, Michigan.

Mrs. Fisher, a formerly enslaved person, won cooking medals for a wide range of dishes, including preserves and condiments in California. She moved out West from Alabama after the Civil War.

Below are their original recipes and my interpretation.

Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies

Jumbles were cake-like cookies popular from the 1700s. Mrs. Russell’s recipe was exceedingly spare on details, like all of her recipes:

“One lb. flour, 3/4 lb. sugar, one half lb. butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and caraway, to your taste.”

The popular vintage cookies have been adapted through the ages — even by modern food bloggers. I personally sampled a reimagined version of a Jumbles recipe at a culinary event that Anne Hampton Northup was said to have made when she cooked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Northrup was a chef and the wife of Solomon Northup, whose life was depicted in the Oscar-winning picture “12 Years a Slave”.

Here is a more detailed recipe so you can make Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies, using her ingredients. Since she suggested using mace, rosewater and caraway to taste, feel free to alter the suggested amounts of those ingredients:

Jumbles Cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: About 4 dozen cookies

Ingredients

3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspons mace

2 tablespoons caraway seeds

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

8 ounces salted butter (2 sticks, at room temperature)

5 eggs (small- or medium-sized)

4 tablespoons rosewater

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, mace and caraway seeds.

3. In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter together.

4. With an electric mixer on low speed, beat in eggs to the butter and sugar mixture.

5. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.

6. Add the rosewater and mix until combined.

7. Using a tablespoon measure, spoon tablespoon-full size drops of the batter on your baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.

8. Bake for about 10 minutes, just until the edges turn golden.

9. Cool the cookies for two minutes on wire racks. Serve, and store the remainder quickly in a sealed container or bag.

Mrs. Abby Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy

This old recipe holds up very well today. Many of Mrs. Fisher’s recipes called for huge amounts of each ingredient:

“To five gallons of berries add one gallon of the best brandy; put on the fire in a porcelain kettle and let it just come to a boil, then take it off the fire and make a syrup of granulated sugar; ten pounds of sugar to one quart of water. Let the syrup cook till thick as honey, skimming off the foam while boiling; then pour it upon the brandy and berries and let it stand for eight weeks; then put in a bottle or demijohn. This blackberry brandy took a diploma at the state Fair of 1879. Let the berries, brandy and syrup stand in a stone jar or brandy keg for eight weeks when you take it off the fire.”

The basic ingredients for Mrs. Fisher's Blackberry Brandy: blackberries, sugar and cognac. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

The basic ingredients for Mrs. Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy: blackberries, sugar and cognac. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

I was so inspired by Mrs. Fisher’s recipe that I made my own version — which is now in the middle of the eight-week fermentation process. I used the same ingredients, but reduced the amounts, and poured them into a glass jug instead of a brandy keg. And I used cognac, because Mrs. Fisher’s recipe called for the “best brandy.”

We’ll have our own taste test — at my next family reunion.

Main photo: Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook was long believed to be the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s 1866 book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

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Classic blancmange, pictured, is even better when you blend the fruit right in. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lesyy

There’s a dessert that’s scarcely known in America but all too familiar in England, where it is today considered the epitome of blandness, no small feat given English standards. But in the 19th century, its wilder possibilities were explored, some of which were smashingly good and deserve a new life.

The dish is blancmange (that’s French lingo there: “blahn-MAHNJ”), and the modern standard is basically a gelatin dessert of almond milk, or dairy milk with almond flavoring, or just milk and vanilla, molded into a characteristic shape that sometimes showed up in Monty Python skits as a silly, giant blancmange monster.

The almond-milk version, at least, has an ancient history. Blancmange descends from blancmanger, the most esteemed dish of the European Middle Ages, which basically consisted of the whitest ingredients available to the cook: milk, almonds, chicken breasts, sugar, rice, even breadcrumbs in a pinch. It was a special attraction at a time when cuisine tended to be either brown or green or brownish green, and it appealed to the medieval nobility for another reason: As the middle class kept rising and rising, pure white food such as blancmanger symbolized the stainless aristocratic ancestry that those irritating bourgeois upstarts could never claim. The idea was that you can add colorings to turn a white food whatever color you like, but you can’t turn a colored food white. In the 1820s, Antonin Carême, the founder of French grande cuisine, wrote, “These delicious sweets are greatly esteemed by gastronomes, but to be enjoyed they must be extremely smooth and very white. Given these two qualities (so rarely found together), they will always be preferred to other creams, even to transparent jellies.”

It’s not surprising that democratic-minded Americans paid little attention to the historical significance of whiteness. They made chocolate versions (every edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook since 1896 has presented the chocolate pudding as a variety of blancmange), and they made versions flavored with fruit; when they used berries or cherries, the result was very far from aristocratic white. They also played with different thickening agents, using cornstarch, farina or tapioca as well as gelatin. For my money, the star version is the cream fruit blancmange. It’s reminiscent of a packaged gelatin dessert but with the genuine flavor of fresh fruit (I’m particularly partial to blackberry), enriched by cream. The texture is unique, soft and elastic, like a cross between pudding and fruit jelly but richer. Old recipes say to serve cream fruit blancmange with whipped cream or boiled custard sauce (which we now know as crème anglaise), but I don’t think it really needs a topping.

Some advice: Do not add the fruit purée to the cream until the gelatin is thoroughly dissolved or the acidity will cause curdling. The result will still taste good, but you won’t get that plush texture. For a more conventional pudding effect, you can cut the amount of gelatin to 1 1/2 tablespoons; if you want less richness, you can use half-and-half instead of cream.

Cream Fruit Blancmange

Prep time: 7 to 8 minutes

Cooking time: 9 to 10 minutes

Total time: 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup water

1 ounce (2 tablespoons or 2 packets) unflavored gelatin

1 quart berries or cherries

1 pint cream

1 cup sugar

Directions

1. Add the water to a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Let dissolve and swell, 5 minutes or more. Meanwhile, purée the berries in a food processor or food mill 2 to 3 minutes and strain. You will have about 1 cup of thick juice.

2. Put the cream in a saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until scalded, 7 to 8 minutes (tiny bubbles will form and the aroma of the cream will change). Stir often to prevent scorching.

3. Reduce heat to low. Stir 1/2 cup of the hot cream into the dissolved gelatin and whisk until thoroughly mixed; then add the gelatin mixture into the cream remaining in the saucepan and whisk until it is thoroughly dispersed, 1 minute or so. Add the sugar and stir until well dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat.

4. Add the fruit purée to the cream and stir until the color is uniform. Pour into serving bowls, bring to room temperature and refrigerate until set, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Main photo: Classic blancmange, pictured, is even better when you blend the fruit right in. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lesyy

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