To the Vegemite virgin, the dark brown paste may look like axle grease and smell like rusty nails, but to many an Aussie, the salty spread is comfortingly delicious, as well as essentially synonymous with Australia itself. It’s a common joke that Vegemite is an Antipodean baby’s first solid food. It’s also routinely cited that Vegemite can be found in the cupboards of at least 80 percent of Australian homes. What’s more, traveling Aussies don’t leave home without it.
Primarily a yeast extract that remains after the beer brewing process, Vegemite contains few calories and no fat, but a fair amount of sodium. A rich source of B vitamins, which play a role in metabolizing macronutrients and in producing energy in the body, Vegemite has routinely been promoted for its purported health benefits. In the late 1930s, its advertising even featured an endorsement from the British Medical Association for its B vitamin content. Although less “veggie” than its name might imply, Vegemite is vegan, vegetarian, certified kosher and certified halal.
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Vegemite was developed as a copy of a British product, Marmite, a spread of similar texture and flavor — though it’s best not to say so to a Vegemite die-hard. In the early 1920s, Fred Walker, an Australian entrepreneur, engaged Dr. Cyril P. Callister, one of Australia’s first food technologists, to develop the product. After considerable experimentation, Callister developed Vegemite in 1923. Based upon a mutual interest to develop cheeses with a longer shelf life, Walker later combined forces with American cheese producer James Kraft, forming the Kraft Walker Cheese Company in 1926. This partnership eventually resulted in an American company owning Australia’s national food, though Vegemite has always been produced in Australia and from mostly local ingredients.
Despite Vegemite’s widespread popularity today, in its early years the spread was slow to entice Australian appetites, as Marmite held on to a significant portion of the market share. According to Vegemite’s heritage website, however, by the early 1940s Vegemite had become a “staple food in every Australian home and in every Australian pantry.” Over the course of the 20th century, the spread would become an Australian icon.
Try Vegemite this Australia Day
Australia Day, marked each year on Jan. 26, is a national holiday celebrating the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Britain arrived at Sydney Cove. Kraft attempted to cement the connection between the holiday and Vegemite in 2012, the year of the spread’s 89th anniversary. That year, Kraft rebranded Vegemite jars “Australia,” though retaining the recognizable red and yellow color palette.
One way for an American to celebrate Australia Day is to try Vegemite. The strange truth you’ll have to overcome, however, is that most non-Australians absolutely despise the stuff. With an Australian father, I grew up eating Vegemite and love it, but have yet to convert a single American friend to its delightful, savory charms. Part of the issue is likely a case of mismatched expectations, since Vegemite looks like chocolate, but tastes like, well, straight up saltiness.
A more apt description of Vegemite’s flavor profile might be umami incarnate. Despite appreciation for other foods boasting savory, umami flavor — from bacon to Parmesan, soy sauce to mushrooms — most non-Aussies just can’t handle Vegemite. Though Oprah claims to like it, a popular video circulated last year in which 10 American children tasted Vegemite for the first time with dismal results: no tears, but lots of squealing. Suffice it to say, none of them gave Vegemite their kid seal of approval. In 2011, President Barack Obama confessed to then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that he found the spread “horrible,” disappointing Vegemite lovers. In 2012, singer Niall Horan of the group One Direction echoed this sentiment when he tasted Vegemite toast live on Australian television only to spit it out and later share on Twitter, “Can clearly say vegemite is horrible!”
A ‘culturally specific food’
In 2003, psychology researchers Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal quantifiably confirmed the oft-stated assertion that only Australians enjoy Vegemite. From a survey of 202 participants, the authors concluded, “The eating of this food product and especially the enjoyment of it are specifically linked to Australian birth and ancestry.” They also asserted, “This sticky brown paste remains a candidate for the most culturally specific food.”
The deck may be stacked against Vegemite, but if you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast, which is the way most Australians enjoy it at breakfast. Spread the toast first with butter, allowing it to melt in, and then evenly spread a thin layer of Vegemite. A common mistake for first-time Vegemite tasters is to slather it on too thickly like one would peanut butter or a chocolaty spread, an amount unpalatable to even most devoted Vegemite enthusiasts. Recipes from Vegemite’s website suggest you jazz up your Vegemite toast with tomato, egg, cheese or avocado.
If you’re ready to try Vegemite at every meal, you can make turkey burgers, seasoned with Vegemite, onions, rice wine and a touch of sugar, for lunch. Then you can try Vegemite flavored couscous or sweet potato and rosemary pizza with a Vegemite sauce for dinner.
You just might find that you love Vegemite. If nothing else, it’ll be your saltiest Jan. 26 on record.
