Articles in Family
With Mother’s Day almost upon us, I can’t help but muse over what a challenge it has become to feed children. I wasn’t aware of ordeals surrounding food when I was growing up. I ate the same food the rest of the family did and devoured it gratefully.
On the rare occasions when we ate in restaurants (I say rare because my father didn’t think most restaurant food could match up to my mother’s cooking and he was probably right), we ordered from the main menu, not the so-called children’s menu that offered nutritionally worthless items.
I won’t dignify most of the fare on these menus by calling it junk food because that implies it is food of some kind. According to the Oxford dictionary, food means “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth.” Simply put, we are feeding our kids substances that humans are not meant to eat.
Teaching kids what to eat
The kind of children’s food I’m talking about is standard in most restaurants, particularly those touted as family friendly. I was recently in such an establishment, and watched incredulously as a mother and grandmother ordered chicken and vegetable stir-fry for themselves, and a processed cheese melt on white bread, French fries on the side, for the toddler.
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I have to stop here and say that I believe parents simply must take matters in hand and teach their children what is good to eat and what isn’t. David Ludwig, the widely respected endocrinologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Boston Children’s Hospital — who I first met at a nutrition think-tank in Rome dubbed “Pasta Fights Back,” organized to debunk the low-carb phobia that took the nation by storm in 2004 — has gone so far as to say that kids can’t survive unless their parents teach them how to eat.
In a book titled “Ending the Food Fight,” considered by his peers to have brought together the best available scientific evidence on childhood obesity, he argues, “…no species of mammal in nature allows its young to eat whatever they want. What would happen if a bear mother didn’t teach its cub what and how to eat? The cub wouldn’t survive the winter. Our modern nutritional environment can be as dangerous to children as an arctic winter is to the bear cubs.”
Think of the adorable cartoon rabbit dreamed up by marketers to sell Trix, the psychedelic-colored cereal made of 46% sugar that debuted in 1955 and is still going strong. The rabbit has spent more than half a century trying to steal Trix away from kids for himself, only to be thwarted every time. The slogan is the stuff of American childhood: “Silly rabbit, Trix is for kids.” It is?
While I look back longingly on my own daughters’ early years when I would entice them to the breakfast table with the smell of baking bread and spend the days simmering ragù or stirring polenta, recipes usually destined not just for the dinner table but also for cookbooks I was writing, I know that few parents have the luxury to be able to stay at home and cook such meals the way I or my own mother did. Besides, the Mad Men entice children more than ever with clever commercials and the most well-intentioned parent faces an uphill battle trying to feed their kids decent food.
Kid food the Italian way
Having climbed onto my soapbox, and being painfully aware that my standpoint is not popular in certain circles, let me close with a suggestion for a wholesome and easy dish that can please anyone. These are the whimsical stars, alphabets, and other tiny pastas that Italian children eat as their first solid food, and which have a place in broths and light soups as well.
With it you can feed anyone from the age of, say 6 months, until at least 100 years old. I ate it from infancy. Not only did I feed it to my own tribe, I cooked it regularly for hundreds of fussy school children in an experimental lunch program that you may hear more about someday. No child I’ve ever known has ever said no to pastina.
Everyone knows that our first foods form our palate, and we forevermore crave them. My pastina habit continued into my adult life. I was so enthusiastic about this pablum that as a young mother sitting in baby-and-me support groups with other dazed young parents, I enthusiastically spread the word.
Realizing that most had never heard of it despite its presence in virtually any supermarket, I got into the habit of bringing a backpack filled with little boxes of pastina to pass out to the group. They would bring it home and make it for their babies, simply following the package directions and without fail, come back the following week, raving about the newfound simple and easy solution to otherwise stressful mealtimes.
This is so simple, in fact, that it didn’t occur to me until recently to write about it. Whether you are feeding kids or just yourself, and haven’t yet discovered its charms, this recipe is for you.
Pastina ‘Stars’ With Butter and Milk
Serves 4 children or 2 adults
Nothing is more emblematic of an Italian childhood than pastina (literally, “little pasta”) with butter and milk. It is baby’s first solid food, remembered in adulthood with great nostalgia. Stelline (“little stars”), acini di pepe (“peppercorns”), alfabetti (“alphabets”), tubettini (“little tubes”), orzo (“barley grains”), and farfalline (“little buttterflies”) are the most common. My favorites are the first two — and yes, somehow, different cuts do “taste” differently. Use tasty organic butter for the most wholesome and flavorful results.
1 cup “little stars” pastina or other tiny pasta shapes
3 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup warm milk, plus more if desired
Bring 3 quarts water to a boil. Stir in the pastina and salt. Cook according to package directions. Drain and transfer to a bowl. While it is still piping hot, add butter to the pasta, burying it in the pasta to melt. Stir in a little of the warm milk and serve at once. Add a little more warm milk for a looser texture if desired. Serve at once.
Variations: For added nutrition for babies, stir a teaspoon, or to taste, freshly puréed carrots, spinach, or other puréed cooked vegetable(s) or a touch of tomato sauce into a portion of hot buttered pastina before serving. A classic is to stir the yolk of a small fresh egg, butter, and grated parmigiano cheese into piping hot pastina. The heat will cook it through. You might try it if you have a trusted source for fresh eggs.
Main photo: Alphabet pastina soup. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce
Among the items I brought home with me after my mother’s death were her two recipe files. One was lodged in a long, metal box that I suspect once held part of the town’s library card catalog. The other was a delicate wooden box that could be hung on a wall.
I was surprised she had squirreled away so many recipes, any recipes for that matter, for she never seemed that interested in cooking, aside from making sweets. She owned only an old edition of “The Joy of Cooking” plus the cookbooks I had written. My mother’s recipe collection was a mishmash of handwritten recipes and a great deal more torn from magazines, mainly Sunset and Gourmet and occasionally Good Housekeeping, which is kind of ironic because my mother, by her own admission, was hardly a good housekeeper.
I’ve mused before about the mystery of handwriting and how it has the power to touch us in a way an email, without its texture and quirks, can’t. But these folded bits of printed paper and yellowed cards, most of them typewritten, introduced me to my mother in a new way, helping me see her as a person I hadn’t known.
Recipe box about the why, not just the how
I had to wonder, why these recipes? And did she ever make them? She didn’t, at least that I know of. Her own handwritten categories weren’t necessarily related to the contents. Filed under “meat,” for example, were recipes for pomegranate jelly, orange jellies, orange breads, cakes, pickles, guava preserves and even a guava chiffon pie — none of them meat and none of them foods we ate. Not once.
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The many recipes based on oranges were labor-intensive undertakings that involved taking apart then reassembling the fruit, something my mother would not have had the patience to do. Maybe she wished she had been that kind of person, a woman who would spend hours in the kitchen instead of at her typewriter writing novels or at her easel painting. (I suspect the reason that there were so many orange recipes was because in the 1950s my parents moved from the East to California, where we had orange trees, which must have seemed miraculous.)
But where were the meat recipes? Elsewhere. Here and there. My mother was not a fan of meat and was mostly vegetarian, but perhaps meat recipes were dutifully collected for my Midwestern carnivore father. There was a surprising recipe for roasted lamb neck. That my mother, a person so sensitive to the lives of other beings, would even have such a recipe was shocking. I’m sure we never ate such a thing. The recipe instructs, “Have your meat man cut each neck into 2 or 3 slices about 1¼ inches thick.” Now that butchery is emerging again, perhaps it’s not impossible to “ask your ‘meat man,’ ” or “your meat woman” for that favor.
Meat dishes we did eat were mostly in her “Armenian” file, which also contained Indian recipes — dolmas, shashlik, kebabs a miscellany of curries. There’s a recipe for koefte from the 1950s, long before Paula Wolfert introduced us to more than 50 kinds. One card scrawled instructions for pickled tongue with raisins. Again, I doubt my mother would have made the tongue. We did eat tongue, but my father was the one who cooked it.
A relentless diet
There were menus for dieting that would practically demolish one’s life force, menus that started each day with half a grapefruit and a cup of coffee. Ravenous by 10? Then you might want a cup of very lean vegetable broth. (“Guaranteed to help you lose weight, even if you have to eat out,” the introduction promised.)
Simple vegetable dishes were filed with early weight-watcher recipes. I don’t recall that my mother was ever fat, but she must have thought she was. When her doctor cautioned her, in her 90s, that she was awfully thin, her reply was, “Why thank you!” The diet desserts she collected were based on egg whites, gelatin and, of course, oranges. Although Jell-O was our standard dessert, perhaps she really did intend to make that Frozen Fruit Cake and the Shoo-Fly Pie that appears twice in her collection. A great many of my mother’s recipes were for desserts, some elaborate, some of the more quick-and-easy type, and not all of them diet-related. There was her recipe for cottage cheese pie, a dessert we did eat, which my father meanly scoffed at, saying, “So this is what the rich eat?” A cheesecake would have been prohibitively costly, but there was a recipe for that, too. Maybe one day she was able to make it. And eat it. I hope so.
A reflection of progress
My mother’s recipes also reveal something about how times have changed. “Betty’s Armenian Casserole,” torn from a magazine, calls for processed white rice, a No. 2 can of tomatoes, Burgundy wine and garlic salt. Teaspoon is abbreviated “teasp.” Many recipes from the 1950s and ’60s call for garlic salt, which made me cringe every time I saw it listed, until I remembered that when I spent summers in the Adirondacks in the 1970s, garlic still came packed two heads to a box, and they were always moldy and unusable. So the garlic salt made sense, at least until really great garlic started to appear in farmers markets starting in the 1970s.
There’s a kind of generalization in many of the recipes — Eurasian Eggplant, Egyptian Stew, Victory Garden Meal, curry — that’s hard to imagine today, with so many knowledgeable cooks writing in great detail about food cultures.
My mother may not have cooked most of these recipes, but she was reading about food and encountering, at least in print, dishes that suggested flavors new and exciting to a transplanted New Englander. A frugal New Englander, I might add, which is one reason why, I suspect, these clippings and cards played a greater role in my mother’s imagination than reality. Maybe it was the taste of adventure she sought, and that was enough.
Main photo: The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison
My birthday falls just after the first day of spring, and along with warm sunny weather there’s one thing I always look forward to when the season changes and I clock in another year on the green side of the grass: cake. Not just any cake, but a rich chocolate one slathered with my mom’s famous vanilla buttercream frosting.
I don’t normally get excited about frosting — it’s usually too sweet or too gritty for my taste — but this one has a light and silky texture, with the perfect amount of sweetness and vanilla flavor. I could eat it with a spoon (and sometimes do).
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I can’t think of anything more perfect for topping a springtime cake, whether it’s devil’s food, yellow or red velvet.
Mom’s magical frosting is based on a recipe she found in an Eastern Star cookbook, a post-wedding gift from her grandmother in the mid-1960s. Mom fiddled around with the recipe, tweaking the amount of sugar and flour, and eliminating the use of shortening until she made it her own. “After that I don’t think I ever made another frosting,” she told me.
Mom’s process involves boiling milk and flour in a saucepan until it’s thick and lump free. While the mixture cools, butter, margarine and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until fluffy and creamy. The cooled flour mixture is gradually added to the mixing bowl, along with vanilla, until all the ingredients are incorporated and the frosting looks like whipped cream.
When I asked my mom why she uses equal parts margarine and butter in her recipe, she wasn’t exactly sure. “The original recipe called for half shortening,” she said, “but I couldn’t stand the idea of eating raw Crisco.” She thought margarine was a more palatable option.
Although the Eastern Star recipe was simply titled “Frosting,” mom has always called her frosting “buttercream.” I recently learned that technically, that’s not quite correct.
Classic buttercream frosting
According to John Difilippo, who teaches baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, there are many versions of buttercream frosting. But the one most commonly used by American pastry chefs, he said, is Italian buttercream. It’s made by boiling sugar and water into a syrup and combining the mixture with whipped egg whites. Finally, butter and vanilla are beaten into the mixture until smooth. French and Swiss versions are slightly different, but all include egg whites or whole eggs, and some form of cooking to pasteurize the eggs and ensure a more stable frosting.
Difilippo had never heard of a buttercream recipe quite like my mom’s, but he was able to solve the shortening mystery.
“It’s a very common process, just for saving cost,” he said. “Crisco is much cheaper than butter.”
The person who contributed the Eastern Star recipe may have learned it from a relative who grew up during the Depression, when many people couldn’t afford the luxury of an all-butter frosting or one using eggs.
“A lot of people simply make recipes the way their mother or grandmother taught them,” Difilippo said.
True enough. For all the years I’ve been making my mom’s frosting, I’ve always used equal parts butter and margarine. Now that I know the reason behind the margarine, it’s going to be all butter from here on out.
I don’t think my mom will mind my tinkering with her recipe. After all, she’s the one who started it.
Karen’s Buttercream Frosting
Makes enough for one 9-inch layer cake (if you like a lot of frosting on your cakes, increase recipe by one half)
1 cup milk
4½ tablespoons flour
2 sticks (1 cup) butter, room temperature
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Cook milk and flour in a saucepan until mixture is thick and starts to bubble, starting at medium heat, then turning down to low. Stir constantly to make sure there are no lumps. Remove from heat, cover pan and let cool completely.
2. Beat butter in a stand mixer at medium speed, adding sugar a little at a time, until mixture is very creamy and fluffy. Be patient — this will take about five minutes.
3. While mixing at low/medium speed, gradually add the cooled flour/milk mixture, then the vanilla, until all ingredients are incorporated. The finished frosting should be light and fluffy, similar to whipped cream.
Top photo: The author’s favorite birthday cake since childhood — chocolate, topped with her mom’s buttercream frosting and chocolate chips. Credit: Tina Caputo
In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”
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by Susie Middleton
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What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?
I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.
What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?
I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.
Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.
It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.
You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?
If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.
I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.
I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.
With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?
Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.
How did your first two books lead toward this one?
I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.
Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?
I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.
Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press
Most cooks acquainted with Turkish food know of borek, a dish of phyllo-like pastry leaves called yufka brushed with butter or oil, layered with meat or cheese, and baked. In Istanbul and other parts of Turkey yufka, when not made at home, is usually purchased fresh and pliable at weekly markets and from specialists called yufkaci.
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A few years ago while traveling along Turkey’s central Black Sea coast I discovered yufka’s other incarnation, as a thin cracker-crisp round meant to be rehydrated — or not — before being incorporated into borek. On the Black Sea, yufka is also rolled, sliced and dried for islama, a dish of yufka spirals topped with chicken or turkey and crushed walnuts and doused with melted butter and broth. And I found that when it comes to filling their borek, central Black Sea cooks go with the season.
Late one February, at a family-owned restaurant 25 miles inland, I feasted on zilbert boregi, a short stack of yufka sheets encasing sautéed borage. Light and crispy, its filling tasting of artichoke and asparagus with a hint of mushroom, that borek hinted at the spring that was beginning to show itself in the region’s budding fruit trees. Six months later in a town a few hours east, I feasted on borek spilling mushrooms foraged from nearby hills, their meatiness foretelling the coming winter.
A sweet deviation
But my favorite Black Sea borek is one that was made for me by Esen, a rare woman in a male-dominated trade who owns a yufka shop not far from the central Black Sea fishing town of Sinop. A short sturdy woman in her late 30s, Esen toils over her big round gas-fired griddle from the wee hours of the morning until late in the afternoon, turning out katlama (stacked yufka rounds with a slick of butter in between) and layered and rolled sweet and savory borek.
One morning I asked Esen what she intended to do with a big pumpkin sitting on a table near her griddle. She smiled and grabbed the pumpkin by its stem, raised it over her head and threw it on the concrete floor where it split neatly in two. After peeling and grating the vegetable she roughly chopped two handfuls of walnuts and measured out a bit of sugar. Then she laid a leaf of dried yufka on her griddle, brushed it with oil and built a borek.
Sparely sugared, it was a delightful departure from the syrup-soaked Turkish pastries I’d eaten up till then, with crunchy walnuts and crispy pastry contrasting beautifully with softened pumpkin.
Pumpkin and Walnut Borek (Kabak ve Cevizli Boregi)
Dried yufka and a hot griddle make for a crispier, lighter borek. Baking sheets and an oven work just as well and fresh phyllo sheets, fused and left to dry, are a fine substitute for dried yufka. Don’t worry if the dough tears or wrinkles as you’re making the borek; imperfections add to the charm of this rustic dish.
Plan to lay out your yufka or phyllo to dry at least six hours before assembly. Once that’s done the dish comes together quickly because the borek is baked flat, in one big piece.
Serve this dish for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. It also makes a wonderful dessert, served (untraditionally) hot from the oven with a scoop of ice cream.
Serves 6 to 8
10 sheets of phyllo
3 cups grated pumpkin or sweet squash
1½ cups chopped walnuts
4 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
Canola or other light cooking oil
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1. Lay a single sheet of phyllo flat on a work surface. Using a pastry brush, wet it lightly with water. Lay another sheet of phyllo on top of the wet sheet and then use a rolling pin to fuse the two together. Repeat with the remaining eight sheets of phyllo, fusing them 2-by-2 to make five thick sheets in total. Transfer all to cookie sheets or paper towels and leave uncovered in an airy room to dry for at least six hours or as long as overnight.
2. Once the pastry is dry, place the pumpkin, walnut, sugar and salt in a medium bowl and mix with a fork or your fingers.
3. To assemble the borek, lightly oil a cookie sheet large enough to accommodate the yufka or phyllo (at least 15 by 10 inches). Place one sheet of pastry on the cookie sheet (if the pastry hangs over the sides of the cookie sheet just fold the excess inward) and lightly brush it with butter.
4. Sprinkle one quarter of the filling over the buttered pastry — it will not cover the phyllo completely. Place another pastry sheet on top of the pumpkin-walnut filling, pressing it lightly onto the filling with your palms (don’t worry if it cracks a bit). Butter that pastry sheet too. Top with one quarter of the filling, and repeat until all of the filling and pastry is used up. Brush the top piece of pastry with butter.
5. Bake the borek in a 350 F oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the top is showing splotches of golden brown (if your oven is small reverse the position of the cookie sheet halfway through).
6. While the borek is baking, lightly oil another cookie sheet. Remove the borek from the oven and place the second oiled cookie sheet upside down over its top. Squeezing the two cookie sheets together, flip the borek, carefully remove the first cookie sheet, and return it to the oven to bake another 12 to 15 minutes, or until nicely browned.
7. Cut the borek into 6 or 8 squares and serve hot or at room temperature.
Top photo: Pumpkin and walnut borek from Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman
Festivals and celebrations offer a time-tested mechanism of sharing and preserving family culinary traditions and memories. As spring approaches, the vernal calendar brings its share of festivals, all designed to welcome the fresh colors of the seasons and the spirit of renewal. There are simple backyard traditions such as foraging and starting a new garden and then the myriad holidays that fill the calendar with a call to the kitchen.
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In my home, I think of the Indian festival of colors, Holi, and the Bengali New Year, two holidays that come around in March and April. I look forward to a new season, and time in the kitchen with my children sharing and talking about food memories and working with them to re-create foods of my childhood.
I have to confess, it has not always been this way! I have spent many years confused about why people would feature unchanging dishes every year at their holiday table, the same variations of festive items, at the same time of the year. I marveled at people raving over something as basic as their grandmother’s tempering for lentils and simple food memories without which their table felt incomplete. It all seemed monotonous to me. I did not have the context or need for re-creating tradition, until my children came along.
As my children have grown, my view has changed. I have wanted them to feel grounded, to have a sense of food beyond that it is something cooked in my now-12-year-old kitchen. It’s more clear than ever why my kitchen helper, Martha, preserves the mole recipe from her husband’s mother and prepares it for many a special occasion. I now understand why my friend Patricia has taken over making gnocchi for Sunday suppers. She began this tradition after her grandmother’s recent passing because this was something her Nonna always made, until she was too fragile.
It is less about mole or gnocchi than it is about the memories and historical context the dishes carry. That context is especially important for newly transplanted expats to give their children and families a way to bring gaps and connect their newly adopted land to their homeland. It is also about the value of home-cooked food rather than something you might find in a commercial kitchen or restaurant.
Yet I remained unsure about succumbing to peer pressure, unsure how sustainable such food traditions would be. The ambience in my home seemed so different from my grandmother’s kitchen, where all my food memories were made. Suddenly I was unsure about my much-loved food processor and whether it really would work to re-create the real deal. It seemed so sterile and incapable of replicating and translating the ethos of food created on my grandmother’s time-tested grinding stone.
Bringing little hands into family culinary traditions
Then last year, around springtime, possibly to cheer myself up and break the winter doldrums, I decided to make gujiyas, a traditional sweet empanada that is typical of my mother-in-law’s north Indian kitchen. It is a traditional spring dessert, and it carries with it memories of my first time learning and working with my mother-in-law.
A dessert with multiple layers of shaping and cooking, the gujiya works beautifully as something that can be made in a group. I had often thought of making it at home, but resisted the challenge because it seemed so daunting, almost too complex, but I decided to give it a try.
As I went through the ingredients, sorting out the grated nuts, Indian cheese and flour, my kids came by. As we chatted, I began involving them in rolling the dough and stuffing the empanadas. Some of the guiiya were uneven, as the children’s little hands lacked the precision for uniform shaping. But they were excited and began asking countless questions about the dessert, about spring, about their grandmother and, most important, about the festivals. Through the shared act of cooking, I realized I was transferring traditions and some level of culture.
While I noted the irony that this was a dish few of my friends in India still made from the scratch, it was important for me to do so, in the same way it was important for my grandmother to have me around the kitchen, sharing stories about family, cooking and history.
Working with my children suddenly made it all click. It was less about the elaborate meal, the new clothes or a date on a calendar. It was the need for a reference point easily found in the context of a festival. We need traditions and memories to keep us grounded. They do not always have to be in the kitchen or centered on a holiday. I wait for the daffodils and forsythia in our back yard every year to tell me that spring has arrived. It is cheerful and uplifting for me.
The magic of connecting over a holiday and food is its predictability, and the fact that it allows us to plan. It offers our children a connection point, and the shared act of cooking offers them this context, probably the same way Pat’s Nonna was able to share stories about her childhood in a village in Italy as she rolled and shaped the gnocchi with Pat. Food is about comfort, and it is also one aspect of culture and tradition that can be easily transported from one land to another, from one generation to another, as we talk, share, cook and eat together.
Top photo: Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya
After my stove, my freezers are the most important kitchen gear I own. I have a large standup one in my kitchen, a chest freezer in the basement, and the freezer that is part of my old refrigerator, also stored in the basement, and all of them are full.
I think of them as essential parts of my pantry, and their contents always enter into my plans for my next meal. As someone who likes bread for breakfast, but not the same kind every day, I store an array that can satisfy any of my moods. Sometimes I want a hearty whole grain loaf, so I pull out a slice from the loaf I baked using Joanne Chang’s recipe from “Flour.”
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If I go for something a little sweet, I have home-baked coffee cakes that are not too rich or frosted, yet have that slight sweetness, yeastiness and pull I find so satisfying. I always keep store-bought rolls, and am especially fond of ciabattas, which go from the freezer to the convection setting on my toaster oven, ready to eat by the time the coffee is brewed.
I would add that these rolls are improved by this process, for they come out with a crunchy crust after having been subjected to thick plastic bags that make their crusts flaccid. Sourdoughs, sandwich loaves, and bagels are also in my kitchen freezer awaiting their turn at the toaster oven.
Freezing meals, not just foods on sale
Of course I have cooked dishes in my freezers, and this is the most important reason to have so much freezer space. Instead of filling the spaces with foods on sale in the super market — a pile of chickens, for instance — I use my freezers as a convenience, making sure that appealing cooked dishes are available all year round and get used up in a timely way. For instance, when I am in a cooking mood I prepare thick soups to serve on those winter nights when I may not feel like cooking.
Other dishes are great candidates for the freezer, such as cabbage rolls, because the dish has so much sauce that it freezes and preserves well. And, clearly, one does not have to come from Eastern Europe to love this dish. An Irish friend dropped by recently, joined us for a cabbage roll dinner, and wouldn’t leave until he got the recipe. And I have friends I already know love this dish, so I can always come up with a last-minute meal I know will please them. I just have to mash some potatoes and dinner is set.
The other good use I make of my freezer is to preserve foods that can otherwise go bad. Whole wheat flour is a prime example. And I keep many of my other grains in the freezer to keep away those kitchen moths that are known to invade.
My interest in convenience means that I will keep on hand cuts of meat my family enjoys. Because we all like chicken thighs, I buy them in bulk and clean and skin them before packaging and freezing so that when they thaw they are ready to go into any dish I choose. But I don’t stuff my freezers with bulky items, especially large cuts of meat or turkeys. This may be because I came across a story some years ago that I have since thought of as a cautionary tale.
A man was given a 30-pound turkey one summer, which he decided to freeze until Thanksgiving. He managed to stuff it into his old chest freezer, pushing it around the internal coils. When he went to get it, he found the turkey hopelessly stuck and impossible to retrieve because, of course, it was no longer malleable and capable of bending around the coils. He had no choice but to unplug the freezer and wait for the turkey to thaw.
Be careful about what goes in the freezer
I sometimes store foods that are available only at stores far from home, but such long-distance shopping can backfire. I have a friend who likes fresh beef tongue, something you don’t find in neighborhood groceries, so she had to travel some distance to get one. When she got home and unwrapped it, she found that it was smelly and had gone bad. In a rage, she called up the butcher who sold it and gave him a piece of her mind, emphasizing that she lived far away from his shop so that returning it wasn’t going to be easy. He told her to put it in her freezer until the next time she was in the area to which she replied, “What do you think I’m running here? A morgue?”
So I am cautious and selective about what goes into my freezers. I remind myself that I don’t think of freezing food necessarily as a way to save money, but rather as a convenience and a way to eat well. When I have a good crop of tomatoes from my garden, many go into a marinara sauce. And I have a favorite corn chowder recipe I prepare in August and pull out in February. Being so enamored of freezing food has led to some teasing by family members. Recently, I went to my basement to put away muffins I had just made when I found taped to the top of the freezer a cartoon showing a husband, wife, and their own chest freezer. The caption has the wife saying, “Do you still want this?” Tucked under her arm is an object shaped like a man and wrapped like a mummy, which she fails to recognize as a leftover corpse.
1 head cabbage with large tender leaves
2 medium potatoes, coarsely chopped
1 large onion, coarsely
1 (28 ounce) can of tomatoes
1 can sauerkraut
1 (15 ounce) can tomato soup
Juice of one lemon
1½ cups brown sugar (or less, according to taste)
2 pounds chopped beef, uncooked
2 carrots sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1. With paring knife, make cuts around stem of cabbage, then steam for five to 10 minutes, allowing leaves to soften so they can be rolled without splitting.
2. Using a food processor, process potatoes, onion and eggs, until all lumps of potato and onion are gone.
3. In large 8-quart Dutch oven pour in the tomatoes, sauerkraut, tomato soup, lemon juice and brown sugar. Add the vegetable mixture from the food processor and the raw, sliced carrots. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. When cabbage leaves are cool and pliable, fill each one with a heaping tablespoon of meat, roll loosely and place in Dutch oven on top of ingredients. If cabbage leaves are stiff, put remaining cabbage back into the steamer until leaves are pliable.
5. Simmer the dish for 1½ hours. It tastes best the day after it is cooked.
Note: I found at a Chinese market a cabbage that is wide and flat. It has very large leaves that are easy to roll. Standard cabbages can be more difficult to handle.
Top photo: Stuffed cabbage rolls. Credit: Barbara Haber
Early February in France means it is time to get your pans ready. The winter days are finally getting a little longer and sunnier and la chandeleur (derived from chandelle, “candle” in French) is at hand, which means crêpes are in the air.
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The French tradition, combining pagan and Christian origins, has been going on for centuries, but it seems to be losing momentum. Everyone still knows about it, but fewer and fewer seem to indulge in the annual crêpes orgy.
As in other parts of the world, home cooking is on the decline while TV food shows are getting more popular. Bakeries now sell ready-made crêpes for a quick fix at nearly $2 a pop. “Ridicule,” said my mother over the phone the other day. And Maman, as often, is probably right. Crêpes are a fun, easy to do homemade affair.
The church, crêpes and a sweet tradition
What are we celebrating, besides a humble form of sweet gluttony? In the Catholic Church, chandeleur marks the presentation of the child Jesus, his first entry into the temple, as well as the day of the Virgin Mary’s purification. I fail to see how thin pancakes came in the picture, except for the resemblance one could see between them and the halo depicted over the heads of holy figures in religious paintings since the 4th century or so.
The pagan origin of the chandeleur links more directly to the round disks of cooked dough the form and shape of the sun which, come February, becomes more and more present as days get longer at a faster pace. It’s not spring yet, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it is still cold enough in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere to stand in front a stove flipping pancakes without having to turn the air conditioning on.
This is also the period of the year when winter wheat was being sowed. Crêpes were a way to celebrate the flour to come by using the one at hand. Interestingly enough, a Comité de la Chandeleur was founded and funded by a major French flour producer in 1997, reminding the population of the godly tradition with ads and billboards. The committee no longer exists. It is now in our hands to make the tradition survive.
A simple crêpes recipe for indulgence
Like every person brought up in France in the last century, I have my good share of childhood crêpe memories: pleasure and pain mixed in a batter of family recollections. While my father and brother were expert at eating the end result, my mother and I were excited by the making process.
We didn’t bother with a recipe and that in itself shows the tradition was still vivid, culturally ingrained. We just knew what to put in the dough: flour, eggs, milk, as well as water, cider or beer, a little fat (oil or melted butter), a little sugar, a touch of booze, traditionally dark rum, and a dash of salt. The trick was to avoid any lumps by using first a wooden spoon and then a whisk.
After letting the batter rest for an hour or so, came the time to show more developed skills. For years, we didn’t have a non-stick pan. We dipped a halved potato in oil to grease the thin metallic pan we used for about everything. With time, I’ve favored using a piece of paper towel folded in fourths and dunked in oil rather than a spud, leaving me to wonder how common paper towels were in Paris in the 1960s. The first crêpe always stuck, no matter what.
At age 7, there was my culinary confirmation that you can’t always get things right the first time in life. The ugly torn crêpe was eaten nonetheless, giving the chance to adjust the recipe-free batter with a little more liquid, salt or sugar if necessary.
If the crêpe didn’t have enough elasticity an egg was added and then, we were good to go. A super-hot pan is essential to achieve one of the essential criteria of a noble French crêpe, thinness, or finesse. Held as a rising sun, the crêpe was supposed to let light go through it, if not the image of my smiling mother behind the lump-free delicacy. A ladle was poured in the super-hot greased pan and then, with a swift movement of the wrist, the batter was to cover the whole pan in a thin coating.
Mastering crêpe-making technique
Chandeleur folklore says that if you manage to flip the crêpe in the air while holding a gold coin in your left hand, good fortune will come your way. I’ve personally never seen this done, perhaps because our entourage didn’t carry gold around so often. We just weren’t keen on the tossing-in-the-air show, partially because our crêpes needed some help with our bare fingers to be lifted off the pan.
When the edge started to get brown, we lifted one side with a small knife, then pinched the crêpe with both hands and flip it as fast as possible to avoid blisters in the process. I was always fascinated by the fact that the A-side of our edible records had a beautiful, uniform golden hue, whereas the B-side looked so different with its erratic brown spots.
We kept piling the crêpes on top of each other on a plate set atop a pot of simmering water so that we could enjoy our crêpes warm en famille. Brother and father were called to come and the filling game began with a variety of jams and spreads. For me, butter and sugar were the only fixings I needed to make me forget my reddened fingers, as crêpes were washed down with Normand cider, mindless of the few degrees of alcohol that helped make the pain go away and the party feel special.
Makes about 12 crêpes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons water (or beer or cider)
1 tablespoon melted butter (or neutral oil)
1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac (optional)
Oil and paper towel to oil pan
1. Sift the flour with sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water, melted butter and rum or cognac.
2. Let rest for 1 hour or more.
3. Heat pan greased with oiled paper towel. Add ¼ cup of batter or so and tilt the pan in a circular manner to spread the batter as fast as possible. When edges begin to brown, flip over with your hands or in the air and cook the other side 30 seconds.
4. Place cooked crêpe on a plate and repeat, repeat, repeat!
Tips and variations:
- To avoid any lumps and go faster, mix batter in a blender adding dry ingredients into the wet ones.
- For savory crêpes, eliminate sugar and alcohol from batter and add a dash more salt.
- To keep crêpes warm, place them on a plate sitting atop a saucepan with simmering water.
- Typically, French crêpes are rolled or folded in four.
- You can also layer the crêpes one on top of each other smeared with one or several toppings until you obtain a form of cake that you can then slice in wedges.
- Crepes can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.
Top photo: Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer