Articles in Cooking

Fennel granola. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Granola is a marvelous vehicle for foraged seeds. When I harvested more than a quart of fennel seeds last fall, I never could have imagined that I’d have used them all by spring.

Thanks to the delicate anise cookie-like taste of fennel granola, I believe my demand for fennel seeds will always outreach my supply. Fennel granola is so delightful that even those who don’t have access to wild-harvested seeds will want to make it. Store-bought fennel seeds are slightly less flavorful, but work well in this recipe.

As a forager, I find wild seeds to be fascinating, particularly in fall, when the number of other crops to pick diminishes. Every year, I work hard to collect all manner of wild seeds. Some of these, such as seeds from the mustard family, are very flavorful and can be used as spices. Others, such as lamb’s-quarter (Chenopodium spp.) and its cousin kochia (Kochia spp.), need to be processed to remove bitter components before they can be utilized as food. Other seeds, for example evening primrose, a high source of gamma-linolenic acid, are relatively flavorless but powerfully nutritious.

Seeds such as amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), nettle (Urtica spp.) or evening primrose (Oenothera spp.) are easy to bring into the kitchen, requiring little more to process than simply shaking them off the plant and some minor winnowing. These seeds are a dream to harvest, but because they have little flavor, I often forget about using them over the course of the winter. In theory, they can be ground to better access their nutrition, then used atop or mixed into pretty much anything you could cook, from salad to breadcrumb toppings to dessert. In practice, these flavorless wild seeds sit unused in my kitchen. A foraging friend, Erica Marciniec, mentioned using her seeds in granola. I followed her advice and it worked brilliantly. Finally, with granola, I’ve found a way to use these wild seeds in a way that is convenient for me to cook, and that the whole family will enjoy.

While I really enjoyed eating my wild seeds in a typical cinnamon-flavored granola, I knew I could somehow boost the flavor.

That’s when I rediscovered my quart of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) seeds. Initially, I added only a teaspoon of fennel seeds. I discovered that I loved the taste so much that I omitted cinnamon entirely and increased the fennel to further enhance the flavor of the granola.

I ran nine test batches of fennel granola, tweaking every detail you could imagine. In the end, leaving it in the oven produced the most consistently brown and crunchy granola. The addition of the egg white helps to form clusters. Of course, it could easily be omitted if you are making granola for someone with an egg allergy.

I tried making this granola with honey, but found the flavor competed too much with the fennel. Using brown sugar as a sweetener makes this recipe budget friendly, too. If you’d prefer to use honey, substitute 2/3 cup honey, and omit the brown sugar and water.

Fennel Granola

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 10 to 12 minutes

Total time: 6 to 8 hours (including cooling time in the oven)

Yield: 5 cups

Ingredients

½ cup butter

¾ cup packed brown sugar

3 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups quick oats

2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal

¼ cup fennel seeds, lightly ground in a spice mill

2 tablespoons other wild seeds such as evening primrose (optional)

¼ teaspoon salt

¾ cup slivered almonds

1 egg white

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. In a small pot, melt the butter over low heat. Add the brown sugar and water, raise the heat to medium, and let it bubble for 2 minutes. Remove it from the heat, and stir in the vanilla.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the two kinds of oatmeal, seeds, salt and almonds.

4. Pour the warm liquid ingredients over the dry ones, and make certain that they are mixed very thoroughly, so that all of the oatmeal appears wet.

5. In a small bowl, whisk the egg white with a fork until it is frothy. Add it to the oatmeal mixture, and again, stir very well.

6. Pour the granola mix onto a greased 12×17-inch baking sheet. Use a spatula to press it down and make it evenly thick. This will help to ensure that you will have big chunks once it is cooked.

7. Place the granola in the oven and bake it for 10 to 12 minutes. When that time is up, turn off the oven, and leave the granola inside until it is cool. From the time the granola goes into the oven until the oven is cool, do not open the oven door.

Main photo: Fennel granola. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

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Black kale with vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Although vegetables — especially dark leafy greens — are often treated as a side dish, they also can be served as an appetizer; as a bed for other foods; a dish on their own if made in quantity; or just cold as a kind of tapas.

The attribute I like most about dark leafy greens, perhaps excepting spinach, is that they are rugged vegetables that can handle a variety of cooking methods including long cooking times.

These three simple recipes each result in a surprisingly delicious dish, but also in three quite appropriate appetizers for a follow-up dish the next day should you have leftovers. The recipes for the kale and the dandelion are Italian-style, sweet-and-sour preparations, which I find work particularly well (as the Italians discovered long ago) with bitter greens.

Black kale and vinegar

Kale is a bitter cruciferous plant and the so-called black kale, also known as Russian or Tuscan kale, is a particular cultivar that has very dark green, oak-like and crinkly leaves. The following is an Italian method of cooking, and it also makes the preparation very nice served at room temperature.

Prep and cooking time: 45 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 side dish servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

One 1/8-inch-thick slice pancetta, cut into strips

10 ounces Russian or black kale, rinsed

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic and pancetta over medium-high heat, stirring, and once the pancetta is slightly crispy in about 4 minutes, add the kale.

2. Cover and cook on low until the kale is somewhat tender, about 30 minutes. Add the vinegar with the sugar dissolved in it to the pan, cover, and continue cooking 10 minutes.

3. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm or at room temperature.

Sweet and sour dandelion

Sweet and sour dandelion. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Sweet and sour dandelion. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

In Italian they would call this kind of dish agrodolce or sweet and sour. The sweetness added to the bitter taste of dandelion is a contrast that many gourmets swoon over.

Prep and cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 side dish servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 ounce pancetta, diced small or cut into thin strips

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Four 1/4-inch thick slices onion

1 bunch dandelion (about 3/4 pound), bottom quarter of stems removed, washed

3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 teaspoons sugar

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat with the pancetta, garlic and onion and cook until softened, stirring, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the dandelion and mint and cook until they wilt, tossing frequently. Season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, dissolve the sugar in the vinegar then pour over the dandelion and cook until evaporated, about 3 minutes.

3. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Drowned mustard greens

Drowned mustard greens. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Drowned mustard greens. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

This Sicilian-inspired recipe is derived from a recipe originally for broccoli, but it works spectacularly with mustard greens. The Sicilians call this kind of dish affucati, ”drowned,” because it’s smothered in wine. It’s terrific as a room-temperature appetizer the next day too. If serving the next day as a room temperature antipasto, let the Parmigiano-Reggiano melt and then drizzle some olive oil to serve.

Prep and cooking time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 side dish servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, coarsely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed

1 pound mustard greens, heavier stems removed and discarded, leaves washed and shredded

3/4 cup dry red wine

8 imported black olives, pitted and chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. In a flameproof casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the onion and garlic until soft, stirring constantly so the garlic doesn’t burn, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the anchovies and once they have melted add the shredded mustard greens, cover, and cook until they wilt, about 5 minutes.

2. Pour the red wine into the sauce with the olives, salt and pepper. Cover again, reduce the heat to medium and cook 15 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter with a slotted spoon and sprinkle on the Parmigiano.

Main photo: Black kale with vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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Macaroons are a traditional Passover sweet, but this recipe brings a new dimension by adding homemade chocolate ice cream. The chocolate ice cream base is adapted from

Passover is a Jewish holiday celebrating freedom. The initial meal (the seder) and the way you eat for a week offer a small part of the ancient Israelites’ experience as they journeyed from slavery in Egypt to the complexity of freedom. Breads, cooked on the run during their flight, didn’t have sufficient time to rise. The result? Matzo.

Every year, for the first few days of Passover, matzo seems somehow so new. A fat shmear of Temp-Tee ultra-whipped cream cheese and a tart and fruity jelly on top. Or soaked and fried into a matzo brei (a French-toast-like dish) crunchy with sugar and cinnamon. These are the foods of memory to me.

But the problem is that Passover is a weeklong festival. And when it comes to cooking and eating, it is a very long week indeed. Matzo is eaten all the time. I mean ALL the time. It’s in every food, every dish, every treat and in every course. It’s ground into breading, pulverized into cake flour, crushed into farfel and layered into mini “lasagnas.”

Matzo fatigue and the dreaded matzo-pation set in. Desperation takes over by around day four. But frankly, what bothers me the most is when matzo invades desserts. Folks often cook more on Passover than all year long, often pulling out heritage recipes. Even I, a modernist, will cook up a heritage dish or two along with my flights of imagination and globally influenced dishes.

When it comes to desserts, though, many holiday cooks reach for box mixes. Virtually none taste good. These mixes are often packed with processed ingredients and artificial flavors. As a professional cook and culinary instructor — and honestly, a person with taste buds — I don’t make them and I don’t buy them.

If I want heritage desserts, I buy Passover chocolates. That does the trick.

But making desserts at home? What can you do that tastes great and is still Passover-worthy? Matzo in desserts always makes itself known in taste and texture — and I don’t mean that in a nice way whatsoever. No matter how you cut it (pun intended, sorry), matzo desserts are definitely not what I want in order to make a holiday more special.

My advice? If you can put the time and effort into cooking desserts, fear not. Here is a solution.

Delicious Passover desserts

This Sirio Maccioni's Cirque Crème Brûlée has been adapted from Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook -- a perfect Passover dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

This Sirio Maccioni’s Cirque Creme Brulee has been adapted from Molly O’Neill’s “New York Cookbook” — it’s a delicious Passover dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

Offer up some treats that are deliciously Passover-ready AND matzo-free and grain-free. Try a Pavlova, a macaroon, a flourless chocolate cake, ice cream, chestnut-flour crepes, custards, crème brûlée or nut paste-based cookies.

This Vanilla Pavlova is light, airy and sweet. The recipe was contributed by Elizabeth Schwartz. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

This Vanilla Pavlova is light, airy and sweet. The recipe was contributed by Elizabeth Schwartz. Photo credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

A world of matzo-free desserts awaits you.

These Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies strike just the right balance between sweet and tart. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies strike just the right balance between sweet and tart. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 24 cookies

Ingredients

14 ounces pistachio paste, King Arthur or another all-natural brand preferred

1 cup (200 grams) sugar

2 large egg whites

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Scraped seeds of 1 vanilla bean pod

1 cup dried tart cherries

1/2 cup pistachios, lightly crushed

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the pistachio paste until it resembles big cookie crumbs, 20 to 30 seconds. Add the sugar and mix thoroughly. Add the egg whites, cardamom and vanilla. Mix until completely smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the tart cherries.

3. Drop 2 teaspoons of batter per cookie on the sheet, leaving 1 1/2 to 2 inches between the cookies. Sprinkle the pistachios over the top of the cookies.

4. Bake until light brown but still soft, 12 to 13 minutes. (The cookies will firm up considerably as they cool). Store at in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Main image: Macaroons are a traditional Passover sweet, but this recipe brings a new dimension by adding homemade chocolate ice cream. The chocolate ice cream base is adapted from “The Perfect Scoop,” by David Lebovitz. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

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Lamb skewers are cooked at the table at Songhwa Yanggochi near Konkuk University in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

As the Korean palate becomes more adventurous, a whole new meat has become South Korea’s next big culinary craze — lamb.

For years, lamb and mutton were considered unpalatable by Koreans — too strong, too smelly, not to mention too cute while prancing through the fields. Meat consumption was limited to beef, chicken, pork, sometimes duck, and very occasionally dog. But a booming Korean-Chinese population has got the country into the swing of lamb.

“When it started we aimed for Chinese people, but then they brought their Korean friends to the restaurant,” says Lee Hang-yung, a Korean-Chinese worker from Heilongjiang Province who lives in Seoul. “And people’s tastes slowly changed, and that’s what’s happened here.”

Chinese food booms

A Chinese restaurant in South Korea serves lamb skewers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A Chinese restaurant in South Korea serves lamb skewers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Lee helps operate Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the first Chinese lamb restaurant in what is now a small Chinatown outside Konkuk University. The street is end-to-end with Chinese lamb restaurants, some that Lee derides as “imitators.”

Lee speaks Korean with a Chinese accent, and though he is ethnically Korean, he is, like most of the workers and owners on this street, a Chinese national, born and raised in the People’s Republic.

He is part of a growing minority in South Korea called — sometimes derogatorily — Joseonjok, a name that references a former Korean kingdom. Like ethnic Koreans from the former Soviet Union, Korean-Chinese are not granted automatic right of return in South Korea the way Korean-Americans, Korean-Japanese and many other ethnic Koreans are.

Still, since the re-establishment of ties between South Korea and China in the early 1990s, Korean-Chinese have come in large numbers, usually to work the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs local Koreans won’t do. Like immigrants the world over, some open restaurants, and Chinese lamb has proved to be the safest investment.

Serving up lamb

Yanggochi has spread well beyond its initial market of Chinese living in South; 80 to 90% of customers are now Korean. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Yanggochi has spread well beyond its initial market of Chinese living in South Korea; 80 to 90% of customers are now Korean. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

The flavors are a bit different, but the dish is basically the same as in China.

Yanggochi, meaning lamb skewers, are cubes of skewered lamb barbecued at the table over hot coals. Holding the skewers together while turning them is quite a skill, and as a result, most restaurants now have a machine that automatically rotates the skewers.

“In China, the yanggochi is prepared with the fat and the meat together,” Lee says. “But here it’s more like galbe,” referring to common Korean barbecue, with the fat trimmed from the meat. The meat and the seasoning is much less strong than in China, to cater to Korean tastes.

Once the skewers are cooked, they’re placed on a rack above the heat to cool, then dipped in a seasoning of red pepper, cumin, parilla, mustard seed and other spices. There is a bevy of side dishes that can go with it, including steamed dumplings, mapo tofu in hot and sour sauce, peanuts, cubes of radish kimchi, and thick sliced tofu with chili sauce. The lamb can be wrapped in ggotbbang — literally, “flower bread,” or mandarin rolls — a rolled, steamed bun, along with zha cai, pickled mustard plant stem.

For drinks, Chinese Tsingtao beer is a must for most patrons — a series of ad campaigns and clever product placements have made yanggochi and Tsingtao inseparable. Goryangju, a very potent clear Chinese liquor, is also popular, as is Korean soju.

Trying new flavors

A worker stokes the coals at Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the oldest lamb restaurant on the block. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A worker stokes the coals at Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the oldest lamb restaurant on the block. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Korean lamb restaurants can be found all over this restaurant-dense city. The trade magazine “Meat & Livestock Australia” noted in a report this February that Australian mutton and sheep exports to Korea have risen sharply year-on-year over the last six years.

The report says that despite a continued “general negative perception” toward lamb, “the market’s younger generation is more willing to try new flavors, and there has been an emergence of Chinese-influenced lamb barbecue and skewer restaurants in Seoul, commonly frequented by male consumers in their 30s to 40s.” Australia is the source of 94% of South Korea’s sheep meat.

Yanggochi recently also got a boost when celebrity TV chef Baek Jong-won recommended it on his TV show a few months ago.

“In the past, our customers were all Chinese, but now it’s 80 to 90% Koreans,” says one young woman who works at Kondae Yanggochi, and declined to provide her name. “I think they’ve been trying yanggochi, have gotten used to it, and now they really like it.”

Main photo: Lamb skewers are cooked at the table at Songhwa Yanggochi near Konkuk University in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

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Tater Tots, long a staple of school lunches, have been elevated to gourmet fare by some chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

It’s the side dish of my childhood, what school cafeterias invariably paired with burgers, sloppy Joes, hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches and sundry other entrée staples. Growing up, I must have eaten Tater Tots at least once a week, but after college I turned my back on those golden brown, crunchy-yet-soft, mild-yet-savory fried potato puffs.

While I never would have guessed that we’d be reunited, tastes and times have changed with the re-invention of my old school friend. Today these potatoes are no longer relegated to institutional fare. Tots appear everywhere from upscale, New American-style restaurants to bars, burger joints and food trucks. Nor are they merely side dishes for hot sandwiches. Chefs partner them with omelets, pulled pork and fried chicken or serve them on their own as a hearty appetizer or entrée.

Fond memories of Tater Tots

Tater tots have long been a staple of school lunches. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Tater Tots have long been a staple of school lunches. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Nostalgia drives this renewed passion for Tater Tots, said Julie Crist, owner of The Tot Cart in Philadelphia. “Parents used to make Tater Tots for their kids. Now they have souped-up versions of those elementary school lunches,” she said.

Among The Tot Cart’s offerings are “chicken tot pies,” which feature chicken potpie filling layered over potatoes, and a dessert tot consisting of tots tossed in cinnamon sugar and drizzled in dulce de leche. “The salty-sweet mixture makes tots ideal for dessert. With their crispy outsides you really can put anything on them,” said Crist, who serves more than 100 types of tots from her food truck in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

At Alexander’s Tavern in Baltimore, tots are the house specialty. “Tots play on Alexander’s theme of taking a childhood classic and giving it an adult twist,” said executive chef Faith Paulick.

Alexander’s Tavern diners nosh on “tot-chos,” potatoes smothered in queso and jack cheeses, salsa, sour cream and jalapenos, as well as chili- and cheese-covered tots and BBQ sweet potato tots. The best-selling item on the menu is Maryland tots, Paulick said. These are tots blanketed with lump crab meat, crab dip and Old Bay seasoning.

To keep tabs on the food’s popularity, Alexander’s Tavern maintains a “tots sold” counter on its website. To date, the restaurant has sold more than 3 million.

Tater Tots a boon to profits

Tater tots were created in an attempt to make use of the potato scraps leftover from cutting French fries. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Tater Tots were created in an attempt to make use of the potato scraps leftover from cutting french fries. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Although Tater Tots now feature in an array of clever dishes, they had far humbler beginnings. They simply were a way to use the scraps from freshly cut french fries.

In 1952 F. Nephi Grigg of Nampa, Idaho, began considering how he and his brother Golden could turn the leftover slivers at their potato-processing plant into something more profitable. At that time the cuttings were being sold as livestock feed. Grigg decided to try grinding up the pieces, mixing in some spices, pushing the concoction through a form and then deep-frying the bite-sized chunks. With that, Grigg created the first batch of Tater Tots.

He premiered his invention at the 1953 National Potato Convention in Miami, and the tots were an instant hit.

Thanks to Tater Tots, by the late 1950s the Grigg brothers possessed a quarter of America’s frozen potato market. In 1960 the brothers changed their company name from Oregon Frozen Foods to Ore-Ida, a nod to their facility’s proximity to the Oregon-Idaho border.

Five years and multiple new facilities later, the Griggs sold Ore-Ida and its Tater Tots to the H.J. Heinz Co. for $31 million. Heinz, in turn, made these frozen potatoes a staple of American kitchens, cafeterias and childhoods.

While I may have been raised on those mass-produced, frozen tots, I now prefer to make my own. It’s not a complicated or labor-intensive process. In fact, I only need a few ingredients — potatoes, flour, salt, pepper and oil — and a grater, a slotted spoon and a deep pot.

As I’ve learned through trial and error, the key to good tots is to fry rather than bake them. The difference between those two techniques is night and day,  Paulick said.

“Frying gives you nice, even cooking. The potatoes are crispy on the outside and cooked completely on the inside. Unfortunately, you don’t get the same result when you bake tots,” she said.

Crunchy tots allow you to pile on a host of ingredients, including cheeses, meats and sauces. They also enable you to serve them school-cafeteria-style, unadorned except for a dusting of salt and pepper.

Scallion Potato Tots

Scallion Tater Tots ready for frying. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Scallion Potato Tots ready for frying. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

2 pounds Russet potatoes, washed

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white ground pepper

3 tablespoons minced scallion, whites only

Grapeseed or canola oil, for frying

Salt (optional)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Prick the potatoes with a fork and place them in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool for 10 to 15 minutes, until they are no longer too hot to touch.

Using a pairing knife, peel off and discard the potato skins. With a box grater, grate the potatoes into a bowl.

Add the flour, onion powder, salt, white pepper and minced scallion and, using a fork, toss together until evenly combined.

Fill a deep pot with 2 1/2 to 3 inches of oil. Heat the oil on medium-high until it reaches 350 F on a thermometer.

Drop the tots into the oil one at a time. Cook until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, scoop out the cooked tots and place them on a clean, dry cloth to drain. Repeat until all the tots have been fried.

Sprinkle a smidgen of salt over them, if desired. Serve warm.

Main image: Tater Tots, long a staple of school lunches, have been elevated to gourmet fare by some chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

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Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, diners can taste not just local Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself.

One restaurant that embodies that spirit is Lilac in downtown Billings, the largest city in Montana. The restaurant has earned local adoration and national accolades. The year after it opened, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.

Crafting good food, good staff

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

At Lilac, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance or exclusivity here.

Rather, proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson describes Lilac’s food with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Montana has ranked among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food by Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. For Lilac, Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.”

It’s a food worldview that brings ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, beef, cheese and honey together with, for example, wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.

Cooking as ‘a soulful experience’

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” Engebretson says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”

And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams and bake bread — all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.

These close quarters are part of what crafts a deeply committed team, comfortable in the back of the house and the front. Ask any server or chef at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it. Chefs and cooks share their intimate knowledge as they serve from a seasonal menu.

Dishes range from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli and micro salad. At the same time, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house.

Innovative but approachable

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson asserts, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand.” The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. Concurrently, he says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies and ideas that speak to us today.”

It can mean hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking and variations on flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques and a heritage focus.

Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness and a strong sense of purpose. In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. “At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”

Main Photo: Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

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Main caption: Gino Sorbillo, Italy's famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Seganv

Fried street foods are popular in every region of Italy, where you’ll often hear: “Fried, even chair legs are delicious.” Neapolitans in particular have a cult-like devotion to fried fare, especially pizza fritta.

After World War II, the city found itself in crisis, and the materials needed for pizza — the mozzarella and even wood for the ovens — became a luxury. Fried pizza, a less-expensive alternative nicknamed “pizza of the people,” was filled with “poor” ingredients — pork crackling, pepper and ricotta. Housewives sold it on the streets to supplement the family’s income. Times were so hard, customers could even buy pizza fritta on credit: Called pizza-at-eight, pizza a otto, it was eaten on the spot but paid for eight days later.

Simple, homemade food

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Naples-born Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, made one for me recently explaining, “Pizza fritta comes in different shapes. Round, called montanare, or half moon calzone.” For the dough, which is the same as for classic oven pizza, Sorbillo uses only a minuscule pinch of leavening to create chewy, never spongy, dough. He stretches a round, fills it and pulls the ends into a whimsical mimicry of the clown Pulcinella’s hat. Sorbillo flash-fries at just the right temperature for a crisp, non-greasy outside and warm, gooey center.

“Pizza fritta is a simple food, easy to make at home because unlike classic pizza you don’t need a wood-burning stove, just a frying pan,” Sorbillo says.  It’s very versatile and can be filled with virtually anything: a traditional ricotta, provolone and Neapolitan salami combo; mozzarella and ham; or sautéed broccoli rabe or other greens. And it is great plain or served with a side dipping of tomato sauce.

When you’re in Naples, be sure to have a classic wood oven-baked pizza at Gino’s famed restaurant on Via dei Tribunali. But if the lines are too long to get in, which they always are, enjoy a piping hot pizza fritta at his small fried pizza spot just a few doors down.  If you can’t get to Naples, make Sorbillo’s fried pizza at home with the recipe below. Use his excellent dough recipe or use store-bought pizza dough.

Gino Sorbillo’s Pizza Fritta

If you can't make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

If you can’t make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus 8 hours passive

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

A tiny pinch, 0.07 ounces, brewers yeast

2 cups, about 1 pound, organic “0” or pizza flour

3 teaspoons salt

Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying

Sorbillo’s suggested fillings: sheep’s milk ricotta, thinly sliced ciccioli  (Neapolitan pork salami), diced smoked provolone cheese, diced fresh peeled tomatoes, black pepper

Directions

1. Dissolve the yeast in 1 1/3 cups of warm water in a bowl, and then sift in the flour and salt. Knead on a floured work surface until smooth, 10 to 12 minutes.  Divide the dough into 4 balls and let rise at room temperature, covered in a clean cloth, for about 8 hours.

2. Heat enough oil in a deep-sided skillet to cover one pizza at a time. Heat to 400 F.

3. Stretch each section into a flat circle, pressing down with your palm to flatten it. Put the ricotta, salami, provolone and a tablespoon of diced tomatoes in the center. Season with black pepper, fold over and pinch the edges closed, taking care to leave an air pocket in the center.   Pull on the two ends a bit and slowly lower into the hot oil. Fry in the hot oil, about 1/2 minute per side, until golden. Drain on absorbent paper and repeat with the other three pizzas. Eat while warm.

Main photo: Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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This Japanese meal has miso sauce, daikon radish, salmon, omelet, purple radish, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, burdock, chestnut, grapes, dried baby fish -- some of these rather small amounts. I give it a score 10 item including the accompanying bowl of rice and miso soup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

An official slogan for improving the nutrition of the Japanese population was issued by the Japanese government in 1985: “Consume Thirty Different Food Items Each Day.”

The food items were divided into six categories, and we were advised to choose evenly from each category. Each ingredient, it was said — meat, poultry and fish, soybeans, grains, vegetables and fruits, milk products, and sea vegetables — contains its own nutritional properties, so following this slogan will help to create balanced meals.

Even before this public announcement, there was a growing awareness that the Japanese diet since the turn of the 20th century had succumbed to influence from the West. It was thought that we must return to our own traditional diet to achieve optimum nutrition.

Just for fun, from time to time I still count how many different food items I have consumed in a single day.

A realistic goal?

A high-scoring lunch at home of kinpira ( flavored carrot, parsnip and burdock) and soba buckwheat noodles, fried tofu, cabbage, onion, fennel bulb and egg). Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

A high-scoring lunch of kinpira (flavored carrot, parsnip and burdock) and soba (buckwheat noodles) with fried tofu, cabbage, onion, fennel bulb and egg. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

This practice was instilled in me by my mother. Recently I made the count for all three meals, and found I’d consumed 21 separate foods on that day; far short of the government’s recommendation. This caused me to think. How and why did this government recommendation come about? Is it still a realistic guiding principle?

Here is what I found.

Until 1868, Japan lagged far behind Western countries in technology, science and engineering because of the closure of the country to foreign trade for 260 years. Even the small physical stature of the Japanese population was blamed on a poor, very limited Japanese diet that was based on small quantities of rice, fish, soybean products, with some vegetables and seaweeds.

The Meiji Emperor encouraged the population to begin consuming beef, a food item previously banned for ordinary citizens. Newly imported Western ingredients included meat, meat products, milk and butter, and new preparation techniques led to the creation of new “Japanese” dishes that were called “yo-shoku” (Japanized Western dishes).

Yo-shoku dishes with their rich flavors and large servings instantly became national favorites: beef steak, pork cutlet, curry and rice, “omu-rice” (stir-fried morsels of chicken and rice, seasoned with tomato ketchup and wrapped in an omelet), to name a few.

Dietary changes brought risks

Chikuzen-ni: This dish features broccoli, carrot, onion, purple baby potato, white baby potato, parsnip, shiitake mushroom, chicken and olive oil -- a 9-item dish.

This dish (Chikuzen-ni) features broccoli, carrot, onion, purple baby potato, white baby potato, parsnip, shiitake mushroom, chicken and olive oil — a nine-item dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

During the heyday of Japanese boom-times in 1970-1990, even more varieties of Western foods became available and popular (provided by the major Western fast-food companies). And Japanese began consuming increasing quantities of rare cheeses, foie gras and expensive wines.

These dietary changes came with hefty penalties: Diabetes became more widespread. Heart disease became the number No. 2 killer in Japan. And — this was formerly unthinkable — morbid obesity is now present in the country.

Meals dominated by fat, meat, meat products, egg, sugar and milk products push up calorie consumption but not the number of daily food items. The broad categories of foods of the traditional complete Japanese diet such as seafood, seaweed, vegetables and more fruits are lacking. So the 1985 rule was an attempt to bring variety back to the everyday diet.

Want to try eating 30 different foods in a day? Choose at least two items from each of the six food categories. Since consuming vegetables and fruits is good for our health, add two additional items from categories 3 and 4. If you do this, you will easily approach 20 separate food items — a good start for reaching the goal of 30 items that the Japanese government recommended.

By following this practice, you can change the way you plan and prepare meals to the benefit of your health.

Six categories of food items

This Japanese style fish stew includes porgy, squid and hard-shell clam from fishmonger, Blue Moon, which sets up their store at Union Square Market, New York City, from spring through early winter. Also onion, corn, tomato and green and yellow zucchini are mingling with seafood in dashi (Japanese stock) broth -- an 8 score dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

This Japanese-style fish stew includes porgy, squid and hard-shell clam from fishmonger Blue Moon, which sets up at Union Square Market in New York City from spring through early winter. Also, onion, corn, tomato and green and yellow zucchini are mingling with seafood in dashi (Japanese stock) broth — an 8 score dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

The six categories of food items and what they provide:

1. Meat, fish, poultry, egg, tofu products (protein).

2. Small fish that can be eaten whole with bones, milk and milk products (calcium).

3. Green and yellow vegetables (carotene, plus other vitamins and minerals).

4. Other vegetables and fruits (vitamin C, plus other vitamins and minerals).

5. Grains, potato, bread/cakes/cookies (carbohydrates).

6. Cooking oil, nut and seed oils, nuts and seeds (fat).

Rules to follow

I taught 3-5 years old kids at Children's Museum of Manhattan in New York City to eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. The little audience was very curious about the colors of beautiful vegetables. Credit 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

I taught 3- to 5-year-old kids at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan in New York City about the value of eating vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. The young audience was curious about the beautiful colors of vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

As you begin your “Thirty Different Food Items Each Day” project, please observe the following rules. Do not count the same ingredient twice. Do not count ingredients used for garnishes in soups, salads and the like; they have minimal nutritional and caloric value. You can, however, count ketchup, mayonnaise and sauces, which have substantial caloric content.

When you reach 21 food items in a day, please send me photos and a description of the meals. I will share them with my audience.

Before then, please enjoy this stir-fried rice recipe, which gives you a 7 score for the dish.

Seven Score Vegetable Stir-Fried Rice

I make this rice dish very often for lunch and dinner. The ingredients used here - carrot, onion, fennel bulb, kale, brown rice, pine nuts and olive oil - can be replaced with other ingredients that you may have in your kitchen. A flavorful and satisfying vegetable rice dish anytime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

I make this rice dish very often for lunch and dinner. The ingredients used here — carrot, onion, fennel bulb, kale, brown rice, pine nuts and olive oil — can be replaced with other ingredients that you may have in your kitchen. A flavorful and satisfying vegetable rice dish any time. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 4 minutes

Total time: 49 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

Sea salt

1 cup chopped carrot

1/4 cup chopped fennel bulb or celery

3 1/2 ounces kale; leaves, cut into thin slices crosswise; stems, cut into thin slices slanted

4 cups cooked and cooled brown rice (preferably made a day in advance)

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 tablespoons butter

1 to 2 teaspoons shoyu

Freshly ground black pepper corn

Directions

Heat a wok or deep skillet over medium heat and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion along with pinch of salt and cook, stirring, 1 minute.

Add the carrot, fennel bulb and kale stem along with pinch of sea salt and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add the kale leaves, and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Move the vegetables to one end of the wok (or transfer to a temporary bowl). Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in the empty space of the wok.

When the oil is hot, add the rice and cook, over medium heat, stirring, until the rice is fully heated up, or about 2 minutes. Then combine and toss the rice with the cooked vegetables. Add the pine nuts and give several large stirs. Add the butter, soy sauce and freshly ground black pepper and toss the mixture thoroughly. Divide the rice among 4 plates and serve hot.

Main photo: This Japanese meal has miso sauce, daikon radish, salmon, omelet, purple radish, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, burdock, chestnut, grapes and dried baby fish. Since some are rather small amounts, I give it a score of 10, including the accompanying bowl of rice and miso soup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

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