Main photo: If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben 185
Sam Fromartz’s new book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf, A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” is a departure. The journalist and editor began his career as a reporter at Reuters, and his previous book, “Organic, Inc.,” was a standard work of nonfiction about the evolution of the organic food industry. But as his hobby became his subject, the writer leaped into the picture of this book.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book
“Baking for me was relief from my daily grind of journalism,” Fromartz said in a phone interview. “I really enjoyed the moment in the day when I would leave my keyboard and just bake, shape loaves, bake them. I really didn’t want to lose that sense of specialness, of what bread meant in my life. I thought if I mixed it up in my work too much, it would just become part of my job. I really didn’t want to do that.”
As the recession downsized his income, however, everything became a potential topic. In a single afternoon, he lost most of his steady freelancing gigs. Querying a contact at the travel magazine “Afar,” he proposed a story about going to Paris to study baguette baking.
The editor said yes, and the adventure began. Consider yourself lucky that his escape became his work, because the result is a really nice journey through baking led by a skilled reporter.
“This book was a lot more personal,” said Fromartz. “It wasn’t a journalistic investigation. But I am a reporter, so all of those tools I use in my work became tools I used in the book.”
Tools like reading, asking questions and framing the answers in good stories. There are some beautiful descriptions, like the one at Della Fattoria, a bakery in Petaluma, California.
“Everyone seemed to be working at a pace just short of a jog,” he writes, setting the stage for each reader to witness, as he did, the bread baking one morning. The baker-writer joins the action, helping shape loaves of bread. But once the actual baking begins, he stands on the sidelines and tells us plainly what he sees. We readers fall into the rhythm of the observed work.
As a small herd of bakers usher hundreds of would-be breads into the oven, Fromartz puts you right there, watching the “dance of the peels,” as loaves go into the oven, and then come out. You are just shy of smelling the bread and tasting it.
The pacing of the stories and information are spot-on. Fromartz takes you through a long baking lesson, baker by baker, describing the process and progress. Beginning with baguettes, which were a challenge for him to bake at home, you learn as much or more about the social history of this bread and its place in French culture as you do about the practical route he found to making this loaf.
Yes, there are elaborate recipes, heavy on method, at the end of chapters in case you want to bake along. But no baking is required to enjoy the research he presents as part of his journey. This odyssey is not just for serious home bakers or professionals, but also for anyone mildly curious about wheat.
Guided by his curiosities
“I wanted to understand things for myself,” he said. “A lot of baking books dealt with some of the questions I had, but there was no sort of central resource, and no book that tied together everything from the origins of grains to sourdough microbiology to how to shape a loaf.”
Writing the book really answered his curiosities. His dives into sourdough are deep; at one point he compares cultivating sourdough cultures to farming, and nurturing microlivestock. Holding all this heady material together is the importance of craft, and what he got out of learning a craft at the hands of people who really value bread, its historic framework and its future.
One of the most surprising discoveries he found on his journey was learning about flour, specifically locally grown and milled grains. As he started using local grains, and flour that came from small mills, he realized how variable bread’s main ingredient could be.
“It made me realize what’s been lost and sacrificed along the way in that quest for uniformity,” he said. Anything that threatened that uniformity got lost, like grains with different flavors, and non-standard types of gluten or proteins.
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“My sense is those guys probably knew something about flavor,” he said. “We have this real singular expectation of what bread should be. “Even whole-wheat loaves generally estimate that puffy bread ideal. “When you have such a narrow idea of what bread should be, you lose a lot of possibilities.”
Exploring those possibilities through different grains and flours engages him as a baker. It’s useful ecologically, too. Pursuing lesser-known grains is good for agricultural diversity and dietary diversity.
When I was reading, I was worried that baking might have lost some charm for the writer. But by the end of the book, he says he’s been able to protect his special connection to baking. I wanted to know how he preserved it. His answer was reassuring, if elliptical.
“I still bake a lot and baking is really a part of me,” he said. “I want to keep that sense of discovery about it. So I think will.”
Main photo: Sam Fromartz’s newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz
Yo Endo would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know a lot about wine. What he does know is how to sell things. His last job was marketing tennis equipment, which took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas; great restaurants — and wine, of course.
Today, Endo manages Cafe Triode, a cozy restaurant near the giant Tokyo Dome, home for Japan’s beloved Giants baseball team. The surrounding neighborhood is best known for the ultra-luxury La Qua spa, sporting goods stores, used bookstores and inexpensive restaurants catering to baseball fans and university students.
I stumbled onto the café while looking for a quiet escape from the rain during a business trip to Japan’s capital. Endo took my dripping umbrella and escorted me to a small wooden bar near the back. A hunk of Serrano ham anchored one end of the bar, and soft jazz played.
Women in Japan’s workforce is growing
Traditionally, the after-hours scene in Japan has been dominated by izakaya bars catering to salarymen. Beer, sake and whiskey are the favored drinks, and the vibe is usually loud and smoky or expensive — or all of the above.
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Cafe Triode offers moderately priced wine, tasty nibbles and jazz — a perfect place for happy hour with girlfriends. And that’s exactly what Endo is aiming for.
Though Japan lags behind much of the developed world in female employment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to increase the percentage of women in the workforce. This includes providing more affordable childcare and encouraging companies to adopt family-friendly policies, such as flexible work schedules.
It also means finding a place for those women to unwind after a hard day at the office. “There’s an increasing need for working women to have a girls-only night out for a drink to strengthen their solidarity,” Chikako Hirose, a spokeswoman for Pronto Corp., recently told Bloomberg News. Pronto is reportedly expanding its Di PUNTO chain of wine bars to at least 26 outlets by the end of 2015.
There are other reasons the wine industry is chasing the female market. Women in Japan still make most of the household buying decisions, and they are more likely than men to attend wine tastings and classes, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Sixty percent of Japan’s wine experts are women.
Old-world wines dominate this market. Although Japan buys wine from 55 countries, just 10 account for about 98 percent of the imported volume, according to the USDA report. Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the favored varietals. Sparkling wine is also growing in popularity, and “wine on the rocks” is being touted as a refreshing alternative on a hot summer’s day.
Endo sees these trends at Cafe Triode, where the majority of his customers are couples or young female professionals. When he first opened his café, his wine list included a range of wines divided by country, varietal and price. But he discovered most of his young customers would spend a long time agonizing over the menu and then end up somewhere in the middle, where they would have just a few bottles to choose from.
Cafe Triode still sells bottles of wine for as much as 19,000 yen ($159) but now offers a large selection of wines for 4,100 yen ($34) a bottle. During my visit, that included two California Zinfandels from Peachy Canyon and Ravenswood chosen by Endo’s wine broker.
American wines are slowly finding a market. In 2013, the United States held an 8.6 percent value share of Japan’s imported wine, up from 7.7 percent the previous year, according to the USDA. But U.S. vintners face significant barriers. A stronger dollar and high import duties push them into a higher price bracket, and Japanese consumers prefer wines with a lower alcohol content than most American wines offer.
By offering a “Reasonable Selections” list representing many different varietals and wine-growing regions, Endo hopes he can encourage wine newbies to experiment. “Everyone finds it very easy to make a choice, and it’s also easy to control the budget,” he said.
Armed with a glass of the house red wine (600 yen or $5), I turned my attention to Cafe Triode’s multi-page English menu, which married two of my favorite cuisines: Japanese and Italian.
Meat platter is most popular on menu
The most popular menu item is the Triode assorted meat platter delivered on a large wooden board with five types of meat (1,950 yen or $16.35). Other tantalizing offerings include dumplings made from fish and shrimp wrapped in yuba (tofu) skin (1,190 yen or $9.98), codfish and scallop pie (1,190 yen or $9.98) and Tajima beef rump steak (1,500 to 1,800 yen or $12.58 to $15.10 per 100 grams). Tajima is the strain of black Japanese Wagyu cattle that produce the famous Kobe beef.
Endo, an easygoing man with an impish smile, started me out with a fig paired with a dollop of mineoka dofu. This delicate palate cleanser, made from an ancient recipe developed by Buddhist monks, isn’t tofu. It’s actually made from milk, arrowroot starch and sesame paste. Rich and creamy with just a hint of sesame, I resisted licking the tiny pottery dish and settled on the Saikyo-yaki (Kyoto-style) grilled duck salad (980 yen or $8.22) for my entrée.
Working out of a kitchen the size of my bedroom closet, Chef Yoshimi Imazu quickly worked his magic, preparing paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese and duck marinated in a sweet white Saikyo miso on a bed of crisp greens.
My visit to Cafe Triode was just another reminder that you can travel well in Japan without breaking the bank. That, combined with that tasty salad, was enough to lure me back one last time before I left Tokyo.
Main photo: Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani
Cabbage is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: It doesn’t get any respect. It gets a bad rap. Cabbage never gets mentioned as one of the hip vegetables like kale. It’s not a super-vegetable like broccoli rabe. It’s not an adorable vegetable like baby Brussels sprouts. It’s not a “cool” vegetable. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned. I mean, they make sauerkraut from it.
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All those cooler vegetables just mentioned, though, owe their existence to cabbage. The big green head we associate with cabbage today was not always what cabbage was. Today there are hundreds of varieties of cabbage that have developed from the progenitor cabbage, called the wild cabbage, including the many forms of cabbage and further horticultural developments such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoliflower, broccoli rabe and kohlrabi.
Botanists divide the cabbage into five groups. It is the head cabbage, green, red, crinkly-leafed or Savoy cabbage, that I’m speaking of. But there are some 400 varieties of head cabbage.
The cabbage is probably native to the Mediterranean, but in Roman times the head cabbage we think of as cabbage today did not exist. The Romans had only leafy cabbage, probably kale. There are some obscure references by Roman naturalists Pliny and Columella to what has been taken by some to be head cabbage. These descriptions refer to heads of the plant being a foot in diameter, but it is not at all clear whether this refers to a compact headed cabbage that we know today or is simply an expression referring to the above ground portion of the plant.
The wealthy citizens of Rome, in the period after Cato the Elder (mid-second century BC), thought of cabbage as poor people’s food as we know from the description in Juvenal’s satire when he described the difference between the food that the patron ate, namely olives to garnish an excellent fish, and the food of the client, who finds cabbage in his “nauseous dish.”
It seems that the head cabbage we know today was developed in Germany in the 12th century. Soon it would be the single most common plant in the medieval garden.
It’s not a popular vegetable today, but it is a vegetable that does draw the curious cook. The most obviously intriguing thing to do with cabbage is to separate the leaves and then stuff them by rolling them up. There are many great preparations for cabbage from sauerkraut, to kimchi, to coleslaw, and every culture has a recipe for stuffed cabbage. Here are two recipes for cabbage lovers from cabbage-loving Slovenia and Croatia, next door to Italy.
Cabbage is a very popular vegetable in the Balkans, served raw, in the form of sauerkraut and cooked in a variety of ways. In the northern part of the former Yugoslavia, today’s Slovenia and parts of Croatia, cabbage may be cooked with sour cream or tossed with noodles and smoked bacon. In Bosnia or Montenegro, it might be cooked with tomatoes. This recipe from Slovenia is typically served as a bed for a roast duckling.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 55 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water
1 cup dry white wine
One 2-pound green cabbage, cored and sliced as thin as vermicelli
8 juniper berries, lightly crushed
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the bay leaves and cook until they begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and very carefully add the tomato paste and wine, which will spurt and splatter rather dramatically.
2. Continue cooking for a minute then add the cabbage, peppercorns, juniper berries and thyme. Mix so the cabbage is covered with sauce.
3. Add the lemon juice and continue to braise over medium heat until the cabbage softens, 6 to 8 minutes.
4. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the cabbage is completely soft, about 45 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
These cabbage rolls are a winter specialty known as arambašici in their home of Sinj, a town near the Dinaric Alps on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Traditionally, this casserole of stuffed cabbage leaves is made from a whole head of cabbage that has been prepared as sauerkraut. Each sauerkraut leaf, or as in this recipe cabbage leaf, is stuffed with beef, pork and bacon, and flavored with lemon zest, onion, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Each roll-up is separated from the other with pieces of pršut (Croatian prosciutto) and smoked tongue.
Arambašici can be made with fresh cabbage leaves or grape leaves, too. My recipe uses fresh cabbage, which is the easiest to find and is what a cook from Sinj would use in the summer. Many cooks also like to make the casserole in the evening and then reheat it the next day, and you should consider doing that as it is delicious.
The casserole cooks a long time so the meats are very tender and the cabbage leaves become silky. The smoked bacon, smoked pork, smoked tongue and prosciutto can all be picked up at the deli counter of most supermarkets.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 4 hours
Yield: 20 to 26 rolls, or about 6 servings
1 large green cabbage (about 2 3/4 pounds), central core removed
1 1/4 pounds boneless beef neck meat or beef chuck, finely chopped
5 ounces smoked bacon (preferably) or lean slab bacon, finely chopped
2 ounces beef fat (suet), finely chopped
6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or neck meat, finely chopped
2 large onions, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
Grated zest from 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or beef fat for greasing
One 4-inch-long beef marrow bone (optional)
1 ounce smoked pork (any cut), finely chopped
2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced into strips
2 ounces smoked tongue (optional), thinly sliced into strips
1 cup water and more as needed
1. Heat the oven to 300 F.
2. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt and plunge the whole cabbage in and cook until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside.
3. In a large bowl, mix together the beef, bacon, suet and pork. Add the onions, garlic, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well with your hands.
4. Arrange a cabbage leaf in front of you with the stem end closest to you. Place 2, 3 or 4 tablespoons (depending on the size of the leaf) of filling on the end closest to you, then roll away once, fold in the sides and continue rolling away until you get a nice, neat package.
5. Continue with the remaining cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls side by side, seam side down, in a lightly greased 13- x 9- x 2-inch casserole (you may need to use two casseroles), making sure you leave some room for the beef marrow bone. Sprinkle the chopped smoked pork over the cabbage rolls.
6. Place the prosciutto and smoked tongue slices (if using) between the cabbage rolls. Pour the water over the cabbage rolls and cover with aluminum foil. (The casserole can be refrigerated at this point to bake later.)
7. Bake until the cabbage rolls are very soft, slightly blackened on top and bubbling vigorously, about 4 hours.
8. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature and serve as an appetizer the next day.
Main photo: Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Whether you have vowed to eat more healthfully or are just contemplating the addition of seafood to your diet this year, eventually you may find yourself staring into a refrigerated seafood case, wondering which fish is not only safe and eco-friendly but also a pleasure to eat.
No need to wonder. I have a list of wholesome winners for you. The lineup includes a hearty fish that satisfies meat lovers; one for those preferring mild, “non-fishy” fish; and a versatile, no-fuss shellfish.
The perfect seafood for meat lovers
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First on the menu is Atlantic mackerel. In the same family as tuna, the torpedo-shaped mackerel possesses firm, oily flesh and a rich, beefy taste. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no fish offers more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than mackerel.
Healthful, flavorful and flexible, this fish can be braised, broiled, grilled, poached, sautéed or seared as well as pickled, salted or smoked. Its bold flavor marries with acidic ingredients such as citrus, tomatoes and vinegar and balances out more mellow foods such as lentils, potatoes and mushrooms.
When shopping for Atlantic mackerel, I look for fish sourced from Canada. Caught using purse seines rather than fishing trawlers, it possesses the highest sustainability rating by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Other mackerel varieties, such as Spanish and King, have elevated mercury levels, making them a less favorable choice.
A ‘gateway’ fish
I think of farmed, American channel catfish as the gateway to seafood consumption. Its subtly sweet, low-fat and pliable meat puts it on the opposite end of the flavor spectrum from mackerel. It also makes catfish an excellent choice for reluctant or picky fish eaters.
With a flattened head and eight long, whisker-like barbells dotting the region around its nose and mouth, this creature bears a strong resemblance to its namesake. Typically, though, I don’t see whole catfish, with whiskers intact, in markets. Instead, what I find are skinless catfish fillets. Iridescently white to off-white in color, they often get lumped into the broad category of “white fish.”
Virtually an all-purpose fish, catfish can be baked, braised, broiled, grilled, poached, sautéed, steamed and deep-, pan- or stir-fried. It goes well with countless ingredients, including avocados, bacon, chilies, olives, tomatoes, tomatillos and wine.
Farmed channel catfish from the U.S. is among the most sustainable seafood available today. Be sure to purchase U.S.-farmed rather than imported Asian catfish, which also goes by the names “swai” or “basa.” Although equally low in mercury, imported catfish is not as eco-friendly.
A shellfish to get you started
Maybe you prefer the colorful looks, flavor and texture of shellfish but also desire seafood low in cholesterol and mercury; high in protein, vitamins and minerals; and with moderate levels of omega-3 fatty acids. I have the bivalve for you: mussels.
Inside a mussel’s hard, oblong, green or blue-black shell rests creamy, sweet, juicy meat that tastes like lobster but lacks the high cholesterol or price tag of that crustacean. Rich in protein, vitamins B-12 and C, iron and omega-3s, this shellfish packs a powerful nutritional punch.
Yet another adaptable seafood, mussels may be baked, broiled, grilled, steamed, stewed or smoked. They partner with bold, tart, spicy or mild ingredients such as beer, garlic, mustard, lemon, tomatoes, wine, chilies, curry powder, paprika, pasta, rice and zucchini. They also pair with other seafood, including clams, shrimp, squid, John Dory, snapper and monkfish. If you’ve ever tried the Provencal seafood stew bouillabaisse or Californian cioppino, then you know how nicely mussels combine with these fish and shellfish.
Although dozens of mussel species exist, I usually find farmed blue or common mussels at markets. Grown in abundance and available year-round, farmed mussels garner the coveted “best choice” label from Seafood Watch.
More good seafood choices
Along with this nourishing trio, I would suggest adding littleneck clams, farmed rainbow trout and char to your must-try seafood list. They all possess high nutritional and sustainability ratings. Couple these rankings with ease of preparation and agreeable taste, and you’ve got three more champs to add to your dinner menus.
Fans of bolder foods should also check out Pacific sardines and trap-caught sablefish. Both receive rave environmental, nutritional and cooking reviews, and both provide ample flavor and need little, if any, seasonings to shine.
No matter which type of seafood you favor, aim to make 2015 your year of healthful, sustainable and succulent fish and shellfish.
Smoked Mackerel Jackets
From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013)
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 stuffed baked potatoes
4 large russet potatoes
1/3 cup skim milk, warmed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1 bunch scallions, sliced
1 pound smoked mackerel fillets, flaked
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Using a fork, poke holes in the potatoes. Microwave them on high for 8 to 10 minutes or until hot and softened.
3. Cut the potatoes in half and scoop out most of the flesh, leaving behind a small rim of potato in each skin.
4. Place the potato flesh in a large bowl and, using a fork or spoon, mash together lightly. Add the milk, butter, salt and pepper and mash again until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Add the cheese, scallions and flaked mackerel and stir to combine.
5. Spoon equal amounts of the potato-mackerel mixture back into the skins. Place the filled skins on a baking sheet and bake until warm and golden brown on top, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Seafood on display for customers. Credit: Kathy Hunt
There’s something particularly delicious about humble ingredients cooked together in a pot and served up. All it involves is mingling an eclectic collection of ingredients, transforming their texture into something smooth, thick, creamy and comforting, and digging in. We all have beloved foods that typically remind us of a happy and carefree time in our lives. As the temperature plummets to the teens on cold winter days, the comfort foods I crave are venpongal — rice, mung dal, milk, and water cooked over a slow fire to a creamy polenta-like consistency and seasoned with ghee, black pepper, cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves and its sweet counterpart, chakkarai pongal, in which the hot spices are replaced with golden brown jaggery and sweet cardamom.
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These are not dishes that were traditionally made at our home, but gifts from our friendly neighbors, Tamil Brahmins settled in Kerala. Every year in mid-January, when they celebrated pongal festival, they sent us these delicious pongals packed in fresh banana leaves. On cold January days, I enjoy cooking and savoring these delicious recipes of our neighbors.
Ancient agrarian practices of India depended solely on the movement of the sun. The beginning of the sun’s northbound journey, utharayana, on the 14th of January is celebrated with different rituals and names — Pongal, Lohri, Bihu and Makara Sankranthi — all over India. In Hinduism, utharayana is considered auspicious, and it symbolizes nature’s regeneration, fertility and bounty, and is believed to usher in prosperity.
Overflowing with good tidings
This festival is celebrated as Pongal in Tamil Nadu to mark a good harvest. The name of the festival and also the dishes made to celebrate, pongal, come from the Tamil word pongal, meaning to boil over. Rice is boiled in milk in an earthenware pot and allowed to overflow, signifying prosperity and hope that the coming year will overflow with good luck and good tidings. In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is celebrated over four days. For Pongal, the people of Tamil Nadu who have settled in Kerala generally do not follow the custom of boiling milk till it overflows, but prepare venpongal and chakkarai pongal at home.
There are many versions of these popular recipes for venpongal and chakkarai pongal. However all will have rice, mung dal, milk, cumin seeds, black pepper and ghee for venpongal and rice, mung dal, milk, jaggery, ghee and cardamom for chakkarai pongal. Pongal, when it is cooked, should be moist, but not wet and certainly not dry. If it looks dry, stir in a little boiled milk to get the right consistency. Use short- or medium-grained raw rice to make Pongal. You will rarely find Basmati rice used in South Indian cooking. Ghee is the only fat traditionally used in pongal dishes. Without ghee, pongal wouldn’t taste as good as it should.
These are comfort foods, and comfort foods are ideal winter foods. They translate into easy, effortless cooking and delicious results that reheat well. Following are my neighbor’s recipes.
Venpongal is a popular breakfast dish in Tamil Nadu even on non-festive days. Traditionally, it is served warm with coconut chutney and sambar. If you prefer the heat of black pepper, crush them before adding. Otherwise leave them whole for a milder taste.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup mung dal
1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon ghee
1 cup short to medium grain raw rice
1 cup whole milk
2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)
Salt to taste
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
8 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces
1 1/2 teaspoon whole black pepper (or coarsely crushed)
1/8 teaspoon asafoetida
A few curry leaves
1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and if the mix looks dry add some more milk and stir well. When it is almost cooked, add salt and stir well. Remove the pot from the stove when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.
2. In a small pan, heat the remaining ghee and add the cumin seeds and cashew nuts. Then stir in the asafoetida powder and black pepper. Stir once and add the curry leaves and remove from the stove. Combine the seasoned spices with the cooked rice and dal and mix well. Serve warm with fresh coconut chutney.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup ghee
1/2 cup mung dal
1 cup short to medium grain raw rice
2 1/2 cups crushed jaggery
2 cups whole milk
2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)
1/2 cup coconut milk
10 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces
1 tablespoon raisins
1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds
1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and add the coconut milk to the pot. If the mix looks dry, add more milk and stir well. Remove the pot from the pan when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.
2. Make a syrup by boiling jaggery with 1/3 cup of water for five minutes. Strain the syrup into the cooked rice and dal mix. Keep the pot on low heat and stir well until the syrup is absorbed and then remove from the stove. Heat two tablespoons of ghee is a frying pan and fry the cashews and until they begin to turn golden brown. Stir in the raisins and they will plump up. Remove the pan from the stove and add the fried raisins, nuts and crushed cardamom to the rice mix. Add the remaining ghee to the mix a little at a time and stir well to combine. Serve warm.
Main photo: Pongal is the ideal comfort food for chilly nights. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
This Sonoma wine captivated with scents of gently crushed black cherries mildly seasoned with oak. Its attack was silky and the flavors echoed the wine’s alluring aromas. It was fresh and structured, though the oak gradually became more of a presence, indicating that the wine wanted cellaring.
It was the 2008 Vérité “La Joie,” an obsessively calculated blend of — here goes — 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. awarded it 99/100 points and rated the 2007 vintage 100/100. There was another perfect score for “La Joie’s” sibling, Vérité “Le Désir,” a Cabernet Franc-dominated blend. And the third wine of the Vérité trio, the Merlot-based La Muse, garnered 99/100 points.
I do not typically score wines. I write pages and pages of notes. Amid the adjectives for that 2008 Vérité “La Joie” I noted “quite European in style” and “very French.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the wines were made by a Frenchman, Pierre Seillan, 64, who hails from the Lot-et-Garonne region south of Bordeaux.
The Vérité project
The Vérité project was the dreamchild of California wine icon, Jess Jackson, who died in 2011. An attorney and self-made billionaire, Jackson bought a pear orchard in 1974, planted grapes and eventually began making wine. In 1982 he created Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and gave birth to a vinous revolution: Here was a moderately priced wine that trounced the Hearty Burgundies and other jug wines.
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Jackson continued to build his empire, which at its height comprised 35 wineries in five countries. What eluded him was a great wine. Then Seillan entered the picture.
The time was 1995. Seillan was managing estates for the Bordeaux negociant Cheval Quincard, when a mutual friend arranged for Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke, to visit Seillan at one of the châteaux he was directing. In 1996 Seillan visited Jackson and by 1997 the Seillans had moved to Sonoma County.
They wasted no time. Vérité debuted with the 1998 vintage. But, first, as Seillan recalls, “Jess and I explored his different estates, vineyards and properties around California and around the world. I was able to identify and develop new locations in Sonoma County that were the right place for growing very high quality grapes, and matching the terroir to the appropriate varietal and rootstock. I then was able to identify what I defined later as ‘micro-crus.’ ”
The ‘micro’ approach
Seillan has worked with micro-crus for most of his life. “Ever since my grandmother taught me about soils and gardening when I was little at my parents’ estate in Gascony, then my work across Bordeaux, in the Loire Valley, in Tuscany and California. I learned to listen to the message of a particular place from the soil, climate and the vegetation, and to be able to match that to producing the right grapes in the right way.”
Seillan selects the best grapes from roughly a thousand acres of vineyards owned by Jackson to make the three versions of Vérité. The key parcels, well-exposed hillsides ranging from 578 feet to 2,457 feet, are: the Kellogg vineyard, Alexander Mountain Estate, Vérité Vale in Chalk Hill and Jackson Park.
Was the micro-approach uncommon in California? “Yes,” Seillan said. “Viticulture in California is still very young compared to France.”
In 2003, the Jacksons and the Seillans purchased the 55-acre Château Lassègue St. Emilion Grand Cru, and several years later, the 31-acre Château Vignot, also a St. Emilion Grand Cru. And Seillan manages the team at Jackson’s Tuscan properties.
Not surprisingly, the philosophy of micro-cru prevails, from painstaking selection of soils to persnickety parsing of grape percentages for each bottling.
A few favorites
Having tasted more than a dozen Seillan/Jackson wines recently, I had a hard job picking favorites. Nevertheless, I loved the 2010 Château Lassègue. Velvety and nuanced, it was fresh and structured, with notes of licorice blending with those of Burlat cherries. At $90 it’s not out of line for high quality Bordeaux and a lot cheaper than the 2008 Vérités ($390 a bottle). Of the three Tuscan wines, I much preferred the Chianti Classico to the two Bordeaux blends. Made from Sangiovese, the region’s traditional grape, it had a tasty story to tell on its home turf. What’s more, at $30 a bottle, it’s priced at roughly a third of the Super Tuscans.
And there’s a new, nicely priced charmer: Seillan has resuscitated vineyards planted by his mother on the Coteaux de Montestruc, facing the Pyrenees. True to form, he opted to plant Bordeaux grapes rather than those traditional to the region. The results are delectable. The 2012 Bellevue Seillan Côtes de Gascogne VdF, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, is a lip-smacking crowd-pleaser as well as a good value at $30 a bottle. Seillan’s grandma must be smiling.
Main image: Pierre and Monique Seillan moved to Sonoma in 1997. Credit: Courtesy of Monique Seillan
If I ruled the world, or at least the food world, my resolution for 2015 would be to ban all lists. The blooming things are everywhere and have become as ubiquitous as kale and cronuts. Lists upon lists, lists of lists, lists about lists … they seem to self-generate at every opportunity. To paraphrase Lady Macbeth: “Out, damned list! Out, I say!”
This may be biting the hand that feeds me, but I have taken a powerful dislike of lists. I feel ambushed by the wretched things at every turn, corralled by their insistence and sheer nonsense. Call me an old stick-in-the-stew if you like, but lists drive me demented. In the space of a few minutes, I found on my Flipboard account:
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I could go on, but at this point, I am in numbers purgatory. When it comes to lists, I have reached my limit. From a piece of fun they have become cliche. They are bullet points that have morphed into dictators. It makes me want to scream and chuck something red and sticky, like a pot of strawberry jam, all over the blameless screen. Is it a herd mentality? Are we gourmet gadarene swine? Or is it simply a kwik ‘n’ easy way to grab the reader’s attention in a saturated info world?
10 is the perfect number for lists
I feel particularly incensed by the growing editorial trend for weird numbers, 23 or 19, say. Is this meant to be quirky and original? Is it thought the strange counting will catch the eye more than the actual subject? No, it is just downright irritating. If you have to have a list — and I have nothing against them per se, as long as they know their place — why not a time-honored, neatly satisfying figure of 3, 5 or 10? Ten is a wonderful number for lists — the countdown is just the right size to hold suspense, retain interest and consider the proposed choices. Anything larger and it becomes meaningless. It diverts attention from the subject at hand: The format is stale and repetitive, and it’s time to call time on the sneaky practice.
The excessive use of lists has gone far beyond its right and proper place: to function as a useful mode of gathering of appropriate data while offering appropriate context and meaning. I am quite sure individual writers or editors do not intend such consequences, and I have no wish to insult any of my esteemed colleagues, but matters are out of control.
The collective use of the format has resulted, to my mind, in a widespread dumbing down of the food-writing genre. Do all our readers really want the easy-to-swallow and painless-to-process implication that the proliferation of lists implies? Why does so much have to be served bite-sized? Is there nothing that cannot be forced into this simplistic journalistic formula? I have just found an article called 41 Holiday Cookies — that is not a list; it is an anthology. I rest my case.
The temptation of lists
From a writer’s point of view, it offers a temptation to be both lazy and inventive. Lists don’t need paragraphs that link fluently or coherently; they don’t demand that topics be carefully unpacked and analyzed. With an arbitrary numbering system a writer can simply concoct some fluffy nonsense that may entertain but neither informs nor educates. It does, however, help fill the feed-me, feed-me bottomless pit of cyberspace. I should know — I have been guilty of both charges.
Alas, in a crowded marketplace there is always a temptation to try and shout loudest to attract the buyer. Hence the equally annoying proliferation of descriptors such as “The Best,” “The Greatest,” “The Easiest,” etc. The result of this style of writing — devaluation of the words. Empty rhetoric. Each example may only be a passing moment of mirth to provide an “easy” read and I may well stand accused of sniffy overreaction, but I still fail to comprehend this insatiable trend for enumeration.
I think I have listed five reasons why I hate lists. But who cares? And who’s counting?
Main illustration: A collage of “listicle” headlines. Clockwise, from upper left: “25 Things You Probably Didn’t Know You Can Freeze!” Credit: missinformationblog.com; “18 Mouthwatering Breakfast Recipes to Try On Your Next Camping Trip,” Credit: Lauren J, diyready.com; “21 Clean Lunches That Can Be Prepared In Under 10 Minutes,” Credit: skinnyms.com; “45 Healthy Recipes For Almost Every New Year’s Resolution Diet,” Credit: Kelly Brown, Buzzfeed.com