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The Perfect Rhubarb Pie That A Bully Missed Image

As children, my sister and I spent Saturdays in the spring as knights-errant, challenging each other to duels with rhubarb stalks. We thrust them at each other, but our swords connected gently, so as not to damage what would later become delicious treats. A neighborhood bully once intruded, threatening to kill us with a touch of his rhubarb leaves. Just one touch would mean instant death, that’s how poisonous the leaves were, he said. I pushed him into a ditch, and when he didn’t die instantly, as the leaves touched his shoulder, I took my sister home for a dish of rhubarb Mom had cooked that morning.

We were rhubarb lovers. Mom and my sister loved it cooked with sugar, slathered on fresh bread and topped with heavy cream. They also loved it as Rhubarb Fool, the pink strands of rhubarb swirling through the whipped cream. Occasionally, rhubarb showed up in a cobbler, which they spooned into their mouths with abandon. Although Dad and I loved rhubarb these ways too, we loved it most in pies, his pies, since he made the best in the world.

“There’s no better pie than rhubarb,” he’d say wherever he got ready to make one.

Rhubarb’s long history started with medicinal uses

Nineteenth-century cooks would have agreed with him in that regard. They dubbed rhubarb the “pie plant” because of its popularity as a filling, but it had been popular for medicinal purposes much longer.

Rhubarb originated in Russia, Siberia and China, and was written about more than 2,700 years ago in “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic,” an early Chinese text. Its roots were prized near and far as a cure for dysentery, diarrhea and constipation.

In Tudor England (from the 1400s to 1600s), rhubarb was grown in herb gardens. A century later, in the 1770s, the Duke of Athol grew Turkey rhubarb in Scotland, selling the roots to an Edinburgh druggist.

The rhubarb variety now eaten came to 17th-century England from Italy. Its cultivation spread throughout the 18th century, but it took awhile for rhubarb recipes to appear in English cookbooks — in part because the sugar needed for sweetening was not widely available or affordable. When sugar became more common, recipes for pies, tarts and other desserts followed, in the 19th century.

In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Chinese rhubarb seeds to John Bartram, an American botanist, thus introducing the plant to America. Soon, rhubarb was cultivated in Maine and flourished after that in Massachusetts as well. By 1822, rhubarb was sold in New England markets, and later that century, Luther Burbank, a pioneer in agricultural science, developed a variety better suited to California’s climate.

Rhubarb stalks, the parts we eat, are really leaf bases called petioles. They vary in color, from pink to red, green or white, depending on the variety.

The rhubarb that Dad grew was pink. It spread between the fences separating our back garden from our neighbors’, with Dad doing the harvesting and all of us, including our neighbors the Leckies, sharing in his baking.

Dad was a born baker, although six decades of practice certainly helped fine-tune his innate skills. Although he could make anything, his genius was pastry, which demands a gentle touch. He was a gentle man, so the two were made for each other.

He was an orderly baker as well, first laying out all the ingredients: flour, salt, lard, water, vinegar, sugar, cornstarch and rhubarb (without those “murderous” leaves, which, in fact, contain toxic oxalic acid that can be lethal if ingested). Then, measuring cups and spoons, a pastry knife and fork, mixing bowls, a rolling pin, pie pans and cooling racks were assembled. He always made three pies: one for our neighbors and two for us (the second pie was for lingering over a little more because the first barely left the oven before it was devoured).

The worst thing about his pie making was waiting for the pies to bake and then cool. I was not patient when it came to waiting for rhubarb pie, but if you didn’t wait, the slice of pie collapsed into soup on your plate and burned your mouth too. When the pie was cool enough, the sight of that first slice of rosy rhubarb between layers of flaky pastry made me drool.

If that bully hadn’t been a bully, he might have been invited to drool over that sight too, before tasting Dad’s rhubarb pie. Then he would have understood the truly deadly aspect of rhubarb. It wasn’t in the leaves touching you but, rather, in that first perfect bite, when the sweet rhubarb melded with pastry that melted on your tongue. That bite was deadly because you knew how terrible it would be when you could no longer eat such a perfect thing. If he hadn’t been a bully, I might have pitied him for never having had that experience, but, instead, I was just grateful that we did so often.

Dad’s Rhubarb Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

Ingredients

For the pastry:

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup cold lard (unsalted butter, if you prefer, or half lard and half butter)

¼ cup cold water

1 tablespoon white vinegar

For the filling:

3½ cups rhubarb, leaves removed; stalks trimmed, washed and dried thoroughly and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 to 1½ cups granulated sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

Directions

For the pastry:

1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry knife, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.

