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In the summer of 1968, I was introduced to the secrets of Mexican cooking. At that time Mexican food was not something you knew or thought much about if, like me, you were a Jewish American princess from Connecticut. I had tasted tacos on an Acapulco beach while on vacation with friends in 1963, and had never forgotten them, but I didn’t know what it was that made them taste so good.
Five years later I was a socially active high school graduate who also happened to have a curious palate. I spent that summer working with migrant farm workers from South Texas as a camper-volunteer at an American Friends Service Committee Quaker youth work camp in Central Michigan. Our group had been assigned to help with a housing grant for migrant farm workers who wanted to relocate to Michigan and work in the auto industry. But at the last minute the money did not come through, so when we arrived the counselors had to find something for us to do. Instead of building houses we became, in essence, social workers and activity planners for the children who lived in the migrant camps. We created a little school for the younger children to attend during the day while their parents worked in the fields, and every night we’d visit the camps and organize activities like baseball games and dances.
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I became close to a few of the families. I got to know the kids well and spent time with the parents. One woman in particular, Señora Saenz, a large woman who had 10 children, took a liking to me. I visited the Saenz family every night in their little cabin, which smelled pleasantly of cumin and chili. Here, in the Saenzes’ one-room cabin, I realized that those two spices were the key to my long-ago taste memory from Acapulco.
I had developed a passion for cooking the previous summer, and at the Quaker work camp I took over in the kitchen early on, cooking feverishly for the group of 24 every night. I wrote to my stepmother, requesting that she send casserole recipes, and she hastily dispatched a sheaf of index cards. I had a huge kitchen to work in, but I had to pull off the recipes using pretty awful ingredients: USDA surplus items, standard issue for welfare recipients.
A lesson in cooking Mexican food
One day when I was visiting Señora Saenz, I asked if she and her older daughters would teach me to cook Mexican food. I offered to teach them how to make a cake in exchange, although I knew nothing about baking beyond cake mixes. The family was enthusiastic, and the next evening when I arrived at the camp they had all the ingredients ready for beef tacos and enchiladas — chili and cumin, onion and ground beef, corn tortillas and oil, tomatoes, tomato sauce, cheese and chilies.
Mrs. Saenz showed me how to heat the oil in a frying pan and sizzle the cumin and chili powder before adding the onions and browning the meat to make picadillo. Once the meat was cooked, she showed me how to season and soften the tortillas in cumin- and chili powder-spiked oil before making enchiladas. Then she showed me how to make a red sauce for enchiladas. We made some quick tacos with the beef picadillo and shredded cabbage, then we made enchiladas. Afterward I opened my box of cake mix, added what needed to be added and baked a cake, which we finished with white frosting from the box. In retrospect, I am sure that Mrs. Saenz and her daughters probably knew how to make cake from scratch, but nobody said anything about it.
At the end of the summer when I went home, one of the first things I did was give a Mexican dinner party for my friends. I scoured the markets in Westport, Conn., looking for corn tortillas. It was a challenge (it would be another two decades before decent Mexican food or even Tex-Mex was accessible beyond the border states). I finally found them — corn tortillas packed in a flat yellow can — in the exotic foods section of the local supermarket. I wonder how long they’d been there. Who was making Mexican food in Connecticut in 1968? I made exactly what Señora Saenz had taught me to cook — tacos and enchiladas. My friends loved the meal.
I had no idea then that, five years later, I would decide to make a career of cooking. By then I was living in Texas and had spent quite a lot of time in Mexico. I was also now a vegetarian and no longer made the beef picadillo I had learned to make in Michigan. But when I made enchiladas or refried beans I still used the techniques I had learned from Señora Saenz — sizzling the spices in oil before adding other ingredients and seasoning the oil for the tortillas with cumin and chili powder. That’s why I was able to develop my first signature dish, Black Bean Enchiladas, and that’s why they were so good.
Refried Bean Tostadas
Prep time: About 30 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours unsupervised cooking for the beans; 15 minutes for the refried beans
Total time: 3 hours (2 hours unsupervised)
Yield: 4 servings
For the beans:
½ pound (about 1⅛ cups) black beans, pinto beans, or similar heirlooms, washed and picked over for stones, soaked for at least 4 hours or overnight in 1 quart water
1 medium onion, cut in half
2 large garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup chopped cilantro
Salt to taste (I think beans need a lot, at least 1 teaspoon per quart of water used)
1. Place beans and soaking water into a large, heavy pot. Add halved onion and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any foam that rises, then add garlic and half the cilantro, reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes.
2. Add salt and continue to simmer another 1 to 1½ hours, until beans are quite soft and broth is thick and fragrant. Taste and adjust salt. Stir in remaining cilantro. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove and discard onion. For the best flavor, refrigerate overnight.
For the tostadas:
The simmered beans, above
2 tablespoons grape-seed, sunflower or canola oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
2 teaspoons mild chili powder
8 corn tortillas
¾ pound ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
1 to 2 serrano or jalapeño chilies (to taste), minced
2 slices red or white onion, finely chopped and soaked for 5 minutes in water to cover, then drained, rinsed, and drained on paper towels
¼ cup chopped cilantro (more to taste)
Fresh lime juice and salt to taste
2 cups shredded cabbage
2 small or 1 large, ripe avocado, diced or sliced
¼ cup chopped toasted almonds
About 3 ounces (¾ cup) queso fresco for crumbling
1. Drain off about ½ cup of liquid from the beans, retaining it in a separate bowl to use later for moistening the beans should they dry out. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy nonstick frying pan and add the ground cumin and chili. Cook, stirring over medium heat, for about a minute, until the spices begin to sizzle and cook. Add the beans. Fry the beans, stirring and mashing with the back of a spoon, potato masher or a wooden pestle until they thicken and begin to get crusty on the bottom. Stir up the crust each time it forms, and mix into the beans. Cook until the beans are thick but not dry, 10 to 15 minutes. They will continue to thicken and dry out when you remove them from the heat. Add liquid you saved from the beans if they seem too dry, but save some of the liquid for moistening the beans before you reheat them, if you are serving them later. Taste the refried beans and adjust the salt (they probably won’t need any as the broth reduces when you refry them).
2. Cut the tortillas in half. To toast in the microwave, place as many as will fit in a single layer and cook for 1 minute. The tortillas will be moist on the bottom. Flip them over and microwave for another minute. If they are not yet crisp, flip again and zap for 30 seconds to a minute. Alternatively, deep-fry the tortillas in sunflower oil or grape-seed oil until crisp and drain on paper towels.
3. In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, chilies, onion and cilantro. Season to taste with salt. Stir in the lime juice if using. Let sit for 15 to 30 minutes for the best flavor.
4. Spread a layer of refried beans (about 2 tablespoons) over each tortilla half. Top with cabbage. Spoon salsa over the cabbage and top with sliced or diced avocado, a sprinkling of chopped toasted almonds and a sprinkling of queso fresco.
Advance preparation: The refried beans will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. Set aside in the pan if you are serving within a few hours. Otherwise, transfer the beans to a lightly oiled baking dish, cover and refrigerate. To reheat, cover with foil and bake in a 325 F oven for 20 minutes.
Main photo: Black Bean Tostadas. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman
There’s something incredibly comforting about a meal in a bowl. Noodle bowls — ramen, soba, phô — are familiar to most people these days, and I love these meals. But lately I’ve been focused on another type of meal in a bowl that isn’t a soup.
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I call them “big bowls.” The ones that I make are vegetarian, though there is always room for meat in a big bowl.
Each element of a big bowl is itself a side dish, but when you combine everything, the sum of the parts is a main dish. The first layer is always a bed of cooked whole grains that serves as a vehicle for a delectable vegetable or vegetable and bean dish. The vegetables and/or beans are in turn garnished with something flavorful — a salsa, pungent garlic yogurt, a spice mix like dukkah, fresh herbs or robust cheeses. You can also add nuts for texture and flavor. I supplement many of my vegetarian big bowls — the ones that don’t include beans — with proteins like poached eggs or marinated oven-baked tofu.
Big bowls suit families. You can mix and match grains and vegetable toppings, depending on your family’s preferences. The kids can eat each element separately, as kids are wont to do. Most of the elements in my big bowls are dishes that can be prepared ahead, so that the actual work is just a question of composing the bowls when you’re ready to eat. Cooked grains, for example, will keep for three days in the refrigerator (at least), as will bean dishes (always better the day after you make them). Baked marinated tofu is great for a week, if you can resist eating it all at once. This means you can be a weekend cook and still make wonderful, filling weeknight meals.
Big Bowl With Quinoa, Roasted Beets, Beet Greens, Garlic Yogurt and Walnuts or Dukkah
A great summer dish that’s good hot or at room temperature. I like beets and greens with lighter grains like bulgur or quinoa, but I wouldn’t say no to just about any grain topped with this Greek favorite.
Prep time: 20 minutes (can prep and cook some elements while beets are roasting)
Cooking time: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Total time: About 1 hour 15 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
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3 to 4 cups cooked quinoa (to taste)
Roasted beets with wilted greens (recipes below)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, parsley or mint
Juice of 1 lemon (more or less to taste)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Garlic yogurt (recipe below)
3 tablespoons chopped walnuts or 2 tablespoons dukkah (recipe below)
1. Spoon quinoa into wide or deep bowls.
2. Top with the roasted beets (diced and seasoned with half the herbs and lemon juice to taste) and wilted beet greens.
3. Drizzle olive oil over the vegetables.
4. Top with garlic yogurt.
5. Sprinkle dukkah or chopped walnuts and remaining chopped herbs over the yogurt.
2 bunches of beets with generous greens (2 different color beets if possible)
1. Preheat the oven to 425 F.
2. Cut the greens away from the beets, leaving about ¼ inch of stems. Scrub the beets and place in a baking dish or lidded ovenproof casserole.
3. Add ¼ to ½ inch of water to the dish. Cover tightly. Place in the oven and roast small beets (3 ounces/100 g or less) for 30 to 40 minutes, medium beets (4 to 6 ounces/115 to 180 g) 40 to 45 minutes, and large beets (8 ounces/225 g) 50 to 60 minutes, until easily penetrated with the tip of a knife. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the covered baking dish. Cut away the ends and slip off the skins when ready to use.
4. Dice the beets, toss with half the chopped fresh herbs and lemon juice to taste, and set aside.
Advance preparation: Unpeeled roasted beets keep well in the refrigerator for up to five days, even a week.
Seasoned Wilted Greens
1 or 2 bunches beet greens, stemmed and washed in 2 changes of water
1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Wilt the greens by blanching or steaming for about 1 minute. Shock in cold water. Drain and squeeze out excess water, a handful of wilted greens at a time. Chop medium-fine.
2. Heat olive oil in a skillet, add garlic and as soon as garlic is fragrant, add greens and salt and pepper to taste. Stir greens in olive oil for about a minute, until infused with olive oil, and garlic. Remove from heat.
Advance preparation: Wilted greens will keep for three or four days in the refrigerator in a covered bowl and freeze well for a month or two. Wilted seasoned greens will keep for two or three days but the fresher they are the better.
1 to 2 plump garlic cloves
1 to 2 cups drained or Greek yogurt
1. Mash the garlic, cut in half with green shoots removed, with ¼ teaspoon salt to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Stir into the yogurt.
Advance preparation: Don’t do this too far in advance. The garlic will become more pungent and eventually it will taste acrid.
This Middle Eastern nut and spice mix has become a staple in my home. I sprinkle it on all sorts of vegetable preparations, on yogurt, sometimes just into the palm of my hand to eat as a snack. In the Middle East, bread and raw vegetables are dipped in olive oil and then dipped into or sprinkled with dukkah. It goes hand in hand with drained yogurt. The mix has many variations, differing from cook to cook and country to country in the Middle East.
Yield: About 1¼ cups
½ cup lightly toasted unsalted peanuts, almonds or hazelnuts (or a combination)
¼ cup lightly toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons nigella seeds
1 teaspoon ground sumac
½ teaspoon kosher salt or coarse see salt (or to taste)
1. Chop the nuts very fine. Mix with the toasted sesame seeds in a bowl.
2. In a dry skillet lightly toast the coriander seeds just until fragrant and immediately transfer to a spice mill and allow to cool.
3. In the same skillet toast the cumin seeds just until fragrant and transfer to the spice mill. Allow to cool.
4. When the spices have cooled, grind and add to the nuts and sesame seeds. Add the nigella seeds, sumac and salt and mix together.
Advance preparation: Dukkah will keep for at least a month in a jar if you keep it in the freezer.
Main photo: Big Bowl with Quinoa, Roasted Beets, Beet Greens and Garlic Yogurt. Credit: Laurie Smith
Dayle Hayes, a registered dietician, was not happy. That was clear from the moment she began her presentation at the Culinary Institute of America’s “Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids” initiative May 8 in San Antonio. In the morning she had watched Katie Couric, on national television, present a 10-minute clip from her new film “Fed Up” that detailed the nutritional horrors of the school lunch program.
“This information is out of date! It only tells half the story!” Hayes said.
Hayes is the founder of School Meals That Rock, a blog whose purpose is to communicate the positive developments in school lunch programs across the country. Presenting at a session titled “Best Practices for Increasing Participation: Making the Most of Social Media and Social Marketing,” she then exhorted the participants at the conference to put online their photos of salad bars and nutritionally sound school lunches. “Post it, Pin it, Tweet it, Eat it!!!” she told participants, most of whom either administer or cook for school lunch programs and have made it their mission to improve the diets of young Americans through their programs.
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“We are in competition with a lot of Mommy bloggers who only see the negative side of school lunches. And “Fed Up” is going to be huge. We need to show the good work that we are doing. Take pictures in your cafeterias and send them to me so that I can post them on School Meals That Rock — but please, make sure they’re in focus! Post your menus online. Use social media!”
School Meals That Rock has a Facebook page that Hayes describes as “a place to share and celebrate what is RIGHT with school nutrition in America. It is a counter-revolution to the media bashing of school meals and a tribute to every lunch lady (and gentleman) working to do amazing things for kids’ nutrition.”
On May 12, School Meals That Rock launched a “Dear Katie Couric, Let’s Do School Lunch” campaign. (#InviteKatieCouricToSchoolLunch). Starting on the West Coast and moving east every few days, Hayes has invited her followers to post invitations to Katie Couric to visit their lunch programs on the Facebook page, on Twitter, on the School Meals That Rock Pinterest board and on the School Meals That Rock website.
Within 24 hours, Couric and @SchoolMealsRock were engaged in a lively conversation on Twitter, and lunch programs from school districts in Alaska, Washington and Oregon had posted invitations with winning photos from their schools and links to their sites. The next day California came on board. On May 15, Hayes posted a call-out to Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana and Arizona.
More invitations have gone up by the hour on the Facebook page. Each virtual invitation has a great photo — kids on a farmers market salad bar line, kids making food, plated good food in school cafeterias — overlaid with the invitation to Couric and a link to the specific school lunch program site or school district site.
Overlays of the small yellow invitation photo give a little information about what the school district is doing, and you can scroll down the post to get more information. Here are just a few examples of the invitations that have gone out since the campaign began:
“Dear Katie Couric,
Let’s do school lunch!
They make some delicious soups from scratch in Walla Walla, Washington.”
* * *
“Dear Katie Couric,
Let’s do school lunch!
In Solvang, California, they ‘rescue’ organic veggies and kids love them on the daily salad bar at lunch!”
* * *
“Dear Katie Couric,
Let’s do school lunch!
Rosa might make you some of her famous Oregon roasted red potatoes with rosemary at the Bethel School District in Eugene, Oregon.”
* * *
I love scrolling down this page and reading about what the school districts are doing, because it is truly impressive and it gives me some hope. In Lodi, Calif., the food service department teams up with Food for Thought and brings fresh produce from local farms to elementary school students.
They teach students about the benefits of fruits and vegetables, and students use “school bucks” to shop for fresh produce. Another small California school district, El Monte, posts that they have “rock star status because they work closely with the Clinton Foundation and The Alliance for a Healthier Generation.” That district also makes “AWESOME fresh whole grain sub rolls!” A small school in the Santa Ynez Valley of California works with the Santa Ynez Valley Fruit & Vegetable Rescue and offers items such as roasted organic fennel and kale chips. In Haines, Alaska, they’re serving “fresh boat-to-school crab cakes.”
I hope that Couric and Laurie David, one of the film’s producers, visit some of these schools. Many school districts in this country have a long way to go, but thanks to the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, dedicated school nutrition professionals now have access to healthier foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and quality dairy products such as yogurt. This is especially true of districts that provide subsidized school lunches. After reading about the crab cakes in Haines, I thought a virtual visit would not be good enough for me — If I were Katie Couric I’d make a beeline for Alaska.
Main photo: In La Semilla, New Mexico, FoodCorps service members are learning to help students love kale in salad and tacos. Credit: Courtesy of School Meals That Rock Pinterest board
Probiotics have been quite the hot topic for some time now. We are beginning to understand more about the importance of these beneficial bacteria, or microflora, in our guts — not only in maintaining digestive health, but also in boosting our immune systems. At a minimum, if you’ve seen Jamie Lee Curtis extolling the virtues of Activia yogurt in television commercials, you may have some vague idea that probiotics are the answer to undisclosed, unseemly tummy issues, especially if you are a middle-aged woman.
Some of the advertising claims for commercial yogurts can be a bit far-fetched or vague, but there is now a lot of good evidence in the scientific literature supporting the benefits of probiotics, including immunity enhancement, improvement of lactose digestion, treatment of diarrhea in infants and treatment of constipation, improved tolerance to antibiotic therapy and reduced symptoms of respiratory infections. Cultures around the world that eat fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and kimchi have been on to this for centuries.
The secret to probiotics
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I thought I understood the concept of probiotics until I heard a talk by nutritionist and Stanford University dietitian Jo Ann Hattner. She coauthored, with Susan Anderes, “Gut Insight: Probiotics and Prebiotics For Digestive Health and Well-Being.” What I had not understood was that probiotics do not thrive on their own. They have to be replaced every few days, and they have to be nourished.
“Bacteria have to eat, too,” Hattner says, and it turns out there are certain foods they really love. These are foods that are high in specific nondigestible, fermentable carbohydrates (fibers), or prebiotics. The fibers are not digested in the stomach — they survive its acidity, and when they arrive in the colon they are fermented by the beneficial microflora that they encounter there. Scientists believe that the acids resulting from this fermentation decrease the pH levels in the colon, and this is detrimental to the survival of pathogenic bacteria. Probiotics and prebiotics have a synergistic relationship and the end result for us, the host, is increased gastrointestinal health and boosted immunity.
Prebiotic foods to consider
Scientists have begun to isolate some of these prebiotic elements. Measurable amounts of two of them, oligosaccharides and inulin, have been found in bananas, chicory root, burdock, dandelion greens, garlic, onions, leeks, globe artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, mushrooms, green tea, wild blueberries, kiwis, salsify, whole wheat, barley, and rye. These are foods that Hattner designates as “prebiotic stars.” Other foods that scientists are studying because they think they have “prebiotic potential” include apples, berries, raisins, tomatoes, greens, legumes, oats, brown rice, whole grain corn, buckwheat, flaxseed, almonds and honey. However, they need more human studies before they can be assessed as “stars.”
Spring is a great season to take advantage of many of the “prebiotic stars.” I’ve built a big bowl using six prebiotic stars and potentials, which I top with yogurt, so the synergistic relationship between these ingredients begins on the plate itself. Mind you, I am not one to create dishes because of health-related attributes in the ingredients — deliciousness is always my goal. The stew is a wonderful Mediterranean stew, and the big bowl makes a wonderfully hearty vegetarian meal. The prebiotic/probiotic attributes in the dish are a healthy and delightful coincidence.
In this dish, the prebiotic stars and potential stars are:
- Fava beans
The probiotic bonus is the garlic yogurt that garnishes the big bowl.
Big Bowl With Barley, Spring Vegetable Stew and Yogurt
For the stew:
Juice of 1 lemon
6 baby artichokes or small artichokes
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound spring onions, white and light green parts only, chopped (about 1½ cups)
½ cup chopped celery, preferably from the heart of the bunch
1 bulb green garlic, papery shells removed, chopped
1 large fennel bulb (1 to 1¼ pounds), trimmed, quartered, cored, and chopped (3 to 3½ cups chopped)
½ cup water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 bunch baby turnips, with greens, turnips scrubbed and quartered, greens stemmed and washed
1½ pounds fava beans, shelled
2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds or chopped fresh mint (or a combination)
3 cups cooked barley
1⅓ cups Greek yogurt, with 1 mashed garlic clove stirred in if desired
Chopped fresh dill, parsley or mint (or a combination) for garnish
1. Fill a bowl with water and add lemon juice. Trim the artichokes, quarter them and place in the water as you go along.
2. Heat oil over medium heat in a large, heavy, lidded skillet or Dutch oven and add onions and celery. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, stir for about a minute, until you can smell the fragrance of the garlic, and add fennel and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the fennel has softened.
3. Drain artichoke hearts and add to the pan, along with the baby turnips. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add ½ cup water and salt to taste and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, blanch the turnip greens in a pot of salted boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes, until tender. Using a skimmer or a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl of cold water, then drain and squeeze out excess moisture. Chop medium-fine. Bring the pot of water from the greens back to a boil and drop in the shelled favas. Boil 1 minute, then transfer to a bowl or cold water. Drain and skin the favas. Set aside.
5. When the simmering vegetables are very tender and fragrant, stir in the blanched turnip greens, skinned favas, the chopped fennel fronds and/or mint and simmer for 5 more minutes. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
6. Spoon a generous serving of cooked barley into each wide bowl. Top with the vegetables, making sure to spoon broth over the barley. Place a spoonful of yogurt on top, sprinkle with parsley, dill or mint, and serve.
Main photo: Prebiotic stars among spring vegetables. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman
In the heyday of 1970s vegetarianism, quiche was the go-to dish. Everybody was making them. When I taught vegetarian cooking classes then, quiche (not the classic quiche lorraine with lardons, of course) would be one of the first recipes I’d teach. I made them by the sheet pan for catering jobs; they were extremely popular, even though I now know that the crusts I made in those days weren’t very good, and the formula I used for the custard wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the formula I use now.
Then quiche went out of fashion. This happened gradually, as Italian food stepped into vogue and Julia Child gave way to Marcella Hazan. I was living in France during this period of time, and since the classics of French cuisine are not fashion-driven, I could always get a good quiche. They were and are standard savory fare at just about every French bakery. I found entire boutiques devoted to savory tarts, and learned a lot about fillings.
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I let quiche slide for a number of years myself, as I focused more on Mediterranean pies and chose olive oil over butter. But after working with Jacquy Pfeiffer on his prize-winning book, “The Art of French Pastry,” I became enamored again with the quiche. I learned Jacquy’s formula for a rich, savory pie crust that is easy to roll out, and my adaptation, made with half whole wheat flour, rolls out as easily as his. It is luscious, nutty and flaky, quite irresistible. I also learned from Jacquy to let my vegetable filling air out so its moisture would evaporate and not dilute the custard, and to make the custard with a combination of egg yolks and whole eggs. “The yolk’s lecithin is a great emulsifier that brings the water and fat together,” says Jacquy, “while the white is a great binder. Using only egg yolks … would give the tart an eggy aftertaste. Using only whole eggs would … make the custard too firm.” Who knew?
My quiches are as much about the vegetables that go into them as they are about the custard, the cheese (I like to combine Gruyère and Parmesan), and the crust. My favorites, the ones I make at the drop of a hat, are filled with spinach or other greens and onion, or with savory pan-cooked mushrooms. Then again I love a cabbage and onion quiche, with a little caraway thrown in; and in spring I’ll use steamed or roasted asparagus, spring onions and lots of fresh herbs. There may be nothing new about these pies, but a good quiche never gets old.
Classic Cheese Quiche
2 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1 (9-inch) whole wheat pâte brisée pie crust, fully baked (recipe below) and cooled
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
⅔ cup milk
1 to 2 cups vegetable filling of your choice
3 ounces Gruyère, grated, or 1 ounce Parmesan and 2 ounces Gruyère, grated (¾ cup grated cheese)
1. Heat the oven to 350 F.
2. Beat together the egg yolks and eggs in a medium bowl. Set the tart pan on a baking sheet to allow for easy handling. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the bottom of the crust with some of the beaten egg and place in the oven for 5 minutes. The egg seals the crust so that it won’t become soggy when it comes into contact with the custard.
3. Add the salt, pepper, and milk to the remaining eggs and whisk together.
4. Spread the vegetable filling (recipes below) in an even layer on the crust. Sprinkle the cheese in an even layer on top of the filling. (If you are making a simple cheese quiche with no vegetables, just sprinkle the cheese over the bottom of the crust in an even layer.) Very slowly, pour in the egg custard. If your tart pan has low edges, you may not need all of it to fill the quiche, and you want to avoid overflowing the edges. So pour in gradually and watch the custard spread out in the shell. Bake the quiche for 30 minutes, or until set and just beginning to color on the top. Allow to sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.
Note: Alternatively, toss the vegetable filling with the cheese and spread in the bottom of the crust rather than layering the cheese over the vegetable filling.
Whole Wheat Pâte Brisée
222 grams French style butter such as Plugrà (8 ounces, 1 cup), at room temperature
175 grams whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour (approximately 1½ cups less 1 tablespoon)
175 grams unbleached all-purpose flour (approximately 1½ cups less 1 tablespoon)
7 grams fine sea salt (1 teaspoon)
92 grams water (6 tablespoons)
1. Make sure that your butter is at room temperature. Place it in the bowl of a standing mixer. Sift together the flours and salt and add to the mixer. Mix at low speed just until the mixture is well combined. Do not over beat. Add the water and beat at low speed just until the mixture comes together. Do not over mix or you will activate the gluten in the flour too much and you pastry will be tough.
2. Using a pastry scraper or a rubber spatula, scrape the dough onto a large sheet of plastic wrap. Weigh it and divide into 2 equal pieces. Place each piece onto a large sheet of plastic, fold the plastic over and and flatten into ½-inch thick squares. Double wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.
3. Very lightly butter two 9-inch tart pans. If you can see the butter you’ve used too much. Roll out the dough and line the tart pans. Using a fork, pierce rows of holes in the bottom, about an inch apart. This will allow steam to escape and aid in even baking. Refrigerate uncovered for several hours or preferably overnight.
4. To pre-bake, heat the oven to 325 F. Remove a tart shell from the refrigerator, unwrap and line it with a sheet of parchment. Fill all the way with pie weights, which can be beans or rice used exclusively for pre-baking pastry, or special pie weights. Place in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the “faux filling” and return to the oven. Bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until light golden brown and evenly colored. There should be no evidence of moisture in the dough. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
½- to ¾-pound white or cremini mushrooms, wiped if gritty
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, rosemary, or sage (or a combination), or ½ teaspoon dried, OR 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1. Trim off the ends of the mushrooms and cut in thick slices. Heat a large, heavy frying pan over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. When the oil is hot (you can feel the heat when you hold your hand above the pan), add the mushrooms. Don’t stir for 30 seconds to a minute, then cook, stirring or tossing in the pan, for a few minutes, until they begin to soften and sweat. Add the remaining oil, turn the heat to medium, and add the shallots, garlic, and thyme, rosemary or sage. Stir together, add salt (about ½ teaspoon) and freshly ground pepper to taste, and cook, stirring often, for another 1 to 2 minutes, until the shallots and garlic have softened and the mixture is fragrant. Add the parsley and wine and cook, stirring often and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the wine has evaporated. Taste and adjust seasonings. Remove from the heat.
Spinach and Scallion Filling
1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (to taste)
2 bunches scallions (about 6 ounces), trimmed and sliced
1 to 2 garlic cloves, to taste, minced (optional)
1½ cups chopped blanched or steamed spinach (12 ounces baby spinach or 2 bunches, stemmed and washed well in two changes of water)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat and add the scallions. Cook, stirring, until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic if using and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the spinach, thyme, salt and pepper and stir over medium heat for about a minute, until the spinach is nicely coated with olive oil. Remove from the heat.
Top photo: Cheese quiche. Credit: Paul Cowan /iStock
The person who taught me to cook, my beloved stepmother Mary, died in January at the age of 95. She came into my life when I was 14 and motherless, lost in a sea of boys. Our family was in a state of disarray, and with amazing grace, she put it back together again.
Mary, aka Mumsie (my stepsister, who was also part of this wonderful bargain, called her Mumsie, as in “Mumsie and Daughtsie,” so I did too), was a woman of tremendous style and fun. She was also a great cook. I will never grasp how she managed to go seamlessly from being a single mother of one for 15 years to being a wife and mother of five; from turning out meals for two to preparing festive family dinners for seven or more every night when we were all home during school vacations. The French would say of those evenings, “c’était la fête tous les soirs“: It was a party every night.
She made dishes you just didn’t see in mid-1960s suburban Connecticut: ratatouille, pan-cooked Italian peppers, arugula salads. She roasted lamb rare. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were not for Christmas dinner; they were for dinner … maybe once a week! So much meat. I always said, when I became a vegetarian in the ’70s, that the reason had nothing to do with principles; I simply had had my quota of meat by then.
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Mary tricked my father, who was vegetable-phobic, into eating vegetables. One August night during the summer after they were married, he told her that he didn’t eat corn on the cob because it gave him stomach trouble (he was convinced that all vegetables gave him stomach trouble). She took a paring knife and deftly scored each row down the middle of the kernels. “If you score the kernels,” she told my father, “the corn will be much more digestible.” This was totally bogus, but he fell for it, and from then on we would have amazing corn fests every night throughout the summer. “It’s a short season,” we would say, as we passed the platter around the table for the fourth time, butter dripping down our chins.
My education in the kitchen began with salads. “Go in the kitchen and help Mary with the salad,” my father would say to me and my sister, while he and my brothers carried on in the den. She gave me the ingredients for a vinaigrette, some measuring spoons and a whisk, and told me what to do with them (3 parts oil to 1 part lemon juice or vinegar, dry mustard, salt, pinch of sugar, marjoram, pepper). This was much more fun than washing and drying lettuce (three different kinds — romaine, red leaf and Boston — unlike the iceberg salads with Russian dressing of my childhood), a task I learned early on to relegate to my sister and friends. There were no salad spinners then; we had a folding mesh lettuce basket that you swung around outside, weather permitting, hoping you would not dislocate your shoulder. I learned to slice the mushrooms and the radishes thin, to score the sides of the cucumber before slicing it; I discovered the avocado.
I didn’t grow up cooking by my mother’s side, as some girls did. I was a teenager before I became interested. Then Mary taught me by giving me the tools and telling me what to do or pointing me to a recipe, sometimes from afar. The summer I started cooking (beyond vinaigrette and salads) was the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I was 17, I had a job at the local newspaper, and my parents were not around much because my father, a writer, was working on a play in New York City. I told Mary I wanted to learn to cook.
“What do you want to cook?”
“The things we eat,” I responded.
I do remember Mary walking me through a very simple spaghetti sauce — showing me how to cook the onion and add the garlic, then brown the meat, etc. But mainly, I would tell Mary what I wanted to cook, and she would tell me what book the recipe was in, the most frequently used being Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” Irma Mazza’s “Accent on Seasoning” and Mildred Knopf’s “Cook, My Darling Daughter.” If I wanted to make something really simple, like broiled lamb chops, she’d just tell me what to buy at the butcher’s and how long to broil the chops on each side.
Every day after work, I would go to the market (and charge the food to my parents), then go home and make dinner for myself and my sister, and whoever else was around (our boyfriends, who knew a good deal when they saw it). Cooking was fun for me, and easy; my food tasted good because I’d had such good food at home, I knew what I wanted it to taste like. By summer’s end I was giving dinner parties, and continued to do this when I returned to boarding school, where I would borrow a teacher’s house from time to time. But it never occurred to me then that I’d make a career of this passion.
My sister and I have always been amused by Mumsie’s adoring, proud line about my work, something she said when I was promoting my second cookbook in the early 1980s. I was preparing a press luncheon that my parents hosted in their beautiful Los Angeles apartment (they had moved to L.A. in the mid-’70s), and she exclaimed — “she took a frying pan and a piece of paper and forged a career!” But it was Mary who gave me the frying pan … and the wok … and the casserole … and the Sabatier knife, and the food memories and first recipes … and always, the support and encouragement.
Spinach Salad With Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing
The dressing is a slight variation on the recipe for Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing that I published in my first cookbook, “The Vegetarian Feast.” The spinach salad recipe is one I found scrawled on the endpapers of “Accent on Seasoning,” a cookbook Mary used so often that the cover fell off when I removed it from the shelf as I was cleaning out her apartment.
For Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing:
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon white or red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ to ½ teaspoon dry mustard or 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 small garlic clove, put through a press or puréed in a mortar and pestle
½ teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon chopped fresh herbs (such as tarragon, parsley, dill; optional)
9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or a mixture of grapeseed or sunflower oil and olive oil
For the salad:
10 ounces (1 bag) fresh spinach (this was before baby spinach; 1 bag baby spinach could be substituted today)
6 strips crisp bacon
1 bunch scallions, sliced
¼ pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1. Whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, salt, mustard, pepper, garlic and herbs. Whisk in the oil or oils.
2. Stem, wash and dry spinach (Mary underlined “dry” in her handwritten recipe). Put in bowl, crumble bacon over top, add sliced scallions and mushrooms. Chill until ready to serve.
3. Toss with dressing and serve.
Variation: In the recipe scrawled inside Mary’s book, she includes an egg yolk in the vinaigrette.
Top photo: Mumsie, in the kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Martha Rose Shulman