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When I was just married I went with my new husband to a famous Jewish restaurant in London. I scanned the menu anxiously searching for something green.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “Do you have any vegetables, please?”
“Yes,” the waiter answered seriously, “we have dill pickles and latkes.”
That exchange demonstrates so much of what is wrong with traditional Ashkenazi fare. Certainly the food is delicious, rib-sticking and very tasty. Look at menus solid with dishes like matzo ball soup and kreplach, the delicious triangles of pasta filled with chopped meat floating generously in rich broth. There are slices of corned beef with a liberal side of deep fried potato latkes and over-large slices of lockshen pudding — noodles mixed with dried fruit and masses of fat and sugar. Of course all these dishes are wonderful and immersed with flavor and Jewish tradition. Lighter versions of some of the recipes form part of my book, “Jewish Traditional Cooking.” But maybe it would be sensible to serve one of these recipes as a treat or delicacy accompanied by a liberal quantity of vegetables and fruit, not all of them together at a single meal.
A diet for survival
The traditional Ashkenazi diet evolved from a fragile East-European existence and the shtetl — impoverished, flimsy villages.
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If people were fortunate enough to have a chicken, probably only for a festival, it was an old boiler, and in true Ashkenazi tradition it would have been placed in a large cooking pot with root vegetables and masses of water to make a soup. This soup would be extended with matzo balls or any kind of dough and rough bread, along with chopped gizzards and heart, and meat from the chicken’s neck. The neck skin would be separately stuffed with chopped fat and peppery flour and stitched, then roasted with the bird to create another meal called helzel. Those bubbas, grandmothers and mothers, knew that they could keep hunger at bay by adding calorie-laden extras. The chicken would likely be served at the festival meal with kasha, rice, potatoes or barley.
We are now in the 21st century and Ashkenazi tradition still follows that regimen. Jewish people manifest significant problems connected with obesity, including the so-called Jewish Disease, diabetes. Heart disease and cancers are known to be exacerbated by a high fat, high protein diet.
Adapting the Ashkenazi diet for the 21st century
So maybe it’s time to acknowledge this and accept change, as I did after marrying a lovely Sephardi man. After the Diaspora, the Sephardic Jews looked about their surroundings and adopted the cooking methods of their new neighbors using masses of cheap vegetables and fruits, cooking with olive oil rather than the artery-clogging schmaltz of their Jewish cousins. Instead of relying on frying or interminable stewing to add flavor, they began seasoning their food with fresh herbs, creating fragrant dishes redolent with glorious spices and mouthwatering taste.
When I wrote “Jewish Traditional Cooking” I wanted to include the inherited foods but lighten them where possible. Many of the appetizers are vegetable-based: baba ganoush, a fragrant Asian dish based on oven-roasted vegetables, and soup mit nisht – the ultimate low-calorie cauliflower soup that tastes of heaven but relies on the freshness of a good cauliflower, onions and a light stock and herbs. Lockshen pudding has exchanged its ancient stodgy image for a healthier alternative by adding masses of freshly grated apple, vanilla, mixed spices and fresh lemon zest.
Passover is no longer a stomach-clutching kilo-raising event in our home. We adore the lightness of a carrot and almond bake which rises soufflé-like for any chef, and the spinach and leek roulade with its lighter cheese filling still satisfies. For a modern Jewish woman understanding tradition and the demands of religion and custom, I looked to Morocco where I learned to cook fish in a tiny Fez kitchen with a mixture of fresh vegetables and a fabulous stuffing so that it can be eaten hot or cold. Turkish tradition showed me how to stuff a whole vegetable and experiment with butternut squash as the base for a stuffing of toasted pine nuts, lentils, brown rice, currants and masses of chopped mint, parsley and cilantro.
I believe that Ashkenazi Jews have to look to their Sephardi cousins to learn how to eat in the 21st century. They may not survive their traditional diet.
Top photo: Ruth Joseph. Credit: Western Mail, Thompson House, Cardiff
It seems Mediterranean food is back in the news, as it should be. As an author who writes about Mediterranean cuisines, I am often asked about my favorite cuisine and recipes. These are impossible questions, but heck let’s give it a shot. So here are my five greatest celebratory dishes of the Mediterranean. You can’t please everyone and the list won’t include everyone’s favorite, but here are my choices for legendary dishes.
The Mediterranean has been the home of great feast celebrations at least since Odysseus sailed the wine-dark sea with his men feasting on roast lamb. The popularity of Mediterranean food today draws all of us to its classic meals. We see this popularity everywhere from the promotion of the Mediterranean diet, to so-called Mediterranean dishes in scores of restaurants, and on the pages of food magazines.
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Think you don’t know Mediterranean food? If you’re eating pizza, yogurt, lasagna, tapas, bruschetta and couscous, you’re eating Mediterranean food. However, the world of Mediterranean food is huge, deep, and varied.
Celebrate with these great dishes of the Mediterranean
As soon as we hear about its health benefits we’re presented with a variety of famous and not-so-famous celebratory meals that are extravagant and rich and delicious that belies our perhaps false notion that Mediterranean food is mostly green vegetables with a touch of olive oil.
A celebration in the Mediterranean is a big deal and here are, arguably, the five greatest preparations in the Mediterranean, any of which can be made to celebrate. Each of these dishes is utterly unforgettable.
The Moroccan bastila (also transliterated pastilla) is a magnificent pigeon pie rich with eggs, butter, almonds, spices such as saffron and ginger, herbs such as cilantro and parsley, and orange flower water. The dish is encased in thin pastry leaves called warka, which are like phyllo pastry leaves, and finally dusted with confectioner’s sugar and powdered cinnamon.
In Morocco, it’s usually eaten at the end of Ramadan. If you try the recipe, read it several times before beginning so you are familiar with what happens. Given how labor-intensive the preparation is, you’ll only want to make it for friends who truly appreciate good food, and who love Moroccan food already. You’ll need a 16-inch round baking pan.
A large steel pan of saffron-infused and yellow sticky rice with fish, shrimp and runner beans or with chicken is an invitation to a great feast in Valencia. One of the great misunderstandings about paella is that true Valencian Spanish paella is made in one of two ways, with chicken or with seafood, and never with mixed meats. Today there are many variations, including dishes that mix meats and seafood. To make paella authentically, you cook it in a flat steel pan over an open fire outside without ever stirring the rice. You’ll need an 18-inch steel paella pan that can be purchased online from Dona Juana.
This classic preparation of coastal Provence is almost never made at home and tends to be a restaurant dish. That doesn’t mean home cooks can’t make bouillabaisse. My recipe seems more complicated than it should be because I wanted a recipe that doesn’t makes compromises. You should follow it exactly, and you’ll have an experience identical to the one I had at the Tetou restaurant in Golf-Juan in France, where we lingered over a bouillabaisse all afternoon. The gentle waves of the Mediterranean sea were lapping mere feet away from us while the air was redolent of saffron, fennel, orange, garlic, and rascasse, the essential scorpionfish.
The idea of a pasta pie is one of the most extravagant in all Italian cuisines. The 16th- and 17th- century cookbooks included recipes per far pasticcio (for making pie) which usually meant pasta pie.
One version of a pasta pie is the timballo, which is a kind of pasta pie or pasticcio in Italian. This dish is made in a ball mold that looks like a timbale or kettledrum, hence the name. One of the most famous renditions of this dish is found in the wonderful 1996 movie “Big Night.” In the film, the timpano (Neapolitan for timballo) is not made with a pastry crust, making its unveiling all the more tense as everything is held together precariously. One can make it in any kind of springform mold or deep pie pan with or without a short dough pastry crust.
The Arabs, Turks and Greeks all make a variation of the same preparation of spit-roasted, seasoned fatty meat on a vertical rotisserie. It is purely street food and never made at home, and perhaps shouldn’t be called “celebratory” as it is everyday snacking food in its birthplace. For me, though, every bite of a gyro is a celebration, so I include it.
The Turks call it döner kebabı, the Greeks gyro (pronounced YEE-ro), and the Arabs shāwurma. In Greece, a gyro is made with slices of meat rather than ground patties as it is in some places. Although it’s quite common to see electric rotisseries, many believe the hardwood charcoal rotisseries with their vertical shelves for charcoal are the best way to cook the meat.
The meat used for these dishes is varied. Generally it is a combination of the best cuts of top sirloin, loin, and shoulder of lamb. These cuts are not necessarily ground but pounded very thin, layered, seasoned and skewered.
Any one of these five preparations will be a challenge with a great reward. Make any of these and you will understand more about the culinary patrimony of the Mediterranean than you can imagine.
Bouillabaisse at the Tetou restaurant in Golf-Juan. Credit: Ali Kattan-Wright
Whatever happened to white sauce? Has that wonderfully comforting creamy sauce thickened with butter and flour disappeared for good from our plates? Forty years ago white sauce was as much a staple as gravy, the foundation of fritters and soups, soufflés and fricassées, and indeed the starting point for a whole family of Southern cream sauces. There was a time when we revelled in chicken à la king and creamed oysters and onions au gratin.
