Articles in History
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
The lesser partner of center-stage bacon and eggs at breakfast, toast is often pushed to the edges of the plate waiting for a bit of butter and jam. But toast is forgotten no longer. Chef Jason Travi of Superba Food + Bread in Venice, California, has placed toast center stage, and not just for breakfast. No longer just dressed in sweet jams, toast appears on the restaurant’s menu topped with sautéed kale, prosciutto, avocado, smoked trout and muhammara, the spicy Middle Eastern condiment.
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Why toast? Why now?
Dishes long associated with childhood meals have been improved with quality ingredients to the delight of diners. Chefs gave kid-friendly mac and cheese a makeover by adding English cheddar, fresh Maine lobster and truffle oil.
Travi was following a toast trend begun by all accounts by chef Giulietta Maria Carrelli of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club in the San Francisco Bay area. At Superba Food + Bread, chef Travi took me into his kitchen for a video demonstration of a signature dish: grilled toast with walnut muhammara and burrata. Before we began, he talked about his partnership with Jonathan Eng, the baker responsible for making the freshly baked breads used in the restaurant.
Good toast requires great bread
At Superba Food + Bread, Eng was encouraged to be innovative. The restaurant promoted collaboration. Often Eng will come up with an idea for a new bread. He and Travi would then explore toppings that would be a good match for the texture and flavor of the new bread. Sometimes Travi asked for a bread to go with a particular dish, such as the sprouted wheat loaf he asked Eng to make with millet, flax and sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. While the many sandwiches on the menu come with a variety of breads, all the toasts are made with the pain au levain.
To make his version of the classic French sourdough, Eng modified the recipe using a 16-hour cold fermentation. Using an Italian Bassanina Tubix steam pipe oven, he bakes the pain au levain loaves in 750- and 1,500-gram sizes. Both are used in the restaurant and sold in the bakery.
The only way the restaurant will be guaranteed to have freshly baked bread for the day’s service is if Eng starts work at 2 a.m. six days a week. When he arrives, the cleaning crew is just leaving. For a few hours he enjoys having the quiet restaurant all to himself. By the time Travi’s crew arrives for the breakfast service, Eng has his loafs stacked high on the wood counters, ready for the day’s diners.
A mother’s recipe passed down to her son, the chef
Chef Travi remembers watching his mother cook when he was growing up. From her Lebanese family, she learned to prepare Middle Eastern classics. One particular dish stayed in his memory, her muhammara, a spicy dip made with peppers, walnuts, bread crumbs and olive oil.
To complement the spicy flavors of the muhammara, Travi adds freshly made burrata and the crunch of pickled radish.
Muhammara-Burrata Toast With Pickled Radish
While the spread will work on any bread, Eng encourages using a good quality sourdough that is baked fresh and eschews preservatives. Although ready-made bread crumbs can be used, the quality of the muhammara will be improved when they are homemade.
The muhammara can be made the day of use or reserved covered in the refrigerator for up to five days. The radishes should pickle for two days and then can be refrigerated in an airtight container in the pickling liquid for several days.
The Aleppo powder Travi prefers is frequently unavailable. He suggests substituting cayenne powder. The heat from the two are different, so taste and adjust the amount used.
Pomegranate molasses is available in Middle Eastern and Israeli markets and sometimes in the International sections of supermarkets.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 whole red pepper, washed, to yield ¾ cup roasted red peppers
6 slices freshly baked bread, divided
¼ cup raw walnuts
1½ teaspoons pomegranate molasses
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ to ½ teaspoon Aleppo powder or cayenne
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups fresh burrata
1 tablespoon Italian parsley leaves, washed, dried
1 tablespoon pickled radishes (see recipe below)
1. Heat oven to 450 F. Place the whole red pepper on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Cook 15 to 30 minutes depending on size or until the skin is lightly browned and the flesh is tender. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
2. When the pepper is cool to the touch, use a pairing knife to cut off the stem and peel away the skin. Discard the skin and seeds. Finely chop the flesh. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.
