Articles in History
Cook or chef? If asked, chances are most of us would opt for cook. But what does that mean? Cooks cook. Chefs cook too. So what’s the difference? Most obviously, chefs are men who cook in, and for, the public, while the rest of us labor away as unsung heroines (and a few heroes) on the domestic front to please family and friends.
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By Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson
The heavily masculine world of chefs has its roots in the military model formalized by the French in the 17th century. The chef de cuisine — the “head” of the kitchen — literally commanded the meal. So too in the modern restaurant that emerged over the 19th century; the chef gave the orders that lesser mortals carried out. The movement toward professionalization over the 19th century excluded women. (The iconic 1987 food film “Babette’s Feast” is totally off-the-mark. No woman would have been a chef in a top Parisian restaurant in the 19th century. Even today there are few.)
When we look closely at what chefs actually do, we may be astonished that “mere” cooks undertake many of the same activities. Perhaps cooking and “chefing” differ less than the fancy white chef’s toque would have us believe.
A continuum from cooking to chefing
In reality, from cooking to chefing is a continuum. The more foods involved, the more elaborate and complex the preparations, the more people involved as staff and consumers, and the greater the pressure for innovation, the closer we come to chefing. The more extensive the division of culinary labor, the more leadership and management skills come into play. It is not by chance that the restaurant kitchen is still known as a “brigade” and that “Yes, Chef” the only possible response to the kitchen commander.
But the domestic cook uses many of those same skills — even if she has no one to order about. Just think about what is involved in putting together an elaborate meal for a special occasion or special guests say, a birthday party for 10-year-olds or an anniversary. The cook knows that time spent at the stove is the least of her tasks. She becomes an Executive Chef for the occasion, commanding the meal, setting the menu, ordering the food and seeing to the pleasures of a demanding public. Such a meal requires skills, time, energy and imagination. You may not be a chef, but you certainly are chefing.
The contemporary food world is incomparably varied — from high-end restaurants bent on innovation to the neighborhood diner — so the hierarchical model, even for the professional kitchen, is only one mode. Is there an ideal balance between cooking and chefing?
The answer depends on the moment, the place, the occasion, the company. Cooks and chefs find their place on the continuum from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the unseen to the spectacular.
The worlds of cooking and chefing have never been closer than today. As I argue in my recent book, “Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” the explosion of talk about food in the past quarter century has blurred the lines between eating in and eating out, between the ordinary meal and the extraordinary feast, between the plain and the fancy.
From blogs to television shows and even films – think of Remy the rat as chef in “Ratatouille” — food talk diffuses ideas, techniques and savoir faire beyond the professional sphere. All this talk brings the chef and the cook ever closer together. We cooks may not be chefs, but we sure do a lot of chefing.
Of all the foods I get defensive about, clam chowder is high on the list. There are certain preparations that are so iconic, established and regionally rooted that I think it’s nonsense to say “oh, there are many interpretations.”
In fact, I believe the parameters of what constitutes a proper clam chowder are quite narrow. This is one instance one can be downright dogmatic and say, “No, there is only one proper clam chowder.”
Granted, there are variations of clam chowder made from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island, and those are acceptable because these places are really the home of clam chowder even if the word itself comes from the French chaudière, a cauldron used by the fishermen of Brittany to cook up a fish chowder.
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In John R. Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms” published in 1848, a chowder is described as a dish from New England made of fresh fish, especially cod, or clams, and stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit, with the addition at times of cider or Champagne.
First written mention of clams in chowder
There is no record of a clam, as opposed to fish, chowder before the mid-19th century, although the first written mention of clams in chowder is from 1829 in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Frugal Housewife.”
The dividing line between places that make chowder with milk and places that make chowder with tomatoes seems to be in southwestern Connecticut. Beginning there and heading south, cooks use tomatoes, and from Cape Cod to the north, they use milk. The no-man’s land of this debate seems to be Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut where a clear broth is used.
A clam chowder isn’t worth writing about unless you extol a particular clam chowder, as did fellow Zester writer Lynne Curry, who also wrote about chowder. I wouldn’t be a chowderhead if I didn’t complain about her use of canned clams. I can’t abide that. I began to feel strongly about this when I moved to California and encountered the gloppy white mud they called clam chowder and thought “guys, stick to fish tacos, you don’t know chowder from chile.”
