Articles in Cooking

Polenta pasticciata, in

Corn polenta has traveled the globe to become a staple in world-class restaurants. Yet for more than 400 years, it sustained the peoples of Italy’s poor northeastern regions. Its origins go back even further, to the pulmentum of the Romans that was a mainstay of the commoner. Prior to the 17th century — before corn was transplanted to Italy from the New World — this porridge was made from hulled and crushed grains of various kinds, including farro (also known in English as “emmer”), barley and millet as well as chestnut, fava bean or chickpea flour.

Polenta as a staple

After maize took firm root in the soils of northern Italy, it became the primary staple. It wasn’t eaten fresh but rather dried and ground into polenta. For four centuries, it alone kept the wolf from the door for the common people in Veneto and Lombardy. In the 1800s, it became fashionable for the wealthy to eat it until it was ubiquitous at every meal, accompanying virtually every dish, as bread does today in other regions.

The poor ate it plain — there was often little else to eat. The upper class added condiments to it or made it into elaborate baked dishes called pasticci. Eventually, cornmeal infiltrated central and southern Italy, including the island of Sardinia, where my ancestors ate it with tomatoey stewed lamb tripe or layered with meat sauce and sheep’s cheese, much like lasagna, in a baked dish called polenta pasticciata.

In its simplest guise, polenta is served “loose” as a side dish, like its close cousin, the grits of the American south. It can be flavored simply with a dribble of olive oil or butter and Parmigiano cheese for a dish called polenta unta. Cooks in Italy’s Alpine regions like to slather it with soft cheeses such as runny gorgonzola dolce or taleggio. Often, it provides a bed for soaking up the tasty juices of cooked meats (such as sausages) or vegetables, for instance sautéed mushrooms. Or it might be turned out onto a marble slab, allowed to set, then cut into pieces that have countless uses. When fried or grilled, they become crostini di polenta, polenta “toasts.” For pasticciata, the squares are layered with a sauce and topped with cheese before baking, much like lasagna.

Traditional and modern cooking methods

Cooking polenta in the traditional copper paiolo is still a daily ritual in some parts of the polenta belt (Veneto, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Lombardy), though restaurant chefs typically replace the wooden stirring tool, called a bastone, with an electric stirring mechanism that attaches to the pot. For home cooking, a sturdy wooden spoon will do, provided it has a long handle to prevent splattering and/or burning your hand. (The whisk is not commonly used in Italy, but I have found that a heavy professional grade one is ideal for turning out a fine, lump-free polenta.) You’ll also need a heavy-bottomed pot.

But the real secret to perfect results lies not so much in the equipment as in the method. Continual stirring in one direction (clockwise, according to tradition) transforms cornmeal into billows of creamy golden polenta. The addition of the grains in a slow, steady stream a pioggia, “like rain,” assures that they are incorporated smoothly. If the polenta seems to be drying out before it is cooked, a little boiling water is added to keep it soft and easy to stir. Polenta is ready when it pulls away easily from the sides of the pan with the spoon. (The COOK’s test kitchen developed a microwave technique that requires minimal stirring to accompany an article I wrote in 1989 that received much attention, and some years later, Marcella Hazan published a recipe titled “Polenta by No-Stirring” in her book “Essentials of Italian Cooking,” which produces good results. I recently asked Victor Hazan, the late author’s husband and collaborator, about it, and he explained the derivation of the method. See my post on Forktales for the details.)

Polenta may be yellow or white, depending on the maize variety. Both are milled into fine or coarse grinds. The fine type is preferred for loose polenta. The coarse grind produces pleasantly gritty, rustic-style polenta that the Italians say can be sensed sotto i denti, “under the teeth.” It is ideal for cutting into pieces, as described earlier. (Note that the American type of cornmeal typically used for muffins or cornbread is not interchangeable with polenta; it is a different product entirely and will produce an inedible, cement-like porridge if cooked in water.)

Nowadays, there is another factor to consider. “Instant” polenta, which is pre-cooked before it is dehydrated, has virtually replaced the long-cooking kind — even in Italy. Although one can get it on the table much more quickly, it doesn’t compare to the richly flavored, silky original that can take 40 minutes or more to cook. Like so many “new and improved” foods, convenience is put ahead of quality and flavor. However, quick-cooking polenta does work well in dishes with several components, so you can have success making my maternal grandmother Giulia’s polenta pasticciata with either variety. Nonna Giulia Esu died long before I was born, but her recipe for this provincial Sardinian dish was one of her jewels that was passed down by my mother.

Nonna Giulia’s Polenta “Lasagna” With Pork and Red Wine Ragù

Note: The finest pecorino (sheep) cheeses are produced in Sardinia, Lazio and Tuscany. You can find the young, semi-soft varieties at most fine cheesemongers; alternatively, you can substitute Spanish Manchego as directed.

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: About 1 hour

Total time: About 2 1/4 hours

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the sauce:

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, minced

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 carrot, chopped

1 small celery stalk with leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon pulverized fennel seeds

1 pound ground pork

½ cup good-quality dry red wine

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 (35-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained, seeded and chopped, juices reserved

3 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

For the polenta:

7 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

2 cups fine- or coarse-grained imported Italian yellow polenta or “quick-cook” polenta

Olive oil for preparing work surface and baking dish

To assemble:

1/2 pound semi-soft pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna (or Manchego aged three to six months), shredded

Directions

For the sauce:

1. Warm the oil in a skillet. Stir in the onion, garlic, carrot and celery and sauté over medium-low heat until vegetables are soft, 12 to 15 minutes.

2. Add the fennel seeds, pork and continue to sauté until the meat colors lightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Stir in the wine and allow to evaporate (about 1 minute).

3. Dilute the tomato paste in a few tablespoons of the reserved canned-tomato juices and add it to the skillet, followed by the tomatoes with another 1/2 cup of the reserved juices, basil and salt. Stir well. Partially cover and simmer over the lowest possible heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently. The sauce should become thick and fragrant. If it seems to be drying out, add a few more tablespoons of the reserved tomato juices.

For the polenta:

1. While the ragù is simmering, bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. (Keep a kettle of boiling water on the back burner should you need extra.) Add the salt.

2. Stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon, add the polenta in a slow, constant stream to prevent lumps from forming. Simmer, stirring constantly, until the polenta is very thick and creamy and pulls away from the side of the pan, about 40 minutes. If you are using quick-cook polenta, you may need to add a little boiling water to ensure that it doesn’t get too thick. (You can also cook it longer than the instructions specify in order to obtain a creamy consistency — up to 20 minutes or so, adding more boiling water as needed.)

3. Use a rubber spatula dipped into hot water to spread the polenta out into a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Let set until cooled completely and firm, about 15 minutes. Cut into even 3-inch-by-4-inch rectangles; set aside. Lightly oil a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.

To assemble:

1. Heat the oven to 450 F.

2. Arrange half the polenta pieces on the bottom of the baking dish. Top them with half of the sauce and spread to cover. Sprinkle half the cheese over the sauce. Repeat with another layer of sauce, followed by the remaining cheese. Bake until heated through and the cheese is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into pieces and serve.

Main photo: Polenta pasticciata, in “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul,” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books). Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

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Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast. Credit: David Latt

The pursuit of a healthy diet is frequently lamented as an exercise in deprivation. Often the ingredients that must be given up are ones that delight the palate and excite the soul. Chef Paul Fields saw no such deprivation when he signed on to be the chef at the upscale, gluten-free Inn on Randolph in Napa, California. He serves a breakfast of Beluga lentils with roasted vegetables, sausage and a poached egg.

The Napa Valley is renowned for quality vineyards and award-winning restaurants. The city of Napa is less well-known. Recently in the news because of an earthquake that caused considerable damage in the downtown commercial district, the city is reviving and becoming a locus for inventive chefs and quality accommodations.

Fields is one of those chefs drawn to the valley’s bounty of agricultural products. He prides himself on being a good purveyor. He collaborates with local farmers and has a garden on the property so the produce he cooks comes fresh and organic to his kitchen. For him, no matter what a guest’s dietary restrictions might be, his goal is to create nutritious, well-plated delicious meals.

In search of a breakfast that would do just that, Fields turned to an old favorite: lentils.

Hungry guests about to begin a day of wine tasting, cycling or hiking in the valley need a hearty meal. Often regarded as low on the culinary totem pole, lentils are a heritage legume, mentioned in the Bible and served around the globe as a source of low-cost protein that is rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. It is cultivated in a rainbow of colors and sizes including the Red Chief, the brown Pardina, the Crimson and the French Green. For his signature breakfast dish, Fields uses the glossy black Beluga lentil.

Fields accomplishes a bit of magic with what some might call the most prosaic of ingredients — a handful of lentils, a carrot, a piece of squash and an egg. A combination of contrasting flavors and textures, the dish is delicious and visually beautiful, a good way to begin the day.

Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast

In addition to being gluten-free, the dish can be vegetarian-vegan when the butter, sausage and egg are omitted.

The organic Beluga lentils that Fields uses come from the Timeless Food company based in Conrad, Montana. To add heat without spiciness, dried cayenne peppers cook along with the lentils and charred onion.

Adding to the convenience of the dish, the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausages may be cooked beforehand and reheated just before serving. Only the poached egg should be prepared at the last minute.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, roughly chopped

1 whole dried cayenne pepper

1 cup black Beluga lentils

2 1/2 cups water

4 carrots, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, cut on the bias or into rounds

1 cup squash (butternut or acorn), washed, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch chunks or long slabs

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 sausage links, chicken apple sausage or use what you like from your local market

1 tablespoon sweet butter

5 tablespoons sherry vinegar, divided

4 large eggs

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, heated over a low flame, reduced to 1 tablespoon

2 tablespoons micro-greens (kale, chives, pea shoots), washed, dried and Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped

1/2 cup parsley leaves, washed, dried, roughly chopped

Directions

1. In a large saucepan or small pot, heat ½ tablespoon olive oil. Sauté the onion over medium heat until lightly charred. Add dried cayenne pepper and continue sautéing 5 to 6 minutes. Add lentils and water. Stir well.

2. Bring to a simmer and cook for 25 to 35 minutes uncovered or until the lentils are a little softer than al dente. Set aside.

3. Preheat oven to 450 F. Toss carrots and squash with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, season with sea salt and black pepper.

4. Place on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat sheet or parchment paper. Using tongs, turn after 10 minutes and cook about a total of 15 to 20 minutes or until al dente. Remove and reserve.

5. Large sausages can be prepared whole, in which case the skin should be punctured all over with a sharp paring knife so the sausages do not swell during cooking, or cut into 1/2-inch rounds or 2-inch bias-cut pieces. Heat a sauté pan over a medium flame. Place the sausages into the pan and sear on all sides, using tongs to turn them frequently. When the sausages are cooked, remove from the pan, drain on a paper-towel-lined plate and reserve.

6. Heat a large sauté pan. Transfer the lentils from the pot to the sauté pan. Simmer to reduce the liquid by half. Add butter and combine with the lentils’ broth to create a sauce. Stir well.

7. Add 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar to brighten the flavors. Taste and adjust the flavors using sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a bit more butter and vinegar. The sauce should be thick, so, if needed, simmer a few minutes longer to reduce excess liquid.

8. Fill a medium-sized sauce pan or a small pot with a quart of water. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons vinegar, which will help coagulate the egg white around the yolk. Bring to a simmer.

9. If the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausage have been prepared ahead, reheat.

10. Open an egg, being careful not to break the yolk. Stir the hot vinegar water before sliding in the egg. The gentle vortex helps shape the egg.

Cook 3 1/2 minutes for a loose yolk and 4 1/2 to 5 minutes for a medium yolk. Fields suggests using a kitchen timer so the eggs do not overcook.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the poached egg from the water and drain on a paper towel for 2 to 3 seconds.

11. If possible, heat the plates. Drizzle or use the back of a spoon to mark each plate with a small amount of the reduced balsamic vinegar, which is not only decorative but adds another layer of sweet-acidic flavor.

12. Put the carrots into the pan with the lentils and toss well to coat with the sauce. Place the squash on each plate. Spoon the lentils and carrots onto the squash. Add the sausage and top with the poached egg.

13. Dust with sea salt and black pepper. To add color and a little crunch, sprinkle micro-greens and chopped Italian parsley leaves on top. Finish with sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil.

Serve hot.

Main photo: Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast. Credit: David Latt

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Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry

“Chicken with cheese”: The words conjure up visions of that college-student standby, the fried-chicken melt. But poulet au fromage is something quite different — something elegant and perfectly delicious.

Exemplifying the cookery of early 18th-century France, long before the famous chef Marie-Antoine Carême came along and codified haute cuisine, the recipe appears in “Nouveau Traité de la Cuisine,” Published in the 1740s by a writer who used the pen name Menon. (Note that it wasn’t until the 20th century that chefs regularly began to publish their recipes while they were still fashionable; before then, chefs typically didn’t reveal their secrets until after they’d retired. So published recipes tended to represent the cuisine of an earlier era.)

Haute cuisine standards

Anyway, poulet au fromage is a delightful dish with a family resemblance to the 19th-century haute cuisine standard veal Foyot. In both cases, meat is simmered with broth and white wine and then baked under a covering of Gruyère (or Swiss) cheese; the ingredients meld into a concoction with a savory, sophisticated flavor.

But there are differences (besides the obvious fact that veal Foyot contains veal, which is expensive and troubles some people on ethical grounds). Poulet au fromage includes a substantial amount of herbs, which was more characteristic of French food in the 18th century than it was in the 19th (and is perhaps a little more to our present-day tastes). And it does not include fried minced onions, as veal Foyot does. If you felt like discreetly sprinkling some lightly fried onions on the chicken before adding the final cheese layer, however, I would be willing to close my eyes.

Menon’s recipe calls for a whole chicken, but the chickens of his day were younger and therefore more tender than those we can conveniently get in our supermarkets. I substitute chicken breast; to make up for the slight loss of flavor due to the absence of bones, I tend to add a bit of bottled chicken base.

Properly, the herbs should be added in the form of a bouquet wrapped in cheesecloth. But if you do that, you have to transfer everything to a saucepan, because in a frying pan the liquid will nowhere near cover the bouquet. It’s therefore more convenient to add all the herbs loose; given that are no other ingredients in the cooking liquid, they’re easy enough to strain out later.

Poulet au Fromage

Prep time: About 20 minutes

Cook time: About 1 1/2 hours

Total time: About 1 hour 50 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken breast

2 ounces butter

3/4 cup dry white wine such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc

1/2 cup chicken broth

3 sprigs parsley

2 shallots, sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

3 whole cloves

1 bay leaf

2 small sprigs fresh thyme

3 leaves fresh basil

Salt and pepper

1 pound Swiss or French Gruyère cheese, grated

Directions

1. Remove any bones and skin from the breasts, pound them with a kitchen mallet to flatten and cut them into pieces 1 1/2- to 2-inches square. Melt the butter in a large pan and fry the pieces in two batches until lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

2. Add the wine, broth, parsley, shallots, garlic, cloves, bay leaf, thyme and basil along with salt and pepper to taste. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, loosely covered, for 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 475 F.

3. Remove the meat from the pan. Strain the cooking liquid and transfer half of it to a 2-quart casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the cheese, add the chicken pieces and the rest of the cooking liquid, and top with the remaining cheese. Cover the baking dish tightly and bake until the cheese is entirely melted, 10 to 12 minutes.

4. Raise the temperature to 500 F, remove the cover from the casserole and return to the oven until the cheese has begun turning brown in spots, 5 to 7 minutes.

 Main photo: Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry

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If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben185

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.

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.”

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

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

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Sam Fromartz's newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz

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.”

Fromartz let his curiosities guide his book's odyssey. Credit: Samuel FromartzAs 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.

Samuel Fromartz, author of "In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey." Credit: Susan Biddle

Samuel Fromartz, author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle

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.

“When you’re reading about the Romans and you read about all the different breads they made with barley and spelt, chick pea flour and everything else, all of those breads and grains were lost,” he said. Now, these grains are sometimes used as animal feed. But at one time they were eaten by people and prized.

“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

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Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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.

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.

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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.

Braised Cabbage

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

Ingredients

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

15 peppercorns

8 juniper berries, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Pongal is a typical Indian food made with rice.

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.

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

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

Chakkarai Pongal

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Blue-glass Ball jars lined up on a kitchen shelf. Credit: Deborah Madison

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.

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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