Articles in Cooking

Dashimaki tamago. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

If there is an egg or two around the house, I would rather eat at home than go out. I love the taste of a good egg, especially my preferred pastured eggs.

I like to make dashimaki tamago, a simple Japanese omelet made with kombu seaweed dashi, or an even simpler dish: cracking a raw egg over a bowl of freshly steamed rice, drizzling it with a little soy sauce and eating it with chopsticks. The hot rice cooks the raw egg to become a creamy, non-fried rice. Either egg dish brings me to my comfort zone, but there is no shortcut for getting good eggs.

My sources for pastured eggs are my local farmers in Tehachapi, Calif. — Jon Hammond and Kim Durham of Linda Vista Ranch — named by one of Hammond’s great aunts in 1921 because of the great views. (Linda Vista means “beautiful view” in Spanish.)

The great views come from the fact that the ranch is on a gentle ridge that is one of highest points in the Tehachapi Valley. Hammond and Durham have a cooperative venture with neighboring farmer Alex Weiser, who provides the cull produce and leftover plants after harvest from his farm for animal feed. The three farmers raise English pigs called Gloucestershire old spots and chickens for pastured eggs — Americanas, Orpingtons and Black Stars.

For a person like me who grew up in cities for the most part, picking up a carton of fresh eggs directly from a farmer can turn into an adventure. On a recent visit, flocks of gregarious chickens were roaming freely on their pasture, scraping the ground for seed, insects and other critters. I didn’t know chickens eat small animals until Durham told me about a family of mice she found inside the chicken shed. Before she had a chance to trap the mice, the chickens got to them and pecked them alive.

The floor of the chicken hut is covered in fresh hay. It is always clean and pleasant inside, with gentle light coming through the gaps between the aged planks. The eggs laid that morning are waiting to be collected by Durham. A few hens are in the brooding boxes, and a rooster with black plumage and a large red comb on his head crows out loudly, perhaps reminding me who is boss around the farm.

Durham said she doesn’t care much for the roosters because they pick on the hens. “We are actually going to have this one tonight for dinner,” she says. Before long, her friend Jose arrives to prep the rooster, which will be cooked in a pit.

Apparently, the meat comes out especially tender when cooked this way. I realized that the eggs I got from Durham that day would be the last related to this rooster. Sorry, pal.

Authentic flavors for a Japanese omelet

Dashimaki tamago is a light and slightly sweet omelet with a rectangular shape. The rectangle is achieved by using a rectangular or square pan called a tamagoyaki-ki, which can be found in Japanese hardware stores or online. I like the copper pans with tin linings. You can also use a regular round omelet pan or a well-seasoned skillet.

Unlike a Western omelet, butter and cream don’t come into the equation for dashimaki tamago. I use a little stock, usually a kombu or bonito dashi, soy sauce and a little sugar or mirin.

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Dashimaki tamago. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Another distinct characteristic of the Japanese omelet is its beautiful layers. The egg is not scrambled; instead, while it is frying, a fork or pair of chopsticks is used to roll it into a tube. When it is cut into slices, a swirl pattern emerges. The omelet is allowed to cool and then cut into bite-sized pieces. For more color and flavor, you can chop some herbs or vegetables and incorporate them into the swirl.

My grandmother made her dashimaki tamago in a round pan instead of a rectangular one. She got the eggs from a local farmer in Kamakura, Japan. The eggs were wrapped in old newspaper and carried in a hand-woven basket on the farmer’s back. I always wondered how the farmer kept the eggs from cracking. Maybe they were pastured eggs that had strong, resilient shells.

My grandmother would serve dashimaki tamago on a small, wooden cutting board and slice it right at the table. It was one of the signature dishes she made for me while we visited with each other. Grandmother always tried to make the best out of every occasion. The eggs served her well.

Dashimaki Tamago

Serves 2 to 4

Ingredients

6 pastured eggs

6 tablespoons dashi (see recipe below)

2 teaspoons Usukuchi soy sauce, plus more for serving

2 teaspoons cane sugar or mirin

1 tablespoons chive sprouts  (optional)

2 tablespoons grapeseed, walnut or light sesame seed oil

2 tablespoons grated daikon radish

Equipment

1 square pan or medium-sized round, well-seasoned skillet

Sushi mat

Directions

1. In a bowl, combine the eggs, dashi, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, mirin or sugar. Do not beat too much; combine just enough to mix the egg yolk with the egg whites. Mix in chives if using.

2. Heat the pan with the oil over medium high heat. Test the pan by dropping a little egg batter on it. The batter will sizzle if the pan is hot enough.

3. Pour ¼ of the batter into pan and cook the eggs, spreading the batter quickly and evenly over the pan.

4. When the batter is cooked halfway (about 30 seconds), lift a far corner of the egg and fold it in. Then push the rolled egg into the corner on the opposite side and add another ¼ of the batter, making sure to lift the egg roll so the batter gets underneath it.

