Articles in History

Sam Fromartz's newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz

Sam Fromartz’s new book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf, A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” is a departure. The journalist and editor began his career as a reporter at Reuters, and his previous book, “Organic, Inc.,” was a standard work of nonfiction about the evolution of the organic food industry. But as his hobby became his subject, the writer leaped into the picture of this book.


In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


“Baking for me was relief from my daily grind of journalism,” Fromartz said in a phone interview. “I really enjoyed the moment in the day when I would leave my keyboard and just bake, shape loaves, bake them. I really didn’t want to lose that sense of specialness, of what bread meant in my life. I thought if I mixed it up in my work too much, it would just become part of my job. I really didn’t want to do that.”

Fromartz let his curiosities guide his book's odyssey. Credit: Samuel FromartzAs the recession downsized his income, however, everything became a potential topic. In a single afternoon, he lost most of his steady freelancing gigs. Querying a contact at the travel magazine “Afar,” he proposed a story about going to Paris to study baguette baking.

The editor said yes, and the adventure began. Consider yourself lucky that his escape became his work, because the result is a really nice journey through baking led by a skilled reporter.

“This book was a lot more personal,” said Fromartz. “It wasn’t a journalistic investigation. But I am a reporter, so all of those tools I use in my work became tools I used in the book.”

Tools like reading, asking questions and framing the answers in good stories. There are some beautiful descriptions, like the one at Della Fattoria, a bakery in Petaluma, California.

“Everyone seemed to be working at a pace just short of a jog,” he writes, setting the stage for each reader to witness, as he did, the bread baking one morning. The baker-writer joins the action, helping shape loaves of bread. But once the actual baking begins, he stands on the sidelines and tells us plainly what he sees. We readers fall into the rhythm of the observed work.

Samuel Fromartz, author of "In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey." Credit: Susan Biddle

Samuel Fromartz, author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle

As a small herd of bakers usher hundreds of would-be breads into the oven, Fromartz puts you right there, watching the “dance of the peels,” as loaves go into the oven, and then come out. You are just shy of smelling the bread and tasting it.

The pacing of the stories and information are spot-on. Fromartz takes you through a long baking lesson, baker by baker, describing the process and progress. Beginning with baguettes, which were a challenge for him to bake at home, you learn as much or more about the social history of this bread and its place in French culture as you do about the practical route he found to making this loaf.

Yes, there are elaborate recipes, heavy on method, at the end of chapters in case you want to bake along. But no baking is required to enjoy the research he presents as part of his journey. This odyssey is not just for serious home bakers or professionals, but also for anyone mildly curious about wheat.

Guided by his curiosities

“I wanted to understand things for myself,” he said. “A lot of baking books dealt with some of the questions I had, but there was no sort of central resource, and no book that tied together everything from the origins of grains to sourdough microbiology to how to shape a loaf.”

Writing the book really answered his curiosities. His dives into sourdough are deep; at one point he compares cultivating sourdough cultures to farming, and nurturing microlivestock. Holding all this heady material together is the importance of craft, and what he got out of learning a craft at the hands of people who really value bread, its historic framework and its future.

One of the most surprising discoveries he found on his journey was learning about flour, specifically locally grown and milled grains. As he started using local grains, and flour that came from small mills, he realized how variable bread’s main ingredient could be.

“It made me realize what’s been lost and sacrificed along the way in that quest for uniformity,” he said. Anything that threatened that uniformity got lost, like grains with different flavors, and non-standard types of gluten or proteins.

“When you’re reading about the Romans and you read about all the different breads they made with barley and spelt, chick pea flour and everything else, all of those breads and grains were lost,” he said. Now, these grains are sometimes used as animal feed. But at one time they were eaten by people and prized.

“My sense is those guys probably knew something about flavor,” he said. “We have this real singular expectation of what bread should be. “Even whole-wheat loaves generally estimate that puffy bread ideal. “When you have such a narrow idea of what bread should be, you lose a lot of possibilities.”

Exploring those possibilities through different grains and flours engages him as a baker. It’s useful ecologically, too. Pursuing lesser-known grains is good for agricultural diversity and dietary diversity.

When I was reading, I was worried that baking might have lost some charm for the writer. But by the end of the book, he says he’s been able to protect his special connection to baking. I wanted to know how he preserved it. His answer was reassuring, if elliptical.

“I still bake a lot and baking is really a part of me,” he said. “I want to keep that sense of discovery about it. So I think will.”

Main photo: Sam Fromartz’s newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz

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Samuel Fromartz, editor of Food and Environment Reporting Network and author of

In artisanal bakeries from Brooklyn to Seattle, the bread counters are piled high with lovely loaves, from the hardiest Scandinavian ryes to French country sourdoughs, from spelt and buckwheat breads to baguettes. Yet this bounty of choice was pretty unusual in the roughly 20,000 years that humanity has been eating grains. While these breads are often associated with European traditions, the long-ago impetus to make a loaf a particular way — or make it into sustenance — has largely been forgotten. Choice — and here I’d include contemporary gluten-avoidance regimes —  didn’t determine what was eaten. Necessity did.


“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


If you go back to the pre-modern era, before bread became a commodity and flour was sold in supermarkets, those who depended on grain largely ate what was grown nearby. It might have been wheat. It might have been barley. It might have been rye. Or it might have been nothing at all, if the harvest failed.

Perfect: Samuel Fromartz practices what he preaches in his new book. Credit: Samuel Fromartz

To forestall such events, farmers hedged their bets by planting diverse cereal crops. Bakers — both craftsmen and homemakers — then had to figure out how to make this variety of ingredients palatable. Grains, after all, provided up to 80% of the calories in a diet.

Scots made cakes from oats and barley, since both grains were hardy in northern Europe. Rye prevailed in Eastern Europe, because the soil and climate were hospitable. During shortages, coarse bran was mixed into bread. Bakers also added walnuts, acorns and spent grains from the brewery to stretch a loaf. In southern France, ground chickpeas were made into socca flatbread. In Cyprus, bakers fermented chickpeas for wheat and barley loaves. Much later, a New World starch, potatoes, became a buffer against famine in 18th century Europe as the population exploded. Maize or corn served this purpose as well. Corn-rye proved crucial to early American settlers, where it was known as “rye-injun bread” because wheat grew poorly in the southern New England climate.

Now, of course, the impetus for such innovation is gone. Agricultural science has done much to ensure fairly steady wheat harvests, with high-yielding varieties. Industrial millers long ago came up with the means to provide standard flour to produce a steady supply of bread products. As this new wheat took over, their ancient progenitors largely vanished from the landscape — and the palate. By the late 1990s, researchers estimated, 97% of all the spring wheat grown in the developing world came from closely related modern varieties. “Landraces,” those seed populations saved and passed down by farmers, became a rarity.

Perfect: Samuel Fromartz practices what he preaches in his new book. Credit: Samuel Fromartz

Perfect: Samuel Fromartz practices what he preaches in his new book. Credit: Samuel Fromartz

As for the wheat kernel, about 30% to 40%  was siphoned off in the milling of white flour. We often hear about the fiber, minerals, lipids and vitamins in wheat bran and germ that are lost. What is less appreciated is that these nutrient-dense grain fractions also contain a lot of calories. Wheat bran, for instance, represents about 12% to 16% of the wheat kernel. With every kilo of bran removed in the milling of white flour, 2,160 calories are squandered, including 160 grams of protein. “Everyone understood that the whiter the flour, the smaller the number of people who could be fed by a given amount of grain,” historian Steven Kaplan has written of 18th century France. Wheat still provides the second-highest source of calories and is the top source of humanity’s protein, yet we’re content to waste such a significant amount of its nutrition.

Loss of craft baking knowledge

Also jettisoned along the path to modernity was the baker, who came up with the methods to make such whole grains palatable. In the age of industrial bakeries, we may cheer that freedom from drudgery. But I realized, in baking my own loaves for more than a decade, that we lost something else as well. It wasn’t simply the old world loaves that were largely left behind, or the grains that went into them, or the farms that grew diverse cereal crops. We also lost the craft knowledge that came from turning grains into food. This kind of knowledge could only be learned with practice, attention and tactile sensation.

To make really great bread, I found I had to put away my cognitive mind and learn the essential lessons of touch itself. I had to forget about following routine steps, since different grains — and different batches of them — often required adjustments. My sense of touch told me what tweaks to make, turning passable loaves into desirable ones. My hands were learning. At that moment I realized, if we really want to understand what sustained our species for millennium, spurred numerous innovations, and ultimately increased the supply of food in scarce times, our hands and craftwork are going to be at the center of that process. Our thinking minds will follow.

Main photo: Samuel Fromartz, editor of Food and Environment Reporting Network and author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle

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Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Perugia is the more important of the two provinces of Umbria and in culinary terms is most famous for its chocolates. Perugina, the chocolate firm founded in 1907, makes chocolate kisses (baci) famous throughout Italy and even in the United States. It’s also the historic home of a novel Christmas cake.

A variety of sweets are made around Christmas such as pinoccate, little diamond-shaped sweets made of sugar and pine nuts, hence their name. They usually are made “black” with chocolate or “white” with vanilla. Locals say that the small cakes were made by Benedictine monks as early as the 14th century and are served to end lavish Christmas feasts.

A simple syrup is made until rather dense and then the same weight of pine nuts as the sugar is added and poured onto a marble slab to be shaped as one makes peanut brittle. The diamonds are cut and cooled, with half of each piece being chocolate and half vanilla. They are then wrapped in black and white pairs in festive and colorful Christmas paper.

Another Christmas delight from Perugia that is a bit easier to make is the symbolic eel or snake-shaped torciglione (twisted spiral) Christmas cake. The Perugina say it is shaped like an eel to represent the eels of nearby Lake Trasimeno, while others attribute a more symbolic meaning rooted in pagan times. The Greeks saw snakes as sacred and used them in healing rituals; the snake’s skin shedding was a symbol of rebirth and renewal, an appropriate symbol at the time of the birth of Christ.

Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake)

In most of Umbria, but in particular around Lake Trasimeno in the province of Perugia, torciglione is a Christmas and New Year’s Eve sweet. It is also sometimes called a serpentone or biscione and it’s made as a symbol of luck. It is claimed that this sweet was developed in the 19th century by a master pastry cook, Romualdo Nazzani, who opened a cake shop in Reggio Emilia and created some magnificent sweets, such as biscione, which means “snake.”