2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the flour mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more or less water, depending on how the dough comes together. In humid weather, it might require less water because flour, if not stored properly, can absorb water from the air.)

3. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

4. While the dough chills, prepare the rhubarb filling.

For the filling:

1. Combine rhubarb with sugar in a bowl and set aside. (For a more tart pie, use just 1 cup of sugar.)

Assembling the pie:

1. Cut the chilled dough into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll one piece into a ⅛-inch thick circle. Gently wrap the circle onto the rolling pin (or lift it) and press into a 9-inch pie pan, trimming any excess from the edges.

Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

2. Spoon the rhubarb mixture into the pastry-lined pie pan. Sprinkle cornstarch evenly over the fruit.

3. Cover the rhubarb with the rolled-out top crust. Seal the pastry edges with your thumb and finger (or press a fork against the edges to seal). Cut slits into the pastry. (Alternatively, cut the top crust into strips and make a latticework design on top of the pie, as show in the accompanying photograph.)

4. Press a thin strip (about 1 inch) of aluminum foil around the edges to keep from burning.

5. Bake the pie in a preheated 450 F oven for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the pastry is golden). Remove the aluminum foil, and reduce heat to 350 F. Bake the pie for an additional 40 to 50 minutes (or until the rhubarb is soft).

6. Cool well before cutting.

Note:  You can also add ¼ cup of strawberries (washed, dried and cut into equal-sized pieces) for additional sweetness and flavor. If you choose to use strawberries too, reduce the amount of rhubarb accordingly.

Top photo: Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Forget Hip Kale, Get Your Green Fix From Swiss Chard Image

The über-popularity of kale is approaching the ridiculous when you see kale juice being hawked. Even if it were blended with bacon or sugar, I think a vanilla milkshake sounds better. I like kale as much as any hipster but let’s not ignore the other wonderful leafy green vegetables that there is no need to drink, such as Swiss chard.

The name has intrigued me ever since I lived in Switzerland for a year and never once saw Swiss chard. In older times it also went by the names silverbeet, seakale beet, leaf beet, perpetual spinach, rhubarb chard and spinach beet. Its scientific name is Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla.

Swiss chard is a biennial grown as an annual for its edible cooked dark green leaves and multicolored stalks. For the home gardener Swiss chard is ideal as it is a rugged plant that regenerates leaves even with heavy harvesting.

Mediterranean love for Swiss chard

The origin of Swiss chard is linked to the development of the beet to which it is intimately related. It too was originally a seashore plant native to the northern Mediterranean. Swiss chard is a popular vegetable throughout the Mediterranean with the French word for the plant, blettes or bettes, and the Italian bieta derived from the Latin blitum (itself derived from the Greek). The Spanish word for Swiss chard, acelgas, comes from the Arabic word al-silq, meaning Swiss chard or beet greens.

It’s more than likely that Swiss chard got its name by virtue of having been first written about by the Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin in his book “Phytopinax,” published in Basel, Switzerland, in 1596. All earlier references to beta refer to beets, but Swiss chard’s botanical divergence from beets is unclear, although Aristotle mentions a red-stalked beet chard around 350 B.C.

Simple preparations

For culinary purposes Swiss chard doesn’t need much. It has always been favored in stews because of its hardiness, but in this simple recipe the Swiss chard is cooked as a side dish ideally to accompany grilled lamb chops.

Swiss Chard With Pancetta and Lemon

Procure the yellow stalked Swiss chard as it makes for a pretty dish too.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1½ pounds Swiss chard

1 ounce pancetta, chopped or sliced

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

Juice from ½ lemon

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the Swiss chard until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain and squeeze out as much water as possible. Chop the chard coarsely and set aside.

2. In a large sauté pan, cook, stirring, the pancetta with the olive oil over medium heat until slightly crispy, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add the Swiss chard, lemon juice and salt and cook, stirring, until the lemon juice has evaporated and then serve.

Top photo: Colorful Swiss chard. Credit: onfilm/iStock

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How To Make Vegetable Gardens Look Good, Too Image

For many people, the idea of a vegetable garden conjures up an uninspiring image of regimented rows of plants with bare soil in between and functional supports where necessary. But this is not the only way to grow produce. Imagine going out onto a flower-filled terrace and cutting some lettuce for lunch, or, in the same space, collecting herbs for soup and unearthing fresh new potatoes. All this is perfectly possible, even in the tiniest of gardens.

