Corn polenta has traveled the globe to become a staple in world-class restaurants. Yet for more than 400 years, it sustained the peoples of Italy’s poor northeastern regions. Its origins go back even further, to the pulmentum of the Romans that was a mainstay of the commoner. Prior to the 17th century — before corn was transplanted to Italy from the New World — this porridge was made from hulled and crushed grains of various kinds, including farro (also known in English as “emmer”), barley and millet as well as chestnut, fava bean or chickpea flour.
Polenta as a staple
After maize took firm root in the soils of northern Italy, it became the primary staple. It wasn’t eaten fresh but rather dried and ground into polenta. For four centuries, it alone kept the wolf from the door for the common people in Veneto and Lombardy. In the 1800s, it became fashionable for the wealthy to eat it until it was ubiquitous at every meal, accompanying virtually every dish, as bread does today in other regions.
The poor ate it plain — there was often little else to eat. The upper class added condiments to it or made it into elaborate baked dishes called pasticci. Eventually, cornmeal infiltrated central and southern Italy, including the island of Sardinia, where my ancestors ate it with tomatoey stewed lamb tripe or layered with meat sauce and sheep’s cheese, much like lasagna, in a baked dish called polenta pasticciata.
In its simplest guise, polenta is served “loose” as a side dish, like its close cousin, the grits of the American south. It can be flavored simply with a dribble of olive oil or butter and Parmigiano cheese for a dish called polenta unta. Cooks in Italy’s Alpine regions like to slather it with soft cheeses such as runny gorgonzola dolce or taleggio. Often, it provides a bed for soaking up the tasty juices of cooked meats (such as sausages) or vegetables, for instance sautéed mushrooms. Or it might be turned out onto a marble slab, allowed to set, then cut into pieces that have countless uses. When fried or grilled, they become crostini di polenta, polenta “toasts.” For pasticciata, the squares are layered with a sauce and topped with cheese before baking, much like lasagna.
Traditional and modern cooking methods
Cooking polenta in the traditional copper paiolo is still a daily ritual in some parts of the polenta belt (Veneto, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Lombardy), though restaurant chefs typically replace the wooden stirring tool, called a bastone, with an electric stirring mechanism that attaches to the pot. For home cooking, a sturdy wooden spoon will do, provided it has a long handle to prevent splattering and/or burning your hand. (The whisk is not commonly used in Italy, but I have found that a heavy professional grade one is ideal for turning out a fine, lump-free polenta.) You’ll also need a heavy-bottomed pot.
But the real secret to perfect results lies not so much in the equipment as in the method. Continual stirring in one direction (clockwise, according to tradition) transforms cornmeal into billows of creamy golden polenta. The addition of the grains in a slow, steady stream a pioggia, “like rain,” assures that they are incorporated smoothly. If the polenta seems to be drying out before it is cooked, a little boiling water is added to keep it soft and easy to stir. Polenta is ready when it pulls away easily from the sides of the pan with the spoon. (The COOK’s test kitchen developed a microwave technique that requires minimal stirring to accompany an article I wrote in 1989 that received much attention, and some years later, Marcella Hazan published a recipe titled “Polenta by No-Stirring” in her book “Essentials of Italian Cooking,” which produces good results. I recently asked Victor Hazan, the late author’s husband and collaborator, about it, and he explained the derivation of the method. See my post on Forktales for the details.)
Polenta may be yellow or white, depending on the maize variety. Both are milled into fine or coarse grinds. The fine type is preferred for loose polenta. The coarse grind produces pleasantly gritty, rustic-style polenta that the Italians say can be sensed sotto i denti, “under the teeth.” It is ideal for cutting into pieces, as described earlier. (Note that the American type of cornmeal typically used for muffins or cornbread is not interchangeable with polenta; it is a different product entirely and will produce an inedible, cement-like porridge if cooked in water.)
Nowadays, there is another factor to consider. “Instant” polenta, which is pre-cooked before it is dehydrated, has virtually replaced the long-cooking kind — even in Italy. Although one can get it on the table much more quickly, it doesn’t compare to the richly flavored, silky original that can take 40 minutes or more to cook. Like so many “new and improved” foods, convenience is put ahead of quality and flavor. However, quick-cooking polenta does work well in dishes with several components, so you can have success making my maternal grandmother Giulia’s polenta pasticciata with either variety. Nonna Giulia Esu died long before I was born, but her recipe for this provincial Sardinian dish was one of her jewels that was passed down by my mother.
Nonna Giulia’s Polenta “Lasagna” With Pork and Red Wine Ragù
Note: The finest pecorino (sheep) cheeses are produced in Sardinia, Lazio and Tuscany. You can find the young, semi-soft varieties at most fine cheesemongers; alternatively, you can substitute Spanish Manchego as directed.