This Christmas cake is made with an almond base and meringue topping decorated with candied peel to represent the eyes of the snake. In Christian iconography, the snake can represent temptation as it was in the Garden of Eden. Eating the snake is thought to bring luck.

Torciglione

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Baking time: 40 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

1 pound whole blanched almonds, toasted and chopped

3/4 pound (about 1 1/2 cups) sugar

2 tablespoons rum

Zest from 1 lemon

3 large egg whites, beaten until stiff

3 tablespoons pine nuts

2 coffee beans

1 candied cherry

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 325 F.

2. In a bowl, mix the almonds, sugar, rum, lemon zest and egg whites until a dense consistency.

3. On a buttered parchment paper-lined baking tray form the mixture into the shape of a snake. Place the pine nuts over its surface. Put the coffee beans in as eyes and the cherry as a tongue. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.

 Main photo: Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Aromatic Fish Meze. Credit: Cordell Barron

It’s that time of year again. Wherever I turn, I see beautiful and seductive images of food. When I’m tempted — and fortunate enough — to eat too much, I needn’t worry, for there’s plenty of dietary advice waiting for me. Somehow, though, in these short, dark days of our winter, the recipe suggestions accompanying that advice never seem quite so tantalizing as those lovely dishes I’d been tempted by. So what can I do? I can turn for help to those wise thinkers of Greek antiquity.

Mezes are often described as small plates of food made for sharing, and they are. But it’s not the whole picture. The origins of mezes can be traced to travelers in the ancient world, who relied for sustenance on the goodwill of the people they met on their journeys. Refreshments offered were simple — from the garden or hillsides, store-cupboard or pot — and no one was turned away from the table.

As these ancient societies developed political and social systems, and became wealthier, intellectual and cultural life developed, too. Since the days of classical Greece (5th century BC to 3rd century AD), the Western tradition has had the words to describe and give shape to many of the sciences – zoology, archaeology, anthropology, biology — including the art and science of good eating and drinking, or gastronomy.

What’s in a word?

Today, the word gastronomy can sometimes have disagreeable associations — of gluttony, waste and ostentatious wealth. But in its original meaning, it described a way of eating and drinking that led to health and enjoyment, a balance of science and art. For the ancients, this meant not only feeding our five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, touch — but also the sense they considered most important of all, the spirit of connectedness with the food on the table and with each other. It was this feeling, they believed, that led to good digestion and thus to good health.

Those ancient thinkers had another word, too, whose meaning has changed over the centuries — diaita, or diet. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that diet means “a prescribed course of food” or to “restrict oneself to special food, especially to control weight.” But to the ancient Greeks, diaita meant “way of life.” And the meze table was right at the center of their way of life.

The meze table

Mezes, when enjoyed as a diaita, provide fulfillment in a whole, human, sense — they feed our senses as well as our stomachs. The meze table is a colorful place, full of enticing aromas and often surrounded by loud chatter. With bowls of olives, salates (dips), piles of small pies, stuffed leaves, crunchy nuts, bright vegetables, tangy cheeses and yogurt, meat tidbits or well-flavored fish, the six senses are well looked-after. Dishes are put together with thought and to complement each other: Little salt is needed when there are olives on the table; chewy currants add sweetness to stuffings; capers “lift” pulse dishes; crunchy, fresh cucumber and radishes lighten preserved foods; octopus, razor shells and sea urchins intrigue; herbs and olive oil aromatize and dazzle.

A meze table can be very simple — a few olives, fresh vegetables, cheese, something “left over” — or can comprise more complex dishes. It can be for one or two, or for many, and its few gastronomic principles make pleasurable work for the cook: Flavorings are used to supplement and enhance, not to overwhelm; fresh ingredients are seasonal, garnishes edible; and fine local foods are the most preferred. The meze table is a place where our modern understanding of the word diet is turned upside down. Instead of restricting ourselves to what we think we shouldn’t eat — full-fat, calorie-laden olive oil, cheese, nuts — we free ourselves to enjoy the beauty of good food, to wasting nothing and to experimenting with the wild (greens, game), fermented (homemade yogurt, pickles) and often-ignored foods we have nearby.

Meze basics

Preparing attractive mezes doesn’t mean hours in the kitchen working on fussy preparations and mastering complicated cooking techniques. Just find the best suppliers you can, choose food in prime condition, and have a few staples at hand — good-quality olive oil and wine vinegar, olives, almonds, honey, rigani (dried Greek oregano), capers, sea salt, preserved fish, spices, dried fruits.

Now, you’re ready to compose many quick and simple dishes to serve as part of a meze table, such as these small plates of preserved fish:

  • Drain canned sardines and sprinkle with coarse sea salt, freshly ground pepper, a few drops of red wine vinegar, chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley and extra virgin olive oil.
  • Drain canned tuna, separate into chunks and cover with thinly sliced red onion; sprinkle with sumac, extra virgin olive oil and coarse sea salt.
  • Sprinkle sun-dried mackerel with red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and rigani, and serve with kalamata olives and slices of pickled or fresh cucumber.

