Articles in History

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

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

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

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

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

Bring on the butter and cheese

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

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

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

Why the devil is it called deviled ham?

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

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

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

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

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

Pickled Shrimp

Yield: Makes about 1 quart

Ingredients

1 cup distilled white vinegar

1 cup water

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

3 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds

2 pounds shrimp, cooked, peeled

1/2 cup thinly sliced mild (sweet) onion

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

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt or more to taste

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pimento Cheese

Yield: Makes about 3 1/2 cups

Ingredients

6 ounces sharp yellow cheddar, grated

12 ounces sharp white cheddar, grated and divided

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

A few grindings of black pepper or to taste

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon cayenne or to taste

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

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

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

Roasted Pecans

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

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

Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 cups

Ingredients

10 ounces pecan halves

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

Sea salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 250 F.

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

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

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

Deviled Ham

Yield: Makes about 3 cups

Ingredients

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup country ham, minced

1 1/2 cups smoked ham, minced

1/4 cup butter, melted

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

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

1 1/2 scallions, finely minced

3 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely minced

Sweet pickle relish (optional)

Crackers or toasted bread rounds

Sliced dill pickle spears (to make small triangles)

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fried Dill Pickles

Yield: Makes 12 spears

Ingredients

Vegetable oil for frying

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste

2 eggs, beaten

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

Ranch dressing — homemade or commercial

Directions

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

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

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

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

5. Serve immediately with ranch dressing on the side.

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

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

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

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

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

Regional Piedmont cookbook

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

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

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

dicarrol

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

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

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

Traditional Piedmont dishes

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

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

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

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

La Bagna Càuda or Bagna Caoda (Hot dip)*

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

12 large cloves of garlic in their skins

12 salted anchovies

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

1 stick of unsalted butter

Black pepper, to taste

Chopped basil, to taste

Directions

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

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

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

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

Salsa Rossa

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 stick of celery, diced

1/2 onion, chopped finely

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

3 anchovy fillets in olive oil, crushed in a mortar

2 ounces fresh red peppers, chopped fine

1/2  fresh chili pepper

7 ounces tomato passata

1 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Red wine, to taste

Red wine vinegar, to taste

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

Brasato al Barolo (Beef in Barolo)*

Prep time:  1 hour

Total time: 3 to 4 hours, plus overnight

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

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

35 ounces pot roast beef, tied neatly with string

1 ounce unsalted butter

2 to 3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

2 to 3 sage leaves

Sprig of rosemary

Bay leaf

2 large cloves of garlic

Salt and pepper, to taste

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

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

1 bottle of Barolo or Barbera

Hot beef stock (homemade, preferably)

For the soffritto:

2 onions, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1 celery stick, chopped

A pinch of ground nutmeg

Directions

1. Cut the lardo into slivers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for this recipe

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

Il Bunet (or Bonet)

A chocolate and amaretti pudding favored throughout Piedmont.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 90 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

10 ounces amaretti biscuits

2 rounded tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder

17 fluid ounces whole milk

6 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of salt

2/3 cup white sugar

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

1 cup sugar moistened with 2 tablespoons water for the caramel

One 2-pound rectangular loaf pan

Directions

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

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

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

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

Hazelnut Cake

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

Prep time: 1 hour

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

For the cake:

5 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of baking soda

3/4 cup light brown or granulated sugar

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

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

Cinnamon or vanilla, if you prefer

The point of a knife blade of salt

Lined cake pan

Unsweetened cocoa powder, to dust baked cake

For the hazelnuts:

2 cups boiling water

3 cups baking soda

1 cup of hazelnuts

Bowl of very cold water

Directions

For the cake:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the hazelnuts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nasaump, a Wampanoag cornmeal grits dish for Thanksgiving. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Although there is no menu of the first harvest celebration that is usually called the first Thanksgiving, there are some sound ideas of what foods, if not precise preparations, were on the table.

Between 1620 and 1621 Edward Winslow, who arrived on the Mayflower and was a leader of the English settlement at Plimouth, wrote with William Bradford “Mourt’s Relation,” the full title of which was “A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimouth in New England.” Winslow wrote that “our Indian corn, even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meal as rice.”

The Thanksgiving celebration included at least 90 of the local Wampanoag, who we also know brought a good deal of the food and taught the settlers about growing crops. It is a safe bet that one of the foods made from “Indian corn” might have been nasaump, a kind of grits that used the type of multicolored flint corn the Wampanoag grew.

In 1643 a book by the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, describes nasaump as “a meale pottage, unparched. From this the English call their Samp, which is Indian corn, beaten and boiled, and eaten hot or cold with milk and butter, which are mercies beyond the Natives plaine water.”

From this brief description it seems safe to say that the dish is a thanksgiving food. It is very much like grits and one could make it savory or sweet, I suppose. This recipe is adapted from a description on the Plimoth Plantation website.

Two excellent sources for Rhode Island stone ground flint cornmeal are Gray’s Grist Mill and Kenyon’s Grist Mill, which has been in operation since 1696. I recommend you order their product because it has a distinctively different taste from store-bought masa harina or cornmeal.

Nasaump

This traditional Wampanoag dish is made from dried corn, local berries and nuts. It is boiled in water until it thickens, and is similar to oatmeal or grits.

Prep and Cooking Times: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 cup stone ground flint cornmeal (see sources above)

⅓ cup wild (preferably) or cultivated small strawberries

⅓ cup blueberries

2 tablespoons crushed walnuts

2 tablespoons crushed hazelnuts

2 tablespoons unsalted pumpkin seeds

3 cups water

¼ cup maple syrup

Directions


1. In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring almost constantly, about 5 minutes.

2. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until it becomes the consistency of a thick porridge or grits, 10 minutes. Serve hot.

3. The remainder not served can be cooled on a platter until hardened and cut into squares for frying in butter later.

Main photo: Nasaump, a Wampanoag cornmeal grits dish for Thanksgiving. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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The Persian holiday of Mehregan features pomegranates. Credit: Jane Feldman

Mehregan, a Persian version of Thanksgiving, is an ancient Iranian holiday that celebrates the fall season and harvest. In New York City, Cafe Nadery in Greenwich Village kicked off its first Mehregan celebration recently with a literary and culinary arts festival. Highlights included storytelling, a pomegranate-peeling contest, readings, music and delicious food. The themes were memory and food.

“Our goal was to encourage audience participation. I was thrilled that so many people shared their childhood memories of comfort foods. Whether these special meals were Iranian or American, they were emblematic of the complexities of cross-cultural upbringings,” said event creator Yvette Perez, a mixed-heritage Iranian and lead singer of the Farsi funk group Mitra Sumara, which closed out the evening’s events.

“The festival was intended to broaden people’s understanding of Iranian-American culture and experience through a fun and eclectic event. We brought a lot of Persian flavor together and the people just kept coming. It was standing room only. We wanted to play up Mehregan, which is usually a softer holiday, compared to our Persian New Year and winter solstice festivities,” Perez said.

Persian food memories

“I recall endless barbecue summers at Riverside Park, as kabab sizzled on a portable grill, the centerpiece of my father’s family gatherings,” said Leila Darabi, a journalist who participated in Nooshe Jan, the storytelling part of the program.

Guests eagerly shared food memories as a microphone was passed around the cafe.

“Lubia Polo! My mother pulled this dish out of her hat after many years of not cooking it. I was just floored,” said Mona Kayhan of  the Persian Arts Festival, a co-producer of the event. “And my grandmother’s kabab! Grandmother lived in a Chicago suburb and no matter how sub-zero it was, she would bundle up and fire up her grill in the snow to cook kabab.”

Nahzi Nikki, one of the 21 co-owners of the cafe, told festival-goers that “when I die, I want to make sure you serve salad olivieh at my memorial. It’s a combination chicken, egg and potato salad that is delicious.”

Pomegranate peel-off

Pomegranates, a traditional food during Mehregan, were also celebrated with a competition to see who could peel one the quickest — and cleanest — way.

pomegranate peeling

Saeed Pourkay of Taste of Persia restaurant demonstrates his pomegranate-peeling expertise. Credit: Jane Feldman

As soon as the timer was set, red juicy seeds flew around as the excited crowd clapped and chanted to a rhythmic beat. The winning time was 3 minutes, 56 seconds.

