The dining room is set for an Anne-Northup-inspired meal at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City. Credit: Courtesy of the Morris-Jumel Mansion

Just as Solomon Northup’s story has moved audiences who’ve seen the Oscar-nominated film “12 Years a Slave,” the narrative of his wife Anne offers a rare window into a meaningful period of culinary history.

Food historians and chefs celebrated this significant period during a recent lecture, tour and dinner at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the New York City estate where Anne worked for Eliza Jumel during her husband’s bondage.

In “12 Years a Slave,” we learned that Anne Northup was headed to a cooking job for a few weeks when her husband was kidnapped in 1841. Not until about a month after Solomon went missing did Anne find out her husband was kidnapped. The couple’s local white Northup family first informed her of the abduction.

So, we can only imagine how distraught Anne and the children felt when they decided to move in with Madame Eliza Jumel, the flamboyant second wife of Vice President Aaron Burr. They apparently lived and worked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Harlem Heights off and on for three years.

Free black woman’s role in food history

Before moving to New York City, the two women met at the United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, a playground for the rich and famous. Anne lived and worked at the historic hotel and, according to several sources, was a “highly regarded chef and kitchen manager,” said Jane Lancaster, Brown University visiting history professor and event lecturer.

“Madame Jumel’s rags-to-riches story — having been born in a mixed-race brothel and raised in a work house — might explain the two women’s relationship,” Lancaster said. “It probably was more of an employee-employer bond than friendship. We are not sure if Madame paid Anne well or if it was barter. Nonetheless, Madame Jumel informally “adopted” Anne’s children as companions for her own, as referenced in madame’s scandalous divorce papers.

“Free blacks were not always paid on the same scale as whites and that might explain why Anne took on so many cooking jobs through her 50-year career. The stereotyped black female cook and washerwoman did exist in the north among jobs for free blacks. But Anne was strictly a cook of some status. Good cooks were seriously valued in those days,” Lancaster said.

A nearly lost food history

During the 1820s, printed menus were rare and few restaurants existed. The hospitality industry was in its infancy. Hotels, inns, lodges and private homes offered simple to elaborate meals.

“Anne Northup was an ambassador of sorts of a very unique America menu, a northern Creole cookery style,” said event curator Tonya Hopkins of The Food Griot.

“Anne was a master chef in the purest form. She was knowledgeable about farming, butchering, harvesting, chemistry, timing, temperatures. You really had to be physically strong, smart and authoritative and have your senses about you to manage a colonial kitchen — a hearth, a cooktop and a staff. Everything was made from scratch — stock, brine, pickles, sauces, corn meal, dried herbs, salad dressing and more.

“She apprenticed from a young age at the Eagle Tavern and worked strictly as a cook and kitchen manager at Eagles Tavern, Cheryl’s Coffee House, United States Hotel and for the rich and not so famous,” Hopkins said as she led a tour of the mansion’s kitchen where Anne cooked.

We rarely discuss northern Creolization of American cuisine, but Anne’s story created an opportunity to consider this history. It served as a reminder that American cuisine was always fusion cooking.

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The colonial kitchen at Morris-Jumel Mansion where Anne Northup cooked. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

“Northern American food is really the result of a double Creolization. The first Creolization, or mixture, happened in the Caribbean by the fusion of Africans, Asian, European, Spanish and indigenous foodways. The second phase happened in the Northern states with free blacks (infused with Caribbean ancestry), First Nation people, English, Dutch, German, French and others,” said Hopkins, a food historian.

The predecessor of soul food

Anne was a free African-American of mixed heritage, but surprisingly not literate. There were no photos of her. Research revealed her signature was an X mark. Her recipes, sadly, were not recorded. These recipes would predate the oldest known African-American cookbook by Abby Fisher of 1881.

“Anne cooked in 1825. What makes her story interesting is how we think of the African American influence on American cuisine. She predates what we call soul food, which is Southern, rooted in slavery. Anne is Northern, free and cooked with ingredients that predate soul food by decades,” Hopkins said.

The program’s menu was an imagined Anne Northup colonial high-end dinner.

The meal featured Indian meal cake, a corn bread and molasses-style cake; pepperpot soup, a Caribbean soup made with oxtail stock, baby turnip greens, allspice, taro and Scotch bonnet pepper; dandelion salad with balsamic and bacon dressing; Madeira homemade ham, which is brined-marinated in Madeira, sugar, salt, cloves, cinnamon, lemon, orange zest and juice; roast chicken with heirloom applesauce gravy; mashed potatoes; and glazed baby turnips. Dessert was jumble, a spice and rose-water cookie. Red and white wines and coffee were also served.

