Articles in Cooking

Pozole, topped by garnishes. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

For nine nights leading to Christmas Eve, Mexico celebrates las posadas: singalong parties to reenact Joseph and Mary’s biblical pilgrimage to Bethlehem and their near-fruitless search for shelter before Jesus’ birth.

Then, success. After several stanzas of rejection, someone lets them in. With the joyous chorus of “Entren, santos peregrinos” — come in, holy pilgrims — it’s time to break a piñata and eat. And steaming bowls of pozole are often there to feed the crowd.

MEXICAN CHRISTMAS


 A three-part series on dishes of the season

Part 1: Pozole

Part 2: Buñuelos

Part 3: Tamales

I had my first taste of the pork-and-hominy-based soup in Mexico City. For most anyone, that first taste can never be the last, and it wasn’t mine. Aided by a stack of Mexican-government-published recipe books I’d bought at a market near my home in the Colonia Narvarte neighborhood, I’ve made the dish repeatedly, both in Mexico and after I’d returned to the States.

It’s the perfect party food. You can make it for yourself, but it’s a recipe that’s easy to make for a crowd. And, inevitably, it’s a hit.

The draw of pozole is not just in its rich, smoky broth laced with puréed guajillo chilies. It’s the buffet line of cold raw veggies that your guests add to it that make it uniquely special for them as well.

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

That crunch of sliced radishes, shredded lettuce and diced onions create a perfect complementary texture for the hot stew. Squeeze in some lime juice for an added zing of flavor, and there’s nothing like it.

I’ve adapted the pozole recipe over the years from the one that was published by the Mexican Government Workers’ Social Security and Services Institute in the 1980s.

The cookbook series  “… y la Comida se Hizo” (… and the Meal was Made) is a wonderful Spanish-language collection that provides hundreds of traditional recipes celebrating Mexico’s widely varying cuisine. The recipe for pozole — which most often is brought out for parties such as posadas or the Independence Day festivities in mid-September — fittingly was found in the book entitled “… and the Meal was Made for Celebrating.”

Written simply for an audience that varies as widely as its cuisine — including those who cook on stoves without temperature controls or timers — the recipes rarely provide temperature settings and sometimes omits suggested cooking times. Instead, it often relies on directions, such as “cook until the meat is tender.”

The recipe I’ve adapted below provides quite a few more guidelines, as well as adjustments on the ingredients. The one in the Mexican cookbook called for slices of “pig’s head, pig knuckles and pig’s feet.”

The adapted recipe suggests country spareribs instead — both for the ease of shredding the meat and to simplify the explanation of the dish to guests who may be wary of trying something new. Canned white hominy is also the way to go here.

For parties held on chilly winter nights like Mexico’s posadas — celebrated from Dec. 16 through Christmas Eve — it’s a colorful way to celebrate. The red, white and green garnishes will add festive color to the holiday table.

Mexican Red Pozole

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: About 2 hours

Total time: About 2 hours, 5 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

For the soup:

1 large head of garlic

16 cups water, plus extra for soaking chilies

1 white onion, peeled

4 pounds of country-style pork ribs

8 guajillo chilies

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon oregano

4 (15-ounce cans) of white hominy

Kosher salt to taste

For the garnish:

Shredded iceberg lettuce

12 radishes, sliced thinly

1 large white onion, diced

4 large limes, each cut into 8 wedges

Chile powder

Mexican oregano

Directions

1. Separate the head of garlic into cloves, peel and slice.

2. Add 16 cups of water, garlic, onion and pork ribs to a stockpot and bring to a boil.

3. Turn the heat down to allow the mixture to simmer, uncovered, until the meat is tender — about 1 1/2 hours.

4. While the meat is simmering, place the guajillo chilies in a bowl and pour enough boiling water over them to allow them to be fully submerged (about 1 1/2 cups). Soak the chilies for a half-hour.

5. Using disposable kitchen gloves, remove the chilies from the water. (Reserve the water.) Remove the stems and slice open to devein the chilies. Place the chilies, the reserved water and some of the seeds in a food processor and blend until smooth. For a spicier soup, include more of the seeds.

6. When the pork is tender, remove it from the stockpot and shred the meat off the bone. Discard fat and bone.

7. Return shredded meat to the stockpot, and add the guajillo purée, bay leaves, oregano, hominy and salt to taste.

8. Cook for another 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

9. While the pozole is still cooking, prepare the garnish ingredients and place them in small serving bowls. Keep the raw vegetables refrigerated until time to serve to provide for maximum crunch.

10. Serve the soup hot, with plenty of room in the bowl to allow for the garnishes.

Main photo: Pozole, topped by garnishes. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

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In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

In India, December comes with the spirit of Christmas throughout the country, and, in Kolkata in eastern India, the city finds ways to regale in its deep-rooted colonial past.

Streets are decorated with rows of illuminated garlands and stars as the malls begin to make commercial hay. As a young girl — one raised Hindu while attending Catholic school — December festivals meant year-end concerts, carols and Christmas cards. And, my father’s own childhood tradition of a winter fruitcake.

I loved the simplicity of our small Christmas tree.While in most cases, the Christmas trees were faux, festivities were warm and very real.

There is something magical about walking through historic old churches, most notably the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in Bandel or St. Paul’s Cathedral to see worshipers — both Christian and otherwise — gathering to celebrate.

My first Christmas in the United States was two decades ago on a lonely college campus. When I declined my aunt’s generous invitation to join them for Christmas, I had no idea that the entire small college campus would be emptied out with little sign of life.

