Articles in Holidays
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.
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.
- 6 firm green plantains
- 6 cups vegetable oil
- ½ cup concentrated saltwater (*see directions below)
- 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.
- 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.
- Heat the oil in a heavy wok or deep-frying pan to 365 F.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- *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
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.”
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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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- When all the chicken is cooked and drained, pile the wings on a clean, hot platter and serve.
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)
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.
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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.
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.
These beef roll-ups are stuffed with pecorino cheese, currants, and pine nuts. They are popular fare in the summertime around Palermo in Sicily.
- 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
- Prepare a hot charcoal fire to one side of the firebox or preheat a gas grill on high for 15 minutes.
- If using dried bay leaves, soak them in tepid water for 30 minutes and drain. Soak the currants in tepid water for 15 minutes.
- 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.
- 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.
- Roll the bread crumb mixture in the beef slices to create beef rolls.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Peggy Neu knows Meatless Monday is an easy way to reduce meat without a lot of sacrifice. But what happens when Meatless Monday and Memorial Day converge? What about the sizzling barbecue ribs? What about pleasing a holiday crowd with varying tastes? What about the kids?
Neu sees an opportunity.
She’s president of The Monday Campaigns, and when she spoke about the growth of Meatless Monday this spring at TEDxManhattan, she told the crowd that research shows that people tend to see Monday as a chance for a fresh start. With respect to health, people are more likely to make a change Monday than any other day. A study of health-related Google searches over a multiyear period showed a consistent pattern of Monday spikes. “It’s kind of like a mini New Year’s, but you get 52 chances to stay on track,” Neu said.
Isn’t New Year’s more pleasurable? That’s exactly Neu’s hope for Meatless Monday. At TEDxManhattan, she said that it’s important to make the day “a fun ritual, something that people look forward to” and to approach it as “choice and moderation, giving people vegetarian choices rather than taking something (meat) away.”
So if it’s sizzle you want from your barbecue, there are plenty of cool ways to grill vegetables too. (See tips at the end of this story.) If it’s variety you crave, former Meatless Monday Web editor Tami O’Neill suggested “know when you won’t notice,” as in that freshly wrapped burrito or five-alarm chili in which the flavor might be just as wonderful without packing in the meat.
For kids, the fun particularly matters. Some tips from Meatless Monday include:
— Let kids choose a fruit or vegetable to include in a Meatless Monday dinner. They can help research how to prepare it.
— Involve kids in cooking. Their participation will vary depending on age and ability, but cooking is fun and preparing new foods helps demystify them.
The Monday Campaigns has a site filled with tips for cooking with kids, recipes for different ages and other resources at www.thekidscookmonday.org.
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The idea behind Meatless Monday is simple. Launched in 2003 as a nonprofit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it asks people to give up meat one day a week, and the name tells you what to do and when to do it.
There’s plenty of science to support the concept. Cutting down on meat can help reduce the risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. There are also environmental benefits. Meat production uses vast quantities of both fossil fuels and water; and industrial agriculture, which produces the bulk of the meat sold in the U.S., is linked to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, air and water pollution, and other environmental ills.
Meatless Monday’s reach is global. It has since been adopted across the U.S. and in 30 countries. Restaurants, school districts and media outlets such as the Food Network, Self and Prevention have signed on, offering special Meatless Monday menus and recipes. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Padma Lakshmi, Al Gore and Paul McCartney have endorsed the campaign.
“To me, though, the most powerful aspect of Monday as a behavior-change idea is that we can do it together,” Neu told the audience at TEDxManhattan. “How cool is it that this Monday there are going to be people in Iran that will be doing a Meatless Monday and they’re going to do it because they share the same goals, to be healthier and to have a healthier planet. … I think sometimes by synchronizing even simple actions, we can synchronize our hearts and our minds around bigger ideals.”
(See Neu’s TEDxManhattan talk below on YouTube.)
The Meatless Monday website offers an abundance of recipes, searchable by category or ingredients. Numerous food and health websites, bloggers and others also feature Meatless Monday recipes on a regular basis.
Vegetarian grilling tips for Meatless Monday
For those pondering how Meatless Monday can mesh with barbecues as summer begins, The Monday Campaigns offers a list of grilling tips, including:
1. Many vegetables can be thrown right on the grill with just a light brushing of olive oil (with delicious results)! Fresh corn, tomatoes, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, squash and bell peppers are just some to try.
2. Kabobs are a barbecue staple that make the perfect meatless entree. Add tofu cubes, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, roasted potatoes or just about any other vegetable that strikes your fancy.
3. Grilled fruit is amazing too. For a sweet side dish or dessert, try peaches, pineapples, plums, melons, kiwis, pears or figs with a touch of honey marinade.
4. Swap a hamburger for a portobello mushroom burger or grilled eggplant slices. Put the barbecued veggies on a bun and add your favorite toppings, such as avocados, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers or an olive spread.
5. Try a veggie burger recipe that celebrates hearty ingredients such as black beans, lentils, quinoa and chickpeas. You can also find healthy pre-made patties at supermarkets and natural food stores.
6. Make a delicious, smoky pizza pie right on the grill — all you need is pizza dough, sauce and your favorite vegetables thinly sliced or pre-grilled.
7. Use your favorite marinade recipe to add flavor to extra firm tofu cubes. Grill them up and add them to a salad, serve them with veggies or enjoy them on their own.
8. Add grilled vegetables to a filling summer salad. Garnish fresh lettuces with a bit of fruit, feta cheese and olive oil to complete the dish; or think beyond lettuce and concoct a bean or grain salad.
9. Consider your sides when planning a meatless barbecue. Pasta salads, raw vegetables and hummus dip are great ways to turn your plant-based dishes into a full meal.
10. End the meal on a healthy note with a tray of fresh fruit, a parfait or homemade smoothies.
Trying new recipes and methods of cooking can help turn Meatless Monday into an opportunity to add variety to your diet and explore new tastes. At the same time, as Neu said, “You can draw inspiration and feel part of a larger movement trying to improve our health and the health of the planet.”
Main photo: Grilled vegetables to light up a Meatless Memorial Day. Credit: Sarsmis/iStockphoto
A Valentine’s Day menu needs to include oysters. First, just because it is tradition. Also, our hero of love, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798), the famous Venetian adventurer whose reputation as a seducer of women was so great his name became synonymous with the art of seduction, says so.
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Casanova wrote in his autobiography that cultivating and pleasing the senses was his main preoccupation. “Ho molto amato anche la buona tavola ed insieme tutte le cose che eccitano la curiosità” (I very much loved a good table and everything that excites the curiosity), he remarked.
Casanova ate 50 oysters every day for breakfast. Several studies show that the amorous benefits of this might not just be an old wives’ tale. Oysters are rich in zinc, which is important for hormone production related to sexual activity. It is important to eat the oysters raw, though, as cooking reduces this aphrodisiacal effect. Casanova also suggested how to serve them: “I placed the shell on the edge of her lips and after a good deal of laughing, she sucked in the oyster, which she held between her lips. I instantly recovered it by placing my lips on hers.”
Here is a delightful little recipe that will tingle both the senses and the expectation. The recipe is for two, of course, because three’s a crowd on Valentine’s Day.
Oysters in Champagne Cream Sauce With Thai Chile
Serves 2 as an appetizer
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 red Thai chile, thinly slivered
4 shucked Pacific oysters with their juice
3 tablespoons Champagne
¼ cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a small nonstick skillet, melt the butter over high heat and then add the onion and chile and cook, shaking the pan, until translucent, about 1 minute.
2. Add the oysters and their juice, pour in the Champagne and let it evaporate for 30 seconds.
3. Pour in the cream and cook over high heat, shaking the pan and turning the oysters until their edges curl up, about 4 minutes.
4. Remove the oysters to a plate or place back in their shell and continue cooking the liquid until denser and saucy, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the oysters and serve.
Top photo: Oysters on the half shell with a perfect white. Credit: Jon Rowley
Early February in France means it is time to get your pans ready. The winter days are finally getting a little longer and sunnier and la chandeleur (derived from chandelle, “candle” in French) is at hand, which means crêpes are in the air.
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The French tradition, combining pagan and Christian origins, has been going on for centuries, but it seems to be losing momentum. Everyone still knows about it, but fewer and fewer seem to indulge in the annual crêpes orgy.
As in other parts of the world, home cooking is on the decline while TV food shows are getting more popular. Bakeries now sell ready-made crêpes for a quick fix at nearly $2 a pop. “Ridicule,” said my mother over the phone the other day. And Maman, as often, is probably right. Crêpes are a fun, easy to do homemade affair.
The church, crêpes and a sweet tradition
What are we celebrating, besides a humble form of sweet gluttony? In the Catholic Church, chandeleur marks the presentation of the child Jesus, his first entry into the temple, as well as the day of the Virgin Mary’s purification. I fail to see how thin pancakes came in the picture, except for the resemblance one could see between them and the halo depicted over the heads of holy figures in religious paintings since the 4th century or so.
The pagan origin of the chandeleur links more directly to the round disks of cooked dough the form and shape of the sun which, come February, becomes more and more present as days get longer at a faster pace. It’s not spring yet, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it is still cold enough in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere to stand in front a stove flipping pancakes without having to turn the air conditioning on.
This is also the period of the year when winter wheat was being sowed. Crêpes were a way to celebrate the flour to come by using the one at hand. Interestingly enough, a Comité de la Chandeleur was founded and funded by a major French flour producer in 1997, reminding the population of the godly tradition with ads and billboards. The committee no longer exists. It is now in our hands to make the tradition survive.
A simple crêpes recipe for indulgence
Like every person brought up in France in the last century, I have my good share of childhood crêpe memories: pleasure and pain mixed in a batter of family recollections. While my father and brother were expert at eating the end result, my mother and I were excited by the making process.
We didn’t bother with a recipe and that in itself shows the tradition was still vivid, culturally ingrained. We just knew what to put in the dough: flour, eggs, milk, as well as water, cider or beer, a little fat (oil or melted butter), a little sugar, a touch of booze, traditionally dark rum, and a dash of salt. The trick was to avoid any lumps by using first a wooden spoon and then a whisk.
After letting the batter rest for an hour or so, came the time to show more developed skills. For years, we didn’t have a non-stick pan. We dipped a halved potato in oil to grease the thin metallic pan we used for about everything. With time, I’ve favored using a piece of paper towel folded in fourths and dunked in oil rather than a spud, leaving me to wonder how common paper towels were in Paris in the 1960s. The first crêpe always stuck, no matter what.
At age 7, there was my culinary confirmation that you can’t always get things right the first time in life. The ugly torn crêpe was eaten nonetheless, giving the chance to adjust the recipe-free batter with a little more liquid, salt or sugar if necessary.
If the crêpe didn’t have enough elasticity an egg was added and then, we were good to go. A super-hot pan is essential to achieve one of the essential criteria of a noble French crêpe, thinness, or finesse. Held as a rising sun, the crêpe was supposed to let light go through it, if not the image of my smiling mother behind the lump-free delicacy. A ladle was poured in the super-hot greased pan and then, with a swift movement of the wrist, the batter was to cover the whole pan in a thin coating.
Mastering crêpe-making technique
Chandeleur folklore says that if you manage to flip the crêpe in the air while holding a gold coin in your left hand, good fortune will come your way. I’ve personally never seen this done, perhaps because our entourage didn’t carry gold around so often. We just weren’t keen on the tossing-in-the-air show, partially because our crêpes needed some help with our bare fingers to be lifted off the pan.
When the edge started to get brown, we lifted one side with a small knife, then pinched the crêpe with both hands and flip it as fast as possible to avoid blisters in the process. I was always fascinated by the fact that the A-side of our edible records had a beautiful, uniform golden hue, whereas the B-side looked so different with its erratic brown spots.
We kept piling the crêpes on top of each other on a plate set atop a pot of simmering water so that we could enjoy our crêpes warm en famille. Brother and father were called to come and the filling game began with a variety of jams and spreads. For me, butter and sugar were the only fixings I needed to make me forget my reddened fingers, as crêpes were washed down with Normand cider, mindless of the few degrees of alcohol that helped make the pain go away and the party feel special.
Makes about 12 crêpes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons water (or beer or cider)
1 tablespoon melted butter (or neutral oil)
1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac (optional)
Oil and paper towel to oil pan
1. Sift the flour with sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water, melted butter and rum or cognac.
2. Let rest for 1 hour or more.
3. Heat pan greased with oiled paper towel. Add ¼ cup of batter or so and tilt the pan in a circular manner to spread the batter as fast as possible. When edges begin to brown, flip over with your hands or in the air and cook the other side 30 seconds.
4. Place cooked crêpe on a plate and repeat, repeat, repeat!
Tips and variations:
- To avoid any lumps and go faster, mix batter in a blender adding dry ingredients into the wet ones.
- For savory crêpes, eliminate sugar and alcohol from batter and add a dash more salt.
- To keep crêpes warm, place them on a plate sitting atop a saucepan with simmering water.
- Typically, French crêpes are rolled or folded in four.
- You can also layer the crêpes one on top of each other smeared with one or several toppings until you obtain a form of cake that you can then slice in wedges.
- Crepes can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.
Top photo: Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer
The idea that foods have aphrodisiac properties is quite old and found in all cultures, but this notion has waned with the rise of modern science.
Arab Muslim culture has had its aphrodisiacal foods, a phenomenon surprising to many people who think of Islam as a prudish religion that bans alcohol and frowns upon the sexual explicit.
However, a millennium ago, the elite in Europe began to change their attitudes toward eating, stimulated by the place of food in Muslim theology as represented in depictions of the Garden of Delights. The sensual pleasures of eating as portrayed in the Garden intrigued Europeans who began to associate luxurious dining with the food of the Arabs. Muslim sensuousness must have appeared attractive as a counterpoint to the ascetic life demanded of Christians. Already by the 12th century the Arabs had a rich poetry concerning wine and sexually explicit literature.
In the Arabic tradition there are “the two good things,” the translation of the Arabic al-atyabān. I always found it interesting that there isn’t a single mention of this idea in Arabic gastronomical thinking in any book on Arab cuisine or, for that matter, in any Mediterranean cookbook. But I alluded to these good things in my book “A Mediterranean Feast.” The two good things are food and sex.
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Food and sex are two of the three “fleshly delights” of this world in a saying attributed to the seventh-century Arab poet Ta’abbata Sharrān. “I have never enjoyed anything as much as these three things: eating flesh, riding on flesh, and rubbing flesh against flesh.” The Arabic literary interactions of food and sex are manifold. Some stories find the women berating their husbands for eating and drinking too much but neglecting them in bed.
A good appetite for food and for love was seen as perfectly compatible. There’s the story of Aishah bint Talha, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law, who says to her husband the morning after the wedding night, “I have never seen anyone like you; you have eaten as much as seven men, prayed as much as seven men, and [had sex] as much as seven men.”
Food and sex inspire writers
Many of these stories, such as the bawdy tale of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” in “The Thousand and One Nights,” have a narrative formula that can almost be described as eating, drinking and having sex.
The stories get randier as in the “Slaughterhouse-cleaner and the Noble Lady,” also in “The Thousand and One Nights.” The lady wants revenge on her unfaithful husband and gets it by having an affair with the filthiest man she can find, the guy who cleans the latrines. He says, after their coitus, that he’d like to kiss the lady’s left hand (used for wiping) rather than her right hand (used for eating). This mixture of kitchen humor with scatological humor reflects the fact that the lady first looked for her husband in the outhouse but had found him instead in flagrante delicto in the kitchen, rogering a cook.
But the battle between love and food in Arabic poetry doesn’t always end in a truce. A Hispano-Arab poet, Ibn Mascūd, renounces love for food:
“If you ask me with whom I am in love and why my eyes
Pour forth tears,
I say: a sikbāj*, dishes of jamalī
Bruised white flour is sweeter to me than the saliva of the beloved who is embraced.”
The West has its own aphrodisiacal food traditions, although the dishes might be different.
Lovers turn to chiles, because of their active ingredient capsaicin; bananas, because of their phallus shape; asparagus (same reason); oysters, for their zinc content and their tactile resemblances; vanilla, because it’s a stimulant for the nerves; salmon and walnuts, because of their omega-3 content, which keeps sex-hormone production humming; red wine, because it relaxes and reduces inhibitions; pomegranates, because they increase genital sensitivity; and chocolate.
There, now you should have a good idea of and guide to what you’ll prepare your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.
* Sikbāj dishes, a kind of stew made with vinegar, were of Persian origin and very popular in the 10th century; jamalī is a kind of stew with innards.