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Whether you have vowed to eat more healthfully or are just contemplating the addition of seafood to your diet this year, eventually you may find yourself staring into a refrigerated seafood case, wondering which fish is not only safe and eco-friendly but also a pleasure to eat.
No need to wonder. I have a list of wholesome winners for you. The lineup includes a hearty fish that satisfies meat lovers; one for those preferring mild, “non-fishy” fish; and a versatile, no-fuss shellfish.
The perfect seafood for meat lovers
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First on the menu is Atlantic mackerel. In the same family as tuna, the torpedo-shaped mackerel possesses firm, oily flesh and a rich, beefy taste. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no fish offers more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than mackerel.
Healthful, flavorful and flexible, this fish can be braised, broiled, grilled, poached, sautéed or seared as well as pickled, salted or smoked. Its bold flavor marries with acidic ingredients such as citrus, tomatoes and vinegar and balances out more mellow foods such as lentils, potatoes and mushrooms.
When shopping for Atlantic mackerel, I look for fish sourced from Canada. Caught using purse seines rather than fishing trawlers, it possesses the highest sustainability rating by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Other mackerel varieties, such as Spanish and King, have elevated mercury levels, making them a less favorable choice.
A ‘gateway’ fish
I think of farmed, American channel catfish as the gateway to seafood consumption. Its subtly sweet, low-fat and pliable meat puts it on the opposite end of the flavor spectrum from mackerel. It also makes catfish an excellent choice for reluctant or picky fish eaters.
With a flattened head and eight long, whisker-like barbells dotting the region around its nose and mouth, this creature bears a strong resemblance to its namesake. Typically, though, I don’t see whole catfish, with whiskers intact, in markets. Instead, what I find are skinless catfish fillets. Iridescently white to off-white in color, they often get lumped into the broad category of “white fish.”
Virtually an all-purpose fish, catfish can be baked, braised, broiled, grilled, poached, sautéed, steamed and deep-, pan- or stir-fried. It goes well with countless ingredients, including avocados, bacon, chilies, olives, tomatoes, tomatillos and wine.
Farmed channel catfish from the U.S. is among the most sustainable seafood available today. Be sure to purchase U.S.-farmed rather than imported Asian catfish, which also goes by the names “swai” or “basa.” Although equally low in mercury, imported catfish is not as eco-friendly.
A shellfish to get you started
Maybe you prefer the colorful looks, flavor and texture of shellfish but also desire seafood low in cholesterol and mercury; high in protein, vitamins and minerals; and with moderate levels of omega-3 fatty acids. I have the bivalve for you: mussels.
Inside a mussel’s hard, oblong, green or blue-black shell rests creamy, sweet, juicy meat that tastes like lobster but lacks the high cholesterol or price tag of that crustacean. Rich in protein, vitamins B-12 and C, iron and omega-3s, this shellfish packs a powerful nutritional punch.
Yet another adaptable seafood, mussels may be baked, broiled, grilled, steamed, stewed or smoked. They partner with bold, tart, spicy or mild ingredients such as beer, garlic, mustard, lemon, tomatoes, wine, chilies, curry powder, paprika, pasta, rice and zucchini. They also pair with other seafood, including clams, shrimp, squid, John Dory, snapper and monkfish. If you’ve ever tried the Provencal seafood stew bouillabaisse or Californian cioppino, then you know how nicely mussels combine with these fish and shellfish.
Although dozens of mussel species exist, I usually find farmed blue or common mussels at markets. Grown in abundance and available year-round, farmed mussels garner the coveted “best choice” label from Seafood Watch.
More good seafood choices
Along with this nourishing trio, I would suggest adding littleneck clams, farmed rainbow trout and char to your must-try seafood list. They all possess high nutritional and sustainability ratings. Couple these rankings with ease of preparation and agreeable taste, and you’ve got three more champs to add to your dinner menus.
Fans of bolder foods should also check out Pacific sardines and trap-caught sablefish. Both receive rave environmental, nutritional and cooking reviews, and both provide ample flavor and need little, if any, seasonings to shine.
