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Cassava: The Sleeping Beauty Of The African Kitchen Image

Cassava, to me, is the Sleeping Beauty of the African kitchen.

The first time I ate cassava, I was on a leaky porch in Paraguay in a torrential rain. The cook plunked down before me a painted enamel platter, stacked high with what looked like chunks of potatoes. She placed a small bottle filled with vinegar and tiny green hot peppers next to my plate. Before cutting into a tough piece of beef, I upended the bottle over the meat. I forked a couple of potatoes onto my plate, too.

Only they weren’t potatoes. The white tuber was cassava, which originated in central Brazil. Known scientifically as Manihot esculenta and other common names such as manioc or yuca, it later spread to Africa’s Congo Basin by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

It wasn’t love at that first chewy bite. But when I saw cassava afterward, I made sure it ended up on my plate or in my shopping bag. Potatoes don’t grow well in the tropics, where I lived at the time. So cassava began to take potatoes’ place in my kitchen. I learned to love cassava because of its texture and propensity to soak up other flavors.

A staple of the African diet

In the years I lived in Africa, I came to know cassava especially well. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, cassava provides a whopping 37% of daily caloric intake. It is popular throughout Africa and the third most widely eaten starchy food in the world, after wheat and rice.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “the most important traditional culinary preparations of cassava in Africa are:

  • boiled or roasted roots (akin to potatoes),
  • fufu (cassava flour stirred with boiled water over low heat to create a stiff dough like polenta),
  • eba (called gari in Nigeria, is similar to toasted bread crumbs, then soaked in hot water to produce a thick paste),
  • and, chikwangue (steamed, fermented pulp wrapped in leaves, not unlike tamales).”

Cassava grows underground and is easier to cultivate than corn, requiring far less labor. Resistant to drought and most insects and diseases, it is highly sustainable. It also cannot easily be burned and destroyed in war situations.

This scraggly-looking plant also can take climatic abuse, growing well in poor soil and during droughts. The long, brown roots stay fresh in the ground, sometimes for up to two years. But once harvested, cassava rots fast, in spite of its bark-like peel. That’s the reason for the wax you see on most cassava sold in Western markets.

A tip for finding the freshest cassava

Sometimes “fresh” cassava in supermarkets tends to be old, with black lines running through it, especially under and around the peel. I constantly poke and prod cassava that’s for sale. My hope is to find roots bearing small wounds inflicted by some savvy shopper: one who has broken off the pointed tips of the waxed roots to peer into the whiteness, seeking — and rejecting — the telltale black lines.


Having chosen pristine cassava for your meal, what happens next?

First, peel the cassava with a sharp knife. A vegetable peeler does not work as well. Remove the thin, white membrane surrounding the cassava under the bark-like peel. Cut the roots into equal lengths. Boil in salted water until tender enough so a knife slips in easily.

EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME

This is the second in a series exploring the food of the African continent, with a focus on individual ingredients and traditional recipes to bring the African pantry to your home.

The first article featured the peanut.

Future articles will feature black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.

Cassava can be quite fibrous, with a tough, stringy core that must be removed. Generally this core is not a problem, because as cassava cooks, it splits apart and the core can easily be removed. If you’d rather not hassle with peeling and boiling, seek a market specializing in Asian and other international foods. In the freezer section, you will likely find frozen cassava, ready to cook. You might also find cassava in cans there, too.

Now that you’ve got your peeled cassava on the kitchen counter, you’re probably wondering about the best way to cook it.

Skilled cooks in Africa developed a number of methods — grating, pounding and drying cassava into flour — to make its rather bland flavor pop in the mouth. Such techniques have resulted in commercial products that take a lot of the burden off of the cook. Tapioca pudding is made from dried cassava, available in nearly any grocery store.

Cassava flour can be used for making fufu, too. Gari adds texture to soups and other dishes. It can also be used in place of panko, a real boon to those on a gluten-free diet.

But if you opt to start from scratch, add large chunks of cassava to a meaty stew instead of potatoes. Try eating boiled cassava drenched with a spicy peanut sauce. Or simply fry it in the same way you might do with potatoes for French fries. Served a fiery pepper sauce, fried cassava offers a fresh taste of Africa.

Give cassava a try. I guarantee you will fall in love with it, too.

Cassava “French Fries”

Cassava gives a gluten-free twist to French fries. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Cassava fries provide a chewy twist to potato French fries. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes, depending upon the number of roots

Cook time: 25 to 40 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes to 1 hour

Yield: Serves two

Ingredients

4 10- to 12-inch-long cassava roots

1 tablespoon salt

Vegetable oil for frying

Directions

1. With a sharp knife, remove the pointed tips and peel the cassava, making sure to remove the thin membrane just under the bark-like peel.