The rot began with nouvelle cuisine, that short-lived French aberration which one chef called “a little bit of nothing on a big white plate.” Flour was banned from the kitchen in favor of “light” butter-mounted sauces that relied on meat reductions and glazes for flavor. Flour, it was claimed, led to heavy, sticky, lumpy sauces with a depressing resemblance to library paste. Well of course it did — if the sauce was badly made.
But the new butter emulsions proved far trickier, needing a careful hand to create them, and a constant watch to maintain just the right temperature so they did not break. In a home kitchen, few cooks had the sharp eye and quick turn of the whisk needed for such fragile constructions. Professional chefs heaved a sigh, tried a few gimmicks like vacuum flasks for keeping such sauces warm (not hot), and moved on. Cooking the finicky embellishments to order was the only realistic approach, too labor-intensive for all but the most expensive restaurants.
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Sauces began to disappear, revealing the naked ingredients that had been artfully hidden underneath. Poached fish fillets and boneless chicken breasts were stripped, shivering on the plate. Colorful sides of vegetables were not enough. To hide the misery, the food would be coated in a colorful rub, or topped with a fresh chutney or relish. Flavors took on a new kick with global outreach. Once-exotic fresh ginger and chili, soy, sesame oil and cilantro became commonplace. Sriracha took pride of place in front of the Worcestershire sauce in the pantry. The underlying ingredients were masked, enabling parsimonious cooks to economize on quality — who would notice a stringy bit of chicken or a bland, mushy fish beneath a blizzard of conflicting flavors? But let’s not be cynical.
I’m on a campaign to revive white sauce and its cousin velouté, made with the cooking broth from the main ingredient. When young cooks come into the kitchen, one of the first things I show them is white sauce, and invariably they look mystified. I make them whisk a butter and flour roux in a figure eight, then stir in the milk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Quick, simple, with constant whisking the key until the sauce thickens. “But it’s easy!” they exclaim.
So I’m urging a return to homemade macaroni cheese and those vegetable gratins of chard or spinach topped with white sauce and a luscious crust of grated Gruyère. How about lobster mornay and veal blanquette and chicken divan? I yearn for a delicate fillet of sole, poached in fish stock and white wine that is used for the glistening coating of sauce suprême. Escoffier knew what he was doing!
Use white sauce to thicken soups and stews, or to bind gratins of cooked vegetables. Thin white sauce gives the creamy texture to macaroni and cheese or layered pastas such as lasagne. Thick white sauce binds fritters and forms a base for soufflés.
Makes 2 cups
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups cold whole milk
Salt and white pepper to taste
Note: For thick white sauce, use 4-5 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk. For thin white sauce, use 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk.
1. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook until bubbling. Take from the heat and whisk in the milk (it should be cold), pouring it in all at once. Season with salt and white pepper if you have it (so the white sauce is not spotted with black pepper).
2. Return the pan to medium heat and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly until it thickens, just below boiling point. Lower the heat and simmer 1-2 minutes to thoroughly cook the flour. If by any chance some lumps have formed, simply work the sauce through a strainer into a bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3. To store white sauce, pour it into a bowl and while still warm cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap so a skin does not form. The sauce will do fine in the refrigerator up to 2 days. It will have thickened slightly when reheated, so stir in a little more milk.
After the sauce thickens, whisk in 2-3 tablespoons crème fraîche and simmer 1-2 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Cheese (Mornay) Sauce
After white sauce has simmered, take it from the heat and whisk in 3-4 tablespoons grated Gruyère cheese or 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasoning. Do not recook the sauce as it will form strings.
After simmering, whisk 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley into the sauce, taste and adjust seasoning. Good with fish, especially salmon.
Top photo: White sauce over broccoli. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry
Indian food lovers in the United States often have a vague concept of what biryanis are — a perception that stems from Indian restaurants that spike basmati rice with spices and dot it with either pieces of meat or vegetables. From the Persian biriyan (to fry before cooking), true biryanis were introduced and made popular by several invaders; the Moghuls were a prime influence, having gathered their knowledge from the Persians. The Nawabs of Lucknow and the Nizams of Hyderabad also popularized these layered meat-rice-nut dishes all across India, where there are more than 35 varieties.
