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In the Middle East food is shared and one place it is shared is on the meze table. Meze are small samplings of prepared dishes that make a meal. They are not appetizers, nor tapas, nor hors d’oeuvres but are actually more philosophically related to the Scandinavian smorgasbord.
Food is shared in another way. The food of the Levant, meaning the food eaten between the Turkish-Syrian border all the way to Egypt, is the same food eaten by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. One can’t really say there is Muslim food, Christian food and Jewish food, but there are certain foods that are typical for those communities centered around holidays such as Ramadan, Christmas, and Yom Kippur, for example, but the foods are not unique to those cultures because everyone eats them.
One very typical, almost obligatory, meze dish is hummus. Hummus means chickpea and does not mean dip. The proper name of the preparation called hummus is hummus bi’l-tahina, chickpeas with sesame seed paste.
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One delightful variation of this dip is made with pumpkin, all the more appropriate this time of year when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. All the more so if we reflect on how much we can be thankful for especially at a time when the Middle East seems to be disintegrating into a frenzy of blood-letting. At a time when all religious communities, be they Jewish, Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi, Alawite, or Kurdish Muslim, are threatened in the Middle East and the stories from those lands are nothing but sadness, it behooves us to remember the rich contribution and integral role played by all these people who once –it is hard believe given the modern headlines — lived together. If there is one thing they all shared it was surely food.
And a dip is a food that is shared. Please don’t call it pumpkin hummus. It’s called qara bi’l-tahina and that means pumpkin with sesame seed paste.
This will be one of many dishes on the menu of a series of communal dinners arranged by Clockshop, a nonprofit arts and culture organization based in Los Angeles. The event will take place over three weekends in November, beginning Nov. 8 to celebrate what they call the Arab-Jewish diaspora. The meals will feature the culinary traditions, music and culture of this diaspora. If you live in the Los Angeles area you can check them out by RSVP.
Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste)
Yield: 6 servings
Prep time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
5 pounds pumpkin flesh, cubed
1/2 cup tahina
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed in a mortar with 2 teaspoons salt until mushy
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds
Seeds from 1/2 a pomegranate
1. Place the pumpkin slices in a saucepan and cover with water. Turn the heat on and bring to a gentle boil and cook until soft, about 40 minutes. Drain well and pass through a food mill. Return the pumpkin to the saucepan and cook over a medium-high heat until all the liquid is nearly evaporated, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and run until creamy. Transfer to a mixing bowl
2. Stir the tahina paste into the pumpkin and mix well. Stir in the garlic mixture and lemon juice. Mix well and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish the pumpkin mixture with parsley, some olive oil, and cumin. Decorate the outside edges of the platter with the pomegranate seeds and serve with Arab flatbread to scoop up the dip.
Main photo: Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Careful thought can ease your workload considerably, if that’s how you think of cooking, by squeezing three dinners from one initial cooking. It’s a novel way of viewing leftovers in that you’re not using them so much as you are making leftovers to be used according to a plan.
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First, in the method that follows, you’re not simply using leftovers, you’re following a game plan to create three nights of family dinners for four by using the foods from the first meal for the second meal and from the first and second meals for the third meal. You’ll add one or two foods to subsequent dinners Nos. 2 and 3. You can do all of this for about $40.
Ideally, dinner No. 1 should begin on a Sunday morning as you’ll be making a boiled dinner that can cook slowly all day either in a large slow cooker or on the stove top if your cook top has a simmer-control setting. A simmer-control setting is so low that a pot of water set on top of it will never boil; it will only shimmer on top.
The first meal is based on a New England boiled dinner, a family meal that was far more popular in the early 20th century than today and something of a misnomer as one never actually boils the chicken but rather poaches it. The second meal is based on an Alpine-type of baked casserole au gratin with fontina cheese. The third meal is based on a root vegetable soup purée with chunks of meat and vegetables.
First Dinner: Boiled Dinner
Prep time: About 30 minutes
Cook time: 3-9 hours
Yield: 4 servings
One 4-pound chicken
2 pounds fresh kielbasa sausage or mild Italian sausage
1¾ pounds boiling potatoes, such as small Yukon gold or fingerling, peeled
1½ pounds fat carrots, scraped and cut in half
1 pound (7 or 8) small onions, peeled
1½ pounds fat parsnips, scraped
1¼ pound small turnips (7 or 8), trimmed of tops
2 small celery roots (1 pound), trimmed and peeled
2 celery stalks, cut in half
50 garlic cloves
Bouquet garni, tied in cheesecloth, consisting of parsley, celery stalk top, marjoram, bay leaf, and oregano
Water as needed
Salt to taste
1. Wrap the chicken in cheesecloth and tie off with kitchen twine. Place in a large stockpot with the sausage, potatoes, carrots, onions, parsnips, turnips, celery root, celery stalk, garlic, bouquet garni and peppercorns and cover with water. Turn the heat to high and bring to a near boil. Reduce the heat to very low the minute you see a bubble or two rise to the surface. Cook until all the foods are very tender, about 9 hours with a simmer control and about 3 hours without. At no time should the water boil; it should only shimmer on top. About halfway through the cooking, season a bit with salt. Bring to just below a boil on high heat. Reduce the heat to low, so it is just shimmering on the surface.
2. Remove the chicken and unwrap from the kitchen twine. Set the chicken in the middle of a large round platter. It will be so well-cooked it will collapse unless you handle it gently. Surround with all the other meats and vegetables except for the celery stalk and bouquet garni, which you will discard. Serve with any two of these accompaniments: horseradish with apple, Bavarian mustard, Cajun mustard, regular mustard, Mostarda di Cremona, apple sauce or hot sauce of your choice.
3. Save all food not eaten.
4. Strain the broth through a cheesecloth-lined strainer and return to a pot. Boil until the broth is reduce by a third. Cool and save.
Second Dinner: Baked Casserole au Gratin
Prep time: about 10 minutes
Cook time: 1¼ hours
Yield: 4 servings
Leftovers from boiled dinner, sliced
2½ ounces smoked slab bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil, vegetable oil, butter, pork lard or duck fat
½ pound cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 slices (about 2 ounces) French or Italian country bread
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground cinnamon
¾ pound fontina Val d’Aosta cheese, in thin slices
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, in thin slivers
2 cups chicken broth (from first meal)
1. Remove the meat from the chicken and discard the carcass. Chop or slice the chicken and sausage keeping them separated. Slice all the vegetables but keep them separate. Remove half of everything and set aside for meal No. 3.
2. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
3. In a sauté pan, cook, stirring, the bacon and cooking fat over medium heat until almost crispy, about 4 minutes. Add the cabbage and a little water to deglaze the pan and cook, stirring, until it is wilted, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
4. In four 8 x 1½-inch baking casseroles, or one larger baking casserole, or similar ovenproof vessel, place the bread and then layer half the leftovers on top and half the cabbage and sprinkle with nutmeg and cinnamon. Layer half the fontina cheese and then another layer of leftovers and cabbage and finally some slivers of butter. Finish with one more layer of cheese and butter. Pour ½ cup broth into each casserole and bake until golden brown and bubbling, 55 to 60 minutes. Serve hot.
Third Dinner: Root Vegetable Purée With Chicken and Sausage
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Leftover vegetables from dinner one
3½ cups chicken broth (from first meal)
3 tablespoons heavy cream
3 ounces fresh or frozen peas
Leftover meat from dinner one
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
4 slices (about 2 ounces) Italian or French country bread, pan-fried in butter until golden brown
1. Place all the leftover vegetables in a food processor with 2 cups broth and blend in pulses at first then continuously until smooth. Transfer to a soup pot with the cream, peas, remaining meat leftovers, remaining broth and ground ginger and heat over low heat until hot. Check the seasoning. Serve with bread.
Main photo: New England boiled dinner with chicken and vegetables. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Pumpkin is an ideal bland food with a distinctive taste. That’s a good thing because it means you have to do something to the pumpkin to make it palatable and delicious. Typically, pumpkin pie is a solution, but nowadays it’s going into all kinds of things from beer to cookies.
Pumpkin is a member of the Cucurbitaceae and winter squash family (its Latin binomial is Cucurbita pepo) and when it first arrived in Europe following its discovery in the New World after Columbus’ voyages it did not impress. The Sicilians, for example, thought so little of winter squash such as pumpkin, they even have a derogatory saying about it: “Sali mitticinni nà visazza conzala come vuoi è sempre cucuzza” (Add a lot of salt and seasoning because squash it always remains).
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There are four basic species of Cucurbitaceae. Pumpkins or squash are easily hybridized so the range of colors and shapes is quite varied and it is difficult to tell one variety from another, resulting in many cultivars. If you are interested, a thorough and concise description of all the squashes can be found in my book “Mediterranean Vegetables.”
All that counts in this recipe is that you’ll need about 3 pounds of pumpkin flesh. The recipe calls for you to make your own pumpkin pasta and homemade ricotta cheese. That sounds hard, but it’s not. Just follow the instructions in the links.
Alternatively, use store-bought regular pappardelle with a high quality store-bought ricotta cheese. For the homemade pasta, follow the pasta-making instructions for “Homemade White Flour and Egg Pasta” in the pappardelle link below, adding 1 cup puréed and very well-drained pumpkin pulp to the mixture.
Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds
Prep time: 15 minutes, does not include making homemade pasta and ricotta
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
¾ pound pumpkin pappardelle
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
14 ounces fresh pumpkin flesh, cut into 1½ by 1½ by ¼-inch squares
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
¼ pound fresh ricotta cheese
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Prepare the pasta. Cut into 1-inch wide strips and let dry 4 to 24 hours. The recipe in the link will provide 1¼ pounds dried pasta. Set aside ¾ pound for this recipe and store the remainder.
2. Preheat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.
3. Add ½ tablespoon butter to the skillet and it will smoke almost immediately. Quickly lay the sliced pumpkin in the skillet and salt lightly. Let cook until golden on both sides, turning only once, about 6 minutes in all. Remove and set aside, keeping the slices warm.
4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing.
5. Transfer the pasta while still very hot to a bowl with the remaining butter and poppy seeds. Toss well then transfer to a serving platter or bowl. Top with the sliced pumpkin, 4 dollops of ricotta, and the Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.
Main photo: Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
If you are not clear exactly what Mediterranean food is, it’s actually very simple: It’s the cooking found in all the regions and provinces that have a littoral on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of that fact in a sense there is no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine because every region’s food, while tending to use the same ingredients, is strikingly different from one another. High on the list of staple Mediterranean foods are legumes.
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Two Mediterranean countries famous for their legume dishes are Egypt and Greece. Here are two budget-friendly, healthy and delicious recipes that can be served in Near Eastern style, as both Greece and Egypt are considered Near Eastern countries. These dishes can be prepared as part of a larger meze or as an appetizer or side dish.
Edward William Lane tells us in his classic book “The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” first published in 1908 that many dishes prepared by the Egyptians consist wholly or for the most part of vegetables, “cabbage, purslane, spinach, bamiyeh [okra], beans, lupin, chick-pea, gourds, cut into small pieces, colocasia, lentils etc.”
Called salāṭa ‘adas and made with tiny brown lentils slightly cooked with olive oil, garlic and spices, I had this lentil salad as a meze at the Tikka Grill, a restaurant on the corniche of Alexandria in Egypt. Although you don’t have to use freshly ground spices, you’ll find if you do, the result is a dish far fresher, more pungent and better tasting than one made with pre-ground spices. Too many home cooks keep spices far beyond their shelf life, so check the date on your jar.
Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices
Preparation time: about 30 minutes
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds
½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds
½ teaspoon ground fenugreek
1 cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed well
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic and as soon as the garlic begins to sizzle remove from the burner, add the cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.
2. Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on. Drain and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.
Black-Eyed Pea Salad
This simple preparation called mavromakita fasolia in Greek can be made with canned black-eyed peas, as long as they are packed in only water. I prefer using dried black-eyed peas but they are not always to be found. Typically you would serve this salad as a meze, but it’s fine as a side dish too. This recipe was given to me by chef Estathios Meralis of the motor yacht M/Y Sirius out of Piraeus, Greece.
Yield: 6 servings
Preparation time: about 1 hour
2½ cups canned black-eyed peas (two 15-ounce cans) or 1 cup dried black-eyed peas
2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste
1. If using dried black-eyed peas, boil over high heat in water to cover until tender, about 1 hour. Drain and rinse. If using canned peas, drain and rinse, then place in a bowl.
2. Toss the black-eyed peas with the scallions, garlic, dill, olive oil, pepper and salt. Serve at room temperature.
Main photo: Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Of all the foods I get defensive about, clam chowder is high on the list. There are certain preparations that are so iconic, established and regionally rooted that I think it’s nonsense to say “oh, there are many interpretations.”
In fact, I believe the parameters of what constitutes a proper clam chowder are quite narrow. This is one instance one can be downright dogmatic and say, “No, there is only one proper clam chowder.”
Granted, there are variations of clam chowder made from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island, and those are acceptable because these places are really the home of clam chowder even if the word itself comes from the French chaudière, a cauldron used by the fishermen of Brittany to cook up a fish chowder.
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In John R. Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms” published in 1848, a chowder is described as a dish from New England made of fresh fish, especially cod, or clams, and stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit, with the addition at times of cider or Champagne.
First written mention of clams in chowder
There is no record of a clam, as opposed to fish, chowder before the mid-19th century, although the first written mention of clams in chowder is from 1829 in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Frugal Housewife.”
The dividing line between places that make chowder with milk and places that make chowder with tomatoes seems to be in southwestern Connecticut. Beginning there and heading south, cooks use tomatoes, and from Cape Cod to the north, they use milk. The no-man’s land of this debate seems to be Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut where a clear broth is used.
A clam chowder isn’t worth writing about unless you extol a particular clam chowder, as did fellow Zester writer Lynne Curry, who also wrote about chowder. I wouldn’t be a chowderhead if I didn’t complain about her use of canned clams. I can’t abide that. I began to feel strongly about this when I moved to California and encountered the gloppy white mud they called clam chowder and thought “guys, stick to fish tacos, you don’t know chowder from chile.”
Cape Cod chowder is the best
This recipe is a Cape Cod clam chowder and I believe the best clam chowder in the world is made on Cape Cod.
Just as a proper chili con carne never has beans or tomatoes in it, for me a true clam chowder should never contain flour, or cream, certainly never fish broth (might as well call it fish soup), and, God forbid, a tomato.
A true clam chowder is very simple, but rarely gotten right. Adding flour and cream, popular with restaurant chefs, turns the elixir into an unappetizing and gummy muck. Cream is also a no-no, but sometimes permissible (see below). A clam is a delicate creature and gets easily lost with too much starchy thickening, acidic vegetables, herbs, seasoning, or bacon as opposed to salt pork flavor.
A true clam chowder is made with, and only with, live quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria Linn.) with their liquor, and never with canned clams. A quahog is nothing but a large cherrystone clam, which is nothing but a large littleneck clam.
Clam chowder also requires diced lean salt pork. Bacon is not appropriate because it’s too smoky. I don’t buy the speculation that the smokiness resembles the original.
Raw milk first used in clam chowder
The chowder also requires onion, potatoes, butter, salt, pepper and if you can manage it, raw fresh creamery milk. In the early 20th century, Cape Codders could regularly get raw milk for making their chowder, which had a creamier taste than today’s pasteurized and homogenized milk. Therefore it’s permissible to mix whole milk with half-and-half or a little heavy cream.
Clam chowder can also have a little celery and a little sprinkle of thyme, but that’s it. It’s always served hot, but not piping hot, and with common crackers.
Cape Cod cooks like to “age” their chowders by cooking them the day before or letting them sit for some hours before serving, that’s why you find many early recipes saying that you move the kettle to the back of the stove. Doctoring your chowder once it’s finished with parsley or chives is a restaurant innovation to give the chowder “color.” Just remember that the color of chowder is white.
One last warning: Be very careful with milk or it will curdle. For real Cape Cod authenticity, serve in Styrofoam cups.
- 20 pounds quahogs or large cherrystones, washed very well
- 2 quarts water
- 2 pounds boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and diced
- ½ pound lean salt pork, diced
- 1 large yellow onion (about 14 ounces), finely chopped
- Salt, if necessary
- Freshly ground white pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 cups half-and-half
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Common or oyster crackers for garnish
- Place the clams in a 20- to 22-quart stockpot filled with about an inch of water. Cover, turn the heat to high, and steam the quahogs until they all open, removing them when possible as they open, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard any clams that remain very firmly shut. Remove the clams from their shells once they are cool enough to handle and discard the shells but save all the liquid. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth into a smaller stew pot. Chop the clams. You should have about 5 cups of chopped clams. You can do this in a food processor in pulses.
- Add all the collected clam juice to the water in which you steamed the clams. If you have less than 2 quarts of liquid in the stockpot add enough water to the collected juices to make up the difference, although you will probably have more than 2 quarts.
- Bring the reserved clam liquor to a boil then cook the potatoes until three-quarters cooked and nearly tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the reserved chopped clams and cook at a boil for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and let the chowder sit. If scum forms, skim it off at once.
- Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, cook, stirring the salt pork over medium-low heat until nearly crispy, about 15 minutes. Remove the salt pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally to deglaze the skillet, until golden and very soft, about 30 minutes. Add the salt pork and onion mixture to the potatoes and stir. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary and the pepper and thyme. Turn the heat off and when the pot is cool enough, place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
- Remove the chowder and reheat over low heat. Once it is hot, add the milk, half-and-half and cream. Cover and heat the chowder until it is about 140 F, making sure it doesn’t even bubble, otherwise the milk will curdle. Stir in the butter, remove the stew pot from the burner, but leave on the stove, covered, to stay warm for 1 hour or more and serve with common or oyster crackers.
Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
The rise and fall of fettuccine Alfredo is a story of a simple dish taken from its home and embellished with flourishes before sliding into culinary familiarity, dullness and bastardization.
Although it has its roots in Roman cuisine, it is nothing but a restaurant dish in Italy and America. Fettuccine Alfredo became a classic of Italian-American cooking, but today is often served as third-rate tourist food in the Little Italy emporiums catering to them in America’s cities.
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This wasn’t always true. In the 1940s and 1950s, fettuccine Alfredo was a signature dish of continental-style French-service restaurants where waiters, with a flourish, would prepare the dish tableside in a chafing dish.
The classic story of its origins is that the dish was invented in a Roman trattoria on the Via della Scrofa near the Tiber River by Alfredo di Lelio, who opened his restaurant in the early part of the 20th century. He invented the dish for his wife, it is said, after she gave birth and lost her appetite.
The dish became famous to Americans after Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s in 1927 and raved about his preparation called fettuccine Alfredo. It was in America that cream started entering the recipe and that fettuccine Alfredo began its descent to a thick, heavy, glop of pasta. The original, although meant to be rich, was also light and silky because all that was used was butter and Parmesan cheese: cream and eggs were never meant to be used.
Interestingly, Italians do not refer to this dish as fettuccine Alfredo — or when they do they’re well aware of the American connection — but rather fettuccine al triplo burro, fettuccine with triple the amount of butter, the name of the original dish. Even more interestingly, two great cookbooks on Roman cuisine Ada Boni’s “La Cucina Romana” and Livia Jannattoni’s “La Cucina Romana e del Lazio” do not mention fettuccine Alfredo, indicating that it never was part of Roman cooking but is culinary fantasy.
The dish should be made with fresh fettuccine, but dried works just fine as well. The quality of the butter and cheese in fettuccine Alfredo are paramount. I recommend the Parmigiano-Reggiano butter made from the same cow’s milk the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from and which you must also use.
- 1 pound fresh fettuccine
- ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- ½ pound (about 4 cups) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
- Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing saving ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water.
- Meanwhile, cut the butter into thin pats or flakes and transfer half of them to a warmed large oval silver platter where you will do the final tossing. Place the cooked pasta over the butter, sprinkle the cheese on top. Toss, sprinkling some reserved pasta water. Add the remaining butter and toss, adding the pasta water to make the pasta look creamy. You will be tossing for 2 minutes. Sprinkle on the black pepper if desired. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright