Articles in Novelty
Mandy Aftel was well on her way to becoming America’s most highly regarded natural perfumer when she started using essential oils in cooking. She had a book out, “Essence and Alchemy,” and a line of beloved natural perfumes she made by hand in her studio. But while on book tour, she was encountering a troubling problem. She noticed that so many of the people she met said they hated perfume.
“As a perfumer, I wanted to be around people who cared about ingredients, and I found them in the food world,” she said. “For me it’s all about how stunning these aromas are and what you can do with them when you know how they work.”
Aftel, who lives directly behind Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, was no stranger to chefs obsessed with using only the finest quality whole ingredients. But what she needed was a chef who cared very much about aroma, and how it shapes how the mouth experiences food. She found that partner in Daniel Patterson, who has since become famous in his own right as a chef, food writer and primary proponent of California cuisine. Aftel took her traveling perfume organ — a suitcase of sorts in which she carries samples of the essential oils she uses in her studio — and shared them with him.
“He was knocked out, especially with the black pepper essence,” Aftel said.
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Soon, Patterson began incorporating essential oils in his dishes. The two later collaborated on their first shared cookbook, “Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance.” Since then, Aftel has worked with all manner of people in the food industry to develop aromas for food products based on real, natural essential oils and has become a steady proponent of their use in the home kitchen. More recently, she has developed her own line of essential oil sprays — edible essential oils in an alcohol spray mist — for use in restaurants and home cuisine.
The American food scene has welcomed her approach as a next step in the country’s move back to a more natural relationship with food. A long history exists of using essential oils with cooking. But as with perfume, at the beginning of the 20th century, consumers became enamored of the synthetics because they were cheaper. In the past, people were took active plant material and infused or they were using the essential oils directly. In her new book, “Fragrant,” Aftel has resurrected a number of recipes for staples such as ketchup, which relied heavily on essential oils, and has made the relationship between perfuming and food even more tangible.
“Daniel and I were real trailblazers, because the history had been lost,” Aftel said. “I think it’s so exciting, deeply exciting to have the essence of the plant. It offers insanely creative possibilities and can provide flavor that you really can’t arrive at any other way.”
Aftel discussed how one might go about using essential oils in the kitchen:
What essential oils are safe to ingest?
It’s pretty simple. You should always trust who is providing the oils themselves, but you can eat all of the oils listed on the FDA’s GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe).
Can you give me some examples of situations where the essential oil is preferable to the spice?
There’s really no heat in black pepper oil, for example, it’s all in the peppercorn itself. If you used a lot of black pepper to get that black pepper essence it would be way too hot. But if you use a drop of the oil it’s an amazing flavor unto itself. In the middle of winter you might want the flavor of basil, but you don’t want the texture of basil leaves and the ones in winter aren’t really that good anyway. So you use the oil, and just a drop. When you use these oils it’s like being the master of the universe to use just one drop and have the result be so aromatic and lovely.
Where does one begin? What’s a good way to start?
A very good dark chocolate, say 65% dark at least, and vanilla ice cream can be a great place to start. Here’s the pink pepper. The sprays are really idiot proof — they are drops within alcohol and very easy to use. Drops themselves are just so strong, so you might want to use the drops when you are cooking them into something. But if you’re just doing a finishing then I recommend the sprays. Things like rose essence, cinnamon and vanilla, violet, sarsaparilla, all go great with a good vanilla ice cream. Yellow mandarin, cardamom, great with chocolate. Pear and chocolate. Anything that is creamy and rich is a nice base upon which to start because they have their own vibrant character, but they can blend in. The naturals, for better or worse, don’t last. But then again, people are used to the olfactory equivalent of McDonald’s. If you can isolate the aroma and use it in something or another. I like to keep things as simple and beautiful as possible.
Do you think people really think that much about the quality of their spices?
People are very familiar with some spices, but when they became easy to get, the thing that made them so powerful and amazing became less appreciated. People will buy a giant container of cinnamon and then let it languish in their cupboard for years, not understanding that the thing about the cinnamon is slowly going away, its nature is gone. With oils, you can create your own flavor and retain what is so powerful about the natural ingredient. I think it’s a very creative process.
How do you use essential oils in your home cooking?
I love roasted Brussels sprouts. One of the things I’ve found about beef is it’s great with chocolate. It adds a richness to it, a new flavor. I also love roasted red and green peppers with basil oil. The licorice/anise aspect of it really gets out. Or Foster, my husband, will get a tomato soup and I’ll add a little cinnamon, kind of a Mediterranean mix. I love the experience of changing things just a smidge, it makes all of my food experiences very aromatic.
What about drinks?
