Articles in History
The restaurant was nothing special, just a small room with a couple of low tables and stools. There was no menu, nothing to indicate what was being served. But next to the door was a wide basket piled high with fresh rice noodles, and behind them I could see steam rising from a large soup pot. And in Yunnan province, in southwestern China, that means one thing: breakfast noodles.
I hurried in, took a seat at an empty table and shook off my coat, wet from the heavy morning fog. The proprietress, a young woman whose face was rosy from standing over the steaming pots all morning, asked what I wanted in my soup, and I pointed to some things that looked particularly delicious — some fatty stewed pork, a heap of thin rice noodles, some bright green chives. In just a couple of minutes, the soup was ready. I added a handful of pickled mustard greens and a small spoonful of dried chili flakes in oil and took a sip. The flavor was rich and bright, sour and spicy, and somehow both comforting and exotic all at once.
Starting the day with noodles
I would say that the noodles were a perfect antidote to the cold, wet weather, but the truth is that those noodles would have been fantastic in any circumstance. In fact, I’ve enjoyed similar noodles for breakfast on hot, muggy days down by the Chinese-Vietnamese border and on a cool, crisp morning near Tibet. And in every case (and every temperature) they were the perfect way to start the day.
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Eating noodles for breakfast is common all across East and Southeast Asia. In Japan you can have asa-raa or “morning ramen,” in Vietnam pho is a reliable way to start the day, and in Malaysia there’s stir-fried mee goreng. But there’s something about the combination of meat, pickles and chilies in Yunnan’s noodles — not to mention the wide array of different rice and wheat-based noodles you can choose to put in your soup — that makes it one of the most addictive and satisfying breakfasts I’ve ever had. Everywhere I’ve traveled in Yunnan, I’ve started my mornings with noodles from that town’s busiest stand, hole-in-the-wall or restaurant, and every single time I’ve been blown away by the flavor.
It’s been a few months since I last traveled to Yunnan, but thankfully those morning noodle are not hard to make. Whenever I feel like I need a little help waking up, or I just want something hearty to start the day, I make them for myself. All it takes is a few ingredients and about 15 minutes, and I can have a breakfast that is both a little bit exotic and immensely comforting.
Yunnan-Style Noodle Soup
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 2 large portions
4 cups prepared broth (preferably pork or chicken)
6 ounces ground pork (about 3/4 cup)
3 ounces vegetables, like Napa cabbage, sliced crosswise into 1/8 to 1/4-inch strips (approximately 1 1/3 cups’ worth)
1/2 cup Chinese pickled vegetables, ideally mustard greens or daikon pickles
2 1/2 cups fresh or parboiled rice or wheat noodles
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup fresh herbs, ideally flat garlic chives or scallions, cut into inch-long pieces (mint and cilantro also work well, and multiple herbs can be used in combination)
Black Chinese vinegar and dried ground chili in oil, for serving
Heat the broth in a pot large enough to accommodate all of the ingredients (including the noodles). Meanwhile, in a separate pot, bring 4 cups of water to a boil and blanch ground pork for 5 seconds, breaking up the meat with chopsticks or a spoon, then drain it and set it aside. The meat will still be pink, possibly even red in some places.
Beginning the soup
When the broth is boiling, add the pork, cabbage and half of the pickles to the pot. Return to a boil and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until stem parts of the cabbage begin to soften slightly.
Adding the noodles
Add noodles and cook until semisoft (timing will vary depending on type of noodle being used). When noodles have softened, add 1/2 teaspoon salt and mix into broth, then top noodles with the remaining pickles and chives or scallions, if using. Cook another 30 seconds, and remove the soup from heat.
The finished product
Divide the soup into deep bowls and top with any delicate herbs, like mint or cilantro. Add vinegar and chili to taste.
Main photo: Breakfast noodles are served in Yunnan province, China. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand
Thanksgiving is a wonderful occasion for getting together with family and friends to share food and make up for all of the lost time that we have been apart. The spirit of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was the sharing of precious harvest and honoring the relationship between the Plymouth Colonists and native population — family and friends. That spirit of sharing is intact today, and though some of the ingredients at Thanksgiving feasts have changed, some have remained.
Giving thanks for abundance
In Japan, we have a similar annual event at around the same time, called Kinro-kansha-no-hi, which means “a day to offer great thanks to all the hard-working people (who have contributed to bring food to our table).” This holiday falls on Nov. 23 and originates in the ancient worldwide autumn ritual of thanking the gods who enabled an abundant harvest while also protecting the people throughout the year. Japanese people are obsessed with excellent food, but there is no universally served meal analogous to the American “turkey with all the ‘fixins.’ ” This is why:
November is the month in Japan during which nature brings many varied delicacies from the sea, the rivers, the fields and the mountains. And depending on where people live in Japan (recall that Japan is a long and narrow country extending from far north to far south surrounded by a long coast line), the delicacies of the season differ in each region.