“It was a very humbling and rewarding experience to re-create a meal based on one that would have been prepared by Anne Northrup,” Chef Heather Watkins Jones said.

“Converting the historic recipes to our more modern cooking techniques had its challenging moments,” she added, “but the experience I feel can only make me a better cook and culinary professional.”

Jones said students from the Culinary Institute of America and the Institute of Culinary Education who helped prepare the meal were eager to learn about the period dishes. “Getting the next generation of culinary professionals involved in projects such as this one will ensure that legacies like that of Anne Northup’s will continued to be studied and passed on,” Jones said. Participants said they enjoyed experiencing the history as revealed through the meal.

“The evening combined two of my favorite things: history and eating,” said Elizabeth Mahon of Harlem. “I felt connected to the past, not just learning about Ann but also eating food she might have prepared for the families and establishments that she worked for.”

Top photo: The dining room is set for an Anne Northup-inspired meal at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City. Credit: Courtesy of the Morris-Jumel Mansion

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The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

As New England’s maple sap started to drip in March, David Moore of The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse in Lee, N.H., counted the days until it would stop flowing. Right about the time the maples are tapped out, Moore collects a less sugary sap from slender, white paper birch trees.

Moore, one of the only known commercial birch syrup producers in New England, says his reddish-brown syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. The viscosity at room temperature is slow, albeit a bit quicker than molasses. Its unique taste makes it well suited as an ice cream topping (Moore’s favorite); a glaze, salad dressing or braising liquid ingredient; and an intriguing baked goods sweetener.

In addition to its uses in the kitchen, birch syrup has high market values that could help maple syrup producers supplement future revenue streams in a sustainable fashion, according to researchers at Cornell and the University of Vermont. Its production relies on many of the techniques currently employed in making maple syrup, and birch trees are in rather good supply in the Northeast.

Birch syrup is not entirely a novelty in North America. Native Americans for centuries used it as an anti-rheumatic. Twentieth-century Alaskans also tapped it to fill gaps in wartime sugar supplies, and birch syrup production has become a cottage industry there. Still, last year’s 5,000 gallons of domestically produced birch syrup were just a drop in the bucket compared with the 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup produced.

Chef Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet bistro in Portsmouth, N.H., says Moore’s syrup has a rich, deep and slightly resinous quality that makes it suitable as a finishing syrup and a glaze for grilled chicken or pork. Mallett’s seasonal menu features brioche Texas toast, a thick slice of house-made bread stuffed with roasted mushrooms and cheese and served with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on ears of corn) butter, candy cap mushroom oil and a few drops of birch syrup.

“I like it on pancakes too, but it’s pretty expensive to slather on,” Mallett said.

The going rate for a quart of birch syrup is $78, compared with $10 for Grade A maple syrup. The selling price is very attractive, said Moore, who last year charged $25 for 8-ounce jars and sold out by the end of May. Moore sells his product at a half dozen locations in New Hampshire and will be taking some mail orders this year if supplies last.

“Making birch syrup takes more energy than making maple syrup,” explained Moore, who collects 100 to 120 gallons of sap (he typically gets about 5 gallons a day from each of his 170 taps) to make one gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup requires only 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup.

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Birch syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Abby van den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center said the profitability of birch syrup production in the Northern Forest — the region that stretches from Maine through northern New Hampshire and Vermont into northern New York — in the past has been limited due to the fact that the low sugar content of birch sap (about 1% compared with 2% in maple) means producers need lots of evaporator fuel to concentrate the sap to syrup density.

But she argues that reverse osmosis, a process used in Alaskan birch syrup production that concentrates sugar densities (to 8% or greater) in the sap before it goes into the evaporator mitigates that hurdle. Modern sap collection techniques such as using a vacuum also help to increase the sap collection during the short three- to four-week birch sap season.

Moore has considered using reverse osmosis, but he currently processes sap in a 3- by 12-foot double-panned evaporator inside the wooden sugar shack he built himself. He uses a team of draft horses to help haul the firewood (ash, hickory, maple and oak) needed to fuel the evaporator. The new reverse osmosis machine would require him to run power to the sugarhouse. He estimates adding reverse osmosis would cost $7,000. “It could be a tough sell for me,” Moore said.

Neither van den Berg nor Michael Farrell, director of Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program’s Uihlein field station in Lake Placid, N.Y., could provide more than anecdotal evidence that maple syrup producers are clamoring to make birch syrup.

At a maple syrup taste test he conducted for maple syrup producers earlier this year, Farrell threw birch syrup into the mix. When he asked for a show of hands from those who liked the taste of New England birch syrup, not one went up. The producers then were offered a taste of birch syrup made with reverse osmosis. “Nearly everyone changed their mind,” Farrell said.

