Articles in Cooking

Homemade natto with rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Kelley

Natto, or fermented soybeans, are everywhere in Japan. There are natto burgers, natto bruschetta made with heaps of natto mixed with melted cheese or tomatoes on toasted bread, and even natto curries and sushi. But the most common way Japanese people eat natto is for breakfast over steamed rice with condiments, such as pickled fruits and vegetables.

Sink your chopsticks into a heaping bowl of natto, lift and its renowned sticky strings appear. To many, this stickiness is an instant textural turnoff. To natto lovers like myself, the slime only serves to tantalize the palate with the rich, savory flavor to come. Some people think the flavor is reminiscent of a strong cheese, but for natto fans it is mouth-watering umami heaven.

Supercharged superfood

Natto has the same high-powered nutrition of other superfoods. Credit: Copyright Marilyna/iStock

Natto has the same high-powered nutrition of other superfoods. Credit: Copyright Marilyna/iStock

Famous for its stickiness and strong flavor, natto is also highly nutritious. A one-cup serving has more than 80% of the U.S. recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of iron, and almost 40% of the RDA of calcium, vitamin C and dietary fiber. Natto is also packed with the enzyme nattokinase, which in scientific studies is a proven clot-buster and blood thinner and therefore contributes to heart heath. Laboratory analyses also suggest that nattokinase might also help protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and have shown that it is a potentially powerful anti-cancer compound as well.

Japan and beyond

Thai natto -- thua nao khaep -- fermented in a banana leaf. Credit: Copyright Noneam/Dreamstime

Thai natto — thua nao khaep — fermented in a banana leaf. Credit: Copyright Noneam/Dreamstime

To me, one of the most interesting things about Japan’s beloved, traditional natto is that there is nothing uniquely Japanese about it. Versions of soybeans fermented with the bacteria Bacillus subtilis can be found all over eastern Asia and into the Himalayas and southern Asia. Not only is natto closely related to Chinese shuidouchi and Korean cheonggukjang, but it is also related to Thai thua nao khaep, Indian piak, the pe-poke of Myanmar, and Nepalese and Himalayan kinema as well.

The likelihood that most of these other preparations are related to Japanese is very high, because the preparation methods between the various forms are virtually identical. In Japan, the traditional fermentation process is achieved by wrapping the cooked beans in straw that naturally carries Bacillus subtilis bacteria used to ferment the beans. From the mountainous regions of the Himalayas to northern Myanmar and Thailand, the beans are packed in ferns or other leaves that are available in the environment that also introduce the same bacteria into the dish.

Cultural variety

Preparations of fermented soybeans can vary. Credit: Copyright Yumehana/iStock

Preparations of fermented soybeans can vary. Credit: Copyright Yumehana/iStock

Production of the fermented soybeans varies a bit between the cultures. In modern Japan, most production has been industrialized and people purchase natto at supermarkets or stores, whereas in most other areas around Asia, production of natto-like fermented soybeans remains at the household or village level.

Use of natto-like products also varies between the cultures and is roughly correlated with the level of technological achievement. In Japan, people enjoy more fresh or “raw” natto preparations that are warmed and eaten over rice, because the industrial supply chains of the fermented beans, and widespread refrigeration, allows this. In Nepal and other areas without electricity and refrigeration, natto-like preparations are more often cooked into curries, soups or other dishes. Portions that cannot be eaten within a few days after fermenting are flattened into pancakes or balls and thoroughly dried before being added to other dishes as a flavoring.

Out of Africa

African natto -- sumbala, made with locust seeds. Credit: Copyright Rik Schuiling/Wikipedia

African natto — sumbala, made with locust seeds. Credit: Copyright Rik Schuiling/Wikipedia

Across western Africa, there are also similar preparations made with African locust seeds and bacillus species called sumbala or iru, or ogiri, which is made from fermented oil seeds such as sesame, or seeds from melons and gourds. It is unclear whether these fermented African seed preparations are related to the natto-like preparations of Asia (or whether they may be precursors of them), but in recent years, shortages of some seeds are forcing many Africans to use fermented soybeans to get that special mix of sour and savory that the fermented seed preparations traditionally have offered. Either way, that savory but sour flavor is sought after by many cuisines on at least two continents.

Expensive to buy, easy to make

Natto ingredients: soybeans and a starter culture. Credit: Copyright Horillaz/iStock

Natto ingredients: soybeans and a starter culture. Credit: Copyright Horillaz/iStock

Natto is a relatively recent arrival in Europe and North America, with most of the interest in it being fueled by its highly nutritive “superfood” status. However, it is still  expensive and although it is available in some area Asian markets, it is still a high-end, mail-order product in most places.

The good news is that it is easy to make. If you can make your own yogurt or cheese, natto will be a cinch. All you need are soybeans and a starter culture. Starter cultures are available on the Internet, or you can even use commercially produced natto as a starter.

Just hydrate the soybeans until they swell to their full size — usually overnight will do — and cook them until they are soft, about three to four hours on the stovetop. Drain and, as they are cooling, mash them two or three times, and add the starter culture and mix well. Then let the temperature fall to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, cover and let ferment for 24 to 36 hours. It is important to keep the temperature as stable as possible around at around 100 degrees F. Too cold or too hot, and the bacteria will stop growing and the ferment will not complete.

