Articles in History

Qara bi’l-tahina (pumpkin purée with sesame seed paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

In the Middle East food is shared and one place it is shared is on the meze table. Meze are small samplings of prepared dishes that make a meal. They are not appetizers, nor tapas, nor hors d’oeuvres but are actually more philosophically related to the Scandinavian smorgasbord.

Food is shared in another way. The food of the Levant, meaning the food eaten between the Turkish-Syrian border all the way to Egypt, is the same food eaten by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. One can’t really say there is Muslim food, Christian food and Jewish food, but there are certain foods that are typical for those communities centered around holidays such as Ramadan, Christmas, and Yom Kippur, for example, but the foods are not unique to those cultures because everyone eats them.

One very typical, almost obligatory, meze dish is hummus. Hummus means chickpea and does not mean dip. The proper name of the preparation called hummus is hummus bi’l-tahina, chickpeas with sesame seed paste.

One delightful variation of this dip is made with pumpkin, all the more appropriate this time of year when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. All the more so if we reflect on how much we can be thankful for especially at a time when the Middle East seems to be disintegrating into a frenzy of blood-letting. At a time when all religious communities, be they Jewish, Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi, Alawite, or Kurdish Muslim, are threatened in the Middle East and the stories from those lands are nothing but sadness, it behooves us to remember the rich contribution and integral role played by all these people who once –it is hard believe given the modern headlines — lived together. If there is one thing they all shared it was surely food.

And a dip is a food that is shared. Please don’t call it pumpkin hummus. It’s called qara bi’l-tahina and that means pumpkin with sesame seed paste.

This will be one of many dishes on the menu of a series of communal dinners arranged by Clockshop, a nonprofit arts and culture organization based in Los Angeles. The event will take place over three weekends in November, beginning Nov. 8 to celebrate what they call the Arab-Jewish diaspora. The meals will feature the culinary traditions, music and culture of this diaspora. If you live in the Los Angeles area you can check them out by RSVP.

Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste)

Yield:  6 servings
Prep time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Ingredients

5 pounds pumpkin flesh, cubed

1/2 cup tahina

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed in a mortar with 2 teaspoons salt until mushy

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

Seeds from 1/2 a pomegranate

Directions

1. Place the pumpkin slices in a saucepan and cover with water. Turn the heat on and bring to a gentle boil and cook until soft, about 40 minutes. Drain well and pass through a food mill. Return the pumpkin to the saucepan and cook over a medium-high heat until all the liquid is nearly evaporated, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and run until creamy. Transfer to a mixing bowl

2. Stir the tahina paste into the pumpkin and mix well. Stir in the garlic mixture and lemon juice. Mix well and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish the pumpkin mixture with parsley, some olive oil, and cumin. Decorate the outside edges of the platter with the pomegranate seeds and serve with Arab flatbread to scoop up the dip.

Main photo: Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

The Rev. Paul Dumais has spent much of his free time in the past year sorting truth from rumor concerning the science behind a traditional comfort food in his home state of Maine.

Dumais, a Catholic priest who lives in Lewiston, has been studying the chemical composition of ployes (rhymes with toys). He’s attempting to discern the scientific facts about the batter for these traditional French Acadian buckwheat pancakes or flatbreads from the theatrical stories passed down by generations of Acadian people living in northern Maine.

For example, his grandmother would use only Rumford baking powder in her ployes. “The rumor was that if you didn’t use Rumford’s, your ployes would turn green,” said Dumais, adding that he can’t scientifically support that claim.

He can, though, methodically corroborate his grandmother’s “feel” for when there is enough water in the mix because he’s calculated that a hydration rate of 170% (170 grams of water to 100 grams of flour) makes the best ployes. If the batter is too thick, they don’t cook evenly. If it’s too thin, the finished product is not hearty enough to do its job of providing a simple carbohydrate filler food for the local population. One serving of ployes has 100 calories, 21 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein.

Dumais says “flatbread” is a more accurate term than “pancake” for ployes because they are not traditionally eaten for breakfast and traditionally not served with maple syrup. They are buttered, rolled and served at lunch or dinner with savory dishes like creton, a pork spread containing onions and spices; baked beans; and an Acadian chicken stew called fricot.

Never flip a ploye

Ployes are never, ever flipped like a flapjack. The batter, which must not be over mixed, is portioned on a dry, hot griddle; swished once into a 4- or 5-inch circle; and cooked face up so you can see the heat “fait les yeux” or “make the eyes.” Those “eyes” are the air bubbles that dot the surface of perfectly cooked ployes.

