Articles in Cooking

Paula Marcoux's sweet crispy borek, or campfire baklava. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

“Flatbreads really grabbed me because they’re ancient in nature,” Paula Marcoux said at a class in early August. “Stone or clay or metal griddles grew up with domesticated grains. As nomadic people spread those grains they brought the griddle with them.”

In Saratoga, N.Y., the kitchen at the Healthy Living Market is very modern, which was fitting for the class introducing a group of contemporary cooks to how these ancient technologies and old foods have traveled through time and the world.

“I studied archaeology, and one of the things I love the most about the Middle East was eating the food. You can learn from documents, and you can learn from archaeology but you can learn by cooking too. And it’s not going to be the same unless you cook with fire,” Marcoux said, identifying the path to her passion.

ZESTER BOOK LINKS


Cover-Cooking with Fire by Paula Marcoux. Credit: Courtesy Storey Publishing

"Cooking With Fire"

By Paula Marcoux

Storey Publishing, 320 pages, 2014

» Click here to buy the book

That passion is outlined in her new book, “Cooking With Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking” (Storey Publishing). A food historian, Marcoux is the food editor of Edible South Shore magazine, and has worked as an archaeologist, cook and bread oven builder. The book, her first, covers a lot of ground with food and fire, from the most rudimentary fire and stick methods through managing the nuances of retained heat in an oven — brick or otherwise.

I can’t get my head out of the middle chapter, which covers griddles and flatbreads, a food ghetto I see no reason to leave.

“The fact is that baking technologies develop to suit the grains available,” Marcoux wrote. “With its smooth horizontal surface allowing even and controlled baking, the griddle has been used by cooks the world over to convert gluten-free grains and even tubers into tremendous breads.”

I love this. People talk about flatbreads and batter breads being as old as, and older than, our life with grains. But her explanation seems more perfect than others I’ve heard, perhaps because it comes with recipes. At Marcoux’s class, she traced how the stretched doughs of Anatolia had moved around the world in a cross-cultural arc of flaky, griddle-baked wheat goods that included scallion pancakes, and boreks savory and sweet.

“The modern borek derives from the ancient Semitic root word b-r-k,” Marcoux said. “From this came borek, pierogi and Tunisian brik. The Middle Eastern word is a blazing clue to these flatbreads, where a fine stretched dough delivers filling. I think it’s amazing how one idea can travel 10,000 years. That’s longevity.”

Marcoux has shoulder length dark hair and a ready smile. Being with her is like having searchable access to an encyclopedia of our human history with cooking and food.

Griddles have been used by cooks everywhere to convert gluten-free grains into tremendous breads. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

Griddles have been used by cooks everywhere to convert gluten-free grains into tremendous breads. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

For a flour and griddle fiend like me, she has been a joy to find. Her name crept into my life at the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Massachusetts where she used to work, and where I went to visit erstwhile Pilgrims handling grains. This was in the spring, and people at Plimoth were excited about Marcoux’s work documenting early ovens in New England, and about her book, which was released in May. Now that I’ve met her, and have her book in my kitchen, I understand the enthusiasm.

“For the scallion pancakes, I’m just rolling out a simple circle of dough,” she explained at the market. She poured a little sesame oil on the disk, and spread it thickly with chopped scallions. “Roll it up like a long cigar. Coil it up like a snail, and let it rest a while.”

After that while had passed, maybe 10 minutes, she rolled the snail into a pancake, and fried it in a little canola oil on a tava, a concave pan generally used for dosas.

Gas not like using live fire

“I feel funny cooking this indoors,” she said, adjusting the heat so the pancake wouldn’t burn. “As lovely as this kitchen is, cooking on a gas stove just isn’t the same as using live fire. Instead of struggling with these controls, you’d just be pulling a twig out, or pushing a twig into the fire.”

As the pancakes cooked, she made Middle Eastern pastries, and invited us to come up to the counter and learn.

“This technology is older than tossing pizza,” she said, moving a piece of dough from hand to hand. She urged people to look for videos of Armenian women tossing dough to learn the method.

The volunteers rolled their dough flat, then stretched it using a sway and throw motion between fingers and hands. Once it was thin enough, they put it on a cutting board again, where they buttered, then filled it.

“Puff pastry works because the fat and gluten layers have to work together,” she said, noting that the doughs we used were only wheat and water. “It doesn’t take huge expertise to make this because of the amazing geometry of dough. This quality of wheat is what made us love it, and we’ve been loving it for a really long time.”

Chive Pancakes

Yield: 4-6 servings

Ingredients

    For the sauce:
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (or another of light soy sauce)
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sambal oelek or other Asian hot chile paste
  • ¼ cup chicken broth (or water, plus another dash or two of soy)
  • For the pancakes:
  • 1¾ cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 1¾ cups (6 ounces) unbleached cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons peanut, canola or corn oil, plus more for frying pancakes
  • 1¼ cups boiling water
  • Asian (toasted) sesame oil for brushing
  • 1½ cups chives or scallions, finely chopped