When the ferment is complete, the surface of the beans will be covered with a fine white to gray lace. It’s best not to disturb the natto at this point, but just to refrigerate it for about 24 hours. Then take it out, stir a few times to get the strings started, warm and enjoy!

Main photo: Homemade natto with rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Kelley

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Grilled rabbit and sausage skewers (Coniglio alla Molisana)

As warm weather tempts Americans to launch our annual outdoor-cooking adventures, most of us are too content with traditional American fare for the grill. Steaks and burgers are fine, but to wow the crowd consider some Italian classics well-suited for the All-American grill, including a rabbit recipe from the region of Molise.

Rabbit has lost some of its mid-century popularity, but it used to be eaten much more by Americans who were of the Greatest Generation, the generation that served in World War II.

Memorial Day is not merely the American holiday that honors the men and women who died in service to their country in the U.S. military. It’s popularly thought of as the opening day to the grill season. This year you can try something a bit different than hamburgers.

Here’s a recipe from the region of Molise in Italy, which may be familiar to some Italian-Americans.

It’s quite easy and always a surprising hit. I’d serve it with some grilled vegetables and a nice spring salad made with fava beans, asparagus, artichoke, peas and lettuce, for example, simply dressed with a vinaigrette.

Rabbit once an American staple

Rabbit for coniglio alla molisana. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Rabbit for coniglio alla molisana. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

The preparation is called coniglio alla Molisana, grilled rabbit and sausage skewers in the style of Molise. There are all kinds of recipes in Italy for rabbit, wild rabbit and hare. In Sicily, they grill wild rabbits with a marinade of olive oil, garlic, vinegar and oregano.

Grilling suits an Italian classic

Rabbit prepared for grill skewers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Rabbit prepared for grill skewers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In central Italy, hare is spit-roasted with olive oil and flavored with bay leaves, parsley and cloves. Sometimes the grilled hare is served with a sauce made from the liver and blood of the hare and chopped onions, stock, wine and lemon juice.

In Sondrio in Lombardy, a preparation called lepre con la crostada is a spit-roasted hare that is then stewed in cream and crushed macaroons. Calabrians like to marinate the hare in vinegar and scallions overnight and then skewer the meat with pancetta and bay leaves before grilling. This is the version popular in Molise.

Grilled Rabbit and Sausage Skewers (Coniglio alla Molisana)

Grilled rabbit and sausage skewers (coniglio alla molisana.) Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Grilled rabbit and sausage skewers (coniglio alla molisana.) Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Several handfuls of fresh or dried rosemary, oregano and marjoram twigs

1 rabbit, 3 pounds

1 pound mild Italian sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

12 paper-thin slices prosciutto (about 1/4 pound)

12 large fresh sage leaves

Four 10-inch wooden skewers

Olive oil for basting

Directions

1. Prepare a low charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill for 15 minutes on low. Toss several handfuls of mixed dried or fresh herb twigs onto the fire or use the receptacle for that purpose provided with gas grills.

2. Because there is not an abundance of meat on a rabbit, slice the meat very close to the bone, using a boning and paring knife and trying to keep the pieces as large as possible. (Save the bones for the rabbit stock.) Put the rabbit and sausage pieces in a mixing bowl and toss with the parsley and rosemary, salt and pepper to taste.

3. Lay a piece of rabbit on a section of a paper-thin prosciutto slice and roll up. Skewer the rolled-up rabbit with a sage leaf and a sausage piece, in that order, until all the ingredients are used up.

4. Place the skewers on the grill and cook, turning occasionally, until golden brown, about 1 hour. Baste with olive oil during grilling.

Variation: Alternatively, instead of rolling the rabbit pieces in prosciutto, cut the prosciutto into 1/8-inch thick squares of 1 inch and skewer with the rabbit and sausage.

Add a spring salad for a seasonal hit

Spring salad with fava beans, asparagus, artichoke, peas, and lettuce for example, simply dressed with a vinaigrette. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Spring salad with fava beans, asparagus, artichoke, peas and lettuce, for example, simply dressed with a vinaigrette. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Main photo: Grilled Rabbit and Sausage Skewers (Coniglio alla Molisana). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

Regionally sourcing flour for 15,000 pounds of bread a week is the equivalent of a lunar landing, but in Vermont one bakery has found the way to do so. Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. By the end of this year, all of the flour that the bakery uses will come from within a 150-mile radius.

“As a baker, it’s a real luxury to have the same wheat all the time,” said Randy George, of Red Hen Baking Co. The Vermont baker spoke about local flour with Quebec farmer Loic Dewavrin at the Northern Grain Growers Association conference in March, in Essex, Vermont. The two have an uncommon partnership.

Such leaps forward don’t register as significant to consumers because growing grains and making flour are almost invisible processes. However, the farmers, bakers and food advocates at the conference appreciated this achievement, and listened hard for details of the challenges en route to this success story.

