Articles in Grains

In the kitchen at The Peninsula Beverly Hills are some of the ingredients used by chef David Codney and his team to prepare truffle macaroni and cheese, including hen-of-the-woods or maitake mushrooms, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sweet butter, whole wheat ridged macaroni and thyme sprigs. Credit: David Latt

Thanksgiving dinner is a feast of comfort food’s greatest hits. But even as much as I enjoy traditional favorites such as mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts and turkey with gravy, it’s important to bring something new to the party. When chef David Codney showed me how easy it is to make his signature truffle macaroni and cheese, I knew I was going to make this elegant dish for Thanksgiving.

Codney is executive chef at the The Peninsula Beverly Hills, a five-star hotel. When I met the chef, he led me upstairs to the hotel’s rooftop where pool guests were swimming and hanging out. On a warm, blue-sky Southern California afternoon, the view was fantastic.

Just below the rooftop’s railing were two gardens. Originally planted with flowers, the areas are now used to grow edible plants. While the guests relaxed on their chaise lounges, Codney walked past thick bunches of carrots, cucumbers, ginger, tomatoes, fennel, chard, strawberries, heirloom onions, radishes, edible flowers and herbs.  Although Codney has local suppliers who bring him high-quality produce, he loves having a garden of his own.

He fertilizes the garden with compost made from coffee grounds and the pulp left over from making fresh juices in the kitchen.  When he spotted a cluster of photo-shoot-ready tomatoes and an heirloom onion, he cradled them in his hands and held them up for me to admire.

Codney’s first job as a teenager was washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen. Curious by nature, he learned every recipe the chefs would teach him. Even though he studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), he learned his craft in the kitchens of accomplished chefs.

For the video, Codney introduced three sous chefs who would join him in the cooking demonstration. Not that he needed so many cooks to prepare his easy-to-make dish, but their assistance made an important point. For Codney a successful kitchen is the result of collaboration, and he was happy to have them help demonstrate one of the hotel’s signature dishes: truffle macaroni and cheese. And with Thanksgiving and the holiday season approaching, the dish is a good way to celebrate.

Truffle Macaroni and Cheese

Codney’s riff on an American classic can be served as an appetizer, side dish or entrée.

Building flavors as the sauce reduces, he blends fats (butter, cream and cheese) with aromatics (rosemary, parsley and thyme) and uses sautéed mushrooms to anchor the dish. White wine provides acidity, cutting through the lovely richness of the dish.

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In the kitchen at The Peninsula Beverly Hills, truffle macaroni and cheese being prepared in a sauté pan by chef David Codney and his team. Credit: David Latt

Fresh truffles are not always in season and can be hard to come by for the home cook. Truffle oil is a good substitute and is available all year long. But where fresh truffles are a subtle addition to the aromatic quality of the dish, truffle oil can be perfumey, overpowering the other flavors, so Codney advises using it judiciously.

Yield: 8 appetizers or 4 entrees

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 pound elbow macaroni, preferably whole wheat and ridged

3 tablespoons sweet butter, divided

1 cup mushrooms (oyster, hen-of-the-woods, shiitake, brown or portabella), washed, stems trimmed, thinly sliced

Sea salt (preferably fleur de sel)

Freshly ground cracked white pepper, to taste

2 shallots, washed, peeled, ends trimmed, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, skins and root end trimmed, finely chopped

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, finely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, washed, finely chopped

½ cup Chardonnay

2 cups stock — vegetarian, meat, poultry or seafood — preferably homemade

1 whole thyme sprig, freshly picked

1 cup salty pasta water, reserved from cooking the pasta

2 cups cream, to taste

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 tablespoon white truffle oil, to taste

1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. While the sauce is being prepared, heat a large pot of water salted with kosher salt. When the water boils, add the pasta. Stir every 2 to 3 minutes. Cook 7 to 8 minutes or almost al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta water when the pasta is drained. Toss the pasta well with a drizzle of olive oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.

2. Heat a large sauté pan over low heat.

3. Add 1 tablespoon butter and mushrooms. Season with sea salt and freshly ground white pepper. After mushrooms begin to color, add shallots and garlic. Sweat until translucent. Season with parsley and rosemary.

4. Stir well to build the flavors. Add more sea salt. To balance the rich flavors, add the white wine and stir in 1 tablespoon of sweet butter. Add the pre-cooked macaroni. Stir well to coat the pasta with the sauce. Add stock and simmer. Add the sprig of thyme.

