Articles in Family
It’s spring in Southern California, and our backyard fruit trees have run riot. Golden yellow loquats the size of my child’s fist hang heavily from two trees, and oranges left over from the winter crop spectacularly cover a 30-foot tree shading my daughter’s playhouse. Our yard looks like a postcard trumpeting the glories of Los Angeles suburbia, circa 1923.
But as with any paradise there’s a dark side. This year, the dark side comes from the loquats. I don’t know what to do with them.
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There are so many loquats that our yard has become a hazard. Fully-ripe loquats drop from our trees every five minutes, and as my daughters play in the yard, they grind the soft yellow orbs messily into the lawn and walkway. Still more are up there, some as high as 40 feet, way beyond the reach of our ladder and picking tool. They’ve become a feast for the flocks of squawking, screaming wild parrots in our neighborhood.
These are another holdover from the 1920’s “California is Paradise” meme. Some of the wild parrots are said to be runaways from the estate of Lucky Baldwin, and the creatures tear the loquats to bits, scattering the seeds and skins across our back yard to mix with the rotting ones.
We have two loquat trees that dominate our backyard, each with slightly different variety of fruit. When we first moved to this house, I had no idea what loquats were and wasn’t even sure they were edible. For several weeks we raked them into huge messy piles and shoved them into the recycling bin. But I couldn’t stand to see this bounty left to rot, so I started asking questions about this small, fleshy yellow fruit. I discovered that loquats are not only edible, they’re downright delicious. My youngest daughter became obsessed with loquats when she was just a year old and ate her weight in loquats that first season.
Don’t sweat the seeds
Over the past few years, I have turned our loquats into loquat cobbler, loquat butter and loquat leather, with varying degrees of success. The biggest problem with loquats is their incredible seed-to-flesh ratio. Each loquat contains one to six large seeds, which means that you get almost as much seed as you do edible flesh in each loquat.
When I first starting researching loquats, I’d read that the seeds were poisonous. Filled with arsenic, and possibly cyanide. The websites were not clear. But like any paranoid mother, I worried that my children might eat them and fall into a temporary coma, just like an unnamed child I’d read about online. Although we’d been eating loquats for several years without incident, I decided to put my fears to rest once and for all by checking with an expert.
I put in a call to professor Jules Janick, director of the Indiana Center for New Crops and Plant Products at Purdue University. He’s not only the co-editor of “The Encyclopedia of Fruits and Nuts,” he is also a kind and understanding voice of reason. Janick told me that loquat seeds are indeed toxic, but then so are the seeds of apples and pears. To put things into perspective, Janick said, “If you ate 3 pounds of them, then it might be a problem.” He also reminded me that the bitterness of the seeds would stop someone from eating them pretty quickly. I realized that my daughter was at far greater risk for choking on a loquat seed than being poisoned by its chemical components.
Backyard loquat adventure
With this in mind, on an April afternoon, I took my loquat-loving youngest daughter to the back yard to begin Loquat Harvest 2013. We planned to fill my daughter’s toy wagon with enough fruit to make loquat leather, but we were quickly distracted by the fun of the collection process. We examined huge spider webs woven between the tree’s broad leaves. We ducked our heads from a torrent of loquat hail that rained down on us as I used our fruit picker to reach an especially high cluster of fruit. But we stopped in our tracks when we discovered a tiny hummingbird’s nest attached to a small wavering branch of our loquat tree. All thoughts of loquat leather disappeared and we marveled at this tiny treasure.
Our loquat tree was not only a source of food for humans and birds alike, it was a home. Our loquat trees now feel like an integral part of our own home, one that we happily share with our feathered friends.
I’m still experimenting with new ways to use the backyard bounty, without creating more work than necessary. The simplest approach is to just eat the fruit straight from the tree, spitting out the seeds, of course. But that’s a LOT of loquats to eat.
Our future is sure to be full of new loquat-laced dishes including loquat jelly, loquat chutney and loquat-chicken tagine. Maybe even a batch of loquat ice cream. But even as my family members stuff themselves with loquats, I think that the bounty of Southern California may simply be too much to keep up with.
I may have to ignore much of the fruit of the loquat this year.
And the real beneficiaries, the screaming, squawking, fat and happy parrots.
8 cups seeded loquat halves (approximately 9 to 10 cups of whole, ripe fruit depending on size)
2 cups applesauce (store-bought is fine)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Wash loquats and remove any blemishes and remaining brown bits from stem and blossom ends. Be sure to use ripe loquats, which are softer, sweeter and less acidic than unripe loquats.
2. Cut loquats in half. Scoop out the seeds and white membrane inside the pulpy yellow flesh. Don’t bother to peel them.
3. Make two batches of loquat-apple purée by adding 4 cups of loquat halves, 1 cup of applesauce and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon into blender or food processor. Process until smooth. (The blender does a slightly better job on breaking down the peels than the food processor, but either will work.) Repeat with second half of ingredients.
4. Place a solid tray liner, usually called a fruit roll sheet or non-stick dehydrator sheet, on top of your dehydrator tray.
5. Spread a layer of loquat-apple purée, about ¼-inch thick, onto the solid tray liner. The fruit leather will have a more uniform thickness if you spread the puree slightly thicker around the edges. Be sure to follow instructions for your dehydrator. Some suggest brushing the tray with a thin layer of vegetable oil to the tray liner before adding fruit purée.
6. Place the tray (or multiple trays if you have them) into the dehydrator and dehydrate at 135 F for 4 to 8 hours, until the fruit leather is translucent and can be easily peeled from the tray without falling apart. It may still feel a bit sticky to the touch, especially in the middle.
7. Cut into strips and roll. Keep in a closed container or bag until ready to eat.
Picking loquats. Credit: Susan Lutz
Eat more fish. That’s one of the prerequisites of the Mediterranean diet. We all know fish is good for us, yet Americans eat less than 16 pounds a year, man, woman and child. And for a lot of us, this sumptuous route to a healthy diet is simply unheard of. Astonishingly, there are people in this country who have never tasted fish.
Well, I was lucky. I grew up and learned to eat and cook in New England, on the coast of Maine where fish and seafood are considered a normal, customary part of each week’s menu. We weren’t Catholics, but we still ate fish on Fridays, possibly because there was a greater selection on that day. And of course we ate Maine lobster, scallops and crab. But the chef d’oeuvre of my mother’s kitchen was baked stuffed haddock, which I loved so much that later, when I went away to school, my mother always made it for that first welcome-home supper of vacation. She stuffed the whole fish with something like poultry stuffing — sagey, bread-crumby, oniony, thymey, peppery, and delicious — and then served it with a white sauce with sliced hard-boiled eggs in it. This doesn’t sound as enticing now as it was back then; tastes change with time, but I think if my mother were alive now and made that for me, I would tuck into it with just as much gusto as I did when I was 15.
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Explore beyond tuna and shrimp
I’ve always been perplexed at the indifference so many Americans, especially those away from the coasts, display toward seafood. Tuna is our favorite fish, but the greatest quantity we consume by far is canned. That’s a good thing, too, because canned tuna is mostly albacore and not the gravely endangered bluefin. Shrimp is our second favorite and that’s not good because, as delicious as some shrimp can be, most are raised on vast shrimp farms by environmentally destructive, highly questionable practices that yield a tasteless lump of rubbery resistant flesh, good as a foil for cocktail sauce and not much else. If you can get wild shrimp, fantastic! But most of us can’t.
Home cooks steer away from fish because it’s expensive and they don’t know how to prepare it, and then it stinks up the kitchen. Tasteless frozen pre-cooked shrimp and canned tuna require no preparation, which may be a large part of their appeal. Why bother with anything else?
Bother for these reasons: a) because any seafood made at home will be cheaper and probably tastier than in a restaurant; b) because it’s actually very easy to prepare; and c) because, the greatest selling point, it is unassailably good for you. Despite some popular beliefs that fish contains harmful amounts of mercury, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded in a meta-analysis back in 2006 (published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., or JAMA) the health risks from consuming fish are unsubstantiated and have been greatly exaggerated. A much greater risk, said Dr. Eric Rimm, co-author of the study, “is in store for those who avoid fish entirely.”
Even the ultra-conservative American Heart Assn. suggests two seafood meals a week, and the Mediterranean diet recommends “at least” two or three servings weekly for everyone, including children.
“I could never get my kid to eat fish.” I hear you, loud and clear.
Fish for small-fry
Try this: Make fish fingers or nuggets by cutting up some halibut (or salmon grouper, mahi-mahi or the like). Kids love anything fried and crunchy, that they can eat with their hands. Set up three bowls, one with flour in it, one with a well-beaten egg or two, and one with good unflavored bread crumbs seasoned with a pinch of salt and, if your kids will tolerate greenery, some very finely minced parsley. Have a skillet with a skiff of olive oil in the bottom (2 tablespoons or so, depending on the size of the pan) ready to go on the stove.
Now dip each fish finger into the flour, rolling it to coat thoroughly, and shake off the excess. Dip the flour-coated fish into the beaten egg, letting the excess drip off. Put the egg-coated fish into the bowl with the breadcrumbs and roll it around, pressing on all sides so the breadcrumbs adhere. When all your fish fingers are done, set the skillet over medium heat and as soon as the oil is hot, add the fish fingers in a single layer—do it in two or more batches if you have to. Fry until crisp and brown on one side, then turn and fry on the other. By the time the bread-crumb coating is toasty brown, the inside will be cooked through. Serve with plenty of lemon wedges to squeeze on top.
Fish recipe with no fishy smell
Here’s another, only slightly more complicated treatment for those of you who worry about smelling the house up with fishy odors. For each serving, take a square sheet of heavy aluminum foil. Spread about a teaspoon of olive oil over the center, then set a piece of firm-textured fish (see the suggestions above) on it. Add a few disks of carrot and potato, blanched until just starting to tenderize, a slender ring of a smallish red onion, a few slices of zucchini, and perhaps a sliver of red pepper, green chili pepper or a couple of very small grape tomatoes. Fresh herbs are also nice with this—chives, thyme sprigs, or coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley or basil. Sprinkle another teaspoon of oil over the top, add a genteel spritz of lemon juice, and then pull the corners of the foil up and twist them to seal, making a loose packet. Set the packets on a tray and transfer the tray to a preheated 400-degree oven. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is done and the carrot and potato slices are tender. Serve in the packets — no fuss, no muss, no cleanup, and no fishy smell in the kitchen.
The message from the Mediterranean? Fish is good for you, it’s simple and easy to prepare, and, as those Harvard researchers determined, the health risks are minimal compared to the benefits. Farmed fish or wild (and the greatest percentage of our seafood consumption these days comes from aquaculture), it’s all to the good.
Top photo: Seafood display. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
This lasagna recipe is Martha Rose Shulman’s family favorite, a two-day affair with made-from-scratch Bolognese ragù.
I was awakened one beautiful morning in June, when I was about 17, by the sound of my stepmother Mary running up the stairs by my bedroom door, weeping. I thought somebody had died. There had been death in my family before, and the running and the tears sounded eerily, scarily familiar. I ventured from my bed, down the stairs to the kitchen, where I found my stepsister amid some broken crockery. She looked very serious and sad. “What happened?” I asked, afraid to know the answer.
“Phydeau stole the lasagna.”
Phydeau was a crazy male Weimaraner that my parents had gotten when they bought our big stone house in Wilton, Conn., on two fenced acres of flat land. But no amount of running could calm that dog down. The lasagna in question was one of Mary’s specialties. She had spent two days on it; she’d made Bolognese ragù. She hadn’t made the pasta, but this was before no-boil lasagna noodles, so you had to cook them before layering them with the sauce, the béchamel and the Parmesan.
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Phydeau wasn’t known for his brains but he clearly had cunning. He couldn’t reach the back of the stove but somehow he must have jumped and pushed it along, jumped and pushed it along, until it reached an edge and fell, shattering the dish on the kitchen floor and splattering lasagna everywhere.
Phydeau’s days with us were now numbered. My parents found him a nice home with their handyman, Mr. Dewing, who could whistle like a warbler and adored the dog. They replaced him with two Hungarian Vizsla puppies named Bonnie and Clyde. They too were smart and cunning, but not as cunning as Mary. She found a higher shelf for cooling her lasagna and never left one out overnight again.
Lasagna with Ragù
Serves 6 to 8
The recipe for the ragù makes more than you need for this lasagna, but it will keep for five days in the refrigerator and freezes well for a few months.
For the ragù:
¾ pound lean beef, such as chuck blade or chuck center
¼ pound mild Italian sausage
1 ounce prosciutto di Parma
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery, with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
¾ cup dry red wine
1½ cups poultry or meat stock
1 cup milk
1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, with about half the juice, crushed or coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
For the béchamel:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour
3 cups milk (may use low-fat milk)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
For the lasagna:
¾ to 1 pound no-boil lasagna noodles, as needed
3 cups ragù
3 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (¾ cup, tightly packed)
2 tablespoons butter, for the top of the lasagna
1. Make the ragù a day ahead if possible. Coarsely grind together the beef, sausage and prosciutto, using a food processor or a meat grinder. Set aside.
2. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy non-stick skillet, and have a heavy 4- or 5-quart saucepan or casserole ready next to it. Add the pancetta, onion, celery and carrot, and cook, stirring, until the onion is just beginning to color, about 10 minutes. Stir the garlic and ground meats into the pan and turn the heat to medium. Cook, stirring and scooping up the meats, until all the pink has been cooked out, 10 to 15 minutes. The meat should not be browned, just cooked through. Spoon the mixture into a strainer set over a bowl and give the strainer a shake to drain some of the fat. Transfer to the saucepan or casserole.
3. Add the wine to the frying pan and reduce over medium heat, stirring any glaze from the bottom of the pan up into the bubbling wine. Reduce by half, which should take from 3 to 5 minutes. Stir into the pot with the other ingredients, and set over medium heat. Add ½ cup of the stock and bring to a simmer. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the stock evaporates, 8 to 10 minutes. Add another ½ cup of the stock and repeat. Stir in the remaining stock and the milk. Turn the heat to low, partially cover, and simmer 45 minutes to an hour, stirring often, until the milk is no longer visible. Add the tomatoes and their juice, salt to taste, and stir together. Turn the heat very low, so that the mixture is cooking at a bare simmer. Cook very slowly, partially covered, for 1½ to 2 hours. Stir often. The sauce should be thick and meaty when done. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Make the béchamel. Heat the butter over medium-low heat in a heavy saucepan. Add the flour to the butter and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes, until smooth and bubbling. Whisk in the milk and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring, for about 10 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and lost its raw flour taste. Season with salt, pepper, and pinch of nutmeg. The béchamel isn’t meant to be very thick.
5. Assemble the lasagna. Have the ragù, béchamel, lasagna noodles and grated cheese within reach. Butter or oil a 3-quart baking dish or gratin. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
6. Reserve about 6 tablespoons each béchamel and cheese for the top layer of the lasagna. Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of pasta over the béchamel and spread about 4 tablespoons béchamel over the noodles. Top with a thin layer of ragù (about 4 to 5 tablespoons) and a lightly sprinkling — about 1½ tablespoons — cheese. Repeat the layers until all but one layer of noodles and the béchamel and cheese that you set aside is used up (you might have some extra pasta). Add a last layer of lasagna noodles, cover the top with the béchamel you set aside, and finally, the cheese. Dot with butter. Cover with foil.
7. Bake the lasagna for 30 minutes, until bubbling and the pasta is cooked al dente. Uncover and continue to bake 5 to 10 minutes to brown the top. Remove from the heat and allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Advance preparation: The lasagna can be assembled a day or two ahead and kept in the refrigerator, or frozen for up to a month, well covered. Keep it in the refrigerator — don’t make the mistake Mary made.
Top photo: Meat lasagna. Credit: istockphoto
Whatever happened to white sauce? Has that wonderfully comforting creamy sauce thickened with butter and flour disappeared for good from our plates? Forty years ago white sauce was as much a staple as gravy, the foundation of fritters and soups, soufflés and fricassées, and indeed the starting point for a whole family of Southern cream sauces. There was a time when we revelled in chicken à la king and creamed oysters and onions au gratin.
The rot began with nouvelle cuisine, that short-lived French aberration which one chef called “a little bit of nothing on a big white plate.” Flour was banned from the kitchen in favor of “light” butter-mounted sauces that relied on meat reductions and glazes for flavor. Flour, it was claimed, led to heavy, sticky, lumpy sauces with a depressing resemblance to library paste. Well of course it did — if the sauce was badly made.
But the new butter emulsions proved far trickier, needing a careful hand to create them, and a constant watch to maintain just the right temperature so they did not break. In a home kitchen, few cooks had the sharp eye and quick turn of the whisk needed for such fragile constructions. Professional chefs heaved a sigh, tried a few gimmicks like vacuum flasks for keeping such sauces warm (not hot), and moved on. Cooking the finicky embellishments to order was the only realistic approach, too labor-intensive for all but the most expensive restaurants.
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Sauces began to disappear, revealing the naked ingredients that had been artfully hidden underneath. Poached fish fillets and boneless chicken breasts were stripped, shivering on the plate. Colorful sides of vegetables were not enough. To hide the misery, the food would be coated in a colorful rub, or topped with a fresh chutney or relish. Flavors took on a new kick with global outreach. Once-exotic fresh ginger and chili, soy, sesame oil and cilantro became commonplace. Sriracha took pride of place in front of the Worcestershire sauce in the pantry. The underlying ingredients were masked, enabling parsimonious cooks to economize on quality — who would notice a stringy bit of chicken or a bland, mushy fish beneath a blizzard of conflicting flavors? But let’s not be cynical.
I’m on a campaign to revive white sauce and its cousin velouté, made with the cooking broth from the main ingredient. When young cooks come into the kitchen, one of the first things I show them is white sauce, and invariably they look mystified. I make them whisk a butter and flour roux in a figure eight, then stir in the milk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Quick, simple, with constant whisking the key until the sauce thickens. “But it’s easy!” they exclaim.
So I’m urging a return to homemade macaroni cheese and those vegetable gratins of chard or spinach topped with white sauce and a luscious crust of grated Gruyère. How about lobster mornay and veal blanquette and chicken divan? I yearn for a delicate fillet of sole, poached in fish stock and white wine that is used for the glistening coating of sauce suprême. Escoffier knew what he was doing!
Use white sauce to thicken soups and stews, or to bind gratins of cooked vegetables. Thin white sauce gives the creamy texture to macaroni and cheese or layered pastas such as lasagne. Thick white sauce binds fritters and forms a base for soufflés.
Makes 2 cups
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups cold whole milk
Salt and white pepper to taste
Note: For thick white sauce, use 4-5 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk. For thin white sauce, use 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk.
1. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook until bubbling. Take from the heat and whisk in the milk (it should be cold), pouring it in all at once. Season with salt and white pepper if you have it (so the white sauce is not spotted with black pepper).
2. Return the pan to medium heat and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly until it thickens, just below boiling point. Lower the heat and simmer 1-2 minutes to thoroughly cook the flour. If by any chance some lumps have formed, simply work the sauce through a strainer into a bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3. To store white sauce, pour it into a bowl and while still warm cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap so a skin does not form. The sauce will do fine in the refrigerator up to 2 days. It will have thickened slightly when reheated, so stir in a little more milk.
After the sauce thickens, whisk in 2-3 tablespoons crème fraîche and simmer 1-2 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Cheese (Mornay) Sauce
After white sauce has simmered, take it from the heat and whisk in 3-4 tablespoons grated Gruyère cheese or 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasoning. Do not recook the sauce as it will form strings.
After simmering, whisk 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley into the sauce, taste and adjust seasoning. Good with fish, especially salmon.
Top photo: White sauce over broccoli. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry
The most memorable food for me is the food eaten in someone’s home. The label “home cooking” has an alluring panache, and it seems oxymoronic for some restaurants to claim they serve “home cooking.” Intellectually, restaurant cooking doesn’t interest me as much as home cooking. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great restaurant and I appreciate the novelty, skill, taste and wow factor. However, there is something fundamental and spiritually satisfying about a dish considered archetypical of a culture when prepared with love by the hands of a competent home cook.
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Most of what is new in home cooking in the United States is a result of the incorporation of food magazine ideas, which are heavily influenced by restaurant chefs who wow the food magazine editors. Ask a magazine or newspaper food editor if they would rather have lunch at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant or with my friend who is a good cook and they’ll choose Gordon Ramsay in a heartbeat.
Home cooking is not fancy cooking, but it’s real cooking. I love when someone cooks for me and they say, “Oh it’s really nothing, the recipe is how my grandmother used to do it.” That’s music to my ears.
I remember one marvelous instance in the mid-1970s when I was about to go backpacking in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. My friend Jeff had been a fire ranger that summer and a Vista volunteer earlier and became friendly with a farmer named James Mines whose ranch was nestled below the range northeast of Farson. James’ farm was the last piece of land to be settled in the West under the provisions of the Homestead Act. He and his wife had seven children and raised hay, some cows, quite a few horses and some swine.
Wild West home cooking for an East Coast city boy
I just arrived from New York City and was the living definition of a city slicker. It was dusk when we arrived and it was cold even though it was July. There were no neighbors, nothing but the ranch house and purple mountain majesties above a fruited plain. We had dinner that night of pan-seared mutton shoulder chops and mashed potatoes. I was raving about this meal and still remember it almost 40 years later. I’ve never been able to reproduce it, partly because mutton must be special ordered. Maybe what made it so special was the situation and locale, which is certainly not to be overlooked. But more important there was no nod to modernity or faddishness. This was simply how the Mines family cooked it. The mutton tasted enormously flavorful, as if it had been charcoal-grilled, which it hadn’t. The mashed potatoes were powerfully savory and slightly chunky with bits of well-cooked bacon and butter in them.
The Mines didn’t raise their own sheep. They were raised by big sheep outfits all over Sweetwater County. They could buy inexpensive mutton rather than raise sheep themselves. Jeff believes the mutton we ate that night was from James Magagna, who owned the large sheep operation centered at the robber’s roost of Paddy McCann, an old-time local bushwacker, where Jeff had spent the summers of 1976 and 1978.
“The mutton was freshly slaughtered a few days before and had been hanging in an open-air screened enclosure to cure during those days, since that was how those things were usually done,” Jeff said.
They couldn’t quite believe how excited I was, and frankly, I couldn’t believe it either and had to reassure them I wasn’t just being polite. I had the best sleep ever that night, feeling the cold outside and listening to the coyote howl and the wind whip through the brush.
Mutton Chops With Mashed Potatoes
4 mutton shoulder chops (about 2½ pounds)
Salt to taste
4 russet potatoes (about 2¾ pounds), peeled and quartered
4 strips thick cut bacon (about ¼ pound), cut into small pieces
¼ cup unsalted butter
1. In a large cast iron skillet, over medium-low heat, cook the mutton chops, seasoned with salt, until tender, about 1 hour.
2. Put the potatoes in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until they fall apart, about 25 minutes in all. Remove and mash coarsely.
3. Meanwhile, in another cast iron skillet or a sauté pan, cook the bacon over low heat until crispy, about 10 minutes. Add the mashed potatoes, butter and salt; stir to mix, and cook 2 minutes. Serve hot with the mutton chops.
Mutton chops with mashed potatoes. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
I grew up in a small town in Northern California called Paradise, where my father opened the first Chinese restaurant. My maternal grandmother, whom we called Popo, the Chinese word for grandmother, came to live with us a few years later.
“You should be proud you are Hakka,” Popo told my brother and me.
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As the only children of color in our school, we had little interest in learning about being more Chinese, we just wanted to fit in. But Popo persisted. After school, she tried to teach us how to speak Hakka and write Chinese characters in her kitchen. Then she’d often cook dinner for us — stir-fried vegetables from her garden, homemade chicken soup, steamed eggs, or sometimes our favorite dish, an aromatic stew of braised Chinese bacon and potatoes.
More than five decades later, I had forgotten most of the Chinese, but her words echoed in my mind. I had recently left Sunset magazine where I wrote food stories for more than 34 years. Now I had time to research what she meant when she said, “You should be proud you are Hakka.” I would do it through what I knew best, food. Popo had passed away decades ago, and so had my parents. It was too late to ask them questions. I wish I could have asked Popo how she came to America. How she cooked the bacon and potato stew that my brother and I still remember today. But I would have to figure it out myself.
Retracing your culinary heritage
I turned to a Hakka friend who lived nearby. We spent many sessions in the kitchen. She cooked and I took notes and photos. Smells and flavors from my childhood came back as I tasted some of her dishes. I decided to expand my scope and follow the footsteps of the Hakka diaspora.
I visited some areas where there were Hakka settlements such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Toronto and Lima, Peru. There I watched grandmothers, grandfathers and aunts demonstrate their Hakka specialties. In my cooking sessions, a younger relative often came along to translate. Over and over, the younger generation said they didn’t know how to prepare these dishes. The Hakka cuisine was getting lost through intermarriage and assimilation. I realized I was recording recipes to pass on to the next generation.
You don’t need to be a professional writer to record your own family history and recipes. Just spend some time with the person who cooks your favorite dishes. The standard bearers of your family’s culinary heritage won’t be around forever. Don’t wait too long, as I did. Do it now.
The easiest way to learn a recipe is to watch while the dish is being cooked. Simply observe, take notes, ask questions, taste and take photos. Or better yet, record a video. If needed, ask your mentor to slow down, use measuring cups, or a timer. Record the names and amounts of the ingredients. Translate your notes into legible directions and try cooking your recipe, optimally with your mentor at your side. Fine-tune the recipe and write in all the corrections. Final test, follow your written recipe to see whether the words can produce a dish that meets with the approval of your mentor. Repeat the exercise, and you’ll soon have enough recipes for your own family cookbook.
The recipes will be a legacy to pass on. You will honor your mentor with this shared experience.
Top photo: Linda Lau Anusasananan.
Sometimes luck is in the pantry. On New Year’s Day, good friends from distant parts phoned to say they’d be in town unexpectedly. Could they come for lunch? They’d bring a bottle of wine left over from celebrations the night before. But, with nothing open except the local 7-Eleven, what on earth would we eat?
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But a determined search yielded treasures. Fortunately I found in the pantry cupboard a package of little fagioli del Purgatorio, purgatory beans. Gustiamo.com imports them from Umbria in Italy, and they’re so tiny they need almost no soaking at all. I set them in a small bowl, poured boiling water over and let them sit for an hour or so while I rummaged for something appropriate to add to them. There were the scallops, of course, but only three-quarters of a pound, plenty for two, not really enough for four.
Frozen treasure when there’s nothing to eat
But way in the back of the freezer was a half-pound bag of sweet little Maine shrimp, left over from the last harvest a year ago.
And I can almost always drum up an onion or a leek, a piece of celery, a carrot or two and inevitably several cloves of garlic. So the beans got drained and steamed until tender, with a clove of garlic, several sprigs of thyme from the winter garden, and a dollop of new olive oil, then lightly crushed and mixed with the vegetables, including half a red pepper I managed to rescue from a terminal state, all chopped and sautéed in olive oil to bring out their sweet flavors. Then it was time for the shrimp, by now somewhat softened
. Turned into the warm beans, they immediately loosened up and released their briny aromas without any further cooking at all.
The dish was evolving but definitely lacking something — a hint of acid perhaps? Lemon juice helped, but then I found the most fortuitous serendipity in a package I’d only just received — sun-dried California tomatoes, cut in julienne strips. Put up by Mooney Farms in Chico, Calif., they’re marketed as Bella Sun Luci. They provided the very zing that the beans had been lacking — a good thing, I think, to keep on the pantry shelf for just such an occasion.
In praise of the wok
By now, things were starting to look better, but lunch was less than an hour away. The scallops got seared in the wok in olive oil. (I have an ongoing argument about olive oil in the wok with wok star Grace Young, author of “The Breath of a Wok.” I’m all for it. She’s just as firmly against it.) And let me add a word in praise of that incredible kitchen vessel — nothing at all, in my experience, beats a wok for frying. The way it concentrates and focuses the heat, the frying medium (olive oil or not, depending on your taste), and the subject of the exercise, whether scallops or tofu or onions and ginger, is quite incredible. More and more often these days, I find myself turning to my old wok, bought in Hong Kong many decades ago and still a faithful companion in the kitchen.
Those scallops for example: They had no need for any dredging in flour or cornstarch. Thoroughly dried with paper towels and dropped into oil so hot it was just starting to break out a wisp of smoke, they seared almost instantly into crisp golden-brown disks that were crusty on the outside, tender within. So I spread the shrimp and bean mix in a fairly deep gratin dish, first dribbling oil over the bottom, then nestled the browned scallops in wherever they would fit, and topped the whole with toasted breadcrumbs, a fresh grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and another dribble of olive oil backward and forward over the top. Into a very hot oven it all went, just long enough to produce a gratin, a bubbling crust on the surface, and there I was, ready for unexpected guests.
Who, in the end, called and said they actually had misjudged the distance and the threat of snow and wouldn’t be coming after all. Tant pis pour eux, we invited in the neighbors and ate to our hearts’ (or our bellies’) content. A good way to start off a new year.
Gratin of What I Found in the Pantry
The best shrimp to use are small Maine shrimp. If you must use larger shrimp, buy wild ones if you can. They will have been frozen, but they still have much nicer flavor than farmed shrimp, which are unfortunately quite ubiquitous.
Be sure to ask for “dry” scallops — scallops that have not been soaked in STP (sodium tri-polyphosphate), a bath that keeps them white. While apparently harmless, STP causes scallops to exude a milky liquid when sautéing and they will never brown properly.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 cup small white dried beans, preferably fagioli del Purgatorio
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 cup mixed chopped vegetables, such as, onion, garlic, celery, red or green pepper, carrot
2 or 3 tablespoons chopped green herbs (e.g., basil, parsley, thyme)
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of chili pepper (optional)
½ to ¾ pound shrimp (see note above)
Juice of half a lemon
¾ pound dry sea scallops
¼ cup dry bread crumbs
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Put the beans in a small bowl and pour boiling water over. Let them sit for about an hour to soften slightly. Then drain and transfer to a saucepan with more water to cover, plus 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and 1 crushed garlic clove. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and simmer, covered, until tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Toward the end of the cooking time, add a good pinch of salt to the beans.
2. While the beans are cooking, prepare the vegetables, chopping them all into regular dice. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the vegetables until they are softened and releasing their perfume. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of herbs, a little more salt, and black pepper. Add a pinch of ground chili pepper if you wish.
3. When the beans are done, drain excess water, leaving just a small amount of liquid. Stir in the prepared vegetables.
4. If using Maine shrimp or other small shrimp, stir them into the beans while they’re still hot. If you must use larger shrimp, cut them into half-inch pieces and stir into the beans. Taste the beans and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and/or pepper, and a spritz of lemon juice.
5. In a sauté pan or a wok, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil. While the oil is heating, slice the scallops in half horizontally and dry them thoroughly with paper towels. As soon as the oil is hot, slide the scallops in and cook quickly, turning once, until the scallops are golden-brown on both sides. You may have to do this in batches.
6. Turn the oven on to 425 F. Have ready an oval gratin dish. Rub a little more olive oil over the bottom of the dish, then spoon the shrimp-bean mixture into the dish. Tuck the browned scallops into the bean mixture so that just their curving tops stick out. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and grated cheese and dribble the remaining olive oil over the top.
7. Transfer to the preheated oven and bake until the top is crisp and bubbly. Remove and serve immediately.
Top photo: Wok. Credit: Flickr / avlxyz
Zester Daily readers have shown an appreciation for a stunning variety of stories over the past year. A quick scan of the 2012 reader favorites reveals a yen for Ruth Bourdain’s dishes, cuisine from every corner of the world, food preservation, photography, films, wine insider news and a treasured recipe for flavored marshmallows — as well as a critique of American taste.
Snippets of the 12 most popular Zester Daily contributors’ stories, plus the five most popular Soapboxes, are below. Follow the story links to read the complete text. Follow the contributor links to read more by each author.
The stories are listed in reverse order.
Top contributors’ stories of 2012
12. THE ORIGINS OF CURRY by Raghavan Iyer: Before I try to define the word “curry,” let me create an image for you from my college laboratory days in India where I pursued a degree in chemistry over 20 years ago. As I busied myself measuring crystals of …
11. OLD-SCHOOL SOY SAUCE by Manuela Zoninsein: There’s no one right ritual or rule to guide your eating extravaganza on Jan. 23. The Chinese New Year involves a number of great food traditions. Dumplings are reminiscent of coins in ancient China and will thus bring …
10. TEN BEST FOODIE FLICKS by David Latt: If cold weather traps you indoors for months each winter, you might run through your queue of streaming movies pretty quick. Why not entertain yourself with a library of the best …
9. HOW KERMIT LYNCH TAUGHT AMERICANS HOW TO DRINK WINE by Patrick Comiskey: Forty years ago, Kermit Lynch abandoned the handmade purse industry and opened a wine shop in Berkeley, Calif., and in doing so, became one of the great innovators of …
8. WINE’S ACCUSED GRIFTER, RUDY KURNIAWAN by Corie Brown: By the summer of 2006, when I first noticed Rudy Kurniawan at Christie’s in Beverly Hills, he had transformed the market for old wine from a sleepy backwater into a high-stakes free-for-all. Only the richest wine collectors knew him. Or thought they did …
6. EATING TO BEAT CANCER: DIET MAY PROVE TO BE A CURE by Harriet Sugar Miller: Last night, it was cauliflower curry on a bed of leeks while my husband grilled his own slab of meat. The night before I ate solo — and downed an enormous bag of kale chips (please don’t tell him) flavored with cashew dust and too much …
4. IN DEFENSE OF TRUFFLE OIL by Lynne Curry: Midwinter is high season for fresh truffles in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. With the help of an experienced truffle hunter (or a trained dog), I could spend …
2. CANNING JARS FROM FAUX TO BEST PRESERVING CHOICES by Susan Lutz: About six months ago, I salvaged a beautiful marinara sauce jar that I intended to refill with home-canned sweet pickles made using my mother’s recipe. And if I hadn’t taken a 12-week course to become a certified Master Food Preserver, I might have …
1. FLAVORED MARSHMALLOWS MADE FROM SCRATCH by Charles Perry: When you hand people homemade marshmallows, they’re always dazzled. These are actual marshmallows, but with a lush, moist texture you never find in store-bought versions. If you want your friends to keep thinking you’re a wizard, don’t tell them how simple it is …
Top Soapboxes of 2012
5. DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS IS FOR AMERICANOS, TOO by Veronica Gonzalez-Smith: In the small town of El Paso, Texas, my siblings and I grew up at a unique intersection of Mexican and American culture. As kids, we traveled in and out of …
4. THE INFANTALIZATION OF AMERICAN TASTE by Michael Krondl: Though the plague of cupcake shops has not spared any city in this great union, it would be hard to find one that illustrates my point better than …
3. CALIFORNIA’S EXCITING NEW WINES BUCK THE MAINSTREAM by Eric Asimov: We live in the most wonderful era in history to love wine. Right now, Americans have access to a greater diversity of wines than ever before, wines made in more styles from more …
2. THE FORGOTTEN QUINCE by Jane McMorland Hunter: Nowadays most people hardly know what a quince looks like. Until the 19th century, it was a commonplace orchard fruit throughout North America and Europe; now it has become …
1. RUTH BOURDAIN DISSES AND DISHES WITH ZESTER by Ruth Bourdain: It’s been more than two years since the debut of Ruth Bourdain, the sensational and often raunchy Twitter persona whose name and sensibilities are a mashup/spoof of former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and outspoken celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. The true identity of Ms. Bourdain is still under wraps, but her tweets show her to be ….
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And that’s our list for 2012 … Here’s to discovering Ms. Bourdain’s identity in 2013!
Photo illustration, clockwise from top left:
Ruth Bourdain. Credit: Ruth Bourdain
Indian spices (originally published in 660 Curries). Credit: Ben Fink
Homemade marshmallows dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Credit: StockFood
Photo illustration credit: Karen Chaderjian