Articles in Cooking w/recipe
It’s not by chance that October is National Doughnut Month. A fat circle of fresh-fried dough is a lot more appealing when the air is cool and crisp, especially when accompanied by cup of steaming cider. Moreover, you don’t have to worry about what you’ll look like in a bathing suit — until next year.
Of course national anything days, or months, don’t just happen. They exist because somebody once had an agenda. Sometimes, the days stick, like Thanksgiving, while others, like Health Literacy Month, have a hard time getting traction.
We can thank the now-defunct Doughnut Corporation of America for the monthlong celebration of sweet dough rings. The DCA once controlled virtually all the country’s automatic doughnut machines and most of the mix that went into them. One of the corporation’s brighter ideas was to dub October as National Doughnut Month in 1928.
The Halloween connection
When they did this, the connection of the ghoul fest and doughnuts wasn’t entirely spurious. Before Halloween became a kid’s holiday, people used to have Halloween parties, which often featured seasonal cider and doughnuts. One party game was to bob for apples. Typically, the apples floated in a tub; however, in one variant, the apples were hung on a string. This was also done with doughnuts. The trick was to eat the treat with your hands tied behind your back. To make it a little trickier, the air bobber could be blindfolded. And, in a version of the game that might be suitable for National Fitness Month, several doughnuts are strung horizontally along a stretched cord, laundry-line style (they can also be suspended from the line on lengths of ribbon). The competitors must “chase” the pastries down the line, eating as many as they can, without the use of their hands. These sort of Halloween doughnut acrobatics were popular long before the DCA set up its first shop in Harlem in 1921.
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The company, founded by an Eastern European immigrant named Adolph Levitt, came up with all sorts of wacky promotions in its early years. Perhaps its most successful was the creation of the National Dunking Association, an organization devoted to dipping doughnuts in coffee. In 1940s, the organization boasted three million members and counted Zero Mostel, Johnny Carson and even choreographer Martha Graham as card-carrying dunkers.
In a somewhat more serious vein, during World War II the company supplied its machines free of charge to the American Red Cross, even if they charged the charity for the batter. Just in case America didn’t get the secret-weapon role that doughnuts were playing in the conflict, Levitt’s company put out full-page ads in Life Magazine that featured servicemen on the front, rushing eagerly to get their doughnut fix. In one frame of the comic-strip formatted ad, one dough-faced soldier purrs, “M-M-M, just like home.” In another frame, servicemen on leave whoop it up at a Halloween party. “Service men (and women) look forward to being invited to Halloween parties this year,” we’re told. “And what’s Halloween without donuts and coffee or cider?”
A perfect match
While doughnuts and cider were long considered a likely match, cider doughnuts appear to have been a more recent invention, likely in the early 1950s. This is another innovation that we can attribute to the Doughnut Corporation of America. As people increasingly piled into cars for a drive to the local pick-your-own orchard, the owners of farm stands started adding cider doughnuts to their offerings, not just for Halloween but throughout the leaf-watching season.
In the postwar era, trick-or-treating became ever more popular. In part, it made more sense in the growing suburbs than it had in gritty cities, but trick-or-treating was also pushed by the candy companies. Yet, in smaller communities, homemade treats continued to outnumber Snickers bars.
Connie Fairbanks, a Chicago-based food and travel writer, recalls growing up in Wheaton, Kan., a town of about 90 people at the time. “Everybody went from house to house,” she recalls. And every house had its specialty. “One woman was known for her popcorn balls,” she reminisces, “and my mother was known for her glazed, raised doughnuts. They were always warm when the kids came in.” Her mom made them once, maybe twice, a year and fried them in lard rendered from the family’s own hogs. “I remember the dough feeling like a baby’s bottom.” Fairbanks added that her mother’s secret was to beat the dough, by hand, and not add too much flour. “I remember the smell, it was unbelievable.”
Can you think of a better way to celebrate Halloween? Or, for that matter, the 31 days of National Doughnut Month?
Whole Wheat Apple Cider Doughnuts
Recipe adapted from “The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin“
Many commercially produced doughnuts are made with a batter that is too wet to roll. This results in lighter pastry but requires a doughnut extruder. One way of getting around that is to use a piping bag to “extrude” the doughnuts. This also gives you the option of making the doughnuts any diameter you like. You will need a heavy pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip, and, once formed, the doughnuts are much easier to handle if you chill them for an hour or two in the refrigerator.
Cook Time: 60 to 90 seconds per doughnut
Yield: 16 doughnuts
For the doughnut dough:
1½ cups apple cider
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
8 ounces (about 1¾ cups) bleached all-purpose flour
4ounces (about 1 cup) whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Large pinch grated nutmeg
Large pinch grated cloves
5 ounces (about ⅔ cup) raw (turbinado) sugar or substitute light brown sugar
1½ ounces (3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 egg yolk, at room temperature
Oil or shortening for frying
For the cinnamon sugar:
4 ounces (about ½ cup) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1. In a small saucepan, boil the cider until it is reduced to ¼ cup. Cool.
2. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper and spray lightly with vegetable spray. In a measuring cup, stir together the milk, reduced cider, and vanilla. It will look curdled. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt, and spices.
3. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the sugar and butter until well incorporated, about 1 minute. Add the egg and egg yolk and beat until fluffy, smooth, and pale, 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Alternately add the milk and flour mixtures into the egg mixture in 2 or 3 additions, beating on low speed until just barely combined between each addition. Stir until the mixture just comes together to make a soft, sticky dough. Do not overbeat or it will get tough.
5. Working with about half the dough at a time, fill a piping bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip. Pipe circles of dough about 3 inches in diameter on the parchment Repeat with the remaining dough. (The dough needs to keep its shape; if too loose, add a tablespoon or two more of flour.) If you wish, you can smooth the seam with a damp finger. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to 6 hours. Remove plastic wrap, lightly dust the doughnuts with flour, place another pan over each pan, and invert. Carefully peel off the parchment paper.
6. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil or shortening to 360 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer with a built-in thermostat, check the temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Drop several doughnuts at a time into the heated fat, making sure there is enough room for all of them to float to the surface. Cook 30 to 45 seconds per side, using a slotted spoon or tongs to turn each doughnut. When the doughnuts are golden brown, transfer them to a cooling rack covered with paper towels. Cool to just above room temperature.
7. Whisk together the granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon cinnamon in a wide bowl. Toss the barely warm doughnuts in the cinnamon sugar mixture, and serve warm.
Main photo: A woman bobs for doughnuts at an event at The City University of New York. Credit: Michael Krondl
When I was growing up in Maine, mussels were poor folks’ food, an archetypical trash fish. Searching old New England cookbooks, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mention of mussels, though clams, crabs, even whelks are conspicuous.
I always remember my mother’s admonition when she spied the Baptist minister’s wife gleaning mussels from a rocky ledge near the beach where we spent sunny summer days. “There,” said my mother, always alert to social distinctions, “you see how poor the Baptists are — the minister has to eat mussels!”
I was well into my 20s and a long way from Maine before I dared tackle the suspect bivalves. And I was won over immediately. Compared to the chewy chowder clams I was used to, the plump, briny taste and soft texture of mussels were revelatory.
The tide turns on mussels
If mussels were poor folks’ food in Maine, in New York, where I gravitated as soon as I could get away from New England, one of the classiest items in town was Billi Bi soup, a delectable concoction of mussels simmered in loads of wine and cream, their briny broth thickened to velvet and rich with egg yolks. It was the toast of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel back in the day, though nowadays it seems to have disappeared from the menu at that venerable institution.
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New York’s mussel love may have had to do with the impact of immigrant populations on local cuisine. Greek, Italian and French cooks all have a natural appreciation for the mollusk. Still, Julia Child was advised, when working on the manuscript of what would become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” that many Americans considered mussels to be downright poisonous.
Fearlessly, however, she included several recipes. And whether it was owing to Child’s influence or the growth of American travel abroad and investigation of more sophisticated cuisines, we were soon a nation convinced, and mussels today are as common as … well, they still don’t make the list of America’s 10 favorite fish, but there’s hardly a seafood restaurant anywhere that doesn’t have mussels on the menu year round.
Perhaps it’s because of the availability of aquacultured mussels. Even though mussels have been farmed for centuries, production in North America started to climb only in the 1990s and really took off after the turn of the century. Today’s minister’s wife is less apt to scavenge and more likely to dine on acquacultured mussels produced by the process of rope culture, which simply means long ropes that hang in orderly rows in clean, salty water, whether close in or offshore. The mussels, which start as seed hanging in mesh bags, eventually attach themselves to the ropes before growing to market size. This is a boon for cooks, because it means the tiresome practice of rinsing and purging the critters over and over and over again to get rid of sand is no longer necessary.
Cooks today have only to rinse mussels in a colander under running water then pull away and discard the beard — that whiskery, weedy stuff between the shells that attaches the mussel to its bed and comes off with a stout tug.
There are actually two types of mussels, the most common being Atlantic blue mussels, Mytilus edulis. This is the one most likely to be found in good fish markets, usually sold by the pound or by the quart in mesh bags. They’re grown widely along the Northeast coast, but especially in Maine and off Prince Edward Island. Bang’s Island mussels from Casco Bay, Maine, are a current favorite with many New England chefs (available from Harbor Fish Market in Portland). But the other kind, the Mediterranean black mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), is also available, farmed in the cold waters of Washington’s Puget Sound. I recently had a shipment from Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington, where Mediterranean mussels are currently on offer for $4.95 a pound — but be advised that overnight shipping, which is necessary, can add a lot to that cost. It makes sense to plan a big mussel feed and order a lot.
The black mussels were delicious — succulent, plump, tasty, every bit as exciting as those long-ago ones I sampled in New York and probably even better than what the Baptist minister’s wife was foraging on the ledge above the beach.
Mussels, as mentioned earlier, need only a quick rinse and de-bearding before they’re ready to cook. They should be cooked while still alive. Discard any with cracked shells, or that don’t close up their shells when lightly tapped against the side of the sink — a sign they’ve gone to mussel heaven.
I turned the Mediterranean mussels into what I like to think is a classic southern Italian pasta, even though I actually made up the dish on the spur of the moment to take advantage of their sparkling freshness.
Cavatelli With Mussels and Saffron Potatoes
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
Yield: Makes enough for 4 main-course servings, 6 servings as a primo or first course
5 pounds mussels (about 4 quarts)
3 stalks celery, diced to make about ½ cup
1 large shallot, diced to make about ½ cup
½ medium fennel bulb, diced to make about ½ cup
2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, minced, to make ¼ cup, plus a few extra parsley leaves for a garnish
1½ cups dry white wine
1 pound waxy potatoes (fingerlings, yellow Finns or similar), diced small
Big pinch of saffron
Pinch of ground dried red chili such as piment d’Espelette or Aleppo pepper
½ pound cavatelli pasta
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Rinse the mussels under running water, pulling off beards. Set aside.
2. Combine celery, shallot, fennel, and garlic in a pan large enough to hold all the mussels. Stir in ¼ cup of olive oil and set over medium low heat. Cook gently while stirring until the vegetables are soft, then stir in minced parsley.
3. Add the wine and bring to a simmer. Tip in the cleaned mussels and cook, stirring occasionally to bring up the ones on the bottom, until all the mussels have opened. As they open, extract them and set aside in a deep plate or bowl. If after about 15 minutes there are still a few mussels that stubbornly refuse to open, discard them. Turn off the heat under the pan but keep it in a warm place.
4. In a separate skillet, combine the diced potatoes with the remaining oil and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring and tossing, until the potatoes start to brown along their edges. Toss the lightly browned potatoes into the mussel broth, adding the saffron and chili, and return the mussel pan to low heat to finish cooking the potatoes, just simmering them in the broth.
5. While the potatoes are finishing, shuck the mussels, discarding the shells. Add the shucked mussels to the potatoes, along with the saffron and chili.
6. Bring salted water to a boil in a pan and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is almost al dente, then strain it and stir it into the mussel-potato combination. By this time the potatoes should be soft.
7. Add salt and plenty of black pepper, then taste and adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve immediately, either as a soup or as a pasta, garnishing with the whole parsley leaves.
Main photo: Mussels. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Ramen noodles, the staple found in college dorms worldwide. As a student, my future culinary career was not even a thought, but I learned to dress up my ramen noodles, which I would buy whenever there was a “10 for $1″ special at the local supermarket.
There was an entire repertoire of ramen dishes that I made:
- Ramen soup with frozen peas
- Ramen soup with frozen corn
- Ramen soup with frozen peas and corn
- Ramen soup with leftover chicken
- Ramen soup with deli meat
- Stir-fried ramen noodles with hot dogs
- Stir-fried ramen noodles with spam
- Stir-fried ramen noodle with frozen peas and corn and spam
You get the idea, cheap and filling. It was and is every broke college student’s idea of a bargain answer.
But the packaged, sodium-laden noodles you find in the average supermarket aisle are not where the ramen noodle story ends. It is not even where it begins.
Ramen noodles have been a staple of the Japanese diet for ages, usually prepared as a soup. But ramen noodles are much more versatile than that, lending themselves to pan frying a la yakisoba, or in a salad such as this one below.
Four ramen types near you
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In major cities, you can find authentic ramen restaurants serving incredible bowls of soup, layered with flavors. In Japan, each region has a special way of preparing ramen, but there are four types that are found everywhere.
Shio or salt: Originally made with sea salt, this is a lighter, clear broth often served with chicken or seafood.
Shoyu or soy sauce: Used to flavor lighter broths and heavier, dense broths.
Miso: Salty, fermented miso paste makes a thick, sweet and salty broth, robust enough to stand up to fatty pork belly.
Tonkotsu or pork broth: Creamy, slightly cloudy pork broth. Thick with umami flavor, with an unctuous mouth feel, it is comfort in a bowl.
Toppings for ramen soup cover all taste preferences, including but not limited to pressed fish cakes, mushrooms and fungi, pickled ginger, seafood, fresh and dried seaweed, braised pork belly and soft boiled eggs.
Ramen has broken out of its soup bowl and become so mainstream a chef has substituted a hamburger bun with a ramen noodle bun. The Ramen Burger is actually quite tasty, with a sweet shoyu glaze, arugula and scallions.
Chefs realize that the unique process of making ramen noodles is what makes their texture ideal in dishes other than soup. Ramen noodles are made using Kansui, or alkaline water, which results in a firm and chewy noodle that will not become mushy or sticky.
This salad uses sweet baby eggplant and mild shishito peppers, but almost any kind of vegetable or meat can be substituted. Experiment with adding roasted kabocha squash, snow peas, shredded carrots, steamed Chinese broccoli, bok choy, leftover chicken, pork, fish or shrimp. Boiled eggs, tofu or seitan make great vegetarian meat substitutes.
Ramen Salad With Roasted Eggplant and Shishito Peppers
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 pound Indian or baby eggplant, stem removed and halved
½ pound Shishito peppers
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 bundles (3 ounces) ramen noodle
¼ cup sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 teaspoons Yuzu No Sui juice
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Place the eggplant and Shishito peppers onto a sheet pan.
3. Drizzle the olive oil and sprinkle the salt over the vegetables.
4. Toss to coast evenly with the oil and salt.
5. Arrange the eggplant halves cut side down on the pan.
6. Roast the vegetables for 30 to 40 minutes, until the peppers are lightly charred and the eggplant is soft.
7. Let the vegetables cool. (Can be made a day ahead)
8. Pull the stems from the peppers, and then slice into rings.
9. Cut the eggplant into small pieces.
10. Place the peppers and eggplant into a large bowl.
11. Cook the ramen noodles according to package directions.
12. Drain the ramen, then rinse with cold water to cool them.
13. Add the noodles to the bowl with the vegetables.
14. In a small bowl whisk together the sweet soy, mirin, lime juice and Yuzu juice.
15. Pour the dressing over the noodles and vegetables, tossing to coat.
16. Add the sesame seeds, toss again to mix well.
17. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Main photo: Ramen Salad With Roasted Eggplant and Shisito Peppers. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
Pumpkin is an ideal bland food with a distinctive taste. That’s a good thing because it means you have to do something to the pumpkin to make it palatable and delicious. Typically, pumpkin pie is a solution, but nowadays it’s going into all kinds of things from beer to cookies.
Pumpkin is a member of the Cucurbitaceae and winter squash family (its Latin binomial is Cucurbita pepo) and when it first arrived in Europe following its discovery in the New World after Columbus’ voyages it did not impress. The Sicilians, for example, thought so little of winter squash such as pumpkin, they even have a derogatory saying about it: “Sali mitticinni nà visazza conzala come vuoi è sempre cucuzza” (Add a lot of salt and seasoning because squash it always remains).
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There are four basic species of Cucurbitaceae. Pumpkins or squash are easily hybridized so the range of colors and shapes is quite varied and it is difficult to tell one variety from another, resulting in many cultivars. If you are interested, a thorough and concise description of all the squashes can be found in my book “Mediterranean Vegetables.”
All that counts in this recipe is that you’ll need about 3 pounds of pumpkin flesh. The recipe calls for you to make your own pumpkin pasta and homemade ricotta cheese. That sounds hard, but it’s not. Just follow the instructions in the links.
Alternatively, use store-bought regular pappardelle with a high quality store-bought ricotta cheese. For the homemade pasta, follow the pasta-making instructions for “Homemade White Flour and Egg Pasta” in the pappardelle link below, adding 1 cup puréed and very well-drained pumpkin pulp to the mixture.
Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds
Prep time: 15 minutes, does not include making homemade pasta and ricotta
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
¾ pound pumpkin pappardelle
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
14 ounces fresh pumpkin flesh, cut into 1½ by 1½ by ¼-inch squares
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
¼ pound fresh ricotta cheese
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Prepare the pasta. Cut into 1-inch wide strips and let dry 4 to 24 hours. The recipe in the link will provide 1¼ pounds dried pasta. Set aside ¾ pound for this recipe and store the remainder.
2. Preheat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.
3. Add ½ tablespoon butter to the skillet and it will smoke almost immediately. Quickly lay the sliced pumpkin in the skillet and salt lightly. Let cook until golden on both sides, turning only once, about 6 minutes in all. Remove and set aside, keeping the slices warm.
4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing.
5. Transfer the pasta while still very hot to a bowl with the remaining butter and poppy seeds. Toss well then transfer to a serving platter or bowl. Top with the sliced pumpkin, 4 dollops of ricotta, and the Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.
Main photo: Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
If you are not clear exactly what Mediterranean food is, it’s actually very simple: It’s the cooking found in all the regions and provinces that have a littoral on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of that fact in a sense there is no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine because every region’s food, while tending to use the same ingredients, is strikingly different from one another. High on the list of staple Mediterranean foods are legumes.
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Two Mediterranean countries famous for their legume dishes are Egypt and Greece. Here are two budget-friendly, healthy and delicious recipes that can be served in Near Eastern style, as both Greece and Egypt are considered Near Eastern countries. These dishes can be prepared as part of a larger meze or as an appetizer or side dish.
Edward William Lane tells us in his classic book “The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” first published in 1908 that many dishes prepared by the Egyptians consist wholly or for the most part of vegetables, “cabbage, purslane, spinach, bamiyeh [okra], beans, lupin, chick-pea, gourds, cut into small pieces, colocasia, lentils etc.”
Called salāṭa ‘adas and made with tiny brown lentils slightly cooked with olive oil, garlic and spices, I had this lentil salad as a meze at the Tikka Grill, a restaurant on the corniche of Alexandria in Egypt. Although you don’t have to use freshly ground spices, you’ll find if you do, the result is a dish far fresher, more pungent and better tasting than one made with pre-ground spices. Too many home cooks keep spices far beyond their shelf life, so check the date on your jar.
Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices
Preparation time: about 30 minutes
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds
½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds
½ teaspoon ground fenugreek
1 cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed well
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic and as soon as the garlic begins to sizzle remove from the burner, add the cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.
2. Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on. Drain and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.
Black-Eyed Pea Salad
This simple preparation called mavromakita fasolia in Greek can be made with canned black-eyed peas, as long as they are packed in only water. I prefer using dried black-eyed peas but they are not always to be found. Typically you would serve this salad as a meze, but it’s fine as a side dish too. This recipe was given to me by chef Estathios Meralis of the motor yacht M/Y Sirius out of Piraeus, Greece.
Yield: 6 servings
Preparation time: about 1 hour
2½ cups canned black-eyed peas (two 15-ounce cans) or 1 cup dried black-eyed peas
2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste
1. If using dried black-eyed peas, boil over high heat in water to cover until tender, about 1 hour. Drain and rinse. If using canned peas, drain and rinse, then place in a bowl.
2. Toss the black-eyed peas with the scallions, garlic, dill, olive oil, pepper and salt. Serve at room temperature.
Main photo: Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Japanese miso can deliver great health benefits — and of course, everyone wants those. However, not all miso is created equal. Inexpensive miso made from low-quality ingredients through an automated process has little nutritional value and may be laden with chemicals. When you look at the traditional way of making miso, you can see why.
The most popular miso is made from rice, soybeans, salt, spring water and koji, the fermentation starter. Koji, aspergillus oryzae, is a type of mold. When mixed with steamed rice, it breaks down the carbohydrates into simple sugars. The resulting koji rice is mixed with cooked soybeans, sea salt and pure spring water. This mixture is then left in wooden barrels to ferment naturally. Dark brown miso, or aka-miso (often known as “red miso”), can take more than one year to ferment properly. During this period, the koji is assisted by hundreds of species of bacteria living in the wood of the barrels. They produce peptides and amino acids, organic acids and other nutrients, giving the miso its wonderful flavor and nutritional value.
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But all that work pays off for the cook, because using good-quality miso produces wonderful-tasting dishes with little effort. Good miso contains lots of umami, savory flavor, enhancing all the other ingredients you use. In contrast, miso made in an automated factory substitutes artificial flavoring for the rich layers of flavor in the traditional product.
But American cooks don’t have to order a shipment of Japanese miso from abroad to get the real experience: Several American companies are now making very high quality, traditionally produced miso. On a day when I did not have time to walk 20 minutes to the Japanese food store, I discovered the American-made Miso Master brand at my neighborhood large chain supermarket in New York City. In my kitchen, this miso really surprised me. It had the quality and taste characteristics that I had long yearned for.
Japanese tradition comes to America
I was curious to find out how my favorite miso was made in America. So I headed to Great Eastern Sun, the North Carolina-based company that has been making Miso Master miso for 33 years. In 1979, when American interest in macrobiotic products was booming, John and Jan Belleme, the early partners of the company, traveled to Japan to investigate natural miso production. A small miso brewer, Takamichi Onozaki, in Yatai, a village in Tochigi Prefecture northeast of Tokyo, opened his arms and factory to the Bellemes and taught them the art of traditional miso production. Upon returning to America, they built the Great Eastern Sun factory in the village of Rutherfordton, 55 miles east of Asheville.
On my visit to the factory I found the same qualities that I had found at the miso factory in Japan: far from the city, with clean water, pure air and people who cared about producing high-quality food. Great Eastern Sun picked Rutherfordton not only because of the qualities of nature and people, but also because it sits at the same latitude as the village of Yatai in Japan.
A Japanese miso master, Joe Kato, oversees production of the miso, which uses all organic and non-GMO ingredients. In the large processing room, six local American employees were working on koji rice. The rice had been steamed the day before, inoculated with koji mold and left spread on a large wooden stand in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. The workers were breaking up and turning the koji rice, which released a sweet, slightly chestnut-like fragrance. When I closed my eyes I felt as if I were standing in my friend’s miso factory in Japan. But soon the workers’ jokes and chatting in English brought me back to where I was.
Below you will find a very simple, but delicious recipe with which you can try real miso to enjoy a healthy diet. You may have had the somewhat boring typical miso soup at a Japanese restaurant, featuring wakame seaweed, tofu and scallion. This spicy kale miso soup recipe shows that you can use any seasonal vegetable from your refrigerator to make an excellent miso soup. You can find many more delicious uses for miso – dressings, marinades, sauces and more –in my book, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen.”
Spicy Kale Miso Soup
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 8 minutes
Total time: 18 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
½ bunch kale
1 teaspoon canola oil
½ cup chopped red onion
¼ cup finely julienned ginger
¼ teaspoon toban jiang (fermented chile bean sauce) or red pepper flakes
3 cups dashi stock or low-sodium chicken stock
1½ tablespoons aged brown miso from Miso Master or other high-quality miso producer
- Cut off the very bottom of the hard stems of the kale, and cut the remaining kale, including the stems, into thin slices crosswise.
- Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium heat, and then add the onion. Cook the onions for 1 minute, stirring until they are slightly translucent. Add half of the ginger and the toban jiang, and give the mixture several stirs. Add the kale and cook, stirring, until the leaves are wilted.
- Pour in the stock and bring it to a simmer. Decrease the heat to low and cook, covered, for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat.
- Add the miso, stirring briskly with a whisk until it is dissolved.
- Divide the soup into small soup bowls, garnish with the remaining ginger and serve.
Main photo: Workers tend the koji rice at Great Eastern Sun’s facility in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo
A number of Chicago’s 3,000 Burmese refugees have found a place that feels like home, improbably situated in the middle of a thriving metropolis of 2.6 million people: a lush, sprawling acre of Midwestern farmland. Tucked inside an 8-foot-tall metal fence and pinched between the shadows of large brick apartment complexes, this all-organic farm gives these and other refugees a chance to do what they know best.
“Just about everybody here was a farmer back home,” says Linda Seyler, the manager of the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm. “They used the word home a lot, especially when we were building this. It’s in a ‘being resettled finally’ sense.”
Maddy Crowell is a multimedia freelance journalist who has previously reported out of Ghana and Morocco. Twitter: @madcrowell
Converted from the ruins of a candy distribution warehouse, the land was purchased by the Refugee Agricultural Partnership (an arm of the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement) from the city of Chicago for $1 (although apparently the city has yet to collect). Located in the ethnically diverse Albany Park neighborhood, it is the only refugee farm in Illinois, and one of a small handful in the United States.
Seyler says many of the urban farmers at Global Garden spent at least 20 years of their lives in refugee camps after being forced out of their home countries. “That’s 20 years in limbo,” she says. “They were not allowed to work, and everything is rationed — food, water, living space.”
With the farm, the refugees nurture a small piece of land they can call their own, rent free. For many, it’s also an escape from the chaos of the city. A hundred individual plots feed about 100 Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese and Congolese families, and anything left over can be sold at a nearby farmers market.
It’s a living amoeba of shared space, with farmers tending not only their own gardens but also their neighbors’. Some farmers push their growing season as late as November to get the last of the summer harvest.
Despite ministering to four different ethnic groups, Seyler found surprising agreement when it came to choosing which crops would kick-start the farm. “There would be one picture of some greens in the catalog, and they’d all say, ‘We like that!’ The pictures evoked something,” she says. She ordered anything they requested from a Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog.
Roselle is a sour surprise
At first, the farm was dotted with standard American crops — spinach, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, basil, thyme, sunflowers, mustard greens. Soon, however, Seyler began to notice a crop she didn’t recognize.
Chin baung, or roselle in English, announced itself in the form of red sticks poking up from the ground and appeared on the farm three years ago. A chewy, leafy, tart relative of the hibiscus family, the plant is as common in Myanmar as basil is here. Many Burmese families began searching it out as soon as they emigrated.
“My dad first ordered it from Thailand because he didn’t know there were seeds here,” explains 16-year-old Su Mon, a Burmese refugee who has spent the past seven years in Chicago. Mon sells her family’s vegetables at a local farmers market in Chicago every Saturday, including bunches of chin baung. “It’s very, very popular. Every Burmese family plants it.”
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Before the Albany Park farm was founded in 2011, the Mon family stocked up on chin baung by traveling to Fort Wayne, Ind., which has a large Burmese population. Although the seeds are expensive, chin baung grows fast and stays hearty in the field a long time. It emerges as a maroon stem, and then buds into a three-leaved green leaf, edible immediately.
Known as mei qui qie in Mandarin Chinese, krajeap in Thai and asam paya in Indonesia, the plant does more than add a tangy kick: it’s full of iron, calcium, niacin, riboflavin and vitamin C, and can either be ground for tea or chopped up and added to salads. Mexicans put its red flowers in their tea for a tart Flor de Jamaica-flavored accent. Most Burmese throw the leaves on top of anything, from chicken soup to fish curry.
At the local Horner Park farmers market, one bunch of chin baung sells for $2 and is becoming popular among American customers looking to add some exotic leafy greens to their dinners. It provides a chewy complement to a lemony chicken or whitefish.
But for the Burmese, chin baung is invariably the featured ingredient of any meal. Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry, a deeply flavorful whirlwind for the taste buds — spicy and sour at the same time.
Chin Baung Kyaw (Fried Roselle Leaves)
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 3 to 5 servings
2 bunches roselle leaves
1 tablespoon cooking oil
¼ tablespoon turmeric powder
¼ tablespoon red chili powder
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon pounded dried shrimp (optional)
1 small can of shredded bamboo shoots (not raw)
6 green chilies
Bean noodles (optional)
Prepare the roselle by breaking off the leaves at the base. Wash and drain the leaves.
Heat the oil in a frying pan.
Add turmeric, red chili powder, onion and garlic. Stir until the onion paste is golden brown.
Add the dried shrimp if using, roselle leaves, 1 tablespoon of water and stir well. Add salt if desired.
When the roselle leaves are soft, add the shredded bamboo shoots and green chilies. For extra spice, cut small slits into the chilies.
Cover and let simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a separate pan, heat up the bean noodles if using or steam rice for extra texture.
Main photo: Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry. Credit: Maddy Crowell
Pears and Rioja are a marriage made in Spanish heaven, but although the region of La Rioja is synonymous with wine and bull running (one ponders the connection), it also has another claim to fame. The small town of Rincón de Soto may be little more than a main plaza, modern town hall, church and railway line, but it is on the map of European culinary produce thanks to pears.
In the Rioja Baja, a gently terraced swath of fertile fields, orchards and plane trees with ever-dancing leaves, the famous vines take second place to pears, peaches, cherries, cauliflower, onions, sprouts and cardoons. The growing area is defined by a natural margin: the Ebro River that separates it from the mountains of Navarre to the north, and the craggy, Riojan hills, where a network of dinosaur footprints remains eerily well-preserved.
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Protected status for pears
Pears have been grown for centuries on the riverbanks. Over the years, many trees were abandoned, but the town’s success in gaining DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status for the pears has been a big boost in maintaining the orchards.
At the annual Jornadas de Exaltacion or pear festival in late September, the pear cookery competition is always keenly contested. There is also a kids’ competition. As the tension mounts, everyone chomps on hot chorizo sausages on bread, and in the evening there are pears poached in Rioja. The party carries on into the wee hours. It’s a day, indeed, of exaltation.
In Spain, the preference is for large Conference pears, although connoisseurs favor the delicate flavor of the smaller Blanquilla.
In 1747, the latter was enjoyed at the court of Philip V, where it was described as “an exquisite fruit,” and the royal pastry cook recommended it for drying, confits or preserving in syrup. Sometimes known as a “water pear,” the Blanquilla is crisp, juicy and aromatic. As it ripens, the Blanquilla becomes highly perfumed and meltingly soft, and the bright lime-green skin takes on a reddish tinge.
Blanquilla vs. Conference pears
The Blanquilla, however, is more difficult to grow, and it nearly disappeared in the 1960s, as agriculture became more intensive. It was largely replaced by Conference pears, which have green-yellow, naturally russeted skins and buttery flesh. However, it’s the local geography and climate that give these highly prized Rincón pears their special balance of sweetness and acidity, as well as their keeping quality and texture that allows the fruit to hold up when cooked.
Pruning and picking of these varieties is still done by hand. The pears are delicate and easily bruised, and each one is picked with care. They must be held by the base and raised upward so the stalk snaps clean from the branch. The pears are placed into padded containers to avoid damage and transported within six hours of picking to one of the local packing stations, where teams of women pack them in perfect formation. Each one a swaddled infanta, each one a perfect taste of La Rioja.