Dumais is a Mainer in the true sense of the word. He serves as Catholic chaplain to Central Maine Medical Center and Bates College and is a founding member of the Fraternity of St. Philip Neri. He was born and raised in the small town of Madawaska, which sits in the middle of a place called “the Valley” in Aroostook County. “The Valley” forms part of the international border with Canada along the St. John River. Madawaska, which now has a population of 4,000, was founded by French-speaking agrarian settlers in 1785 after they were forcefully dispersed by the English from the region of Acadie, a part of New France that included sections of what we now recognize as Eastern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces.

Ployes mixes from Bouchard Family Farms. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

Ployes mixes from Bouchard Family Farms. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

Dumais is armed with both taste memory and newfangled kitchen gadgets (like his  infrared thermometer, a highly accurate kitchen scale and his preferred Danish dough whisk) and is enthusiastically fond of mixing experimentation with deep-set culinary tradition. His end game — spurred on by his Great Aunt Prescille’s faint memory — is to produce a ploye batter much like his great-great-grandmother made from local grains and natural, ambient yeast.

Dumais recently evangelized the scientific wonders of ployes at the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. The starting point in his public demonstration involves ready-made ployes mixes from two sources: his cousins’ garage in Frenchville, and the more commercially available mix sold by Bouchard Family Farms. The measurements — 1 cup of ployes mix to 1⅓ cups of cold water — are spelled out on the side of the stand-up paper sacks. So are instructions for letting the batter rest for 5 minutes, the proper amount for each ploye (3 ounces), recommended thickness (⅛ inch) and expected cooking time (60 to 90 seconds). Dumais does advise users of these mixes to play with the amount of water added as he believes the viscosity should be a bit thinner than the labels’ recipe prescribes.

The ingredients for these mixes comprise a simple list and look much like his mother’s “from scratch” recipe (below), which serves as his second data point. Here he likes to demonstrate his hydration discoveries, making dramatic pouring gestures of too-slow ploye dough that has only 100 percent hydration and requires the cook to work too hard to spread it on the hot griddle. He also shows how too-fast batter quickly seeps across the boundaries of its allotted griddle real estate.

Sharing tips for success

But Dumais gets most animated when he presents his progress on developing a recipe for the naturally leavened ployes he suspects his ancestors made, even though he has been unable to find historical documentation of this process in the University of Maine Acadian Archives. He relays the story of when he tasted a savory pancake made by a Somali immigrant named Angela at a potluck dinner celebrating an urban farming program run by St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston last winter. They did not have a spoken language in common, but it didn’t matter. With bread as a cultural currency they both understood, Angela could convey that the secret to her bread was a yogurt-based starter that she kept in a jar and from that jar she began each new batch of pancakes.

A vertical stack. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

A vertical stack. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

It clicked for Dumais at that moment and he ran with the fermented flour starter idea, playing with flour amounts and types, feeding times, temperatures and hydration ratios. “Then one day, I made a batch. Watched and tasted. And finally thought, ‘Why, I think I’ve got it!’ ” Dumais said.

As he poured, swished once to form the right-sized circumference for the flatbread and watched for the heat to fait les yeux, Dumais said, “Now that is a ploye my mémé could be proud of.” These ployes looked much like the others, but had a bit of a sourdough finish.

In honor of the 2014 Acadian World Congress held in multiple locations along the U.S.-Canadian border over two weeks in August, Dumais hosted a continual feast near an ancestral homestead.

“My personal little quest was to reintroduce the naturally leavened ployes in honor of the event,” Dumais said. One evening he cooked alongside his mother to create some chicken stew and his new recipe for old-fashioned ployes for family.

Just as his mother had done every other time she’d eaten Acadian chicken stew, Dumais said for this meal “she buttered a ploye, rolled it up and dunked the end in her stew and remarked to another family member: ‘These are made without baking powder. They are very good.’

“Part of what might be difficult to appreciate is that people eat ployes all the time. … My mother was able to appreciate the moment largely because I had been in conversation with her all along,” he said.

People enjoyed Dumais’ ployes, but it “was an understated return of the traditional Acadian flatbread,” he said. The fact that they were made with family, for family, in an open-air kitchen on the banks of the St. John River near a cedar cabin built by his grandfather was satisfaction enough for him.

