In Turkey, it’s börek; in Israel, burekas, flaky layers of phyllo dough stuffed most commonly with cheese, spinach or minced meat. And the savory pastry isn’t the only thing the two cuisines have in common.
“You find a vast use of fresh vegetables, greens, spinach, olive oil, light fresh cheese, goat’s milk, and black pepper [in both countries],” says Tel Aviv-based chef Ruthie Rousso. Like Turkey, she noted, “Israel gets most of its fish from the Mediterranean, and enjoys the [same] climate and the produce which comes with it.”
Turks and Israelis have few opportunities to revel in their shared gastronomic heritage, however. Political tensions between the two erstwhile allies have been running high over the past six years, with reconciliation attempts thus far unsuccessful.
Judge from Israel’s version of ‘Iron Chef’ sees connection
“Many Israelis wouldn’t dare go to Turkey these days. And I believe it’s [true] the other way around as well. What a loss,” says Rousso, who served as a judge on Israel’s version of the “Iron Chef” cooking show.
But Rousso and others believe culinary similarities might just be a way to bring people back together — not only from Turkey and Israel, but from other countries with strained relationships as well.
The Food for Diplomacy project, for which Rousso served as a guest chef in November, was initiated at Kadir Has University in Istanbul to test this theory.
“Turkey has so much in common with other countries in the region in terms of our history and culture, the food we make and the ingredients we use,” says project coordinator Eylem Yanardağoğlu. “We wanted to use food as a bridge, to create an atmosphere where even difficult issues can be discussed.”
Since the project’s initiation last fall, Kadir Has University has hosted chefs from Armenia, Israel, Syria and Ukraine, who cook with students from the school’s culinary institute and then prepare a meal of their country’s cuisine for a mixed group of diplomats, businesspeople, journalists, artists and other community members.
Through tensions, a focus on common themes — and tastes
The first event focused on the Republic of Armenia, a country with which Turkey has no formal diplomatic relations as a result of ongoing historical and political disputes. Award-winning Armenian chef Grigori K. Antinyan prepared traditional dishes ranging from putuk, a thick mutton-and-vegetable stew cooked in individual clay pots, to klondrak, a dessert of dried apricots stuffed with cracked wheat. A keynote speaker encouraged dialogue among the diners about how diplomatic challenges might be overcome.
“We’re not claiming we’ll be able to solve the Turkey-Armenia issue through food, but this type of cultural diplomacy can help us see the common themes we have with other countries rather than just the problems,” says Yanardağoğlu. She notes that active efforts are being made by NGOs and other universities in Turkey and Armenia to increase communication and interaction between the feuding countries’ peoples.
Chef Mohamad Nizar Bitar says he wanted to participate in Food for Diplomacy to raise awareness of Syria’s rich cultural heritage among people in Turkey, where more than 1.7 million Syrians have taken refuge from their country’s civil war. Bitar, who has established a successful chain of Syrian restaurants and bakeries in Istanbul, also wanted to cast a more positive light on the refugees whose ongoing presence is causing increasing tension in Turkey. Once Turkish people try Syrian food, he says, they particularly love falafel, hummus and fattoush, a flatbread salad.
Plating up diplomacy with Greece
The most recent Food for Diplomacy event, held April 14, focused on Greece, Turkey’s Mediterranean neighbor and frequent political rival. In the future, Yanardağoğlu hopes to send Turkish chefs to Armenia and Ukraine to continue the cultural and culinary exchange, and to create a booklet of regional recipes featured at the dinners.
Chef Rousso, who has traveled to countries from Ethiopia to Vietnam to cook and talk about Israeli food as part of what she calls her own “culinary ambassadoring,” says Turkey was her biggest challenge yet.
More from Zester Daily:
“The tension between the two countries made it an adventurous task,” she says. But her signature “Israeli-style” roast beef served with hot green chili oil, cherry tomato seeds, olive oil, coarse salt and tahini on the side was a hit with Kadir Has’ culinary students, and Yanardağoğlu says the dinner discussion was a success as well.
“I think everyone was a bit tense at the beginning of the [Israel] event, but as dinner went on, they started to relax and bring their guard down,” she says about the evening’s guests, who included members of the Israeli diplomatic mission and Istanbul’s dwindling Jewish community, as well as Turkish journalists and a former ambassador.
“Unfortunately there were no Turkish officials who participated in my event, but I had the chance to work with Turkish students and meet the local media, and I was so impressed,” says Rousso. “These kinds of meetings open people’s eyes on both sides; if we can agree about food, maybe we can agree about other matters as well.”
Main photo: Armenian chef Grigori Karleni Antinyan, center, with culinary students at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy
There’s a dessert that’s scarcely known in America but all too familiar in England, where it is today considered the epitome of blandness, no small feat given English standards. But in the 19th century, its wilder possibilities were explored, some of which were smashingly good and deserve a new life.
