Nuka-zuke pickled vegetables

Every summer, a bounty of vegetables from my local green market inspires me to go back to nuka-zuke, an ancient Japanese pickling method based on fermented rice bran. Biting into crisp nuka-zuke carrot, radish, turnip, zucchini, cucumber, beet, eggplant or any other vegetable grown under the strong summer sun cools me off and makes me feel my body has absorbed the sun’s energy.

Pickled vegetables are ubiquitous throughout the world. You probably know that kimchi, sauerkraut, and brine-cured cucumbers and tomatoes are delicious. In New York, where I live, I have come to enjoy corned beef sandwiches – and what would one be without a great brine-cured pickle? These pickles, like nuka-zuke pickles, also have significant health benefits. They are all products of lactic acid fermentation and are wonderfully probiotic because of the bacteria involved in that process. These bacteria are proven to do many good things in our guts. They contribute to the growth of a healthful microbial community. They strengthen our immune system. They assist in good digestion. They help prevent constipation. They improve the body’s use of vitamins and minerals. They help to reduce blood cholesterol. And they decrease our sensitivity to allergens.

I learned the nuka-zuke pickling ritual from my mother. One of the wedding gifts I received from her was a small batch of her nuka-zuke pickling base to use as a starter. At that time she had been nurturing it for 38 years in her kitchen. This year, my nuka-zuke pickling base that began its life with my mother’s gift celebrates 25 years of service in my kitchen. It has come a long way, in time and distance, from its origin.

The idea of pickling vegetables in rice bran, a byproduct of milling rice, arose at the beginning of the Edo period (1600-1868) in Japan. This is when eating polished white rice became popular in the big cities of Japan. Back then there was no scientific knowledge about rice bran’s excellent nutritional value. But increasingly, many citizens suffered from beriberi – lack of vitamin B1 – because of their reliance on white rice. Consuming vegetables pickled in a rice bran base, which adds vitamin B1, resolved the vitamin deficiency.

To make nuka-zukepickling base, which is called nuka-miso (only because it looks like miso; no miso is used), rice bran is lightly toasted and mixed with sea salt, water and dried akatogarashi red chile pepper. My mother also added kelp to improve the flavor and mustard powder, which has antiseptic properties. To let fermentation start in this new pickling base, we first pickle, for example, one cabbage in the prepared base for about a week or so. During this time enzymes breaks down the protein, carbohydrate and fat in the rice bran and lactic acid fermentation occurs. When we remove the cabbage (at this stage the cabbage is too salty to consume, and so is thrown away) from the pickling pot we will find remarkable biological activity in the pickling base. In one gram of nuka-miso pickling base we find over one hundred million good probiotic bacteria.

Vegetables in nuka-miso.

Vegetables in nuka-miso. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

I can still vividly picture my mother pickling the vegetables, retrieving them from the pickling pot with a satisfied smile every time, taking care of the pickling base in the pot and serving the rinsed pickles sliced with razor sharp precision. I use all of the pickling tips that my mother taught me. Salt the vegetables before pickling. Toss and turn the pickling base one hundred times with my hands every day. This feeds oxygen to the bacteria. After some time using the pickling base it becomes wet from the water exuded from the vegetables. In such a case I add dried soybeans to absorb excess water. I always keep the pickling pot clean and hygienic. I add some salt if the pickling base became too sour.

Pickling vegetables in the nuka-miso base is lots of fun. I am dealing with living organisms, which though so very tiny react as a group like human beings. I know they do a very good job when I take care of their home — the pickling base — properly. I just pickled a couple of large carrots in the base very late last night before going to bed. I fetched them early this morning before they are too strongly flavored and become too salty. The very fresh, crisp carrots that were nurtured and massaged by my bacteria and enzymes overnight became tender, releasing a delightful fragrant aroma. I am always awed by the magical power of nature.

Some studies claim that the pickled vegetables have 2.5 to 10 times more vitamin B1 than fresh vegetables. The pickles also pick up other vitamins, minerals and lactic acid, from the base. But no matter how tasty and probiotic the nuka-zuke pickles are, we should control the size of the portion we consume, or risk taking in too much sodium.

When pickling time comes, I retrieve my nuka-zuke pickling base from the refrigerator where it has slept through the winter. I keep it in my large, deep blue, enameled pickling pot. When I open the lid of the cold pickling pot I think I can see trillions of my friendly bacteria waking up from their long sleep that began late last autumn at the end of the local fresh vegetable season. Hot, and sometimes humid, summer weather is ideal for these bacteria to become active again and do their wonderful work.

Here is the recipe for you to start your nuka-zuke pickling base. When you make it please think of the future of your pickling base. You could be handing down this probiotic-rich base to your children and those of succeeding generations.

Nuka-Zuke Pickling Base

Ingredients

2 pounds rice bran

6 ounce sea salt

About 6 cups filtered water or mineral water

3 Japanese akatogarashi red chile peppers or 1 tablespoon Italian chile pepper flakes

5-inch long kombu (kelp), cut into halves

1 cup dried soybeans

½ cup mustard powder

One small cabbage

One large enameled or plastic pickling pot (about 5-quart capacity) with a lid

Directions

  1. In a large skillet over low heat, toast the rice bran in several batches until fragrant. In a large pot, add the salt and water and bring it to a gentle simmer. Stir the pot to dissolve the salt. Cool the salt water.
  2. In the pickling pot, add the rice bran. Add the cooled salt water in three batches. The mixture should have a texture and consistency similar to miso and should not be watery. Add the kelp, soybeans and mustard powder.
  3. Cut the cabbage into four wedges. Sprinkle some salt over the wedges and bury each of them in the pickling base. Twice every day — in the morning and in the evening — remove, set aside the cabbage and toss and turn the pickling base with your hand. Return the set-aside cabbage in the pickling base.
  4. Continue the process for seven days, at which time your nose will begin to sense a fragrant lactic acid aroma. When this happens, your pickling base is ready for use. If this does not occur after seven days, continue the same process for another three days. Remove the cabbage and dispose of it.

Nuka-Zuke Pickles

I encourage you to experiment with all varieties of vegetables pickled for various lengths of time. You may find that some small vegetables such as radishes cut in half or larger vegetables cut into much smaller pieces are deliciously pickled after only two hours or so in the base. Because of this, you don’t need to do long-range planning to enjoy these wonderful treats from nature.

Prep Time: 30 minutes plus 7 to 10 days for making and completing the pickling base
Cook Time: Pickling time for vegetables in the completed pickling base is about 2 hours in summer
Yield: 4 to 6 servings, if, for example, you pickle 4 cucumbers, 4 radishes and 1 medium carrot

Ingredients

Vegetables

Sea salt

Nuka-miso

Directions

  1. Thoroughly rinse the vegetables that you wish to pickle, and wipe them with paper towel. Place the vegetables in a bowl, sprinkle with some sea salt and rub the vegetables with the salt.
  2. Dig several holes in the pickling base and drop the vegetables into the depressions, noting how many went in so that you don’t miss any when you dig them out. Over-pickled vegetables are too salty to consume. Cover the vegetables completely with the pickling base.
  3. During the heat of summer, the vegetables pickle in 4-5 hours. You may cut the vegetables into smaller pieces to hasten the pickling process.

 Main photo: Nuka-zuke pickled vegetables. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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The quintessential Egyptian morning dish: ful medames. Credit: Roger Ainsley

My wife doesn’t much care for it, though that might be downplaying her disdain. When done well, it’s a two-day commitment, a tall order in this 24/7 working world. When prepared poorly, it turns into a nondescript glob with condiments (thank God for fresh lime juice).

And yet I find myself trying to produce an authentic bowl of that quintessential Egyptian morning dish: ful medames. Trying, and so far falling shy of succeeding, though a convenient cheat has opened the way to ful on demand. (More on that later.)

I could cite cultural affinity and the gene pool to explain my interest, but my good Egyptian mother was not inclined to plop native dishes down on the dining table. She was more intent on helping her mostly American-born children — and there were a lot of us — feel at home growing up in suburban Seattle. Meals were Anglo-American affairs, though very much in keeping with a tight budget. For breakfast: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes from spring to fall, Quaker Oats from fall to spring.

Dried fava beans endlessly cooked with tomorrow in mind were not on the menu for a working mother.

While ful medames stretches deep into Egypt’s past — Wikipedia notes that Ramses II was known to have offered nearly 12,000 jars of beans to the god of the Nile — my acquaintance only goes back to the previous decade. I was on assignment in the region in 2003 and figured it was about time I met my mother’s hometown. On the first morning in Cairo, I took a stroll around the tangled streets of Zamalek before seeking out breakfast. Ful was, of course, being served. And while I can’t say that first bite was revelatory, it was exotic enough to stick in my mind. Ful became inexorably linked to Egypt, a notion confirmed by later trips.

So when I recently came across a reference, I decided it was time to learn how to make this dish. Not that the basics are very complicated: soak dried fava beans in water for 12 to 24 hours, cover them with a change of water, bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down as low as possible while maintaining a slight simmer in a covered pan for 12 hours, only cracking the lid if you must to confirm if more water is needed. When they’re tender, mash up the beans to a rough texture, dress them with salt and condiments and you’re good to go: a vegetarian-friendly breakfast, high in protein and fiber, low in fat.

Condiments set off ful medames’ earthy mash of beans

Cooked long, the tough skins of the beans eventually go al dente (though one recipe suggesting only an hour-long simmer left skins like shards of plastic sandwich bags that were not about to surrender to teeth). My Zester Daily colleague Clifford A. Wright in his wonderfully encyclopedic book A Mediterranean Feast calls for putting the pre-soaked beans in boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes and then peel off the skin before the 12 hours of cooking begins. The beans break down to a creamy, soup-like consistency rather than a chewy, chunky texture. He, like others, also suggests cooking the beans with onion, tomatoes and red lentils.

The secret to ful medames is the condiments, which set off the earthy mash of beans. Red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper do well by it, as do ground cumin and coriander, lime juice, garlic sauce, tahini, grated boiled eggs. My personal favorite: topping them with a drizzle of date molasses and a runny sunnyside-up egg.

And then there’s the cheat: a recipe by Rebecca Federman, food blogger at Cooked Books, which appears on the Christian Science Monitor’s site. With a nod to a friend and to Cairo-born chef Claudia Roden, she offers up what surely is a sacrilege in some circles: ful made in minutes with canned fava beans. And if it’s not authentic, it’s quick enough for any fool to make and an earthy alternative to yet another morning spent with corn flakes.

Ful medames from cans: Perhaps not authentic, but quick enough for any fool to make. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Ful medames from cans: Perhaps not authentic, but quick enough for any fool to make. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Rebecca Federman’s Ful Medames

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Cook Time: 8 minutes

Total Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 16 ounces

Serving Size: 2

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup olive oil or more.
  • 1 medium onion, chopped fine
  • 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
  • 1 can of ful (fava beans), drained (I add some of the liquid from the can to the dish. You may want to add all the liquid, but then watch the salt).
  • Some cumin, coriander, cayenne
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat until warm and then add the onion until softened, about 5-6 minutes.
  2. Add the garlic until fragrant, 30 seconds or so, and then spices and salt and pepper.
  3. Cook until warmed through. Add more liquid or olive oil if the dish looks to be dry.
  4. Serve with lemon wedges, hard-boiled egg, and parsley and a drizzle of olive oil on top.

Main photo: The quintessential Egyptian morning dish: ful medames. Credit: Roger Ainsley

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Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

Though I’d been anticipating it for weeks, it was while sitting at a stoplight that the intoxicating aroma of linden flowers (Tilia spp.) first hit my nose. I jerked my head around, craning over my shoulder and peering out the windows in a desperate attempt to locate the tree whose flowers supply my favorite herbal tisane.

No doubt the people in the surrounding cars thought I was nuts. If only they knew that the tree with the fiercely fragrant flowers could provide them with a divine beverage, they too would be thrilled by the scent.

As my years as a forager roll on, I become clearer about which crops are worth my time to harvest. I try to live on wild edible plants for as much of the year as possible, no easy task in the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season where I live in Colorado.

This means I have to work hard during the short period of growth, not only to harvest my favorite plants in great enough quantity to get me through the off-season, but also to preserve those plants, whether by drying, freezing, or canning.

As my go-to beverage, linden is high atop my list of desirable wild foods. Last year, I picked and dried enough linden flowers to fill a laundry basket. It wasn’t enough. In late winter, thirsting for my favorite tea, I pillaged the linden stocks of two friends.

Fragrant foraging in the shade

Also known as basswood or lime, linden is a deciduous tree with leaves shaped like slightly crooked hearts. In my area, they are used frequently as ornamental trees, mostly likely for their fragrant flowers and generous shade. The bees are particularly fond of linden, and one can often locate the trees by the sound of buzzing bees.

When the leaves first emerge and are still tender, they can be eaten in salads and sandwiches. The flowers clusters grow along with a long pale green leaf-like structure, known as a bract. When harvesting, pinch off the bract and flower clusters of linden. Since the trees flower abundantly, it is often most efficient to grab several flower clusters, avoiding the leaves, and strip them off all at once.

As with all flowers, to maximize fragrance, and therefore flavor, it is best the harvest linden flowers in full sun. It may sound obvious, but on a hot day, by all means, stand in the shade of the tree while harvesting flowers. It will make a difference when your arms tire.

petty-linden2

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Linden tree leaf and flower. Credit: Wendy Petty

As always, be sure to forage in the cleanest possible location. Avoid linden trees that grow alongside busy streets or in areas that might have been sprayed with chemicals.

Herbalists know that although it is gentle enough for children and seniors alike, linden is strong medicine, soothing and demulcent. Throughout the scorching growing season, I enjoy cold infusions of linden flowers, which help me to deal with the heat and stay moisturized from the inside out. By winter, the sight of delicate linden flowers floating in my teacup call to mind the long days of summer.

Turn linden into teas and cocktails

With experience as a forager, I’ve given up commercial teas in favor of my wild herbal blends. Not only does this save me money, but I have the reassurance of knowing exactly where my tea came from. I’ve also become quite skilled as a drink-maker, despite initially not knowing much about the subject.

Even though I couldn’t really sniff out a great glass of wine, and don’t know the difference between whisky and whiskey, I make amazing concoctions and cocktails that are hits both in my house and at social events. As a wildcrafter, I have the advantage of bringing truly unique flavors to any party.

If you’ve got a tasty wild edible plant on your hands, I encourage you to experiment with ways to preserve it. Infuse it into vodka, later adding sugar syrup to taste if needed. Try it in vinegar, or in a shrub, which is an aged mix of infused vinegar and sugar. Combine it with whichever fruit is in season. Dabble in making homemade bitters. This year, I’ve got an experimental batch of linden vinegar going, as well as a jar of linden and lemon balm in gin.

Whether you are new to linden or and old pro, you can’t beat classic linden tisane and honey infused with heady linden flowers.

Linden Honey

Pick off the freshest linden flowers (leaving behind stems and bracts), enough to loosely fill a jar. Pour fresh honey over the flowers, and leave them for at least three weeks in a warm place. Though there is no need to do so, if you wish to strain out the linden flowers after the honey has infused, set the linden honey in a sunny windowsill for a day, then strain out the flowers. The candied flowers can be enjoyed atop ice cream or cake. The floral-scented honey can be the genesis of myriad recipes. This recipe is so beautiful, you may want to consider making several extra jars of linden honey to use as gifts.

Cold-Infused Linden Tisane

Ingredients

1 cup loosely packed linden flowers (fresh or dried), bracts included

20 small wild rose heads (substitute one green tea bag)

½ gallon lukewarm water

Directions

1. Add the linden flowers, roses, and water to a ½ gallon mason jar. Leave the jar on a counter for 8 hours, then refrigerate it until cold.

2. Strain out the flowers, squeezing with your hands. Serve over ice, and with a drizzle of linden honey if you prefer sweet tea.

Linden Sparkler

Ingredients

½ cup cold-infused linden tisane

¼ cup white grape juice

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 ounce gin

½ cup seltzer water

Directions

Stir together all the ingredients, and serve them over ice.

Main photo: Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

As a longtime pescetarian and proponent of healthy eating, I’m delighted when people mention adding seafood to their diet. My heart sinks, though, when I hear that these additions consist of imported shrimp and tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon.

Although I appreciate any attempt to eat more wholesomely, I wish Americans would make wiser, more environmentally sound choices when it comes to shellfish and fish.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 91% of our favorite seafood was shipped in from overseas in 2011. Meanwhile, our own waters teem with nutritious yet highly invasive species such as Asian carp, northern snakehead and lionfish. In an age of increasing concerns about the environment and sustainability, our dependence on imported and ecologically unsound seafood makes no sense. It’s time for us to stop making unviable choices and start eating America’s glut of destructive, nonnative fish.

Eating invasive fish aids sustainability

Think that the need for invasivores – people who eat invasive species — might be overhyped? Consider Asian carp, specifically bighead, silver, black, and grass carp. They were introduced in the late 1960s to control parasites, algae and weeds in Southeastern U.S. aquaculture.

Unfortunately, these aggressive fish didn’t stay down on the farm. After escaping and crowding out or killing off  native aquatic life, Asian carp now rule over large stretches of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. Today, they threaten to take over the Great Lakes and other water systems.

This story is not unique. Dumped out of exotic aquariums, the flamboyant and venomous Indo-Pacific lionfish has infiltrated the coastal waters of Florida, spreading as far north as North Carolina and as far south as the Caribbean. Left unchecked, the lionfish has destroyed entire reef populations and drastically reduced biodiversity.

