Articles in Holidays
Easter is a moveable feast in both Eastern and Western church traditions — quite literally, since the date can vary by several weeks whether celebrated according to the Western (Roman Catholic) or Eastern (Orthodox Catholic) calendar: This year’s Roman Catholic Easter is March 31, and the Orthodox date is May 5. This can make for some confusion where the two groups intersect, as they often do in central Europe. Traditions in both camps, however, feature eggs as the universal symbol of rebirth.
A Russian Orthodox Easter as celebrated in the early 1990s by a self-sufficient farming family of Ruthenes living in Slovakia’s Tatras mountains on the borders of the Ukraine provided me with a lesson in maintaining national identity through festive traditions in a situation where church festivals were not officially celebrated at all.
The Ruthenes, Russian-speaking Ukrainians marooned in Slovakia in the aftermath of World War II, maintained their language and religion throughout the years of communism thanks, in all probability, to their minority status and the inaccessibility of their steep ravines and dense forest. Through the long winters, while the city dwellers of Eastern Europe endured shortages and bread queues, the peasant communities of the Tatras survived as they always had, through self-sufficiency and a well-stocked store cupboard. And at Easter, the most important festival of the Christian year, those who had moved to the cities to find work returned home to be with their families and enjoy the last of the stores, providing extra hands to plant the potato crop, the most important and labor-intensive task of the year.
At the time of my visit, my hostess, Anna Ludomirova — matriarch of a peasant farming family in the High Tatras — was preparing the Easter basket to be taken to the churchyard. Packed with good things — a tall round babka enriched with eggs and butter, decorated eggs, salt (a very important item in any self-sufficient household), the last of the ham from the brine pot — the basket was taken to be blessed with a sprinkling of holy water by the monks at the Russian Orthodox church on Easter Saturday. Once this ritual had been observed and the basket shown to the family ancestors buried in the churchyard, everyone returned home to unpack and share the contents.
Easter egg cheese part of traditional holiday meal
This picnic-style meal freed the ladies of the household to enjoy the company of visitors. But before the feast could begin, certain rituals had to be observed. A bowl of decorated Easter eggs painted with wax and dipped in colored dyes was set on the table and a ceremonial candle lit. Then Mama Anna sliced the top off a raw egg, mixed the contents with a little spoon and passed it round the table for everyone to take a little sip — a unifying gesture shared by all.
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These important rituals concluded, the company tucked into sliced ham and wind-cured sausage, spiced beetroot and gherkins in sweetened vinegar, grated horseradish in cream, eggs hard-boiled and saved in obedience to the prohibitions of Lent, thick slices of the buttery babka spread with more butter. Most unusual, however, was the centerpiece of the feast, egg cheese, a magnificent yellow globe as large and round as a soccer ball made by scrambling the first of the year’s eggs with the first of the year’s milk, tipping the result in a cloth and leaving it to drip overnight till firm and dry — a technique that mirrors the preparation of rennetted cheese later in the year, when the calves are weaned and the cows put out to grass. The eggshells did not go to waste, as they were emptied through pinholes to keep the shells intact and saved for the children to decorate with melted candle wax for the patterned Easter eggs sent to the churchyard in the basket.
After the collapse of the Russian empire and the splitting of Slovakia from the Czechs, the Ruthene communities returned to the Ukraine carrying with them traditions forgotten in their native land but preserved in all their ancient symbolism by a stroke of the politicians’ pencil all those years ago.
Wax-patterned Easter eggs
You need white rather than brown eggs for the patterns to be effective. You can use ready-blown eggshells from making egg cheese or cooled hard-boiled eggs. You’ll also need candle ends — plain, colored or both — food coloring and a pin with a large head.
1. Stick the pin in a cork to make a pen.
2. Melt the wax, keeping the colors separate.
3. Hold the egg firmly in one hand, big end upward. Dip the pen in the wax, and, starting half an inch below the apex of the egg, dab with the wax and drag it up toward the top to give a tadpole-shaped tick. Continue around the egg to make a sunburst pattern. If you use alternate lengths of stroke and different colored waxes, the pattern will be even prettier.
4. Repeat on the other end of the egg. (Hold it carefully or place in an egg cup so the warmth of your hand doesn’t melt the wax). Make more sunburst patterns around the sides.
5. Dip the eggs in diluted food coloring, as for batik.
6. Pile the eggs in a pretty bowl.
Easter egg cheese
This is a very unusual dish, a solid sphere of scrambled egg. It looks decorative, slices up neatly and goes very well with ham, the traditional Easter meat in northern and Eastern Europe.
1 liter of milk
12 free-range eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1. Bring the milk to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk all but one of the eggs with the salt.
2. When the milk boils, whisk in the egg. Keep whisking until the resulting custard is thoroughly scrambled.
3. Tip the mixture into a clean pudding cloth. Hang it in a warm place to drain with a bowl underneath to catch the whey, exactly as you would fresh cheese.
4. When it’s quite drained, tip it out onto a clean dish, paint it with the remaining egg, forked to blend, and place it into an oven preheated to 350 F (180 C/Gas 4) for 10 minutes to glaze. The result should look like a large, shiny, yellow Easter egg.
5. Slice thickly and serve with ham, butter and bread.
Illustration: Ruthene women. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
When I was just married I went with my new husband to a famous Jewish restaurant in London. I scanned the menu anxiously searching for something green.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “Do you have any vegetables, please?”
“Yes,” the waiter answered seriously, “we have dill pickles and latkes.”
That exchange demonstrates so much of what is wrong with traditional Ashkenazi fare. Certainly the food is delicious, rib-sticking and very tasty. Look at menus solid with dishes like matzo ball soup and kreplach, the delicious triangles of pasta filled with chopped meat floating generously in rich broth. There are slices of corned beef with a liberal side of deep fried potato latkes and over-large slices of lockshen pudding — noodles mixed with dried fruit and masses of fat and sugar. Of course all these dishes are wonderful and immersed with flavor and Jewish tradition. Lighter versions of some of the recipes form part of my book, “Jewish Traditional Cooking.” But maybe it would be sensible to serve one of these recipes as a treat or delicacy accompanied by a liberal quantity of vegetables and fruit, not all of them together at a single meal.
A diet for survival
The traditional Ashkenazi diet evolved from a fragile East-European existence and the shtetl — impoverished, flimsy villages.
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If people were fortunate enough to have a chicken, probably only for a festival, it was an old boiler, and in true Ashkenazi tradition it would have been placed in a large cooking pot with root vegetables and masses of water to make a soup. This soup would be extended with matzo balls or any kind of dough and rough bread, along with chopped gizzards and heart, and meat from the chicken’s neck. The neck skin would be separately stuffed with chopped fat and peppery flour and stitched, then roasted with the bird to create another meal called helzel. Those bubbas, grandmothers and mothers, knew that they could keep hunger at bay by adding calorie-laden extras. The chicken would likely be served at the festival meal with kasha, rice, potatoes or barley.
We are now in the 21st century and Ashkenazi tradition still follows that regimen. Jewish people manifest significant problems connected with obesity, including the so-called Jewish Disease, diabetes. Heart disease and cancers are known to be exacerbated by a high fat, high protein diet.
Adapting the Ashkenazi diet for the 21st century
So maybe it’s time to acknowledge this and accept change, as I did after marrying a lovely Sephardi man. After the Diaspora, the Sephardic Jews looked about their surroundings and adopted the cooking methods of their new neighbors using masses of cheap vegetables and fruits, cooking with olive oil rather than the artery-clogging schmaltz of their Jewish cousins. Instead of relying on frying or interminable stewing to add flavor, they began seasoning their food with fresh herbs, creating fragrant dishes redolent with glorious spices and mouthwatering taste.
When I wrote “Jewish Traditional Cooking” I wanted to include the inherited foods but lighten them where possible. Many of the appetizers are vegetable-based: baba ganoush, a fragrant Asian dish based on oven-roasted vegetables, and soup mit nisht – the ultimate low-calorie cauliflower soup that tastes of heaven but relies on the freshness of a good cauliflower, onions and a light stock and herbs. Lockshen pudding has exchanged its ancient stodgy image for a healthier alternative by adding masses of freshly grated apple, vanilla, mixed spices and fresh lemon zest.
Passover is no longer a stomach-clutching kilo-raising event in our home. We adore the lightness of a carrot and almond bake which rises soufflé-like for any chef, and the spinach and leek roulade with its lighter cheese filling still satisfies. For a modern Jewish woman understanding tradition and the demands of religion and custom, I looked to Morocco where I learned to cook fish in a tiny Fez kitchen with a mixture of fresh vegetables and a fabulous stuffing so that it can be eaten hot or cold. Turkish tradition showed me how to stuff a whole vegetable and experiment with butternut squash as the base for a stuffing of toasted pine nuts, lentils, brown rice, currants and masses of chopped mint, parsley and cilantro.
I believe that Ashkenazi Jews have to look to their Sephardi cousins to learn how to eat in the 21st century. They may not survive their traditional diet.
Top photo: Ruth Joseph. Credit: Western Mail, Thompson House, Cardiff
St. Patrick’s Day used to mean corned beef and cabbage, but with Ireland’s culinary renaissance, cooks are exploring other traditional Irish foods. I’m thinking not only of Irish lamb stew and crubeens, golden-crusted pigs’ feet turned meltingly tender inside a crisp breaded crust. I’m also thinking of the Irish blaas. On a recent visit to Ireland I discovered a bakery that honors this delicious relic of the past.
