Articles in Cooking

By keeping legumes and grains on hand in your pantry, you can create quick, healthy weeknight dinners like this Tomato Rice with Peanuts. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

I am a culinary instructor, a cookbook author, a food blogger. And yet, despite my ability to plan very well all the other aspects of my life, I have a confession to make: I am meal-planning challenged.

For those of us who view with rose-colored glasses those who can successfully execute a weekly meal plan, I have often attempted this feat, and, finally, given up. I’ve realized that it’s perfectly fine to embrace a daily practice of winging it when it comes to dinner. And you can, too.

Here’s my secret. With lentils or dal as the cornerstone of my family table — and of many Indian tables — the possibilities are endless for a quick, easy and healthy dinner, with the addition of vegetables into the mix. As long as I have a variety of legumes and grains stocked in my pantry, I’m good.

Despite my meal-planning-challenged self, I often produce a balanced meal on short notice. I have 10 examples here in the slideshow.

Winging it runs in the family

There’s a history of that in my family. As a child of a mother who worked outside the home, I never saw my mother poring over menus or meal plans. Our meals were simple to elaborate – depending on the day and the time available to cook. And while my mother didn’t obsess over food groups, somehow, her meals always ended up being well-balanced.

That turned me into a very practical mother who views the weeknight dinner as a ritual that is not up for a lot of discussion or drama. I have found that by doing my own cooking, it saves me the hassle of worrying over details such as sodium content, whether something’s organic or the meal is well-balanced. Since I’m doing the cooking, I pretty much control what’s happening in those departments.

There’s plenty of peer pressure to do it the hard way.

Keeping up with the meal-planning warriors

We seem to have a battle of the parents – often mothers — who tout their ability to produce multidimensional, unprocessed meals every day for their weeknight dinners. They wage that war armed with apps on everything from meal planners to calorie counters and recipe trackers. These well-armed planners are pitted against the seemingly meal-planning-challenged parents, who feel they should follow suit.

Instead, busy, working parents often find it easier to pick up a pizza or Chinese takeout – and then feel chagrined when they analyze the nutritional content of those meals.

At a recent event, I was asked about the good old family dinner. I flippantly mentioned that most people would say I raise my children on rice and beans.

I mention lentils as an extended example. I am sure most people have favorite dishes in mind and a culinary repertoire that are relatively simple, full of childhood nostalgia and lacking any artificial trappings of flavor or processed ingredients. My lentils can be someone else’s chicken noodle soup – or whatever your pantry offers.

My favorite comfort food will always be red lentils. So, depending on my mood, I can make a meal of red lentils by adding anything from kale to carrots to chicken. It brings back memories of warmth, simplicity and family time.

My son often feels the same way about his morning eggs, which I scramble simply for him. He tells me that they start his day right. Once again, it is sometimes the simple, unplanned things that resonate with us most at the meal table.

So embrace your meal-planning-challenged self. I can get you started with 10 one-dish meals that range from light and lively to elaborate, comforting and elegant. Dishes like khichuri or a biryani are always nourishing and they can do the trick in your household, just as they do in mine.

You can get started with this recipe from my cookbook, “Spices and Seasons,” for Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf.

Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

For the pilaf:

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 tomato, chopped

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

3/4 cup bulgur or cracked wheat

3/4 cup cooked red kidney beans or chick peas

1/2 teaspoon red cayenne pepper powder (optional)

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick, broken

2 cups water

For the garnish:

Juice of 1 lime or lemon

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a pot on medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and when they begin to sizzle, add the onion and sauté for about 6 minutes, until it wilts and begins to turn gently golden.

2. Add the tomato, salt, and bulgur and mix well.

3. Stir in the red kidney beans, cayenne pepper powder (if using), and the cinnamon stick. Mix in 2 cups of water and gently bring to a simmer.

4. Cover and cook on low heat for about 25 minutes, until the water is absorbed and the bulgur is soft and cooked through.

5. Squeeze in the lime or lemon juice, stir in the cilantro and serve.

Note: This recipe also can be made with quinoa or faro, depending on your preference, and you can add in vegetables such as mushrooms or zucchini to modify.

 Main photo: By keeping legumes and grains on hand in your pantry, you can create quick, healthy weeknight dinners like this Tomato Rice With Peanuts. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

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Polenta cake makes a healthy breakfast option. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

Cake. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And why not? Some studies show that a high carbohydrate and high protein breakfast actually helps people shed pounds. So it turns out your Marie Antoinette breakfast need not be a guilty pleasure. You can actually have your cake and lose weight, too.

