Articles in History

Clockwise from top, broccoli, potato and cabbage knishes. Credit: Tyler J. Kelley

Knishes are packed with more than flaky, potatoey deliciousness. “The knish is really stuffed with stories,” said Laura Silver, author of the new book, “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food.” Her many pilgrimages on behalf of the knish — “a pillow of filling tucked into a skin of dough” — took Silver from Poland to Israel. But the story really began with Mrs. Stahl’s of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the knish-maker her grandmother loved best. The shop’s demise in 2005 is what ignited Silver’s obsession to get inside this dense, satisfying “potato pie.”

One stop on her quest was the town of Knyszyn, Poland, home to Silver’s ancestors and some knish lore. There she heard the legend of a king who was traveling, tired and hungry, through a forest. He emerged in a hamlet where he was served a tasty dumpling called a knish. He liked it so much he named the place after it.

AUTHOR


Tyler Kelley. Credit: Erandi Carranza

Tyler J. Kelley, a writer based in New York City , reported this story in association with Round Earth Media. Photo credit: Erandi Carranza

Tracing knish history

The food’s precise origin is unknown, and Silver speculates broadly, but the earliest mention places it somewhere between a Polish poem from 1614 and a Polish town with a knish-related name dating to 1347 (Knyszyn landed on the map later, in 1569). In present-day Poland, Silver concluded, the knish has disappeared. She carried pictures of the storied pastry with her in lieu of a translator, but no one recognized it.

Silver also learned that knishes weren’t necessarily a Jewish food; in early references they are filled with meat and eaten on All Saints’ Day, November 1. In fact, the knish was “severely underrepresented” among the stuffed-dough options she found in Israel. Apparently when Europe’s Jewish families emigrated to the New World, the knish went with them. It flourished in the first half of the 20th century, when it was a popular street food in New York’s teeming immigrant neighborhoods.

Knish Nosh

Today Knish Nosh is one of only two New York City concerns dedicated solely to the savory pastry. The Queens location has a lived-in, no-nonsense feel that suits the humble knish well. Silver’s favorite is the kasha knish, $3.50, filled with buckwheat groats. Every Knish Nosh knish follows the traditional form: round, fist-shaped and dense, with a little bit of stuffing revealed on top. Strong mustard appears to be the requisite condiment everywhere except Minnesota, where mayonnaise and even ketchup are not unheard of.

Behind the counter at Knish Nosh is Anna Vasilescu, head chef. She is from Romania and didn’t grow up on knishes. Her father disliked potatoes, a central knish ingredient, because in the military that was all he ate, Vasilescu said. After the service, he never wanted to eat them again. Now his daughter is a dedicated potato purveyor. Nearly every customer who walks in knows Vasilescu, and half seem to get a knish on the house, with the instruction, “Just enjoy, sweetheart.”

 

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Knish Nosh opened in Queens, New York, in 1952. Credit: Tyler J. Kelley

Knish Nosh owner Haig Schneiderman said he’s gotten requests from Florida to have a knish shipped overnight for a loved one who is dying. “People get emotionally attached,” he said. Silver believes the knish “is poised for a full comeback,” and Schneiderman plans to be in the vanguard. He recently opened a Knish Nosh in Central Park, and more are in the works. He said he intends to make the knish “as strong as the bagel” and sees Knish Nosh becoming ubiquitous, “like Chipotle.”

The story within

Making and eating knishes is an essential part of Silver’s vision, and it’s pretty much impossible to read her book without getting hungry. She is not just relaying the history of an overlooked food, however; she wants to bring people together to talk, and to share. Conversation over knishes, she said, “is the crux of my book — I hope.”

“A knish that tastes good probably has a good story behind or within it,” she said. “The story isn’t always evident, but it’s akin to the fact that food made with love generally tastes better.” Silver almost always brings knishes to her speaking engagements. When a knish shipment failed to reach Banff, Alberta, Canada, where she was attending a conference, she simply gathered fellow attendees and made a batch from scratch.

“Every culture has its knish, a wrapped food or a food that evokes memories,” Silver said. “Dough-based foods tend to have that effect on people.” For someone from the American South it could be a biscuit, for a Midwesterner a piece of pie. In Silver’s mind, it’s any food “for which people will go to great lengths.”

If you are willing to go to great lengths to revive this tradition-laden food, Silver has supplied a recipe dear to her heart. She wrote that “Fannie Stahl’s granddaughters summoned recovered memories to bring this recipe to life.” You’ll have plenty of time for conversation and stories while making it. Making knishes, Silver said, “takes a special kind of commitment.”

Recipe: Mrs. Stahl’s Potato Knishes

Yield: Makes about 18 knishes

Ingredients

For the dough:

3¼ cups flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup vegetable oil

1 cup lukewarm water

Directions

1. Turn oven on low until dough is ready. Mix flour, sugar and salt. Add oil and water. Mix with a spoon until the dough pulls together, or use a food processor or stand mixer (with a dough hook). Turn out the dough on board and knead it, incorporating all pieces. Knead until dough is one piece, smooth and glossy. Turn off the oven. Oil the dough and place it in oiled, covered bowl. Place in oven until you are ready to use it. Let the dough rest at least 2 hours; the dough should barely rise, if at all. Keeping the dough overnight in the refrigerator is fine. Bring it back to room temperature before use.