2. Cut the cassava into 4- to 6-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise and then cut those into French fry-size sticks.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stove top. Add about 1 tablespoon of salt and the cassava. Reduce heat to a fast simmer, and cook the cassava until quite tender, usually about 20 to 30 minutes. Check doneness by poking a piece with a knife.

4. When done, drain the cassava and let cool slightly. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, heat oil to a depth of 1/4 inch over medium-high heat. Add the drained cassava and cook until cassava is a light golden brown.

5. Remove cassava from the oil, drain on paper towels, arrange on serving plates, and place a few tablespoons of the pepper sauce (recipe below) on each plate. Serve immediately.

Pepper Sauce

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups

Ingredients

10 habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers, orange or red, seeded and roughly chopped

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

4 Roma tomatoes, chopped

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

Salt to taste

1 cup vegetable oil, divided

Directions

1. Place all the ingredients, except for 1/2 cup of the oil, in a blender or food processor. Purée.

2. In a heavy skillet, heat the remaining 1/2 cup of oil over medium-high heat. Being cautious to avoid splattering oil, add the sauce and reduce the heat immediately to medium-low. Cook the sauce for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning.

3. Remove from heat, and let the sauce cool.

4. Store in a clean glass jar in your refrigerator, where it will be good for about a week. Be sure the sauce is always topped with a thin layer of oil. This helps to keep it safe and fresh.

Main photo: London’s large Ghanaian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Copyright Cynthia Bertelsen

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Friday Night Fish Fry Is A Delicious ‘Sacrifice’ Image

The slogan “Fish Fry Fridays” is a familiar one to Catholics this time of year. On Fridays during Lent, which falls from Feb. 18 to April 4 in 2015, meat is strictly off limits.

This practice stems from the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday: Because he sacrificed his flesh for the sake of mankind on that day, Catholics (and members of other Christian denominations) are asked to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. The period of sacrifice ends on Easter Sunday, usually with the devouring of a large ham.

While the Lenten season may sound a bit somber, churches have found a way to turn meatless Fridays into community celebrations. They’re called fish fries, and for decades, these events have brought people together in church basements and event rooms, where they enjoy heaping plates of fried fish, French fries and coleslaw.

Friday fish fries are occasionally held on the West Coast and in other U.S. regions, but they’re ubiquitous in the Midwest. When I was a kid in Michigan, my dad brought home take-out fish fry dinners from our church nearly every Friday during Lent. It was something my sister and I looked forward to each year with gluttonous relish (so much for sacrifice). But when I raise the topic with Californian friends who grew up Catholic, I’m met with blank stares. Or undisguised envy.

The epicenter of the Midwest’s fish fry tradition, I’ve come to learn, is St. Louis, Missouri. Fish fries abound in that city, so much so that a local man was inspired to create a website called FridayNightFish.com, devoted to reviewing Lenten fish fries.

A parish volunteer serves homemade coleslaw at a St. Pius V fish fry. Credit: Courtesy of St. Pius V

A parish volunteer serves homemade coleslaw at a St. Pius V fish fry. Credit: Courtesy of St. Pius V

The site is run by Stephen Ibendahl (a.k.a. Fish Fry Guy), owner of a St. Louis-area consulting firm that specializes in community and urban planning. Each Friday during Lent, Ibendahl heads out with his family to sample and review a fish fry. After the season ends, he names a Best Fish Fry winner for the year, along with a Fan Favorite.

According to Ibendahl, who has attended at least 50 different fish fries over the years, St. Louis is a fish fry hub because the city’s residents have a strong spirit of community. “It gives parishes and churches a chance to come together,” he said, pointing out that most of the events are run by volunteers. “You’ll see everyone involved in a parish fish fry, from the men frying the fish to teenagers clearing tables.”

What makes a great fish fry? “You have to have great fried cod,” Ibendahl said. “That’s essential.” Tasty sides are a plus, he added, along with special touches such as “real plates” or live music.

Ibendahl’s Best Fish Fry winner for years running is St. Pius V Catholic Church in St. Louis, which hosts its annual “Fabulous Fish Fry” every Friday during Lent. The fry not only features two kinds of fried fish, but homemade sides and desserts, live music and beer. For each weekly fish fry, volunteers prepare meals for about 700 people, including take-out orders. An adult meal costs only $8.

“We prepare fried cod loins, huge fillets of fried catfish and baked cod,” said St. Pius V parishioner Kathy Donahue, who estimates a typical weekly fish order at 350 pounds. “We hand-bread both the cod loins and catfish, and the catfish is breaded with a special mix of regular and Cajun breading to give it a little kick.”

The fish is served with homemade tartar and cocktail sauces, and fresh lemon slices.