The importance of local flour

pizza crusts

Pizza crusts are baked in a hearth oven at Red Hen, using organic flour. Credit: Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

“Normally, you will see some variation from flour lot to flour lot. You can never count on complete consistency,” George said. The typical roller mill draws wheat from a variety of sources, but the flour from Le Moulin des Cedres all comes from wheat grown by Dewavrin and his family at their organic farm, Les Fermes Longpres.

“Roller mills are incredibly expensive infrastructure. I never heard of one that was on a farm,” he said.

Stone mills located on farms are not uncommon. This type of mill is relatively simple to run and inexpensive to purchase. Roller mills, however, are industrial-scale equipment. Les Fermes Longpres, located just west of Montreal, recently finished assembling a small roller mill. The family took four years to complete the project, using parts from a defunct French roller mill and doing much of the work themselves to minimize the investment.

A family mill makes uniform flour

Sacks of bran

Sacks of bran outside the Le Moulin des Cedres mill. Credit: Copyright 2014 Loic Dewavrin

At Le Moulin des Cedres, the Dewavrin family mills wheat grown on the farm. With an eye toward evening out seasonal irregularities, the flour is made from a combination of two years’ crops. This is why baker George was marveling at having access to uniform flour.

All mills use raw materials that are products of nature and have a wide range of potential expression. Since roller mills pool wheat from multiple sources, the result can vary. Even with careful testing of grains to try to keep the range within limited parameters, mills are blending wheat from many different climates and micro climates, from many different farms with various cultivation, harvest and storage habits, and the flour and its performance changes accordingly.

Le Moulin des Cedres is unique, but exemplary of the farm’s approach. When Dewavrin returned to the family farm after a career as an industrial engineer, he and his brothers began to convert a conventional corn-soy crop farm into a more diversified organic operation. This was in pursuit of a system that could support the brothers financially, and support the farm’s health and long-term viability.

To make the most of what they grew, the brothers sought methods to capture crop value on the farm and avoid selling crops into the commodity market as much as possible. Making sunflower oil was the first value-added process they tackled. Next, they considered whether to do something with the soy they grew, or the wheat. After investigating the markets, they saw that what they could do with soy didn’t hold as much promise. Flour seemed the best route. There was enough whole-grain, stone-milled flour, however, and bakers had expressed interest in locally grown and produced white flour.

Keeping the integrity of the crop

Wheat fields

Wheat fields at Les Fermes Longpres farm. Credit: Copyright 2014 Loic Dewavrin

The idea of having full command of the crop from seed to selling had great appeal to the Dewavrin family. Without running a mill themselves, their production was mixed with grains from other farms.

“Our goal was to keep the integrity of the crop,” Dewavrin explained. Selling wheat to a mill meant their crops were mixed with many others. “We lost the purity of the product and the controlled efforts we put into it.”

Les Fermes Longpres is a very careful farm. The family puts a lot of thought into crop rotations, tillage, and other ways of building good soil, the basic tenet of organic farming.

For the mill, they also worked hard on wheat quality issues, from selecting plant varieties to combating diseases and pests that challenge wheat in the field, and in storage. They began milling slowly last year, determined to understand the process and create a good flour for bakers.

A bakery-mill collaboration

local flour

The bread at Red Hen Baking Co. carries a sign touting the locally sourced flour. Credit: Copyright Randy George

Feedback from bakeries like Red Hen, one of the few bakeries using the mill’s limited supply, helped in this area. In response to what George observed when baking with Les Cedres’ early mill runs, Dewavrin increased the level of starch damage slightly to improve the baking quality of the flour.

“Damaged starch” is an odd term. While it sounds like a bad thing, it’s just milling terminology for opening up the starch granules.

“Getting just the right amount of ‘damage’ is critical so that the flour is in the right state for the baker to continue the ‘damage’ in the baking process,” George said. All mills have to get this right, so the adjustment made is not unique. But the way that the correction came about, through the baker communicating with the farmer/miller was entirely different than the norm.

Leaps forward in decentralizing the production of staple crops don’t register as significant, not yet. But the more that bakers seek local flour, and the more that farmers seek noncommodity marketing options, the more consumers will learn to understand and appreciate the small food mountains people are moving.

Main photo: The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

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Classic blancmange, pictured, is even better when you blend the fruit right in. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lesyy

There’s a dessert that’s scarcely known in America but all too familiar in England, where it is today considered the epitome of blandness, no small feat given English standards. But in the 19th century, its wilder possibilities were explored, some of which were smashingly good and deserve a new life.

The dish is blancmange (that’s French lingo there: “blahn-MAHNJ”), and the modern standard is basically a gelatin dessert of almond milk, or dairy milk with almond flavoring, or just milk and vanilla, molded into a characteristic shape that sometimes showed up in Monty Python skits as a silly, giant blancmange monster.

