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“Fresh is best” is usually a good rule to live by. But if you know how to find quality preserved items, a few well-chosen canned foods in your pantry can save the day, especially during the busy holidays.
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Healthy food is food that is minimally processed. All the foods’ transformation should happen when you turn it from the raw to the cooked and not at some factory.
When I am unable to pronounce the ingredients listed on the side of a food’s packaging I shiver. When I see the word “natural” on a food package I read “Sh&u8#%g” because it has the same meaning. However, I am not a fanatic or obsessive about food: I can eat crap too. I do so minimally. I don’t always seek out organic, or local, or seasonal, or any other of the environmentally correct buzzwords.
Now and then canned food is just plain convenient. And luckily there are some canned products that are not loaded with chemicals such as taste enhancers or preservatives of one kind or another. If you keep these in your pantry you will always have a delicious, convenient and quick preparation on hand. This is particularly handy during the holidays. On their label you should see only one ingredient list, namely the same one as on the front of the packaging, the food itself. Some might have some citric acid, but that’s OK.
There are four foods that I use in their canned form for a variety of reasons: the food is out of season, I forgot to buy the food, I’m too tired to cook, or it’s a last-minute idea. My five canned go-to foods are chickpeas, tuna, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and pimentos.
In this recipe you’ll use four of those. The idea here is that this is party-quality food, the kind of dish that you could serve to guests and they will comment on its deliciousness. After they do then you can spill the beans, so to speak, and tell them how simple it all is.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep time: 15 minutes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1 15-ounce can organic chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed
4 canned organic artichoke hearts (foundations), drained and quartered
2 tablespoons sliced pimentos
2 1/2 ounces canned yellowfin tuna in olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium heat.
2. When the garlic begins to sizzle add the chickpeas, artichokes and pimentos and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.
3. Add the tuna, salt, pepper and cayenne, toss a few times and remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.
Main photo: Four-can antipasto. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Shopping for a great Christmas gift once meant hours of driving and parking, but with today’s Internet shopping, it’s easier. Internet shopping can be great for those of us who like to give cookbooks. With so many available titles, there are a few things gift-givers need to know to sort out the well-written quality books from the lesser potential gifts.
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Cookbooks are terrific gifts because they can be used every day and often attain heirloom status that leads you to better cooking.
My specialty as a cookbook author is writing cookbooks for home cooks interested in culturally driven cooking that reveals a history or story. My favorites are Italian and Mediterranean cuisines in general. So when I look for cookbooks as gifts, I like to give not the latest trendy cookbook but often older books that I value and that my younger friends might not know. These are books from which I learned. I lament the fact that for all the cookbooks published every year and the popularity of food television and celebrity chefs, I don’t believe people are cooking at home more.
Food television has stimulated people’s interest and tried to turn cooking into entertainment and competition, but I doubt it has gotten them into the kitchen. What will make you a better cook? Buy a good cookbook, not necessarily the one everyone is talking about, and get into the kitchen and follow a recipe, and through trial and error you will learn to be a better cook.
Along with the handful of quality new cookbooks published each year, there are plenty of older, out-of-print ones that are almost bibles. You can find them on the Internet and they’re sometimes cheap. If there is someone who’s cooking you admire, ask them what their favorite cookbook is.
Good cookbooks have several criteria, and having recipes that work flawlessly isn’t one of them. More than meticulously tested recipes, I look for quirkiness, personality, a history, or a story told, perhaps about the cook, the author, the cook’s mother, the culture, or a broad sweep of it all.
When I see the crêpes suzette recipe written in that particular style of the ’60s in Julia Child’s cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” it’s not merely a delicious recipe. It is also laden with pregnant memories evocative of a whole era, of an entire culture, and a particularly wonderful day when I made it for the first time as a 15-year-old.
Here is a very small collection of older cookbooks from my library that I am fond of even if I don’t cook from them regularly nor would I say you must have them in your library, nor are they the best in my collection. They are simply good books I’ll never get rid of. (The first book is shameless self-promotion, but I actually use my book, too.)
Main photo: Cookbooks that make good gifts. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
It is joyous to watch people have a good time and set a table for sparkling conversation and good food. I hope my guests talk about the dinner party well into the future, about the people they met, the topics they conversed about, and the food they ate. I try to provide a memorable experience.
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Although you want to create a casual atmosphere for your guests, planning a dinner party is not at all casual. Entertaining is an art and needs to be orchestrated with as much precision as a set-piece military battle. To do otherwise invites chaos.
Entertaining takes many forms, but I prefer the small dinner party of six to eight. That number of people provides the critical mass. Eight is the maximum number of people who can sit at a table and listen to one person speak. They will in the course of the evening split into many different conversations.
Choosing the guest list
The first thing to decide when having a dinner party is whom to invite. That’s harder than it sounds because the mix of people is a form of alchemy and the wrong choices can make for a memorable dinner party you would prefer not remembering. One of the most horrible dinner parties I attended was one with 12 people, many of whom had absolutely nothing in common, where the food was a hodgepodge of unrelated dishes, and where more than half the people smoked at the table when there were non-smokers.
Think about who you are inviting. You can invite boisterous people and reticent people, but not too many of either. A boisterous person can be fun, but sometimes if you are not careful, they can dominate the table. Too many reticent people stifle the table. Dinner parties will often draw out people’s personalities. I once had a quiet chef at one of my dinner parties, and his story of how he got into the profession had us riveted. Another time, a woman not known for her humor told one of the most hysterical stories I ever heard, and we nearly fell out of our seats. This happened because they were comfortable, and it’s this comfort you must create and provide.
Second, set a definite time for people to arrive. I usually say “sharp.” Waiting for stragglers may seem polite to you, but it’s your guests who have already arrived who are being put out. They may be hungry.
Planning a conversation-piece menu
Third, what will you make? That depends on what kind of cook you are. If you’re not confident of your abilities, stick with something you’ve made before, although you should feel free to try at least one new dish. Keep the menu manageable and seasonal. Ask all guests whether they have any food allergies or dislikes; this is important and often overlooked. Also remember Julia Child’s advice and never ever apologize for your cooking.
Menu planning is an art, and a three-course dinner is typical. How organized are you? One of the big mistakes a host can make is making a too complicated menu that keeps them in the kitchen instead of with their guests. A guest should not see what happens “behind the curtain” because if they see you work too hard or if there is a huge mess, they will become anxious themselves. Many menus can be based totally on food prepared ahead of time.
Guests will offer to help, and a good host will always refuse their help, at first. There are three tasks I appreciate guests taking on: acting as bartender, helping serve plated food, and bringing used dishes to the kitchen. The exception is a dinner party where guest participation is part of the evening, such as a fondue party or a barbeque.
Keep your menu on track. Don’t make wildly different dishes and stay with a theme. For instance, if your theme is Spanish, maybe Andalusian in particular, your choice of dishes provides a built-in conversation topic. Few people know what Andalusian food is, and now you’re the expert. “Both tapas and gazpacho were born in Andalusia,” you can explain as you serve the gazpacho.
Your kitchen should be clean and equipment put away before guests arrive. Everything should be set up so you can anticipate every need. I usually lead guests to the living room where we will sit and have cocktails and light finger foods. The easiest of these are nuts, but sometimes you may serve something a bit more involved that will portend the food to follow to increase excitement and expectation.
About 45 minutes after the last guest arrives (and all guests should have arrived within 15 minutes of the designated time), you will want to start moving people to the table, which will, of course, have already been set. One could write a book on how to set a table. Suffice it to say that your table should look inviting. A tablecloth, I think, is far more inviting than place mats, which always reminds me of feeding children.
Who sits where is one of the most important decisions you’ll make. You don’t need to sit boy-girl-boy. Consider personalities when making a seating chart. I usually try to sit the prettiest woman or the guest of honor (very loosely defined) next to me. I also don’t believe in splitting up couples as a matter of course and especially not if everyone are deep strangers. This is one of the mysterious facets of entertaining — how personalities gel. There are no secrets or tips for the matchmaker. Good luck.
Main photo: A holiday fondue party. Credit: Michelle van Vliet
There are basically three approaches to devising a Thanksgiving menu.
In the first, the foods are typical of New England where the first thanksgiving was celebrated some 250 years before it became a national holiday with a capital “T” in the mid-19th century.
In the second, families follow local and regional traditions. Or, if they are first- and second- generation immigrant families without a familiarity of traditional American Thanksgiving foods, they add avocado salad, curry or lasagna to the menu.
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In the third, which no one I know uses other than the historically re-created village denizens of Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, cooks attempt the authentic 1621 menu.
The hardest part of the last approach is that no actual menu exists. We are left with just some cursory description from two sources supplemented with comparative studies of what we know American Indians and Englishmen ate in the 17th century.
At the center of the 1621 table was probably roast venison and a variety of water fowl. There were no mashed potatoes, no cranberry sauce and no pumpkin pies, although there were probably dried cranberries and pumpkins in some form. There was probably maize in the form of bread, griddle cakes or porridge.
Pilgrims’ harvest celebration
We know this from the two and only surviving documents from the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. The sources are the English leader Edward Winslow’s “A Letter Sent From New England,” “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” and Gov. William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.”
Winslow wrote to a friend that the governor (Bradford) had sent “four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” The hunters brought back enough food to feed the colony for a week along with “their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.” Bradford adds that “besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys” venison and Indian corn.
As far as all the other food the colonists and Wampoanoag ate, culinary historians only have educated guesses based on a number of secondary sources including archeological remains such as pollen samples. The Wampanoag ate wildfowl, deer, eels, lobster, clams, mussels, smoked fish, and forest foods such as chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts, and they grew flint corn, the multicolored Indian corn suitable only for being ground into flour and never eaten off the cob. They also had pumpkin and squashes, sunchokes and water lily. We can surmise that those foods were on the table. The Indians had taught the colonists how to plant native crops, which they did in March of 1620, but the things grown are only known from a later time, namely turnips, carrots, onions, and garlic.
In 1621, the sweet potato and the white potato had not yet arrived in New England, so they were not found on the Pilgrims’ harvest table that autumn. Later Plymouth writings mention eagle and crane begin eaten.
Winslow, in his letter to a friend, describes the foods available in Plymouth in 1621. “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels … at our doors.”
He went on to describe plentiful strawberries, gooseberries and many varieties of plums. “These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favorably with us,” Winslow wrote
“Our Indian corn,” wrote Winslow, “even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meal as rice.” In other words, traditional English dishes of porridge, pancakes and bread were adapted for native corn.
In September and October, a variety of dried and fresh vegetables were available. The produce from Pilgrim gardens is likely to have included what were then called herbs: parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Dried beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as local cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts.
One dish that very well might have been on that harvest table of the fall of 1621 is “stewed pompion,” as it was called by the 17th-century English. One of the earliest written recipes from New England is found in a book by the English traveler John Josselyn who first went to New England in 1638 and whose book “Two Voyages to New England” was published in 1674. He called it a “standing dish,” suggesting that it was an everyday dish. The adapted recipe you can make is based on his original description where he says “it will look like bak’d Apples.”
Stewed Pompions (Stewed Pumpkins)
4 cups cooked (boiled, steamed or baked) pumpkin flesh, roughly mashed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 or 2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
In a saucepan over medium heat, stir and heat all the ingredients together. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve hot.
Main photo: Pumpkins for Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Hirko/iStock
Although there is no menu of the first harvest celebration that is usually called the first Thanksgiving, there are some sound ideas of what foods, if not precise preparations, were on the table.
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Between 1620 and 1621 Edward Winslow, who arrived on the Mayflower and was a leader of the English settlement at Plimouth, wrote with William Bradford “Mourt’s Relation,” the full title of which was “A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimouth in New England.” Winslow wrote that “our Indian corn, even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meal as rice.”
The Thanksgiving celebration included at least 90 of the local Wampanoag, who we also know brought a good deal of the food and taught the settlers about growing crops. It is a safe bet that one of the foods made from “Indian corn” might have been nasaump, a kind of grits that used the type of multicolored flint corn the Wampanoag grew.
In 1643 a book by the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, describes nasaump as “a meale pottage, unparched. From this the English call their Samp, which is Indian corn, beaten and boiled, and eaten hot or cold with milk and butter, which are mercies beyond the Natives plaine water.”
From this brief description it seems safe to say that the dish is a thanksgiving food. It is very much like grits and one could make it savory or sweet, I suppose. This recipe is adapted from a description on the Plimoth Plantation website.
Two excellent sources for Rhode Island stone ground flint cornmeal are Gray’s Grist Mill and Kenyon’s Grist Mill, which has been in operation since 1696. I recommend you order their product because it has a distinctively different taste from store-bought masa harina or cornmeal.
This traditional Wampanoag dish is made from dried corn, local berries and nuts. It is boiled in water until it thickens, and is similar to oatmeal or grits.
Prep and Cooking Times: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 cup stone ground flint cornmeal (see sources above)
⅓ cup wild (preferably) or cultivated small strawberries
⅓ cup blueberries
2 tablespoons crushed walnuts
2 tablespoons crushed hazelnuts
2 tablespoons unsalted pumpkin seeds
3 cups water
¼ cup maple syrup
1. In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring almost constantly, about 5 minutes.
2. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until it becomes the consistency of a thick porridge or grits, 10 minutes. Serve hot.
3. The remainder not served can be cooled on a platter until hardened and cut into squares for frying in butter later.
Main photo: Nasaump, a Wampanoag cornmeal grits dish for Thanksgiving. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
When we dine alone we have an unfortunate habit of not treating ourselves with any respect. We sometimes scarf down our food over the sink, or we make a boring sandwich, or we eat too fast, or perhaps have leftovers. I was confronted with this when facing a single piece of leftover tuna in my fridge.
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I always thought writing a book about what a food professional eats when they dine alone would be a cool idea. My friend and fellow Zester Daily writer Deborah Madison and her husband, artist Patrick McFarlin, whose watercolors illustrate “What We Eat When We Eat Alone,” wrote that book so I’m left with this article.
I thought one evening when dining alone that I wanted something a little more elegant than the usual alone fare. One important limitation to dining alone is that one doesn’t want to put much effort into it and that means, theoretically, very little to clean. Eating an elegant dinner alone is an exercise in having your cake and eating, too.
It can be done and this particular “menu” was devised by the strange coincidence of my pot-grown shishito chile plant having only two chiles on it for harvesting, a red one and a green one, and my smaller tomato plant having two tomatoes, and having an abundance of red de arbol chiles from another plant. The tuna was a raw piece that didn’t get used in a recipe test. Presto! Elegant dinner for one.
Another limitation to dining alone is one of motivation. What’s the point if you’re alone? That’s a fair question, and the answer is that it makes you feel good as long as it’s easy. This particular dinner was just that, plus it tasted great, took less than 10 minutes to cook, looked photo-worthy, was plated elegantly and simply, and made me feel like I didn’t even do any work to eat so finely. By any measure, that’s success for cooking for yourself and dining alone. I had three things to clean afterward, the skillet, the plate and the cutlery, all of which took two minutes.
I’m not providing a recipe because that defeats the purpose of simple. This preparation doesn’t need a recipe because there is no preparation, only cooking. The amount all depends on how hungry you are. The evening I made this the amounts described above were enough, but increase the amounts if you’re hungry.
Preheat a cast iron skillet or griddle over high heat for 10 minutes. Rub a piece of tuna (or swordfish), the shishito chiles and the tomatoes with olive oil. Salt everything.
Place the tuna (a 5-ounce piece is ideal), shishito chiles, de arbol chiles and halved tomatoes on the skillet and cook 4½ minutes. Turn everything with a spatula and cook the fish another 4½ minutes, removing any food that is charred beyond what you want. Arrange everything attractively on a plate, drizzle with olive oil, and place a basil leaf on top. That’s dinner!
Main photo: Griddled tuna, chiles and tomatoes. Credit: Clifford A. Wright