Ingredients

For the potato filling:

6 pounds russet or new potatoes

1 cup oil

¼ cup salt, or to taste

1½ teaspoons pepper

8 cups thinly sliced raw onions

Directions:

1. Scrub potatoes and peel them, unless the new potatoes have very thin, unblemished skins. Boil potatoes for about 20 minutes until knife-tender, then drain. Mash with a potato masher. Add oil, salt and pepper to taste. Mix. Stir in the onion.

Assembling and baking

1. Use vegetable oil and flour as needed.

2. Preheat oven to 450 F.

3. Roll out about half the dough on a lightly floured counter or tabletop. Roll with handle-less rod-style rolling pin out from the center until dough is thin enough to see through, about 1 ⁄16-inch thick.

4. Oil top edge of dough with a pastry brush. Place a 2-inch-diameter line of filling about 2 inches from the top edge of the dough. Pick up top edge and drape over filling. Brush oil on dough in a 2-inch strip on the bottom edge of the filling. Pick up the dough with filling and roll again onto the oiled dough, compressing the filled dough as you turn it. Repeat until the dough covers the filling three to four times, being sure always to brush oil on the dough first. Use a knife to separate the filled potato knish log from the remaining dough. Cut off edges of filled dough. Cut the filled roll into pieces about 6 inches long and coil each piece like a snail. Tuck the remaining end into the bottom of the coil. Alternatively, place stuffed roll of dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet and slash with a knife crosswise every 2 inches. Leave an inch of space between each roll or coil of dough.

5. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until the knish skin is browned and knishes are cooked through. Start knishes on lowest rack of the oven and raise them to top rack after about 10 to 12 minutes. Let the knishes cool in pan. If you cooked the knishes in long rolls, cut them into individual pieces.

Knishes can be reheated in the oven or in a skillet on the stovetop.


Recipe from: Faith Kramer, “Mrs. Stahl’s Famous Knish Recipe Finally Found—in San Francisco,” j. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, September 27, 2012. Excerpted from Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food by Laura Silver, published by Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England (www.upne.com), May 6, 2014.

Tyler J. Kelley, a New York-based writer, reported this story in association with Round Earth Media. Kelley’s documentary “Following Seas” is due out in 2015.

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Menu cards illustrated by Monica Rawlins for dinners at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

Anyone for delicious little frivolities with an aristocratic pedigree?

The peculiarly English habit of serving something savory as the final course in a meal — the place usually occupied by cheese — was still in fashion in the grander country houses of England until about half a century ago, when it dropped out of favor in domestic kitchens, although the custom didn’t entirely vanish in London’s gentlemen’s clubs and at formal civic occasions.

Savory bites originally intended to show off host’s good fortune

The savory — for those who’ve never been confronted by this small and salty bite on toast immediately after dessert — is a Victorian introduction to the British menu designed to show off the servants and the silver with as many courses as possible in the high old days of empire. Classics of the genre were roasted marrow bones; deviled herring roes; sweetbreads; chicken livers; smoked fish; salted anchovies pounded with butter; and prunes or oysters wrapped in bacon and flashed under the grill (devils and angels on horseback, respectively).

Savories, simple to prepare and good with the gentlemen’s port, suited the style of the relatively servantless 1920s. Agnes Jekyll, a columnist at the London Times, devotes an entire chapter to them in her book “Kitchen Essays” (London, 1922). Agnes’ sister-in-law Gertrude, known as Lady Jekyll, suggests puff-pastry boats as a more elegant vehicle than toast, as these can be prepared in advance and filled “with all manner of cargo such as eggs scrambled with cheese, or cold hard-boiled and chopped with a little gherkin and capers, sardines made into a purée beneath a thin veil of a soufflé mixture or a savoury custard, slightly browned in the oven; anchovies beaten with cream into a cold cayenne mousse, or coming chilled from the refrigerator with a thin sprinkle of cress.”

Place cards created by Monica Rawlins for meals at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

Place cards created by Monica Rawlins for meals at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

Agnes Jekyll’s readership at the time included my husband’s godmother, Monica Rawlins — born at the turn of the century — who acted as her father’s hostess at the family home, Syston Manor in Somerset, after the early death of her mother. Miss Rawlins’ delightful illustrated menus indicate six courses, concluding with the savory. As the youngest of three daughters and three sons (two killed in World War I), she was expected to remain unmarried at home — all very “Downton Abbey.” But she escaped to live a bohemian life as an artist in Wales, never married and left me, the widow of her godson, a glove box full of her menu cards and her annotated Edwardian-era cookbooks in the remote farmhouse that was hers for the rest of her life, and where I now live.

Savories are simple, delicious and too good to lose for lack of a menu opening. Serve them in much the same way as tapas or mezze, in combination and all on the table at the same time.

Choose four recipes to share between four people as the main course — no need for starters, though a green salad would not come amiss. Savories are also perfect for a summer lunch or a candlelit kitchen supper.