A query that made me question myself

Finally, I did encounter someone, who asked me if I celebrated the holiday. This came to me as a very curious question. I nodded and then pondered my answer, unsure whether it was correct. Our household did not observe the holiday religiously, although my parochial schooling had made me quite familiar with the religious aspects of the festivities.

Christmas, to me, was about the spirit of giving and cheer. It was about cookies and tinsel. So, how could I not celebrate the holiday?

I had grown up in the colonially influenced, secular and fairly cosmopolitan city of Kolkata, where most holidays are celebrated. But, until asked, it had not occurred to me that there were strings attached to celebrating Christmas. A visit to Park Street in the heart of Kolkata would prove otherwise.

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul's Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Last year, I visited the historical St Paul’s Cathedral and in the spirit of Christmases that I remembered, there were worshipers of all kinds offering homage to Baby Jesus. And there is always room for celebration in this food-obsessed city.

This is probably why it is easier for us to make our annual visit to India during Christmas. I find it so much easier to celebrate and be a part of a holiday where there are not religious obligations on our part. Mostly, it is about being a part of the festive atmosphere, which is still not completely commercialized, and where people still feel comfortable actually wishing each other Merry Christmas without anyone feeling offended.

Christmas also brings to mind the lines of a Bengali Christmas carol, something my grandmother taught me as a child, without any fuss or fanfare. In today’s politically correct world, I realize how simply my family had instilled the spirit of equality and religious acceptance in me.

Helping to carry on my father’s fruitcake tradition

We had our Christmas traditions. Nothing formal or locked in stone, except for our traditional family fruitcake that I first created for my father years ago, mostly because I wanted to ensure there was a homemade version of his family winter cake – a tradition for him.

All around the city, bakery shelves were filled with moist and dark brown fruitcakes, something my grandmother liked to call Plum Cake, possibly a throwback to the English plum puddings. These fruitcakes did not have any of the negative connotations commonly associated with fruitcakes in the United States. They were moist, soft and delightfully balanced – not even remotely related to their hardened cousins.

My father’s fruitcake tradition harked back to his childhood. As a boy growing up in a fairly conventional Brahman family, the other Christmas traditions eluded him. However, he remembered his father always coming home on Christmas Eve with a handful of goodies and three or four of those delight golden-brown plum cakes.

For my father, it was never Christmas without them.

Over the years, I finally settled for a fruitcake recipe that is featured in the Bengali Five Spice chronicles. It is a close cousin of the varieties that Dad spoke of, obtained from a friend’s Anglo-Indian family. The fruitcake has become my Christmas traditions.

A recipe that is now being savored by the second generation of fruitcake lovers might be just what your Christmas table desires. With notes of rum and dense molasses, it is rich and moist and perfect for any occasion. If you are persuaded to give this cake a try, start by soaking your fruit right now, so that you have them plump and flavorful in time for Christmas baking.

My personal tradition is to savor pieces of this fruitcake with tea, especially on the last remaining weeks of the year as I send out my holiday cards and pack for our annual visit to India.

Anglo-Indian Fruitcake

(adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Prep time: 20 minutes (plus a week to a month for soaking the fruit)

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

I shy away from calling this recipe “plum cake.” That dark moist fruit cake is a Christmas regular in the multiple cake shops that dot Kolkata. This recipe is close, but something about it falls just a little short of the taste I remember, possibly because nostalgia cannot be bottled and infused in a cake batter to complete the flavors as the mind recalls them.

Ingredients

1 cup of large mixed raisins

1/2 cup chopped, candied citrus peel

1/4 cup chopped cherries or cranberries

1/2 cups of rum

2 cups all-purpose white flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup loosely packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup robust molasses

4 eggs, well-beaten

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup shredded coconut

Directions

1. Place all the fruits in a non-reactive bowl. Add the rum and cover and set aside for at least a week, or, for best flavor, for a month.

2. Grease an 8-inch to 10-inch loaf pan and pre-heat the oven to 350 F.

3. Drain the fruit when you are ready to use and reserve the soaking liquor, if any.

4. Sift together the flour and salt. Sprinkle about a ¼ cup of the flour mixture over the drained fruit and toss to coat.

5. Cream together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar. Stir in the molasses. Add the beaten eggs to the mixture and beat to combine.

6. Add the baking powder to the remaining flour mixture and add to the batter in batches, alternating with the milk, and beat until well combined.

7. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Stir in the shredded coconut. Stir in the floured fruit. Pour batter into prepared pan.

8. Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool slightly.

9. Invert the cake onto a plate and pour the reserved soaking liquor over it. Allow it to sit to absorb the liquor. This cake can be served warm or alternately wrapped and stored and served when needed.

Main photo: In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Holiday Pork Tenderloin. Credit: Barbara Haber

I am thinking about having an ecumenical holiday party this year to bring together friends of varying religious and ethnic persuasions and am enjoying the challenge of coming up with an inclusive menu that will honor my guests. I have been giving this party a lot of thought and decided to limit my scope to foods that represent Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the main holidays celebrated this time of year. Otherwise, if I try to include dishes representing the backgrounds of each of my guests, I will get into a tizzy trying to bring in dishes that reflect everyone’s nationality and/or religious belief. Besides, I have no idea what Ethical Culturists eat.

For Christmas

First, I will be thinking through Christmas dishes because that celebration dominates American culture this time of year, so much so that it is hard to believe that the holiday as we now know it has evolved only since the 19th century. Before that, our Puritan forefathers frowned upon its observance because they saw it as pagan. When Christmas finally came into its own, it became a holiday associated with children — gifts, good food and good cheer heavily influenced by Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Those influences make clear why the holiday is so child-centered, what with hanging up stockings and leaving cookies for Santa Claus, and singing about reindeer.

As for the food I will serve, I want to avoid menu clichés such as the usual Christmas turkey or ham and will aim for other dishes gussied up to look festive. If I am feeling flush, I may go for beef tenderloins and will be extra cautious to not overcook this expensive meat. But if my guest list is large, I may cook the less costly pork tenderloins and will surround the platter with roasted apples and red potatoes and a sprinkling of sage leaves that may still be available from my garden. And this reminds me of a blunder I almost made. I recently bought a Jerusalem cherry plant because I was attracted to its shapely leaves and big red berries. I had just about decided I would decorate my holiday platters with cuttings from the plant when I discovered that the berries are poisonous, a member of the deadly nightshade family. So let us not get carried away by putting unfamiliar vegetation on food platters.

For Hanukkah

Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that generally coincides with Christmas, is a less important observance than Passover, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But Hanukkah’s proximity to the Christian holiday has led to its growing prominence, and it too has become a child-centered event with the daily lighting of candles and the distribution of gifts. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the ancient temple of Jerusalem when its menorah miraculously burned for eight days and nights despite only a bit of oil being available. This explains why food fried in oil symbolizes the event, with potato latkes and jelly doughnuts the best known of the dishes. I have learned that I can make trays of latkes in advance, so I will prepare an assortment that will include not just those made with potatoes, but some with salmon and zucchini, and a dessert one with apples, all fried in advance, then heated in the oven just before serving.

For Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, based on several African harvest festivals, is a seven-day holiday that was established in the United States in 1966 as a tribute to African-American culture. Fruits, nuts and vegetables play a major role in this celebration so they should be featured in dishes served. My appetizers will include toasted almonds, and I will serve a roasted chicken surrounded by such vegetables as carrots, sweet potatoes and onions. For dessert, I will have sautéed bananas with a rum raisin sauce served warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Not for Festivus

Thinking about the origins of these holidays has put me in mind of Festivus, dubbed “the holiday for the rest of us,” an invented celebration made famous in an episode of “Seinfeld.” The preferred dishes are some kind of meatloaf and spaghetti with red sauce, created I suspect because they include low-budget ingredients. This spoof involves the ritual “Airing of Grievances” that takes place immediately after the Festivus dinner when each of the assembled guests lashes out at the others to complain about affronts they have experienced all year. Festivus makes fun of consumerism and the often-manufactured good cheer that dominates the culture for all of December.

The music and mood

While it is amusing to think about such a grouchy holiday, I have decided not to include it in my party since I prefer a more positive approach to my celebration. I will, however, insist that gifts are not exchanged and the music I play will be limited to classical guitar, a bit of Bach, some Gershwin and the rapturous trumpet-playing of Miles Davis.

Holiday Pork Tenderloin

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 60 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

1 teaspoon dried thyme

3 garlic cloves finely chopped

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

2 pork tenderloins with a combined weight of 3 to 4 pounds

6 or 8 small red potatoes cut in half

3 large red apples cut into quarters

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup water

Springs of fresh sage for garnish

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

2. In small dish combine thyme, garlic, oil, salt and pepper to form a paste.

3. Tie the two tenderloins together, place on rack in roasting pan and rub with the garlic and thyme paste. Roast 30 minutes.

4. Reduce oven to 350 F and surround pork with potatoes and apples. Roast for about 35 minutes longer or until meat thermometer registers 145 F. Remove potatoes and apples to a plate. Let pork stand for 15 minutes, and temperature will continue to rise 5 to 10 degrees.

5. Meanwhile, take away rack from roasting pan. Stir flour into drippings and cook at medium heat for 1 minute, stirring. Add wine, heat to boiling and keep on loosening brown bits from pan. Add broth and water and boil 1 minute. Pour into gravy boat.

6. Place pork on serving platter with potatoes and apples arranged around it. Garnish with sprigs of sage or whatever other fresh herbs are available.

Main photo: Roasted pork tenderloin with red potatoes, apples and sage. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Fresh Herb Meatballs are among the recipes featured in Michele Anna Jordan's book. Credit: Liza Gershman

Yes, meatballs are here again, those eternally returning spheres of gastronomic delight. Not high on anyone’s culinary sophistication list, meatballs have an earthy attraction that seems to come and go through the years. Now they are back big time with Michele Anna Jordan’s collection of meatball marvels, “More Than Meatballs” (Skyhorse, 2014).


“More Than Meatballs”
“From Arancini to Zucchini Fritters and Everything in Between”
By Michele Anna Jordan, Skyhorse, 2014, 176 pages
» Click here to buy this book


The more-than-ness of the book puts the traditional meatball in a broad culinary context, as the subtitle —”From Arancini to Zucchini Fritters and Everything in Between” — suggests. There are more than 75 recipes, plus variations, so you can imagine just how far Jordan has ventured.

"More Than Meatballs" by Michele Anna Jordan

Yet the soul of the book remains the traditional meatball – named thus for good reason: Try making a meatcube, meatpyramid or meatcone. Even those words look horribly wrong! No, the meatball is a culinary merger of form and function no less perfect than its mechanical relative, the wheel.

The only other cooked product of man’s hungry genius that rivals the meatball for salutary simplicity and earthy economy is, I believe, the omelet. Curiously though, the omelet works inversely to the meatball: Omelets begin life round (the egg) and leave it flat. The meatball starts life flat (chopped meat, poultry, fish, etc.) and ends round.

Of course there are flat-sided meatballs: sausage and hamburger patties and the monolithic American classic — meatloaf. These more-than-meatball entities are what one observant aficionado of this class of foods, the eminent European artist, writer and restaurateur, Daniel Spoerri, has labeled “the premasticated” — chopped animal-based foods. The ancient Persian word for meatball — kufteh — means, according to my sources, “chopped” or “ground.”

Michele Anna Jordan. Credit: Courtesy of Michele Anna Jordan

Michele Anna Jordan. Credit: Courtesy of Michele Anna Jordan

Context is everything

It was actually Spoerri who introduced me to meatball-ogy. After absorbing his postmodern deconstruction of the meatball in “A Dissertation on Keftedes” (keftedes, a Greek variation on the Persian kufteh) in the 1970s, I reprinted the work in a collection of Spoerri’s food-related texts, published as “Mythology and Meatballs: A Greek Island Diary Cookbook” (Aris Books, 1982). The dissertation is full of learned and charmingly funky discourse on the social history and symbolism of the meatball in the context of world gastronomy.

But Spoerri’s material (Newsweek called it “a Dadaist sampler of culinary oddments”) seems a bit beside the point when we are truly hungry and a well-made bowl of sauced or souped meatballs, steaming hot and redolent with spice, is placed in front of us. For example, there’s Jordan’s meatball and pasta dish of Spanish descent, Sopa de Albondigas y Fideo, from the chapter titled with meatball-in-cheek irony, “Context Is Everything.” It’s a perfect dish to warm the soul on a cold winter’s night.

Michele Anna Jordan uses caul fat to wrap meatballs. Credit: Liza Gershman

Michele Anna Jordan uses caul fat to wrap meatballs. Credit: Liza Gershman

Out of context, served “neat” as Jordan puts it, the book’s mother of all meatballs is, logically enough, The Meatball (see recipe below), an “Americanized Italian immigrant,” writes Jordan. It is made from ground pork and beef and mixed with grated cheese, egg, onion, red pepper flakes, nutmeg and clove. Jordan adds that this meatball, as good as it is on its own, lends itself to almost any context: in classic spaghetti and meatballs with marinara sauce; in lasagna; in soups; or as part of sandwiches and sliders.

Optionally, these balls can be wrapped in caul fat — readily available now at trendy butcher shops — for added richness and succulence. Jordan’s introduction of caul fat — the stomach lining of pigs used as a casing for the traditional flat sausage patty in France known as the crépinette— makes for a perfect “coverup” for The Meatball and many other versions in the book. The very good step-by-step photographs of caul-wrapping technique are helpful to the novice caul wrapper.

Using caul connects Jordan’s creations to the ancient “minces” wrapped in pork omentum (caul) one finds in meatball compilations dating to ancient Rome, including the classic cookbook attributed to the gourmet, Apicius — De Re Coquinaria (“on the subject of cooking”).

The Global Meatball. Illustration credit: L. John Harris, 1990

The Global Meatball. Illustration credit: L. John Harris, 1990

Karma goes around, too

After decades in and around the food world, it’s starting to dawn on me that I have a karmic relationship with the meatball. First with Spoerri’s Dissertation, which inspired one of my first Foodoodle cartoons, “The Global Meatball” (see illustration). And now with Jordan’s “More Than Meatballs.”

I first met and worked with Michele Anna Jordan when she approached me in 1988 with her groundbreaking manuscript for “A Cook’s Tour of Sonoma” (Aris, 1990), the first of her many fine cookbooks, many of which are coming back into print. Spiraling forward through the decades, I was delighted by the opportunity to connect with her again, this time providing the foreword (without compensation, I should add) to “More Than Meatballs.” How could I resist my meatball karma?

Although I didn’t know it when I took on the task, it appears the humble, global, historical meatball is, as Jordan explains in the book’s introduction, back in fashion, and apparently for some time. And not just on restaurant menus and kitchen tables. There are now meatball-themed food shops and food trucks popping up across urban America and a new Guinness World Record for a meatball at more than 1,100 pounds.

“More Than Meatballs” is just the latest, and surely one of the best, examples of the meatball’s enduring power to please and sustain. Jordan puts it better than I could: “Yes, meatballs are on a roll, a rock ‘n’ roll. Let’s dance! Let’s have a ball!”

The Meatball

Prep time: 25 minutes (45 minutes if you are grinding your own meat)

Cook time: 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size

Total time: 35 to 65 minutes

Yield: About 32 small or 16 large meatballs

Ingredients

1 cup torn white bread, from sturdy hearth bread, preferably sourdough
3/4 cup milk or white wine
1 pound grass-fed beef, ground twice
1 pound pastured pork, ground twice
1 small yellow onion, grated
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Dry Jack, or similar cheese
Kosher salt
Black pepper in a mill
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste
Whole nutmeg
2 large pastured eggs, beaten
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, or 6 ounces caul fat
Olive oil

Directions

1. Put the bread and milk or wine into a mixing bowl and use a fork to crush the bread and blend it into the liquid. Set aside for about 15 minutes.

2. Add the beef, pork, onion, garlic, Italian parsley and cheese to the bowl and mix well. Season generously with salt, several turns of black pepper, red pepper flakes, and several gratings of nutmeg and mix again. Add the eggs, mix well, and then knead for a minute or two until very well blended.

3. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or as long as overnight.

4. To finish, cover a sheet pan with wax paper.

5. Use a 1-ounce ice cream scoop to form small meatballs or a 2-ounce scoop to make larger meatballs; set each ball on the wax paper.

— If using bread crumbs, put them into a mixing bowl, add a meatball, and agitate the bowl to coat the meatball well. Set it on a baking sheet and continue until all are coated.

