Articles in Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering the dead with food, flowers and festive décor

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Not just a Mexican holiday anymore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Día de los Muertos Sugar Skulls

Prep time: 10 minutes

Drying time: 8 hours

Yield: 5 medium skulls

Ingredients

For the sugar skulls:

3 cups granulated sugar

3 teaspoons meringue powder

3 teaspoons water

For the royal icing:

1 pound powdered sugar

⅓ cup water

¼ cup meringue powder

Gel paste food coloring, assorted colors

Directions

For the sugar skulls:

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

2. Sprinkle the water over the sugar mixture.

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

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

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

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

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

8. Decorate the skulls with royal icing.

For the royal icing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canned pumpkin puree confession

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearkening back to pumpkin pies past

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

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

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

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

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

Pumpkin Pie

 Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie  

Ingredients  

For the crust:

1 partially baked 9-inch pie crust

Dry beans (for shaping the pie crust)

For the filling:

1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree

1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ heaping teaspoon ground ginger

¼ heaping teaspoon ground cloves

⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup brown sugar

3 large eggs

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

For the garnish

Whipped cream

Ingredients

For the partially baked crust:

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

For the filling:  

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

Main photo: Pumpkins. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen  

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It’s not by chance that October is National Doughnut Month. A fat circle of fresh-fried dough is a lot more appealing when the air is cool and crisp, especially when accompanied by cup of steaming cider. Moreover, you don’t have to worry about what you’ll look like in a bathing suit — until next year.

Of course national anything days, or months, don’t just happen. They exist because somebody once had an agenda. Sometimes, the days stick, like Thanksgiving, while others, like Health Literacy Month, have a hard time getting traction.

We can thank the now-defunct Doughnut Corporation of America for the monthlong celebration of sweet dough rings. The DCA once controlled virtually all the country’s automatic doughnut machines and most of the mix that went into them. One of the corporation’s brighter ideas was to dub October as National Doughnut Month in 1928.

The Halloween connection

When they did this, the connection of the ghoul fest and doughnuts wasn’t entirely spurious. Before Halloween became a kid’s holiday, people used to have Halloween parties, which often featured seasonal cider and doughnuts. One party game was to bob for apples. Typically, the apples floated in a tub; however, in one variant, the apples were hung on a string. This was also done with doughnuts. The trick was to eat the treat with your hands tied behind your back. To make it a little trickier, the air bobber could be blindfolded. And, in a version of the game that might be suitable for National Fitness Month, several doughnuts are strung horizontally along a stretched cord, laundry-line style (they can also be suspended from the line on lengths of ribbon). The competitors must “chase” the pastries down the line, eating as many as they can, without the use of their hands. These sort of Halloween doughnut acrobatics were popular long before the DCA set up its first shop in Harlem in 1921.

The company, founded by an Eastern European immigrant named Adolph Levitt, came up with all sorts of wacky promotions in its early years. Perhaps its most successful was the creation of the National Dunking Association, an organization devoted to dipping doughnuts in coffee. In 1940s, the organization boasted three million members and counted Zero Mostel, Johnny Carson and even choreographer Martha Graham as card-carrying dunkers.

In a somewhat more serious vein, during World War II the company supplied its machines free of charge to the American Red Cross, even if they charged the charity for the batter. Just in case America didn’t get the secret-weapon role that doughnuts were playing in the conflict, Levitt’s company put out full-page ads in Life Magazine that featured servicemen on the front, rushing eagerly to get their doughnut fix. In one frame of the comic-strip formatted ad, one dough-faced soldier purrs, “M-M-M, just like home.” In another frame, servicemen on leave whoop it up at a Halloween party. “Service men (and women) look forward to being invited to Halloween parties this year,” we’re told. “And what’s Halloween without donuts and coffee or cider?”

A perfect match

While doughnuts and cider were long considered a likely match, cider doughnuts appear to have been a more recent invention, likely in the early 1950s. This is another innovation that we can attribute to the Doughnut Corporation of America. As people increasingly piled into cars for a drive to the local pick-your-own orchard, the owners of farm stands started adding cider doughnuts to their offerings, not just for Halloween but throughout the leaf-watching season.