My mother prepared Kinro-kansha-no-hi dishes using the quality seasonal ingredients available to her, and these were also my father’s favorites. Seafood included snow crab, amberjack, kinki (a small red fish a little like the scorpionfish in bouillabaisse) and fluke.
Along with the seafood, turnip, daikon, enoki mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves and sweet potato never failed to appear at our table. Appetizer dishes such as eggplant and miso sauce also were served.
I always remember the sweet potatoes that were simmered in a lightly flavored Japanese dashi stock. My mother never changed the way she made her sweet potatoes, but every year we found them tasting better than before. It seemed like playing the piano; it gets better as you practice.
After moving to New York from Japan, I began to join my brother-in-law’s Thanksgiving dinner. Peter is a great cook. He roasts a large turkey to juicy and tender perfection, makes all the traditional side dishes and some wonderful pies to end the meal. Early on I suggested to Peter that I could contribute a real Japanese dish or two to add to his very organized Thanksgiving meal. But he has never shown an interest in my offer, so I stopped asking. It was for me to learn how to enjoy this very American event. And I do enjoy it!
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As you know, Japanese love to embrace American culture. Recently the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner began gradually invading my homeland. One popular Japanese website posts more than 80 American Thanksgiving recipes, including how to roast a turkey, how to make cranberry relish and how to bake pecan and pumpkin pies. The size of the turkey mentioned in such recipes is about 13 to 15 pounds. An oven in a Japanese home is one-third to one-half the size of an American oven, so this is the largest bird that can be accommodated. This also was the size of turkeys available in America in 1930s. Today, breeding techniques have increased the size of these birds up to 30 pounds.
Maybe because I never learned to prepare traditional American Thanksgiving dishes, around this time of the year I entertain family and friends as my mother did by preparing dishes from the local seasonal harvest.
The bounty of the autumn harvest and offering thanks to nature and the people who contributed to bringing the meal to our table is truly a celebration to be shared with our loved ones.
(From The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo)
When you prepare this dish for a guest who can not tolerate gluten, eliminate the shoyu and use all gluten free tamari. Make sure that it is 100% soybean tamari without wheat. Tamari makes the prepared marinating broth a bit darker in color.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 3 minutes
Refrigeration time: 2 to 3 hours
Yield: 8 servings
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 ounces salsify or gobo (burdock), julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths
2 ounces carrot, julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths
2 ounces parsnip, julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths
Some kale (optional)
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon shoyu (soy sauce)
1 teaspoon tamari
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds, toasted
1/3 teaspoon shichimi togarashi
- Heat a large skillet and add the canola oil. When the oil is heated, add the salsify or burdock, and cook, stirring, until it is well coated with oil. Add the carrot and parsnip and cook for 2 minutes, stirring.
- Add 3 tablespoons water, the kale (if using), mirin and sugar, and cook until almost all the liquid is absorbed, stirring. Add the soy sauce and tamari and cook for 30 seconds. Add the white sesame seeds and shichimi togarashi.
- Transfer the vegetables in a bowl and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for later serving. The prepared kinpira tastes best 2 to 3 hours after preparation, or after overnight refrigeration.
Main photo: The Japanese holiday called Kinro-kansha-no-hi is a celebration of Thanksgiving for an abundant harvest and all the hard-working people who help bring food to the table. Delicacies featuring fish and vegetables are served at Kinro-kansha-no-hi. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo.
Form and function are the twin peaks of kitchen design. Years of ergonomic trial and error, engineering triumphs and technological advances lie behind the utensils with which we cook and eat. Even the simple but beautiful shape of a wooden spoon.
Every era has its domestic gadgets and specialized equipment that reflect our social needs and aspirations: Think chicken bricks, fondue sets and yogurt makers. But as culture changes, so does our batterie de cuisine.
Kitchen drawers of the world are stuffed with … stuff. Some utensils are inherited, some bought in bursts of ambition or moments of weakness. They may not have disappeared from the market, but we no longer have a prime need for the items featured here.
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Some of these items are rightly obsolete and unnecessary, in much the same way as life is too short to stuff a mushroom. Others have a value that we have perhaps forgotten or a utility that cannot be bettered. So, let us just pause for thought before we send the following to the thrift store or garage sale. Or one day we might just regret having done so.
Fish knives and forks
“Phone for the fish knives, Norman” is the famous opening to Sir John Betjeman’s mocking ode to bourgeois life, “How To Get On In Society.”
Until the 1880s manuals recommended that fish be eaten using two ordinary table forks or one fork and a piece of bread, and unless you were wealthy enough to have solid silver (polished by one’s servants, of course) most cutlery in the 19th century was made from steel. Unfortunately this could react with acids in the fish sauces and both taint the flavor of the food and turn the steel black. So a separate set was kept for fish; subsequently, stainless steel solved the staining problem.
I think, however, it is not just fear of middle-class pretension that has seen the decline of the fish knife and fork but Fear of Bones. The fish knife was designed to bone, fillet and skin as required. However, when bone-free fillets are the popular choice, fish skills have become increasingly forgotten.
One lump, or two?
Sugar tongs need to be correctly manipulated, otherwise they will not successfully carry cube to cup. Rather like chopsticks.
Their origin lies back in the mid-1700s when they were called sugar nips or tea tongs: They pivoted on a fulcrum like a pair of scissors, but that made them costly to produce. They were basic household tools, nonetheless, but before using them you would have to cut the large cone-shaped sugar loaves into smaller chunks with an iron hammer and chisel.
Refined sugar was expensive and often kept in locked boxes. The mistress of the house would “nip” off neat lumps when needed for the dining room and tea table.
Sugar tongs made the task simpler, but they have fallen out of fashion as a) we eat less sugar; b) we use fewer cubes; and c) even if we do, it’s much simpler to grab a sugar cube and drop it in a cup of tea.
There is a saying the safest knife is the sharpest one, and the good chef steels his or her knives several times a day, drawing the blade across the rod at a 20-degree angle. Honing steels are used to realign blade edges by straightening them as opposed to actually sharpening them, a job that should be done once or twice a year.
However as Bee Wilson says in her fascinating book “Consider the Fork,” knowledge of how to keep a knife sharp has become a private passion rather than a universal skill. The traveling knife-grinder is practically no more: In his place are enthusiastic online communities, scattered workshops and mail services.
Part of the reason for this loss of common ability was the arrival of the food processor. If you can’t cut it yourself, then a machine will do it for you. Or someone else. Wielding a honing steel seems like something out of a Dickensian novel or a Sweeney Todd cartoon: It seems frightening, but it’s actually not too hard to learn. After all, a dull knife is a cook’s worst enemy. In fact, I really must follow my own advice one day.
A cross between fork and knife (unlike the spork, which is a fork-spoon hybrid and about which the less said the better), the pastry fork is sometimes viewed as an affectation. It is not high on the list of household items you cannot do without. Yet the three or four tines are designed to do a specific job and they do it well.
Pastry forks were devised by the Victorians as part of the complicated dining etiquette of the time. A guide to polite behavior written in 1859 was adamant: “What! A knife to cut that light, brittle pastry? No, nor fingers, never. Nor a spoon — almost as bad. Take your fork, sir, your fork!”
For right-handers, the left side of the fork is flattened so it can be used as a mini-knife to cut the food. For left-handers, the design is reversed, although some forks, as in the picture, are for the ambidextrous. Either way, the tines conveniently shovel the cream and pastry up to the mouth. The main drawback is you can’t lick your fingers.
The Victorians did not approve of eating food with the fingers. It was instant social death unless you kept to the prescribed rules. When it came to the dessert course, only after the grapes had been correctly cut was it permissible for diners to use their fingers. Grape scissors were part of an army of utensils that also included sardine tongs, oyster forks and lobster picks. Boy, those Victorian housewives knew how to spend, spend, spend.
“The Manners and Tone of Good Society” published in 1879 advised, “When eating grapes, the half-closed hand should be placed to the lips and the stones and skins adroitly allowed to fall into the fingers and quickly placed on the side of the plate, the back of the hand concealing the manoeuvre from view.”
I feel faint. Peel me a grape, Daisy.
There can be but one use for a melon baller. It is a gadget conceived for a single purpose — to cut little round balls from the flesh of melons. The small hole allows juice to drain during the process.
The basic technique is to press, rotate 180 degrees and scoop out the balls. You may have to execute two full rotations to make a perfect shape. It is a technique I have failed to master. My spheres are unruly, more like shards and curls, but I claim that as intended.
Some melon ballers, such as the one in the picture, have different sized bowls at each end. Beginners should not try to use them at the same time.
Crinkled curls or butter balls? Decisions, decisions. The curler is designed to produce decorative shapes from chilled butter. I have never had much success with this either, my attempts to create bijou curls have usually ended with a greasy mess until I saw the light and simply stopped trying.
Now the butter curler lives in the same retirement home drawer for old kitchen tools as the melon baller in a kind of fraternal companionship. One day they will come to life again.
I’m surprised you don’t need a license to own such a weapon of mass destruction. It’s a terrifying sight, rather like a primitive club topped with scary spikes guaranteed to bring out your inner caveman.
Made from wood or metal, meat tenderizers date from an era when tough old steaks needed a good beating to make them fit to chew. However, they no longer have a role given most mass-produced beef nowadays has been bred to be soft and pappy. Nor do they have a place in the vegetarian kitchen unless you want to use them to smash potato chips.
This thrift shop find makes me a little sad. It must have been someone’s pride and joy once, reserved for Sunday best and high tea, taken out in a rosy glow of genteel living. Made in the 1930s or ’40s, pressed glass condiment containers on a cruet stand were for salt, pepper, vinegar, oil and mustard, although it was unusual to have more than two or three to a set.
Does anyone even use the word “cruet” anymore? How many even know what it means? Or care? Pepper and salt mills or open bowls have long pushed cruets into domestic oblivion but they are poor substitutes to prop your newspaper against whilst you read at breakfast.
Sardine tin key
“Life is rather like a tin of sardines … we’re all of us looking for the key.” So started Alan Bennett’s famous “Beyond The Fringe” sketch. As it implied, you could never find the key when you needed it, could not open the lid fully so a little bit was always left in the corner, and chances were you would cut yourself on the tin’s sharp edge.
At one time, the metal key came in two pieces. The slotted part would slide onto the edge of the lid so you could roll it back, then the shovel-shaped bit would be used to lift out the sardines.
The easy-opening pull tab changed everything. There are those who hanker for the oil drips and bleeding fingers of ancient times, but they need to get a life. As far as I’m concerned the key can stay lost at the back of the kitchen drawer. Which is why it is not in the picture. RIP, sardine can key.
Main photo: Fish knives and forks. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
Has the kooky doughnut fad finally gone too far? Gone off the deep end? Jumped the shark? I was recently at the taping of a Fox News episode where we tasted more than a dozen different doughnuts from Fractured Prune, a Maryland-based doughnut chain that promises numerous combinations based on its 19 glazes and 13 toppings. I expect they taste better at the store than in a Manhattan studio. But, still, how did we get to this orgiastic excess of fried dough rings?
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The origins of sweet fried dough are lost to history, but it’s a good bet that we’ve had doughnuts as long as we’ve had frying. Certainly the ancient Greeks and Romans had their own version of the hot, greasy treats. Medieval Arabs dropped blobs of yeast dough into fat rendered from a special kind of fat-tailed sheep before soaking the fritters in syrup. Medieval Europeans boiled theirs in pig fat, which meant doughnuts were off limits on the many non-meat days declared by the church.
As a consequence, there were widespread fried-dough frenzies prior to the 40-day doughnut desert, otherwise known as Lent. Perhaps the greatest doughnut orgy of all occurred at the 1815 Congress of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic Wars, where 8 to 10 million jelly doughnuts reportedly were served during Mardi Gras.
Americans would have none of these papist restrictions. After all, the Pilgrims left England so they could eat doughnuts 365 days a year. And apparently they did. They arrived with an obscure English specialty called a “dough nut” (because that’s what it looked like) and soon doughnuts were synonymous with New England. They were eaten for breakfast, lunch and supper, stuffed into travelers’ pockets, much as we might carry granola bars. America being a land of equal opportunity — at least when it comes to fried dough — the fritters of the French, German, Dutch and other immigrants gave the English version a run for their money, and the hybrids of all these fritter cultures eventually resulted in the doughnut promised land dreamed of by generations of the huddled masses on Europe’s teeming shore.
Here is a short view of current variations of this sweet, deep-fried treat.
Main photo: If indulgence is good, overindulgence is better. Or at least that’s the message at Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Voodoo Doughnuts
Professional chefs and home cooks are discovering artisanal salt with a vengeance. No longer content with 50-pound bags of Morton or Diamond Crystal flake salt, chefs are using a bewildering array of salts from around the world in a dizzying variety of ways.
The reasons become clear on a visit to J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden, West Virginia, where CEO Nancy Bruns is a seventh-generation salt-maker. In 2013 Nancy and her brother, Lewis Payne, revived their family’s historic salt-making business high in the Allegheny Mountains. In the past two years, their salt has become a favorite with chefs across the country. I spent the day at the salt-works and discussed the importance of salt with a variety of chefs who use Dickinson’s handmade product.
The reasons that artisanal salt has become important are many, but seven reasons keep coming up.
Artisanal salt adds unique flavor
Whether it’s rock salt from the Himalayas or open-air evaporated salt from the Mediterranean coast of France, each form of artisanal salt has its own flavor profile.
Aaron Keefer, trained chef and culinary gardener at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California, says the flavor of artisanal salt is hard to describe. “Any salt makes things taste better, but artisan salt has a more rounded flavor that adds a little something extra to the dish that you can’t put your finger on, but in the end you know it’s better.”
Good stories make good salt
Artisanal salt always comes with a good story. Dickinson’s Salt-Works began just after the American Revolution, when Bruns’ ancestors began processing salt from the local briny pools. By the time of the Civil War, it was the biggest salt producer in the country. By the end of World War II, commercial salt production in West Virginia had essentially disappeared.