Ployes from scratch

This is Father Paul Dumais’  formula to replicate his mother’s ployes, traditional French Acadian buckwheat savory flatbreads. A scientifically enthusiastic baker, he highly recommends weighing the dry ingredients to yield the most authentic ployes.

Prep time: 1 minute

Cook time: 9 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes (including rest time of about 5 minutes for the batter)

Yield: 10 ployes

Ingredients

100 grams (½ cup plus 1 tablespoon) buckwheat flour

100 grams (a scant ¾ cup) all-purpose flour (Dumais uses King Arthur)

4 grams (½ teaspoon) salt

6 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder (Dumais uses Rumford)

340 grams (1¾ cup) cold water (possibly more)

Directions

1. Preheat a griddle to 400 F.

2. Stir together buckwheat and all-purpose flours, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Using a wire whisk, beat in the cold water until all the lumps are dissolved.

3. Let the batter sit for approximately 5 to 10 minutes.

4. In a circular motion, use back of spoon to spread 3 ounces of batter to ⅛ inch thick circles that are 5 inches in diameter. Cook ployes for 1½ minutes until the tops are bubbly and dry. Remove from griddle and serve warm, slathered with butter, with savory soups and stews.

Main photo: Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

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Smiling sugar skulls are a mainstay of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations on Nov. 1 and 2.

Many cultures around the world honor departed ancestors with holidays each year. Some feature altars. Some burn incense. But feasting is the common thread that runs through many of the celebrations.

The dead are part of that — with food offerings left in their honor.

In Mexico’s two-day Day of the Dead celebration — el Día de los Muertos — Nov. 1 celebrates the lives of departed infants and children. Nov. 2 honors those who died as adults. On both days, families provide the favorite food and drink of the departed.

In China, families set out plates of food during for their ancestors at the Hungry Ghost Festival. An empty place at the dinner table is sometimes left for an ancestor to join in the feast.

The Hungry Ghost Festival, which is thousands of years old, is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Chinese families place ancestral artifacts on a table, burn incense and display photographs of the dead.

Remembering the dead with food, flowers and festive décor

Mexico’s tradition also features colorful altars to honor ancestors.

MexicanSugarSkull.com offers this detail on the offerings — ofrendas — that families set out on their Day of the Dead altars:

“They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil and bright red cock’s combs), mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.

 

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death -- with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death — with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is believed to trace its origins to pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

Not just a Mexican holiday anymore

Today, Day of the Dead has grown in popularity far behind the borders of Mexico and Latin America. The traditional observance from central and southern Mexico can now be seen in Día de los Muertos imagery and art around the world.

You can purchase just about anything you need for your own Day of the Dead celebration. From sugar skull molds to authentic Mexican Día de los Muertos folk art pieces, which are sometimes used as an altar decoration by celebrants.  The happy skeletons are shown doing many different things, from cooking to selling wares at the market. There are even skeleton mariachi bands. Families will purchase the colorful skeletons that depict activities their departed family member enjoyed in life.

Creating Mexican calaveras - the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations - is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters get as much joy out of decorating the skulls as their parents do.

Creating Mexican calaveras – the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations – is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters enjoy decorating the skulls as much as their parents do. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Making sugar skull decorations is very simple, using only three ingredients and a mold. The fun part is decorating them. I recruited my 7-year-old daughter and her friend to decorate the skulls. The kit came months ago, and my daughter had been bugging me since the day it arrived to make them. Not only was it a fun activity, it gave me a chance to talk about honoring our ancestors and remembering them in a fun — not sad — way.

I encourage families to make the skulls together, even decorating the skulls to resemble the deceased in their families and extended families.

Día de los Muertos Sugar Skulls

Prep time: 10 minutes

Drying time: 8 hours

Yield: 5 medium skulls

Ingredients

For the sugar skulls:

3 cups granulated sugar

3 teaspoons meringue powder

3 teaspoons water

For the royal icing:

1 pound powdered sugar

⅓ cup water

¼ cup meringue powder

Gel paste food coloring, assorted colors

Directions

For the sugar skulls:

1. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and meringue powder.

2. Sprinkle the water over the sugar mixture.

3. Using clean hands, knead the mixture until all the sugar is moistened and it feels like wet sand. Make sure there are no lumps.

