Articles in Holidays

Beef and Guinness stew. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Not so long ago, most Americans’ idea of how to enjoy beef was to dig into a slab of steak as big as the plate it was served on. Thankfully, culinary fashions have changed. Today, the so-called lesser cuts are giving the primes a run for their money not only because they are cheaper but because they have more flavor. Delicious parts like short ribs and oxtail are so much the rage, that they, too, have become wildly pricey.

To my mind, chuck and blade steak, still relatively economical, are two of the most promising cuts for braising, my favorite cooking method for meat in general. This simple technique of searing and caramelizing foods in fat or oil before simmering them in a cooking liquid, often alcoholic, enriches their flavor and tenderizes them at the same time. Add vegetables, and you’ve made a classic stew. Not only are stews nourishing and sustaining in cold weather but, when made ahead, they actually improve.

The raw materials of stews around the world

There are pedestrian variants consisting simply of meat and root vegetables. And then there are the more artful braises at which the French are so adept, exemplified by boeuf à la Bourguignonne, which is laced during long, slow cooking with the namesake region’s fabled wine. The Italians have their own variations on the theme: The Sicilians enrich their spezzatino with Marsala, for instance, while the Piedmontese dedicate an entire bottle of Barolo for every kilo of beef in their brasato. The Belgians make heady carbonnades with beef chunks, abundant mushrooms and onions braised in light beer with a hint of vinegar and sugar. All of these braised stews are based on cheap cuts, the fat and connective tissue of which render the meat moist and incredibly tender during long, slow cooking.

For me, one of the most delicious is Ireland’s traditional beef stew fortified with rich, dark stout, a beer brewed with roasted, malted barley. The English have their version in the old prescription for “Sussex stew,” a beef braise simmered with mushroom ketchup and ale, but I believe no cooking liquid suits an Irish stew more than Dublin’s Guinness. This malty stout is creamy with a pleasant bitterness that makes for a powerful yet subtle cooking liquid, imparting its own complex layer of flavor while producing a velvety gravy. The resulting dish is one with a double life: Eat it as a stew, or cover it with a crust for a pie.

Candlelight dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Candlelight dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

What makes stout particularly suited to beef stews is what Chrissie Manion Zaepoor of Kookoolan Farms — a stout expert, craft mead maker and pasture-raised meat producer in Yamhill, Oregon — calls “roastiness.” “It’s like espresso,” she says. “It has a smoky, grilled flavor that’s nice with beef, and it’s herbaceous in a way that wine isn’t.”

Just how much stout to add depends on the other ingredients. Too little and, well, you’re missing the point; too much and the stew will be bitter. I find the best proportion is about one-third stout to two-thirds stock. Guinness is an old reliable for the Irish purist, but you can experiment with any of the local craft stouts that are widely available these days, each of which will impart their own individual character.

As for the stock, its quality is essential to the success of the stew. I rarely rely on commercially made stock, which (besides being close to tasteless) too often contains sugar, green pepper, mushroom or other ingredients I would not use in my own recipe. But if need be, I find most commercial chicken stocks more palatable than their beef counterparts. Whether the stock is homemade or store-bought, adding stout will enrich it.

What to drink with Irish stew?

The pleasure of eating this singular stew is increased manyfold when it is accompanied by a swig of the same good stout you’ve cooked with. The pleasant bitterness of the drink rises to the rich, deep flavors of the braise and so nicely sets off the sugars in the onions and carrots. The Irish, like the rest of their compatriates in the British Isles, drink their beer cool, not cold, like a fine red wine. Pour with care for a full, creamy head. On St. Patrick’s Day, be sure to have on hand a loaf of soda bread peppered with caraway seeds to slather with soft Irish butter for the proper holiday spirit. Slainte!

