I’ve been exploring Mediterranean food for decades and written books about it, but only recently have discovered the phenomena of Greek yogurt, which was perplexingly unfamiliar.
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I didn’t know what Greek yogurt was, a term that first surfaced quite recently. I consulted other Mediterranean food experts and they were baffled, too. So I figured that it was one of two things: yogurt from Greece or a slick marketing term devised by American food companies to sell yogurt as a health food. Well, it’s certainly the latter.
More importantly, I have figured out that what marketers call Greek yogurt is none other than what I’ve been writing about and eating for 40 years, that is labna (also lubny or labneh or labne), which is strained yogurt.
Labna is the Arabic term, and it was only in Middle Eastern markets that you could find strained yogurt until quite recently. It is also called strained yogurt, kefir cheese and yogurt cheese. I had to laugh. For those of us who write about Mediterranean food and who eat it, hearing someone talk about Greek yogurt was like listening to a little kid marvel over a jack-in-the-box.
Yogurt in Greece and around the Mediterranean
Until the mid-1990s when high-quality yogurt became available I simply made my own because it’s ridiculously easy and there should be no hype about yogurt. Yogurt, a Turkish word (yoğurt), is a semi-solid cultured or fermented milk containing the bacteria Bacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These organisms present in the “starter,” given warmth, will ferment whole or skimmed fresh milk overnight.
Yogurt may have been known by the ancients Greeks as pyriate. Andrew Dalby, who wrote an important study on classical Greek gastronomy, wrote about the Greek physician Galen, who related this older term, pyriate, with the oxygala familiar in his own day, which was a form of yogurt and was eaten on its own or with honey. The first unequivocal description of yogurt is found in a dictionary called “Divanu lugati’t- turk” compiled by Kaşgarli Mahmud in 1072 during the Seljuk era in the Middle East.
Yogurt spread rapidly throughout the eastern Mediterranean, but it hardly penetrated the western and northern Mediterranean. The use of yogurt was first recorded in France in the 16th century, when it was said to have cured the ailing King Francis I. The yogurt was administered daily by a Jewish doctor who had traveled on foot from Constantinople accompanied by a flock of sheep, and that was the last France saw of yogurt until the 19th century.
Make your own Greek yogurt
The Turks are far more picky about yogurt than Americans, and as a result one finds very high-quality yogurt in Turkey. Most yogurt is made from cow’s milk, with some made from sheep’s milk, while goat’s milk yogurt is rare in Turkey. Yogurt is a staple food in the Middle East and is now ubiquitous in the United States. Making your own is easy and after straining the yogurt I still call it labna.
Makes 1 quart
1 quart whole milk
3 tablespoons whole plain yogurt
1. In a saucepan, bring the milk to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring frequently to make sure you do not scald the bottom of the pot. Once the milk is shimmering on the surface, simmer for 2 minutes. Pour the milk into a large mixing bowl and let cool until you can keep your little finger submerged in it to a count of 10.
2. Stir a few tablespoons of the hot milk into the yogurt and then quickly stir this back into the hot milk. Cover the bowl and leave overnight inside a turned-off electric oven. The next morning you will have homemade yogurt that will keep for a week. You can save some of this homemade yogurt as your starter for the next batch.
Note: To make strained yogurt, or “Greek yogurt,” pour the yogurt into a linen towel or several layers of cheesecloth, tie off, and hang from a kitchen sink faucet to drain overnight. In the Middle East strained yogurt is used as a breakfast spread for Arabic bread, served as a dip for hot foods, or eaten plain with some olive oil or honey.
Top photo: Greek yogurt. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
As with everything in life, there are truths with cooking. Andrew Schloss, the author of “Cooking Slow: Recipes for Slowing Down and Cooking More,” hits upon one when he writes in his introduction that “cooking is a balance between time and temperature. Raise the heat and everything speeds up; flames jump, pots sizzle, grease spits. Lower the heat, however, and the turmoil subsides.”
Lowering the heat is what “Cooking Slow” is all about, and while doing this is particularly enticing with Christmas fast approaching, it is a great idea to lower a little of the cooking heat any time you can. What a welcome change to have something cooking slowly in the oven or on top of the stove instead of frantically whipping up another quick meal to satiate our hungry, hectic lives.