“I love the story,” Keefer says. “Dickinson’s salt was very popular, then it was defunct, then it was brought back in modern times.” But for Keefer, the heart of the story goes back even further: “What made it stand out for me is that the American Indians used it, and the method of extraction was unique.”
Bruns knows that there’s more to branding than simply a great product. “We have a great story which makes it a very authentic brand,” she says. “Seven generations of salt-making in one family on the same land is hard to beat.”
Balance: Minerality vs. salinity
The key to an artisanal salt is the balance between minerality and salinity. A pink Himalayan rock salt has enough iron to give it its pink color. Celtic sea salt might have far fewer trace minerals. But each type balances the amount of the chemical sodium chloride, and the other minerals in the water source.
Bruns sources her product from a 400 million-year-old underground sea that geologists call “the Iapetus Ocean.” “Our source is very protected,” she says. “We are not drawing our brine from an exposed, open ocean where there is always the possibility of contamination.” The initial brine from her 350-foot well is rich in magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese and especially iron. Bruns, a former chef, processes the brine to create a salt that has a unique appeal for other chefs.
Matt Baker, executive chef at City Perch Kitchen + Bar in Bethesda, Maryland, has become a fan of Dickinson’s salt: “The grain is nice and plump, so it holds its shape well while also having a medium level of salinity to the finish on the palate.”
Terroir: As vital in salt as it is in wine
Like wine, artisanal salt has terroir, the word winemakers use to describe that indefinable sense of place that gives each wine its unique personality.
Dickinson’s salt is pumped from more than 300 feet below the ground and evaporated in a series of small hoop houses. Dickinson Salt-Works uses handmade techniques drawn from a 200-year-old legacy. “We think of our salt as an agricultural product,” Bruns says. “It comes from the land, and we move the brine several times to maximize the flavor.”
Ian Boden, chef-owner of The Shack in Staunton, Virginia, says that good artisanal salt “has the taste of its place,” and Dickinson’s salt certainly does. “You can tell that it’s harvested from underneath a mountain because its mineral content is so high. It’s like using Hawaiian black salt — it has that earthy, funky, ash flavor. Except it’s not ash, it’s the mountains of West Virginia.”
The texture of artisanal salt adds contrast
Unlike the quickly dissolving grains of highly refined industrial salt, the texture of artisanal salt brings contrast to a dish. What most of us think of as texture is the result of a combination of factors including crystal structure, grain size and moisture content. Sometimes, it is texture alone that makes an artisanal salt memorable. All salts are either mined from rock or evaporated from saltwater lakes, springs or oceans. The majority of artisanal salts are evaporative, and the method of evaporation has a profound impact on the texture of the salt.
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Chef Boden says the unique character of Dickinson’s salt comes from its texture, which is the result of the solar evaporation process. “To be brutally honest, if you lined up 15 salts, I couldn’t tell you where each one came from, but I think there’s definitely a difference. If you lined salts up, I could tell by feeling it that it was Dickinson’s salt, most definitely.”
Chefs from east to west agree that Dickinson’s salt has a texture that can’t be beat. Baker of City Perch Kitchen + Bar discovered Dickinson’s salt through the restaurant’s mixologist Adam Seger and hasn’t looked back. “I instantly fell in love with the salt. What makes it great is its subtleness and medium-size grain.”
Keefer has also noticed the distinct texture of Dickinson’s salt. “It seems like all salts are shaped just a little bit differently. I like the grind on it — the flake on it — it’s a good all-around salt. I’ve used it both with fish and with meat and been very happy with the results.” Keefer adds, “Try as many different salts as possible and you’ll find a favorite.”
Artisanal salt gives a pop of flavor at the finish
Artisanal salts are more expensive than industrially produced salts because of the time and resources required to produce them, but this increased price this doesn’t stop chefs from using artisanal salts in a variety of dishes. Keefer explains: “Everybody’s concerned about the price of artisan salt, but a little goes a long way. Use it as a finishing salt, not as a base salt.”
“Salt is there to make things taste more like themselves,” Boden says. But finishing salt is used in a slightly different way. “You put a little finishing salt on the dish and you get a pop of something unexpected. That’s really what we’re using it for — that textural and salinity contrast on a finished plate.”
Each chef uses finishing salt in a distinct and personal way. Baker reports: “We use Dickinson’s salt to finish a lot of our meats and fresh dishes like burrata cheese, seared tuna and foie gras torchon. The texture of the grains makes it melt in your mouth perfectly with a clean finish.”
The unexpected: Artisanal salt inspires creative chefs
Artisanal salt pumps up the flavor in unexpected dishes like desserts and cocktails. “I like to add a pinch of salt to a lot of my desserts — whether I’m making a cherry pie or chocolate frosting,” Keefer says. “I don’t put in enough to make it salty, but a pinch of salt adds a surprising amount of flavor.”