“This altered process gives birch syrup a wider range of flavor that should appeal to more people. They’ve just got to be willing to taste it,” he said.

Chewy Ginger and Birch Syrup Lumberjack Cookies

Yes, birch syrup is expensive, but it adds an interesting twist to these spicy chewy cookies that people won’t place until you tell them. Think of it as money well spent for tea time conversation.

Makes 24 cookies

Ingredients

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), room temperature

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

½ cup birch syrup

⅓ cup finely diced candied ginger (optional)

Granulated sugar for rolling

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard powder, allspice, salt and black pepper.

3. Beat butter and sugar together in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Add egg and birch syrup. Mix to combine well. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in candied ginger, if using. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.

4. Roll dough into 1½-inch balls and then roll them in the raw sugar. Arrange on the baking sheets and gently flatten them with the bottom of a flat glass. Bake until set and crinkled on top, about 12 minutes.

Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for 2 minutes and then remove them to a rack to cool completely.

Top photo: The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

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A drizzle of fresh Tuscan olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

I hardly think it needs saying, but I will say it anyway: Olive oil is the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, without which this vaunted eating style is simply a “sort of” — sort of vegetarian, sort of seafood-happy, sort of low in consumption of red meat, sort of devoted to whole grains and legumes.

Aolives

But olive oil —  extra virgin olive oil — is what truly sets it apart, and extra virgin olive oil, with its combination of monounsaturated fats and a big component of antioxidants and other phytochemicals (plant-based, naturally occurring chemicals), is a vital part of the good health message we hear over and over about why we should eat the Mediterranean way.

So it was shocking to see the prominent headline displayed on a full page, suggestively tinted olive green, in the New York Times Sunday Week in Review section on Jan. 26, 2014:

“Extra Virgin Suicide”

And in slightly smaller type just below:

“The Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil”

Tuscan olives in early October. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Tuscan olives in early October. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

“Why are you shocked?” asked my friend Beatrice Ughi, who imports, through her company gustiamo.com, excellent oils from Italy. “You know it’s true.”

Yes, I know that some (a lot!) of Italian olive oil is not what it says it is on the bottle. And so is a lot of Spanish oil and a lot of oils from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. But I know, too, that some of the best extra virgin oils in the world come from Italy, and it is painful to see all Italian oils tarred, as it were, with the same brush. How could a superior oil such as Badia a Coltibuono or Cappezzana from Tuscany, or Titone from Sicily, or Francesco Travaglini’s Il Tratturello from Molise, survive in a market in which they are universally condemned as fraudulent, probably not even Italian, possibly not even oil produced by the olive fruit? To my eyes (and to my palate), such a statement is seriously misleading, enough so as to question the wisdom of The Times’ editors in allowing it to be published.

Beyond that, the “article” (or however you describe a series of graphic images, like a comic strip, in the opinion pages) was rife with error and misinterpretation, so much so that I was not surprised to hear later that Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity” (2011), to whom the designer of the graphic attributed all the information he purveyed, had divorced himself in no uncertain terms from the article. Later, The Times, too, published an elongated correction at the end of the graphic acknowledging that an earlier version “contained several errors” and that “several of [Mueller's] findings were misinterpreted.”

One of the most startling misinterpretations is that “69% of imported olive oil labeled extra virgin” for sale in the U.S. fails to “meet the standard” for that designation. This refers to an oft-cited report compiled at the University of California at Davis in 2010. (A second, somewhat more detailed report, was published in 2011.) The report was funded by Corto Olive and California Olive Ranch, two prominent California producers, and by the California Olive Oil Council, which exists to promote California oil.

Not surprisingly, the report raised eyebrows, given the uncomfortable sponsorship. But its statistical significance was also questioned, given the fact that only 14 “popular import brands” were sampled in three separate California locations. That makes a total of 42 oils sampled — hardly a significant number given the vast number of imported oils sold in this U.S.

I would be the last person to deny there is a lot of scam in imported olive oil, just as there is a lot in many other imported products, especially those that purport to be from Italy, which equates in many folks’ minds to quality. The food industry is, and always has been, a prime area for fraud, at least in part because most food is ephemeral in nature and the fraud will have disappeared by the time the good-food cops are on the case.

Do your research when buying olive oil

That said, with extra virgin olive oil, as with fine wine, as with Spanish jamón de bellota, as with English Stilton, the bottom line will tell you a good part of the story. You wouldn’t expect a $10 bottle of bubbly to contain Champagne, would you? If you’re spending $7.50 on a liter of oil, don’t expect it to be a fine, estate-bottled, Tuscan oil. The bottle alone, not including shipping costs, will not be covered by that price. Fine, hand-harvested, estate-bottled oils are not cheap, any more than fine Champagne, and that, it seems to me, goes to the heart of the problem. We too often treat olive oil as if it were mere kitchen grease — and in that sense, we get what we deserve and what we’re willing to pay for.