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: About 1 hour
Total time: About 2 1/4 hours
Yield: 8 servings
For the sauce:
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 carrot, chopped
1 small celery stalk with leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon pulverized fennel seeds
1 pound ground pork
½ cup good-quality dry red wine
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (35-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained, seeded and chopped, juices reserved
3 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
For the polenta:
7 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 cups fine- or coarse-grained imported Italian yellow polenta or “quick-cook” polenta
Olive oil for preparing work surface and baking dish
1/2 pound semi-soft pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna (or Manchego aged three to six months), shredded
For the sauce:
1. Warm the oil in a skillet. Stir in the onion, garlic, carrot and celery and sauté over medium-low heat until vegetables are soft, 12 to 15 minutes.
2. Add the fennel seeds, pork and continue to sauté until the meat colors lightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Stir in the wine and allow to evaporate (about 1 minute).
3. Dilute the tomato paste in a few tablespoons of the reserved canned-tomato juices and add it to the skillet, followed by the tomatoes with another 1/2 cup of the reserved juices, basil and salt. Stir well. Partially cover and simmer over the lowest possible heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently. The sauce should become thick and fragrant. If it seems to be drying out, add a few more tablespoons of the reserved tomato juices.
For the polenta:
1. While the ragù is simmering, bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. (Keep a kettle of boiling water on the back burner should you need extra.) Add the salt.
2. Stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon, add the polenta in a slow, constant stream to prevent lumps from forming. Simmer, stirring constantly, until the polenta is very thick and creamy and pulls away from the side of the pan, about 40 minutes. If you are using quick-cook polenta, you may need to add a little boiling water to ensure that it doesn’t get too thick. (You can also cook it longer than the instructions specify in order to obtain a creamy consistency — up to 20 minutes or so, adding more boiling water as needed.)
3. Use a rubber spatula dipped into hot water to spread the polenta out into a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Let set until cooled completely and firm, about 15 minutes. Cut into even 3-inch-by-4-inch rectangles; set aside. Lightly oil a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.
1. Heat the oven to 450 F.
2. Arrange half the polenta pieces on the bottom of the baking dish. Top them with half of the sauce and spread to cover. Sprinkle half the cheese over the sauce. Repeat with another layer of sauce, followed by the remaining cheese. Bake until heated through and the cheese is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into pieces and serve.
Main photo: Polenta pasticciata, in “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul,” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books). Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton
The pursuit of a healthy diet is frequently lamented as an exercise in deprivation. Often the ingredients that must be given up are ones that delight the palate and excite the soul. Chef Paul Fields saw no such deprivation when he signed on to be the chef at the upscale, gluten-free Inn on Randolph in Napa, California. He serves a breakfast of Beluga lentils with roasted vegetables, sausage and a poached egg.
More on Zester Daily:
The Napa Valley is renowned for quality vineyards and award-winning restaurants. The city of Napa is less well-known. Recently in the news because of an earthquake that caused considerable damage in the downtown commercial district, the city is reviving and becoming a locus for inventive chefs and quality accommodations.
Fields is one of those chefs drawn to the valley’s bounty of agricultural products. He prides himself on being a good purveyor. He collaborates with local farmers and has a garden on the property so the produce he cooks comes fresh and organic to his kitchen. For him, no matter what a guest’s dietary restrictions might be, his goal is to create nutritious, well-plated delicious meals.
In search of a breakfast that would do just that, Fields turned to an old favorite: lentils.
Hungry guests about to begin a day of wine tasting, cycling or hiking in the valley need a hearty meal. Often regarded as low on the culinary totem pole, lentils are a heritage legume, mentioned in the Bible and served around the globe as a source of low-cost protein that is rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. It is cultivated in a rainbow of colors and sizes including the Red Chief, the brown Pardina, the Crimson and the French Green. For his signature breakfast dish, Fields uses the glossy black Beluga lentil.
Fields accomplishes a bit of magic with what some might call the most prosaic of ingredients — a handful of lentils, a carrot, a piece of squash and an egg. A combination of contrasting flavors and textures, the dish is delicious and visually beautiful, a good way to begin the day.
Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast
In addition to being gluten-free, the dish can be vegetarian-vegan when the butter, sausage and egg are omitted.
The organic Beluga lentils that Fields uses come from the Timeless Food company based in Conrad, Montana. To add heat without spiciness, dried cayenne peppers cook along with the lentils and charred onion.