3. Tear two slices of fresh bread into pieces. Heat a nonstick pan. Toast the pieces in the pan. Remove. Allow to cool. Place into a blender and pulse to make crumbs. Return the bread crumbs to the pan. Do not use oil. Toast the bread crumbs until lightly brown. Set aside to cool. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.
4. Reduce the oven to 325 F. Place the walnut pieces on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Bake about 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown.
5. Remove and allow to cool.
6. Place red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate molasses, ground cumin, ground coriander, Aleppo powder or cayenne and olive oil into a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.
7. Taste and adjust flavor by adding sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
8. Heat a grill or a grill-pan. Place the remaining bread slices on the grill just long enough for grill marks to appear. Remove.
9. Place the toast slices on a cutting board and then spread a layer of muhammara on each slice. Decoratively spoon on three or four teaspoon-sized mounds of burrata, season with sea salt and black pepper, sprinkle on pickled radish and parsley leaves.
Lebanese-Style Pickled Radish
At a supermarket or farmers market, buy fat, firm radishes with unwilted leaves attached to ensure they are freshly picked.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 2 minutes
Pickling time: 2 days
Yield: 8 servings
2 large radishes, washed, stems and root ends removed
¼ cup water
¼ cup white vinegar
¼ cup white sugar
1. Clean the radishes to remove all dirt. Cut away any blemishes and discard.
2. Using a sharp chef’s knife, julienne the radishes, cutting from stem top to root end. The strips should be as uniform as possible, about 1/8-inch thick.
3. Place the julienned radishes in a non-reactive bowl.
4. Place water, vinegar and sugar into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar.
5. Pour the hot liquid over the radish. Cover. Let sit on the counter 2 days.
6. The pickled radish will keep up to a week in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Main photo: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Blenders today are ubiquitous and taken for granted, but there was a time when these humble kitchen tools were central to aspirational American cooking — with one cookbook elevating the appliance to its proper place in the kitchen.
Ann Seranne, a lesser-known but prolific cookbook author, published “The Blender Cookbook” in 1961 with Eileen Gaden after they both left editorial positions at Gourmet Magazine to form a food consulting company. Inspired by their consulting for Waring, the first major American blender manufacturer, Seranne and Gaden began work on a blender cookbook. Invented in 1922 by Stephen Poplawski, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. In his musings on the appliance, however, Craig Claiborne of The New York Times bemoaned that the average housewife used her blender for little more than daiquiris and whiskey sours. At the same time, gourmands from Julia Child to Alice B. Toklas embraced the appliance’s abilities, even as they favored more traditional techniques.
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Describing herself as “a devoted disciple of the electric blender,” Seranne assured readers that next to the stove and refrigerator, the blender was the kitchen’s most essential appliance, a “treasure” worthy of a permanent place on the kitchen counter. Wrapped up in both haute cuisine and convenience cooking, Seranne and Gaden brought this enthusiasm to home cooks with “The Blender Cookbook.” With dozens of black and white illustrations, the text features more than 500 recipes not only for dips, soups, sauces and drinks, but also for scrambled eggs, turkey stuffing, crab-and-macaroni casserole, meat loaf, beef Stroganoff, lamb curry, white-fish quenelles with sauce Normande, and fruit tarts.
In his initial review, titled “Blender Magic,” Claiborne honored Seranne’s contribution, asserting that the cookbook “fills a culinary void that has been apparent since the first blender was placed on the market nearly three decades ago.” Overall, he rated the cookbook as the “most comprehensive and imaginative and by all odds the best” among blender texts. Although Claiborne critiqued one of the recipes (a blended minestrone recipe that he quipped was simply “not minestrone”), he lauded Seranne’s hollandaise sauce. Easily whipped up in mere seconds with the blender’s aid, Claiborne proclaimed, “This alone should qualify her for some sort of gastronomic hall of fame.”