Irish Beef-and-Beer Stew

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: About 2 1/4 hours

Total time: About 3 hours

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

4 pounds well-sourced (preferably organic) blade steaks or boneless beef chuck-eye roast, trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1 1/4-inch pieces

3/4 cup good-quality unsalted butter, preferably Irish

3 medium onions, chopped

3 large cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

Stems from 1 bunch parsley, minced

3 bay leaves

2 teaspoons dried herbes de Provence

1 1/4 cups stout, such as Guinness

2 3/4 cups homemade, salt-free meat stock, or low-sodium chicken broth

3 carrots, peeled and sliced

3 turnips, peeled and cubed

4 to 5 teaspoons fine sea salt, or to taste

Freshly milled black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 pounds small Yukon Gold, fingerling or Red Bliss potatoes, scrubbed, skin on

8 ounces freshly picked and shelled or frozen petite peas (optional)

Directions

1. Blot the meat with paper towels to remove moisture. In a heavy, ample, oven-proof braiser or Dutch oven, warm 1/4 cup of the butter over medium heat. Slip in just enough meat cubes to leave sufficient room around each one for proper searing. You will need to brown the meat in several batches, adding up to 1/4 cup of the remaining butter as needed (reserve the rest for browning vegetables later). Each batch will take about 10 minutes to brown all over; when it’s done, transfer it to a large bowl and repeat the process until all the meat is browned before starting the next.

2. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until they are softened and lightly caramelized, about 4 minutes. Stir occasionally to dislodge any meat bits from the pan surface. Stir in the parsley stems, bay leaves and dried herbs and sauté for another minute or two.

3. Return the browned meat and its juices to the pan. Pour in the stout followed by the stock. Stir the ingredients together well and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook over the lowest possible heat for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. (I like to set a metal heat diffuser, called a “flame tamer,” between the flame and the pot to neutralize any hot spots and ensure even cooking.) Alternatively, you can heat the oven to 300 F, slide the covered pot onto the middle shelf and cook for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.

4. Meanwhile, in a separate, ample skillet, warm the remaining butter. Add the carrots and turnips and sauté until they are nicely colored, 10 to 12 minutes. Reserve.

5. After 1 1/2 hours, stir the carrots and turnips into the stew. Cook for another 45 minutes, or until both the meat and root vegetables are very tender. When it is done, add salt and pepper to taste.

6. In the meantime, cover the potatoes in 3 inches of cold water and bring to a boil; then simmer over medium heat until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and keep warm.

7. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour with enough cold water (or cold stock) to make a thin, smooth paste or slurry. If you have been cooking the stew in the oven, remove it now and put it on the stove top over low heat.

8. Remove the cover from the pot and stir the slurry into the stew a little at a time to blend well. Add the peas if desired. Simmer until the gravy thickens and heats through and the peas are warm, no more than 5 minutes. Serve hot with boiled potatoes.

Notes: Using a well-marbled cut that will be rendered moist and tender during cooking is important to the success of any meat stew. Shoulder cuts, including blade steak or chuck, are ideal; avoid leg meat, which will be dry and tough by comparison. Searing small batches in hot butter before adding the cooking liquid caramelizes them, creating another layer of flavor. The root vegetables are sautéed separately and incorporated late to prevent them from disintegrating into the gravy. Peas are optional; I love them for their little bursts of sweetness, but don’t overcook! Boiled potatoes go well with the stew, and there will be plenty of gravy to sauce them. The stew will keep in a refrigerator for up to four days, or it can be frozen. To make a pie, cool the stew and divide it into individual crocks or larger baking dishes, as you prefer, then top with your favorite unsweetened pie crust or puff pastry. Brush the crust with egg wash (a whole egg yolk thinned with a little cold water or milk). Preheat the oven to 400 F and bake until it is heated through and the crust is golden, about 20 minutes, depending on pie size.

Main photo: Beef and Guinness stew. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 

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Walnuts, oranges and orange blossom water make these hamantaschen burst with flavor. Credit: Copyright MayIHaveThatRecipe.com

The most recognizable symbol for the Jewish holiday of Purim is a three-cornered cookie, called a hamantaschen.

Purim, which begins March 4, is a particularly joyful festival, nicknamed the Id-al-Sukkar, or the sugar holiday, by Muslims because sweet treats are plentiful. It is a sweet spirited holiday, notwithstanding the ancient Persian tale associated with it featuring complex plot twists of deceit, prejudice, politics, sexual intrigue and revenge.