Schloss also is the author of the “Art of the Slow Cooker,” a cooking teacher and former president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Like many people, I grew up with slow meals, especially in winter. Arriving home from school, pink-cheeked and famished, the aroma of a hearty soup or stew that had been simmering for hours or a roasting chicken was a comfort unlike many others. It is this sense of comfort, above all, that permeates “Cooking Slow.”
By Andrew Schloss
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After a corporate life with too many takeout meals eaten at my desk, I was reborn to slow cooking a decade ago, after I left the corporate world and went to work at a restaurant, surrounded by people who lived and breathed delicious food. My boss was a sophisticated and urbane Irishman who loved quality — and its accompanying price tag — above all. When he decided to invest in new cocottes — cooking pots with sloping sides that weighed a ton and cost the moon — for the restaurant kitchen, I joined him on his mad quest and bought one for myself, spending an obscene amount of money for a dull cast-iron affair that paled in prettiness next to the aubergine- , cherry- and saffron-colored pots on the market. I have never regretted the purchase, carrying my magic pot (as I quickly nicknamed it) to the east coast of Canada where I thought I belonged and then back again to my Ontario home. It was the first thing I unpacked when I settled into a new kitchen. Even the most inexpensive cuts of meat become tender and succulent when cooked slowly in it.
‘Cooking Slow’ requires patience, a few kitchen essentials
Schloss recommends such a pot, along with a cast-iron skillet, slow cooker and soufflé dish, among other things, to help transform your kitchen into a slow-cooking haven.
The transformation to slow cooking begins with Chapter 1 – “Slow Roasting” — and the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who knew a thing or two about food. Here is his quote on the skill of roasting: “A man may be taught how to cook, but he must be born knowing how to roast.” Schloss then adds, “Get ready to be reborn.”
For me, two recipes in particular in the first chapter help with that rebirth, Slow-Roasted Chicken With Potatoes & Herbs, and Balsamic-Glazed Duckling. Although duck “has a fat problem; there’s a lot of it on these buoyant birds,” turning down the oven temperature allows enough time for the fat to melt, resulting in a moist and flavorful meat.
Chapter 2, “Slow Baking,” offers a welcoming dinner meal of One-Pot Mac and Cheese that has a nice tang with the addition of brown mustard. Slow-Baked Beets With Orange Gremolata (the Gremolata reimagined with hazelnuts and orange juice) is one of my favorite recipes in this chapter, but even it is eclipsed by Parsnips Baked In Spiced Yogurt.
“Neglected and maligned, parsnips have a PR problem,” he writes, and I agree. This recipe, with its wonderfully spiced yogurt (with, among others, coriander and cumin), might make a few reluctant parsnip eaters into parsnip lovers.
The recipes throughout the book are clear and easy to follow, with accompanying photographs of finished dishes that are not only mouthwatering but also inspiring.
Follow the chapters, including the ‘Slow Sweets’ favorite
Other chapters explore slow simmering, steaming, grilling, frying, using a slow cooker and dabbling in sous vide cooking — that very long and low-temperature cooking method that has taken hold in many restaurants.
The last chapter in “Cooking Slow” is my favorite. In “Slow Sweets,” a Steamed Cornmeal Pudding with Olives and Candied Orange offers a delicious melding of saltiness from the olives and sweetness from the orange. Ever the chocoholic, though, I bow in gratitude to Schloss for including a cake called Triple Chocolate Bypass, which bakes for four hours in an oven heated to 175 F. This silken and rich thing has now gone to the head of my holiday baking list, but I will have to make sure not to make it too early or it will never survive until Christmas Day, (although it’s so easy to make that I could always make another one).
Top photo: Andrew Schloss is the author of “Cooking Slow: Recipes for Slowing Down and Cooking More.”