Far beyond a gimmicky contribution, “The Blender Cookbook” appeared in Claiborne’s round-up of the year’s best cookbooks, alongside seminal gastronomic tomes, such as the English translation of “Larousee Gastronomique,” “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (which he called “a masterpiece”), the newest edition of “The James Beard Cookbook,” and Claiborne’s own “The New York Times Cook Book.”
The 1960s cookbook boom
Among such esteemed company, “The Blender Cookbook” came into being during a meaningful culinary moment. In her Oct. 23, 1961, New York Times article, “Food: Cookbook Boom,” June Owen wrote that more cookbooks were to be published that year than ever before.
Nika Hazelton, a well-known cookbook author and food writer, echoed this sentiment, albeit more colorfully, in 1963, when she observed, “Americans are taking to cookbooks the way the Romans took to orgies.” Orgies aside, Owen situated cookbook publishing and sales within broader changes in American culture. She argued that etiquette rules, like those penned by Emily Post, which quieted discussions of cooking at the hostess’ table, had shifted. As Americans developed a “tremendous interest in food,” kitchen labors became a topic of newly suitable conversation over dinner.
In her analysis of these burgeoning food interests, Owen also engaged David Reisman, Nathan Galzer and Reuel Denney’s “The Lonely Crowd,” a sociological study, both landmark and contested, first published in 1950 and again in 1961, in the midst of this cookbook boom. Reisman traced growing interest in cooking to the rise of servant-less households among the middle class, which shifted the responsibility for cooking. He also cited the increasing abundance of food that made eating well an accessible luxury for more than just the supremely affluent. He argued, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also would, that under such conditions, food became a primary method for demonstrating taste and social status.
Cookbooks in midcentury America — focusing on desserts, eggs, ethnic cuisine or even blenders — served as both the means and symbols of this upward mobility. Or as Hazelton quipped on the price of cookbooks, “You’ve got to spend a little to build up your reputation as a gourmet, which appears to be the current ambition of every red-blooded American” — a sentiment not too far afield from today’s mainstreamed and seemingly ever increasing interest in food and cooking, sipping and tasting, cookbook buying and kitchen outfitting.
Ann Seranne, kitchen sorceress
Beyond the prominent position of “The Blender Cookbook” in the 1960s culinary canon, what do we know of the woman behind the blender? Originally from Canada, Ann Seranne came to the United States in the 1930s and worked her way to executive editor at Gourmet before she began her consulting partnership with Gaden in the mid-1950s. Throughout her career, Seranne published not just “The Blender Cookbook,” but more than two dozen cookbooks, including “Ann Seranne’s Good Food & How to Cook It,” “Good Food Without Meat,” “The Complete Book of Home Preserving” and “The Art of Egg Cookery.”
Claiborne wrote fondly of her in The New York Times, describing her as a tall (she was 5′ 8″), blond, handsome woman; “a born cook;” an indefatigable food consultant; and “a kitchen sorceress who would rather cook than eat.” His description of her 1963 cookbook, “The Complete Book of Desserts,” may have applied to her as well: “At once as down to earth as an apple fritter and as sophisticated as a cream-filled génoise.”
Impressive as they are, Seranne’s cookbooks were but one of her life’s accomplishments. She nurtured twin passions for cooking and breeding Yorkshire terriers, five of which shared her New York home and whose breeding line claimed more than 60 championships. Her canine brood supped on a ragout of beef, lamb shanks, parsley, carrots and garlic; garlic being her dogs’ most favored flavor. When famed dog show reporter Walter Fletcher purportedly asked Sarenne of the similarities between cooking and dog breeding, she replied, “Both contain equal parts science, art and luck.”
Main photo: Invented in 1922, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. Credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin
Some ancient grains get all the press. Quinoa, freekeh, and spelt are the darlings of the food world these days, especially in the United States — and rightfully so, since they were ignored for millennia. But one ancient grain seems to lag behind: barley. Plain ol’ barley never makes a Top 10 list. It needs a spunky dance partner and great choreography to be seen. Mushrooms have often been its companion for comfort food — think of all the savory mushroom-barley soups. But wild mushrooms, exotic and even more flavorful than the cultivated variety while still just as earthy as barley, may serve as the most perfect partner of all.
During the chill of January, foraging for comfort food is often a search for simple, earthy foods — like barley and mushrooms. But these foods can also be rich and elegant, intriguing and satisfying, old and new. Sometimes all it takes is one little change to make a comfort-food dish special.
Barley and mushrooms, ancient foods
Barley is no newbie to the food scene. There is no way to overstate its importance in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant (present-day Iraq and the Middle East). Wild barley was an integral part of the human diet, so much so that it became a domesticated crop. It was the basis for a key everyday comestible that is still popular today: beer.
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In Europe by the Middle Ages, barley was the flour of poor man’s bread and the filler in Scotch broth. It was — and remains — a common food for livestock. Notwithstanding the changes in the world around it, domesticated barley is, in essence, a simple whole grain with plenty of nutrients. And it has countless culinary benefits.
There is a good reason why barley’s long time partner is the mushroom.
An ancient, originally wild food, mushrooms are fungi, and are incredibly healthy — high in B and D vitamins, selenium, copper, potassium and antioxidants that appear to protect DNA at the cellular level. Some of these benefits can be found in common button mushrooms and their close cousins, baby bellas, criminis and portabellos. But mushrooms are more than that. They are a natural flavor enhancer. All mushrooms contain glutamic acid, a version of the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Wild mushrooms, or those that were once wild and are now cultivated (called “exotic” by growers), burst with all of these benefits. No wonder wild ones have been popular across Europe, Asia, the United States and India for centuries. Each variety of wild mushroom has its individual charms. The one I used for this mushroom-barley risotto is the chanterelle.
Chanterelles, a sexy and mellifluous a name for fungus if there ever was one, evokes images of five-star French chefs cooking up lavish, sophisticated and warming dishes. To many a chef and connoisseur, chanterelles — golden and floral, earthy and fragrant — are in the same pantheon as morels and truffles. Chanterelles have even been considered male aphrodisiacs, with the 11th-century Normans in Britain serving them at wedding feasts to the grooms. Widely found in both Europe and the United States, fresh in season and dried year-round, the lightly peppery, softly fruity chanterelle is an ideal candidate to gussy up the Plain Jane barley.
The wine that links all the flavors
The element that can put it all together? A wine born from the same soil as those wild mushrooms. Barley risotto style is now a restaurant mainstay. But when the mushrooms in the risotto are the prized chanterelle and the wine is Willamette Valley — what you have is dinner alchemy.
Willamette Valley, Oregon, where chanterelles have long grown wild and are now cultivated, is a well-regarded region for producing fine grapes and even finer wines. The Pinot Noir grapes grown in the Willamette Valley are characterized by robust notes of black raspberry and bogs, of vanilla and cloves. The old cooking adage “if it grows together it goes together” is certainly true with Pacific golden chanterelles and Willamette Pinot Noir. Pairing these two is not for the faint of wallet. But the cost of the barley balances that out a bit.
And that wine — ooh — that wine is the essential link tying, literally binding, the mushrooms to the barley. All together, chanterelles and barley become something genuinely soul satisfying. The flavors and textures support and encourage each other, revealing the best they can offer. Perhaps that is what a plate-mate, a bowl-mate and soulmate should always be.
Barley Risotto With Fresh Chanterelles and Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
This special-occasion dish is impressive to serve and even better to eat. It showcases a classic Italian cooking technique applied to humble pearl barley and highlights the quality and unique flavors of fresh wild chanterelle mushrooms. The result is extravagantly delicious and memorable, worth every penny and every stir.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 50 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings as a meal, 6 as a starter
2½ cups low-sodium mushroom broth
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 large shallots, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
Leaves of 6 sprigs fresh thyme, minced (about 2 teaspoons, see Kitchen Tips)
1 cup pearl barley
2 cups Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (see Kitchen Tips)
1 pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms, sliced, cut into bite-size pieces
1 large fresh bay leaf
½ teaspoon kosher salt (see Kitchen Tips)
1 (7-ounce) package fresh baby kale, thinly sliced
½ cup freshly grated Gruyère cheese
¾ cup sour cream or crème fraiche
1 teaspoon truffle salt (see Kitchen Tips)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, bring the mushroom broth to a simmer.