Cape Cod chowder is the best
This recipe is a Cape Cod clam chowder and I believe the best clam chowder in the world is made on Cape Cod.
Just as a proper chili con carne never has beans or tomatoes in it, for me a true clam chowder should never contain flour, or cream, certainly never fish broth (might as well call it fish soup), and, God forbid, a tomato.
A true clam chowder is very simple, but rarely gotten right. Adding flour and cream, popular with restaurant chefs, turns the elixir into an unappetizing and gummy muck. Cream is also a no-no, but sometimes permissible (see below). A clam is a delicate creature and gets easily lost with too much starchy thickening, acidic vegetables, herbs, seasoning, or bacon as opposed to salt pork flavor.
A true clam chowder is made with, and only with, live quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria Linn.) with their liquor, and never with canned clams. A quahog is nothing but a large cherrystone clam, which is nothing but a large littleneck clam.
Clam chowder also requires diced lean salt pork. Bacon is not appropriate because it’s too smoky. I don’t buy the speculation that the smokiness resembles the original.
Raw milk first used in clam chowder
The chowder also requires onion, potatoes, butter, salt, pepper and if you can manage it, raw fresh creamery milk. In the early 20th century, Cape Codders could regularly get raw milk for making their chowder, which had a creamier taste than today’s pasteurized and homogenized milk. Therefore it’s permissible to mix whole milk with half-and-half or a little heavy cream.
Clam chowder can also have a little celery and a little sprinkle of thyme, but that’s it. It’s always served hot, but not piping hot, and with common crackers.
Cape Cod cooks like to “age” their chowders by cooking them the day before or letting them sit for some hours before serving, that’s why you find many early recipes saying that you move the kettle to the back of the stove. Doctoring your chowder once it’s finished with parsley or chives is a restaurant innovation to give the chowder “color.” Just remember that the color of chowder is white.
One last warning: Be very careful with milk or it will curdle. For real Cape Cod authenticity, serve in Styrofoam cups.
- 20 pounds quahogs or large cherrystones, washed very well
- 2 quarts water
- 2 pounds boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and diced
- ½ pound lean salt pork, diced
- 1 large yellow onion (about 14 ounces), finely chopped
- Salt, if necessary
- Freshly ground white pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 cups half-and-half
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Common or oyster crackers for garnish
- Place the clams in a 20- to 22-quart stockpot filled with about an inch of water. Cover, turn the heat to high, and steam the quahogs until they all open, removing them when possible as they open, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard any clams that remain very firmly shut. Remove the clams from their shells once they are cool enough to handle and discard the shells but save all the liquid. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth into a smaller stew pot. Chop the clams. You should have about 5 cups of chopped clams. You can do this in a food processor in pulses.
- Add all the collected clam juice to the water in which you steamed the clams. If you have less than 2 quarts of liquid in the stockpot add enough water to the collected juices to make up the difference, although you will probably have more than 2 quarts.
- Bring the reserved clam liquor to a boil then cook the potatoes until three-quarters cooked and nearly tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the reserved chopped clams and cook at a boil for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and let the chowder sit. If scum forms, skim it off at once.
- Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, cook, stirring the salt pork over medium-low heat until nearly crispy, about 15 minutes. Remove the salt pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally to deglaze the skillet, until golden and very soft, about 30 minutes. Add the salt pork and onion mixture to the potatoes and stir. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary and the pepper and thyme. Turn the heat off and when the pot is cool enough, place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
- Remove the chowder and reheat over low heat. Once it is hot, add the milk, half-and-half and cream. Cover and heat the chowder until it is about 140 F, making sure it doesn’t even bubble, otherwise the milk will curdle. Stir in the butter, remove the stew pot from the burner, but leave on the stove, covered, to stay warm for 1 hour or more and serve with common or oyster crackers.
Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
The rise and fall of fettuccine Alfredo is a story of a simple dish taken from its home and embellished with flourishes before sliding into culinary familiarity, dullness and bastardization.
Although it has its roots in Roman cuisine, it is nothing but a restaurant dish in Italy and America. Fettuccine Alfredo became a classic of Italian-American cooking, but today is often served as third-rate tourist food in the Little Italy emporiums catering to them in America’s cities.
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This wasn’t always true. In the 1940s and 1950s, fettuccine Alfredo was a signature dish of continental-style French-service restaurants where waiters, with a flourish, would prepare the dish tableside in a chafing dish.