Drinks are the bridges from perfume to food. I’m thinking a lot about this for my new book with Daniel Paterson. Coffee, tea, wine, alcohol, these are very aromatic experiences. Citrus rinds. When someone has a drink, they are also smelling it. It’s no fluke that the experience people most associate with drink is very aromatic and very convivial. I think the aromatic aspects of it are what make it so wonderful. People take a lot of liberty with experimenting with drinks, in a way they don’t always necessarily do with food. It’s a wonderful bridge toward learning.
Are the oils better than the spices?
The oils, when they are done well, allow you to appreciate the real identity of the spice. A lot of the oils don’t have the sharpness of the spices. When you use the essential oil, you are actually harnessing the best version of the spice and holding on to it. There’s this awful thing that happens when you have access to things because of our global world. They stop being prized. I don’t think luxury should be attached to status. I like to retool the relationships between things that being available and things being prized. I like to prize that experience and have it drop by drop.
Main photo: Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright Emily Grosvenor
Coffee actually started out as a food, not a drink. A thousand years ago in Africa, the birthplace of coffee, locals would mash the ripe “cherries” from wild coffee trees to create a dried traveling food packed with protein and nutrients; sort of an early version of the breakfast bar.
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While it is the outer “cherry” fruit of the coffee bean that has protein, it’s the inner roasted coffee bean that has the flavor. “All great chefs value the quality of their ingredients and the same applies to coffee,” says Lynda Calimano, editor in chief of the popular monthly Coffee and Tea Newsletter. “So when using them in recipes, we at the Coffee and Tea Newsletter, can’t emphasize enough the importance of organic Fair Trade, shade-grown coffee, seasonally harvested if you want the best flavor and to retain the nutritional elements.”
When asked why, she added, “Because organic coffee is grown without pesticides and harvested in season, which maintains quality, nutrients and protects your health and the environment. Fair Trade, which guarantees a fair wage and other benefits, makes farmers happy and happy farmers produce great harvests.”
I’ll drink — and eat — to that!
Italian Mocha Cake (Torta Nera)
From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
Prep time: 5 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
This flourless cake has a crisp, macaroon-like top layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses just a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust.
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
7 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cacao or higher
1 ounce freshly brewed espresso or 1 teaspoon granulated instant espresso
1 cup granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons potato or cornstarch
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform cake pan.
2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small bowl, either in the microwave or over a saucepan of gently boiling water. Stir in the espresso.
3. In a large bowl beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand-held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Add the chocolate-butter mixture and beat until creamy. Add the potato or cornstarch and mix until well combined.
4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.
5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, until just set in the center.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Main photo: Coffee and chocolate are an especially delicious combination found in hundreds of classic Italian desserts such as Italian Torta Nera, a dense coffee chocolate cake that is a specialty of the Emilia-Romagna region. Credit: Copyright “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
Popcorn is an ancient superfood — a simple and nutritious form of a 9,000-year-old staple. Popcorn is DIY food preservation at its most basic and most delicious.
Popcorn is simply preserved corn … a way of saving the harvest. Fresh corn can, of course, be boiled, roasted, steamed or baked. But corn became a staple in the Western Hemisphere because it could be dried and stored all winter. Corn was first domesticated in Mexico from a wild grass nearly 9,000 years ago. Archeologists have discovered corncobs from the northern coast of Peru that could date to 6,700 years ago, and scientists believe that this dried corn was eaten as popcorn and ground into corn flour.
First in a historic how-to series for home cooks, canners and kids
Benjamin Franklin remarked on the magical properties of corn that would “pop.” Franklin marveled at the mysterious recipe of “parching corn,” which he wrote about in 1790. He described how the Native Americans “fill a large pot or kettle nearly full of hot ashes, and pouring in a quantity of corn, stir it up with the ashes, which presently parches and burst the grain.” This “bursting” was shocking to Franklin, since it “threw out a substance twice its bigness.” Franklin boasted that popcorn — when ground to a fine powder and mixed with water — created a veritable superfood, claiming that “six ounces should sustain a man a day.”
“Superfood” may seem like a bit of hype for a snack most often eaten while watching bad movies. But in 2012, researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania reported that popcorn has more antioxidant polyphenols than any other fruit or vegetable. One serving provides more than 70% of a person’s daily serving of whole grain, and a single 4-cup portion provides 5 grams of fiber. Popcorn is no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s a virtuous reward.
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The “bursting” that gives popcorn its name is the result of physics inherent in that tiny white or golden nubbin. Inside a popcorn kernel’s outer hull lies the endosperm, which is made of soft starch and a bit of water. Although all types of corn will “pop” to some extent, popcorn will actually explode and turn inside out when heated. To pop successfully, a kernel of dried popcorn should ideally have a moisture level of 13.5% to 14%. When the kernel is heated to an internal temperature somewhere between 400 to 460 F, the water in the endosperm expands, building up pressure that eventually causes the hull to burst. Steam is released and the soft starch inside the kernel puffs up around the shattered hull.
A popcorn worth the obsession
The type of popcorn that comes out of the microwave is often a poor substitute for heritage breeds or locally sourced popcorn. My children and I are currently obsessed with purple popcorn, which we buy dried on the cob at our farmers market or as “Amish Country Purple Popcorn” from the Troyer Cheese Company. I prefer to roast it in a skillet with canola oil and coarse sea salt — simple and basic. My kids’ prefer their popcorn covered in a spice mixture we created, containing cocoa powder, sugar, and cinnamon (though this may counteract some of the health benefits). For adults I add an additional “kick” with cayenne pepper. Try this with a few types of popcorn — each in its own bowl for the sake of comparison — and you’ll have more than a movie snack, you’ll have a healthy, crowd-pleasing conversation starter that won’t last long.
Cinnamon-Cocoa Popcorn With a Kick
Cook time: 15 minutes, no prep time required.
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
1/4 teaspoon cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup popcorn kernels
1. Heat a 2- to 3-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes.
2. While pan heats, place cocoa powder, cinnamon, sugar, sea salt and cayenne pepper (if desired) in a small bowl. Stir to combine.
3. Back at the stove, turn heat down to medium high and add oil to heated pan. Carefully place two or three popcorn kernels in oil and cover pan with lid.
4. After test kernels pop, add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer — about 1/3 cup.
5. When kernels start to pop, lower heat to medium and shake pan gently until popping stops. (I like to rotate the pan in a circular motion over the burner to keep the popcorn moving.)
6. Pour popped corn into a large bowl. Sprinkle popcorn with topping mixture, toss to coat evenly, and eat immediately. Coated popcorn can be stored in an airtight container for several days, but it will lose a bit of its crunch.
Main photo: American heritage purple popcorn reveals the beauty of this gluten-free, kid-friendly, ancient superfood. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
The lesser partner of center-stage bacon and eggs at breakfast, toast is often pushed to the edges of the plate waiting for a bit of butter and jam. But toast is forgotten no longer. Chef Jason Travi of Superba Food + Bread in Venice, California, has placed toast center stage, and not just for breakfast. No longer just dressed in sweet jams, toast appears on the restaurant’s menu topped with sautéed kale, prosciutto, avocado, smoked trout and muhammara, the spicy Middle Eastern condiment.
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Why toast? Why now?
Dishes long associated with childhood meals have been improved with quality ingredients to the delight of diners. Chefs gave kid-friendly mac and cheese a makeover by adding English cheddar, fresh Maine lobster and truffle oil.
Travi was following a toast trend begun by all accounts by chef Giulietta Maria Carrelli of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club in the San Francisco Bay area. At Superba Food + Bread, chef Travi took me into his kitchen for a video demonstration of a signature dish: grilled toast with walnut muhammara and burrata. Before we began, he talked about his partnership with Jonathan Eng, the baker responsible for making the freshly baked breads used in the restaurant.
Good toast requires great bread
At Superba Food + Bread, Eng was encouraged to be innovative. The restaurant promoted collaboration. Often Eng will come up with an idea for a new bread. He and Travi would then explore toppings that would be a good match for the texture and flavor of the new bread. Sometimes Travi asked for a bread to go with a particular dish, such as the sprouted wheat loaf he asked Eng to make with millet, flax and sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. While the many sandwiches on the menu come with a variety of breads, all the toasts are made with the pain au levain.
To make his version of the classic French sourdough, Eng modified the recipe using a 16-hour cold fermentation. Using an Italian Bassanina Tubix steam pipe oven, he bakes the pain au levain loaves in 750- and 1,500-gram sizes. Both are used in the restaurant and sold in the bakery.
The only way the restaurant will be guaranteed to have freshly baked bread for the day’s service is if Eng starts work at 2 a.m. six days a week. When he arrives, the cleaning crew is just leaving. For a few hours he enjoys having the quiet restaurant all to himself. By the time Travi’s crew arrives for the breakfast service, Eng has his loafs stacked high on the wood counters, ready for the day’s diners.
A mother’s recipe passed down to her son, the chef
Chef Travi remembers watching his mother cook when he was growing up. From her Lebanese family, she learned to prepare Middle Eastern classics. One particular dish stayed in his memory, her muhammara, a spicy dip made with peppers, walnuts, bread crumbs and olive oil.
To complement the spicy flavors of the muhammara, Travi adds freshly made burrata and the crunch of pickled radish.