4. Pack the mix firmly into the sugar skull mold.

5. Carefully invert the mold onto a baking sheet or piece of cardboard.

6. Gently tap the mold to release the sugar skull from the mold.

7. Let the skulls dry for at least 8 hours to overnight.

8. Decorate the skulls with royal icing.

For the royal icing:

1. In a stand mixer, beat the icing until it makes stiff peaks.

2. Divide the icing and use paste food coloring to make assorted colors.

3. Using a piping bag, decorate the skulls as desired.

Main photo: Mexican sugar skulls for Day of the Dead celebrations. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee 

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'Tis the season for pumpkins, Jack-o-Lanterns, and, of course, pumpkin pie.

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye, What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie? — John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Pumpkin,” 1850

Scottish and Irish immigrants brought many Celtic Halloween traditions with them to the United States, including that of carving jack-o’-lanterns. But the pumpkin they embraced for the practice is a true American.

Tracing its long family tree back to at least 3000 B.C., the pumpkin and other squashes probably originated in the Tamaulipas mountains in Mexico. One of the Three Sisters — along with climbing beans and corn — pumpkins formed a major part of the diet of early Americans.  By 1000 B.C., the pumpkin arrived in what is today the United States. And by the time the English settled in Jamestown, Va., in 1607, Native Americans had developed sophisticated recipes and uses for the pumpkin.

A popular recipe was a type of pudding sweetened with maple sugar, similar in spirit to English puddings. Nowadays, pumpkins strut their stuff in pies, not unlike those baked by my English ancestors. Long a symbol of autumn in the United States, pumpkins now see the light of day primarily for ornamental reasons. Ninety percent of pumpkins end up carved into jack‑o’‑lanterns, and the rest make their way into cans as pumpkin-pie filling or puree. Every grocery store stocks pumpkins, piled in heaps at the entrance.

Seeing all those pumpkins whets my appetite. So, I just baked my first pumpkin pie of the season.

Canned pumpkin puree confession

Yes, I confess: I used to follow the recipe on the label of the Libby’s can of pumpkin puree. To show you that I don’t slavishly follow recipes, I added a ¼ teaspoon of vanilla and heaping spoonfuls of all the spices, as well as a big hit of freshly grated nutmeg. Sometimes, I used cream instead of evaporated milk, an ingredient actually not out of line because many vintage cookbooks of the 19th century mention using cream or a mixture of cream and milk.

And, yes, I know that making your own puree is far more earth-friendly. I’m all for that. But since I cannot find those nice little sugar pumpkins and other types for sale right now, I use the “traditional” method, as I know it. My mother never used anything but Libby’s. But I am sure my grandmothers struggled with the food-mill method of creating puree from boiled or roasted pumpkin.

Regardless of the method, some things don’t change when it comes to pumpkin pies. First of all, the aroma. It fills the house as the pie is baking, and that brings back all sorts of memories. School days, leaf forts, decorating the front porch for trick-or-treaters, choosing the candy to give out at Halloween.

Start with a partially baked pie crust before filling the pumpkin pie. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Start with a partially baked pie crust before filling the pumpkin pie. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

And the smell of cinnamon. I don’t know about you, but I nearly swoon when I catch a whiff of Saigon cinnamon. I try to restrain myself and not dump too much into the custard mix. The rich aroma of freshly grated nutmeg pumps up the flavor of the pie, too, not to mention that of cloves and ginger. The medieval overlay of these spices causes me to think about the ties to my cultural past. Because of that, for me, autumn signifies the aroma of these spices.

Hearkening back to pumpkin pies past

I’m intrigued by the fact that I’m standing in my kitchen in Virginia — one of the first areas settled by English men and women from 17th-century England, some my own ancestors — and I’m baking a dish based on flavors and techniques dating back to those days. Baked puddings abound in traditional English cooking. Yes, pumpkin pie is basically a baked pudding, even though it goes by the name “custard pie” these days and wears a crust.

Take a look at Mary Randolph’s “Pumpkin Pudding,” a very English and yet very American recipe, from her 1824 cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife”:

Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry, rub it through a sieve, mix with the pulp six eggs quite light, a quarter of a pound of butter, half a pint of new milk, some pounded ginger and nutmeg, a wine glass of brandy, and sugar to your taste. Should it be too liquid, stew it a little dryer; put a paste [crust] round the edges and the bottom of a shallow dish or plate, pour in the mixture, cut some thin bits of paste, twist them and lay them across the top and bake nicely.