The classic story of its origins is that the dish was invented in a Roman trattoria on the Via della Scrofa near the Tiber River by Alfredo di Lelio, who opened his restaurant in the early part of the 20th century. He invented the dish for his wife, it is said, after she gave birth and lost her appetite.
The dish became famous to Americans after Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s in 1927 and raved about his preparation called fettuccine Alfredo. It was in America that cream started entering the recipe and that fettuccine Alfredo began its descent to a thick, heavy, glop of pasta. The original, although meant to be rich, was also light and silky because all that was used was butter and Parmesan cheese: cream and eggs were never meant to be used.
Interestingly, Italians do not refer to this dish as fettuccine Alfredo — or when they do they’re well aware of the American connection — but rather fettuccine al triplo burro, fettuccine with triple the amount of butter, the name of the original dish. Even more interestingly, two great cookbooks on Roman cuisine Ada Boni’s “La Cucina Romana” and Livia Jannattoni’s “La Cucina Romana e del Lazio” do not mention fettuccine Alfredo, indicating that it never was part of Roman cooking but is culinary fantasy.
The dish should be made with fresh fettuccine, but dried works just fine as well. The quality of the butter and cheese in fettuccine Alfredo are paramount. I recommend the Parmigiano-Reggiano butter made from the same cow’s milk the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from and which you must also use.
- 1 pound fresh fettuccine
- ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- ½ pound (about 4 cups) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
- Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing saving ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water.
- Meanwhile, cut the butter into thin pats or flakes and transfer half of them to a warmed large oval silver platter where you will do the final tossing. Place the cooked pasta over the butter, sprinkle the cheese on top. Toss, sprinkling some reserved pasta water. Add the remaining butter and toss, adding the pasta water to make the pasta look creamy. You will be tossing for 2 minutes. Sprinkle on the black pepper if desired. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
“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.
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By Paula Marcoux
Storey Publishing, 320 pages, 2014
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.
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.
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“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.”
- 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)
- 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
- Make sauce first to let flavors marry. Mix all ingredients and let rest while you make the dough.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
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
In the 1950s and 1960s, the food industry churned out a veritable buffet of newfangled food products with recipes to match, uniquely combining foods such as peanut butter, pineapple and Velveeta in a single dish. Such odd recipes made their way into the American culinary vernacular as the food industry sought domestic applications for food preservation technologies and products created during World War II.
Laura Shapiro tells this tale of convenience foods in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America.” Through recipes printed on can labels and the back of boxes, in free pamphlets and branded cookbooks, the food industry sought to instruct housewives, who were initially leery of these new convenience foods, on how to cook with them, at every meal and for every audience. As Shapiro argues, rather than being rooted in any particular gastronomic tradition, “packaged-food cuisine” was its own invented culinary phenomenon, aimed at promoting specific food products. As a result, these recipes often recommended flavor and ingredient pairings that were unusual, to say the very least.
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I’ve rounded up a selection of such recipes, drawing from cookbooks such as “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book,” published in 1950, and Campbell’s “Easy Ways to Delicious Meals,” whose revised edition made its way onto bookshelves and into kitchens in 1968. Are these product-pushing recipes inventive or insane? Do they provide an unexpectedly right combination of savory and sweet or do they completely miss the mark? Are they surprisingly tasty or downright gross? You be the judge.
1. Beans & Franks Chiquita. A simple recipe designed for a child to make, this dish starts with chopped onion cooked in butter (or margarine), then mixed with a can of beans and franks in tomato sauce. To this mixture, one adds the “Chiquita” portion of the recipe: sliced canned peaches, sliced bananas and a touch of nutmeg.
2. Beef Fizz. Described as “sheer wizardry as a pick-up,” this “refreshing” beverage recipe calls for a can of condensed beef broth mixed with a half cup of club soda and garnished with lemon.
3. Hawaiian Sandwich. In this recipe, which I alluded to in the intro, Velveeta “gets party-fancy” with “a really exotic flavor combination” that is “easy to fix and dramatic to serve.” Slather toasted bun halves with peanut butter. Then add a well-drained slice of pineapple and a slice of Velveeta. Bake or broil until the cheese melts, then top with a maraschino cherry.
4. Marvelous Milk. While many a mom has cajoled a child into drinking her milk by stirring in a long squirt of chocolate syrup, how about beating in a mashed banana and a few drops of lemon juice?
5. Saucy Susans. If you’ve grown bored with basic biscuits, try this recipe, which substitutes tomato juice for the milk, resulting in pink-hued pastries. Bake the biscuit dough stacked in pairs with a slice of cheese sandwiched between to produce a breakfast-y version of grilled cheese and tomato soup.
6. Sunday Morning Sausage Ring. Perk up your weekend breakfast by combining 2 pounds of pork sausage with a couple of beaten eggs, some grated onion, bread crumbs and chopped parsley. Pack this savory concoction into a 9″ ring mold. Bake for 40 minutes at 350 F, taking out halfway through to pour off excess fat. Fill the ring with “Eggs à la King,” a soupy mixture of quartered hard-boiled eggs, cream sauce, canned mushrooms, chopped green pepper and pimiento, and paprika.
7. Wedgies. Don’t worry. Underwear-related social torture is not involved in this appetizer, but it is a “cake” made entirely from processed meat and cheese. Start with softened cream cheese and season it with minced onions or chives and a squirt of mustard. Spread the cream cheese on slices of bologna and then stack slices on top of one another like a layer cake. Then “ice” the tops and sides of your meat cake with a spreadable cheese. Decorate as you like with sliced olives. Chill, cut into wedges and serve.
Main photo: A selection of cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s. Credit: Emily Contois
During the first O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, I was working at the Los Angeles Times, about three blocks away from the L.A. County Courthouse. Once in a while I would wander up there to gawk at the sidewalk circus that was in progress.
One fellow in the colorful crowd was selling an amazing souvenir of those days: a plastic mold you could use to reproduce the face of Superior Court Judge Lance Ito in gelatin. As I like to say, there’s always a food angle.
Several members of the trial’s cast of characters used it as a springboard to fame: the late attorney Johnny Cochran, police officer Mark Fuhrman, party pal Kato Kaelin (not that much fame, in retrospect) et al., including Robert Kardashian, of course, who bequeathed us a pack of telegenic daughters the world might otherwise never have heard of. Judge Ito took a more dignified route and continued an honorable career on the bench.
The gelatin mold looks kind of like the judge, but not exactly. It’s based on a life mask of the owner of SKS Sibley Co., which mostly makes molds for Halloween purposes such as brains, hands and eyeballs. At any rate, it looked enough like the Honorable Ito that people recognized the resemblance at the time. The mold came with a pair of glasses made from construction paper, which were not really very close to what the judge wore.
Of course I bought a mold. Shortly afterward, the judge expressed a desire that the maker cease and desist, or something to that effect, so it has become something of a rarity.
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That day I took it back to the Times Test Kitchen and we made it following the accompanying instructions. They created gelatin with a color a little like a flesh tone, more orange than one might like for the purpose, except perhaps on the Jersey Shore. The hair? More of a problem. The idea was to use food coloring (gelatin is food, people), but black food coloring is hard to find. Blue with a few drops of red gave a very deep purple hue that read close enough to black for the gag to work.
It takes a long time for the gelatin to set, but the next day we had it ready, and we proudly carried it all around the Times building to show it off. Everybody found it highly entertaining … everybody, that is, except the City Desk people who were covering the trial. They didn’t get it at all.
Today with O.J. nostalgia in full bloom, I dug that mold out, a little surprised to find that I’d hung onto it through the years and that I still had the recipe for the quasi-flesh tone gelatin. I had to make new fake glasses, of course – construction paper is less durable than plastic. So here it is, one for the “Remember Those Fabulous Nineties?” book.
By the way, here’s the gelatin recipe that came with the mold. You can use it whenever you need a flesh-colored dessert. In the absence of a suitable mold, you might chill it in custard cups and then paint eyeballs or something when you unmold them.
- 3 (6-ounce) packets of peach-flavored gelatin
- 4 cups boiling water
- 1 cup cold water
- 1 (12-ounce) can nonfat evaporated milk
- 3-4 drops of green food coloring
- 6 or 7 drops blue food coloring
- 3 or 4 drops red food coloring
- Dissolve the gelatin in the boiling water.
- When dissolved, stir in the cold water and the evaporated milk.
- Add three drops of food coloring – if the color is still too peachy try another drop.
- Refrigerate until quite firm, seven hours or more.