Directions

  1. Make sauce first to let flavors marry. Mix all ingredients and let rest while you make the dough.
  2. With a food processor or by hand, mix together flours and salt. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil, then, gradually, the boiling water. (You may need a few more drops of water, but wait and see.) Once it comes together in a ball, knead by hand for a few minutes, then let rest airtight for 30 minutes.
  3. Roll the dough into a cylinder, and cut into 12 even-sized pieces. Roll each into a smooth ball. Cover with a moist towel or plastic wrap so they don’t dry out.
  4. Roll one ball out thinly, brush with sesame oil, sprinkle liberally with chives, and roll up snugly in a cylinder. Coil the tube of filled dough in a spiral, keeping the seam to the inside. Press together a bit, and set aside, covered, while you fashion the rest.
  5. Gently roll each pancake flat. They should be 4 or 5 inches in diameter and about ¼-inch thick. (Light-handed rolling preserves all-important layering for the best texture.) Set up a couple of large skillets or a griddle; heat ⅛ inch of oil over medium heat. (You can continue rolling as you fry.)
  6. When the oil is hot, fry the pancakes (as many as you can at a time without crowding) until golden brown and crispy and cooked through — they should take about 3 minutes on the A side, and 2 minutes on the B side. Drain briefly on a rack or paper, cut in quarters, and serve hot with dipping sauce.

Notes

Recipe excerpted from "Cooking With Fire" by Paula Marcoux, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Main photo: Paula Marcoux’s sweet crispy borek, or campfire baklava. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

Read More
A bowl of Malaysian rice porridge. Credit: Aida Ahmad

If you ask me what would I choose as my last meal, I wouldn’t be able to give you just one. I have too many favorites. Doubtless, however, is that the soothing staying power of my mother’s wholesome rice porridge is among the most memorable.

In the Malaysian language, the common definition of rice porridge within the Malay community is Bubur Lambuk (pronounced boo-boor lahm-bok), which has various ingredients and spices such as cumin, fennel, garlic, onions, dried prawns and lots of coconut milk as well as black pepper. A bowl of this is undoubtedly flavorful but can be overwhelmingly flavored with spices.

My mother’s rice porridge, though, has a comforting effect. According to her, it was a staple for her growing up in our hometown in Penang, Malaysia, and it has become the one thing I look forward during Eid, which marks the end of fasting during Ramadan each year. In many parts of Malaysia, hearty rice porridge is a staple during the breaking of one’s fast. Mosques and suraus (smaller prayer halls) usually prepare cauldrons of rice porridge to distribute to people. Although it is mostly meant for the poor and destitute, everyone is welcome to take home a packet or two.

My mother, Nisha Ibrahim, who turned 70 in January, recalled that in her youth, “At 5:30 in the evenings during Ramadan, we would flock to the mosque to get some porridge with our tiffin carriers, but over the years I have used my own recipe, which doesn’t require a lot spices. I use simple ingredients, which create a balanced flavor.”

When my mother was a child, people didn’t use any plastic containers when they got their porridge stash at the mosque. “We would take those aluminum mugs with the lids so the food would stay warm when we brought it home.”

It is now more than a month past Ramadan, which will start June 18 in 2015, but the echoes of my mother’s dish remain. The added oomph in her recipe comes from the generous portions of fresh garlic and ginger. Both provide a calming effect on the stomach. In the past, whenever I thought of rice porridge, I not only thought of breaking fast but also associated it with nursing a flu to feel better. Now I feel it’s a great meal for  any day of the week.

Rice Porridge

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 to 3 servings.

Make sure you don’t use Basmati rice, because the starch content is relatively low. Instead, go for low-grade rice, as the high-starch content will break down the rice easily.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup uncooked rice
  • 8 cups filtered water
  • 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 pandan (screw pine) leaves, one leaf tied into a knot
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, coarsely chopped
  • 3.5 ounces (100 grams) minced beef or chicken
  • 3.5 ounces (100 grams) diced carrots
  • ¼ cup coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoons cilantro leaves, chopped

Directions

  1. Wash the rice in a big sieve. Do this three or four times, swishing the rice until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.
  2. Put the rice in a big pot and add 8 cups of filtered water. Bring to a slow boil. Be sure not to let it burn.
  3. Add the vegetable oil, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds and pandan leaves and stir until contents are well mixed.
  4. Add the garlic and ginger and stir for a minute.
  5. Reduce the heat to medium-low and monitor the grains until it resembles a thick, creamy porridge. This should take about 5 minutes.
  6. Add the minced meat and carrots and heat until the meat is cooked and the carrots are soft.
  7. When the porridge is fragrant, add the coconut milk and cilantro leaves. Leave to cook over low heat for 10 minutes while stirring occasionally.
  8. Using a ladle, stir contents and scrape the pot to make sure nothing sticks before serving.

Notes

Tip: You can use fried shallots or fried dried anchovies (both available at Asian grocers) as garnish and to make the porridge tastier.

Main photo: A bowl of Malaysian rice porridge. Credit: Aida Ahmad

Read More
Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

As this best part of summer delivers a ready-to-eat bounty of fresh vegetables to the kitchen, Luigi Fineo, executive chef at West Hollywood’s RivaBella Ristorante, shows off a large bowl of Iowa yellow corn. With one taste, Fineo knew what he would do with these fat sun-ripened kernels. He would make a healthy, sweet tasting soup.

The youngest of five, Fineo grew up in southern Italy in Gioia del Colle. Like many chefs, he learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen. Helping to prepare the family’s meals, she taught him the basics. That early training would serve him well as he worked in demanding restaurants around the world from Francesco Berardinelli’s Shooeneck Ristorante in Falzes, Italy, to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif..

From the outside, RivaBella has the appearance of just another upscale restaurant. Inside, the sprawling interior is set-dressed to look like an elegant version of a rustic Italian country inn. Full-sized trees and a 7-foot tall brick hearth dominate the interior. During the day when the retractable ceiling is open, the bright blue Southern California sky hangs overhead.

The current menu recalls the kitchen of Fineo’s mother and the refinements of his colleague, owner-chef Gino Angelini, who helped popularize quality Italian cooking in Los Angeles. The entrees include fine-dining versions of Italian classics: risotto with porcini mushrooms, spinach lasagna, Veal Milanese and pasta with broccolini and salmoriglio.

latt-cornfineo12

latt-cornfineo12
Picture 1 of 2

A bowl of Iowa corn used to make a yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives, prepared by Chef Luigi Fineo in the kitchen at RivaBella Ristorante, West Hollywood, Calif. Credit: David Latt

Reflecting his time spent in Santa Monica’s La Botte where he earned a Michelin star, Fineo also enjoys using the high-tech tools that are popular in many contemporary restaurant kitchens.

For his slow-cooked lamb shoulder ragù, he adds summer flavor with peaches he dehydrates, then rehydrates in a white wine bath flavored with cinnamon, anise and bay leaves. The handmade pappardelle he serves with the ragù is made with flour, flavored with a fine pistachio powder that is first frozen in liquid nitrogen before being  ground into the fine powder.

Of the corn, by the corn and for the corn

When I first tasted the corn soup at RivaBella, it was so velvety, I asked if heavy cream or butter were used. The answer was neither.

In his kitchen for the video demonstration, Chef Fineo explained that he did not need cream or butter to create his soup. All he needed was farm-fresh Iowa corn, a little water, a pinch or two of salt and a lot of stirring.

Usually when Fineo makes soups, he begins with a sauté of shallots and aromatics. Cooking with corn, he’s inclined to roast the kernels. But with this sweet corn, he decided he didn’t need to add flavor and he didn’t need to employ any high-tech machines. To prepare his corn soup, he would return to the basics he learned from his mother.

Yellow Sweet Corn Soup

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Because, essentially there is only one ingredient, use high quality, fresh corn to create a soup that is healthy and delicious. When picking corn, choose ears that have green, healthy husks and kernels that are plump. If the kernels are indented or the husks are brown, choose different ears. In the restaurant, the soup is served with fresh crabmeat to enhance its upscale qualities. But Fineo recommends that the soup is a treat served entirely as a vegetarian or vegan dish.

Ingredients

  • 12 ears yellow corn, shucked, washed, pat dried
  • ¾ cup water
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
  • ½ cup crab meat, preferably crab leg meat (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper (optional)

Directions

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut the raw kernels from the cobs.
  2. Working in batches, two cups at a time, place the kernels into a large blender and blend with just enough water, about one tablespoon water for each cup of kernels. To create a vortex, if needed, add more water.
  3. Blend each batch about 45 seconds.
  4. Again, working in batches, strain the resulting corn mash through a chinois or a fine meshed strainer, capturing the liquid in a large bowl. To release all the liquid, press on the corn mash gently, using the back of a large ladle or large kitchen spoon.
  5. Transfer the corn juice to a large saucepan or small stock pot and place uncovered on the stove.
  6. Using high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and then lower to medium.
  7. Using a wire whisk, gently stir the liquid 30 to 40 minutes until reaching the desired thickness. Very importantly, the liquid must be stirred constantly to prevent the corn’s sugars from sticking to the bottom and burning.
  8. As the liquid thickens, lower the heat.
  9. Taste and add sea salt as desired. Serve hot, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
  10. Optionally, in a non-stick pan on low heat, sauté the crab pieces in olive oil or butter until crispy on all sides, then place one or two pieces on top of each bowl of soup and garnish with chives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Instead of crab, Chef Fineo also recommends using shrimp or scallops.
  11. Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Drain the crab on a paper towel. Place on top of the soup. Drizzle with olive oil and finely chopped chives.

Main photo: Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

Read More
Baby Zucchini Quick-Pickles,

It’s August. If you have your own garden and you like baby zucchini as much as I, you know that while some food columns are handwringing about what to do with bumper crops of squash, you’re hoping there will be enough. You plant your seeds in spring, and check the emerging zucchini carefully on your daily morning rounds. They grow so fast, you can nearly hear them stretching, and you know that you have to be ready to snatch the babies — every one of them — from their vines when they are a tender three inches long, four at the most. (I will never understand why few, if any, farmers pick them that small, even if they are so prolific as to force them to be plowed them under.)

If you don’t, before you know it, the squash are the size of baseball bats. One day, you see the blossoms unfurling on slender stems, barely bulging on their umbilical buds and on the next, they’ve given birth to hulking squash when, as my friend and master gardener Joan Gussow says, “there’s nothing to be done but cut the monster from the vine and sneak it into someone’s unlocked car.”

If those Goliath zucchini are lurking in the back of your mind, take my advice: Ensure both quantity and quality by picking the pubescent offspring as I say, before they go on a drinking spree and get watery on an adolescent growth spurt. Not only is this petite size ideal for everything from fritters to poaching to sautéing to grilling, it is perfect for pickling.