Pumpkin pie  is not only for dessert any more, either. I find pumpkin pie a great breakfast food, just as many people did in the past.

I’ll probably make another pumpkin pie very soon. For some reason, I see only a small sliver left in the pie pan.  

Pumpkin Pie

 Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie  

Ingredients  

For the crust:

1 partially baked 9-inch pie crust

Dry beans (for shaping the pie crust)

For the filling:

1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree

1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ heaping teaspoon ground ginger

¼ heaping teaspoon ground cloves

⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup brown sugar

3 large eggs

1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk or 1½ cups heavy cream or whole milk

For the garnish

Whipped cream

Ingredients

For the partially baked crust:

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Arrange the dough in the pie pan, crimping the edges, pressing down slightly to anchor the dough to the edges of the pie pan.
3. Place two sheets of aluminum foil, slightly overlapping, over the dough in the pan. Press down gently and make sure that the foil touches all the surfaces. Pour in enough dry beans to come to the edge of the pie pan. This allows the pie crust to retain its shape.
4. Bake 15 minutes with the beans. Then slowly remove the foil and beans by grabbing the corners of the foil and pull up and out. Bake the crust 5 more minutes.
5. Let cool almost completely on a rack.

For the filling:  

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Place all the ingredients in a large bowl, in the order given, whisking after each addition.
3. Pour into the partially baked pie shell.
4. Bake about 45 minutes or until a sharp knife inserted into center comes out clean. Check throughout the baking. If the edges of the crust get too dark, place a ring of foil over the exposed pie crust. At that point, the surface of the pie along the edges will have puffed up and cracked slightly.
5. Allow to cool. Serve with whipped cream garnish.

Main photo: Pumpkins. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen  

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Garlic tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

If you shop in mainstream grocery stores, you have probably only eaten one variety of garlic — or maybe two, California Early and California Late. Both are soft-neck cultivars with a middle-of-the-road flavor.

But there are hundreds of garlic varieties, and more and more small farmers are growing the pungent hard-neck cultivars, as well as other soft-neck cultivars from around the world. And what better way to experience a world of garlic flavors than to do a side-by-side garlic taste test.

I recently was host of such a garlic tasting with friends, neighbors and farm hands. We prepared eight garlic varieties, and with the seriousness of a wine-tasting, recorded the aroma and taste of each variety, raw and roasted.

As it turned out, tasting that much garlic over an hour or so led to euphoric and mildly mind-altering effects similar to those you might experience tasting wine. We also learned that the taste of a raw clove can depend on whether you get an outer surface slice or an inner core slice (the latter is much hotter). And we learned that taste is also dependent on how soon after harvest you are eating the garlic, since it is juicier and milder when it’s first harvested, and as it dries down, the flavors get concentrated. Growing conditions also affect taste, and in some weather and soil conditions, traditionally hot garlic can be mild, and mild garlic can turn hot.

All of which is to say, after reading our tasting notes below, go out on your own or with some friends to explore the wide world of garlic. You might even want to work your way through the 293 varieties of garlic gathered from around the world and kept at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s collection in Pullman, Wash.

FRENCH RED (Hardneck, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Light and tangy, spicy

Taste (raw): Immediate bite on tongue like a hot radish; crunchy jicama texture; refined flavor after the initial hot burst; nicely balanced

Taste (roasted): Very mild; almost no garlic flavor; very faded; reminiscent of mashed potato with mild garlic butter

GERMAN EXTRA HARDY (Hardneck, Porcelain Type)

Aroma: Almost no aroma

Taste (raw): Very hot; sticks with you; long burn; mineral, iron, blood overtones; unashamed and ready for action

Taste (roasted): Caramelized; like a sweet garlic pudding

GERMAN RED (HARDNECK, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Strong, classic garlic

Taste (raw): Mellow beginning, spice creeps up later; very delayed reaction with strong kick at the end; warming, buttery flavors before the kick

Taste (roasted): One of the very best when roasted; crème brulee with a hint of earthy musk

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Garlic tasting lineup. Credit: Terra Brockman

INCHELIUM RED (Softneck, Artichoke type, found on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington) 

Aroma: Mild garlic aroma

Taste (raw): Very mild taste but with a major kick at the end; fairly one-dimensional, somewhat sterile, watered-down garlic flavor

Taste (roasted): Sweet but not interesting; reminiscent of Wheaties or puffed rice that sat in milk too long

KOREAN RED HOT (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: A lot going on, deep, complex, varied, and very hard-to-define aromas

Taste (raw): Sassy! Complexity of a good Sriracha; complex with end kick of heat and a hint of chives

Taste (roasted): Complex and balanced; dressed or undressed, hands down the best; even vampires can’t resist it

MUSIC (Hardneck, Porcelain type, Italian variety brought to Canada by Al Music in the 1980s)

Aroma: Mild, crisp aromas

Taste (raw): Very crisp crunch; earthy, smoky, round flavors; a little bit of a radish bite and slight end kick; very delayed response, medium horse radish heat; wasabi factor up your nose, volatile elements take over nasal passages, pervasive, invasive, good for sinus issues

Taste (roasted): Sweet and pungent

NEW YORK WHITE (Softneck variety)

Aroma: Nice perfume.

Taste (raw): Very intense bite/burn, really sharp, very hot at first, then long slow mellowing; spicy and lingering

Taste (roasted): Garlic’s garlic, hint of licorice, nice balance, retains its kick even when roasted

RUSSIAN RED (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: Spicy and earthy

Taste (raw): Very strong flavor and the most heat of all, burns entire inside of mouth, almost painful, ooh mama, I’m completely buzzed

Taste (roasted): Floral and nicely balanced.

And the overall winner at our garlic tasting was . . . Korean Red Hot. But don’t take our word for it. Seek out a half-dozen varieties from local farmers and do your own taste test.

Main photo: Garlic-tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

Row after row of tomatoes fairly glowed from the wooden folding tables: pointy tipped Pittman Valley Plums, pale yellow Dr. Carolyns, globe-shaped Nepals and hearty Cherokee Purples. It was a rainbow-like assortment of 100 varieties that bore little resemblance to the bland, identical crimson globes in the supermarket aisle. The crowd was enthusiastic as it tasted, shared, argued and traded information, specimens and seeds.

I was at Monticello’s Harvest Festival at the tomato tables of  The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, an organization at the forefront of the heritage seed movement. It’s been working with gardeners and seed savers for nearly 40 years to help preserve our garden and food heritage. And there’s possibly no better place to celebrate these goals than the home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s Founding Foodie.

Now in its eighth year, Monticello’s Harvest Festival was founded by Ira Wallace, one of the current owner/workers of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The festival, hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, is a mixing bowl for chefs, gardeners and seed savers from across the country. For Wallace, it’s a community-building experience. Wallace admits that working in the sustainable food world can be tough sometimes, but that the festival is a great reminder of why she does what she does.

“Some days you feel really lonely and now I’ve found my tribe,” she said.

That tribe is a fascinating one that places passionate amateur and international experts on equal footing. At Monticello, I witnessed amateur seed savers discuss their process with internationally recognized authors. I came home with a vinegar mother — a starter for homemade vinegar — from one of America’s top winemakers.

Seed Exchange impact

For Wallace, that’s the point.

“This is for the people,” she said of the festival, “it’s not a scientific thing.” In fact, the location at Monticello only seems to highlight the ideals of Jefferson, who saw America’s future as a land of independent farmers. You may have only a suburban backyard or an urban window garden, but Wallace pointed out: “We want people to know that you don’t have to have a hybrid plant to have a good garden. Having some of your own seed gives people independence.”

Craig LeHullier is a great example of the impact of the Seed Exchange. A cheerful man with a graying beard, LeHullier is the father of the tomato variety called Cherokee Purple. In 1990, the Raleigh, N.C., native received an envelope of tomato seeds from a friend in Tennessee, with a note saying this was a single variety grown by a family in Tennessee for more than a century. They thought the tomatoes were originally grown by the Cherokee Indians before that. LeHullier planted the seeds and discovered an ugly purple monster that turned out to be one of the most delicious tomatoes he’d ever tasted.

LeHullier donated his seeds to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and was given the honor of naming the variety. The Cherokee Purple has gone on to become a favorite across the United States. This is the seed-saving tribe at work: salvaging a nearly lost varietal before it disappears. As LeHullier said: “You gotta give it away so it never goes away.”

This is the essence of the Monticello Harvest Festival — and the thousands of festivals and seed swaps like it across the country. I witnessed Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener at California’s French Laundry restaurant, in a passionate discussion about heirloom rice with Glenn Roberts. Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina champion of traditional American grains and milling techniques.

