The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison

Among the items I brought home with me after my mother’s death were her two recipe files. One was lodged in a long, metal box that I suspect once held part of the town’s library card catalog.  The other was a delicate wooden box that could be hung on a wall.

I was surprised she had squirreled away so many recipes, any recipes for that matter, for she never seemed that interested in cooking, aside from making sweets. She owned only an old edition of “The Joy of Cooking” plus the cookbooks I had written. My mother’s recipe collection was a mishmash of handwritten recipes and a great deal more torn from magazines, mainly Sunset and Gourmet and occasionally Good Housekeeping, which is kind of ironic because my mother, by her own admission, was hardly a good housekeeper.

I’ve mused before about the mystery of handwriting and how it has the power to touch us in a way an email, without its texture and quirks, can’t. But these folded bits of printed paper and yellowed cards, most of them typewritten, introduced me to my mother in a new way, helping me see her as a person I hadn’t known.

Recipe box about the why, not just the how

I had to wonder, why these recipes? And did she ever make them? She didn’t, at least that I know of. Her own handwritten categories weren’t necessarily related to the contents. Filed under “meat,” for example, were recipes for pomegranate jelly, orange jellies, orange breads, cakes, pickles, guava preserves and even a guava chiffon pie — none of them meat and none of them foods we ate. Not once.

The many recipes based on oranges were labor-intensive undertakings that involved taking apart then reassembling the fruit, something my mother would not have had the patience to do. Maybe she wished she had been that kind of person, a woman who would spend hours in the kitchen instead of at her typewriter writing novels or at her easel painting. (I suspect the reason that there were so many orange recipes was because in the 1950s my parents moved from the East to California, where we had orange trees, which must have seemed miraculous.)

But where were the meat recipes? Elsewhere. Here and there. My mother was not a fan of meat and was mostly vegetarian, but perhaps meat recipes were dutifully collected for my Midwestern carnivore father. There was a surprising recipe for roasted lamb neck. That my mother, a person so sensitive to the lives of other beings, would even have such a recipe was shocking. I’m sure we never ate such a thing. The recipe instructs, “Have your meat man cut each neck into 2 or 3 slices about 1¼ inches thick.” Now that butchery is emerging again, perhaps it’s not impossible to “ask your ‘meat man,’ ” or “your meat woman” for that favor.

Meat dishes we did eat were mostly in her “Armenian” file, which also contained Indian recipes — dolmas, shashlik, kebabs a miscellany of curries. There’s a recipe for koefte from the 1950s, long before Paula Wolfert introduced us to more than 50 kinds. One card scrawled instructions for pickled tongue with raisins. Again, I doubt my mother would have made the tongue. We did eat tongue, but my father was the one who cooked it.

A relentless diet

There were menus for dieting that would practically demolish one’s life force, menus that started each day with half a grapefruit and a cup of coffee. Ravenous by 10? Then you might want a cup of very lean vegetable broth. (“Guaranteed to help you lose weight, even if you have to eat out,” the introduction promised.)

Simple vegetable dishes were filed with early weight-watcher recipes. I don’t recall that my mother was ever fat, but she must have thought she was. When her doctor cautioned her, in her 90s, that she was awfully thin, her reply was, “Why thank you!” The diet desserts she collected were based on egg whites, gelatin and, of course, oranges. Although Jell-O was our standard dessert, perhaps she really did intend to make that Frozen Fruit Cake and the Shoo-Fly Pie that appears twice in her collection. A great many of my mother’s recipes were for desserts, some elaborate, some of the more quick-and-easy type, and not all of them diet-related. There was her recipe for cottage cheese pie, a dessert we did eat, which my father meanly scoffed at, saying, “So this is what the rich eat?” A cheesecake would have been prohibitively costly, but there was a recipe for that, too. Maybe one day she was able to make it. And eat it. I hope so.

A reflection of progress

My mother’s recipes also reveal something about how times have changed. “Betty’s Armenian Casserole,” torn from a magazine, calls for processed white rice, a  No. 2 can of tomatoes, Burgundy wine and garlic salt. Teaspoon is abbreviated “teasp.” Many recipes from the 1950s and ’60s call for garlic salt, which made me cringe every time I saw it listed, until I remembered that when I spent summers in the Adirondacks in the 1970s, garlic still came packed two heads to a box, and they were always moldy and unusable. So the garlic salt made sense, at least until really great garlic started to appear in farmers markets starting in the 1970s.

There’s a kind of generalization in many of the recipes — Eurasian Eggplant, Egyptian Stew, Victory Garden Meal, curry — that’s hard to imagine today, with so many knowledgeable cooks writing in great detail about food cultures.

My mother may not have cooked most of these recipes, but she was reading about food and encountering, at least in print, dishes that suggested flavors new and exciting to a transplanted New Englander. A frugal New Englander, I might add, which is one reason why, I suspect, these clippings and cards played a greater role in my mother’s imagination than reality. Maybe it was the taste of adventure she sought, and that was enough.

Main photo: The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison

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A dinner party in France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

It’s almost Green Thursday — otherwise known as Clean Thursday, the day before Good Friday and three days before Easter Sunday, which this year falls on April 17.

No time to waste. Get out the mop and bucket, dust the furniture, air the blankets, beat the carpet, wash the windows, scrub the larder, polish the pots and pans, bleach the kitchen table, shine the slate, sweep the chimney, black the grate, whitewash the stoop.

And when all is shiny and bright, head for the great outdoors and cut yourself a bunch of budding willow or birch or hazel or whatever shows signs of life in the undergrowth and bring it indoors to unfurl its leaves in the warmest room in the house.

All this must be done before sundown on Green Thursday to ensure happiness and prosperity in the year to come — a more than adequate reward for cleaning behind the fridge.

Green Thursday menu continues with the green theme

And if these chores are not on your list of things to do on Green Thursday, you’d be run out of town with a flea in your ear if you lived in, say, Eastern Europe or rural Germany or in one of the isolated farmhouses of France’s Massif Centrale — or indeed anywhere where people still sweep their own doorsteps, plant their own potatoes and maintain a modicum of self-sufficiency. A lesson to us all in these straightened times.

As for the food, well, no one has much time for cooking when they’re cleaning and scrubbing all day. Traditional Green Thursday menus vary from region to region, though the general rule is a generous helping of blood-cleansing spring herbs, preferably gathered from the wild, served either in soup or a salad.

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Chervil. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Herb Salad With Eggs and Spring Herring

Green Thursday is traditionally celebrated in Germany by those who have access to the fishing ports with the last of the spring herrings — known as groene, or green herrings, for the sheen on their silvery flanks. When the boats come in, the catch is freshly filleted by the quayside and eaten raw with diced onion or carried home and lightly salted for additional shelf life. Rollmops — brine-pickled herring-fillets — are an acceptable inland substitute.

Serves 4

Ingredients

Large bunch young spinach leaves, de-stalked, rinsed and shredded

Small bunch parsley, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch chervil, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch sorrel, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch chives, chopped

Small bunch dill, chopped

8 fresh herring fillets or rollmops

1 pound potatoes, scrubbed and thickly sliced

4 hard-boiled eggs

For the sauce:

1 crème fraîche, also called soured cream

2 tablespoons chopped dill

2 tablespoons chopped gherkin or pickled cucumber

Directions

1. Combine the shredded spinach with the chopped herbs in a bowl.

2. Drain the herrings if roll-mopped, or salt lightly if fresh.

3. Boil the sliced potatoes in plenty of salted water till tender, about 12 to 15 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.

4. Shell and chop the eggs.

5. Fold the soured cream with the chopped dill and pickle. Serve each component separately for people to help themselves. Accompany with black bread, sweet white butter and the last of the winter’s pickled cucumbers.

Fromage Frais Aux Fines Herbes (Fresh Cheese With Herbs)

Fresh white cheese beaten with cream and herbs is proper on Green Thursday in the uplands of France, where la cueillette, the gathering of wild greens from the countryside, is the inalienable right of every man, woman and child whether they own the land or not.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1 pound fresh curd cheese (fromage frais or equivalant)

1 cup crème fraîche (soured cream)

2 garlic cloves or fresh green garlics, chopped

1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley

1 heaped tablespoon chopped chives

1 heaped tablespoon chopped chervil

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

For serving:

Baguette

Olives

Salad leaves (dandelion, corn salad, bittercress or sorrel, for example)

Walnut oil

Salt

Directions

1. Mix the fresh cheese with the cream in a bowl and beat till smooth.

2. Fork in the rest of the ingredients.

3. Drop the mixture into a glass cloth or square of washed-out cotton sheet, tie the edges corner to corner like a pocket hankie and hang on a hook or suspend on a wooden spoon over a basin to catch drippings. Leave to drain overnight in a cool place — the longer it’s left to drain the firmer it will be.

4. Serve chilled with plenty of warm baguette, a dish of olives and a salad of wild-gathered leaves dressed with walnut oil and salt (no need for vinegar if sorrel is present).

Bavarian Chervil Soup

Bavaria’s Krautelsuppe is a fresh green soup thickened with the last potatoes from storage — an interior spring clean to match the scrubbing and house painting of Green Thursday. Similar water-based soups are eaten throughout Lent in Germany and Eastern Europe as far as Hungary and Ukraine. Measure the herbs by filling a cup and lightly pressing the contents. Each cupful should weigh roughly 3 ounces.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1½ cups soft-leaf herbs (tarragon, parsley, dill), chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups chervil leaves, de-salted, de-stalked and chopped

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 or 3 medium old potatoes, peeled and diced

2 cups picked-over salad greens (dandelion, corn salad, watercress, chicory), shredded

Salt and pepper

Directions

1. Pick over and wash the herbs and strip out any woody stems.

2. Melt the butter in a roomy pan and fry the onion gently till transparent. Add the chervil leaves, stir over the heat for 2 to 3 minutes till they collapse.

3. Add the diced potato and 4 cups cold water, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat. Salt lightly.

4. Simmer for 20 minutes till the potato is perfectly soft.

5. Add the herbs and salad greens. Reheat and allow to bubble up to collapse the greens.

6. Mash the soup to thicken it a little. Taste and add more salt if necessary and a vigorous turn of the peppermill.

7. Serve with buttered slices of rye bread and radishes.

Main illustration: A dinner party in France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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Barbara Massaad with Syrian children at a Bekaa Valley refugee camp. Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Massaad

When faced with almost 1 million needy people, a bowl of soup — even a large vat — doesn’t go a very long way.

But Barbara Massaad refuses to let the daunting scale of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon deter her from doing her small part to help — one bowl of soup at a time.

“If I were a barber, I would go and cut [refugees'] hair for free. But I write cookbooks, so that’s what I hope to use to better their lives,” Massaad says.

The longtime Beirut resident, founding member of Slow Food Beirut and author of the award-winning cookbooks “Man’oushé,” “Mouneh,” and “Mezze” recently embarked on a new venture: Soup for Syria. The project’s goal is to create a crowd-sourced cookbook of soup recipes and use the proceeds to build and stock a communal pop-up kitchen in the Bekaa Valley, a part of Lebanon that has become home to more than 300,000 Syrian refugees.

“Entire families — of up to 25 people — live in tents where the cold, water and mud seep through,” says Massaad, who visits a Bekaa refugee camp weekly, bringing donated clothing and vats of soup. “Some families have grains and pulses [beans], but people eat lots of potato chips and bread. Meat, vegetables and fruit are scarce. I would like to give parents [in the camp] a tool to feed their children healthy meals.”

With nearly 2.6 million Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt — and an estimated 6.5 million more internally displaced — food insecurity is a growing concern.

According to a World Food Program report last year, 73% of refugees surveyed in Lebanon said they did not have enough money to buy food; about half of the displaced Syrian families residing in the country have cut down their daily number of meals from three to two. UNICEF estimates that 5.9% of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and 4% of those in Jordan are malnourished.

Massaad says she hopes to inspire other people to help Syrian refugees as the conflict in their country enters its fourth year. Indeed, hers is not the only initiative trying to tap culinary know-how and skills to make a difference.

Elsewhere in Beirut, a group of refugee women have established a catering company dedicated to regional Syrian cooking, with the help of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, the Lebanese branch of the Caritas charity, and the acclaimed local restaurant Tawlet – Souk al-Tayeb. Trained in professional cooking skills, food safety, and presentation, the women now serve up their culinary history at the Souk al-Tayeb farmer’s market, food fairs and other events.

“I am trying to prepare and sell … traditional dishes to generate an income that my family and I can live on, instead of waiting for the aid that is given to us,” one participant, Samira Ismail, told the regional news portal Al-Shorfa.com.

Before the conflict broke out in spring 2011, Syria — particularly its ancient cities of Aleppo and Damascus — was being touted as the next hot culinary tourism destination. Its fertile soil yielded flavorful ingredients and spices for a cuisine incorporating influences from around the greater Middle East, the historic Silk Road trading caravans and the diverse communities of Ottoman times. In 2005, the International Academy of Gastronomy in France awarded Aleppo its Grand Prix de la Culture Gastronomique for “having achieved distinction in the field of gastronomic culture.” Today, though, even staple food products are difficult to find and hard to afford in Syria.

As displaced Syrians in Lebanon and around the region struggle to survive, cooking dishes from home provides additional sustenance and a way to stay connected to their beleaguered country. It also helps to keep alive a once-thriving food culture — one that is at risk in their devastated homeland.

Addas bi Hosrom

A Syrian man from Aleppo named Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj shared this lentil soup recipe with “Soup for Syria” founder Barbara Massaad. “Hosrom,” also known as “verjuice,” is a concentrated sour liquid made from unripe grapes. Fresh lemon juice in season can be substituted for the verjuice.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2 cups red lentils

10 cloves garlic

1 cup vegetable oil

1½ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon ground Lebanese seven-spice mix*

2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

½ to 1  cup verjuice (depending on how sour it is)

Directions

1. Boil the lentils in a large pot with 6 cups water until the lentils dissolve into a homogeneous soup. Remove foam from top of liquid as it emerges. Cook the lentils for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until tender.

2. During the last 10 minutes of cooking, add the spices and verjuice to the soup.

3. In a skillet, fry the garlic in the oil until it is browned, but not blackened. Add the oil-and-garlic mixture to the soup while still hot. Mix well, then boil on low heat for a few minutes.

4. Serve hot with toasted-bread croutons. Garnish with a sprinkle of hot red paprika.

* Lebanese seven-spice mix is a blend of equal parts powdered nutmeg, ginger, allspice, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper.

Main photo: Barbara Massaad with Syrian children at a Bekaa Valley refugee camp. Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Massaad

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Forced rhubarb is bright pink in color. Credit: Sue Style

Rhubarb excites mixed emotions. Ambrose Bierce, dyspeptic satirist and author of “The Devil’s Dictionary,” described it as “the vegetable essence of stomach ache.” John Thorne, the pen behind the cult culinary newsletter Simple Cooking, is clearly a fan, fantasizing about those two ideal mates, rhubarb and strawberries, “whose tastes and textures meld into a sort of subtle transcendental oneness.”

You may — like Bierce — despise this curious vegetable (into which botanical category it more accurately falls). Or perhaps you share Thorne’s fondness for it and are currently celebrating its reappearance in markets, shops and gardens after the seemingly endless winter. Either way, you can hardly miss it if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, for its moment is now.

Rhubarb’s color comes from light, or lack thereof

Broadly speaking, rhubarb falls into two categories. Firstly, there is the so-called “forced” kind, which appears in late winter and early spring. It is cultivated in warm sheds in total darkness and in some places is still traditionally picked by candlelight.

Because the plant is never exposed to light, photosynthesis does not occur. The stalks take on a brilliant, lipstick-pink color while the (inedible) leaves are a rather anemic yellow. Rhubarb treated in this way is also the tenderest and most flavorsome. Some of the most celebrated is grown in the Rhubarb Triangle in west Yorkshire, England, which in 2010 received Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO, status under the name Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb.

The second type is field rhubarb, which appears from late spring through summer, depending on the local climate. Because this kind is grown outdoors in full daylight, the stalks are pale green in color and tinged with only a suspicion of pink, and the texture is noticeably coarser and the foliage deep green.

You can use either sort for this delicious, meringue-topped tart, which has its roots in Alsace, France, but it’s undeniably prettier if you use forced rhubarb. If using field rhubarb, you may need to peel away the outer, fibrous layer before chopping it in pieces.