In fact, this easy one-bowl take on the classic Italian Amor Polenta cake of Lombardy is far healthier than most processed breakfast cereals — full of the wholesome goodness of corn, butter, eggs and almonds. Flavored with citrus zest and apple eau-de-vie, and served with berries, it’s a satisfying breakfast that will keep you going all day long.

While cornmeal can be made from just about any variety of dent corn, the older heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, Floriani Red and Painted Mountain are superior in taste. Now that locally grown and locally milled grains are enjoying a renaissance across the U.S., you can probably find delicious and nutritious corn grown by someone near you. And if you want the freshest and most nutritious cornmeal possible, you can even invest in a countertop grain mill.

If you don’t have a source of freshly ground corn, just about any store-bought cornmeal will be fine in this cake, whether it says polenta on the package or not. But if you want to make the traditional Amor Polenta or Dolce Varese, look for the finely ground farina di mais fioretto or the even more refined farina di mais fumetto.

Although this cake has butter, eggs and sugar, as any good cake must, it is not a butter bomb or a sugar rush. Rather it’s a not-too-rich, not-too-sweet slice of perfection — just right as an accompaniment to your morning tea or coffee. So say goodbye to processed cereals and hello to healthy polenta cake for breakfast.

Healthy Breakfast Polenta Cake

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: One (8- or 9-inch) loaf cake, about 10 servings

Ingredients

2 sticks (8 ounces) butter

3/4 cup sugar

Zest of one lemon

Zest of one orange

3 eggs

3 tablespoons apple brandy, amaretto, or other liqueur

1/2 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (or vanilla or almond extract)

1 cup cornmeal

1 3/4 cup almond flour

1/3 cup unbleached wheat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a loaf pan and dust with cornmeal.

2. Put the butter, sugar, and lemon and orange zest in a mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Then add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl.

3. Beat in the liqueur and Fiori di Sicilia or other flavoring.

4. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients: the polenta, almond flour, wheat flour, baking powder and salt.

5. While the mixer is running at low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until just combined.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until a lovely aroma comes from the oven, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes

7. Let cool in the pan for about 1/2 hour, and then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife and tip it out onto a rack to cool completely.

8. Slice and serve with fresh fruit, or frozen fruit or fruit jam you may have from last summer.

Main photo: Breakfast polenta cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

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Tuna, white bean and green bean salad. Credit: Copyright Martha Rose Shulman

I have a repertoire of quick, easy dinners that I make when there is no produce in the house. It does happen; after I return from a trip, in particular, but also there are times when I just haven’t gotten to the market. My favorite pantry dishes are the ones I picked up long ago from an Italian friend who was able to produce the most marvelous simple dinners every evening when he returned from his office, though he hadn’t stopped at the market. He’d whip up a delicious tuna and bean salad, or pasta e fagiole, or pasta with tuna and tomato sauce or penne a l’arabiata, because he always had three canned items in his small cupboard: tuna, beans and tomatoes.

From him I learned that I must always have these three foods on hand. They don’t have to be fancy and I’m not stuck on any particular type of bean. Right now I have supermarket brand chickpeas, white beans and pintos on my shelf. I have one can of tuna packed in water and another can of tuna packed in olive oil, and I’ve got 28- and 14.5-ounce cans of chopped tomatoes in juice, which is what I prefer (less work), but whole tomatoes will do.

Tuna and bean salad is a meal I make often when I’m on my own. If I have some produce on hand — green beans or cauliflower or some of those beautiful spring onions I’m beginning to see in the farmers markets — I’ll make variations on this simple theme, which requires little more than the tuna and the beans, vinegar, olive oil and whatever seasonings you like. Red onion is standard, parsley is always nice for color. But I never get too elaborate; it’s not a salade Niçoise, after all.

Simple Tuna and Bean Salad

Prep time: 10 minutes

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

1 small or 1/2 medium red onion or spring onion, peeled and very thinly sliced

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

2 5 1/2-ounce cans tuna, packed in water or olive oil, drained

1 15-ounce can cannelini beans, white beans, chickpeas or borlotti beans, drained and rinsed

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 small or medium garlic clove, finely minced

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 Japanese cucumber, cut in half lengthwise and sliced, for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Place the onion in a bowl and add 1 teaspoon of the vinegar and cold water to cover. Let sit for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water, then dry on paper towels.

2. In a medium bowl or salad bowl, combine the tuna, beans, onions and parsley.

3. In a small bowl or measuring cup, mix together the remaining vinegar, salt to taste, freshly ground pepper, garlic and Dijon mustard. Whisk in the olive oil. Toss with the tuna and beans and serve, garnishing each plate with cucumber slices.

Advance preparation: This will keep for 3 days in the refrigerator.

Two-Bean and Tuna Salad

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: Serves 6

Ingredients

3/4 pound green beans, trimmed

1 small red onion, cut in half and sliced in half-moons

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar

2 5-ounce cans tuna (packed in water or olive oil), drained

1 15-ounce can white beans, cannellinis, chickpeas, or borlottis, drained and rinsed

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons chopped chives

2 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram or sage

Salt to taste

1 garlic clove, minced or puréed

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. Bring a medium-size pot of water to a boil, add salt to taste and green beans. Cook for 4 minutes (5 minutes if the beans are thick), until just tender. Transfer to a bowl of cold water and drain. (Alternatively, steam the beans for 4 to 5 minutes.) Cut or break the beans in half if very long.

2. Meanwhile, place sliced onion, if using, in a bowl and cover with cold water. Add 1 teaspoon vinegar and soak 5 minutes. Drain, rinse and drain again on paper towels.

3. Drain tuna and place in a salad bowl. Break up with a fork. Add canned beans, green beans, onion and herbs. Toss together.

4. In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together remaining vinegar, salt, garlic and mustard. Whisk in olive oil. Toss with tuna and bean mixture, and serve.

Advance preparation: This will keep for a day in the refrigerator; however, you should keep the green beans separate and toss with the other ingredients just before serving so they retain their bright green color.

Main photo: Two-Bean and Tuna Salad. Credit: Copyright Martha Rose Shulman

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P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

When it comes to the science of baking as opposed to the art of cooking, it doesn’t do to have clumsy, chubby fingers. Chemistry needs cool palms and a sweat-free brow.

A dear friend of mine, the late Zena Swerling, was a naturally gifted cook, but it was in the realm of baking that she truly shone. “Here’s another can’t-go-wrong recipe,” she’d offer breezily, and although they always worked, they were never quite the same as when served by Zena herself.

Zena started baking when she was “just tall enough to get my chin over my Russian mummy’s kitchen table.” She was a good, old-fashioned cook with a generous hand and heart, but it was not always easy to interpret and annotate her recipes unless you were by her side in the kitchen. Even then, it was difficult because she’d always insist you sit down instead for a light five-course snack with a good helping of juicy gossip.

With Passover here, I’m pleased to share her recipe for ingber, also known as ingberlach (also sometimes called pletzlach), an old-fashioned Ashkenazi carrot-and-ginger festive candy that too few have the patience to make anymore.

Zena, I hope you’re kvelling with pride.

Zena’s Ingber

Add more or less ginger as preferred, but this sweet confection of carrots and ginger should smolder in the mouth.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: About 18 pieces

Ingredients

5 large carrots, peeled

2 cups superfine sugar

1 cup chopped almonds

3 teaspoons ground ginger

Directions

1. Finely grate the carrots in the processor and put them in a large pan.

2. Add the sugar; stir over low heat until it dissolves. Cook very slowly, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thick (test by dropping a little onto a plate to see if it sets, like jam). This will take 45 to 50 minutes. For chewy, syrupy candy cook until the soft-crack stage or 270 F on a thermometer; for a more brittle candy, cook until it reaches the hard-crack stage or 300 F.

3. Add the almonds and ginger and remove immediately from the heat. Pour the mixture into a baking tray lined with silicone paper.

4. As it cools, score the top into squares or diamonds, then cut into pieces when cold.

P is for Passover Cake

This is a good recipe either to make before Passover, when the cupboard is crammed with ingredients bought in a frenzy of last-minute panic buying, or when you’re on the homeward stretch and your stocks are running low. Bags of nuts, in particular, seem to get into the spirit of the thing and go forth and multiply under their own volition.

The cake can be made with almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts. Ground hazelnuts are widely available in Jewish stores at this time of the year and are much appreciated by the home baker as they save the tedious business of toasting the nuts, and rubbing their skins off with a tea towel before you pulverize them in a grinder … who needs it? Isn’t this the festival of freedom?

Note to self: Next year must buy nut futures.

And, I’d just like to share with you my favorite Passover joke:

Q: What do you call someone who derives pleasure from the bread of affliction?

A: A matzochist.

OK, let’s get to the cake.

Passover Cake

Prep time: 25 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 65 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup ground nuts, plus a little extra for dusting

4 large eggs

1/4 cup superfine sugar

2/3 cup, plus 1 cup dark chocolate

Salt

2/3 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

3 tablespoons apricot jam

Whole nuts, for decoration (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 355 F (180 C).

2. Grease two 6-inch sandwich tins and line the base of each with a disc of oiled paper. Dust with some ground nuts.

3. Whisk the eggs and sugar until thick.

4. Melt 2/3 cup chocolate with a teaspoon of water.

5. Beat a little into the egg mixture along with a pinch of salt. Fold in the rest of the melted chocolate along with the 1/2 cup of ground nuts.

6. Pour into the tins and bake for 40 minutes or until springy to the touch.

7. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then turn out of the tin.

8. To make the frosting, melt the cup of chocolate and stir in the sour cream. Add a little sugar, if you wish, and allow to cool a little.

9. For the filling, spread the apricot jam and about half of the chocolate mixture over the top of one of the cakes. Place the other cake on top, and smear the remainder of the chocolate sauce over the top. Decorate, if preferred, with whole nuts in shape of a “P.”

Main photo: P is for Passover Cake can be adapted for use at other times of the year, too. Change the P to E, and you have a lovely Easter treat! Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Quarter-sized deviled eggs made with Italian parsley, anchovies and capers. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

What’s Easter without Easter eggs? Hide them. Roll them. And, best of all, eat them. Of the many dishes associated with Easter, deviled eggs have always been high on the list. Traditional deviled eggs are delicious but with some adventuresome spices, hardboiled Easter eggs become devilishly delicious.

Our fingers stained blue, red and yellow, my sister and I loved dyeing and decorating Easter eggs. Ultimately our mother turned our colored eggs into deviled eggs with a simple recipe: peel and slice open the eggs, chop up the yolks, add a bit of mayonnaise and season with salt and pepper, then spoon the mixture back onto the egg white halves.

When we were kids that seemed good enough. But for my adult palate, deviled eggs needed spicing up. With experimentation, I discovered that hard-boiled eggs are a great flavor delivery system because they provide a solid, neutral base of flavor to which exciting flavors can be added.

Doing something as simple as adding cayenne or Mexican chili ancho powder gives the mild-mannered eggs a mouth-pleasing heat. Sweeten the flavor up a notch by stirring in finely chopped currants or borrow from Indian cuisine and mix in curry powder that has first been dry roasted in a sauté pan.

Turn the eggs into an entrée by mixing in freshly cooked shellfish. Grill shrimp or steam a few Dungeness crab legs, finely chop the savory meat and add to the yolk mixture. The result is elegantly flavorful.

This year I’m using a Mediterranean approach. Capers add saltiness and Italian parsley adds freshness. Finely chopped and sautéed anchovy filets are the secret ingredient that takes deviled eggs to another level.

Plating the eggs adds more fun

Cut into quarters or halves, the deviled eggs make a visually arresting presentation. The eggs can also be served whole, the savory filling added to two halves, which are then put back together. Plate the reconstituted whole eggs on a bed of Italian parsley or arugula and they reference the Easter eggs my parents used to hide for us to find when we were kids.

Caper and Anchovy Deviled Eggs

Always worth mentioning, using quality ingredients improves any dish. Nowhere is that more true than with deviled eggs. Use farmers market fresh eggs, quality capers preserved in brine and good anchovy filets.

The easiest way to fill the egg white sections is with a disposable pastry bag. If one is not available, use a spoon to scoop up filling and a fork to distribute it into each egg white half.

The eggs and filling can be prepared the day before or in the morning. To keep them fresh, the eggs should not be filled until just before serving.

If desired, add a touch of heat with a pinch of cayenne.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Assembly time: 15 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

6 farm fresh eggs, large or extra large, washed

4 anchovy filets, finely chopped

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, finely chopped

1 teaspoon capers, finely chopped

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

Directions

1. Submerge the eggs in an uncovered saucepan of cold water. Heat the uncovered pot on a medium-high flame. Bring to a simmer and boil five minutes. Turn off the flame, cover and leave the eggs in the hot water 10 minutes. Drain the hot water. Add cold water to cool the eggs.

2. While the eggs are cooking, heat a small sauté or nonstick frying pan over a medium flame. No need to add oil. Sauté the anchovy filets until lightly brown. Set aside.

3. Peel the eggs. Discard the shells. Wash and dry the eggs to remove any bits of shell. Using a sharp paring knife, carefully slice the eggs in half, lengthwise. Remove the yolks and place into a bowl. Set aside the egg white halves.

4. Using a fork, finely crumble the yolks. Add the Italian parsley, capers and sautéed anchovy bits. Stir together all the ingredients. Add mayonnaise and mix well until creamy.

5. Spoon the filling into a disposable pastry bag. If serving the next day or later in the morning, place the egg white halves into an air-tight container and the filled pastry bag into the refrigerator.

6. Prepare a serving dish. The deviled eggs can be served as quarters, halves or reformed as whole. If quarters, cut each halve in two lengthwise. Just before serving the eggs, cut off the tip of the pastry bag. Have a paring knife or folk in hand. Carefully squeeze a generous amount of the filling into each egg white piece. If needed, use the knife or folk to tidy up the filling on each egg. Any leftover filling should be eaten on crackers as a chef’s treat.

7. As the eggs are filled, place them on the serving dish and garnish with Italian parsley or arugula. Serve cold.

Note: If the eggs are to be served whole, place the two filled halves together. Either avoid showing any of the filling along the cut edge to create a surprise or make the decorative choice to have a thin line of filling visible around the middle.

Main photo: Quarter-sized deviled eggs made with Italian parsley, anchovies and capers. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Hot cross buns can be eaten as soon as they're out of the oven, or toasted and buttered later. Share one with a friend or two: Tradition says that doing so will ensure long-lasting friendship. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

In Victorian London there was no sleeping in on Good Friday. Brothel keepers and late rising gentry alike were awakened by a cry repeated by vendors across the foggy metropolis: “Hot cross buns!” Some would sing the centuries-old ditty:

Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!

One a penny, two a penny,

Hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, give them to your sons.

One a penny two a penny, hot cross buns!

The freshly made buns were essential for Good Friday breakfast, as they were for Good Friday tea. The vendors got a brief respite while their customers were at church, but then they were back at it: “Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!”

The hot yeasty buns were peddled by boys carrying large baskets and by young women carrying wicker containers the size of clothes hampers. Even old men got into the act, pushing wheelbarrows full of the sweet treats, all covered with blankets and linen cloths to keep them piping hot in the spring morning’s chill.

Just how far back does this English tradition go? The buns were certainly around in the early 1700s when, according to tradition, they were kept from one year to the next. Supposedly they never molded and could serve as medicine, especially as a cure for diarrhea. The prescription was to grate a little of the preserved bun into water.

Sharing a fresh bun with another person was a sign of friendship and insurance against future disagreement. They were certainly eaten at tea time, often toasted and buttered since they were no longer hot from the oven. Incidentally, in an age when a laborer was paid 10 pennies a day, the buns were a special occasion treat.

Festive holiday breads are not unique to England, of course. You find them across Europe, whether in the braided rings studded with eggs of Greece and southern Italy or the paska or babka of eastern Europe. After all, Easter celebrates rebirth, which is why eggs and chicks and prolific bunnies are symbols of the season.

Bread is too, especially when enriched with lots of eggs, butter and sugar, and yeast-leavened dough has long been associated with fecundity — rising and expanding like a pregnant belly. Many of the season’s breads are hardly subtle in their reference to the female form, circular and often braided like a woman’s hair. Traditionally, hot cross buns are made by slitting the risen dough into a cross pattern that opens as the bun rises in the oven. The result may not be explicit, but it is suggestive.

In the United States, immigrants of all ethnic backgrounds imported their holiday traditions and the English were no exception. We know that New York had its own hawkers selling buns for the holiday and there’s no reason to think that other American cities didn’t have them as well. Mostly, though the buns were made at home, closely following the English model.

Divide the dough into a dozen even pieces and roll into smooth rounds. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Divide the dough into a dozen even pieces and roll into smooth rounds. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

But the relatively plain bun wasn’t good enough for the creative spirits behind the Boston Cooking School. The doyenne of that famed institution, Fannie Farmer, may have started messing with the age-old recipe. In her famed 1896 “Boston Cooking School Cookbook,” Farmer not only did away with the suggestive split open bun, she replaced it with a sweet cross of virginal white. Like so many of her innovations, it stuck, so it’s her version, rather than the original, that you inevitably see in fancy pastry shops and supermarkets.

Slit each bun in the pan with a cross. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Slit each bun in the pan with a cross. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Yet a fundamental problem remains with these iced crossed buns: How do you serve them hot? You can’t toast them and if heated in the oven, the frosting melts. Give me the original Victorian hot cross buns. I know just the friend to split them with.

Hot Cross Buns

Approximate prep time: 1/2 hour

Approximate rising time: 1 1/4 hours

The recipe is adapted from a Victorian-era British cookbook, “A Year’s Cookery.” Author Phillis Browne notes that hot cross buns “may be ordered of the baker, or they may be made at home.” Like the purchased variety, the homemade buns are best served hot, however Browne also notes: “The buns can be toasted and buttered, or made hot in the oven, like teacakes, before serving.” Recipes of the time usually suggest using dried currants or raisins, or occasionally both, so feel free to improvise. Allspice is also often substituted for nutmeg.

Ingredients

1 cup whole milk, lukewarm

3 ounces (6 tablespoons) granulated sugar

1 packet (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast

1 large egg, separated

13 ounces (a scant 3 cups) all-purpose flour, or more as needed

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, diced into 1/2-inch pieces

2 ounces (about 6 tablespoons) dry currants or raisins

Directions

1. In a measuring cup, stir together the milk with 1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) sugar. Stir in the yeast and let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the egg yolk.

2. Sift together the flour, 2 ounces (4 tablespoons sugar), salt and nutmeg. In a small bowl whisk together the remaining ½ ounce (1 tablespoon sugar) with the egg white.  Set aside to glaze the buns once they are baked.

3. Using a large food processor or a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the flour mixture with the butter in the bowl of the device. Process until the butter is finely chopped. If using a food processor, add the milk mixture and process until the dough forms into a smooth ball, about 2 minutes. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour, one tablespoon at a time — it should be very soft but smooth and elastic. If using a stand mixer, switch to a dough hook and knead on medium for about 5 minutes until the dough is smooth and shiny.

4. Remove the dough from the bowl and set it on a floured surface. Knead briefly to turn it into a ball. Set the ball in a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes. On a lightly floured board, knead in the currants or raisins. Let it rest five minutes then divide it into 12 even pieces. Form each into a ball. Generously butter a 9-by-13-inch pan. Arrange the balls about 1 inch apart. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1/2 hour.

5. Preheat oven to 375 F.

6. Remove plastic wrap and slash each bun in a cross shape. The best tool for this is a single-edge razor blade lightly sprayed with vegetable spray. Make sure to make the slash at least 1/2-inch deep so it will be visible later. Set the pan on the center rack of the oven and bake until golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Brush with the egg white and sugar mixture, then place into the oven for about 1 minute to set the egg wash. Cool the buns on a rack until they can be comfortably handled. Serve warm.

Main photo: Hot cross buns can eaten as soon as they’re out of the oven, or toasted and buttered later. Share one with a friend or two: Tradition says that doing so will ensure long-lasting friendship. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl 

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Great for a midweek Passover meal for a big family -- this lasagna is a truly satisfying one-pan wonder. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

The differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewry’s foodways are clearest at Passover. Sephardim traditionally ate rice, legumes and other foods verboten to those from Northern and Eastern Europe and Russia, which makes borrowing traditions for an all-inclusive modern Passover table a bit challenging.

But an Ottoman lasagna, called mina, also known as miginas, meginas or mehinas, is easily suited to Jews of every ethnicity and historical identity. By any name, these savory layered matzo lasagnas are found in Jewish cuisine from Egypt to Turkey to the Isle of Rhodes. And they are anything but new.

Mina originated from medieval pasteles, according to John Cooper in his book, “Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food.” “Small meat pies, or migina, the equivalent of strudel … [were themselves] a variant of migas, and [were] filled with empanada-style fillings,” Cooper writes. Those Old World migas were filled with chopped meats or seasonal vegetable purées such as calabaza, aka pumpkin or eggplant, or a creamy, cheesy spinach version.

Traditionally, minas are cut into small mini-appetizer-sized bites and become a part of the Mediterranean mezze table — the selection of small dishes served at cocktail hour or as a long, lingering supper that is common everywhere from Greece through the Levant.

I love serving mina in the mezze style, filled with mint-infused roasted eggplant and lamb for a meat-based Seder alongside caponata, garlicky fried olives, bay-leaf-brined carrots and braised burnished leeks. But for a midweek meal, I go all cheesy and ooey-gooey.

Many recipes soak the all-but-hardtack matzo in water to soften. I rinse it lightly. I like the textural difference in the mina. I also go crazy with cheese sauce. During Passover, when that feeling of deprivation for “regular” foods has become more than a little bit wearing by midweek, a cheese-and-vegetable pie is a respite, one that offers a mac-and-cheese-like familiarity.

I lean toward Alsace, France and northern Italy for the flavors that have the heft to give this lasagna serious substance.

Spinach, Butternut Squash, Sweet Onion and Fontina Mina

Sephardic Passover lasagna, mina, can be — no, it should be — on every table at some point during Passover. This version, influenced by the cuisine of Ferrara, Italy, eats like a great mac and cheese packed with vegetables, but since it can prepared in stages over a few days, it’s as easy to make as lasagna. Great for a midweek Passover meal for a big family — a truly satisfying one-pan wonder. In fact, it’s a tasty change of pace at any time; feel free to add a few minced sage leaves if it’s cold outside for an autumnal feel.

Prep time: About 40 minutes

Cook time: About 1 1/4 hours

Total time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Yield: About 12 pieces

Ingredients

½ cup (8 tablespoons/227 grams/1 stick) unsalted butter, divided

3 pounds fresh baby spinach

3 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 large red onion, peeled and cut into into 1/2-inch dice (about 2 cups)

3 cloves garlic, peeled, halved and grated, any green centers discarded

1 cup Gewürztraminer or dry Riesling wine

2 large butternut squash (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled and cut into rough 1/4- to 1/2-inch dice

Leaves of 8 fresh thyme sprigs, minced

Leaves of 3 small sprigs fresh marjoram, minced

1 quart milk

7 tablespoons potato starch

1 cup crème fraîche or sour cream

1 pound shredded Gruyère cheese, divided

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

5 sheets matzo

2 cups (about 9 ounces) diced Fontina cheese

Directions

1. In a deep saucepan set over high heat, heat 2 tablespoons butter and swirl until it is just foaming. Add half the spinach, 1 teaspoon of the salt, 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper, and with tongs, toss gently in the butter. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until just wilted.

2. Add the remaining spinach, tossing to coat. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes, until all of the spinach is fully wilted. Transfer to a colander and drain. When the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess liquid. The spinach will have shrunk quite a bit. Set aside. This can be done up to 2 days in advance, and the spinach stored in a covered container in the refrigerator.

3. In the same (now cleaned) saucepan, set over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons butter and swirl until it is just foaming. Add the onions, garlic, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes, until the onions are soft and the edges browned.

3. Add the wine, butternut squash, thyme and marjoram and cook for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is reduced in volume by at least half. Set aside. This can be done up to 2 days in advance, and the mixture stored in a covered container in the refrigerator.

4. When you are ready to make the mina, preheat the oven to 350 F. Spray a deep 9-by-14-inch lasagna pan or glass Pyrex pan with nonstick vegetable oil spray.

5. Heat the milk in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat until hot but not scalded.

6. In the same (again, cleaned) deep saucepan, heat the remaining 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat until it begins to foam. Immediately whisk in the potato starch and quickly add the warm milk, still whisking over medium heat, making sure there are no lumps. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture thickens slightly and comes to a gentle but active boil, adjusting the heat as necessary.

7. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the crème fraîche and cook, whisking gently, until blended into the sauce.

8. Add about three-fourths of the shredded Gruyère cheese, reserving the rest for topping, and with a spoon, stir until the cheese melts. Add the nutmeg and stir to blend.

9. Spoon 1 cup of the cheese sauce over the bottom of the lasagna pan. Break the matzo into 3-inch wide slats, rinse them under cold water for about 5 seconds, and arrange them over the sauce in a single layer, breaking the sheets at the perforations as necessary. Add the spinach, arranging it in an even layer, and top with another cup of cheese sauce. Arrange another layer of matzo on top and spoon another cup of cheese sauce over it. Cover with the Fontina cheese and the remaining salt and pepper. Add another layer of matzo and top with the onions and butternut squash. Spoon the remaining cheese sauce over the top and scatter the reserved Gruyère over it.

10. Prepare a sheet of foil big enough to cover the lasagna pan and spray it with nonstick vegetable oil spray. Cover the mina loosely with the foil, greased side down. Bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours, or until bubbling hot. Remove the foil, increase the heat to broil and broil for 2 to 3 minutes, until the top is lightly browned. Serve immediately.

Note: You may use frozen spinach, if you wish. Thaw it, rinse well, drain, squeeze out any excess liquid and proceed with the recipe.

Main photo: Great for a midweek Passover meal for a big family — this lasagna is a truly satisfying one-pan wonder. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

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Abby Fisher's 1881 cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

I was born in Harlem, a child of Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants. I witnessed what the women in my family could do with food.

Rarely is our history taught through the lens of food. Yet, it was over the hearth and in kitchens large and small that they impacted our nation’s culture and created economic, political and social independence through ingenious culinary skills.

That is why I honor African-American women cooks for Women’s History Month this March.

The women in my family created and passed down masterful meals from ancient, unwritten recipes. They built communities and paved my way with proceeds from selling sweet potato pies, fried chicken dinners and roti lunches: a Trinidad flatbread cooked on a griddle and wrapped around curried vegetables or meats. My mom made these popular rotis and sold them in box lunches to employees at the hospital where she worked.

Whether they were free or formerly enslaved, the women I descended from cooked their way to freedom and wealth in America.

In their honor, I have chosen to feature two vintage recipes from two of the oldest cookbooks written by African-American women.

Cookbook pioneers

Malinda Russell wrote “A Domestic Cook Book” in 1866. Abby Fisher wrote “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking” in 1881.

Malinda Russell's "A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen" is believed to be the first published cookbook by an African-American author. Credit: University of Michigan/Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive

Malinda Russell’s “A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen” is believed to be the first published cookbook by an African-American author. Credit: University of Michigan/Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive

Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Mrs. Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Both women wrote their books at the behest of friends, fans and patrons.

Mrs. Russell, a free woman from Tennessee and an owner of a local bakery, was known for her pastries. Most of her recipes are European-inspired. Her cookbook also includes remedies and full-course meals. It was published after she moved to Paw Paw, Michigan.

Mrs. Fisher, a formerly enslaved person, won cooking medals for a wide range of dishes, including preserves and condiments in California. She moved out West from Alabama after the Civil War.

Below are their original recipes and my interpretation.

Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies

Jumbles were cake-like cookies popular from the 1700s. Mrs. Russell’s recipe was exceedingly spare on details, like all of her recipes:

“One lb. flour, 3/4 lb. sugar, one half lb. butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and caraway, to your taste.”

The popular vintage cookies have been adapted through the ages — even by modern food bloggers. I personally sampled a reimagined version of a Jumbles recipe at a culinary event that Anne Hampton Northup was said to have made when she cooked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Northrup was a chef and the wife of Solomon Northup, whose life was depicted in the Oscar-winning picture “12 Years a Slave”.

Here is a more detailed recipe so you can make Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies, using her ingredients. Since she suggested using mace, rosewater and caraway to taste, feel free to alter the suggested amounts of those ingredients:

Jumbles Cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: About 4 dozen cookies

Ingredients

3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspons mace

2 tablespoons caraway seeds

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

8 ounces salted butter (2 sticks, at room temperature)

5 eggs (small- or medium-sized)

4 tablespoons rosewater

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, mace and caraway seeds.

3. In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter together.

4. With an electric mixer on low speed, beat in eggs to the butter and sugar mixture.

5. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.

6. Add the rosewater and mix until combined.

7. Using a tablespoon measure, spoon tablespoon-full size drops of the batter on your baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.

8. Bake for about 10 minutes, just until the edges turn golden.

9. Cool the cookies for two minutes on wire racks. Serve, and store the remainder quickly in a sealed container or bag.

Mrs. Abby Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy

This old recipe holds up very well today. Many of Mrs. Fisher’s recipes called for huge amounts of each ingredient:

“To five gallons of berries add one gallon of the best brandy; put on the fire in a porcelain kettle and let it just come to a boil, then take it off the fire and make a syrup of granulated sugar; ten pounds of sugar to one quart of water. Let the syrup cook till thick as honey, skimming off the foam while boiling; then pour it upon the brandy and berries and let it stand for eight weeks; then put in a bottle or demijohn. This blackberry brandy took a diploma at the state Fair of 1879. Let the berries, brandy and syrup stand in a stone jar or brandy keg for eight weeks when you take it off the fire.”

The basic ingredients for Mrs. Fisher's Blackberry Brandy: blackberries, sugar and cognac. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

The basic ingredients for Mrs. Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy: blackberries, sugar and cognac. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

I was so inspired by Mrs. Fisher’s recipe that I made my own version — which is now in the middle of the eight-week fermentation process. I used the same ingredients, but reduced the amounts, and poured them into a glass jug instead of a brandy keg. And I used cognac, because Mrs. Fisher’s recipe called for the “best brandy.”

We’ll have our own taste test — at my next family reunion.

Main photo: Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook was long believed to be the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s 1866 book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

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