Muhammara-Burrata Toast With Pickled Radish
While the spread will work on any bread, Eng encourages using a good quality sourdough that is baked fresh and eschews preservatives. Although ready-made bread crumbs can be used, the quality of the muhammara will be improved when they are homemade.
The muhammara can be made the day of use or reserved covered in the refrigerator for up to five days. The radishes should pickle for two days and then can be refrigerated in an airtight container in the pickling liquid for several days.
The Aleppo powder Travi prefers is frequently unavailable. He suggests substituting cayenne powder. The heat from the two are different, so taste and adjust the amount used.
Pomegranate molasses is available in Middle Eastern and Israeli markets and sometimes in the International sections of supermarkets.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 whole red pepper, washed, to yield ¾ cup roasted red peppers
6 slices freshly baked bread, divided
¼ cup raw walnuts
1½ teaspoons pomegranate molasses
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ to ½ teaspoon Aleppo powder or cayenne
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups fresh burrata
1 tablespoon Italian parsley leaves, washed, dried
1 tablespoon pickled radishes (see recipe below)
1. Heat oven to 450 F. Place the whole red pepper on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Cook 15 to 30 minutes depending on size or until the skin is lightly browned and the flesh is tender. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
2. When the pepper is cool to the touch, use a pairing knife to cut off the stem and peel away the skin. Discard the skin and seeds. Finely chop the flesh. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.
3. Tear two slices of fresh bread into pieces. Heat a nonstick pan. Toast the pieces in the pan. Remove. Allow to cool. Place into a blender and pulse to make crumbs. Return the bread crumbs to the pan. Do not use oil. Toast the bread crumbs until lightly brown. Set aside to cool. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.
4. Reduce the oven to 325 F. Place the walnut pieces on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Bake about 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown.
5. Remove and allow to cool.
6. Place red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate molasses, ground cumin, ground coriander, Aleppo powder or cayenne and olive oil into a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.
7. Taste and adjust flavor by adding sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
8. Heat a grill or a grill-pan. Place the remaining bread slices on the grill just long enough for grill marks to appear. Remove.
9. Place the toast slices on a cutting board and then spread a layer of muhammara on each slice. Decoratively spoon on three or four teaspoon-sized mounds of burrata, season with sea salt and black pepper, sprinkle on pickled radish and parsley leaves.
Lebanese-Style Pickled Radish
At a supermarket or farmers market, buy fat, firm radishes with unwilted leaves attached to ensure they are freshly picked.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 2 minutes
Pickling time: 2 days
Yield: 8 servings
2 large radishes, washed, stems and root ends removed
¼ cup water
¼ cup white vinegar
¼ cup white sugar
1. Clean the radishes to remove all dirt. Cut away any blemishes and discard.
2. Using a sharp chef’s knife, julienne the radishes, cutting from stem top to root end. The strips should be as uniform as possible, about 1/8-inch thick.
3. Place the julienned radishes in a non-reactive bowl.
4. Place water, vinegar and sugar into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar.
5. Pour the hot liquid over the radish. Cover. Let sit on the counter 2 days.
6. The pickled radish will keep up to a week in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Main photo: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Blenders today are ubiquitous and taken for granted, but there was a time when these humble kitchen tools were central to aspirational American cooking — with one cookbook elevating the appliance to its proper place in the kitchen.
Ann Seranne, a lesser-known but prolific cookbook author, published “The Blender Cookbook” in 1961 with Eileen Gaden after they both left editorial positions at Gourmet Magazine to form a food consulting company. Inspired by their consulting for Waring, the first major American blender manufacturer, Seranne and Gaden began work on a blender cookbook. Invented in 1922 by Stephen Poplawski, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. In his musings on the appliance, however, Craig Claiborne of The New York Times bemoaned that the average housewife used her blender for little more than daiquiris and whiskey sours. At the same time, gourmands from Julia Child to Alice B. Toklas embraced the appliance’s abilities, even as they favored more traditional techniques.
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Describing herself as “a devoted disciple of the electric blender,” Seranne assured readers that next to the stove and refrigerator, the blender was the kitchen’s most essential appliance, a “treasure” worthy of a permanent place on the kitchen counter. Wrapped up in both haute cuisine and convenience cooking, Seranne and Gaden brought this enthusiasm to home cooks with “The Blender Cookbook.” With dozens of black and white illustrations, the text features more than 500 recipes not only for dips, soups, sauces and drinks, but also for scrambled eggs, turkey stuffing, crab-and-macaroni casserole, meat loaf, beef Stroganoff, lamb curry, white-fish quenelles with sauce Normande, and fruit tarts.
In his initial review, titled “Blender Magic,” Claiborne honored Seranne’s contribution, asserting that the cookbook “fills a culinary void that has been apparent since the first blender was placed on the market nearly three decades ago.” Overall, he rated the cookbook as the “most comprehensive and imaginative and by all odds the best” among blender texts. Although Claiborne critiqued one of the recipes (a blended minestrone recipe that he quipped was simply “not minestrone”), he lauded Seranne’s hollandaise sauce. Easily whipped up in mere seconds with the blender’s aid, Claiborne proclaimed, “This alone should qualify her for some sort of gastronomic hall of fame.”
Far beyond a gimmicky contribution, “The Blender Cookbook” appeared in Claiborne’s round-up of the year’s best cookbooks, alongside seminal gastronomic tomes, such as the English translation of “Larousee Gastronomique,” “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (which he called “a masterpiece”), the newest edition of “The James Beard Cookbook,” and Claiborne’s own “The New York Times Cook Book.”
The 1960s cookbook boom
Among such esteemed company, “The Blender Cookbook” came into being during a meaningful culinary moment. In her Oct. 23, 1961, New York Times article, “Food: Cookbook Boom,” June Owen wrote that more cookbooks were to be published that year than ever before.
Nika Hazelton, a well-known cookbook author and food writer, echoed this sentiment, albeit more colorfully, in 1963, when she observed, “Americans are taking to cookbooks the way the Romans took to orgies.” Orgies aside, Owen situated cookbook publishing and sales within broader changes in American culture. She argued that etiquette rules, like those penned by Emily Post, which quieted discussions of cooking at the hostess’ table, had shifted. As Americans developed a “tremendous interest in food,” kitchen labors became a topic of newly suitable conversation over dinner.
In her analysis of these burgeoning food interests, Owen also engaged David Reisman, Nathan Galzer and Reuel Denney’s “The Lonely Crowd,” a sociological study, both landmark and contested, first published in 1950 and again in 1961, in the midst of this cookbook boom. Reisman traced growing interest in cooking to the rise of servant-less households among the middle class, which shifted the responsibility for cooking. He also cited the increasing abundance of food that made eating well an accessible luxury for more than just the supremely affluent. He argued, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also would, that under such conditions, food became a primary method for demonstrating taste and social status.
Cookbooks in midcentury America — focusing on desserts, eggs, ethnic cuisine or even blenders — served as both the means and symbols of this upward mobility. Or as Hazelton quipped on the price of cookbooks, “You’ve got to spend a little to build up your reputation as a gourmet, which appears to be the current ambition of every red-blooded American” — a sentiment not too far afield from today’s mainstreamed and seemingly ever increasing interest in food and cooking, sipping and tasting, cookbook buying and kitchen outfitting.
Ann Seranne, kitchen sorceress
Beyond the prominent position of “The Blender Cookbook” in the 1960s culinary canon, what do we know of the woman behind the blender? Originally from Canada, Ann Seranne came to the United States in the 1930s and worked her way to executive editor at Gourmet before she began her consulting partnership with Gaden in the mid-1950s. Throughout her career, Seranne published not just “The Blender Cookbook,” but more than two dozen cookbooks, including “Ann Seranne’s Good Food & How to Cook It,” “Good Food Without Meat,” “The Complete Book of Home Preserving” and “The Art of Egg Cookery.”
Claiborne wrote fondly of her in The New York Times, describing her as a tall (she was 5′ 8″), blond, handsome woman; “a born cook;” an indefatigable food consultant; and “a kitchen sorceress who would rather cook than eat.” His description of her 1963 cookbook, “The Complete Book of Desserts,” may have applied to her as well: “At once as down to earth as an apple fritter and as sophisticated as a cream-filled génoise.”
Impressive as they are, Seranne’s cookbooks were but one of her life’s accomplishments. She nurtured twin passions for cooking and breeding Yorkshire terriers, five of which shared her New York home and whose breeding line claimed more than 60 championships. Her canine brood supped on a ragout of beef, lamb shanks, parsley, carrots and garlic; garlic being her dogs’ most favored flavor. When famed dog show reporter Walter Fletcher purportedly asked Sarenne of the similarities between cooking and dog breeding, she replied, “Both contain equal parts science, art and luck.”
Main photo: Invented in 1922, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. Credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin
Sumac is local lemon for foragers who live in places where there’s no chance of plucking one from a tree. When picked at peak ripeness, but before rain can wash off its tart coating of edible acids, sumac is just as pucker-worthy as any children’s sour candy. That tart flavor of sumac is a valuable part of my wild edible spice rack, and I turn to it often. The other great advantage of sumac is that it stores very well if kept cool and dry.
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I was reminded of this as I stood and surveyed my pantry. At mid-winter in the Rockies, a forager can sometimes have a hard time finding enough activities to satisfy the urge to wildcraft. One can only spend so much time looking for tiny leaves of green beneath the leaf duff and snow, and sampling fermented-on-the-tree crab apples.
In the darkest months of the off-season, my larder offers up opportunities to work with the wild foods I adore. I spend much of the summer putting up as many wild foods as I can manage, in all forms – frozen, pickled, canned and dried. Seeing my shelves lined with these gorgeous preserves, I get the same feeling that some must get when gazing upon jewels, or the proverbial kid in a candy store. Recently, it was my tin full of red sumac that beckoned to me.
Though every forager I know, and many people who belonged to outdoor-based clubs as kids, has tried the sumac version of lemonade, sumac is probably best known as being a key component in za’atar spice blend, appearing along with herbs, sesame seeds and salt.
I often sprinkle ground sumac into recipes, savory and sweet, to add a little zip of brightness. Standing in my pantry looking at my tin of foraged sumac, I suddenly had a strong memory of a time in my childhood when it seemed every dish was seasoned with lemon pepper, and knew this would be an ideal place to substitute sumac.
I had thought that lemon pepper was a relic of the past, but a quick survey of my friends quickly revealed that many still use it frequently. I wasted no time in blending a batch of sumac pepper. Not only was it pretty to look at, it was seriously tart, without the aid of the citric acid that it used in many commercial lemon pepper blends. After a few days of testing, I found that sumac pepper was good in all the places you’d expect lemon pepper to excel. Sumac pepper can be sprinkled atop fish, meats, vegetables, and even breads and rice. My favorite place to use sumac pepper is atop fresh warm buttered popcorn.
If you would like to pick your own sumac but worried about confusing it with poison sumac, let me reassure you they are very easy to tell apart. Poison sumac has white berries, whereas all of the edible sumacs have red berry clusters. Sumac berries can be hairy or smooth, depending upon the species.
Sumac grows as a shrub with leaflets that are pinnately compound, which is to say that they are arranged somewhat like a feather, and the berry clusters grow in dense spikes at the end of branches. If you’ve not seen sumac growing before, you might hear the word berry and think of a juicy strawberry. But all the flavor of sumac is on the outside of its small dry berries. This is why the flavor of sumac is greatly diminished after rain or snow.
At peak ripeness, which is usually late summer in my area, I harvest a big basket full of sumac. I simply pack my sumac into a tin, and it keeps quite well. I’m usually able to use it right up through harvest time the following year. Though, one time, it did develop a rancid oil smell after a year.
There is one caution with sumac. It is related to mangoes and cashews, so anyone with strong allergies to those foods should also avoid sumac.
The following recipe calls for ground sumac. Often, the whole berries are ground up and used. I find the central seed of the berry to be unpleasantly hard, even when ground. The seeds can also lend a tannic astringency to recipes. So, I strip my sumac from the branches, and grind the berries in a molcajete. You could also pulse the berries in a spice grinder. Next, shake the ground berries through a sieve. This produces a pink fluff of sumac that is ready to be used in recipes.
Sumac Pepper Blend
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1/3 cup
2 tablespoons ground sumac
2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon salt (optional)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon granulated onion
Stir all of the ingredients together, and store the sumac pepper in small jar in a cool dark place.
Main photo: Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty
Once in a great while I stumble across a new way of doing things in the kitchen, sometimes as the result of carelessness. For instance, I was boiling some small unpeeled potatoes recently, having salted the water as usual, then wandered off, only to return to the kitchen where I caught a slight whiff of food on the verge of burning.
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When I checked my pot I saw that all of the water had boiled off. What remained were potatoes that had crunchy skins and, as it turned out, tender and delicious interiors. When I tasted them I realized that the salt in the water had penetrated so that every bite of the potato was perfectly flavored and the crusty skins delectable. They reminded me of potatoes that had been cooked on the grill, but without the fuss of lighting fires and dealing with charcoal and its accompanying gray dust.
I am thinking about cooking this dish again, but have no idea how long it will take for the water to boil away. So I have devised a plan: I will situate myself in the kitchen along with a good novel — “War and Peace,” perhaps — and be sure to stay put while the potatoes cook, and I will pay attention to how much time goes by before the potatoes turn into the delicious dish on which I stumbled. I want to avoid ruining the potatoes and wrecking my pot.
Hot dogs, beyond the long bun
Another time, when preparing lunch for my husband, I found in my freezer one lone hot dog bun that was scheduled to hold two hot dogs. (He prefers that combination while I would be happier with one hot dog and two buns, being the bread-lover that I am.)
While I usually avoid putting any sort of bread into the microwave, I popped in the frozen bun thinking I would retrieve it in seconds and then toast it before squeezing in the hot dogs. I must have been distracted and set the microwave time in minutes rather than seconds because when I finally retrieved the roll, it had the look and texture of a block of wood, and I instantly dispatched it to the garbage can.
I still needed something for the hot dogs and could only find a plump-but-frozen hamburger bun. This time I was careful to let it thaw on its own before toasting. Then I was delighted to find that, with a bit of surgery, two hot dogs fit perfectly into one round bun. On the surface, you wouldn’t think that such a discovery would require a couple of advanced degrees, but this story does have a moral. Sometimes we are so conditioned to go along with conventional thinking when preparing a dish that we can miss a tasty or useful variation. Just because hot dogs are traditionally served in a long bun, why can’t they be served in a round one? And must we always fry our eggs in butter? How about olive oil? Speaking of which, the best boiled lobster I ever tasted was provided by a friend in Maine who served it with a fabulous warmed olive oil instead of the conventional melted butter.
Meatloaf, with whole allspice
I experienced another kitchen error years ago when preparing a meatloaf for a weekday family meal. My recipe involves a pound of ground beef, a grated raw potato, a grated raw onion, an egg, salt and pepper, and I was in the habit of studding the top of the dish with whole black peppercorns before it went into the oven. But one time I mistakenly reached for a jar of whole allspice instead of the peppercorns, and, unaware of this error, lightly tapped in six or seven over the top of the loaf before starting the cooking process. When a delicate fragrance soon filled my kitchen, I became mystified, for it was a subtle aroma not usually associated with meatloaf, which, after all, is hardly an exotic dish. When we sat down to dinner, everyone loved the new taste that had transformed my old standby recipe into something a little unusual, and ever since I have been using allspice whenever I make meatloaf.
Young chefs cross the invisible line in the kitchen
While I find such innovations delightful, in part because of their accidental origin, I am dubious about the deliberate attempt, especially by young chefs these days, to create new dishes by throwing all sorts of ingredients together.
Bacon, kale and salted caramel are the latest trendy foods to pop up with alarming regularity. In thumbing through new cookbooks, I spotted recipes for bacon in caramel corn, in s’mores, and sneaked into the streusel for an apple pie, all of which struck me as unappetizing. I found a kale recipe for what was dubbed a “green bloody Mary” because instead of tomato juice, it contained pulverized kale. A better name would have been “vampire bloody Mary,” since I like to think that vampire blood is green. All of these treatments are novelties that do not necessarily add to the taste of an altered dish. I must say, though, that I am more forgiving about the liberal use of salted caramel as long as it’s being added to a dessert and not to mashed potatoes.
To be sure, many deliberate innovations are delectable. Delicate pizzas made with bits of tender chicken and a touch of pesto, instead of gloppy red sauce and greasy melted cheese, come to mind. So does the combination of chocolate and hazelnuts, discovered by an ingenious Italian whose country makes the delectable gianduja, one of my all-time favorite confections.
Still, I like best my happy accidents, and do hope there will be more to come.
Main photo: Fried eggs in olive oil. Credit: iStockphoto / Aleksandar Georgiev
Eating more kangaroo meat likely ranks low on the list of food resolutions eaters have considered taking up in 2015. But should it?
“I, at first, didn’t tell them it was kangaroo.” So said the cheery Foodies’ Dream Tour guide at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, Australia, about cooking “roo” for her sons. She assured our small group that the trick is in the cooking. Pop it on the barbecue for two to three minutes on one side, she instructed, with a quick sizzle on the other, and you are sure to enjoy a tender, juicy and flavorful bite of roo. “Truly superb,” she crooned.
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Although cooking instructions vary from chef to chef, the key advice for preparing kangaroo is to avoid overcooking it, which can lead to a dry and all-too-chewy result. The risk is higher with kangaroo, which is a remarkably lean red meat that is low in saturated and trans fat, while offering up robust servings of iron and B vitamins. From animals that roam freely in the wild, kangaroo meat is free-range and not farmed — though the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia refers to kangaroo meat production as “harvesting,” which conjures a strange image in one’s agrarian imagination. To top off the list of its health benefits, kangaroo is considered ecologically friendly, especially compared with beef and lamb, since kangaroos require less water and produce less methane. Plus, their paws are kinder to the rangeland’s topsoil than cattle hooves.
As our tour guide shared her cooking tips, she gestured to a nearby stall that has been selling kangaroo meat at the market for decades. Although the distinctly Aussie protein has not been popular in its homeland, the market has seen increased sales in recent years. Woods Aussie Deli in the market is well known for its kangaroo “jerkey,” lesser versions of which can be found at convenience stores and souvenir shops. Butchers in the meat hall and specialty shops in the Dairy Produce Hall (also known as the Deli Hall) at the Queen Victoria Market sell fresh and frozen kangaroo in vacuum-sealed pouches. Packaged kangaroo meat is also widely sold throughout Australia in the refrigerated meat sections of large chain grocery stores, such as Coles and Woolworths.
Restaurants in Australia, often though not always those that cater to tourists with “bush tucker” menus, also serve up kangaroo. Renowned chefs have even supported the Australian government and the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia to promote consumption of the hoppy marsupial. In 2008, six of Sydney’s top chefs — Tony Bilson, Jean-Paul Bruneteau, Sean Connolly, Darren Ho, John Leong and Ray Kersh — conducted a master class at a “Taste of Kangaroo” event attended by 150 members from the food and hospitality industry and food media. These chefs’ creations are now freely available in the pamphlet cookbook “Roocipes,” which features 80 kangaroo recipes.
Among the roocipes is Connolly’s kangaroo tartare, which serves kangaroo loin minced and raw at its best and juiciest, flavored with a concoction of Dijon mustard, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and a dash of Tabasco. A French chef devoted to Australian cuisine and native ingredients, Bruneteau has developed 16 recipes using kangaroo, including braised kangaroo shank, which calls for roasting several shanks, cut short, with root vegetables for 10 hours. At Little Truffle dining room and bar at Mermaid Beach, chef Daniel Ridgeway serves up multiple kangaroo dishes, including Flower Kangaroo, in which he folds a rich blend of kangaroo loin and egg whites through cream and braised kangaroo leg, piping the final seasoned mixture into picturesque zucchini flowers.
Eating roo, or not …
Despite its nutritional benefits, ecological profile, chef endorsement and increasingly haute allure, kangaroo meat consumption has been slow to take off among most Australians. Kangaroos have hopped across the Australian landscape for more than 100 million years and, as part of a traditional diet, Aboriginal people have consumed them for close to 60,000 years. Regardless of its ancient origins and heritage consumption, however, kangaroo meat is often negatively associated with pet food and roadkill, as cars pose the greatest threat to the animals in the wild. Indeed, much of the barrier for kangaroo meat in Australia is cultural, as the animal serves as a national emblem, appearing on the country’s coat of arms and as a symbol throughout popular culture.
The kangaroo meat industry also refers to low consumption as the “Skippy Syndrome,” referencing the television show “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo,” an animal program similar to “Lassie” and “Flipper,” which contributed to the national perception of kangaroos as cute, cuddly, friendly and wholly inedible. The kangaroo industry tackled the syndrome head on in 2005 with a culinary naming competition, seeking a title that would help kangaroo meat eaters forget Skippy the way venison assists deer meat lovers to shun thoughts of “Bambi” while enjoying their meal. Top submissions included kangarly, maroo, krou, maleen, kuja, roujoe, rooviande, jurru, ozru, marsu, kangasaurus, marsupan, jumpmeat and MOM (meat of marsupials). Australus was declared the palatable new moniker, though it has yet to make it into circulation.
As kangaroo consumption remains relatively low in Australia, the majority of the meat is exported, mostly to Europe and Russia, where it is an affordable meat option. Kangaroo meat has even bounded its way onto U.S. menus. In 2013, kangaroo steak (described as “tender like a sweet filet mignon”) became a surprise top seller at Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis. At The Thirsty Koala, an Australian-themed restaurant in Astoria, N.Y., chef and co-owner Katherine Fuchs reports that kangaroo burgers, sliders and steaks outsell their beef counterparts. You can also bite into a juicy kangaroo burger at Crazee Burger in San Diego.
Will 2015 be the year you try roo?
Sean Connolly’s Kangaroo Tartare recipe appeared in the kangaroo cookbook “Roocipes.” Connolly is a chef at both Sean’s Kitchen and Astral Restaurant in Sydney. Recipe courtesy of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia.
Yield: 4 servings
1 French baguette
400 grams kangaroo loin minced
50 grams shallots finely chopped
50 grams gherkins finely chopped
10 grams parsley chopped
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Dash of Tabasco
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste
1. Thinly slice French baguette.
2. Spread each slice with salted butter, and bake in the oven until golden brown.
3. Place all the other ingredients in a stainless steel bowl.
4. Gently fold together with a metal spoon.
5. Serve with the crisp ficelle (baguette) croutons.
Main photo: Woods Aussie Deli in the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, Australia, sells kangaroo “jerkey.” Credit: Emily Contois