Articles in History

If indulgence is good, overindulgence is better. Or at least that’s the message at Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Voodoo Doughnuts

Has the kooky doughnut fad finally gone too far? Gone off the deep end? Jumped the shark? I was recently at the taping of a Fox News episode where we tasted more than a dozen different doughnuts from Fractured Prune, a Maryland-based doughnut chain that promises numerous combinations based on its 19 glazes and 13 toppings. I expect they taste better at the store than in a Manhattan studio. But, still, how did we get to this orgiastic excess of fried dough rings?

The origins of sweet fried dough are lost to history, but it’s a good bet that we’ve had doughnuts as long as we’ve had frying. Certainly the ancient Greeks and Romans had their own version of the hot, greasy treats. Medieval Arabs dropped blobs of yeast dough into fat rendered from a special kind of fat-tailed sheep before soaking the fritters in syrup. Medieval Europeans boiled theirs in pig fat, which meant doughnuts were off limits on the many non-meat days declared by the church.

As a consequence, there were widespread fried-dough frenzies prior to the 40-day doughnut desert, otherwise known as Lent. Perhaps the greatest doughnut orgy of all occurred at the 1815 Congress of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic Wars, where 8 to 10 million jelly doughnuts reportedly were served during Mardi Gras.

Americans would have none of these papist restrictions. After all, the Pilgrims left England so they could eat doughnuts 365 days a year. And apparently they did. They arrived with an obscure English specialty called a “dough nut” (because that’s what it looked like) and soon doughnuts were synonymous with New England. They were eaten for breakfast, lunch and supper, stuffed into travelers’ pockets, much as we might carry granola bars. America being a land of equal opportunity — at least when it comes to fried dough — the fritters of the French, German, Dutch and other immigrants gave the English version a run for their money, and the hybrids of all these fritter cultures eventually resulted in the doughnut promised land dreamed of by generations of the huddled masses on Europe’s teeming shore.

Here is a short view of current variations of this sweet, deep-fried treat.

Main photo: If indulgence is good, overindulgence is better. Or at least that’s the message at Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Voodoo Doughnuts

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Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: 2015 Copyright Susan Lutz

Professional chefs and home cooks are discovering artisanal salt with a vengeance. No longer content with 50-pound bags of Morton or Diamond Crystal flake salt, chefs are using a bewildering array of salts from around the world in a dizzying variety of ways.

The reasons become clear on a visit to J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden, West Virginia, where CEO Nancy Bruns is a seventh-generation salt-maker. In 2013 Nancy and her brother, Lewis Payne, revived their family’s historic salt-making business high in the Allegheny Mountains. In the past two years, their salt has become a favorite with chefs across the country. I spent the day at the salt-works and discussed the importance of salt with a variety of chefs who use Dickinson’s handmade product.

The reasons that artisanal salt has become important are many,  but seven reasons keep coming up.

Artisanal salt adds unique flavor

 Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Whether it’s rock salt from the Himalayas or open-air evaporated salt from the Mediterranean coast of France, each form of artisanal salt has its own flavor profile.

Aaron Keefer, trained chef and culinary gardener at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California, says the flavor of artisanal salt is hard to describe. “Any salt makes things taste better, but artisan salt has a more rounded flavor that adds a little something extra to the dish that you can’t put your finger on, but in the end you know it’s better.”

Good stories make good salt

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works.  Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works. Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

Artisanal salt always comes with a good story. Dickinson’s Salt-Works began just after the American Revolution, when Bruns’ ancestors began processing salt from the local briny pools. By the time of the Civil War, it was the biggest salt producer in the country. By the end of World War II, commercial salt production in West Virginia had essentially disappeared.

“I love the story,” Keefer says. “Dickinson’s salt was very popular, then it was defunct, then it was brought back in modern times.” But for Keefer, the heart of the story goes back even further: “What made it stand out for me is that the American Indians used it, and the method of extraction was unique.”

Bruns knows that there’s more to branding than simply a great product. “We have a great story which makes it a very authentic brand,” she says. “Seven generations of salt-making in one family on the same land is hard to beat.”

Balance: Minerality vs. salinity

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

The key to an artisanal salt is the balance between minerality and salinity. A pink Himalayan rock salt has enough iron to give it its pink color. Celtic sea salt might have far fewer trace minerals. But each type balances the amount of the chemical sodium chloride, and the other minerals in the water source.

Bruns sources her product from a 400 million-year-old underground sea that geologists call “the Iapetus Ocean.” “Our source is very protected,” she says. “We are not drawing our brine from an exposed, open ocean where there is always the possibility of contamination.” The initial brine from her 350-foot well is rich in magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese and especially iron. Bruns, a former chef, processes the brine to create a salt that has a unique appeal for other chefs.

Matt Baker, executive chef at City Perch Kitchen + Bar in Bethesda, Maryland, has become a fan of Dickinson’s salt: “The grain is nice and plump, so it holds its shape well while also having a medium level of salinity to the finish on the palate.”

Terroir: As vital in salt as it is in wine

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Like wine, artisanal salt has terroir, the word winemakers use to describe that indefinable sense of place that gives each wine its unique personality.

Dickinson’s salt is pumped from more than 300 feet below the ground and evaporated in a series of small hoop houses. Dickinson Salt-Works uses handmade techniques drawn from a 200-year-old legacy. “We think of our salt as an agricultural product,” Bruns says. “It comes from the land, and we move the brine several times to maximize the flavor.”

Ian Boden, chef-owner of The Shack in Staunton, Virginia, says that good artisanal salt “has the taste of its place,” and Dickinson’s salt certainly does. “You can tell that it’s harvested from underneath a mountain because its mineral content is so high. It’s like using Hawaiian black salt — it has that earthy, funky, ash flavor. Except it’s not ash, it’s the mountains of West Virginia.”

The texture of artisanal salt adds contrast

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Unlike the quickly dissolving grains of highly refined industrial salt, the texture of artisanal salt brings contrast to a dish. What most of us think of as texture is the result of a combination of factors including crystal structure, grain size and moisture content. Sometimes, it is texture alone that makes an artisanal salt memorable. All salts are either mined from rock or evaporated from saltwater lakes, springs or oceans. The majority of artisanal salts are evaporative, and the method of evaporation has a profound impact on the texture of the salt.

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A historic how-to series for home cooks, canners and kids
» DIY Popcorn: Give ancient superfood a kick


Chef Boden says the unique character of Dickinson’s salt comes from its texture, which is the result of the solar evaporation process. “To be brutally honest, if you lined up 15 salts, I couldn’t tell you where each one came from, but I think there’s definitely a difference. If you lined salts up, I could tell by feeling it that it was Dickinson’s salt, most definitely.”

Chefs from east to west agree that Dickinson’s salt has a texture that can’t be beat. Baker of City Perch Kitchen + Bar discovered Dickinson’s salt through the restaurant’s mixologist Adam Seger and hasn’t looked back. “I instantly fell in love with the salt. What makes it great is its subtleness and medium-size grain.”

Keefer has also noticed the distinct texture of Dickinson’s salt. “It seems like all salts are shaped just a little bit differently. I like the grind on it — the flake on it — it’s a good all-around salt. I’ve used it both with fish and with meat and been very happy with the results.” Keefer adds, “Try as many different salts as possible and you’ll find a favorite.”

Artisanal salt gives a pop of flavor at the finish

 Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salts are more expensive than industrially produced salts because of the time and resources required to produce them, but this increased price this doesn’t stop chefs from using artisanal salts in a variety of dishes. Keefer explains: “Everybody’s concerned about the price of artisan salt, but a little goes a long way. Use it as a finishing salt, not as a base salt.”

“Salt is there to make things taste more like themselves,” Boden says. But finishing salt is used in a slightly different way. “You put a little finishing salt on the dish and you get a pop of something unexpected. That’s really what we’re using it for — that textural and salinity contrast on a finished plate.”

Each chef uses finishing salt in a distinct and personal way. Baker reports: “We use Dickinson’s salt to finish a lot of our meats and fresh dishes like burrata cheese, seared tuna and foie gras torchon. The texture of the grains makes it melt in your mouth perfectly with a clean finish.”

The unexpected: Artisanal salt inspires creative chefs

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salt pumps up the flavor in unexpected dishes like desserts and cocktails. “I like to add a pinch of salt to a lot of my desserts — whether I’m making a cherry pie or chocolate frosting,” Keefer says. “I don’t put in enough to make it salty, but a pinch of salt adds a surprising amount of flavor.”

Baker has found a variety of unique applications for Dickinson’s salt. “At the bar we use it to rim our Forbidden Fruit Margarita and our Bloody Maryland.” Baker even uses Dickinson’s nigari (a by-product of the salt-making process) as the starter for his house-made ricotta cheese. He couldn’t be happier with the results. The nigari, which is traditionally used to make tofu, “gives the cheese a fresh bite of salinity and a hint of pepper.”

Dickinson Salt-Works has recently introduced a salt with a finer grain. Chef Boden at The Shack plans to experiment with it in his own take on traditional charcuterie, curing and fermenting. “It’s something I want to do. It brings a certain earthiness to the components.”

Artisanal salts are as varied as the almost endless places across the globe in which salt is mined or harvested. And it is these unique flavors and textures that inspire chefs — and the rest of us — to use artisanal salt in creative and ever-evolving ways.

Main photo: Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Abby Fisher's 1881 cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

I was born in Harlem, a child of Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants. I witnessed what the women in my family could do with food.

Rarely is our history taught through the lens of food. Yet, it was over the hearth and in kitchens large and small that they impacted our nation’s culture and created economic, political and social independence through ingenious culinary skills.

That is why I honor African-American women cooks for Women’s History Month this March.

The women in my family created and passed down masterful meals from ancient, unwritten recipes. They built communities and paved my way with proceeds from selling sweet potato pies, fried chicken dinners and roti lunches: a Trinidad flatbread cooked on a griddle and wrapped around curried vegetables or meats. My mom made these popular rotis and sold them in box lunches to employees at the hospital where she worked.

Whether they were free or formerly enslaved, the women I descended from cooked their way to freedom and wealth in America.

In their honor, I have chosen to feature two vintage recipes from two of the oldest cookbooks written by African-American women.

Cookbook pioneers

Malinda Russell wrote “A Domestic Cook Book” in 1866. Abby Fisher wrote “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking” in 1881.

Malinda Russell's "A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen" is believed to be the first published cookbook by an African-American author. Credit: University of Michigan/Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive

Malinda Russell’s “A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen” is believed to be the first published cookbook by an African-American author. Credit: University of Michigan/Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive

Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Mrs. Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Both women wrote their books at the behest of friends, fans and patrons.

Mrs. Russell, a free woman from Tennessee and an owner of a local bakery, was known for her pastries. Most of her recipes are European-inspired. Her cookbook also includes remedies and full-course meals. It was published after she moved to Paw Paw, Michigan.

Mrs. Fisher, a formerly enslaved person, won cooking medals for a wide range of dishes, including preserves and condiments in California. She moved out West from Alabama after the Civil War.

Below are their original recipes and my interpretation.

Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies

Jumbles were cake-like cookies popular from the 1700s. Mrs. Russell’s recipe was exceedingly spare on details, like all of her recipes:

“One lb. flour, 3/4 lb. sugar, one half lb. butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and caraway, to your taste.”

The popular vintage cookies have been adapted through the ages — even by modern food bloggers. I personally sampled a reimagined version of a Jumbles recipe at a culinary event that Anne Hampton Northup was said to have made when she cooked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Northrup was a chef and the wife of Solomon Northup, whose life was depicted in the Oscar-winning picture “12 Years a Slave”.

Here is a more detailed recipe so you can make Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies, using her ingredients. Since she suggested using mace, rosewater and caraway to taste, feel free to alter the suggested amounts of those ingredients:

Jumbles Cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: About 4 dozen cookies

Ingredients

3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspons mace

2 tablespoons caraway seeds

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

8 ounces salted butter (2 sticks, at room temperature)

5 eggs (small- or medium-sized)

4 tablespoons rosewater

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, mace and caraway seeds.

3. In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter together.

4. With an electric mixer on low speed, beat in eggs to the butter and sugar mixture.

5. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.

6. Add the rosewater and mix until combined.

7. Using a tablespoon measure, spoon tablespoon-full size drops of the batter on your baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.

8. Bake for about 10 minutes, just until the edges turn golden.

9. Cool the cookies for two minutes on wire racks. Serve, and store the remainder quickly in a sealed container or bag.

Mrs. Abby Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy

This old recipe holds up very well today. Many of Mrs. Fisher’s recipes called for huge amounts of each ingredient:

“To five gallons of berries add one gallon of the best brandy; put on the fire in a porcelain kettle and let it just come to a boil, then take it off the fire and make a syrup of granulated sugar; ten pounds of sugar to one quart of water. Let the syrup cook till thick as honey, skimming off the foam while boiling; then pour it upon the brandy and berries and let it stand for eight weeks; then put in a bottle or demijohn. This blackberry brandy took a diploma at the state Fair of 1879. Let the berries, brandy and syrup stand in a stone jar or brandy keg for eight weeks when you take it off the fire.”

The basic ingredients for Mrs. Fisher's Blackberry Brandy: blackberries, sugar and cognac. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

The basic ingredients for Mrs. Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy: blackberries, sugar and cognac. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

I was so inspired by Mrs. Fisher’s recipe that I made my own version — which is now in the middle of the eight-week fermentation process. I used the same ingredients, but reduced the amounts, and poured them into a glass jug instead of a brandy keg. And I used cognac, because Mrs. Fisher’s recipe called for the “best brandy.”

We’ll have our own taste test — at my next family reunion.

Main photo: Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook was long believed to be the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s 1866 book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

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American heritage purple popcorn reveals the beauty of this gluten-free, kid-friendly, ancient superfood. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Popcorn is an ancient superfood — a simple and nutritious form of a 9,000-year-old staple. Popcorn is DIY food preservation at its most basic and most delicious.

Popcorn is simply preserved corn … a way of saving the harvest. Fresh corn can, of course, be boiled, roasted, steamed or baked. But corn became a staple in the Western Hemisphere because it could be dried and stored all winter. Corn was first domesticated in Mexico from a wild grass nearly 9,000 years ago. Archeologists have discovered corncobs from the northern coast of Peru that could date to 6,700 years ago, and scientists believe that this dried corn was eaten as popcorn and ground into corn flour.

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First in a historic how-to series for home cooks, canners and kids

Benjamin Franklin remarked on the magical properties  of corn that would “pop.” Franklin marveled at the mysterious recipe of “parching corn,” which he wrote about in 1790. He described how the Native Americans “fill a large pot or kettle nearly full of hot ashes, and pouring in a quantity of corn, stir it up with the ashes, which presently parches and burst the grain.” This “bursting” was shocking to Franklin, since it “threw out a substance twice its bigness.” Franklin boasted that popcorn — when ground to a fine powder and mixed with water — created a veritable superfood, claiming that “six ounces should sustain a man a day.”

“Superfood” may seem like a bit of hype for a snack most often eaten while watching bad movies. But in 2012, researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania reported that popcorn has more antioxidant polyphenols than any other fruit or vegetable. One serving provides more than 70% of a person’s daily serving of whole grain, and a single 4-cup portion provides 5 grams of fiber. Popcorn is no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s a virtuous reward.

The “bursting” that gives popcorn its name is the result of physics inherent in that tiny white or golden nubbin. Inside a popcorn kernel’s outer hull lies the endosperm, which is made of soft starch and a bit of water. Although all types of corn will “pop” to some extent, popcorn will actually explode and turn inside out when heated. To pop successfully, a kernel of dried popcorn should ideally have a moisture level of 13.5% to 14%. When the kernel is heated to an internal temperature somewhere between 400 to 460 F, the water in the endosperm expands, building up pressure that eventually causes the hull to burst. Steam is released and the soft starch inside the kernel puffs up around the shattered hull.