A quick look at history shows that gardens that were both attractive and productive were far more common than one might think. The Romans had beautiful fruit and vegetable gardens, and monks living in monasteries across Medieval Europe were usually self-sufficient and grew everything they needed in charming walled gardens that were used for quiet contemplation as well as produce. The designers of large country house gardens often tucked the vegetables out of sight in a walled garden, but even here there was frequently an emphasis on beauty as well as productivity. Saint Ignatius, a priest in 15th-century Spain, said, “It is not enough to cultivate vegetables with care. You have a duty to arrange them according to their colours, and to frame them with flowers, so they appear like a well-laid table.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most famous ornamental vegetable gardens was created at the Chateau of Villandry, on the River Loire in France. When owner Joachim Carvallo purchased the estate, its original Renaissance garden had been replaced with an 18th-century landscape park. He wanted to restore the garden, but none of the plans for the original had survived. So Carvallo looked to the ornate gardens of the Renaissance and combined them with the kitchen gardens of the Benedictine abbeys in the area. The resulting plan gave vegetables pride of place next to the chateau, laying them out in intricate patterns.

Whether you have a large kitchen garden or simply a couple of containers, the theory behind growing vegetables beautifully is the same. First, consider what you would like to eat and what you are able to grow; there is no point growing chard, however pretty it may be, if you don’t enjoy eating it. Equally, there is no point trying to grow tender plants, such as chilies, if your garden is prone to frost.

Hanging tomatoes

A hanging basket of tomatoes makes use of vertical space. Credit: J.M. Hunter

Having chosen the vegetables you would like, consider what they look like as they grow. Many vegetables are available in ornamental varieties such as red Brussels sprouts, purple broccoli or rainbow chard. Lettuces can be any colour, from the palest green to deep crimson and many have the advantage of astonishingly frilly, or handsomely sharp, leaves. If you have room, a block of sweet corn looks striking (for pollination purposes you need to grow a block of it), but in a smaller space, peas, beans and tomatoes will give your garden height. Consider colour and shape, remembering that different shades of green with a few white flowers can look as spectacular as rainbow of colours. Think laterally, using parsley or lavender as edging and put tomatoes and herbs into hanging baskets.

How to fill the spaces

Of course, harvesting will affect the aesthetics of your garden. Sow a succession of seeds, rather than planting them all at once, and you will have new plants ready to fill any spaces. You also never will get a glut of anything, as the harvesting will be staggered. “Cut-and-come-again” crops can be harvested without removing the whole plant. Many salad leaves fall into this group and will regrow four or five times during the season. The other way to avoid gaps is to plant crops that grow at different speeds. Radishes mature in about 25 days and are invaluable gap-fillers while slower plants get going.

Having chosen the vegetables you want to grow, you can then add the flowers; annuals and bulbs and even perennials and shrubs, if your garden is large enough. Most vegetables are annuals, completing their harvest cycle within a year. Annual flowers make good companions, and each year you can vary the plants that you grow. Growing vegetables in different areas of the garden or even in different containers from year to year helps prevent soil depletion and disease. You can also vary your plants, for taste in the kitchen and looks in the garden.

Flower power helps vegetables

Flowers can also improve the health of your vegetables, with French marigolds or Tagetes attracting hoverflies, which will gobble up aphids and blackfly. Many of the prettiest flowers are edible; and pansies, nasturtiums, borage, lavender and many others will find a place in your kitchen as well your garden.

Whatever style of garden you have and whatever size it is, you can grow wonderful vegetables and enjoy a truly beautiful harvest.

Main photo: Vegetables and flowers mingle in a garden. Credit: J.M. Hunter

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What You Don’t Know About Delicious Cherimoya Image

My mother had a lifelong wish to go to Hawaii, and at long last had persuaded my father to indulge her desire. And so it was that my parents, my sister, and I ended up, long after dark, tired and hungry, tiptoeing into the kitchen of our bed and breakfast on Maui. We switched on the light and saw a basket on the kitchen table overflowing with tropical delights. My eyes greedily consumed the bright papaya, waxy starfruit, and stately pineapple.

But it was the aroma of a pale, brown-tinged, gray-green, oddly shingled, heavy rock of a fruit that grabbed and held me. I turned it over in my hands, feeling its solid heft and the softly yielding flesh under the scaly depressions in the reticulated skin. Then I brought it to my nose to breathe in the heavenly scent.

With the exhale, I turned to my sister, who had spent a high school year among the tropical fruits of the Philippines, “What in the world is this?”

Her eyes widened with delight as she exclaimed, “Cherimoya!”