The dish is blancmange (that’s French lingo there: “blahn-MAHNJ”), and the modern standard is basically a gelatin dessert of almond milk, or dairy milk with almond flavoring, or just milk and vanilla, molded into a characteristic shape that sometimes showed up in Monty Python skits as a silly, giant blancmange monster.
More from Zester Daily:
» Blancmange: Almond milk pudding worthy of a comeback
» Jellied desserts wiggle back into the spotlight
» Christmas plum pudding
» A pudding for all that comes from Turkey’s melting pot
The almond-milk version, at least, has an ancient history. Blancmange descends from blancmanger, the most esteemed dish of the European Middle Ages, which basically consisted of the whitest ingredients available to the cook: milk, almonds, chicken breasts, sugar, rice, even breadcrumbs in a pinch. It was a special attraction at a time when cuisine tended to be either brown or green or brownish green, and it appealed to the medieval nobility for another reason: As the middle class kept rising and rising, pure white food such as blancmanger symbolized the stainless aristocratic ancestry that those irritating bourgeois upstarts could never claim. The idea was that you can add colorings to turn a white food whatever color you like, but you can’t turn a colored food white. In the 1820s, Antonin Carême, the founder of French grande cuisine, wrote, “These delicious sweets are greatly esteemed by gastronomes, but to be enjoyed they must be extremely smooth and very white. Given these two qualities (so rarely found together), they will always be preferred to other creams, even to transparent jellies.”
It’s not surprising that democratic-minded Americans paid little attention to the historical significance of whiteness. They made chocolate versions (every edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook since 1896 has presented the chocolate pudding as a variety of blancmange), and they made versions flavored with fruit; when they used berries or cherries, the result was very far from aristocratic white. They also played with different thickening agents, using cornstarch, farina or tapioca as well as gelatin. For my money, the star version is the cream fruit blancmange. It’s reminiscent of a packaged gelatin dessert but with the genuine flavor of fresh fruit (I’m particularly partial to blackberry), enriched by cream. The texture is unique, soft and elastic, like a cross between pudding and fruit jelly but richer. Old recipes say to serve cream fruit blancmange with whipped cream or boiled custard sauce (which we now know as crème anglaise), but I don’t think it really needs a topping.
Some advice: Do not add the fruit purée to the cream until the gelatin is thoroughly dissolved or the acidity will cause curdling. The result will still taste good, but you won’t get that plush texture. For a more conventional pudding effect, you can cut the amount of gelatin to 1 1/2 tablespoons; if you want less richness, you can use half-and-half instead of cream.
Cream Fruit Blancmange
Prep time: 7 to 8 minutes
Cooking time: 9 to 10 minutes
Total time: 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1/2 cup water
1 ounce (2 tablespoons or 2 packets) unflavored gelatin
1 quart berries or cherries
1 pint cream
1 cup sugar
1. Add the water to a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Let dissolve and swell, 5 minutes or more. Meanwhile, purée the berries in a food processor or food mill 2 to 3 minutes and strain. You will have about 1 cup of thick juice.
2. Put the cream in a saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until scalded, 7 to 8 minutes (tiny bubbles will form and the aroma of the cream will change). Stir often to prevent scorching.
3. Reduce heat to low. Stir 1/2 cup of the hot cream into the dissolved gelatin and whisk until thoroughly mixed; then add the gelatin mixture into the cream remaining in the saucepan and whisk until it is thoroughly dispersed, 1 minute or so. Add the sugar and stir until well dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat.
4. Add the fruit purée to the cream and stir until the color is uniform. Pour into serving bowls, bring to room temperature and refrigerate until set, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Main photo: Classic blancmange, pictured, is even better when you blend the fruit right in. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lesyy
April is National Poetry Month. For Zester foodies I bring — not a recipe — but a taste of the work of my favorite African-American poets who chose food as metaphor and main ingredient.
“I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun and rain,” African-American poet Kevin Young said in an interview on National Public Radio’s “The Salt” program. “And that’s where food comes from, and so there’s this common link.”
More from Zester Daily:
Each of these poems is as unique as the poet who cooked them up. One poet seduced you with chocolate. Another wondered why you eat health food. All of them reflect culture with nuanced politics, humor and love.
The 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry for her work “Thomas and Beulah,” U.S. Poet Laureate (1993 to 1995), National Medal of Arts honoree (2012) and English professor at the University of Virginia, Dove is known for her lyrical style and historical edge.