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Ira Wallace, founder of Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival. Credit: Susan Lutz

Grain diversity

Heirloom rice species are beginning to catch the attention of high-end sustainable restaurants. Roberts said there are important reasons to maintain grain diversity — and you can find it in Jefferson’s era.

Jefferson had been badgering the local farmers for decades, insisting that they expand their rice-planting beyond a single variety. In 1827, South Carolina rice farmers faced a blight — destroying nearly the entire rice crop of the young nation. Fortunately, smaller farmers had saved seeds from other rice species and Carolina rice culture endured. “Diversity was the answer to success,” Roberts said. “At the time, rice farmers failed to listen and suffered the consequences.”

There was a deep knowledge base at the festival, and endless passion for a variety of food-related topics. The excitement of the speakers as they met and interacted was infectious. Here the teachers and students exchanged roles in the blink of an eye. Festival speakers wandered through vendor stalls and attended the lectures of other speakers. Anyone with a handful of seeds was an expert — at least at growing that single plant.

My mouth watered when I bit into a juicy purple globe at the overflowing tomato table — a variety grown by Jefferson himself. Wallace sent me home with a packet of Prudens Purple seeds to grow my own. I was equally excited by the fat Cherokee Purple handed to me by LeHullier.

Back at home I shared it with my husband and saved the seeds in a small envelope. Wallace’s vision of independent gardeners has deep roots — and it’s working.

“The focus is sustainability and bringing new plants to American culture,” she said. “That’s what Jefferson did.”

Main photo: Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

If you are not clear exactly what Mediterranean food is, it’s actually very simple: It’s the cooking found in all the regions and provinces that have a littoral on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of that fact in a sense there is no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine because every region’s food, while tending to use the same ingredients, is strikingly different from one another. High on the list of staple Mediterranean foods are legumes.

Two Mediterranean countries famous for their legume dishes are Egypt and Greece. Here are two budget-friendly, healthy and delicious recipes that can be served in Near Eastern style, as both Greece and Egypt are considered Near Eastern countries. These dishes can be prepared as part of a larger meze or as an appetizer or side dish.

Edward William Lane tells us in his classic book “The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” first published in 1908 that many dishes prepared by the Egyptians consist wholly or for the most part of vegetables, “cabbage, purslane, spinach, bamiyeh [okra], beans, lupin, chick-pea, gourds, cut into small pieces, colocasia, lentils etc.”

Called salāṭa adas and made with tiny brown lentils slightly cooked with olive oil, garlic and spices, I had this lentil salad as a meze at the Tikka Grill, a restaurant on the corniche of Alexandria in Egypt. Although you don’t have to use freshly ground spices, you’ll find if you do, the result is a dish far fresher, more pungent and better tasting than one made with pre-ground spices. Too many home cooks keep spices far beyond their shelf life, so check the date on your jar.

Lentil Salad with Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices

Yield:6 servings

Preparation time: about 30 minutes

Ingredients

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon ground fenugreek

1 cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed well

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic and as soon as the garlic begins to sizzle remove from the burner, add the cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.

2. Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on. Drain and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad

This simple preparation called mavromakita fasolia in Greek can be made with canned black-eyed peas, as long as they are packed in only water. I prefer using dried black-eyed peas but they are not always to be found. Typically you would serve this salad as a meze, but it’s fine as a side dish too. This recipe was given to me by chef Estathios Meralis of the motor yacht M/Y Sirius out of Piraeus, Greece.

Yield: 6 servings

Preparation time: about 1 hour

Ingredients

2½ cups canned black-eyed peas (two 15-ounce cans) or 1 cup dried black-eyed peas

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste

Directions

1. If using dried black-eyed peas, boil over high heat in water to cover until tender, about 1 hour. Drain and rinse. If using canned peas, drain and rinse, then place in a bowl.

2. Toss the black-eyed peas with the scallions, garlic, dill, olive oil, pepper and salt. Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that's featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca.

While in Forlimpopoli, a small Italian town near the Adriatic Sea, I happened upon a cookbook that stirred up all the memories of my past: My mamma, my nonna and a very young me laboriously turning a heavy hand crank to make homemade pasta, while the women double-checked the recipe in a cookbook, which was religiously kept on a small shelf. I could never remember its title — it was too long and too difficult — but I vividly remember the author’s first name: Pellegrino.

