Articles in Novelty

Faux basil caviar is one of five trends to watch.

After tasting 2,734 entries, it was easy to spot food trends. I was one of the dozen judges for the coveted sofi Awards given to this year’s outstanding artisanal food products. One of the unexpected benefits of being a judge was the opportunity to taste everything in neatly organized categories. Usually, when attending a food show, you sample food in a random order, tasting the 2,000-plus exhibitor’s products in the haphazard order of booth geography, meandering from a taste of vinegar to jam, salsa and beer. But not this year.

In April and May the Specialty Food Association, which gives the awards, grouped the entries into categories. Finally, instead of a  random mix of flavors, submissions were organized into 32 groupings, such as appetizers, beverages, condiments, desserts, salad dressings, snack foods, and USDA-certified organic products. The items in each group were set out on long tables in a half dozen rooms in the association’s New York City offices. We tasted more than 2,000 entries! We taste-tested 111 cheeses, 167 cooking sauces, 154 diet lifestyle foods, and 144 snacks in 1½- to 3-hour sessions. Palate fatigue was kept at bay by slices of green apples, crackers, pitchers of water and seltzer.



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Manicaretti’s dehydrated capers add a crisp, briny crunch to pasta, salads and seafood. Credit: Specialty Food Association

This year’s sofi Awards finalists reveals five fascinating trends, where new tastes meet classic traditions:

1. Molecular gastronomy

Also called modernistic cuisine, molecular gastronomy combines chemistry with cooking to alter the texture, look and taste of foods. This kitchen-based rocket science, popular with many top chefs in recent years, is moving into specialty foods. Several companies are introducing faux caviar, little gelled spheres that burst in your mouth. They can be filled with just about anything, from pesto to balsamic vinegar to espresso to truffle juice.

2. Flowers

Get ready for floral-flavored waters, teas and even cocktail mixers, the next wave cresting in the beverage category. Blossom Water combines fruits and flowers in tandem, such as Lemon Rose, Plum Jasmine and Grapefruit Lilac. Rishi Tea is blending blueberries with hibiscus, and bergamot with sage. Owl’s Brew Pink & Black is a tea-infused cocktail mix blended with hibiscus. As unusual as these combinations may sound, they’re nothing new. Rosewater and orange flower water, familiar to Moroccan food enthusiasts, date to the Renaissance.

3. Savory sweets

Pushing the envelope on savory sweets has been a growing trend since the realization that chocolate and caramel only get better with a sprinkle of sea salt. At this year’s Fancy Food Show we’ll be introduced to cauliflower kale muffins, savory ice creams, and Blue Hill’s vegetable yogurts, which derive their vegetal sweetness from beets, sweet potatoes or winter squash.  Bacon marmalade, anyone?

4. Smoke

Smoke as a flavor component began as an important food preservation technique for our early ancestors, but now it’s showing up in items you wouldn’t expect. Smoke goes beyond barbecue and moves into chocolate chips (Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery Co.), smoked pizza flour, shortbread with smoked hickory sea salt (The Sticky Toffee Pudding Co.) and even smoked cocktail mixes. The aromatic allure triggers a primitive taste memory that we seem hardwired to love.

5. Compression and dehydration

Compressing or dehydrating foods not only changes their textures, but it also concentrates their flavors. Manicaretti’s dehydrated capers add a crisp, briny crunch to pasta, salads and seafood. The compressed cube of concentrated maple sugar made by Tonewood is so hard it can only be grated, but the delicate wisps that gently fall from a microplane taste more intensely of maple than maple syrup or maple candy. Grace & I’s tightly pressed Fruit + Nuts Press not only looks like a pretty pound cake, but slices like cake too. Coach Farms has transformed some of their goat cheese into grating sticks that allow you to easily add a subtle, cheesy tang to pastas, salads, and vegetables. It won’t be long before these trends and most likely many of these products will appear in the aisles of your favorite supermarket and specialty food shop. When you do see them, it’s fine to feel a little smug — you read about them here first! This year’s award ceremony will be hosted by Cronut creator Dominique Ansel on June 30 at the Javits Center in New York City.

Main photo: Among the food trends is molecular gastronomy; in this case, faux caviar that tastes like basil. Credit: Specialty Food Association

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Dandelion miso soup. Credit: Wendy Petty

“So, let me get this straight. You are keeping dandelions as a houseplants? Can’t you see it’s snowing outside?” My buddy aimed her attention toward the straggly weed I’d positioned near the window to catch early morning light, “Why?”

I explained that I had wanted to be like Euell Gibbons and grow my own salad greens in the middle of winter. “Ewe … who? I thought you have a black thumb.”

It’s true. I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever touched. One even died of thirst in the cruelest of places, hanging above my shower. Still, as a forager, my desire to enjoy fresh dandelion greens in the snowy months had overcome any fear of dooming another plant to die inside my home.

Gibbons is considered by most to have ushered in the modern era of foraging with his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” originally printed in 1962. I must have read Gibbons’ book a dozen times before I went to college. Still, when I opened it again last summer, the words sparkled on the page, as if I were reading them for first time.

Having stocked my pantry with wild food for many years, I’d come to take for granted the book written by the man some refer to as the grandfather of foraging. When I reread the chapter titled “A Wild Winter Garden in Your Cellar,” it felt as if I’d been given a gift.

In it, Gibbons chronicled how he grew wild vegetables indoors in winter. He used a method not dissimilar from the one some use to force bulbs such as tulips or hyacinth to grow out of season. In the fall, Gibbons dug up and potted dandelions and left them outside in the cold so they’d go dormant, then brought the pots inside his cellar to reawaken and grow tender new greens to nibble throughout the cold months.

Dandelions wintering in the garage

Facing the looming winter of the Rocky Mountains, I excitedly planned to harvest dandelions and force them to grow throughout the off-season, just as Gibbons had done. Late in October, word came that a winter storm was approaching. I went out into my yard with a bucket, dug up several dandelion plants, and placed them in my cold garage for safe keeping.

Fast forward to the beginning of February when I engaged with another snow-weary forager, bemoaning the lack of fresh greens. I dramatically complained that I’d give my left leg to taste bitter dandelion leaves. Only then, months after I’d dug them up, did I remember my plans to make dandelions dance in winter as Gibbons had done.

I rushed out to the garage, and sure enough, there was my bucket of dandelions, exactly where I’d left it the previous fall, between a stool and some rakes. The poor plants had been freeze-drying all that time, piled in the bucket without any water. I reached in, and fished around the dirt clods for a plant. My heart fell as I pulled out a hard, shriveled root.

Dandelions foraged from outdoors. Credit: Wendy Petty

Dandelions foraged from outdoors. Credit: Wendy Petty

As much as I felt like it might take an act of wizardry to revive the dandelions, I hated the thought of wasting plants more. Without much hope, I planted a few crusty taproots in a bowl, gave them some water, and tucked them into a corner of the kitchen.

I hate to admit that I once again forgot about the dandelions, which is why I nearly spilled my cup of coffee when, one morning the next week, my gaze fell upon that bowl and the tiny jagged leaves it contained. I did my best Dr. Frankenstein impression, “It’s alive!”

Filled with renewed enthusiasm for my project, I smothered my little potted dandelions with TLC. Every day, I moved them from the east window to the west, so they could catch the most sunlight. I sang to them and kissed their leaves goodnight. It was exhausting, all the effort it took to grow weeds.

After a month of babying, my dandelions had only produced a few disappointingly spindly leaves, not nearly enough to make a salad. Worse, I couldn’t bear to eat them because I had grown attached (I wasn’t kidding about the lullabies and kisses). Experiment failed.

Spring brings a new wild crop of dandelions

Let’s face it, I’m no Euell Gibbons. No doubt he was the type of guy who made his bed every day and polished his foraging boots. I, on the other hand, am famous for killing houseplants, and dug up a bucket of dandelions, only to forget them until it was nearly too late. I’ll admit to feeling a little melancholy about my dandelion misadventures.

Then one day last week, I noticed the early March sunlight had coaxed the first dandelions out of the ground. After only three days, they were larger than my dandelion houseplants had grown in a month.  I happily dug them and enjoyed my first taste of spring in the form of dandelion miso soup. In the future, I think I’ll leave the dandelion gardening in the expert hands of Mother Nature.

Dandelion Miso Soup

Serves 1


2 cups water

2½  tablespoons white or yellow miso

2 newly emerged dandelion plants, washed and chopped

1 tablespoon minced chives or green onion tops


1. Prepare the dandelion plants by washing them under cool running water. Chop the plants in their entirety. If they are the first of spring, the roots should be tender enough to eat. You will be able to tell because your knife will slice through them as easily as a carrot.

2. Over high heat, bring the water to a boil, add the dandelion roots, and cook for 7 minute.

3. Turn off the heat, and briskly stir in the miso until it dissolves completely into the water.

Gently fold the dandelion greens and chives into the soup, and enjoy it immediately.

Top photo: Dandelion Miso Soup. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Via 313's Detroit-style pizza is a hit in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Via 313

When I was growing up in the Detroit suburbs, there were two kinds of pizza: round and square. The “square” variety was technically rectangular, a deep-dish pizza with a crispy crust and sauce on top of the cheese. Given a choice of shapes, I almost always wanted square.

After moving to California as an adult, I thought it was odd that pizza came in only one shape (round), but until recently, I never realized that the square pizza of my childhood was unique to Detroit.

My pizza epiphany came during a visit to Texas a few months ago. My husband and I were exploring the hipster bar scene on Austin’s Rainey Street when we spotted a food truck called Via 313. (313 is Detroit’s area code.) Sure enough, the truck was serving up “Detroit-style pizza” to hungry bar-hoppers.

I thought this was a fluke until I learned that Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, locally famous for its regional Italian and American pizzas, also offers a Detroit-style pie.

Motor City pizza in Texas and California? Further investigation was clearly in order. How did this regional style of pizza originate, and why is it suddenly appearing in other parts of the country?

A crusty tale

It all began in 1946 with a Detroit tavern called Buddy’s Rendezvous. Soldiers returning home from World War II had developed a taste for European foods, so Buddy’s owner August “Gus” Guerra created a square pizza based on a Sicilian recipe. Because square pizza pans were hard to come by, he improvised with heavy steel trays used by Detroit’s automakers to hold car parts.

Buddy’s Pizza quickly became a neighborhood favorite, and competing Detroit pizza joints, such as Cloverleaf and Shield’s, adopted the tavern’s unique pizza style. Buddy’s now has 11 restaurants in the Detroit area and still makes its pizza using Guerra’s 1946 recipe.

Wesley Pikula, vice president of operations for Buddy’s Pizza, described the defining features of Detroit’s original square pizza. “We place the pepperoni under the cheese, in part to flavor the crust, and so it doesn’t burn during the cooking process,” he said. “We use brick cheese from Wisconsin (a medium-soft cheese similar to a white cheddar), and we place the sauce on top of all the ingredients.”

The result is a pizza with a light-textured crust and caramelized cheese around the edges.

National recognition

More than six decades after Buddy’s introduced its trend-setting pizza, a Detroit-style pie scored top honors at the 2012 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. The Pizza Maker of the Year award went to Shawn Randazzo, a Cloverleaf veteran who launched Detroit Style Pizza Company later that year. Randazzo now owns three pizzerias in the Detroit area.

Although that would have been enough for many restaurateurs, Randazzo has a grander vision in mind. Through his Authentic Detroit Style Pizza Maker Program, Randazzo is helping entrepreneurs across the country introduce their customers to the Detroit style of pizza.



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Shawn Randazzo of Detroit Style Pizza Company shows off his prize-winning pizza. Credit: Courtesy of Detroit Style Pizza Company

“My big eye opener came in 2009 when I entered my first pizza competition at the [North America] Pizza & Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio, which had over 70 competitors from across the country,” he said. “I was just a five-hour drive from Detroit, but I was the only competitor who had a square pizza with cheese to the edge. I couldn’t believe it.”

When Randazzo’s pizza won the top prize, he realized that most of the world was missing out on one of America’s great regional pizza styles.

So far nine pizza makers have completed the Detroit Style Pizza Maker program, and Randazzo has consulted for dozens of others, including clients from Thailand and Korea. Program graduates have opened pizzerias in Virginia and Kentucky, and one is currently setting up shop in Maine.

Making it right

“An authentic Detroit-style pizza requires a dough recipe that has a much higher hydration level than typical pizza dough,” Randazzo explained. “In bakers’ percentage, water content should be around 70% or more, which aids the fermentation process. The high water content also helps produce a light and airy crust.”

Pizzas assembled in the traditional pepperoni-cheese-sauce arrangement are baked at 525 F in seasoned pans made of rolled black steel. (The original Buddy’s pans were made of blue steel, but the manufacturer stopped producing them a few years ago.) If the positive feedback he receives from former students is any indication, the Detroit pizzavangelist’s efforts are working.

“I believe at the rate it’s been going,” Randazzo said, “Detroit-style pizza will become just as popular as New York and Chicago styles.”

Taking it on the road

Around the same time that Randazzo was wowing pizza competition judges in Ohio, Zane Hunt and his brother Brandon were cooking up a Detroit-style pizza concept of their own. In 2010, the Detroit-area natives rolled out their first Via 313 food truck in their adopted home of Austin.

“When I moved to Austin in the summer of 2009, I was on a quest to find foods that reminded me of home,” Zane said. “Brandon was still in Detroit at this point and we often talked about finding that one spot that served the pizza of home. He moved here a short time later and we ate at about 150 pizza places over the course of a year. Along the way it was becoming obvious that the pizza we loved in Detroit didn’t exist here.”

Determined to bring Detroit-style pizza to Austin, the brothers began a trial-and-error process to perfect their recipe. “Our dough mixture changed more than 75 times,” Zane recalled. “We were like mad pizza scientists.”

Less than a year after they launched Via 313, they added a second trailer to the fleet.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Zane said. “Here we are in 2014 and the style has gained serious steam around the country. It makes us proud to know we’re part of spreading the word outside of Detroit.”

A San Francisco convert

Tony Gemignani, 11-time World Pizza Champion and owner of three San Francisco pizzerias, didn’t grow up with Detroit-style pizza. But he has become an enthusiastic convert.

Gemignani serves a Detroit-style pie at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, and teaches restaurateurs and home cooks to make it at his International School of Pizza, also in San Francisco. He’s also launching a Detroit-style pizza concept at the D Casino Hotel in Las Vegas.

He first sampled Detroit-style pizza 16 years ago while doing a commercial for a Detroit pizza chain, and his interest in the style was rekindled years later by a student in one of his American pizza courses. Gemignani went back to Detroit to research the type, and ultimately added a Detroit-style pizza to the menu at Tony’s.

When pressed by his students to compare Detroit pizza to other styles, he describes it as a sort of Chicago-Sicilian hybrid. But even that isn’t quite right. “When it comes to the process, everything’s a little different,” Gemignani said.

The best way to show people what makes Detroit pizza unique, he said, is to have them taste it. In a recent class that included two die-hard New York pizza fans, Gemignani added two more believers to the Detroit pizza cause. “They were really skeptics about it, but then after they ate it they said, ‘Man, this is [expletive] good!’ ”

He then asked the students how they would classify the Detroit-style pizza. Sicilian? Pan? “No,” they said. “This is in its own category.”

Editor’s note: Black steel pans and pizza-making kits are available through the Detroit Style Pizza Company’s website. This fall, Tony Gemignani will release a cookbook that includes recipes for Detroit-style pizza.

Top photo: Via 313′s Detroit-style pizza is a hit in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Via 313

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Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Wendy Petty

Porcini hot chocolate might be the most unusual holiday drink recipe you try this season. It is polarizing, to be certain. Most people will run in the opposite direction from the very idea of mushroom hot chocolate. But for those who dare to taste it, porcini hot chocolate is a unique and decadent treat.

I developed this recipe one night when my friend furnished a lovely rich meal of Mangalitsa pork and roasted vegetables, and I was asked to supply dessert. With such a filling meal, I knew that my dessert needed to be light. Immediately, my mind went to sorbets. But it was a cold and snowy night. It finally occurred to me that hot chocolate might be the perfect way to end the meal. The only question was how to make it special.

I’m known for my pantry full of wild Boletus edulis, aka porcini, mushrooms. It seemed that hot chocolate might be rounded out with mushrooms. It was certainly worth the experiment. I ran a quick test batch, knowing it would either be brilliant or horrible.

That first batch was so delicious that, with mug still in hand, I raced to the computer to tell all of my foraging buddies. Most of the foragers were excited. But one friend confessed, “that sounds really gross, but I’ll trust you.”

I served it that evening with the roasted pork to great success, and it has since become the staple item that I bring to all holiday parties. Each time, porcini hot chocolate gets a decidedly mixed reaction. Some politely decline, and others race to fill their cup. The people who try it are unanimously pleased with the way chocolate combines with mushrooms. Both are rich and earthy, and each seems to complement and make the other fuller. The powdered mushrooms also thicken the porcini hot chocolate, as if it were made with cream. When topped with a hit of whipped cream, and some extra cocoa for a bitter contrast, I can hardly think of a dessert I’d rather cozy up to during the holidays.

Porcini Hot Chocolate

Serves 4


2 tablespoons cocoa powder

4 tablespoons porcini powder, from sliced dried porcini

4 teaspoons packed brown sugar

32 ounces whole milk

whipped cream

extra cocoa powder, for dusting


1. Begin by making the porcini powder. This is best done by placing sliced dried porcini mushrooms in an electric spice grinder. Buzz them until the porcini are as fine as cocoa powder.

2. In a small bowl, combine the cocoa powder, porcini powder and brown sugar. Use a spoon or fork to stir the ingredients together until they are evenly combined.

3. Add the milk to a medium saucepan. Over low heat, whisk in the powdered ingredients until no visible powder remains on the top. Bring the heat up to medium-low, whisking every 30 seconds or so, until the porcini hot chocolate is hot.

4. Ladle the porcini hot chocolate into mugs, and top them with whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa.

Top photo: Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Roasted ginkgo nuts. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Why let gingkos jar this glorious New York City scene? It’s late November. Central Park is at its peak in fall color. The Conservatory Garden up on Fifth Avenue and 105th Street is all decked out with its fall array of chrysanthemums.

Yet it happened on my afternoon doggie walk, as I passed under a ginkgo tree, and the pungent smell about bowled me over. I am familiar with what is often called “nature’s stink bomb” and have developed a kind of acceptance and regard for the ginkgo, knowing its benefits, but simply, it smells like vomit. The stench is supposed to keep animals from eating the fallen fruit from this ancient Asian tree.

Ginkgo’s famous healthful qualities

But as a baby boomer who is keen to stave off memory loss, I know ginkgo biloba made from this tree species is one of the best-selling herbal medications. It is used in traditional medicine to treat blood disorders and improve memory. It also is an antioxidant, so I welcome the stench.

This time of year in Central Park, one will find many older Asian people on their knees, some wearing rubber gloves, picking through the fruit that has fallen on the ground. And each year, I ask myself, why don’t I collect a bag and try them out? So this year I did just that.

Ginkgo leaves are fan-shaped and green until the fall, when they turn a bright yellow. The leaves contain two types of chemicals, flavonoids and terpenoids, which are antioxidants. Studies show that ginkgo is good for promoting blood flow and treating anxiety, glaucoma, premenstrual syndrome and Reynaud’s disease.

It is important not to use ginkgo for at least 36 hours before surgery or dental procedures because of the risk of bleeding. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also not take ginkgo. Ginkgo may also interact with some medications and antidepressants. As with any supplement, it’s good for users to read up on ginkgo before ingesting it. Also keep in mind, the nut can be toxic to eat raw, and even picking it up can cause a rash like poison ivy.

Recipes from around the world

Asian women to whom I’ve spoken say it is no mistake that the nuts fall at this time of year because when they are cooked, they helps fight flu and colds.



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Ginkgo leaf. Credit: Katherine Leiner

The best way to use them is to remove the fleshy insides and skin from the nut. The flesh is discarded, and then the nut is boiled in salt water, fried, roasted or broiled. The nuts are used in Asian rice porridge and other desserts. Another chef used the nuts to make dried scallop and ginkgo nut congee, but instead of hassling with  fresh ginkgo he uses tinned nuts because they are easier.

In a piece called “Gathering Ginkgo Nuts in New York,” a couple wrote about collecting the ginkgo nuts and trying various ways of cooking them. They finally hit on something when they separated the smelly pulp from the nut, washed the nuts, coated them in egg, salt, pepper and flour and dropped them in hot oil. Delicious was their assessment of this cooking method for a local, sustainable nut.

I have now collected about two pints of ginkgos, and today is the day I intend to try them. A friend gave me this recipe, which seems easy enough.

Roasted Ginkgo Nuts

Serves 2


2 pints of ginkgo nuts

Oil for frying, such as coconut or olive oil

Salt to taste


1. Using rubber gloves, collect the yellow squishy nuts from the ground. You know they’re ripe because they have fallen from the tree and they stink to high heaven. Still using rubber gloves, separate the pulp from the nut. (I did this outside on Park Avenue.)

2. Wash the nuts thoroughly and let them dry.

3. Pour a half-inch of your favorite oil into a pan. Salt the nuts. When the oil is hot enough to sputter, place the nuts in the pan. The nuts should pop like popcorn, except much louder. When they have split open and you can see the green of the nut.

4. Drain, and let cool. Eat like popcorn.

Top photo: Roasted ginkgo nuts. Credit: Katherine Leiner

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Coconut Dumplings by Raghavan Iyer

Shiva has a temper as gargantuan as his persona, but that is to be expected from the god who destroys all evil.  If you invoke his ire, be ready to be turned into stone.  But if you appeal to his compassion through major sacrifices, sit back and reap the fruits lavished upon you. Shiva spent long periods of time on Mount Kailasha, a heavenly retreat where he performed penance in a solitary world away from his wife Parvati and their newly conceived child, Ganesh.

Parvati never got used to being alone without her husband, but feared stoking his wrath.  She spent her days showering attention on their beautiful, chubby baby boy. Her maternal love nurtured his body and soul and soon he grew into a vibrantly healthy young boy. One morning, as was his routine, Ganesh stood guard outside his mother’s door with a sword in one hand as she bathed in milk, honey and fresh petals of rose and jasmine. Her strict instructions not to allow anyone entrance into her private chambers rang in his ears.

The morning rays of Surya, the god of sun, filtered through the doorway. Within moments the room darkened and Ganesh looked up to see an unkempt old fakir in a white dhoti standing barefoot with a stick in one hand. He was about to march through the door, into Parvati’s private quarters when Ganesh brandished his sword. The aged man was Shiva, his father, but Ganesh had never seen him since his birth. Nor did Shiva recognize his son, and soon his annoyance filled the chambers like blinding smoke. He bellowed to Ganesh to step aside, but the boy refused to budge. Shiva yanked the sword from his little hands and with the sharpness of its blade that swished through the air with metallic splendor, severed Ganesh’s head in one clean motion.

Regrettable rage

The commotion brought Parvati running to the door and she shrieked in disbelief at what her husband had done. “You have killed your son with your own anger,” she sobbed. “Now how can I continue to live?” Shiva’s wrath dissipated as swiftly as icy water on a burning ember. He fell to his knees and wept for his son. He promised Parvati that he would bring Ganesh back by planting on his empty shoulders the first living creature’s head that would walk by their home.  Just then the earth shook and Shiva poked his head out the door to see what caused the tremor. A baby elephant had strayed away from his herd and was thundering by. As promised, Shiva ran to the elephant and, with the same sword that had made his son lifeless, rendered the elephant headless with one stroke.

A god is born

He gathered the head and planted it on his firstborn’s shoulders. Soon Ganesh’s body stirred into life and he awoke to find his mother and father showering blessings on him, whispering his name, Gajanan Ganesh, the elephant-headed celestial being about to be worshipped by millions as the bestower of happiness and the eliminator of sorrow.

Ganesh. Credit: Natesh Ramasamy / Flickr

Ganesh. Credit: Natesh Ramasamy / Flickr

On Ganesh Chaturthi, the day of his birth (which in 2013 will be celebrated on Sept. 9), my Amma always made his favorite: delicately wrapped shells of rice flour housing two different kinds of filling, one with red chile-spiked lentils, the other a sweet combination of fresh coconut, jaggery and freshly ground cardamom. She shaped the savory dumplings into boats, while the sweet ones were round to differentiate them when they are sealed. Steamed with pearly beads of water clinging to their satin skins, they lay on banana leaves in front of Ganesh’s statue as he sat on his throne, a dumpling in his left hand, right hand facing me in raised blessing, and his mascot, the furry rodent who lay by his feet, nibbling on a modak (dumpling). Once the kozhakuttais were blessed, they easily slid down our throats and into our hungry bellies, the spicy ones first followed by their sweetly innocent kin.

Pooranam Kozhakuttai (Steamed Dumplings With Coconut)

Makes 20 dumplings


For the filling:

1 cup freshly shredded coconut (available in the freezer section of any Asian market)

½ cup coarsely chopped jaggery or tightly packed dark brown sugar

½ teaspoon cardamom seeds (removed from green pods), ground

For the wrappers:

1½ cups rice flour

¼ teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt

1½ cups warm water

6 tablespoons canola oil

Additional oil for shaping the wrappers


For the filling:

1. Combine the coconut and jaggery in a small saucepan, heating it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the jaggery dissolves, 5 to 7 minutes.

2. Stir in the cardamom. Transfer the filling to a plate to cool.

For the wrappers:

1. Dump the rice flour and salt into a medium-size bowl; whisk in the warm water, a few tablespoons at a time, to make a crêpe-thin batter.

2. Stir 3 tablespoons oil into the batter. Pour the remaining 3 tablespoons oil and batter into a cold wok or non-stick skillet.  Heat the batter over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent any lumps from forming, until the batter thickens up, starts to pull away from the sides of pan, and comes together into a ball to form soft dough, 5 to 7 minutes.  It should feel silky smooth but not sticky to the touch.  Transfer the dough to a plate and spread it a bit to cool, 5 to 10 minutes.

3. Divide the dough into twenty equal parts; shape each part into a smooth ball.  Grease the palms well with oil.  Place a ball in the palm of one hand.  With the fingers of the other hand, press and shape it into a 3-inch-round wrapper.  Place a scant teaspoon of the filling in its center.  Gather up the corners of the wrapper and bring them towards the center to cover the filling.  Pinch the gathered edges together to seal shut, shaping it into a Hershey’s Kiss-like tip.  Repeat with the remaining rounds and filling.

4. Prepare a steamer pan and fill it with water for steaming. Heat the water to boil over medium-high heat. Lightly grease the steamer insert.  Arrange the sealed dumplings (without overcrowding) and steam 10 minutes.  Repeat with the remaining dumplings.

Top photo: Steamed dumplings with coconut. Credit: Raghavan Iyer


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Strawberries for Wimbledon. Credit: Barbara Haber

While watching the Wimbledon tennis tournament this summer, I couldn’t help but notice the frequent mentioning of strawberries and cream, the foods that are emblematic of this traditional British sporting event. Recent statistics indicate that thousands of spectators consume 23 tons of the fruit, or more than 2 million berries, and 1,820 gallons of cream.

The sports’ food question arises — why has this particular dish become synonymous with this premier tennis competition? The answer is simple if not obvious: The opening of the matches coincides with the availability of locally grown strawberries, both occurring in early summer. And so this highly anticipated and desirable seasonal fruit has become a natural accompaniment to this singular event. The official Wimbledon strawberry, the Elsanta variety, is grown in Kent and is delivered each day at 5:30 a.m. to the games, where the berries are prepared for the fans.

The delicacy of this fare is in startling contrast to what is typically sold at U.S. sporting events. When we think about baseball, we think about hot dogs, peanuts and beer, although there are regional exceptions. At Boston’s Fenway Park, for instance, Italian vendors just outside the gates dish up sausage sandwiches with plenty of fried peppers and onions, while at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, home of the Orioles, visitors can get a crab cake sandwich. I ate my first tortilla pie at a rodeo in Houston. These hearty dishes are in the same spirit as much of the food served at tailgate parties, a popular ritual found at football games in the U.S.

Although fans of various teams claim ownership of the custom, tailgating most likely originated at Ivy League colleges in the days when team sports were played by gentlemen. Harvard was playing football as early as the 1860s when fans would turn up at games in horse-drawn carts and carriages and would bring along boxed lunches to eat beforehand. With the availability of the automobile, portable meals became even more customary, and the term “tailgating” came along. It derives from the rear doors of roadsters and station wagons, which, when folded down, formed a convenient buffet to hold picnic spreads. Soon fans, whether they were passionate alumni at college games or supporters of professional teams, developed the custom of arriving at parking lots hours before kickoff to spend time eating casually with friends.

Food's connection to sports takes a stranger twist when eating becomes a competition, such as Nathan's hot dog eating contest. Credit: Wikimedia/ dj0ser

Food’s connection to sports takes a stranger twist when eating becomes a competition, such as the celebrated Nathan’s hot dog eating contest. This was the 2006 version. Credit: Flickr / dj0ser

Tailgating evolved even more when instead of packing traditional picnics with sandwiches, salads, fruit and cookies, people brought along raw ingredients and barbecue gear so that parking lots took on the look of gigantic cookouts, with perspiring men hovering over charcoal fires. But elegance is not totally lost in this atmosphere. Some come to games prepared with folding tables and chairs, tablecloths, china, silver and fresh flowers, and picnic baskets filled with bottles of wine, brie and other cheeses, pâté and fruit.

Pimento sandwiches and mint juleps

Food at sporting events in the U.S. continues to reflect the region. The Masters tournament, held at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, is famous for its pimento cheese sandwiches, a dish favored by Southerners but with few Northern fans. And in Louisville at the Kentucky Derby, we get the renowned mint julep, a refreshing drink made with spearmint, bourbon, sugar and water. It carries with it the image of a Kentucky colonel, dressed in a white linen suit, sitting on a porch and sipping mint juleps from a silver cup.

Entertaining sporting events have evolved so that food is not only an accompaniment but the main attraction. Cheese-rolling, a quaint British custom that began as a local event near Gloucester in England, now draws international competitors. From the top of a steep hill, a 7-pound round of Double Gloucester cheese is sent rolling, soon followed by a heap of contestants who race after it, and the first person over the finish line keeps the cheese. The wheel of cheese can reach speeds of up to 70 mph, racers collide and accidents happen, but the ever-vigilant Brits supply ambulance services so that the injured can be rushed to the hospital.

Not to be outdone, Americans in Delaware have come up with an annual competition called Punkin Chunkin in which pumpkins are hurled through the air, and those who propel them the greatest distance are the winners. This event has different categories, depending on the age of the contestants and the form of the hurling. Homemade devices such as air cannons, catapults or centrifugal contraptions described as “windmills on steroids” can send pumpkins flying as far as 4,000 feet. The competition is held in November, suggesting that getting rid of unsold Halloween pumpkins may have been the initial motivation, but these days white pumpkins with thick and tough shells are used. I hasten to point out that some of the proceeds from Punkin Chunkin go for scholarships and other worthy causes.

Sports food: When eating is the event

Strange as these events may seem, to me the most bizarre are the popular eating contests, with entrants in races to see who, in a short amount of time, can stuff down the most asparagus, chicken wings or birthday cake, to name a few of the ongoing rivalries. But the mother of them all is Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest held every Fourth of July at that famous Coney Island stand.

This gathering is clothed in the language of sports and is broadcast on ESPN, the sports network. The reigning champion is Joey Chestnut, known to all as “Jaws,” who has won the title for seven years straight. This year he managed to chomp down 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes, a world record. His arm was raised in the air like a boxing champion, but instead of being bruised and cut, his face had a tinge of green.

Top photo: Strawberries for Wimbledon. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Extreme grilling, Kota Bharu in Kelantan, Malaysia. Credit: David Hagerman

As summer approaches and temperatures warm, thoughts turn to grilling and eating outside. Here, in celebration of the season of barbecues and picnics, are some images from Asia and Turkey of food prepared over open fires and feasts in the great outdoors.

More Zester Daily stories with slideshows from David Hagerman:

» The Heart of Lao Cuisine

» The Turkish Breakfast Club

» Endangered Thai Treasure

More on grilling:

» Grill virgins: 5 steps to success for beginners

» Fire up the grill: choosing and using grills

» Cool food from hot coals: preparing the fire

» Sear excitement: tips on grilling steaks

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