She also writes about music in “Sonata Mulattica” and dance in “American Smooth.” As I moved into midlife, I acquired an addiction to chocolate. So naturally, I was drawn to Dove’s ode to the confection entitled “Chocolate.” Here’s an excerpt of it, taken from the “American Smooth” collection:
“Velvet fruit, exquisite square
I hold up to sniff
between finger and thumb —
how you numb me
with your rich attentions!”
I had the honor of meeting and dining with Angelou several times while living in Oakland, Calif. The nation is still grieving the 2014 loss of our beloved storyteller, writer, activist and author of the 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Angelou delivered the poem for the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She was also an extraordinary chef and humorist. Her poem “The Health-Food Diner” — published in “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou” — is a hilarious poke at vegetarians. If you read the whole thing, you will see the humor, too. She begins with raw veggies while ending the first few stanzas fantasizing about meat. But she builds a crescendo to a frenzy of pork loins, chicken thighs and Irish stew. Here’s how this poem opens:
“No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).”
I met the distinguished Yale professor during the launch of her poetry in the New York City subway at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Poetry in Motion event.
Her “Butter,” included in “The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink,” edited by Young , is a vivid tribute to her mother and the many delectable ways one can cook with butter. Her British West Indian menu includes Yorkshire puddings in the first half of the poem. Here are some opening lines:
“My mother loves butter more than I do,
more than anyone. She pulls chunks off
the stick and eats it plain, explaining
cream spun around into butter!”
Giovanni is best known as a civil rights poet activist from the Black Arts Movement.
She writes about food as memory, sustenance and aphrodisiac. A humorous and serious poet-foodie, Giovanni is known for sharing stories about her grandmother, aunts and mother’s cooking at poetry readings. Her book, “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid,” describes how she went from being the “baby in the family to becoming an elder.” So, while this book is mostly about mourning her loved ones, she spins lovely stories about them through food. This is a must-read for food poetry fans. As she searches for “Utopia” beer to toast her mother’s memory, she explained the correct way to cook grits in “The Right Way”:
“My Grandmother’s grits
Are so much better than mine
Mine tend to be lumpy
And a bit disoriented”
His poem “Harlem” is best known as “A Raisin in the Sun” — the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed Broadway play. This was the top poem mentioned when I asked colleagues to name their top five black poets who told stories through the lens of food. Most everyone in my circle can recite this powerful poem by heart. Here are a few lines:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?”
If these excerpts have left you hungry for more, check the aforementioned “The Hungry Ear,” which features a multicultural blend of poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters,” Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms,” among dozens of others.
Main photo: For National Poetry Month, I honor my favorite African-American poets who chose to write about food. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis
If you want to order a gin and tonic in Spain, first drop the “and” from the drink’s name (it’s known simply as a “gin tonic”) and then be prepared to answer two serious questions from the barkeep.
First, what gin? Any respectable bar will have 10 to 50 bottles, or more, in stock. Second, what tonic? You should also know a favorite based on your preference for its handcrafted blend of bitter and sweet.
More from Zester Daily:
In an instant, one luscious bittersweet sip helped me understand why the gin tonic had made a crazed ascent to become the unofficial national drink of Spain in less than a decade. But at the same time, it introduced a whole host of other questions. What makes a Spanish gin tonic different from the classic British stalwart? How many riffs on one cocktail can there be? Could I master the technique for the perfect gin tonic?
I sought out one of the reigning gin tonic masters in Spain to discover why this age-old cocktail is such a perfect foil for the Spanish philosophy that it’s good to play with your food. I also got some tips on making your personalized best GT.
Main photo: Gin tonic with Pepe José Orts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Caroline J. Beck
There’s this moment that occurs when you’ve been working with bees for a while. Standing there, on top of a hotel in Portland, Oregon, preparing to approach a hive he had established to house more than 30,000 bees, Damian Magista realized he had no need to wear his bee suit.
He had made a lot of mistakes with them in his half decade of hobby beekeeping, like opening the hive too often or accidentally squashing the queen.
“Less is more in beekeeping,” Magista said. “You have to resist the temptation to over-manage your hives.”
Listening to the hive
Magista had learned to really slow down, and listen to them, to decipher their buzzing, to hear changes in their music. He knew that if the scouts they sent out of the hive to greet him started ramming his body, he should back off. He knew when he was welcome.
“I can’t see myself ever knowing everything about them,” he said. “But I’ve gotten to the point where I can relax into it.”
More from Zester Daily:
These days Magista barely dons his bee suit, but he is doing the opposite of relaxing. As the founder of the innovative neighborhood-to-jar company Bee Local, he has taken his message that all truly exceptional honeys are local to the national stage by introducing the United States to the culinary ambrosia of locally sourced honey. In doing so, he is creating a network of hive systems that support hobby beekeepers and help protect against the colony collapse disorder that has been ravaging the species.