White Fish With Vinegar and Herbs

Any fresh fish can be cooked this way — small sea bass fillets are a favorite, but the preparation suits more coarsely fleshed, and cheaper, whole white fish or fillets, too. A light dusting of flour keeps the fish from splitting and flaking during cooking and cuts down fish odors in the kitchen.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes fillets, 20 minutes whole fish

Total time: 15 to 25 minutes

Yield: 6 meze servings

Ingredients

1 pound fish fillets or 6 small white fish, heads discarded, gutted and scaled

1 teaspoon coarse-grain sea salt, or to taste

1/2 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper, or to taste

3 tablespoons garbanzo bean flour and 1 tablespoon plain flour or 4 tablespoons plain flour

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, or to taste

3 tablespoons good-quality wine vinegar

2 tablespoons hot water

2 tablespoons rigani (dried Greek oregano) or fresh rosemary

3 bay leaves

For serving

Small sprigs of rigani or fresh rosemary

Small black olives such as Greek Elitses or Niçoise

Directions

1. Wipe both sides of the fillets with a damp cloth or rinse whole fish and pat dry. Dust with half the salt and pepper and 2 tablespoons of the flour, cover, and set aside for 30 minutes.

2. Place a large heavy sauté pan over medium-low heat and add half the olive oil. Dust the fish again with half the remaining flour and shake off any excess. When the olive oil is hot but not smoking, gently fry the fish on both sides until pale golden, about 10 minutes for fillets, 15 to 20 minutes for whole fish. The fish is cooked if it flakes easily when you insert a thin knife blade into the thickest part of it; it should be an even white all the way through. Drain between layers of kitchen paper. Strain the frying oil through 2 layers of muslin to remove any residue and set aside.

3. Wipe the pan with kitchen paper and return to low heat. Sprinkle the remaining flour over the bottom of the pan and stir a minute or two with a wooden spoon, until deep golden brown. Stir in the reserved frying oil and the remaining olive oil. The flour and oil will not blend together, but the flour will flavor and color the oil. Add the vinegar, water, rigani, bay leaves and remaining salt and pepper. Stir to mix, and simmer for 2 minutes.

4. Return the fish to the sauté pan, cover and heat through. Transfer to a warm dish, pour over the pan juices and surround with the rigani sprigs. Serve warm or at room temperature, with olives.

Note: To serve later, transfer the fish and sauce to a shallow glass or china dish, add olive oil, tightly cover the dish and refrigerate overnight or for up to 2 days. Turn the fish in the marinade once or twice. Bring to room temperature for serving.

Main photo: Aromatic fish meze. Credit: Cordell Barron

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Pumpkins for Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Hirko/iStock

There are basically three approaches to devising a Thanksgiving menu.

In the first, the foods are typical of New England where the first thanksgiving was celebrated some 250 years before it became a national holiday with a capital “T” in the mid-19th century.

In the second, families follow local and regional traditions. Or, if they are first- and second- generation immigrant families without a familiarity of traditional American Thanksgiving foods, they add avocado salad, curry or lasagna to the menu.

In the third, which no one I know uses other than the historically re-created village denizens of Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, cooks attempt the authentic 1621 menu.

The hardest part of the last approach is that no actual menu exists. We are left with just some cursory description from two sources supplemented with comparative studies of what we know American Indians and Englishmen ate in the 17th century.

At the center of the 1621 table was probably roast venison and a variety of water fowl. There were no mashed potatoes, no cranberry sauce and no pumpkin pies, although there were probably dried cranberries and pumpkins in some form. There was probably maize in the form of bread, griddle cakes or porridge.

Pilgrims’ harvest celebration

We know this from the two and only surviving documents from the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. The sources are the English leader Edward Winslow’s “A Letter Sent From New England,” “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” and Gov. William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation.”

Winslow wrote to a friend that the governor (Bradford) had sent “four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” The hunters brought back enough food to feed the colony for a week along with “their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.” Bradford adds that “besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys” venison and Indian corn.

As far as all the other food the colonists and Wampoanoag ate, culinary historians only have educated guesses based on a number of secondary sources including archeological remains such as pollen samples. The Wampanoag ate wildfowl, deer, eels, lobster, clams, mussels, smoked fish, and forest foods such as chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts, and they grew flint corn, the multicolored Indian corn suitable only for being ground into flour and never eaten off the cob. They also had pumpkin and squashes, sunchokes and water lily. We can surmise that those foods were on the table. The Indians had taught the colonists how to plant native crops, which they did in March of 1620, but the things grown are only known from a later time, namely turnips, carrots, onions, and garlic.

In 1621, the sweet potato and the white potato had not yet arrived in New England, so they were not found on the Pilgrims’ harvest table that autumn. Later Plymouth writings mention eagle and crane begin eaten.

Winslow, in his letter to a friend, describes the foods available in Plymouth in 1621. “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels … at our doors.”

Stewed Pompion (Stewed Pumpkin). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stewed Pompion (Stewed Pumpkin). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

He went on to describe plentiful strawberries, gooseberries and many varieties of plums. “These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favorably with us,” Winslow wrote

“Our Indian corn,” wrote Winslow, “even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meal as rice.” In other words, traditional English dishes of porridge, pancakes and bread were adapted for native corn.

In September and October, a variety of dried and fresh vegetables were available. The produce from Pilgrim gardens is likely to have included what were then called herbs: parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Dried beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as local cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts.

One dish that very well might have been on that harvest table of the fall of 1621 is “stewed pompion,” as it was called by the 17th-century English. One of the earliest written recipes from New England is found in a book by the English traveler John Josselyn who first went to New England in 1638 and whose book “Two Voyages to New England” was published in 1674. He called it a “standing dish,” suggesting that it was an everyday dish. The adapted recipe you can make is based on his original description where he says “it will look like bak’d Apples.”

Stewed Pompions (Stewed Pumpkins)

Ingredients
4 cups cooked (boiled, steamed or baked) pumpkin flesh, roughly mashed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 or 2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

In a saucepan over medium heat, stir and heat all the ingredients together. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve hot.

Main photo: Pumpkins for Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Hirko/iStock

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Pickled shrimp goes way back in the South, and it's still a treat among modern-day holiday fare. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

“Swimpee! Swimpee!” shouted the shrimp vendors of years past in Charleston, S.C., as they wended their way through the streets, the fresh shrimp in their baskets glistening in the early morning light.

Southern hospitality being what it was, hostesses served that shrimp to their guests in velvety bisques and bubbling stews and pickles. Happily, not much has changed. Now as then, any gathering in the South, especially around the winter holidays, demands a lot of food. Pickled shrimp is just one option for you as you plan your upcoming holiday get-togethers.

One of the easiest ways to prepare an excess of shrimp came from the long English tradition of pickling. And so it’s no surprise to find a recipe for pickled shrimp in an early manuscript cookbook from the well-connected Pinckney family of Charleston, published in 1984 as “A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry, 1770.”

Some other so-called Southern traditions are relative newcomers to the Southern table, but beloved nonetheless.

Bring on the butter and cheese

For instance, roast some pecans and douse them in a bit of butter, salt, and black pepper. They’ll be gone before you get back to the kitchen for a refill.

Another possibility includes that old standby, pimento cheese. It’s actually not so Southern after all, but originally the offspring of industrial food – cream cheese and canned pimentos, dating to around the 1870s in New York state. But the South adopted the concoction straight away, eventually gravitating from the industrialized version to recipes using white and yellow cheddar.

Make a Pecan-Crusted Cheese Ball and put a definite Southern signature on it all. Or go for tiny, open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches. Create them by spreading dollops of pimento cheese on toasted bread rounds, topping the cheese with a thin slice of tomato, placing the rounds on a cookie sheet, firing up the broiler, and cooking the rounds until the cheese bubbles. You’ll never have enough, so popular are these with guests of all ages.

Why the devil is it called deviled ham?

Or what about deviled ham, a preparation harking back to medieval recipes for various types of potted meats, always preserved in some type of fat? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, around 1786 the word “devil” became associated with spicy foods. The William Underwood Company in Boston, Mass., began canning deviled ham in 1868. And many home cooks made a version with a meat grinder, called it ham salad. After all, as Abraham Lincoln once supposedly said, “Eternity is two people and a ham!” Deviled ham is a good way to use up leftover ham, spread on crackers and garnished with a bit of sliced pickle.

And then there are fried dill pickles, absolutely delicious, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. A real treat. Popular history claims that in Atkins, Ark., in 1963, Bernell “Fatman” Austin originated the fried dill pickle craze at his Duchess Drive-In. You have a choice here: You can rustle up some dill pickle spears this way or stick to the “old-fashioned” way with dill pickle chips.

The beauty of these appetizers, except for the fried dill pickles, is that you can make them all ahead. And as for the fried dill pickles, hey, just tap one of your talented-in-the-kitchen guests on the shoulder and ask him or her to don an apron and get to work. You just kick back and enjoy that shot of bourbon. And tell some tall tales about the origins of the appetizers on your table.

Bring true Southern hospitality to your holiday meals by pickling shrimp for your guests. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Bring true Southern hospitality to your holiday meals by pickling shrimp for your guests. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Pickled Shrimp

Yield: Makes about 1 quart

Ingredients

1 cup distilled white vinegar

1 cup water

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

3 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds

2 pounds shrimp, cooked, peeled

1/2 cup thinly sliced mild (sweet) onion

Zest of one lemon, cut into strips (be sure to not include the white pith under the zest)

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt or more to taste

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. Put the vinegar, water, mace, ginger, dry mustard, coriander seeds, and mustard seeds in medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer 10 minutes. Cool.

2. Wash and sterilize two 1-quart canning jars.

3. Put shrimp, onion, lemon zest, bay leaves, kosher salt, red pepper flakes, and olive oil in a large glass or ceramic bowl. Pour the brine mixture over it all and stir. Taste for salt. You want the salt to cut the strong tang of the vinegar.

4. Fill each canning jar with half of the pickle mixture, making sure to put one bay leaf in each jar. Place jars tightly sealed in the refrigerator and let sit for 36 hours. Do not be alarmed that the oil will rise to the top; this helps to preserve the shrimp, and is actually an old, time-honored method of food preservation. The brine will be slightly cloudy and that’s OK too.

5. To serve, fish shrimp out of the brine, place on crackers with a bit the onion, or serve in the brine in a small glass bowl, with toothpicks for serving. Pickled shrimp keeps in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. If it lasts that long.

Pimento cheese is not so Southern in its origins after all, but it has been heartily accepted there. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Pimento cheese is not so Southern in its origins after all, but it has been heartily accepted there. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Pimento Cheese

Yield: Makes about 3 1/2 cups

Ingredients

6 ounces sharp yellow cheddar, grated

12 ounces sharp white cheddar, grated and divided

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

A few grindings of black pepper or to taste

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon cayenne or to taste

1 1/4 cups Duke’s mayonnaise or other commercial or homemade mayonnaise

6 ounces chopped, drained piquillo peppers or other roasted red peppers, from a jar*

Directions

1. Put all of the ingredients except for half of the white cheddar and the piquillo peppers in a food processor.** Purée until slightly lumpy. Scrape cheese mixture into a medium-size bowl and add the remaining grated white cheddar and the peppers. Stir gently. I have found that adding some of the grated cheese at the end gives the pimento cheese a more interesting texture.

2. Scrape cheese into an airtight container and refrigerate for up to a week.

3. Serve on crackers, as a filling for tea sandwiches or stuffed celery, as a dip for vegetables, and even in grilled cheese sandwiches.

*You can roast and peel your own red peppers if you prefer. Piquillo peppers are sold in most grocery stores these days.

** If you don’t have a food processor, a blender works fairly well. You just have to divide the ingredients, pulse them in the blender separately, and then mix together in the bowl. If you don’t have either a food processor or a blender, simply mix all the ingredients together except the peppers, with a metal spoon, which will break up the cheese somewhat. Then add the peppers and fold in. You can also make a Pimento Cheese Ball; just roll the ball in roasted pecans. See recipe for pecans below; crush the pecans into smallish pieces for this.

Roasted Pecans

This buttery treat will be gone before you can return to the kitchen for refills. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

This buttery treat will be gone before you can return to the kitchen for refills. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 cups

Ingredients

10 ounces pecan halves

2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature

Sea salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 250 F.

2. Put pecans in a 9-by-12-inch baking pan. Bake 1 hour, turning occasionally, making sure they do not burn.

3. At the end of the hour, stir butter into pecans and roast another 10 minutes.

4. Remove from oven and season with salt and pepper to taste. You can experiment by adding other ground spices like cayenne, ancho pepper, and smoked paprika or smoked chipotle.

Deviled Ham

Yield: Makes about 3 cups

Ingredients

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup country ham, minced

1 1/2 cups smoked ham, minced

1/4 cup butter, melted

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons hot sauce (Texas Pete, etc.)

1 1/2 scallions, finely minced

3 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely minced

Sweet pickle relish (optional)

Crackers or toasted bread rounds

Sliced dill pickle spears (to make small triangles)

Directions

1. Lightly oil a 1-quart crock or similar container.

2. Bring cream to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until slightly thick. Add all of the ham, and bring back to a boil. Let cool for a few minutes off the heat.

3. Place all ingredients, except the scallions and the parsley, in a blender or food processor and process until almost smooth, with a few large pieces of ham still visible.

4. Scrape mixture into a large bowl, stir in the scallions and the parsley. And if you wish, add sweet pickle relish to taste.

5. Spoon mixture into the crock, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until chilled.

6. Serve spread on crackers or bread, topped with a small slice of a dill pickle spear. Or spread on sandwich bread, top with a lettuce leaf and another piece of bread, cut into four triangles. Then you’ll have tea sandwiches ready to go on platters for your guests.

Fried Dill Pickles

Yield: Makes 12 spears

Ingredients

Vegetable oil for frying

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste

2 eggs, beaten

12 dill pickle spears or 2 cups dill pickle slices/”chips”

Ranch dressing — homemade or commercial

Directions

1. Heat oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking in a heavy, wide-bottomed saucepan or a deep, heavy skillet.

2. Mix the flour with the seasonings in shallow baking dish, like a pie pan. Place beaten eggs in another, similar pan. Set aside.

3. Dip pickles in beaten egg, shake off excess egg, and then roll pickles in the seasoned flour.

4. Carefully slide the pickles into the hot oil. Fry until crisp and golden brown. Drain briefly on paper towels.

5. Serve immediately with ranch dressing on the side.

Main photo: Pickled shrimp goes way back in the South, and it’s still a treat for modern-day holiday fare. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

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Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Di Carroll always knew she wanted to live in Italy. Brought up in Cheshire, North West England, she felt an overwhelming affinity toward all things Italian from an early age, studied Italian at university, and worked as a translator, interpreter and wine merchant. Carroll’s particular love of Piedmont dates from a holiday trip to Turkey she took with her brother while still in her teens: The siblings made friends with a Piedmontese family, who invited them to visit during their journey back to the U.K.

From the start, Carroll says she was captivated with the Piedmont region in northern Italy. “I saw the hills and vines, castles and little villages, and immediately fell in love. We sat under the fig tree in our friend’s garden and they pointed out the ripe, black figs they would pick next morning for breakfast. It’s a memory I’ve always kept — and now I can do the same,” she says.

Carroll and her husband, Pete, moved to Italy 13 years ago. Their old farmhouse in the Basso Monferrato is remote, peaceful and off the “expat” track. It is not a tourist area, but it is within the official Barbera growing area and Pete cultivates a small vineyard for their own consumption.

Regional Piedmont cookbook

Carroll has slowly been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cooking skills. As we talked in her farmhouse kitchen in front of a wood-burning stove (“fabulous for roast chicken”), she was excited to show off a bottle of Gambadpernis (Partridge Leg), a lovely new DOC wine made by neighbor Bussi Piero.

“The production is tiny, there are only a few producers. Of course, they’ve been making wine ’round here for generations, although often they would just keep a lot of the grapes, dry them and eat them for Christmas,” she says.

[To earn DOC status (Denomination of Controlled Origin), a wine has to be made from grapes from a particular defined area and pass strict tests for standards in alcohol content, flavor, aroma, color and more. It ensures that the consumer is drinking an authentic wine, not a counterfeit or adulterated one.]

dicarrol

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Di Carroll, who moved to Italy with her husband 13 years ago, fell in love with the Piedmont region as a teen. She has been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cookery skills. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Carroll explained the concept of the congenial merenda sinoira, a gathering of a half-dozen people or more, where everyone gathers to talk and nibble around a farmhouse table laden with salami, ham and cheese, and a pezzo forte, a pasta piece de resistance — usually pasta with butter, sage and Parmesan.

“It’s a lovely ritual, which is why I decided to get a really large table, so when visitors come, that’s where we sit, not in armchairs and sofas,” she says.

Traditional Piedmont dishes

For Carroll, Piedmont is the perfect Italian region. “The continuity of food and life is important here. The Piedmontese have a unique style and outlook on life. They are courteous and respect your boundaries, welcoming and attentive, and they have a way of making you feel you matter.

“They are still very die-hard about eating their traditional dishes and particular about the quality of their ingredients. People still keep rabbits and hens for food,” she says. “In every family vineyard you will still find two or three mixed vines for the table. My butcher’s beef comes from two miles down the road, and he goes to see the animals before they are slaughtered to choose which one he wants. My main problem at first was that they don’t hang the meat here for any length of time. The butcher now matures it for three weeks for me, but I still can’t convince any of my Italian friends to do the same.

“Every house has a copy of The Silver Spoon, but there is still a great oral tradition of handing recipes down. As well as personal variations, many villages also have their own collective recipes, recipes that belong to the village. At the annual fiera (fair), when they open up the wine cellars, each one offers a traditional dish to go with the wine samples,” Carroll says.

Nonetheless, Carroll says she has brought a little bit of Britain to her corner of a foreign field. She is known locally for her occasional afternoon teas for female friends, complete with teapot (unheard of!) and fine bone china. As for her husband, he’s down at the local bar with the lads in the circulo, discussing everyone’s favorite subjects — politics. And football. And what’s for dinner that night.

La Bagna Càuda or Bagna Caoda (Hot dip)*

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

12 large cloves of garlic in their skins

12 salted anchovies

3 1/2 fluid ounces best-quality, fruity, aromatic olive oil

1 stick of unsalted butter

Black pepper, to taste

Chopped basil, to taste

Directions

1. Set the garlic to cook on a very low heat — between 175 F and 212 F, at the most — in the oven.

2. Meanwhile, melt the salted anchovies in the oil and butter, again on a very low heat, until they become a paste. If you do it on the stove, this part will take no more than 10 minutes.

3. When the garlic is soft and creamy, remove the skins, and mash them into the anchovy mixture. Season with black pepper and a little chopped basil, stir well.

* So called because it should always be served hot. This is usually served as a vegetable dip, with celery sticks, red bell pepper batons, roasted pumpkin pieces, endives, baked onions or raw fennel. Guests are given their bagna càuda in terra-cotta dishes over a tealight, which keeps it warm. It can also be served as a cold dressing on cooked bell peppers that have been cooked over a flame, skinned and arranged on a plate with the bagna càuda as a dressing.

Salsa Rossa

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 stick of celery, diced

1/2 onion, chopped finely

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (Ligurian preferred because of the fragrance and balance it gives to the sauce)

3 anchovy fillets in olive oil, crushed in a mortar

2 ounces fresh red peppers, chopped fine

1/2  fresh chili pepper

7 ounces tomato passata

1 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Red wine, to taste

Red wine vinegar, to taste

Directions

1. Gently fry the celery and onion in the oil.

2. When they start to turn light golden brown, stir in the anchovies, peppers, passata, sugar and black pepper. Add the wine and vinegar in small amounts and taste as you go; stirring spoon in one hand, tasting spoon in the other, until it you find a good sweet-sour-spicy balance of flavors that suit your palate.

3. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for a few minutes.

4. Serve as a condiment, rather than a covering sauce, with cold veal tongue.

Boiled veal tongue: Boil and simmer a fresh tongue in water with a bay leaf, large sprig of rosemary and an onion studded with a couple of cloves. The tongue is best made a day in advance.

Brasato al Barolo (Beef in Barolo)*

Prep time:  1 hour

Total time: 3 to 4 hours, plus overnight

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

4 ounces very thinly sliced lardo (or streaky bacon — not pancetta or lardons)

35 ounces pot roast beef, tied neatly with string

1 ounce unsalted butter

2 to 3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

2 to 3 sage leaves

Sprig of rosemary

Bay leaf

2 large cloves of garlic

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 or 2 cloves (the spice, not clove of garlic)

A “whiff” of cinnamon (the spicing has to be delicate)

1 bottle of Barolo or Barbera

Hot beef stock (homemade, preferably)

For the soffritto:

2 onions, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1 celery stick, chopped

A pinch of ground nutmeg

Directions

1. Cut the lardo into slivers.

2. Make small incisions into the meat and insert a piece of lardo into each one.

3. Fry the beef in butter and oil in a large casserole so it browns evenly on all sides.

4. Add the herbs and garlic to the pan and season with salt and pepper.

5. Add the spices (clove and cinnamon), heat gently for about 20 minutes with the lid halfway on.

6. Remove the meat, and replace any juices that drain from it back in the casserole. Set the meat aside.

7. Add the soffritto to the casserole dish, stir well, taste and add a little more salt. Replace the meat.

8. Add the wine and bring gently to a boil in order to evaporate the alcohol (otherwise it will be bitter).

9. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for at least 3 hours. Test periodically for “doneness” — when the meat feels very tender, almost falling apart. (You can cook it in the oven, but in Italy it is mostly done on top of the stove).

10. Top with hot stock from time to time, if necessary.

11. When done, remove from the heat and allow the meat to cool in its juices.

12. Several hours before serving, take the meat out and carve into medium-thick slices.

13. Strain the cooking juices and thicken slightly with cornstarch if desired.

14. Reheat the meat, arrange on a silver platter (if you wish to make a fine impression) and pour the sauce over the meat.

Tips for this recipe

  • This recipe needs Piedmont wine as it is most appropriate for the character of the dish, which is traditionally made in a deep, lidded casserole.
  • One of the secrets of success is to add a pinch of salt now and then, rather than in one go. Keep tasting as you go, it’s important to get the right balance of flavors.
  • The traditional accompaniment is potatoes mashed with olive oil and Parmesan, and carrot batons braised in oil and water, and sprinkled with fresh herbs such as sage, parsley and rosemary.

Il Bunet (or Bonet)

A chocolate and amaretti pudding favored throughout Piedmont.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 90 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

10 ounces amaretti biscuits

2 rounded tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder

17 fluid ounces whole milk

6 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of salt

2/3 cup white sugar

2 fluid ounces rum (optional, it was not used in days of yore)

1 cup sugar moistened with 2 tablespoons water for the caramel

One 2-pound rectangular loaf pan

Directions

1. Pulse the amaretti into a fine crumb in the food processor, mix in the cocoa powder, then add the milk.

2. Whip the egg whites into firm peaks with baking soda, taking care not to overbeat. Then whip the egg yolks and sugar into a velvety cream like zabaglione. Fold everything together carefully.

3. Make a caramel mixture by gently heating the sugar and 2 to 3 tablespoons water until the sugar dissolves; coat the bottom and sides of the loaf pan with the caramel mixture.

4. Pour the pudding mixture into the loaf pan and cook in a Bain Marie, or double-boiler bath, for 30 to 45 minutes at 350 F. When the pudding is firm to the touch and has pulled away from the sides of the pan, take it out of the oven, let it cool to room temperature before flipping over onto a serving platter and unmolding.

Hazelnut Cake

Often called La Langarola from the Piedmontese region of Le Langhe, which stretches south between Alba and Cuneo, and is where the renowned sweet round hazelnuts are cultivated.

Prep time: 1 hour

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

For the cake:

5 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of baking soda

3/4 cup light brown or granulated sugar

2 tablespoons rice or hazelnut oil (or a light sunflower oil)

2 1/2 cups finely chopped, skinned hazelnuts* or hazelnut flour if you can find it. (Processing the nuts in a food processor is acceptable, provided the result is a fairly fine crumble.)

Cinnamon or vanilla, if you prefer

The point of a knife blade of salt

Lined cake pan

Unsweetened cocoa powder, to dust baked cake

For the hazelnuts:

2 cups boiling water

3 cups baking soda

1 cup of hazelnuts

Bowl of very cold water

Directions

For the cake:

1. Whip the egg whites into peaks with baking soda; put to rest in the refrigerator.

2. Whip the eggs yolks and sugar into a firm mousse that resembles zabaglione, add the rice oil gently; fold in the finely chopped hazelnuts and a pinch of salt. (Many prefer the natural flavors of quality hazelnuts, but you can add a pinch of cinnamon or a little vanilla if you wish.)

3. Carefully fold the whipped egg whites and the egg and nut mixture together.

4. Pour the mix into a lined 9- to 9.5-inch-diameter cake pan, bake at 350 F for at least 45 minutes.

5. Halfway through cooking time, cover cake mix with grease-proof paper to avoid burning.

6. When cooked — a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean — remove from oven and allow to cool in the pan.

7. To serve, dust with a little unsweetened cocoa powder, and offer to your guests with a glass of Moscato Naturale.

For the hazelnuts:

1. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan.

2. Let water continue to boil, add the baking soda to the water, which will foam.

3. Add the nuts to the boiling mixture and allow to boil for about 3 minutes. The water will turn black.

4. Have a bowl of very cold water handy. Place a nut in the cold water and try to rub off the skin. If it doesn’t come off easily, let the nuts continue to boil for a few minutes longer.

5. Continue to test one nut at a time. When the skin comes off easily, add the rest of the nuts to the cold water and start to peel.

6. Dry the nuts in a warm, but not hot, oven so as not to toast them or dry out the oils.

Main photo: Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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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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