A popcorn worth the obsession

The type of popcorn that comes out of the microwave is often a poor substitute for heritage breeds or locally sourced popcorn. My children and I are currently obsessed with purple popcorn, which we buy dried on the cob at our farmers market or as “Amish Country Purple Popcorn” from the Troyer Cheese Company. I prefer to roast it in a skillet with canola oil and coarse sea salt — simple and basic. My kids’ prefer their popcorn covered in a spice mixture we created, containing cocoa powder, sugar, and cinnamon (though this may counteract some of the health benefits). For adults I add an additional “kick” with cayenne pepper. Try this with a few types of popcorn — each in its own bowl for the sake of comparison — and you’ll have more than a movie snack, you’ll have a healthy, crowd-pleasing conversation starter that won’t last long.

Cinnamon-Cocoa Popcorn With a Kick

Cook time: 15 minutes, no prep time required.

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 3 to 4 servings

Ingredients

1/4 teaspoon cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)

3 tablespoons canola oil

1/3 cup popcorn kernels

Directions

1. Heat a 2- to 3-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes.

2. While pan heats, place cocoa powder, cinnamon, sugar, sea salt and cayenne pepper (if desired) in a small bowl. Stir to combine.

3. Back at the stove, turn heat down to medium high and add oil to heated pan. Carefully place two or three popcorn kernels in oil and cover pan with lid.

4. After test kernels pop, add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer — about 1/3 cup.

5. When kernels start to pop, lower heat to medium and shake pan gently until popping stops. (I like to rotate the pan in a circular motion over the burner to keep the popcorn moving.)

6. Pour popped corn into a large bowl. Sprinkle popcorn with topping mixture, toss to coat evenly, and eat immediately. Coated popcorn can be stored in an airtight container for several days, but it will lose a bit of its crunch.

Main photo: American heritage purple popcorn reveals the beauty of this gluten-free, kid-friendly, ancient superfood. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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London's large Ghanian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Credit 2015 Cynthia Bertelsen

Cassava, to me, is the Sleeping Beauty of the African kitchen.

The first time I ate cassava, I was on a leaky porch in Paraguay in a torrential rain. The cook plunked down before me a painted enamel platter, stacked high with what looked like chunks of potatoes. She placed a small bottle filled with vinegar and tiny green hot peppers next to my plate. Before cutting into a tough piece of beef, I upended the bottle over the meat. I forked a couple of potatoes onto my plate, too.

Only they weren’t potatoes. The white tuber was cassava, which originated in central Brazil. Known scientifically as Manihot esculenta and other common names such as manioc or yuca, it later spread to Africa’s Congo Basin by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

It wasn’t love at that first chewy bite. But when I saw cassava afterward, I made sure it ended up on my plate or in my shopping bag. Potatoes don’t grow well in the tropics, where I lived at the time. So cassava began to take potatoes’ place in my kitchen. I learned to love cassava because of its texture and propensity to soak up other flavors.

A staple of the African diet

In the years I lived in Africa, I came to know cassava especially well. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, cassava provides a whopping 37% of daily caloric intake. It is popular throughout Africa and the third most widely eaten starchy food in the world, after wheat and rice.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “the most important traditional culinary preparations of cassava in Africa are:

  • boiled or roasted roots (akin to potatoes),
  • fufu (cassava flour stirred with boiled water over low heat to create a stiff dough like polenta),
  • eba (called gari in Nigeria, is similar to toasted bread crumbs, then soaked in hot water to produce a thick paste),
  • and, chikwangue (steamed, fermented pulp wrapped in leaves, not unlike tamales).”

Cassava grows underground and is easier to cultivate than corn, requiring far less labor. Resistant to drought and most insects and diseases, it is highly sustainable. It also cannot easily be burned and destroyed in war situations.

This scraggly-looking plant also can take climatic abuse, growing well in poor soil and during droughts. The long, brown roots stay fresh in the ground, sometimes for up to two years. But once harvested, cassava rots fast, in spite of its bark-like peel. That’s the reason for the wax you see on most cassava sold in Western markets.

A tip for finding the freshest cassava

Sometimes “fresh” cassava in supermarkets tends to be old, with black lines running through it, especially under and around the peel. I constantly poke and prod cassava that’s for sale. My hope is to find roots bearing small wounds inflicted by some savvy shopper: one who has broken off the pointed tips of the waxed roots to peer into the whiteness, seeking — and rejecting — the telltale black lines.


Having chosen pristine cassava for your meal, what happens next?

First, peel the cassava with a sharp knife. A vegetable peeler does not work as well. Remove the thin, white membrane surrounding the cassava under the bark-like peel. Cut the roots into equal lengths. Boil in salted water until tender enough so a knife slips in easily.

EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME

This is the second in a series exploring the food of the African continent, with a focus on individual ingredients and traditional recipes to bring the African pantry to your home.

The first article featured the peanut.

Future articles will feature black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.

Cassava can be quite fibrous, with a tough, stringy core that must be removed. Generally this core is not a problem, because as cassava cooks, it splits apart and the core can easily be removed. If you’d rather not hassle with peeling and boiling, seek a market specializing in Asian and other international foods. In the freezer section, you will likely find frozen cassava, ready to cook. You might also find cassava in cans there, too.

Now that you’ve got your peeled cassava on the kitchen counter, you’re probably wondering about the best way to cook it.

Skilled cooks in Africa developed a number of methods — grating, pounding and drying cassava into flour — to make its rather bland flavor pop in the mouth. Such techniques have resulted in commercial products that take a lot of the burden off of the cook. Tapioca pudding is made from dried cassava, available in nearly any grocery store.

Cassava flour can be used for making fufu, too. Gari adds texture to soups and other dishes. It can also be used in place of panko, a real boon to those on a gluten-free diet.

But if you opt to start from scratch, add large chunks of cassava to a meaty stew instead of potatoes. Try eating boiled cassava drenched with a spicy peanut sauce. Or simply fry it in the same way you might do with potatoes for French fries. Served a fiery pepper sauce, fried cassava offers a fresh taste of Africa.

Give cassava a try. I guarantee you will fall in love with it, too.

Cassava “French Fries”

Cassava gives a gluten-free twist to French fries. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Cassava fries provide a chewy twist to potato French fries. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes, depending upon the number of roots

Cook time: 25 to 40 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes to 1 hour

Yield: Serves two

Ingredients

4 10- to 12-inch-long cassava roots

1 tablespoon salt

Vegetable oil for frying

Directions

1. With a sharp knife, remove the pointed tips and peel the cassava, making sure to remove the thin membrane just under the bark-like peel.

2. Cut the cassava into 4- to 6-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise and then cut those into French fry-size sticks.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stove top. Add about 1 tablespoon of salt and the cassava. Reduce heat to a fast simmer, and cook the cassava until quite tender, usually about 20 to 30 minutes. Check doneness by poking a piece with a knife.

4. When done, drain the cassava and let cool slightly. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, heat oil to a depth of 1/4 inch over medium-high heat. Add the drained cassava and cook until cassava is a light golden brown.

5. Remove cassava from the oil, drain on paper towels, arrange on serving plates, and place a few tablespoons of the pepper sauce (recipe below) on each plate. Serve immediately.

Pepper Sauce

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups

Ingredients

10 habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers, orange or red, seeded and roughly chopped

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

4 Roma tomatoes, chopped

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

Salt to taste

1 cup vegetable oil, divided

Directions

1. Place all the ingredients, except for 1/2 cup of the oil, in a blender or food processor. Purée.

2. In a heavy skillet, heat the remaining 1/2 cup of oil over medium-high heat. Being cautious to avoid splattering oil, add the sauce and reduce the heat immediately to medium-low. Cook the sauce for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning.

3. Remove from heat, and let the sauce cool.

4. Store in a clean glass jar in your refrigerator, where it will be good for about a week. Be sure the sauce is always topped with a thin layer of oil. This helps to keep it safe and fresh.

Main photo: London’s large Ghanaian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Copyright Cynthia Bertelsen

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Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: David Latt

The lesser partner of center-stage bacon and eggs at breakfast, toast is often pushed to the edges of the plate waiting for a bit of butter and jam. But toast is forgotten no longer. Chef Jason Travi of Superba Food + Bread in Venice, California, has placed toast center stage, and not just for breakfast. No longer just dressed in sweet jams, toast appears on the restaurant’s menu topped with sautéed kale, prosciutto, avocado, smoked trout and muhammara, the spicy Middle Eastern condiment.

Why toast? Why now?

Dishes long associated with childhood meals have been improved with quality ingredients to the delight of diners. Chefs gave kid-friendly mac and cheese a makeover by adding English cheddar, fresh Maine lobster and truffle oil.

Travi was following a toast trend begun by all accounts by chef Giulietta Maria Carrelli of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club in the San Francisco Bay area. At Superba Food + Bread, chef Travi took me into his kitchen for a video demonstration of a signature dish: grilled toast with walnut muhammara and burrata. Before we began, he talked about his partnership with Jonathan Eng, the baker responsible for making the freshly baked breads used in the restaurant.

Good toast requires great bread

At Superba Food + Bread, Eng was encouraged to be innovative. The restaurant promoted collaboration. Often Eng will come up with an idea for a new bread. He and Travi would then explore toppings that would be a good match for the texture and flavor of the new bread. Sometimes Travi asked for a bread to go with a particular dish, such as the sprouted wheat loaf he asked Eng to make with millet, flax and sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. While the many sandwiches on the menu come with a variety of breads, all the toasts are made with the pain au levain.

To make his version of the classic French sourdough, Eng modified the recipe using a 16-hour cold fermentation. Using an Italian Bassanina Tubix steam pipe oven, he bakes the pain au levain loaves in 750- and 1,500-gram sizes. Both are used in the restaurant and sold in the bakery.

The only way the restaurant will be guaranteed to have freshly baked bread for the day’s service is if Eng starts work at 2 a.m. six days a week. When he arrives, the cleaning crew is just leaving. For a few hours he enjoys having the quiet restaurant all to himself. By the time Travi’s crew arrives for the breakfast service, Eng has his loafs stacked high on the wood counters, ready for the day’s diners.

A mother’s recipe passed down to her son, the chef

Chef Travi remembers watching his mother cook when he was growing up. From her Lebanese family, she learned to prepare Middle Eastern classics. One particular dish stayed in his memory, her muhammara, a spicy dip made with peppers, walnuts, bread crumbs and olive oil.

To complement the spicy flavors of the muhammara, Travi adds freshly made burrata and the crunch of pickled radish.

Muhammara-Burrata Toast With Pickled Radish

While the spread will work on any bread, Eng encourages using a good quality sourdough that is baked fresh and eschews preservatives. Although ready-made bread crumbs can be used, the quality of the muhammara will be improved when they are homemade.

The muhammara can be made the day of use or reserved covered in the refrigerator for up to five days. The radishes should pickle for two days and then can be refrigerated in an airtight container in the pickling liquid for several days.

The Aleppo powder Travi prefers is frequently unavailable. He suggests substituting cayenne powder. The heat from the two are different, so taste and adjust the amount used.

Pomegranate molasses is available in Middle Eastern and Israeli markets and sometimes in the International sections of supermarkets.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 whole red pepper, washed, to yield ¾ cup roasted red peppers

6 slices freshly baked bread, divided

¼ cup raw walnuts

1½ teaspoons pomegranate molasses

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

¼ to ½ teaspoon Aleppo powder or cayenne

1 tablespoon olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups fresh burrata

1 tablespoon Italian parsley leaves, washed, dried

1 tablespoon pickled radishes (see recipe below)

Directions

1. Heat oven to 450 F. Place the whole red pepper on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Cook 15 to 30 minutes depending on size or until the skin is lightly browned and the flesh is tender. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

2. When the pepper is cool to the touch, use a pairing knife to cut off the stem and peel away the skin. Discard the skin and seeds. Finely chop the flesh. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.

3. Tear two slices of fresh bread into pieces. Heat a nonstick pan. Toast the pieces in the pan. Remove. Allow to cool. Place into a blender and pulse to make crumbs. Return the bread crumbs to the pan. Do not use oil. Toast the bread crumbs until lightly brown. Set aside to cool. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.

4. Reduce the oven to 325 F. Place the walnut pieces on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Bake about 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown.

5. Remove and allow to cool.

6. Place red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate molasses, ground cumin, ground coriander, Aleppo powder or cayenne and olive oil into a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

7. Taste and adjust flavor by adding sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

8. Heat a grill or a grill-pan. Place the remaining bread slices on the grill just long enough for grill marks to appear. Remove.

9. Place the toast slices on a cutting board and then spread a layer of muhammara on each slice. Decoratively spoon on three or four teaspoon-sized mounds of burrata, season with sea salt and black pepper, sprinkle on pickled radish and parsley leaves.

Lebanese-Style Pickled Radish

At a supermarket or farmers market, buy fat, firm radishes with unwilted leaves attached to ensure they are freshly picked.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 2 minutes

Pickling time: 2 days

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 large radishes, washed, stems and root ends removed

¼ cup water

¼ cup white vinegar

¼ cup white sugar

Directions

1. Clean the radishes to remove all dirt. Cut away any blemishes and discard.

2. Using a sharp chef’s knife, julienne the radishes, cutting from stem top to root end. The strips should be as uniform as possible, about 1/8-inch thick.

3. Place the julienned radishes in a non-reactive bowl.

4. Place water, vinegar and sugar into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar.

5. Pour the hot liquid over the radish. Cover. Let sit on the counter 2 days.

6. The pickled radish will keep up to a week in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Main photo: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Invented in 1922, blenders populated upwards of five million American kitchens by midcentury. Credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin

Blenders today are ubiquitous and taken for granted, but there was a time when these humble kitchen tools were central to aspirational American cooking — with one cookbook elevating the appliance to its proper place in the kitchen.

Ann Seranne, a lesser-known but prolific cookbook author, published “The Blender Cookbook” in 1961 with Eileen Gaden after they both left editorial positions at Gourmet Magazine to form a food consulting company. Inspired by their consulting for Waring, the first major American blender manufacturer, Seranne and Gaden began work on a blender cookbook. Invented in 1922 by Stephen Poplawski, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. In his musings on the appliance, however, Craig Claiborne of The New York Times bemoaned that the average housewife used her blender for little more than daiquiris and whiskey sours. At the same time, gourmands from Julia Child to Alice B. Toklas embraced the appliance’s abilities, even as they favored more traditional techniques.

Describing herself as “a devoted disciple of the electric blender,” Seranne assured readers that next to the stove and refrigerator, the blender was the kitchen’s most essential appliance, a “treasure” worthy of a permanent place on the kitchen counter. Wrapped up in both haute cuisine and convenience cooking, Seranne and Gaden brought this enthusiasm to home cooks with “The Blender Cookbook.” With dozens of black and white illustrations, the text features more than 500 recipes not only for dips, soups, sauces and drinks, but also for scrambled eggs, turkey stuffing, crab-and-macaroni casserole, meat loaf, beef Stroganoff, lamb curry, white-fish quenelles with sauce Normande, and fruit tarts.

In his initial review, titled “Blender Magic,” Claiborne honored Seranne’s contribution, asserting that the cookbook “fills a culinary void that has been apparent since the first blender was placed on the market nearly three decades ago.” Overall, he rated the cookbook as the “most comprehensive and imaginative and by all odds the best” among blender texts. Although Claiborne critiqued one of the recipes (a blended minestrone recipe that he quipped was simply “not minestrone”), he lauded Seranne’s hollandaise sauce. Easily whipped up in mere seconds with the blender’s aid, Claiborne proclaimed, “This alone should qualify her for some sort of gastronomic hall of fame.”

Far beyond a gimmicky contribution, “The Blender Cookbook” appeared in Claiborne’s round-up of the year’s best cookbooks, alongside seminal gastronomic tomes, such as the English translation of “Larousee Gastronomique,” “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (which he called “a masterpiece”), the newest edition of “The James Beard Cookbook,” and Claiborne’s own “The New York Times Cook Book.”

The 1960s cookbook boom

Among such esteemed company, “The Blender Cookbook” came into being during a meaningful culinary moment. In her Oct. 23, 1961, New York Times article, “Food: Cookbook Boom,” June Owen wrote that more cookbooks were to be published that year than ever before.

Nika Hazelton, a well-known cookbook author and food writer, echoed this sentiment, albeit more colorfully, in 1963, when she observed, “Americans are taking to cookbooks the way the Romans took to orgies.” Orgies aside, Owen situated cookbook publishing and sales within broader changes in American culture. She argued that etiquette rules, like those penned by Emily Post, which quieted discussions of cooking at the hostess’ table, had shifted. As Americans developed a “tremendous interest in food,” kitchen labors became a topic of newly suitable conversation over dinner.

In her analysis of these burgeoning food interests, Owen also engaged David Reisman, Nathan Galzer and Reuel Denney’s “The Lonely Crowd,” a sociological study, both landmark and contested, first published in 1950 and again in 1961, in the midst of this cookbook boom. Reisman traced growing interest in cooking to the rise of servant-less households among the middle class, which shifted the responsibility for cooking. He also cited the increasing abundance of food that made eating well an accessible luxury for more than just the supremely affluent. He argued, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also would, that under such conditions, food became a primary method for demonstrating taste and social status.

Cookbooks in midcentury America — focusing on desserts, eggs, ethnic cuisine or even blenders — served as both the means and symbols of this upward mobility. Or as Hazelton quipped on the price of cookbooks, “You’ve got to spend a little to build up your reputation as a gourmet, which appears to be the current ambition of every red-blooded American” — a sentiment not too far afield from today’s mainstreamed and seemingly ever increasing interest in food and cooking, sipping and tasting, cookbook buying and kitchen outfitting.

Ann Seranne, kitchen sorceress

Beyond the prominent position of “The Blender Cookbook” in the 1960s culinary canon, what do we know of the woman behind the blender? Originally from Canada, Ann Seranne came to the United States in the 1930s and worked her way to executive editor at Gourmet before she began her consulting partnership with Gaden in the mid-1950s. Throughout her career, Seranne published not just “The Blender Cookbook,” but more than two dozen cookbooks, including “Ann Seranne’s Good Food & How to Cook It,” “Good Food Without Meat,” “The Complete Book of Home Preserving” and “The Art of Egg Cookery.”

Claiborne wrote fondly of her in The New York Times, describing her as a tall (she was 5′ 8″), blond, handsome woman; “a born cook;” an indefatigable food consultant; and “a kitchen sorceress who would rather cook than eat.” His description of her 1963 cookbook, “The Complete Book of Desserts,” may have applied to her as well: “At once as down to earth as an apple fritter and as sophisticated as a cream-filled génoise.”

Impressive as they are, Seranne’s cookbooks were but one of her life’s accomplishments. She nurtured twin passions for cooking and breeding Yorkshire terriers, five of which shared her New York home and whose breeding line claimed more than 60 championships. Her canine brood supped on a ragout of beef, lamb shanks, parsley, carrots and garlic; garlic being her dogs’ most favored flavor. When famed dog show reporter Walter Fletcher purportedly asked Sarenne of the similarities between cooking and dog breeding, she replied, “Both contain equal parts science, art and luck.”

Main photo: Invented in 1922, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. Credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin

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Barley, Chanterelle Mushroom and Pinot Noir Risotto -- elegant, simple, delicious. Credit: ©TheWeiserKitchen

Some ancient grains get all the press. Quinoa, freekeh, and spelt are the darlings of the food world these days, especially in the United States — and rightfully so, since they were ignored for millennia. But one ancient grain seems to lag behind: barley. Plain ol’ barley never makes a Top 10 list. It needs a spunky dance partner and great choreography to be seen. Mushrooms have often been its companion for comfort food — think of all the savory mushroom-barley soups. But wild mushrooms, exotic and even more flavorful than the cultivated variety while still just as earthy as barley, may serve as the most perfect partner of all.

During the chill of January, foraging for comfort food is often a search for simple, earthy foods — like barley and mushrooms. But these foods can also be rich and elegant, intriguing and satisfying, old and new. Sometimes all it takes is one little change to make a comfort-food dish special.

Barley and mushrooms, ancient foods

Barley is no newbie to the food scene. There is no way to overstate its importance in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant (present-day Iraq and the Middle East). Wild barley was an integral part of the human diet, so much so that it became a domesticated crop. It was the basis for a key everyday comestible that is still popular today: beer.

In Europe by the Middle Ages, barley was the flour of poor man’s bread and the filler in Scotch broth. It was — and remains — a common food for livestock. Notwithstanding the changes in the world around it, domesticated barley is, in essence, a simple whole grain with plenty of nutrients. And it has countless culinary benefits.

There is a good reason why barley’s long time partner is the mushroom.

An ancient, originally wild food, mushrooms are fungi, and are incredibly healthy — high in B and D vitamins, selenium, copper, potassium and antioxidants that appear to protect DNA at the cellular level. Some of these benefits can be found in common button mushrooms and their close cousins, baby bellas, criminis and portabellos. But mushrooms are more than that. They are a natural flavor enhancer. All mushrooms contain glutamic acid, a version of the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Wild mushrooms, or those that were once wild and are now cultivated (called “exotic” by growers), burst with all of these benefits. No wonder wild ones have been popular across Europe, Asia, the United States and India for centuries. Each variety of wild mushroom has its individual charms. The one I used for this mushroom-barley risotto is the chanterelle.

Chanterelles, a sexy and mellifluous a name for fungus if there ever was one, evokes images of five-star French chefs cooking up lavish, sophisticated and warming dishes. To many a chef and connoisseur, chanterelles — golden and floral, earthy and fragrant — are in the same pantheon as morels and truffles. Chanterelles have even been considered male aphrodisiacs, with the 11th-century Normans in Britain serving them at wedding feasts to the grooms. Widely found in both Europe and the United States, fresh in season and dried year-round, the lightly peppery, softly fruity chanterelle is an ideal candidate to gussy up the Plain Jane barley.

The wine that links all the flavors

The element that can put it all together? A wine born from the same soil as those wild mushrooms. Barley risotto style is now a restaurant mainstay. But when the mushrooms in the risotto are the prized chanterelle and the wine is Willamette Valley — what you have is dinner alchemy.

Willamette Valley, Oregon, where chanterelles have long grown wild and are now cultivated, is a well-regarded region for producing fine grapes and even finer wines. The Pinot Noir grapes grown in the Willamette Valley are characterized by robust notes of black raspberry and bogs, of vanilla and cloves. The old cooking adage “if it grows together it goes together” is certainly true with Pacific golden chanterelles and Willamette Pinot Noir. Pairing these two is not for the faint of wallet. But the cost of the barley balances that out a bit.

And that wine — ooh — that wine is the essential link tying, literally binding, the mushrooms to the barley. All together, chanterelles and barley become something genuinely soul satisfying. The flavors and textures support and encourage each other, revealing the best they can offer. Perhaps that is what a plate-mate, a bowl-mate and soulmate should always be.

Barley Risotto With Fresh Chanterelles and Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

This special-occasion dish is impressive to serve and even better to eat. It showcases a classic Italian cooking technique applied to humble pearl barley and highlights the quality and unique flavors of fresh wild chanterelle mushrooms. The result is extravagantly delicious and memorable, worth every penny and every stir.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as a meal, 6 as a starter

Ingredients

2½ cups low-sodium mushroom broth

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 large shallots, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice

Leaves of 6 sprigs fresh thyme, minced (about 2 teaspoons, see Kitchen Tips)

1 cup pearl barley

2 cups Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (see Kitchen Tips)

1 pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms, sliced, cut into bite-size pieces

1 large fresh bay leaf

½ teaspoon kosher salt (see Kitchen Tips)

1 (7-ounce) package fresh baby kale, thinly sliced

½ cup freshly grated Gruyère cheese

¾ cup sour cream or crème fraiche

1 teaspoon truffle salt (see Kitchen Tips)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, bring the mushroom broth to a simmer.

2. Meanwhile, in a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the butter and heat until it melts. Add the shallots and thyme, stir to coat, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 to 3 minutes, until the shallots are translucent and the edges are just beginning to brown. Add the barley and cook, stirring to coat, for 2 minutes.

3. Increase the heat to high, add the wine, and cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until it has been fully absorbed into the barley. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the mushrooms and bay leaf, and stir well.

4. Add 1/2 cup of the warm mushroom broth and cook, stirring for 4 to 5 minutes, until the liquid is almost absorbed. Add the salt and stir. Continue adding the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and cook, stirring continuously but gently for 2 to 3 minutes, until it is nearly absorbed into the barley. Repeat until all the mushroom broth is used.

5. Cook for about 30 minutes more, until the barley is al dente. Add the kale, stir well, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the leaves are completely soft. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the Gruyère cheese and sour cream. Remove from the heat, remove the bay leaf, sprinkle with the truffle salt and pepper, and stir well. Spoon into wide, shallow bowls and serve immediately.

Kitchen Tips

1. To remove the leaves from a sprig of fresh thyme, hold the sprig (or a few) at the top with one hand, and with the other hand, grasp the stem with your thumb and forefinger and gently slide your fingers down the stem. The leaves will be pushed against the direction they grow in, and will come off easily.

2. For more information about Pinot Noir grapes and wines: http://www.pinot-noir-wines.com/

3. If you don’t have low-sodium mushroom broth, you can omit this extra salt.

4. Salt to which very small pieces of dried truffle have been added is called truffle salt. It is used to add richer flavor.

Main photo: Barley, Chanterelle Mushroom and Pinot Noir Risotto — elegant, simple, delicious. Credit: ©TheWeiserKitchen

 

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