Beyond that, to assure you are buying high-quality olive oil, read the labels. I cannot say this often enough: Read the fine print. If an olive oil comes in a can or a dark glass bottle, if it has both harvest date and information about where it was processed and it is clearly written on the label, you can pretty much be certain it’s what it says it is. Not all oil will have that information and often, alas, the information will be in Italian or Spanish or Greek. But don’t let that throw you off: Learn what the important terms are in those languages (honestly, it’s easy), and read the labels.

In addition, find a merchant you can trust, either in a specialty shop or online. My most-trusted sources for great olive oil are the following (I am always eager to learn of others; please let me know of any you think are particularly reliable):

Gustiamo.com

Markethallfoods.com

Zingermansdeli.com

Olio2go.com

Manicaretti in Oakland, Calif., imports oil but distributes only to retail outlets and restaurants. If you see a particular oil on its website that interests you, however, you can find out from them where you might be able to acquire it.

As I write, I’m looking at a bottle of Marfuga extra virgin from Perugia in Umbria, available at olio2go.com. It’s in a dark green bottle, and it has a “use by” date of February 2015, from which I can judge that it was probably produced in fall 2013 (and I also can get that from other information on the bottle). It’s a monocultivar, or monovarietal, oil made from moraiolo olives, one of the most characteristic Umbrian varieties. It’s also excellent olive oil, rich with complex flavors yet smooth on the palate. I used it to make the following simplest and best salad dressing:

Ingredients

½ a small clove of garlic, minced

½ teaspoon of sea salt or Maldon salt

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice or good wine vinegar (not balsamic)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. In the bottom of a salad bowl, combine the garlic and salt and, using the back of a spoon, crush the two together to make a paste. Stir in the lemon juice or vinegar. When it is fully incorporated, whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a little more salt, a drop or two more of acid, or another spoonful of oil.

2. When ready to serve, pile washed and dried salad greens on top and mix at table.

Top photo: A drizzle of fresh Tuscan olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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ickled carrots, onions and jalapeños to strew over Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

One of the most exciting cities in Mexico is the Port of Veracruz, with its lineage going back to the Olmecs and Aztecs before Hernán Cortés claimed the area for Spain in 1519. Today, two famous cafes sit smack in front of the port and are known throughout the region because of their locally sourced, house-roasted coffee beans and their waiters’ crackerjack pouring showmanship.

Gran Café de la Parroquía sits facing the Gulf of Mexico port like a proud matriarch welcoming one and all; just as Greek Sirens beckon sailors, it sends aromas wafting through thick sea air to summon mere mortals into its belly. The original café opened in 1808 on the zócalo (town square) a few blocks away. About 200 years later, the family split the business and two factions went their separate ways, but today oddly find themselves almost next to each other on the Malecón, Veracruz City’s waterfront walkway. Regulars have their favorite and wouldn’t think of entering enemy territory because animosities last a lifetime when it comes to coffee loyalty.

Stroll into Gran Café de la Parroquía and then La Parroquía de Veracruz simply to soak in the welcoming air-conditioned vibe of each. Mosey on up to the coffee counter and admire a huge, old brass Italian coffee maker at each location’s center stage, and while you’re there, inspect the day’s pastries. Choose your favorite of the two voluminous white-walled spaces filled with loads of natural sunlight and find a table in the noisy crowd. Someone is certainly playing Caribbean tunes on a marimba just outside the constantly opening door, while a local jarocho trio with a classic small harp performs at the room’s opposite end. An old woman wearing layers of aprons and shawls wanders by hawking lottery tickets as a musician winds his way through the activity offering up a güiro, an instrument made from a gourd, for tips. And you still haven’t had a chance to take off your hat and sunglasses.

A waiter in a spiffy white guayabera (a traditional shirt worn untucked, with vertical pleats and front patch pockets) comes by, and the first thing you say besides “buenas dias” is “un lechero.” He brings a tall glass, a spoon and a menu. You notice other patrons tapping the sides of their empty coffee glasses with spoons, but definitely not keeping beat to the music. It takes a while, but then you get it. The clanking beckons another waiter with two big, metal teapots filled with strong espresso coffee in one and hot milk in the other. He starts to fill your glass with coffee but slowly raises the pot to about 3 feet from the glass; he then repeats the action with milk, with the same aplomb. Not a drop spills. Quite a show. Bravo!