To go along with the fish, volunteers make about 100 pounds of potato salad and 40 to 50 pounds of coleslaw each week. There are also “tons” of macaroni and cheese, applesauce and a variety of scratch-made desserts. Dinners are served on real china, not paper plates.

And that’s not all. “A popular draw is our live band Clan Jameson — all parishioners who play Irish music,” Donahue said. “Plus we have a wide assortment of craft and regular beer served by ‘The Precious Bar Maids,’ who are really the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. We also have our very own Frying Nun, a sister of the Precious Blood, who fries our catfish.”

The "Fabulous Fish Fry" at St. Pius V Catholic Church in St. Louis draws 700 people each week. Credit: Courtesy of St. Pius V

The “Fabulous Fish Fry” at St. Pius V Catholic Church in St. Louis draws 700 people each week. Credit: Courtesy of St. Pius V

This extravaganza is a far cry from the simple fish fries of my childhood, which featured only fried cod, fries and coleslaw. But that’s the fun of the fish fry — no two are exactly the same.

“When you travel around to different fish fries,” Ibendahl said, “each one is a little different.”

To find a fish fry near you, check out these regional “Fish Fry Finders”:

St. Louis

Milwaukee

Cleveland

Chicago

Pittsburgh

Flint, Michigan

Central Indiana

Main photo: A Friday night fish fry typically includes fried cod, french fries and coleslaw. Credit: Tina Caputo

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The Family Meal: How Serving And Sharing Sustain Image

Part of what makes eating together so pleasurable, in any language or culture, is the conversation. But when London-based photographer Chris Terry was in Niger photographing an ordinary family enjoying a spaghetti dinner, he was surprised that no one spoke.

“It’s a great privilege to have food to eat,” explained the grandmother, the head of the household. “It’s not the moment to chat and say silly things.”

The spaghetti had been paid for with vouchers from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). Under the program, Terry had been invited into the family’s home to document what has become the photo exhibit, “The Family Meal: What Brings Us Together.”

Terry photographed families receiving WFP assistance as they made and ate meals in five countries — Chad, Niger, Myanmar, Jordan and Ecuador — where hunger has become entrenched because of disasters and conflicts largely forgotten by the rest of the world. Chad and Niger have suffered the worst drought in 50 years; Myanmar families have been uprooted because of ethnic conflict; and Syrian and Colombian refugees have fled into Jordan and Ecuador, respectively, to escape violence in their own countries.

The exhibit opened in November at Gare du Midi in Brussels, Belgium, and has since appeared at airports in Madrid and Lisbon and at the Symposium on the History of Food at the University of Amsterdam. Now at Dublin’s airport and online, it also highlights five family recipes, including Pollo Sudado (Sweaty Chicken) from Ecuador. Future shows are scheduled for the Milan Expo 2015 in May-November; the Sustainable Food Summit in Amsterdam June 4-5; and Strokestown’s Irish National Famine Museum in June-August. You also can check the exhibit schedule.

Evin Joyce of WFP’s Brussels office came up with the Family Meal idea 18 months ago to promote the group’s message with positive, personal images from around the globe. Eating together is a ritual we all have in common, he explained. Gathering, preparing, cooking and sharing food, as a family, are activities humans have done for millennia.

Transporting food by plane, train, truck, barge and yak

Every year food from the WFP travels through often rough, hostile terrains to reach more than 90 million beneficiaries in 75 countries, via plane, train, truck, river barge, camel and yak. The idea of the family meal is especially poignant this past year. For the first time, the WFP faced five high-level crises simultaneously: South Sudan, Central African Republic, the Syria and Iraq conflicts, and West Africa’s Ebola outbreak.

During the exhibit’s appearance at the European Parliament in late February, WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said that the Family Meal photos “give a face to those we serve.”

The photos also give us a peek into the lives and meal traditions of families struggling in ways many of us cannot image. But to my surprise, many of the images made me feel, not pity, but delight — even a bit of envy, because we who do not suffer from hunger sometimes claim we are “too busy” for family meals.

The photos capture the intimacy and joy of eating together, no matter how desperate the circumstances. Food not only nourishes us; sharing it lifts our spirits. The homemade dishes shown are colorful and inviting, made with staples such as rice and sorghum flour, and enlivened with the flavors, textures and colors of achiote powder, yucca and pomegranate seeds. The food was often prepared over open fires, in family or communal kitchens. Families ate together, indoors and out, seated on cushions on the floor, on the ground or at tables crowded with relatives.

The winners of a recent Family Meal photo competition, judged by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and photographer Terry, were also announced during the launch at the Parliament. In one photo, a family in the Philippines shares a meal by candlelight because of power outages that still occur after a devastating typhoon in 2012. As Terry commented, the image “draws the viewer in, emphasizing the human need to gather around light, and company, when sharing a meal.”