Pining for pickles

I mention “pickling” somewhat wistfully because it wasn’t until well past August last year that Laurel Robertson, another serious gardener-friend of mine, mentioned her southern Italian mother-in-law’s baby zucchini pickle recipe, and I’ve had to wait a full year to make them.

Robertson had plenty of practice putting up zucchini when she married into an immigrant family from Calabria. She was a tender 18, as she tells it, when she met her first husband Dominick while working at a horse stable and moved with him from a cozy New York suburb into a milking parlor on 135 acres in rural Montgomery County. It was the late 1960s and early ’70s when Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” was in every hippie’s heart . . .

We are stardust

We are golden

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden

Dominick planted plenty of  “cucuzze,” vernacular for the squashes the Calabrians love. His resourceful mother, born and bred on the rugged soil of Cosenza, was Robertson’s domestic muse. “She cooked all the time, and there were always sausages hanging in the attic, pasta being rolled out in the kitchen, homemade wine, and all kinds of pickles,” my friend said. “So I pickled and jammed, jammed and pickled, and put up food for the entire year.” Her strategy for the zucchini onslaught was to pick and pickle the squash when they were tiny. That solved the problem of bumper-crop burnout and assured prime preserves at the same time. “They were delicious and so different from other pickles,” she said.

Of course, I asked for the recipe on the spot, and I’ve been longing for those zucchini pickles for a year. I have finally put up my first batch, and now I know that next year I’ll have to plant twice as many zucchini as I usually do to keep my larder stocked throughout the year with these meaty conservi, as the Italians call them. I could eat a jar of them in one afternoon.

Baby zucchini and summer squash. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Baby zucchini and summer squash. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

If you can’t get the tiny zucchini I’m raving about from your garden or the markets, you can slice any type of larger summer squash into typical cucumber-pickle size spears (but don’t bother with the spongy monsters — they do belong in the compost bin). If you know how to pickle, process them for the long haul using the proper screw-top jars, as you would any other vegetable. If you don’t, you can make a “quick-pickle” that will last a week in a refrigerator with no pickling expertise at all. They are so easy to make, anyone who can boil water can do it. Besides having the few simple ingredients, all you need is a jar that is tall enough to accommodate the height of the picklings (or you can cut the zucchini into coins). Whichever pickle you choose, here is Robertson’s recipe, inspired by Rosa Gualano’s fiery Calabrian-style pickles.

Baby Zucchini Quick-Pickles

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 1 quart, or 4 to 6 servings

Select small tender squash about 3 to 5 inches long, preferably all the same size. You will get 6 to 8 of them in each quart jar, packing them tightly. Distilled vinegar is best because it is colorless and doesn’t muddy the clearness of the brine. Use Kosher salt, not table salt, which contain anti-caking agents that can cloud the brine. Sea salt, with its natural minerals, is an asset in cooking, but those elements can interfere with the pickling process. This recipe fills a 1-quart jar with zucchini or summer squash pickles. For larger quantities, increase the ingredients proportionately based on the number of quart jars you plan to fill.

Ingredients

  • 6 to 8 baby zucchini or summer squash, or larger zucchini, sliced lengthwise or crosswise to fit into the quart-jar
  • ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced lengthwise
  • 3 fresh basil leaves
  • Fresh hot red pepper such as Fresno or Thai chilies, optional
  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • Equipment for quick-pickling: any boil-proof glass jar with a lid.

Directions

  1. Wash the zucchini very well in cold running water, using a soft brush or cloth to remove any grit without damaging the skin. If the squash are 3 to 5 inches, use them whole. Slice off any brown coloring at the bulbous end. Trim the stem end slightly to make each the same length but leave it intact. If using larger zucchini, cut them in half lengthwise to fit into the jar or slice them into coins. Pack them snugly into quart jars to about 1 ¼ inch from the rim. Add the salt and cayenne pepper. Slip in the olive oil, garlic slices, basil leaves, and hot red pepper, if using.
  2. Combine the vinegar and water in a stainless steel or other non-reactive pot and heat to a boil.
  3. Pour the boiling hot vinegar-water mixture over the zucchini to 1 inch from the rim. Seal the jar with its lid or cap. When the jar has cooled completely, store the jar in the refrigerator. The pickles are ready to eat in about 3 days. They can be kept, chilled, for up to a week.

Notes

Variation for long-term pickling:

Use proper quart-size glass canning jars with screw tops with vacuum lids appropriate for safe pickling. Discard any jars that are chipped. Fill them as for quick-pickling and bring the vinegar and water mixture to a boil. Pour the boiling hot mixture over the zucchini to 1 inch from the rim. In a tall pot, preferably a canning kettle, boil enough water to cover the jar. Cap the jars and do not over-tighten. You want the hot air to escape but you do not want water to enter the jar. Place the jar in the pot and bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove jars to a rack, cover with a towel to protect it from drafts. In about an hour when the jars cool you will hear the lids click as they seal. Tighten the rings and store. If the lids do not seal, keep the pickles in the fridge for up to a week.

Main photo: Baby Zucchini Quick-Pickles, “The Vegetable Chronicles,” by Julia della Croce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Read More
Main illustration: The basic functional modes of the Parisian café. Credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: Bitter brews, perfunctory pâtés, questionable quiches, insipid salads and tepid tarts? Has the Parisian cafe lost its culinary luster? Well, yes and no, but from my hard-core cafe-lover’s point of view, it really doesn’t matter!