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Field rhubarb. Credit: Sue Style

To avoid the risk of a soggy bottom to your tart (ever-present with rhubarb because of its high water content), dredge the fruit with sugar and leave it in a bowl for several hours, or better still overnight. This way it will render much of its juice.

The baking then falls into three steps. First, bake the sugared fruit “dry” in its pastry case, then mix some of the juice with cornstarch, egg and cream, pour it over the fruit and bake again. Finally, daub it with the meringue and return the tart to the oven for its final baking. The ground nuts act as extra waterproofing between fruit and pastry, as well as adding an agreeably nutty crunch.

Rhubarb Tart with Meringue Topping

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1¾ pounds (800 grams) rhubarb

10 ounces (300 grams) sugar, divided

8 ounces (250 grams) piecrust or puff pastry

2 to 3 tablespoons ground almonds or hazelnuts

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 egg

½ cup (150 milliliters) crème fraîche or light cream

3 egg whites, plus a pinch of salt

Directions

1. Trim the rhubarb, cut in 1-inch (2-centimeter) chunks and put them in a bowl.

2. Sprinkle with 5 ounces (150 grams) of the sugar, mix up well and leave to macerate for several hours or overnight until the rhubarb releases most of its juice. Stir occasionally to make sure the sugar is well distributed.

3. Tip the rhubarb into a colander set over a bowl. Reserve the juice.

4. Heat the oven to 400 F (200 C).

5. Roll out the pastry and settle it into a 12-inch (30-centimeter) quiche pan with a removable base. Prick the pastry with a fork and scatter a thin layer of ground nuts in the bottom.

6. Arrange the rhubarb on top of the nuts.

7. Bake for 20 minutes or until the pastry is beginning to color and the rhubarb is lightly cooked.

8. Measure out half a cup of the reserved juice and mix in the cornstarch, stirring till smooth. Add this to the egg and crème fraîche, whisking well together till smooth.

9. Remove the tart from oven and pour the mixture over the fruit.

10. Return the tart to the oven and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the custard is lightly set.

11. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff, add the remaining 5 ounces (150 grams) of the sugar and continue beating till stiff and glossy and you could turn the bowl upside down without the whites falling out.

12. Remove the tart from oven and reduce the temperature to 325 F (170 C).

13. Spoon the meringue mixture over the top, fluff it up with a fork and return the tart to the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the meringue is firm and very lightly colored.

14. Cool the tart on a rack. Serve at room temperature for maximum flavor.

Main photo: Forced rhubarb is bright pink in color. Credit: Sue Style

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Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.

I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.

“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”

I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.

Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.

Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.

Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.

Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:

  • Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
  • Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
  • Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
  • If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
  • Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.

We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.

Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.

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Forager Matt Cohen discovers the skunk cabbage, a harbinger of spring. Credit: Susan Lutz

Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of  birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.

Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.

It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.

My new home is full of surprises.

Bittercress Stir-Fry

Courtesy of Matt Cohen

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)

4 cups bittercress

1-2 tablespoons tamari

Directions

1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.

3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.

4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.

5. Add tamari to taste.

6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.

Main photo: Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

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A lunch plate consisting of rice, green bean poriyal and chapati; in the bowls are sambhar and two types of vegetable curries. To drink, lassi and cumin water. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

The Ayurvedic lifestyle works for me. The practice combines a vegetarian diet and herbal tonics with massages, meditation and yoga.

On my recent trip to India, I visited my favorite retreat, Ayurvedagram Heritage Wellness Center. Although the retreat recommends a seven-day stay for the Panchakarma detox treatment, I could spare only five days. At the end of my stay I felt relaxed and refreshed and dropped four pounds while enjoying delicious South Indian food.

This is my fifth visit to this holistic retreat, which is a 90-minute drive to the outskirts of Bangalore in South India. Leaving the city’s chaos, pollution and dusty roads behind, the retreat includes a tropical garden lush with coconut and papaya trees, a flower-filled garden bursting with colorful marigolds and hibiscus, fragrant medicinal shrubs and potted tulsi plants. Sparrow tweets and a koyal’s serenade fill the cool air. Resident geese and mallard ducks waddle around, while baby lizards leap around the lotus-filled pond.

The 15-acre Ayurvedagram property is operated by the Katra Group, based in Kerala, India. The retreat’s 26 cottages, designed in 19th-century Kerala design, are spread around a spacious garden adorned with various stone deities and brass lamps. The facility includes a gym, a library and an amphitheater.