Pellegrino Artusi

The acknowledged father of  modern Italian cookery, Pellegrino Artusi was born in 1820 in Forlimpopoli to a wealthy merchant. He lived in his native town until 1851, when the city was attacked by the infamous highwayman il Passatore and his band, who held upper-class families hostage. The Artusi family moved to Florence after that. Pellegrino, a businessman, became a wealthy man and, at age 45, was able to concentrate full time on his passion: the home cuisine. He loved to search, ponder recipes and have someone else cook his experiments.

After much research, he narrowed his findings to 790 favorite recipes. He collected these in a manual called “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”). Recipes span from broth to liqueurs, passing through soups, hors d’oeuvres, entrees (called “primi” in Italy, these are the first dishes such as pasta, risotto and soup), main dishes (“secondi,” which are usually meat or fish dishes) and cakes. Artusi anticipated trends that would become popular during the 20th century, among them the introduction of pasta as the typical first course on the Italian menu. The book was ahead of its time. No publisher was interested.

The cookbook

Finally, in 1891, the author took a chance and published it at his own expense. Success was as unthinkable as it was overwhelming. During the next 20 years, the author worked on 15 editions and “the Artusi” became one of Italy’s best-read books. Most Italian families had it — and still have it. It has been translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.

Today, Artusi’s book is regarded as an important tool of identity and cultural unification, both gastronomic and linguistic. The book is recognized by critics as a real literary work that contributed to the unification of Italy (remember, Italy was not yet unified at that time, and different languages were spoken throughout the country).

 The great Number 7

The recipes are numbered and probably the masterpiece is the Number 7, the famous cappelletti al’uso di Romagna (Romagna-style cappelletti pasta) The name cappello (hat) comes from its shape. The pasta is filled with capon breast, Parmesan, nutmeg, ricotta and raveggiolo (a mild creamy cheese), carefully shaped to six centimeters in diameter and boiled just a few minutes in a rich capon broth with celery, carrots and beef bones.

pasta vendor

pasta vendor
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A street vendor at the Festa Artusiana dishes up pasta. Credit: Cesare Zucca

Equally famous is the Number 71, tagliatelle all’uso di Romagna, served with a delicious tomato sauce, and the Number 334, polpette di trippa (tripe balls), which are soft and juicy. Finally, there is the savor, a peasant dessert once prepared in farmhouses and served during the winter. It is made with sapa, a longtime boiled sciroppo di mosto (grape syrup), then mixed with autumn fruits and nuts. This is perfect to “savor” with either sweets, roasts, fresh or aged cheeses and is often served on a piadina (flatbread).

All these treasures are included in an extraordinary cookbook that offers a collection of home recipes, considerations and short stories, making Artusi’s manual a masterpiece of wit and wisdom.

Who was the real chef ?

If Signor Pellegrino Artusi did not cook, who did the job?

Her name was Marietta Sabbatini, a devoted, irreplaceable assistant (and maybe more) who fanatically worked side by side with Artusi, who described her as “both a good cook, and a decent, honest person.”

No fame, no glory for poor Marietta until Forlimpopoli launched the Associazione delle Mariette, which has the invaluable task of teaching traditional Romagnolo cookery. The association has a yearly national competition, “The Marietta Award,” which is reserved for non-professional cooks and gives the winner a 1,000 Euro prize.

City throws a feast

Every year the city pays tribute to its most illustrious citizen, hosting the Festa Artusiana, a tempting feast where, from 7 p.m. to midnight, the historical city center changes into a “town to be tasted.” The big castle dominates the borgo, where courts, alleys, streets and squares have names of recipes from Artusi’s book.

All the best restaurants and the street vendors in the area are invited to participate and include in their menus several of Artusi’s specialties. For nine evenings, Forlimpopoli becomes the capital city of “Eating Well,” thanks to the partnership with Casa Artusi, the first Italian gastronomic center devoted entirely to traditional home cookery. Casa Artusi boasts a library, a museum and a school that teaches practical courses, both for food lovers and professionals wanting to learn how to improve their skills. In the Casa’s restaurant, Chef Andrea Banfi serves many of Artusi’s dishes, fresh, homemade pasta and recipes from the tradition of Emilia-Romagna.

I am sure Pellegrino would love the way his town is treating him, including having erected a tall statue right at the city entrance, prelude to a tasty visit to a very friendly town.

Main photo: A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that’s featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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