Purim is a time for celebratory imbibing of alcohol, vibrant costumes and joyful, raucous parties with comedians cracking jokes all night, called a Purim schpeil.

Now, all that is fun, but honestly, for Jews of Ashkenazi descent — especially those who aren’t particularly religious or observant — it’s all about that triangular cookie — that gloriously crisp sweetness embracing an unctuous, fruit filling.

Or maybe it’s about a plush, thick-rimmed yeast pastry version that is punctuated by the intriguingly textured sweet poppy seed filling. Or maybe it’s a savory three-cornered pastry, perfect as an amuse-bouche.

Hamantaschen, you see, are anything but boring. And they are nothing new. The first version was likely the poppy seed or mohn filling, even giving the cookie its name — ha-mohn-taschen, or haman’s hat (Haman was the villain in the ancient tale). Classic versions are wonderful and worthy of your time, every time, every year.

But like any cookie, the classic recipes inspire tremendous creativity among cooks. A survey of some of the web’s cooks, writers, bloggers, recipe developers and chefs reveals a wide swath of variations so numerous and enticing that it will seduce your palate and leave you eagerly awaiting next year’s treats.


Check out these websites for creative variations of the classic hamantaschen recipe:

» TheKitchn

» Tori Avey

» LilMissCakes

» The Kosher Foodies

» The Joy of Kosher

» WhatJewWannaEat

» Busy in Brooklyn

» Kitchen Tested

» CouldntBeParve

» Alibabka

» The Jewish Daily Forward

» My Jewish Learning

» May I Have That Recipe

» Ronnie Fein

» The Weiser Kitchen

Main photo: Walnuts, oranges and orange blossom water make these hamantaschen burst with flavor. Credit: Copyright MayIHaveThatRecipe.com

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Sandesh is an Indian version of cheesecake, can be cut into shapes with cookie cutters or formed into balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.

You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.

To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.

In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.

So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.

First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)

Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.

An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’

To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.

All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.

When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.

But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.

A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.

Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way

Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.

I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.

In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.

Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.

That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.

Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh

Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

For the cheesecake:

Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish

1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)

3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon saffron strands

1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)

6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)

For optional garnishes:

Orange sections

Slivered almonds

Chocolate shavings

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.

4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.

7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.

8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.

Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Garlic shrimp is best eaten sizzling hot when the aroma of the garlic and saffron are most potent. Credit:

For Valentine’s Day, what could be more romantic than a homemade dinner? If you are looking for that dish that says love, look to these five foods, which have been considered aphrodisiacs for centuries.

Seafood

Aphrodisiacs were named for Aphrodite, the goddess of love. According to ancient Greek myth, Aphrodite was born from the sea and arrived ashore transported by either an oyster or scallop shell. Because of her sea connection all seafood, but especially shellfish, was considered an aphrodisiac since those times.

Flourless chocolate cake

This flourless cake, has a crisp, macaroon-like outer layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets”

Chocolate

Cacao beans, essential to making chocolate, first made their way to Europe from the New World in the 1500s. Once chocolate arrived, physicians and health writers began to study it and decided it was not only an aphrodisiac but also a cure-all for many ills, including indigestion. Casanova, famed writer of the 1700s, devoted several pages in his memoir to how effective chocolate was in getting women into the mood.

Chili peppers and cayenne

For hundreds of years spices that tingle the tongue — such as red pepper flakes, cinnamon and ginger — were thought to be aphrodisiacs. The idea was that if they make the tongue tingle they would make other body parts tingle, too. Chili peppers and these spices quicken the pulse and induce perspiration, which mimics the state of sexual arousal and also stimulates the release of endorphins.

Strawberries and raspberries

Because of their seductive color, strawberries were called “fruit nipples” and considered powerful aphrodisiacs during the Renaissance.

Wine

The ancient Greeks and Romans worshiped and held yearly festivals for the wine god Bacchus, also called Dionysus, who was born from an affair between the god Zeus and a mortal woman. Wine, for the ancients, was not just a nice drink to have with dinner, but thought to be absolutely essential to good health. At that time, water was often filled with dangerous germs, whereas wine was safe. More than just essential to good health, wine was believed to be essential to life, making it one of the first and most popular aphrodisiacs.

Here are some recipes that feature these foods. While I can’t guarantee they will be aphrodisiacs, I can promise they’re delicious.

Garlic Shrimp

This dish is best eaten sizzling hot when the aroma of the garlic and saffron are most potent. For a dramatic presentation, cook and serve it in a small iron skillet. 

From: “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

12 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons olive oil

7 to 8 strands saffron

1 jalapeño pepper, sliced

Salt and black pepper

Directions

1. Combine the shrimp, garlic, oil, saffron and jalapeño in a small bowl.

2. Heat a small skillet over high heat and sauté the shrimp with the marinade until the shrimp are golden, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Melty Manchego With Spicy-Sweet Tomato Jam

So many aphrodisiacs in one dish! Lovely Manchego is melted in a pan with a hint of garlic and then spiked with a splash of sweet sherry. The aromas will drive all the guests straight into the kitchen.

The tomato jam, a spicy-sweet mix of tomatoes, sugar, jalapeño and lemon, is simple to make yet adds just the right zing to the warm melty cheese. 

From “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 35 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the tomato jam:

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

3/4 cup sugar

1 jalapeño pepper, sliced

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/4 teaspoon salt

Cayenne pepper, optional

For the cheese:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 pound Manchego cheese, cut into 1-inch sections

1 tablespoon sweet sherry

Crusty bread, sliced

Directions

For the tomato jam:

Combine the tomatoes, sugar, jalapeño pepper, lemon zest and juice, salt, and cayenne pepper, if using, in a medium saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes, until thick. Allow to cool, and then transfer to a small serving bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and reserve.

For the cheese:

1. Heat the oil and garlic in a small nonstick skillet over low heat until the garlic begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon remove the garlic; set aside. Add the cheese in one layer and fry until warm and soft, about 1 minute. Remove the skillet from the heat and add the sherry. Cover the skillet and return it to the heat for 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Serve right in the skillet or slide the warm cheese onto a serving platter and top with the garlic. Serve with the tomato jam and bread on the side.

Flourless Italian Chocolate Cake

This flourless cake, has a crisp, macaroon-like outer layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust.

From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011) by Francine Segan 

Prep time: 10 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan

7 ounces dark chocolate

1 cup granulated sugar

4 eggs, separated

2 tablespoons potato starch

1 tablespoon vanilla

Strawberries, optional

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform cake pan.

2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a bowl in the microwave.

3. In a large bowl, beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand-held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Beat in the chocolate-butter mixture until creamy. Add the potato starch and vanilla and mix until well combined.

4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.

5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, until just set in the center. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit. Serve with strawberries on the side, if you like.

Main photo: Garlic shrimp and melty Manchego with spicy-sweet tomato jam are tasty aphrodisiacs. Credit: “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” by Francine Segan

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Just out of the oven, these sweet bread bites are truly delicious. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen

Sweet breakfast buns o’ mine! Babka is a well-loved and indulgent breakfast bread, but this version — studded with dried fruits such as strawberries, tart cherries and apricots — gives it a fresh spin.

Perfect with a morning cup of joe, pomegranate or mint tea, these babka buns are a lovely addition to a brunch anytime. The cardamom and anise keep it spicy and invigorating, and the individual size (made in a muffin tin) makes it perfect for an on-the-go breakfast. Be sure to leave enough time for rising — this is a rich dough and really needs the time.

Babka Buns with Dried Fruit and Cardamom

Prep time: 1 hour, plus 3 hours for rising

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 4 hours, 35 minutes

Yield: 36

Ingredients

For the dough:

2 tablespoons (19 grams) dry active yeast

1 cup water, divided (1/4 cup around 90 F to 95 F; room temperature for the rest)

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup (220 grams) light brown sugar

2 1/2 cups (340 grams) bread flour

3 1/2 cups (455 grams) all purpose flour plus more for dusting

1 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

2/3 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste

Filling No. 1:

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, roasted preferred

3 teaspoons ground cardamom, roasted preferred

1/2 teaspoon ground anise

3/4 cup fig jam

zest and juice of one lemon

Filling No. 2:

1/3 cup ( 50 grams) dried strawberries, cut into rough 1/4-inch dice

1/3 cup ( 50 grams) dried pitted tart cherries, cut into rough 1/4-inch dice

1/2 cup (110 grams) dried apricots or peaches, pitted and cut into rough 1/4-inch dice

1/3 cup (65 grams) dried raspberries (optional)

Topping:

1 egg

1 tablespoon water

1/4 cup turbinado sugar

2 teaspoons sea salt

Directions

For the dough:

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the yeast, 1/4 cup warm water and 1 teaspoon sugar; mix at low speed until just blended. Let stand for about 5 to 7 minutes, until foamy.

2. Sift the flours and salt into a mixing bowl or onto a sheet of parchment paper and set aside.

3. Add the remaining water, the light brown sugar and the flour mixture; mix until just combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until each is fully incorporated. It will not be a dough yet. Add the oil and vanilla bean paste; mix on low to medium-low to fully combine. Increase the mixer speed to medium and knead for 5 minutes to form a moist, dense dough.

4. Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, cover with a kitchen towel, place in a warm spot and let rise at room temperature for about 3 to 3 1/2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.

5. When the dough has risen, divide it into 12 portions.

For the fillings:

1. In a large mixing bowl, stir the sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and anise together; set aside.

2. Place the fig jam, lemon juice and lemon zest in another small mixing bowl; stir to combine. Set aside.

3. Combine dried fruits in a bowl. Set aside.

Finishing the babka buns:

1. Lightly flour a work surface.

2. Spray two muffin tins with with nonstick vegetable oil spray.

3. Place divided dough portions, one at a time, on the floured surface and pat into a large rectangle, about 1/4-inch thick (roughly 5 inches by 10 inches).

4. Spread each piece with 2 tablespoons of the fig jam mixture, 2 teaspoons of the sugar and spice mixture, and about 3 tablespoons of the dried fruit.

5. Roll up, jelly-roll style; it will look like a small filled snake. Twist at the center and fit into the prepared muffin tins, tucking it in, or smooshing it down, as necessary to make it fit.

6. Cover with a kitchen towel; repeat with the remaining dough pieces, allowing them to rest for 45 minutes (some will rest more than others because it takes time to prep them all, and that’s fine).

7. Preheat the oven to 375 F.

8. For the finish, make an egg wash by beating the egg lightly with the water in a small bowl.

9. With a pastry brush, brush the buns with the egg wash and sprinkle with turbinado sugar and a pinch of the salt.

10. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes or until dark golden brown. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Main photo: Just out of the oven, these sweet bread bites are truly delicious. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen

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Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty -- rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery -- is part of the celebration of the beginning of the harvest season known as Makara Sankranti in India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Celebrations, festivals and food are prolific on the Indian calendar. With life’s hustle and bustle, I tend to weed out those that are difficult to fit in or lose their symbolism in our transported life in the United States.

Sankranti — marking the launch of India’s harvest season — usually is one of them.  But a coconut changed my mind this year.

Sankranti refers to the passage of the sun from one Zodiac sign to another. On Jan. 14, this transition happens from Capricorn to Aquarius, called Makara on the Hindu calendar. Makara Sankranti marks the beginning of the “auspicious” period for Hindus when non-devotional activities — such as festivals and weddings — can be held after a month-long “inauspicious” period dedicated to devotional activities alone.

It’s also the beginning of longer days. I believe that a modicum of practicality is rooted in many such traditions and longer days — especially in times when there was no electricity — made for more enjoyable festivals.

Practicality also put an end to my irreverence toward Sankranti this year.