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Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Start with a plate of perfectly ripe tropical fruit and a squirt of lime. Pan dulce (sweet rolls, but not buttery rich like Danish pastry) are morning favorites, so ask the waiter for a basket of the day’s assortment. Hungrier? Try Huevos Tirados, “thrown together” eggs. The dish is certainly odd looking but make no mistake, it’s a delicious Veracruz eye opener. A few eggs are scrambled with black bean purée and then rolled into a streaky grayish-golden oval lump that is served alone on a white plate. Strew on a few pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños from the bowl that appears out of nowhere and dig in for a spicy, vinegary, zingy breakfast.

Of course you’ll have another lechero, if only to engage one more time in the charming Veracruz coffee ritual.

Huevos Tirados (Puréed Black Bean Omelet)

Makes 1 tirado

Ingredients

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion

2 large eggs

¼ cup cooked and puréed black beans, a little on the wet side, seasoned with sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Heat the butter in a small nonstick skillet and sauté the onion until barely golden brown.

2. Lightly scramble the eggs into the onion with a fork. While the eggs are still wet, pour the beans across the eggs in a strip. Delicately drag the fork through at a few zigzag angles to get a loose marbled effect. Cook until done as you wish.

3. Have a plate ready. Hold the skillet by its handle and raise it to an angle. Using the fork, roll the omelet from the top down onto the plate and arrange it into an oval shape.

Top photo: Pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños to strew over Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Gorditas de Piloncillo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Forty days and 40 nights of vegetarian eating are underway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Don’t cry for us, Argentina; there’s no hardship here, as local Catholics look forward to meatless specialties known as comida cuaresmeña (Lenten foods) reserved for the spring. From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday before Easter, cherished recipes are culled from handwritten family notebooks to feed legions of hungry pageant participants.

Pre-dawn firecrackers and skyrockets set off by priests in church yards get everyone up to take part in processions during Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter. The events are widely regarded as some of Mexico’s most elaborate, starring thousands of emotional believers dressed in costume without a single paid actor in sight.

Good Friday is the culmination of weeks of nonstop pageantry with long, unbearably slow and tortuous dragging of crosses through cobblestoned streets to the dispirited beat of a single drum. As they perspire in the hot afternoon sun, solemn men and women in dark dress with purple sashes brace heavy saint statues on their shoulders, but press forward. Children through seniors represent angels and ancient mourners, and wave after wave of their faithful parishioners trod onward in the depths of despair. Parade watchers are stacked along the route in hushed silence. Devotion runs deep and true.

Gorditas among the Lenten offerings

Marching like this brings on a mean hunger. Besides a gazillion bean dishes, most regional Lenten répertoires are rounded out by cheese-stuffed fat tortillas lovingly called gorditas, “or little fat ones”; pipiánes, protein-rich pumpkin-seed sauces poured over vegetables; patties made with countless nonmeat combinations; and soups galore. And then we have Gorditas de Piloncillo. Certainly not your typical gordita, and about as well known today as hardtack, its beginning is centuries old — with a bit of delightful religiosity thanks to the Spanish-Mexican addiction to tradition.

Generations of local women have sold them outside the San Juan de Dios church (a half block from the market) from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays only during Lent. Today at least a dozen ladies in embroidered aprons from surrounding neighborhoods sit, all lined up curbside, each pan-frying sublimely sweet, crisp tortilla turnovers. It’s hard to choose whom to buy from, but I look for sellers with smiling faces taking pesos with one hand and cooking with the other, or better yet, with an assistant handling cash. Another tip: Stay clear when the church school recess bell rings — chaos reigns as screaming kids stampede to be first in line.

For years I thought teeny, wooden tortilla presses I saw in Mexican markets were toys. Man oh man am I surprised as I watch grown women gently press out children’s tea-party-sized, 3-inch tortillas! Remedios Martinez, sitting under her signature shade umbrella, grabs a tiny ball of masa (corn dough) flavored with canela (Mexican cinnamon), anise seeds and ground chile — she likes guajillo but says others use cascabel — and then presses it into a thin tortilla. She drops a teaspoon of crumbled piloncillo (raw brown sugar) in the center, folds it over and slides it into shimmering-hot vegetable oil to crisp and brown.

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Easter Week procession, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Credit: Steve Smith Photography

Not at all like the more usual regional offering — round, stuffed gorditas — these delicate mini tacos are really different. The spoonful of sugar dramatically transforms into a crunchy glaze as the gordita cools and hardens with an interior as brittle as a candied apple. God can definitely be found biting into a Gordita de Piloncillo.