Adding to the convenience of the dish, the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausages may be cooked beforehand and reheated just before serving. Only the poached egg should be prepared at the last minute.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, roughly chopped
1 whole dried cayenne pepper
1 cup black Beluga lentils
2 1/2 cups water
4 carrots, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, cut on the bias or into rounds
1 cup squash (butternut or acorn), washed, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch chunks or long slabs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 sausage links, chicken apple sausage or use what you like from your local market
1 tablespoon sweet butter
5 tablespoons sherry vinegar, divided
4 large eggs
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, heated over a low flame, reduced to 1 tablespoon
2 tablespoons micro-greens (kale, chives, pea shoots), washed, dried and Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped
1/2 cup parsley leaves, washed, dried, roughly chopped
1. In a large saucepan or small pot, heat ½ tablespoon olive oil. Sauté the onion over medium heat until lightly charred. Add dried cayenne pepper and continue sautéing 5 to 6 minutes. Add lentils and water. Stir well.
2. Bring to a simmer and cook for 25 to 35 minutes uncovered or until the lentils are a little softer than al dente. Set aside.
3. Preheat oven to 450 F. Toss carrots and squash with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, season with sea salt and black pepper.
4. Place on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat sheet or parchment paper. Using tongs, turn after 10 minutes and cook about a total of 15 to 20 minutes or until al dente. Remove and reserve.
5. Large sausages can be prepared whole, in which case the skin should be punctured all over with a sharp paring knife so the sausages do not swell during cooking, or cut into 1/2-inch rounds or 2-inch bias-cut pieces. Heat a sauté pan over a medium flame. Place the sausages into the pan and sear on all sides, using tongs to turn them frequently. When the sausages are cooked, remove from the pan, drain on a paper-towel-lined plate and reserve.
6. Heat a large sauté pan. Transfer the lentils from the pot to the sauté pan. Simmer to reduce the liquid by half. Add butter and combine with the lentils’ broth to create a sauce. Stir well.
7. Add 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar to brighten the flavors. Taste and adjust the flavors using sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a bit more butter and vinegar. The sauce should be thick, so, if needed, simmer a few minutes longer to reduce excess liquid.
8. Fill a medium-sized sauce pan or a small pot with a quart of water. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons vinegar, which will help coagulate the egg white around the yolk. Bring to a simmer.
9. If the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausage have been prepared ahead, reheat.
10. Open an egg, being careful not to break the yolk. Stir the hot vinegar water before sliding in the egg. The gentle vortex helps shape the egg.
Cook 3 1/2 minutes for a loose yolk and 4 1/2 to 5 minutes for a medium yolk. Fields suggests using a kitchen timer so the eggs do not overcook.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the poached egg from the water and drain on a paper towel for 2 to 3 seconds.
11. If possible, heat the plates. Drizzle or use the back of a spoon to mark each plate with a small amount of the reduced balsamic vinegar, which is not only decorative but adds another layer of sweet-acidic flavor.
12. Put the carrots into the pan with the lentils and toss well to coat with the sauce. Place the squash on each plate. Spoon the lentils and carrots onto the squash. Add the sausage and top with the poached egg.
13. Dust with sea salt and black pepper. To add color and a little crunch, sprinkle micro-greens and chopped Italian parsley leaves on top. Finish with sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil.
Main photo: Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast. Credit: David Latt
The British like to mock what they love best. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the irreverent names they give to favorite foods — think bubble and squeak (fried cabbage and potatoes), stargazy pie (a pie with sardines poking their heads out through the pastry), bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) or even (dare we mention) spotted dick (a steamed pudding made with dried fruit).
More from Zester Daily
My personal favorite is toad in the hole. This epic dish of sausages baked in batter — the same as used for Yorkshire puddings — is a kind of distant cousin of pigs in a blanket. The crucial difference is that the sausages, instead of being tightly swathed in a blanket of pastry, are reclining in a delicious duvet of batter, which billows up agreeably around them. A good toad (as it’s familiarly known) is perfect comfort food for the depths of winter.
The original from my childhood had only sausages, which from memory were a sickly pallid pink, suspiciously straight, very smoothly textured and terminally bland. For a properly tasty toad, I prefer a seriously meaty pork sausage, quite coarsely ground. I like to add bacon chunks too. You could think of it as a way to get the full English breakfast, but for brunch or supper and served with chutney and salad.
Here are a couple of hints to help you arrive at the perfect toad in the hole. First off, make the batter a little ahead — an hour is enough to allow the starch molecules in the flour to relax and absorb the milk and water, which gives a lighter result. Secondly, give the bacon and sausages a bit of a fry-up first so they take on a little color. You can do this in a skillet or in a roasting pan in the oven — the same one in which you will bake the dish. Thirdly, use a metal roasting pan, never a ceramic or glass dish, which is the surest way to a soggy toad. Finally, heat is of the essence. The oven and the roasting pan should be preheated, so that when you pour in the batter it makes a satisfying sizzle and starts to set lightly in the bottom, providing a base for the sausages and bacon to be embraced by the billowing batter.