“Cheri-who?” I asked. But she had already sliced it in half, and words swiftly become superfluous as we dug in to the velvety ivory flesh studded with large black seeds. Our wholly inadequate attempts to describe the aroma and flavors, which included banana, pear, coconut, mango, pineapple, papaya and vanilla,  faded to appreciative grunts and murmurs as we greedily spooned the custard-like flesh into our mouths.

Then I remembered my late-night reading before our trip. A fair number of famous authors have written about Hawaii — Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Jack London, and, of course, James Michener — but I was fairly sure that it was Mark Twain who had waxed eloquent about the cherimoya.

Twain spent four months on what were then known as the Sandwich Islands in 1866, on assignment for the Sacramento Union newspaper. He was only 31 years old, but the 25 letters that he steam-shipped back to the mainland are still fresh and funny. The complete collection of Twain’s articles from the trip can be found in “Mark Twain’s Letters From Hawaii” (University of Hawaii Press). But it was in “Roughing It,” Twain’s 1872 collection of travel essays, that I found his description of the cherimoya.

“We had an abundance of fruit in Honolulu, of course. Oranges, pine-apples, bananas, strawberries, lemons, limes, mangoes, guavas, melons, and a rare and curious luxury called the cherimoya, which is deliciousness itself,” he wrote.

Cherimoya’s peak of ripeness

The next morning I saw a smashed cherimoya on the ground next to our rental car. Fulminating against the depraved person who wasted such a wonderful fruit, I picked it up and began shamelessly eating it straight out of the damaged skin. Then, looking up, I had a Sir Isaac Newton moment: The vandal in question was gravity, and the source of our midnight cherimoya indulgence was the very tree under which we had parked our car. The lush, low canopy of the medium-sized tree nearly hid the cherimoya fruits, but there they were, hanging like Flintstone-era footballs just above the car.

Cherimoya fruit. Credit: Yuliya Vdikovinku/iStock

Cherimoya fruit. Credit: Yuliya Vdikovinku/iStock

Then I understood why the previous night’s, and the current morning’s, fruits were so scrumptious. They were at their peak of ripeness, literally falling from the tree. A bit of research revealed that the cherimoya has little commercial production because of its short shelf life. Although it seems well-armored, it is actually quite a delicate fruit. The skin bruises and breaks easily, and the moment of perfection is fleeting.

My research also brought to light the origin of the cherimoya, which is not native to the tropics, but to the inter-Andean valleys of Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. From there, native peoples spread it throughout the highlands of South and Central America. After the conquistadores arrived, they shipped cherimoya seeds back to Spain in 1757, and to Hawaii in 1790, some 75 years before Twain encountered it there.

The first California cherimoya trees were planted in 1871, with seeds brought up from Mexico.  By 1936, there were some 9,000 trees in the state, but most were killed by the hard freeze of 1937. A few small commercial orchards were reestablished, and the fruits were marketed locally, as they are today. Different varieties ripen from January through June, but in general March through May is the prime time for cherimoya in California. So if you are lucky enough to be there, and see a cherimoya, and it smells good, buy it.

I’ve seen recipes for everything from cherimoya ice cream to cherimoya salad dressing. But you can do no better than to peel back the skin and slurp the ripe flesh, or cut the fruit in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon as I did on my virgin cherimoya indulgence. Deliciousness itself needs no embellishment.

Main photo: Cherimoya in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman

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How Chef Iliana De La Vega Reinvents Oaxacan Food Image

Sometimes traditional and inventive are mutually exclusive concepts in classic global cuisine, but one Texas chef has found a way to translate traditional Oaxacan food with both concepts in mind.

Chef Iliana de la Vega has created a menu beyond familiar Mexican specialties with innovative dishes at her Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo.

How about chili-rich, velvety smooth Oaxacan moles? Or tacos dorados — tortillas stuffed with potatoes or chicken and served with avocado-green salsa with a hint of jalapeño peppers, cream and queso fresco? Or chile relleno with smoky chile pasilla oaxaqueño stuffed with plantains and light queso panela cheese in a black bean and avocado leaf sauce?

Although steeped in tradition, De la Vega’s cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the traditional and the innovative. She creates this balance with flavors drawn from the many rich traditions of Mexican cooking. Although De la Vega grew up in Mexico City, her family hailed from Oaxaca and she learned the regional cuisine from her mother, her aunt and other relatives in Oaxaca during her visits.