Gorditas de Piloncillo (Sweet, Crisp Turnovers)

Remedios Martinez miraculously cranks out 800 Gorditas de Piloncillo each day from her street-side, oilcloth-covered folding card table and mesquite wood-fired brazier; they remain crunchy for about four hours and then lose their glamour.

Makes about 30

Ingredients

2 cups masa harina

3 tablespoons ground canela (Mexican cinnamon)

2 tablespoons anise seeds

3 tablespoons ground or flaked dried guajillo or cascabel chile

½ pound grated piloncillo (raw brown sugar available in cones), or dark brown sugar

Vegetable oil

Directions

1. Using a stand mixer, mix the masa harina, canela, anise seeds and chile with about 2 cups warm water to get a soft dough.

2. Pull off rounded tablespoons of dough and form into small balls about the size of Ping-Pong balls. Place on a baking sheet and cover with a damp tea towel to keep the balls moist until the dough runs out.

3. Using a freezer baggie, cut 2 squares of the thick plastic slightly larger than the diameter of the press and place one on the bottom part of a tortilla press. Center a masa ball on the plastic. Cover the masa with the other square of plastic. Lower the top of the press and gently push on the handle. Open the press, turn the tortilla (with plastic) 180 degrees, and push again to make a small, 3-inch round. Open the press. The tortilla will have plastic stuck on the top and bottom. Peel away the top plastic, then gently flip the tortilla over into your other hand and carefully peel that plastic away. Put 1 teaspoon piloncillo in the center, fold over and press the edges together. Lay on a tray. Repeat with a few others.

4. Pour vegetable oil ¼-inch deep into a wide skillet and heat to rippling hot 360 F to 370 F. Test the heat by dropping a small piece of dough into the oil. It should sizzle and turn deep golden within 10 seconds.

5. Slide three or four gorditas at a time into the hot oil. Turn until brown, less than 1 minute. Remove to an opened-up paper bag to drain and crisp.

6. Repeat in batches of three or four with the remaining dough.

Top photo: Gorditas de Piloncillo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Mt. Tam cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Blessed with a unique terroir and distinctive indigenous cheese varieties, Northern California’s organic dairy farmers and cheesemakers are aiming to grow the region’s reputation as a hotbed of artisan cheese.

On a recent evening at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, Cowgirl Creamery‘s Peggy Smith and Sue Conley, along with Sunset magazine food editor Margo True and Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery, were celebrating the release of their book “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.”

Importance of milk

The word “milkshed” appears often in the book, and Conley explained it simply refers to the place where a region gets its milk. The milkshed of West Marin County, just outside San Francisco, for instance, enabled and inspired Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses. Specifically, it was the milk from the Holsteins and Jerseys on the Straus dairy that gave the Cowgirls their start in cheese making.

In the early 1990s, small family dairies were facing financial challenges that threatened their survival. Second-generation farmer Albert Straus had the idea to transition his lands and herd to a certified organic operation; his neighbors thought he had lost his mind.

At the time industrial agriculture was expanding, causing milk prices to be too low to sustain family farms. Straus thought that going organic would be the key to a viable business model because of the higher profit margin such methods yield. He also believed organic methods would be a more environmentally responsible way to manage the farm.

In 1994, the Straus Family Creamery became the first dairy west of the Mississippi River to go organic. It was Albert Straus’ vision that set the table for the artisan cheese movement in Northern California: to create a product that would save agricultural lands and dairy farming in the area.

The Cheeses

Conley and Smith traveled to England and France and observed regional cheese making. Often an appellation is created that reflects the flora and surroundings of an area, (like Comte cheese from France), and the Cowgirls realized that they had the ingredients to do this at their creamery in bucolic Point Reyes Station, outside San Francisco.

“We had this beautiful milk,” Conley said. “It’s all about the milk, the health of the animals and the beautiful pastures. We realized we had [those elements of an appellation] in our own place.”

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Asparagus, leeks, potatoes and celery for spring soup. Credit: Brooke Jackson

So using Straus milk exclusively, they started out making fresh cheeses like quark, cottage cheese and fromage blanc. Their first effort at an aged cheese was called Mt. Tam, after the landmark mountain in Marin County near the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The cheese is a triple cream and is meant to showcase the spring milk from the herd at the dairy. It is a buttery, mellow, approachable cheese that won second place at the American Cheese Society competition in 2010, and it is considered Cowgirl’s signature cheese. Next was Red Hawk, a rich and savory cheese with a pungent aroma and a red rind, also an award winner at the ACS, the Los Angeles County Fair and other competitions.

Years later, more inspiration came during the recession. They wanted to make a big, utilitarian cheese for daily use, a cooking cheese similar to fresh Asiago, which was requested by their friend Judy Rodgers, from Zuni Café in San Francisco. The initial efforts didn’t work well, so they made successive batches, bringing tastes to the farmers market for customers to give their opinion. The final recipe is a washed rind, semi-hard cheese that is versatile for cooking and eating. It won gold at the California State (2011) and the Los Angeles County Fairs (2010).