5. Cook the batter and roll it again. Essentially, you are rolling the egg omelet to make layers. Repeat this step two more times, until all the batter is used, incorporating the first roll into the second, the second roll into the third roll and so on. When finished, transfer the tamago onto a cutting board.

6. Using a sushi mat, roll the omelet into a rectangle shape and let rest for a few minutes.

7. Slice the omelet crosswise into 1½- to 2-inch pieces. Serve with grated radish and additional soy sauce.

Konbu Dashi

Makes 1 cup

This is a versatile seaweed stock that can be used as a base for making miso soups and sauces. Store in the refrigerator.

Ingredients

2-inch piece of kombu seaweed

1 cup of water

Directions

1. Hydrate the kombu seaweed in water overnight.

2. Use the infused stock, called kombu dashi, to season the dashimaki tamago or other recipes.

Main photo: Dashimaki tamago. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

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Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

As children, my sister and I spent Saturdays in the spring as knights-errant, challenging each other to duels with rhubarb stalks. We thrust them at each other, but our swords connected gently, so as not to damage what would later become delicious treats. A neighborhood bully once intruded, threatening to kill us with a touch of his rhubarb leaves. Just one touch would mean instant death, that’s how poisonous the leaves were, he said. I pushed him into a ditch, and when he didn’t die instantly, as the leaves touched his shoulder, I took my sister home for a dish of rhubarb Mom had cooked that morning.

We were rhubarb lovers. Mom and my sister loved it cooked with sugar, slathered on fresh bread and topped with heavy cream. They also loved it as Rhubarb Fool, the pink strands of rhubarb swirling through the whipped cream. Occasionally, rhubarb showed up in a cobbler, which they spooned into their mouths with abandon. Although Dad and I loved rhubarb these ways too, we loved it most in pies, his pies, since he made the best in the world.

“There’s no better pie than rhubarb,” he’d say wherever he got ready to make one.

Rhubarb’s long history started with medicinal uses

Nineteenth-century cooks would have agreed with him in that regard. They dubbed rhubarb the “pie plant” because of its popularity as a filling, but it had been popular for medicinal purposes much longer.

Rhubarb originated in Russia, Siberia and China, and was written about more than 2,700 years ago in “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic,” an early Chinese text. Its roots were prized near and far as a cure for dysentery, diarrhea and constipation.

In Tudor England (from the 1400s to 1600s), rhubarb was grown in herb gardens. A century later, in the 1770s, the Duke of Athol grew Turkey rhubarb in Scotland, selling the roots to an Edinburgh druggist.

The rhubarb variety now eaten came to 17th-century England from Italy. Its cultivation spread throughout the 18th century, but it took awhile for rhubarb recipes to appear in English cookbooks — in part because the sugar needed for sweetening was not widely available or affordable. When sugar became more common, recipes for pies, tarts and other desserts followed, in the 19th century.

In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Chinese rhubarb seeds to John Bartram, an American botanist, thus introducing the plant to America. Soon, rhubarb was cultivated in Maine and flourished after that in Massachusetts as well. By 1822, rhubarb was sold in New England markets, and later that century, Luther Burbank, a pioneer in agricultural science, developed a variety better suited to California’s climate.

Rhubarb stalks, the parts we eat, are really leaf bases called petioles. They vary in color, from pink to red, green or white, depending on the variety.

The rhubarb that Dad grew was pink. It spread between the fences separating our back garden from our neighbors’, with Dad doing the harvesting and all of us, including our neighbors the Leckies, sharing in his baking.

Dad was a born baker, although six decades of practice certainly helped fine-tune his innate skills. Although he could make anything, his genius was pastry, which demands a gentle touch. He was a gentle man, so the two were made for each other.

He was an orderly baker as well, first laying out all the ingredients: flour, salt, lard, water, vinegar, sugar, cornstarch and rhubarb (without those “murderous” leaves, which, in fact, contain toxic oxalic acid that can be lethal if ingested). Then, measuring cups and spoons, a pastry knife and fork, mixing bowls, a rolling pin, pie pans and cooling racks were assembled. He always made three pies: one for our neighbors and two for us (the second pie was for lingering over a little more because the first barely left the oven before it was devoured).

The worst thing about his pie making was waiting for the pies to bake and then cool. I was not patient when it came to waiting for rhubarb pie, but if you didn’t wait, the slice of pie collapsed into soup on your plate and burned your mouth too. When the pie was cool enough, the sight of that first slice of rosy rhubarb between layers of flaky pastry made me drool.

If that bully hadn’t been a bully, he might have been invited to drool over that sight too, before tasting Dad’s rhubarb pie. Then he would have understood the truly deadly aspect of rhubarb. It wasn’t in the leaves touching you but, rather, in that first perfect bite, when the sweet rhubarb melded with pastry that melted on your tongue. That bite was deadly because you knew how terrible it would be when you could no longer eat such a perfect thing. If he hadn’t been a bully, I might have pitied him for never having had that experience, but, instead, I was just grateful that we did so often.

Dad’s Rhubarb Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

Ingredients

For the pastry:

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup cold lard (unsalted butter, if you prefer, or half lard and half butter)

¼ cup cold water

1 tablespoon white vinegar

For the filling:

3½ cups rhubarb, leaves removed; stalks trimmed, washed and dried thoroughly and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 to 1½ cups granulated sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

Directions

For the pastry:

1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry knife, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.

2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the flour mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more or less water, depending on how the dough comes together. In humid weather, it might require less water because flour, if not stored properly, can absorb water from the air.)

3. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

4. While the dough chills, prepare the rhubarb filling.

For the filling:

1. Combine rhubarb with sugar in a bowl and set aside. (For a more tart pie, use just 1 cup of sugar.)

Assembling the pie:

1. Cut the chilled dough into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll one piece into a ⅛-inch thick circle. Gently wrap the circle onto the rolling pin (or lift it) and press into a 9-inch pie pan, trimming any excess from the edges.

Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

2. Spoon the rhubarb mixture into the pastry-lined pie pan. Sprinkle cornstarch evenly over the fruit.

3. Cover the rhubarb with the rolled-out top crust. Seal the pastry edges with your thumb and finger (or press a fork against the edges to seal). Cut slits into the pastry. (Alternatively, cut the top crust into strips and make a latticework design on top of the pie, as show in the accompanying photograph.)

4. Press a thin strip (about 1 inch) of aluminum foil around the edges to keep from burning.

5. Bake the pie in a preheated 450 F oven for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the pastry is golden). Remove the aluminum foil, and reduce heat to 350 F. Bake the pie for an additional 40 to 50 minutes (or until the rhubarb is soft).

6. Cool well before cutting.

Note:  You can also add ¼ cup of strawberries (washed, dried and cut into equal-sized pieces) for additional sweetness and flavor. If you choose to use strawberries too, reduce the amount of rhubarb accordingly.

Top photo: Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Colorful Swiss chard. Credit: onfilm/iStock

The über-popularity of kale is approaching the ridiculous when you see kale juice being hawked. Even if it were blended with bacon or sugar, I think a vanilla milkshake sounds better. I like kale as much as any hipster but let’s not ignore the other wonderful leafy green vegetables that there is no need to drink, such as Swiss chard.

The name has intrigued me ever since I lived in Switzerland for a year and never once saw Swiss chard. In older times it also went by the names silverbeet, seakale beet, leaf beet, perpetual spinach, rhubarb chard and spinach beet. Its scientific name is Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla.

Swiss chard is a biennial grown as an annual for its edible cooked dark green leaves and multicolored stalks. For the home gardener Swiss chard is ideal as it is a rugged plant that regenerates leaves even with heavy harvesting.

Mediterranean love for Swiss chard

The origin of Swiss chard is linked to the development of the beet to which it is intimately related. It too was originally a seashore plant native to the northern Mediterranean. Swiss chard is a popular vegetable throughout the Mediterranean with the French word for the plant, blettes or bettes, and the Italian bieta derived from the Latin blitum (itself derived from the Greek). The Spanish word for Swiss chard, acelgas, comes from the Arabic word al-silq, meaning Swiss chard or beet greens.

It’s more than likely that Swiss chard got its name by virtue of having been first written about by the Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin in his book “Phytopinax,” published in Basel, Switzerland, in 1596. All earlier references to beta refer to beets, but Swiss chard’s botanical divergence from beets is unclear, although Aristotle mentions a red-stalked beet chard around 350 B.C.

Simple preparations

For culinary purposes Swiss chard doesn’t need much. It has always been favored in stews because of its hardiness, but in this simple recipe the Swiss chard is cooked as a side dish ideally to accompany grilled lamb chops.

Swiss Chard With Pancetta and Lemon

Procure the yellow stalked Swiss chard as it makes for a pretty dish too.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1½ pounds Swiss chard

1 ounce pancetta, chopped or sliced

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

Juice from ½ lemon

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the Swiss chard until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain and squeeze out as much water as possible. Chop the chard coarsely and set aside.

2. In a large sauté pan, cook, stirring, the pancetta with the olive oil over medium heat until slightly crispy, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add the Swiss chard, lemon juice and salt and cook, stirring, until the lemon juice has evaporated and then serve.

Top photo: Colorful Swiss chard. Credit: onfilm/iStock

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Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

Sometimes traditional and inventive are mutually exclusive concepts in classic global cuisine, but one Texas chef has found a way to translate traditional Oaxacan food with both concepts in mind.

Chef Iliana de la Vega has created a menu beyond familiar Mexican specialties with innovative dishes at her Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo.

How about chili-rich, velvety smooth Oaxacan moles? Or tacos dorados — tortillas stuffed with potatoes or chicken and served with avocado-green salsa with a hint of jalapeño peppers, cream and queso fresco? Or chile relleno with smoky chile pasilla oaxaqueño stuffed with plantains and light queso panela cheese in a black bean and avocado leaf sauce?

Although steeped in tradition, De la Vega’s cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the traditional and the innovative. She creates this balance with flavors drawn from the many rich traditions of Mexican cooking. Although De la Vega grew up in Mexico City, her family hailed from Oaxaca and she learned the regional cuisine from her mother, her aunt and other relatives in Oaxaca during her visits.

The real Oaxacan food

She and her husband, architect Ernesto Torrealba, moved to Oaxaca in 1994 and opened El Naranjo in a colonial-era house in 1997.

What she served there was the food she grew up eating at home, traditional Oaxacan fare. Although initially her interpretation of traditional cooking was not well received by the locals, it gained international recognition after being featured in various publications including the New York Times, Bon Appetit and the Chicago Tribune. A handwritten note from the famous chef Rick Bayless — “this is the real food of Oaxaca” — hung in the entryway of the restaurant.

Unfortunately the political unrest and violence in Oaxaca resulted in the closure of El Naranjo in 2006. But Oaxaca’s loss was Texas’ gain. The couple soon immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin.

She accepted a position at the Center for Foods of The Americas at the Culinary Institute of America. While teaching at the CIA she commuted to San Antonio and her evenings and weekends were spent re-creating a new El Naranjo, initially as an Oaxacan cuisine food truck. The El Naranjo food truck was a huge success and was the only food truck included in the Texas Monthly’s list of 50 best Mexican restaurants.

A new start for El Naranjo

In May 2012, after five years, she stepped down from her position at the CIA, and began dedicating her time fully to the new restaurant in the middle of Rainey Street in downtown Austin. Amid converted houses serving as restaurants and bars, El Naranjo stands apart.  The modest bungalow’s pale facade conceals the attractive space inside featuring a bar area, two dining rooms and a patio.

Though many people like Mexican food, most diners haven’t experienced much of that cuisine’s diverse or varied offerings, De la Vega said.

“The public is just beginning to see the top of the iceberg,” she said.  ”Mexican food has so much more to offer. … It is growing and people are exploring ‘new’ ingredients, recipes and acquiring more knowledge of the fundamentals of traditional cuisine.”

Velvety smooth moles

She bakes bread and makes tortillas fresh every day. Velvety smooth moles, the signature dish of Oaxacan cuisine, are also prepared in house and are vegetable-based. At least three varieties are always on the menu with a different mole featured every week.

De la Vega’s freshly made salsas are in a class by themselves; fiery hot salsa macha is my favorite. The incredible flan and Mille-feuille of dulce de leche pair with a cup of cafe de olla to make the perfect dessert course. And the chef offers a wonderful selection for vegetarians, an added bonus that you rarely see in Mexican restaurants.

De la Vega and her husband are even considering expanding their business.

“We would love to expand or create different concepts,” she said. “That is an option that we are considering.”

Main photo: Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

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Watercress soup with bread and pear slices. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Watercress is one of those greens that goes in and out of popularity with my friends, although I have been devoted to it for 20 years, after discovering a hummus, tomato and watercress sandwich in a cafe close to where I worked at the time.

The peppery taste of the watercress added a final, perfect note to the tanginess of the hummus and the freshness of the tomatoes. That sandwich became my workday treat, eaten religiously, Monday to Friday, for a couple of years.

Later, when I left the corporate world and returned to cooking for myself, I nibbled watercress while tossing it into salads, learned to make Potage Cressionniere (a soup of potatoes and watercress) in winter and a lighter soup (without the potatoes) in spring and summer, and used it in my own version of that long-gone sandwich.

Historically, watercress thought to fortify mind and body

Nasturtium officinale is the botanical name for watercress. The word Nasturtium comes from the Latin nasus tortus, meaning “twisted nose,” a warning about the effect watercress can have on your nasal passages.

It may be a nose twister, but it is also one of the oldest green vegetables known to man. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians loved it. Persian children ate watercress to grow strong, while Persian and Greek soldiers ate it to remain so. Both the Greek general Xenophon and the Persian king Xerxes decreed their troops should eat it for the same reason, with Xenophon once recalling, “How pleasant it is to eat barley cake and some cress when one is hungry by a stream.”

A Greek proverb — “Eat cress and learn more wit” — gave an indication of the vegetable’s contribution to the brain, something Irish monks also understood. They spent months living on watercress and bread to stimulate their brains.

Watercress provides essential vitamins — in particular A and C — as well as calcium, magnesium, folic acid, iodine, sulfur and iron. It is believed to have wonderful cleansing powers and help in curing a variety of ills. (Romans and Anglo-Saxons used it as a treatment for baldness.) It was also eaten to provide courage and character, and as an aphrodisiac.

The Romans put watercress in salads, dressing it with oil and vinegar, much like we do today.  When Hippocrates — the Greek physician known as the father of Western medicine — founded the first hospital on the island of Kos, Greece, about 400 B.C., he used watercress to treat blood disorders. Twelve centuries later, English herbalist John Gerard championed it as a cure for scurvy in the 1600s. Watercress may also have been eaten at the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving dinner.

A twist from Dickens

In more modern times, the English raised it to something of an institution in watercress sandwiches served at afternoon and high teas. No less than Charles Dickens wrote of it in “Great Expectations,” with Mr. Pumblechook, a corn merchant with a mouth “like a fish,” ordering watercress sandwiches for Pip, the book’s hero, as a supposed kindness although, in truth, Pip didn’t like them.

Others of that time did, though. Watercress was breakfast for the working classes in Victorian Britain, eaten with bread or alone.

“The first coster cry heard of a morning in the London streets is of ‘Fresh wo-orter-creases,’ ” English social researcher Henry Mayhew wrote in his 1851 survey “London Labour and the London Poor.” Surely one of those coster cries must have come from Eliza James. Nicknamed “The Watercress Queen,” James was a watercress seller in the late 1800s and early 1900s, hawking her wares in her Covent Garden stall for more than half a century. She started selling watercress when she was 5, first at factories in Birmingham, then eventually becoming the sole watercress supplier of most hotels and restaurants in London as well as, reputedly, the biggest owner of watercress farms in the world.

Wild watercress

Wild watercress grows in shallow rivers and streams, fading in the dog days of summer and the coldest months of winter. Picking it wild, however, requires great care to ensure the water it grows in is pollution free and the watercress is uncontaminated. Commercially, watercress is cultivated in carefully controlled tanks or water beds.

Although peppery in taste, watercress actually has a cooling effect on the mouth. This is something Taillevent, a 14th-century cook to the Court of France, understood. He included a course of “watercress, served alone, to refresh the mouth” in one of his famous banquet menus.

In North America, watercress is an ingredient in salads, soups and sandwiches. It is a lovely complement to oranges, apples and pears, and also works well with eggs.

When using watercress, leave the stems on because they have the strongest flavor. Try not to overcook it. The leaves are delicate, and long cooking robs them of their flavor. Watercress is best eaten soon after purchasing and should be kept immersed in cold water until it is used. So go ahead, let your nose twist as you enjoy this wonderful green.

A Light Watercress Soup

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the soup:

2½ tablespoons unsalted butter

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

1 cup low-sodium vegetable stock

¼ teaspoon salt

3 bunches (about 3 cups) watercress, washed, dried and chopped

¼ cup table cream (10%)

Optional garnishes:

Crème fraîche

Thinly sliced pear

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until soft. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute.

2. Gradually stir in the milk and vegetable stock, then add the salt. When the soup is near boiling, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

3. While the soup cooks, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the watercress to blanch until wilted, but still retaining its bright color. Remove it from the water and place in a bowl of ice water.

4. Squeeze the water out of the cooled watercress and add the watercress to the soup.

5. Carefully purée with a hand blender or in a food processor, adding the cream.

6. Reheat if necessary.

7. Garnish with a dollop of crème fraîche and a few slices of pear if you wish. This soup is delicious hot or cold.

Main photo: Watercress soup with bread and pear slices. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Mary Ann Lila, with colleague Sally Gustafson at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

Fresh local berries in season are a fleeting pleasure in most regions, and until we can virtually reach through the computer screen and grab them off the bush, the choice will come down to frozen berries or imports from faraway. If they’re not kept cool enough, fresh berries shipped long distances can lose important phytonutrients. Unless you’re up for interrogating suppliers, frozen berries are likely your best option, depending on how they’re frozen and thawed.

Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University and a berry lover, shares her thoughts on selecting berries when they’re out of season.

How to select and use frozen berries

1. Reject blobs. Have you ever noticed that some packages of frozen berries feel like one big blob while in others, the berries run freely, resembling a sackful of M&Ms? When berries are frozen en masse, they surrender some of their phytonutrients to the moisture that becomes the blob, says Lila.

What you want are IQF berries — individually quick frozen, meaning they’re laid out on a large tray, berry by berry, and then frozen, a process that retains their healthy compounds, keeps them in singular form and thus makes them easier to thaw. How you thaw is crucial.

2. Defrost only the amount you’re planning to eat, consume them the same day and don’t refreeze them, Lila says. “Minimal handling helps the berries retain their ‘ just picked’  flavor and health protective components.”

3. Thaw berries quickly. A long, slow thaw in the fridge or on the counter activates enzymes that start to degrade phytonutrients, she says.

Lila suggests popping a small amount of frozen berries into the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds max just to get the frost off.  She then throws them into her hot morning oatmeal. “The microwave can be devastating if overdone,” she says, so keep the temperature moderate and cooking time short.

4. Gently warm frozen berries on the stovetop, using a double boiler or placing them directly into a pot or pan and stirring continuously so they don’t scorch. A little bit of heat actually breaks down some of the healthy components so they get into your bloodstream faster, Lila says. Again, keep the process short and avoid high heat.

5. Consume the colorful juices left behind. They contain important water-soluble phytonutrients — including anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that gives berries their red, blue and purple to blackish hues. In nature, anthocyanins protect plants from enemies such as insects and ultraviolet radiation, Lila explained on “The Dr. Oz Show.” In your body, they go straight to your large intestine, where they work with berry fiber and good gut bacteria to fight inflammation.

Lila’s new research suggests that eating berries — any berries — before or after exercising will increase the ability of those anthocyanins to fight inflammation. Her new research also shows that berries have some healthy fat soluble compounds as well, so eat them with a few nuts.

TV screenshot of Mary Ann Lila on "The Dr. Oz Show." Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

TV screenshot of Mary Ann Lila on “The Dr. Oz Show.” Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

6. How to select and use dried berries.

Dried berries range from the traditional shriveled fruits to the new berries on the block, berry powders and freeze-dried whole fruits.

The traditional dried fruits — the tiny versions dehydrated in the sun — are highly concentrated in natural sugars, and many companies add glucose or other sweeteners. Choose wisely and eat dried fruits in moderation. Wild gojis from the Gobi, for example, are a good option because they’re not sweet and are dense in phytonutrients. All wild berries, if picked when ripe, usually beat out domesticated ones when it comes to producing healthy compounds, says Lila, because wild berries have to struggle in nature on their own, without human help.

Berry powders vary in quality, says Lila, depending on how they’re made. Often they’re spray dried, a process that uses gas to break down the fruits and destroys many phytonutrients.

Whole berries, on the other hand, are freeze-dried, which simply removes the water and retains all the good properties. “It’s the best way to preserve polyphenols,” Lila says. But the sugars become very concentrated and the process is expensive, making them a risky option for anyone with a sweet tooth and an addiction gene.

That would be me. As far as I’m concerned, the best thing about picking frozen berries is that I’m forced to control an unwavering urge to nosh. Have you ever tried biting into an icy fruit?

Main photo: Mary Ann Lila, with colleague Sally Gustafson, at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Credit: Courtesy of Plants for Human Health Institute

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Poster for the 1949 film

You can distinguish the little storefront of Cafe Manuel from a block away by its two red Chinese lanterns hanging over the entrance. Its name is hand-lettered in an “oriental” script no longer deemed politically correct elsewhere. The window on the left side of the door tempts with a display of pan dulce, sweet rolls destined to accompany coffee. On the right, lettering affixed to the window offers comida mexicana y china — Mexican and Chinese food. This establishment, which opened its doors in 1934, is a typical cafe de chinos, a Chinese cafe. Only a few authentic ones remain, scattered throughout older neighborhoods of Mexico City.

Fondly remembered by urban Mexicans of a certain age, cafes de chinos are to Mexico what the typical coffee shop once was to the major American metropolis. They usually feature a counter and a few booths, have nominally Chinese décor, perhaps a Buddha and a Chinese calendar. They offer coffee, sweet breads, light food both Mexican and ostensible Chinese; many are open around the clock. They are a part of Mexican urban lore, 20th-century collective nostalgic memory. The “Cafe de Chinos” 1949 film features a lurid mixed-race romance and is set in a typical cafe.

Asian fusion: From the old country to the new

To the outsider, Mexico might seem like a largely homogenous place, lacking in cultural diversity. Of course the majority of Mexicans are mestizo, a mixture of European (principally Spanish) and indigenous. But the fact is that many ethnic groups besides the Spanish have come in to the mix, most notably African, Lebanese and Chinese. Porfírio Diaz, president-cum-dictator of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, made it his goal to bring Mexico up to its northern neighbor’s technological level. Chinese workers, often fleeing officially sanctioned anti-Chinese policies in the U.S. and well-versed in railroad building, were “invited” to construct the country’s rail system. Working under arduous conditions, these people naturally wanted to improve their lives. Many stayed in Mexico, often intermarrying with locals.

In the 1920s, Mexico’s concern over Chinese immigrants’ involvement in organized crime led to the Movimiento Anti-Chino; this anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the murder and deportation of many people of Chinese origin. Some of them, returning to a politically unstable China or a depressed U.S., eventually made their way back to Mexico, decades later. Those who remained, often intermarrying with Mexican nationals, opened laundries, import businesses … and restaurants.

Slow and fast food

Entrepreneurial Chinese, already versed in American-style “quick cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk were the specialty.

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Traditional Mexican offerings such as enchiladas and tamales were prepared, as were “American/Chinese” dishes like chop suey and fried rice. These eateries grew in popularity, especially in dense city centers, feeding the new breed of round-the-clock workers who needed breakfast at midnight, or dinner at 6 a.m. They reached their pinnacle of popularity in the 1940s and ’50s. In Mexico City, the streets surrounding the Zócalo, the city’s huge central plaza, were full of them. Calle Madero boasted at least four, as late as the 1960s. Then, inevitably, newer styles trumped old and these small, old-fashioned places, which not only served customers but also provided daytime social centers, began to close their doors. Glitzy chains and U.S.-based fast food venues replaced them.

But traditions die hard, especially in a slower-paced, less-eager-to-modernize Latin America. Cafe Manuel hasn’t changed. It offers two set lunches, one Mexican and the other Chinese. Sweet rolls are made in-house, coffee is fresh, milk frothy and hot. I chose a menú chino, which cost about $5.50. It consisted of a pleasant, vaguely “Chinese tasting” chicken broth with bok choy, flavored with sesame oil. Next came the archetypal fried rice, quickly sautéed with vegetables and egg, its smoky aroma preceding it to table. And the chop suey, the archetypal American-Chinese dish of stir-fried whatever, thickened with cornstarch, turned out to consist mostly of bean sprouts, onion and celery and a bit of chicken in a lightly sweet soy broth. It was all fresh and good, if not authentically Chinese. Dolores, the longtime waitress there, explained during a lull that nowadays customers mostly order the Mexican food. “It’s cheaper,” she reminds me. Few customers are of Chinese extraction; even the cook is Mexican-born.

“But we have many locals who have been coming for years, and don’t expect our menu to change,” she assures me.

Cafe El Pópular

Mexico City’s historic center, now in a felicitous revival, has lost a bit of the old-time quirkiness it had when I arrived in the 1980s. The mid-century past seemed to live: ancient businesses, their facades and interiors unchanged for decades thrived on every block. Today, only a few of the counter-style restaurants served by uniform-clad waiters and waitresses survive.

Cafe el Pópular's bar in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe el Pópular’s bar in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe El Pópular, was established in 1948 as a cafe de chinos by Luís Eng Fui, a Chinese immigrant and his Mexican wife Felícitas. When I started visiting Mexico City, shortly after the devastating earthquake of 1985, I would often arrive late at night and stay in one of the inexpensive hotels near the Zócalo. At that time El Pópular was the only restaurant open past midnight. I would sit at the counter, surrounded by a lively crowd of off-duty working girls and their clients, police officers, drag queens, city workers ending their evening hours, and those about to start the swing shift. The atmosphere was always lively, often raucous — a live-action Ashcan School painting. I didn’t understand the banter, conducted in local chilango slang, but I loved the vibes; I would sit until the wee small hours, savoring a Mexican hot chocolate, while dunking a flaky sweet concha.

The Cafe el Pópular carries on albeit in a newer guise. Run by José Luís Eng, grandson of the founder,  his sister Beatriz, a culinary institute graduate, directs the kitchen. No longer offering anything remotely Chinese — the only obvious connection to its Asian past is a Chinese plaque, designed by Eng’s grandmother that hangs over the bar. El Pópular has become a Mexican restaurant par excellence with prices that remain accessible. Ingredients are for the most part local, some even organically produced. The menu reads like a veritable lexicon of “great Mexican classics” — soups, tacos, enchiladas, roast chicken, grilled meats, it’s all here. While remaining a seemingly slick family-style restaurant, Beatriz makes sure the quality is a cut above its corporate neighbors. And, of course, breakfast is still offered around the clock and sweet breads are still homemade.

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Chicken chop suey at Cafe Manuel. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Nowadays, a  new wave of Asian immigrants are arriving. They’re opening more authentic restaurants that attract an increasingly sophisticated public, that cafes de chinos, the fusion-relic of the past, will disappear entirely. They are the remaining evidence of a neglected and little known segment of Mexican society once slighted, that deserves more recognition.

Top photo: Image of poster for the 1949 film “Cafe de Chinos.” Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison

Among the items I brought home with me after my mother’s death were her two recipe files. One was lodged in a long, metal box that I suspect once held part of the town’s library card catalog.  The other was a delicate wooden box that could be hung on a wall.

I was surprised she had squirreled away so many recipes, any recipes for that matter, for she never seemed that interested in cooking, aside from making sweets. She owned only an old edition of “The Joy of Cooking” plus the cookbooks I had written. My mother’s recipe collection was a mishmash of handwritten recipes and a great deal more torn from magazines, mainly Sunset and Gourmet and occasionally Good Housekeeping, which is kind of ironic because my mother, by her own admission, was hardly a good housekeeper.

I’ve mused before about the mystery of handwriting and how it has the power to touch us in a way an email, without its texture and quirks, can’t. But these folded bits of printed paper and yellowed cards, most of them typewritten, introduced me to my mother in a new way, helping me see her as a person I hadn’t known.

Recipe box about the why, not just the how

I had to wonder, why these recipes? And did she ever make them? She didn’t, at least that I know of. Her own handwritten categories weren’t necessarily related to the contents. Filed under “meat,” for example, were recipes for pomegranate jelly, orange jellies, orange breads, cakes, pickles, guava preserves and even a guava chiffon pie — none of them meat and none of them foods we ate. Not once.

The many recipes based on oranges were labor-intensive undertakings that involved taking apart then reassembling the fruit, something my mother would not have had the patience to do. Maybe she wished she had been that kind of person, a woman who would spend hours in the kitchen instead of at her typewriter writing novels or at her easel painting. (I suspect the reason that there were so many orange recipes was because in the 1950s my parents moved from the East to California, where we had orange trees, which must have seemed miraculous.)

But where were the meat recipes? Elsewhere. Here and there. My mother was not a fan of meat and was mostly vegetarian, but perhaps meat recipes were dutifully collected for my Midwestern carnivore father. There was a surprising recipe for roasted lamb neck. That my mother, a person so sensitive to the lives of other beings, would even have such a recipe was shocking. I’m sure we never ate such a thing. The recipe instructs, “Have your meat man cut each neck into 2 or 3 slices about 1¼ inches thick.” Now that butchery is emerging again, perhaps it’s not impossible to “ask your ‘meat man,’ ” or “your meat woman” for that favor.

Meat dishes we did eat were mostly in her “Armenian” file, which also contained Indian recipes — dolmas, shashlik, kebabs a miscellany of curries. There’s a recipe for koefte from the 1950s, long before Paula Wolfert introduced us to more than 50 kinds. One card scrawled instructions for pickled tongue with raisins. Again, I doubt my mother would have made the tongue. We did eat tongue, but my father was the one who cooked it.

A relentless diet

There were menus for dieting that would practically demolish one’s life force, menus that started each day with half a grapefruit and a cup of coffee. Ravenous by 10? Then you might want a cup of very lean vegetable broth. (“Guaranteed to help you lose weight, even if you have to eat out,” the introduction promised.)

Simple vegetable dishes were filed with early weight-watcher recipes. I don’t recall that my mother was ever fat, but she must have thought she was. When her doctor cautioned her, in her 90s, that she was awfully thin, her reply was, “Why thank you!” The diet desserts she collected were based on egg whites, gelatin and, of course, oranges. Although Jell-O was our standard dessert, perhaps she really did intend to make that Frozen Fruit Cake and the Shoo-Fly Pie that appears twice in her collection. A great many of my mother’s recipes were for desserts, some elaborate, some of the more quick-and-easy type, and not all of them diet-related. There was her recipe for cottage cheese pie, a dessert we did eat, which my father meanly scoffed at, saying, “So this is what the rich eat?” A cheesecake would have been prohibitively costly, but there was a recipe for that, too. Maybe one day she was able to make it. And eat it. I hope so.

A reflection of progress

My mother’s recipes also reveal something about how times have changed. “Betty’s Armenian Casserole,” torn from a magazine, calls for processed white rice, a  No. 2 can of tomatoes, Burgundy wine and garlic salt. Teaspoon is abbreviated “teasp.” Many recipes from the 1950s and ’60s call for garlic salt, which made me cringe every time I saw it listed, until I remembered that when I spent summers in the Adirondacks in the 1970s, garlic still came packed two heads to a box, and they were always moldy and unusable. So the garlic salt made sense, at least until really great garlic started to appear in farmers markets starting in the 1970s.

There’s a kind of generalization in many of the recipes — Eurasian Eggplant, Egyptian Stew, Victory Garden Meal, curry — that’s hard to imagine today, with so many knowledgeable cooks writing in great detail about food cultures.

My mother may not have cooked most of these recipes, but she was reading about food and encountering, at least in print, dishes that suggested flavors new and exciting to a transplanted New Englander. A frugal New Englander, I might add, which is one reason why, I suspect, these clippings and cards played a greater role in my mother’s imagination than reality. Maybe it was the taste of adventure she sought, and that was enough.

Main photo: The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison

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