Bee Local began as a hobby, until Magista had one of those pivotal entrepreneurial moments that turn hobbyists into entrepreneurs with a mission. Tasting honey sourced from neighborhoods throughout Portland, he noticed that bees that visited buckwheat produced a honey with dark, smoky, deep molasses overtones. Those that had traveled across Portland’s farm regions made one containing deep blue and blackberry notes with a floral finish. Bees lucky enough to live in the Willamette Valley’s vineyards, hops fields and berry farms made one robust and complex.
“The whole premise of Bee Local was discovering that hives in different locations produce different colors and taste profiles,” Magista said. “Honey is a snapshot of time and place.”
Making artisanal honey
Magista’s goal was to introduce the world to the beauty of the small artisanal honeys from the neighborhoods around Portland, harnessing what was unique about those geographies and allowing bees to express it in honey like wine captures terroir.
But making these small-scale honeys was not going to help Bee Local change the world, nor could it survive as a business, so in August of 2014 Bee Local joined Jacobsen Salt Co., a producer of artisan salts sourced from the waters of the Pacific Northwest, which had already established a national retail operation through partnerships with companies such as Williams-Sonoma.
“What we were doing was not scalable,” Magista said. “To take our business to the next level and truly make a wider impact we needed to merge.”
Tackling colony collapse disorder
Now, from a space he shares with Jacobsen’s in Portland’s Eastside Industrial District, a growing home base for artisan makers of all stripe in the city’s nascent food industry, Bee Local is launching an expansion that ties its business prospects on taking on one of the most pressing environmental crises of our time: colony collapse disorder.
First documented in 1869 and named in 2006, the disorder describes the situation in which entire colonies of commercial bees disappear abruptly due to factors such as adverse weather, too many bees in one area, infection, virus, overuse of pesticides or mite infestation. Although most who study it believe it has always existed in bee populations at some degree, CCD has been happening in dramatically higher wavers, sending out ripples for commercial agriculture and affecting food systems around the world. In some cases, beekeepers have lost up to 90 percent of their colonies.
Placing hives throughout Oregon
But tackling colony collapse disorder is a bigger-picture project. In the meantime, Bee Local is developing relationships with business owners throughout the Willamette Valley and finding distinct places to place its hives. Over the next year, it will add 150 more hives in places such as Amity Vineyards and the top of the new Renata restaurant, although most of them are located in places inaccessible to the public.
Even as it makes its foothold in Oregon stronger, Bee Local is reaching out to hobby beekeeps in Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, N.Y. — markets that embrace unconventional products and where many of its partner chefs reside — to launch its national expansion. What’s good for business, it turns out, will be good for the bees.
“Beekeeping as an art is dying out,” Magista said. “Not enough young beekeepers are coming up to take the place of older generations.”
Culture of beekeeping
The loss of the art of beekeeping comes at great cost to both the culture of beekeeping and the global environment, which has wrestled in the past decade with colony collapse disorder, which happens in commercial beekeeping and big agriculture. When hives die because of environmental factors — for example if they are placed in monocrops, they are moved around too much, or they encounter pesticides — entire hive populations can be wiped out.
“When you remove bees from this environment, they remain healthy,” Magista said. “It’s so simple — treat an organism with respect and it thrives, abuse it and it dies.”
Bee Local works exclusively with hobby beekeepers and places its hives in diverse environments where no pesticides are being sprayed.
We don’t engage in commercial beekeeping,” Magista said. “We don’t use chemicals in our hives, we generally don’t move them around.”
The result are honeys that restaurants and food purveyors and ordering by the gallon and artisanal food lovers recognize as very different from your garden-variety honey in a honey bear bottle.
“What the bees come up with themselves is what’s really exciting,” Magista said. “I can control some variables, but the result is up to nature.”
Main photo: Damian Magista tends to a rooftop hive in Portland, Oregon. Credit: Copyright Bee Local
It’s almost dinner time at Shelter From the Storm, an inspiring and unusual homeless shelter in Central London. Delicious smells of home-cooked food fill the large, open-plan living room where a string of round tables topped with brightly colored cloths is ready for service. At 6:30, the guests start to arrive, hurrying in from the chilly evening. Some help themselves to mugs of steaming tea or coffee; others take a quick shower before the food is served.
More from Zester Daily:
In the kitchen, a handful of young volunteers set out the cutlery and a stack of 50 plates needed for the meal. When the food is ready, the guests come to the counter for it before joining one of the communal tables. That’s Shelter From the Storm‘s most important rule: Here, everyone sits together to eat and share their experiences of the day. Those might be holding or looking for a job, sitting in a public library, or being out in the streets. The shelter operates from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.
“Homelessness is on the increase in London, though it’s hard to put a number to it,” says Sheila Scott, who co-founded and runs the live-in shelter that houses a maximum of 48 guests, many whom stay for more than a month.
“Unfortunately we turn away about 20 people every day that we just don’t have beds for. We try to help as many people as possible to find work, because without work it’s almost impossible to find housing. But some are just not able to and have lived here with us for several years.”
There are some happy outcomes, though. She proudly quotes a 40% success rate in finding work for shelter guests. (Finding lodgings is more difficult.)
Tonight’s menu is basmati rice with a fragrant chili — in meat and vegan versions — that’s been cooked by Andrew Hardwidge, a modern dancer better known for his avant-garde work with choreographer Tino Sehgal. He’s one of the regular volunteers who cook at this shelter. The volunteers are from all walks of life, and include professional chefs, financial workers and art students as well as former guests at the shelter. And the emphasis is on real food.
“You won’t find processed food or even soups here,” Scott says. “We’re nothing like the stereotypical soup kitchen. For us, food underpins a life in which people are members of a community, where they can feel safe to share and resolve their problems.”
In the beginning, they relied on handouts and supermarket food that otherwise would have been thrown away. Now most of the shelter’s food is either bought by them or given by loyal suppliers who understand their needs. “After all, you need fairly large quantities of each ingredient to feed 50 people at each meal,” she says. The chili started with crates of fresh red peppers, zucchini, eggplants and onions donated by a local greengrocer.
The shelter’s residents receive three meals a day, 365 days a year, for free. Breakfast is taken before 8 a.m., when the guests leave for the day; lunch is usually a sandwich provided by a London supplier; dinner is always a cooked meal, eaten at the shelter.
Shelter From the Storm is located in an unprepossessing industrial warehouse in the hinterland behind King’s Cross Station, in what was once a rough, no-go red-light district. Today the area is being gentrified, and new luxury apartment blocks are springing up within the maze of train tracks, canals and through roads.
“We were lucky to find somewhere so central, but soon this area will be financially out of our reach,” Scott says.
In the meantime, she spends her days fund-raising and providing the guests with free legal aid and counseling.
They come from all over the globe and all kinds of situations.
“We’re an independent charity, so we can accept people who are fleeing domestic abuse, ‘honor’ killings, trafficking and slavery as well as those who have fallen into homelessness through job loss, illness or substance abuse.”
The shelter began eight years ago as an emergency night center, and referrals for the 20 women’s and 24 men’s beds come from the police, Red Cross, social services and other agencies.
As for the food, it’s prepared with fresh produce and enough care to accommodate the guests’ diverse cultural, religious and health needs.
“We no longer use pork here, and always offer a vegetarian option,” says Olivia Fairweather who, with her partner Haydn Appleby, runs the Tuesday night cooking crew. “We’re attentive to people with diabetes and other food-related conditions that are often exacerbated by life on the streets. But we’re free to cook whatever we want, from lasagne, gumbo and moussaka to curries, fish pie and stews.”
Scott finds a deeper significance in the cooking process. “What matters is the symbolism of the fire that transforms the work of people chopping raw ingredients in the kitchen into nutritious food,” she says. “Feeding people well is integral to the healing process.”
The guests agree. “I never imagined how important it would be to me to eat a hot meal at a table again,” says a young man from the Basque part of Spain. “I was lost when I came here, a month ago, but with their care and support and great food I am beginning to find my way in the world again.”
Main photo: A delicious cooked dinner is served to the guests every night at Shelter From the Storm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo
Flowers have crept into our diets almost unnoticed, and now it seems they are blooming everywhere: nasturtiums in salads; courgette (zucchini) flowers, stuffed and fried; elderflower cordial; and violet creams. Many more flowers than you might imagine can be used to add flavor and color to sweet and savory dishes.
Many of the flowers we now grow as ornamentals were originally valued as herbs. In addition, all the flowers of the herbs we use are edible, along with roses, fuchsias and day lilies, to name but a few. Now is the perfect time to plant many of them. Edible flowers don’t need much room and even if you only have a couple of window boxes, you will still get a good, long harvest.
More from Zester Daily:
Edible annuals such as cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), sunflowers (Helianthus annus), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and pot or English marigolds (Calendula) can be sown now. Only some Tagetes marigolds are edible, in particular T. patula, T. lucida and T. tenuifolium. If in any doubt, stick to calendulas. Simply sow the seeds in trays, pots or in situ, and you will be rewarded with a summerlong harvest. All these plants are “cut-and-come-again,” which means that the more flowers you pick, the more the plant will produce, usually right up to the first frosts.
The petals of cornflowers, which have little flavor, are a wonderful blue and look particularly good on creamy or yellow dishes such as custards, cheese and egg dishes and cakes; and with yellow and orange peppers. Even plain old macaroni cheese looks spectacular with a garnish of blue petals.
Marigolds have a subtle peppery taste and give food a rich yellow color, earning them the name of “poor man’s saffron.” Cut away the bitter ends of the petals and cook in oil to bring out the best flavor; fish, rice, pasta, eggs, potatoes, cream and butter are all good companions. Dried petals are a great addition to winter soups.
Peppery-sweet nasturtiums are easy to grow from seed and are great to grow up sunflowers. Just wait till the sunflower is about 30 centimeters (11 inches) tall and then plant two to three nasturtium seeds around the base of the plant. Tie them in as they grow up and you will have two crops in the space of one. Nasturtiums are good in salads, but they also go well with fish, chicken, cream cheese, goat’s cheese, risotto or pasta and make great fritters. The young leaves are also tasty.
Sunflower petals have a slightly nutty taste. You can eat the young stems and flower buds, but this seems a bit of a waste as you lose the flowers. Better to enjoy the flowers, use the petals and leave the seeds to ripen on the plants. Sunflower bread is wonderful, using the seeds and petals. You can add the petals to pastas and soups; they go especially well with any onion-based dishes.
Plants you can buy now include hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). They are biennials, so they take two years to grow. But if you collect seeds and plant them toward the end of the summer, you will have a continuous supply of the plants and their beautiful flowers, which make perfect garnishes.
Pansies, Johnny jump-ups or violets (Viola) are also good plants to buy. As well as livening up green salads they go well with fish, potatoes, carrots and fruit salads. Violets are daintier and have a sweeter taste; perfect for cakes and scones. Do not be tempted to use African violets (Saintpaulia) as they are not edible.
All Dianthus (carnations, pinks and sweet Williams) have edible petals. They have a sweet clove-like flavor, which is strongest in the most fragrant flowers. They are one of the many ingredients in chartreuse, and complement egg- or cream-based puddings, salmon and cakes and biscuits.
Tulips make spectacular containers for ice cream. Simply prepare them as described below, prop them upright in a small glass or egg cup and add a scoop of ice cream. The petals taste mildly of cucumber; the paler flowers have a better flavor, but the more flamboyant ones make more striking containers.
Preparing edible flowers
While using flowers in your cooking is a wonderful thing, there are one or two cautions. Just because a flower smells good it follows that it will be good to eat — a vast number of flowers are highly poisonous. The Latin name enables you to tell exactly what you are growing and eating. Local names of flowers vary widely and can even refer to different plants.
Day lilies look like lilies and are delicious to eat, but they are Hemerocallis, not really lilies at all. Most true lilies (Lilium) are not edible. All marigolds belonging to the Calendula genus are great to eat, but only some of the Tagetes marigolds (see above) can be eaten safely. Secondly, if you suffer from pollen allergies you should introduce any flowers into your diet very gradually.
As well as knowing exactly which flower you are eating, it is important that they have not been treated with chemicals. The best way to ensure this is to pick them from your own garden. Most flowers are best picked early, on a dry day, once any dew has dried, but before the sun dries their oils. Pick unblemished, freshly opened flowers, give them a shake to remove any lurking bugs or dust, and then wash carefully in a bowl of cold water. Pat dry or spin gently in a salad spinner and place on paper towels to dry completely.
Nasturtiums, day lilies and fuchsias can be eaten whole, but with most other flowers it is best to remove the pistils and stamens (the bits in the middle). Flowers such as roses, marigolds and dianthus have a white heel at the bottom of their petals. This can be bitter, so snip it away if necessary. Make sure all the pollen is removed, especially from flowers such as hollyhocks, which have a lot. This is easiest done with a paintbrush.
If you aren’t going to use them within a few hours, store the prepared flowers on paper towels in an airtight container in the bottom of the fridge. Flowers can also be stored in sugar (violet-, pink- and rose-infused sugars are particularly good), crystallized, added to oils and vinegars, or mixed in butter (primrose or pot marigold butters are pretty and delicious).
Feel free to experiment, and you will find your dishes prettier and more flavorful.
Main photo: Sweet William flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 J.M. Hunter
The diet world is a very crowded place, and advice is constantly changing. But, very slowly, we’re coming to realize what the physicians of Greek antiquity well understood — that “food” is far more than something we put in our mouths and swallow. In fact, the ancient diet of the Cretans is once again gaining favor.
What is the Cretan diet?
A eureka moment early in our own societies’ attempts to understand the relationship between food and health took place 70 years ago. In wealthy America, heart disease was on the rise. A U.S. researcher, Ancel Keys, discovered that in war-torn Europe, especially in poverty-stricken Crete, heart disease was relatively rare. He concluded that it was because of the Cretans’ diet and way of life. The timing of his study has since been criticized (the Orthodox Church observes many fasts and, in the 1940s, these were strictly adhered to), but the general good health of the people was there for all to see.
More from Zester Daily:
I first visited Crete just 20 years after Keys. I was there as a student volunteer on an archaeological dig. It took me more than a day to reach the dig (there was, then, less than 40 miles of tarmac road on the entire island). It was a two-hour walk to the nearest village, and this Crete wasn’t much different from the island Keys experienced. In the weeks I spent there, I felt much healthier than I had at home in London. I knew that the reason for this was the food, and the sharing of our tables with friends and strangers. In short, it was because of the Cretan diet.
Sorting fact from fiction isn’t easy
In the intervening years, a great deal has been written about the benefits and dishes of various diets, especially the Mediterranean diet. The subject of food attracts huge research grants and promotional fees from commercial companies. Unsurprisingly, the core finding in that original research on Crete — the link between local foods, food production, enjoyment of food and good health — has disappeared under a pile of lab-inspired markers and recipes.
Today, some of us can buy Cretan olive oils and cheeses in our stores. These give us the good flavors of the island and the advantage of being able to consume cheeses made with milk from animals that have roamed free over herb-covered hills, but it isn’t the whole story. We can follow the Cretan diet (from the Greek, diaita, meaning “way of life”) to our advantage wherever we are by enjoying a large diversity of foods that are grown or gathered locally, that are at the peak of their seasonal (nutritional) best and that excite us with their different flavors and textures. This holds true for fish and meat, too. They both have seasons, based on the breeding habits of the animals and fish, and their ability to feed well.
Thus, what are now the two most serious Orthodox fasts — Lent (March, lamb-breeding season) and August (when it’s hot and the land is parched) — have their roots in a way of life that was followed long before Christianity. This attitude to true sustainability (which ensures future life) exists on Crete even when food is plentiful, and some of the most appreciated island foods are what we generally consider to be “lesser” fish and meats – octopus and other seafood, tiny fish, snails, offal and small game.
What the Cretan diet can do for you
But we’re not Cretans, so why should we want to follow their diet? There’s one particular reasons why I like to: It means I can rely on my own judgment as to whether something is “good for me,” as I can always check the 4,000 years of food wisdom that has passed down from those smart, early inhabitants of Crete, the Minoans. Following a few simple tenets, and stocking your pantry with some quality ingredients, you, too, can create for yourself the Cretan diet.
Use olive oil like a Cretan
Until a generation ago, Cretans consumed around five times more olive oil than other Greeks, and Greeks consumed per capita the most olive oil in the world. To an islander, all olive oil is extra virgin, and only consumed in the year of its production. There’s plenty of evidence now that olive oil (extra virgin and fresh) is a “super food,” so much of the Cretans’ good health can be traced to its copious use in island kitchens. For those of us without an olive tree, it’s not quite so simple. Extra virgin olive oil is not only expensive, it’s rare for the current season’s product to reach our stores. So we lose out on what is its greatest value for us. One solution is to build a relationship with a producer and buy direct.
Love those green leaves, the wilder the better
A neighbor of mine on Crete was able to identify more than 60 wild greens and herbs. She knew exactly where and when to find certain species, and how they were best served. She was well known locally for her remarkable skill, but every Cretan cook could — and many still can — identify a dozen or so wild greens. Wild greens contain more, and a greater variety of, nutrients than garden- or commercially grown greens. Many of the best garden greens, as far as nutrients and flavor, end up on the compost heap — beet, turnip and radish greens. Farmers markets are now a good source of these greens and others, and many of us enjoy foraging in the countryside, wherever we are. Turned into salads or side dishes, Cretan-style, with plenty of olive oil, they make very good eating.
Look for sheep-milk and goat-milk cheeses
Not only do Cretans have an admirable capacity for consuming olive oil, they are also among the world’s largest consumers of cheese. But their cheeses are different from many available in our stores. Made with milk (mostly sheep, some goat) from animals that eat a melange of wild herbs and greens, and graze outside year-round, they possess nutrients that are missing from cheeses made with highly processed factory-farmed milk. If you can’t buy Cretan cheeses, seek out cheeses made with milk from pasture-raised cows or goats.
Measure herbs with your hand, not with a spoon
Measuring spoons are unknown in traditional Cretan kitchens. Your hand is the perfect measure for herbs and spices. You see what you are adding to a dish and, with dried herbs and spices, the heat of your palm releases their wonderful aromas, in the process delighting you, the cook.
Sweeten the natural way
Honey is another “super food” that Crete has in abundance. With only a few days a year without sunshine and much pesticide-free land, bees have a good life on the island. Honey is more than sugar-sweetener — it has nutritional and medicinal qualities, too. But only when the bees have a healthy environment. A good substitute is local honey from bees that have enjoyed pesticide-free pollen.
Give your gut a helping hand
Yogurt made from the milk of animals that have grazed on herbs or grass and the necessary “friendly bacteria” is a very different food from the commercial yogurts that have a shelf life of weeks. Its bacteria are alive and ready to do their good work, keeping your gut in good order. These bacteria are even more valuable to us now, with so much of our foods being highly processed.
Cretan yogurt, made from sheep/goat milk, is thick, creamy and utterly delicious but, at the moment, travels only as far as Athens. It’s easy to make your own at home; for the best results, use full-fat organic milk. Other ways, Cretan-style, to keep your gut healthy is to include naturally fermented (wine) vinegar, pickles, fish and cured olives in your culinary repertoire.
Drink like a Cretan, too
Existing right at the heart of the ancient “wine world,” it’s no wonder wine is as much part of a Cretan’s diet as olive oil. Like olive oil, wine to a Cretan is a drink made that year from grapes nearby (village wine) and consumed with gusto. Appreciated as it is, village wine takes getting used to, so it’s good news that, today, some of the island’s wineries are winning medals on the world stage. Well-made, modern Cretan wines are particularly interesting when made with the island’s unique, and sometimes ancient, grape varietals. On Cretan tables, wine and food are inseparable. Wine is a digestif, and a way of welcoming all to the table — there’s always plenty of it on Cretan tables.
Staples for the ‘Cretan shelf’ of your pantry
- Olive oil: extra virgin
- Olives: brine-cured, young and green, salt-cured, plump and fleshy, sweet and tiny
- Capers and caper leaves, salt-packed
- Red wine vinegar
- Sea salt, fine and coarse
- Spices: allspice, ground; cinnamon, sticks and ground; coriander seeds, whole and ground; cumin, whole and ground; black peppercorns; sumac, ground; nutmeg; cloves; vanilla
- Dried herbs: rigani (Greek oregano), marjoram, rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves
- Dried fruit: currants, small dark raisins, large plump sultanas, figs, prunes
- Honey: Cretan mountain sage, orange blossom, Hymettus
- Nuts: whole unblanched almonds, walnuts in the shell, pine nuts, unsalted pistachio nuts, hazelnuts (filberts)
- Seeds: melon, pumpkin, sesame
- Dried pulses: garbanzo beans (chickpeas), white beans (great northerns, cannellini), green lentils, brown lentils, yellow split peas, butter (large lima) beans, black-eyed peas
- Preserved lemons
- Preserved fish: salted anchovies, sardines packed in olive oil or brine, tuna packed in olive oil, oil-cured bonito (lakertha), sun-dried or smoked mackerel or octopus, smoked eel
- Preserved grape leaves
From your refrigerator or freezer
- Cheeses: graviera, aged kephalotyri, manouri, myzithra, brine-stored feta
- Yogurt: sheep milk, good-quality cow’s milk
- Fresh or frozen filo sheets: you can store fresh filo for up to 2 days, frozen filo for up to 4 weeks
In your herb garden
- Flat-leaf parsley, cilantro (fresh coriander), thyme, rosemary, bay laurel, marjoram
- Fennel, dill, mint (many varieties, including “garden,” small-leaf), small-leaf basil, sage, lovage, savory, chives
- Rose- and lemon-scented geranium leaves
Beet Greens With Latholemono
Beet greens are only one of a huge variety of wild or garden greens Cretans bring to the table. You can substitute turnip greens, radish tops, amaranth greens, water spinach, ruby chard or mustard greens (charlock) for the beet greens, and use a sauce of olive oil and red wine vinegar in place of the lemon juice.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the green
Total time: 7 to 10 minutes
Yield: 6 for a meze serving, 4 as a side dish
1 1/4 pounds beet greens
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
Coarse-grain sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
1. Rinse the greens in several changes of cold water. Remove any tough stalks from the greens and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces.
2. Steam the greens. Or place them in a non-reactive saucepan, add 4 tablespoons boiling water, and cook, stirring once or twice with a fork, for 1 to 2 minutes. Take care not to overcook. Drain well in a colander, pressing the greens against the sides with a wooden spoon.
3. To serve, transfer the greens to a platter and lightly fork them to lift and separate the leaves. Add the olive oil and sprinkle with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature, with lemon wedges.
Note: Prepare turnip greens and radish tops the same way as beet greens and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Break off the tender sprigs of leaves from water spinach and mustard greens and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Amaranth greens and young ruby chard take only 1 to 2 minutes to cook. Take care not to overcook.
Main photo: A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron