I grew up with people who liked to eat but didn’t have fancy palates and weren’t interested in acquiring them. Meals were delicious but predictable. Baked stuffed haddock was Friday’s dinner of choice, and an appetizing meat loaf appeared regularly. My mother and father came from long lines of Maine families, so, except during summer’s heat, baked beans were expected on Saturday night.
The closest we came to Italian food was something called American chop suey, a mixture of elbow macaroni, hamburger, and canned tomato sauce; Chinese was represented by an ancient bottle of soy sauce and tins of crispy chow mein noodles which were scattered over the top of a tuna fish casserole. But Indian? Mexican? Greek? Out of the question! French? A bottle of “French” dressing — who knows what gave it that curious cherry-orange color — was sometimes used to dress salads. Olive oil lived in the medicine cabinet. Garlic was indigestible. Mushrooms were toadstools and poisonous. Cheese was a pungent cheddar called rat cheese, delicious but unvarying. And wine was usually sweet and old — not an old vintage but a vintage in a bottle that had been opened a long time ago and kept for the occasional visiting relative who drank the stuff in preference to more customary whisky and rum.
Inspirational hot and sour soup and moules
I owe my early gastronomic education to a Cleveland lawyer who provided a generous allowance for his Harvard undergraduate son, with which the son and I explored Boston’s wealth of ethnic and fancy restaurants from Joyce Chen’s Chinese place in Fresh Pond where I had a first revelatory taste of hot-and-sour soup, to La Duchesse Anne where I sat next to the future Aga Khan (who knew?) and dined on moules, which back in Maine were scorned as mussels. We frequented the Athens Olympia where the belly dancer who entertained on Fridays spent the rest of the week serving up Greek stuffed vine leaves and moussaka, and the Ritz-Carlton’s handsome dining room, its tall windows overlooking the greenery of the Public Garden, where we breakfasted on beautifully poached eggs atop roast beef hash — not, you will note, corned beef hash, much too Irish for the Ritz.
After the lawyer’s son, there were other beaux — an Englishman who had spent time in India showed me how to make a proper curry by first clarifying an entire pound of butter; a Greek writer introduced me to rice pilaf with onions and black pepper and chicken stock from a can; a Belgian poet stuffed raw button mushrooms with cream cheese and chopped watercress (don’t laugh — try it: it’s like eating the green lawn after a spring rain!); a run-of-the-mill New York film producer rose to heights of glory when he marinated steaks in mustard and honey, then grilled them in the fireplace of his penthouse apartment, certainly not something you would expect to treasure from a film producer.
But I really learned to cook from Elizabeth David. As it happened, I was working for Harper’s, the American publisher of “French Provincial Cooking,” David’s first cookbook launched in the United States. That was in 1962 and Mr. Canfield, the head of the firm, had picked up the book on his annual tour of British publishing houses. Uncertain what to make of it, he passed it around among his junior staff, all of whom were female and most of whom liked to cook. Or occasionally make chocolate chip cookies when warranted.
Turning a corner with Elizabeth David
I was enthralled from the very first page. Raised like my mother before me on “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook,” aka Fannie Farmer, I had not known that one could think about food like this, let alone write about it. I opened “French Provincial Cooking” to almost any page and was immediately and utterly smitten. Here is Mrs. David on “Soupe de Poissons de Marseille,” which is, she says:
… made from all sorts of the little shining red, pink, brown, yellow and silver-striped fish which one can buy by the basketful from the market stalls in the Vieux Port … I don’t think it is possible to make the soup without all these odd little Mediterranean fish … and I have not attempted to cook it since I lived on the Mediterranean shores, but still the method, which was shouted above the hubbub of the market to me many years ago by the fishwife at a market stall, is worth recording.
Reading that in a tiny Brooklyn kitchen, I was filled with longing. I wanted to buy those fish, to smell those smells, to taste that soupe, I wanted to be that person. And short of that, I would make that soupe de poissons, even with the meager supply of fish available in New York markets in the 1960s.
Mrs. David was little known in the U.S. at that time. Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” published a year earlier, had failed to interest me with its precise and doubtless foolproof instructions that smacked of Fannie-Farmer-goes-to-France. No, I wanted that fishwife shouting at me above the hubbub of a Marseilles market stall. I could almost be there as the fragrance of leeks, onions and tomatoes, of parsley, fennel, garlic and saffron, of olive oil such as it was back in 1962, enveloped the fish in my cooking pot. I strained it all as directed, “pound[ing] the fish a little with a wooden pestle so that the very essence gets through into the broth.” The very essence! Magical! Then I added a handful of pasta fragments to the savory orange broth and served it up with grated gruyere to spoon on top.
“The soup should be rather highly spiced,” my idol wrote. Indeed it was, spiced above all with my own longing for the world she had opened to me.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photo: Fish market in Catania, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
I’ve just come across an old friend I have not seen for half a century, “The Olio Cookery Book.” The book itself must date back a century or more, but there is nothing rare or antiquarian about it. The Olio is a classic manual for housewives that explains how to bake scones and cakes, how to choose produce and run a kitchen, and how to treat burns, with optimistic cures for a bronchitis cough and lumbago. Under “Recipe for a Long Life,” British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone cautions, “Chew each mouthful 30 times.” He cannot have been a gourmet eater.
Lessons from the Olio
As a young child, my favorite place was the kitchen, the warm, perfumed domain ruled by Emily, who was too old to be drafted during World War II. Despite food shortages, Emily somehow eked out a ginger biscuit or jam tart for us each day for “elevenses,” when we sat down with a large mug of milky tea.
There were only three of us, but action in the kitchen seemed almost constant, far more fun than the garden, where my mother spent most of her time. She must have been stung by insects often, as she notes the kitchen remedies on the title page of the Olio “Ammonia bee; wasp vinegar.”
Learning at Emily’s feet
As soon as I had learned to read, in the down moments of the kitchen while a cake baked, I would huddle in a corner to avoid Emily’s feet and pick up the Olio. The limp, brownish cover enclosed surprising information among its 1,400 recipes. How to test for an old egg for instance (float it in a bowl of water; if stale, the rounded end will rise), and the renown of parsley for curing what are described as nervous troubles. I recognized Emily’s specialty, Queen of Puddings, and her luscious Steamed Ginger Pudding with a golden syrup sauce — sometimes by mistake it scorched on the bottom, even better!
A mainstay of cooks
I later learned that the Olio cookbook was the mainstay of cooks in the north of England. The curious title is nothing to do with the Italian olio or oil, but dates back to the 1600s and olla podrida or “rotten pot,” the Spanish name given to huge cauldrons of meat, birds and vegetables that were the fashion of the times. I can find no record of the first printing of “The Olio Cookery Book.” My mother’s copy, the 15th edition, is dated 1928 and ran to 25,000 copies, surely a huge printing for the time. In the preface, editor L. Sykes (a good northern name) mentions that 200,000 had already been sold.
By the time I went to boarding school, at age 10, I had absorbed the meaning of technical terms such as stock and roux, and I could imagine what a bisque, a risotto, a ragout and a salmi were like. A decade later when I actually went to cooking school and tasted the dishes themselves, I was prepared for what I would find. I was asked to stay on and teach the next influx of students, and the kitchen became once again my natural home. I’ve never left it.
I’m amazed that jam tarts haven’t migrated to America. During World War II, cooks who had fruit could take it to the nearby community hall and free sugar would be provided to make preserves. My mother’s raspberry canes gave bumper crops year after year so she would send Emily off to a jam-making session where she could gossip with her friends. The resulting raspberry jam, tangy and brilliant red, was perfect for Jam Tarts. For the pastry, you can either make your favorite dough, or try this deliciously crumbly English recipe that uses butter and lard.
Prep time: 25 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 12 tarts
6 tablespoons (about 3 ounces) raspberry or other red jam
For the pie pastry
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, more for the pans
4 tablespoons lard
2 tablespoons water, more if needed
12 medium shallow muffin pans; 3-inch cookie cutter
1. For the pie pastry: Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt into a bowl. Cut the butter and lard in small cubes and add to the flour. Rub the fats into the flour with your fingertips to form crumbs. Stir in the water with a fork to make sticky crumbs, adding more water if necessary. Press the dough together with your fist to make a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and set aside.
2. Heat the oven to 375 F and set a shelf low down; butter the muffin pans. Sprinkle the work surface with flour and roll the dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Stamp out 12 rounds with the cookie cutter. Roll the trimmings of dough a second time to make the count. Press the rounds gently down into the buttered muffin pans. Drop 1 1/2 teaspoons of jam into each mold.
Bake the tarts in the oven until the pastry is lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. They might collapse slightly around the edges; this is normal. Let the tarts cool slightly in the pans before unmolding them. They are best eaten the day of baking but can be kept a day or two in an airtight container.
More from Zester Daily:
Once or twice a year, our nearby farmer’s wife would make curd cheese from fresh whole milk. My mother would stir in a handful of currants, or chopped prunes when currants were not available, and bake curd tarts. I thought they were even better than the jam version, but perhaps that’s because they appeared so rarely.
Follow the recipe for Jam Tarts, lining the pans with pastry dough. Stir 1 1/4 cups ricotta cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons flour and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Whisk an egg until frothy and stir into the cheese mixture with 1/3 cup raisins. Fill and bake like Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes.
Maids of honor
Legend has it that these tartlets were made by Anne Boleyn for King Henry VIII of England when she was maid of honor to Queen Catherine of Aragon. I like to decorate the tarts with a strawberry, raspberry or whatever fruit reflects the jam inside.
Assemble Jam Tarts using 1 tablespoon jam per tart. For the cheese topping: Put 1 cup ricotta cheese in a food processor with 1 egg, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1/4 cup sugar and the grated zest and juice of 1 lemon and purée until smooth, about 1 minute. Alternatively work the ricotta cheese through a sieve and stir in the remaining ingredients. Spoon the cheese filling on top of the jam and bake Maids of Honor as for Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes. When serving, top with an appropriate piece of fruit.
Main photo: Jam tarts are a staple on English tea tables and need only pastry and fruit jam, both preferably homemade. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack
We’ve all heard some version of the story that has kept us from using pressure cookers. “A second cousin of a friend of a friend of my grandmother’s exploded a pressure cooker once upon a time. Her precious pet poodle lost his eyesight and an ear, and they were picking pieces of shrapnel out of the ceiling for 18 years after.” I knew the story so well that I was convinced it has happened to someone in our family, though upon investigation, I could find no evidence of any of my relatives having ever experienced an exploding pressure cooker.
Still, the vague feeling of unease surrounding pressure cookers followed me well into my adulthood. After watching an Indian friend use a pressure cooker daily, I started to reconsider my fear of them. The idea of being able to make all of my favorite boiled, steamed, and braised dishes in a fraction of the usual cooking time was very appealing. So I did what we all do in this age, I researched pressure cookers on the Internet.
I discovered that modern pressure cookers are different from the ones our grandmothers used. While some are still sold with a weighted jiggling valve, most come with a spring-loaded pressure-release valve, known as second-generation pressure cookers. Third-generation cookers are the new electric models. These modern pressure cookers have redundant safety mechanisms that make catastrophe nearly impossible.
More on Zester Daily:
I found that there were some variables to consider. Stovetop or electric? Four-, 6-, 8- or 10-quart pot? Multiple pressure settings or just one? The brand that consistently won comparison testing was out of my price range, so it was a matter of finding the right combination of these variables that would work for me. My research led me to conclude that one could nitpick the details, but as a novice, so long as I selected a second-generation stainless steel model with a stated operating pressure of 15 PSI, I’d be in good shape.
Though electric pressure cookers are credited by some as being responsible for the renewed popularity of the appliance, I quickly eliminated this option. Most electric pressure cookers operate at a slightly lower PSI than stovetop models. Knowing that I was also losing some pressure due to living at high altitude, the combined loss of pressure made this a less desirable option for me.
Deciding on a size
I had thought for certain I’d get an 8-quart model. After all, why wouldn’t bigger be better, especially for making stock, which was one of the main reasons I wanted a pressure cooker? I soon learned that a larger pressure cooker may be too big for my small household for most occasions, and if I really needed to make a greater quantity of stock, the speediness afforded by pressure cooking would make it possible to run two consecutive batches.
Some pressure cookers have low- and high-pressure settings, or in the case of some electric models, many settings. Again, I had initially thought that more would be better. Then I found out that the low setting is mostly used for cooking things such as tender vegetables and desserts. I knew I wasn’t likely to make those foods in a pressure cooker. Deciding to purchase a cooker with only one pressure setting gave me more budget-friendly options.
In the end, I purchased a respectable 6-quart stainless steel stovetop model with one pressure setting for a reasonable price.
To be honest, my first time using my new pressure cooker, despite having read extensively about how safe modern ones are, I was terrified as it came up to heat. I kept picturing that poor poodle and pieces of metal embedded in the ceiling. I didn’t want to stand near it, and seriously contemplated wearing safety glasses.
Now, after several months of using it regularly, I fear my pressure cooker far less than pot handles overhanging the stovetop when kids are around. In the worst case scenario, if I forget to turn down the heat or the vent clogs, the silicone gasket will tear and the steam will escape quickly, but without an explosion. Far from maiming a pet and needing to remodel the kitchen, this would mean investing in a new $10 gasket.
My pressure cooker has simplified my meal preparation throughout the week. I use it to put large quantities of staples into the refrigerator that I can and recombine with fresh vegetables throughout the week to make quick meals. Most weeks, I use the pressure cooker to cook a few pounds of potatoes, a pound of beans, some wild rice, and meaty bones provide pieces of meat and stock.
I’m in awe of the fact that I can cook a roast in an hour, or go from dry, unsoaked beans to a meal in about the same time. These tasks used to take hours, and forethought.
One of my favorite foods to cook with the pressure cooker is wild rice. I had some wild rice in the cupboard that was given as a gift from a friend who harvested it. I’d put off cooking it for an embarrassing length of time because it requires so much time to cook. The pressure cooker cooks it up beautifully in half an hour. Each piece cooks through but remains wonderfully chewy between the teeth. I like it so much that I quickly used all that my friend had given me, and make a big batch every week to eat on its own, to combine with grains, and to add to soups.
Pressure Cooker Porcini Wild Rice
Prep time: 45 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup wild rice
1/2 ounce dried porcini, crumbled
1 head wild Allium bulbils (substitute a clove of garlic)
1 bay leaf
Pinch of salt
3 cups water
1. Add all of the ingredients to the pressure cooker, and give them a quick stir just to make certain everything is wet.
2. Close and seal the pressure cooker, bring it to pressure according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Cook at high pressure for 25 minutes.*
3. Remove the pressure cooker from the heat and let it depressurize on its own.
A tiny amount of water will remain along with the cooked wild rice. This is a good thing because it has kept the wild rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot while it cooked. You can either use or drain it.