Queen Victoria’s Beef Marrow Toasts

Her Imperial Majesty’s chef, Charles Francatelli, confided to his readership that his royal employer, in spite of rumors concerning her health after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, was fortified with this little treat every day.

Serves 4

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

2 beef or veal marrow bones

4 slices of white bread

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot or spring onion

Juice of 1 lemon

Directions

1. Have the butcher break the bone open to allow you to get at the marrow. Remove the raw marrow and cut it into hazelnut-sized pieces.

2. When you’re ready to serve, poach the marrow pieces delicately in a little boiling salted water for one minute only, and then drain immediately.

3. Meanwhile, toast the bread and then cut it into squares.

4. Pile the marrow on the hot toast, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with the parsley, onion and a squeeze of lemon and serve without delay — marrow sets as it cools.

Lady Jekyll’s Mushroom Toasts

This was Miss Rawlins’ favorite savory, made with the big, flat field mushrooms that spring up overnight in the sheep pastures surrounding her house in the Welsh hills.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 ounces butter

8 large open-cap mushrooms

Salt to taste

8 tablespoons thick cream

1 teaspoon English mustard

White pepper to taste

Bread rounds for serving

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a frying pan and lay in the caps (save the stalks for a sauce or soup). Salt lightly and be patient while they lose their moisture and begin to fry. First they will sizzle, and then juices will run.

2. Meanwhile, combine the cream with the mustard and pepper and mix well.

3. Transfer the mushrooms carefully to a gratin dish when done. Finish each cap with a tablespoon of the cream seasoned with mustard and pepper.

4. Slip the dish under a grill or broiler until the cream bubbles.

5. Serve on bread toasted in the buttery juices left in the pan — get the pan good and hot so the bread is really crisp.

The Duchess of Windsor’s Doigts au Fromage (Fingers of Cheese)

The former Mrs. Simpson — hostess-with-the-mostest in postwar Paris — astonished her sophisticated guests with her English savories, an idea unknown in France. “A meal,” she said, “should always be witty and include a surprise.” Frozen cheese fingers supplies both.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Freeze Time: 2 to 3 hours

Total Time: start 2 to 3 hours ahead, 30 minutes prep and finish

Ingredients

1 medium-ripe camembert, crusts removed

1 heaped tablespoon curd cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ pint (½ cup) heavy cream, whipped stiff

Grated parmesan for dusting

Directions

1. Blend the camembert and curd cheese together by pushing them through a sieve or chop thoroughly in the food processor.

2. Season with salt and pepper and fold in the whipped cream.

3. Spread a layer the thickness of your thumb on a baking tray lined with cling film. Turn out the cheese mixture onto a hard, clean surface and cut into fingers.

4. Dust with finely grated parmesan and serve ice cold. This is perfect served with ripe strawberries dressed with a few drops of balsamic vinegar.

Main illustration: Menu cards illustrated by Monica Rawlins for dinners at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

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Main photo: Fish a la Archestratus with tilapia, foreground, and Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style. Credit: Charles Perry

Most fish are so delicate we add only minimal flavoring, probably nothing more than a squeeze of lemon these days. The ancient Greeks and Romans, in no position to use lemon juice because the lemon hadn’t arrived, tended to use vinegar. Sometimes, they even added cheese.

It’s a slick idea. Give it a try.

We know this because a Greek foodie named Archestratus sampled fish all around the eastern Mediterranean, and around 330 B.C. he wrote a poem about his findings. It has not survived complete, and we aren’t even sure about its title — it has been referred to as “Gastronomia” and “The Life of Luxury,” among other names. Most of the surviving fragments appear in a book called “The Deipnosophists,” which was written some five centuries later, ample testimony to its fame.

Here is one fragment: “Whenever Orion is setting in the heavens and the mother of the wine-bearing grape clusters is casting away her long hair, then it is the time to have a baked sargue sprinkled with cheese — a large one, and piping hot, and cut with sharp vinegar.”

Well, it was a poem; these days even the most bizarro food writer wouldn’t dream of referring to grapevines losing their hair. As for sargue (or sargo), it’s a member of the bream family that is well regarded in the Mediterranean today, but Archestratus recommended his preferred treatment for bland fish, topping it with cheese as well as sprinkling it with vinegar (which I think works better here than lemon juice). I suggest using it on tilapia, a bland fish that is readily available.

Archestratus lived in a Greek colony in Sicily, and in another passage he associates the idea of sprinkling cheese on fish with the Syracusans, who would, of course, have used some kind of Sicilian cheese. What was that cheese like? We don’t know.

However, in the Middle Ages, the Arabs imported Sicilian cheese (jubn siqilli) and added it to vegetable dishes at the same time as spices, suggesting that it was grated, so you could use Sicilian ricotta salata or even Parmesan or Romano. This is the oldest recipe I ever make for fun, rather than research.

Fish a la Archestratus

Serves 2 

Ingredients

2 tilapia filets, about 10 ounces

1 tablespoon light olive oil

Salt to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons grated ricotta salata, Parmesan or other grating cheese

Vinegar to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Spread oil in a baking dish.

3. Set the fish in the dish and sprinkle with the salt and cheese. The cheese will melt after 10 minutes, fish will flake at 14 to 15.

4. Serve hot with a sprinkling of vinegar.

* * *

Here’s another simple fish recipe, this one from the 18th century. It appears in Louis Auguste de Bourbon’s “Le Cuisinier Gascon” (1740) as a variation on truite à la hussarde. Hussars were proverbially dashing, impetuous, overbearing, none-too-intelligent cavalrymen who wore flashy uniforms and claimed to be so badass they would be ashamed to not to die by the time they were 30. (A lot of people hoped the same fate for them.)

It’s such a simple dish it scarcely needs a recipe — it’s so simple that a hussar could probably cook it. You just poach the fish and serve it with a sort of 18th-century tartar sauce. If you prefer trout, go ahead and make it with that.

Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style

Serves 2

Ingredients

For the sauce:

½ cup mayonnaise

3 to 4 teaspoons capers along with ½ teaspoon caper brine

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard, or more to taste

For the fish:

10 ounces salmon filet

Water

1 teaspoon lemon juice or 1 tablespoon dry white wine

Directions

1. Put the mayonnaise into a sauce bowl. Stir in the capers and caper brine, then the mustard. Add the mustard bit by bit, because too much can make the sauce seem salty.

2. Put the filets in a pan. Add water nearly to cover, then the lemon juice.

3 Heat over medium heat, turning the fish after 5 minutes, until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 10 minutes.

4. Drain the fish and serve hot or cold with the hussar sauce.

Main photo: Fish a la Archestratus with tilapia, foreground, and Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style. Credit: Charles Perry

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Pomegranate ripening on the tree. Credit: Laura Kelley

With Persephone’s return, comes the spring. But there’s a catch. Starving and unimpressed with Hades’ attempts to woo her, Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds while in the underworld. Those six seeds require her to return to the underworld during pomegranate season (roughly September through February in the Northern Hemisphere). Repeated year after year, Persephone’s place creates our annual seasonal cycle of death in the fall and winter and rebirth in the spring.

That is the ancient Greek myth that many of us learned as children, but nearly every culture in which pomegranates are traditionally enjoyed has incorporated them into their myths and symbols. Pomegranates have been used to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity, and even, as in Persephone’s case,  death and rebirth. Pomegranates have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence.

Pomegranate symbolism

The pomegranate’s many seeds have led to its use as a symbol for fertility and fecundity in a wide variety of cultures from ancient Persia to Japan. Newly married couples or married women trying to conceive often ate pomegranates or drank the fruit’s juice to increase the chances of a healthy birth. Some North African Berber women also use the seeds in divination rituals to predict the number of children they will bear in their lifetimes.

Parsi pomegranate with coins. Credit: Hemant Mehta for the UNESCO Parzor Project, Parzor Foundation (unescoparzor.com)

Parsi pomegranate with coins. Credit: Hemant Mehta for the UNESCO Parzor Project, Parzor Foundation (unescoparzor.com)

Pomegranates with coins inserted are also given as pre-nuptial gifts from the groom to the bride in the South Asian Parsi culture to symbolize fertility and prosperity in the marriage. Pomegranates prepared with coins are also used on the Zoroastrian Nowruz table for longevity and good health in the coming year.

Persian epic hero, Isfandyar was said to have enjoyed pomegranate juice before battle to make himself and his armies invincible. This practice was also followed by the Uzbek-born emperor Timur (Tamerlane) as he swept across central and western Asia in the 13th century. Today, a large stone vessel stands outside of Timur’s tomb in Samarkand to commemorate the practice.

The Quran also states that pomegranates grow in the garden of paradise, and some religious scholars believe that it was the pomegranate, not the apple, that was the fruit of temptation in Judeo-Christian scripture.

Origins and cultivation

Domesticated in ancient Mesopotamia by the third millennium B.C. (and possibly well before), pomegranates have also been recovered from later Bronze Age archaeological sites in Israel and Cyprus. The Egyptians had orchards full of pomegranate trees by the time of Hatshepsut’s rule (1479-1458 B.C.), and the Phoenicians were an important force in spreading the fruit across North Africa and into Southern Europe as their seaward empire grew toward  Carthage and beyond. It is just this connection that lies behind the pomegranate’s original Latin name, Punicum malum, or Punic apple.

Pomegranates made their way to China by the first few centuries of the Common Era, and from there onto Japan and Korea, where they are today widespread.

As the fruit has been traded and adopted, hundreds of cultivars have been created that vary in fruit and seed color, sweetness, acidity and astringency. The fruits themselves vary in color from a creamy off-white to yellow; to the familiar shades of pink and red; to a dark, almost-black purple. Seeds (sometimes called arils) also vary in color from crimson to a clearish-white color. Cultivars have also been bred to allow them to grow in extreme weather conditions, such as the pomegranates in China’s far western Xingjian province, which regularly endure drought and winter temperatures as low minus-40 F.

Pomegranate’s culinary uses

Throughout western Asia and the Caucasus, pomegranate juice and syrup are used extensively to bring sweet and sour flavors to meat and vegetables. Meats are marinated in the juice, or sauces are prepared to use at the grill or table. Additionally, pomegranate syrup is used in the preparation of mixed condiments, often using walnuts or roasted peppers and garlic to complement a wide variety of dishes. Some Iranians and Azeris also use pomegranates as the center of a savory soup. Pomegranate seeds are also used to stuff vegetables and fish, and the juice is used in place of vinegar to pickle vegetables, especially garlic and pearl onions.

Lamb in a pomegranate-cardamom sauce.  Credit: Laura Kelley

Lamb in a pomegranate-cardamom sauce. Credit: Laura Kelley

On the subcontinent and in parts of the Himalaya, pomegranate seeds are used as souring and flavoring agents in curries and chutneys. In central Asia, juice and syrup are used much as in western Asia and the Caucasus, but pomegranate seeds are also used in a wide variety of rice and millet pilafs. Mongolia and western China use pomegranate juice in lamb stews along with cinnamon, but sometimes add rice vinegar or asafetida to lend a more eastern Asian flavor to them.

Pomegranate seeds also are used in a variety of liquors throughout Asia. In the Caucasus, they are used in mixed fruit wines along with grapes or cherries, and in eastern Asia they are used to flavor local grain-based homebrews and other medicinal preparations.

I created this lamb recipe by adapting a traditional Persian fesenjān recipe originally used on fowl. Instead of roasting the meat, I braise and add butternut squash for a nearly perfect one-pot meal.

 

Main photo: Pomegranate ripening on the tree. Credit: Laura Kelley

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A shepherd in the mountains near Sigishoara, Transylvania. Credit: Cordell Barron

In the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, western Romania, where transhumance — the movement of animals between winter and summer pastures — is still practiced, shepherds will now be settling their animals in the high meadows after a trek that could have lasted five weeks or more. Late autumn last year, these shepherds left with their flocks to walk hundreds of kilometers east, to the Danube floodplains, or northwest, to the lowland plains near Hungary. Now they’re back in their summer home.

A lack of historical records makes it impossible to establish a precise time that long-distance transhumance began in the Carpathians but, since the region’s shepherd communities date to the pre-Roman Dacians, it is likely that this form of year-round grazing has been practiced since then. They are part of a tradition that stretches throughout the Balkans to northern and central Greece and Albania; their movements between these countries were only curtailed by World War I, when new country borders were created and passports were needed to cross them.

Timing the spring trek

One income source for the shepherds is the lamb they can provide for Easter tables. Romanians consider a 10-kilogram (22-pound) lamb the perfect size for this, so the animal needs to be eight to 10 weeks old. The shepherds time their trek to arrive in the Carpathian uplands for lambing to take place there around early March, depending on when the Orthodox Easter falls that year. Flocks comprise sheep belonging to a number of villagers, and each sheep is marked, to distinguish it from a neighbor’s.

This biannual journey enriches the landscapes the animals cross by fertilizing the soils in the migratory corridors with sheep dung and encourages a remarkably rich biodiversity by transporting fruits and seeds on the wool. It has also, over the centuries, led to extensive cultural exchanges as the shepherds traveled long distances in search of grazing, and many contemporary traditions — in food, literature and song — have their roots in this practice.

Both landscapes and traditions are now in danger of disappearing. Land that has been an open route for the shepherds for centuries is becoming privately owned, motorists don’t take kindly to a flock of hundreds of sheep crossing the road in front of them, and many flocks are now transported in trucks.

A mobile dairy

Mamaliga fritters with mushroom sauce and pickled peppers. Credit: Rosemary Barron

Mamaliga fritters with mushroom sauce and pickled peppers. Credit: Rosemary Barron

During the trek, the ewes’ milk is made into cas and urda, two fresh cheeses similar in texture, respectively, to ricotta and Greek mizythra, and cascaval, a semi-hard cheese that’s kept for up to three months. Later in the summer, when the milk has a higher fat content, it’s turned into a feta-like cheese called telemea. The curds are salted, wrapped into cheesecloth orbs, and hung for 24 hours before they are placed on slatted wooden shelves to settle into heavy discs of mountain cheese. The nutrient-rich whey is given to the pigs and sheepdogs. Some of the cheeses are allocated to the sheep owners, the remainder sold at local markets.

Over the centuries, the shepherds have perfected the art of turning fresh milk into products that can be kept longer than a few hours. As well as cheeses, they make smantana, similar to soured cream or thick yogurt, which is the perfect accompaniment to another easily transportable food that has come to be known as the national dish of Romania, mamaliga.

Understanding Mamaliga

Mamaliga, a thick porridge made from maize flour (cornmeal), is similar to the polenta of northern Italy and other parts of the Balkans. Served in a huge variety of ways, it’s not unusual to find mamaliga on Romanian tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As cornmeal is easy to store, transport and cook, it is the perfect staple food for a long trek. The shepherds make mamaliga in large cauldrons suspended over an open fire and are particularly fond of it with small game and sarmale (stuffed fresh or slightly fermented cabbage leaves). Often, though, it’s eaten alone, with smantana or cheese, or wrapped around fresh, white cheese to make a grapefruit-size ball (or “bear”), which is wrapped in foil and baked in charcoal.

