Articles in Cooking
To the Vegemite virgin, the dark brown paste may look like axle grease and smell like rusty nails, but to many an Aussie, the salty spread is comfortingly delicious, as well as essentially synonymous with Australia itself. It’s a common joke that Vegemite is an Antipodean baby’s first solid food. It’s also routinely cited that Vegemite can be found in the cupboards of at least 80 percent of Australian homes. What’s more, traveling Aussies don’t leave home without it.
Primarily a yeast extract that remains after the beer brewing process, Vegemite contains few calories and no fat, but a fair amount of sodium. A rich source of B vitamins, which play a role in metabolizing macronutrients and in producing energy in the body, Vegemite has routinely been promoted for its purported health benefits. In the late 1930s, its advertising even featured an endorsement from the British Medical Association for its B vitamin content. Although less “veggie” than its name might imply, Vegemite is vegan, vegetarian, certified kosher and certified halal.
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Vegemite was developed as a copy of a British product, Marmite, a spread of similar texture and flavor — though it’s best not to say so to a Vegemite die-hard. In the early 1920s, Fred Walker, an Australian entrepreneur, engaged Dr. Cyril P. Callister, one of Australia’s first food technologists, to develop the product. After considerable experimentation, Callister developed Vegemite in 1923. Based upon a mutual interest to develop cheeses with a longer shelf life, Walker later combined forces with American cheese producer James Kraft, forming the Kraft Walker Cheese Company in 1926. This partnership eventually resulted in an American company owning Australia’s national food, though Vegemite has always been produced in Australia and from mostly local ingredients.
Despite Vegemite’s widespread popularity today, in its early years the spread was slow to entice Australian appetites, as Marmite held on to a significant portion of the market share. According to Vegemite’s heritage website, however, by the early 1940s Vegemite had become a “staple food in every Australian home and in every Australian pantry.” Over the course of the 20th century, the spread would become an Australian icon.
Try Vegemite this Australia Day
Australia Day, marked each year on Jan. 26, is a national holiday celebrating the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Britain arrived at Sydney Cove. Kraft attempted to cement the connection between the holiday and Vegemite in 2012, the year of the spread’s 89th anniversary. That year, Kraft rebranded Vegemite jars “Australia,” though retaining the recognizable red and yellow color palette.
One way for an American to celebrate Australia Day is to try Vegemite. The strange truth you’ll have to overcome, however, is that most non-Australians absolutely despise the stuff. With an Australian father, I grew up eating Vegemite and love it, but have yet to convert a single American friend to its delightful, savory charms. Part of the issue is likely a case of mismatched expectations, since Vegemite looks like chocolate, but tastes like, well, straight up saltiness.
A more apt description of Vegemite’s flavor profile might be umami incarnate. Despite appreciation for other foods boasting savory, umami flavor — from bacon to Parmesan, soy sauce to mushrooms — most non-Aussies just can’t handle Vegemite. Though Oprah claims to like it, a popular video circulated last year in which 10 American children tasted Vegemite for the first time with dismal results: no tears, but lots of squealing. Suffice it to say, none of them gave Vegemite their kid seal of approval. In 2011, President Barack Obama confessed to then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that he found the spread “horrible,” disappointing Vegemite lovers. In 2012, singer Niall Horan of the group One Direction echoed this sentiment when he tasted Vegemite toast live on Australian television only to spit it out and later share on Twitter, “Can clearly say vegemite is horrible!”
A ‘culturally specific food’
In 2003, psychology researchers Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal quantifiably confirmed the oft-stated assertion that only Australians enjoy Vegemite. From a survey of 202 participants, the authors concluded, “The eating of this food product and especially the enjoyment of it are specifically linked to Australian birth and ancestry.” They also asserted, “This sticky brown paste remains a candidate for the most culturally specific food.”
The deck may be stacked against Vegemite, but if you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast, which is the way most Australians enjoy it at breakfast. Spread the toast first with butter, allowing it to melt in, and then evenly spread a thin layer of Vegemite. A common mistake for first-time Vegemite tasters is to slather it on too thickly like one would peanut butter or a chocolaty spread, an amount unpalatable to even most devoted Vegemite enthusiasts. Recipes from Vegemite’s website suggest you jazz up your Vegemite toast with tomato, egg, cheese or avocado.
If you’re ready to try Vegemite at every meal, you can make turkey burgers, seasoned with Vegemite, onions, rice wine and a touch of sugar, for lunch. Then you can try Vegemite flavored couscous or sweet potato and rosemary pizza with a Vegemite sauce for dinner.
You just might find that you love Vegemite. If nothing else, it’ll be your saltiest Jan. 26 on record.
Main photo: If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben 185
Sam Fromartz’s new book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf, A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” is a departure. The journalist and editor began his career as a reporter at Reuters, and his previous book, “Organic, Inc.,” was a standard work of nonfiction about the evolution of the organic food industry. But as his hobby became his subject, the writer leaped into the picture of this book.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book
“Baking for me was relief from my daily grind of journalism,” Fromartz said in a phone interview. “I really enjoyed the moment in the day when I would leave my keyboard and just bake, shape loaves, bake them. I really didn’t want to lose that sense of specialness, of what bread meant in my life. I thought if I mixed it up in my work too much, it would just become part of my job. I really didn’t want to do that.”
As the recession downsized his income, however, everything became a potential topic. In a single afternoon, he lost most of his steady freelancing gigs. Querying a contact at the travel magazine “Afar,” he proposed a story about going to Paris to study baguette baking.
The editor said yes, and the adventure began. Consider yourself lucky that his escape became his work, because the result is a really nice journey through baking led by a skilled reporter.
“This book was a lot more personal,” said Fromartz. “It wasn’t a journalistic investigation. But I am a reporter, so all of those tools I use in my work became tools I used in the book.”
Tools like reading, asking questions and framing the answers in good stories. There are some beautiful descriptions, like the one at Della Fattoria, a bakery in Petaluma, California.
“Everyone seemed to be working at a pace just short of a jog,” he writes, setting the stage for each reader to witness, as he did, the bread baking one morning. The baker-writer joins the action, helping shape loaves of bread. But once the actual baking begins, he stands on the sidelines and tells us plainly what he sees. We readers fall into the rhythm of the observed work.
As a small herd of bakers usher hundreds of would-be breads into the oven, Fromartz puts you right there, watching the “dance of the peels,” as loaves go into the oven, and then come out. You are just shy of smelling the bread and tasting it.
The pacing of the stories and information are spot-on. Fromartz takes you through a long baking lesson, baker by baker, describing the process and progress. Beginning with baguettes, which were a challenge for him to bake at home, you learn as much or more about the social history of this bread and its place in French culture as you do about the practical route he found to making this loaf.
Yes, there are elaborate recipes, heavy on method, at the end of chapters in case you want to bake along. But no baking is required to enjoy the research he presents as part of his journey. This odyssey is not just for serious home bakers or professionals, but also for anyone mildly curious about wheat.
Guided by his curiosities
“I wanted to understand things for myself,” he said. “A lot of baking books dealt with some of the questions I had, but there was no sort of central resource, and no book that tied together everything from the origins of grains to sourdough microbiology to how to shape a loaf.”
Writing the book really answered his curiosities. His dives into sourdough are deep; at one point he compares cultivating sourdough cultures to farming, and nurturing microlivestock. Holding all this heady material together is the importance of craft, and what he got out of learning a craft at the hands of people who really value bread, its historic framework and its future.
One of the most surprising discoveries he found on his journey was learning about flour, specifically locally grown and milled grains. As he started using local grains, and flour that came from small mills, he realized how variable bread’s main ingredient could be.
“It made me realize what’s been lost and sacrificed along the way in that quest for uniformity,” he said. Anything that threatened that uniformity got lost, like grains with different flavors, and non-standard types of gluten or proteins.
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“My sense is those guys probably knew something about flavor,” he said. “We have this real singular expectation of what bread should be. “Even whole-wheat loaves generally estimate that puffy bread ideal. “When you have such a narrow idea of what bread should be, you lose a lot of possibilities.”
Exploring those possibilities through different grains and flours engages him as a baker. It’s useful ecologically, too. Pursuing lesser-known grains is good for agricultural diversity and dietary diversity.
When I was reading, I was worried that baking might have lost some charm for the writer. But by the end of the book, he says he’s been able to protect his special connection to baking. I wanted to know how he preserved it. His answer was reassuring, if elliptical.
“I still bake a lot and baking is really a part of me,” he said. “I want to keep that sense of discovery about it. So I think will.”
Main photo: Sam Fromartz’s newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz
Cabbage is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: It doesn’t get any respect. It gets a bad rap. Cabbage never gets mentioned as one of the hip vegetables like kale. It’s not a super-vegetable like broccoli rabe. It’s not an adorable vegetable like baby Brussels sprouts. It’s not a “cool” vegetable. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned. I mean, they make sauerkraut from it.
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All those cooler vegetables just mentioned, though, owe their existence to cabbage. The big green head we associate with cabbage today was not always what cabbage was. Today there are hundreds of varieties of cabbage that have developed from the progenitor cabbage, called the wild cabbage, including the many forms of cabbage and further horticultural developments such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoliflower, broccoli rabe and kohlrabi.
Botanists divide the cabbage into five groups. It is the head cabbage, green, red, crinkly-leafed or Savoy cabbage, that I’m speaking of. But there are some 400 varieties of head cabbage.
The cabbage is probably native to the Mediterranean, but in Roman times the head cabbage we think of as cabbage today did not exist. The Romans had only leafy cabbage, probably kale. There are some obscure references by Roman naturalists Pliny and Columella to what has been taken by some to be head cabbage. These descriptions refer to heads of the plant being a foot in diameter, but it is not at all clear whether this refers to a compact headed cabbage that we know today or is simply an expression referring to the above ground portion of the plant.
The wealthy citizens of Rome, in the period after Cato the Elder (mid-second century BC), thought of cabbage as poor people’s food as we know from the description in Juvenal’s satire when he described the difference between the food that the patron ate, namely olives to garnish an excellent fish, and the food of the client, who finds cabbage in his “nauseous dish.”
It seems that the head cabbage we know today was developed in Germany in the 12th century. Soon it would be the single most common plant in the medieval garden.
It’s not a popular vegetable today, but it is a vegetable that does draw the curious cook. The most obviously intriguing thing to do with cabbage is to separate the leaves and then stuff them by rolling them up. There are many great preparations for cabbage from sauerkraut, to kimchi, to coleslaw, and every culture has a recipe for stuffed cabbage. Here are two recipes for cabbage lovers from cabbage-loving Slovenia and Croatia, next door to Italy.
Cabbage is a very popular vegetable in the Balkans, served raw, in the form of sauerkraut and cooked in a variety of ways. In the northern part of the former Yugoslavia, today’s Slovenia and parts of Croatia, cabbage may be cooked with sour cream or tossed with noodles and smoked bacon. In Bosnia or Montenegro, it might be cooked with tomatoes. This recipe from Slovenia is typically served as a bed for a roast duckling.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 55 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water
1 cup dry white wine
One 2-pound green cabbage, cored and sliced as thin as vermicelli
8 juniper berries, lightly crushed
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the bay leaves and cook until they begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and very carefully add the tomato paste and wine, which will spurt and splatter rather dramatically.
2. Continue cooking for a minute then add the cabbage, peppercorns, juniper berries and thyme. Mix so the cabbage is covered with sauce.
3. Add the lemon juice and continue to braise over medium heat until the cabbage softens, 6 to 8 minutes.
4. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the cabbage is completely soft, about 45 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
These cabbage rolls are a winter specialty known as arambašici in their home of Sinj, a town near the Dinaric Alps on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Traditionally, this casserole of stuffed cabbage leaves is made from a whole head of cabbage that has been prepared as sauerkraut. Each sauerkraut leaf, or as in this recipe cabbage leaf, is stuffed with beef, pork and bacon, and flavored with lemon zest, onion, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Each roll-up is separated from the other with pieces of pršut (Croatian prosciutto) and smoked tongue.
Arambašici can be made with fresh cabbage leaves or grape leaves, too. My recipe uses fresh cabbage, which is the easiest to find and is what a cook from Sinj would use in the summer. Many cooks also like to make the casserole in the evening and then reheat it the next day, and you should consider doing that as it is delicious.
The casserole cooks a long time so the meats are very tender and the cabbage leaves become silky. The smoked bacon, smoked pork, smoked tongue and prosciutto can all be picked up at the deli counter of most supermarkets.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 4 hours
Yield: 20 to 26 rolls, or about 6 servings
1 large green cabbage (about 2 3/4 pounds), central core removed
1 1/4 pounds boneless beef neck meat or beef chuck, finely chopped
5 ounces smoked bacon (preferably) or lean slab bacon, finely chopped
2 ounces beef fat (suet), finely chopped
6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or neck meat, finely chopped
2 large onions, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
Grated zest from 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or beef fat for greasing
One 4-inch-long beef marrow bone (optional)
1 ounce smoked pork (any cut), finely chopped
2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced into strips
2 ounces smoked tongue (optional), thinly sliced into strips
1 cup water and more as needed
1. Heat the oven to 300 F.
2. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt and plunge the whole cabbage in and cook until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside.
3. In a large bowl, mix together the beef, bacon, suet and pork. Add the onions, garlic, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well with your hands.
4. Arrange a cabbage leaf in front of you with the stem end closest to you. Place 2, 3 or 4 tablespoons (depending on the size of the leaf) of filling on the end closest to you, then roll away once, fold in the sides and continue rolling away until you get a nice, neat package.
5. Continue with the remaining cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls side by side, seam side down, in a lightly greased 13- x 9- x 2-inch casserole (you may need to use two casseroles), making sure you leave some room for the beef marrow bone. Sprinkle the chopped smoked pork over the cabbage rolls.
6. Place the prosciutto and smoked tongue slices (if using) between the cabbage rolls. Pour the water over the cabbage rolls and cover with aluminum foil. (The casserole can be refrigerated at this point to bake later.)
7. Bake until the cabbage rolls are very soft, slightly blackened on top and bubbling vigorously, about 4 hours.
8. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature and serve as an appetizer the next day.
Main photo: Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
There’s something particularly delicious about humble ingredients cooked together in a pot and served up. All it involves is mingling an eclectic collection of ingredients, transforming their texture into something smooth, thick, creamy and comforting, and digging in. We all have beloved foods that typically remind us of a happy and carefree time in our lives. As the temperature plummets to the teens on cold winter days, the comfort foods I crave are venpongal — rice, mung dal, milk, and water cooked over a slow fire to a creamy polenta-like consistency and seasoned with ghee, black pepper, cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves and its sweet counterpart, chakkarai pongal, in which the hot spices are replaced with golden brown jaggery and sweet cardamom.
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These are not dishes that were traditionally made at our home, but gifts from our friendly neighbors, Tamil Brahmins settled in Kerala. Every year in mid-January, when they celebrated pongal festival, they sent us these delicious pongals packed in fresh banana leaves. On cold January days, I enjoy cooking and savoring these delicious recipes of our neighbors.
Ancient agrarian practices of India depended solely on the movement of the sun. The beginning of the sun’s northbound journey, utharayana, on the 14th of January is celebrated with different rituals and names — Pongal, Lohri, Bihu and Makara Sankranthi — all over India. In Hinduism, utharayana is considered auspicious, and it symbolizes nature’s regeneration, fertility and bounty, and is believed to usher in prosperity.
Overflowing with good tidings
This festival is celebrated as Pongal in Tamil Nadu to mark a good harvest. The name of the festival and also the dishes made to celebrate, pongal, come from the Tamil word pongal, meaning to boil over. Rice is boiled in milk in an earthenware pot and allowed to overflow, signifying prosperity and hope that the coming year will overflow with good luck and good tidings. In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is celebrated over four days. For Pongal, the people of Tamil Nadu who have settled in Kerala generally do not follow the custom of boiling milk till it overflows, but prepare venpongal and chakkarai pongal at home.
There are many versions of these popular recipes for venpongal and chakkarai pongal. However all will have rice, mung dal, milk, cumin seeds, black pepper and ghee for venpongal and rice, mung dal, milk, jaggery, ghee and cardamom for chakkarai pongal. Pongal, when it is cooked, should be moist, but not wet and certainly not dry. If it looks dry, stir in a little boiled milk to get the right consistency. Use short- or medium-grained raw rice to make Pongal. You will rarely find Basmati rice used in South Indian cooking. Ghee is the only fat traditionally used in pongal dishes. Without ghee, pongal wouldn’t taste as good as it should.
These are comfort foods, and comfort foods are ideal winter foods. They translate into easy, effortless cooking and delicious results that reheat well. Following are my neighbor’s recipes.
Venpongal is a popular breakfast dish in Tamil Nadu even on non-festive days. Traditionally, it is served warm with coconut chutney and sambar. If you prefer the heat of black pepper, crush them before adding. Otherwise leave them whole for a milder taste.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup mung dal
1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon ghee
1 cup short to medium grain raw rice
1 cup whole milk
2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)
Salt to taste
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
8 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces
1 1/2 teaspoon whole black pepper (or coarsely crushed)
1/8 teaspoon asafoetida
A few curry leaves
1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and if the mix looks dry add some more milk and stir well. When it is almost cooked, add salt and stir well. Remove the pot from the stove when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.
2. In a small pan, heat the remaining ghee and add the cumin seeds and cashew nuts. Then stir in the asafoetida powder and black pepper. Stir once and add the curry leaves and remove from the stove. Combine the seasoned spices with the cooked rice and dal and mix well. Serve warm with fresh coconut chutney.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup ghee
1/2 cup mung dal
1 cup short to medium grain raw rice
2 1/2 cups crushed jaggery
2 cups whole milk
2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)
1/2 cup coconut milk
10 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces
1 tablespoon raisins
1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds
1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and add the coconut milk to the pot. If the mix looks dry, add more milk and stir well. Remove the pot from the pan when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.
2. Make a syrup by boiling jaggery with 1/3 cup of water for five minutes. Strain the syrup into the cooked rice and dal mix. Keep the pot on low heat and stir well until the syrup is absorbed and then remove from the stove. Heat two tablespoons of ghee is a frying pan and fry the cashews and until they begin to turn golden brown. Stir in the raisins and they will plump up. Remove the pan from the stove and add the fried raisins, nuts and crushed cardamom to the rice mix. Add the remaining ghee to the mix a little at a time and stir well to combine. Serve warm.
Main photo: Pongal is the ideal comfort food for chilly nights. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
We don’t really celebrate the holidays, which means that on more than one occasion I’ve just left the country and enjoyed Christmas in Norway or Mexico or Rome.
But over the past few years, I’ve stayed home and shaped Christmas or New Year’s into an occasion for hosting a big, somewhat irreverent meal bringing together all those who don’t have another plan. It’s always the wackiest and most fun party, because we put together people we probably wouldn’t think to otherwise and it always works: Strangers become friends over the end — or beginning — of the year.
But what I anticipate with pleasure is my other, more personal holiday ritual that revolves around cleaning the kitchen thoroughly and getting it ready for another year of hard work. After all, I cook every day, and my kitchen takes a beating week after week, so I look forward to digging out the crumbs that have materialized in various cracks and crevices, washing the glass on my cupboard doors, tightening the knobs on the doors and bins, thoroughly washing all the parts of the refrigerator.
Cleaning the kitchen cleans the slate for the year ahead
Mind you, I do this other times of the year also, but I always make a special effort at the start of the year to do it all at once. After all, it feels good to start anything with a clean slate.
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Beginning with the refrigerator, I’m always amazed that the same odd things appear year after year — the chile paste that long ago dried out from lack of use; a fairly new can of tomato paste already filmed with fluffy mold (It always happens, which is why a tube with a cap is a better choice); and, always, there’s a jar with just three olives bobbing up and down in brine. Fortunately I don’t amass many condiments — that would be a sure disaster area. As for capers, which I think you might consider a condiment, this year there were two jars, both opened and both fairly full; ditto with horseradish. How does this happen? It’s among the mysteries of life.
A few years ago we had a pestilence of moths — thousands of them — that had an ugly effect: I had to throw out bags of grains and flours with evidence of worms and refrigerate all those that didn’t. So now my refrigerator is super full — of grains, flours, dried fruits, nuts, oils and vegetables, not to forget wine and cheeses, those double jars of capers, milk for coffee and a bottle of some healthful concoction I once vowed to take.
While all this cleaning is ultimately satisfying, it’s also a sobering exercise, for it never fails to reveal evidence of neglect and lapsed intentions.
The freezer isn’t much better. It’s crammed with big, chunky cuts of grass-fed beef and lamb, more grains, a zillion ice packs that seem too valuable to throw out, dried persimmons and apples and, if I dig down further, packets of frozen tomato sauce and applesauce I need to make note of so they’re used up by the time fresh tomatoes and apples come around again. I try to organize the freezer, but it seems to resist order, as do many dark, out-of-sight places. This is also a good time to check dried herbs and spices in case the life has just gone out of them, in which case, out they go. A January order to Penzeys is not uncommon.
On my many trips to Decorah, Iowa, when I was on the board of the Seed Savers Exchange, I used to stop in little towns along the way in search of old blue-glass Ball jars. They’re tall, handsomely shaped and beautiful to look at, so in addition to my cupboard, refrigerator and freezer, there’s also a number of exposed shelves that hold these jars and their contents of dried beans, quinoa, black rice, red lentils and the like.
While wiping the shelves and the jars themselves clean of accumulated dust, it occurred to me that these jars have become a part of my indoor landscape, more specifically, my kitchen landscape, to the point where I don’t see them. They’ve gone from containing food to being a part of the visual background, like books on a shelf, or the trees in the yard, or the similarly attractive shelves of canned tomatoes and jars of jam.
Warm sponge in hand, I realized that at some point there must have come a moment when I ceased to see these jars and their contents, and that’s when I discovered some of these beans and grains had been dwelling there for quite some time. How long I’m not willing to admit, nor do I necessarily know. I suspect the Santa Maria beans are so old even a long stay in my pressure cooker might not be enough to soften them. And they aren’t the only ones.
I’ve noticed that I’m happiest in my kitchen when the cupboard’s shelves are nearly bare, and the refrigerator is practically empty. In short, when there’s not a lot to choose from come time to cook dinner. That’s often when creative juices start to flow, and it’s also when I really do look in the freezer and am happy to find that frozen soup to thaw. It’s also when those jars and their contents suddenly come into view and present themselves as food with appealing possibilities. What about that quinoa salad I haven’t made in years? Or my favorite red lentil soup? Or that unopened package of Rio Zape beans? Take away some of the competition, and suddenly there are myriad possibilities I’ve merely been overlooking.
It’s an argument for less being more, and for taking a break from shopping. Instead, I use what’s there. And it’s a great way to start a New Year — at any time of the year.
Main photo: Blue-glass Ball jars lined up on a kitchen shelf. Credit: Deborah Madison
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Celebrations, festivals and food are prolific on the Indian calendar. With life’s hustle and bustle, I tend to weed out those that are difficult to fit in or lose their symbolism in our transported life in the United States.
Sankranti — marking the launch of India’s harvest season — usually is one of them. But a coconut changed my mind this year.
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Sankranti refers to the passage of the sun from one Zodiac sign to another. On Jan. 14, this transition happens from Capricorn to Aquarius, called Makara on the Hindu calendar. Makara Sankranti marks the beginning of the “auspicious” period for Hindus when non-devotional activities — such as festivals and weddings — can be held after a month-long “inauspicious” period dedicated to devotional activities alone.
It’s also the beginning of longer days. I believe that a modicum of practicality is rooted in many such traditions and longer days — especially in times when there was no electricity — made for more enjoyable festivals.
Practicality also put an end to my irreverence toward Sankranti this year.
How cracking a coconut changed my attitude
In my house, I had a fresh coconut that I had forgotten about, just in time for the January festival. I broke open the coconut, an action that is believed to bring good luck. As I looked at the pristine white meat that rested on my shelf in all its glory, I realized the fortune it brought me: an opportunity to celebrate Sankranti as it is traditionally done in my native Bengal. With pithey: warm, gooey rice and coconut dumplings.
In Bengal, the colloquial name for the Sankranti festival is pithey parbon, or the festival of the pithey. Pithey is a sweet dumpling that is either steamed or fried and typically made with rustic ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty: rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery – an unrefined brown sugar made from date palm sap.
The process of extracting date palm jaggery is similar to tapping maple syrup, and I often use maple syrup instead. It is not as deeply flavored, but closer than other sweeteners that I have easy access to. The ingredients, despite their simplicity, result in delightful delicacies that are time-consuming but well worth the effort.
Depending on the chef’s enthusiasm and energy, an assortment of these are made for friends and family.
I have fond memories of my grandmother and her sister making these for the family, as I often interrupted their progress by sneaking in and stealing handfuls of sweet, freshly grated coconut or moist and sweet golden jaggery that left my hands sticky and warm.
Pithey traditions in Bengal
The first batch of pithey is usually placed in a container and floated into the river or offered at a temple in an attempt to appease the harvest gods.
In rural Bengal, the farm community begins the day with an homage to the barn and dhenki, or rice storage urn. The women throw a handful of rice over their heads as an offering to the gods, and the urn is welcomed as a symbol of prosperity and hope for a good harvest.
Living with the vagaries or nature, most predominantly the monsoon, this community is respectful about the importance of a good and successful harvest. There are a number of other rituals, such as tying the barn doors with hay and decorating the house. All are practiced in hope of a good harvest.
When I cracked open the coconut this year in my home, the thought of the warm, sweet dumplings it could bring me held the promise of all things good on that frigid day.
It is easy to find frozen grated coconut in the aisles of our local ethnic supermarket. However, if you are looking for something comforting on a chilly winter day, consider picking up a whole coconut and grating it yourself to use in my recipe for Gokul Pithey, adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”
Gokul Pithey — Bengali Coconut Dumplings in Golden Syrup
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: 12 servings, about 12 dumplings
For the syrup:
1 cup dark maple syrup
1/2 cup water
2 to 3 cardamoms
For the fritters:
1 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut
3/4 cup grated jaggery or raw cane brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder
1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)
1 cup all-purpose white flour
1/3 cup rice flour
1/2 cup milk
Oil for frying, such as grape seed or canola oil
1. In a small saucepan, bring the syrup, water and cardamoms to a simmer for 10 minutes until a thick syrup is formed.
2. While the syrup is cooking, in a separate pan heat the coconut, jaggery, and cardamom powder on low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes, until a fragrant sticky mixture is formed.
3. Add the ghee and lightly fry the mixture until it turns pale golden. Remove from heat and allow it to cool.
4. Shape into walnut-size balls and flatten them slightly.
5. In a mixing bowl, beat the flours and milk into a thick batter, adding a little water if needed. (The batter should be thick enough to adhere to the coconut balls.)
6. Heat some oil in a wok on medium heat. Dip a coconut ball in the batter and place into the oil, cooking a few at a time.
7. Cook on medium low heat until a golden, crisp coating is formed, turning once.
8. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and dip into the syrup. Let the balls rest in the syrup for about 2 minutes, then remove and serve hot.
Main photo: Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery, is often served during the celebration of the Indian harvest festival known as Makara Sankranti. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya
Once in a great while I stumble across a new way of doing things in the kitchen, sometimes as the result of carelessness. For instance, I was boiling some small unpeeled potatoes recently, having salted the water as usual, then wandered off, only to return to the kitchen where I caught a slight whiff of food on the verge of burning.
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When I checked my pot I saw that all of the water had boiled off. What remained were potatoes that had crunchy skins and, as it turned out, tender and delicious interiors. When I tasted them I realized that the salt in the water had penetrated so that every bite of the potato was perfectly flavored and the crusty skins delectable. They reminded me of potatoes that had been cooked on the grill, but without the fuss of lighting fires and dealing with charcoal and its accompanying gray dust.
I am thinking about cooking this dish again, but have no idea how long it will take for the water to boil away. So I have devised a plan: I will situate myself in the kitchen along with a good novel — “War and Peace,” perhaps — and be sure to stay put while the potatoes cook, and I will pay attention to how much time goes by before the potatoes turn into the delicious dish on which I stumbled. I want to avoid ruining the potatoes and wrecking my pot.
Hot dogs, beyond the long bun
Another time, when preparing lunch for my husband, I found in my freezer one lone hot dog bun that was scheduled to hold two hot dogs. (He prefers that combination while I would be happier with one hot dog and two buns, being the bread-lover that I am.)
While I usually avoid putting any sort of bread into the microwave, I popped in the frozen bun thinking I would retrieve it in seconds and then toast it before squeezing in the hot dogs. I must have been distracted and set the microwave time in minutes rather than seconds because when I finally retrieved the roll, it had the look and texture of a block of wood, and I instantly dispatched it to the garbage can.
I still needed something for the hot dogs and could only find a plump-but-frozen hamburger bun. This time I was careful to let it thaw on its own before toasting. Then I was delighted to find that, with a bit of surgery, two hot dogs fit perfectly into one round bun. On the surface, you wouldn’t think that such a discovery would require a couple of advanced degrees, but this story does have a moral. Sometimes we are so conditioned to go along with conventional thinking when preparing a dish that we can miss a tasty or useful variation. Just because hot dogs are traditionally served in a long bun, why can’t they be served in a round one? And must we always fry our eggs in butter? How about olive oil? Speaking of which, the best boiled lobster I ever tasted was provided by a friend in Maine who served it with a fabulous warmed olive oil instead of the conventional melted butter.
Meatloaf, with whole allspice
I experienced another kitchen error years ago when preparing a meatloaf for a weekday family meal. My recipe involves a pound of ground beef, a grated raw potato, a grated raw onion, an egg, salt and pepper, and I was in the habit of studding the top of the dish with whole black peppercorns before it went into the oven. But one time I mistakenly reached for a jar of whole allspice instead of the peppercorns, and, unaware of this error, lightly tapped in six or seven over the top of the loaf before starting the cooking process. When a delicate fragrance soon filled my kitchen, I became mystified, for it was a subtle aroma not usually associated with meatloaf, which, after all, is hardly an exotic dish. When we sat down to dinner, everyone loved the new taste that had transformed my old standby recipe into something a little unusual, and ever since I have been using allspice whenever I make meatloaf.
Young chefs cross the invisible line in the kitchen
While I find such innovations delightful, in part because of their accidental origin, I am dubious about the deliberate attempt, especially by young chefs these days, to create new dishes by throwing all sorts of ingredients together.
Bacon, kale and salted caramel are the latest trendy foods to pop up with alarming regularity. In thumbing through new cookbooks, I spotted recipes for bacon in caramel corn, in s’mores, and sneaked into the streusel for an apple pie, all of which struck me as unappetizing. I found a kale recipe for what was dubbed a “green bloody Mary” because instead of tomato juice, it contained pulverized kale. A better name would have been “vampire bloody Mary,” since I like to think that vampire blood is green. All of these treatments are novelties that do not necessarily add to the taste of an altered dish. I must say, though, that I am more forgiving about the liberal use of salted caramel as long as it’s being added to a dessert and not to mashed potatoes.
To be sure, many deliberate innovations are delectable. Delicate pizzas made with bits of tender chicken and a touch of pesto, instead of gloppy red sauce and greasy melted cheese, come to mind. So does the combination of chocolate and hazelnuts, discovered by an ingenious Italian whose country makes the delectable gianduja, one of my all-time favorite confections.
Still, I like best my happy accidents, and do hope there will be more to come.
Main photo: Fried eggs in olive oil. Credit: iStockphoto / Aleksandar Georgiev
Pseudoscience and seductive headlines worked their black magic in 2014, enticing people to follow one misguided food fad after another. However, 2015 holds more promise.
We at Oldways — our nonprofit has spent the last quarter century guiding people to good health through heritage and cultural food traditions — predict that what’s old will be rediscovered in brand new ways. We see five food trends in our kitchens and on our dinner plates for the year ahead:
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1. Whole grains become the new normal
Now that diners have discovered the nutty flavor and toothsome bite of whole grains, they are more willing to move from quinoa to more adventurous options like teff, sorghum and millet. Next up: Look for on-demand milled grains and more varieties of sprouted grains and sprouted grain flours, which will take baking to the next level.
2. African heritage cuisine goes mainstream
Thanks to chefs such as Marcus Samuelsson and Bryant Terry, as well as food historians such as Jessica B. Harris, African heritage cuisine has been elevated to new ranks. Based on whole, fresh plant foods, with a special emphasis on leafy greens, the traditional healthy eating patterns of African heritage, with roots in America, Africa, the Caribbean and South America, are making their way to more and more menus. In turn, more diners are discovering these healthy traditions of Africa. That’s also encouraging home cooks to explore and experiment with dishes like African peanut soup, Hoppin’ John and Jollof rice (also known as benachin).
3. All hail plants!
Interest in plant-based diets has reached an all time high. The trend has grown beyond just replacing meat. Today, vegetables are celebrated with innovative plant-centric plates such as zucchini baba ganoush and cauliflower steaks. In 2015, a number of less well known vegetable varieties will pop up at farmer’s markets, on more menus and on more plates. Look for tat soi and turnip greens as well as new and delicious hybrid vegetables like BrusselKale, a combination of two of America’s favorites.
We will move beyond butternut to an amazing assortment of other squash: kabocha, delicata and sweet dumpling. Root vegetables such as rutabaga, watermelon radishes, purple potatoes and parsnips, also will rule. Even the U.S. government is considering a recommendation to eat more plant foods and less meat in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.
4. Will it blend?
Home cooks looking to amp up the flavor are turning to herbs and spices with a twist. Spice blends like Berbere, Baharat, Ras el Hanout and Herbes de Provence (from Ethiopia, the Middle East, North Africa and France respectively) are adding adventure in the kitchen. Cooks are discovering the allure of blending their own spices. And they’re taking cues from top chefs like Ana Sortun of the celebrated Cambridge-based Oleana. Not only do these home blends boost flavor without adding sodium or calories, they enable personalized flavor preferences.
5. Cultural condiments
The arts of preserving and fermenting foods — popular in traditional diets around the world — were originally created simply to extend the life of foods in a world without refrigeration. Today, more home cooks are learning these techniques and padding their pantries with homemade kimchi, craft pickles, sauerkraut and preserved lemons.
Main photo: What new foods and dishes will appear on our plates in 2015? Credit: iStock