In the postwar era, trick-or-treating became ever more popular. In part, it made more sense in the growing suburbs than it had in gritty cities, but trick-or-treating was also pushed by the candy companies. Yet, in smaller communities, homemade treats continued to outnumber Snickers bars.

Connie Fairbanks, a Chicago-based food and travel writer, recalls growing up in Wheaton, Kan., a town of about 90 people at the time. “Everybody went from house to house,”  she recalls.  And every house had its specialty. “One woman was known for her popcorn balls,” she reminisces, “and my mother was known for her glazed, raised doughnuts. They were always warm when the kids came in.” Her mom made them once, maybe twice, a year and fried them in lard rendered from the family’s own hogs. “I remember the dough feeling like a baby’s bottom.” Fairbanks added that her mother’s secret was to beat the dough, by hand, and not add too much flour. “I remember the smell, it was unbelievable.”

Can you think of a better way to celebrate Halloween? Or, for that matter, the 31 days of National Doughnut Month?

Cider doughnuts make for a tasty October treat. Credit: Michael Krondl

Cider doughnuts make for a tasty October treat. Credit: Michael Krondl

Whole Wheat Apple Cider Doughnuts

Recipe adapted from “The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin

Many commercially produced doughnuts are made with a batter that is too wet to roll. This results in lighter pastry but requires a doughnut extruder. One way of getting around that is to use a piping bag to “extrude” the doughnuts. This also gives you the option of making the doughnuts any diameter you like. You will need a heavy pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip, and, once formed, the doughnuts are much easier to handle if you chill them for an hour or two in the refrigerator.

Cook Time: 60 to 90 seconds per doughnut

Yield: 16 doughnuts

Ingredients

For the doughnut dough:

1½ cups apple cider

½ cup milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

8 ounces (about 1¾ cups) bleached all-purpose flour

4½ ounces (about 1 cup) whole wheat flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cinnamon

Large pinch grated nutmeg

Large pinch grated cloves

5 ounces (about ⅔ cup) raw (turbinado) sugar or substitute light brown sugar

1½ ounces (3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg, at room temperature

1 egg yolk, at room temperature

Oil or shortening for frying

For the cinnamon sugar:

4 ounces (about ½ cup) granulated sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, boil the cider until it is reduced to ¼ cup. Cool.

2. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper and spray lightly with vegetable spray. In a measuring cup, stir together the milk, reduced cider, and vanilla. It will look curdled. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt, and spices.

3. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the sugar and butter until well incorporated, about 1 minute. Add the egg and egg yolk and beat until fluffy, smooth, and pale, 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Alternately add the milk and flour mixtures into the egg mixture in 2 or 3 additions, beating on low speed until just barely combined between each addition. Stir until the mixture just comes together to make a soft, sticky dough. Do not overbeat or it will get tough.

5. Working with about half the dough at a time, fill a piping bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip. Pipe circles of dough about 3 inches in diameter on the parchment Repeat with the remaining dough. (The dough needs to keep its shape; if too loose, add a tablespoon or two more of flour.) If you wish, you can smooth the seam with a damp finger. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to 6 hours. Remove plastic wrap, lightly dust the doughnuts with flour, place another pan over each pan, and invert. Carefully peel off the parchment paper.

6. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil or shortening to 360 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer with a built-in thermostat, check the temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Drop several doughnuts at a time into the heated fat, making sure there is enough room for all of them to float to the surface. Cook 30 to 45 seconds per side, using a slotted spoon or tongs to turn each doughnut. When the doughnuts are golden brown, transfer them to a cooling rack covered with paper towels. Cool to just above room temperature.

7. Whisk together the granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon cinnamon in a wide bowl. Toss the barely warm doughnuts in the cinnamon sugar mixture, and serve warm.

Main photo: A woman bobs for doughnuts at an event at The City University of New York. Credit: Michael Krondl

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Beef tzimmes. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

I look forward to Rosh Hashana every year. It should be because it is the beginning of another new year, shimmering with possibilities. Or because each year I give myself permission to buy a new, stylish go-to-temple outfit. It’s also fall, the best, most exhilarating season in my New England home.