The best mamaliga is made from coarse, stone-ground cornmeal that retains some of the hull and germ of the grain, producing a thick, yellow-gold porridge with a slightly crunchy texture. For Romanian cooks, the making of mamaliga involves many rituals, some of which touch on the semi-mystical in the same way as bread-baking and grape-stomping do, and they use a special saucepan (ceaun) for the process. Modern cooks, however, frequently use a commercial coarse cornmeal that considerably cuts the preparation time. Both types of cornmeal are suitable for making these fitters, a popular to way to serve mamaliga at home.

Mamaliga Fritters With Mushroom Sauce

For a true taste of Transylvania, use a mixture of sunflower oil and butter to fry the fritters, though olive oil gives a fine, if Mediterranean-flavored result, too. Serve with braised rabbit or chicken, with any manner of vegetables, or with mushrooms in sour cream.

Serves 3 to 4

For the mamaliga:

½ cup whole milk

1 cup water

¾ teaspoon fine-grain sea salt

1 scant cup coarse cornmeal (maize flour), preferably organic

3 tablespoons organic sunflower oil

2 tablespoons butter

For the mushroom sauce:

1 tablespoon butter

6 ounces wild, field or button mushrooms, wiped clean, trimmed and thinly sliced

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons sour cream, to taste

3 tablespoons lightly chopped fresh dill

For serving:

Watercress sprigs or other green leaves

Small pickled peppers

Directions

1. Combine the milk and water in a heavy saucepan, add the salt, and bring to barely a boil

2. Pour in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly in a clockwise direction with a wooden spoon. Over a low heat, simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the mixture is thick enough to just support the spoon standing upright. Set aside uncovered for 10 minutes

(If you are using a commercial cornmeal, follow the directions for a thick mixture.)

3. To make the mushroom sauce, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small, heavy saucepan set over low heat. Add the mushrooms, cover the pan, and simmer 6-8 minutes (button mushrooms) to up to 15 minutes (field or wild mushrooms), until soft. Strain the mushrooms over a bowl and set both mushrooms and liquor aside.

4. Turn out the cornmeal (mamaliga) onto a wooden board and spread into a 1-inch-thick layer with a spatula or palette knife. Smooth the surface and neaten the edges. Cut into 2×3-inch rectangles, or any shape you prefer (but keep manageable in size, otherwise they will break up later). Use the palette knife to loosen each one from the board

5. Set a frying pan over low-medium heat and add the sunflower oil and 2 tablespoons butter. When hot but not smoking, fry the fritters until golden brown on both sides, turning once.

6. Meanwhile, check the mushroom cooking liquor. If there is more than 4 tablespoons, reduce in a heavy pan set over medium heat. Lower the heat, add the mushrooms and stir in the sour cream. Heat to hot but not boiling (or the cream will curdle and spoil the appearance of the dish). Gently stir in the dill and add salt and pepper (the sauce should be highly seasoned)

7. Transfer the fritters to a warm platter and surround with watercress, pickles, and the mushroom sauce.

Top photo: A shepherd in the mountains near Sigishoara, Transylvania. Credit: Cordell Barron

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Potato Kebabs (Kartof Kababï). Credit: Charles Perry

They like their shish kebab in the Caucasus. The Azerbaijanis even make a potato version. It’s not really that exotic — just a fancier way of making roasted potatoes, really — but it is delicious, looks cool and might help vegetarians feel less like wallflowers at the barbecue.

The idea is simple. String small potatoes on skewers and grill until nicely browned. To serve, sprinkle with salt, red pepper, green onions and melted butter. It’s the sort of thing that is quite convenient to do when you’re barbecuing something else.

Probably the Azerbaijanis’ inspiration was the older Middle Eastern tradition of grilling chunks of eggplant on a skewer. They adapted the dish to the potato after it arrived from the New World. And they did the same with another New World import, the tomato.

Tomato kebab is a little less exotic though, at least if you were around for the Greek food craze that swept the country in the 1960s. Back then souvlaki just wasn’t souvlaki unless you inserted cherry tomatoes between your chunks of wine-marinated beef. Pomidor kababï is the same idea except that it does without the meat.

Interestingly, according to the photo I’ve seen, the tomatoes are pierced through the sides, rather than from the stem end. The recipe recommended small, juicy, fully ripe tomatoes, apparently of some size between cherry and Roma, which I imagine are best if you can get them.

Both these ideas come from “Azärbayjan Kulinariyasï,” a polyglot coffee-table cookbook published in Azeri, Russian and English.

Yes, there is an English translation but you can’t necessarily go by it. Take the recipe for gabirga-kabab, which reads, “Cut into equal pieces fat mutton brisket. These pieces string on a spit with flesh on one side and roast over charcoals. Dress with coiled onions, shredded herbs and pomegranate grains, when serving.”

From studying the Azeri and Russian texts and the photos, you can figure out that “coiled onions” are onion rings, “shredded herbs” are cilantro and “pomegranate grains” can be narsharab, a sweet-sour molasses made from boiled-down pomegranate juice, like the Lebanese dibs rumman but rather more tart.

As for this potato kebab recipe, the book calls for 16 “middle-sized potatoes left whole” but the photo shows oblong new potatoes cut in half. It sounds as if you can use just about any smallish spuds so long as they aren’t so thick that they will take too long to cook.

By the way, if you’re thinking about grilling tomatoes this way, you had better use the Middle Eastern skewers with a flat blade shape. On old-fashioned round skewers, the tomatoes will tend to slip, making it hard to turn the skewer over. They will cook in about 20 minutes.

Potato Kebabs (Kartof Kababï)

Serves 2

Ingredients

6 small potatoes

2 ounces (½ stick) butter, melted

Salt and ground red pepper to taste

1 bunch green onions, roots and ½ of green part trimmed

Directions

1. Cut and skewer the potatoes. Remove the eyes.

2. Start your barbecue. If using charcoal, burn until the briquettes are covered with gray ash.

3. Brush the potatoes very lightly with melted butter and grill, turning over from time to time to check doneness. When the potatoes can easily be pierced with a fork (taking care not to break them) and are browned on  both sides, about 45 minutes, remove and serve, sprinkled with salt and pepper and garnished with green onions with the rest of the melted butter on the side.

Top photo: Potato Kebabs (Kartof Kababï). Credit: Charles Perry

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Gulab jamun. Credit:R.V. Ramachandran

The plethora of colors, shapes and sizes of Indian sweets are bewildering. Taste, color and shape often vary from region to region, but gulab jamun, the spongy milky balls soaked in rose-scented syrup, are an exception. These are popular all over India, and just like naan and tandoori chicken, almost all Indian restaurants in the West include gulab jamun in their menu.

Gulab jamun is a delicious dessert consisting of dumplings, traditionally made of milk boiled down to a solid mass, mixed with flour and deep-fried in ghee to golden brown color and then soaked in rose and cardamom-scented sugar syrup. This sweet derives its name from two words — gulab, meaning rose, and jamun, the purple-colored jamun berry (Syzygium cumini) fruit of an evergreen tropical tree.

Muslim impact on Indian sweets

India has a national obsession with sweets and desserts. Traditionally, sweets have been made mostly with milk, ghee and honey.

Drawn by the fertile plains of the Punjab and the fabulous wealth of Hindu temples, invaders from central Asia began attacking India around 1000 A.D., with the aim of establishing Muslim kingdoms in India. The Mugahl emperor Babur conquered India in 1526 A.D. and this Muslim dynasty ruled in an unbroken succession for nearly 200 years.

Desserts of central Asian origin, often flour based, reached India during this time. North Indian food went through a profound transformation during this period. Palace cooks came from all over India and many other parts of the world, each specializing in a particular delicacy. Ingredients were imported from Afghanistan and Persia. When Persian food first arrived in India, the local cooks at the palace kitchens adapted their cuisine by combining the newly arrived ingredients with familiar tastes of local Hindu culinary traditions. Soon this food, including gulab jamun, was introduced in the Mughal courts.

Gulab Jamun’s origins are in Persia and the Mediterranean, where its equivalent, luqmat al qadi, consists of deep-fried dough balls dipped in honey syrup and sprinkled with sugar.

Frying gulab jamun. Credit:Shiyam Sundar

Frying gulab jamun. Credit: Shiyam Sundar

Milk-based sweets were already popular in India at that time. Morendka was a sweet made with khoa (made by simmering full-fat milk several hours, over a medium fire until the gradual vaporization of its water content leaves coagulated solids in milk) formed into the shape of eggs and deep-fried in ghee and coated with sugar. The Indian cooks adapted the recipe for this Persian sweet to include khoa.

Tricks for perfect gulab jamun

Cooks who are new to gulab jamun commonly make the mistake of frying the sweet at a very high temperature. This will result in the outside appearing too dark and the center becoming a lump of uncooked, solid dough. The temperature of the oil for frying has to be on low-to-medium heat.

Over the years gulab jamun has incorporated many subtle variations. A relatively easy version uses milk powder instead of khoa. Kala-jamuns are coated with sugar before frying, which gives them a dark brown color. Some cooks stuff the gulab jamun with slivered nuts and others make the dish with sweet potatoes.

Following is a recipe for gulab jamun using milk powder.

Gulab Jamun

Makes  20 to 25 pieces

For the dough:

1 cup milk powder

4 tablespoons ghee

⅓cup all- purpose flour

½teaspoon baking powder

6 to 7 tablespoons whole milk

For sugar syrup:

1¼ cups water

1¾ cups sugar

2 teaspoons cardamom powder

2 teaspoons rose water

For frying:

6 to 8 cups of sunflower oil or other oils with no fragrance

Directions

1. Place milk powder in a mixing bowl and rub in the ghee gently to form a sandy texture.

2. Combine the flour and baking powder and mix well and then add to the milk powder and ghee mixture and mix well.

3. Gradually add milk, a few spoonfuls at a time, and mix softly with clean fingers to make a soft dough. The mix should be like a soft dough but not like a thick batter. Be careful not to work the dough as it will increase the gluten. The less kneading,  the better.  You want the jamuns to be soft. Rest the mix for 10 minutes.

4. Grease your palms with ghee or oil and pinch marble-sized pieces of dough and roll them into smooth round or oval-shaped balls. Make sure that the balls are small as they double in size once they are fried and soaked in sugar syrup. The dough balls should be smooth without any cracks as they will split and crumble when deep frying. Arrange the balls on a plate and cover with a kitchen towel to prevent from drying out.

5. For the syrup, in a sauce pan bring water to boil, add the sugar and allow it to dissolve. Simmer for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the stove and set aside.

6. Heat oil over slow to medium flame. I cannot emphasize enough that the temperature of the frying oil for frying must be low-to-medium to cook the gulab jamuns through completely.

7. Drop one jamun into the hot oil and check for coloring. Reduce flame if the dough is coloring quickly.

8. Drop the jamuns 8 to 10 pieces at a time and gently swirl the oil for them to float. Fry them until golden brown in color, 6 to 7 minutes approximately. Once they are a golden brown, remove them from the oil and let them drain on a paper towel. Then remove from the paper towel and soak them in the warm sugar syrup.

9. With the gulab jamuns in the syrup, flavor the syrup with cardamom powder and rose water and give a gentle stir to mix. Cover the gulab jamuns and let them soak in the syrup overnight or at least for an hour or so before serving.

Top photo: Gulab jamun. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

Festivals and celebrations offer a time-tested mechanism of sharing and preserving family culinary traditions and memories. As spring approaches, the vernal calendar brings its share of festivals, all designed to welcome the fresh colors of the seasons and the spirit of renewal. There are simple backyard traditions such as foraging and starting a new garden and then the myriad holidays that fill the calendar with a call to the kitchen.

In my home, I think of the Indian festival of colors, Holi, and the Bengali New Year, two holidays that come around in March and April. I look forward to a new season, and time in the kitchen with my children sharing and talking about food memories and working with them to re-create foods of my childhood.

I have to confess, it has not always been this way! I have spent many years confused about why people would feature unchanging dishes every year at their holiday table, the same variations of festive items, at the same time of the year. I marveled at people raving over something as basic as their grandmother’s tempering for lentils and simple food memories without which their table felt incomplete. It all seemed monotonous to me. I did not have the context or need for re-creating tradition, until my children came along.

Grandmother’s gnocchi

As my children have grown, my view has changed. I have wanted them to feel grounded, to have a sense of food beyond that it is something cooked in my now-12-year-old kitchen. It’s more clear than ever why my kitchen helper, Martha, preserves the mole recipe from her husband’s mother and prepares it for many a special occasion. I now understand why my friend Patricia has taken over making gnocchi for Sunday suppers. She began this tradition after her grandmother’s recent passing because this was something her Nonna always made, until she was too fragile.

It is less about mole or gnocchi than it is about the memories and historical context the dishes carry. That context is especially important for newly transplanted expats to give their children and families a way to bring gaps and connect their newly adopted land to their homeland. It is also about the value of home-cooked food rather than something you might find in a commercial kitchen or restaurant.

Yet I remained unsure about succumbing to peer pressure, unsure how sustainable such food traditions would be. The ambience in my home seemed so different from my grandmother’s kitchen, where all my food memories were made. Suddenly I was unsure about my much-loved food processor and whether it really would work to re-create the real deal. It seemed so sterile and incapable of replicating and translating the ethos of food created on my grandmother’s time-tested grinding stone.

Bringing little hands into family culinary traditions

Then last year, around springtime, possibly to cheer myself up and break the winter doldrums, I decided to make gujiyas, a traditional sweet empanada that is typical of my mother-in-law’s north Indian kitchen. It is a traditional spring dessert, and it carries with it memories of my first time learning and working with my mother-in-law.

A dessert with multiple layers of shaping and cooking, the gujiya works beautifully as something that can be made in a group. I had often thought of making it at home, but resisted the challenge because it seemed so daunting, almost too complex, but I decided to give it a try.

As I went through the ingredients, sorting out the grated nuts, Indian cheese and flour, my kids came by. As we chatted, I began involving them in rolling the dough and stuffing the empanadas. Some of the guiiya were uneven, as the children’s little hands lacked the precision for uniform shaping. But they were excited and began asking countless questions about the dessert, about spring, about their grandmother and, most important, about the festivals. Through the shared act of cooking, I realized I was transferring traditions and some level of culture.

While I noted the irony that this was a dish few of my friends in India still made from the scratch, it was important for me to do so, in the same way it was important for my grandmother to have me around the kitchen, sharing stories about family, cooking and history.

Working with my children suddenly made it all click. It was less about the elaborate meal, the new clothes or a date on a calendar. It was the need for a reference point easily found in the context of a festival. We need traditions and memories to keep us grounded. They do not always have to be in the kitchen or centered on a holiday. I wait for the daffodils and forsythia in our back yard every year to tell me that spring has arrived. It is cheerful and uplifting for me.

The magic of connecting over a holiday and food is its predictability, and the fact that it allows us to plan. It offers our children a connection point, and the shared act of cooking offers them this context, probably the same way Pat’s Nonna was able to share stories about her childhood in a village in Italy as she rolled and shaped the gnocchi with Pat. Food is about comfort, and it is also one aspect of culture and tradition that can be easily transported from one land to another, from one generation to another, as we talk, share, cook and eat together.

Top photo: Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

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