Yes, Paris’ fall as the world capital of fine dinning and its efforts to revive are well-documented. The most recent, and fairly gloomy, report is by Mark Bittman in his July 22 New York Times piece, “French Food Goes Down.” Bittman is a bit late to the funeral. The media discourse on French gastronomy has brightened of late, and Nicholas Lander’s April 25 column in London’s Financial Times has even hinted at a renaissance of fine dining in Paris.

In any case, fine French food — dead, alive or somewhere in between — has never been the draw of the Parisian cafe.

Joie de Starbucks

L. John Harris' Paris Cafe Index. Credit: L. John HarrisIt’s true that traditional cafes in Paris, and France generally, are closing in growing numbers. Young cafe-going Parisians and tourists, if not older, die-hard loyalists, are opting for food-trendy, Internet-friendly (Wi-Fi gratuit or free Wi-Fi) alternatives. These include, incredulously, American fast food and coffee chains like MacDonald’s and Starbucks.

Most traditional Parisian cafe owners would rather close up shop than give out their Wi-Fi (pronounced whiff-ee) passwords. Or so it seems.  Last summer, I had to swallow my pride (and their “handcrafted’ lattes) and head to Starbucks to access a signal. I was conducting an online interview with Leonard Pitt, the Berkeley-based author of “Walks Through Lost Paris” (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2006), a fascinating visual guide to Baron Haussmann’s architectural transformation of 19th-century Paris.

Pitt responded from his computer at the cafe in Berkeley, California’s French Hotel, across the street from Cali/Frenchie Chez Panisse. Working from my computer at Starbucks Odéon, the irony seemed absurd and a little painful. Pitt is a passionate proponent of a cafe-centric lifestyle over the work-ethic culture of Puritan-influenced America. “Nothing better symbolizes,” writes Pitt, “the congeniality, the rhythm and sheer joie de vivre we ache to recapture in life than the cafe.”

Well put, Pitt! But one man’s joie de vivre is another man’s (or woman’s) morning coffee ritual, writing studio, business office, evening gathering spot or flâneurian observation post. And often, all the above and more. The Parisian cafe is more than the sum of its parts.

Our Café French™ lesson today is based on my cafe-centric stay this June in the heart of Paris’ cafe-rich 6th Arrondissement — a perfect location for reflections on the traditional cafe’s basic functions. (See “Parisian Café Index” illustration.)

Wake up (se réveiller) and smell the coffee

When I go to a cafe to wake up with a café crème, the least important criteria for me is the coffee’s origin, quality or, I confess, taste. My critical connoisseur’s brain is still asleep even if my legs can get me there. So, I began each day at cafes within a few minutes walk of my apartment on rue Madame, mostly at my café du coin (corner cafe), Café Madame. There is nothing exceptional about Café Madame — they serve a typical petit déjeuner (decent coffee, acceptable croissant or buttered tartine, reasonably fresh orange juice) — except its convenient location.

After my morning coffee and a short stroll through the nearby Luxembourg gardens, I would arrive back at my apartment awake and ready for work — reading, writing and sketching — before heading out again to another cafe for lunch and more work.

Working (travailler): reading (lire), writing (écrire), sketching (faire des croquis)

Any cafe can be a working cafe, depending on one’s personal requirements. Kaaren Kitchell, an ex-pat novelist, poet and “Paris Play” blogger combines her daily one-hour walk with her writing and editing projects, so her cafe must be at least a 30-minute walk from home. Her other criteria include a quiet ambiance and, ergo, few tourists. “The French know how to modulate their voices,” says Kitchell, “Americans and Italians don’t.”

Chacun à son café! Ex-pat Paris author, tour guide and bon vivant, Terrance Gelenter, prefers to work in crowded and noisy icons, like Café de Flore. Every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Gelenter holds “office hours” on the ever-popular terrace for his tour clients and visiting Anglophone writers, artists and musicians. His newsletter, “Paris Through Expatriate Eyes,” offers restaurant and hotel reviews, travel tips and a calendar of arts events.

Talking (parler)

Where better than at a cafe to talk? The cafe inhabits a middle world between public and private space, unlike bistros and brasseries, where spirited talking inter-table is welcome, if not required. For the 19th-century Impressionists who broke from the stifling restraints of the Academy, the cafe became a salon where they could engage in debates over aesthetic issues (with the help of addictive amounts of absinthe).

One artist, however, presents an amusingly downbeat view of the cafe’s talking function. That would be the legendary Marcel Duchamp, as quoted in “Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews” by Calvin Tomkins:

“In the case of the Impressionists it could be a very useful thing — one artist would say a word that caught the imagination of the others, that’s true. But it’s a very, very artificial thing … full of new words and flourishing language and so forth, but no actual exchange and no understanding of the other one’s ideas.”

The inscrutable, tight-lipped Duchamp famously abandoned art and art talk when, in mid-career, he withdrew into the silence of chess competition. Which brings us to our final, nonverbal, cafe functions.

Watching (observer) and resting/napping (se reposer/sommeiller)

Much has been written about the cafe’s observational function. It’s as if the cafe, invented in 16th-century Istanbul, was destined for “… the eminently Parisian compromise between laziness and activity known as flânerie!” as 19th-century playwright Victorien Sardou was quoted in Edmund White’s book “The Flâneur.”

As for resting in cafes, it’s a touristic necessity after days filled with shopping and sightseeing. But napping? Well, I admit it’s a conceptual stretch. Nevertheless, while sketching one afternoon at Les Deux Magots toward the end of my summer cafe immersion, I drew three tables pushed together with a man sleeping on top. A visual punchline for my illustration of the cafe’s functions. Come to think of it, for us older, diehard cafe loyalists in search of that elusive joie de vivre — or, at least, an occasional afternoon nap — it’s not a bad idea.

Main illustration: The basic functional modes of the Parisian café. Credit: L. John Harris

Read More
The Stanley blueberry, left, and the Redhaven peach. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

The next time you bite into a peach and experience a burst of juicy flavor that threatens to dribble down your chin, you might owe Dr. Stanley Johnston a note of thanks. Chances are you are eating a Redhaven, the most widely planted peach variety in the world. It was developed by Johnston during his long career at Michigan State University’s South Haven Experiment Station, beginning in the early 1920s.

Even though Michigan’s production pales in comparison to leading peach-producing states like California, South Carolina and Georgia, the Mitten State gets to claim Johnston as its hometown hero. He dedicated his life to creating fruit varieties that would thrive in Michigan’s perfect conditions, including the Redhaven peach and his namesake, the Stanley blueberry, and his legacy can be found all around the world.

While there are hundreds of varieties of peaches, Johnston’s best-known creation was a series of eight different Haven peaches, and the Redhaven variety is the most famous of all. So it is fair to say he’s responsible for years of wonderful pies, cobblers, sundaes and sauces, all served up during peak peach and blueberry season.

Peach blueberry grilling sauce with pork ribs. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Peach  and Blueberry Grilling Sauce with pork ribs. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Professional chefs and home cooks alike have long known that the brilliantly colored Redhaven is ideal for baking, canning or freezing. But what exactly makes the Redhaven an all-time favorite? It is that perfect combination of intensely pure peach flavor all wrapped up in a nearly fuzzless globe of juicy smooth texture. It is the quintessential peach.

When I’m within reach of a farmer’s stand, I almost always opt for white peach heritage varieties that smell, taste and look the part of a season-ripe and ready delicate fruit. But I’m also willing to admit that it’s hard to beat Johnston’s classic Redhaven if you’re after really “peachy” punch.

This summer, I decided to celebrate Johnston’s contributions to summer fare by grilling a slab of pork ribs and slathering them in a spicy peach and blueberry grilling sauce. I can also attest that the sauce’s deep rich, sweet and spicy flavor is just as good over grilled chicken. If you want to join me, pick a peck of peaches and a couple pints of blueberries and let’s get the party started – just don’t forget to thank Dr. Johnston.

Spicy Peach and Blueberry Grilling Sauce

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 35 minutes

Total Time: 45 minutes

Yield: 1 quart

Ingredients

  • ½ pound fresh blueberries
  • ½ pound fresh peaches, skins removed
  • ½ large onion, roughly chopped
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ cup dark brown sugar
  • ½ cup cider vinegar
  • ½ cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 chipotle chiles in adobo (canned variety)
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Place all ingredients in food processor or high-powered blender and process until sauce is a smooth consistency, about 3-5 minutes.
  2. Transfer to a small saucepan and heat over a medium flame until the sauce reaches a boiling point, reduce and simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. The sauce can be prepared up to one week in advance but must be refrigerated until needed.

Main photo: Pork ribs with Spicy Blueberry and Peach Grilling Sauce. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Read More
Purple cauliflower, yellow sweet pepper and tomato salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Think of the platter as a palette, and your vegetables as swaths of paint that fill in the color of the canvas. This is what every August provides as our tomato plants and other garden vegetables are going crazy and this means we should be thinking colorful salads.

This is both an appetizing and beautiful way to present what usually becomes an accompaniment to grilled foods. Salads of heirloom tomatoes are a favorite this time of year. But remember there are lots of heirloom cultivars besides tomatoes such as purple cauliflower or yellow sweet peppers. And don’t ignore the non-heirloom tomatoes such as Big Boys or Early Girls because they have their uses too.

There are heirloom varieties of all vegetables, not just tomatoes, and there are plenty of hybrid accidents too. Colored varieties of cauliflower such as the purple one here called Graffiti are not genetically engineered but rather a blend of heirloom varieties, or naturally occurring accidents or hybrids grown from them. Purple cauliflower gets its color from anthocyanins, the antioxidant also found in red wine. It has a sweeter and nuttier taste than white cauliflower. The yellow sweet pepper called for below is usually the yellow version of the cultivar known as cubanelle, but use any yellow pepper you find.

The great thing about summer salads is that they are easily prepared since you’ll be letting the natural flavors and juices of the vegetables themselves tell the story rather than relying on a heavy load of seasoning or dressing. They can also be grilled first if you like and then served at room temperature later.

These platters of vegetables don’t really require recipes, although I do provide them as you could just assemble them following the photos and your inspiration. See the photographs for an idea of how they should look on the platter.

Mussel and tomato salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Mussel and Tomato Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Mussel and Tomato Salad

Cultivated mussels are sold today already cleaned. You can save further time by hard-boiling and cooking the green beans at the same time in the same pot. This salad stands alone but can also accompany simple pasta or grilled meat.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2 large eggs

16 green beans, trimmed and cut in ½-inch pieces

2 pounds mussels, debearded and rinsed

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt to taste

10 ripe but firm cherry tomatoes

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed (optional)

Directions

1. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil over high heat, then hard boil the eggs for exactly 10 minutes. After the water has been boiling for 3 minutes with the eggs, add the green beans, and drain both the eggs and green beans together at the 10 minute mark. Plunge the eggs into ice water and shell the eggs once they are cool and quarter lengthwise.

2. In a large pot with about ½ inch of water, steam the mussels over high heat until they open, about 5 minutes. Discard any mussels that remain firmly shut. Remove and set aside.

3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt to taste.

4. Put the tomatoes in a serving platter. Remove all but 8 of the mussels from their shells and scatter them over the tomatoes, tossing a bit. Scatter the green beans around the tomatoes. Sprinkle with the black pepper and pour on half of the dressing. Garnish the edge of the platter with the egg quarters and mussels in their shell. Place the anchovies, if desired, in the center of the platter, making two X shapes, and pour the remaining dressing on top. Serve immediately or within 2 hours, but do not refrigerate.

Tomato, eggplant and ricotta salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Tomato, Eggplant and Ricotta salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Tomatoes, Eggplant and Ricotta Salad

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

Olive oil for frying

One 1-pound eggplant, cut into ½-inch slices

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1½ teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 garlic clove, very finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 large tomatoes (about 1¼ pounds), sliced into rounds

½ pound fresh ricotta cheese

12 fresh basil leaves

1. Preheat the frying oil in a deep fryer or an 8-inch saucepan fitted with a basket insert to 375 degrees F.

2. Cook, turning once, the eggplant slices until golden brown, about 7 minutes. Remove and set aside to drain on a paper towel covered platter until cool.

3. In a small bowl or glass, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper.

4. Arrange the tomatoes in a shallow serving bowl or on a platter and arrange the eggplant arrange them. Drizzle the dressing over the vegetables and then garnish with dollops if ricotta cheese and basil leaves. Serve at room temperature.

Purple Cauliflower, Yellow Sweet Pepper, Tomato Salad

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1½-pound head of purple cauliflower, trimmed

2 large and fleshy yellow sweet peppers (cubanelle)

4 ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1½ teaspoons white wine vinegar

1 garlic clove, very finely chopped garlic

Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

8 fresh basil leaves

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat then place the whole cauliflower in so the florets are not covered with water and will only steam. If they are submerged you will lose the beautiful purple color. Cook until a skewer can be pushed through the stem with a little resistance, about 10 minutes. Remove the cauliflower carefully so it doesn’t bread and set aside to cool. Cut off the largest and hardest part of the stem and discard.

2. Meanwhile, place the peppers on a wire rack over a burner on high heat and roast until their skins blister black on all sides, turning occasionally with tongs. Remove the peppers and place in a paper or heavy plastic bag to steam for 20 minutes, which will make them easier to peel. When cool enough to handle, rub off as much blackened peel as you can and remove the seeds by rubbing with a paper towel (to avoid washing away flavorful juices) or by rinsing under running water (to remove more easily).

3. Arrange the cauliflower in the center of a platter and surround with the roasted peppers and tomatoes. Drizzle with the olive oil, vinegar and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with basil leaves and serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Purple Cauliflower, Yellow Sweet Pepper and Tomato Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Read More
Martha Rose Shulman's vegetarian black bean tostadas. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

In the summer of 1968, I was introduced to the secrets of Mexican cooking. At that time Mexican food was not something you knew or thought much about if, like me, you were a Jewish American princess from Connecticut. I had tasted tacos on an Acapulco beach while on vacation with friends in 1963, and had never forgotten them, but I didn’t know what it was that made them taste so good.

Five years later I was a socially active high school graduate who also happened to have a curious palate. I spent that summer working with migrant farm workers from South Texas as a camper-volunteer at an American Friends Service Committee Quaker youth work camp in Central Michigan. Our group had been assigned to help with a housing grant for migrant farm workers who wanted to relocate to Michigan and work in the auto industry. But at the last minute the money did not come through, so when we arrived the counselors had to find something for us to do. Instead of building houses we became, in essence, social workers and activity planners for the children who lived in the migrant camps. We created a little school for the younger children to attend during the day while their parents worked in the fields, and every night we’d visit the camps and organize activities like baseball games and dances.

I became close to a few of the families. I got to know the kids well and spent time with the parents. One woman in particular, Señora Saenz, a large woman who had 10 children, took a liking to me. I visited the Saenz family every night in their little cabin, which smelled pleasantly of cumin and chili. Here, in the Saenzes’ one-room cabin, I realized that those two spices were the key to my long-ago taste memory from Acapulco.

I had developed a passion for cooking the previous summer, and at the Quaker work camp I took over in the kitchen early on, cooking feverishly for the group of 24 every night. I wrote to my stepmother, requesting that she send casserole recipes, and she hastily dispatched a sheaf of index cards. I had a huge kitchen to work in, but I had to pull off the recipes using pretty awful ingredients: USDA surplus items, standard issue for welfare recipients.

A lesson in cooking Mexican food

One day when I was visiting Señora Saenz, I asked if she and her older daughters would teach me to cook Mexican food. I offered to teach them how to make a cake in exchange, although I knew nothing about baking beyond cake mixes. The family was enthusiastic, and the next evening when I arrived at the camp they had all the ingredients ready for beef tacos and enchiladas — chili and cumin, onion and ground beef, corn tortillas and oil, tomatoes, tomato sauce, cheese and chilies.