The Cowgirls also make four seasonal cheeses using organic milk from Taverna Dairy in the small hamlet of Chileno Valley. The Taverna herd is all Jersey cows; and the cheeses, although made by a recipe similar to Mt. Tam, have a very different taste profile because of the milk and its terroir.

In addition to their own cheeses, Conley and Smith collaborate, support and promote artisan, farmstead cheesemakers throughout the region. Using the model of Neal’s Yard in London, they sell these local products at their cheese counters in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Point Reyes Shop, believing that helping the artisan cheese movement grow is crucial to the future of the small family farm and to agriculture in this country in general.

The Future

To that end, Straus told the crowd at the Jewish Community Center that he and the Cowgirls were looking at creating an organic processing hub.

“What we’ve done in Marin and Sonoma counties is created this model of farming that we are trying to work on how can we revitalize the farming community and get the next generation of farmers in succession farming,” he said.

The Straus dairy, Cowgirl Creamery and maybe other organic producers would partner in one facility. A demonstration dairy would allow the public to see everything from the cow to the finished product. There would be an incubator of sorts for up-and-coming farmers, to help them get established in the business and explore ways to save energy and promote land stewardship.

The Book

“Our book teaches how cheese is made, but not how to make cheese,” Conley said. But “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks” is more than just a primer for how cheese is made. There are notes on composing cheese plates, delicious accompaniments to enhance them and myriad recipes that showcase glorious cheese and milk products.

Smith said her favorite recipes are in the chapter called “Ends and Bits,” which was designed to give ideas for what to do with all those pieces that end up in the bottom drawer of the fridge. Her favorite recipe from this section is Parmesan broth, which uses the leftover bits of hard cheese to make a rich, flavorful stock. That stock lends itself to a soup that celebrates spring.

Parmesan Broth

Adapted from “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks,” Chronicle Books 2013

Makes 3 quarts

Ingredients

12 
cups cool water

1
 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 
cups medium-diced onions

1
 cup coarsely chopped carrots

1 
cup coarsely chopped celery

¼ ounce dried mushroom, such as porcini or shiitake

2 bay leaves

3
 sprigs fresh thyme

3 sprigs fresh flat leaf parsley

About 1 
cup leftover bits of hard cheese and natural rind

Directions

1. In a large pot, bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat.

2. While the water heats, use another large pot to melt the butter over medium heat. When it’s melted, add the onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, bay leaves, thyme and parsley. Cook until the onions are translucent and the carrots, celery and mushrooms are soft, about 8 minutes.

3. With a wooden spoon, stir in the cheese bits. Let the cheese and vegetables sit on the bottom of the pot for short periods of time, no longer than 10 seconds. This will allow the vegetables and the cheese to brown the bottom of the pot a little. (You don’t want all the vegetables browned, but just the bottom surface needs a little color.) Stir often.

4. When the vegetables and cheese at the very bottom of the pot show some brown and the cheese is beginning to melt, slowly introduce the simmering water to the pot, stirring in just 1 cup/240 ml to start. Stirring constantly, deglaze the pan’s bottom with the hot water to loosen any browned bits. When the pot bottom is clean of any brown, pour in the remainder of the water. Decrease the heat to medium-low and monitor the heat, adjusting the flame so the broth stays at a gentle simmer.

5. Simmer for 40 to 50 minutes, stirring every 3 to 5 minutes, so the broth doesn’t pick up a scorched flavor. Strain the broth into a very large container or another clean pot and allow it to cool. Once it’s cool, you can easily skim the top of any fats. Store this in your refrigerator for up to 3 days or in your freezer for up to 3 months.

Spring Soup With Asparagus, Potatoes and Leeks

Makes 1½ quarts

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large leek, split lengthwise to the root, rinsed well then cut into thin, crosswise slices — about 2 cups

1 cup celery, thinly sliced crosswise

1 bunch asparagus, bottom ¼-inch removed and discarded, tips removed and set aside, remaining stems sliced crosswise into 1-inch pieces, about 1½ cups

Salt and pepper

1 clove garlic minced

1½ cups Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced – about 2 medium

4 cups Parmesan broth

¼ cup crème fraiche

Directions

1. Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium high heat until shimmering. Add leek, celery and asparagus pieces and sauté until coated with oil. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

2. Turn heat to low, cover the pan and sweat the vegetables until soft but not colored, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and potatoes and cook until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

3. Add broth, ½ teaspoon salt and 3 grindings of pepper from a mill, stir to combine, turn heat to medium and bring to a simmer.

4. Cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, lightly steam asparagus tips until crisp tender. Set aside.

6. Purée the soup using an immersion blender, food processor or traditional blender until smooth.

7. Serve in bowls with a dollop of crème fraiche and an asparagus tip on top of each serving.

Top photo: Cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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The makings of the Sangrita Cóctel. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

This crazy weather demands a two-fisted cocktail. I’m a huge fan of the Mexican bar classic, the Sangrita cocktail, even though the drink has stiff competition from its fancier tequila cousin, the margarita. I can’t figure out why the Sangrita isn’t more popular, especially for those who don’t care for sweetened drinks and prefer a cocktail to a shot.

It’s time to warm up to Sangrita’s seduction because, simply, it’s a blast to drink.

In Mexico, always ask the bartender for a Sangrita Cóctel separado (separated) and then say which tequila you prefer. He or she pours your tequila of choice into one glass and a spicy juice blend into another, rather than mixing them in the same glass. You sip from each separately, hence the two-fisted cocktail.

Good tequila the key to making a Sangrita

To make your own, start with good tequila. Then you mix into the second glass tomato and orange juices, hot sauce and a squeeze of lime. No kidding. Just try it.

Of course, I can easily get obsessive. Grab your favorite tequila reposado (100% agave, lightly aged in oak barrels for a smooth drink) and accept no substitute. Orange juice must be freshly squeezed, no discussion here. Tomato juice is from freshly squeezed summer-red-ripe beauties or as a last (winter) resort use bottled, organic, low-sodium juice. Hot sauce has to be made from red Mexican chilies and will be a Mexican import such as Cholula, Búfalo or Tapátio brand. Fresh Mexican (aka Key) lime is a must, and a variation is not open for discussion. Taste, and sprinkle in a pinch of sea salt if needed.

Put on ranchera music and bring out copitas, the tall pony shot glasses from your last trip south of the border. Now, where are those souvenir sombreros?

Sangrita Cóctel

Makes 2 drinks. You will need 4 tall pony shot glasses, small snifters or similar glasses.

Ingredients

2 shots tequila

¼ cup orange juice

¼ cup tomato juice

Bottled Mexican hot sauce

1 Mexican lime (aka Key)

Sea salt to taste

Directions

1. Pour a generous shot of tequila into each of two glasses.

2. Measure the orange and tomato juices in a clear measuring cup with a pour spout. Shake in a few squirts of hot sauce. Squeeze in the lime juice. Stir. Taste. Need salt? It should be brightly sweet, acidic and definitely spicy!

3. Pour the juice mixture into the two empty glasses. ¡Salud! Sip from the juice glass and the tequila one.

Top photo: The makings of the Sangrita Cóctel. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Escarole, cabbage and spinach. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Everyone claims to want to cook simple food. As soon as we’re in the kitchen, things aren’t so simple. It’s actually hard to cook simple dishes because we cooks always want to fiddle or add things or just not stand around looking at “simple,” because simple doesn’t require much, that’s why it’s called simple.

The irony is that once we start our fiddling and the simple dish becomes more complicated, it often ends up not the best thing in the world. Here’s the deal, I think. You’ve got to trust your food. You’ve got to trust that raw food is actually delicious without you manipulating it beyond recognition. You’re not Ferran Adrià, and furthermore, that’s a style of cooking that should not necessarily be replicated.

So in this recipe I’m going to ask you to force yourself not to work too hard, which will mean you’ll have to resist the temptation to add herbs, spices or other stuff, such as truffle oil or kale or whatever. In this simple dish you’ve got to do nothing. There are only six ingredients (if you count the salt), but how they interact is the magic of cooking.

In this preparation, you’ll sauté the escarole, a slightly bitter green when eaten raw. It’s also called chicory since it’s a kind of chicory, along with Savoy cabbage, which is crinkly leafed cabbage with leaves that are more tender than the common green cabbage. Finally you’ll stir in the spinach for the briefest of moments, just until the leaves wilt. Now eat it — don’t do anything else. Don’t garnish it.

Simple Escarole, Cabbage and Spinach

Serves 4 as a side dish

Ingredients

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

¾ pound escarole (chicory), washed well and thinly sliced

¾ pound Savoy cabbage, thinly sliced

½ pound spinach leaves

Salt

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium-high heat until the garlic starts sizzling.

2. Add the escarole and cabbage and cook, stirring frequently, until a minute past wilted, 4 to 5 minutes.

3. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, only until it is wilted, about 1 minute.

4. Salt to your taste and serve hot.

Top photo: Escarole, cabbage and spinach. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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