The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate the biryani — some even included pounded silver leaves. I consider such biryanis to be meals in themselves; the only accompaniments they need are a simple yogurt-based raita (even a bowl of plain yogurt will suffice), pickles (either homemade or store-bought), and flame-toasted lentil wafers (papads).
The constitution of a biryani is rather simple. First, meat is often marinated and braised, spiced and simmered in various sauces. To prepare the rice layer, clarified butter is perfumed with whole spices, and sometimes with nuts and raisins. Then basmati rice is steeped in the butter (with water) to partially cook it. Finally, alternating layers of the meat curry and rice pulao are spread in a casserole and baked until the flavors mingle and the rice grains are tender. Although many of the biryanis are meat-based, vegetarians have adapted these dishes to include legumes and vegetables.
Kichidi, a savory and soothing porridge
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love biryanis, but the dish that gets no respect is one that is a close sibling, albeit a dowdy one in some Indians’ minds. Kichidis are soothing and simple porridges usually eaten when convalescing from an illness. The easily digestible grains, when eaten with plain yogurt, make for a comforting meal. Often, the trilogy of pickles, papads and yogurt accompanies kichidis to complement the porridge’s softness with pungency and crunch.
Of all the stories I heard in my childhood days, the one that always made me sit up and listen was this one about kichidis. To set the stage, it’s helpful to know about Akbar, the third and highly revered emperor of the Moghul empire, who ascended the throne at the tender age of 13, around 1556. Over the course of his rule, he developed a deep bond and friendship with his trusted inner circle adviser, Birbal, whose wit, impartiality, compassion and intelligence were legendary. Stories were penned over the years that regaled many a child at bedtime. This one particularly stuck with me, appealing to my culinary sensibilities.
Birbal listened patiently to the poor Brahmin’s predicament. The Brahmin, with teeth still chattering from the previous night’s bone-chilling experience in the frigid waters of the lake, recounted how he was promised 100 rupees for spending the night in its icy bed. He had managed to survive the frigidity by cozy thoughts that his children’s bellies would soon be filled with the help of this small fortune. He called upon Rama for strength, hands folded in pious servitude, looking toward a lighted oil lamp 200 feet away for the only flicker in an otherwise charcoal-black night. His prayers helped him make it to the crack of dawn, when he emerged from the lake with frozen, shriveled skin but a warmed heart filled with the hope of a hot meal for his hungry babies.
The court ministers marveled at the Brahmin’s fortitude and quizzed him at length on his successful survival. But once they heard that he had made it through with the “warmth” from the flickering light 200 feet away, they refused him his meager prize.”You cheated us you insolent man,” they fumed. “You heated yourself with the oil lamp 200 feet away.” The Brahmin’s earnest pleadings fell on deaf ears even when he insisted on presenting his case to the usually fair-minded emperor, Akbar.
Birbal stroked his beard as he listened to the Brahmin’s misery. It was time to teach the cruel ministers and Akbar a lesson. He invited them to a simple dinner of kichidi in his palatial courtyard. With help from the Brahmin, he lit a small fire from dried twigs. He fashioned a supporting structure 50 feet high from which dangled a large earthenware pot filled with rice, lentils and gold-yellow turmeric. The crowds gathered and waited with growing impatience for the humble, delicately spiced porridge.
Akbar’s anger rose along with the wisps of smoke from the pitiful twig fire as he demanded explanation for Birbal’s obvious stupidity in trying to cook a pot of kichidi 50 feet away from such a weak flame. “Jahanpana,” he said with respect, addressing him as King of the World, “if a flickering light 200 feet away could warm a Brahmin standing in waist-high icy-cold water, why can’t I cook this kichidi only fifty feet away.” Akbar realized his folly, duly reprimanded his ministers, and ordered them to pay the Brahmin five times what was promised to him. Birbal once again prevailed!
Rice-Lentil Porridge with Caramelized Onion (Pyaaz kichidi)
Makes 6 servings (about ½ cup each)
1 cup uncooked white basmati or long-grain rice
½ cup split and skinned green lentils (mung/moong dal — yellow in this form)
4 cups cold tap water
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons ghee or melted butter
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium-size red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 to 4 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies, stems removed, slit in half lengthwise (do not remove seeds)
1 medium-size tomato, cored and finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
1. Plunk the rice and dal into a medium-size saucepan and add enough water to cover the grains. With your fingertips gently rub and swish the grains, at which point the water will get cloudy. Pour the water out and repeat three to four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
2. Add 4 cups cold water to the pan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring once or twice to separate the grains. Skim off any suds that may float to the top. Stir in the turmeric, lower the heat to medium, and simmer, partially covered, until most of the water evaporates. Cover the pan and continue to simmer about 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the burner and allow the pan to sit undisturbed an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the cumin and let it sizzle, turn reddish brown, and smell nutty, about 10 to 15 seconds. Immediately add the onion and chilies and stir-fry 4 to 6 minutes, until the onion turns purple-brown, 5 to 7 minutes. This is a good time to make sure your stove fan is on because of the pungent fumes from the roasting chilies.
5. Add the remaining ingredients and stew the mélange, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the tomato softens, 2 to 4 minutes.
6. Scrape the skillet’s contents into the now-cooked rice-lentil mixture and mix well; serve.
Tip: If onions, chilies and tomatoes bother your stomach, leave them out. The humble cumin seeds and ghee are equally satisfying on their own.
Top photo: Indian kichidi. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
It started on Facebook. One day my newsfeed was filled with chefs and bartenders asking for votes. It was the end of the year, and one of the food blogs had just posted a raft of entreaties to “Vote for your favorite new restaurant!” and “Vote for the best bartender!” Everyone in the restaurant industry was asking friends to vote. At least those categories were based on food.
But the contest that pushed me over the edge was named “The Hottest Chef.”
Not hot as in “rising star” or “making great food.” No. Hot as in good looking. Hot as in, “This Category Has Nothing To Do With Food.”
I couldn’t believe who was asking for votes. A lot of respected chefs — grown men, mostly — who, in my opinion, could really benefit from putting their noses down and concentrating on their cooking, were asking to be picked as the best looking boy or girl at the food prom.
I was an awkward kid and got over the struggle to be popular at a pretty young age. By the time I was 16 I was working in kitchens with adults, and that provided me with perspective: Cooking is about what you do, not what you look like. Cooking is a craft, and it requires attention and dedication. And just as in any artistic profession, if your goal is fame, you aren’t going to achieve your potential.
For chefs, staying hot requires keeping cool
These lists: Best New Restaurant, Best Restaurant, Best Chef, Hottest Bartender, Best … Hottest … They not only diminish the restaurants and the people working in them, but they cannibalize the authority of the publications that produce them.
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The best dining in any city is often at that place that has existed for years. In Portland, Caffe Mingo has been turning out delicious rustic Italian food for over a decade. They hit the mark in a way that only a restaurant that has honed its craft for years can do. They haven’t been on a list in years.
Accolades also interfere with restaurant performance. At my restaurants, Toro Bravo and Tasty N Sons, we have always relied on word of mouth. When we get singled out for what we do, I have a meeting with my staff to prepare for the backlash: diners who will be upset their place has been discovered, diners who will be unhappy with the uptick in wait-times. Of course we have our Restaurant of the Year award on display — it’s in the bathroom.
There are better ways for chefs and restaurants to get attention than to beg their friends to vote for their Hotness online:
- Come out swinging! Put everything you can into the craft and service. The people who fill your seats Monday through Thursday are regulars and industry. If you pay attention to craft, they will keep coming.
- Spend more time thinking about the best tomato, and less time thinking about the best write-up. Don’t ask for coverage before your restaurant is ready for the glare. You can’t seek out the public’s attention and then complain if you get reviewed “too soon” — so wait, get it right, and then reach out.
- Keep your mind-set on Year 6, not Month 6. If you work on the craft at the start, you might get to Year 6. At that point, think about a cookbook (“The Toro Bravo Cookbook” is coming this fall), but in the meantime, keep some of your powder dry so that you can bring in new customers when you aren’t the Next Big Thing.
Photo: Restaurateur John Gorham. Credit: David L Reamer photography
The hot-sour-salty-sweet flavor combinations that dominate in Bangkok and central Thailand and in the Isaan region bordering Laos in the country’s east, make scant appearance up north. Northern Thai food is instead — in the words of northerners themselves — kem-kon (concentrated, intense) and rot-jat (strongly flavored). In your face: spicy, salty and sometimes bitter.
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Ingredients such as odiferous bplaa raa (literally “rotten fish”), a long-fermented fish condiment that northerners use more often than regular fish sauce, and tua nao, fermented soy beans that are mashed and shaped into disks or small bricks before being dried in the sun, lend the cuisine a jolt of umami and an elusive earthiness. Fresh and dried chilies are ubiquitous. Depth and complexity come from a range of dried spices more often associated with Malay or Indian foods (cloves, cinnamon, coriander seed, nutmeg and cumin); black, white and long peppers; and a regional variety of prickly ash (more commonly known as Sichuan peppercorn). Smokiness comes from the barbecue, ingredients such as green chilies, shallots, tomatoes and garlic are often grilled before they’re added to a dish.