Barron’s Bakery, in the small town of Cappoquin, County Waterford, is one of Ireland’s last traditional bakeries, with brick ovens dating to 1887. Because these ovens have never been modernized, they still operate without thermostats. Each firing yields a slightly different batch of bread, a variability prized by the townsfolk who flock to Barron’s.
The bakery is most famous for their “blaas” — light, plump yeast rolls with a subtle malty taste and a heavy dusting of flour. The rolls’ origins lie with the thrifty French Huguenots who immigrated to Waterford in the 17th century — blaa is likely a corruption of the French blanc (white) or blé (wheat) — and who are said to have introduced rolls made from leftover pieces of dough.
In 1802, blaas entered the Irish mainstream thanks to Brother Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of the Christian Brothers, who began baking them at Mount Sion Monastery in Waterford City. Made only of flour, water, yeast and salt, these rolls were inexpensive to prepare and thus affordable to the city’s poor.
Ireland recently submitted an application to the European Union to grant the rolls Protected Geographical Indication, PGI, status as a distinctive regional food. This move is significant, as Ireland has generally been slow to request special status for its food products. Only four are currently registered: Connemara Hill lamb; Timoleague Brown Pudding; Clare Island Salmon; and Imokilly Regato, a cow’s milk cheese from County Cork that has Protected Designation of Origin, PDO, status.
The application detailing blaas’ place of origin makes County Waterford sound like a magical realm: “The river Blackwater runs through the area and includes the town-lands of Dangan, Narabawn, Moolum, Newtown, Skeard, Greenville and Ullid.” The actual production of blaas looks a bit more prosaic. The 3-inch rolls are shaped by hand into rounds or squares, with the dough hand-floured at least three times in the process. This heavy dusting of flour both protects the dough from the oven’s intense heat and gives the blaas a distinctive top. Like American pan rolls, the pieces of unbaked dough are set side by side to merge as they rise. When the rolls are ready to eat, they are pulled apart, yielding a crusty top and soft interior and sides.
Irish blaas through the generations
Today, blaas are eaten either for breakfast (the local radio station’s morning program is called “The Big Blaa Breakfast Show”) or for lunch, when they’re often filled with fried potatoes or dilisk, a local seaweed. I was lucky enough to arrive in Cappoquin just as a tray of blaas was emerging from the oven, and the bakery owners, Esther Barron and Joe Prendergast, insisted that I have a taste. A first crisp bite immediately gave way to a tender and aromatic crumb. I was hooked.
Established in 1887, Barron’s remains at the heart of Cappoquin — so much so that last year a book commemorating its 125th anniversary was published with tributes from the bakery’s customers and staff. Esther is the fourth-generation Barron to run the bakery. She’s a remarkable woman, the youngest of five daughters who took over the business on her father’s death in 1980. Even though baking was very much a man’s profession, she made a success of it.
Through her work she tries to honor the memory of her grandfather John, who spent time in New York in the 1880s and dreamed of emigrating to the United States. But his wife and new baby called him back to Cappoquin, where he eventually took over his father’s bakery and sired 11 more kids!
Adding new traditions
Esther and Joe are reviving other traditional Irish baked goods like spotted dog, which is a white soda bread with fruit, and Chester cake, a spice cake originally devised to use up stale bread. And they’re experimenting with the use of locally grown organic wheat to improve their bread and support local farmers. Barron’s is so devoted to the Cappoquin community that they fire their ovens on Christmas Day so that the villagers can roast their turkeys communally.
For St. Patrick’s Day, Barron’s bakes a special cake in the shape of a shamrock, though it’s far from the kind of plain sheet cake you might expect. Theirs is an extravagant madeira cake with lemon curd and buttercream, covered in white fondant and decorated with piped green roses and the Gaelic greeting “La Fheile Padraig.”
For the past three years Barron’s has also organized a big St. Patrick’s Day parade, another aspect of their community involvement. In April, Waterford will be host to its sixth annual Festival of Food, and Barron’s is one of the sponsors. Esther Barron stands ready to welcome guests from near and afar with a taste of her special blaas.
Darra Goldstein. Credit: Courtesy of Darra Goldstein
Mardi Gras is around the corner, and if you can’t make it to New Orleans, try to create the spirit of Fat Tuesday with a homemade king cake, the traditional cake for Epiphany, the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi, the three kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.
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The origin of king cake is rooted in the French gâteau des rois and probably arrived in New Orleans with the Acadians expelled from Canada by the British in the mid-18th century. Today, Mardi Gras seems more a venue for drunken excess by college boys and Epiphany, while joyous, was never decadent. The eve of Epiphany is known as Twelfth Night (counted from Christmas Eve) and king cake season extends to Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before the start of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence lasting six weeks until Easter.
New Orleans king cake is a round ring cake, sometimes braided. It is a cross between Danish pastry and brioche, with three-color sugar frosting: purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power). It is lavished with Rococo garnishes and served either plain or with a rich filling. Hidden in the cake is a fava bean, or a plastic baby in modern versions. Whoever finds this hidden treasure is anointed the maker of the next king cake.
My New Orleans-enamored friend Michelle van Vliet, photographer by trade, culinary alchemist by avocation, believes her king cake might just be, appropriately, epiphanic. It better be. She’s been “perfecting” it for years, making king cakes until it came out of our ears.
Michelle’s joie de vivre found its expression in the avatar represented by king cake because, she explained, “it represents the spiritual, musical, and cultural gumbo that is New Orleans all in one lavish cake.” Her search for perfection rests upon the influence of her scientist father, seeded by dating a pastry chef long ago, and forged by her spirited artistic talent.
Michelle says: “Not all king cakes are created equally. Some are sophisticated and mild-mannered, favoring muted tones and elegant sugar sprinkles, but not mine. I indulge in the bright colors of Mardi Gras, and my king cake does not go unnoticed. I was given the ultimate compliment when [art consultant] Barbara Guggenheim told me that my cake reminded her of a Jackson Pollock painting!” Michelle’s advice is to “throw some color around.” Also remember, “this is not some snobby French patisserie, but just a popular cake.”
“I use sweetened condensed milk for the caramel sauce because the taste is a nostalgic warm and fuzzy for me,” she said. “It reminds me of the ’60s when it was a staple ingredient in my mother’s kitchen.”
I finally enticed her to give me the “secret” recipe. As she would say, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
Michelle’s King Cake
For the filling
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup roughly chopped raw pecans
1 fairly firm banana, diced into ¼-inch pieces
For the cake:
1 cup warm whole milk (105 to 110 F)
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dry active yeast
3¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 plastic baby or dried fava bean
For the icing:
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
½ cup sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon evaporated milk
1 teaspoon almond extract
1. Prepare the caramel sauce for the filling. In the top of a double boiler, pour in the condensed milk, place over the bottom portion of boiling water, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick and caramel-colored, about 2½ hours. Cool 20 minutes before using.
2. Prepare the cake. In a bowl, whisk milk with sugar, yeast and 1 heaping tablespoon flour until smooth and the yeast is dissolved. Let rest until the mixture gets bubbly, then whisk in butter, egg yolks, vanilla, and orange zest.
3. In a separate bowl, mix remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Fold this mixture into the wet ingredients with a rubber spatula. Once combined and the dough begins to pull away from the bowl, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until smooth, about 20 minutes of kneading. Form into a ball and place in a clean bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and allow it to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
4. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
5. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your fingers pat it out into a rectangle about 30 inches long and 6 inches wide.
Spoon and spread some caramel sauce across the bottom lengthwise half of the dough rectangle then sprinkle the pecan bits and banana pieces on top. Flip the top half over the filling. Seal the edges, pinching the dough together. Shape the dough into a ring and pinch the ends together so there isn’t a seam.
6. Carefully transfer the ring to the prepared baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap allowing the dough to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes. Bake until light golden brown, about 20 minutes. (Be careful not to overcook!) Remove and allow to cool completely on a wire rack before decorating. Gently lift up the edge of the cake, and hide the plastic baby or dried fava bean somewhere through the bottom.
7. Prepare the icing. In a bowl, combine the confectioner’s sugar, condensed milk, evaporated milk and almond extract and mix well. If too thick you may add more evaporated milk ½ teaspoon at a time. Divide the icing into 3 bowls, and color them with food coloring, one green, one yellow and one purple. Keep the bowls covered with plastic wrap until ready to use because the icing will harden quickly. Use a spatula or spoon to apply the icing, depending on whether you’re smearing or doing the Jackson Pollock by throwing with the spoon with a slightly thinned icing in alternating colors. Tip: Just go crazy with the color. Don’t hold back. Transfer to a cake platter. The cake will keep for several days covered with plastic wrap.
Note: The excess caramel sauce can be refrigerated and drizzled on ice cream. Serve leftover cake by gently heating.
Photo: King cake. Credit: Michelle van Vliet
Sometimes luck is in the pantry. On New Year’s Day, good friends from distant parts phoned to say they’d be in town unexpectedly. Could they come for lunch? They’d bring a bottle of wine left over from celebrations the night before. But, with nothing open except the local 7-Eleven, what on earth would we eat?
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But a determined search yielded treasures. Fortunately I found in the pantry cupboard a package of little fagioli del Purgatorio, purgatory beans. Gustiamo.com imports them from Umbria in Italy, and they’re so tiny they need almost no soaking at all. I set them in a small bowl, poured boiling water over and let them sit for an hour or so while I rummaged for something appropriate to add to them. There were the scallops, of course, but only three-quarters of a pound, plenty for two, not really enough for four.
Frozen treasure when there’s nothing to eat
But way in the back of the freezer was a half-pound bag of sweet little Maine shrimp, left over from the last harvest a year ago.
And I can almost always drum up an onion or a leek, a piece of celery, a carrot or two and inevitably several cloves of garlic. So the beans got drained and steamed until tender, with a clove of garlic, several sprigs of thyme from the winter garden, and a dollop of new olive oil, then lightly crushed and mixed with the vegetables, including half a red pepper I managed to rescue from a terminal state, all chopped and sautéed in olive oil to bring out their sweet flavors. Then it was time for the shrimp, by now somewhat softened
. Turned into the warm beans, they immediately loosened up and released their briny aromas without any further cooking at all.
The dish was evolving but definitely lacking something — a hint of acid perhaps? Lemon juice helped, but then I found the most fortuitous serendipity in a package I’d only just received — sun-dried California tomatoes, cut in julienne strips. Put up by Mooney Farms in Chico, Calif., they’re marketed as Bella Sun Luci. They provided the very zing that the beans had been lacking — a good thing, I think, to keep on the pantry shelf for just such an occasion.
In praise of the wok
By now, things were starting to look better, but lunch was less than an hour away. The scallops got seared in the wok in olive oil. (I have an ongoing argument about olive oil in the wok with wok star Grace Young, author of “The Breath of a Wok.” I’m all for it. She’s just as firmly against it.) And let me add a word in praise of that incredible kitchen vessel — nothing at all, in my experience, beats a wok for frying. The way it concentrates and focuses the heat, the frying medium (olive oil or not, depending on your taste), and the subject of the exercise, whether scallops or tofu or onions and ginger, is quite incredible. More and more often these days, I find myself turning to my old wok, bought in Hong Kong many decades ago and still a faithful companion in the kitchen.
Those scallops for example: They had no need for any dredging in flour or cornstarch. Thoroughly dried with paper towels and dropped into oil so hot it was just starting to break out a wisp of smoke, they seared almost instantly into crisp golden-brown disks that were crusty on the outside, tender within. So I spread the shrimp and bean mix in a fairly deep gratin dish, first dribbling oil over the bottom, then nestled the browned scallops in wherever they would fit, and topped the whole with toasted breadcrumbs, a fresh grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and another dribble of olive oil backward and forward over the top. Into a very hot oven it all went, just long enough to produce a gratin, a bubbling crust on the surface, and there I was, ready for unexpected guests.
Who, in the end, called and said they actually had misjudged the distance and the threat of snow and wouldn’t be coming after all. Tant pis pour eux, we invited in the neighbors and ate to our hearts’ (or our bellies’) content. A good way to start off a new year.
Gratin of What I Found in the Pantry
The best shrimp to use are small Maine shrimp. If you must use larger shrimp, buy wild ones if you can. They will have been frozen, but they still have much nicer flavor than farmed shrimp, which are unfortunately quite ubiquitous.
Be sure to ask for “dry” scallops — scallops that have not been soaked in STP (sodium tri-polyphosphate), a bath that keeps them white. While apparently harmless, STP causes scallops to exude a milky liquid when sautéing and they will never brown properly.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 cup small white dried beans, preferably fagioli del Purgatorio
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 cup mixed chopped vegetables, such as, onion, garlic, celery, red or green pepper, carrot
2 or 3 tablespoons chopped green herbs (e.g., basil, parsley, thyme)
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of chili pepper (optional)
½ to ¾ pound shrimp (see note above)
Juice of half a lemon
¾ pound dry sea scallops
¼ cup dry bread crumbs
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Put the beans in a small bowl and pour boiling water over. Let them sit for about an hour to soften slightly. Then drain and transfer to a saucepan with more water to cover, plus 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and 1 crushed garlic clove. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and simmer, covered, until tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Toward the end of the cooking time, add a good pinch of salt to the beans.
2. While the beans are cooking, prepare the vegetables, chopping them all into regular dice. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the vegetables until they are softened and releasing their perfume. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of herbs, a little more salt, and black pepper. Add a pinch of ground chili pepper if you wish.
3. When the beans are done, drain excess water, leaving just a small amount of liquid. Stir in the prepared vegetables.
4. If using Maine shrimp or other small shrimp, stir them into the beans while they’re still hot. If you must use larger shrimp, cut them into half-inch pieces and stir into the beans. Taste the beans and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and/or pepper, and a spritz of lemon juice.
5. In a sauté pan or a wok, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil. While the oil is heating, slice the scallops in half horizontally and dry them thoroughly with paper towels. As soon as the oil is hot, slide the scallops in and cook quickly, turning once, until the scallops are golden-brown on both sides. You may have to do this in batches.
6. Turn the oven on to 425 F. Have ready an oval gratin dish. Rub a little more olive oil over the bottom of the dish, then spoon the shrimp-bean mixture into the dish. Tuck the browned scallops into the bean mixture so that just their curving tops stick out. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and grated cheese and dribble the remaining olive oil over the top.
7. Transfer to the preheated oven and bake until the top is crisp and bubbly. Remove and serve immediately.
Top photo: Wok. Credit: Flickr / avlxyz
Zester Daily readers have shown an appreciation for a stunning variety of stories over the past year. A quick scan of the 2012 reader favorites reveals a yen for Ruth Bourdain’s dishes, cuisine from every corner of the world, food preservation, photography, films, wine insider news and a treasured recipe for flavored marshmallows — as well as a critique of American taste.
Snippets of the 12 most popular Zester Daily contributors’ stories, plus the five most popular Soapboxes, are below. Follow the story links to read the complete text. Follow the contributor links to read more by each author.
The stories are listed in reverse order.
Top contributors’ stories of 2012
12. THE ORIGINS OF CURRY by Raghavan Iyer: Before I try to define the word “curry,” let me create an image for you from my college laboratory days in India where I pursued a degree in chemistry over 20 years ago. As I busied myself measuring crystals of …
11. OLD-SCHOOL SOY SAUCE by Manuela Zoninsein: There’s no one right ritual or rule to guide your eating extravaganza on Jan. 23. The Chinese New Year involves a number of great food traditions. Dumplings are reminiscent of coins in ancient China and will thus bring …
10. TEN BEST FOODIE FLICKS by David Latt: If cold weather traps you indoors for months each winter, you might run through your queue of streaming movies pretty quick. Why not entertain yourself with a library of the best …
9. HOW KERMIT LYNCH TAUGHT AMERICANS HOW TO DRINK WINE by Patrick Comiskey: Forty years ago, Kermit Lynch abandoned the handmade purse industry and opened a wine shop in Berkeley, Calif., and in doing so, became one of the great innovators of …
8. WINE’S ACCUSED GRIFTER, RUDY KURNIAWAN by Corie Brown: By the summer of 2006, when I first noticed Rudy Kurniawan at Christie’s in Beverly Hills, he had transformed the market for old wine from a sleepy backwater into a high-stakes free-for-all. Only the richest wine collectors knew him. Or thought they did …
6. EATING TO BEAT CANCER: DIET MAY PROVE TO BE A CURE by Harriet Sugar Miller: Last night, it was cauliflower curry on a bed of leeks while my husband grilled his own slab of meat. The night before I ate solo — and downed an enormous bag of kale chips (please don’t tell him) flavored with cashew dust and too much …
4. IN DEFENSE OF TRUFFLE OIL by Lynne Curry: Midwinter is high season for fresh truffles in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. With the help of an experienced truffle hunter (or a trained dog), I could spend …
2. CANNING JARS FROM FAUX TO BEST PRESERVING CHOICES by Susan Lutz: About six months ago, I salvaged a beautiful marinara sauce jar that I intended to refill with home-canned sweet pickles made using my mother’s recipe. And if I hadn’t taken a 12-week course to become a certified Master Food Preserver, I might have …
1. FLAVORED MARSHMALLOWS MADE FROM SCRATCH by Charles Perry: When you hand people homemade marshmallows, they’re always dazzled. These are actual marshmallows, but with a lush, moist texture you never find in store-bought versions. If you want your friends to keep thinking you’re a wizard, don’t tell them how simple it is …
Top Soapboxes of 2012
5. DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS IS FOR AMERICANOS, TOO by Veronica Gonzalez-Smith: In the small town of El Paso, Texas, my siblings and I grew up at a unique intersection of Mexican and American culture. As kids, we traveled in and out of …
4. THE INFANTALIZATION OF AMERICAN TASTE by Michael Krondl: Though the plague of cupcake shops has not spared any city in this great union, it would be hard to find one that illustrates my point better than …
3. CALIFORNIA’S EXCITING NEW WINES BUCK THE MAINSTREAM by Eric Asimov: We live in the most wonderful era in history to love wine. Right now, Americans have access to a greater diversity of wines than ever before, wines made in more styles from more …
2. THE FORGOTTEN QUINCE by Jane McMorland Hunter: Nowadays most people hardly know what a quince looks like. Until the 19th century, it was a commonplace orchard fruit throughout North America and Europe; now it has become …
1. RUTH BOURDAIN DISSES AND DISHES WITH ZESTER by Ruth Bourdain: It’s been more than two years since the debut of Ruth Bourdain, the sensational and often raunchy Twitter persona whose name and sensibilities are a mashup/spoof of former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and outspoken celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. The true identity of Ms. Bourdain is still under wraps, but her tweets show her to be ….
* * *
And that’s our list for 2012 … Here’s to discovering Ms. Bourdain’s identity in 2013!
Photo illustration, clockwise from top left:
Ruth Bourdain. Credit: Ruth Bourdain
Indian spices (originally published in 660 Curries). Credit: Ben Fink
Homemade marshmallows dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Credit: StockFood
Photo illustration credit: Karen Chaderjian
Hogmanay, as the last day of the old year is known in Scotland, is celebrated with an enthusiasm unmatched south of the Border in England, where Christmas is the main event of the holiday season.
The midwinter rituals of the cold lands of the north, where the growing season is short and winter lasts about half the year, have to do with lighting fires to encourage the return of the sun so it can warm the earth and refill the cupboard. In Scotland, however, there was also a real need to defend the household against uninvited guests, particularly those wearing cow’s horns on their helmets, which explains the Scottish custom of First-Footing.
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Fear of marauding Norsemen lies behind the gathering together of rowdy groups of merrymakers to knock on doors demanding reward in much the same way as trick-or-treaters at Halloween. Never mind that this now takes place in towns and cities rather than isolated rural households who needed safety in numbers at a time of year when families were at their most vulnerable.
Hogmanay a time to give token gifts as a gesture of friendship
As a token of friendship, First-Footers are expected to arrive at the door with a log of wood or a piece of coal in return for a slice of cake and a dram of whisky. Furthermore, because it’s advisable that the first person to step over the threshold be a dark-haired Celt rather than a blond-maned Viking, any First-Footer with appropriate coloring will find himself bundled out of the door and refused readmission till the year has turned, thereby guaranteeing the household good luck (and absence of Vikings) for the next twelvemonth.
The first Christmas of which I have any memory was spent with my Scottish grandmother. Though she had married and settled south of the Border, she kept Christmas as a strictly religious festival and reserved the fun and games for Hogmanay, when she wore a sash in her own soft green tartan over a long dress as blue as her eyes. And there was music and dancing and special things to eat and drink, most important of which was fruitcake and whisky toddy for the grownups and baked apples and hot lemon barley water for the children. And instead of salt with the breakfast porridge — my grandmother didn’t permit sugar — there was treacle and cream. And on the back of the stove was a simmering pot of cockaleekie, a thick leek-and-chicken soup made with an old boiling fowl culled from her flock of Rhode Island Reds.
But for us children, the fun really started at dusk, when we were allowed to go First-Footing with a lantern around the neighborhood, ringing on doorbells and bothering people we didn’t know for sweets and coins, though we usually had to explain ourselves, this being England. On our return home, the house had already filled up with ex-patriot Scots and there was pipe music on the gramophone, a wind-up affair, and lines of grownups dancing the Gay Gordons and Strip the Willow.
The next day, the first of the New Year, we — children and grandmother (no one ever made our grandfather do anything he didn’t want) — gathered up the debris and built a huge bonfire in the garden, warming our hands against the flames while our grandmother told us stories of Hogmanay when she was a girl and lived in a draughty castle in the Highlands at the time when Queen Victoria was on the throne. This wasn’t as romantic as it sounds, she said, because all the wood for cooking had to be fetched from the log pile in the yard and you had to have a bath in front of the kitchen fire and the bedclothes were always wringing wet. In those days, she added, First-Footers had to walk for miles to visit their neighbours, though some of them were very handsome and came because they were courting. We asked whether our grandfather was one of these handsome young visitors.
“Mind your own business,” said granny.
Fortify your First-Footers against marauding longshipmen with this oatmeal caudle, as the preparation is known south of the Border.
1 bottle Scotch whisky
12 ounces runny honey
12 ounces thick cream
1 heaped tablespoon fine oatmeal or porridge oats
2 cups water
Pinch of nutmeg (optional)
1. Mix the whisky with the honey and cream and whisk until smooth.
2. Stir the oats into the water in a pan, bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes.
3. Whisk in the whisky mixture and serve hot. A scraping of nutmeg can be sprinkled on top, and you might care to add a little more cream.
Black Bun, fruitcake batter enclosed in a pastry cake, is traditional at Hogmanay on the East Coast and in the Lowlands, where coal-fired ovens came into general use in the 1900s. On the West Coast, the Highlands and islands where my grandmother lived as a girl, cakes were mostly boiled and came in the form of a clootie dumpling. (Find a clootie dumpling recipe here.) The pastry covering serves much the same purpose as the huff-crust used to protect delicate meats from the heat of the fire when turning on the spit. Old habits die hard.
Serves at least a dozen
For the pastry:
8 ounces plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces cold butter, diced
3 to 4 tablespoons iced water
For the batter:
8 ounces self-rising flour
Pinch of salt
12 ounces raisins
12 ounces sultanas
4 ounces prunes, stoned and chopped
4 ounces crystallized peel
4 ounces blanched almonds, roughly chopped
4 ounces soft brown sugar
1 egg, forked to blend
1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 small glass brandy or milk
1. Make the pastry by tossing the flour with the salt and rubbing in the butter with your fingertips.
2. Mix in enough water to make softish dough and work it lightly into a ball — don’t overwork. Cover in cling film and leave to rest in a cool place for half an hour or so.
3. Roll out two-thirds and use to line a cake tin 8 inches in diameter and roll out the other third to make a lid.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C/Gas 4).
5. Meanwhile, make the cake batter by picking over the fruit and nuts and tossing them in a little flour. (This helps prevent the solids sinking to the bottom of the cake.)
6. Beat the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy — the more you beat, the easier the adding of the eggs.
7. Beat in the egg, stirring in a spoonful of flour if it looks like curdling.
8. Sieve in the flour with the salt, add the powdered almonds and fold gently.
9. Fold in the fruit, nuts and spices and enough liquor or milk to make a softish dough.
10. Spoon the mixture into the pastry case, top with the lid and pinch the edges together with a wet finger to make a wavy edge.
11. Brush the top with a beaten egg and prick the surface with a fork in 2 or 3 places.
12. Bake for 2½ to 3 hours, until the top is well-browned and firm to the touch. If it looks as if it is browning too early, cover with grease-proof paper.
Top illustration: A Scottish Hogmanay celebration. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Although everyone in my family loves crown roast of pork, and baked ham, and everything else one is suppose to eat at Christmas, we do have a go-to menu every year simply because after many discussions we can never decide and we’re all too exhausted from Thanksgiving anyway. And this is no time to experiment. So we opt for a delicious but simple classic prime rib for Christmas dinner with Yorkshire pudding and creamed spinach. Appetizers, punches, desserts and guests may change every year, but these three dishes get made over and over again and we never regret it.
A prime standing rib roast is a given. It’s very expensive, but well worth the splurge, and you don’t have to do a thing to it. If prime rib is prohibitively expensive, you can always use USDA choice rib, which is what you’re likely to be offered in the supermarket anyway.
Also from our contributors:
Remember that one rib feeds two people, so a three-rib standing rib roast will feed six or seven people generously. Ask the butcher for a standing rib roast cut from the loin end and not the fattier shoulder end. Ask them to “French” the roast, which means to cut the fat away from one end of the rib bone to expose it.
Prime rib should always be cooked rare to medium rare. If you cook it beyond this point you are destroying the reason you bought such a tender — and expensive — piece of meat in the first place. If you like beef cooked medium to well then buy the appropriate kind of cut, which will benefit from longer cooking, such as round or chuck steak.
Prime Rib Roast With Horseradish Sauce
For the roast:
One 3-rib (7- to 8-pound) prime or choice standing rib roast
1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
2. Place the roast, fat side up, in a roasting pan in the middle of the oven. Check the roast after 30 minutes to make sure things look OK. Baste the ends with the accumulated juices. Once the internal temperature reaches 110 F, after about an hour, you need to be very attentive as the cooking can quickly finish. At some point remove ½ cup pan drippings for the Yorkshire pudding. Test the rib’s doneness by putting an instant-read thermometer into the meat (not touching a bone) in two places, leaving it there for 15 seconds. It should be 120 F. Immediately remove the roast from the oven.
3. Remove the roast to a carving platter and let rest 20 minutes. Serve with horseradish sauce.
For the horseradish sauce:
This is the simplest way to do it, the traditional accompaniment to prime rib.
5 tablespoons bottled horseradish
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1½ cups whipped cream
½ teaspoon white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
In a bowl, vigorously stir together all the ingredients.
4 pounds fresh spinach, heaviest stems removed, washed well
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ cup heavy cream
¾ cup milk
1 large garlic clove, very finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
1. Put the spinach leaves in a large pot with only the water adhering to them from their last rinsing, then cook, covered, over high heat until the leaves begin to wilt, about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain very well in a colander, pressing out the liquid with the back of a wooden spoon, saving 1 cup of the spinach water you press out. Finely chop the spinach using a mezzaluna or a chef’s knife.
2. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, then stir in the flour to form a roux, cooking for 2 minutes while stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low and slowly add the cream and milk. Whisk until smooth, then add the garlic, salt, and pepper and cook for 5 minutes. As it thickens add some of the reserved spinach water and stir and continue cooking until it is like a very thick pancake batter.
3. Add the spinach, stir, and cook until it is heated through, about 2 minutes. Add the nutmeg, stir, correct the seasoning and serve.
1½ cups whole milk, at room temperature
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup reserved prime rib roast pan-drippings
1. In a blender, blend the milk, eggs and salt for 15 seconds. With the blender running add the flour, a little at a time and blend the mixture at high speed for 2 minutes. Let the batter stand at room temperature, in the blender, covered, for 3 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
3. In a 12-inch cast iron skillet, heat the reserved pan drippings in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until it is just smoking. Blend the batter at high speed for 10 seconds and pour it into the skillet.
4. Bake the pudding in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 F and bake the pudding 10 minutes more or until the top is all puffed up and a deep golden brown. Transfer the pudding to a platter and serve immediately.
Photo: Prime rib. Credit: Clifford A. Wright