No matter which type of seafood you favor, aim to make 2015 your year of healthful, sustainable and succulent fish and shellfish.
Smoked Mackerel Jackets
From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013)
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 stuffed baked potatoes
4 large russet potatoes
1/3 cup skim milk, warmed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1 bunch scallions, sliced
1 pound smoked mackerel fillets, flaked
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Using a fork, poke holes in the potatoes. Microwave them on high for 8 to 10 minutes or until hot and softened.
3. Cut the potatoes in half and scoop out most of the flesh, leaving behind a small rim of potato in each skin.
4. Place the potato flesh in a large bowl and, using a fork or spoon, mash together lightly. Add the milk, butter, salt and pepper and mash again until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Add the cheese, scallions and flaked mackerel and stir to combine.
5. Spoon equal amounts of the potato-mackerel mixture back into the skins. Place the filled skins on a baking sheet and bake until warm and golden brown on top, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Seafood on display for customers. Credit: Kathy Hunt
As someone who loves to invite people over for any and every occasion, I’ve developed a short list of what’s needed to pull off a successful soiree. Besides having a good playlist and ample food and drinks, the right tools, and enough of them, will ensure your party is a hit.
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Believe me, running out of clean glasses, forks or plates may make the evening memorable, but it’s not the wisest way to throw an unforgettable celebration.
Through poking around restaurant-supply stores and dishware shops and raiding my late grandmother’s and mother’s dinnerware collections, I’ve amassed enough inexpensive utensils to host half the East Coast. Although you may not have the time, space or obsessive nature to stock up to that extent, you should consider buying, borrowing or renting the following items if you like to host friends and family at your home. Elegant and useful, they’ll impress your guests and reduce your stress.
From sautéed shrimp and ratatouille to mashed potatoes and garlic peas, I use my chafing dish to keep festive foods hot and palatable. Because the dish heats with Sterno, I don’t have to worry about guests tripping over extension cords or accidentally unplugging it. It’s a win-win tool.
I’ve lost track of the number of gatherings spent watching my coffeemaker dribble out 10 cups. I’d pour the steaming coffee into an insulated carafe, toss out the used grounds and make another pot, repeating this ritual until all the caffeine addicts had their sobering fix. Eventually, I grew tired of barista duty and bought a 20-cup coffee urn. Now I fill up the urn, flip on the brewing switch and encourage people to pour a cup of hot coffee whenever they want. It’s the best $25 I’ve ever shelled out.
If you don’t have room to house a coffee urn, invest in a large, insulated carafe instead. Never again will your guests drink cold or burnt coffee. Place your carafe alongside creamers pitchers or gravy boats so guests can have coffee however they like.
Creamers, small pitchers and gravy boats
Pick one of the three and then buy several. In my case, I opted for large, white, nondescript creamers, which I fill with milk, cream, gravy, sauces or syrups. To keep the gravy, sauce or syrup warm, I place the creamers on another entertaining must, a warming tray.
What you don’t spoon into your chafing dish, you can set on a warming tray. This comes in handy for large items such as a platter of roast meats or multiples such as creamers, pitchers or gravy boats. As its name indicates, your food stays warm on this tray.
Punch bowl, with or without cups
When I inherited my mom’s punch bowl set, I thought, “What will I ever do with this old albatross?” The answer, I learned, was serve gallons of mulled cider, spiked eggnog, white sangria and other boozy beverages. The beauty of the punch bowl is you can select a signature cocktail for the night, make the drink right before the guests arrive and then direct your partygoers to help themselves. Better yet, withhold the alcohol, leave a bottle of spirits by the bowl and let your visitors decide whether to imbibe.
Even if you don’t bake, you’ll benefit from owning a cake stand and an optional cake-stand cover. You can layer cookies, brownies, candies, quick breads or flatbreads on its pedestal. You can serve pies, tarts, muffins and cakes from it. Classically stylish, it keeps your treats fresh and appealing.
Oversized plates or platters
Perfect for appetizers, desserts, cheeses, crackers, breads and any other food you might serve, oversized plates or platters are a fundamental part of any large or small feast.
Tongs, pie servers and serving spoons
Even if you’re just offering finger foods, you don’t want your friends’ fingers literally in the food. Inexpensive tongs, pie servers and serving spoons ensure cleanliness and classiness at your fete.
I store party silverware in bain-maries, but you could as easily put your flatware in a cloth napkin-lined basket, Mason jar or decorative box. The goal here is orderliness and not to have mounds of forks, knives and spoons sprawled across your dinner, buffet or coffee table.
Glasses, glasses and more glasses
You can celebrate in style without the linen napkins and tablecloths, metal flatware and ceramic or china dishes. You can likewise revel without lavish decorations or floral displays. What you can’t do without is glassware. Depending on the theme, I set out two or three types of glasses — beer, wine and cocktail. Pint beer glasses can be used for soda, iced tea, lemonade, seltzer, water and, of course, beer. Stemmed wine glasses are ideal for wines, punches and non-alcoholic drinks. Less essential but no less delightful are martini or cocktail glasses. Possessing a conical-shaped bowl, this glass works well with cocktails, punches and bubbly beverages.
Main photo: Plenty of glassware is key for a successful party. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Most of my friends possess heartwarming tales about Thanksgiving, of a day spent roasting aromatic turkeys, peeling and mashing potatoes and hanging out with their families in warm, inviting kitchens. My stories have a far less romantic bent. For me, this holiday brings back memories of my parents bickering over whether to stuff or not stuff the turkey.
In my mother’s eyes, a stuffing-filled turkey was tantamount to serving her guests a platter of salmonella. If you craved a savory dressing, you baked it in a separate dish. In any case, you always roasted your turkey au naturel.
My dad took a different stance. He argued that without a moist, herb-laced stuffing bundled inside, the turkey would be dry and flavorless. So too would the filling isolated in another pan. The two had a symbiotic relationship and needed each other to shine.
Keeping this in mind, he often snuck into the kitchen and shoved a halved onion, celery stalk, slice or two of bread, dried thyme and butter into the bird’s empty cavity. With that, the annual stuffing war commenced.
Over the years I’ve struggled with which position to take. I know history favors the stuffers. Since classical Roman times cooks have filled meat and poultry with sundry foods. Roast pigs packed with sausages and black pudding and geese overflowing with bread, onions and sage commonly graced the Roman dinner table. These additions were used to dress up the main course and make dining less mundane.
By the 19th century, French cooks had upped the ante on dressings. To spice up their offerings, chefs would shape minced and seasoned veal, pork or chicken, which are known as forcemeats, into whimsical shapes. They tucked these objects into roasts, whole fowl or fish. When diners cut into their entrees, they were surprised and amused to find ball-, egg- or carrot-shaped treats inside.
Throughout the ages people have used stuffing to stretch their meals. During tough times, when meat was expensive and scarce, cooks would extend their protein allotments by filling them with hunks of inexpensive bread and seasonings. The starchy stuffing absorbed the roasting meat’s rich juices and produced a hearty side dish.
Is stuffing in the bird a food-safety risk?
Although my dad had tradition and practicality on his side, my mother had the ultimate ally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because of the risk of salmonella poisoning, the USDA advises against stuffing turkeys.
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The problem with filled poultry involves bacteria and undercooking. Unless the stuffing reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 F, bacteria from the turkey will survive and thrive in it. This tainted filling can, in turn, give diners a nasty case of food poisoning.
Common sense tells me to increase the cooking time and temperature of a stuffed turkey. These steps would kill off the bacteria and eliminate the risk of illness. Yet, if I do this, I could end up with fully cooked stuffing and a parched, inedible main dish.
Over the years, I’ve come up with a suitable compromise. In deference to my mother and the USDA, I bake my dressing in a greased baking dish. To keep the stuffing luscious and full-flavored, I may add extra butter or turkey drippings to it. Fat doesn’t dry out in the oven, nor will it turn bread crumbs gooey the way stock sometimes does.
In honor of my dad and his desire for a succulent, full-flavored bird, I also slide a few celery stalks, sliced onions, sprigs of rosemary and thyme and chunks of butter inside the turkey. As the turkey’s temperature nears the requisite 165 degrees, I remove and discard the produce.
For those who have never had to play peacekeeper and stuff or not stuff at will, I offer these bits of advice. If you decide to fill your turkey, cook and then cool your dressing before putting it in the turkey. To prevent bacteria from forming, add the bread crumb mixture right before putting the turkey in the preheated oven. Lastly, loosely and lightly pack the filling so everything cooks evenly.
A dressing that satisfied both my parents’ preferences is this Apple Cider-Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing. Loaded with flavorful fruit and herbs, moistened with apple cider and then baked in its own dish, it’s a delicious detente for the longstanding Thanksgiving stuffing debate.
Apple Cider-Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1 cup apple cider, plus more if needed
1/3 cup chicken stock
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
5 cups toasted cornbread crumbs
1 cup toasted wheat bread crumbs
1 1/4 cup diced Granny Smith apples (about 1 1/2 apples)
1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Place the cranberries, cider and stock in a small bowl. Allow the cranberries to steep in the liquid for 20 minutes or until plumped up and soft.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a large baking dish.
3. In a small sauté pan, heat half the butter. Add the onion and celery and sauté until soft but not browned, about 5 minutes.
4. Spoon the sautéed vegetables into a large bowl with the bread crumbs. Add the cranberries and cider mixture, apples, parsley, rosemary, thyme and salt and stir until the ingredients are well combined. Taste the stuffing to ensure it doesn’t seem too dry. If it needs more liquid, sprinkle up to 1/3 cup cider over the stuffing and stir to combine.
5. Loosely layer the stuffing in the buttered baking dish. Dot the top with pieces of the remaining butter.
6. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the foil and continue to bake for an additional 10 minutes until browned. Serve warm.
Main photo: Apple Cider-Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing. Credit: Kathy Hunt
After spending the summer learning some of the ins and outs of foraging, I was delighted to find a new cookbook dedicated to my all-time favorite foraged food: earthy, meaty mushrooms. Written by Becky Selengut, a Seattle chef, author, teacher, humorist and forager, “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” provides a detailed yet fun-filled look at 15 wild and cultivated mushrooms and how to select, store, clean, prepare and pair each.
A native of New Jersey, Selengut’s infatuation with fungi began in childhood, when she tinkered with cooking white button mushrooms at home and indulged in stuffed mushrooms with her family at the Basque restaurant Jai Alai in Dover, N.J.
“It wasn’t great porcini hunting that day, but he told me how to spot them, just coming up through the duff, and, well, I had beginner’s luck and kicked at the dirt and I found the only ones we saw that day,” Selengut said.
Thrill to unearthing treasure
As Selengut can attest, there is a unique thrill to unearthing one of nature’s edible treasures. An even greater rush occurs when you slip into the kitchen to cook your wild, hand-plucked bounty. But what if you’re a newcomer to mushrooms and unsure how to properly prepare this delicacy?
Realizing that bad recipes and poor cooking techniques have thwarted many prospective mycology fans, Selengut leads “Shroom” readers through basic recipes, storage advice and cleaning tips for mushrooms. She also provides links to handy how-to videos she has filmed. Thanks to her thoroughness and approachability, even the greenest cook can step into the kitchen with confidence and create a scrumptious mushroom dish.
Selengut arranges each chapter of “Shroom” from the simplest to the most difficult recipes. Her first two offerings speak to novice or time-pressed cooks. Perfect for those craving easy dinners ready in 45 minutes or less, they include such flavorful specialties as oyster mushroom ragout and Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beach Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts (see recipe below).
Meals requiring multiple techniques and exotic ingredients are classified as intermediate recipes. With these, readers learn how to whip up Roasted Portobello Tacos With Cacao-Chili Sauce and Cabbage and Lime Slaw; cheese and fig-stuffed morels; and pickled chanterelles. In every chapter, Selengut provides two intermediate dishes.
The remaining fare in “Shroom” speaks to adventurous and skilled home cooks as well as professional chefs. Sauces, meats and sides factor into these preparations. Savory entrees such as Hanger Steak With Porcini, Blue Cheese Butter and Truffled Sweet Potato Frites and Black Trumpet Mushroom Tarts with Camembert, Leeks and Port-Soaked Cherries are part of this advanced category. Although more challenging and time consuming than earlier recipes, these courses remain accessible and delicious.
“My favorite way to prepare mushrooms flavor-wise would be over a live fire — cast-iron skillet on the grill, lid down to capture the wood smoke — or in a wood-burning oven. My favorite way to prepare mushrooms efficiency-wise is to spread them out on a sheet pan and roast them in a hot oven, at least 400 degrees, with a little oil, salt and pepper,” Selengut said.
Countless dishes around the world
In “Shroom” Selengut points out that whether they star or play a supporting role, mushrooms appear in countless dishes around the world. This global presence flavors much of her vibrant book. Vietnamese báhn xèo, Indian tandoori, Italian acquacotta and Japanese chawanmushi all find their way into the cookbook.
So, too, do a variety of wild and farmed mushrooms. Along with the tried and true Portobello, cremini and button, the petite beech, spiky lion’s mane and reddish-orange lobster receive their due.
Among all the uncultivated mushrooms found in the Pacific Northwest and in her book, Selengut singles out the black trumpet mushroom as her favorite. “It’s naturally smoky, earthy and just a little fruity — buckets of flavor and umami. It smells like the sexiest forest imaginable. Favorite cultivated is a tie between maitake and shiitake, both extremely flavorful despite being farmed and lots of promising research about health properties, specifically in preventing and treating cancer,” she said.
Don’t despair if your local market doesn’t stock black trumpet, maitake or even shiitake. For every mushroom featured in “Shroom,” Selengut offers substitutions.
Whether you’re a neophyte or longtime mushroom consumer, you’ll want to check out “Shroom” for its informative and lively look at selecting, cooking and enjoying this fabulous food.
Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beech Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts
Recipe from “Shroom” provided by Becky Selengut. The beech mushrooms are less the star here and more of a textural element used as a garnish. Because of this, it’s extra important to use homemade mushroom stock to highlight the mushroom flavor. This soup started in my mind’s eye somewhere in Thailand (lime leaves, basil) and then — somewhat inexplicably — migrated to West Africa (sweet potatoes, peanuts). This is the perfect kind of soup to serve when it’s raining, you’re snuggled up on the couch with a blanket, a fire is lit, Thai music is playing and a zebra is running through your living room.
Prep Time: about 10 minutes (if not making mushroom stock from scratch)
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 servings
Wine pairing: French Riesling
3 tablespoons coconut oil, divided
1 small yellow onion, small diced (about 1 cup)
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, divided
2 pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and large diced
5 lime leaves (substitute 1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest)
¼ cup white wine
5 cups mushroom stock (see recipe below)
1 tablespoon seasoned rice wine vinegar, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon fish sauce
7 ounces beech mushrooms, base trimmed and broken apart into bite-size clumps
½ cup lightly packed fresh Thai basil
⅓ cup roasted, salted peanuts, chopped
Chili oil (see recipe below) or store-bought Asian chili oil, for garnish
1. In a soup pot over medium-high heat, melt 1½ tablespoons of the coconut oil. After a moment, add the onion and ¼ teaspoon of the salt and sauté for 10 minutes, until starting to brown. Add the sweet potatoes and lime leaves. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, then turn the heat to high, add the wine, and deglaze the pan, scraping up any brown bits. Add the stock, bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook until the sweet potato cubes are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.
2. Add the rice wine vinegar. Remove the lime leaves. Puree the soup in a blender until very smooth, or puree in the pan using an immersion blender. Season with the fish sauce, another ¼ teaspoon salt and more rice wine vinegar. If you feel it needs more salt, add more fish sauce (a little at a time). Keep tasting until it’s right for you.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the beech mushroom mixture. In a large sauté pan over high heat, melt the remaining 1½ tablespoons of coconut oil. After a moment, add the mushrooms and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Toss the mushrooms around in the oil, and then spread them out. The idea is to get them to release their liquid and brown quickly. When they brown, stir in the basil and peanuts and transfer to a small bowl.
4. Serve the soup in wide bowls, garnished with the mushroom mixture and drizzled with chili oil.
From “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” by Becky Selengut.
You won’t be sorry you took the time to make your own. As you cook and are busy prepping vegetables and such — carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, parsley, thyme — save the trimmings instead of tossing or composting them. (Skip vegetables such as kale, cabbage, broccoli or anything with a dominating flavor or color that you wouldn’t want in a mushroom stock — no beets!)
To make the stock, add these vegetable scraps to a quart-size resealable plastic bag that lives in the freezer. When the bag is full, you are ready to make your stock. At the market, pick up a small onion, a handful of fresh shiitake mushrooms and some dried porcini. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Drizzle a little high-heat oil on a rimmed baking pan. Throw the shiitakes, along with the chopped-up onion, onto the pan, and toss with the oil. Roast until caramelized, about 20 minutes. Deglaze the pan with a little wine or water, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the pan. Dump the mushrooms and onions, along with the liquid, into a stockpot along with the contents of that freezer bag (no need to thaw) and a few rehydrated pieces of dried porcini (along with the strained soaking liquid). Cover with 3 quarts water, chuck in about 5 peppercorns, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Pour the contents of the pot through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. You should end up with about 2 quarts mushroom stock.
Want to make vegetable stock? Do the same thing, but just use fewer mushrooms and more vegetables (and a big flavor bonus if you roast some of the vegetables as you would the shiitake and onion). If you want to make mushroom stock but don’t have a full bag of trimmings in the freezer, just use an assortment of vegetables and mushrooms (equaling roughly 1 quart) and follow the same general procedure. See the video on making mushroom stock at www.shroomthecookbook.com.
From “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” by Becky Selengut.
You can find many varieties of bottled chili oil in Asian markets or online, but it’s ridiculously easy to make a batch from scratch and store it in your fridge. Plus, your homemade oil contains none of the additives and preservatives that are commonly added to the bottled versions. To make your own, in a small saucepan set over medium heat, combine 1 cup peanut or coconut oil, along with 3 to 5 tablespoons red pepper flakes (see note). (The quantity will depend on how hot you want the oil to be.) Heat the oil to 300 F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove the pan from the heat and try not to breathe in the fumes!
Let the oil cool to 250 F, and then add 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil and 2 tablespoons minced, roasted, unsalted peanuts. Transfer to a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar. Seal the jar, shake it a few times to distribute the ingredients and leave at room temperature for 2 days. Refrigerate. It will keep for at least 1 month, if not longer, in the fridge.
Note: You can purchase whole dried chiles, toast them in a dry pan until flexible and fragrant, and then pulse them in the food processor, or just use regular bottled red pepper flakes.
Main photo: “Shroom” is written by chef Becky Selengut. Credit: Book cover photo by Clare Barboza; Selengut photo by Greg Mennegar
At times, just thinking about Halloween causes my stomach to lurch. No, it’s not the creepy costumes, scary movies and pervasive pranks that make me queasy with fright. Rather, it’s the mounds of sickeningly sweet, artificially flavored, mass-produced candies that show up in my house every Halloween season that give me tummy aches.
For as long as I can remember, Oct. 31 has meant collecting and eating gobs of individually wrapped, store-bought candy. Yet, there was a time when Halloween served reverent roles and featured much tastier and more nutritious foods than candy corn and peanut butter cups.
Halloween descends from harvest festivals, fall celebrations
During ancient times, Celtic tribes in what are now Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom held annual three-day harvest festivals known as Samhain. Beginning at dusk on Oct. 31, these feasts marked the end of summer and the temporary abundance of foods, such as apples, potatoes, turnips, cabbage and grains.
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Along with celebrating the season’s bounty, the Celts used this time to remember and communicate with their ancestors. They believed that on Oct. 31 the doors to the afterlife opened, and on that night the living could interact with the dead.
Although by the 7th century the pagan Celts had converted to Christianity, many of their autumnal customs remained. On Hallow’s Eve or All Hallow’s Eve, which fell one day before the Catholic Church’s All Souls’ Day, Europeans remembered their dead by placing lighted candles on loved ones’ graves and in hollowed out beets, potatoes and turnips. The forerunner to the modern-day jack-o’-lantern, the “neep lantern” was said to symbolize a soul trapped in purgatory. They were placed in the windows of homes to welcome departed relations and friends.
Apples starred in harvest celebrations
Harvest fetes still took place in the Middle Ages. Apples remained a star of these occasions and were made into tarts, pies, breads, dumplings, puddings and cakes.
So plentiful was this fruit that people set out apples for the dead and used them to tell fortunes. If you saw two seeds in your apple, you’d soon marry. Three seeds indicated future wealth.
Potatoes were equally important to Hallow’s Eve meals. In Ireland and Scotland, colcannon — mashed potatoes, onions and cabbage — was such a popular Oct. 31 dish that the date became known as “Colcannon Night.”
On Colcannon Night, cooks hid small favors inside bowls of colcannon as well as in champ, potatoes mashed together with leeks and buttermilk. Supposedly, guests’ fates were determined by the tokens they found. If you received a dried pea in your serving of mashed potatoes, you’d have prosperity. Dig out a coin and you’d achieve great wealth. Unearth a thimble and you’d be destined for spinsterhood.
Nuts also acted as prognosticators. Before going to bed on Hallow’s Eve, people would mash together walnuts, hazelnuts, nutmeg, butter and sugar and consume the concoction in the hopes of having prophetic dreams. Earlier in the evening, they roasted walnuts or chestnuts over an open fire to determine the nature of future relationships. If the toasted nuts tasted bitter, they’d end up in an unhappy marriage. If the nuts seemed sweet, they’d have a pleasant spouse.
In addition to telling fortunes, food played a major part in the medieval act of “souling.” On Hallow’s Eve, the poor would travel from house to house, offering to pray for the souls of the dead. In return they requested soul cakes, small, spiced buns studded with currants and other dried fruit. Every household seemed to possess an endless supply of soul cakes. It sounds a bit like trick-or-treating, minus the sugary confections and pranks.
Irish, Scots brought Halloween to America
Although this holiday has a long, rich history in the United Kingdom, it didn’t permeate American culture until the mid-19th century. It was then that famines in Ireland drove millions of Irish immigrants to the United States. Wherever the Irish and, to some extent, the Scots went, Halloween, as it came to be called, went with them.
In America, Halloween took on new customs and flavors. Large, plump, orange gourds replaced turnips and other root vegetables in those hand-carved lanterns for the dead. At parties, apples took the form of entertainment, as in bobbing for apples, and in drinks, such as apple cider and juice. Guests no longer pulled tokens from bowls of mashed potatoes. Instead they pulled strands of boiled sugar and butter to make taffy.
By the end of World War II, Americans had largely abandoned plain apples, nuts and homemade Halloween treats for commercially produced candy. The sugar-corn syrup-wax combination known as candy corn became all the rage. So, too, did individually wrapped sweets. Unquestionably, the passion for store-bought goods continues to this day.
Rather than defy current customs, I’ll continue to stock up on bags of chocolate bars and gummy worms. However, I do plan on giving my belly a break and keeping my own stash of historic Halloween treats. At the top of my cache will be spiced nuts. Hearkening back to the tradition of eating walnuts and hazelnuts with nutmeg, sugar and butter, I created the following Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: Makes 3½ cups
1½ cups walnuts
1¼ cups hazelnuts
¾ cup pecans
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon allspice
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Spread the nuts over a large baking sheet and bake, tossing once or twice, for 10 minutes or until golden in color.
3. As the nuts are toasting, melt the butter. Place it along with the cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and allspice in a large bowl and stir to combine.
4. Once the nuts have toasted, add them to the bowl and stir until all the nuts are coated with the spice mixture. Cool to room temperature and serve.
Main photo: Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Although serious, tromp-through-the-woods foragers may scoff at my claim, I’ve begun to think of the past few months as my season of foraged foods. With camera, notebook and canvas tote in hand, I’ve been heading off to southeastern Pennsylvania every other weekend to see old friends and collect uncultivated fruit on their 30-acre farm.
There, on the edge of a dense thicket, we’ve plucked black raspberries, wineberries and blackberries from jagged vines and snapped mulberries, elderberries and sprays of delicate elderflowers from their leafy branches.
Thanks to these excursions and my friends’ vast knowledge of wild plants, I’ve learned to differentiate between the edible and poisonous, and the ripe and unripe; often there is a direct correlation between ripeness and edibility. I’ve also developed an even greater appreciation for local, seasonal and oft-forgotten foods.
Ground cherries known by many names
Topping my list of wild, wondrous and overlooked fruits is the dainty ground cherry. Found dangling from low, bushy plants in early fall, a ground cherry resembles a tiny Chinese lantern or pint-sized tomatillo. Similar to tomatillos and tomatoes, it is a member of the nightshade family. Occasionally, it goes by the names husk tomato, strawberry tomato, cape gooseberry and its scientific genus, physalis.
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When ripe, the ground cherry drops off the plant and onto the ground. If you pick up the fruit and peel back its straw-colored, tissue-like husk, you uncover a waxy amber berry that looks a bit like a cranberry or small cherry. Bite into the ripe berry’s thin skin and you will taste a pleasing combination of pineapple, strawberry and apricot. Sweet but not cloying, juicy but not sticky, this is an extraordinary little fruit.
What amazes me most about the ground cherry is that until a few weeks ago I had never eaten or even seen one. Considering that ground cherries are indigenous to the Americas, can be found in every state except Alaska and are commonly grows in the East and Midwest, I am stunned by my ignorance.
And yet, I’m not. In spite of the plant’s ability to thrive in poor soils, survive neglect and produce baskets of beautiful berries, the ground cherry has never caught on in the United States. Only Native Americans have been known to consume copious quantities of this vitamin C-rich fruit.
Outside the U.S., people feel more passionately about ground cherries. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the south of France and other temperate regions of Europe cultivate these plants commercially.
In Europe and elsewhere, cooks put ground cherries in pies, compotes, jams and sauces. Some dry the sweet berries and use them as flavorful substitutes for raisins in breads, scones, cookies and sweet rolls. Others pull back but leave on the fruits’ calyx, using the husks as handles to dip the raw berries into melted chocolate or caramel.
In England ground cherries appear in home decor as well as in desserts. Left in their paper shells, the long-lasting fruit brightens floral decorations during the winter months.
Although I may have lucked out and found a private source, you don’t have to drive hours or befriend farm owners to get ground cherries. Imported from New Zealand, they are available in springtime at well-stocked grocery stores. You can also find them in the fall at farm stands and farmers markets.
If you can’t track them down, you can always attempt to grow your own. Flourishing in a variety of soils and in garden pots, ground cherries require little else besides a sunny spot. The plants reach about 3 feet in height and possess green, somewhat velvety, heart-shaped leaves.
Whether you’re collecting them from the ground or a local market, look for fruit that’s plump and golden to orange-yellow in color. Green ground cherries are unripe and may prove poisonous for some consumers.
Choose berries that are still encased in their parchment covers. To prevent spoilage, leave them in their husks until you’re ready to consume them.
Placed in a paper bag and refrigerated, ground cherries will keep for several months. Before using them, pull off the husk and wash off the fruit. Ripe ground cherries can be eaten raw or cooked.
Ground Cherry Crumble
Prep Time: 5 to 10 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 35 to 40 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
3¼ cups ground cherries
1 large Granny Smith or other tart apple, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
¾ cup rolled oats
¼ cup all-purpose flour
Pinch ground ginger
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into chunks
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Grease a deep 8-inch baking dish and set aside.
2. Toss together the ground cherries, apple, lemon juice and granulated sugar. Spoon the mixture into the greased baking dish.
3. In a separate bowl, stir together the brown sugar, rolled oats, flour and ginger. Using your fingers or a fork, incorporate the chunks of butter until you have a well-formed, crumbly topping.
4. Spread the topping evenly over the ground cherries. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and bubbling. Serve warm.
Main photo: Ground cherry crumble. Credit: Kathy Hunt