How cracking a coconut changed my attitude

In my house, I had a fresh coconut that I had forgotten about, just in time for the January festival. I broke open the coconut, an action that is believed to bring good luck. As I looked at the pristine white meat that rested on my shelf in all its glory, I realized the fortune it brought me: an opportunity to celebrate Sankranti as it is traditionally done in my native Bengal. With pithey: warm, gooey rice and coconut dumplings.

In Bengal, the colloquial name for the Sankranti festival is pithey parbon, or the festival of the pithey. Pithey is a sweet dumpling that is either steamed or fried and typically made with rustic ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty: rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery – an unrefined brown sugar made from date palm sap.

The process of extracting date palm jaggery is similar to tapping maple syrup, and I often use maple syrup instead. It is not as deeply flavored, but closer than other sweeteners that I have easy access to. The ingredients, despite their simplicity, result in delightful delicacies that are time-consuming but well worth the effort.

Depending on the chef’s enthusiasm and energy, an assortment of these are made for friends and family.

I have fond memories of my grandmother and her sister making these for the family, as I often interrupted their progress by sneaking in and stealing handfuls of sweet, freshly grated coconut or moist and sweet golden jaggery that left my hands sticky and warm.

Pithey traditions in Bengal

The first batch of pithey is usually placed in a container and floated into the river or offered at a temple in an attempt to appease the harvest gods.

In rural Bengal, the farm community begins the day with an homage to the barn and dhenki, or rice storage urn. The women throw a handful of rice over their heads as an offering to the gods, and the urn is welcomed as a symbol of prosperity and hope for a good harvest.

Living with the vagaries or nature, most predominantly the monsoon, this community is respectful about the importance of a good and successful harvest. There are a number of other rituals, such as tying the barn doors with hay and decorating the house. All are practiced in hope of a good harvest.

For the Makara Sankranti festival, some Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

For the Makara Sankranti festival, Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration for Indian festivals. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

When I cracked open the coconut this year in my home, the thought of the warm, sweet dumplings it could bring me held the promise of all things good on that frigid day.

It is easy to find frozen grated coconut in the aisles of our local ethnic supermarket. However, if you are looking for something comforting on a chilly winter day, consider picking up a whole coconut and grating it yourself to use in my recipe for Gokul Pithey, adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”

Gokul Pithey — Bengali Coconut Dumplings in Golden Syrup

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time:  40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 12 servings, about 12 dumplings

Ingredients

For the syrup:

1 cup dark maple syrup

1/2 cup water

2 to 3 cardamoms

For the fritters:

1 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut

3/4 cup grated jaggery or raw cane brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder

1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)

1 cup all-purpose white flour

1/3 cup rice flour

1/2 cup milk

Oil for frying, such as grape seed or canola oil

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, bring the syrup, water and cardamoms to a simmer for 10 minutes until a thick syrup is formed.

2. While the syrup is cooking, in a separate pan heat the coconut, jaggery, and cardamom powder on low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes, until a fragrant sticky mixture is formed.

3. Add the ghee and lightly fry the mixture until it turns pale golden. Remove from heat and allow it to cool.

4. Shape into walnut-size balls and flatten them slightly.

5. In a mixing bowl, beat the flours and milk into a thick batter, adding a little water if needed. (The batter should be thick enough to adhere to the coconut balls.)

6. Heat some oil in a wok on medium heat. Dip a coconut ball in the batter and place into the oil, cooking a few at a time.

7. Cook on medium low heat until a golden, crisp coating is formed, turning once.

8. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and dip into the syrup. Let the balls rest in the syrup for about 2 minutes, then remove and serve hot.

Main photo: Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery,  is often served during the celebration of the Indian harvest festival known as Makara Sankranti. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Osechi ryori. Credit: iStock

New Year’s in Japan, as in all cultures, is a time to reflect on the past, resolve to do better and begin anew. But it is different in that for seven days the entire nation reverts to a slower, quieter time.

At least when I lived in Japan, in the mid-1980s, this was the case. Nearly every store closed for a week, the streets were quiet, and families gathered to relax and share the special New Year’s foods known as osechi ryori.

Because it’s considered bad luck to work on the first three days of the new year, all of the osechi ryori foods are prepared ahead of time, then arranged in beautiful lacquered jubako (layered boxes) and eaten at room temperature.

Traditional foods

These exquisite traditional foods are steeped in tradition, and represent different forms of good luck in the new year. A few of my favorite osechi ryori foods and their meanings are:

Tazakuri (baby sardines) are used to fertilize rice crops, and represent a bountiful harvest.

Konbu maki (seaweed rolls) represent happiness because the word konbu, or kobu, is similar to yorokobu, the Japanese word for happiness.

Kuri kinton (Japanese sweet potato mashed with chestnut) has a light golden color that represents gold or prosperity.

Shin takenoko (bamboo shoots) are from the fast-growing bamboo plant and symbolize acquiring wealth rapidly.

Datemaki (sweet omelet roll) has a golden hue that symbolizes gold, while the egg itself represents fertility.

Kuromame (black beans) are simmered in sugar and are eaten for good health in the coming year.

Ebi (shrimp) curl like the backs of the elderly, so they symbolize living a long life.

Kimpira gobo (burdock root) has a number of good luck qualities. It has a long tap root, symbolizing long life. The deep, sturdy root is also said to keep family ties strong by keeping the family rooted. And if the burdock root splits at the end, that’s even better, as your good luck will also split and multiply.

Better than it looks

Burdock root. Credit: Terra Brockman

Burdock root. Credit: Terra Brockman

Of all of these foods, burdock (gobo) is the one that I have continued to eat over the decades, and not just at New Year’s. It definitely falls into the “can’t judge a book  …” category of vegetables. It’s dull and brown and looks tough and unappetizing. But it is in fact tender (you can scrape away the thin skin with a light fingernail), and the humble exterior of the large, dark, woody-looking root belies the sweet, nutty, delicate, crunchy flesh within.

In addition to being used as a food item for millennia, many cultures have used burdock medicinally. Early Chinese physicians treated colds, flu, throat infections, and pneumonia with burdock preparations, and it is considered a powerful source of “yang” energy, according to Chinese philosophy and macrobiotic practice — meaning it gives you the energy and strength to do what needs to be done — including, perhaps, keeping all your New Year’s resolutions.

This New Year’s week, celebrate the spirit of osechi — slow down, relax and enjoy time with loved ones. And for good luck, long life, and strong family ties, try some burdock root. Traditionally, in Japan, burdock (gobo) is stir-fried — alone or with carrots — in a dish called Kimpira Gobo. It seems that every Japanese household has a slightly different take on this, but here’s the recipe from a family friend, Masako Takayasu.

Mrs. Takayasu’s Kimpira Gobo (Stir-Fried Burdock and Carrots)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

2 sticks burdock (about 1/2 pound)

Carrots, 1/3 to 1/2 the amount of burdock

3 Japanese togarashii, Thai hot, or another hot pepper

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon sesame seed oil

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon mirin (optional)

3 to 4 tablespoon soy sauce

Hot pepper flakes, to taste (optional)

Sesame seeds, as garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Wash burdock and remove skin by rubbing with the back of a knife or with a vegetable scrubber. Cut into matchstick-size pieces and soak the pieces in cold water to prevent discoloration. Replace water two or three times or until the water remains clear, and then drain the burdock. Peel carrots and cut in pieces the same size and shape as the burdock.

2. Slice hot peppers, and after removing their seeds, cut the peppers into thick rings.

3. Combine olive oil and sesame oil in a frying pan and heat. Add burdock, carrot, and hot pepper rings, and stir-fry over high heat until carrots are cooked through. Reduce heat and add sugar, mirin, soy sauce and hot pepper flakes to taste. Stir to mix. Continue to stir over heat until the liquid nearly all evaporates. Sprinkle sesame seeds over the top and serve.

Main photo: New Year’s foods served in a lacquered box called a jubako. Credit: iStock

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Happy New Year. Credit: IvanMikhaylov / iStockphoto

The beauty of New Year’s resolutions is twofold: We make them and, for a few days anyway, we believe them.

If your New Year’s resolution is to eat better, that’s always open to interpretation. At the very least, the resolutions can be kept by checking out just a few of the holiday offerings from Zester Daily. From throwing the right party to getting in the habit of eating something healthy right away, there’s a New Year’s story to help keep any resolution — if only for a few days.

Here’s a sampling of Zester Daily stories to get the year off to a good start. The notes are directly from the contributors. Click on the links for each story.

Food

Arrive in Style With a Perfect Potluck Presentation by Martha Rose Shulman:  Making dishes for holiday potlucks is usually more pleasurable than transporting them to the occasion. There’s always the fear that things will tip over or spill in the trunk.

Alexander Smalls Brings the World to Harlem by Sylvia Wong Lewis: Alexander Smalls’ New Year’s menu is a tip-off to the breadth of the cuisine that his patrons encounter each day at The Cecil, which recently won Esquire magazine’s coveted Restaurant of the Year for 2014.

Japanese Namasu Brings Good Luck in the New Year by Sonoko Sakai: New Year’s is the most important holiday in Japan, and the centerpiece of the annual celebration is what the Japanese consider to be lucky foods.

Ring in the New Year With Simplicity and Health by Francine Segan: This time of year, most of us make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. To jump-start my own plans, and to help my friends who are all making the same resolution, I host a healthy New Year’s Eve party.

Make-Ahead Menu Lets You Party Like It’s 2015 by Carole Murko: New Year’s Eve can be a splendid holiday to celebrate. What with the optimism of resolutions or mapping out one’s desired feelings, it is indeed a time to embrace all that is new in 2015. 

‘Cut Off’ The Old Year With Japanese Soba Noodles by Hiroko Shimbo: In Japan, New Year’s Eve is as important as Christmas Day in Western countries.

For Good Luck in  the New Year, Think Green and Round by Brooke Jackson: Around the world, foods are eaten on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day that are auspicious and thought to bring prosperity for the coming year.

Zombie Pizzas With Real Innards for New Year’s by Clifford A. Wright: Since no one watches zombie movies alone, a New Year’s Eve party is perfect. For food in front of the TV, popcorn is easiest, but here’s a fun idea: zombie pizza.

Cheeses to Intrigue and Entice Holiday Guests by Nicole Gregory: If I must eat cheese — and clearly, I must — then I commit to consuming the best cheese in the world. And this means I need to know how to make mouthwatering cheese boards of my own to share with friends and family.

The Healthy Way to Good Fortune on New Year’s by Harriet Sugar Miller: In the 19th century, many African-Americans brought in the New Year with Hoppin’ John — a dish made with black-eyed peas and collard greens, among other ingredients, and thought to bring prosperity and luck.

Drink

9 Essential Questions About Champagne, Answered By Paul Lukacs: For many consumers, this is just about the only time that they buy and drink this particular type of wine. Not surprisingly, they often find themselves confused.

Toast the New Year With Healthy Kombucha by Tina Caputo: One way to avoid starting off the New Year with a blistering hangover is to steer clear of the offending drinks altogether. Another, some say, is to make healthier cocktails, using kombucha as a mixer.

A Spanish New Year’s Toast: Cava and a Dozen Grapes by Caroline J. Beck: Nochevieja, or old night,” as New Year’s Eve is known in Spain, is a celebration that comes with a bit of insurance.

Skip the Bubbly and Ring in 2015 With Hard Apple Cider by Ramin Ganeshram: For some, Champagnes and sparkling wines are too dry. For others, they are headache inducing, and for yet others, they are too high in alcohol. What, then, to do when asked to raise a glass of cheer to ring in the new year?

Trader Joe’s Has Wine Covered at Every Price by Mira Honeycutt: As the holiday party season winds its way toward New Year’s Eve, sparkling wine or Champagne is on many shopping lists.

Main photo: Happy New Year. Credit: Ivan Mikhaylov / iStockphoto

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