Mrs. Saenz showed me how to heat the oil in a frying pan and sizzle the cumin and chili powder before adding the onions and browning the meat to make picadillo. Once the meat was cooked, she showed me how to season and soften the tortillas in cumin- and chili powder-spiked oil before making enchiladas. Then she showed me how to make a red sauce for enchiladas. We made some quick tacos with the beef picadillo and shredded cabbage, then we made enchiladas. Afterward I opened my box of cake mix, added what needed to be added and baked a cake, which we finished with white frosting from the box. In retrospect, I am sure that Mrs. Saenz and her daughters probably knew how to make cake from scratch, but nobody said anything about it.

At the end of the summer when I went home, one of the first things I did was give a Mexican dinner party for my friends. I scoured the markets in Westport, Conn., looking for corn tortillas. It was a challenge (it would be another two decades before decent Mexican food or even Tex-Mex was accessible beyond the border states). I finally found them –  corn tortillas packed in a flat yellow can — in the exotic foods section of the local supermarket. I wonder how long they’d been there. Who was making Mexican food in Connecticut in 1968? I made exactly what Señora Saenz had taught me to cook — tacos and enchiladas. My friends loved the meal.

I had no idea then that, five years later, I would decide to make a career of cooking. By then I was living in Texas and had spent quite a lot of time in Mexico. I was also now a vegetarian and no longer made the beef picadillo I had learned to make in Michigan. But when I made enchiladas or refried beans I still used the techniques I had learned from Señora Saenz –  sizzling the spices in oil before adding other ingredients and seasoning the oil for the tortillas with cumin and chili powder. That’s why I was able to develop my first signature dish, Black Bean Enchiladas, and that’s why they were so good.

Refried Bean Tostadas

Prep time: About 30 minutes

Cook time: 2 hours unsupervised cooking for the beans; 15 minutes for the refried beans

Total time: 3 hours (2 hours unsupervised)

Yield: 4 servings

For the beans:

Ingredients 

½ pound (about 1⅛ cups) black beans, pinto beans, or similar heirlooms, washed and picked over for stones, soaked for at least 4 hours or overnight in 1 quart water

1 medium onion, cut in half

2 large garlic cloves, minced

¼ cup chopped cilantro

Salt to taste (I think beans need a lot, at least 1 teaspoon per quart of water used)

Directions

1. Place beans and soaking water into a large, heavy pot. Add halved onion and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any foam that rises, then add garlic and half the cilantro, reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes.

2. Add salt and continue to simmer another 1 to 1½ hours, until beans are quite soft and broth is thick and fragrant. Taste and adjust salt. Stir in remaining cilantro. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove and discard onion. For the best flavor, refrigerate overnight.

For the tostadas:

Ingredients

The simmered beans, above

2 tablespoons grape-seed, sunflower or canola oil

1 tablespoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 teaspoons mild chili powder

8 corn tortillas

¾ pound ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

1 to 2 serrano or jalapeño chilies (to taste), minced

2 slices red or white onion, finely chopped and soaked for 5 minutes in water to cover, then drained, rinsed, and drained on paper towels

¼ cup chopped cilantro (more to taste)

Fresh lime juice and salt to taste

2 cups shredded cabbage

2 small or 1 large, ripe avocado, diced or sliced

¼ cup chopped toasted almonds

About 3 ounces (¾ cup) queso fresco for crumbling

Directions

1. Drain off about ½ cup of liquid from the beans, retaining it in a separate bowl to use later for moistening the beans should they dry out. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy nonstick frying pan and add the ground cumin and chili.  Cook, stirring over medium heat, for about a minute, until the spices begin to sizzle and cook. Add the beans. Fry the beans, stirring and mashing with the back of a spoon, potato masher or a wooden pestle until they thicken and begin to get crusty on the bottom. Stir up the crust each time it forms, and mix into the beans.  Cook until the beans are thick but not dry, 10 to 15 minutes.  They will continue to thicken and dry out when you remove them from the heat. Add liquid you saved from the beans if they seem too dry, but save some of the liquid for moistening the beans before you reheat them, if you are serving them later. Taste the refried beans and adjust the salt (they probably won’t need any as the broth reduces when you refry them).

2. Cut the tortillas in half. To toast in the microwave, place as many as will fit in a single layer and cook for 1 minute. The tortillas will be moist on the bottom. Flip them over and microwave for another minute. If they are not yet crisp, flip again and zap for 30 seconds to a minute. Alternatively, deep-fry the tortillas in sunflower oil or grape-seed oil until crisp and drain on paper towels.

3. In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, chilies, onion and cilantro. Season to taste with salt. Stir in the lime juice if using. Let sit for 15 to 30 minutes for the best flavor.

4. Spread a layer of refried beans (about 2 tablespoons) over each tortilla half. Top with cabbage. Spoon salsa over the cabbage and top with sliced or diced avocado, a sprinkling of chopped toasted almonds and a sprinkling of queso fresco.

Advance preparation: The refried beans will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. Set aside in the pan if you are serving within a few hours. Otherwise, transfer the beans to a lightly oiled baking dish, cover and refrigerate. To reheat, cover with foil and bake in a 325 F oven for 20 minutes.

Main photo: Black Bean Tostadas. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Read More