Native to Africa and Asia, northern snakeheads have likewise decimated wildlife in the Potomac, sections of the East and West coasts, Florida and Hawaii. Able to live several days out of the water, they wriggle over land to ravage nearby ponds, reservoirs and lakes. As a result, snakeheads are particularly troublesome.

Although America spends millions of tax dollars attempting to contain or eliminate these and other invasive fish, they remain prized foods in their native lands. In China and Southeast Asia, cooks grill, fry, poach, braise, steam or stew snakehead.

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

In Cambodia, this freshwater fish serves as an essential source of protein and stars in the traditional curry dish amok trey. Firm, white-fleshed and moderate in flavor, it makes a fitting substitute for overfished darlings such as monkfish and snapper.

Low in mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), Asian carp also abounds with culinary possibilities. Along with smoking, steaming, grilling and frying, it performs well in soups, curries and stews. Mild and white-fleshed, it’s a good stand-in for the depleted Atlantic cod and Icelandic pollock.

Lionfish, too, is a pleasant-tasting replacement for environmentally unsafe fish. In July 2010, the Washington Post prophesized that lionfish could be “the new sustainable ‘it’ seafood.”

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Mild in flavor and white-fleshed, it offers a versatile alternative to popular but eco-unfriendly choices such as grouper and orange roughy. It responds well to most cooking techniques and pairs well with a number of ingredients.

Although lionfish does possess venomous dorsal spines, its meat is safe to eat. I say this from experience. This past winter in the Florida Keys, I had several lovely, light lunches of speared, filleted and then pan-seared lionfish topped with a spritz of lime juice or dollop of mango chutney. Obviously, I lived to write about it.

Our aquatic enemies may be tasty and a snap to cook, but not everyone will want to devour a fish called “snakehead” or “bighead carp.” This is where smart marketing comes into play. Most people would avoid the unattractively named Patagonian toothfish. However, tucking into an exotic Chilean sea bass has proved to be A-OK with diners. Same fish, different designation. Provide snakehead and Asia carp with fancy or friendlier names, and watch how opinions change.

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

Exposure will likewise aid in gaining converts. Invasive species-themed dinners have already taken place in Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Baltimore. Along with raising public awareness of these marauding creatures, the events aim to tantalize the public’s palate. Chefs create tempting specialties such as snakehead po’ boys, European green crab stew, lionfish sashimi and Asian carp croquettes. Bite into a moist and flavorful snakehead taco, and you’ll never fill your tortillas with shrimp or tuna again.

With a bit of consumer education, exposure and smart marketing, we could control — if not eliminate — America’s invasive seafood species problem. In the process, we would reduce our dependence on unsustainable, imported seafood. It’s time for us to take note of the invasive species’ culinary appeal and start catching and consuming our nemeses.

Main photo: Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

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Open Sandwich on Rye With Cold Potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

The harvest is in full bloom during midsummer in Denmark. Seasons are short here, and some vegetables and berries are in season for only a few months or even weeks.

Because of this, it’s important to celebrate and enjoy things when they are here. As such, in May and June I eat asparagus almost every day, and then, as much as possible, strawberries and new potatoes when they start coming out.

Of course, you can find imported vegetables and fruit year-round, but they do not taste the same as the seasonal produce grown locally.

New potatoes command attention in Denmark

Denmark has the perfect climate and soil for potatoes, so there are many types  from which to choose. Denmark is a nation of potato lovers, and they collectively agree that the new summer ones are the best in the world. When the potatoes are available, it will be mentioned on prime-time news.

A lot of people grow potatoes in their gardens, or allotments. They also like to buy them as fresh as possible, often from roadside stalls in the country. It is a trust system, where you take the fruits and vegetables you want and leave money in a jar or tin.

You cook new potatoes the same day you harvest or purchase them, rinsing them in cold water and scraping the peel off with a small, sharp kitchen knife before boiling them in salted water. The best ones are small- to medium-sized, not too big. At the height of the season, you can buy them fresh every day.

Some debate exists about when the potato arrived in Denmark, but most likely it came with the French Huguenots in 1720. Up until 1820, the peasants were apprehensive about potatoes; it was the people of nobility who were most interested because they wanted to show they practiced the latest ideas from Europe. But new research shows this is not the whole truth. The peasants were merely cautious because if the new crop failed, they could not bear the risk. They started growing potatoes on small plots in their gardens or in a corner of their farmland.

When the potatoes proved to be strong and somewhat reliable, Denmark became a potato-growing nation and potatoes became the staple food of day laborers. They planted and harvested them, and some of their pay was in potatoes.

New potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

New potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

In my grandparents’ summer home, my grandfather was responsible for scraping the potatoes. When I was little girl,  he would sit every morning on a three-legged stool in the back yard scraping potatoes with this pocketknife, drinking his morning beer. Sometimes other locals would come by to sit and chat with him and have a beer. When he was done with the potatoes, he would hand them over to my grandmother; she would keep them in a pot with cold water until it was time to cook.

We always had a hot meal at noon and then smørrebrød, an open sandwich on rye bread, for dinner at night. If there were any leftover potatoes, they would be served cold on rye bread for the evening meal (see recipe below) as, in Danish, “en kartoffelmad.”

Potatoes keep well over the winter and are, therefore, a perfect staple food for the cold northern climate. For the past 150 years, the main meal in Denmark has evolved around boiled potatoes. It is a food tradition shared in northern and Eastern Europe.

The way potatoes are cooked has changed over the past 30 years. Apart from boiled, as mash and served as condiment, potatoes are now also used a vegetable and cooked in many different ways with a variety of spices. Another tradition is warm potato salad made with white onions, vinegar and sugar, which is called old-fashioned potato salad. For a more modern summer version, cold potatoes are served in a salad with fresh red onions, radishes and loads of fresh parsley.

In the summer, new Danish potatoes are so good they become the center of the meal. They are boiled in salted water and served warm with butter, dill and flaky salt on the side. You don’t really need any more than that. They are also very good served with smoked mackerel or herring with a smoked cheese dressing, chives and radishes.

In these recipes I have used three types of potatoes. The purples are called Conga, the whites Sophia or Fjellfinn. You can substitute potatoes grown where you live. Find a potato that is firm and has a nutty sweet taste. Most important, it must not be flowery.

Open Sandwich on Rye With Cold Potatoes

Yield: 4 servings for lunch

Ingredients

    For the sandwiches:
  • 1 pound medium-sized potatoes
  • 4 slices of rye bread, thinly sliced
  • 12 radishes
  • 1 leek
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons cooking oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 4 fresh lovage leaves to decorate with
  • For the cream:
  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt, 10 percent fat
  • 2 tablespoons chopped lovage (or parsley)
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water. They should still be firm when done. Depending on the size, it will take between 12 and 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, mix all the ingredients for the cream, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Cool the potatoes and cut into thin slices.
  4. Cut the leek in very thin slices, about ⅕ of an inch thick (1/2 centimeter), rinse and drain really well.
  5. Fry in oil in a big frying pan at high heat until crisp without burning. When done leave to rest on kitchen paper towel.
  6. Place the slices of rye bread on a serving tray, then divide the cold potato slices evenly on the bread.
  7. Add 2 tablespoons of the cream on top of the potatoes, divide the radishes on top of the cream and finish off with the fried leeks. Decorate with a lovage leaf before serving.

Main photo: Open Sandwich on Rye With Cold Potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

 

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A report by Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to kill off one of the most misleading — and downright contemptible  — claims you will find on food packaging today.

The natural label claim epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our food labeling laws — or should I say lack of them. The natural wording is found on the packaging of millions of food products sold every day, including meat, dairy and eggs. Consumers consider it an important claim: According to new research from Consumer Reports, nearly 60% of people surveyed look for the natural label term when food shopping. When it comes to meat, dairy and eggs, almost 50% of consumers assume that natural  means the animals were raised outdoors and not in confinement. Many consumers also think natural means that no growth hormones were used (68%), or the animals’ feed contained no genetically modified organisms (64%) or that no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60%).

In truth, any of these practices would be acceptable under the natural label. In fact, the term is pretty much a blank check for food manufacturers to mislead and deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something better — when they are not.

Despite what you might think,  a natural label claim  has nothing to do with how an animal might have been raised or treated. According to the USDA, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.”

In other words, the term applies only to how the meat or poultry product is processed. So the farming system may have involved feedlot or confinement systems, or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters or artificial hormones (for beef cattle), or the feeding of GMOs, or the mutilation of beaks and tails, and other questionable practices associated with intensive, industrial-scale livestock production.

The reality of  ‘natural’ meat

The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors that use the natural label claim — many of which are household names and brands. That natural beef you specifically chose, which also happened to display happy cattle in a green pasture, doesn’t mean the animals were raised in a pasture, or fed a healthy diet, or treated according to higher welfare standards.

AWA's Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

AWA’s Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

It simply means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed after slaughter. In reality most of the cattle slaughtered for natural beef brands are finished on dirt feedlots, where thousands of cattle have little space for their last few months and eat mainly corn and grain to quickly gain weight. Such feedlot cattle are routinely given antibiotics and hormones in a losing battle to prevent disease and maximize growth rates. It’s hardly a natural existence.

Similarly, most natural-labeled eggs will come from industrial indoor poultry operations, where thousands of hens are confined in battery cages. Each bird lives in a cage with several others with each allotted less space than a sheet of letter paper. Beaks are routinely cut back using a hot knife to prevent hens from pecking each other to death out of boredom and frustration. The birds also are fed various pharmaceuticals — such as arsenic  — to control pests and diseases. They never see grass or sunlight, let alone roam and forage.

It’s the same story for the 60-plus million intensively raised pigs in the U.S., confined to indoor concrete runs, fed growth promoters such as ractopamine, with their tails cut to prevent tail biting. This pork also is labeled natural. Again, would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural?

Yet the major meat processors that dominate the food industry are making billions of dollars by knowingly misleading well-meaning consumers each and every day. And the USDA — the government agency responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — is doing nothing about it.

Scientists argue that these marketing claims — in addition to fooling consumers — may also be leading to obesity and diet-related ill health. According to the latest research from the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords — including natural — are lulling consumers into thinking food products labeled with those words are healthier than they are.

We at Animal Welfare Approved are calling on farmers and consumers to unite behind Consumer Reports in its effort to “Kill the Natural Label.” Please sign the online petition. If you have bought natural-labeled foods, why not write to the food manufacturer and voice your displeasure? Tell them with these petitions that you won’t buy their products again until they are honestly labeled.

Misleading labels confuse consumers and threaten the livelihoods of farmers striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. Seek out and buy honestly labeled food. The AWA logo is a pledge that our animals were raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent family farm using sustainable agriculture methods. No other food label offers these distinctions. You can find your nearest supplier of AWA-certified foods at animalwelfareapproved.org.

Main photo:  The “natural”  label does not cover how animals are raised. Credit: Courtesy HUHA

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Fresh cherries. Credit: Sharon Hunt

My father loved to fish, his East Coast genes commanding that love. Dad loved camping too but only camping where water was nearby. After all, nothing tasted better than fresh fish frying on a camp stove, unless it was fresh fish accompanied by the wonderful cherry jam he made to go with it.

While Mom set the table and my sister trotted off with her Barbie dolls, Dad’s fishing pole arced and fell, and I caught up with Nancy Drew’s latest mystery. When Dad had enough fish, even Nancy was cast aside for lunch.

While the fish sizzled, he caramelized onions for the cherry jam. How he fell upon this combination I don’t know, but the jam, little more than fresh cherries, green pepper and onions, was tart and sweet, and we slathered it onto the hot fish. With coleslaw and bread, we had a midday feast.

After lunch, we were logy, sluggish in our movements but content in our thoughts. Even Barbie looked ready to stretch out on her lounge chair for a nap.

Fresh cherries open up new possibilities

Before moving to Ontario, Canada, we never ate fresh cherries, the ones arriving at the grocery store already covered with a fuzzy coating of mold. So we contented ourselves with maraschino cherries in canned fruit cocktail or topping an ice cream sundae or the glace cherries in a cake that had been passed down from my Great-Grandmother Hunt.

I never knew her, but in Dad’s words she was “a corker” (an excellent or astonishing person). All of 4 feet and practically as wide as she was tall, she wore a black apron that fringed her ankles and had a Newfoundland dog, looking more pony than canine, that rarely left her side.

When Dad spent summer holidays with her and his grandfather, she made boiled dinners that were often gray in the pot and roasts of beef that inevitably blackened in her care, but she also made a cherry cake that he and the dog salivated over. The cake was one of the few things that she made — along with poached eggs, fish stew and gingerbread — that was a keeper, he said.

Although really just a pound cake with glace cherries added, it was the beating of butter and sugar until silken and the addition of almond flavoring and orange juice that elevated the cake to something special. She used a wooden spoon and an English mason bowl that she sat in her lap, creaming the butter and sugar with a steady rhythm, while the other ingredients waited to be added. The last thing mixed in was the cherries, which had been sprinkled with flour so they wouldn’t fall to the bottom of the cake as it baked.

Great-Grandmother Hunt hummed while the spoon beat against the bowl, the oil stove undulating in the heat and Dad and the dog sitting close by, waiting.

Later, when she took the cakes out of the oven, they hardly had time to reach the cooling racks before boy and beast were at her elbow, begging for slices that had been tinged pink from the cherries.

Decades later, Dad made those cakes for me and my sister, but by then, we’d also become fresh cherry lovers. The Bing cherries that grew on a tree in the back garden of our new home were fat and glossy, and what a wonder it was to pick a handful whenever we wanted.

I was sometimes sent out with the step stool and a bowl to pick enough cherries for a new dessert Dad discovered in the only cookbook he ever bought, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Later, he found the tall and gangly author of the book, Julia Child, on television by accident and learned to make new, French dishes, but Cherry Clafoutis remained one of his favorites.

It looked like a puffed up pancake as it baked, but it was so much more — light textured and bursting with cherries. Powdered sugar sprinkled on top added an extra touch of sweetness. Cherry Clafoutis became a weekend treat and a camping specialty. Dad even made a metal hood for the camp stove so he could bake the dessert on it.

Cherry Clafoutis. Credit:: Sharon Hunt

Cherry Clafoutis. Credit: Sharon Hunt

The aroma of the baking clafoutis lured friends and strangers to our camping spot. Soon, slices were being passed around, powdered sugar was coating lips and cherry juice dribbled down chins. It was hard to imagine life before this dessert and before fresh cherries.

Dad tweaked Child’s clafoutis over the years, adding ingredients and changing amounts, but he always credited her with opening up a whole new direction in cooking and baking for him. His clafoutis is the version I still make.

I stay true to Great-Grandmother Hunt’s cherry cake recipe, though, like he did, and although Bing cherries are still my favorites, I also like light-fleshed Rainiers, the “Princess of cherries,” while the Lapin’s deep red skin and flesh makes a cherry jam that is still perfect slathered on pan fried trout.

Cherry Clafoutis

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Inspired by Julia Child's recipe.

Ingredients

  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup white sugar, divided
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup 10% cream
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 2 cups cherries, pitted (fresh work best, but frozen cherries, thawed and drained, work well too)
  • Powdered sugar

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. Sift the salt and flour together in a small bowl.
  3. In a medium-size bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy. Add ½ cup sugar and whisk until combined, then add the buttermilk, cream, orange juice and almond extract; whisk until smooth.
  4. Add the sifted flour and salt and blend well.
  5. Pour half the batter into a greased baking dish (about an 8-cup capacity) and place in the preheated oven. When the batter has started to set around the sides of the pan (about 10 minutes), remove the pan from the oven.
  6. Sprinkle the cherries and then the additional ½ cup of sugar over the batter. Add the rest of the batter and return the dish to the oven.
  7. Bake for about 45 minutes (or until the clafoutis has puffed up, is golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean).
  8. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm.

Main photo: Fresh cherries. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Open oysters ready to eat. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

In “For Your Eyes Only,” British super-spy James Bond informs us that the best things in America are chipmunks and oyster stew. We can understand oyster stew on many levels, including its aphrodisiac properties. Like Bond, a gentleman should know how to open oysters for his girl. And a girl should know how to eat the oyster.

The best oysters are those whose life is controlled by a careful balance of estuaries, temperature, salinity and water flow. Opening an oyster requires an oyster knife, of course, and then finding the hinge in the oyster where the two shell halves meet. The knife is wedged in to the little groove of the joint and rather than push hard, which often leads to injury, it is important to twist the knife until you hear the “pop” of the shell halves releasing their grip.

Most people who injure themselves opening oysters do so not with the knife but on one of the sharp edges of the oyster shell itself. Once the pop has occurred, push gently to separate the shells and run the knife around the entire edge of the oyster to separate them entirely. Then the knife is run once again to separate the oyster meat from the adductor muscle that holds it to the shell. The oyster stays in the deeper shell half rather than the flatter shell half as it will hold all the oyster juice too.

When eating raw oysters, I belong to the school of thought that only a few drops of lemon juice are required, and it is best to serve them cold, ideally on ice. Oyster opening and eating is a messy affair and one done without utensils. Once the oyster is opened there’s all manner of ways of serving or cooking it from dipped into a mignonette to baked with a topping to deep-fried. However, the purest way to eat an oyster is to open one and eat it raw.

Advice varies about the proper way to eat an oyster, but the idea that you don’t chew and just let them slide down your throat doesn’t seem right to me. If you do that, I don’t believe you’re tasting anything. The whole point to taste is that you masticate.

The oyster shell with its oyster and liquor is used as the vehicle to bring the oyster to your mouth and you do indeed slide the oyster into your mouth. Then take a couple of bites and, in the words of one poet, you tickle the oyster to death.

The first oysters opened go to the lady friend, and then the shucker slides one down for himself.

Main photo: Open oysters ready to eat. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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