*For every 1,000 feet of gain above 2,000 feet in altitude, increase the cooking time by 5%.
Main photo: Mushrooms and wild rice for Pressure Cooker Porcini Wild Rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty
Shopping for a great Christmas gift once meant hours of driving and parking, but with today’s Internet shopping, it’s easier. Internet shopping can be great for those of us who like to give cookbooks. With so many available titles, there are a few things gift-givers need to know to sort out the well-written quality books from the lesser potential gifts.
More from Zester Daily
Cookbooks are terrific gifts because they can be used every day and often attain heirloom status that leads you to better cooking.
My specialty as a cookbook author is writing cookbooks for home cooks interested in culturally driven cooking that reveals a history or story. My favorites are Italian and Mediterranean cuisines in general. So when I look for cookbooks as gifts, I like to give not the latest trendy cookbook but often older books that I value and that my younger friends might not know. These are books from which I learned. I lament the fact that for all the cookbooks published every year and the popularity of food television and celebrity chefs, I don’t believe people are cooking at home more.
Food television has stimulated people’s interest and tried to turn cooking into entertainment and competition, but I doubt it has gotten them into the kitchen. What will make you a better cook? Buy a good cookbook, not necessarily the one everyone is talking about, and get into the kitchen and follow a recipe, and through trial and error you will learn to be a better cook.
Along with the handful of quality new cookbooks published each year, there are plenty of older, out-of-print ones that are almost bibles. You can find them on the Internet and they’re sometimes cheap. If there is someone who’s cooking you admire, ask them what their favorite cookbook is.
Good cookbooks have several criteria, and having recipes that work flawlessly isn’t one of them. More than meticulously tested recipes, I look for quirkiness, personality, a history, or a story told, perhaps about the cook, the author, the cook’s mother, the culture, or a broad sweep of it all.
When I see the crêpes suzette recipe written in that particular style of the ’60s in Julia Child’s cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” it’s not merely a delicious recipe. It is also laden with pregnant memories evocative of a whole era, of an entire culture, and a particularly wonderful day when I made it for the first time as a 15-year-old.
Here is a very small collection of older cookbooks from my library that I am fond of even if I don’t cook from them regularly nor would I say you must have them in your library, nor are they the best in my collection. They are simply good books I’ll never get rid of. (The first book is shameless self-promotion, but I actually use my book, too.)
Main photo: Cookbooks that make good gifts. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
When I decided to join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group last year, I had many reasons — first among them, my weekly share of gorgeous local produce from Free Bird Farm. But I also felt it was important to do what I could to help support an organic family farm and preserve agricultural land in upstate New York. As an environmentalist and food writer, I wanted to put my money where my mouth and pen were.
What surprised me, though, was how much more I gained in return. Beyond the wonderful produce and eggs and an even greater respect for seasonality, farmers and Mother Nature — something that, as the descendant of farmers, I already possessed — my CSA taught me many lessons, mundane and profound. Here are three.
The freezer is your friend
When I unpack my weekly CSA haul, I immediately start picturing all the fabulous dishes I can make from the colorful jewels before me. Nevermind that the recipes I’m imagining usually require an army of kitchen assistants and a willful ignorance of the space-time continuum. I am not easily deterred, and I embark upon my fool’s errand with inordinate enthusiasm, until suddenly it is 10 p.m. and I do not know where my sous chefs are. (Oh, that’s right. I don’t have any.) How then to use up all these wonderful ingredients fast enough to beat the ticking spoilage clock?
More from Zester Daily
When my CSA gave me kale last summer, I put it in the crisper drawer, where it promptly got buried under a deluge of greens. Upon rediscovering it several days later, it looked the way I feel after a long flight, wilted and dehydrated. Then the penny dropped. Hey, that really cold part of my refrigerator exists for a reason. Faced with other, more perishable leftovers in the queue for my next meal, and reservations to eat out the following day, I decided to trim and wash the kale leaves and store them in a freezer bag, where they were retrieved for smoothies the following week.
When the CSA gave me shelling peas, I removed them from their pods, froze them on a baking sheet and transferred them to a bag. Strawberries? Same thing. Parsley, basil and other herbs? I cleaned, chopped and blended them with olive oil, and poured the combination into ice-cube trays. (Warning: Don’t reach for the wrong cubes when you are mixing a gin and tonic.)
Not everything freezes well, but by storing those items that do, you’ll be liberated to focus on the “eat me now” diva ingredients instead. (I’m looking at you, tomatoes.)
How my CSA taught me to stop worrying and love kohlrabi
OK, maybe “love” is too strong a word. Of my relationship with this alien-looking vegetable, I’d have to say, “It’s complicated.” But when I joined the CSA, I promised myself I would tackle each ingredient at least twice. With kohlrabi, this meant roasting it the first time and slicing it into a type of coleslaw the next. I put forth the same effort for every item that I would not normally gravitate toward, such as radishes, turnips and broccoli.
Over the course of the season, I found myself thumbing through long-forgotten cookbooks or going online in search of inspiration. Not every dish that emerged from this exploration was a winner, and I still sometimes trade in the kohlrabi for a different vegetable in the swap box, but as in other facets of life, it’s been edifying to push myself out of my comfort zone. Being part of a CSA forced me out of certain kitchen ruts and helped me to discover delicious recipes — like roasted radishes — that I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise.
When in doubt, tortilla
It’s great to experiment, but some nights all you want is dinner. When a pile of miscellaneous produce leaves me unmotivated, my go-to dish is Spanish tortilla. Though the classic version of this frittata-like omelet calls for potato, onion and eggs, you can build one around almost any vegetable-and-herb combination.
First, sauté your produce in olive oil to your preferred level of doneness. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, and add the sautéed vegetables, making sure to stir immediately so the heat doesn’t cook the eggs. Season with salt and pepper, toss in any herbs you’re using and pour the mixture into a non-stick or well-seasoned skillet. If you want to include cheese — which is not traditional, but tasty nonetheless — add it now.
The number of eggs you use will depend on the produce. For greens that release a lot of water (like spinach), add an extra egg to bind the combination. (In general, the mixture should be more liquid than solid, and it’s always safer to err on the side of additional eggs.)
When the top of the tortilla is firm around the edges and you’re able to lift it cleanly with a spatula, place a plate larger than the skillet face down over it. With a potholder on top of the inverted plate, flip the skillet so the tortilla transfers to the plate. (This maneuver will be terrifying the first few times you do it. Trust me, it gets easier. Until you master it, flip it over an easy-to-clean counter in case anything leaks out.) Slide the flipped tortilla back into the pan, cook it on the other side, and– ¡olé! — dinner is served.
But just before you tuck into your meal, there’s one last step: Remember to give thanks for the local farmers who made it possible — in my case, Ken Fruehstorfer and Maryellen Driscoll.
Main photo: Part of the weekly share from the CSA. Credit: Sofia Perez
In the summer of 1968, I was introduced to the secrets of Mexican cooking. At that time Mexican food was not something you knew or thought much about if, like me, you were a Jewish American princess from Connecticut. I had tasted tacos on an Acapulco beach while on vacation with friends in 1963, and had never forgotten them, but I didn’t know what it was that made them taste so good.
Five years later I was a socially active high school graduate who also happened to have a curious palate. I spent that summer working with migrant farm workers from South Texas as a camper-volunteer at an American Friends Service Committee Quaker youth work camp in Central Michigan. Our group had been assigned to help with a housing grant for migrant farm workers who wanted to relocate to Michigan and work in the auto industry. But at the last minute the money did not come through, so when we arrived the counselors had to find something for us to do. Instead of building houses we became, in essence, social workers and activity planners for the children who lived in the migrant camps. We created a little school for the younger children to attend during the day while their parents worked in the fields, and every night we’d visit the camps and organize activities like baseball games and dances.
More from Zester Daily:
I became close to a few of the families. I got to know the kids well and spent time with the parents. One woman in particular, Señora Saenz, a large woman who had 10 children, took a liking to me. I visited the Saenz family every night in their little cabin, which smelled pleasantly of cumin and chili. Here, in the Saenzes’ one-room cabin, I realized that those two spices were the key to my long-ago taste memory from Acapulco.
I had developed a passion for cooking the previous summer, and at the Quaker work camp I took over in the kitchen early on, cooking feverishly for the group of 24 every night. I wrote to my stepmother, requesting that she send casserole recipes, and she hastily dispatched a sheaf of index cards. I had a huge kitchen to work in, but I had to pull off the recipes using pretty awful ingredients: USDA surplus items, standard issue for welfare recipients.
A lesson in cooking Mexican food
One day when I was visiting Señora Saenz, I asked if she and her older daughters would teach me to cook Mexican food. I offered to teach them how to make a cake in exchange, although I knew nothing about baking beyond cake mixes. The family was enthusiastic, and the next evening when I arrived at the camp they had all the ingredients ready for beef tacos and enchiladas — chili and cumin, onion and ground beef, corn tortillas and oil, tomatoes, tomato sauce, cheese and chilies.
Mrs. Saenz showed me how to heat the oil in a frying pan and sizzle the cumin and chili powder before adding the onions and browning the meat to make picadillo. Once the meat was cooked, she showed me how to season and soften the tortillas in cumin- and chili powder-spiked oil before making enchiladas. Then she showed me how to make a red sauce for enchiladas. We made some quick tacos with the beef picadillo and shredded cabbage, then we made enchiladas. Afterward I opened my box of cake mix, added what needed to be added and baked a cake, which we finished with white frosting from the box. In retrospect, I am sure that Mrs. Saenz and her daughters probably knew how to make cake from scratch, but nobody said anything about it.
At the end of the summer when I went home, one of the first things I did was give a Mexican dinner party for my friends. I scoured the markets in Westport, Conn., looking for corn tortillas. It was a challenge (it would be another two decades before decent Mexican food or even Tex-Mex was accessible beyond the border states). I finally found them — corn tortillas packed in a flat yellow can — in the exotic foods section of the local supermarket. I wonder how long they’d been there. Who was making Mexican food in Connecticut in 1968? I made exactly what Señora Saenz had taught me to cook — tacos and enchiladas. My friends loved the meal.
I had no idea then that, five years later, I would decide to make a career of cooking. By then I was living in Texas and had spent quite a lot of time in Mexico. I was also now a vegetarian and no longer made the beef picadillo I had learned to make in Michigan. But when I made enchiladas or refried beans I still used the techniques I had learned from Señora Saenz — sizzling the spices in oil before adding other ingredients and seasoning the oil for the tortillas with cumin and chili powder. That’s why I was able to develop my first signature dish, Black Bean Enchiladas, and that’s why they were so good.
Refried Bean Tostadas
Prep time: About 30 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours unsupervised cooking for the beans; 15 minutes for the refried beans
Total time: 3 hours (2 hours unsupervised)
Yield: 4 servings
For the beans:
½ pound (about 1⅛ cups) black beans, pinto beans, or similar heirlooms, washed and picked over for stones, soaked for at least 4 hours or overnight in 1 quart water
1 medium onion, cut in half
2 large garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup chopped cilantro
Salt to taste (I think beans need a lot, at least 1 teaspoon per quart of water used)
1. Place beans and soaking water into a large, heavy pot. Add halved onion and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any foam that rises, then add garlic and half the cilantro, reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes.
2. Add salt and continue to simmer another 1 to 1½ hours, until beans are quite soft and broth is thick and fragrant. Taste and adjust salt. Stir in remaining cilantro. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove and discard onion. For the best flavor, refrigerate overnight.
For the tostadas:
The simmered beans, above
2 tablespoons grape-seed, sunflower or canola oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
2 teaspoons mild chili powder
8 corn tortillas
¾ pound ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
1 to 2 serrano or jalapeño chilies (to taste), minced
2 slices red or white onion, finely chopped and soaked for 5 minutes in water to cover, then drained, rinsed, and drained on paper towels
¼ cup chopped cilantro (more to taste)
Fresh lime juice and salt to taste
2 cups shredded cabbage
2 small or 1 large, ripe avocado, diced or sliced
¼ cup chopped toasted almonds
About 3 ounces (¾ cup) queso fresco for crumbling
1. Drain off about ½ cup of liquid from the beans, retaining it in a separate bowl to use later for moistening the beans should they dry out. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy nonstick frying pan and add the ground cumin and chili. Cook, stirring over medium heat, for about a minute, until the spices begin to sizzle and cook. Add the beans. Fry the beans, stirring and mashing with the back of a spoon, potato masher or a wooden pestle until they thicken and begin to get crusty on the bottom. Stir up the crust each time it forms, and mix into the beans. Cook until the beans are thick but not dry, 10 to 15 minutes. They will continue to thicken and dry out when you remove them from the heat. Add liquid you saved from the beans if they seem too dry, but save some of the liquid for moistening the beans before you reheat them, if you are serving them later. Taste the refried beans and adjust the salt (they probably won’t need any as the broth reduces when you refry them).
2. Cut the tortillas in half. To toast in the microwave, place as many as will fit in a single layer and cook for 1 minute. The tortillas will be moist on the bottom. Flip them over and microwave for another minute. If they are not yet crisp, flip again and zap for 30 seconds to a minute. Alternatively, deep-fry the tortillas in sunflower oil or grape-seed oil until crisp and drain on paper towels.
3. In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, chilies, onion and cilantro. Season to taste with salt. Stir in the lime juice if using. Let sit for 15 to 30 minutes for the best flavor.
4. Spread a layer of refried beans (about 2 tablespoons) over each tortilla half. Top with cabbage. Spoon salsa over the cabbage and top with sliced or diced avocado, a sprinkling of chopped toasted almonds and a sprinkling of queso fresco.
Advance preparation: The refried beans will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. Set aside in the pan if you are serving within a few hours. Otherwise, transfer the beans to a lightly oiled baking dish, cover and refrigerate. To reheat, cover with foil and bake in a 325 F oven for 20 minutes.
Main photo: Black Bean Tostadas. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman
I am planning to compile a personal cookbook — not for publication, but rather as a private collection of favorite recipes to give to family and friends. The idea has been brewing ever since I got a phone call from a son at college who wanted to know how to make “skinny fries,” a potato recipe he’d grown up with. At other times I get requests from friends for how to make a particular dish they had at my house. Although some of the recipes I will be compiling are for family dishes that were passed down to me, many come from cookbooks or magazines, recipes I probably tweaked before deciding they were perfect. What makes my cookbook personal, of course, is that it will reflect my particular tastes in food, leaving out ingredients I do not like, and going heavy on the types of dishes I love.
We all know that the world has become flooded with recipes so that selecting the best of them is challenging and time consuming. I have spent years accumulating thick files of favorites I culled after having tried so many other recipes that were similar but not as good. So I see my collection as a worthwhile service to loved ones by offering them what I consider to be the best of the best. It took years, for instance, to find the perfect chocolate cake, a dessert I now bring to potluck gatherings where I am always besieged for the recipe. I also have a biscotti recipe that experienced biscotti eaters tell me is the best they have tasted. I have recipes that were handed down by the women in my family, and passing these along gives me a sense of continuity and order. These include recipes for a winter soup made with beans and meat, and a meatloaf made light and fluffy because of its secret ingredient — a grated raw potato.
More from Zester Daily:
I routinely hear tales from friends who regret not getting their grandmother’s recipe for a dish they continually think about, but don’t know how to make because no one in the family thought to jot it down. It would have required trailing after grandma in her kitchen, and managing to measure and write down what she instinctively threw into a pot. I have even heard stories about grandmothers who will not give out their recipes, or if they do, will deliberately leave out key ingredients. Their motivation seems to be the hope that family members will continue to visit and eat what they cook. My expectation for myself is to have it both ways — to continue to please my visiting family members with the dishes they love and then to hand them all copies of the recipes.
It’s ‘CSI: The Kitchen’
I have seen compilations of family recipes assembled by other people, and they tell me a lot about the person who put the collection together. They add up to what I think of as a food profile. Just as FBI profilers can speculate about perpetrators of crimes by analyzing clues left behind, I feel I can gain insights into a person by examining the foods they choose to eat. But the work of a food profiler is far more pleasant — investigating noodle puddings and fruit pies rather than bullet holes and blood spatters. I have noticed, for instance, that books filled with dishes for grilled meats strike me as man pleasers or may even have been created by men. Ethnic backgrounds are also easy to spot — loads of pasta recipes with tomato sauce suggest Southern Italy, while yeast breads and coffeecakes using cardamom say Scandinavia.
Regional recipes are striking when, for instance, books recommending sweet tea and directions for such desserts as triple-layer coconut cake and sweet potato pie announce old-time Southern cooking. Recipes using such stylish grains as farro and quinoa and a wide variety of herbs and spices suggest an adventurous eater, while those relying mainly on salt and pepper for seasoning strongly hint that the eater has conservative tastes. And there are subtle clues. If many of the recipes yield eight or more servings, I deduce that the person either has a large family or entertained frequently, and the reverse is true. Recipes serving just two indicate a more private lifestyle.
My personal food profile
If I were to be food-profiled, the absence of cilantro, the herb people seem to either love or hate, would herald my aversion to the thing. Also noticeable would be my preference for cooking with olive oil rather than butter, and that an indifference to butter and cream carries over to desserts that omit whipped cream. Recipes for candy and cookies will lord it over puddings and tarts. My book will contain anecdotes, tributes to my sources for recipes, and nostalgic comments about the people whose recipes I am reproducing. I would hope to be seen as someone with a generous spirit, but most of all I would like to be seen as someone with a respect for history. I long ago learned that history is not just about the actions of presidents and kings but about the aspirations of regular people, and personal cookbooks can be a key to understanding how these people really lived.
Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti
(Adapted from “Cooking With Les Dames D’Escoffier” cookbook)
Prep time: 30 minutes (this includes the slicing before the second baking)
Chilling time for dough: 3 hours
First baking: 45 minutes
Resting time between bakings: 1 hour
Second baking: 25 minutes
Total time: 5 hours 40 minutes
Yield: 48 biscotti
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1⅓ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons milk
1½ cups miniature chocolate chips
1½ cups chopped pecans
- Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl until blended. Add two of the eggs, one at a time, beating just to blend after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and milk, then the flour mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips and pecans.
- On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into 3 equal portions. With lightly floured hands, form each portion into an 8-inch long log and flatten it to 2½ inches wide; place each log on a piece of plastic wrap large enough to cover the dough. Wrap in the plastic and chill for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days.
- Position oven rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat oven to 325 F. Line a heavy, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Unwrap the logs of dough, leaving them sitting on the plastic. Beat the remaining egg well to make a glaze. Brush the tops of the logs with the glaze and place them on the parchment-lined sheet. Space them 2 to 3 inches apart since they will spread. Bake 45 to 50 minutes until golden brown and just firm to the touch. Let logs cool completely for at least an hour.
- For the second baking, heat oven to 300 F. Line one or two sheets with parchment paper. With a long serrated knife, cut the logs crosswise into ½ to ¾ inch slices. Arrange biscotti on the sheets, putting the ends cut side down. Bake for 15 minutes and then turn them over and bake for another 10 minutes. Cool and store.
Variation for cranberry-pecan biscotti: Omit chocolate chips, vanilla and milk. Add 1½ cups dried cranberries, 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 1½ tablespoons lemon zest. The rest of the directions are the same.
Main photo: Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti. Credit: Barbara Haber
I read somewhere that people generally use only two or three recipes from each of their cookbooks, and realized this was true for me, so I began to wonder why we select the ones we do from the vast numbers of recipes that are available.
For answers, I took a look at my own preferences, and while I make no claim to speak for anyone else, I will describe why certain recipes appeal to me. I sometimes come across a recipe that becomes a favorite when I am searching for ways to use up ingredients.
For instance, I had on hand eggs nearing their expiration date and a surplus of corn on the cob. I went through a few cookbooks and soon found a tempting recipe for fritters that called for eggs, lots of corn kernels and, happily, not much flour. This has become a standard dish in my house. But while I appreciate practical reasons for favoring recipes, I am more intrigued when I randomly come across a description of a dish I find so compelling that I must try the recipe as soon as possible or else I will obsess about it.
I should say right off that for me, and for other food lovers I am sure, reading a recipe is comparable to sight-reading by a musician. Just as an orchestra conductor can hear the music in his head by following the notes on a score, I can almost taste a dish by reading the ingredients and cooking instructions. Therefore, reading cookbooks has become an enjoyable pastime for me and maybe even adventurous because I never know when I will stumble into my next great find.
My latest discovery comes from Michael Romano’s “Family Table,” a cookbook focusing on the family-style meals prepared for restaurant staff that is filled with down-to-earth recipes. Among them is blue smoke oatmeal cookies. You may wonder what could be so special about an oatmeal cookie, that old standby that can be mealy and taste more healthy than delectable. But, this recipe includes some crushed cornflakes and coconut — not too much — so that the texture and flavor of this oatmeal cookie surpassed any I had tasted.
A well-written split pea soup recipe
I am often attracted to a recipe because of its use of a favorite seasoning not found in standard versions of the dish. Dried split pea soup recipes always struck me as pretty much alike until I came across one in the cookbook “Season to Taste,” which calls for lots of sliced carrots and roasted cumin, a flavor I love. The result is so good than whenever I serve this soup to guests I am bombarded with requests for the recipe.
I also find myself seduced by claims made by cookbook writers. For example, Madhur Jaffrey has a recipe for crisply fried onions that are slowly cooked and then stored in a jar in the refrigerator to use as toppings for a variety of dishes.
“It’s like money in the bank,” she promises, and she is right. Her words ring in my ears not only when I make those onions but when I cook and freeze the thick soups I prepare each winter and pull out to serve on cold nights.
James Beard’s work is also full of opinions and advice. In one of his books he counsels us to always have on hand a roasted chicken because then you will be prepared for many occasions. I listened to him and find that in the summer I can pull off a great salad at the last minute, and, at any time, have available the fixings for sandwiches, stir-fries, hash or my latest favorite, chunks of cooked chicken warmed in a curry sauce and served over naan instead of rice.
I sometimes find irresistible comments made in a cookbook writer’s head notes. In “Flour,” Joanne Chang says about a recipe for a multigrain bread she learned from a bread-baker, “If I had to pick one recipe that I am most grateful for, it would be this one.” Finding such a recommendation pretty compelling, I immediately tried the recipe and understand why it deserves Chang’s rave.
But a writer’s high opinion of a recipe I follow does not always lead to a good result. On the lookout for a definitive biscotti, I came across one whose author claims “these are hard, crisp, full of roast-almond flavor, and addictive for either dunking or munching.” They were so hard I wound up breaking a tooth and sitting in the chair of a dentist for a root canal. I should have dunked, and not munched.
Garden inspiration in the depths of winter
These days I am under the spell of Nigel Slater, the gifted British writer whose recipes are elegant and simple. “Tender,” a book about how he uses the produce from his backyard vegetable garden, is my current favorite, perhaps because we share an enthusiasm for growing and eating potatoes. But I also am drawn to his stylish writing and wit. In flipping a pan-sized potato pancake he instructs, “I find doing this with one positive movement and no dithering tends not to end in tears.”
And in “Áppetite,” a book I ordered from a dealer in England, he talks about why we should cook even though it creates a mess and takes up time. He says that if you decide to go through life without cooking “you are losing out on one of the greatest pleasures you can have with your clothes on.”
Carrot and Split Pea Soup With Toasted Cumin
(Adapted from “Season to Taste” by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 celery stalks and leaves, chopped
2 teaspoons cumin seed, roasted and ground
1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced thin
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup dried green split peas
Salt and pepper
1. In a large saucepan, heat oil. Sauté onion, garlic, and celery about 5 minutes.
2. Add cumin and carrots and cook for 2 minutes.
3. Add stock, bring to a boil, and add split peas. Simmer partially covered, for about 45 minutes or until peas are very tender.
4. In a food processor or blender, purée 2 cups of soup mixture, leaving the rest in the pot.
5. Return purée to pot, taste for salt and pepper, and serve.
Note: If soup has thickened too much before serving, thin with stock or water.
Top photo: Carrot and split pea soup with toasted cumin. Credit: Barbara Haber