Articles in Grains

Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

If you are not clear exactly what Mediterranean food is, it’s actually very simple: It’s the cooking found in all the regions and provinces that have a littoral on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of that fact in a sense there is no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine because every region’s food, while tending to use the same ingredients, is strikingly different from one another. High on the list of staple Mediterranean foods are legumes.

Two Mediterranean countries famous for their legume dishes are Egypt and Greece. Here are two budget-friendly, healthy and delicious recipes that can be served in Near Eastern style, as both Greece and Egypt are considered Near Eastern countries. These dishes can be prepared as part of a larger meze or as an appetizer or side dish.

Edward William Lane tells us in his classic book “The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” first published in 1908 that many dishes prepared by the Egyptians consist wholly or for the most part of vegetables, “cabbage, purslane, spinach, bamiyeh [okra], beans, lupin, chick-pea, gourds, cut into small pieces, colocasia, lentils etc.”

Called salāṭa adas and made with tiny brown lentils slightly cooked with olive oil, garlic and spices, I had this lentil salad as a meze at the Tikka Grill, a restaurant on the corniche of Alexandria in Egypt. Although you don’t have to use freshly ground spices, you’ll find if you do, the result is a dish far fresher, more pungent and better tasting than one made with pre-ground spices. Too many home cooks keep spices far beyond their shelf life, so check the date on your jar.

Lentil Salad with Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices

Yield:6 servings

Preparation time: about 30 minutes

Ingredients

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon ground fenugreek

1 cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed well

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic and as soon as the garlic begins to sizzle remove from the burner, add the cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.

2. Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on. Drain and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad

This simple preparation called mavromakita fasolia in Greek can be made with canned black-eyed peas, as long as they are packed in only water. I prefer using dried black-eyed peas but they are not always to be found. Typically you would serve this salad as a meze, but it’s fine as a side dish too. This recipe was given to me by chef Estathios Meralis of the motor yacht M/Y Sirius out of Piraeus, Greece.

Yield: 6 servings

Preparation time: about 1 hour

Ingredients

2½ cups canned black-eyed peas (two 15-ounce cans) or 1 cup dried black-eyed peas

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste

Directions

1. If using dried black-eyed peas, boil over high heat in water to cover until tender, about 1 hour. Drain and rinse. If using canned peas, drain and rinse, then place in a bowl.

2. Toss the black-eyed peas with the scallions, garlic, dill, olive oil, pepper and salt. Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Oatmeal with caramelized bananas. Credit: Sharon Hunt

People today have at least one unlikely thing in common with the Neolithic bog people of thousands of years ago: oat porridge. It was found in the stomachs of  their 5,000-year-old bodies in Scandinavia and Europe and would no doubt be found in our stomachs if somebody digs us up thousands of years from now.

Oatmeal — or porridge as we called it, giving a nod to my grandfather’s Scottish ancestry — has been a breakfast mainstay since I was a girl. Now, with the return of cool fall weather, I am drawn to warm foods, especially in the morning.

My mother made oatmeal before sending me off to school, and although hers was a bit “gluier” than I liked, it was filling and took me through a morning of memorizing poems or learning long division. More important, especially for a child, it tasted great with a liberal slosh of table cream and an equally liberal sprinkling of brown sugar. Sometimes she grated apples on top or arranged slices of pears in a circle and, like Oliver Twist, I begged for more, although my oatmeal was surely better tasting than his gruel.

Porridge is made of oats cooked in water, milk or both and served hot with a variety of toppings. My grandfather made it in a big steel pot, reminding me of a wizard stirring a potion, although I’d never seen a wizard in a floral apron. Like me, he had grown up eating oatmeal for breakfast, but sometimes it was his dinner, too. It was inexpensive, which was an important consideration after he became the breadwinner for his mother and sisters at 10, his father having died, forcing him to leave school in fourth grade.

Oatmeal in the early years

In his 1755 monumental work “A Dictionary of the English Language,” Samuel Johnson described oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Lord Elibank, a proud Scotsman, soldier, lawyer and author, was said to have remarked about Johnson’s definition of oats, “And where else will you see such horses and such men?”

Porridge was originally a means of preparing crops before ovens became common enough in Europe that more people could make bread. British inmates in prison were said to be “doing porridge,” a slang for doing  time. They also ate porridge while behind prison walls.

Oats were well suited to Scotland’s short and wet growing season. Scottish universities, during the 17th century, observed a holiday known as Meal Monday (or Oatmeal Monday) when students, whose diet consisted largely of porridge, returned home to stock up on supplies for the coming months of study.

Oatmeal today

Oatmeal remains popular for breakfast today and is available in long-cooking, quickly prepared or instant varieties.

On a recent trip to Ireland, I found oatmeal on breakfast menus from Dublin to Belfast and towns in between. In Dublin I enjoyed it with sour cherries and grated nutmeg; and in Belfast, it was delicious with thick cream, honey and cinnamon. The best oatmeal I had (and, for that matter, the best breakfast) was at Coolefield House Bed and Breakfast in tiny Millstreet.

Coolefield House is a jewel, as warm and welcoming as the dish of oatmeal that Pam and Mike Thornton, the owners, prepare for their guests. Their oatmeal, made with organic oats by Flahavan’s, a popular Irish brand, was cooked in milk until creamy and topped with caramelized bananas, buttery and sweet. As a special treat, the Thorntons sometimes add a splash of Drambuie, the aged Scotch whisky blended with honey, spices and herbs, which adds extra richness to an already rich and delicious bowl.

How to make oatmeal

Make oatmeal with your preference of water, milk or a combination of the two. Scottish traditionalists like my grandfather used only water, but milk makes a richer porridge. If you prefer to use both, a ratio of 1 part milk to 2 parts water gives a good consistency or, if you wish for less milk, try 1 part milk to 3 parts water. Cook the oats according to the directions on the package.

Quick-cooking oats — different from instant oatmeal — are, as the name implies, quicker to prepare, whereas instant oatmeal is faster still, although I prefer longer-cooking oats for a deeper flavor.

For a nutty flavor, consider toasting the oats for a few minutes over low heat in a dry pan or under the oven broiler before cooking, or let cooked oatmeal sit, with the lid on, for 5 to 10 minutes to develop more flavor.

Oatmeal toppings

Choose from a variety of toppings to add flavor to your bowl of oatmeal. Ideas include caramelized apples or bananas; sour cherries; blueberries; raspberries; peaches; brown sugar; honey; Greek yogurt; table cream; grated fresh nutmeg; and cinnamon.

Main photo: Oatmeal with caramelized bananas. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Pears are the star in Rincón de Soto, Spain. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Pears and Rioja are a marriage made in Spanish heaven, but although the region of La Rioja is synonymous with wine and bull running (one ponders the connection), it also has another claim to fame. The small town of Rincón de Soto may be little more than a main plaza, modern town hall, church and railway line, but it is on the map of European culinary produce thanks to pears.

In the Rioja Baja, a gently terraced swath of fertile fields, orchards and plane trees with ever-dancing leaves, the famous vines take second place to pears, peaches, cherries, cauliflower, onions, sprouts and cardoons. The growing area is defined by a natural margin: the Ebro River that separates it from the mountains of Navarre to the north, and the craggy, Riojan hills, where a network of dinosaur footprints remains eerily well-preserved.

Protected status for pears

Pears have been grown for centuries on the riverbanks. Over the years, many trees were abandoned, but the town’s success in gaining DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status for the pears has been a big boost in maintaining the orchards.

At the annual Jornadas de Exaltacion or pear festival in late September, the pear cookery competition is always keenly contested. There is also a kids’ competition. As the tension mounts, everyone chomps on hot chorizo sausages on bread, and in the evening there are pears poached in Rioja. The party carries on into the wee hours. It’s a day, indeed, of exaltation.

In Spain, the preference is for large Conference pears, although connoisseurs favor the delicate flavor of the smaller Blanquilla.

In 1747, the latter was enjoyed at the court of Philip V, where it was described as “an exquisite fruit,” and the royal pastry cook recommended it for drying, confits or preserving in syrup. Sometimes known as a “water pear,” the Blanquilla is crisp, juicy and aromatic. As it ripens, the Blanquilla becomes highly perfumed and meltingly soft, and the bright lime-green skin takes on a reddish tinge.

Blanquilla vs. Conference pears

The Blanquilla, however, is more difficult to grow, and it nearly disappeared in the 1960s, as agriculture became more intensive. It was largely replaced by Conference pears, which have green-yellow, naturally russeted skins and buttery flesh. However, it’s the local geography and climate that give these highly prized Rincón pears their special balance of sweetness and acidity, as well as their keeping quality and texture that allows the fruit to hold up when cooked.

Pruning and picking of these varieties is still done by hand. The pears are delicate and easily bruised, and each one is picked with  care. They must be held by the base and raised upward so the stalk snaps clean from the branch. The pears are placed into padded containers to avoid damage and transported within six hours of picking to one of the local packing stations, where teams of women pack them in perfect formation. Each one a swaddled infanta, each one a perfect taste of La Rioja.

olla

olla
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Olla Gitana, a stew created for days when there was little meat for the pot, is probably vegetarian more by default than choice. It also is a good dish to serve before a juicy lamb chop or veal escalope, or as a vegetarian main course. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Olla Gitana

Olla means a tall, pot-bellied cooking pot, and this vibrant, autumnal stew probably originates with Roman travelers who arrived in Spain in the 1450s, settling mostly in Andalusia. A stew created for times when there was little meat for the pot, this dish is probably vegetarian more by default than choice. The vegetarian ethos has spread these days beyond the big cities, although in many a pueblo ham is still classed as a vegetable and they would probably regard this as a good dish to serve before a juicy lamb chop or veal escalope.

Prep Time: Overnight if you soak the beans; 30 minutes if you use canned beans.

Cook Time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 cup dried chickpeas (or 2½ cups cooked chickpeas)

1 cup dried white beans (or 2½ cups cooked beans)

2 cups chopped green beans

1 butternut squash or small pumpkin, seeded, peeled and cubed

1 medium carrot, sliced

2 firm Conference pears, peeled, cored and chopped

2 bay leaves

4 cups vegetable stock

Salt and black pepper

1 large onion, diced

¼ cup olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, diced

One small slice of stale country bread, crust cut off and fried in oil

¼ cup toasted almonds

A pinch of saffron, lightly crushed and soaked in a little hot water

3 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped

½ tablespoon pimentón de la Vera  (smoked Spanish paprika)

Chopped, fresh mint

Directions

1. Soak the chickpeas and beans overnight. Drain and put into a pot with fresh water, bring to a boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes until soft. Drain, place in a large casserole.

2. Add the green beans, pumpkin, carrots, pears, bay leaves, stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until everything is tender.

3. In a pan, fry the onion slowly in the oil for at least 15 minutes, until soft and golden.

4. Meanwhile, pound the garlic, bread, almonds, saffron and a pinch of salt in a mortar until well combined. Stir in a ladle of stock from the bean pot.

5. Add the tomatoes to the onion mixture, fry over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the pimentón to the mixture, cook for another minute. Add the onion-and-tomato mixture to the bean pot.

6. Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the contents of the mortar to the pot. Simmer a little longer; add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with mint, serve.

 

Duck Breast With Honey-Spiced Pears

The success of this dish depends on the delicate balance of sweet and savory flavors.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 duck breasts

A little olive oil

2 level tablespoons butter

¼ cup honey

3 cloves

1 tablespoon mixed peppercorns (white, green and pink)

1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half

2 ripe Conference pears, peeled, cored and halved or quartered

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt

Directions

1. Fry the duck breast in a little olive oil (15 to 20 minutes, depending on thickness and preference). Set duck breast aside to rest for 5 minutes; slice and arrange on serving plates.

2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, add the honey and spices. Cook gently for a few minutes, until the honey melts and starts to bubble.

3. Add the pears, turn gently in the butter mixture until the edges start to caramelize.

4. Add the lemon juice; salt to taste.

5. Remove the pears, arrange alongside the duck. Strain the sauce and drizzle over the duck.

Ham and Pear Parcels

Prep Time: 20 to 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 parcels

Ingredients

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons of cream, curd or ricotta cheese

¼ cup blue cheese

1 small pear, peeled and diced

A few walnuts, chopped

Black pepper

6 to 8 slices of  jamón serrano (cured Spanish ham)

Chive strands

Directions

1. Mash the soft cheese with the blue cheese.

2. Add the pear and walnuts to the cheese mixture, season with black pepper to taste.

3. Spread on slices of cured Spanish ham and roll into tubes. Tie decoratively with chives.

4. Use any surplus filling on crackers.

 

Pears Poached in Muscatel and Spices

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 whole large (or 8 small), firm Conference pears, peeled

3¼ cups Moscatel wine

A few black peppercorns

3 cloves

Juice of 1 lemon

1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half

Toasted, slivered almonds (optional)

Directions

1. Place pears in a pan just large enough to allow them to remain upright.

2. Pour wine over the pears, add all the other ingredients except for the almonds.

3. Bring the ingredients to a boil; cover, simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.

Optional, serve sprinkled with almonds.

 

Rioja Pear Cake

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cooking Time: 40 to 50 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

8 firm Conference pears

Red Rioja wine, plus sugar and cinnamon to taste

1¾ sticks butter, softened

1 cup caster sugar, plus 1 tablespoon

4 medium eggs, separated

1 generous teaspoon vanilla extract

1½ cups self-rising flour

2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

Salt

Whipped cream

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Peel and slice the pears. Place into a pan, add sugar and cinnamon to taste, and pour in enough wine to cover the fruit. Bring gently to a boil, reduce heat and lightly poach until tender. Drain the pears, saving the liquid. Set pears aside.

3. Cream the butter and sugar, beat in the yolks one by one; add the vanilla extract.

4. Add the flour, mix until well-combined.

5. Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until snowy. Carefully fold them into the cake mixture. Pour into a buttered, 9-inch-round cake pan with a removable base.

6. Arrange the pears in a neat pattern over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with the nuts and a tablespoon of sugar. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top is well risen (although it will shrink back down), and a toothpick comes out clean.

7. Reduce the wine until it is syrupy, serve with the cake and whipped cream.

Main photo: Pears are the star of a festival in Rincón de Soto, Spain. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn divide and shape dough at Vermont's Elmore Mountain Bread. Credit: Amy Halloran

I have met the next generation of bread.

I’m more than a little susceptible to hypnosis by wheat, but if you believe in bread, what Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn are doing might mesmerize you too. If you doubt bread, their story might make you reconsider.

Tucked high on a hill in Vermont, Elmore Mountain Bread makes a future that I think will last. Marvin and Heyn bake sourdough bread in a wood-fired brick oven, which is standard operating procedure for artisan bread. However, they also mill their own flour.

Wheat and gluten are the latest bull’s-eyes in the American game of dietary roulette. Remember when eggs, butter and red meat were reviled? Some people are finding their way back to bread through small-scale bakeries and long sourdough fermentations. The next road on the path back to bread might be bakery milled grains.

“We want to make the best bread we can, and it’s a no-brainer that milling is a part of it,” Marvin said as she filled a rack at a small supermarket with fresh-baked loaves in paper bags. The birds on her arm tattoo flew as she worked. A small tag on the rack announced that the flour was freshly milled. A little red stamp of a millstone on the bag gave the same notice. The change is much bigger than these words and signs show.

The day before, Heyn poured grain into the hopper above the stone mill he had built. Every half hour, a timer went off and Heyn or Marvin left the bakery to scoop flour from the rectangular bins attached to the sifter. The sifter allows them to remove a small portion of the bran, and bake with a very white — yet nearly whole-grain — flour, using almost the whole kernel.

A few bakeries now milling their own flour

Research on how milling affects the nutritional value of flour is minimal, but wheat processing is being scrutinized as celiac disease and non-celiac wheat sensitivities are investigated. A handful of bakeries across North America are choosing to mill their own flour in pursuit of peak flavor and nutrition.

Elmore Mountain Bread is remote, near the edge of the state’s fabled Northeast Kingdom, but the bakers are not isolated. America lacks a formal apprentice system for bakers, so good bread advances through a network of online and live resources, such as King Arthur Flour’s baking school and the Bread Bakers Guild of America. Bakers get to know one another by email and by traveling to see one another’s setups.

Near the edge of Vermont's fabled Northeast, Kingdom, Elmore Mountain Bread is remote but plugged into a network of next-gen bakers. Credit: Amy Halloran

Near the edge of Vermont’s fabled Northeast Kingdom, Elmore Mountain Bread is remote but networked with other next-gen bakers. Credit: Amy Halloran

Miller-bakers Julie Lomenda from Six Hundred Degrees Brick Oven Bakery in Tofino, Canada, and Dave Bauer from Farm & Sparrow in Candler, N.C., came to see the Vermont bakery on separate visits, and they got the couple thinking about milling.

Closer to home, Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne, Vt., mills for its baking. In the spring, Heyn and Marvin’s son Phineas gave them the impetus to start.

“One of the only things he ate every day was baguettes,” Andrew said. “As I was doing the ordering, which was typically 30 bags of white flour and two bags of whole wheat, I realized that this was refined foods. Organic, but refined.”

Heyn and Marvin wanted to use whole grains but remain loyal to their customers and product line, which was thoroughly artisan but did not feature whole grains. The bakery began 15 years ago, and they’ve owned it for a decade. Through that cross-continent network of bakers, Heyn designed a mill that would suit all their goals.

The brainstorming took place largely on email. Cliff Leir from Fol Epi in Victoria, Canada, sent pictures to Heyn of the mill he had built. Heyn collaborated with bakers Fulton Forde and Bryn Rawlyk, who also wanted to build their own mills. The three worked out details for a rustic, simple machine in a very 21st century fashion, without ever talking on the phone.

The metal work was more tangible and local. Friends who live down the road from the bakery fabricated the framework for the millstones. Iron Art had made the door for the bakery oven, and helped make the oven loader too. The sifter they bought ready made, but Heyn is about to make a new set of screens to better regulate the sifting.

Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn in front of their wood-fired brick oven — a must for artisan bread. Credit: Amy Halloran

Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn beside the mill they designed. Credit: Amy Halloran

 

Six years ago Heyn brainstormed designs for the next generation of wood-fired ovens with mason William Davenport of Turtlerock Masonry Heat, incorporating ideas from the Masonry Heater Association. Davenport built the oven for Elmore Mountain Bread, and its features are now common in micro-bakeries. Turtlerock is no longer in business, but former apprentice Jeremiah Church is still building ovens.

All of this tinkering, until the mill, has been to serve efficiencies. Heyn has an engineering mindset, and as he’s engaged in his work, his brain is always working out improvements in their system. Marvin has been an eager partner in this thinking, because she wants to minimize wear and tear on their bodies in what’s a very physical job.

The mill adds rather than subtracts work, but the two of them are gung-ho about this latest innovation. Even though the grains cost about as much as the organic flour they were using, the difference in product is worth it because they want to make the best bread they can.

Elmore Mountain Bread delivers about 500 loaves three times a week in a small radius near Stowe and Montpelier. The bakers still use roller milled flour to make a focaccia served in restaurants, but that is only about 20% of their production.

So far, they haven’t figured out an effective way to announce the difference in their main ingredient. Aside from the little millstone graphic and note on the bag, they don’t have much direct contact with their buyers. This is the way it is for bakers. Even in a retail setting, customers don’t want to chat about what’s in a loaf, the way someone might linger over ingredients while sipping a beer.

I am hoping that this will change. The media are a big voice in the popular campaign against bread, and positive stories about flour are rare.

For now, the bread speaks for itself, though I might serve as a ventriloquist. I didn’t taste any Elmore Mountain Bread before it started milling. Usually I’m all pancakes, all the time. But these loaves made me forget the griddle. The flour smelled so fresh and fieldy, and the breads were hauntingly tasty. I have a new enchantment.

Main photo: Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn divide and shape dough at Vermont’s Elmore Mountain Bread. Credit: Amy Halloran

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Paula Marcoux's sweet crispy borek, or campfire baklava. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

“Flatbreads really grabbed me because they’re ancient in nature,” Paula Marcoux said at a class in early August. “Stone or clay or metal griddles grew up with domesticated grains. As nomadic people spread those grains they brought the griddle with them.”

In Saratoga, N.Y., the kitchen at the Healthy Living Market is very modern, which was fitting for the class introducing a group of contemporary cooks to how these ancient technologies and old foods have traveled through time and the world.

“I studied archaeology, and one of the things I love the most about the Middle East was eating the food. You can learn from documents, and you can learn from archaeology but you can learn by cooking too. And it’s not going to be the same unless you cook with fire,” Marcoux said, identifying the path to her passion.

ZESTER BOOK LINKS


Cover-Cooking with Fire by Paula Marcoux. Credit: Courtesy Storey Publishing

"Cooking With Fire"

By Paula Marcoux

Storey Publishing, 320 pages, 2014

» Click here to buy the book

That passion is outlined in her new book, “Cooking With Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking” (Storey Publishing). A food historian, Marcoux is the food editor of Edible South Shore magazine, and has worked as an archaeologist, cook and bread oven builder. The book, her first, covers a lot of ground with food and fire, from the most rudimentary fire and stick methods through managing the nuances of retained heat in an oven — brick or otherwise.

I can’t get my head out of the middle chapter, which covers griddles and flatbreads, a food ghetto I see no reason to leave.

“The fact is that baking technologies develop to suit the grains available,” Marcoux wrote. “With its smooth horizontal surface allowing even and controlled baking, the griddle has been used by cooks the world over to convert gluten-free grains and even tubers into tremendous breads.”

I love this. People talk about flatbreads and batter breads being as old as, and older than, our life with grains. But her explanation seems more perfect than others I’ve heard, perhaps because it comes with recipes. At Marcoux’s class, she traced how the stretched doughs of Anatolia had moved around the world in a cross-cultural arc of flaky, griddle-baked wheat goods that included scallion pancakes, and boreks savory and sweet.

“The modern borek derives from the ancient Semitic root word b-r-k,” Marcoux said. “From this came borek, pierogi and Tunisian brik. The Middle Eastern word is a blazing clue to these flatbreads, where a fine stretched dough delivers filling. I think it’s amazing how one idea can travel 10,000 years. That’s longevity.”

Marcoux has shoulder length dark hair and a ready smile. Being with her is like having searchable access to an encyclopedia of our human history with cooking and food.

Griddles have been used by cooks everywhere to convert gluten-free grains into tremendous breads. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

Griddles have been used by cooks everywhere to convert gluten-free grains into tremendous breads. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

For a flour and griddle fiend like me, she has been a joy to find. Her name crept into my life at the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Massachusetts where she used to work, and where I went to visit erstwhile Pilgrims handling grains. This was in the spring, and people at Plimoth were excited about Marcoux’s work documenting early ovens in New England, and about her book, which was released in May. Now that I’ve met her, and have her book in my kitchen, I understand the enthusiasm.

“For the scallion pancakes, I’m just rolling out a simple circle of dough,” she explained at the market. She poured a little sesame oil on the disk, and spread it thickly with chopped scallions. “Roll it up like a long cigar. Coil it up like a snail, and let it rest a while.”

After that while had passed, maybe 10 minutes, she rolled the snail into a pancake, and fried it in a little canola oil on a tava, a concave pan generally used for dosas.

Gas not like using live fire

“I feel funny cooking this indoors,” she said, adjusting the heat so the pancake wouldn’t burn. “As lovely as this kitchen is, cooking on a gas stove just isn’t the same as using live fire. Instead of struggling with these controls, you’d just be pulling a twig out, or pushing a twig into the fire.”

As the pancakes cooked, she made Middle Eastern pastries, and invited us to come up to the counter and learn.

“This technology is older than tossing pizza,” she said, moving a piece of dough from hand to hand. She urged people to look for videos of Armenian women tossing dough to learn the method.

The volunteers rolled their dough flat, then stretched it using a sway and throw motion between fingers and hands. Once it was thin enough, they put it on a cutting board again, where they buttered, then filled it.

“Puff pastry works because the fat and gluten layers have to work together,” she said, noting that the doughs we used were only wheat and water. “It doesn’t take huge expertise to make this because of the amazing geometry of dough. This quality of wheat is what made us love it, and we’ve been loving it for a really long time.”

Chive Pancakes

Yield: 4-6 servings

Ingredients

    For the sauce:
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (or another of light soy sauce)
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sambal oelek or other Asian hot chile paste
  • ¼ cup chicken broth (or water, plus another dash or two of soy)
  • For the pancakes:
  • 1¾ cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 1¾ cups (6 ounces) unbleached cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons peanut, canola or corn oil, plus more for frying pancakes
  • 1¼ cups boiling water
  • Asian (toasted) sesame oil for brushing
  • 1½ cups chives or scallions, finely chopped

Directions

  1. Make sauce first to let flavors marry. Mix all ingredients and let rest while you make the dough.
  2. With a food processor or by hand, mix together flours and salt. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil, then, gradually, the boiling water. (You may need a few more drops of water, but wait and see.) Once it comes together in a ball, knead by hand for a few minutes, then let rest airtight for 30 minutes.
  3. Roll the dough into a cylinder, and cut into 12 even-sized pieces. Roll each into a smooth ball. Cover with a moist towel or plastic wrap so they don’t dry out.
  4. Roll one ball out thinly, brush with sesame oil, sprinkle liberally with chives, and roll up snugly in a cylinder. Coil the tube of filled dough in a spiral, keeping the seam to the inside. Press together a bit, and set aside, covered, while you fashion the rest.
  5. Gently roll each pancake flat. They should be 4 or 5 inches in diameter and about ¼-inch thick. (Light-handed rolling preserves all-important layering for the best texture.) Set up a couple of large skillets or a griddle; heat ⅛ inch of oil over medium heat. (You can continue rolling as you fry.)
  6. When the oil is hot, fry the pancakes (as many as you can at a time without crowding) until golden brown and crispy and cooked through — they should take about 3 minutes on the A side, and 2 minutes on the B side. Drain briefly on a rack or paper, cut in quarters, and serve hot with dipping sauce.

Notes

Recipe excerpted from "Cooking With Fire" by Paula Marcoux, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Main photo: Paula Marcoux’s sweet crispy borek, or campfire baklava. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

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A bowl of Malaysian rice porridge. Credit: Aida Ahmad

If you ask me what would I choose as my last meal, I wouldn’t be able to give you just one. I have too many favorites. Doubtless, however, is that the soothing staying power of my mother’s wholesome rice porridge is among the most memorable.

In the Malaysian language, the common definition of rice porridge within the Malay community is Bubur Lambuk (pronounced boo-boor lahm-bok), which has various ingredients and spices such as cumin, fennel, garlic, onions, dried prawns and lots of coconut milk as well as black pepper. A bowl of this is undoubtedly flavorful but can be overwhelmingly flavored with spices.

My mother’s rice porridge, though, has a comforting effect. According to her, it was a staple for her growing up in our hometown in Penang, Malaysia, and it has become the one thing I look forward during Eid, which marks the end of fasting during Ramadan each year. In many parts of Malaysia, hearty rice porridge is a staple during the breaking of one’s fast. Mosques and suraus (smaller prayer halls) usually prepare cauldrons of rice porridge to distribute to people. Although it is mostly meant for the poor and destitute, everyone is welcome to take home a packet or two.

My mother, Nisha Ibrahim, who turned 70 in January, recalled that in her youth, “At 5:30 in the evenings during Ramadan, we would flock to the mosque to get some porridge with our tiffin carriers, but over the years I have used my own recipe, which doesn’t require a lot spices. I use simple ingredients, which create a balanced flavor.”

When my mother was a child, people didn’t use any plastic containers when they got their porridge stash at the mosque. “We would take those aluminum mugs with the lids so the food would stay warm when we brought it home.”

It is now more than a month past Ramadan, which will start June 18 in 2015, but the echoes of my mother’s dish remain. The added oomph in her recipe comes from the generous portions of fresh garlic and ginger. Both provide a calming effect on the stomach. In the past, whenever I thought of rice porridge, I not only thought of breaking fast but also associated it with nursing a flu to feel better. Now I feel it’s a great meal for  any day of the week.

Rice Porridge

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 to 3 servings.

Make sure you don’t use Basmati rice, because the starch content is relatively low. Instead, go for low-grade rice, as the high-starch content will break down the rice easily.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup uncooked rice
  • 8 cups filtered water
  • 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 pandan (screw pine) leaves, one leaf tied into a knot
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, coarsely chopped
  • 3.5 ounces (100 grams) minced beef or chicken
  • 3.5 ounces (100 grams) diced carrots
  • ¼ cup coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoons cilantro leaves, chopped

Directions

  1. Wash the rice in a big sieve. Do this three or four times, swishing the rice until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.
  2. Put the rice in a big pot and add 8 cups of filtered water. Bring to a slow boil. Be sure not to let it burn.
  3. Add the vegetable oil, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds and pandan leaves and stir until contents are well mixed.
  4. Add the garlic and ginger and stir for a minute.
  5. Reduce the heat to medium-low and monitor the grains until it resembles a thick, creamy porridge. This should take about 5 minutes.
  6. Add the minced meat and carrots and heat until the meat is cooked and the carrots are soft.
  7. When the porridge is fragrant, add the coconut milk and cilantro leaves. Leave to cook over low heat for 10 minutes while stirring occasionally.
  8. Using a ladle, stir contents and scrape the pot to make sure nothing sticks before serving.

Notes

Tip: You can use fried shallots or fried dried anchovies (both available at Asian grocers) as garnish and to make the porridge tastier.

Main photo: A bowl of Malaysian rice porridge. Credit: Aida Ahmad

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Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

As this best part of summer delivers a ready-to-eat bounty of fresh vegetables to the kitchen, Luigi Fineo, executive chef at West Hollywood’s RivaBella Ristorante, shows off a large bowl of Iowa yellow corn. With one taste, Fineo knew what he would do with these fat sun-ripened kernels. He would make a healthy, sweet tasting soup.

The youngest of five, Fineo grew up in southern Italy in Gioia del Colle. Like many chefs, he learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen. Helping to prepare the family’s meals, she taught him the basics. That early training would serve him well as he worked in demanding restaurants around the world from Francesco Berardinelli’s Shooeneck Ristorante in Falzes, Italy, to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif..

From the outside, RivaBella has the appearance of just another upscale restaurant. Inside, the sprawling interior is set-dressed to look like an elegant version of a rustic Italian country inn. Full-sized trees and a 7-foot tall brick hearth dominate the interior. During the day when the retractable ceiling is open, the bright blue Southern California sky hangs overhead.

The current menu recalls the kitchen of Fineo’s mother and the refinements of his colleague, owner-chef Gino Angelini, who helped popularize quality Italian cooking in Los Angeles. The entrees include fine-dining versions of Italian classics: risotto with porcini mushrooms, spinach lasagna, Veal Milanese and pasta with broccolini and salmoriglio.

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A bowl of Iowa corn used to make a yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives, prepared by Chef Luigi Fineo in the kitchen at RivaBella Ristorante, West Hollywood, Calif. Credit: David Latt

Reflecting his time spent in Santa Monica’s La Botte where he earned a Michelin star, Fineo also enjoys using the high-tech tools that are popular in many contemporary restaurant kitchens.

For his slow-cooked lamb shoulder ragù, he adds summer flavor with peaches he dehydrates, then rehydrates in a white wine bath flavored with cinnamon, anise and bay leaves. The handmade pappardelle he serves with the ragù is made with flour, flavored with a fine pistachio powder that is first frozen in liquid nitrogen before being  ground into the fine powder.

Of the corn, by the corn and for the corn

When I first tasted the corn soup at RivaBella, it was so velvety, I asked if heavy cream or butter were used. The answer was neither.

In his kitchen for the video demonstration, Chef Fineo explained that he did not need cream or butter to create his soup. All he needed was farm-fresh Iowa corn, a little water, a pinch or two of salt and a lot of stirring.

Usually when Fineo makes soups, he begins with a sauté of shallots and aromatics. Cooking with corn, he’s inclined to roast the kernels. But with this sweet corn, he decided he didn’t need to add flavor and he didn’t need to employ any high-tech machines. To prepare his corn soup, he would return to the basics he learned from his mother.

Yellow Sweet Corn Soup

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Because, essentially there is only one ingredient, use high quality, fresh corn to create a soup that is healthy and delicious. When picking corn, choose ears that have green, healthy husks and kernels that are plump. If the kernels are indented or the husks are brown, choose different ears. In the restaurant, the soup is served with fresh crabmeat to enhance its upscale qualities. But Fineo recommends that the soup is a treat served entirely as a vegetarian or vegan dish.

Ingredients

  • 12 ears yellow corn, shucked, washed, pat dried
  • ¾ cup water
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
  • ½ cup crab meat, preferably crab leg meat (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper (optional)

Directions

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut the raw kernels from the cobs.
  2. Working in batches, two cups at a time, place the kernels into a large blender and blend with just enough water, about one tablespoon water for each cup of kernels. To create a vortex, if needed, add more water.
  3. Blend each batch about 45 seconds.
  4. Again, working in batches, strain the resulting corn mash through a chinois or a fine meshed strainer, capturing the liquid in a large bowl. To release all the liquid, press on the corn mash gently, using the back of a large ladle or large kitchen spoon.
  5. Transfer the corn juice to a large saucepan or small stock pot and place uncovered on the stove.
  6. Using high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and then lower to medium.
  7. Using a wire whisk, gently stir the liquid 30 to 40 minutes until reaching the desired thickness. Very importantly, the liquid must be stirred constantly to prevent the corn’s sugars from sticking to the bottom and burning.
  8. As the liquid thickens, lower the heat.
  9. Taste and add sea salt as desired. Serve hot, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
  10. Optionally, in a non-stick pan on low heat, sauté the crab pieces in olive oil or butter until crispy on all sides, then place one or two pieces on top of each bowl of soup and garnish with chives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Instead of crab, Chef Fineo also recommends using shrimp or scallops.
  11. Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Drain the crab on a paper towel. Place on top of the soup. Drizzle with olive oil and finely chopped chives.

Main photo: Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

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Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Consuming whole grains is making us healthier eaters. Take rice, which since ancient times has been one of the most popular grains eaten around the world, particularly in Asia.

Many Japanese  people, including myself, are making the switch from white rice to brown rice, opting for unmilled or partially milled. Brown has become the new white — for its purity, if you will.

The brown part, the bran and the germ of the grain, contains all the good stuff — protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Besides its nutritional value, brown rice is better than white rice because it keeps you full for a long time and it takes longer to digest compared with white rice. This is because white rice is mainly starch, which turns into sugar when it goes into your digestive system. In fact, Japanese people are dieting on brown rice to lose weight and detox.

It helps to know how to cook brown rice to ensure optimum flavor and texture — nutty, sticky, aromatic and sweet. What I look for in my brown rice is good moisture and stickiness, but not mushiness. I also want my rice to be flavorful in its natural state and tasty even at room temperature.

What is the best way to achieve this perfect balance for rice? Japanese people will give you a variety of answers, but many cooks are still searching for the best method. After all, we have been spoiled eating white rice.

You need to know that it takes a little longer to cook brown rice because it has another layer of skin. The idea is to soften it. Basically, all it takes to cook brown rice is water and a little salt. I don’t use any oil or butter when cooking rice as Western cooks do, but that’s optional. The main question is the vessel in which the brown rice is cooked. You are looking at about an hour to cook rice from prepping to done, no matter what you use. Here are several options to consider.

Pressure cooker

I love cooking brown rice with a pressure cooker. Many brown rice aficionados swear by it. The rice comes out nutty, sticky, sweet and shiny — all the qualities I am looking for.

Cooking it in a pressure cooker does not require soaking, and it doesn’t take too much water to cook the rice. You’ll want a ratio of about 1-to-1.5 rice-to-water. While cooking, you’ll have to keep an eye on the pressure cooker while the pressure is building and you must handle the pressure cooker with care, so you don’t burn yourself. These tasks may be challenging for some cooks. Also, each pressure cooker works slightly differently, so you need to follow your manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

Using a pressure cooker is faster than other methods as well, about five minutes to prep the rice and 35 minutes to cook it, including the steaming.

Donabe clay pot

The donabe — a Japanese clay pot — has been used in Japan to cook rice and other dishes since ancient times. Sitting around the wood-burning stove waiting for the rice to cook in the donabe was one of my favorite childhood pastimes with my grandmother.

Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

The grains love the even heat of the clay pot — the individual grains literally stand up when rice is cooked in a donabe. The donabe method is easier than you may think, but I know of two American friends who broke their donabes before they even cooked a grain of rice in them. A donabe needs to be seasoned properly, similar to using a tagine.

The donabe method for cooking rice is straightforward: The rice is soaked overnight in the pot with the measured water. The water-to-rice ratio is about 1-to-2. The rice is cooked to a boil over medium high heat for 30 to 35 minutes. The lid must be closed, and no peeking is allowed during cooking. Then, the heat is turned off and the rice rests for another 30 to 40 minutes. Still, no peeking until the timer goes off.

This method will give you a nutty, aromatic rice with good texture. Cooking brown rice in a donabe pot is a slow process, but the method is pleasing to the eye and palate. A good source for donabe pots is Toiro Kitchen.

Electric rice cooker — the no-brainer method

Rice cookers were invented in the 1950s in Japan. They had a life-changing effect on Japanese cooks like my mother and grandmother because they allowed them to walk away from the pot.

The rice cooks rather perfectly each time, so long as you allow it to soak beforehand and hit the water-to-rice ratio right. In a rice cooker, it can range between 1-to-1 and 1-to-1.2. The rule of thumb is to allow at least 20 minutes for soaking.

In recent years, rice cooker companies have come up with more advanced devices that look and think like robots. Some rice cookers come with a cast iron or clay inner cooker — ultra-modern technology enveloping old-fashioned equipment. They come with timers and various cooking settings for everything from porridge to sushi rice to brown rice. Some can even be used to bake bread. Costs can range from $150 to $800.

My Tiger rice cooker comes with a load of fancy features, but I use only the buttons for basic rice and brown rice. It’s a reliable machine. I should explore the other buttons. You can also buy rice cookers made in China that cost less than $30 but still cook a decent bowl of rice. You can find them at Target and Costco, among other retailers.

Stove or oven method

The simplest way to cook brown rice is on the stove top or in the oven. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Le Creuset and Lodge make Dutch oven pots with a lid that you can place in the oven.

Baked brown rice comes out slightly moister and stickier than the stove top method. Here are the recipes for both, if you want to see which you prefer. Just like all the other rice recipes, no peeking is allowed while steaming the rice.

Stove Top Brown Rice

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 60 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice

2¾ cups of water

¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)

Directions

1. Combine rice, water and salt in a heavy pot and bring to a boil.

2. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook for 45 minutes.

3. Remove from heat with the lid on and let stand for 10 minutes to allow for further steaming.

4. Fluff with a rice paddle or fork. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls (this portion makes 4 onigiris) and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.

Baked Brown Rice

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 60 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2½ cups water

1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice

¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)

Directions

1. Bring water to a boil and preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the brown rice in an 8-inch square dish or a 7½-inch-by-2¾-inch Le Creuset pan baking dish.

2. Pour boiling water over the rice, cover tightly with aluminum foil and put it in the oven to bake for 45 minutes. Do not peek.

3. Remove from oven, toss the rice with a fork or rice paddle, put the cover back on and let the rice stand for 10 minutes.

4. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.

Main photo: Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

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