At the end of the contest, judge Saeed Pourkay of Taste of Persia restaurant demonstrated his pomegranate expertise in less than 2 minutes: squeeze, turn, squeeze, turn the pomegranate to soften the insides; with a short sharp knife, cut a round circle around the top to pull off the stub; make four slits at the top; grab hold tight and pull apart into four pieces. Using the back of the knife, knock and tap, tap, tap. All the red, juicy seeds fell out like magic!

Ash-E Reshteh (Persian Bean Soup)

Persian bean soup combines several types of beans

Persian bean soup combines several types of beans with herbs for a rich fall soup. Credit: Jane Feldman

(Yvette Perez’s family recipe)

Prep time: 15 minutes (or 24 hours, if soaking uncooked beans)

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

½ cup garbanzo beans

½ cup kidney beans

½ cup lentils

1 large bunch fresh, chopped parsley

3 large green onions or scallions, chopped

2 tablespoons turmeric

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

6 cups of water

1 pound chopped fresh spinach

1/2 pound Persian Reshteh noodles or linguini

2 large sliced onions

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon dried mint

1 cup Persian whey, kashk or plain yogurt

Directions

1. Soak, cook each bean type separately until tender and set aside. Rinsed canned organic beans can be substituted.

2. Combine parsley, scallions, turmeric, salt and pepper, and 6 cups water in a large pot. Bring to boil and then simmer for 20 minutes.

3. Add spinach, cook for 10 minutes. Break the noodles into 2-inch pieces and add to the rest of the mixture.

4. Let simmer until noodles are cooked (5 to 10 minutes).

5. Caramelize onions in butter in a separate pan (10 minutes). Stir in the dried mint until fragrant.

6. Add cooked beans to rest of soup mix, let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Keep on warm heat. Stir occasionally.

To serve, place soup in a large serving bowl and decorate the top with some of the fried onions and mint mixture. This makes six to eight smaller servings. Drizzle some yogurt or kashk on the top of each serving. Save extra on the side and add per taste.

Main photo: Juicy pomegranates are a mainstay of the Mehregan celebrations. Credit: Jane Feldman

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Grandma Margaret's Frybread With Granny Lahoma's Harvest Vce-Corn Soup. Credit: Dawn Karima

In the United States, Thanksgiving is a tradition dating back to the Pilgrims and Native Americans — but it may surprise some to know that Native Americans continue to celebrate the holiday, just in their own manner.

“Thanksgiving Day is every day for Native Americans,” said Dawn Karima, a Creek-Cherokee author and musician who talks about food and culture in her two novels, “The Way We Make Sense,” a finalist in the Native American First Book Award Competition, and “The Marriage of Saint,” a New Mexico Book Award Finalist.

She recalled her grandfather’s words: “He said gratitude is one of the core values of our spirituality. We rise and give thanks every day and throughout the day for our blessings, families, people, culture and traditions.”

Thanksgiving has ‘complicated history’

Like many, Karima loves the Thanksgiving holiday dinner because it brings kinfolks together. Sharing family stories, songs and enjoying traditional foods along with her regular Southern cooking are routine.

“Since Thanksgiving has such a complicated history for my people, I think it was especially important for my family to integrate our traditions into this holiday,” she said. “We do that in several ways. We pray in our own Native languages at the table and also host a Stomp Dance the night before.”

Frybread, bean dumplings, hominy, corn soup and a stewed corn drink called osafki  are among the foods on her Thanksgiving table, along with roast turkey and pumpkin pies. Instead of the Pilgrim-based story of Thanksgiving, her family sings Cherokee hymns and tells Cherokee tales after supper at the Qualla Boundary Reservation in North Carolina.

“I’m stunned that so many folks are shocked that we’re still here! We’re not extinct, vanished, impoverished or primitive. Through my radio show, books and music, I hope that folks see that we are creative, energetic professionals, artists and leaders. We live in houses, not teepees. Creeks and Cherokees never lived in teepees. We drive cars instead of ride horses and hold good jobs. Even if we hunt or fish, we’re more likely to wear jeans and T-shirts than beads and feathers. We have names like Donna and John more often than names like “Thunder Heart”or “Spirit Something.”

‘Handful method’

Food is extremely important in Native cultures, Karima said.

“As Native Americans, we don’t delineate between the sacred and the secular, so food — the hunting, growing and gathering of it — represent a holy thing.”

Dawn Karima, a Creek-Cherokee, learned to cook alongside her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, cousins and elders. They never used cookbooks. Credit: D3Creativo

Dawn Karima, a Creek-Cherokee, learned to cook alongside her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, cousins and elders. They never used cookbooks. Credit: D3Creativo

From the time she was tiny, Karima cooked alongside her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, cousins and elders. They never used cookbooks, she said.

“I used my own tiny pans and mini-spatula. I spent hours with my great-grandma Margaret, a statuesque beauty, who taught me to cook with her ‘handful’ method. A ‘handful’ of this, a ‘handful’ of that. We used real homemade butter, sugar, salts and cream. She made the best cake ever, and taught me her recipe.  I learned to cook intuitively. Bean dumplings, fry bread, corn soup, greens, sweet tea and many foods.

“A few days ago, I was drinking osafki, our Creek hominy drink that takes days to make and I thought: ‘How wonderful that a relative cared enough to put some of her precious life into making this just so we could all enjoy it.’ I was amazingly blessed by it, I even teared up. But when I told my relative and thanked her, she just laughed. That’s how Native life is, I guess. Great, wonderful things are always happening when we walk in love.”

Preparing food is a privilege

“Preparing food is a privilege. God, Hesaketvmese, gives us Native women a traditional responsibility to provide for and nurture our families. Feeding our loved ones and our communities is our honor,” Karima said.

“Anytime you walk into a Creek or Cherokee home, we’ll ask, “Did you eat?”And even if you’re as full as a tick, you sit down and eat. I’m on the road a lot, but when I’m home on the Qualla Boundary Reservation, I keep a pot of beans and a pound cake ready for visitors. And the more Creek or Cherokee people like you, the more we tease you. So, if nobody offers you any food, gives you a nickname, or jokes with you, you should worry!”

Grandma Margaret’s Frybread

Yield: 15 to 20 pieces

Ingredients

6 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups warm water

Plenty of corn oil

Directions

1. In a glass mixing bowl, stir flour, baking powder and salt together.

2. Add warm water and stir into dough.

3. Knead the dough on floured wax paper.

4. Flatten the dough into 15 to 20 palm-size pieces.

5. Fry about 6 dough pieces in hot oil (about 350 F) for 3 minutes, until they are golden brown.

Frybread is served in place of dinner rolls at Thanksgiving. It’s also enjoyed as a dessert, topped with powdered sugar, and is a fixture at pow-wows as a taco, topped with cheese, meat, beans, lettuce and tomatoes.

Great Aunt Martha’s Tvlako Taklike — Bean Dumplings

(Tvlako is the Creek word for Bean and Taklike is the Creek word for Bread)

Yield: 20 to 30 dumplings

Ingredients

6 cups of water

4 cups pinto beans

8 cups yellow cornmeal

2 teaspoons baking soda

Directions

1. In a pan of salted water, bring beans to a boil. When the beans are tender, turn off the heat.

2. In a large glass bowl, stir cornmeal and baking soda together. Add boiled beans and some of the water you boiled them in to the bowl of cornmeal and baking soda. Stir the mixture into firm dough.

3. Pat the dough into 20 to 30 small ball shapes.

4. Drop bean balls into another pot of  boiling water. Cook the bean balls at a low boil for a half  hour.

These can be served with turkey in place of dressing or mashed potatoes.

Granny Lahoma’s Harvest Vce  (Corn) Soup

(Vce is the Creek word for corn)

Yield: 6 to 8 cups of soup

Ingredients

6 ears dried yellow corn, sliced off the cob

6 cups of water

Fatback strip meat

Salt, sugar and pepper

1 pound of dried beef or venison

Directions

1. In a large pot, soak dried corn for 48 hours in water with a little salt and sugar.

2. Add the fatback, more salt and some pepper.

3.  Simmer the corn, fatback and salt and pepper in the water you used for soaking for about 4 hours, or until the corn is tender. Do not overcook or let corn become mushy.

5. Add your dried meat and cover the pans, simmering for about 15 to 20 more minutes.

Serve with pieces of frybread. This is a wonderful appetizer for Thanksgiving.

Main photo: Grandma Margaret’s Frybread With Granny Lahoma’s Harvest Vce-Corn Soup. Credit: Dawn Karima

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In this risotto, the radicchio's bitterness balances the sweetness of the pumpkin (or squash). Credit: Aya Brackett

One of the reasons I enjoy writing books is that with each one I discover new facts, research and ideas. My latest book “Bitter” opened my eyes to the complexity of taste.

It began when my friends in the food world sent me suggestions as to what to include in my book. Coffee, chicories and beer were already on my list. But sorrel and rhubarb — weren’t they sour? Why did these food experts taste them differently than I?

We all think of basic tastes, such as bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and savory (also called umami). I knew fat belonged on that list and it has recently been added. But did you ever wonder why there were only six basic tastes? Surely taste is much more nuanced than that.


In the ancient world, scholars believed there were up to eight tastes and, by the 18th century, 11 basic tastes were proposed. So exactly how do we determine taste? Like most people, I thought the information from our taste buds on our tongue combined with our sense of smell to make a flavor. We’ve all experienced the lack of flavor in our food when we have a head cold. We do taste this way, but it is only part of the story.

Taste buds are not confined to our tongues. They are located all through our body, in our throat — down a shot of extra virgin olive oil and you’ll find those, in our lungs, stomach, intestines and, for some of us, in our testicles. So taste is not simply reliant on our tongue and nose; all our senses play a role.

Consider touch. Our fingers, lips, teeth, mouth; they all connect to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. It is responsible for the ice cream headache. Called the somatosensory system, these sensors help us taste by detecting temperature, texture, fattiness, pungency and tannins. The brain uses this information to create flavor. Interestingly many chefs have above average trigeminal nerve responses.

What we hear also affects how we taste. While extraneous sound distracts us and reduces the taste of our food, the noise inside our head increases it and the pleasure of eating. Crunchy, crisp foods are appealing because of the noise they make. Would you like a potato chip if it didn’t make a crunching sound? When we eat and drink, the tone of the background music and the instrument playing it can distort our sense of taste. A Campari and soda drunk while a brass band plays low-pitched music will be more bitter than if consumed while bright, high-pitched piece of music is played on a piano.

The most surprising fact I uncovered was the power of sight. It is often said we eat with our eyes, but I’d never comprehended the dominant role sight plays in what we taste. It is so forceful that it can distort and even override the information we receive from our other senses. As more than half of our brain is devoted to processing visual information, it must take shortcuts to handle all this data quickly.

Author Jennifer McLagan says taste is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Credit: Aya Brackett

Author Jennifer McLagan says taste is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Credit: Aya Brackett

With food our brain uses color to create flavor expectations, and the color of a food can confuse us and mask its real taste. British chef  Heston Blumenthal’s two-toned orange and beetroot jelly demonstrates this power of color to determine taste. Not until diners close their eyes do they realize that the orange jelly they are eating is made with orange beets and the dark red jelly is flavored with blood oranges. Eating with our eyes takes on a whole new meaning when we realize we cannot trust them.


Along with the sensory clues our brain employs to generate flavor, a number of other things influence its decisions. Our genes make some of us more sensitive to certain tastes. What our mother ate when she was pregnant shapes our likes and dislikes, our upbringing and our peers decide what we eat and don’t eat. Anything we have heard, or read about the food will prejudice us too. Even the shape of our plate, what it’s made from, and the cutlery we use —  all subtly affect how we taste. We all have the same anatomy yet every time we eat, numerous forces come into play, placing each of us in our own individual taste world.

Taste, I discovered is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Flavor is produced by our brain, which is swayed by a myriad of cultural, environmental, experiential and genetic factors that can be as important as our senses in discerning flavor. Many of them we are barely aware of and are only beginning to understand and study. Next time you eat, pay close attention and think very carefully about what is influencing the flavor of the food on your plate.

Radicchio and Pumpkin Risotto

Prep time: 10 minute
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 1⁄2 cups (625 milliliters) of chicken stock, preferably homemade

¼ cup (2 ounces) (60 grams) unsalted butter

1 shallot, finely chopped

6 ounces (170 grams) pumpkin, cut into 1⁄2-inch (1 centimeter) dice, about 1¼ cups

Sea salt

5 1/4 ounces (150 grams) radicchio leaves, rinsed and trimmed

1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) (100 grams) risotto rice (Vialone nano, Arborio, or Carnaroli)

2 tablespoons white wine or dry vermouth

Freshly ground black pepper

Parmesan cheese

Directions
1. Pour the stock into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat so the stock barely simmers.

2. In another saucepan, melt half the butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until translucent. Add the diced pumpkin and stir to coat the pieces with the butter. Season with salt, and cook until the pumpkin starts to soften slightly at the edges, about 5 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, cut the radicchio leaves in half lengthwise, then crosswise into ¼-inch (6-mm) strips. You should have about 4 cups.

4. Add the rice to the pan, stirring to warm the grains and coat them in butter. Stir in the radicchio and continue stirring until it wilts and changes color. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring until it evaporates; season with black pepper. Now add a ladleful of hot stock and keep stirring the simmering rice constantly until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Continue adding the stock, one ladleful at a time, when the previous liquid is almost completely absorbed.

5. After 20 to 25 minutes, the pumpkin should be cooked and the rice should be creamy and cooked but still slightly al dente. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let sit for 2 minutes. Check the seasoning, stir in the remaining half of the butter, and serve in warm bowls. Grate Parmesan over the top.

Notes
I love the winey hue that radicchio gives the rice in this dish, and the way its bitterness balances the pumpkin’s sweetness. Now I know that using the word pumpkin reveals my birthplace, but I just can’t get my head around “squash.” However, so I don’t confuse you, use a firm, dry pumpkin (or squash) such as Hubbard or kabocha, which has a mild chestnut flavor.
I prefer to make risotto in small batches. This will stretch to serve four as a starter, depending on the rest of your meal; you can also double the recipe. Do use homemade stock, as it will make all the difference to the final result. You could also use a well-flavored vegetable stock to make this dish vegetarian. You’ll probably only need 2 cups (500 ml) of
the stock, but it will depend on your rice, so it is better to have a little extra just in case.

Caramelizing the sprouts in oil eases their bitterness, as does the addition of the starchy chickpeas. Credit: Aya Brackett

Rony’s Brussels Sprouts and Chickpeas

Prep time: 1 hour advance prep (unless using canned chickpeas, then 10 minutes)

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

 

Ingredients
1 cup (6 1/4 ounces)  (180 g) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover

Sea salt

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

1 shallot, finely chopped

3/4 cup (175 milliliters) chicken stock, preferably homemade

17 1/2 ounces (500 grams) Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 tablespoons dry sherry

Directions
1. Drain the chickpeas and place in a saucepan. Cover them with cold water by 2 inches (5 cm) and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until cooked. This can take from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on the age of the peas, so you need to keep an eye on them. Check them at 30 minutes. When they are cooked, remove from the heat, uncover, stir in 1 teaspoon of salt, and leave to cool for 30 minutes. Drain the cooked peas and spread them out on a baking sheet lined with a towel to dry.

2. Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a large heavy frying pan with a lid, and place over medium heat. When hot, add the shallot and cook until soft. Add the chickpeas, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until lightly browned. Add ¼ cup (60 milliliters) of the chicken stock and bring to a boil, stirring to deglaze the pan by scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Tip the contents of the pan into a bowl.

3. Wipe out the pan and then add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Place over high heat, and when hot add the brussels sprouts. Try and get as many of the sprouts cut side down as you can; this will depend on the size of your pan. Cook the sprouts until dark brown on one side, then add the remaining chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, lower the heat, cover, and cook until the brussels sprouts are tender but still crisp.

4. Add the chickpeas, shallots, and any liquid and cook until warmed through. Check the seasoning and pour in the sherry. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Notes
My friend Rony loves food and is a good cook. When I visited him in New York he made brussels sprouts for dinner. It was before my conversion and I was not that keen to try them, but being well brought up I did. They were delicious. Caramelizing the sprouts in the oil eases their bitterness, as does the addition of the starchy chickpeas. There are two keys to this recipe: Cook your own chickpeas — they are superior to the canned ones — and cook the brussels sprouts in a very hot pan — as Rony said, “They should dance around in the pan.”

Main photo: In this risotto, the radicchio’s bitterness balances the sweetness of the pumpkin (or squash if you’re not from Australia). Credit: Aya Brackett

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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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