The intricately carved reception building, once the Queen’s Palace from the Aranamula Royal Family, was transported here from Kerala and restored to its original state. All the cottages, crafted in teak or rosewood, are historical ancestral homes from Kerala that were transported and restored to their original grandeur.

Ayurveda regimens planned to suit an individual’s needs

Ayurvedagram is a healing retreat for specific ailments such as arthritis, obesity, diabetes and spinal and joint disorders. But I am here for its signature Panchakarma, a detox and rejuvenation program. The daily regimen includes two massage treatments, three sessions of yoga, meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques) and a delicious sathvic (vegetarian) South Indian cuisine that includes a range of six colors in every meal.

Ayurveda, the science or knowledge of life, is an ancient Indian practice that aims for attaining ideal physical, mental and spiritual health through herbal tonics, medicinal massage therapies, yoga, meditation and a balanced diet.

According to Ayurveda, the human body is made of five elements — air, water, fire, earth and ether. These elements wake up a person’s energy, or dosha. There are three doshas (body types) — Vata, Pitta and Kapha — each with a certain function in our bodies. A body can be a combination of one, two or all three doshas.

An initial consultation with one of the three resident doctors at Ayurvedagram establishes the visitor’s dosha, and a food and therapy program is planned accordingly. A typical Ayurvedic food preparation uses turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, cumin, fennel, coriander and herbs such as tulsi, mint and cilantro.

Ghee (clarified butter) is essential in cooking because it’s the only natural product that is able to permeate all cells, Dr. Man Mohan explained. “It can break blood-brain barrier and it assists in delivery of food nutrients in targeted areas.”

Some of the produce used by chef Nagaraj and his team comes from the retreat’s patch of organic garden. The menu is predominantly South Indian, starting with the traditional breakfast of dosa (rice and lentil crepe), idli (steamed rice buns) served with coconut and mint chutney and sambhar (lentils with vegetables).

Lunch consists of two types of lentils, three different vegetable curries, rice and chapati.

Dinner offers a similar menu with different vegetable dishes. A typical poriyal dish (using assorted vegetables), chutneys, sambhar and rasam (a lentil broth) accompany both lunch and dinner. And there’s always plenty of fresh fruit and warm cumin-scented water with all three meals.

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Chef Nagaraj cooking cabbage and carrot poriyal. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

On my departure, Dr. Nibhan John gave me a tour of the medicinal garden. Leaves, roots, flowers and bark from 60 some trees and shrubs are used in various healing decoctions, powders and pastes. Orange blossoms from the large Asoka tree are used for gynecological disorders. External preparations from the Rasna are utilized for arthritic inflammation. Oil from the leaves of Vitpala Wrightia Tinctoria is good for psoriasis, while an external application of hibiscus flowers and leaves mashed in water helps hair growth.

Some commonly used herbs and spices have healing properties also. Cilantro (as a green chutney) is a good appetizer, and cinnamon mixed in warm milk or water assists in lactation for nursing mothers. Tulsi leaves (Indian basil) immersed in steam inhalers relieve sinus congestion, and turmeric not only has antiseptic properties but is also used to heal cuts and bruises and dental problems and treat asthma.

Garlic as an antioxidant helps lower blood pressure, and ginger is a soothing remedy for digestive disorders. Cloves are generously used in Indian cooking, and its oil, a rich source of anesthetic and antiseptic agents, is used by dentists as an oral anesthetic.

A morning session with Nagaraj enriched me with a handful of recipes. Here are a couple of them.

Carrot and Cabbage Poriyal (Ayurvedagram recipe)

Channa dal and urud dal, shredded dry coconut, curry leaves and ghee can be found at all Indian markets.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or ghee)

½ teaspoon black mustard seeds

½ teaspoon channa dal

½ teaspoon urud dal

3 to 4 whole dry red chilies

2-inch piece of ginger, chopped finely

1 medium onion, chopped finely

6 to 8 fresh curry leaves

1 cup dry coconut, shredded

Half a head of medium cabbage, shredded

3 carrots, shredded

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup water

Cilantro leaves (for garnish)

Directions

1. Heat oil in a wok-style pan and add mustard seeds, channa dal, urud dal and red chilies. This is called tempering, or tadka, and should take a couple of minutes to get the ingredients sizzling and toasty. Mustard seeds tend to pop, so make sure you keep a lid on the wok.

2. Add ginger, onion and curry leaves; stir well for 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Add grated coconut and lastly the shredded cabbage and carrots and salt and pepper to taste.

4. Stir the mixture well and add ¼ cup water. Lower the heat. Cover the wok and let the vegetables cook for about 10 minutes till tender.

5. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve as a side vegetable dish or as a salad at room temperature.

Ayurvedagram Herbal Tea

Aids in alleviating cough and chest congestion

Serve 4

Ingredients

5 leaves of lemon grass

6 to 8 tulsi leaves or basil leaves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

5 to 6 green cardamom seeds, crushed

¼ teaspoon dry ginger

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

4¼ cups water

Directions

1. Boil all ingredients in water for 5 minutes with the lid closed.

2. Strain and serve hot.

Top photo: A lunch plate consisting of rice, green bean poriyal and chapati; in the bowls are sambhar and two types of vegetable curries. Also, to drink, there’s lassi and cumin water. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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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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Eggs in a basket. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: It’s the simplest, most basic of foods, the one cooks turn to when there’s nothing to eat in the house — because there’s almost always an egg or two or three available, ready to be scrambled into a quick supper, or tossed with hot pasta to make a rich carbonara or poached in chicken stock to turn that unassuming broth into chicken soup.

AolivesAnd it has to be the easiest thing in a cook’s repertoire: You know what they say about a hapless cook — she can’t even boil an egg!

Spring and eggs go together. That’s because as the light begins to strengthen and the grass starts to green, the hens begin to lay once more, which is why eggs are so closely tied to the two great Mediterranean spring festivals, Passover and Easter. The egg on the Seder plate and the colored eggs in the Easter basket are there to announce that winter is over and new life has begun. (Yes, I know the Seder egg is supposedly a stand-in for the sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, but it’s hard to resist spring symbolism all the same.)

Fortunately, eggs are starting to creep out from under the dishonor in which they were held for decades, vilified for high cholesterol content and banned from the tables of anyone who feared heart disease. No longer! Modern researchers agree that dietary cholesterol is not a problem for most people. Dietary cholesterol does not make elevated serum or blood cholesterol, which is more likely to be attributed to a diet high in saturated fat, or to unhappy luck of the genes.

Eggs pack a protein punch — and are chock full of vitamins and minerals

Eggs, as traditional kitchen folklore has always held, are good for you, an excellent source of protein, of course, low in total fat and with zero carbs and just 71 calories in a large egg. They are good sources of iron, selenium, phosphorus and riboflavin, as well as vitamin B12. They’re also well supplied with the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect against macular degeneration, among other benefits. Did your mother tell you eggs are good for your eyes? Mine did, and she was right!

Sun, Sea & Olives

One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.


More from Zester Daily

» The ABCs of the Mediterranean diet save lives in a new way

» Mediterranean diet news isn’t new, but good to remember

» Which was first? The egg

» In search of good eggs

So get out the eggs and get to work.

But what kind of eggs will you buy? Cage free, free range, pastured, pasteurized, organic? The choice is confusing, but for the most and best flavor, my vote goes to eggs bought from the farmer who tends the chickens. Straight to the source, you’ll find out how those chickens are raised, what they’ve been fed and how long ago the eggs were laid.

Although brown eggs are favored in New England and white eggs preferred elsewhere, the flavor and goodness are exactly the same. But here’s an interesting fact to put in your egg file: Eggs in North America must be washed before they can be sold. Not a bad idea, you’re thinking? Think again. Eggs come with a natural protective coating that gets dissolved in the wash water. In Italy, where I live part of the year, eggs don’t have to be refrigerated, while in the U.S., I’m told, it’s best to keep them, if not refrigerated, in a very cool place to make up for their lack of protection. (You may find that eggs bought from the farmer have not been washed.)

And what about salmonella? If you think eggs are risky, cook them thoroughly, either hard-boiling or baking in cakes or cookies. Hard cooked eggs can quickly become deviled eggs, a seriously delicious if old-fashioned treat. Do them up Mediterranean style, mixing the yolks with a little mustard, some capers and a few green olives chopped together with fresh green herbs, the whole bound with a dab of olive oil and another dab of mayonnaise. Or serve them plain, garnished with a black- or green-olive tapenade.

Take a tip from the Italian kitchen and drop eggs, one after the other, into a bean-and-pasta soup, then serve up a poached egg with each soup portion, perhaps with a little Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled on top. Another dazzling Mediterranean egg trick I learned from Maria Jose San Roman, a great chef from Alicante in southeast Spain: Use gently fried eggs as a sauce to top sautéed potatoes. Cook sliced potatoes (in olive oil, of course), then arrange on a platter, season generously, and top with eggs similarly fried, the yolks basted with hot oil so that when they break they make a rich, golden sauce for the potatoes. Nothing could be simpler — or better.

One of my favorite Mediterranean treats consists of eggs served atop the sumptuously tasty concoction called shakshouka in North Africa and sciakisciuki on the island of Pantelleria in Italy. There’s a place in the delightfully shabby old city of Jaffa, Israel, called Dr. Shakshouka, a huge favorite with tourists. If you overlook the visitors, you can get a delicious shakshouka, often served with eggs, for lunch.

I played around with the recipe for a while and here’s what came out — salt-cured lemons are my own personal touch, but they give such a North African flavor that I couldn’t resist stirring them in at the end. You can make this hotter or sweeter as you wish by increasing or decreasing the ratio of paprika to chili. Another virtue of the sauce: You can make it ahead of time, even several days, and refrigerate until you’re ready to reheat and serve.

Shakshouka with eggs. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Shakshouka with eggs. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Shakshouka

Makes enough for 2 to 3 main-course servings, 4 to 6 if part of a larger meal

Ingredients

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus a little more for garnish

3 or 4 sweet red (bell) peppers, cored and chopped, not too fine, to make 4 cups

4 to 6 garlic cloves, minced

1 large or 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped not too fine

1 teaspoon sugar, if desired

2 tablespoons tomato concentrate dissolved in ¼ cup of hot water

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 or 2 teaspoons medium-hot ground or flaked chili pepper (Aleppo pepper if available), plus a little more for the garnish if you wish

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed of excess salt

½ small salt-preserved lemon, slivered, if available

¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

¼ cup finely chopped cilantro

4 or 6 large eggs

Directions

1. Roast the cumin and coriander seeds, stirring in a dry skillet on high heat, just until the fragrance starts to rise.

2. Remove the skillet from the heat and let it cool slightly before adding the oil, chopped peppers and garlic. Gently sauté the peppers and garlic in oil until the vegetables are very soft, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Stir in the tomatoes, which will give off quite a lot of liquid. If the tomatoes are not fully mature, add a little sugar to bring out the flavor. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, then stir in the diluted tomato concentrate, along with the paprika and chili pepper.

4. Add the salt and black pepper. If the sauce is a little dry, add ¼ cup or more of water and cook down for another 15 minutes or so to bring all the flavors together and thicken the sauce slightly. The consistency should be that of a tomato sauce for pasta.

5. Taste and adjust the seasoning. When the sauce is ready, stir in the capers and the slivered salted lemon, if you have it (and if not, a good spritz of lemon juice will be fine). At this point, you can refrigerate the sauce if you’re not ready to make the eggs right away.

6. When you’re ready to continue, turn the oven on to 350 F.

7. Reheat the sauce over medium-low heat, then stir in the parsley and cilantro. Transfer the sauce to a lightly oiled baking dish.

8. Use a big serving spoon to make four to six large indentations in the sauce. Crack an egg and drop it into each indentation. Transfer the baking dish, uncovered, to the oven and cook the eggs just until the whites are set and the yolks are still a little runny, about 15 to 20 minutes. Do not overcook. If the eggs are not sufficiently set at this point, run the baking dish under the broiler for a minute or two just to firm up the eggs.

9. Remove from the oven and sprinkle each egg with a little more salt, black pepper and if you wish, ground chili pepper. Add a dribble of olive oil over all and serve immediately.

Note: It’s a good idea to serve crusty bread, toasted if you wish, for scooping up the sauce.

Top photo: Eggs in a basket. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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