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Baker has found a variety of unique applications for Dickinson’s salt. “At the bar we use it to rim our Forbidden Fruit Margarita and our Bloody Maryland.” Baker even uses Dickinson’s nigari (a by-product of the salt-making process) as the starter for his house-made ricotta cheese. He couldn’t be happier with the results. The nigari, which is traditionally used to make tofu, “gives the cheese a fresh bite of salinity and a hint of pepper.”
Dickinson Salt-Works has recently introduced a salt with a finer grain. Chef Boden at The Shack plans to experiment with it in his own take on traditional charcuterie, curing and fermenting. “It’s something I want to do. It brings a certain earthiness to the components.”
Artisanal salts are as varied as the almost endless places across the globe in which salt is mined or harvested. And it is these unique flavors and textures that inspire chefs — and the rest of us — to use artisanal salt in creative and ever-evolving ways.
Main photo: Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
I was born in Harlem, a child of Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants. I witnessed what the women in my family could do with food.
Rarely is our history taught through the lens of food. Yet, it was over the hearth and in kitchens large and small that they impacted our nation’s culture and created economic, political and social independence through ingenious culinary skills.
That is why I honor African-American women cooks for Women’s History Month this March.
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The women in my family created and passed down masterful meals from ancient, unwritten recipes. They built communities and paved my way with proceeds from selling sweet potato pies, fried chicken dinners and roti lunches: a Trinidad flatbread cooked on a griddle and wrapped around curried vegetables or meats. My mom made these popular rotis and sold them in box lunches to employees at the hospital where she worked.
Whether they were free or formerly enslaved, the women I descended from cooked their way to freedom and wealth in America.
In their honor, I have chosen to feature two vintage recipes from two of the oldest cookbooks written by African-American women.
Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Mrs. Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Both women wrote their books at the behest of friends, fans and patrons.
Mrs. Russell, a free woman from Tennessee and an owner of a local bakery, was known for her pastries. Most of her recipes are European-inspired. Her cookbook also includes remedies and full-course meals. It was published after she moved to Paw Paw, Michigan.
Mrs. Fisher, a formerly enslaved person, won cooking medals for a wide range of dishes, including preserves and condiments in California. She moved out West from Alabama after the Civil War.
Below are their original recipes and my interpretation.
Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies
Jumbles were cake-like cookies popular from the 1700s. Mrs. Russell’s recipe was exceedingly spare on details, like all of her recipes:
“One lb. flour, 3/4 lb. sugar, one half lb. butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and caraway, to your taste.”
The popular vintage cookies have been adapted through the ages — even by modern food bloggers. I personally sampled a reimagined version of a Jumbles recipe at a culinary event that Anne Hampton Northup was said to have made when she cooked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Northrup was a chef and the wife of Solomon Northup, whose life was depicted in the Oscar-winning picture “12 Years a Slave”.
Here is a more detailed recipe so you can make Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies, using her ingredients. Since she suggested using mace, rosewater and caraway to taste, feel free to alter the suggested amounts of those ingredients:
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: About 4 dozen cookies
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspons mace
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
8 ounces salted butter (2 sticks, at room temperature)
5 eggs (small- or medium-sized)
4 tablespoons rosewater
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, mace and caraway seeds.
3. In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter together.
4. With an electric mixer on low speed, beat in eggs to the butter and sugar mixture.
5. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.
6. Add the rosewater and mix until combined.
7. Using a tablespoon measure, spoon tablespoon-full size drops of the batter on your baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.
8. Bake for about 10 minutes, just until the edges turn golden.
9. Cool the cookies for two minutes on wire racks. Serve, and store the remainder quickly in a sealed container or bag.
Mrs. Abby Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy
This old recipe holds up very well today. Many of Mrs. Fisher’s recipes called for huge amounts of each ingredient:
“To five gallons of berries add one gallon of the best brandy; put on the fire in a porcelain kettle and let it just come to a boil, then take it off the fire and make a syrup of granulated sugar; ten pounds of sugar to one quart of water. Let the syrup cook till thick as honey, skimming off the foam while boiling; then pour it upon the brandy and berries and let it stand for eight weeks; then put in a bottle or demijohn. This blackberry brandy took a diploma at the state Fair of 1879. Let the berries, brandy and syrup stand in a stone jar or brandy keg for eight weeks when you take it off the fire.”
I was so inspired by Mrs. Fisher’s recipe that I made my own version — which is now in the middle of the eight-week fermentation process. I used the same ingredients, but reduced the amounts, and poured them into a glass jug instead of a brandy keg. And I used cognac, because Mrs. Fisher’s recipe called for the “best brandy.”
We’ll have our own taste test — at my next family reunion.
Main photo: Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook was long believed to be the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s 1866 book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis
Popcorn is an ancient superfood — a simple and nutritious form of a 9,000-year-old staple. Popcorn is DIY food preservation at its most basic and most delicious.
Popcorn is simply preserved corn … a way of saving the harvest. Fresh corn can, of course, be boiled, roasted, steamed or baked. But corn became a staple in the Western Hemisphere because it could be dried and stored all winter. Corn was first domesticated in Mexico from a wild grass nearly 9,000 years ago. Archeologists have discovered corncobs from the northern coast of Peru that could date to 6,700 years ago, and scientists believe that this dried corn was eaten as popcorn and ground into corn flour.
First in a historic how-to series for home cooks, canners and kids
Benjamin Franklin remarked on the magical properties of corn that would “pop.” Franklin marveled at the mysterious recipe of “parching corn,” which he wrote about in 1790. He described how the Native Americans “fill a large pot or kettle nearly full of hot ashes, and pouring in a quantity of corn, stir it up with the ashes, which presently parches and burst the grain.” This “bursting” was shocking to Franklin, since it “threw out a substance twice its bigness.” Franklin boasted that popcorn — when ground to a fine powder and mixed with water — created a veritable superfood, claiming that “six ounces should sustain a man a day.”
“Superfood” may seem like a bit of hype for a snack most often eaten while watching bad movies. But in 2012, researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania reported that popcorn has more antioxidant polyphenols than any other fruit or vegetable. One serving provides more than 70% of a person’s daily serving of whole grain, and a single 4-cup portion provides 5 grams of fiber. Popcorn is no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s a virtuous reward.
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The “bursting” that gives popcorn its name is the result of physics inherent in that tiny white or golden nubbin. Inside a popcorn kernel’s outer hull lies the endosperm, which is made of soft starch and a bit of water. Although all types of corn will “pop” to some extent, popcorn will actually explode and turn inside out when heated. To pop successfully, a kernel of dried popcorn should ideally have a moisture level of 13.5% to 14%. When the kernel is heated to an internal temperature somewhere between 400 to 460 F, the water in the endosperm expands, building up pressure that eventually causes the hull to burst. Steam is released and the soft starch inside the kernel puffs up around the shattered hull.
A popcorn worth the obsession
The type of popcorn that comes out of the microwave is often a poor substitute for heritage breeds or locally sourced popcorn. My children and I are currently obsessed with purple popcorn, which we buy dried on the cob at our farmers market or as “Amish Country Purple Popcorn” from the Troyer Cheese Company. I prefer to roast it in a skillet with canola oil and coarse sea salt — simple and basic. My kids’ prefer their popcorn covered in a spice mixture we created, containing cocoa powder, sugar, and cinnamon (though this may counteract some of the health benefits). For adults I add an additional “kick” with cayenne pepper. Try this with a few types of popcorn — each in its own bowl for the sake of comparison — and you’ll have more than a movie snack, you’ll have a healthy, crowd-pleasing conversation starter that won’t last long.
Cinnamon-Cocoa Popcorn With a Kick
Cook time: 15 minutes, no prep time required.
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
1/4 teaspoon cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup popcorn kernels
1. Heat a 2- to 3-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes.
2. While pan heats, place cocoa powder, cinnamon, sugar, sea salt and cayenne pepper (if desired) in a small bowl. Stir to combine.
3. Back at the stove, turn heat down to medium high and add oil to heated pan. Carefully place two or three popcorn kernels in oil and cover pan with lid.
4. After test kernels pop, add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer — about 1/3 cup.
5. When kernels start to pop, lower heat to medium and shake pan gently until popping stops. (I like to rotate the pan in a circular motion over the burner to keep the popcorn moving.)
6. Pour popped corn into a large bowl. Sprinkle popcorn with topping mixture, toss to coat evenly, and eat immediately. Coated popcorn can be stored in an airtight container for several days, but it will lose a bit of its crunch.
Main photo: American heritage purple popcorn reveals the beauty of this gluten-free, kid-friendly, ancient superfood. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Cassava, to me, is the Sleeping Beauty of the African kitchen.
The first time I ate cassava, I was on a leaky porch in Paraguay in a torrential rain. The cook plunked down before me a painted enamel platter, stacked high with what looked like chunks of potatoes. She placed a small bottle filled with vinegar and tiny green hot peppers next to my plate. Before cutting into a tough piece of beef, I upended the bottle over the meat. I forked a couple of potatoes onto my plate, too.
Only they weren’t potatoes. The white tuber was cassava, which originated in central Brazil. Known scientifically as Manihot esculenta and other common names such as manioc or yuca, it later spread to Africa’s Congo Basin by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
It wasn’t love at that first chewy bite. But when I saw cassava afterward, I made sure it ended up on my plate or in my shopping bag. Potatoes don’t grow well in the tropics, where I lived at the time. So cassava began to take potatoes’ place in my kitchen. I learned to love cassava because of its texture and propensity to soak up other flavors.
A staple of the African diet
In the years I lived in Africa, I came to know cassava especially well. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, cassava provides a whopping 37% of daily caloric intake. It is popular throughout Africa and the third most widely eaten starchy food in the world, after wheat and rice.
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According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “the most important traditional culinary preparations of cassava in Africa are:
- boiled or roasted roots (akin to potatoes),
- fufu (cassava flour stirred with boiled water over low heat to create a stiff dough like polenta),
- eba (called gari in Nigeria, is similar to toasted bread crumbs, then soaked in hot water to produce a thick paste),
- and, chikwangue (steamed, fermented pulp wrapped in leaves, not unlike tamales).”
Cassava grows underground and is easier to cultivate than corn, requiring far less labor. Resistant to drought and most insects and diseases, it is highly sustainable. It also cannot easily be burned and destroyed in war situations.
This scraggly-looking plant also can take climatic abuse, growing well in poor soil and during droughts. The long, brown roots stay fresh in the ground, sometimes for up to two years. But once harvested, cassava rots fast, in spite of its bark-like peel. That’s the reason for the wax you see on most cassava sold in Western markets.
A tip for finding the freshest cassava
Sometimes “fresh” cassava in supermarkets tends to be old, with black lines running through it, especially under and around the peel. I constantly poke and prod cassava that’s for sale. My hope is to find roots bearing small wounds inflicted by some savvy shopper: one who has broken off the pointed tips of the waxed roots to peer into the whiteness, seeking — and rejecting — the telltale black lines.
Having chosen pristine cassava for your meal, what happens next?
First, peel the cassava with a sharp knife. A vegetable peeler does not work as well. Remove the thin, white membrane surrounding the cassava under the bark-like peel. Cut the roots into equal lengths. Boil in salted water until tender enough so a knife slips in easily.
EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME
This is the second in a series exploring the food of the African continent, with a focus on individual ingredients and traditional recipes to bring the African pantry to your home.
The first article featured the peanut.
Future articles will feature black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.
Cassava can be quite fibrous, with a tough, stringy core that must be removed. Generally this core is not a problem, because as cassava cooks, it splits apart and the core can easily be removed. If you’d rather not hassle with peeling and boiling, seek a market specializing in Asian and other international foods. In the freezer section, you will likely find frozen cassava, ready to cook. You might also find cassava in cans there, too.
Now that you’ve got your peeled cassava on the kitchen counter, you’re probably wondering about the best way to cook it.
Skilled cooks in Africa developed a number of methods — grating, pounding and drying cassava into flour — to make its rather bland flavor pop in the mouth. Such techniques have resulted in commercial products that take a lot of the burden off of the cook. Tapioca pudding is made from dried cassava, available in nearly any grocery store.
Cassava flour can be used for making fufu, too. Gari adds texture to soups and other dishes. It can also be used in place of panko, a real boon to those on a gluten-free diet.
But if you opt to start from scratch, add large chunks of cassava to a meaty stew instead of potatoes. Try eating boiled cassava drenched with a spicy peanut sauce. Or simply fry it in the same way you might do with potatoes for French fries. Served a fiery pepper sauce, fried cassava offers a fresh taste of Africa.
Give cassava a try. I guarantee you will fall in love with it, too.
Cassava “French Fries”
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes, depending upon the number of roots
Cook time: 25 to 40 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes to 1 hour
Yield: Serves two
4 10- to 12-inch-long cassava roots
1 tablespoon salt
Vegetable oil for frying
1. With a sharp knife, remove the pointed tips and peel the cassava, making sure to remove the thin membrane just under the bark-like peel.
2. Cut the cassava into 4- to 6-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise and then cut those into French fry-size sticks.
3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stove top. Add about 1 tablespoon of salt and the cassava. Reduce heat to a fast simmer, and cook the cassava until quite tender, usually about 20 to 30 minutes. Check doneness by poking a piece with a knife.
4. When done, drain the cassava and let cool slightly. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, heat oil to a depth of 1/4 inch over medium-high heat. Add the drained cassava and cook until cassava is a light golden brown.
5. Remove cassava from the oil, drain on paper towels, arrange on serving plates, and place a few tablespoons of the pepper sauce (recipe below) on each plate. Serve immediately.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups
10 habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers, orange or red, seeded and roughly chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
4 Roma tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Salt to taste
1 cup vegetable oil, divided
1. Place all the ingredients, except for 1/2 cup of the oil, in a blender or food processor. Purée.
2. In a heavy skillet, heat the remaining 1/2 cup of oil over medium-high heat. Being cautious to avoid splattering oil, add the sauce and reduce the heat immediately to medium-low. Cook the sauce for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning.
3. Remove from heat, and let the sauce cool.
4. Store in a clean glass jar in your refrigerator, where it will be good for about a week. Be sure the sauce is always topped with a thin layer of oil. This helps to keep it safe and fresh.
Main photo: London’s large Ghanaian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Copyright Cynthia Bertelsen