5. Reduce the stock and toss the pasta. Add a few tablespoons of salted pasta water for flavor and to thicken the sauce. Raise the heat to continue reducing the sauce.

6. Stirring the pasta, add cream in small increments. Taste and stop adding cream when you have achieved the desired richness. Add freshly ground cracked white pepper.

7. Drizzle olive oil into the sauce. Continue stirring and reducing. Add grated cheese, reserving 2 tablespoons and stir well.

8. If the sauce is too thin, raise the heat and reduce. If sauce is getting too thick, add more stock. In either case, add a drizzle of olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter to round out the flavors.

9. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper or more cream. Remove thyme sprig and discard. Finish with a drizzle of white truffle oil. Use the oil sparingly. Too much can overpower the other flavors.

10. Plate the pasta, decorate with edible flowers or an aromatic such as finely chopped Italian parsley and shaved fresh truffles when in season. Dust with grated cheese. Finish with a drizzle of quality olive oil.

11. Serve hot as an appetizer, side dish or entrée.

Main photo: In the kitchen at The Peninsula Beverly Hills are some of the ingredients used by chef David Codney and his team to prepare truffle macaroni and cheese, including hen-of-the-woods or maitake mushrooms, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sweet butter, whole wheat ridged macaroni and thyme sprigs. Credit: David Latt

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Nasaump, a Wampanoag cornmeal grits dish for Thanksgiving. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Although there is no menu of the first harvest celebration that is usually called the first Thanksgiving, there are some sound ideas of what foods, if not precise preparations, were on the table.

Between 1620 and 1621 Edward Winslow, who arrived on the Mayflower and was a leader of the English settlement at Plimouth, wrote with William Bradford “Mourt’s Relation,” the full title of which was “A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimouth in New England.” Winslow wrote that “our Indian corn, even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meal as rice.”

The Thanksgiving celebration included at least 90 of the local Wampanoag, who we also know brought a good deal of the food and taught the settlers about growing crops. It is a safe bet that one of the foods made from “Indian corn” might have been nasaump, a kind of grits that used the type of multicolored flint corn the Wampanoag grew.

In 1643 a book by the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, describes nasaump as “a meale pottage, unparched. From this the English call their Samp, which is Indian corn, beaten and boiled, and eaten hot or cold with milk and butter, which are mercies beyond the Natives plaine water.”

From this brief description it seems safe to say that the dish is a thanksgiving food. It is very much like grits and one could make it savory or sweet, I suppose. This recipe is adapted from a description on the Plimoth Plantation website.

Two excellent sources for Rhode Island stone ground flint cornmeal are Gray’s Grist Mill and Kenyon’s Grist Mill, which has been in operation since 1696. I recommend you order their product because it has a distinctively different taste from store-bought masa harina or cornmeal.

Nasaump

This traditional Wampanoag dish is made from dried corn, local berries and nuts. It is boiled in water until it thickens, and is similar to oatmeal or grits.

Prep and Cooking Times: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 cup stone ground flint cornmeal (see sources above)

⅓ cup wild (preferably) or cultivated small strawberries

⅓ cup blueberries

2 tablespoons crushed walnuts

2 tablespoons crushed hazelnuts

2 tablespoons unsalted pumpkin seeds

3 cups water

¼ cup maple syrup

Directions


1. In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring almost constantly, about 5 minutes.

2. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until it becomes the consistency of a thick porridge or grits, 10 minutes. Serve hot.

3. The remainder not served can be cooled on a platter until hardened and cut into squares for frying in butter later.

Main photo: Nasaump, a Wampanoag cornmeal grits dish for Thanksgiving. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Grilled Polenta With Fontina and diced tomatoes can be made in about 30 minutes, if you use instant polenta. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

When the young teen superstar Mozart arrived in the Trentino region to play his first Italian gig, they had to call out the guards to protect him from being mobbed by fans. The Justin Bieber of his day, Mozart stayed in Rovereto, a small town that straddled the then-Italian-Austrian border. We don’t know what he played in the beautiful Baroque church, (a bratty show-off, he often improvised as he went along), but it’s a good bet that afterward he dined on polenta, polenta and more polenta.

Polenta vs. pasta

Polenta is to the far north of Italy what pasta is to the rest, and it is widely eaten throughout Trentino-Alto Aldige, Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, as well as in Tuscany. At one time smart Italian restaurants would not have been caught dead serving polenta, il cibo della miseria, the food of poverty. Basically it is a sort of thick porridge made from maize (corn) and water, and for centuries was a staple, belly filling food for impoverished rural people. Put that way, it sounds less than glamorous. Tell the folks today they’re getting gruel or grits — not buying into a slice of dolce vita lifestyle along with the Balsamic and sun-dried tomatoes — and you’re not going to sell a lot of packets. For many consumers, it’s still a case of overpriced and over-hyped.

Nonetheless, the wheel of polenta fortune has turned, and it has morphed into a fashionable food accessory, presented as elegant crispy triangles, diamonds and squares, as well as a smooth, buttery puree.

At its best, polenta can have a slightly nutty, sweet-corn-like taste, but essentially it is a carrier of other flavors and textures, a backdrop for sauces and a foil for meats, vegetables, fungi or cheese. It is remarkably versatile, served hot, cold, firm, supple or sloppy, thin or thick, or two fingers wide. Leftovers can be baked, fried or grilled. It can also be sweetened with sugar and cinnamon or used in cakes and pastries.

There are hundreds of regional recipes, but at its simplest, all that’s needed is butter and grated Parmesan or Grana Padano to transform a dull dish into something altogether more special. It is a country food made good.

Polenta, the old-fashioned way

There is something magical about the way polenta turns from a dull grain into a golden slice.

Making polenta the old-fashioned way is as good as a workout at the gym. Polenta is traditionally cooked in an unlined copper pan called a paiolo. The salted water must boil furiously in a vortex created by swirling the water clockwise (the reverse may well be the case in the southern hemisphere, if plugholes are anything to go by).

The cornmeal is added in a slow, steady drizzle (a pioggia, as if it were raining), then stirred vigorously (great for the biceps) with a bastone in the same direction for about 40 minutes lest it catch or congeal into hard lumps. The bastone, or wooden stirring stick, needs to be long, as polenta has a nasty habit of spitting viciously as it cooks. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, like a bubbling yellow swamp, it is poured onto a wooden board or even a scrubbed kitchen table, and cut with a wooden knife or long thread.

Modern methods

If you don’t have a paiolo, then it’s unlikely you will also have a big fireplace hearth with a cooking crane on which to hang your pot. Despair not — any large, heavy pot that gives an even heat will do, and it’s even possible to buy electric polenta makers with paddles a little like ice cream machines.

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Baked Polenta With Italian Sausages, Mushrooms and Cheese, topped with a good tomato sauce, can be a hearty, filling comfort meal. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

When looking for polenta to buy, consider the Molino Spadoni brand: Fioretto Polenta is yellow and fine-grained and becomes beautifully creamy; Bramata Polenta is thicker and more granular and produces a more rustic polenta.

Contemporary cheats, however, use instant polenta: The maize flour is steamed and pre-cooked, added to boiling water, stock or milk, and is ready within minutes. Valsugana is a popular instant brand in Italy.

Anna del Conte recommends another cooking method in “The Classic Food of Northern Italy”: cook it in a pressure cooker or the oven. Del Conte has also endorsed a revolutionary approach, at least in purist polenta circles, in which the polenta is added all at once to cold water.

Polenta: The five-minute method

Follow instructions on the instant polenta packet, adding extra hot liquid if you like your polenta on the runny side. Use stock or milk and water in place of just water if preferred for extra flavor.

Stir in a generous amount of butter and Parmesan to make a mash-cum-puree. Either serve as is or pour into a greased loaf pan and let cool until firm. Slice it thickly, brush with olive oil, and fry or grill until brown and nicely toasted.

Grilled Polenta With Fontina

Prep time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as an appetizer

Ingredients

3 to 4 plum tomatoes, diced or roughly chopped

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

12 slices of firm, cooked polenta (about ¾ cup uncooked)

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup Fontina cheese, shredded or sliced

Fresh basil leaves, shredded

Directions

1. Mix the tomatoes, salt and pepper together and set aside.

2. Brush both sides of the polenta slices with olive oil. Broil under a medium heat for 5 minutes or until one side is golden. Turn the slices over and top with the cheese.

3. Cook for another 5 minutes or until the cheese melts.

4. Place on serving plates and serve, topped with the tomatoes and shredded basil leaves.

 

Baked Polenta With Italian Sausages, Mushrooms and Cheese

Prep time: 40 minutes (plus chilling for several hours or overnight)

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as a main course

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

2 large garlic cloves, crushed

1 red pepper, cored, seeded and diced

2 Italian sausages with fennel seeds, casing removed, crumbled

2 cups mushrooms, chopped

3/4 cup of polenta (cornmeal)

1 tablespoon fresh, chopped parsley, plus extra for serving

Pinch of cayenne pepper

½ cup ricotta cheese

1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Salt and pepper

1/4 stick butter, diced

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Tomato sauce

Directions

1. Heat olive oil in a frying pan and lightly sauté the onion, garlic and red pepper.

2. Add the crumbled sausage and cook until the meat starts to change color.

3. Add the mushrooms and cook for another five minutes, then set aside.

4. Cook the polenta according to the packet instructions. When it is ready, remove from the heat and stir in the parsley, a pinch of cayenne pepper, the ricotta and Gruyere cheese. Add the sausage and sweet pepper mixture, fold in well, season with salt and pepper.

5. Pour the mixture into a shallow, round dish that has been lined with plastic wrap. Cool, then cover and chill for a few hours or overnight.

6. When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 190 C. Use the plastic wrap to remove the polenta onto a board. Cut the polenta into wedges and place into an oiled shallow roasting dish, large enough to hold the polenta in one layer without crowding.

7. Dot with the diced butter and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until the polenta is golden.

8. Garnish with chopped fresh parley, serve with a good tomato sauce.

Main photo: Grilled Polenta With Fontina and diced tomatoes can be made in about 30 minutes, if you use instant polenta. Credit: Clarissa Hyman


Centuries of polenta

1. The culinary ancestor of polenta was pulmentum, a grain paste made from farro, a kind of spelt, in the form of either a hard cake or soft porridge. It was a staple for the legionnaires of ancient Rome.

2. Before maize was introduced to Italy from America in the 17th century, polenta was made using wheat, barley, oats, millet, chestnut flour or buckwheat. The last two are still used in parts of Tuscany as well as in Valtellina and other Alpine valleys.

3. When the new grain was unloaded in Venice, it would usually have come via Turkey. It is still sometimes called granoturco or Turkish corn in Italy.

4. Not all polenta flour is egg-yolk gold. In the Veneto, it is often made from special, extra-fine white maize, polentina bianca, and is so thin it is spooned rather than cut.

5. In parts of the Trento and Piedmont, black maize flour may be mixed with buckwheat to make polenta nera or polenta taragna.

6. There are also different gradings of polenta. Strictly speaking, the right degree of coarseness should be chosen for each dish. Coarse ground to go with rich meat and tomato sauces, sausages or salt cod; the finer variety for more delicate dressings of cheese, milk, butter or wild mushrooms. Either way, stone-ground polenta is worth seeking out for its more complex, extra-nutty taste.

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Corn kernels cut off the cob being prepared for freezing. Credit: David Latt

Wanting to cook with farm-to-table ingredients is much more difficult in colder months than in the summer. Eating locally in the fall and winter means switching to recipes that feature root vegetables, cabbages and hearty greens like kale. The summer ingredient I miss the most is corn. My solution is to turn my freezer into a garden.

With a few easy steps, I can have fresh-tasting corn even during the darkest days of winter.

A Taste of Summer From Your Freezer


One in a series of stories about freezing late-summer produce to enjoy all winter.

Healthy tips to beat back winter’s grip

After years of experimentation, I believe that corn kernels retain their flavors best when frozen rather than pickled or preserved in glass jars. The trick with corn kernels is cooking them quickly and then submerging them in their own liquid.

Frozen in airtight containers, the kernels retain their qualities for several months, long enough to carry the home cook through to the spring when the farmers markets come alive again.

Use stacking containers so you can keep a half dozen or more in your freezer. Besides the containers available in supermarkets, restaurant supply stores sell lidded, plastic deli containers in 6-, 8- and 16-ounce sizes.

Charred Corn Kernels

Once defrosted, the kernels can be added to soups, stews, pastas and sautés.

Yield: 6 to 8 cups depending on the size of the ears

Prep time: 5 minutes

Sautéing time: 5 to 10 minutes

Ingredients

6 ears corn, husks and silks removed, ears washed

1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions

1. Using a sharp paring or chef knife cut the kernels off the cobs. Reserve the cobs.

2. Heat a large frying pan or carbon steel pan on a high flame.

3. Add olive oil and corn kernels. Stir frequently so the kernels cook evenly.

4. When the kernels have a light char, remove from the burner.

5. To avoid burning, continue to stir because the pan retains heat.

6. Set aside to cool.

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Corn kernels sautéing in a carbon steel pan. Credit: David Latt

Corn Broth

Corn broth keeps the kernels fresh in the freezer. The broth is also delicious when added to soups, stews, braising liquids and pasta sauce. If your recipe only needs the kernels, after defrosting remove them from the deli container and refreeze the corn broth for another use.

Simmer time: 30 minutes

Cooling time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

6 corn cobs without kernels, each cob broken in half

4 quarts water

Directions

1. Place the cobs and water in a large pot on a high flame.

2. Boil uncovered until the water is reduced by half.

3. Cool. Remove the cobs and discard for compost.

Freezing Corn Kernels in Corn Broth

Directions

1. Fill the deli containers with the kernels, a half-inch from the top.

2. Add enough corn broth to cover the kernels.

3. Seal with airtight lid.

4. Place in freezer. Freeze any excess corn broth to use as vegetarian stock.

Chicken Soup With Charred Corn and Garlic Mushrooms

Perfect for cold, wet days, hot chicken soup is a healthy dish to eat for lunch or dinner. The charred corn gives the hot and nutritious soup an added brightness and sweetness.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 5 minutes

Simmer time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

8 ounces frozen corn kernels including stock

1 teaspoon olive oil

6 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

2 tablespoons yellow onions, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled, crushed, finely chopped

2 tablespoons Italian parsley, leaves only, finely chopped

1 cup shiitake, brown or Portobello mushrooms, washed, pat dried, sliced thin

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Defrost the corn kernels overnight. If you are using homemade frozen chicken stock, defrost that overnight as well.

2. Remove the corn kernels from the corn broth and reserve separately.

3. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame.

4. Sauté until lightly browned the corn, onions, garlic parsley and mushrooms. Stir frequently to avoid burning.

5. Add chicken stock and corn broth. Stir well and simmer 10 minutes.

6. Add cayenne and sweet butter (optional). Stir well, taste and adjust seasonings with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

7. Serve hot with homemade croutons or a loaf of fresh bread and butter.

Braised Charred Corn and Tuscan Kale

Adjust the amount of liquid to your liking. With more broth, the side dish is a refreshing small soup to accompany a plate of roast chicken. Reducing the broth to a thickness resembling a gravy, the corn-kale braise is a good companion to breaded or grilled filet of salmon or halibut.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

8 ounces corn kernels and corn broth

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 bunch Tuscan (black) kale, washed, center stem removed, leaves roughly chopped

1 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, roughly chopped

2 garlic cloves, skins removed, washed, crushed, finely chopped

1 cup vegetable or chicken stock, preferably homemade

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)

Directions

1. Defrost corn kernels and broth overnight.

2. Separate the kernels from the broth, reserve both.

3. Heat a large frying pan.

4. Add olive oil.

5. Add kale and sauté, stirring frequently to avoid burning.

6. The kale will give up its moisture. When the kale has reduced in size by half, add the corn kernels, onion and garlic. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add the reserved corn broth and the other broth. Stir well.

8. Simmer 10 minutes.

9. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and pepper. Add butter and cayenne (optional).

10 .Serve with more or less liquid as desired.

Onion-Corn-Mushroom Sauté

Personally, when it’s cold outside, I love a steak grilled on a high temperature carbon steel pan. The outside gets a salty crust while the inside stays juicy and sweet. Mashed potatoes are a good side dish, accompanied with an onion, corn and mushroom sauté. The combination of flavors—meaty, creamy-salty-earthly-summer sweet—is satisfyingly umami. Throw in a vodka martini ,and you’ll never notice that outside your warm kitchen the sidewalks have iced over and it is about to snow.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 cup corn kernels

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, washed, peeled, root removed, thin sliced

2 to 4 garlic cloves, washed, peeled, crushed, roughly chopped

2 cups shiitake, brown or Portobello mushrooms, washed, pat dried, thin sliced

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, washed, pat dried, finely chopped (optional)

Directions

1. Defrost corn kernels and broth overnight.

2. Separate the kernels from the broth, reserve both. Refreeze the broth for later use.

3. Heat a large frying pan.

4. Add olive oil.

5. On a medium flame, sauté onions, stirring frequently until lightly browned. That caramelization will add sweetness to the sauté.

6. Add corn, garlic, mushrooms. Stir well. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add sweet butter (optional), cayenne (optional) and rosemary (optional). Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and black pepper.

8. Serve hot as a side dish or condiment.

Main photo: Corn kernels cut off the cob being prepared for freezing. Credit: David Latt

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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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