— If using caul fat, spread the fat on a clean work surface and wrap each ball.

6. To cook, pour a thin film of olive oil on a heavy skillet set over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot add several meatballs, being certain not to crowd them. Cook for about
45 seconds and then agitate the pan so the balls roll. Continue cooking until the balls are evenly browned and have begun to firm up, about 5 to 7 minutes, depending on their size. Set the cooked balls on absorbent paper and continue until all have been cooked.

7. To serve neat, return the meatballs to the pan, reduce the heat to very low, cover, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes for small meatballs and about 12 minutes for large ones, until the meatballs are just cooked through. Transfer to a platter and serve hot.

Main photo: Fresh Herb Meatballs are among the recipes featured in Michele Anna Jordan’s book. Credit: Liza Gershman

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Strings of dried peppers, eggplant, okra and other vegetables for sale in a market in Gaziantep, Turkey. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Travel throughout southeastern Turkey in the height of summer and you’re likely to see rooftops, courtyards and gardens blanketed with color — row after row of peppers, eggplant and other vegetables drying in the sun.

Later rehydrated to be stuffed or stewed, dried vegetables are an essential ingredient in the traditional Turkish kitchen, but one that can be difficult to replicate for urban dwellers without a balcony or even a sunny window to call their own.

How to reconnect residents of Turkey’s large cities with the rich culinary culture of their rural roots is just one of the questions being posed by a new Istanbul-based group seeking to re-envision and rebrand Turkish cuisine, in much the same way as the New Nordic culinary movement has both celebrated and changed Scandinavian cooking.

“There are great raw materials in Anatolia and we’re eager to bring them to Istanbul and use them,” says Engin Önder, a cofounder of Gastronomika. (“Anatolia” refers to the westernmost part of Asia that comprises the majority of the land within Turkey’s borders.) This loose collective of young chefs, designers, historians and other interested parties has come together over the past year to operate an experimental kitchen and carry out various culinary research and design projects.

Gastronomika’s “Hacking the Modern Kitchen” exhibit at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Credit: İKSV/Ali Guler

Gastronomika’s “Hacking the Modern Kitchen” exhibit at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Credit: İKSV/Ali Guler

Önder describes one of these projects, “Hacking the Modern Kitchen,” as an effort to “find solutions for applying traditional techniques in small urban kitchens.” Its first “hack,” currently being exhibited as part of the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial, is an ingeniously simple, space-saving system for drying herbs: paper cones hung with string from an ordinary household curtain or radiator. The cones shield the herbs from direct sunlight to best preserve their color and scent while they soak up the heat needed to dry them, explains a broadsheet printed with instructions and lines for folding the pamphlet itself into one of these paper “herbsacks.”

Confronting an urban revolution

The challenge of reacquainting young, urban people with skills like drying, canning, pickling and even growing their own food is not unique to Istanbul, of course. But it is perhaps particularly difficult, and important, in a country that has seen its urban population swell from 25% of the total in 1950 to 75% today. During that time, Istanbul alone has grown from 1 million residents to about 15 million, squeezing out urban gardens and other green space.

Gastronomika’s team faces the additional hurdle of getting people to rethink a food culture that, although rich with centuries of history and intermingled influences, has often been taken for granted by young Turks and misperceived internationally as amounting to little more than kebabs and baklava.

Istanbul is experiencing something of a renaissance of interest in Anatolian culinary heritage, with chefs like Musa Dağdeviren of the popular Çiya and Mehmet Gürs of the top-ranked Mikla scouring the countryside for local ingredients and traditional tastes to be incorporated into their menus. Though Gastronomika is in many ways part of this trend, it stands apart as a noncommercial, collaborative endeavor.

“Our kitchen is an experimental one and a community one,” Önder says. “It’s not about opening restaurants or creating menus, and no money changes hands.”

Members of the all-volunteer team keep busy with research trips around Anatolia (to “meet producers, learn techniques, talk to grandmothers,” Önder says). Talks and cooking events focus on the distinctive cuisines of Turkey’s Black Sea, southeast and other regions, and include in-depth, weeks-long explorations of single topics such as the vast array of ways to cook pilav (rice). They visit farmers markets in Istanbul and track what’s in season, and tend a gardening plot and organize mushroom-hunting expeditions on the edges of the city, where bits of open space can still be found amid the concrete.

Serving up a dish of stuffed vegetables over lamb ribs to an eager crowd at the Gastronomika kitchen.

Serving up a dish of stuffed vegetables over lamb ribs to an eager crowd at the Gastronomika kitchen hosted by SALT Beyoğlu. Credit: Gastronomika

Though the initiative is deeply rooted in Turkish terroir, its founders take a global approach to their mission. Turkish food needs ambassadors like those in Spain, says chef Semi Hakim, another Gastronomika cofounder, describing a program in which “Spanish chefs are sent abroad by their government to promote Spanish food, so tapas bars can become as ubiquitous as pizza places.”

Other international influences on the team members’ work include the investigative approach of the Nordic Food Lab, to which they’ve reached out for mentorship and advice; and star chef Ferran Adrià’s ambitious Bullipedia project, a Wikipedia-style culinary encyclopedia. Gastronomika’s own take on this concept is its online “karatahta” (blackboard), a digital archive of recipes gathered, techniques tried and ingredients sourced.

Like everything else Gastronomika does, the archive is participatory and open source, Önder explains.

“We share our notes, our presentations, our photos, our sources — all the knowledge we have,” he says. “The main thing is for everything to be public, even our failures. Experimentation always involves failures.”

The project’s members are “shamelessly energetic and fast learners,” says Vasıf Kortun, director of research and programs at SALT, a cultural institution in central Istanbul that hosts Gastronomika’s experimental kitchen in lieu of a traditional, profit-making museum cafe.

“The needs of Turkey’s research and food culture can’t be solved by one group, but if Gastronomika can tie into the bigger picture, they can be a big part of the conversation that’s beginning now,” Kortun says.

Main photo: Strings of dried peppers, eggplant, okra and other vegetables for sale in a market in Gaziantep, Turkey. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Main photo: Beet Chocolate Cake. Credit: Lynne Curry

I never thought of myself as a beet fanatic. Sure, I like this versatile root vegetable well enough, but only recently realized that beets are pivotal to the menu at my restaurant, the Lostine Tavern — roasted, raw, pickled and puréed. Along with two types of pickled beets, we feature beetroot on a hugely popular open-faced sandwich, grated beet in our tossed salad and a riveting beet panzanella salad. But the best-selling item of all is the chocolate beet cake.

That’s right: This cake contains beets. A curious item for a tavern in the heart of Oregon’s cattle country, but that’s how good this is.

It’s become so popular, some customers ask for it before they order their meal while others request it for birthday cakes. So tasty and moist, it has caused more than one avowed beet hater to eat his words.

An irresistible tower of three-tiered chocolate layer cake with fluffy dark chocolate frosting, this cake is a scene-stealer and a crowd-pleaser that belongs on any holiday table. The fact that it’s a veggie cake is both a nutritional plus and a conversation piece.

Why beets?

True enough, beets are a root vegetable, but using them in desserts is not as crazy as it sounds.

Beets have the highest concentration of sucrose among all vegetables. They are, after all, the source for granulated sugar.

Just like using carrot cake or pumpkin quick bread, beets are moisture insurance in cake baking. Fully cooked in simmering water and then pureed, the beets stealthily mingle with the cocoa powder, sugar and oil in the batter. Dark red beets tinge the color of the batter a shade toward red velvet cake. For anyone to know there are beets in this cake, you’ll have to tell them. Then, delight in their surprise.

Good desserts

Some may be happy to know that beets are a unique source of phytonutrients with strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. I just love knowing I’m getting another dose of veggies into my kids’ dessert.

The earthy sweetness of the beets heightens the flavors of the chocolate, rendering a cake that is none too sweet. I use this recipe for everything from birthday cupcakes to everyday snack cakes. It mixes in a single bowl and makes either three 8-inch round layers, two 9-by-13-inch sheet cakes or a lot of cupcakes.

The cake layers form a great base for embellishment with layers of cherry preserves and whipped cream, a light snow of powdered sugar or a scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.

For the holidays, however, I take this cake to the hilt, slathering chocolate cream cheese frosting between three cake layers for a table centerpiece that is sure to capture everyone’s attention.

Beet Chocolate Cake

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups puréed cooked beets
6 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup good-quality cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups vegetable oil
3 3/4 cups granulated sugar
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Oil three 8-inch-round cake pans and line them with parchment paper.

3. In a small mixing bowl, beat the beets and eggs. Combine the cocoa powder, vanilla and oil in a large measuring cup.

4. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the sugar, flour, baking soda and salt until combined. Add the cocoa powder mixture to the flour and stir with a rubber spatula until well combined. Add the beet mixture and stir just until combined.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake until the sides of the cake pull away from the pan and a wooden skewer slid into the cake’s center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.

6. Cool the cakes for 10 minutes and tip them out of the pans onto wire racks to cool completely.

Dark Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

Prep time: 10 minutes

Ingredients
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 sticks unsalted butter (12 ounces), room temperature
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.

2. In a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment to beat the butter and cream cheese until perfectly smooth. Add the vanilla and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

3. Add the confectioner’s sugar and blend on medium speed until it is fully incorporated. Add the cooled chocolate mixture and blend on medium-high speed until it is very smooth and light.

4. Spread one-third of the frosting on top of each of the cooled cake layers and stack them to create three tiers. Leave the sides unfrosted.

Main photo: Beet Chocolate Cake. Credit: Lynne Curry

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Christmas Eve salad

Do you have menu monotony? Are you cooking the same recipes over and over again for the holidays?

There is relief from this stubborn winter malady. I’m not suggesting that you toss all your family favorites, but I am proposing that you add variety to the menu and, in the processes, treat yourself and your guests to some new flavors.

To add changes to the menu without adding stress don’t take on the whole job alone — have friends and family bring side dishes or desserts. “A good old-fashioned potluck is great for the holidays, too. It is a simple way to add variety to your usual menu, share some of work and try out new recipes,” recommends Rick Bayless, winner of the James Beard outstanding restaurant award for his Chicago-based Mexican restaurant Frontera Grill. Assigning dishes, and even providing the recipe, assures that the meal will be balanced with a cohesive mix of foods, and you won’t end up with three platters of the same string bean recipe.

For a wonderfully unusual side dish with a south-of-the-border flare that goes with any menu, add Bayless’ colorful and crunchy, Mexico-inspired Christmas Eve Salad. This salad of jicama, beets, oranges and peanuts “provides the perfect visual accent for the holiday table, echoing the colors of holiday poinsettias,” Bayless says. The salad is topped with chopped peanuts and sprinkled with Mexican colored candies for a festive and whimsical finish. You can serve slivers of sugarcane, available in Spanish and Mexican grocery stores, along with the salad. “You and your guests will really enjoy chewing on fresh sugarcane, it has a delightfully fresh sweetness,” Bayless says.

Rick Bayless’ Christmas Eve Salad (Ensalada de Noche Buena)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

4 large beets, boiled and cut into small sticks

3 seedless oranges

5 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 1/2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium (about 1 pound) jicama, peeled and cut into small sticks

10 romaine lettuce leaves, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices

2/3 cup roasted, salted peanuts

1 3- to 4-inch section of sugar cane, peeled and cut lengthwise into slivers, for garnish, optional

1 tablespoon colored candy cake decorations (grajeas in Mexico), for garnish

Directions

1. Place the beet sticks into a large bowl.

2. Using a zester or vegetable peeler, cut the zest (colored rind) from 1 of the oranges and finely mince it. Mix the minced zest with the lime juice, orange juice, salt, sugar and olive oil in with the beets and let stand 1 hour.

3. Cut away the rind and all white pith on the oranges. Cut between each white membrane and remove the segments. Reserve.

4. To serve, add the jicama and most of the orange segments (reserving a few for garnish) to the beet mixture. Lay the lettuce on a serving platter. Scoop the beet mixture into the center, then sprinkle with the peanuts and reserved orange segments. Garnish with the sugar cane, if using, and candies. Serve.

‘Instant’ Rum Baba Panettone

Another great shortcut is to buy something ready made, but unusual. For an Italian finish to the meal, consider ready-made panettone, imported from Italy. Tall and dome-shaped, panettone is a soft, sweet yeast cake with a fruity aroma of raisins and candied oranges. It’s the quintessential Italian Christmas dessert, usually served plain, accompanied by a glass of Asti Spumante.

panettone

Panettone can quickly be dressed up with a drenching of rum syrup. Credit: Italian Confectioners Association

Or you can dress it up a little by drenching it in rum syrup, making a virtually instant baba cake. Available in standard 1- and 2-pound sizes, panettone also comes in adorable, single-sized portions, which work especially well with this recipe:

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

 Yield: 8 to 12 servings

Ingredients

3 cups granulated sugar

1/4 to 1/2 cup dark rum

8 slices of panettone, or 8 small individual-sized panettone

Confectioners’ sugar

Fresh or frozen berries, optional

Directions

1. Add the sugar to 1 1/2 cups water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the rum to taste. Allow to cool to room temperature.

2. Arrange the panettone on a serving platter. An hour before serving, slowly pour the rum syrup over the panettone until all the liquid is absorbed.

3. Serve topped with confectioners’ sugar and accompanied by berries, if you like.

pandoro

In Italy, pandoro is often served cut in horizontal slices that are restacked to look like a Christmas tree. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan.

Pandoro Christmas Tree Cake

Another unusual ready-made dessert is pandoro, the tall Christmas tree shaped Italian cake that’s available in most supermarkets and Italian gourmet shops starting in late fall. Pandoro has a delicious eggy, brioche-like soft center, with a lovely vanilla-butter aroma. In Italy, pandoro is often served cut in horizontal slices that are restacked to look like a Christmas tree. It even comes boxed with a packet of confectioners sugar to sprinkle on top.

You can spread the pandoro with anything creamy like ice cream, whipped cream, icing, pastry cream or even zabaglione. And just like a gingerbread house, you can decorate it with anything festive including tiny candies, sprinkles or crushed candy canes.

In this recipe, pandoro cake is taken to yet another level: each layer is spread with mascarpone custard and decorated with mint leaves and candied cherries.

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup plus 1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sweet liqueur, such as Cointreau or rum

2 large egg yolks

14 ounces mascarpone cheese

1 cup heavy cream

1 pandoro cake, about 1 pound

Decorations, such as candied cherries, fresh mint leaves, silver confetti

Confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. In a saucepan, combine 1/4 cup water with 1/4 cup of the sugar and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in 1/4 cup of the Cointreu or rum. Reserve.

2. In a standing mixer combine the yolks and the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and beat for 5 minutes until light yellow and fluffy. Beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons Cointreau or rum, and fold in the mascarpone.

3. In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream until peaks form. Fold the mascarpone cream into the whipped cream.

4. Carefully, so as not to break the points, slice the pandoro horizontally into 6 slices. Brush the outsides of the slices, the golden colored baked section, with the reserved Cointreau syrup.

5. Place the largest pandoro slice onto a serving platter and spread with some of the mascarpone mixture.

6. Cover with the next largest slice, angling it so that the points of the star tips don’t line up. Spread with some of the mascarpone mixture and repeat with the remaining layers, finishing with a dollop of mascarpone on top.

7. Decorate the points with candied cherries and mint leaves or candies. Sprinkle the entire cake with confectioners’ sugar.

Main photo: Rick Bayless’ colorful and crunchy, Mexico-inspired Christmas Eve Salad features jicama, beets, orange and peanuts. Credit: FronteraFiesta.com.

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Instant chocolate cake. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Savoiardi cookies — often called ladyfingers in the United States — were created in the Piedmont region of Italy in 1348 during the early Renaissance for the royal Savoia family, which gives the cookie its name. Savoiardi recipes are cited in several historic Italian cookbooks, including Bartolomeo Stefani’s 1662 book “The Art of Good Cooking.” This cookie is so important to Italians that the recipe is regulated and the name protected.

For me — probably you, too, since you’re reading this — Italy’s food traditions are precious. Certain products and recipes are so definitively Italian that their origins and even names are worth protecting and preserving. When it comes to Italy’s sweets, there is a national organization, the Association of Italian Sweets and Pasta Manufacturers (Associazione delle Industrie del Dolce e della Pasta Italiane), whose job it is to do just that. The group, founded in 1967, set forth regulations that cover the processes and ingredients permitted for various types of sweets. Their standards, it turns out, are some of the world’s strictest.

For example, to qualify as authentic, savoiardi, the famous Italian cookie, must follow a definitive checklist in accordance with its DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status. Ingredients must be region-specific and only the best butter — and a guaranteed amount of it — may be used. There are required quantities of eggs and acceptable flours. The demands are almost painfully rigorous, but the results are exquisite!

Traditionally, savoiardi are dipped in hot chocolate or coffee. Because Italian-made savoiardi soak up liquid so nicely, they are a key ingredient in hundreds of desserts, including charlottes and puddings and, of course, tiramisu.

“Instant” Chocolate Cake

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

A no-bake dessert that’s a snap to make and quite pretty. Store-bought savoiardi are dipped in liqueur, layered with chocolate sauce and then refrigerated until firm. It slices just like pound cake.

Prep time: 15 minutes

No cooking, but requires 1 hour to chill

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 1/2 ounces, 7 tablespoons, unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1 egg yolk

3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cocoa or higher

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more to taste

1/4 cup sweet liqueur, such as Alchermes or rum

12 savoiardi, Italian ladyfingers

2 tablespoons crushed pistachios or hazelnuts

Directions

1. In a bowl, using a whisk or electric hand mixer, beat the butter, confectioners’ sugar and egg yolk until very smooth and creamy.

2. In another bowl, melt the chocolate and cream, in the microwave or over a double boiler. Stir the chocolate and vanilla into the butter mixture. Reserve.

3. Combine 1/4 cup warm water and granulated sugar in a shallow bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the liqueur and add more sugar, if you like.

4. Dip four savoiardi, one at a time, into the liquid. Arrange the four liqueur-dipped savoiardi in a row, close together, on a serving plate. Spread with 1/3 of the chocolate mixture.

5. Repeat, dip four more savoiardi into the liquid, place them on top of the first row. Spread with 1/3 of the chocolate mixture. Repeat for the third and final layer, spreading the remaining chocolate on top and along the sides of the stacked savoiardi. Sprinkle the top layer with pistachios or hazelnuts. Refrigerate an hour or until firm. Serve cold.

updated tiramisu

This tiramisu is a perfect make-ahead dessert that you can serve in mini portions in espresso cups. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Updated Tiramisu

Tiramisu is traditionally made with raw eggs. Not only is this tiramisu just as delicious as the traditional version, but here, because the eggs are whipped with hot sugar syrup, there’s no raw eggs to worry about. It also makes the custard stay light and fluffy for up to two days in the fridge.

A perfect make-ahead dessert that you can serve in mini portions in espresso cups, or as a normal-sized portion in a coffee cup.

Prep time: 25 minutes

No cooking time

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

5 large egg yolks

1/2 cup granulated sugar

8 ounces mascarpone cheese

1/4 cup heavy cream

12 savoiardi, plus more for garnish

1 cup freshly brewed espresso or coffee, either decaf or regular

Rum, optional

Cocoa powder

Directions

1. Put the yolks into the bowl of a standing mixer and whisk, using the highest setting, until light yellow and fluffy, at least 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, heat the sugar and 2 ounces of water in a small saucepan until it bubbles and reaches 250 F on a candy thermometer.

3. While the standing mixer is still running on its highest setting, slowly pour the hot sugar syrup into the yolks, and continue whisking for 15 minutes. It’s important to whisk them for this long so that the mixture stays fluffy when you add the next ingredients.

4. Add the mascarpone and heavy cream and beat on a medium setting just until combined, about 20 seconds. You can reserve this custard, covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

5. To assemble: Brew the espresso or coffee (you’ll need 1 cup if you’re making all at the same time, or just a shot each if making only a few). Break one savoiardo into each espresso cup, or two, into each coffee mug or dessert bowl. Pour the espresso over the savoiardi so they are fully moistened, and if you like, add a splash of rum. Top with a generous dollop or two of mascarpone cream. Dust with cocoa powder. Serve immediately.

Note: For a two-tone effect, dust half the surface of the tiramisu with cocoa powder and the other half with savoiardi crumbs.

Fruity Tiramisu (Zuppa Tartara)

Beautiful and takes just seconds to assemble using supermarket ingredients.

Savoiardi  layered with your favorite flavor jam and sweetened ricotta. The whole thing firms up so nicely, you can slice it like pound cake, creating an effortless, virtually instant, no-bake cake.

This dessert is so light and easy to make that it might be surprising to learn that the recipe comes from an 1890s cookbook, the famed “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” by Pellegrino Artusi.

Prep time: 10 minutes

No cooking, but requires 1 hour to chill

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

8 ounces ricotta cheese

2 teaspoons sugar

Pinch ground cinnamon

1/3 cup your favorite jam, plus more as needed

2 tablespoons sweet liqueur or rum

12 savoiardi

Directions

1. Combine the ricotta, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl, and beat with a fork until smooth. Reserve.

2. In a shallow bowl combine the jam with 1/4 cup warm water and the liqueur or rum. Dip the savoiardi, a few at a time, into the mixture until they are nicely moistened. Place four onto a serving plate, side by side, and spoon 1/2 of the ricotta mixture over them. Top the ricotta with small dollops of extra preserves. Repeat. Finish with final layer of dipped savoiardi and a final drizzle of preserves, or any of the remaining preserves liquid and bits.

3. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least hour, until set. Serve cold.

Main photo: Store-bought ladyfingers are dipped in liqueur, layered with chocolate sauce and then refrigerated until firm in this “instant” chocolate cake. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

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