Toad in the Hole
Prep time: 15 minutes, plus 1 hour to rest the batter
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Yield: Makes 8 servings
For the batter:
1/2 cup (125 milliliters) water
1/2 cup (125 milliliters) milk
4 ounces all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil
A pinch of salt
For the sausages and bacon:
10 ounces (300 grams) cured or smoked slab bacon
4 coarse-cut pork sausages, about 12 ounces (350 grams)
1. Place all the batter ingredients in a blender and blend till smooth. Scrape down the sides and blend again. Refrigerate the batter for about one hour.
2. Cut rind off the slab bacon and excise any gristly bits. Slice the bacon thickly and cut each slice in squares.
3. Cut the sausages in 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) thick slices.
4. Put the bacon in a frying pan and fry gently till the fat runs and the bacon begins to take a little color, turning the slices once. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and tip excess fat into a side dish.
5. Add the sausage slices to the pan and fry till lightly colored, turning them until evenly browned.
6. Pour about 1 tablespoon of reserved bacon fat into a roasting pan about 10 inches by 12 inches (25 centimeters by 30 centimeters).
7. Heat the oven to 425 F (220 C).
8. When the oven is good and hot, put the roasting pan inside to heat the bacon fat. Remove pan from the oven and roll the fat around to coat the bottom of the pan — adding a little more fat if necessary.
9. Pour in the batter, then add the fried bacon and sausages, distributing them evenly around the pan.
10. Return the pan to the oven and bake for about 30 minutes or until the batter is a beautifully burnished brown and nicely risen. Serve with chutney and salad.
Main image: Toad in the hole. Credit: Sue Style
“Chicken with cheese”: The words conjure up visions of that college-student standby, the fried-chicken melt. But poulet au fromage is something quite different — something elegant and perfectly delicious.
Exemplifying the cookery of early 18th-century France, long before the famous chef Marie-Antoine Carême came along and codified haute cuisine, the recipe appears in “Nouveau Traité de la Cuisine,” Published in the 1740s by a writer who used the pen name Menon. (Note that it wasn’t until the 20th century that chefs regularly began to publish their recipes while they were still fashionable; before then, chefs typically didn’t reveal their secrets until after they’d retired. So published recipes tended to represent the cuisine of an earlier era.)
Haute cuisine standards
Anyway, poulet au fromage is a delightful dish with a family resemblance to the 19th-century haute cuisine standard veal Foyot. In both cases, meat is simmered with broth and white wine and then baked under a covering of Gruyère (or Swiss) cheese; the ingredients meld into a concoction with a savory, sophisticated flavor.
But there are differences (besides the obvious fact that veal Foyot contains veal, which is expensive and troubles some people on ethical grounds). Poulet au fromage includes a substantial amount of herbs, which was more characteristic of French food in the 18th century than it was in the 19th (and is perhaps a little more to our present-day tastes). And it does not include fried minced onions, as veal Foyot does. If you felt like discreetly sprinkling some lightly fried onions on the chicken before adding the final cheese layer, however, I would be willing to close my eyes.
More from Zester Daily:
» A chicken renaissance
» Get medieval with pre-roasted chickens
» French chicken, part 2: Chicken-lickin' tour of Paris
» Circassian chicken
Menon’s recipe calls for a whole chicken, but the chickens of his day were younger and therefore more tender than those we can conveniently get in our supermarkets. I substitute chicken breast; to make up for the slight loss of flavor due to the absence of bones, I tend to add a bit of bottled chicken base.
Properly, the herbs should be added in the form of a bouquet wrapped in cheesecloth. But if you do that, you have to transfer everything to a saucepan, because in a frying pan the liquid will nowhere near cover the bouquet. It’s therefore more convenient to add all the herbs loose; given that are no other ingredients in the cooking liquid, they’re easy enough to strain out later.
Poulet au Fromage
Prep time: About 20 minutes
Cook time: About 1 1/2 hours
Total time: About 1 hour 50 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken breast
2 ounces butter
3/4 cup dry white wine such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc
1/2 cup chicken broth
3 sprigs parsley
2 shallots, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
2 small sprigs fresh thyme
3 leaves fresh basil
Salt and pepper
1 pound Swiss or French Gruyère cheese, grated
1. Remove any bones and skin from the breasts, pound them with a kitchen mallet to flatten and cut them into pieces 1 1/2- to 2-inches square. Melt the butter in a large pan and fry the pieces in two batches until lightly browned, about 15 minutes.
2. Add the wine, broth, parsley, shallots, garlic, cloves, bay leaf, thyme and basil along with salt and pepper to taste. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, loosely covered, for 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 475 F.
3. Remove the meat from the pan. Strain the cooking liquid and transfer half of it to a 2-quart casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the cheese, add the chicken pieces and the rest of the cooking liquid, and top with the remaining cheese. Cover the baking dish tightly and bake until the cheese is entirely melted, 10 to 12 minutes.
4. Raise the temperature to 500 F, remove the cover from the casserole and return to the oven until the cheese has begun turning brown in spots, 5 to 7 minutes.
Main photo: Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry
It was in Hawaii that I got my first exhilarating taste of passion fruit. The Maui market vendor’s knife expertly sliced through the mauve skin at the top of the egg-sized fruit, revealing bright orange innards that reminded me of salmon roe. He quickly carved the sliced-off cap of the fruit into a scoop, and dipped it into the glistening orange mass to offer me a taste.
The first thing I noticed was the intoxicating tropical floral aroma. Then, at the first contact with my tongue, came the explosion of bright clean citrus with just enough sweetness to cut the sour. In the tangy gelatinous goo were many small crunchy seeds, which provided a nice textural contrast.
More from Zester Daily:
» What you don’t know about delicious cherimoya
One slurpy bite led to another until the mauve skin was an empty eggshell. But I craved more, and so bought a whole bag of passion fruit, known as liliquoi in Hawaii, and snacked on them the rest of the day.
Later I learned that the passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) is native to South America, probably originating in the southern region of present-day Brazil. It was there, in the 16th century, that Spanish Catholics named it Flor de las cinco llagas, flower of the five wounds. Other missionaries expanded on this, and saw in the beautiful flower’s parts a way to teach indigenous people about the torture (passion) of Christ. The five anthers at the tip of the male parts represented the five wounds of Christ, the vine’s tendrils were the whips, the three female stigmas the three nails in Jesus’ hands and feet, and the 10 petals and sepals were the apostles, excluding Judas (for obvious reasons) and Peter (for not so obvious ones).
High in vitamins
Although the missionaries saw violence and suffering in the passion flower, its huge and elaborate blossoms have more pleasure than pain in their voluptuous beauty. The showy corolla highlights the architecture at the center, where the prominent female parts (stigmas and styles) float over the top of the male stamens. And the fruit that develops from this gorgeous flower is full of goodness — high in vitamins A and C, potassium, dietary fiber and iron.
For all its goodness, however, like so many plants and animals introduced into the delicate Hawaiian ecosystems, the passion fruit had invaded all of the Hawaiian islands a mere 50 years after it was introduced in 1880. Due to a plant virus, and high labor costs, the few passion fruit farms disappeared shortly after they were planted. Although there are no commercial passion fruit plantations in Hawaii today, the vines can still be found in people’s yards and in wild areas, and the fruits are used extensively in foods and drinks. During my Hawaii sojourn, I had the pleasure of drinking fresh liliquoi juice, and also indulged in passion fruit cheesecake, jelly, smoothies and margaritas.
While passion fruit grows well in California, Florida and other southern states, it generally can’t take the cold winters of the temperate zones. The one exception is the Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), which is native to North America, and is the state wildflower of Tennessee. The most cold-hardy of the passion fruit family, it grows well in zones 7-11, and even as far north as zones 5-6, if you mulch it heavily before winter.
The name Maypop might have come about because the plant pops out of the ground in May and dies back in winter, ready to pop out again in May. Others say the name comes from “maracock,” which was the Powhatan Indians’ name for this plant.
If you live in the southern U.S., especially California or Florida, you will most likely be able to find passion fruit at your local farmers market. You also have a good chance of finding them in the produce section of ethnic grocery stores. If you strike out, you can find frozen passion fruit pulp in many grocery stores, or order it online.
Or you can grow your own. The vigorous, vining plant is often used as an ornamental screen, or can provide shade cover on a pergola. With its showy flowers and delicious fruit, what’s not to be passionate about?
Passion Fruit Smoothie
The bright, strong taste of passion fruit makes it a great addition to any smoothie. It’s especially good with creamy, custardy fruits such as mango, banana or cherimoya. Of course, you can use whatever fruits or greens you have on hand, but here’s a starter recipe.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: About 2 servings
3 passion fruits
1 cup cubed apples, pineapples or other fruit
2 cups spinach or other greens
8 ounces coconut water, orange juice, or other juice
Cut the passion fruits in half and scoop all of the innards into the blender. Add all the other ingredients and blend. Because passion fruit has a lot of seeds, use a powerful blender at its highest speed to get a smooth smoothie.
Main photo: Passion fruit. Credit: iStock/Kesu01
To the Vegemite virgin, the dark brown paste may look like axle grease and smell like rusty nails, but to many an Aussie, the salty spread is comfortingly delicious, as well as essentially synonymous with Australia itself. It’s a common joke that Vegemite is an Antipodean baby’s first solid food. It’s also routinely cited that Vegemite can be found in the cupboards of at least 80 percent of Australian homes. What’s more, traveling Aussies don’t leave home without it.
Primarily a yeast extract that remains after the beer brewing process, Vegemite contains few calories and no fat, but a fair amount of sodium. A rich source of B vitamins, which play a role in metabolizing macronutrients and in producing energy in the body, Vegemite has routinely been promoted for its purported health benefits. In the late 1930s, its advertising even featured an endorsement from the British Medical Association for its B vitamin content. Although less “veggie” than its name might imply, Vegemite is vegan, vegetarian, certified kosher and certified halal.
More from Zester Daily:
Vegemite was developed as a copy of a British product, Marmite, a spread of similar texture and flavor — though it’s best not to say so to a Vegemite die-hard. In the early 1920s, Fred Walker, an Australian entrepreneur, engaged Dr. Cyril P. Callister, one of Australia’s first food technologists, to develop the product. After considerable experimentation, Callister developed Vegemite in 1923. Based upon a mutual interest to develop cheeses with a longer shelf life, Walker later combined forces with American cheese producer James Kraft, forming the Kraft Walker Cheese Company in 1926. This partnership eventually resulted in an American company owning Australia’s national food, though Vegemite has always been produced in Australia and from mostly local ingredients.
Despite Vegemite’s widespread popularity today, in its early years the spread was slow to entice Australian appetites, as Marmite held on to a significant portion of the market share. According to Vegemite’s heritage website, however, by the early 1940s Vegemite had become a “staple food in every Australian home and in every Australian pantry.” Over the course of the 20th century, the spread would become an Australian icon.
Try Vegemite this Australia Day
Australia Day, marked each year on Jan. 26, is a national holiday celebrating the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Britain arrived at Sydney Cove. Kraft attempted to cement the connection between the holiday and Vegemite in 2012, the year of the spread’s 89th anniversary. That year, Kraft rebranded Vegemite jars “Australia,” though retaining the recognizable red and yellow color palette.
One way for an American to celebrate Australia Day is to try Vegemite. The strange truth you’ll have to overcome, however, is that most non-Australians absolutely despise the stuff. With an Australian father, I grew up eating Vegemite and love it, but have yet to convert a single American friend to its delightful, savory charms. Part of the issue is likely a case of mismatched expectations, since Vegemite looks like chocolate, but tastes like, well, straight up saltiness.
A more apt description of Vegemite’s flavor profile might be umami incarnate. Despite appreciation for other foods boasting savory, umami flavor — from bacon to Parmesan, soy sauce to mushrooms — most non-Aussies just can’t handle Vegemite. Though Oprah claims to like it, a popular video circulated last year in which 10 American children tasted Vegemite for the first time with dismal results: no tears, but lots of squealing. Suffice it to say, none of them gave Vegemite their kid seal of approval. In 2011, President Barack Obama confessed to then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that he found the spread “horrible,” disappointing Vegemite lovers. In 2012, singer Niall Horan of the group One Direction echoed this sentiment when he tasted Vegemite toast live on Australian television only to spit it out and later share on Twitter, “Can clearly say vegemite is horrible!”
A ‘culturally specific food’
In 2003, psychology researchers Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal quantifiably confirmed the oft-stated assertion that only Australians enjoy Vegemite. From a survey of 202 participants, the authors concluded, “The eating of this food product and especially the enjoyment of it are specifically linked to Australian birth and ancestry.” They also asserted, “This sticky brown paste remains a candidate for the most culturally specific food.”
The deck may be stacked against Vegemite, but if you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast, which is the way most Australians enjoy it at breakfast. Spread the toast first with butter, allowing it to melt in, and then evenly spread a thin layer of Vegemite. A common mistake for first-time Vegemite tasters is to slather it on too thickly like one would peanut butter or a chocolaty spread, an amount unpalatable to even most devoted Vegemite enthusiasts. Recipes from Vegemite’s website suggest you jazz up your Vegemite toast with tomato, egg, cheese or avocado.
If you’re ready to try Vegemite at every meal, you can make turkey burgers, seasoned with Vegemite, onions, rice wine and a touch of sugar, for lunch. Then you can try Vegemite flavored couscous or sweet potato and rosemary pizza with a Vegemite sauce for dinner.
You just might find that you love Vegemite. If nothing else, it’ll be your saltiest Jan. 26 on record.
Main photo: If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben 185
Sam Fromartz’s new book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf, A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” is a departure. The journalist and editor began his career as a reporter at Reuters, and his previous book, “Organic, Inc.,” was a standard work of nonfiction about the evolution of the organic food industry. But as his hobby became his subject, the writer leaped into the picture of this book.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book
“Baking for me was relief from my daily grind of journalism,” Fromartz said in a phone interview. “I really enjoyed the moment in the day when I would leave my keyboard and just bake, shape loaves, bake them. I really didn’t want to lose that sense of specialness, of what bread meant in my life. I thought if I mixed it up in my work too much, it would just become part of my job. I really didn’t want to do that.”
As the recession downsized his income, however, everything became a potential topic. In a single afternoon, he lost most of his steady freelancing gigs. Querying a contact at the travel magazine “Afar,” he proposed a story about going to Paris to study baguette baking.
The editor said yes, and the adventure began. Consider yourself lucky that his escape became his work, because the result is a really nice journey through baking led by a skilled reporter.
“This book was a lot more personal,” said Fromartz. “It wasn’t a journalistic investigation. But I am a reporter, so all of those tools I use in my work became tools I used in the book.”
Tools like reading, asking questions and framing the answers in good stories. There are some beautiful descriptions, like the one at Della Fattoria, a bakery in Petaluma, California.
“Everyone seemed to be working at a pace just short of a jog,” he writes, setting the stage for each reader to witness, as he did, the bread baking one morning. The baker-writer joins the action, helping shape loaves of bread. But once the actual baking begins, he stands on the sidelines and tells us plainly what he sees. We readers fall into the rhythm of the observed work.
As a small herd of bakers usher hundreds of would-be breads into the oven, Fromartz puts you right there, watching the “dance of the peels,” as loaves go into the oven, and then come out. You are just shy of smelling the bread and tasting it.
The pacing of the stories and information are spot-on. Fromartz takes you through a long baking lesson, baker by baker, describing the process and progress. Beginning with baguettes, which were a challenge for him to bake at home, you learn as much or more about the social history of this bread and its place in French culture as you do about the practical route he found to making this loaf.
Yes, there are elaborate recipes, heavy on method, at the end of chapters in case you want to bake along. But no baking is required to enjoy the research he presents as part of his journey. This odyssey is not just for serious home bakers or professionals, but also for anyone mildly curious about wheat.
Guided by his curiosities
“I wanted to understand things for myself,” he said. “A lot of baking books dealt with some of the questions I had, but there was no sort of central resource, and no book that tied together everything from the origins of grains to sourdough microbiology to how to shape a loaf.”
Writing the book really answered his curiosities. His dives into sourdough are deep; at one point he compares cultivating sourdough cultures to farming, and nurturing microlivestock. Holding all this heady material together is the importance of craft, and what he got out of learning a craft at the hands of people who really value bread, its historic framework and its future.
One of the most surprising discoveries he found on his journey was learning about flour, specifically locally grown and milled grains. As he started using local grains, and flour that came from small mills, he realized how variable bread’s main ingredient could be.
“It made me realize what’s been lost and sacrificed along the way in that quest for uniformity,” he said. Anything that threatened that uniformity got lost, like grains with different flavors, and non-standard types of gluten or proteins.
More from Zester Daily:
» Fresh milled flour a world apart from supermarket
» What happened when we lost handmade bread
» Bread’s next generation arises in Vermont
» Eating the landscape: Why bakers use local flour
“My sense is those guys probably knew something about flavor,” he said. “We have this real singular expectation of what bread should be. “Even whole-wheat loaves generally estimate that puffy bread ideal. “When you have such a narrow idea of what bread should be, you lose a lot of possibilities.”
Exploring those possibilities through different grains and flours engages him as a baker. It’s useful ecologically, too. Pursuing lesser-known grains is good for agricultural diversity and dietary diversity.
When I was reading, I was worried that baking might have lost some charm for the writer. But by the end of the book, he says he’s been able to protect his special connection to baking. I wanted to know how he preserved it. His answer was reassuring, if elliptical.
“I still bake a lot and baking is really a part of me,” he said. “I want to keep that sense of discovery about it. So I think will.”
Main photo: Sam Fromartz’s newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz
Yo Endo would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know a lot about wine. What he does know is how to sell things. His last job was marketing tennis equipment, which took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas; great restaurants — and wine, of course.
Today, Endo manages Cafe Triode, a cozy restaurant near the giant Tokyo Dome, home for Japan’s beloved Giants baseball team. The surrounding neighborhood is best known for the ultra-luxury La Qua spa, sporting goods stores, used bookstores and inexpensive restaurants catering to baseball fans and university students.
I stumbled onto the café while looking for a quiet escape from the rain during a business trip to Japan’s capital. Endo took my dripping umbrella and escorted me to a small wooden bar near the back. A hunk of Serrano ham anchored one end of the bar, and soft jazz played.
Women in Japan’s workforce is growing
Traditionally, the after-hours scene in Japan has been dominated by izakaya bars catering to salarymen. Beer, sake and whiskey are the favored drinks, and the vibe is usually loud and smoky or expensive — or all of the above.
More from Zester Daily:
Cafe Triode offers moderately priced wine, tasty nibbles and jazz — a perfect place for happy hour with girlfriends. And that’s exactly what Endo is aiming for.
Though Japan lags behind much of the developed world in female employment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to increase the percentage of women in the workforce. This includes providing more affordable childcare and encouraging companies to adopt family-friendly policies, such as flexible work schedules.
It also means finding a place for those women to unwind after a hard day at the office. “There’s an increasing need for working women to have a girls-only night out for a drink to strengthen their solidarity,” Chikako Hirose, a spokeswoman for Pronto Corp., recently told Bloomberg News. Pronto is reportedly expanding its Di PUNTO chain of wine bars to at least 26 outlets by the end of 2015.
There are other reasons the wine industry is chasing the female market. Women in Japan still make most of the household buying decisions, and they are more likely than men to attend wine tastings and classes, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Sixty percent of Japan’s wine experts are women.
Old-world wines dominate this market. Although Japan buys wine from 55 countries, just 10 account for about 98 percent of the imported volume, according to the USDA report. Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the favored varietals. Sparkling wine is also growing in popularity, and “wine on the rocks” is being touted as a refreshing alternative on a hot summer’s day.
Endo sees these trends at Cafe Triode, where the majority of his customers are couples or young female professionals. When he first opened his café, his wine list included a range of wines divided by country, varietal and price. But he discovered most of his young customers would spend a long time agonizing over the menu and then end up somewhere in the middle, where they would have just a few bottles to choose from.
Cafe Triode still sells bottles of wine for as much as 19,000 yen ($159) but now offers a large selection of wines for 4,100 yen ($34) a bottle. During my visit, that included two California Zinfandels from Peachy Canyon and Ravenswood chosen by Endo’s wine broker.
American wines are slowly finding a market. In 2013, the United States held an 8.6 percent value share of Japan’s imported wine, up from 7.7 percent the previous year, according to the USDA. But U.S. vintners face significant barriers. A stronger dollar and high import duties push them into a higher price bracket, and Japanese consumers prefer wines with a lower alcohol content than most American wines offer.
By offering a “Reasonable Selections” list representing many different varietals and wine-growing regions, Endo hopes he can encourage wine newbies to experiment. “Everyone finds it very easy to make a choice, and it’s also easy to control the budget,” he said.
Armed with a glass of the house red wine (600 yen or $5), I turned my attention to Cafe Triode’s multi-page English menu, which married two of my favorite cuisines: Japanese and Italian.
Meat platter is most popular on menu
The most popular menu item is the Triode assorted meat platter delivered on a large wooden board with five types of meat (1,950 yen or $16.35). Other tantalizing offerings include dumplings made from fish and shrimp wrapped in yuba (tofu) skin (1,190 yen or $9.98), codfish and scallop pie (1,190 yen or $9.98) and Tajima beef rump steak (1,500 to 1,800 yen or $12.58 to $15.10 per 100 grams). Tajima is the strain of black Japanese Wagyu cattle that produce the famous Kobe beef.
Endo, an easygoing man with an impish smile, started me out with a fig paired with a dollop of mineoka dofu. This delicate palate cleanser, made from an ancient recipe developed by Buddhist monks, isn’t tofu. It’s actually made from milk, arrowroot starch and sesame paste. Rich and creamy with just a hint of sesame, I resisted licking the tiny pottery dish and settled on the Saikyo-yaki (Kyoto-style) grilled duck salad (980 yen or $8.22) for my entrée.
Working out of a kitchen the size of my bedroom closet, Chef Yoshimi Imazu quickly worked his magic, preparing paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese and duck marinated in a sweet white Saikyo miso on a bed of crisp greens.
My visit to Cafe Triode was just another reminder that you can travel well in Japan without breaking the bank. That, combined with that tasty salad, was enough to lure me back one last time before I left Tokyo.
Main photo: Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani