Articles in Novelty
Cultures all around the world have rejuvenating herbal tonics, taken to strengthen and support the body. Think of the spring tonics our grandparents knew and swore by. A number of these elixirs are also aphrodisiacs, employed to arouse our emotions and feelings of love. With Valentine’s Day coming up, what better time to give them a try?
Botanical aphrodisiacs are often highly-prized and costly (ginseng, for example), but the romantic cocktails, cupcakes and sorbet (we got inventive!) below call for five main ingredients that are inexpensive and readily available in the U.S.
Aphrodisiac list to remember
Each has a cultural tradition of promoting health and well being while also supporting libido: Ashwagandha, native to India; damiana, found in Central and South America; horny goat weed from China; maca from Peru; and schisandra from China. All can be obtained as organic dried herbs or powders from Starwest Botanicals. Many are also available from Frontier Coop. Organic fairly-traded Ayurvedic herbs can be found at Banyan Botanicals, and if you’d like to try growing any of these plants yourself, Horizon Herbs can supply seeds.
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You may be inspired to try these treats for Valentine’s day but remember they can be enjoyed any time, alone or with a partner. Here’s to health and pleasure!
Evening Energizing Cocoa
Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, a relative of the tomato, is one of the most important tonic and restorative herbs in Ayurveda, India’s ancient science of life and medicine. In India, ashwagandha root is traditionally boiled in milk as a drink. It has a slightly bitter taste, so we like to combine it with cocoa to make a relaxing and restorative evening drink, adding the aphrodisiac effects of chocolate to that of the ashwagandha.
½ to 1 teaspoons ashwagandha powder
2 teaspoons cocoa powder (or to taste)
¼ teaspoon cardamom powder
1 cup milk or almond milk per person
10 drops vanilla essence
honey or maple syrup to taste
1. Mix dry ingredients in a saucepan.
2. Add milk and bring just to the boil, then remove from heat.
3. Add in the vanilla and sweetener to taste.
* * *
Damiana Iced Tea
Damiana, Turnera diffusa, is a tonic herb found in Texas, Central America and tropical parts of South America. Damiana is a tonic for both sexes, balancing hormones and supporting the nervous system as well as increasing libido.
2 heaped teaspoons damiana
1 heaped teaspoon mint
some rose petals
1. Put ingredients into a jug.
2. Pour boiling water on them, brew for 5 minutes.
3. Strain and chill.
4. Serve over ice.
* * *
Horny Goat Weed Liqueur
Horny goat weed, or Epimedium, is an herb worth trying for the name alone. It is grown as ground-cover plant in dry shade, and the species used as aphrodisiacs are Epimedium grandiflorum, E. sagittatum and E. brevicornum. The leaves, which can be used fresh or dried, have a pleasant mild taste and a mild stimulant effect.
Makes about two weeks’ supply for one person.
A handful of dried horny goat weed leaves
A slice or two of orange
3 or 4 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon brown sugar
About a cup of whisky
1. Loosely fill a jam jar (roughly ½ pint size) with the dry ingredients
2. Pour in enough whisky to fill the jar and submerge the contents.
3. Put the jar in a warm dark place for two weeks then strain and bottle.
4. Enjoy a small liqueur glassful, sipped slowly, as and when you wish.
* * *
Maca Cupcakes With Vanilla Fudge Icing
Maca, Lepidium meyenii, looks a bit like a turnip and is a staple in the high Andes. Its strengthening and hormone balancing benefits are cumulative over long periods, though some people find it immediately stimulating. The powder smells like butterscotch, but blander and with a slightly bitter taste. Maca can be added to porridge, breads and cakes. Our favorite maca recipe is for these cupcakes. Matthew loves the combination of hard, sweet icing, a soft, light cake and sensuous strawberry melting in the mouth.
Makes 10 to 12 cupcakes
Ingredients for cupcakes
½ tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon corn syrup or honey
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup light brown sugar
½ cup milk or oat milk
1 cup white flour
2 tablespoons maca powder
1 tablespoon boiling water
½ teaspoon baking soda
1. Warm vinegar, corn syrup, butter and sugar together in a pan.
2. When softened, beat until mixture becomes a creamy batter.
3. In another container, mix milk, flour and maca powder.
4. When well blended into a runny batter, pour over the cake batter.
5. Mix the two batters together to form a semi-liquid mixture.
6. Pour into 10 or 12 muffin cases.
7. Bake at 180 C (350 F) for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden on top and cooked through.
8. Cool, and add icing, as below.
Vanilla Fudge Icing
For 10 or 12 cupcakes
1 teaspoon butter
1½ cups sugar
½ cup milk
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
10 small, very ripe strawberries
1. Melt butter and sugar in a saucepan.
2. Add milk and stir continually until it reaches boiling point.
3. Continue cooking until the mixture arrives at the soft ball stage (115 C, 240 F).
4. Cool a little, add vanilla extract and beat until smooth.
5. Spread on the cup cakes.
6. If the icing gets too stiff, warm it over hot water.
7. Decorate the top of each cupcake with a small, very ripe strawberry while the icing is still soft.
* * *
Schisandra Syrup and Sorbet
Schisandra, Schisandra chinensis, berries are the fruit of a Chinese vine in the magnolia family and are known as “five flavor berries” for their complex taste. Besides their aphrodisiac effect, they promote overall health and vitality, improve memory and concentration and help protect the liver, support the endocrine system and act as a powerful antioxidant.
Ingredients for syrup
1 cup schisandra berries
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1. Put schisandra berries into a pan.
2. Add the water and simmer gently with the lid on for 30–40 minutes.
3. This stage is complete when the berries have given their brown-black color to the water.
4. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
5. When almost cool, put in blender and blend for a few moments.
6. Strain through a sieve.
7. Add sugar, and bring to a boil, cooking for a couple of minutes longer.
8. Allow to cool, giving a rich syrup
Ingredients for sorbet
1 cup schisandra syrup (as above)
Juice of 2 or 3 oranges, freshly squeezed
1 ripe banana
1. Mix the syrup and orange juice.
2. Peel and slice the banana and freeze it.
3. When frozen or nearly frozen, add the banana to the syrup mix.
4. Beat with a hand blender until creamy, then freeze again.
5. Serve in a chilled dish.
Top photo: Ashwaganda. Credit: Julie Bruton-Seal
Indian food lovers in the United States often have a vague concept of what biryanis are — a perception that stems from Indian restaurants that spike basmati rice with spices and dot it with either pieces of meat or vegetables. From the Persian biriyan (to fry before cooking), true biryanis were introduced and made popular by several invaders; the Moghuls were a prime influence, having gathered their knowledge from the Persians. The Nawabs of Lucknow and the Nizams of Hyderabad also popularized these layered meat-rice-nut dishes all across India, where there are more than 35 varieties.
The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate the biryani — some even included pounded silver leaves. I consider such biryanis to be meals in themselves; the only accompaniments they need are a simple yogurt-based raita (even a bowl of plain yogurt will suffice), pickles (either homemade or store-bought), and flame-toasted lentil wafers (papads).
The constitution of a biryani is rather simple. First, meat is often marinated and braised, spiced and simmered in various sauces. To prepare the rice layer, clarified butter is perfumed with whole spices, and sometimes with nuts and raisins. Then basmati rice is steeped in the butter (with water) to partially cook it. Finally, alternating layers of the meat curry and rice pulao are spread in a casserole and baked until the flavors mingle and the rice grains are tender. Although many of the biryanis are meat-based, vegetarians have adapted these dishes to include legumes and vegetables.
Kichidi, a savory and soothing porridge
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love biryanis, but the dish that gets no respect is one that is a close sibling, albeit a dowdy one in some Indians’ minds. Kichidis are soothing and simple porridges usually eaten when convalescing from an illness. The easily digestible grains, when eaten with plain yogurt, make for a comforting meal. Often, the trilogy of pickles, papads and yogurt accompanies kichidis to complement the porridge’s softness with pungency and crunch.
Of all the stories I heard in my childhood days, the one that always made me sit up and listen was this one about kichidis. To set the stage, it’s helpful to know about Akbar, the third and highly revered emperor of the Moghul empire, who ascended the throne at the tender age of 13, around 1556. Over the course of his rule, he developed a deep bond and friendship with his trusted inner circle adviser, Birbal, whose wit, impartiality, compassion and intelligence were legendary. Stories were penned over the years that regaled many a child at bedtime. This one particularly stuck with me, appealing to my culinary sensibilities.
Birbal listened patiently to the poor Brahmin’s predicament. The Brahmin, with teeth still chattering from the previous night’s bone-chilling experience in the frigid waters of the lake, recounted how he was promised 100 rupees for spending the night in its icy bed. He had managed to survive the frigidity by cozy thoughts that his children’s bellies would soon be filled with the help of this small fortune. He called upon Rama for strength, hands folded in pious servitude, looking toward a lighted oil lamp 200 feet away for the only flicker in an otherwise charcoal-black night. His prayers helped him make it to the crack of dawn, when he emerged from the lake with frozen, shriveled skin but a warmed heart filled with the hope of a hot meal for his hungry babies.
The court ministers marveled at the Brahmin’s fortitude and quizzed him at length on his successful survival. But once they heard that he had made it through with the “warmth” from the flickering light 200 feet away, they refused him his meager prize.”You cheated us you insolent man,” they fumed. “You heated yourself with the oil lamp 200 feet away.” The Brahmin’s earnest pleadings fell on deaf ears even when he insisted on presenting his case to the usually fair-minded emperor, Akbar.
Birbal stroked his beard as he listened to the Brahmin’s misery. It was time to teach the cruel ministers and Akbar a lesson. He invited them to a simple dinner of kichidi in his palatial courtyard. With help from the Brahmin, he lit a small fire from dried twigs. He fashioned a supporting structure 50 feet high from which dangled a large earthenware pot filled with rice, lentils and gold-yellow turmeric. The crowds gathered and waited with growing impatience for the humble, delicately spiced porridge.
Akbar’s anger rose along with the wisps of smoke from the pitiful twig fire as he demanded explanation for Birbal’s obvious stupidity in trying to cook a pot of kichidi 50 feet away from such a weak flame. “Jahanpana,” he said with respect, addressing him as King of the World, “if a flickering light 200 feet away could warm a Brahmin standing in waist-high icy-cold water, why can’t I cook this kichidi only fifty feet away.” Akbar realized his folly, duly reprimanded his ministers, and ordered them to pay the Brahmin five times what was promised to him. Birbal once again prevailed!
Rice-Lentil Porridge with Caramelized Onion (Pyaaz kichidi)
Makes 6 servings (about ½ cup each)
1 cup uncooked white basmati or long-grain rice
½ cup split and skinned green lentils (mung/moong dal — yellow in this form)
4 cups cold tap water
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons ghee or melted butter
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium-size red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 to 4 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies, stems removed, slit in half lengthwise (do not remove seeds)
1 medium-size tomato, cored and finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
1. Plunk the rice and dal into a medium-size saucepan and add enough water to cover the grains. With your fingertips gently rub and swish the grains, at which point the water will get cloudy. Pour the water out and repeat three to four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
2. Add 4 cups cold water to the pan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring once or twice to separate the grains. Skim off any suds that may float to the top. Stir in the turmeric, lower the heat to medium, and simmer, partially covered, until most of the water evaporates. Cover the pan and continue to simmer about 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the burner and allow the pan to sit undisturbed an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the cumin and let it sizzle, turn reddish brown, and smell nutty, about 10 to 15 seconds. Immediately add the onion and chilies and stir-fry 4 to 6 minutes, until the onion turns purple-brown, 5 to 7 minutes. This is a good time to make sure your stove fan is on because of the pungent fumes from the roasting chilies.
5. Add the remaining ingredients and stew the mélange, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the tomato softens, 2 to 4 minutes.
6. Scrape the skillet’s contents into the now-cooked rice-lentil mixture and mix well; serve.
Tip: If onions, chilies and tomatoes bother your stomach, leave them out. The humble cumin seeds and ghee are equally satisfying on their own.
Top photo: Indian kichidi. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
It started on Facebook. One day my newsfeed was filled with chefs and bartenders asking for votes. It was the end of the year, and one of the food blogs had just posted a raft of entreaties to “Vote for your favorite new restaurant!” and “Vote for the best bartender!” Everyone in the restaurant industry was asking friends to vote. At least those categories were based on food.
But the contest that pushed me over the edge was named “The Hottest Chef.”
Not hot as in “rising star” or “making great food.” No. Hot as in good looking. Hot as in, “This Category Has Nothing To Do With Food.”
I couldn’t believe who was asking for votes. A lot of respected chefs — grown men, mostly — who, in my opinion, could really benefit from putting their noses down and concentrating on their cooking, were asking to be picked as the best looking boy or girl at the food prom.
I was an awkward kid and got over the struggle to be popular at a pretty young age. By the time I was 16 I was working in kitchens with adults, and that provided me with perspective: Cooking is about what you do, not what you look like. Cooking is a craft, and it requires attention and dedication. And just as in any artistic profession, if your goal is fame, you aren’t going to achieve your potential.
For chefs, staying hot requires keeping cool
These lists: Best New Restaurant, Best Restaurant, Best Chef, Hottest Bartender, Best … Hottest … They not only diminish the restaurants and the people working in them, but they cannibalize the authority of the publications that produce them.
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The best dining in any city is often at that place that has existed for years. In Portland, Caffe Mingo has been turning out delicious rustic Italian food for over a decade. They hit the mark in a way that only a restaurant that has honed its craft for years can do. They haven’t been on a list in years.
Accolades also interfere with restaurant performance. At my restaurants, Toro Bravo and Tasty N Sons, we have always relied on word of mouth. When we get singled out for what we do, I have a meeting with my staff to prepare for the backlash: diners who will be upset their place has been discovered, diners who will be unhappy with the uptick in wait-times. Of course we have our Restaurant of the Year award on display — it’s in the bathroom.
There are better ways for chefs and restaurants to get attention than to beg their friends to vote for their Hotness online:
- Come out swinging! Put everything you can into the craft and service. The people who fill your seats Monday through Thursday are regulars and industry. If you pay attention to craft, they will keep coming.
- Spend more time thinking about the best tomato, and less time thinking about the best write-up. Don’t ask for coverage before your restaurant is ready for the glare. You can’t seek out the public’s attention and then complain if you get reviewed “too soon” — so wait, get it right, and then reach out.
- Keep your mind-set on Year 6, not Month 6. If you work on the craft at the start, you might get to Year 6. At that point, think about a cookbook (“The Toro Bravo Cookbook” is coming this fall), but in the meantime, keep some of your powder dry so that you can bring in new customers when you aren’t the Next Big Thing.
Photo: Restaurateur John Gorham. Credit: David L Reamer photography
The hot-sour-salty-sweet flavor combinations that dominate in Bangkok and central Thailand and in the Isaan region bordering Laos in the country’s east, make scant appearance up north. Northern Thai food is instead — in the words of northerners themselves — kem-kon (concentrated, intense) and rot-jat (strongly flavored). In your face: spicy, salty and sometimes bitter.
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Ingredients such as odiferous bplaa raa (literally “rotten fish”), a long-fermented fish condiment that northerners use more often than regular fish sauce, and tua nao, fermented soy beans that are mashed and shaped into disks or small bricks before being dried in the sun, lend the cuisine a jolt of umami and an elusive earthiness. Fresh and dried chilies are ubiquitous. Depth and complexity come from a range of dried spices more often associated with Malay or Indian foods (cloves, cinnamon, coriander seed, nutmeg and cumin); black, white and long peppers; and a regional variety of prickly ash (more commonly known as Sichuan peppercorn). Smokiness comes from the barbecue, ingredients such as green chilies, shallots, tomatoes and garlic are often grilled before they’re added to a dish.
Northerners prefer khao niaow, or sticky rice, over non-glutinous rice. At the table they use one hand to turn knobs of warm rice into small patties by pressing and shaping the grains between their palm and the tips of the fingers. Then they use the rice as Middle Easterners and northern Africans would bread, to carry bits of food and the cooking juices and liquids of stews and soups from plate or bowl to mouth.
Nam priks bask in the hot stuff
The northern Thai cook’s touchstones are dips known as nam prik (“chili water” is the literal translation), small bowls of concentrated flavor that pair beautifully with the fresh herbs (mint, various basils and cilantro among others) and blanched and uncooked vegetables (fresh and leafy greens such as Chinese mustard and various lettuces, and cucumbers, tart cherry tomatoes and winter squash) that are always presented alongside.
These vegetables and dips are usually served as part of a full meal, but in a non-Thai setting they work well as finger foods to go with drinks (and are a relatively virtuous alternative to chips and dips — although pork rinds, a beloved snack in pork-obsessed northern Thailand, often make an appearance). The dips can also be eaten together as a light meal.
Minced Pork and Tomato Dip (Nam Prik Ong)
This mild nam prik has a flavor and texture reminiscent of Bologna-style ragu. Leftovers are wonderful tossed with wide rice noodles and a handful of scallion greens chopped with Thai basil.
Nam prik ong is usually eaten with pork rinds (rice crackers work well, too) and with blanched, rather than raw, vegetables. Chunks of peeled winter squash (kabocha, butternut, etc.) are a must. Try also wedges of round green cabbage, cauliflower, long beans, carrots and Chinese greens like baby bok choy and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), their leaves squeezed dry.
7 dried red chilies
3 shallots, roughly chopped (about 2 ounces)
2 teaspoons Thai or Malaysian shrimp paste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
5 plump cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 tablespoons ground pork
2 cups roughly chopped tomatoes
½ cup chicken or pork broth
Fish sauce, to taste
1. Toast the chilies in a dry skillet over medium heat until darkened but not burned. Allow to cool and place in a mortar or the bowl of a blender.
2. Add the shallots, garlic and shrimp paste to the chilies and pound or blend to a rough paste (if using blender, add up to 1 tablespoon water to aid processing).
3. Heat a small skillet (preferably non-stick) over medium heat and add the oil. Swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic and sauté until it begins to change color. Add the chile-shallot-shrimp paste mixture and cook, stirring, until the raw smell of the shrimp paste dissipates, about 3 minutes.
4. Add the chopped pork and, breaking it up with a fork, cook just until the pink color disappears.
5. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until they begin to break up, about 2 minutes. Add the broth, lower the heat to medium-low, and let the mixture simmer until the broth is nearly evaporated, leaving a paste of medium thickness.
6. Taste and adjust for salt, if necessary, with fish sauce, adding ¼ teaspoon at a time.
7. Transfer the nam prik to a bowl, let cool, and serve at room temperature with a generous platter of vegetables for dipping.
Roasted Eggplant and Green Chili Dip (Dtam makhya)
This dip, though not a nam prik in name, is certainly one in spirit. It’s often eaten with fresh mint and pork rinds. It’s also wonderful shmeared over a warm soft corn tortilla to roll around grilled or roasted pork, mint and cilantro.
2 large long Asian eggplant (about 500 grams)
5-7 long green chilies
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 red shallots, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon Bplaa raa (often available in southeast Asia markets, in jars labeled “pickled mud fish”) or fish sauce
Pinch of sugar
Salt to taste
Fish sauce, to taste
½ teaspoon cooking oil
1. Grill, broil, roast (at about 350 F) or cook the eggplants and chilies directly over a gas flame until soft and browned all over. Let cool, then peel and chop together, by hand or in a food processor, to a very rough puree. Set aside in a mortar.
2. Add garlic, shallots, bplaa raa, and sugar and briefly pound with a pestle to mix. Taste for salt and add fish sauce, if necessary, ½ teaspoon at a time.
3. Heat the oil in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat, then add the eggplant mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until its color deepens slightly, about 2-3 minutes. Do not let the eggplant brown.
4. Transfer to a bowl and servewarm or at room temperature.
Red-Eye Smoked Fish and Chili Dip (Nam prik dta daeng)
Dta daeng means “red eyes,” which is what you might have after eating this super-spicy dip. Smoked mackerel is a fine substitute for the smoked river fish sold in northern Thai markets; feel free to experiment with hot-smoked salmon or any other smoked fish. Traditionally the smoked fish, shallots and garlic would be grilled, but these days northern Thai cooks are happy to use the microwave. The number of chilies called for results in an authentically fiery dish. Reduce by up to two-thirds for a much milder dip; you could also remove the seeds.
Serve this dip with any combination of fresh Asian long beans (or green beans), sliced cucumber, napa cabbage and Chinese mustard leaves, wing beans, and herbs such as mint, Thai or purple basil, sawtooth herb and Vietnamese mint. Leftovers are great stirred into scrambled eggs.
4 ounces smoked mackerel, bones removed
5 unpeeled shallots
8 unpeeled garlic cloves
25 whole Thai dried red chilies, stemmed
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 tablespoon Thai or Malaysian shrimp paste
½ teaspoon cooking oil
½ cup water
1. Remove any skin from the fish. Cut the fish into chunks and microwave until its moisture is rendered and it has begun to crisp, about 3-5 minutes depending on the size of the chunks and the fattiness of the fish. Set aside to cool.
2. Place garlic cloves on plate, cover with microwave-safe plastic wrap, and microwave till very soft, 2-3 minutes. Repeat with the shallots, which will take 4-5 minutes. Set aside to cool, then peel.
3. Toast the chilies in a skillet over medium heat until they darken, stirring constantly so they don’t burn. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
4. Pound the fish and chilies in a mortar or chop in a food processor to rough puree. Add the shallots and garlic and pound or process to a paste.
5. Place a (preferably nonstick) skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, heat for a few seconds, and then add the tomatoes and the shrimp paste. Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the water and continue to cook, stirring and mashing the tomatoes with the back of your spatula or spoon, until the moisture has almost evaporated, about 3 more minutes.
6. Add the chile-shallot-garlic-fish paste and cook, stirring, until the ammonia smell of the shrimp paste has dissipated and the combination paste has started to darken and take on an oily sheen, 4-5 minutes. There should be no moisture left in the pan.
7. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Serve at room temperature.
Top photo: Nam prik ong, a northern Thai style “dip” made of tomato and ground pork often served with pork rinds (bowl left). Credit: David Hagerman
One thing foodies never do is buy any of those pre-roasted chickens from the hot display at the supermarket. Never, never, never! (Well, just that once, I swear it!)
They’re definitely pre-fab food, but you can easily doctor them. In fact, medieval recipes often called for chicken to be roasted or baked and then stewed in a sauce. The first stage browned the meat desirably while the stewing stage was a necessity, because before the 20th century most chickens were tough old hens past their egg-laying days who needed a good course of moist heat to become tender.
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It’s actually hard to find an elderly stewing hen these days, so we have to make do anyway. I say why not accept a compromise with the times and let the supermarket do part of the work? The pre-roasted chickens are generally what used to be considered frying size (often far smaller than any chickens you can find in the butcher section) so they’re naturally tender and don’t really need any stewing at all. You only need to make the sauce part of the recipe and warm the chicken up in it.
A royal recipe with pre-roasted chickens
So here’s a quick, 21st-century way of making Chekyns in Musc, from “Ancient Cookery,” a collection of 14th- and 15th- century royal recipes written down during the reigns of various English monarchs beginning with Edward III.
Inevitably, earlier stages of a language look quaint and rustic. This recipe begins, “Take smale chekyns and make hom clene, and choppe hom, and do hom in a pot, and put therto gode brothe of fressh flesh and wyn, and let hom seethe.” Among the flavorings you should “do therto” were “raisynges of corance” and “zolkes (sic) of raw eggus,” and finally you were supposed to boil everything “togedur” and “serve hit forthe.”
It may look bizarre on the page, but this was a royal recipe, and it aimed at the sophisticated effect of its time: rich and sweet-sour, with an intoxicating jumble of aromas. I presume “musc” was musk, and perhaps there is something musky about the combination of sage, clove, mace, saffron and raisins.
The recipe actually calls for currants. These are the “raisynges of corance,” that is, raisins of Corinth, called for in the recipe. But currants are hard to find outside the holiday season, when they get enough play for the rest of the year in mincemeat and fruitcake. If you can find them, currants are actually nicer than raisins for this dish, but the difference is not huge. Personally, I would toast the pine nuts because I happen to find raw pine nuts insipid, while toasted pine nuts are everything popcorn promised but didn’t deliver.
The recipe calls for verjuice (verjus), which is sour grape juice. You can sometimes find it in import stores, particularly Middle Eastern ones. In Arabic it’s called ‘asir hisrim and in Farsi it’s ab ghureh. You can substitute lemon juice. In fact, the Italians have done so quite systematically, as their medieval word for verjuice, agresto, is now just a term for lemon juice.
Anyway, this is a fine cool-weather dish for two people, or one medieval-style glutton.
Chekyns in Musc
Serves 2 to 3
1 (1½- to 2-pound) chicken, roasted or baked
½ cup strong chicken stock or 1 teaspoon chicken concentrate mixed with ½ cup water
1 cup white wine
6-8 leaves fresh sage
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 clove, freshly ground
¼ teaspoon mace, freshly ground
¼ cup pine nuts
½ cup currants or raisins
10 threads saffron, ground
2 egg yolks
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon verjuice or lemon juice
1. If the chicken is not already separated, divide it into drumsticks, thighs, wings and breast. Dismantle the breast into 6 to 8 pieces. Remove the skin and the bones if you like.
2. Put the stock and wine in a saucepan and boil until the smell of alcohol goes away. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the sage, parsley clove, mace, pine nuts, currants and saffron and cook until the currants are plumped, 5 minutes. Add the chicken parts and heat through.
3. Remove the chicken parts. Beat the egg yolks with 1 or 2 tablespoons of hot cooking liquid, then stir the eggs into sauce to thicken it. There will not be much sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed. Stir in the verjuice or lemon juice, add the chicken parts and warm up again before serving.
Pre-roasted chicken. Credit: iStockphoto
The buzz and hustle of the holiday season sometimes make me feel as if I’m standing in the middle of a rushing river. The constant noise and music, the tide of guests, the gifts to wrap, meals to cook, the parties to attend can all feel like a crushing deluge. It’s only when I close my eyes that the accelerated motion around me pauses. Underneath the crush lies the soft lining of the holidays, the touch of North winds upon my cheek, owls chatting in the night, the glow of firelight in the eyes of my loved ones, and always, there is an aromatic undercurrent of pine.
Not only is pine is the scent of the season that locks warm memories in my head, it is also an edible treat. You might expect pine to taste of the cool damp woods. But it also sings with bright notes of citrus like grapefruit, tangerine and lemon, and can add an unexpected spark of cheer to your holiday meals.
Foraged pine tips
Pine are usually fairly easy to identify, as their needles emerge from the branch in bundles of two, three or five, rather than singly like spruce or fir (both of which can also be eaten). Conifers are almost all edible. However, make certain you’ve correctly identified your tree before eating it. A novice could confuse pine with yew, which is poisonous when eaten. Consult a local guidebook or a foraging friend, or use a search engine to find which species of pine grow in your area.
Once you are certain that you’ve found an edible pine, your next task is to taste it. There can be tremendous variation in flavor from tree to tree, so find one that tap dances across your taste buds. Spring is the ideal time to collect pine tips. At that time, they are so tender they may be munched raw. Don’t be discouraged from eating pine at other times of year, however. Mature pine needles, even though they are tough, still offer many possibilities in your kitchen.
Start with a simple tisane
When you are ready to harvest, simply snip buds away from a branch with a pair of scissors. Avoid over-harvesting or taking needles from the tips of branches, especially at the top of the tree, as it will be more susceptible to disease.
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As charming as it might seem, don’t be tempted to eat your Christmas tree, unless you are absolutely certain it has not been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals. Also, as a precaution, pine is not for pregnant women.
If you are new to consuming pine, I suggest making pine needle tisane. Simply brew a handful of pine needles in a cup of hot water, as you would a tea.
Another fantastically simple way to incorporate the flavor of pine into your cooking is to make either pine sugar or pine salt. All you have to do is buzz up a few tablespoons of either salt or sugar with a bunch of pine needles in your spice grinder, then sift out any large bits of remaining needles. Roasts and steaks are made exceptionally aromatic when rubbed with pine salt, and root vegetables have a special affinity for it. Pine sugar can be used as a garnish or ingredient in your favorite baking recipes. I’m particularly fond of using pine sugar in shortbread, and also using it to rim all of my holiday cocktails.
Whether enjoyed as a simply brewed cup of hot tisane, sprinkled into meals as a compound salt or sugar, or made into an intriguing gelée condiment, pine’s surprising citrus tones can add a kick to your kitchen this holiday season.
Once you’ve tried your hand at brewing pine tisane, and have played with adding pine salt and pine sugar to your recipes, you are ready to try something a little more advanced, like this pine gelée.
pine needles (enough to fill about half a Mason jar)
½ cup white wine vinegar
1½ teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoon powdered gelatin
1. Use scissors to snip pine needles into an 8-ounce Mason jar until it is approximately ½ to ¾ full.
2. In a small pan on the stove, heat ½ cup of white wine vinegar just until it is warm, but not simmering. Pour the warm vinegar over the pine needles in the Mason jar. Cover the jar with a plastic lid, and let the pine needles steep in the vinegar at least until it has reached room temperature, but ideally for a few days. Next, strain out the needles so that you are left with clear pine-infused vinegar.
3. Pour the pine vinegar into a small pan. Sprinkle in 1½ teaspoon of sugar and 2 teaspoons of powdered gelatin. Let the gelatin sit atop the cold vinegar for 5 to 10 minutes. Gently turn up the heat on your stove, and let the vinegar get warm enough to dissolve the sugar and gelatin. You should be able to see this happen. As soon as the vinegar has become clear, pour it back into the Mason jar. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.
4. As the pine vinegar gelée starts to set, rake a chopstick though it so that it resembles broken glass. Serve a spoonful of this unusual tangy condiment with your favorite meat, fish, or roasted vegetables.
Foraged pine cocktail. Credit: Wendy Petty
Japanese meals are beautifully balanced and presented, and tend to be light on the stomach. You will never feel that you are stuffed with too much fat, sugar or protein by the end of a traditionally prepared Japanese meal. The balance we strive for not only satisfies hunger, but also entertains and nourishes each of the five senses — taste, smell, texture, color and sound.
Interestingly, non-Japanese cooks seem to think that cooking such a well-balanced meal in a home kitchen is not possible. But it is! In my New York City kitchen, I regularly achieve this goal with American ingredients because, like my fellow Japanese, I have learned to follow the simple “rules” governing Japanese meal creation. These rules, which originated in China, take into account the relationship of the five ancient key elements of the universe: earth, wood, fire, water and metal. I teach this cooking philosophy to my students during a week-long Japanese cooking course, Essentials of Japanese Cuisine, held twice a year at the International Culinary Center in New York City. They are fascinated to learn that they can apply the philosophy and rules of Japanese cuisine in their day-to-day cooking.
It’s elemental for Japanese meals
The Five Elements Philosophy holds that each element must be in proper relation to every other element in order for the universe to maintain a healthy balance and for human beings to maintain their optimal mental and physical health. Each element is tied to a color, taste and cooking technique: Wood is associated with green, sour and simmering; fire with red, bitter and grilling; earth with sweet, orange and raw; metal with white, hot and deep-frying; and water with black, salty and steaming.
When Japanese professional chefs and home cooks plan a meal, we naturally incorporate the Five Elements Philosophy. Both the simplest Japanese home-style meal and the most complex, structured, multi-course formal kaiseki consist of dishes prepared by complementary cooking techniques, flavors and colors. The following is an example of simple home-style dinner: a bowl of steamed rice (water), a bowl of miso soup (water), a grilled fish dish (fire), a sashimi dish (earth) and a simmered vegetable dish (wood) Another dish, such as deep-fried tempura (metal) can be also included in the menu.
Balance and moderation
Each of these dishes is served in modest-sized portion to ensure dining satisfaction. For example, a grilled fish dish, the protein, is typically about 4 ounces per person. At home these prepared dishes are served simultaneously, arrayed in front of the diner. At a formal kaiseki meal, the dishes are served in a prescribed sequence. In preparing the dishes we try to bring in five colors, not only to entertain the diner’s eye, but also to add to the health of the meal. Variously colored vegetables offer different vitamins and nutritional components.
And, finally, the Japanese meal balances the five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot. Today in America when people talk about balancing flavors, they tend to single out four taste sensations — sweet, sour, hot and salty — and the result often is that the relative strength of these elements is escalated in an unbalanced fashion, over-emphasizing one over the other. Everything tastes too salty, too sweet, too hot and/or too sour.
The dominance of one flavor destroys the ability to detect and enjoy the natural flavor and aroma of each individual ingredient in the dishes — an important attribute of cooking Japanese style. In the Japanese meal, not only do we balance all five flavors, including the bitter flavor, which contains healthy chemicals such as polyphenols, but we also use these flavors in a way to enhance, not mask, the natural flavor of each ingredient in a preparation.
As I show in my new book, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen,” no matter what style cuisine you are preparing, if you balance cooking techniques, balance food colors and balance the five tastes, you can prepare nutritionally balanced, delicious and healthy meals. The ancient philosophy at the foundation of Japanese cuisine has endured for centuries without losing its relevance. Since I no longer live in Japan, I now use readily available fresh American produce, meat and seafood. By cooking these local ingredients in the Japanese way, I have produced many delicious dishes best described as “East-West hybrids” (Please don’t call it “fusion!”) as Nancy Matsumoto writes in her review of my book. I strongly believe that ascribing to the Five Elements Philosophy will introduce you to new and healthful way of cooking that will lead to a more balanced life.
Top photo: Hiroko Shimbo. Credit: Courtesy of www.hirokoskitchen.com
When you hand people homemade marshmallows, they’re always dazzled. These are actual marshmallows, but with a lush, moist texture you never find in store-bought versions.
If you want your friends to keep thinking you’re a wizard, don’t tell them how simple it is. Basically marshmallow is a meringue made with gelatin instead of egg white, so it just takes longer — egg white cooks almost immediately, while gelatin has to stiffen for 12 hours or more in the refrigerator — but the ratio of dazzle to effort is enormous.
In the 18th and 19th century, confectioners extracted a gluey substance from the roots of marshmallow plants and used that where we use gelatin today. They also hedged their bets with egg white. In fact, some modern recipes add some egg white, I really can’t say why.
Limitless variations for flavored marshmallows
There’s one thing we can learn from the old-timers: You don’t have to flavor marshmallows with vanilla. They typically used orange blossom water, which does give a deliriously dainty and elegant effect. If I thought as seasonally as you’re supposed to these days, I’d have saved this recipe for June, because I imagine orange blossom marshmallows could be used in all sorts of romantic wedding-related ways.
You could also use mint or lemon extract. In fact any flavoring you want would work because this is a broad palette on which much can be painted. But the very best marshmallow flavor, in my opinion, is butterscotch. The effect of rich butterscotch flavor in a plush texture is overwhelming.
There are commercial butterscotch flavorings in restaurant supply stores, but I don’t like to rely entirely on them because when a dish contains only two ingredients, sugar and gelatin, the artificiality of artificial flavors becomes a bit noticeable. Instead, I replace the corn syrup in the marshmallow recipe with an English product called Lyle’s Golden Syrup which has been sold in tins resembling small paint cans since the 1880s. Unlike corn syrup, it’s made from sugar cane, but unlike molasses, it has a delicate browned-sugar flavor without the burnt and acid edge of molasses (which is of course perfectly appropriate in other contexts).
Use Golden Syrup and you’re already 85% of the way to butterscotch flavor. In fact, I understand that in England the company sells a butterscotch version of Golden Syrup that we should start importing right away. In the meantime, I like to punch the flavor up with a drop or two of butterscotch extract, but you don’t really have to.
Finding the perfect texture
The proportions of sugar, water, corn syrup and gelatin in this marshmallow recipe are pretty forgiving. You can find recipes with anything from 5 teaspoons to 7½ teaspoons gelatin to half a cup of water, and the proportions of sugar, corn syrup and water are also rather loose. If you use more liquid or less gelatin, your marshmallows won’t whip up as high but they will have a moister, more luscious texture. You may want to experiment with different proportions. I like a high medium-moist marshmallow, so I boil the syrup to the upper end of the soft ball stage, rather than the firm ball many recipes specify.
How forgiving are the proportions? I have made marshmallows with a syrup mixture that had so little liquid that not all the sugar dissolved. The corn syrup kept the mixture from “seizing up” into rock candy, but some of the sugar granules never dissolved. I found the effect pleasant, but maybe the world is not yet ready for crunchy-style marshmallows.
Basic Marshmallow Recipe
Makes 16 marshmallows
1 cup water, divided
2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
½ cup light corn syrup
1½ cups sugar
¼ to ½ teaspoon vanilla or other flavoring
½ to ¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
1. Spray an 8-inch by 8-inch baking dish with non-stick spray.
2. Pour ½ cup water into the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Allow the gelatin to sit for 5 minutes, then set the mixer bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Leave it there without stirring until there is no longer a floating layer of undissolved gelatin, 15 -20 minutes.
3. Remove the mixer bowl from the saucepan and set aside until cool, 10 minutes or so. Return the mixer bowl to the mixer and whip the dissolved gelatin as if it were egg whites until it holds soft peaks, about 1 minute.
4. In a small saucepan, mix the remaining ½ cup water and ½ cup corn syrup with the sugar. Bring to the boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium and place a lid on the saucepan for 3 minutes so that steam can wash any sugar crystals off the edge of the pan.
5. Remove the lid, raise the heat to high and insert a thermometer probe into the syrup. When it reaches 238 F, about 10 minutes from the start of cooking, pour the syrup into a 2-cup glass measuring cup, scraping as much as you can from the saucepan with a heat-resistant spatula.
6. Beat the hot syrup into the gelatin in 6 or 7 small batches, stopping the beaters when you add syrup avoid pouring any of it on the beaters themselves because they’ll waste syrup by whipping it onto the walls of the mixing bowl. Scrape all the syrup you can from the cup.
Two notes: Don’t be disturbed by a faint barnyard aroma, which will disappear when the gelatin cools. And put a paper towel on the counter when adding syrup, because there will be drippage.
7. When all the hot syrup is added, leave the mixer on high speed for 15 minutes. Beat in your chosen flavoring and scrape the marshmallow into the prepared baking dish. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
8. In the morning, sift ¼ cup confectioner’s sugar over the surface of the marshmallow. Use a table knife or spatula to loosen the sides, then overturn onto a plate and tap the bottom. You may have to tap quite insistently. When the square of marshmallow has dropped onto the plate, use a sharp knife, preferably with a blade 8 inches long, and cut in four parts and again at right angles to obtain 16 cubes of marshmallow. Dredge each marshmallow in confectioner’s sugar to prevent stickiness and arrange on a serving plate; or on wax paper in a sealable container. Will keep for at least 1 week.
- Orange Blossom Marshmallows: Replace the vanilla with orange blossom water.
- Butterscotch Marshmallows: Replace the corn syrup with Lyle’s Golden Syrup and optionally add a drop or two of butterscotch extract at the end.
Homemade marshmallows dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Credit: StockFood