The almond-milk version, at least, has an ancient history. Blancmange descends from blancmanger, the most esteemed dish of the European Middle Ages, which basically consisted of the whitest ingredients available to the cook: milk, almonds, chicken breasts, sugar, rice, even breadcrumbs in a pinch. It was a special attraction at a time when cuisine tended to be either brown or green or brownish green, and it appealed to the medieval nobility for another reason: As the middle class kept rising and rising, pure white food such as blancmanger symbolized the stainless aristocratic ancestry that those irritating bourgeois upstarts could never claim. The idea was that you can add colorings to turn a white food whatever color you like, but you can’t turn a colored food white. In the 1820s, Antonin Carême, the founder of French grande cuisine, wrote, “These delicious sweets are greatly esteemed by gastronomes, but to be enjoyed they must be extremely smooth and very white. Given these two qualities (so rarely found together), they will always be preferred to other creams, even to transparent jellies.”

It’s not surprising that democratic-minded Americans paid little attention to the historical significance of whiteness. They made chocolate versions (every edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook since 1896 has presented the chocolate pudding as a variety of blancmange), and they made versions flavored with fruit; when they used berries or cherries, the result was very far from aristocratic white. They also played with different thickening agents, using cornstarch, farina or tapioca as well as gelatin. For my money, the star version is the cream fruit blancmange. It’s reminiscent of a packaged gelatin dessert but with the genuine flavor of fresh fruit (I’m particularly partial to blackberry), enriched by cream. The texture is unique, soft and elastic, like a cross between pudding and fruit jelly but richer. Old recipes say to serve cream fruit blancmange with whipped cream or boiled custard sauce (which we now know as crème anglaise), but I don’t think it really needs a topping.

Some advice: Do not add the fruit purée to the cream until the gelatin is thoroughly dissolved or the acidity will cause curdling. The result will still taste good, but you won’t get that plush texture. For a more conventional pudding effect, you can cut the amount of gelatin to 1 1/2 tablespoons; if you want less richness, you can use half-and-half instead of cream.

Cream Fruit Blancmange

Prep time: 7 to 8 minutes

Cooking time: 9 to 10 minutes

Total time: 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup water

1 ounce (2 tablespoons or 2 packets) unflavored gelatin

1 quart berries or cherries

1 pint cream

1 cup sugar

Directions

1. Add the water to a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Let dissolve and swell, 5 minutes or more. Meanwhile, purée the berries in a food processor or food mill 2 to 3 minutes and strain. You will have about 1 cup of thick juice.

2. Put the cream in a saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until scalded, 7 to 8 minutes (tiny bubbles will form and the aroma of the cream will change). Stir often to prevent scorching.

3. Reduce heat to low. Stir 1/2 cup of the hot cream into the dissolved gelatin and whisk until thoroughly mixed; then add the gelatin mixture into the cream remaining in the saucepan and whisk until it is thoroughly dispersed, 1 minute or so. Add the sugar and stir until well dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat.

4. Add the fruit purée to the cream and stir until the color is uniform. Pour into serving bowls, bring to room temperature and refrigerate until set, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Main photo: Classic blancmange, pictured, is even better when you blend the fruit right in. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lesyy

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Main photo: Sweet William flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 J.M. Hunter

Flowers have crept into our diets almost unnoticed, and now it seems they are blooming everywhere: nasturtiums in salads; courgette (zucchini) flowers, stuffed and fried; elderflower cordial; and violet creams. Many more flowers than you might imagine can be used to add flavor and color to sweet and savory dishes.

Many of the flowers we now grow as ornamentals were originally valued as herbs. In addition, all the flowers of the herbs we use are edible, along with roses, fuchsias and day lilies, to name but a few. Now is the perfect time to plant many of them. Edible flowers don’t need much room and even if you only have a couple of window boxes, you will still get a good, long harvest.

Edible annuals such as cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), sunflowers (Helianthus annus), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and pot or English marigolds (Calendula) can be sown now. Only some Tagetes marigolds are edible, in particular T. patula, T. lucida and T. tenuifolium. If in any doubt, stick to calendulas. Simply sow the seeds in trays, pots or in situ, and you will be rewarded with a summerlong harvest. All these plants are “cut-and-come-again,” which means that the more flowers you pick, the more the plant will produce, usually right up to the first frosts.

The petals of cornflowers, which have little flavor, are a wonderful blue and look particularly good on creamy or yellow dishes such as custards, cheese and egg dishes and cakes; and with yellow and orange peppers. Even plain old macaroni cheese looks spectacular with a garnish of blue petals.

Marigolds have a subtle peppery taste and give food a rich yellow color, earning them the name of “poor man’s saffron.” Cut away the bitter ends of the petals and cook in oil to bring out the best flavor; fish, rice, pasta, eggs, potatoes, cream and butter are all good companions. Dried petals are a great addition to winter soups.

Tasty nasturtiums

Peppery-sweet nasturtiums are easy to grow from seed and are great to grow up sunflowers. Just wait till the sunflower is about 30 centimeters (11 inches) tall and then plant two to three nasturtium seeds around the base of the plant. Tie them in as they grow up and you will have two crops in the space of one. Nasturtiums are good in salads, but they also go well with fish, chicken, cream cheese, goat’s cheese, risotto or pasta and make great fritters. The young leaves are also tasty.

Sunflower petals have a slightly nutty taste. You can eat the young stems and flower buds, but this seems a bit of a waste as you lose the flowers. Better to enjoy the flowers, use the petals and leave the seeds to ripen on the plants. Sunflower bread is wonderful, using the seeds and petals. You can add the petals to pastas and soups; they go especially well with any onion-based dishes.

Plants you can buy now include hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). They are biennials, so they take two years to grow. But if you collect seeds and plant them toward the end of the summer, you will have a continuous supply of the plants and their beautiful flowers, which make perfect garnishes.

Pansies, Johnny jump-ups or violets (Viola) are also good plants to buy. As well as livening up green salads they go well with fish, potatoes, carrots and fruit salads. Violets are daintier and have a sweeter taste; perfect for cakes and scones. Do not be tempted to use African violets (Saintpaulia) as they are not edible.

All Dianthus (carnations, pinks and sweet Williams) have edible petals. They have a sweet clove-like flavor, which is strongest in the most fragrant flowers. They are one of the many ingredients in chartreuse, and complement egg- or cream-based puddings, salmon and cakes and biscuits.

Tulips make spectacular containers for ice cream. Simply prepare them as described below, prop them upright in a small glass or egg cup and add a scoop of ice cream. The petals taste mildly of cucumber; the paler flowers have a better flavor, but the more flamboyant ones make more striking containers.

Preparing edible flowers

While using flowers in your cooking is a wonderful thing, there are one or two cautions. Just because a flower smells good it follows that it will be good to eat — a vast number of flowers are highly poisonous. The Latin name enables you to tell exactly what you are growing and eating. Local names of flowers vary widely and can even refer to different plants.

Day lilies look like lilies and are delicious to eat, but they are Hemerocallis, not really lilies at all. Most true lilies (Lilium) are not edible. All marigolds belonging to the Calendula genus are great to eat, but only some of the Tagetes marigolds (see above) can be eaten safely. Secondly, if you suffer from pollen allergies you should introduce any flowers into your diet very gradually.

As well as knowing exactly which flower you are eating, it is important that they have not been treated with chemicals. The best way to ensure this is to pick them from your own garden. Most flowers are best picked early, on a dry day, once any dew has dried, but before the sun dries their oils. Pick unblemished, freshly opened flowers, give them a shake to remove any lurking bugs or dust, and then wash carefully in a bowl of cold water. Pat dry or spin gently in a salad spinner and place on paper towels to dry completely.

Nasturtiums, day lilies and fuchsias can be eaten whole, but with most other flowers it is best to remove the pistils and stamens (the bits in the middle). Flowers such as roses, marigolds and dianthus have a white heel at the bottom of their petals. This can be bitter, so snip it away if necessary. Make sure all the pollen is removed, especially from flowers such as hollyhocks, which have a lot. This is easiest done with a paintbrush.

If you aren’t going to use them within a few hours, store the prepared flowers on paper towels in an airtight container in the bottom of the fridge. Flowers can also be stored in sugar (violet-, pink- and rose-infused sugars are particularly good), crystallized, added to oils and vinegars, or mixed in butter (primrose or pot marigold butters are pretty and delicious).

Feel free to experiment, and you will find your dishes prettier and more flavorful.

Main photo: Sweet William flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 J.M. Hunter

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My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna - egg curry - as a picnic treat for Bengali's New Year. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

In mid-April, the people of Bengal — a region straddling Bangladesh and parts of India, including my hometown in West Bengal — celebrate the Bengali New Year.

Bengalis of all religious persuasions celebrate this secular holiday with music, song and, of course, plenty of good food. So today I share with you food. Lots of it. Twenty-six Bengali dishes, to be precise

It’s only appropriate to go all out, food-wise, on naba barsha, as Bengalis call the holiday. Food in Bengali is synonymous with all events and happenings. But for festivals like the one for the new year, Bengalis go the whole nine yards on the dinner table.

People also buy new clothes and other new items with the belief that something done at the beginning of the year repeats itself year-round. Bengali traders crack open fresh new account books called the haal khata on this day.

A new year ahead, with taxes behind us

Ironically, the Bengali New Year, which falls during a season when the U.S. tax deadline looms, originated in the Mughal Empire, when it marked a fresh beginning after the collection of taxes.

So, celebrate the end of tax season with me by delving into this regional cuisine.

Bengal, with its west monsoon climate and proximity to rivers, offers a diet rich in fish, greens, rice and vegetables. Its seasonings are distinct and prominent with the use of mustard, poppy seeds, ginger and a Bengali Five Spice Blend consisting of mustard, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and fennel. This seasoning is called panch phoron: panch means five and phoron means tempering.

The Bengali meal ranges from light to heavy courses, with a sweet and sour chutney to cleanse the palate before dessert.

This slideshow offers an insight into some of the most traditional dishes on the Bengali table.

Starting the new year with a family recipe that travels well

The fact that the holiday lands midweek this year puts a wrinkle on food celebrations.

This year, however I’ve resurrected a well-seasoned egg dish that my grandmother used to call her “picnic dimer dalna” or picnic egg curry.

Our “picnics” consisted usually of multilayered lunch boxes, filled with puffy fried breads known as luchi and drier curries like alur dom. In our family’s case, it included these eggs, since my grandmother felt that we should get our protein as growing children.

This dish travels very well, and actually improves as leftovers. My children now love this as a special breakfast treat and it can be enjoyed with toasted bread almost as much as the luchi, which can be difficult to pull off on a school-day morning. The eggs, however, can be made the night before.

This particular recipe is also known as Kosha Dimer Dalna. The word kosha in Bengali refers to slow-cooked and refers to the slow-cooked onions in the dish.

This year, if you feel that you just might need an excuse for a new beginning and an opportunity to revisit your New Year’s resolutions, join the Bengalis in celebrating our Bengali New Year.

Kosha Dimer Dalna (Egg Curry with Clingy Caramelized Onion Sauce)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 to 50 minutes

Total time: 65 to 70 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons oil

3 medium-sized onions, sliced

1 tablespoon grated ginger

2 to 3 cardamoms

2 medium-sized tomatoes

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper, or to taste

8 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Chopped cilantro to garnish

Directions

1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and add in the sliced onions. Cook the onions on low heat, until they gradually wilt, soften and turn golden brown. This process will take about 30 to 35 minutes, but should not be rushed.

2. Add in the ginger and stir well.

3. Add in the cardamoms, tomatoes and red cayenne pepper. Cook for about five minutes until the mixture thickens and the tomatoes begin to soften.

4. In the meantime, make slits on the sides of the eggs and rub them with the salt and the turmeric.

5. Mix the eggs into the tomato mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, until the eggs are well-coated with the onion base.

6. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.

Main photo: My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna or egg curry as a picnic treat for us when I was growing up in Kolkata in India’s West Bengal province. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

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Main photo: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard's salpícon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Landry.

It’s not easy to capture an entire country’s cuisine in one cookbook — especially when the author lives 3,000 miles away. So when Amalia Moreno-Damgaard began writing her cookbook about Guatemalan cuisine, she knew she would have to make compromises. The challenge was finding substitutes that wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the cuisine.

Peppers can be used instead of chilies. It’s fine to use store-bought chicken broth instead of making your own with chicken bones. To make a meal healthier, oils can be substituted for lard — a trick Moreno-Damgaard learned from her grandmother many years ago in Guatemala City.

The Author


Martha Landry is a social media intern for Round Earth Media. She is also a Travel Ambassador for GoOverseas and photo corps member. In the future, Landry hopes to be an environmental journalist.

Martha Landry is a social media intern for Round Earth Media in St. Paul, Minn. She is also a Travel Ambassador for GoOverseas and photo corps member. In the future, Landry hopes to be an environmental journalist.

But don’t even think of using anything other than a corn tortilla. “The tortilla is king,” Moreno-Damgaard declares.

It’s that kind of homegrown knowledge that fills Moreno-Damgaard’s cookbook, “Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen — Gourmet Cuisine with a Cultural Flair,” which was published in 2012. The 420-page cookbook not only provides readers with an array of Guatemalan recipes, it also introduces them to the culture of the country, exploring street foods, breakfast dishes and holiday specialties.

The cuisine highlights Latin American culture, Moreno-Damgaard says, a culture she wants to celebrate. Too often, she says, it’s the stories of violence and corruption that make the headlines.

“Someone needed to go out there and say wonderful things about Guatemala,” Moreno-Damgaard says. She believes she can convey the many positive attributes of her home country by exposing Americans to authentic Guatemalan cuisine beyond the typical rice-and-bean dish.

To gather material for the book, Moreno-Damgaard traveled back and forth from her home in Minneapolis to Guatemala City, where she was born and raised.

“Guatemalan food is a combination of native cuisine and Spanish cuisine, which is the story of Latin America,” she says. And that mixture is a result of four distinctly different regions of Guatemala, each with its own distinct food.

The southern shores offer the freshest seafood; the east produces unique fruits and vegetables; the northern mountains still celebrate Mayan cooking and traditions, and the west coast is home to the Garifuna people — descendants of Africans and indigenous Arawak people from the Caribbean — who bring their own cooking style to the region, including lots of chowders and rice dishes with coconut and plantain flavors.

The woman behind the book

In 1981, Moreno-Damgaard, then just 19, left her home to visit her brother in the United States. She ended up staying, getting her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fontbonne University in St. Louis, and her master’s degree in international business and culture from Saint Louis University. After college, she built a successful career in international banking, holding a variety of senior-level positions.

Since 2001, she has lived with her husband, Kenn Damgaard, in the Minneapolis area.

Sixteen years ago, when their son, Jens, was born, she decided to give up her banking career to spend more time at home. Moreno-Damgaard says she couldn’t imagine missing her son’s first steps or first words. But with quite a bit of free time on her hands, she concentrated on cooking, making it more than a hobby.

Moreno-Damgaard enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Minneapolis/St. Paul in Mendota, Minn., for her professional culinary arts degree in classic French cuisine.

Then she plunged into a professional career, starting out as a cooking teacher — something she continues to do today. She gives cooking demonstrations at culinary events and benefits, as well as private lessons.

“Teaching keeps me on my toes, because I continue to learn,” Moreno-Damgaard says. “You never stop learning, even about an area you specialize in.”

Nora Tycast recently attended one of Moreno-Damgaard’s cooking classes in Minneapolis. Tycast’s three daughters — all adopted from Guatemala — joined her.

The family has attended many of Moreno-Damgaard’s events, Tycast says, because it gives her daughters a chance to learn and identify with their native culture.

“It’s nice for the girls to see a professional chef, and it’s nice (for them) to see someone who looks like them,” Tycast says. “It’s good to have someone (from Guatemala) up in front of them and being an example.”

In additional to teaching classes, Moreno-Damgaard runs her own business and serves on the board of directors for Common Hope, the Latino Economic Development Center, Women Entrepreneurs of Minnesota and Le Cordon Bleu Alumni Association.

Latin American cuisine

When Moreno-Damgaard moved to the Twin Cities, she says it was hard to find Latin American cuisine or interest in diverse foods. She says she missed the tastes and textures she had grown up with.

“When … we first came to Minnesota, we really struggled to find a Latin American restaurant,” she says. “Even a good Mexican restaurant was hard to find.”

Today, Moreno-Damgaard sees more of an appreciation of international cuisine because the Internet has opened up access to different parts of the world, including Guatemala. She said the wealth of information on the Web about different cultures has sparked an interest in foreign countries and cuisines, and the influx of immigrants to the Twin Cities has exposed the local population to Latin American food.

She says she has more to tell people about Latin America, so she’s writing a second cookbook about Guatemala. She plans to detail more specific aspects of the cuisine as well as provide a more in-depth look at the culture. In recent trips to Guatemala, Moreno-Damgaard spent time with chefs — both professional and hobbyists — to gather local knowledge. She also spent time exploring rural Guatemala to more clearly define its regions.

Because of the influences from Spain, the Caribbean and the Mayans, Guatemalan food is “the deepest, the most diverse, and the most delicious” in Latin America, Moreno-Damgaard says. She says the flavors, ingredients and history are the most varied in the region. She is excited to be sharing the cuisine with those who relate to her passion for healthy and flavorful food.

Pepián Negro (Spicy Chicken and Pork Vegetable Stew)

Pepián negro (black pepián) is from Guatemala department, which includes Guatemala City, in the south-central part of the country. It takes its name from the blackened tortillas used in the sauce. There are also red and yellow pepián with varying ingredients, made with turkey, chicken, beef or pork, in Quetzaltenango, Suchitepequez and other regions. All varieties have some ingredients in common, such as pan-roasted seeds, peppers, cinnamon and tomatoes, but they may have different finishing touches. Pepián can be made with any kind of protein. Serve it with Arroz Guatemalteco (Guatemalan vegetable rice) and Tamalitos de Queso (fresh cheese mini tamales in banana leaves), which provide a nice break between spicy bites.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces

1/2 pound pork butt or shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces

2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken stock

1 small, whole yellow onion, peeled and t-scored*

1/2 cup unchopped cilantro, include stems and leaves

1 cup quartered Roma tomatoes (about 2 large tomatoes)

1/2 cup husked, quartered tomatillos (3 to 4 large tomatillos)

1 small yellow onion, cut into thick slices

2 large garlic cloves, peeled

1 guaque (guajillo) chile, seeded

1 zambo (mulato) chile, seeded

Para Espesar (Thickeners)

Choose one of the following:

2 corn tortillas blackened in toaster oven to medium brown, soaked in hot stock for 10 minutes;

or 2 tablespoons instant corn masa flour, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown;

or 2 tablespoons white rice, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown, then soaked in cold water 10 minutes

1 tablespoon canola oil

Sazón (Seasonings)

1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted pumpkin seeds

1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted sesame seeds

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup small cubes of potatoes, cooked al dente

1/2 cup fresh green beans cut into 1-inch pieces, cooked al dente

1/2 cup carrots sliced on the diagonal, cooked al dente

1/2 cup güisquil (chayote squash) cut into 1-inch cubes, cooked al dente

1 cup loosely packed, finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Cilantro leaves, finely chopped, as garnish

Directions

1. In a medium pot, cook the chicken and pork in the stock with the yellow onion and cilantro over low heat until the chicken and pork are done, about 30 to 45 minutes. Remove and reserve the onion and the cilantro. Set aside the pot of chicken, pork and stock.

2. Heat a skillet for 2 minutes over medium heat and add the tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic. Adjust the heat to medium-low and pan roast the vegetables until they are charred all over and mushy, about 8 minutes.

3. Separately, pan roast the chilies over medium-low heat for about 3 minutes. Keep a close eye on the chilies, as they burn easily. Then soak the roasted chilies in 1 cup of very hot water for 10 minutes.

4. Combine the roasted vegetables, the reserved onion and cilantro, the soaked chilies, half the soaking water, and 3/4 cup of the hot stock in a blender. Add the thickener of your choice and purée to a fine consistency. The purée should look smooth and velvety.

5. Heat the oil in a medium skillet. Add the purée and seasonings. Add the cup of finely chopped cilantro. Cook for about 3 minutes. Add the sauce to the pot of chicken, pork and stock. Add the al dente vegetables and stir. Simmer covered to blend the flavors, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be medium thin — about the consistency of steak sauce. If the sauce is too thin, cook the stew a bit longer to thicken it. If the sauce is too thick, add more stock or water. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.

6. Serve the stew garnished with chopped cilantro leaves.

* Note: To t-score an onion, make a 1/2-inch-deep, cross-shaped cut at the narrowest end of the onion. The onion remains whole.

Main photo: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard’s salpícon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Landry.

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Spaghetti alla Bolognese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

When searching for the best spaghetti alla Bolognese, the first thing to be said is that by tradition it is made with tagliatelle, a pasta pretty much like fettuccine, and not with spaghetti, although it is quite commonly made with spaghetti.

Tagliatelle con Ragù alla Bolognese, as it is properly called, is one of those dishes that appears on many international menus and often made in an inferior way. Tagliatelle, tagliolini, pappardelle, tortellini and lasagna are some of the pastas made from sfoglia, as they are known in Bologna, that is, the “leaves” of pasta dough made from the finest white flour and eggs.

Legend has it that the tagliatelle shape — strips of pasta about a half-inch wide — was invented in 1487 by Maestro Zafirano, a cook from the village of Bentivoglio, on the occasion of the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to the Duke of Ferrara. The cook was said to be inspired by the beautiful blond hair of the bride.

Despite the appeal of this apocryphal story, history tells us that tagliatelle was invented earlier. Pictorial representations of tagliatelle exist from before this date in the illustrations accompanying the various 14th- and 15th-century Latin translations of an 11th-century Arabic medical treatise, the Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa (Maintenance of health) written by Ibn Buṭlān, a physician in Baghdad, and translated into Latin as Tacuinum sanitati (or Tacuuinum Sanitatis). In the Compendium de naturis et proprietatibus alimentorum, a list of local Emilian nomenclature for foods compiled in 1338 by Barnaba de Ritinis da Reggio di Modena, the entry for something called fermentini indicates that it is cut into strips like tagliatelle and boiled.

My recipe is one of the richest enhancements of the classic ragù from Bologna, which was once much simpler. Two of my children lived in Bologna while they attended the University of Bologna and they have ideas about how to properly make the dish. The meats need to be lean, otherwise there will be too much fat in the sauce. The meat can be ground in a food processor using short bursts or pulses, resulting in a finely chopped effect. The Accademia Italiana della Cucina, the preeminent organization dedicated to protecting Italy’s culinary patrimony, attempted to codify ragù alla Bolognese which, as one can imagine, engendered a good deal of controversy. To codify such a sauce is surely a Sisyphean task because cuisine is not an immutable artifact of culture but a living, changing embodiment of numerous families in a society. It’s also exceedingly difficult to separate the cooking over time of different classes to a point where one could say “this is the true one.”

A study of Renaissance cookbooks does not provide a clear antecedent of the contemporary ragout. Books from that period include ragù-like dishes, but with seasonings that still hold onto the Arab-inspired medieval spicing of rose water, saffron, cinnamon, ginger and sugar. It should also be remembered that the influence of the French may have had a greater role than the Bolognese are willing to admit since the word ragù derives from the French ragoût and Emilia-Romagna was not only Francophile but inundated with French culture over time.

The seriousness with which the Bolognese considered ragù alla Bolognese is wonderfully captured and illustrated in the 14 pages devoted to ragù in Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s “The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Foodpublished in 1992.

Here is my recipe, recreated from the advice of Bolognese, from memory and from my many tastings.

Spaghetti alla Bolognese

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 2 1/2 hours

Total time: 3 hours, 10 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped

1 ounce prosciutto, finely chopped

1 ounce mortadella, finely chopped

3 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in tepid water to cover for 15 minutes, drained, rinsed and finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves

1/4 pound lean beef sirloin, finely chopped (not ground)

1/4 pound lean pork tenderloin, finely chopped (not ground)

1/4 pound lean veal sirloin, finely chopped (not ground)

2 chicken livers, membranes removed and finely chopped

1/2 cup dry red wine

1/4 cup tomato sauce

1 tablespoon water

1/4 cup beef broth

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 1/4 pounds tagliatelle, fettuccine or spaghetti

Directions

1. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium-heat and cook, stirring occasionally, the pancetta, prosciutto and mortadella until the pancetta is soft and a bit rendered, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley and cook, stirring as needed, until the vegetables have softened and turned color, about 10 minutes. Add the beef, pork, veal, and chicken livers and cook, stirring, until browned, about 10 minutes.

2. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Once the wine has evaporated, reduce the heat to low add the tomato sauce diluted with a little water and the beef broth. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cover and simmer for 2 hours. Add the cream and cook another 10 minutes.

3. 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. Transfer to a serving platter. Ladle the ragù on top and serve immediately. (The ragù can be frozen for up to 6 months).

Note: A simpler method is to cook the onion with the celery and carrot in the oil and butter, adding the ground beef, but not the other meats, the wine, salt and pepper, nutmeg and 1 1/2 cups of tomato sauce. Follow the recipe above, eliminating all the ingredients except those called for in this note.

Main photo: Spaghetti alla Bolognese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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