The real Oaxacan food

She and her husband, architect Ernesto Torrealba, moved to Oaxaca in 1994 and opened El Naranjo in a colonial-era house in 1997.

What she served there was the food she grew up eating at home, traditional Oaxacan fare. Although initially her interpretation of traditional cooking was not well received by the locals, it gained international recognition after being featured in various publications including the New York Times, Bon Appetit and the Chicago Tribune. A handwritten note from the famous chef Rick Bayless — “this is the real food of Oaxaca” — hung in the entryway of the restaurant.

Unfortunately the political unrest and violence in Oaxaca resulted in the closure of El Naranjo in 2006. But Oaxaca’s loss was Texas’ gain. The couple soon immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin.

She accepted a position at the Center for Foods of The Americas at the Culinary Institute of America. While teaching at the CIA she commuted to San Antonio and her evenings and weekends were spent re-creating a new El Naranjo, initially as an Oaxacan cuisine food truck. The El Naranjo food truck was a huge success and was the only food truck included in the Texas Monthly’s list of 50 best Mexican restaurants.

A new start for El Naranjo

In May 2012, after five years, she stepped down from her position at the CIA, and began dedicating her time fully to the new restaurant in the middle of Rainey Street in downtown Austin. Amid converted houses serving as restaurants and bars, El Naranjo stands apart.  The modest bungalow’s pale facade conceals the attractive space inside featuring a bar area, two dining rooms and a patio.

Though many people like Mexican food, most diners haven’t experienced much of that cuisine’s diverse or varied offerings, De la Vega said.

“The public is just beginning to see the top of the iceberg,” she said.  ”Mexican food has so much more to offer. … It is growing and people are exploring ‘new’ ingredients, recipes and acquiring more knowledge of the fundamentals of traditional cuisine.”

Velvety smooth moles

She bakes bread and makes tortillas fresh every day. Velvety smooth moles, the signature dish of Oaxacan cuisine, are also prepared in house and are vegetable-based. At least three varieties are always on the menu with a different mole featured every week.

De la Vega’s freshly made salsas are in a class by themselves; fiery hot salsa macha is my favorite. The incredible flan and Mille-feuille of dulce de leche pair with a cup of cafe de olla to make the perfect dessert course. And the chef offers a wonderful selection for vegetarians, an added bonus that you rarely see in Mexican restaurants.

De la Vega and her husband are even considering expanding their business.

“We would love to expand or create different concepts,” she said. “That is an option that we are considering.”

Main photo: Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

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What Dickens Missed: The Wit And Wisdom Of Watercress Image

Watercress is one of those greens that goes in and out of popularity with my friends, although I have been devoted to it for 20 years, after discovering a hummus, tomato and watercress sandwich in a cafe close to where I worked at the time.

The peppery taste of the watercress added a final, perfect note to the tanginess of the hummus and the freshness of the tomatoes. That sandwich became my workday treat, eaten religiously, Monday to Friday, for a couple of years.

Later, when I left the corporate world and returned to cooking for myself, I nibbled watercress while tossing it into salads, learned to make Potage Cressionniere (a soup of potatoes and watercress) in winter and a lighter soup (without the potatoes) in spring and summer, and used it in my own version of that long-gone sandwich.

Historically, watercress thought to fortify mind and body

Nasturtium officinale is the botanical name for watercress. The word Nasturtium comes from the Latin nasus tortus, meaning “twisted nose,” a warning about the effect watercress can have on your nasal passages.

It may be a nose twister, but it is also one of the oldest green vegetables known to man. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians loved it. Persian children ate watercress to grow strong, while Persian and Greek soldiers ate it to remain so. Both the Greek general Xenophon and the Persian king Xerxes decreed their troops should eat it for the same reason, with Xenophon once recalling, “How pleasant it is to eat barley cake and some cress when one is hungry by a stream.”

A Greek proverb — “Eat cress and learn more wit” — gave an indication of the vegetable’s contribution to the brain, something Irish monks also understood. They spent months living on watercress and bread to stimulate their brains.

Watercress provides essential vitamins — in particular A and C — as well as calcium, magnesium, folic acid, iodine, sulfur and iron. It is believed to have wonderful cleansing powers and help in curing a variety of ills. (Romans and Anglo-Saxons used it as a treatment for baldness.) It was also eaten to provide courage and character, and as an aphrodisiac.

The Romans put watercress in salads, dressing it with oil and vinegar, much like we do today.  When Hippocrates — the Greek physician known as the father of Western medicine — founded the first hospital on the island of Kos, Greece, about 400 B.C., he used watercress to treat blood disorders. Twelve centuries later, English herbalist John Gerard championed it as a cure for scurvy in the 1600s. Watercress may also have been eaten at the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving dinner.

A twist from Dickens

In more modern times, the English raised it to something of an institution in watercress sandwiches served at afternoon and high teas. No less than Charles Dickens wrote of it in “Great Expectations,” with Mr. Pumblechook, a corn merchant with a mouth “like a fish,” ordering watercress sandwiches for Pip, the book’s hero, as a supposed kindness although, in truth, Pip didn’t like them.

Others of that time did, though. Watercress was breakfast for the working classes in Victorian Britain, eaten with bread or alone.

“The first coster cry heard of a morning in the London streets is of ‘Fresh wo-orter-creases,’ ” English social researcher Henry Mayhew wrote in his 1851 survey “London Labour and the London Poor.” Surely one of those coster cries must have come from Eliza James. Nicknamed “The Watercress Queen,” James was a watercress seller in the late 1800s and early 1900s, hawking her wares in her Covent Garden stall for more than half a century. She started selling watercress when she was 5, first at factories in Birmingham, then eventually becoming the sole watercress supplier of most hotels and restaurants in London as well as, reputedly, the biggest owner of watercress farms in the world.

Wild watercress

Wild watercress grows in shallow rivers and streams, fading in the dog days of summer and the coldest months of winter. Picking it wild, however, requires great care to ensure the water it grows in is pollution free and the watercress is uncontaminated. Commercially, watercress is cultivated in carefully controlled tanks or water beds.

Although peppery in taste, watercress actually has a cooling effect on the mouth. This is something Taillevent, a 14th-century cook to the Court of France, understood. He included a course of “watercress, served alone, to refresh the mouth” in one of his famous banquet menus.

In North America, watercress is an ingredient in salads, soups and sandwiches. It is a lovely complement to oranges, apples and pears, and also works well with eggs.

When using watercress, leave the stems on because they have the strongest flavor. Try not to overcook it. The leaves are delicate, and long cooking robs them of their flavor. Watercress is best eaten soon after purchasing and should be kept immersed in cold water until it is used. So go ahead, let your nose twist as you enjoy this wonderful green.

A Light Watercress Soup

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the soup:

2½ tablespoons unsalted butter

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

1 cup low-sodium vegetable stock

¼ teaspoon salt

3 bunches (about 3 cups) watercress, washed, dried and chopped

¼ cup table cream (10%)

Optional garnishes:

Crème fraîche

Thinly sliced pear

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until soft. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute.

2. Gradually stir in the milk and vegetable stock, then add the salt. When the soup is near boiling, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

3. While the soup cooks, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the watercress to blanch until wilted, but still retaining its bright color. Remove it from the water and place in a bowl of ice water.

4. Squeeze the water out of the cooled watercress and add the watercress to the soup.

5. Carefully purée with a hand blender or in a food processor, adding the cream.

6. Reheat if necessary.

7. Garnish with a dollop of crème fraîche and a few slices of pear if you wish. This soup is delicious hot or cold.

Main photo: Watercress soup with bread and pear slices. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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6 Healthy Ways To Get The Most Out Of Frozen Or Dried Berries Image

Fresh local berries in season are a fleeting pleasure in most regions, and until we can virtually reach through the computer screen and grab them off the bush, the choice will come down to frozen berries or imports from faraway. If they’re not kept cool enough, fresh berries shipped long distances can lose important phytonutrients. Unless you’re up for interrogating suppliers, frozen berries are likely your best option, depending on how they’re frozen and thawed.

Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University and a berry lover, shares her thoughts on selecting berries when they’re out of season.

How to select and use frozen berries

1. Reject blobs. Have you ever noticed that some packages of frozen berries feel like one big blob while in others, the berries run freely, resembling a sackful of M&Ms? When berries are frozen en masse, they surrender some of their phytonutrients to the moisture that becomes the blob, says Lila.

What you want are IQF berries — individually quick frozen, meaning they’re laid out on a large tray, berry by berry, and then frozen, a process that retains their healthy compounds, keeps them in singular form and thus makes them easier to thaw. How you thaw is crucial.

2. Defrost only the amount you’re planning to eat, consume them the same day and don’t refreeze them, Lila says. “Minimal handling helps the berries retain their ‘ just picked’  flavor and health protective components.”

3. Thaw berries quickly. A long, slow thaw in the fridge or on the counter activates enzymes that start to degrade phytonutrients, she says.

Lila suggests popping a small amount of frozen berries into the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds max just to get the frost off.  She then throws them into her hot morning oatmeal. “The microwave can be devastating if overdone,” she says, so keep the temperature moderate and cooking time short.

4. Gently warm frozen berries on the stovetop, using a double boiler or placing them directly into a pot or pan and stirring continuously so they don’t scorch. A little bit of heat actually breaks down some of the healthy components so they get into your bloodstream faster, Lila says. Again, keep the process short and avoid high heat.

5. Consume the colorful juices left behind. They contain important water-soluble phytonutrients — including anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that gives berries their red, blue and purple to blackish hues. In nature, anthocyanins protect plants from enemies such as insects and ultraviolet radiation, Lila explained on “The Dr. Oz Show.” In your body, they go straight to your large intestine, where they work with berry fiber and good gut bacteria to fight inflammation.

Lila’s new research suggests that eating berries — any berries — before or after exercising will increase the ability of those anthocyanins to fight inflammation. Her new research also shows that berries have some healthy fat soluble compounds as well, so eat them with a few nuts.

TV screenshot of Mary Ann Lila on "The Dr. Oz Show." Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

TV screenshot of Mary Ann Lila on “The Dr. Oz Show.” Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

6. How to select and use dried berries.

Dried berries range from the traditional shriveled fruits to the new berries on the block, berry powders and freeze-dried whole fruits.

The traditional dried fruits — the tiny versions dehydrated in the sun — are highly concentrated in natural sugars, and many companies add glucose or other sweeteners. Choose wisely and eat dried fruits in moderation. Wild gojis from the Gobi, for example, are a good option because they’re not sweet and are dense in phytonutrients. All wild berries, if picked when ripe, usually beat out domesticated ones when it comes to producing healthy compounds, says Lila, because wild berries have to struggle in nature on their own, without human help.

Berry powders vary in quality, says Lila, depending on how they’re made. Often they’re spray dried, a process that uses gas to break down the fruits and destroys many phytonutrients.

Whole berries, on the other hand, are freeze-dried, which simply removes the water and retains all the good properties. “It’s the best way to preserve polyphenols,” Lila says. But the sugars become very concentrated and the process is expensive, making them a risky option for anyone with a sweet tooth and an addiction gene.

That would be me. As far as I’m concerned, the best thing about picking frozen berries is that I’m forced to control an unwavering urge to nosh. Have you ever tried biting into an icy fruit?

Main photo: Mary Ann Lila, with colleague Sally Gustafson, at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Credit: Courtesy of Plants for Human Health Institute

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Why Old-School Asian Fusion Still Matters In Mexico City Image

You can distinguish the little storefront of Cafe Manuel from a block away by its two red Chinese lanterns hanging over the entrance. Its name is hand-lettered in an “oriental” script no longer deemed politically correct elsewhere. The window on the left side of the door tempts with a display of pan dulce, sweet rolls destined to accompany coffee. On the right, lettering affixed to the window offers comida mexicana y china — Mexican and Chinese food. This establishment, which opened its doors in 1934, is a typical cafe de chinos, a Chinese cafe. Only a few authentic ones remain, scattered throughout older neighborhoods of Mexico City.

Fondly remembered by urban Mexicans of a certain age, cafes de chinos are to Mexico what the typical coffee shop once was to the major American metropolis. They usually feature a counter and a few booths, have nominally Chinese décor, perhaps a Buddha and a Chinese calendar. They offer coffee, sweet breads, light food both Mexican and ostensible Chinese; many are open around the clock. They are a part of Mexican urban lore, 20th-century collective nostalgic memory. The “Cafe de Chinos” 1949 film features a lurid mixed-race romance and is set in a typical cafe.

Asian fusion: From the old country to the new

To the outsider, Mexico might seem like a largely homogenous place, lacking in cultural diversity. Of course the majority of Mexicans are mestizo, a mixture of European (principally Spanish) and indigenous. But the fact is that many ethnic groups besides the Spanish have come in to the mix, most notably African, Lebanese and Chinese. Porfírio Diaz, president-cum-dictator of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, made it his goal to bring Mexico up to its northern neighbor’s technological level. Chinese workers, often fleeing officially sanctioned anti-Chinese policies in the U.S. and well-versed in railroad building, were “invited” to construct the country’s rail system. Working under arduous conditions, these people naturally wanted to improve their lives. Many stayed in Mexico, often intermarrying with locals.

In the 1920s, Mexico’s concern over Chinese immigrants’ involvement in organized crime led to the Movimiento Anti-Chino; this anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the murder and deportation of many people of Chinese origin. Some of them, returning to a politically unstable China or a depressed U.S., eventually made their way back to Mexico, decades later. Those who remained, often intermarrying with Mexican nationals, opened laundries, import businesses … and restaurants.

Slow and fast food

Entrepreneurial Chinese, already versed in American-style “quick cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk were the specialty.

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Traditional Mexican offerings such as enchiladas and tamales were prepared, as were “American/Chinese” dishes like chop suey and fried rice. These eateries grew in popularity, especially in dense city centers, feeding the new breed of round-the-clock workers who needed breakfast at midnight, or dinner at 6 a.m. They reached their pinnacle of popularity in the 1940s and ’50s. In Mexico City, the streets surrounding the Zócalo, the city’s huge central plaza, were full of them. Calle Madero boasted at least four, as late as the 1960s. Then, inevitably, newer styles trumped old and these small, old-fashioned places, which not only served customers but also provided daytime social centers, began to close their doors. Glitzy chains and U.S.-based fast food venues replaced them.

But traditions die hard, especially in a slower-paced, less-eager-to-modernize Latin America. Cafe Manuel hasn’t changed. It offers two set lunches, one Mexican and the other Chinese. Sweet rolls are made in-house, coffee is fresh, milk frothy and hot. I chose a menú chino, which cost about $5.50. It consisted of a pleasant, vaguely “Chinese tasting” chicken broth with bok choy, flavored with sesame oil. Next came the archetypal fried rice, quickly sautéed with vegetables and egg, its smoky aroma preceding it to table. And the chop suey, the archetypal American-Chinese dish of stir-fried whatever, thickened with cornstarch, turned out to consist mostly of bean sprouts, onion and celery and a bit of chicken in a lightly sweet soy broth. It was all fresh and good, if not authentically Chinese. Dolores, the longtime waitress there, explained during a lull that nowadays customers mostly order the Mexican food. “It’s cheaper,” she reminds me. Few customers are of Chinese extraction; even the cook is Mexican-born.

“But we have many locals who have been coming for years, and don’t expect our menu to change,” she assures me.

Cafe El Pópular

Mexico City’s historic center, now in a felicitous revival, has lost a bit of the old-time quirkiness it had when I arrived in the 1980s. The mid-century past seemed to live: ancient businesses, their facades and interiors unchanged for decades thrived on every block. Today, only a few of the counter-style restaurants served by uniform-clad waiters and waitresses survive.

Cafe el Pópular's bar in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe el Pópular’s bar in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe El Pópular, was established in 1948 as a cafe de chinos by Luís Eng Fui, a Chinese immigrant and his Mexican wife Felícitas. When I started visiting Mexico City, shortly after the devastating earthquake of 1985, I would often arrive late at night and stay in one of the inexpensive hotels near the Zócalo. At that time El Pópular was the only restaurant open past midnight. I would sit at the counter, surrounded by a lively crowd of off-duty working girls and their clients, police officers, drag queens, city workers ending their evening hours, and those about to start the swing shift. The atmosphere was always lively, often raucous — a live-action Ashcan School painting. I didn’t understand the banter, conducted in local chilango slang, but I loved the vibes; I would sit until the wee small hours, savoring a Mexican hot chocolate, while dunking a flaky sweet concha.

The Cafe el Pópular carries on albeit in a newer guise. Run by José Luís Eng, grandson of the founder,  his sister Beatriz, a culinary institute graduate, directs the kitchen. No longer offering anything remotely Chinese — the only obvious connection to its Asian past is a Chinese plaque, designed by Eng’s grandmother that hangs over the bar. El Pópular has become a Mexican restaurant par excellence with prices that remain accessible. Ingredients are for the most part local, some even organically produced. The menu reads like a veritable lexicon of “great Mexican classics” — soups, tacos, enchiladas, roast chicken, grilled meats, it’s all here. While remaining a seemingly slick family-style restaurant, Beatriz makes sure the quality is a cut above its corporate neighbors. And, of course, breakfast is still offered around the clock and sweet breads are still homemade.

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Chicken chop suey at Cafe Manuel. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Nowadays, a  new wave of Asian immigrants are arriving. They’re opening more authentic restaurants that attract an increasingly sophisticated public, that cafes de chinos, the fusion-relic of the past, will disappear entirely. They are the remaining evidence of a neglected and little known segment of Mexican society once slighted, that deserves more recognition.

Top photo: Image of poster for the 1949 film “Cafe de Chinos.” Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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