Northerners prefer khao niaow, or sticky rice, over non-glutinous rice. At the table they use one hand to turn knobs of warm rice into small patties by pressing and shaping the grains between their palm and the tips of the fingers. Then they use the rice as Middle Easterners and northern Africans would bread, to carry bits of food and the cooking juices and liquids of stews and soups from plate or bowl to mouth.
Nam priks bask in the hot stuff
The northern Thai cook’s touchstones are dips known as nam prik (“chili water” is the literal translation), small bowls of concentrated flavor that pair beautifully with the fresh herbs (mint, various basils and cilantro among others) and blanched and uncooked vegetables (fresh and leafy greens such as Chinese mustard and various lettuces, and cucumbers, tart cherry tomatoes and winter squash) that are always presented alongside.
These vegetables and dips are usually served as part of a full meal, but in a non-Thai setting they work well as finger foods to go with drinks (and are a relatively virtuous alternative to chips and dips — although pork rinds, a beloved snack in pork-obsessed northern Thailand, often make an appearance). The dips can also be eaten together as a light meal.
Minced Pork and Tomato Dip (Nam Prik Ong)
This mild nam prik has a flavor and texture reminiscent of Bologna-style ragu. Leftovers are wonderful tossed with wide rice noodles and a handful of scallion greens chopped with Thai basil.
Nam prik ong is usually eaten with pork rinds (rice crackers work well, too) and with blanched, rather than raw, vegetables. Chunks of peeled winter squash (kabocha, butternut, etc.) are a must. Try also wedges of round green cabbage, cauliflower, long beans, carrots and Chinese greens like baby bok choy and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), their leaves squeezed dry.
7 dried red chilies
3 shallots, roughly chopped (about 2 ounces)
2 teaspoons Thai or Malaysian shrimp paste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
5 plump cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 tablespoons ground pork
2 cups roughly chopped tomatoes
½ cup chicken or pork broth
Fish sauce, to taste
1. Toast the chilies in a dry skillet over medium heat until darkened but not burned. Allow to cool and place in a mortar or the bowl of a blender.
2. Add the shallots, garlic and shrimp paste to the chilies and pound or blend to a rough paste (if using blender, add up to 1 tablespoon water to aid processing).
3. Heat a small skillet (preferably non-stick) over medium heat and add the oil. Swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic and sauté until it begins to change color. Add the chile-shallot-shrimp paste mixture and cook, stirring, until the raw smell of the shrimp paste dissipates, about 3 minutes.
4. Add the chopped pork and, breaking it up with a fork, cook just until the pink color disappears.
5. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until they begin to break up, about 2 minutes. Add the broth, lower the heat to medium-low, and let the mixture simmer until the broth is nearly evaporated, leaving a paste of medium thickness.
6. Taste and adjust for salt, if necessary, with fish sauce, adding ¼ teaspoon at a time.
7. Transfer the nam prik to a bowl, let cool, and serve at room temperature with a generous platter of vegetables for dipping.
Roasted Eggplant and Green Chili Dip (Dtam makhya)
This dip, though not a nam prik in name, is certainly one in spirit. It’s often eaten with fresh mint and pork rinds. It’s also wonderful shmeared over a warm soft corn tortilla to roll around grilled or roasted pork, mint and cilantro.
2 large long Asian eggplant (about 500 grams)
5-7 long green chilies
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 red shallots, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon Bplaa raa (often available in southeast Asia markets, in jars labeled “pickled mud fish”) or fish sauce
Pinch of sugar
Salt to taste
Fish sauce, to taste
½ teaspoon cooking oil
1. Grill, broil, roast (at about 350 F) or cook the eggplants and chilies directly over a gas flame until soft and browned all over. Let cool, then peel and chop together, by hand or in a food processor, to a very rough puree. Set aside in a mortar.
2. Add garlic, shallots, bplaa raa, and sugar and briefly pound with a pestle to mix. Taste for salt and add fish sauce, if necessary, ½ teaspoon at a time.
3. Heat the oil in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat, then add the eggplant mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until its color deepens slightly, about 2-3 minutes. Do not let the eggplant brown.
4. Transfer to a bowl and servewarm or at room temperature.
Red-Eye Smoked Fish and Chili Dip (Nam prik dta daeng)
Dta daeng means “red eyes,” which is what you might have after eating this super-spicy dip. Smoked mackerel is a fine substitute for the smoked river fish sold in northern Thai markets; feel free to experiment with hot-smoked salmon or any other smoked fish. Traditionally the smoked fish, shallots and garlic would be grilled, but these days northern Thai cooks are happy to use the microwave. The number of chilies called for results in an authentically fiery dish. Reduce by up to two-thirds for a much milder dip; you could also remove the seeds.
Serve this dip with any combination of fresh Asian long beans (or green beans), sliced cucumber, napa cabbage and Chinese mustard leaves, wing beans, and herbs such as mint, Thai or purple basil, sawtooth herb and Vietnamese mint. Leftovers are great stirred into scrambled eggs.
4 ounces smoked mackerel, bones removed
5 unpeeled shallots
8 unpeeled garlic cloves
25 whole Thai dried red chilies, stemmed
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 tablespoon Thai or Malaysian shrimp paste
½ teaspoon cooking oil
½ cup water
1. Remove any skin from the fish. Cut the fish into chunks and microwave until its moisture is rendered and it has begun to crisp, about 3-5 minutes depending on the size of the chunks and the fattiness of the fish. Set aside to cool.
2. Place garlic cloves on plate, cover with microwave-safe plastic wrap, and microwave till very soft, 2-3 minutes. Repeat with the shallots, which will take 4-5 minutes. Set aside to cool, then peel.
3. Toast the chilies in a skillet over medium heat until they darken, stirring constantly so they don’t burn. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
4. Pound the fish and chilies in a mortar or chop in a food processor to rough puree. Add the shallots and garlic and pound or process to a paste.
5. Place a (preferably nonstick) skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, heat for a few seconds, and then add the tomatoes and the shrimp paste. Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the water and continue to cook, stirring and mashing the tomatoes with the back of your spatula or spoon, until the moisture has almost evaporated, about 3 more minutes.
6. Add the chile-shallot-garlic-fish paste and cook, stirring, until the ammonia smell of the shrimp paste has dissipated and the combination paste has started to darken and take on an oily sheen, 4-5 minutes. There should be no moisture left in the pan.
7. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Serve at room temperature.
Top photo: Nam prik ong, a northern Thai style “dip” made of tomato and ground pork often served with pork rinds (bowl left). Credit: David Hagerman
I grew up in a small town in Northern California called Paradise, where my father opened the first Chinese restaurant. My maternal grandmother, whom we called Popo, the Chinese word for grandmother, came to live with us a few years later.
“You should be proud you are Hakka,” Popo told my brother and me.
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As the only children of color in our school, we had little interest in learning about being more Chinese, we just wanted to fit in. But Popo persisted. After school, she tried to teach us how to speak Hakka and write Chinese characters in her kitchen. Then she’d often cook dinner for us — stir-fried vegetables from her garden, homemade chicken soup, steamed eggs, or sometimes our favorite dish, an aromatic stew of braised Chinese bacon and potatoes.
More than five decades later, I had forgotten most of the Chinese, but her words echoed in my mind. I had recently left Sunset magazine where I wrote food stories for more than 34 years. Now I had time to research what she meant when she said, “You should be proud you are Hakka.” I would do it through what I knew best, food. Popo had passed away decades ago, and so had my parents. It was too late to ask them questions. I wish I could have asked Popo how she came to America. How she cooked the bacon and potato stew that my brother and I still remember today. But I would have to figure it out myself.
Retracing your culinary heritage
I turned to a Hakka friend who lived nearby. We spent many sessions in the kitchen. She cooked and I took notes and photos. Smells and flavors from my childhood came back as I tasted some of her dishes. I decided to expand my scope and follow the footsteps of the Hakka diaspora.
I visited some areas where there were Hakka settlements such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Toronto and Lima, Peru. There I watched grandmothers, grandfathers and aunts demonstrate their Hakka specialties. In my cooking sessions, a younger relative often came along to translate. Over and over, the younger generation said they didn’t know how to prepare these dishes. The Hakka cuisine was getting lost through intermarriage and assimilation. I realized I was recording recipes to pass on to the next generation.
You don’t need to be a professional writer to record your own family history and recipes. Just spend some time with the person who cooks your favorite dishes. The standard bearers of your family’s culinary heritage won’t be around forever. Don’t wait too long, as I did. Do it now.
The easiest way to learn a recipe is to watch while the dish is being cooked. Simply observe, take notes, ask questions, taste and take photos. Or better yet, record a video. If needed, ask your mentor to slow down, use measuring cups, or a timer. Record the names and amounts of the ingredients. Translate your notes into legible directions and try cooking your recipe, optimally with your mentor at your side. Fine-tune the recipe and write in all the corrections. Final test, follow your written recipe to see whether the words can produce a dish that meets with the approval of your mentor. Repeat the exercise, and you’ll soon have enough recipes for your own family cookbook.
The recipes will be a legacy to pass on. You will honor your mentor with this shared experience.
Top photo: Linda Lau Anusasananan.
There are foods we remember from our younger days that, if they are not quite comfort food, they certainly evoke pleasant memories. For many people who grew up in the New York City area there was a kind of Italian-American restaurant that we loved. Instead of what we’ve grown to recognize as authentic Italian cuisine, it served up the Italian-American classic recipes, such as scungilli, that keep a special place in our hearts.
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Its name was the name of the family that owned it: Christiano’s or Brancato’s and so forth. The tablecloths were red-checked, the waitresses were quick, sassy and not struggling actors. They were packed and you would wait for a table, the candles were set in old Chianti bottles wrapped in straw and the walls were decorated with Italian kitsch. Dean Martin and “Volare” played in the background and on the tables were dispensers of dried oregano, dried garlic powder, red chile flakes, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. The Parmesan was not imported, I’m sure. Service was nearly instantaneous as hot bread was brought as soon as you sat down.
We remember the food as being terrific. We ordered antipasto. There was no plural. An antipasto was a platter of iceberg lettuce, canned olives, out-of-season tomato slices, wedges of provolone cheese and rolled-up slices of salami.
The Italian-American glory days of spaghetti
There was lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs, of course. There was veal piccata and shrimp scampi. There was no risotto. These were the days before anybody in America knew there was a cuisine from northern Italy. In fact, when northern Italian food first made its entry into the American restaurant scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of those restaurants advertised themselves with the tag line “no red sauce.” My, how things have changed. Today restaurant-goers know about “a little Tuscan place” and they order carpaccio and tiramisu, two dishes utterly unknown in the Italian-American restaurants of old. Frankly, I miss the spumoni.
Our meals came with garlicky garlic bread that was piping hot and we loved it. Sometimes we ordered pizza, but never as a first course. One dish my mom and I were quite fond of was spaghetti with scungilli. She remembered it from her childhood growing up in Manhattan because her Italian father would make it in the 1920s and ’30s. She remembers liking it but not as much as calamari. She rarely made it at home; it was a dish for the restaurants. The restaurants made it just like her father. Nearly all of these Italian-American restaurants were run by families who traced their origins to southern Italy, especially Sicily, Calabria or the Naples area. But not all these families came from a restaurant tradition or even a tradition of cooking, and so many of them weren’t really very good.
All-American Italian scungilli
Scungilli is usually described as conch, and it can be made with conch, but it is actually whelk or murex, which are mollusks found in the waters around Long Island. I believe it is an Italian-American dish. Although scungilli is an Italian-American corruption of the Neapolitan dialect word, sconciglio, spaghetti with scungilli is not known in Italy. At least scungilli is a word that does not appear in any of my Italian dictionaries nor in any Italian cookbook I own except one.
Spaghetti with Scungilli
You will find scungilli in one of three forms: live in their shell, frozen out of their shell, and canned. Fresh whelk needs to be purged of its impurities. Place in a bowl of cold water and keep changing the water until the last change results in perfectly clear water after 2 hours. This process could take 2 days. Frozen conch meat is frozen fresh and purged, so it, and/or the fresh whelk, needs to be boiled for about 3 hours. Canned scungilli only needs to be heated for 1 minute.
12 whelks (2 to 3 inches long, about 3 pounds) or 1 pound frozen conch meat or two 6-ounce cans scungilli
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil leaves
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
Salt to taste
4 cups water
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
¾ pound spaghetti
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt, and add the whelks in their shells (or the frozen conch) and cook for 3 hours, replenishing the water when necessary. Remove from the water, drain and detach the small shell-hard “foot” from the opening. Chop or slice and set aside.
2. In a large flameproof casserole, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook, stirring constantly, the parsley, basil and garlic for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and salt and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the scungilli, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 6 hours, replenishing the water if necessary. The final sauce should be a dense sauce. Season with pepper. (If using canned scungilli, cook the tomato sauce for 15 minutes, add the canned scungilli, and cook 2 minutes and serve with the pasta).
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta to the sauté pan and toss until well coated with sauce then serve without cheese.
Top photo: Scungilli. Credit: Clifford A. Wright