2. Meanwhile, in a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the butter and heat until it melts. Add the shallots and thyme, stir to coat, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 to 3 minutes, until the shallots are translucent and the edges are just beginning to brown. Add the barley and cook, stirring to coat, for 2 minutes.
3. Increase the heat to high, add the wine, and cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until it has been fully absorbed into the barley. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the mushrooms and bay leaf, and stir well.
4. Add 1/2 cup of the warm mushroom broth and cook, stirring for 4 to 5 minutes, until the liquid is almost absorbed. Add the salt and stir. Continue adding the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and cook, stirring continuously but gently for 2 to 3 minutes, until it is nearly absorbed into the barley. Repeat until all the mushroom broth is used.
5. Cook for about 30 minutes more, until the barley is al dente. Add the kale, stir well, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the leaves are completely soft. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the Gruyère cheese and sour cream. Remove from the heat, remove the bay leaf, sprinkle with the truffle salt and pepper, and stir well. Spoon into wide, shallow bowls and serve immediately.
1. To remove the leaves from a sprig of fresh thyme, hold the sprig (or a few) at the top with one hand, and with the other hand, grasp the stem with your thumb and forefinger and gently slide your fingers down the stem. The leaves will be pushed against the direction they grow in, and will come off easily.
2. For more information about Pinot Noir grapes and wines: http://www.pinot-noir-wines.com/
3. If you don’t have low-sodium mushroom broth, you can omit this extra salt.
4. Salt to which very small pieces of dried truffle have been added is called truffle salt. It is used to add richer flavor.
Main photo: Barley, Chanterelle Mushroom and Pinot Noir Risotto — elegant, simple, delicious. Credit: ©TheWeiserKitchen
People buy cookbooks for a variety of reasons: to inspire, impress, beautify, edify and love. For famed cookbook author and food writer, Nika (Standen) Hazelton, however, there was only one reason to purchase a cookbook: to cook from it.
The daughter of a German diplomat, Hazelton was born and grew up in Rome. In addition to international travels with her father, she attended the London School of Economics and worked as a reporter in Europe, before marrying and moving to the United States in 1940.
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It was stateside that her cookbook-writing career took off. Esteemed as a specialist of European cookery, she penned cookbooks dedicated to the cuisines of Scandinavia, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, France, Denmark and Germany. At the time of Hazelton’s death in 1992, Molly O’Neill, food columnist for The New York Times Magazine, declared Hazelton’s “American Home Cooking” (Bobbs Merrill, 1967), “French Home Cooking” (Viking Penguin, 1979), “International Cookbook” (Harper & Row, 1967) and “The Italian Cookbook” (Henry Holt, 1979) standards. Hazelton published 30 cookbooks throughout her career and wrote countless articles for major food magazines and newspapers. No title better communicates her unwaveringly simple, straightforward and unpretentious perspective on food and cooking, however, than her 1974 cookbook, “I Cook As I Please.”
Conceding her “literal mindedness,” Hazelton laid out in a 1963 article in “The New York Times” exactly how one might judge a cookbook to determine whether it is not just delightfully escapist, politically radical or aesthetically pleasing, but well and simply good. Hazelton’s advice rings as true today as it did in the 1960s, at least if you are shopping for a cookbook that aligns with her functional, no-nonsense approach.
Accuracy and clarity
For Hazelton, “Accuracy is the first virtue when writing about cooking.” Recipes ought to list all ingredients at the beginning of the recipe and with accurate measurements. Authors who arrange ingredients “more coyly” do readers a disservice as they forsake clarity. Directions ought to be lucidly written, one step at a time, and in order. If recipes include misspellings or confusing instructions, beware, as these reflect poorly on the author.
Well-written recipes notify the reader of specific details, such as the type of pan, the size of baking dish or whether a dish should be cooked covered or not. Such specifics indicate the thoroughness of the recipe writer’s testing process. A lack of specifics, on the other hand, can reveal a writer’s laziness, an unforgivable failing according to Hazelton.
Recipes ought to turn out if followed correctly and, equally important, to work every time. Since reliability is impossible to blindly predict, Hazelton recommended purchasing cookbooks from only respected authors and publishers, remarking, “Few newcomers to cookbook writing do reliable recipes.”
Hazelton not only firmly asserted that a recipe “should be correct and the best of its kind,” but also that it ought to “promote the cause of good food and not of brand names.” Further condemning the likes of packaged-food cuisine and back-of-the-box recipes, Hazelton believed, “Commercial recipes, however splendid, belong to advertising and publicity.”
Writing in 1963, Hazelton lamented, “Really authentic and first-class foreign cookbooks are few and far between,” as recipes were often revised for American styles, tastes and measurements, losing their magic along the way. Good cookbooks of this sort require time and investment to retest the recipes, but are worth it, processes with which Hazelton had significant experience.
With these strict criteria, Hazelton recommended an elite group of reliable authors. She “saluted” Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Julia Child, Paula Peck, Helen Evans Brown, Dione Lucas, the Chamberlains, Ann Seranne, Marian Tracy, June Platt and John Gould. She also cited the editors of the McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping cookbooks, reasoning that their quality was “reliable if not always inspired, because the editors know their business can’t afford to make their readers mad with poorly done work.”
Main photo: Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and James Beard were among Hazelton’s recommended cookbook authors. Credit: Emily Contois
Africa. What a complicated and enormous continent it is, comprising more than 50 countries, all different, all with their own culinary specialties.
In this, the first in a series of articles about the foods of Africa, I hope to encourage you to go on voyage of exploration, discovering the food of a fascinating part of the world. We begin with the peanut or groundnut, a vital ingredient in many West Africa dishes.
My own exploration with African food came during my work in Morocco with the Peace Corps as a trainer in maternal and infant health and nutrition. And in Burkina Faso, where I once managed the U.S. embassy’s commissary, I also was a consultant and trainer for the culinary staff of the American Club.
Now, I’m researching the culinary legacies of European colonialism for a book due out in 2016 — including the impact of the African Diaspora on modern Europe and elsewhere. And so I find myself in the kitchen, tasting flavors of the places I’m reading about. It stimulates me to share all that with you in a series of articles about ingredients commonly used in Africa.
EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME This is the first 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. Future articles will feature cassava, black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.
EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME
This is the first 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.
Future articles will feature cassava, black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.
You don’t need a plane ticket. Just a basic pantry, a few pots and your kitchen.
West Africa, where we’ll begin, is a special place when it comes to food. It’s a region where street markets bloom anywhere the fickle climate will support them. Perhaps here, more than any other place on Earth, seasonality dictates what food appears on the plate, a natural and uncontrived model of the concept of local foods.
Cooks here create vibrant, savory meals with an often limited repertoire of ingredients. Many West African dishes and techniques can still be savored in the cooking of the American South, Brazil and the Caribbean: places where Africans endured the pain of slavery.
Walk into the central market in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso or stroll down a busy street in Dakar in Senegal, and you see how people make do, creating a vibrant cuisine from what is available. The aromas make your mouth water, and your eyes cannot get enough of the pulsating scene, as market women set out their small mounds of produce on the ground, covered with scraps of colorful cloth.
Vegetables also poke out of the tops of baskets, like so many baby birds peering cautiously from their nest. Meat sits on counter tops, the various cuts nothing at all like the standard fare found in Western butcher shops and supermarkets. You might be puzzled by some of the spices and herbs, yes. But overall, the cuisine of West Africa is highly accessible to the Western cook.
Take, for example, the following recipe for meat cooked in a peanut sauce with fresh spinach.
Resembling a native African bean known as the Bambara groundnut, the American peanut ironically rose to esteem under humble circumstances. African slaves stored Bambara groundnut stew recipes in their minds and likely dreamed of bubbling stew pots as they crossed the tossing Atlantic, confined in the holds of slave ships. Imagine their joy in finding the peanut, which reminded them of home.
At the same time, but a world away, the Portuguese introduced the peanut to West Africa and Asia. Africans invented peanut brittle and kulikuli (or fried peanut balls).
With just a few basic ingredients from your West African pantry, cooking becomes the next best thing to hopping on a flight to Senegal or the Ivory Coast.
Be sure to invite a friend to join you for the meal, for as an African proverb goes, “One who eats alone cannot discuss the taste of the food with others.”
Meat in Peanut Sauce With Spinach
Prep time: 25 to 30 minutes
Cook time: 2½ hours
Total time: 3 hours
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
You may use beef, goat or lamb, if you prefer. And if you really like mutton, that, too.
3 tablespoons peanut oil
2 pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat, rinsed, cut into 2-inch chunks, and patted dry
1 1/2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled, sliced, and lightly crushed with the side of a cleaver or large knife
1 piece of fresh ginger the size of a large walnut, peeled and lightly crushed with the side of a cleaver or large knife
1 small hot green pepper, seeded and minced, or more to taste
8 large plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt or, to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or, to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or, to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
2 cups water
1 cup natural peanut butter
16 ounces fresh spinach leaves (or frozen, in a pinch)
Fresh cilantro leaves and roasted peanuts, chopped, for garnish
1. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.
2. Place salted meat chunks in pot and cook until well; flip pieces over and brown the other sides. Remove meat from pan and set aside on a large plate.
3. Add onions to the pan and fry until slightly translucent and golden in color; toss in the garlic, ginger and hot green pepper. Cook for another minute or so, until garlic turns slightly golden.
4. Stir in tomatoes and cook for about 3 minutes. Mash tomatoes with a potato masher or other implement.
5. Mix in the salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, curry powder and thyme leaves. Stir well. Pour in 2 cups of water.
6. Add the meat, making sure to cover pieces with the liquid. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes.
7. Using some of the broth from the pot, thin the peanut butter and stir well. Add half of the peanut butter mixture to the stew. (Reserve the other half of the mixture for the spinach.) Cook, covered, until meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add more water if stew looks too thick.
8. While the meat cooks, rinse the spinach, and immediately add it to a large skillet over high heat. Stirring constantly, cook the spinach until all the leaves wilt. Remove from heat instantly and drain the spinach in a colander with cold water. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess water from the spinach and set aside.
9. Just before the meat is done, place the spinach in a heavy-bottomed pot, gently stir in the reserved peanut sauce, and warm the mixture over medium-low heat, uncovered, making sure that the mixture stays moist. Add a few tablespoons of water if mixture gets too dry.
10. Ladle sauce over white rice, placing pieces of meat on the side. Garnish the meat and the rice with chopped cilantro leaves and peanuts. Spoon the spinach near the meat. Or, serve the meat and sauce with cornmeal mush or fufu (pounded yam or plantains).
11. Pass Fiery West African Tomato Condiment (recipe below) around the table and dribble some on the meat, if desired.
Fiery West-African Tomato Condiment
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: 2½ to 3 cups
3 tablespoons peanut oil
5 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
2 to 3 red habanero peppers, seeded, and finely chopped (leave seeds in for an even hotter taste)
8 large plum tomatoes, cut into quarters
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Heat oil over medium-high heat in heavy-bottomed skillet.
2. Add garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds, or until garlic turns slightly golden in color. Add peppers and fry for another 30 seconds, stirring constantly.
3. Slip tomatoes carefully into the oil to avoid splattering; sprinkle with salt and pepper.
4. Cook for 2 minutes and then lower the heat. Simmer, uncovered, until oil separates from the tomatoes.
5. Store in a covered container for up to a week. Use as a condiment with any African main dish.
Main photo: Peanuts closely resemble the Bambara groundnut, a vital ingredient in many West African dishes. Credit: Cynthia D. Bertelsen