Olla means a tall, pot-bellied cooking pot, and this vibrant, autumnal stew probably originates with Roman travelers who arrived in Spain in the 1450s, settling mostly in Andalusia. A stew created for times when there was little meat for the pot, this dish is probably vegetarian more by default than choice. The vegetarian ethos has spread these days beyond the big cities, although in many a pueblo ham is still classed as a vegetable and they would probably regard this as a good dish to serve before a juicy lamb chop or veal escalope.
Prep Time: Overnight if you soak the beans; 30 minutes if you use canned beans.
Cook Time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 servings
1 cup dried chickpeas (or 2½ cups cooked chickpeas)
1 cup dried white beans (or 2½ cups cooked beans)
2 cups chopped green beans
1 butternut squash or small pumpkin, seeded, peeled and cubed
1 medium carrot, sliced
2 firm Conference pears, peeled, cored and chopped
2 bay leaves
4 cups vegetable stock
Salt and black pepper
1 large onion, diced
¼ cup olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, diced
One small slice of stale country bread, crust cut off and fried in oil
¼ cup toasted almonds
A pinch of saffron, lightly crushed and soaked in a little hot water
3 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped
½ tablespoon pimentón de la Vera (smoked Spanish paprika)
Chopped, fresh mint
1. Soak the chickpeas and beans overnight. Drain and put into a pot with fresh water, bring to a boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes until soft. Drain, place in a large casserole.
2. Add the green beans, pumpkin, carrots, pears, bay leaves, stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until everything is tender.
3. In a pan, fry the onion slowly in the oil for at least 15 minutes, until soft and golden.
4. Meanwhile, pound the garlic, bread, almonds, saffron and a pinch of salt in a mortar until well combined. Stir in a ladle of stock from the bean pot.
5. Add the tomatoes to the onion mixture, fry over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the pimentón to the mixture, cook for another minute. Add the onion-and-tomato mixture to the bean pot.
6. Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the contents of the mortar to the pot. Simmer a little longer; add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with mint, serve.
Duck Breast With Honey-Spiced Pears
The success of this dish depends on the delicate balance of sweet and savory flavors.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
2 duck breasts
A little olive oil
2 level tablespoons butter
¼ cup honey
1 tablespoon mixed peppercorns (white, green and pink)
1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half
2 ripe Conference pears, peeled, cored and halved or quartered
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Fry the duck breast in a little olive oil (15 to 20 minutes, depending on thickness and preference). Set duck breast aside to rest for 5 minutes; slice and arrange on serving plates.
2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, add the honey and spices. Cook gently for a few minutes, until the honey melts and starts to bubble.
3. Add the pears, turn gently in the butter mixture until the edges start to caramelize.
4. Add the lemon juice; salt to taste.
5. Remove the pears, arrange alongside the duck. Strain the sauce and drizzle over the duck.
Ham and Pear Parcels
Prep Time: 20 to 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 parcels
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons of cream, curd or ricotta cheese
¼ cup blue cheese
1 small pear, peeled and diced
A few walnuts, chopped
6 to 8 slices of jamón serrano (cured Spanish ham)
1. Mash the soft cheese with the blue cheese.
2. Add the pear and walnuts to the cheese mixture, season with black pepper to taste.
3. Spread on slices of cured Spanish ham and roll into tubes. Tie decoratively with chives.
4. Use any surplus filling on crackers.
Pears Poached in Muscatel and Spices
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
4 whole large (or 8 small), firm Conference pears, peeled
3¼ cups Moscatel wine
A few black peppercorns
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half
Toasted, slivered almonds (optional)
1. Place pears in a pan just large enough to allow them to remain upright.
2. Pour wine over the pears, add all the other ingredients except for the almonds.
3. Bring the ingredients to a boil; cover, simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.
Optional, serve sprinkled with almonds.
Rioja Pear Cake
Prep Time: 40 minutes
Cooking Time: 40 to 50 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
8 firm Conference pears
Red Rioja wine, plus sugar and cinnamon to taste
1¾ sticks butter, softened
1 cup caster sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
4 medium eggs, separated
1 generous teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups self-rising flour
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Peel and slice the pears. Place into a pan, add sugar and cinnamon to taste, and pour in enough wine to cover the fruit. Bring gently to a boil, reduce heat and lightly poach until tender. Drain the pears, saving the liquid. Set pears aside.
3. Cream the butter and sugar, beat in the yolks one by one; add the vanilla extract.
4. Add the flour, mix until well-combined.
5. Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until snowy. Carefully fold them into the cake mixture. Pour into a buttered, 9-inch-round cake pan with a removable base.
6. Arrange the pears in a neat pattern over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with the nuts and a tablespoon of sugar. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top is well risen (although it will shrink back down), and a toothpick comes out clean.
7. Reduce the wine until it is syrupy, serve with the cake and whipped cream.
Main photo: Pears are the star of a festival in Rincón de Soto, Spain. Credit: Clarissa Hyman