One of my favorite bistro restaurants in New York City is Le Philosophe, which offers a delicious, reasonably-priced blanquette de veau as well as a list of wines that won’t break the bank. This gulpable 2010 Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon, with its fresh ripe spiced-berry flavors and soft tannins, is one of them. Its refreshing fruity style resembles that of Beaujolais-Villages, but this red has more spice and depth. It was perfect with the creamy main course I savored at Le Philosophe.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
2010 Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon
Region: Loire Valley, France
Grape: 100% Cabernet Franc
Serve with: Blanquette de veau, roast pork
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Chinon is a historic town in the Loire Valley and also the name of an appellation where almost all the wine is red, made primarily from Cabernet Franc grapes. The vineyards, which cover 19 communes, span both sides of the pretty, winding Vienne River. My introduction to the area, though, was through history, when I came as a student to tour the town’s famous stone castle, the grand 11th-century Chateau de Chinon, built on a high rocky outcrop above the river. It has a complex early past: English King Henry II rebuilt it and resided there in the 12th century; later it was captured by the French, and it’s where Joan of Arc claimed divine voices told her that Charles VII, the Dauphin of France, would give her an army to fight in Orleans. Writer Francois Rabelais made Chinon’s wines famous in the 16th century.
U.S. catches up with 2010 Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon
I first drank these delicious, fragrant reds in Paris bistros and wine bars 20 years ago, but they’ve become popular in the U.S. only in the past five or so years. That’s partly because wine lovers are now hunting alternatives to big, alcoholic reds. When Cabernet Franc is grown in cooler climates like the Loire Valley it makes wines that are lighter bodied and more aromatic than Cabernet Sauvignon, but have some of the same character. And the newfound popularity of Loire reds has also been helped because they are often stunning bargains.
Climate change and improved vineyard practices have helped make Chinon’s wines more appealing. When Cabernet Franc doesn’t ripen fully, the wines taste lean, green and herbaceous. In recent, warmer vintages, the wines have been richer. The 2010 vintage was one of the best of the past few decades.
Chateau du Coudray Montpensier was built in the 15th century, but was only established as a winery 10 years ago. Its 2010 Chinon is well worth seeking out.
Top photo: Chateau du Coudray Montpensier and wine label for Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon. Credit: Courtesy of Chateau du Coudray Montpensier
For the last eight months, I have been growing vegetables on a 323-square-foot plot of land rented from a Chinese perma-culture farm on the rural outskirts of Beijing. The farm, organized by a community-supported agriculture nonprofit called Shared Harvest, was based in Changping district nearly 25 miles north of Tiananmen Square.
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“Perma-culture” or “circular farming” integrates animals (pigs, lambs, chicken, fish) and their waste into the ecological loop of growing fruits and vegetables, which in turn feed the animals as well. From the crops I gathered each biweekly visit, I was able to almost entirely sustain myself, minus the tofu, starches and seasoning I continued to purchase from supermarkets. Aside from the obvious nutritional benefits, my first experience managing agricultural land left me feeling ever more thankful. Thankful for the increased knowledge of how food is grown and thankful for the friendships I’ve developed, as well as a renewed appreciation of the difficult work farmers do, worldwide.
Escaping the city for community farms
Just as the back-to-the-farm movement has been picking up speed in the United States, in China there is a similar trend with community farms. I had been receiving food deliveries from the CSA and when they began to rent plots of land, offering to train and provide all necessary tools and seeds, I took the opportunity.
Turns out I was the only foreigner to jump at the chance to lease the land. All the other “gentlemen farmers” were upper-middle-class Chinese, who would drive out each weekend in their luxury vehicles and SUVs with their three-generation families and work their plots together. I, meanwhile, would get myself out there via a crazy combination of bike, subway, bus and foot, commuting up to 2½ hours each way. Still, I remained committed. Many of the other casual farmers, like me, enjoyed the chance to get out of the concrete eyesore that is Beijing, though the air quality was rarely better out there than in the city center. The region’s smog is partly attributed to industrial coal burning around Beijing. Similarly, we plot holders were all looking to ensure a source of safe food for ourselves amid a slew of adulterated food cases in China. In many cases, though, there was a deeper desire to “get back to the farm” where so many Chinese had lived and worked in earlier generations.. In the rush to urbanize, modernize, and become wealthy, many had been left feeling spiritually or socially lost.
It took me months comparing my ugly, unruly first-timer plot to the well-tended ones around mine before I realized that many of these nouveau riche had previously been farmers. It didn’t hurt that they also came with several laborers ready to work: grandparents, their children and then grandchildren all toiling together. While they all played and laughed in groups, I at first went out solo and learned to appreciate the kind of slow, wearying, physically-demanding labor that accompanies manual farming. As a single foreign female sweating and struggling over a plot of land that could easily feed a family of four, however, it meant I was a curiosity who attracted the attention and help of the others on the farm. Generally, this meant the two families of farmers who were hired to live on the land and oversee farm management, focusing especially on the animals, the larger plot, which grew food for CSA delivery, and the kitchen where many groups would eat lunch after a long morning of work. These incredible people taught me the basics needed to grow food.
There were also scores of young Chinese volunteers from universities or recent graduates who came to community farms from around the country looking for a mission to trumpet, seeking a change of pace from exhausting city life, or just hoping to learn a new skill until they found the next job.
Cooking up the bounty
From these two groups — farmers and volunteers — I learned an incredible amount. For one, I had a chorus of Chinese chefs indicating to me how best to cook each surprising new vegetable that would emerge, week by week, from the soil on my plot. For example, radish leaves work well as a leafy addition to a miso or any other soup; and green beans, if the pod skins get too old, can simply be removed and then blanched briefly before getting a good stir-fry with rice.
Additionally, I began to memorize the “qi” quality of each ingredient: those that cause the body to heat up, and those that cause the body to cool. Most intriguing were conversations about the role food plays in our lives, and how modernization has moved humans away from direct access to safe, healthy food grown in a sustainable manner.
In that transition, our knowledge about soil, plants, seasons and how food is grown was replaced by other types of information: food brands, advertising campaigns, famous restaurants and chefs. Deep into these conversations, while weeding the soil or furrowing the field in preparation for sowing seeds, I came to feel united with a certain group of people in our commitment to learning about our food from its source. It didn’t matter that we were speaking Mandarin in Beijing’s rural districts. It could have been any farm on the outskirts of any city, be it New York, Rio de Janeiro or Paris.
Top photo: Manuela Zoninsein and friend Gigi Peng take photos of weeds to try to identify them back home. Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Zoninsein
Holiday baking is a great way to get kids into the kitchen. If they don’t have a natural interest in cooking, they might have an unnatural interest in sprinkles, icing and silver dragées.
However, if you blithely attempt to make sugar cookies with a 3-year-old, thinking it will be a living tableau of family harmony, you may end up with something much less pleasing. The holidays are so loaded that it is really, really easy to NOT get those cozy memories you want to create.
Here are a few tips on making a baking session that might just fit the picture books.
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1. Lower your expectations.
Whatever they are, dial them down. If you think matching aprons and carols on the stereo, and a batch of gingerbread men rolled to perfect thickness, think again. Visualize molasses-coated jeans and wildly rippled dough. Picture worst-case scenarios — broken mixing bowls and 2 cups of salt instead of sugar — and be happy when the disasters are minor.
This is crucial. If you want everything to be just-so, you are going to interfere with the experience the child will have. And you want that experience to be pleasant, not scripted to fit an ideal.
Being tender with the impulse to explore tools and materials you are introducing is more important than working toward the most tender sugar cookies. You can make those at nap time, if you must.
2. Suit your crew.
Bear in mind abilities and ages.
Before you start to bake, observe the child — yours or a favorite nephew or pseudo-niece — at a meal. How do they handle forks and spoons? Could they manage pouring the vanilla? Maybe they would do best just opening the sticks of butter and turning on the mixer. Because many cookies require refrigeration, making the dough ahead of time can skirt a lot of trouble.
Don’t set the bar too high, but don’t set it too low, either. That 10-year-old could be incredibly well skilled and training for junior chef Olympics. If that is the kind of kid you will have in the kitchen, do a lot of talking before you get there.
3. Involve everyone as much as possible.
Inclusive planning can be scaled to fit. A 4-year-old should see you take the splattered index card from the inside flap of the “Betty Crocker Cookbook” and hear how you used to bake king-sized gingersnaps every single Christmas. The 5-year-old might want the story in more detail. A 6- or 7-year-old you’ve baked with before might want to plan which kind of cookie to bake at which session.
The fancy-pants chef-to-be is fully capable of planning everything with you, from recipes to shopping, and decorating storage containers. However, be aware that kitchen dreams can overshoot the limits of time and experience. Maybe don’t make sea foam candy together unless one of you is well versed in working with sugar.
Keep the afternoon manageable, especially if you are working with a group of kids. Leave room for tasting the products with a cup of cocoa. You don’t have to make fudge and gingerbread men the same day.
4. Invite another family.
The best way to conquer your own crazy expectations and/or buffer dynamics between you and your kids might be to make a crowd. This will call for you completely surrendering to the crowd, of course, and that is a good thing.
There is a lot of pressure to make holidays all about the nuclear family. Creating a nontraditional scenario might seem sacrosanct, but it could also be the trick you need to trick yourself out of wanting to stage a Tremendously Wonderful Time Baking, which is sure to end in tears.
5. Remember your own holiday times in the kitchen. (And maybe forget them.)
Each holiday recipe is probably linked to some moment in your life. I remember the year I discovered Edith’s Sugar Cookies in a cookbook I took from the library. The year, in my 20s, I learned how to make Viennese Crescents from my boyfriend’s mom.
Stepping into those memories is a beautiful trap. I think I can time travel, or that the cookies will carry me. Repetition seems to be the magic maker. However, if I really think about what I loved about those times, it was exploration, rather than repetition, that seared them into my brain and heart.
When I bake with my kids, I try to remember that exploration is a key wonder to cultivate. Good cookies are great, but curious cooks are in short order. Make me some more of those.
Top photo: Felix, 10, shows off his Christmas cookie. Credit: Amy Halloran
Richard Miscovich stands long and lean by the oven, a ponytail trailing down his back. Though the world doubts skinny cooks, he is the real deal, very aware of the fire behind him and all it can achieve.
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The baker is also aware of the crowd in front of him as he leads classes, tending curiosity as if it were as important as loaves of dough. He knows his ingredients, so he can predict what those ingredients need. He’s also attentive to environments, so he can address questions that arise, in a wood-fired oven or a weekend workshop.
I’ve seen him at the Kneading Conference and Kneading Conference West, teaching workshops on baking with sprouted grain flours, and, most recently, making full use of the heat generated for wood-fired bread baking. He explores this potential — to make everything from beautiful bread to dried figs, not to mention rendering fat and building a classic pot of New England baked beans — in detail in his book “From the Wood-Fired Oven: New and Traditional Techniques for Cooking and Baking with Fire.”
Immersion in the American baking movement
The book puts his energy and knowledge at your fingertips, and appeals to a wide range of interests, from home bakers to those considering starting a small enterprise, or looking to revise an existing baking operation. These are the people Miscovich encounters at the Kneading Conferences, or when he guest-teaches at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Center, where he used to work in the bakery. He also sees these people in his baking and pastry classes at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., where he’s been an instructor for 11 years.
Miscovich speaks and writes as one not yet removed from the thrill of learning. The book is a scrapbook of his immersion in the American bread movement and features quotes from stars and sages of that movement, such as James McGuire and Thom Leonard. That immersion happened by chance and circumstance, more than design.
“I was working at a grocery store and they opened a bakery and I thought that would be fun,” Miscovich said in a recent phone interview, describing his random entry into the field. He was attending the University of Michigan, studying English literature. The store served an international population, and received deliveries from scratch bakeries in East Lansing. Once weekly, German bread came from Detroit. “I could tell that the bread that was delivered had more character than what we were thawing and proofing and baking.”
Pioneer bread makers
His passion for baking as a career, however, did not take root until much later, when the book “Bread Alone” exploded his idea of bread in 1994. The book ratcheted up his home bread-baking practice from yeast to sourdough, and inspired him to travel from North Carolina for two weeks of workshops at the newly formed San Francisco Baking Institute. This was in 1996, a big moment for bread in America.
On that trip, he met Alan Scott, the New Zealand-born baker and oven builder who, with oven plans, workshops and, later, the book “The Bread Builders” (written with Dan Wing) pioneered the wood-fired bread oven movement in America.
When Miscovich visited Scott in 1996, breadmaker Chad Robertson was using Scott’s oven. There was grain growing behind the house and inside, Scott had hooked up a Diamant mill to a washing machine motor, to mill flour for his baking.
“I distinctly remember him talking about the benefits of whole grains and showing me his little mill,” Miscovich said. “The whole wood-fired oven thing hadn’t started yet, and the local grain movement hadn’t even started yet.”
Practical and accessible
“From the Wood Fired Oven” is, like “The Bread Builders,” also published by Chelsea Green. There’s enough information on artisan baking to stand as a thorough guide, but the language is not too technical to lose the home baker who has never touched a sourdough. Similarly, the practical instructions on building an oven, and managing fire and combustion, are in depth enough for anyone who is ready to build a backyard oven or launch a microbakery.
The book has profiles of bakers and oven builders who are helping push community-scale artisan bread baking to another level. Information on equipment, oven size and production practices is presented to help show how to make baking and ovens physically practical and economically feasible.
“People get burned out,” Miscovich said of baking, but the improvements he and others outline in the book can help prevent burnout and help keep artisan bakeries alive. “I think the book talks about materials and design and efficiency in a way that’s hopefully going to help those businesses become or stay viable,” he said.
Yet cooking is at the core of the book, so these details didn’t drive me, who has little interest in starting a bakery, away. I love the book, and its author’s classes, for helping explain how ingredients become foods, and how those foods become most flavorful. Even in my $25 oven.
Top photo: “A Wood-Fired Oven” and Richard Miscovich. Credit: Courtesy of Red Door Media
Everyone knows the holidays are steeped in culinary traditions, but who says you can’t steal from others? Pickled herring from Denmark, for example, defies the usual U.S. holiday fare that goes something like this: Roast a plump turkey for Thanksgiving. Simmer a pot of cranberries for Christmas. Chill magnums of champagne for New Year’s Eve. What happens, though, when you cannot bear the thought of doling out another spoonful of moist cornbread stuffing or pouring another round of cinnamon-dusted eggnog?
When I reach my limit with tried-and-true seasonal dishes, I look to what people in other countries make and eat during this festive period. Considering that my friends’ and family’s backgrounds are an amalgamation of different cultures, I don’t find it a stretch to include a taste of Scandinavia, Great Britain, the Mediterranean or Southeast Asia on my holiday menus.
Over the years, I’ve incorporated English mince pies and plum puddings; meringue-based Norwegian garland cakes; and the anise-flavored Greek bread Christopsomo. I’ve also introduced the Portuguese Christmas Eve staple buddim do bacalhao, or baked salt cod, and the Czech custom of eating baked carp on Christmas. This year, thanks to Danish friends and a recent stay in Denmark, I’ll add pickled herring to the holiday buffet table.
Pickled herring long a part of Danish culture
A staple of Danish cuisine, pickled herring dates to the Middle Ages, when fishermen caught and preserved massive quantities of small, oily-fleshed, saltwater fish known as herring. The fish became a valuable commodity for Denmark, one so important that it garnered the nickname “the silver of the sea.”
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Herring, particularly pickled herring, remains popular in Denmark. You will come across it in markets; at sidewalk food stalls; on koldt bords, the equivalent of the Swedish smorgasbord; and in tony restaurants. Dinners frequently begin with a herring course, and no smørrebrød platter would be complete without pickled herring.
If you’ve not tried this seafood specialty, you’re missing quite a treat. Velvety soft and delicately sweet, it almost melts on your tongue. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in contaminants and garnering an environmental “eco-OK” rating from the Environmental Defense Fund, it’s tasty, wholesome and relatively guilt-free. Even the most diehard herring skeptics must concede that this is one delectable fish dish.
Pickled herring begins with salted herring fillets. The fillets are soaked in cold water for six to 12 hours to remove the saltiness. They are then placed in a marinade, where they usually steep for at least 24 hours.
The basic marinade consists of vinegar, sugar and spices. However, Danish cooks have crafted countless recipes featuring such ingredients as sour cream, chives, mustard, dill, sherry and tomatoes.
For ardent home cook and culinary hobbyist Gilad Langer, no dish tops karrysild, or curried herring. Here curry paste is combined with mayonnaise, sour cream, sliced apple and spices such as crushed coriander and mustard seeds. The herring macerate in this mixture for at least an hour. The mildly spiced fillets are then served atop a piece of lard-slathered dark rye bread with optional slices of hard-boiled egg.
“For the holiday meals, people typically spend some time on making special marinades, while the everyday meals are kept to the common recipes, red [vinegar and sherry], white [plain vinegar] and curry herring. In any case, Christmas lunch and parties always have pickled herring,” says Langer, a former longtime resident of Hillerød, which is 30 minutes north of Copenhagen.
It’s said that a shot of Danish aquavit should be drunk alongside pickled herring and that it aids in digestion, washing the herring down into the stomach. “The aquavit, which means ‘water of life,’ really brings out the fishy taste and is an important part of the social etiquette of the traditional Danish lunch,” Langer says.
Along with aquavit, the fish marries well with a variety of ingredients. Cold, boiled potatoes, sliced onion, egg, tomato, apple, chopped pickle, chives, crème fraiche and a good, cold beer all complement its smooth taste.
Pickled herring is a common filling for open-faced sandwiches, or smørrebrød. For these sandwiches, cooks typically use rye bread as the base. However, rye crackers and flat or whole-grain breads are delicious alternatives. While some Danes swear by lard, others employ the less-controversial butter as their smørrebrød spread.
I encountered the following pickled herring recipe at a heritage festival in the eastern Danish city of Helsingør. Famed for its 15th-century castle Kronborg, which served as the setting for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Helsingør will also be remembered, at least by me, for its extraordinary herring offerings.
For the first marinade:
1 pound skinless, salt-cured herring fillets
8 ounces white vinegar
3 ounces water
1 tablespoon salt
For the second marinade:
8 ounces granulated sugar
20 white peppercorns, crushed
20 whole allspice, crushed
1 large white onion, chopped
1 large red onion, chopped
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 bay leaf, crushed
1 small bundle of fresh dill, chopped
1. Soak the herring fillets in cold water for six hours, changing the water once or twice during this time. When finished, pat the fillets dry with a clean cloth.
2. For the first marinade, whisk together the vinegar, water and salt. Place the herring fillets in a shallow baking dish and pour the liquid over them. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hours or overnight.
3. Remove the dish from the refrigerator and drain the marinade into a bowl. In another large bowl, stir together the original pickling liquid and the sugar, peppercorns, allspice, onions, lemon zest, ground pepper, bay leaf and dill.
4. Alternating between layers of herring and marinade, fill a lidded glass jar or container with the fish. Make sure the herring is neatly packed and not floating about. You may need to drain off or withhold a bit of liquid. Don’t skimp, though, on the onion, spice and herb mixture.
5. Seal and refrigerate the container for at least 24 hours or up to three days before serving.
Photo: Pickled herring. Credit: Kathy Hunt
February 1973. My mother and I step out of the plane in the Yucatan. Atop the mobile staircase a blast of hot air slaps my face. I detect the scent of corn, burning wood and flowers. I’m 13 and it’s my first time in Mexico, the country that would become my own.
We’ve landed in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan, a torpid, provincial city of faded glory. Cortez and his conquistadors had little interest in the hot, sparsely populated region where little grew and gold and silver weren’t to be found. Riches were made in the 19th century when it was discovered that henequen, used for rope, could be produced here. Many Lebanese immigrants, versed in shipping skills, arrived and ran the haciendas.
Tips from Zester Daily's Nicholas Gilman
World War II brought acrylics to replace the henequen, and carriages turned back into pumpkins. But Mayan culture endured, as ruins were unearthed and marketed. And a few years ago foreigners found that the glorious mansions of those henequen days could be bought for a song and revamped. Now tourists and locals alike stroll down Merida’s streets, and gussied pastel facades, the colors of Necco wafers, reflect the harsh tropical sun. Palm-leafed plazas provide respite from the heat.
We check into our colonial-style hotel and then walk down the street. The driver of a horse-drawn carriage beckons. We ride up to the Paseo Montejo, a grand boulevard in the Parisian tradition, lined with glorious French-style mansions, all faded, some abandoned. Forty years later most are gone, victims of callous development.
The sun is setting and we’re hungry. So we enter a typical white-table-clothed middle class restaurant, with aire acondicionado, promising platos típicos. My mother, an artist who had lived in Mexico, orders sopa de lima and tacos de cochinita in her somewhat clumsy Spanish. Having grown up in New York City, surrounded by ethnic cuisine and its purveyors, I’m eager to taste the “real thing.”
Sopa de lima at la Reyna Iftzi. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Discovering sopa de lima
The sopa de lima arrives. A bowl of steaming soup! How illogical, I think, scalding soup in a hot climate.
Little did I know, at that time, how small a part logic plays in Mexican life. The soup is a rich chicken broth any Jewish grandma would be proud of, loaded with shredded meat and perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent, so very Mexican, became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me as Proust’s madeleines did for him. At our meal pallid bread is served (that’s what they thought all gringos wanted), but I request tortillas, which makes the waiter chuckle. But he brings them, my first taste of the real McCoy.
Yucatecan food can be magnificent. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is in a revival. From market stands to highfalutin experimental restaurants, the eating out scene in Merida is hopping. Like all Mexican regional cooking, it is a true fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious.
Pollo alcaparrado is chicken in a caper sauce, direct from Andalucía. Kibbeh (or kibi), Lebanese wheat dumplings, are sold here in markets just like they are in the Middle East. Pan de cazón, tortillas layered with shredded epazote-perfumed shark, refried black beans and chile-tomato sauce, is pure fusion, an adaptation of Spanish cooking style to local ingredients.
And then there’s the truly indigenous: the Mayan pib, a pre-Hispanic method of anointing, marinating and then roasting meat, fowl and fish. The settlers brought pigs, but local cooks quickly substituted them for regional game.
David Sterling, formerly of New York, teaches Yucatecan cooking at Los Dos Cooking School. He explains that “You have to remember that even just 15 or 20 years ago, this was still ‘the provinces’ — folks cooked and ate at home exclusively. The dining scene has changed dramatically during the last several years. There are more and more regional options too. In terms of quality. … in general it’s progressing, albeit at a glacial pace. I think that’s inevitable as Mérida continues to grow and more outside influences come in.”
Cochinita pibil, the quintessential Yucatecan dish, is suckling pig, slathered with a sauce made of achiote (annatto), sour orange juice, garlic, oregano, allspice and pepper, then wrapped in a banana leaf and slow roasted, preferably over coals. It is eaten as tacos, in soft corn tortillas, or tortas, on white flour rolls, with fiery habanero sauce. The Yucatan produces the most picante salsas in the country, if not the world. Today, few people make it at home, preferring to buy from the experts.
One locally famous stand appears Friday through Sunday in front of Panadería La Ermita in the plaza of the same name. Neighbors gather to eat there, fragrant meat heaped on fresh baked bread and spiked by pickled red onions. Some buy kilos to go. And everyone knows to come early, since by noon it’s run out.
Tamales, ubiquitous in Latin America, are sold in the market as they have been for centuries. Customers in the know vie for a place at the long table at Jugos Mario for hot tamales. Called tamal colorado, they are the regional variation on a theme. Corn masa is ground to a custard-like consistency and flavored with chile and achiote, then steamed in a banana leaf. A dash of habanero salsa adds fire.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ku’uk is a restaurant whose name comes from the Mayan word meaning “sprout.” It has done just that, sprouting like an experimental lab in a sea of conservative tradition. It’s the venue for young chef Mario Espinosa, an academy-trained veteran of Mexico City’s renowned, avant-garde restaurant Pujol.
Here, old-fashioned Yucatecan cooking is deconstructed and reinterpreted. The kitchen has a traditional pit oven for cooking “pib,” but contemporary molecular gastronomic trends are introduced as well. And although traditional ingredients are incorporated, they are reconfigured with the chef’s creative flair. The market favorite castacán (deep fried pork belly), usually eaten with a little salsa in tacos, is elaborated into “castacán, prawn, string cheese from Tabasco, fava bean broth and dried shrimp.” The breakfast standard chaya con huevo (eggs scrambled with the regional bitter green herb chaya) is refashioned as a “transparency of potato and herbs, egg cream, and chaya.” So, while one foot stays firmly planted in local culinary heritage, the other dances a postmodern rhumba.
As the food-minded public becomes aware of Mexican cooking in its intricate variety, regional adaptations will continue to be unearthed and celebrated. That’s a good thing.
And I, although intrigued by these recent developments, stay admittedly “in search of lost time” as I continue to seek out the best bowl of sopa de lima I can find.
Top photo: Chichen Itza. Credit: Nicholas Gilman