Articles by Kathy Hunt
Long before I cooked Asian snakehead, or channa, I had heard all the tales about this notorious fish. Dubbed “Fishzilla” and “Frankenfish,” the predatory, freshwater creature consumes not only plankton and insects but also other fish, amphibians and small mammals. Hence the snappy monikers.
As an air breather, it can survive out of water for several days. It also can migrate over land, wreaking havoc on wildlife in its path. With a large, protruding mouth that contains canine-like teeth and a predilection for using them, it is, by all accounts, one tough fish.
In America, the snakehead has become a cause for concern. A non-indigenous predator lacking any natural enemies, it could decimate native fish species and permanently alter our aquatic ecosystems. Because of this concern, most states have outlawed the sale of it. Even so, thanks to live fish markets and anglers surreptitiously stocking their local waters, snakehead keeps turning up in U.S. lakes, ponds, canals and reservoirs.
Frankenfish key source of protein in Cambodia
While it may be viewed as an invasive menace in the U.S., in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, snakehead is considered an essential part of everyday diets.
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In Southeast Asia, the snakehead’s toughness serves as a selling point. Because it lives in shallow, murky waters, eats virtually anything and grows quickly, it is a boon to struggling fish farmers looking for a hardy, low-cost, fast-yield crop.
The fact that it can get by for several days outside of water is gift to both farmers and consumers. Because of this unique feature, snakehead maintains its freshness in the worst of transportation and market conditions. While visiting outdoor markets in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Cho Minh City, Vietnam, I was stunned to see 1- to 2-foot-long live snakeheads sitting out in crates and on unrefrigerated metal trays. In spite of the less-than-ideal storage conditions, they looked as healthy as if they’d been pottering about in water-filled tanks.
What do cooks in Southeast Asia do with all these rugged fish? They feature them in soups and stews as well as in poached, sautéed, grilled and fried dishes. The snakehead’s moderately high oil content means it also responds well to smoking and drying.
In Cambodia, snakehead stars in a traditional curry dish known as amok trey. Amok refers to the technique of steaming fish, chicken or tofu in woven banana leaf baskets. In amok trey, the fish is steamed alongside a mixture of coconut milk, fish sauce, eggs and the Khmer flavor paste known as kroeung. Served inside a hollowed-out coconut, the final dish is juicy, fragrant and flavorful.
I got a chance to prepare amok trey with snakehead at the Tara Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap. The fish with which I worked had originated in the nearby Tonle Sap Lake. The largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap contains roughly 200 fish species and accounts for 75% of the country’s inland fish production. Snakehead is one of the most popular and economically important species in this lake.
Because I was starting my amok trey with a whole snakehead, I had to clean and then fillet the fish first. To accomplish this, I followed the same technique I would use with any round fish. After a minimal amount of effort, I ended up with two beautiful, white, firm-fleshed fillets.
Although I would slice the fish into thin strips for amok trey, the snakehead fillets could just as easily be pan-seared or grilled. I could then serve them with a grind of black pepper, dab of salted butter or splash of lemon juice. While mild in flavor, this fish needs little adornment to shine.
Back in New York City, I can continue cook with snakehead fish. In spite of a 2002 federal prohibition on the transportation and sale of live snakehead, Asian seafood markets around the city continue to carry this fish. Plus, if recent reports prove true, snakehead has moved into a neighborhood near mine, into the urban fisherman’s oasis of Central Park’s Harlem Meer. Anglers there have been instructed not to release this fish back into the lake.
In spite of snakehead’s growing presence in the U.S., I substitute striped bass or another firm, white-fleshed fish when making amok trey at home. However, should a snakehead happen to slither onto my doorstep, it would star in one tasty and authentic Cambodian meal.
Angkor-Style Striped Bass (Amok Trey)
Taken from my first cookbook, “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013), this recipe features striped bass instead of the traditional snakehead fish. My version of amok trey does, however, use the distinctly Cambodia flavoring kroeung. You’ll find galangal root and morinda or noni leaves in the produce section of Asian markets and jars of galangal root in the Asian section of most supermarkets.
For the kroeung:
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped lemongrass
1 tablespoon minced galangal root
1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
For the fish:
¾ cup well-shaken canned coconut milk, plus more for serving
1 morinda or noni leaf, chopped
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 large eggs, whisked
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces striped bass fillets, skinned and thinly sliced
½ small red bell pepper, thinly sliced
3 to 4 cups steamed rice, for serving
1. Fill a large, wide pot with 1½ inches of water. Place a steamer basket in the pot and bring the water to a boil.
2. Using a mortar and pestle, pulverize the garlic, lemongrass, galangal root, ginger, salt and turmeric until you have a thick paste. You’ll have about ⅓ cup. Spoon 2½ tablespoons of kroeung into a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate the rest for future use.
3. Add the coconut milk, morinda leaf, fish sauce, sugar, eggs, salt and black pepper to the 2½ tablespoons of kroueng. Mix the ingredients together until well combined. Add the fish and stir gently to coat.
4. Spoon the mixture into 6 to 8 small, oven-safe ramekins, filling each about two-thirds full. Place them in the steamer basket, cover and allow the fish to steam for roughly 15 minutes. When finished, the fish will feel firm and appear white and cooked through.
5. Carefully remove the ramekins from the steamer. Garnish the top of each with slices of red pepper and a drizzle of coconut milk. Serve hot with steamed rice.
Top photo: Amok trey. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Like most cooks and food lovers, I’ve been eagerly anticipating spring’s bounty. Asparagus, morel mushrooms, ramps and rhubarb all return to markets and my dinner table. So, too, does the East Coast’s favorite sport fish, striped bass.
Found in ocean, rivers and estuaries from Canada to Louisiana, this long, silver, horizontally striped fish has been an American favorite since colonial times. In those days the fish could grow as long as 6 feet and weigh more than 100 pounds. In addition to being a big catch, it was a plentiful one. So great were its numbers that early settlers used striped bass for fertilizer as well as for food.
Unfortunately, popularity does not always translate into prosperity. By enriching their crops with striped bass, the colonists seriously depleted the striped bass population. In 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had to ban this mulching practice to preserve the dwindling fish supply.
Centuries later, in the 1980s, overfishing brought another severe decline. Today, though, thanks to severe fishing restrictions and their strict management, this fish has largely rebounded. Although you won’t see those 100 pounders in markets — they primarily carry small, farmed striped bass — you can enjoy this fish from the wild once again.
Also called striper, greenhead and, in the Chesapeake Bay area, rockfish, striped bass is renowned for its spunky nature. In fact, its scrappiness and the resulting challenge of the catch are part of its great allure.
“This is not a fish for beginners or the faint of heart. It’s a very fast, hard fighting fish, a worthy opponent and delicious,” retired vintner and avid angler Frank Wilmer says. A native of southeastern Pennsylvania, Wilmer reels in striped bass off the surf on Long Beach Island, New Jersey.
With a feisty spirit comes a voracious appetite. This fish consumes plankton, shrimp, clams, crabs, eels and medium-sized fish such as menhaden. Its diverse diet undoubtedly contributes to its unique, sweet flavor and firm, moderately fat, moist flesh.
Its appealing texture and taste have earned striped bass many fans. Valley Forge Audubon naturalist Vince Smith considers it one of the best tasting fish. “I think of it as a cross between bluefish and weakfish. It has a dark, fat layer like bluefish, but not the heavy taste,” Smith says.
Striped bass any way you like it
What makes striped bass such a boon to fishermen and cooks is its versatility. After catching and cleaning it, you can prepare it in myriad ways.
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For Smith, grilling is the best method. “I love to cook it on the grill with just a little salt. Leave it skin side down, then flip to finish,” he says.
Frank Wilmer concurs. “My buddies and I prepare striped bass by scaling them, slicing them laterally about 4-5 times on each side, sprinkling them with jerk seasoning and grilling them whole until well done. Never had fish done any better,” he says.
In addition to being grilled, its firm, oily flesh responds beautifully to baking, braising, broiling, deep- and pan-frying, poaching, roasting, sautéing, searing and steaming. The luscious, juicy meat goes well with ingredients such as artichoke, garlic, parsley, potatoes, scallions, shallots, thyme, tomatoes, white wine vinegar and port wine.
Because this fish possesses such a rich, lovely flavor, I tend to keep the preparations simple and the extra ingredients to a minimum. If I’m fortunate enough to have a whole striper, I stuff it with shallots or pearl onions, slices of lemon or orange and fresh thyme. I then roast it for 20 minutes or until done. Fillets I usually grill, sauté, sear or pan-fry. I then splash lemon juice, Tabasco or soy sauce on top and serve them alongside fresh cauliflower, corn, beets or greens.
Along with its vivaciousness, taste and versatility, striped bass has sustainability on its side. Hook-and-line caught striped bass from the U.S. Atlantic is considered a “best choice” by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. The milder, smaller, farmed striped bass also receives this coveted rating.
Among my angler friends optimism remains high for a good striped bass season. I hope they’re correct. For cooks like me who love the full-bodied flavor of the wild fish but rely upon others to catch it, it would be quite disappointing if their predictions turn out to be just another fish tale.
Pan-Seared Striped Bass with Lime-Basil Butter
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
Juice of ½ lime
Grated zest of 1 lime
1½ tablespoons fresh basil, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 (4- to 6-ounce) striped bass fillets
Ground black pepper
1. In a small bowl, mix together the butter, juice, zest and basil. Set aside.
2. In a large, nonstick pan, heat the olive oil on medium-high heat. Season the striped bass fillets with salt and black pepper to taste.
3. Once the oil has heated, place the fillets in the pan and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the flesh has browned slightly. Turn the fillets over and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, until the other side has browned and the center has turned opaque. During the last 30 seconds of cooking, dot the tops of the fillets with equal amounts of lime-basil butter. Remove the fillets from the pan and serve immediately.
Top photo: Pan-seared striped bass with lime-basil butter Credit: Kathy Hunt
One of the many things that I love about travel is the chance to eat a renowned dish in its country of origin. In India, I went straight for the curries. In Vietnam, I fell for bánh mì. In Switzerland, I gobbled up fondu, raclette and rösti. You can’t get much more authentic than that.
Of these, it is the Swiss potato pancake, rösti, that I make on a regular basis. Derived from the German word rösten, which means to roast or grill, rösti consists of fried, shredded potatoes. That’s it. That’s the main and often sole ingredient of this easy Swiss specialty. Crisp on the outside yet soft and velvety on the inside, the simple rösti possesses a rich, complex flavor and competing textures that make it a sheer delight to eat.
Originally, rösti served as a filling breakfast for 19th-century Bernese farmers. A shared offering, it was placed on a platter in the center of the breakfast table. Using their spoons, people would cut off a piece of the patty and dunk it into a cup of weak, milky coffee. It may seem like an unusual custom, but it was one that soon caught on in other parts of Switzerland.
Rösti a versatile dish for any meal
Rösti quickly usurped the traditional Swiss farm breakfast of soup or mash, which had fed the hungry since medieval times.
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Today’s Swiss cooks continue to deck out their potato pancakes with a diverse range of ingredients. At Geneva’s Auberge de Savièse, rösti is decorated with strips of red bell peppers and onions. Meanwhile, the Eiger Guesthouse in the Alpine village of Mürren adds a touch of Italy to its offering, adorning it with sliced, fresh tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and a drizzle of pesto sauce.
Some prefer pairing a simple rösti with a savory entrée. This is the case for Geneva resident and United Nations worker Chris Morh. “On a chilly day there is nothing better than to have rösti with Zuericher Geschnetzteltes, veal with cream sauce,” Morh says.
Just as the serving styles vary, so too do the ways that rösti is prepared. The differences start with the potatoes, which can either be cooked and then shredded, or shredded when raw. This is also the case with a relative of rösti, the American hash brown.
Then there is the question of how to cook the potatoes. Although I prefer to boil them in their skins, others opt for steaming. With the latter method, no salt is added to the potatoes and fewer nutrients leach into the cooking water.
In what the shredded potatoes are fried also differs from cook to cook. Some folks swear by vegetable oil while others endorse butter or bacon fat as the best.
Many claim you should fry your potatoes in oil and then add butter in small dabs at the very end of the cooking time. You spread the butter around the rösti’s edges so it melts, drips down into the hot pan and flavors your dish. I’ve found that this step also stops my potatoes from sticking to the skillet.
In spite of the variations, there are some agreements on rösti. You should use firm, cooking potatoes such as yellow or golden. You should also sauté the potatoes first before shaping them into a plump pancake and frying the cake on both sides.
Whether you make it to Switzerland or just to the corner store, pick up a pound of firm, yellow potatoes and treat yourself to an easy, delicious dinner of rösti.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1½ pounds yellow/golden potatoes, boiled in salted water until just tender, peeled and grated
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
⅓ cup grated Gruyère cheese
2 spring onions, whites and 1 inch of greens sliced
1. In a large, nonstick frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon butter and the olive oil over medium-high heat. As the butter is melting, toss together the shredded potatoes, thyme, salt and pepper.
2. Spoon the potatoes into the frying pan and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes, making sure that all the potatoes have been coated with the oil.
3. Shape the potatoes into a pancake and fry on one side until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Place a flat plate over the top of the pan and invert the pan onto the plate. Return the pan to the heat, add a dab of butter if needed and then slide the rösti back into the pan, uncooked side down. Allow the potato pancake to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, until that side has also browned.
5. A few minutes before removing the rösti, break off small pieces from the remaining butter and spread it around the edge of the potatoes.
6. To remove the rösti, place a serving platter over the top of the pan and invert it onto the platter. Spread the Gruyère cheese and spring onions over the top of the rösti. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Rösti. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Every now and then I come across a new culinary trend that leaves me wondering, “Why mess with something that’s already a success?” Such was the scenario with aging cocktails. Then I tried a barrel-aged Manhattan at the Driftwood Room in Portland, Ore. After sipping that smooth, velvety libation, I stopped asking why and started considering whether I, too, could produce such richly complex drinks.
I’d been in the right town to talk aged cocktails. Portland was where it all began, in 2010, when Clyde Common bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler introduced his Madeira wine cask-aged Manhattan to the public.
Morgenthaler’s inspiration for this drink came in the fall of 2009 in London. There he tried Manhattans that had been aged in glass bottles. Created by 69 Colebrooke Rowe bartender Tony Conigliaro, these subtly matured drinks prompted Morgenthaler to wonder how pre-mixed, single-spirit cocktails would fare in a different vessel, such as a small, used oak keg.
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The thought behind aging a cocktail is that, left inside a wooden cask for six to eight weeks, the drink would absorb some of the flavors and color of whatever was previously housed there. The resulting libation would be more developed and multifaceted than the original. The question, though, is how would it taste.
The answer is quite good. In Morgenthaler’s case, his Manhattan took on the flavors of both the oak cask and the liquid — in this case, Madeira wine — that it had previously contained. Mellow and sweet, his beverage flew off the shelf.
Today, along with aged Manhattans, Clyde Common does a brisk trade in bourbon barrel-aged Negronis and Tridents matured in single-malt whiskey kegs.
Morgenthaler’s offerings have motivated others to age their own drinks.
Without leaving Portland, I sampled an array of aged cocktails, including Negronis, Tridents and Glass Feathers. In some bars, such as Liberty, which ages spirits and bitters along with cocktails, I could even make requests.
Aged cocktails as a DIY project
Inspired by these innovators, I decided to try aging at home. For $23, plus shipping, I purchased a new, pre-charred, 1-liter oak barrel. As a byproduct of the caramelized sugars in the wood, a charred keg gives off a mild caramel flavor. Liquids placed there will pick up this pleasant taste. Thus why I chose charred.
After unpacking my little cask, I filled it with warm water, placed it on my kitchen counter and let it rest for a day. During this time the wood expanded, decreasing the likelihood that the barrel would leak and unleash my cocktail everywhere.
With my cask primed and set to go, I mixed together my first drink. Although an avid home mixologist, I’m completely green when it comes to aging spirits. With this in mind, I opted for the tried-and-true classic, a rye-based Manhattan.
When mixing my batch of Manhattans, I withheld the ice so it wouldn’t dilute my concoction. I also left out the cherry garnish. Leaving out the cherries was a wise move. Fruit and fruit juices will spoil in the cask. The same applies to dairy. I’d also avoid adding club soda and any other effervescent, for they will lose their carbonation in the barrel.
Once I had filled and sealed the cask, I stored it at room temperature in my pantry. That’s where my liter of Manhattans remains, waiting until it hits the right state for me to enjoy.
Professionals advise aging cocktails anywhere from five weeks to three months. Drinks stored in smaller barrels, such as mine, will mature more quickly than those in larger ones. The key is to sample the batch each week to see how it’s progressing. That’s exactly what I’m doing. Once I find a flavor profile I like, I’ll just strain the cocktail through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth to remove any sediment that’s collected. Then I will transfer the Manhattans to glass bottles, where they’ll stay until I’m ready to serve them.
Needless to say, I no longer scoff at cask aging cocktails. One small but luxurious drink made not only a believer but also a practitioner out of me.
Photo: A barrel at the Driftwood Room in Portland, Ore. Credit: Kathy Hunt
On a recent trip through the Pacific Northwest, I spent a lot of time drinking wine. Not a huge surprise. After all, the area ranks as one of the nation’s top wine-producing regions. Plus, I’m all about sampling outstanding, regional wines. What intrigued me was how the drink was invariably poured — just like draft beer, the wine came straight from a tap.
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Back in New York, I started noticing uptown restaurants such as Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Harlem and downtown gastropubs such as Spitzer’s Corner featuring tap wines on their menus. Was this a gimmick or the new norm? Just what was the impetus behind wine served from a tap?
The concept, I learned, isn’t new. By the third century, much of Western Europe dispensed its wine from wooden barrels. The Gauls supposedly used casks as early as the first century B.C. These vessels replaced two-handled jars known as amphorae, which the Ancient Greeks had created for storing, transporting and serving wine. Lighter yet sturdier than the Grecian ceramic jugs, a wooden keg could also hold more alcohol than its predecessor.
The evolution to draft wines
Over the centuries, as vintners and consumers developed a taste for aged, bottled wines, kegs became as passé as amphorae. That archaic status changed, in part, in the 1970s, when Australian producers began packaging some of their younger wines in collapsible bags and cardboard boxes.
Because the bag and box minimized the wine’s exposure to oxygen, these cask wines, as they were dubbed, kept longer than bottled. With them people could enjoy a glass of wine over a period of time without concerns about the flavor and quality diminishing within a day.
Cask wines also cost less and held more than bottled. For these reasons and more, I, and other wine fans, see more and more glasses coming not from a bottle but from a tap.
Similar to draft beers, today’s commercial cask wines run off tap systems. Reusable, 5-gallon, stainless-steel kegs known as Cornelius tanks house the beverages at controlled temperatures.
Dispensed through airtight systems using either nitrogen or argon, the alcohol maintains its freshness long after the first pour. In the case of sparkling wines, they also hold onto their bubbles. After being tapped, these wines may keep for up to three months.
At Dive Bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, owner Lee Seinfeld offers five artisanal, New York wines on tap. “This works much better for me than bottled. What I like is that I have fresh, good-quality wine all the time,” says Seinfeld, who installed his red and white wine taps last July and anticipates adding another line for Prosecco.
Presently, Dive Bar goes through eight kegs, about 40 gallons, of wine each month. That amounts to roughly 200 heavy, glass bottles that don’t need to be transported, stored, opened or recycled.
Kegs also eliminate the need for corks, labels and cardboard shipping containers. Minimal packaging results in less waste, lower fuel costs and a greener, cheaper beverage delivery. In the end, this means savings for both restaurant owners and their customers.
As an environmentally conscious consumer, I appreciate the green aspects of tap wines. I also welcome the lower cost on restaurant wine lists. Likewise, I love that I’m guaranteed a fresh beverage and not the dregs from yesterday’s bottle.
What continues to surprise me, though, is the caliber of local wines cascading from New York taps. Noted wineries such as Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard in the Finger Lakes, Brooklyn’s Red Hook Winery and Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton all offer high-quality wines on tap.
Beyond those that require bottle aging, most wines do nicely in kegs. “In theory they should all perform well. The keg is really just a mini-version of a stainless steel tank,” says James Christopher Tracy, head winemaker and partner at Channing Daughters. “But we tend to put wines that are poured by the glass and go through large volumes so fresh, often unoaked or lightly oaked white, pink and red wines …” Tracy says.
Although tap wines may seem novel or odd to the casual imbiber, their positive attributes should win over the skeptics. Good libations at a lower cost with a reduced environmental impact: What’s not to love about wine on tap?
Top photo: The wine region of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Peek into my kitchen this holiday season and you’ll likely find me elbows high in pillowy bread dough. In my family, nothing says Christmas more than the warm scent of baking bread. From Belgian cougnou to Italian panettone and sundry treats in between, we bake, give and eat not iced sugar cookies or gingerbread men but aromatic loaves of fruit- and nut-filled yeast breads.
If you’ve ever shopped in a European-style bakery or holiday market, you know that my tradition is not unique. Across Europe people bake sweet, sumptuous yeast breads. Many of them have religious significance. Such is the case with the Christmas specialties of Belgium and Germany.
Yeast breads vary from nation to nation
In the French-speaking region of Belgium known as Wallonia, people consume cougnou or “the bread of Jesus.” To make cougnou, bakers join together three balls of sugar- , egg- and raisin-enriched dough; these pieces are said to represent the head, body and legs of the Christ child. Glazed with egg yolks and milk and then baked, the resulting bread resembles a swaddled baby.
In Belgium, cougnou is often given as a holiday or hostess gift. You’ll find this festive bread at bakeries and Christmas markets throughout the season.
I grew up eating a similar treat from Dresden, Germany. With its oblong shape, tapered ends, folded center and liberal dusting of confectioner’s sugar, stollen, like cougnou, resembles baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothing. No doubt this is why it’s sometimes referred to as Christstollen.
A favorite at German Advent markets, stollen includes plump raisins, currants, candied citron and chopped almonds. Bakers there usually add a splash of dark rum, brandy or lemon juice.
At Calico Restaurant and Patisserie in Rhinebeck, N.Y., pastry chef/owner Leslie Heinsohn-Balassone includes a few special steps for making moist, flavorful stollen. Along with soaking her raisins overnight, she runs a strip of marzipan down her bread, imbuing it with a luscious almond taste. She also uses both cream cheese and butter in her dough, giving it an even more velvety texture.
Holiday Baking Links
For those first-time stollen bakers, the pastry chef offers some professional guidance. “Use a lot of flour on your surface — preferably wooden — and keep trying until you find the perfect recipe,” says Heinsohn-Balassone, whom Zagat rated as the “best pastry chef of the Hudson Valley.” Sage advice when it comes to making holiday breads.
Dark and pear-flecked hutzelbrot lacks the spiritual tie-in that stollen and cougnou possess. Favored in southern Germany, this dense bread has a standard loaf shape and a top crust that may be scored in the shape of a leaf. Beneath its dark crust lies an abundance of dried pears as well as dried apricots and figs, prunes, currants and almonds or hazelnuts. Spiced with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and cardamom or aniseed, it’s redolent with the scents of the season.
Custom dictates that you save your hutzelbrot until Dec. 24. You then slice it and consume it with a glass of wine or punch. That’s one tradition that I invariably break. With bread that bold, fruity and delicious in my house, you can bet that I’m cutting into it long before Christmas Eve.
The temptation likewise exists with panettone. A specialty of Milan, Italy, the rich, high-rising bread varies in size from a convenient, individual serving to a loaf large enough to feed a dozen. Shaped like an oversized mushroom, this Italian treat usually contains raisins, candied citron and orange peels, lemon and orange zests, and generous amounts of butter, eggs and sugar.
Unlike the other breads, panettone shows up not only at Christmastime but also at Easter and other festive events. How it came to be associated with the holidays remains a mystery. So, too, does its origin. Some speculate that a nobleman fell in love with and invented this bread for a poor baker’s daughter. Depending upon the source, the nobleman dubbed it panettone, “Toni’s bread,” in honor of himself, the poor baker or the object of his affections.
In the Netherlands krentenbrood, or currant bread, is likewise consumed at Christmas and Easter. In a land where dark rye bread was once the norm, this white, spiced and fruit-studded bread was historically considered a luxury item saved for special occasions. In Finland, however, families opt for rye bread at their holiday tables. Their rich, rye joululimppu also contains molasses, orange zest and fennel, anise or caraway seeds.
Whether made with white or rye flour or baked in the shape of a swaddled infant, plump mushroom or an oblong loaf, these fragrant breads evoke the holiday season. They’ll bring a taste of Christmas to your kitchen every year.
Cherry-Almond-White Chocolate Panettone
Makes 1 loaf
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon dried cherries
¼ cup cranberry juice, warmed
1 package dry active yeast
½ cup milk, warmed
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
2 large eggs
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
⅓ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour plus a little extra for dusting the work surface
3 tablespoons butter, softened and cut into chunks
½ cup blanched almonds, toasted and chopped
⅔ cup white chocolate chips
1. In a small bowl, mix together the dried cherries and cranberry juice.
2. In another bowl add the milk to the yeast. Once the yeast has dissolved, add the flour and sugar. Stir together until well combined. Cover the starter with a sheet of plastic wrap and, placing it in a warm spot, allow it to rise until it doubles in size, about two hours.
3. Grease a large mixing bowl as well as a panettone mold or 24-ounce coffee can. (If you do not have either a mold or an empty coffee can, line a small, round, buttered baker with buttered parchment paper — the paper should be roughly 6 inches high.)
4. Whisk together the eggs, yolks, vanilla and sugar.
5. Add the starter, flour and salt to the liquids and mix together. Once the ingredients are incorporated, place the dough on a floured work surface and knead for five minutes. Add chunks of the butter to the dough and knead it to incorporate. Continue to knead the dough until the butter is well combined.
6. Form the dough into a ball.
7. Drain and pat the cherries dry.
8. Flatten the dough, then add a third of the cherries, almonds and white chocolate chips. Fold the dough over and knead the ingredients into the dough. Repeat the process until all the cherries, nuts and chips have been added.
9. Form the dough into a ball. Place it in the greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rise for 1½ hours.
10. Punch down the dough, place it in the buttered panettone mold or buttered coffee can and cover it with plastic wrap. Allow one final rise, about 1 hour.
11. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
12. Remove the plastic wrap and insert the panettone into the preheated oven. Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.
Top photo: Cherry-Almond-White Chocolate Panettone. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Like most Americans, I grew up equating Thanksgiving with turkey and pumpkin pie. To cap off the meal with any other dessert would have seemed un-American. Yet, after more than 30 years of eating pumpkin at the holidays, I started craving a new fruit. Enter the persimmon.
The Algonquin Indians called this squat, smooth-skinned, red-orange fruit putchamin. Found throughout eastern North America, the sweet persimmon was a favorite of Native Americans as well as European colonists who had learned from local tribes how to pick and consume it. In the 17th century, Virginia’s Capt. John Smith even boasted that, when ripe, this unique produce was as sweet and delicious as apricots.
By 1709, settlers had phonetically altered the fruit’s spelling to persimmon. They did not, though, radically change how they used it.
From the Native Americans the settlers learned to wait until a persimmon had ripened and fallen from the tree to eat it. Along with consuming it straight from the ground, they featured it in puddings, breads, preserves, cakes and pies. They turned it into “simmon” beer and wine, beverages that were particularly popular during Colonial times. They likewise dried it for later usage.
Ripe persimmons have sweet flavor
What the settlers had understood is that, when green, a persimmon is more or less inedible. Its custardy flesh contains tannins that, unless the fruit has fully matured, make it pungently bitter. When ripe, though, it’s a creamy, honeyed treat.
My husband learned the ripeness rule firsthand when he plucked a hard, cherry-sized, yellowish-orange persimmon from a friend’s backyard tree. He bit into and immediately spat out the acrid flesh. It was, in a word, “horrible.” Only time and some culinary trickery could convince him to give persimmons another chance.
Although some gardeners insist it’s a myth, most believe that the fruit hits its prime after a good frost. Wives’ tale or not, I have popped immature, whole persimmons into the freezer overnight and then thawed them at room temperature. Defrosted, they became soft and delicious.
Persimmon season runs from September through December. Look for soft, deep reddish-orange fruit with all four papery leaves intact. Store at room temperature and consume within two days.
Before eating a persimmon, remove the leaves and seeds; I usually cut them out with a paring knife. You can then either scoop out the jellied flesh or slice the fruit and dig in.
While our ancestors enjoyed the petite American persimmon, today we mostly consume one of two larger, Japanese varieties, Hachiya or Fuyu. Similar to the American persimmon, the oblong Hachiya tastes best when fully ripened. The plump, tomato-shaped Fuyu can be eaten straight from the tree. No collecting of fallen fruit is necessary.
Fuyu and Hachiya possess a sweet, mildly pumpkin-like flavor. That’s why I consider persimmons a good substitute for the usual pumpkin pie. Similar to pumpkin, they go well with cinnamon, cream, ice cream and nutmeg. They also pair nicely with such common holiday ingredients as apples, cloves, ginger, pears, pecans, raisins, vanilla, walnuts, brandy and wine.
The beauty of persimmons is that they don’t require much effort to shine. After scooping out or slicing up the flesh, you can pulse it in a food processor or blender with a little vanilla, cinnamon and/or rum. Spoon the purée into dainty bowls and refrigerate until ready to serve.
In parts of the Southeast and Midwest, baked persimmon pudding remains a Thanksgiving favorite. Featuring puréed persimmons, buttermilk and spices, it’s a warm, tasty treat.
Puddings and purées may be nice, but I tend to prefer a more substantial dessert, such as a pie or tart. Easy to make, persimmon tart requires only four ingredients: puff pastry, sliced persimmons, butter and sugar. It’s a simple, sweet and delightful alternative to the old standby, pumpkin pie.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
⅔ cup sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground ginger
3 to 4 ripe persimmons, trimmed, seeded and sliced (Use four if you are using smaller American persimmons or three if you use the larger Fuyu or Hachiya persimmons.)
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, defrosted
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
2. In a 9-inch, oven-safe pan melt the butter, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger over medium heat, stirring to combine.
3. Once the sauce has thickened slightly and turned a light caramel color, place the persimmon slices in the pan. Overlap them slightly and neatly. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, until the persimmons begin to meld with the sauce.
4. Place the puff pastry over the persimmons and tuck in the edges of the dough. Poke a few holes in the top of the pastry and then bake until the tart is golden and puffed up, about 20 minutes.
5. Remove the tart from the oven and cool slightly. Invert the tart onto a serving platter.
6. Serve warm with an optional side of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream.
Photo: American persimmons. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Salt. It’s been a culinary and dietary staple as well as a form of barter and payment since ancient times. Similar to the act of smoking foods, it also has served as a seasoning and, more important, as a means of preserving meats and fish. Without it, foods such as gravlax, bacalhau and jerky would not exist.
Because salt, like smoke, acts as both a cure and flavoring, I’ve been skeptical about the jars of smoked salts that I see lining the shelves of spice shops. Preserving a preservative and seasoning a seasoning seem a bit redundant to me.
Doubt hasn’t stopped me, though, from purchasing and trying out an assortment of wood-smoked sea salts. After repeated use I must admit that these salts offer a fast, simple way to add a hint of smokiness to my cooking. (Check out the recipe for Smoked Corn Flan below.)
The exact origin of smoked salt remains unknown. Most purveyors assume it began on a whim, when a smoking enthusiast tossed a dish of salt crystals into his smokehouse to see what would happen. What occurred was the creation of a tangy, fragrant salt.
Smoked salts for every taste
Today, salt smoking is no mere fancy. Artisanal and mass producers around the globe generate a seemingly endless variety of smoked salts. Enjoy the scent and flavor of cypress, alder, cherry, oak or maple trees? You can buy sea salts smoked with these woods or with such plants as mesquite and guava. Love wine? You can spice up your meals with salts infused with the scent of burning wine barrels.
In 1998, Steve Cook started smoking salts at the Maine Sea Salt Co. Spurred on by a customer’s request, he placed solar evaporated sea salts into a converted household smoker and cold-smoked his first batch of sea salt. Fourteen years later these smoked salts account for approximately 20% of the Marshfield company’s annual sales.
Using Maine apple and shagbark hickory trees, the company produces salts with which consumers can cook or finish dishes. “Apple is easy to work with and has a mild, slightly sweet taste. Hickory salt is stronger, with a smoky bite that goes well with red meats,” Cook says, noting his customers often employ the former for finishing and the latter for rubs and marinades.
On Long Island, N.Y., Smokehouse Spices designs its smoked sea salts primarily for finishing dishes. Featuring five hardwoods and mesquite, its salts enhance and meld with the flavors of savory foods. “With the apple smoked salt, you pick up on the subtle apple flavor,” Marie Provetto of Smokehouse Spices says. She adds that this salt goes especially well with summer tomatoes and on insalata caprese.
In addition to tomatoes and meat rubs, I’ve found that smoked salts add complexity to salsas and sauces. They also give some zing to seafood, meats, pasta, salads and vegetables. Sprinkled over chocolate puddings, iced cakes and truffles, they provide a pleasant tang to otherwise cloyingly sweet treats.
Although I can buy smoked salts online, in grocery stores such as Whole Foods and in spice shops, I can also make my own. All I need is a commercial smoker or grill, soaked wood chips, coarse sea salt and a grease splatter guard or perforated pie pan.
After setting up my grill or smoker, I spread the salt across the splatter guard or pan, put it in the grill, cover and allow it to smoke for 40 minutes to 45 minutes. At that time I stir the crystals so they get evenly coated by smoke and then cover the grill again. I repeat these steps until the salt has achieved the desired color and aroma. Once the salt cools completely, I spoon it into airtight containers.
As simple as this process sounds, smoking salt can be tricky. Temperature is the biggest nemesis. “If it’s too cold, the smoke doesn’t stick. Too hot — above 200 F — the smoke burns off and the salt becomes bitter,” Cook says.
With this in mind, I’ll leave smoking to the professionals. Instead I’ll continue to tinker with the wide array of smoked sea salts available for sale.
Smoked Corn Flan
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups frozen corn
2 tablespoons minced shallot (about 1 small shallot)
2 large eggs
1½ cup reduced-fat milk
¾ teaspoon smoked sea salt, divided
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease four 5-ounce ramekins or ovenproof bowls.
2. Melt the unsalted butter in a medium sauté pan. Add the corn and shallots and sauté until softened, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Spoon the mixture into the bowl of a blender or food processor and purée.
4. In a large bowl or pitcher, whisk together the eggs, milk, half the salt and black pepper. Add the corn purée and whisk again to combine.
5. Pour the flan mixture into the greased ramekins. Place the ramekins in a baking pan about one-third full of water; the water should come halfway up the ramekins.
6. Bake for 50 minutes to 60 minutes or until the flans have puffed up and browned slightly. Sprinkle the remaining sea salt over the tops. Serve hot.
Photo: Smoked salt. Credit: Kathy Hunt