- After the gelatin is firm, squeeze the blue and red food coloring in a small bowl and stir. If it doesn’t look black enough for you, doctor it with more drops.
- Apply the blackish coloring carefully to the appropriate areas of the gelatin with a small brush.
Main photo: Twenty years after the O.J. Simpson trial, Charles Perry digs out his Jell-O mold of Superior Court Judge Lance Ito to revive an unlikely recipe. Credit: Charles Perry
Knishes are packed with more than flaky, potatoey deliciousness. “The knish is really stuffed with stories,” said Laura Silver, author of the new book, “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food.” Her many pilgrimages on behalf of the knish — “a pillow of filling tucked into a skin of dough” — took Silver from Poland to Israel. But the story really began with Mrs. Stahl’s of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the knish-maker her grandmother loved best. The shop’s demise in 2005 is what ignited Silver’s obsession to get inside this dense, satisfying “potato pie.”
One stop on her quest was the town of Knyszyn, Poland, home to Silver’s ancestors and some knish lore. There she heard the legend of a king who was traveling, tired and hungry, through a forest. He emerged in a hamlet where he was served a tasty dumpling called a knish. He liked it so much he named the place after it.
Tyler J. Kelley, a writer based in New York City , reported this story in association with Round Earth Media. Photo credit: Erandi Carranza
Tracing knish history
The food’s precise origin is unknown, and Silver speculates broadly, but the earliest mention places it somewhere between a Polish poem from 1614 and a Polish town with a knish-related name dating to 1347 (Knyszyn landed on the map later, in 1569). In present-day Poland, Silver concluded, the knish has disappeared. She carried pictures of the storied pastry with her in lieu of a translator, but no one recognized it.
Silver also learned that knishes weren’t necessarily a Jewish food; in early references they are filled with meat and eaten on All Saints’ Day, November 1. In fact, the knish was “severely underrepresented” among the stuffed-dough options she found in Israel. Apparently when Europe’s Jewish families emigrated to the New World, the knish went with them. It flourished in the first half of the 20th century, when it was a popular street food in New York’s teeming immigrant neighborhoods.
Today Knish Nosh is one of only two New York City concerns dedicated solely to the savory pastry. The Queens location has a lived-in, no-nonsense feel that suits the humble knish well. Silver’s favorite is the kasha knish, $3.50, filled with buckwheat groats. Every Knish Nosh knish follows the traditional form: round, fist-shaped and dense, with a little bit of stuffing revealed on top. Strong mustard appears to be the requisite condiment everywhere except Minnesota, where mayonnaise and even ketchup are not unheard of.
Behind the counter at Knish Nosh is Anna Vasilescu, head chef. She is from Romania and didn’t grow up on knishes. Her father disliked potatoes, a central knish ingredient, because in the military that was all he ate, Vasilescu said. After the service, he never wanted to eat them again. Now his daughter is a dedicated potato purveyor. Nearly every customer who walks in knows Vasilescu, and half seem to get a knish on the house, with the instruction, “Just enjoy, sweetheart.”
Knish Nosh owner Haig Schneiderman said he’s gotten requests from Florida to have a knish shipped overnight for a loved one who is dying. “People get emotionally attached,” he said. Silver believes the knish “is poised for a full comeback,” and Schneiderman plans to be in the vanguard. He recently opened a Knish Nosh in Central Park, and more are in the works. He said he intends to make the knish “as strong as the bagel” and sees Knish Nosh becoming ubiquitous, “like Chipotle.”
The story within
Making and eating knishes is an essential part of Silver’s vision, and it’s pretty much impossible to read her book without getting hungry. She is not just relaying the history of an overlooked food, however; she wants to bring people together to talk, and to share. Conversation over knishes, she said, “is the crux of my book — I hope.”
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“A knish that tastes good probably has a good story behind or within it,” she said. “The story isn’t always evident, but it’s akin to the fact that food made with love generally tastes better.” Silver almost always brings knishes to her speaking engagements. When a knish shipment failed to reach Banff, Alberta, Canada, where she was attending a conference, she simply gathered fellow attendees and made a batch from scratch.
“Every culture has its knish, a wrapped food or a food that evokes memories,” Silver said. “Dough-based foods tend to have that effect on people.” For someone from the American South it could be a biscuit, for a Midwesterner a piece of pie. In Silver’s mind, it’s any food “for which people will go to great lengths.”
If you are willing to go to great lengths to revive this tradition-laden food, Silver has supplied a recipe dear to her heart. She wrote that “Fannie Stahl’s granddaughters summoned recovered memories to bring this recipe to life.” You’ll have plenty of time for conversation and stories while making it. Making knishes, Silver said, “takes a special kind of commitment.”
Recipe: Mrs. Stahl’s Potato Knishes
Yield: Makes about 18 knishes
For the dough:
3¼ cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup lukewarm water
1. Turn oven on low until dough is ready. Mix flour, sugar and salt. Add oil and water. Mix with a spoon until the dough pulls together, or use a food processor or stand mixer (with a dough hook). Turn out the dough on board and knead it, incorporating all pieces. Knead until dough is one piece, smooth and glossy. Turn off the oven. Oil the dough and place it in oiled, covered bowl. Place in oven until you are ready to use it. Let the dough rest at least 2 hours; the dough should barely rise, if at all. Keeping the dough overnight in the refrigerator is fine. Bring it back to room temperature before use.
For the potato filling:
6 pounds russet or new potatoes
1 cup oil
¼ cup salt, or to taste
1½ teaspoons pepper
8 cups thinly sliced raw onions
1. Scrub potatoes and peel them, unless the new potatoes have very thin, unblemished skins. Boil potatoes for about 20 minutes until knife-tender, then drain. Mash with a potato masher. Add oil, salt and pepper to taste. Mix. Stir in the onion.
Assembling and baking
1. Use vegetable oil and flour as needed.
2. Preheat oven to 450 F.
3. Roll out about half the dough on a lightly floured counter or tabletop. Roll with handle-less rod-style rolling pin out from the center until dough is thin enough to see through, about 1 ⁄16-inch thick.
4. Oil top edge of dough with a pastry brush. Place a 2-inch-diameter line of filling about 2 inches from the top edge of the dough. Pick up top edge and drape over filling. Brush oil on dough in a 2-inch strip on the bottom edge of the filling. Pick up the dough with filling and roll again onto the oiled dough, compressing the filled dough as you turn it. Repeat until the dough covers the filling three to four times, being sure always to brush oil on the dough first. Use a knife to separate the filled potato knish log from the remaining dough. Cut off edges of filled dough. Cut the filled roll into pieces about 6 inches long and coil each piece like a snail. Tuck the remaining end into the bottom of the coil. Alternatively, place stuffed roll of dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet and slash with a knife crosswise every 2 inches. Leave an inch of space between each roll or coil of dough.
5. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until the knish skin is browned and knishes are cooked through. Start knishes on lowest rack of the oven and raise them to top rack after about 10 to 12 minutes. Let the knishes cool in pan. If you cooked the knishes in long rolls, cut them into individual pieces.
Knishes can be reheated in the oven or in a skillet on the stovetop.
Recipe from: Faith Kramer, “Mrs. Stahl’s Famous Knish Recipe Finally Found—in San Francisco,” j. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, September 27, 2012. Excerpted from Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food by Laura Silver, published by Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England (www.upne.com), May 6, 2014.
Tyler J. Kelley, a New York-based writer, reported this story in association with Round Earth Media. Kelley’s documentary “Following Seas” is due out in 2015.
Anyone for delicious little frivolities with an aristocratic pedigree?
The peculiarly English habit of serving something savory as the final course in a meal — the place usually occupied by cheese — was still in fashion in the grander country houses of England until about half a century ago, when it dropped out of favor in domestic kitchens, although the custom didn’t entirely vanish in London’s gentlemen’s clubs and at formal civic occasions.
Savory bites originally intended to show off host’s good fortune
The savory — for those who’ve never been confronted by this small and salty bite on toast immediately after dessert — is a Victorian introduction to the British menu designed to show off the servants and the silver with as many courses as possible in the high old days of empire. Classics of the genre were roasted marrow bones; deviled herring roes; sweetbreads; chicken livers; smoked fish; salted anchovies pounded with butter; and prunes or oysters wrapped in bacon and flashed under the grill (devils and angels on horseback, respectively).
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Savories, simple to prepare and good with the gentlemen’s port, suited the style of the relatively servantless 1920s. Agnes Jekyll, a columnist at the London Times, devotes an entire chapter to them in her book “Kitchen Essays” (London, 1922). Agnes’ sister-in-law Gertrude, known as Lady Jekyll, suggests puff-pastry boats as a more elegant vehicle than toast, as these can be prepared in advance and filled “with all manner of cargo such as eggs scrambled with cheese, or cold hard-boiled and chopped with a little gherkin and capers, sardines made into a purée beneath a thin veil of a soufflé mixture or a savoury custard, slightly browned in the oven; anchovies beaten with cream into a cold cayenne mousse, or coming chilled from the refrigerator with a thin sprinkle of cress.”
Agnes Jekyll’s readership at the time included my husband’s godmother, Monica Rawlins — born at the turn of the century — who acted as her father’s hostess at the family home, Syston Manor in Somerset, after the early death of her mother. Miss Rawlins’ delightful illustrated menus indicate six courses, concluding with the savory. As the youngest of three daughters and three sons (two killed in World War I), she was expected to remain unmarried at home — all very “Downton Abbey.” But she escaped to live a bohemian life as an artist in Wales, never married and left me, the widow of her godson, a glove box full of her menu cards and her annotated Edwardian-era cookbooks in the remote farmhouse that was hers for the rest of her life, and where I now live.
Savories are simple, delicious and too good to lose for lack of a menu opening. Serve them in much the same way as tapas or mezze, in combination and all on the table at the same time.
Choose four recipes to share between four people as the main course — no need for starters, though a green salad would not come amiss. Savories are also perfect for a summer lunch or a candlelit kitchen supper.
Queen Victoria’s Beef Marrow Toasts
Her Imperial Majesty’s chef, Charles Francatelli, confided to his readership that his royal employer, in spite of rumors concerning her health after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, was fortified with this little treat every day.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
2 beef or veal marrow bones
4 slices of white bread
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot or spring onion
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Have the butcher break the bone open to allow you to get at the marrow. Remove the raw marrow and cut it into hazelnut-sized pieces.
2. When you’re ready to serve, poach the marrow pieces delicately in a little boiling salted water for one minute only, and then drain immediately.
3. Meanwhile, toast the bread and then cut it into squares.
4. Pile the marrow on the hot toast, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with the parsley, onion and a squeeze of lemon and serve without delay — marrow sets as it cools.
Lady Jekyll’s Mushroom Toasts
This was Miss Rawlins’ favorite savory, made with the big, flat field mushrooms that spring up overnight in the sheep pastures surrounding her house in the Welsh hills.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
2 ounces butter
8 large open-cap mushrooms
Salt to taste
8 tablespoons thick cream
1 teaspoon English mustard
White pepper to taste
Bread rounds for serving
1. Melt the butter in a frying pan and lay in the caps (save the stalks for a sauce or soup). Salt lightly and be patient while they lose their moisture and begin to fry. First they will sizzle, and then juices will run.
2. Meanwhile, combine the cream with the mustard and pepper and mix well.
3. Transfer the mushrooms carefully to a gratin dish when done. Finish each cap with a tablespoon of the cream seasoned with mustard and pepper.
4. Slip the dish under a grill or broiler until the cream bubbles.
5. Serve on bread toasted in the buttery juices left in the pan — get the pan good and hot so the bread is really crisp.
The Duchess of Windsor’s Doigts au Fromage (Fingers of Cheese)
The former Mrs. Simpson — hostess-with-the-mostest in postwar Paris — astonished her sophisticated guests with her English savories, an idea unknown in France. “A meal,” she said, “should always be witty and include a surprise.” Frozen cheese fingers supplies both.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Freeze Time: 2 to 3 hours
Total Time: start 2 to 3 hours ahead, 30 minutes prep and finish
1 medium-ripe camembert, crusts removed
1 heaped tablespoon curd cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ pint (½ cup) heavy cream, whipped stiff
Grated parmesan for dusting
1. Blend the camembert and curd cheese together by pushing them through a sieve or chop thoroughly in the food processor.
2. Season with salt and pepper and fold in the whipped cream.
3. Spread a layer the thickness of your thumb on a baking tray lined with cling film. Turn out the cheese mixture onto a hard, clean surface and cut into fingers.
4. Dust with finely grated parmesan and serve ice cold. This is perfect served with ripe strawberries dressed with a few drops of balsamic vinegar.
Main illustration: Menu cards illustrated by Monica Rawlins for dinners at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins