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Chestnuts are a Christmas icon, thanks in no small measure to Nat King Cole’s mellifluous crooning about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
While chestnuts are very much alive and roasting in the popular imagination, they are seldom found on our holiday tables. This is a pity, especially for a nut that’s so versatile and nutritious. But now is the perfect time to reintroduce them, with the American chestnut tree on the verge of a comeback after near-extinction.
Until the turn of the 20th century, there were an estimated 4 billion towering chestnut trees, the “sequoia of the east,” growing from Maine to Georgia. Newspapers were full of recipes for the ubiquitous nuts, and American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote about them often, including in his journal entry of Dec. 31, 1852: “Now is the time for chestnuts. A stone cast against the trees shakes them down in showers upon one’s head and shoulders.”
Soon after Thoreau’s death, however, a deadly fungus was introduced to North America via Asiatic chestnut imports. By the mid-1900s, nearly all American chestnut trees were dead or dying.
American chestnuts back from the brink
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But steadfast scientists and ardent amateurs have been working to develop a blight-resistant American chestnut tree through decades of back-crosses with the resistant Chinese chestnut and targeted biotechnology.
Even though they are closing in on success, defeating the chestnut blight is only half the battle. The other half is in the hands of the scientists seeking to re-establish the tree in the wild and in the hands of the farmers who will once again make American-grown chestnuts available to consumers.
Hybrids that are 15/16ths American chestnut, as well as Chinese and Japanese varieties, are already being grown across the U.S., and chestnut grower associations and cooperatives are emerging. Many sites, including Chestnut Growers of America, USA Chestnut, Inc. and Chestnut Growers, Inc., provide contact information for growers near you and the ability to order chestnuts online.
A tradition steeped in nostalgia
Although nostalgia may play a role in the chestnut renaissance, there are many good reasons to seek out local chestnuts. As heartwarming as the Christmas song is, the chestnuts themselves are even more heart-healthy. Unlike walnuts, pecans and other tree nuts high in fat, chestnuts are nearly fat free. They are also the only nut with a significant amount of vitamin C and are a good source of iron, phosphorus, potassium, B vitamins, complex carbohydrates and fiber.
Chestnuts are also extremely versatile, adding an earthy touch to soups and stuffings and an elegant note to cakes and tarts. For the holidays, seek out the classic marrons glacés — chestnuts cooked in sugar syrup — or the French Christmas extravaganza, Bûche de Noël, a chocolate log filled with chestnut purée. Not to be outdone by the French, the Italians have Montebianco, a rich chestnut purée topped with whipped cream, and the Japanese have kuri kinton, mashed chestnuts and sweet bean paste.
But for me, the ultimate celebration of the chestnut is doing what the song says: roasting them. If you don’t have an open fire handy, use your oven or a skillet on your stove top.
Roast your own chestnuts in three easy steps
- Find fresh chestnuts and keep them refrigerated until ready to roast. (Most chestnuts are imported from China, but you can seek out fresh U.S.-grown chestnuts from the sources mentioned above.)
- Cut an X into the shell of each nut with a sharp knife to allow steam to escape during cooking and prevent explosions.
- Roast chestnuts in the oven, on the stove top or in an open fire — just make sure you score the shells or you’ll have to change the lyrics to “Chestnuts exploding on an open fire . . .”
Roasting in the oven: Place chestnuts on a cookie sheet X side up, and put in a preheated 400 F oven for 10 to 30 minutes (depending on the size and freshness of the nuts and the temperature and type of your oven, e.g. convection or not). Keep an eye on them — when the shell peels back and the meat is a caramel color, they’re done and will be moist and easy to peel.
Roasting on the stove top: Heat a heavy skillet over low to medium heat until hot. Toss scored chestnuts with about 1 teaspoon vegetable oil in a large bowl, then put the chestnuts in the hot pan and cover. Cook for 15 minutes, removing the cover and stirring every 5 minutes. Then add 1/4 cup water and continue to roast, covered, stirring occasionally, until water is evaporated and chestnuts are tender, about 5 minutes more.
Roasting on an open fire: Put the scored chestnuts in a long-handled popcorn popper or chestnut roaster. You can use a cast-iron skillet, but be careful not to burn yourself. Hold the roaster (or pan) over the fire, shaking it every few minutes to roast all sides of the nuts. They’re done when the shells peel back.
Main photo: After nearing extinction, American chestnuts are poised for a comeback. Credit: Copyright 2015 Amanda Christenson
Cake. It’s what’s for breakfast.
And why not? Some studies show that a high carbohydrate and high protein breakfast actually helps people shed pounds. So it turns out your Marie Antoinette breakfast need not be a guilty pleasure. You can actually have your cake and lose weight, too.
In fact, this easy one-bowl take on the classic Italian Amor Polenta cake of Lombardy is far healthier than most processed breakfast cereals — full of the wholesome goodness of corn, butter, eggs and almonds. Flavored with citrus zest and apple eau-de-vie, and served with berries, it’s a satisfying breakfast that will keep you going all day long.
While cornmeal can be made from just about any variety of dent corn, the older heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, Floriani Red and Painted Mountain are superior in taste. Now that locally grown and locally milled grains are enjoying a renaissance across the U.S., you can probably find delicious and nutritious corn grown by someone near you. And if you want the freshest and most nutritious cornmeal possible, you can even invest in a countertop grain mill.
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If you don’t have a source of freshly ground corn, just about any store-bought cornmeal will be fine in this cake, whether it says polenta on the package or not. But if you want to make the traditional Amor Polenta or Dolce Varese, look for the finely ground farina di mais fioretto or the even more refined farina di mais fumetto.
Although this cake has butter, eggs and sugar, as any good cake must, it is not a butter bomb or a sugar rush. Rather it’s a not-too-rich, not-too-sweet slice of perfection — just right as an accompaniment to your morning tea or coffee. So say goodbye to processed cereals and hello to healthy polenta cake for breakfast.
Healthy Breakfast Polenta Cake
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Yield: One (8- or 9-inch) loaf cake, about 10 servings
2 sticks (8 ounces) butter
3/4 cup sugar
Zest of one lemon
Zest of one orange
3 tablespoons apple brandy, amaretto, or other liqueur
1/2 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (or vanilla or almond extract)
1 cup cornmeal
1 3/4 cup almond flour
1/3 cup unbleached wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a loaf pan and dust with cornmeal.
2. Put the butter, sugar, and lemon and orange zest in a mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Then add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl.
3. Beat in the liqueur and Fiori di Sicilia or other flavoring.
4. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients: the polenta, almond flour, wheat flour, baking powder and salt.
5. While the mixer is running at low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until just combined.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until a lovely aroma comes from the oven, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes
7. Let cool in the pan for about 1/2 hour, and then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife and tip it out onto a rack to cool completely.
8. Slice and serve with fresh fruit, or frozen fruit or fruit jam you may have from last summer.
Main photo: Breakfast polenta cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman
“Great food” and “highway rest stop” are not phrases I would normally utter in the same breath. But that was before I experienced the Italian Autogrill.
At about 500 locations across Italy, you can get gas, go to the bathroom and then, very likely, have a better dining experience than at most Italian restaurants in the United States.
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Perhaps you’d like to choose your steak from the glistening display of fresh meat, and tell the chef how you’d like it cooked. Or maybe the pasta station, with its many pots of boiling water waiting for your choice of pasta and sauce, is calling to you. How about a spaghetti alle vongole prepared while you wait? In those few minutes while the pasta is being cooked to perfection, and the clams are opening up in their white wine sauce, you might wander over to the antipasti station and choose a beautiful plate of prosciutto, mozzarella and arugula. Then, since you are in Italy, pick up a nice half bottle of local wine and settle in for what could very well be one of the best meals of your life.
The Autogrill offers not only great food but valuable insights into the values and priorities of a culture. Italians enjoy modern life, efficiency and convenience as much as anyone, but modernity and convenience need not compromise food. At the Autogrill, whether you go for the whole dining experience, or just grab a freshly made panino, you will get healthy, delicious food made with great ingredients and great care. It’s slow food fast. Or fast food slow. Either way, the Autogrill is where the fast life of the autostrada meets the Slow Food values of quality ingredients prepared with pride.
Now, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I start salivating at the sight of the bright red swooping A of the Autogrill franchise, and make excuses to stop there more often than strictly necessary.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: None
Total time: 10 minutes
1 piece of focaccia, split in half, or 2 slices Italian, French or sourdough bread
Mayonnaise, to spread, as thickly or thinly as you like
Sprinkling of dried oregano
1 leaf of lettuce
1 thick slice of tomato
2 or 3 thin slices of prosciutto cotto
1 generous piece of fresh mozzarella, ideally from a fresh ball of mozzarella di bufala
1. Warm the bread in the toaster oven, taking it out before it’s actually toasted.
2. Swipe some mayonnaise on what will become the two inside parts of the sandwich and sprinkle with oregano.
3. Assemble your sandwich, starting with lettuce on the bottom, followed by the tomato, prosciutto and mozzarella.
Main photo: The antipasti station at an Autogrill. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman
It was in Hawaii that I got my first exhilarating taste of passion fruit. The Maui market vendor’s knife expertly sliced through the mauve skin at the top of the egg-sized fruit, revealing bright orange innards that reminded me of salmon roe. He quickly carved the sliced-off cap of the fruit into a scoop, and dipped it into the glistening orange mass to offer me a taste.
The first thing I noticed was the intoxicating tropical floral aroma. Then, at the first contact with my tongue, came the explosion of bright clean citrus with just enough sweetness to cut the sour. In the tangy gelatinous goo were many small crunchy seeds, which provided a nice textural contrast.
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One slurpy bite led to another until the mauve skin was an empty eggshell. But I craved more, and so bought a whole bag of passion fruit, known as liliquoi in Hawaii, and snacked on them the rest of the day.
Later I learned that the passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) is native to South America, probably originating in the southern region of present-day Brazil. It was there, in the 16th century, that Spanish Catholics named it Flor de las cinco llagas, flower of the five wounds. Other missionaries expanded on this, and saw in the beautiful flower’s parts a way to teach indigenous people about the torture (passion) of Christ. The five anthers at the tip of the male parts represented the five wounds of Christ, the vine’s tendrils were the whips, the three female stigmas the three nails in Jesus’ hands and feet, and the 10 petals and sepals were the apostles, excluding Judas (for obvious reasons) and Peter (for not so obvious ones).
High in vitamins
Although the missionaries saw violence and suffering in the passion flower, its huge and elaborate blossoms have more pleasure than pain in their voluptuous beauty. The showy corolla highlights the architecture at the center, where the prominent female parts (stigmas and styles) float over the top of the male stamens. And the fruit that develops from this gorgeous flower is full of goodness — high in vitamins A and C, potassium, dietary fiber and iron.
For all its goodness, however, like so many plants and animals introduced into the delicate Hawaiian ecosystems, the passion fruit had invaded all of the Hawaiian islands a mere 50 years after it was introduced in 1880. Due to a plant virus, and high labor costs, the few passion fruit farms disappeared shortly after they were planted. Although there are no commercial passion fruit plantations in Hawaii today, the vines can still be found in people’s yards and in wild areas, and the fruits are used extensively in foods and drinks. During my Hawaii sojourn, I had the pleasure of drinking fresh liliquoi juice, and also indulged in passion fruit cheesecake, jelly, smoothies and margaritas.
While passion fruit grows well in California, Florida and other southern states, it generally can’t take the cold winters of the temperate zones. The one exception is the Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), which is native to North America, and is the state wildflower of Tennessee. The most cold-hardy of the passion fruit family, it grows well in zones 7-11, and even as far north as zones 5-6, if you mulch it heavily before winter.
The name Maypop might have come about because the plant pops out of the ground in May and dies back in winter, ready to pop out again in May. Others say the name comes from “maracock,” which was the Powhatan Indians’ name for this plant.
If you live in the southern U.S., especially California or Florida, you will most likely be able to find passion fruit at your local farmers market. You also have a good chance of finding them in the produce section of ethnic grocery stores. If you strike out, you can find frozen passion fruit pulp in many grocery stores, or order it online.
Or you can grow your own. The vigorous, vining plant is often used as an ornamental screen, or can provide shade cover on a pergola. With its showy flowers and delicious fruit, what’s not to be passionate about?
Passion Fruit Smoothie
The bright, strong taste of passion fruit makes it a great addition to any smoothie. It’s especially good with creamy, custardy fruits such as mango, banana or cherimoya. Of course, you can use whatever fruits or greens you have on hand, but here’s a starter recipe.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: About 2 servings
3 passion fruits
1 cup cubed apples, pineapples or other fruit
2 cups spinach or other greens
8 ounces coconut water, orange juice, or other juice
Cut the passion fruits in half and scoop all of the innards into the blender. Add all the other ingredients and blend. Because passion fruit has a lot of seeds, use a powerful blender at its highest speed to get a smooth smoothie.
Main photo: Passion fruit. Credit: iStock/Kesu01
New Year’s in Japan, as in all cultures, is a time to reflect on the past, resolve to do better and begin anew. But it is different in that for seven days the entire nation reverts to a slower, quieter time.
At least when I lived in Japan, in the mid-1980s, this was the case. Nearly every store closed for a week, the streets were quiet, and families gathered to relax and share the special New Year’s foods known as osechi ryori.
Because it’s considered bad luck to work on the first three days of the new year, all of the osechi ryori foods are prepared ahead of time, then arranged in beautiful lacquered jubako (layered boxes) and eaten at room temperature.
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These exquisite traditional foods are steeped in tradition, and represent different forms of good luck in the new year. A few of my favorite osechi ryori foods and their meanings are:
Tazakuri (baby sardines) are used to fertilize rice crops, and represent a bountiful harvest.
Konbu maki (seaweed rolls) represent happiness because the word konbu, or kobu, is similar to yorokobu, the Japanese word for happiness.
Kuri kinton (Japanese sweet potato mashed with chestnut) has a light golden color that represents gold or prosperity.
Shin takenoko (bamboo shoots) are from the fast-growing bamboo plant and symbolize acquiring wealth rapidly.
Datemaki (sweet omelet roll) has a golden hue that symbolizes gold, while the egg itself represents fertility.
Kuromame (black beans) are simmered in sugar and are eaten for good health in the coming year.
Ebi (shrimp) curl like the backs of the elderly, so they symbolize living a long life.
Kimpira gobo (burdock root) has a number of good luck qualities. It has a long tap root, symbolizing long life. The deep, sturdy root is also said to keep family ties strong by keeping the family rooted. And if the burdock root splits at the end, that’s even better, as your good luck will also split and multiply.
Better than it looks
Of all of these foods, burdock (gobo) is the one that I have continued to eat over the decades, and not just at New Year’s. It definitely falls into the “can’t judge a book …” category of vegetables. It’s dull and brown and looks tough and unappetizing. But it is in fact tender (you can scrape away the thin skin with a light fingernail), and the humble exterior of the large, dark, woody-looking root belies the sweet, nutty, delicate, crunchy flesh within.
In addition to being used as a food item for millennia, many cultures have used burdock medicinally. Early Chinese physicians treated colds, flu, throat infections, and pneumonia with burdock preparations, and it is considered a powerful source of “yang” energy, according to Chinese philosophy and macrobiotic practice — meaning it gives you the energy and strength to do what needs to be done — including, perhaps, keeping all your New Year’s resolutions.
This New Year’s week, celebrate the spirit of osechi — slow down, relax and enjoy time with loved ones. And for good luck, long life, and strong family ties, try some burdock root. Traditionally, in Japan, burdock (gobo) is stir-fried — alone or with carrots — in a dish called Kimpira Gobo. It seems that every Japanese household has a slightly different take on this, but here’s the recipe from a family friend, Masako Takayasu.
Mrs. Takayasu’s Kimpira Gobo (Stir-Fried Burdock and Carrots)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
2 sticks burdock (about 1/2 pound)
Carrots, 1/3 to 1/2 the amount of burdock
3 Japanese togarashii, Thai hot, or another hot pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sesame seed oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon mirin (optional)
3 to 4 tablespoon soy sauce
Hot pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
Sesame seeds, as garnish (optional)
1. Wash burdock and remove skin by rubbing with the back of a knife or with a vegetable scrubber. Cut into matchstick-size pieces and soak the pieces in cold water to prevent discoloration. Replace water two or three times or until the water remains clear, and then drain the burdock. Peel carrots and cut in pieces the same size and shape as the burdock.
2. Slice hot peppers, and after removing their seeds, cut the peppers into thick rings.
3. Combine olive oil and sesame oil in a frying pan and heat. Add burdock, carrot, and hot pepper rings, and stir-fry over high heat until carrots are cooked through. Reduce heat and add sugar, mirin, soy sauce and hot pepper flakes to taste. Stir to mix. Continue to stir over heat until the liquid nearly all evaporates. Sprinkle sesame seeds over the top and serve.
Main photo: New Year’s foods served in a lacquered box called a jubako. Credit: iStock
Although red is the color of Santa’s suit, poinsettias and Rudolph’s nose, a “bowl of red” is probably not what springs to mind when you contemplate Christmas dinner.
But chili has many selling points as a holiday repast. It’s a one-pot meal that can feed a crowd, and it tastes best when made a day or two in advance — meaning that even the cook can relax and enjoy the feast. And although I never imagined that chili would grace our Midwestern holiday table, I thank my lucky Lone Stars that the official dish of Texas made its way into my life and onto our extended family’s Christmas menu.
It happened as a happy confluence of events. The first part has a history that probably goes back to our ancient ancestors. Traditionally, butchering of large animals was done in the early winter, after they had eaten their fill all spring, summer and fall, and before the lean times of winter. And in pre-refrigeration days, if you butchered in winter when the whole world’s a gigantic freezer, your meat would keep for months.
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But it wasn’t until I started sharing my annual quarter of beef with my Texas-born boyfriend that the Illinois-beef-meets-Texas-chili marriage was made. I assumed that such an odd coupling must be a first, but it was actually made more than a hundred years ago, in 1909, as I discovered on Linda Stradley’s excellent site, “What’s Cooking America.”
Stradley notes that in Springfield, Ill., an hour or so down the road from my father’s grazing cattle, people take their chili very seriously. “They even spell it differently than the rest of the United States,” she notes. “This peculiar spelling of ‘chilli’ in Springfield originated with the founder of the Dew Chilli Parlor. Legend has it that the Dew’s owner, Dew Brockman, quibbled with his sign painter over the spelling and won after noting that the dictionary spelled it both ways. Other folks believe the spelling matches the first four letters in Illinois.”
That’s the first I’d ever heard of Dew Brockman, who may or may not be a long lost relative, but I am sure he would agree that the Brockman family Illinois beef and Texas chili are a heavenly match. Cuts from well-used muscles such as arm, shoulder or chuck roast love the long, slow simmer with the secret chili spice mix. We also add some spicy pork sausage and a few slices of fatty bacon to carry the flavors that gradually intensify over the four to six hours of simmering. By the time we take the pot off the fire, the spices permeate not only the meat, but the whole house, with warmth and good cheer.
I do realize that any talk of Texas chili, particularly made in central Illinois, and with pork added, is bound to get me into trouble. (At least we don’t add beans!) Chili tastes are regional, personal and often inflexible. But Christmas is a good time to put partisan bickering aside and enjoy a big beefy bowl of red with or without pork, or beans.
We spend most of Christmas Eve making the big pot of chili for about two dozen relatives to enjoy on Christmas Day because, as the writer John Steele Gordon notes, “Chili is much improved by having had a day to contemplate its fate.”
And its fate is to be enjoyed by the holiday crowd, including a red-clad Santa, whose belly shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of chili.
This version of the Texas classic tastes intensely of its two main ingredients, beef and chili powder. But it also has some pork, onions, carrots, garlic and a can of crushed tomatoes because we like the way those ingredients round the flavors out. You are welcome to keep or delete them as you wish.
Cook time: 5 hours
Total time: 5 hours 45 minutes
Yield: About 20 servings — and even better as leftovers
7 tablespoons chili powder (Gebhardt’s brand preferred) (about 1 tablespoon per pound of meat)
2 tablespoons each of cumin and cayenne
3 tablespoons oregano
Salt and pepper
3 to 3½ pounds arm, shoulder, chuck or sirloin roast
2 pounds hanger steak
1½ pounds cubed steak
1½ pounds spicy pork sausage (chorizo, jalapeño, andouille etc.)
6 slices of fatty bacon, chopped fine
3 medium onions, chopped
4 medium carrots, chopped very fine
8 garlic cloves, smashed or minced
6 hot peppers, 2 each of habanero, serrano, jalapeño peppers, diced, seeds and all
1 large green pepper, diced
2 bottles of peach or apple flavored beer
2 cups beef or chicken broth, plus 2 tablespoons miso paste (red or brown) to add umami
1 (16-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons masa harina (optional)
In a small bowl, mix together the chili powder, cumin, cayenne, oregano, and salt and pepper.
The roasts and steak may be cut into bite-sized cubes while slightly frozen, making in unnecessary to cut up the braised cuts once they’re done. Trim the beef of any excess fat and season heavily with the spice mixture. Sear on all sides in a heavy skillet. Set aside.
Put the chopped bacon in a very large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, and allow the fat to melt. Brown the onions and carrots in the bacon fat until soft. Then add the garlic and peppers and cook for a few more minutes. Deglaze the skillet with the beer. Add the broth, miso and tomatoes. Then add the browned meat, and enough broth or beer to cover the meat.
Lady Bird Johnson’s Pedernales River Chili
Lady Bird Johnson would share this quick and simple Texas chili recipe with her guests.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Yield: About 10 servings
4 pounds chili meat (coarsely ground round steak or well-trimmed chuck)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
6 teaspoons chili powder (or more, if needed)
1 ½ cups canned whole tomatoes
2 to 6 dashes hot sauce, or to taste
2 cups hot water
Salt to taste
Place meat, onion, and garlic in a large heavy pan or Dutch oven. Cook until light in color. Add the oregano, cumin, chili powder, tomatoes, hot sauce and 2 cups hot water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for about 1 hour. Skim off the fat while cooking. Salt to taste.
Main photo: Texas-style chili. Credit: iStock