Guests at the Parliament launch were offered samples of the five featured recipes. We commented on all the spicy and varied flavors as we guessed at the ingredients. I was particularly delighted with the texture of the yucca root in the “Sweaty Chicken” dish. The yucca flower is the official “state flower” of my home state of New Mexico, but I had never tasted yucca root before.

Abu Sayid and his family hope that peace returns, so they can leave Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp and go home to Syria. Credit: Chris Terry

Abu Sayid and his family hope that peace returns, so they can leave Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp and go home to Syria. Credit: Chris Terry

For Syrian refugee Abu Sayid, who lives with his family in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, preparing and eating traditional recipes with his family keeps alive his memories of home. During Terry’s photo shoot, he helped his wife prepare two staple Syrian dishes: kubbeh (bulgur wheat balls stuffed with mincemeat and onions) and shishbarak dumplings (thin dough with mincemeat filling cooked in a yogurt stew).

“WFP vouchers allow us to get any food we need from stores around here [the refugee camp],” Abu Sayid said in a WFP interview as he sealed a kubbeh ball and his wife started frying the first batch of dumplings. “In Syria, we like to laugh and joke during a meal. It makes the food more enjoyable.”

In Myanmar, the WFP’s Joyce asked one family why they eat together? “It gives us a sense of unity,” one of them replied. Food is our priority, another woman told him. “As long as we housewives have a bag of rice, the rest can sort itself out.”

Joyce also noticed that women put a lot of effort into preparing and flavoring meals, no matter how basic the ingredients. And like mothers everywhere, they sometimes had to remind their children, “Eat your vegetables.”

Preparing “Sweaty Chicken” in Ecuador. Credit: Chris Terry

Preparing “Sweaty Chicken” in Ecuador. Credit: Chris Terry

Pollo Sudado (Sweaty Chicken) from Ecuador

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 to 30 minutes

Total time: 40  to 45 minutes

Yield: About 8

Ingredients

1 whole chicken

2 onions

3 cloves of garlic

Oil

1 big tomato

Coriander, salt and pepper

1 tablespoon of achiote powder (annatto)

Directions

1. Rinse the whole chicken and chop it into pieces, taking off the legs, breast and wings.

2. Chop the onions and garlic and fry them with oil over a high flame in a large pan.

3. Add the tomato and let it simmer a bit.

4. Add the chicken and then lower the flame.

5. Add the coriander, salt, pepper and achiote powder.

6. Add a little water, cover the pot and leave it to simmer for 20 minutes.

Notes

Pollo Sudado should be served with rice and yucca, which should be peeled, chopped and boiled with salt for 20 minutes. ¡Buen Provecho!

Main photo: Together with his father, siblings and cousins, this refugee in Ecuador gets a taste of his Colombian home thanks to his aunt’s cooking. Credit: Chris Terry

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Food Blogger Chronicles The Good, The Bad And The Yummy Image

Photos of perfect-looking prepared food in glossy magazines used to make Amelia Morris mad — really mad. So in 2009 she decided to start a blog called Bon Appétempt to help beginners like her feel good about their cooking attempts, no matter how badly they turned out.

“I want to show what life is like for the rest of us: messy, poorly lit and falling well short of our aspirations,” she wrote in one of her first blog entries.


“Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)”
By Amelia Morris, Grand Central Publishing, 2015, 320 pages
» Click here to buy the book


Bon Appétempt is a now an award-winning blog that features recipes Morris adapted from magazines, along with fun cooking videos shot by her husband, bits of food memories and photos of herself and her family — because, after all, food is all tied up with relationships: who you’re cooking with, and for, even if it’s just yourself on a lonely night.

This is abundantly clear in Morris’ new memoir — “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)” — where she traces her journey as a novice cook while navigating difficult relationships with her parents (her father hoped she’d become a wrestler), and trying to find herself as a writer.

Cooking to heal and celebrate

Through financial hardships, deaths of family members, a long-distance relationship, and then marriage and parenthood, Morris consistently turned to cooking to soothe hurts, celebrate happy gatherings and give herself a feeling of pride and success.

Amelia Morris, author of “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)”   Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Amelia Morris, author of “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!).” Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Recipes that have given her comfort and joy, such as “My Mom’s Chicken Cordon Bleu” and “Simple Vanilla Cake With Dulce De Leche,” which she learned from a woman in Argentina, fill the pages.

Cooking as a creative activity is something Morris understands well, which is why she’s honest and even proud of her flops — each one made her a better cook.

“… [A]ll of these so-called failures taught me that though writers would like readers as much as chefs would like eaters, at the end of the day, if there are none of either to be found, we can continue creating anyway just to feed ourselves,” she writes.

I caught up with Morris to ask her to tell us more about her story. She happily shared a recipe for an Italian cookie called pizzelle that she adapted from the version her grandmother used to make (see below).

Q&A With Bon Appétempt’s Amelia Morris

It seemed that cooking sustained you through the trials of becoming a writer, is that correct?

It did — it helped me in a lot of ways. Working on a novel took a long time and was lonely work. It was nice to get away from computer and go make dinner. Cooking is a tangible thing; it feeds your family, it feeds yourself. It’s way to take care of yourself.

Can you describe one of your cooking failures?

There was one with fried chicken — I used a cookie sheet for the oil, so it dripped off the sides. People were coming over for dinner, so I jumped into the shower and my husband came in and said, “There’s black smoke coming out of the oven, I don’t know what to do!” All I could think of was the blog, so I said, “Can you get a picture of the black smoke?” It was comical! I did serve the chicken to our dinner guests, but it wasn’t great.

You tell the story of a fabulously ruined cake that you had planned to serve for Christmas.

Yes, the chocolate peppermint cake. It’s one of those things with baking — you think if you follow the rules and have the tools, you can do it! I set myself up for success. I started three days ahead and made all the components. I was so impressed with what I’d done — Matt took pictures of me putting it together. The cake was layers of ganache-cream-cake, ganache-cream-cake. But as I began to ice it, all the icing started to slide — and there was no stopping it! We started taking pictures of it — you can see the whole thing on the blog.

When did you cross the line as a cook and begin to really feel confident?

It took a really long time. Through the blog, people started coming to me with cooking questions and recipe tips, as if I was this knowledgeable cook, and I resisted it. But recently I realized — I am a decent cook. I don’t have formal training, I learned by just doing it. Seeing my grandma cook, I am sure I absorbed some basic knowledge.

Who are some of your favorite food-memoir writers?

Ruth Reichl was my introduction to food memoirs — I really love her writing. Also, M.F.K. Fisher‘s “How to Cook a Wolf” — I loved it from the minute I opened it up. I also love Molly Wizenberg’s books, and am inspired by “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.” He had a diner in Manhattan for a long time; he’s an interesting guy and his cookbook is really great.

Is there anything that still scares you, cooking-wise?

Yes! I’ve always wanted to grill a whole fish. That seems hard and scary, as well as cooking any big cuts of meat.

Meyer Lemon Pizzelle (Adapted From Food 52)

Prep time: About 25 minutes
Cook time: About 45 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes
Yield: About 40 to 50 cookies*, depending on iron size
(*If you want to make a ton like Grandma did, you should double this recipe.)

Ingredients

1 2/3 cups granulated sugar

6 large eggs, room temperature

2 sticks of butter, melted and cooled plus more for brushing on the pizzelle iron

3 teaspoons vanilla extract

Zest of 2 to 3 Meyer lemons (If you can’t find Meyer lemons, substitute with regular lemons or oranges.)

4 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into measuring cup

4 teaspoons baking powder

Directions

1. Combine the sugar and eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes until well incorporated. The eggs must be at least room temperature.

2. Slowly drizzle the melted butter into the mixture, while mixing on medium speed. Add the extract then the zest.

3. On low speed, add the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and the baking powder, one teaspoon at a time.

4. The batter should have a satin sheen to it, but should be light and stiff. If your batter is too liquid, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time until the batter is stiff.

5. I can’t speak for other pizzelle irons, but I have this one, and here is my advice for using it: Make sure the iron is super hot before beginning! Also, to avoid getting the batter stuck in the iron, I quickly brush all four sides of it with melted butter. Using a tablespoon scoop, place dollops of batter onto the iron. Close the iron tight and wait about 30 seconds before opening. Repeat 20 to 25 more times depending on iron size. Fresh, hot cookies can be rolled or shaped into cups, although I haven’t experimented with that yet. Next year!

Main photo: Meyer Lemon Pizzelles, hot off the press. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

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Italian Autogrill: Slow Food Done Fast – Along The Roadside Image

“Great food” and “highway rest stop” are not phrases I would normally utter in the same breath. But that was before I experienced the Italian Autogrill.

At about 500 locations across Italy, you can get gas, go to the bathroom and then, very likely, have a better dining experience than at most Italian restaurants in the United States.

Perhaps you’d like to choose your steak from the glistening display of fresh meat, and tell the chef how you’d like it cooked. Or maybe the pasta station, with its many pots of boiling water waiting for your choice of pasta and sauce, is calling to you. How about a spaghetti alle vongole prepared while you wait? In those few minutes while the pasta is being cooked to perfection, and the clams are opening up in their white wine sauce, you might wander over to the antipasti station and choose a beautiful plate of prosciutto, mozzarella and arugula. Then, since you are in Italy, pick up a nice half bottle of local wine and settle in for what could very well be one of the best meals of your life.

The Autogrill offers not only great food but valuable insights into the values and priorities of a culture. Italians enjoy modern life, efficiency and convenience as much as anyone, but modernity and convenience need not compromise food. At the Autogrill, whether you go for the whole dining experience, or just grab a freshly made panino, you will get healthy, delicious food made with great ingredients and great care. It’s slow food fast. Or fast food slow. Either way, the Autogrill is where the fast life of the autostrada meets the Slow Food values of quality ingredients prepared with pride.

Now, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I start salivating at the sight of the bright red swooping A of the Autogrill franchise, and make excuses to stop there more often than strictly necessary.

Capri Sandwich

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Total time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 piece of focaccia, split in half, or 2 slices Italian, French or sourdough bread

Mayonnaise, to spread, as thickly or thinly as you like

Sprinkling of dried oregano

1 leaf of lettuce

1 thick slice of tomato

2 or 3 thin slices of prosciutto cotto

1 generous piece of fresh mozzarella, ideally from a fresh ball of mozzarella di bufala

Directions

1. Warm the bread in the toaster oven, taking it out before it’s actually toasted.

2. Swipe some mayonnaise on what will become the two inside parts of the sandwich and sprinkle with oregano.

3. Assemble your sandwich, starting with lettuce on the bottom, followed by the tomato, prosciutto and mozzarella.

Main photo: The antipasti station at an Autogrill. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

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Toast Takes Center Stage With These Tasty Toppers Image

The lesser partner of center-stage bacon and eggs at breakfast, toast is often pushed to the edges of the plate waiting for a bit of butter and jam. But toast is forgotten no longer. Chef Jason Travi of Superba Food + Bread in Venice, California, has placed toast center stage, and not just for breakfast. No longer just dressed in sweet jams, toast appears on the restaurant’s menu topped with sautéed kale, prosciutto, avocado, smoked trout and muhammara, the spicy Middle Eastern condiment.

Why toast? Why now?

Dishes long associated with childhood meals have been improved with quality ingredients to the delight of diners. Chefs gave kid-friendly mac and cheese a makeover by adding English cheddar, fresh Maine lobster and truffle oil.

Travi was following a toast trend begun by all accounts by chef Giulietta Maria Carrelli of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club in the San Francisco Bay area. At Superba Food + Bread, chef Travi took me into his kitchen for a video demonstration of a signature dish: grilled toast with walnut muhammara and burrata. Before we began, he talked about his partnership with Jonathan Eng, the baker responsible for making the freshly baked breads used in the restaurant.

Good toast requires great bread

At Superba Food + Bread, Eng was encouraged to be innovative. The restaurant promoted collaboration. Often Eng will come up with an idea for a new bread. He and Travi would then explore toppings that would be a good match for the texture and flavor of the new bread. Sometimes Travi asked for a bread to go with a particular dish, such as the sprouted wheat loaf he asked Eng to make with millet, flax and sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. While the many sandwiches on the menu come with a variety of breads, all the toasts are made with the pain au levain.

To make his version of the classic French sourdough, Eng modified the recipe using a 16-hour cold fermentation. Using an Italian Bassanina Tubix steam pipe oven, he bakes the pain au levain loaves in 750- and 1,500-gram sizes. Both are used in the restaurant and sold in the bakery.

The only way the restaurant will be guaranteed to have freshly baked bread for the day’s service is if Eng starts work at 2 a.m. six days a week. When he arrives, the cleaning crew is just leaving. For a few hours he enjoys having the quiet restaurant all to himself. By the time Travi’s crew arrives for the breakfast service, Eng has his loafs stacked high on the wood counters, ready for the day’s diners.

A mother’s recipe passed down to her son, the chef

Chef Travi remembers watching his mother cook when he was growing up. From her Lebanese family, she learned to prepare Middle Eastern classics. One particular dish stayed in his memory, her muhammara, a spicy dip made with peppers, walnuts, bread crumbs and olive oil.

To complement the spicy flavors of the muhammara, Travi adds freshly made burrata and the crunch of pickled radish.

Muhammara-Burrata Toast With Pickled Radish

While the spread will work on any bread, Eng encourages using a good quality sourdough that is baked fresh and eschews preservatives. Although ready-made bread crumbs can be used, the quality of the muhammara will be improved when they are homemade.

The muhammara can be made the day of use or reserved covered in the refrigerator for up to five days. The radishes should pickle for two days and then can be refrigerated in an airtight container in the pickling liquid for several days.

The Aleppo powder Travi prefers is frequently unavailable. He suggests substituting cayenne powder. The heat from the two are different, so taste and adjust the amount used.

Pomegranate molasses is available in Middle Eastern and Israeli markets and sometimes in the International sections of supermarkets.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 whole red pepper, washed, to yield ¾ cup roasted red peppers

6 slices freshly baked bread, divided

¼ cup raw walnuts

1½ teaspoons pomegranate molasses

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

¼ to ½ teaspoon Aleppo powder or cayenne

1 tablespoon olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups fresh burrata

1 tablespoon Italian parsley leaves, washed, dried

1 tablespoon pickled radishes (see recipe below)

Directions

1. Heat oven to 450 F. Place the whole red pepper on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Cook 15 to 30 minutes depending on size or until the skin is lightly browned and the flesh is tender. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

2. When the pepper is cool to the touch, use a pairing knife to cut off the stem and peel away the skin. Discard the skin and seeds. Finely chop the flesh. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.

3. Tear two slices of fresh bread into pieces. Heat a nonstick pan. Toast the pieces in the pan. Remove. Allow to cool. Place into a blender and pulse to make crumbs. Return the bread crumbs to the pan. Do not use oil. Toast the bread crumbs until lightly brown. Set aside to cool. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.

4. Reduce the oven to 325 F. Place the walnut pieces on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Bake about 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown.

5. Remove and allow to cool.

6. Place red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate molasses, ground cumin, ground coriander, Aleppo powder or cayenne and olive oil into a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

7. Taste and adjust flavor by adding sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

8. Heat a grill or a grill-pan. Place the remaining bread slices on the grill just long enough for grill marks to appear. Remove.

9. Place the toast slices on a cutting board and then spread a layer of muhammara on each slice. Decoratively spoon on three or four teaspoon-sized mounds of burrata, season with sea salt and black pepper, sprinkle on pickled radish and parsley leaves.

Lebanese-Style Pickled Radish

At a supermarket or farmers market, buy fat, firm radishes with unwilted leaves attached to ensure they are freshly picked.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 2 minutes

Pickling time: 2 days

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 large radishes, washed, stems and root ends removed

¼ cup water

¼ cup white vinegar

¼ cup white sugar

Directions

1. Clean the radishes to remove all dirt. Cut away any blemishes and discard.

2. Using a sharp chef’s knife, julienne the radishes, cutting from stem top to root end. The strips should be as uniform as possible, about 1/8-inch thick.

3. Place the julienned radishes in a non-reactive bowl.

4. Place water, vinegar and sugar into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar.

5. Pour the hot liquid over the radish. Cover. Let sit on the counter 2 days.

6. The pickled radish will keep up to a week in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Main photo: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Hamantaschen For Purim Inspires Dozens Of Variations Image

The most recognizable symbol for the Jewish holiday of Purim is a three-cornered cookie, called a hamantaschen.

Purim, which begins March 4, is a particularly joyful festival, nicknamed the Id-al-Sukkar, or the sugar holiday, by Muslims because sweet treats are plentiful. It is a sweet spirited holiday, notwithstanding the ancient Persian tale associated with it featuring complex plot twists of deceit, prejudice, politics, sexual intrigue and revenge.

Purim is a time for celebratory imbibing of alcohol, vibrant costumes and joyful, raucous parties with comedians cracking jokes all night, called a Purim schpeil.

Now, all that is fun, but honestly, for Jews of Ashkenazi descent — especially those who aren’t particularly religious or observant — it’s all about that triangular cookie — that gloriously crisp sweetness embracing an unctuous, fruit filling.

Or maybe it’s about a plush, thick-rimmed yeast pastry version that is punctuated by the intriguingly textured sweet poppy seed filling. Or maybe it’s a savory three-cornered pastry, perfect as an amuse-bouche.

Hamantaschen, you see, are anything but boring. And they are nothing new. The first version was likely the poppy seed or mohn filling, even giving the cookie its name — ha-mohn-taschen, or haman’s hat (Haman was the villain in the ancient tale). Classic versions are wonderful and worthy of your time, every time, every year.

But like any cookie, the classic recipes inspire tremendous creativity among cooks. A survey of some of the web’s cooks, writers, bloggers, recipe developers and chefs reveals a wide swath of variations so numerous and enticing that it will seduce your palate and leave you eagerly awaiting next year’s treats.


Check out these websites for creative variations of the classic hamantaschen recipe:

» TheKitchn

» Tori Avey

» LilMissCakes

» The Kosher Foodies

» The Joy of Kosher

» WhatJewWannaEat

» Busy in Brooklyn

» Kitchen Tested

» CouldntBeParve

» Alibabka

» The Jewish Daily Forward

» My Jewish Learning

» May I Have That Recipe

» Ronnie Fein

» The Weiser Kitchen

Main photo: Walnuts, oranges and orange blossom water make these hamantaschen burst with flavor. Credit: Copyright MayIHaveThatRecipe.com

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How Winter Storms Change The Meaning Of Food Image

Being stuck in the house because of monumental snowstorms is nothing new for me because I grew up in Wisconsin. But before this winter I had never seen the amount of snow that has buried the Boston area where I now live — eight to 10 feet accumulated in successive storms, accompanied by freezing temperatures.

Communities have created “snow farms,” formerly empty spaces where truckloads of snow from streets and sidewalks is dumped. We have been warned to clear our roofs to avoid cave-ins and have been bombarded with tips to do that safely. If we were unable to rake off snowy roofs, one suggestion was that we stuff a pair of pantyhose with noncorrosive ice melt and fling it onto the roof. But when seen from a distance, wouldn’t this get-up look like half of a murdered female body? I don’t want to think about it. Instead, I rush to crowded grocery stores between storms and stock up on food I don’t really need.

This siege mentality put me in mind of the horror of real sieges such as Leningrad in World War II when the Germans put the city under blockade and starved the citizenry. People were reduced to catching and eating domestic animals, digging up and devouring tulip bulbs from public gardens, and licking off wallpaper paste from walls. In contrast, what I am going through — a fear of running out of canned tomatoes in case I want lasagna — is a minor, if not decadent, concern. Nevertheless, off I go to the supermarket to stock up, and along with my neighbors fill my cart just as fast as store employees refill the shelves.

Stocked for any situation

I should say at the outset that I have three freezers that are always stocked with meat, bread and rolls, vegetables and cooked dishes such as thick soups and meat rolled in cabbage, our favorite winter dish. The truth is I probably could eat well for a couple of months if the snowstorms continued and made shopping impossible. Losing power concerns me, but I do have a wood-burning fireplace and would be able to grill steaks and chops and oversee a weenie roast complete with s’mores. When a friend asked me what I would do if power went out and my freezers stopped working I said, “Why I would bury all the food in a snowbank,” and we certainly have plenty of those.

Where the fear of scarcity takes us

Although I am well-supplied, I rush to the supermarket to stock up on what I think I must have if I am housebound. I first load up on staples. When I see the store’s supply of bread is depleted, I go to the baking department and, to my surprise, see that most of the flour is momentarily gone too. I stock up on other staples, buying half-and-half for coffee and a favorite brand of plain yogurt for my usual breakfast of  yogurt parfaits. Getting more coffee is not a problem because I buy large quantities online, but I do pick up grapes as well as a crate of clementines, which have been especially good this year. I cannot help but notice how much food is available. Grocery workers are everywhere, replenishing the shelves with abundant supplies. I fill my cart with canned goods — salmon, tuna fish, sardines, whatever can be eaten straight from the can, for you never know.

Retail therapy

I decide to go after goods I don’t normally buy, feel-good luxuries such as a Stilton from Neal’s Yard Dairy and plenty of candy, my junk food of choice. I only need the suggestion of hardship to think I deserve chocolate-covered peanuts or licorice from Australia. I look at other people’s carts and see huge jugs of bottled water and wonder whether some think that municipal water supplies will be endangered. I also see carts full of pretzels and chips, which I suppose serve as compensatory junk food. At home I struggle to find room on pantry shelves for recent purchases, then do the equivalent of window shopping by looking at favorite online food sites.

No matter what side of the street you live, there's no escaping the snowstorms this winter in New England. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

There’s no escaping the snowstorms this winter in New England. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Perspective amid the snow

At the back of my mind is the realization of just how lucky I am to be living in a country where only 6% of the household budget is spent on food, unlike poorer countries of the world where 40% to 50% must be spent, and 15% in the more prosperous European countries, as professor Anne McCants pointed out in a paper delivered at the MIT symposium “Consuming Food, Producing Culture.” I become aware that shopping for food and anything else has become a pleasant, and often, idle pastime. And when I think about my recent stocking-up foray to the grocery store, I recall how the aisles were cluttered not only with frantic shoppers but also with store clerks restocking shelves with massive loads of food, and I think again of the siege in Leningrad where people died of starvation. That it occurred in the winter is the only thing my Boston experience shares with that real siege. In all other respects I have it good, especially since I won’t have to think about how to cook the family cat and how that would taste.

Pantry Pea and Carrot Soup

Adapted from a recipe in “Season to Taste” by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer. I like this version because it is fast and because I usually have the ingredients on hand. Plus, it is really good.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 55 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced 1/8-inch thick

6 cups chicken stock (canned is fine)

1 cup green split peas

Salt and pepper

Directions

1. Using a large saucepan, heat oil and sauté onion, garlic and celery for 5 minutes.

2. Add cumin and carrots and cook 2 minutes.

3. Add stock, bring to a boil and add split peas.

4. Simmer partially covered for 45 minutes or until peas are very tender

5. Purée 2 cups of soup mixture in a food processor or blender and return to rest of the soup in the pot.

6. Taste for salt and pepper.

Main photo: The more the snow falls, the less is available on supermarket shelves as customers panic and buy out stores. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

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