Religiously, Rosh Hashana (which this year begins at sundown Sept. 24) is the time to wipe away the troubles of last year and pledge to begin anew with resolutions for improvement in personal relationships and goals. Officially, Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the new year of the Jewish calendar, and always a season for coming together joyfully. It’s honey and apples, friends and family.

But if I am honest, my love of the holiday has nothing to do with any of this. Rosh Hashana is tzimmes season. Oozing with meat juices and richness, beef tzimmes may be the least politically correct dish in my repertoire from a nutritional standpoint. And I love it — umami heaven! It is full of rich, meaty flavor and thick with chunks of carrots, sweet potatoes, onions and prunes. It’s a production that requires planning but not that much skill.

Beef Tzimmes for Rosh Hashana

Prep Time: 2 hours

Cook Time: 5 hours

Total Time: 7 hours

Yield: 12 servings

Beef tzimmes is a major production for a major holiday. I love making this dish. People look forward to it every year, and as a result it transforms me into an iconic Jewish cook. It’s also not that hard to pull off, but it does take time. It’s very important to make the entire dish a day before serving so you can refrigerate and skim the fat. You’ll need a large, heavy roasting pan such as a turkey roaster. I make it in a huge Le Creuset pot, but any large, covered Dutch oven or roasting pan will do.

Ingredients

  • 6 short ribs (ask the butcher for the right cuts for this and the following meat)
  • 4 pounds beef flanken or brisket (not too lean)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • 5 pounds carrots, peeled and cut in big chunks
  • 6 to 8 onions, quartered
  • 2 cups honey
  • 2 cups dark brown sugar, plus more to sprinkle on top during cooking
  • A stick (or two) of cinnamon
  • Beef stock or water
  • 6 to 8 peeled sweet potatoes (or more to your preference)
  • 2 cups pitted prunes
  • 2 tablespoons matzo meal for thickening the sauce

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F and then roast the short ribs for an hour in the oven.
  2. Meanwhile, braise the flanken in a large sauté pan on the stove top.
  3. Place the bones in the bottom of a roasting pan and layer on top the chunks of flanken.
  4. Sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper to taste. (You can also adjust it before serving, after all flavors have come together.)
  5. Add the carrots, onions, honey, brown sugar, cinnamon and enough beef stock or water to cover the meat.
  6. Cook covered for three hours in a 350 F oven, turning the meat chunks occasionally.
  7. Add the sweet potatoes and prunes to the pan, adding more stock if necessary. Cook another 45 minutes, until the meat is soft.
  8. Strain off the liquid and reduce it on the stove top, then thicken it with matzo meal. Return it to the pan. The liquid should be about ¾ of the way up the pan.
  9. Sprinkle with brown sugar to caramelize on top.
  10. Return to the oven and cook uncovered for one hour. To degrease the meat, refrigerate for a few hours or overnight, and then remove fat. The dish is best served the day after cooking. The leftovers freeze beautifully.

Main photo: Beef tzimmes. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

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Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

Thousands of years ago, pioneers among the central Malayo-Polynesian-speaking populations are believed to have traveled across the Indian Ocean and brought plantains, water yams and taro to India. Now, they have become central to the vegetarian cuisine in the Kerala region of southwest India.

Plantains are a variety of bananas from the plant Musa paradisiaca, which have thicker skins than regular bananas. Plantains are also sometimes called cooking bananas. Even when ripe, they are not very sweet, and they are not eaten raw.

The plantain rules at Kerala’s most important festival, Thiruvonam (or Onam for short), celebrated in late August or early September (depending on the lunar calendar) by Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike. The big event at Onam is the sadya (feast), which is served on fresh, green banana leaves around noon. Although rice is the centerpiece of the feast, several dishes both sweet and savory are prepared with plantains, each with its own taste and texture.

In every cuisine, there are certain dishes that make the menu more complete and more festive. They may not have the status of a course in and of themselves, but without them, the meal would lose some of its festive appeal. Two signature dishes of Onam Sadya are the deep-fried, salty and crispy golden yellow plantain chips and their sweet counterpart, sarkkara upperi, thick slices deep-fried and drenched in jaggery syrup. No matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious. Locally called upperi, but better known as banana chips, it is the favorite snack of Kerala and provides the crispy crunch to traditional feasts.

And then there is kaya mezukkupuratti, cubed green plantains cooked with salt and turmeric and then pan-fried over low heat in coconut oil until they fully absorb the flavor of the curry leaves and oil. It’s a dish that’s as unfussy and simple as you can imagine.

Plantains useful in curries

There are two types of curries made with just plantains for the Onam feast. They are also found in the signature mixed vegetable dish aviyal. One of the curries, varutha erisseri, is made by cooking chunks of green plantain in a sauce of golden brown toasted coconut. It has a complexity and aroma peculiarly and delightfully its own. The word “curry” often evokes a sense of tropical spiciness. Kerala’s cuisine is known for its variety of spicy curries, but there are also some mildly sweet, tropical fruit curries that are cooked in a mellow coconut and yogurt sauce.

The fruit curry kaalan is made by cooking ripe plantain slices in a thick coconut and yogurt sauce sweetened with jaggery and garnished with mustard and fenugreek seeds and fresh curry leaves.

Steamed ripe plantains are another must at the Onam feast. And, finally, rounding out the menu is a delicately smooth and creamy pudding — pazza pradhaman — made with homemade plantain jam cooked in coconut milk sweetened with jaggery and garnished with crushed cardamom and toasted coconut pieces.

Though not necessarily a part of the Onam feast, other plantain treats can be found in Kerala: sun-dried ripe plantains and banana fritters made with thin ripe plantain slices dipped in a mildly sweet batter and deep-fried.

Plantain Chips

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: 20 servings

Making deep-fried chips at home is not a difficult task. Thanks to food processors, slicing is a breeze. It is important to use oil that can be heated to high temperatures. The oil must be well heated before adding the sliced plantains for frying or otherwise, oil seeps in and will make them soggy. Hot oil sears the surface to a firm crispiness. For serving at feasts, they are generally quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into thin triangular slices. To serve as a snack, they are cut as full rounds or as half rounds. But no matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious.

Ingredients

  • 6 firm green plantains
  • 6 cups vegetable oil
  • ½ cup concentrated saltwater (*see directions below)

Directions

  1. Peel off the thick green skins from the plantains, and wash them to remove any dark stain from the outside. Pat them dry with paper towels.
  2. When making the smaller, triangular chips, halve the plantain lengthwise, and cut each piece lengthwise again. Then cut each piece crosswise into thin slices. For the round chips, cut the whole plantain crosswise into thin rounds. A food processor comes in handy for cutting them into thin rounds. Fit the processor with the 2mm blade and slowly feed the peeled plantains through the top. This blade cuts the plantains evenly.
  3. Heat the oil in a heavy wok or deep-frying pan to 365 F.
  4. When the oil is hot, spread the plantain pieces evenly in the oil and deep-fry until they are golden and crisp, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add a teaspoon of concentrated saltwater to the oil, and cover the pan with a splatter screen. The water will really splatter and make a lot of noise.
  6. In a minute or so, when the water has stopped sputtering, remove the cover. By now, all the water should have evaporated, and the crispy fries will be golden and evenly salted.
  7. Drain well, and store in airtight containers. The best way to drain deep-fried plantains is to use a cake cooling rack placed over a cookie tray. The excess oil will drip through the cooling rack and fall onto the cookie tray.
  8. *Add one tablespoon of salt to a half-cup of water, and stir well. If there is no salt sediment at the bottom, add more salt, and stir until there is some salt residue left at the bottom and the water is saturated with salt.

Main photo: Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Peppery Fried Chicken Wings. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton,

Is there any more American a dish than fried chicken? Each succeeding wave of immigrants has brought it in some shape or form, and it is woven throughout our gastronomical fabric. The first were the Scots, who were prone to cook it before dipping it in egg and crumbs, then cook it again in boiling fat. West African slaves transplanted their version, by all accounts more tantalizing, to the American South. Not only did they fry the birds for their masters, they were allowed to keep chickens of their own. Hogs were free-man’s food, but they were the compost engines of the colonial kitchen and their rendered fat was plentiful. If Martha Washington’s cooks fried chickens for her lavishly in butter, they dipped theirs in a spicy flour coating before frying them in lard.

Beginning in the mid-1700s, African-American women, renowned for their fried chicken prowess, became vendors for live or cooked poultry. Even before Emancipation, they cooked it up in big iron frying pans and peddled it on the streets. During segregation, they sold it from their home kitchens or opened establishments black folk could eat in. Once fried, chicken was a portable meal. “In days when traveling meant hazarding the vagaries of racial laws on Southern roads and being hungry without having a place to eat, a shoebox of fried chicken became a virtual talisman against starvation on the road for many blacks,” wrote Jessica B. Harris in “Iron Pots &  Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking.”

Black or white, Southerners proudly claim they eat 10 times as much fried chicken as everyone else. In his book “American Taste,” James Villas contends that to know about fried chicken you have to have been weaned and reared on it in the South. Having grown up on Italian fried chicken, I could quibble with that. Fried chicken has other roots. Pollo fritto, scented with garlic, traveled to Ellis Island with Sicilian immigrants. Austrians brought their schnitzel ideas to the Midwest, converting from veal to chicken and utilizing the whole bird, not just the breast. In 1858, Lizzie Black Kander, a Jewish emigrant in Milwaukee, recorded three recipes for “Fried Spring Chicken” in the “Settlement Cookbook” among single entries for reindeer steak, mud hens, partridge and goose.

If turkey is supposed to be the emblematic American bird, it gets no more than a perfunctory write-up. Recipes call for using 1½-pound chickens. One prescribes dredging the youngster in flour and ginger, and frying it in plenty of butter or chicken fat. A second calls for coating it in cracker crumbs, followed by an egg bath, then the crumb treatment again before frying. A third says to massage it with plenty of butter and seasonings (we are left to wonder what those were), roll it in fine bread crumbs and oven-fry. Such tender young birds as she describes, raised to peck and scratch in the barnyard, make the most delicious-flavored fried chicken.

Fireworks on the Hudson River. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Fireworks on the Hudson River. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

American humorist Calvin Trillin would eventually write “Fried-Chicken War,” an account of the fierce competition in Crawford County, Kan., between two local fried chicken establishments. When the owner of Chicken Annie’s moved to have the road on which both stood named “Chicken Annie’s Road,” Chicken Mary took umbrage.

Overall, though, the fried chicken revolution was peaceful. It has my vote for Independence Day. Is there any food more emblematic of the people who built America than this evocative bird, its skin enticingly crisp, its meat moist and juicy? Leaving behind the grim associations with slavery, fried chicken is in the best sense American, a dish originating at a time when we were farming people, a dish of merged continents and mixed heritage, one that spanned our nation from bayous to prairies to the vast expanses beyond.

Many ways to fry a chicken

Pan-fried, deep-fried or oven-fried; batter-dipped or breaded; dredged first in flour — or not; dipped in egg — or not; rolled in breading or cracker meal instead; fried in oil or lard, butter or schmaltz? Bacon or ham thrown into the skillet for added flavor? What is best? As Villas wrote in 1982, “Without question, the most important secret to any great fried chicken is the quality of the chicken itself, and most of the 3 billion pullets marketed annually in the U.S. have about as much flavor as tennis balls.”

Two great Southern cooks have taught me how to make sublime fried chicken. One, the late legendary African-American chef Edna Lewis; the other, her protege, Joe Randall, who runs a cooking school in Savannah, Ga. My primal memories of fried chicken are of the dish as prepared by my mother in the Italian way, and accompanied by apple fritters made from the leftover batter. There are as many ways as there are cooks, and here’s one of mine, adapted for chicken wings. You can make it the evening before if you like and have it all ready for the picnic basket or the backyard get-together the next day. Serve the wings before the hamburgers, or with the hamburgers, or even instead of the hamburgers.

Peppery Fried Chicken Wings With Garlic and Rosemary

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

This is adapted from a recipe for fried chicken that I learned to make from a Tuscan cook I knew. The wings are my favorite part, perfect as finger food and with all that surface for crisp coatings to stick to. The chicken becomes crispy outside and at the same time, succulent inside, redolent with rosemary and fresh garlic. Cayenne pepper gives them a terrific little kick; if you like it hot, add more. To make it in the traditional Tuscan way, omit the cayenne and serve the cooked chicken with lemon quarters for squeezing at the table.

Ingredients

  • 16 chicken wings, preferably organic and free-range, at room temperature
  • 8 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves, or 2 tablespoons dried crushed rosemary leaves
  • About 1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Fine sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 large eggs
  • Grape seed, safflower, peanut or other vegetable oil for frying

Directions

  1. Wash the wings and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Keep the wing tips intact and cut the wings at the joint to separate the drummettes. In a bowl, combine the wings with the garlic and rosemary and massage the herbs into the meat.
  2. Spread the flour on a sheet of waxed paper. Season with salt to taste and plenty of cayenne pepper. Beat the eggs in a wide bowl next to the waxed paper. Line a large platter with a double layer of paper towels, keeping additional paper towels on hand.
  3. Pour the oil to a depth of about 1 inch in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet and warm over medium heat until sizzling hot. Just before you are ready to begin frying, lightly dredge each piece of wing in the flour. Dip the wing piece into the beaten eggs to coat then dredge lightly in the flour once again. (Keep in mind that if the chicken is coated in flour and egg and left to sit for even a few minutes, the coating will become soggy and the chicken will not be crisp and light.)
  4. Slip the chicken wings into the hot oil, piece by piece. Do not crowd the pan with too many pieces at once, or they will not cook evenly. Fry until golden and thoroughly cooked through to the bone, about 10 minutes in total for each piece, depending on the size. Transfer to the paper towels. Turn each wing piece over on the paper to ensure that excess oil is absorbed from both sides, using additional paper towels as necessary to drain thoroughly. Sprinkle them with sea salt while they are still hot.
  5. When all the chicken is cooked and drained, pile the wings on a clean, hot platter and serve.

Notes

Recipe is from "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)

Main photo: Peppery Fried Chicken Wings. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)

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Grilled braciole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

You just can’t escape a barbecue grill on the Fourth of  July. The holiday demands outdoor cooking followed by fireworks. And the curious thing about Americans’ Independence Day food traditions is that they are not confined to one or two expected dishes. Almost anything goes.

When I lived in Arlington, Mass., July 4 was an especially big deal because my house was about 100 yards from the route taken by William Dawes when he rode the southern route to Lexington while Paul Revere took the northern route on April 18, 1775, (as you know, Revere got all the fame and Longfellow’s poem).

Traditional New England fare

Traditional July 4 fare in New England, especially in the 19th century, was poached salmon with egg sauce, fresh peas and new potatoes, lemonade, and blueberry cobbler. Not once in the 14 years I lived in New England did we have this menu. What we did have was anything we damned pleased — hamburgers and hot dogs being on everybody’s  go-to menu, along with potato salad, a bean salad, and, of course beer, plus soda and juice for the kids.

This July 4 perhaps a little innovation is in order such as the favorites of Italian-Americans, braciole, stuffed meat roll-ups. They go by other names such as involtini, but for any Italian-American they’re always known as braciole and they’re always braised in ragù or grilled. But this was not always so. Interestingly, the word braciole derives from the word for charcoal, implying that it was originally cooked alla brace, that is, grilled and that it was a cut of meat with the bone.

Braciole was once synonymous with “cutlet.” The place to begin is with the cut of meat. Not all braciole are cut from the same meat. If you  grill the braciole, you might want to use a large piece of beef such as sirloin tip or beef round from which you can slice nice flat steaks that can be pounded thinner in order to roll them up.

Braciole on the grill. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Braciole on the grill. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Pound them as thin as scaloppini with a mallet or the side of a heavy cleaver. Lay the meat slice in front of you and place a heaping tablespoon of stuffing on the end nearest you. Roll once away from you and, pressing with your fingers so it’s tight, keep rolling and secure the ends or anything that looks loose with toothpicks. Now you’re ready to grill.

Here is a recipe to get you started after which you will only be limited by your imagination. The roll-ups can be prepared the day before and kept refrigerated until time to grill. 

Grilled braciole

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cook Time: 12 minutes

Total Time: 52 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

These beef roll-ups are stuffed with pecorino cheese, currants, and pine nuts. They are popular fare in the summertime around Palermo in Sicily.

Ingredients

  • 12 large bay leaves, preferably fresh
  • 1 tablespoon currants
  • 1 ¾ pounds beef round, cut into twelve 3x5-inch-slices
  • 6 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for basting
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino cheese
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts
  • 6 tablespoons finely chopped onion
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Twelve 8- to 10-inch wooden skewers
  • 1 large onion, quartered, and separated

Directions

  1. Prepare a hot charcoal fire to one side of the firebox or preheat a gas grill on high for 15 minutes.
  2. If using dried bay leaves, soak them in tepid water for 30 minutes and drain. Soak the currants in tepid water for 15 minutes.
  3. Place the beef slices between 2 pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap and flatten with a mallet or the side of a heavy cleaver until they are about 1/16 inch thick, being careful you don’t rip the flesh.
  4. In a small sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Drain the currants and add to the bread crumbs with the pecorino, pine nuts, onion, and salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly and set aside.
  5. Roll the bread crumb mixture in the beef slices to create beef rolls.
  6. Double skewer all the ingredients: hold 2 skewers parallel to each other about ½ inch apart between your thumb and forefinger. Slide a bay leaf, an onion slice, and a beef roll onto each set of skewers.
  7. Place the skewers on the grill close to the fire, if possible, and baste with olive oil. Cook until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes on each side. Move to the cooler side of the grill if there is too much flare-up. Serve hot.
Grilled braciole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Black-eyed peas with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

How did the black-eyed pea become a symbol of good luck? No one knows for sure but a good guess is that an ancient farmer, through practical experience knew that spent black-eyed pea plants could enrich his soil and therefore he considered them good luck.

As with all legumes, black-eyed peas have nitrogen-giving nodules on their roots and are for this reason often used as green manure or forage. There are five species of Vigna unguiculata, or black-eyed pea.

The black-eyed pea is one of the oldest plants known to agricultural man. It is thought the black-eyed peas were first cultivated in Ethiopia from 4000 to 3000 B.C. In records from the ancient kingdom of Sumer in Mesopotamia about 2350 B.C. a plant called lu-ub-sar, which appears to give the modern Arabic word for bean, lūbya, may have been the black-eyed pea.

It also appears that the ancient Egyptian bean known as iwryt, described from the Old Kingdom (2686 B.C.-2100 B.C.) onward, was the black-eyed pea and workmen at Deir al-Medina received beans as part of their wages. In Pharaonic medicine they were used to treat constipation.

The black-eyed pea arrived in Italy about 300 B.C. where it was grown by the Romans. The depiction of the plant called fasilus in the lavishly illustrated sixth-century codex of the first-century Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides’ work “De material medica” (“On medical matters”) appears to be the black-eyed pea.

And in Africa the black-eyed pea is one of the most important vegetables. The pods containing the seeds are about a foot long and they are known in the American South as cowpea, crowder or Southern pea.

The black-eyed pea likely made its voyage to the New World in the 17th century. It appears in many dishes, but this Syrian and Lebanese one is nice to be served as part of a meze table.

Swiss Chard with Black-Eyed Peas (Silq bi’l-Lubya)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

This is a wonderful Lebanese and Syrian dish to make with fresh black-eyed peas, but dried will do just as well. The usually rough taste of Swiss chard is mellowed considerably with the onions and coriander in this preparation.

Ingredients

  • 1½ cups (about ¾ pound) dried black-eyed peas, soaked in water to cover overnight or 4 cups fresh black-eyed peas (about 14 ounces)
  • 2 pounds Swiss chard, heavy stalks removed, washed well
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 to 5 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed in a mortar with 2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

Directions

  1. Place the peas in a pot of cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Cook until tender, about 1 hour for dried peas and about 18 minutes for fresh. Drain and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, place the Swiss chard in a large pot with only the water adhering to it from its last rinsing. Turn the heat to high, cover, and wilt, 5 to 7 minutes, turning a few times with long tongs. Drain, and squeeze out excess liquid. Chop coarsely and set aside.
  3. In a large sauté pan or casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the onion until translucent, about 8 minutes, stirring. Add the Swiss chard, garlic mash, coriander, and cumin. Reduce the heat to low and cook until fragrant and tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the peas and cook until heated through, about 10 minutes, and serve.

Main photo: Black-eyed peas with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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