Articles in Cooking
It’s Oscars time, and in addition to dressing for the occasion, we always like to set the table with award-worthy snacks. Some years required black-tie starters like Champagne and oysters. Other years, California-made cheeses like Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog and the wonderfully stinky Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery competed for Best Cheese in a Supporting Role. But this year, we plan to honor the movies with their best-loved partner, popcorn.
Of course, because it’s the Oscars, it couldn’t be just any microwaved popcorn. Last week when I found some dried popcorn being cut off the cob at the farmers’ market, I knew it was time to use my newly inspired love for spices to elevate popcorn to a starring role.
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Next, your choice of salt is critical to the perfect box of popcorn. It’s got to be soft enough to cling to the kernels, but crunchy enough to hold its own on the palate. I found that the moisture of grey sea salt fit the bill perfectly.
Finally, adding variety with ground spices, grated cheeses and even cocoa powder creates an interesting mix of options for movie-loving guests. Any blend of favorite flavors will do, but my winning combination was hot salted popcorn tossed with grated pecorino romano cheese, sprinkled with Aleppo pepper flakes and doused with another healthy drizzle of olive oil.
Old-Fashioned, New-Flavored Popcorn
½ cup popcorn kernels
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
Sea salt, to taste
Grated hard or semi-hard cheese
Aleppo or Marash chili pepper
Cocoa powder mixed with sugar
Freshly ground peppercorns
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 3-quart, deep saucepan. As soon as the oil melts and spreads evenly, add enough kernels to fill one layer on the bottom. Cover and increase heat to high flame. As soon as the corn starts popping, shake rigorously over heat until popping is complete.
2. Immediately dress with olive oil and salt and toss to coat.
3. If you are adding grated cheese, do so immediately after removing from heat to ensure that cheese clings to popcorn.
4. Sprinkle with other seasonings to taste.
Top photo: Spiced popcorn. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
The chimney top peeks over a fence just off the main street of downtown Point Reyes Station, Calif., wisps of smoke drifting out. The smell of burning wood is accompanied by the aroma of freshly baked bread on the morning air, as the cottage housing Brickmaiden Breads churns out the day’s loaves.
Where to eat and buy Brickmaiden Bread:
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Inside, the yawning mouth of the wood oven is filled with dancing flame, warming the room while owner Celine Underwood measures out ingredients for the next batch of dough.
“Bread is my passion,” she says. “I started baking it when I was a teenager.”
And her passion has become a thriving business with a dedicated following of restaurant accounts and customers throughout the Bay Area who look forward to Brickmaiden’s flavorful crumb and chewy crust. The process that creates the artisan loaves is at once old-fashioned in technique and thoroughly modern.
Wood-fired oven at work all day
All the loaves are levain leavened, meaning a starter is used instead of yeast. The starter is a living thing, sometimes called wild yeast, which needs to be fed everyday and picks up the terroir of the area in the form of bacteria, imparting a flavor and texture that is particular to Point Reyes. The starter is the very beginning of the bread and contributes to Brickmaiden’s characteristic texture and flavor.
The dough is mixed up, shaped and then left in a retarder overnight, where it slowly rises. The retarding process encourages fermentation, which helps break down the proteins in the flour. This makes the bread easier to digest and the nutrients more readily absorbed by the body.
Meanwhile, the vast oven is heating up. It is an imposing structure that is faced with brick and takes up most of the interior of the cottage. Through its wide opening, the brick-lined ceiling is visible, as is the fire that’s building the heat for that day’s bake. It takes 12 to 14 hours to get the oven fired completely, a process that starts with getting the temperature up to 900 F (measured with a thermocoupler buried in the oven as well as a “heat gun,” a type of laser thermometer).
At this point no more wood is added and as the fire burns down to coals, heat saturates the bricks and the temperature begins to drop. When 600 F is reached, the oven is ready for baking. The coals are shoveled into an ash can and the surface stone is brushed and cleaned off. Now the first batch of loaves goes in.
It seems tricky to depend on such a temperamental, time-consuming device, but Underwood loves baking with fire.
“I’m attracted to the simplicity of it, working with the fire element,” she says.
It is a dance of coordination to have the dough ready at the same time the oven is and to get the temperature to hold long enough to bake the supply for each day.
The Brickmaiden crust and flavor
The oven can hold 70 loaves at a time. Brickmaiden does about six loads per day, baking more than 400 baguettes, rolls, Pullman sandwich bread, and several types of round levain. During the busy summer months, the bakers make as much bread as the oven heat will allow.
“There is a finite production capacity with this type of oven,” Underwood says, hinting that she has been looking at other wood oven systems that aren’t as limiting.
The first couple of loads of bread are more caramelized because the oven walls and dome are the hottest. This creates the signature crust that Brickmaiden fans long for, very dark with a deep flavor and rustic texture. The starter and long rise add a slightly sour flavor and impart a moist, almost fluffy interior that stays fresher longer than other breads.
These initial loads bake in less than an hour due to the high temperature the oven still holds. Gradually that starts to decrease causing the bake time to increase so the last load takes 1½ hours to finish. After the bread is done, there is still plenty of heat left in the oven, giving the bakers a chance to cook off all their other products, which include granola, cookies, crackers, biscotti, scones and croutons.
Great bread is made from great ingredients. Brickmaiden gets most of the flour it uses from Central Milling, the well-regarded artisan flour company, including California-grown whole wheat, kamut and spelt. They have also been experimenting with some of the wheat being grown in Mendocino County and are in the process of forming a Sonoma Marin grain-growers group. With the goal of getting things as local as possible, the group hopes to grow, harvest, mill and bake with different wheat and grains in the near future.
Underwood is looking down the road and has many goals and dreams for her operation.
“I hope to have a retail shop soon, house a stone mill and gardens on the property, provide a place for growth and development of young bakers, and create a place that perpetuates building connection to our environment, sense of place, self and community,” she said.
Once you’ve had your fill of fresh bread slathered with butter or dipped in olive oil, here are a couple recipes to help use up the loaf.
Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding
Makes 7 or 8 puddings
I found an assortment of wild mushroom at the Far West Fungi booth in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Farmers markets offer good mushroom options. You also can use whatever your local grocer has in the produce section. The puddings make a tasty side dish for pork or poultry and a satisfying brunch or lunch entrée.
1 cup half and half
½ teaspoon salt
5 grinds of fresh pepper mill
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
2 packed cups ½-inch Brickmaiden bread, including crusts, cut into ½-inch cubes. Their levain breads are especially tasty for this recipe
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 green onions, both green and white parts, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ pound fresh, wild mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
½ cup shredded cheese — blend of Italian varieties like Parmesan, Fontina, Asiago is delicious, but any sharp, hard or semi-hard cheese will work
Olive oil spray for greasing muffin cups
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease 8 muffin cups well with olive oil spray.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, half and half, salt, pepper and nutmeg until combined. Add the bread cubes and submerge. Set aside while you get the veggies ready.
3. Heat a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when it shimmers, add the green onions and garlic. Sauté until the garlic is aromatic, then add the mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir and cook until any liquid mushrooms give off has evaporated and they are golden and tender. Stir in parsley and cook 2 minutes longer. Set aside to cool slightly.
4. Add shredded cheese to egg mixture then stir in mushrooms, mixing well until all ingredients are evenly distributed.
5. Spoon mixture into greased muffin cups, mounding bread cubes slightly and adding liquid to just under the lip of each cup.
6. Place muffin tin on a sheet tray to catch any drips. Bake until tops are golden and crusty and knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes
7. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each cup then allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Remove and serve warm. These puddings can be reheated in the microwave for 30 seconds.
Fresh chives add a springy note and the crusty goodness of the Brickmaiden levain style breads work well in this recipe.
Serves 3 or 4
1 large clove garlic
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon chives, finely sliced
¼ teaspoon Gray Maldon sea salt
2 (1-inch) thick slices artisan bread
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Rub garlic clove on both sides of each bread slice. Set on a small sheet tray.
3. Mince garlic clove and combine with butter, oil and chives in a flat, microwave-safe pie plate.
4. Microwave on high in 10-second bursts until butter is fully melted then stir to combine ingredients.
5. Dip one side of each slice of bread in the butter mixture, scraping garlic mince into the nooks and crannies of the bread. Sprinkle each slice evenly with the salt.
6. Bake for 5 minutes until slightly crisped. Cut each slice into three pieces and serve.
Top photo: Bread at Brickmaiden Breads in Point Reyes Station, Calif. Credit: Brooke Jackson
One of my first purchases upon moving to New Delhi, India, in 2005 was Charmaine O’Brien’s “Flavours of Delhi: A Food Lover’s Guide.” The guide became a favorite go-to as I looked to taste and discover the diverse culinary gems of India’s capital. I was therefore delighted to learn that a recent trip back to India would coincide with the launch of O’Brien’s new book, “The Penguin Food Guide to India.”
Now, having had my own copy in hand for a couple of weeks, I can tell you that each time I pick up this book, I am happily tormented. Her descriptions of regional delicacies, particularly the ones that I too have eaten from the same stall or restaurant, make my mouth water, often forcing me to put down the book, head to the kitchen and prepare some of my own favorite Indian recipes.
O’Brien, an Australian writer and culinary historian, first visited India in 1995. Since then, she has visited every state in India with the exception of three in the northeast. In essence, the book is her journey of discovery informed by the core truth that India does not have one homogenous cuisine, rather the greatness of its food lies in its enormous variety and subtlety.
Her primary goal — and she can be gratified in her success at its achievement — “was to create a historical and cultural guide to India’s regional cuisine and to recommend places where — domestic tourist or international visitor — can find distinct regional food.” She gives readers the tools to experience genuine, local flavors.
Long history flavors Indian food
This was an ambitious and enormous undertaking. India as a unique country is still relatively young. Aside from the last 64 years as an independent republic, India has, as O’Brien points out, “been occupied as a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and chieftainships, each essentially functioning as an independent country.” Imagine if you drew a line straight down from the top of Denmark to the bottom of Italy and colored over all the countries west of that line, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then decided to write a book about the local flavors and food cultures of all those countries. That gives you a sense of the task she set for herself.
By Charmaine O’Brien
Note: Currently, the book is only available in hard copy in India, and soon Australia, but it can be purchased as an e-book.
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The book is divided by geographic region, and within these each regional state is given its own chapter, beginning with a concise and condensed history. The historical details O’Brien weaves and connects through the book make for engaging reading that surpasses many travel guidebooks. We learn that all of these past rulers left a culinary imprint affecting the development and evolution of a region’s cuisine.
O’Brien’s personal encounters and insightful observations keenly illustrate that the prevalence of local and regional food in India is not a new trend or movement prompted by discriminating foodies but is part of an intricate food system born out of necessity and survival that has evolved over thousands of years. She does, however, indicate that as India’s growing middle class increases its appetite for foreign foods, some of the country’s elite has switched their attention to the perceived health benefits of traditional regional cuisines.
There is so much interesting information to digest — among my favorite nuggets are the descriptions and names of dishes or ingredients in Hindi or a regional language. Some of them you want to chew and savor. Yet perhaps due to sheer volume (or poor indexing), they can be a challenge to return to for another taste. Even for someone familiar with some of these terms, I wanted a short glossary of the region’s dishes at the end of each chapter to refer to.
Similarly, while the selected cookbook suggestions are a good place to start for trying new regional recipes, a handful of recently published regional cookbooks would have been welcome additions.
When O’Brien first arrived in India, her knowledge of Indian food was limited to the rather homogenous Indian restaurant menus from her native Melbourne that in many ways continue to dot the globe. She realizes that many readers, whether it is their first or fifth trip to India, want to sample new dishes but are concerned with hygiene at food stalls or restaurants, fearing the dreaded “Delhi Belly.” Aware of this but also eager for you to become a culinary explorer, she offers support with thoughtful and reassuring dining recommendations as you veer off the typical tourist menu road map.
It is interesting that two of the most recent well-researched books on Indian cuisine, this one and “Tasting India” by Christine Mansfield, are by non-Indians. A decade ago, Indian chefs and food writers seemed to be more interested in cooking and writing about foreign cuisines. However, over the past five years, there has been a noticeable shift in Indian food professionals revisiting and exploring their culinary heritage.
India’s culinary landscape is so vast and nuanced that there is much more to be recorded. As I believe K.T. Achaya’s historical books on Indian cuisine inspired O’Brien, I hope this book motivates others to investigate and preserve India’s rich diverse cuisines.
Sautéed Amaranth Leaves With Coconut (Tamdbi Bhaji)
Throughout her travels, Charmaine O’Brien discovered that no matter where she was, Indians love dining on bright, leafy greens. On my own visits to South India, I also found that cooks enjoy adding green and red amaranth leaves to soups, dals or even making fresh chutneys out of them. Here is a recipe of my own that spotlights its flavor.
Along the Konkani coast, blood-red amaranth leaves are typically used to make this quick coconut accented side dish, which is suitable to accompany fish, meat or poultry. Increasingly, farmers markets are selling amaranth leaves. However, if they are unavailable, beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach are wonderful substitutes.
4 cups red or green amaranth (or beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup finely sliced onion
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 green cayenne chilies, seeded and finely chopped
Pinch of turmeric
Salt to taste
¼ cup to ½ cup grated coconut (fresh, frozen or dry unsweetened)
1. Wash the amaranth leaves a couple of times in running water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain, cut off any of the tough bottom parts of the stalk and discard. Roughly chop the trimmed greens into bite-sized pieces.
2. Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the chopped garlic and green chillies to the pan and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.
4. Toss in the chopped amaranth and a pinch of turmeric. Mix well, cover and cook for about 4 minutes until the leaves are wilted and tender. If using spinach, the cooking time will most likely be halved. Remove the lid and continue to cook to allow any excess moisture to evaporate.
5. Add the grated coconut, salt to taste and sauté for another minute. Serve immediately.
With shrimp: Many Konkani cooks like to toss in some sweet, tiny shrimp close to the end of cooking. Use 1 cup small shrimp (or medium shrimp roughly diced) cleaned and deveined, and add it at the same time as the grated coconut. Cook until the shrimp has changed color and is just cooked through.
With cooked chickpeas: If you have some extra cooked chickpeas, black-eyed peas or kidney beans leftover in the fridge, toss in about a half cup of them into the pan when adding the greens and continue accordingly.
Top composite photo:
“The Penguin Food Guide to India” book jacket, with author Charmaine O’Brien. Credit: Photo of author courtesy of the Australian Consulate in Mumbai
It’s so easy to gobble up a big bowl of guacamole. Just mash a dozen avocados, add some spiced-up tomatoes, garlic and citrus juice. When surrounded by a pile of fresh tortilla chips, nothing disappears faster in our house when it comes to party starters.
But what to do when you don’t happen to have an avocado tree in your backyard and the price of out-of-season green globes starts climbing into the stratosphere? Sweet peas, fresh or frozen, provide an amazingly tasty alternative when made a little creamier with extra virgin olive oil. If you blindfolded your guests, they would be hard pressed to name the main ingredient, but they’d be just as happy with the flavor.
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Best of all, sweet pea guacamole doesn’t turn that nasty brownish gray color over time like avocados do as they oxidize. You can even make it a day or two before the party and it will look and taste just as fresh as the moment you created it.
I have Michelin-starred chef María José San Román to thank for my first introduction to this simple swap when I joined her at Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ Amorolio event in Tuscany. As English shelling pea season kicks into high gear this spring, I’m going to be digging into my own riff with this nonclassical composition.
Sweet Pea Guacamole
Jalapeños can be very hot or mild, so test the level of spice before adding to your dish, according to your preference.
1 pound fresh sweet peas, shelled
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 jalapeño peppers or to taste, chopped
Juice of 2 limes
2 ripe avocados (optional)
2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup cilantro, minced
1. Steam peas until tender, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, cool.
2. In a blender or food processor, purée peas, olive oil, shallot, garlic, jalapeños and lime juice until almost smooth but still a bit chunky.
3. In a medium bowl, combine mashed avocado, if using, with pea mixture, leaving chunky. Add salt to taste. Garnish with cilantro. Serve with tortilla chips.
Top photo: Sweet pea guacamole. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
in: Soapbox w/recipe
I hardly think it needs saying, but I will say it anyway: Olive oil is the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, without which this vaunted eating style is simply a “sort of” — sort of vegetarian, sort of seafood-happy, sort of low in consumption of red meat, sort of devoted to whole grains and legumes.
But olive oil — extra virgin olive oil — is what truly sets it apart, and extra virgin olive oil, with its combination of monounsaturated fats and a big component of antioxidants and other phytochemicals (plant-based, naturally occurring chemicals), is a vital part of the good health message we hear over and over about why we should eat the Mediterranean way.
So it was shocking to see the prominent headline displayed on a full page, suggestively tinted olive green, in the New York Times Sunday Week in Review section on Jan. 26, 2014:
And in slightly smaller type just below:
“The Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil”
“Why are you shocked?” asked my friend Beatrice Ughi, who imports, through her company gustiamo.com, excellent oils from Italy. “You know it’s true.”
Yes, I know that some (a lot!) of Italian olive oil is not what it says it is on the bottle. And so is a lot of Spanish oil and a lot of oils from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. But I know, too, that some of the best extra virgin oils in the world come from Italy, and it is painful to see all Italian oils tarred, as it were, with the same brush. How could a superior oil such as Badia a Coltibuono or Cappezzana from Tuscany, or Titone from Sicily, or Francesco Travaglini’s Il Tratturello from Molise, survive in a market in which they are universally condemned as fraudulent, probably not even Italian, possibly not even oil produced by the olive fruit? To my eyes (and to my palate), such a statement is seriously misleading, enough so as to question the wisdom of The Times’ editors in allowing it to be published.
Beyond that, the “article” (or however you describe a series of graphic images, like a comic strip, in the opinion pages) was rife with error and misinterpretation, so much so that I was not surprised to hear later that Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity” (2011), to whom the designer of the graphic attributed all the information he purveyed, had divorced himself in no uncertain terms from the article. Later, The Times, too, published an elongated correction at the end of the graphic acknowledging that an earlier version “contained several errors” and that “several of [Mueller's] findings were misinterpreted.”
One of the most startling misinterpretations is that “69% of imported olive oil labeled extra virgin” for sale in the U.S. fails to “meet the standard” for that designation. This refers to an oft-cited report compiled at the University of California at Davis in 2010. (A second, somewhat more detailed report, was published in 2011.) The report was funded by Corto Olive and California Olive Ranch, two prominent California producers, and by the California Olive Oil Council, which exists to promote California oil.
Not surprisingly, the report raised eyebrows, given the uncomfortable sponsorship. But its statistical significance was also questioned, given the fact that only 14 “popular import brands” were sampled in three separate California locations. That makes a total of 42 oils sampled — hardly a significant number given the vast number of imported oils sold in this U.S.
I would be the last person to deny there is a lot of scam in imported olive oil, just as there is a lot in many other imported products, especially those that purport to be from Italy, which equates in many folks’ minds to quality. The food industry is, and always has been, a prime area for fraud, at least in part because most food is ephemeral in nature and the fraud will have disappeared by the time the good-food cops are on the case.
Do your research when buying olive oil
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That said, with extra virgin olive oil, as with fine wine, as with Spanish jamón de bellota, as with English Stilton, the bottom line will tell you a good part of the story. You wouldn’t expect a $10 bottle of bubbly to contain Champagne, would you? If you’re spending $7.50 on a liter of oil, don’t expect it to be a fine, estate-bottled, Tuscan oil. The bottle alone, not including shipping costs, will not be covered by that price. Fine, hand-harvested, estate-bottled oils are not cheap, any more than fine Champagne, and that, it seems to me, goes to the heart of the problem. We too often treat olive oil as if it were mere kitchen grease — and in that sense, we get what we deserve and what we’re willing to pay for.
Beyond that, to assure you are buying high-quality olive oil, read the labels. I cannot say this often enough: Read the fine print. If an olive oil comes in a can or a dark glass bottle, if it has both harvest date and information about where it was processed and it is clearly written on the label, you can pretty much be certain it’s what it says it is. Not all oil will have that information and often, alas, the information will be in Italian or Spanish or Greek. But don’t let that throw you off: Learn what the important terms are in those languages (honestly, it’s easy), and read the labels.
In addition, find a merchant you can trust, either in a specialty shop or online. My most-trusted sources for great olive oil are the following (I am always eager to learn of others; please let me know of any you think are particularly reliable):
Manicaretti in Oakland, Calif., imports oil but distributes only to retail outlets and restaurants. If you see a particular oil on its website that interests you, however, you can find out from them where you might be able to acquire it.
As I write, I’m looking at a bottle of Marfuga extra virgin from Perugia in Umbria, available at olio2go.com. It’s in a dark green bottle, and it has a “use by” date of February 2015, from which I can judge that it was probably produced in fall 2013 (and I also can get that from other information on the bottle). It’s a monocultivar, or monovarietal, oil made from moraiolo olives, one of the most characteristic Umbrian varieties. It’s also excellent olive oil, rich with complex flavors yet smooth on the palate. I used it to make the following simplest and best salad dressing:
½ a small clove of garlic, minced
½ teaspoon of sea salt or Maldon salt
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice or good wine vinegar (not balsamic)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1. In the bottom of a salad bowl, combine the garlic and salt and, using the back of a spoon, crush the two together to make a paste. Stir in the lemon juice or vinegar. When it is fully incorporated, whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a little more salt, a drop or two more of acid, or another spoonful of oil.
2. When ready to serve, pile washed and dried salad greens on top and mix at table.
Top photo: A drizzle of fresh Tuscan olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Have you ever truly considered the merits of black pepper? If not, no one would blame you. This staple seasoning is so commonplace it’s barely an afterthought for most people while cooking or eating. True, peppercorns — the fruits from flowering vines that inspired the ancient spice trade — have been around forever. Given this overfamiliarity, black pepper may be the single most misused and misunderstood ingredient in the kitchen today.
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I’ve long been blasé about pepper. Using finely ground black pepper growing stale in a shaker is unthinkable for any professional cook. But even Tellicherry peppercorns, a prized variety of this fruit cultivated on India’s Malabar Coast, ground from my peppermill gets me persnickety. I generally find myself resisting the ever-present cookbook instruction to “season with salt and pepper.” Some recipes assert “freshly ground black pepper,” but it’s all the same to me.
Used so automatically, black pepper, I’ve believed, is sticking its (sharp, biting) nose where it does not belong. When it comes to seasoning meat, and nearly everything I cook, I stick to salt, adding pepper only when and if its musty pungency will complement the dish.
I found a like-minded soul when Sara Dickerman in Slate denounced black pepper’s place in the seasoning pantheon with salt, as if our prized salt was stuck on a perpetually bad date. Her point, for which she was denounced by pro-pepper enthusiasts, was this: Black pepper has wrongfully earned its place at the table.
This winter, as I produced quarts of beef and chicken broth and mugs of homemade chai, I found myself radically rethinking this spice. I’d palm four or five puckered peppercorn orbs and roll them into the steaming liquids where they’d imbue their warming, spiced, woodsy aromas. In the building of flavors, black pepper is foundational, essential. I would seriously miss it.
That’s when I realized that I’d been ignoring a medieval spice merchant’s riches of peppercorns in my spice basket. Purchased six months before at The Spice & Tea Exchange in downtown Portland, Ore., along with Ceylon cinnamon sticks, saffron and Hungarian paprika, were five wildly different types of peppercorns. If these had been samples of sea salts or olive oils, I would have tasted them on the spot. But it took a giant pot of beef stock simmering on the stove to get me to study each specimen.
Most surprising were the long pepper shaped like a tiny pine cone and the African kili pepper resembling a twig and filled with bitter seeds. I compared the black and white ponape peppercorns both from the Pohnpei plant, the difference being the black is picked green and matured before sun drying while the white is picked red ripened, then fermented and skinned before sun drying. The intriguing, purple-black Tasmanian pepper, not even related to black pepper, botanically speaking, is a sweet dried berry used for seasoning in aboriginal cooking.
Mind you, these five were less than a whiff of the pepper world. My collection didn’t even include green peppercorns or black peppercorns from other continents or the unrelated pink and Sichuan peppercorns to boot. But truly, they were sufficient to shake me from my own misunderstandings.
I crushed each pepper in a mortar and pestle to get at their flavors, since it’s misleading to sense their aromas through smell. With my finger, I gingerly pressed the bits onto my tongue, anticipating mind blowing heat. Instead, I experienced the nuances of pepper, from spiced sweetness hinting of garam masala in the long pepper to the mild, citrusy burn of the white pepper. For the first time, I appreciated these spices for what they offered on their own terms.
Giving black pepper a starring role in two courses
In the following weeks, I crushed long pepper for a Middle Eastern vegetable stew with chickpeas and dropped it whole into my brewing chai. I ground white pepper into clam chowder and French onion soup with gladness. As I prepared dinner, I considered which pepper might enhance its flavors. My new favorite, the long pepper, the bona fide black pepper of the Greeks and Romans, now owns shelf space in my spice cabinet.
It was no leap to invoke the most pepper-forward preparation of all: steak au poivre, or pepper-crusted steak. I served it, by golly, with a creamy peppercorn dressing over salad mix. It seems I’ve learned that there are times, after all, when there is no such thing as too much black pepper.
Pepper-Crusted Steak Salad With Buttermilk Peppercorn Dressing
Prepare the dressing for this meal first and let it sit at room temperature while you prepare the steak. This allows the dressing’s flavors to develop.
For the dressing:
Makes 2 cups
1 cup sour cream
¾ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, such as Tellicherry or long pepper
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup finely chopped chives
For the steak salad:
1 heaping teaspoon each ponape black and white peppercorns
1 10-12 ounce flat iron steak
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 cups mixed salad greens
1 cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano
For the dressing:
1.Whisk the sour cream, buttermilk, lemon juice, pepper and salt until smooth. Stir in the chives and taste for seasoning. If using right away, leave the dressing at room temperature to allow the flavors to develop.
If preparing in advance, store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 5 days to use as a dressing and a dip.
For the steak salad:
1. Crush the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle until most are very coarsely crushed and some remain whole.
2. Dab the steak dry with a paper towel and season generously with the salt. Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat with the oil. When the oil begins to smoke lay the steak in the center of the pan and cook without moving for 3 minutes. Turn the steak and cook for 3 minutes more.
For rare, transfer the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes. For medium-rare to medium, turn off the heat but leave the steak in the pan for 1-3 minutes more, testing for your preferred doneness with an instant-read thermometer (130 F for medium-rare; 135 F for medium) and transferring the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes when done. (The steak can be cooked in advance and cooled to room temperature or served warm.)
3. Pile the salad greens in the center of 4 plates. Dollop on the dressing to taste. Layer on the steak and garnish with the shaved cheese.
Top photo: Pepper varieties, clockwise from the top: Tasmanian pepper, kili pepper, ponape white pepper, ponape black pepper, long pepper. Credit: Lynne Curry
One of the most beautiful cities in Sicily is Syracuse, which has a history extending to the ancient Greeks. There is a method of cooking in Syracuse, especially applied to Sicilian fish, but other foods as well, that makes for beguiling dishes.
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Stemperata is a Syracusean method of cooking that means something like “melting sauce” or “tempering sauce.”
The idea behind “melting sauce” is to meld a number of aromatic ingredients together by cooking slowly until the sauce or food is infused with flavor. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of vinegar that evaporates, or “melts,” into the sauce and it is the vinegar that gives the dish its distinctive flavor. Whenever you see a dish described as stemperata, you know it is a dish from Syracuse.
The concept of stemperata finds its roots in medieval cooking. According to the prevailing theory of dietetics at the time, prepared food had properties that would match the temperament of the person eating it.
In the mood for Sicilian fish
Certain foods were ideal for particular conditions or temperaments. The nature of foods could be changed by tempering the food with additions such as sauces or spicing.
In medieval Italian cookbooks one runs across the term temperare, which takes on a greater meaning than “to temper.” It implies that one corrects the food so it will conform to a dietetic humoral notion. So the Italian stemperare has the sense of taking something away, and in this recipe it is the vinegar that “is taken away” through evaporation to moderate the taste of the sauce.
This Sicilian fish dish is called pesce spada alla “stemperata” and it is typically made with swordfish, but two whole red snapper work well. The recipe, though, is written for swordfish.
Pesce Spade alla ‘Stemperata’
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ celery stalk, finely chopped
1½ tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped if large
10 large green olives, pitted and chopped
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
⅓ cup water
1½ pounds swordfish steaks, cut into ½-inch-thick slices
All-purpose flour for dredging
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1. In a large sauté pan or earthenware casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring frequently, the onion and celery until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. (If using earthenware and if it is not flameproof, or if you don’t know, you will need to use a heat diffuser. Earthenware heats up slower but retains its heat longer than non-earthenware casseroles. When using earthenware, food may cook slower at first and then cook very quickly while retaining its heat, so adjust accordingly). Reduce the heat to medium, add the capers, olives and tomatoes, and stir. Pour in the water, stir again, and cook until denser, 10 minutes.
2. Dredge the swordfish slices in the flour, tapping off any excess flour. Set aside.
3. Arrange the swordfish slices in the pan or casserole on top of the sauce, spooning some sauce on top of the swordfish. Drizzle the vinegar over the fish, cover, and cook over medium heat until the vinegar is evaporated, 5 to 6 minutes. Serve hot.
Top photo: Pesce spade alla “stemperata” made with red snapper. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Rosquillas are an explosion of Mesoamerica in your mouth that starts in a remote mountain village in Nicaragua. I am visiting my daughter, Gabriella, in the campo, studying Spanish while decompressing from life in America; leaving behind computer, cellphone and running water, and breathing sweet mountain air.
El Lagartillo is a sparse farming settlement on a steep hilltop with a view all the way to Honduras from its rocky summit. Here, in my bed in a house at the edge of the forest, I am awakened at daybreak by the din of a thousand birds. My host, Amparo, says they are singing from happiness.
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A century of struggle
For five centuries, many foreigners have been lured by this sizzling land of volcanoes and cloud forests. From the conquistadores to William Walker, the American adventurer who installed himself as president in 1856, to the U.S. Marines in the early 20th century, Nicaragua has endured conquest, occupation, oppression and brutality.
After the Marines, people endured the Somoza regime until the Sandinista revolution, when campesinos were awarded the land for which they had fought. Twenty-six families banded together to form a farming cooperative in El Lagartillo until CIA-sponsored contras decimated the village in Ronald Reagan’s secret war. The survivors were determined to rebuild, and the village has been reborn.
“Little by little, we began to find our way again,” writes Tina Pérez, whose husband and young polio-stricken daughter were among those killed. “One day…I saw [my daughter] Maria Zunilda … I said … ‘You look so beautiful. How can you be here, you are dead?’… She said …’I am fine except that we work so hard … We work for the revolution, Mommy.” At this village’s heart is a shrine. A plaque under the tree where Maria Zunilda died is inscribed: “1985/For peace against all aggression/ The heroes of Lagartillo live at the plough, which works the earth to the song of the birds and the sound of the militia men’s guns.”
The stone is surrounded by six bamboo cabañas that comprise Hijos del Maiz Spanish School. Its mission is to “support dreams in the community … exchanging with other … cultures in a dynamic transformation toward social justice.” During the day, it is a village of women. They sweep, scrub, cook, make cheese, soak and hull maiz. Their children play in the road, skittering away when an occasional horse and rider passes by or a pickup rumbles through, scaring up billows of dust. Chickens peck and scratch everywhere. Scarlet bougainvillea are lit with electric blue hummingbirds.
The families have a school and a library administered by a survivor in a wheelchair. A miller grinds hominy into masa, and Lisbet, my teacher, runs a cafe, offering freshly squeezed juice from the fruits of her trees.
Corn masa cookies
At dawn, Amparo fires up an adobe oven upon which to cook tortillas. I follow her to the mill with a pail of lime-slaked maiz that was boiled the day before, to be ground into masa, the dough that is made into staple breadstuffs.
“Si no hay tortillas, no hay comida,” she says. “If there are no tortillas, there’s no food.”
Juan Cerros, a campesino from nearby Las Lajas, pulls up on his mule with a sack of the maiz slung over the saddle. Electricity reached El Lagartillo a year ago and the powered machine here grinds corn much faster than he can do it by hand. Amparo explains that he makes rosquillas, the magical cookies, to sell.
It is not until my last evening in El Lagartillo that I finally taste them. When the relentless sun begins to wane, I wander into Francisca’s house. She is in the courtyard, flanked by other women who mix fresh masa with sugar, leavening, and shortening.
They pinch off pieces of the dough and shape them into flowers. Francisca piles shaved loaf sugar in their centers before baking them in a concrete oven in the back yard. The women work in silence.
The next morning, we set out on the dusty road for the long journey back to Managua. As we bump along in the back seat of a truck, Gabriella pulls out a bag filled with rosquillas that Francisca has sent along for the trip.
I take a bite and close my eyes. It hits me with a taste like no other that makes you think of the sacred food of the ancients, the life blood of empires. It is sweet and pleasantly sour like only masa can be. Far away now from the tiny village, I bake these cookies in communion with the wise and gentle people of El Largartillo who treasure the fields and the forests.
Rosquillas (Nicaraguan Corn Masa Cookies)
Makes about 20 cookies
In my own kitchen, I make the rosquillas even if I cannot get fresh ground masa. Instead, I use masa harina, masa flour which is available in Hispanic markets. Unlike an American sugar cookie, the use of masa harina rather than wheat flour results in a crispy but tender cookie with a pleasantly gritty texture not unlike that of Scottish shortbread.
Note that Bob’s Red Mill brand masa harina, while organic, doesn’t taste like the original or have the same fine texture, so you won’t be able to make authentic-tasting rosquillas with it.
The simple cookie has two characteristic shapes. The first, like those of Francisca’s in the photo, is circular and fairly flat, pressed with fingers to resemble a flower. Francisca heaped a bit of loaf sugar, which has a rich, molasses-like flavor, in the center to resemble the disc of a daisy.
The alternative shape is a loop, formed by rolling out little balls of the dough into thin ropes and pinching the two ends together, like an oval-shaped pretzel. Because rosquilla dough is crumbly in nature, the loops can be a bit more challenging to form, but persevere, it’s doable. Historic recipes for rosquillas prescribe lard. Francisca used a butter-like shortening. I use butter.
The water that is called for in this recipe replaces the natural moisture in fresh masa dough.
As for the topping, there is no substitute for the artisanal brown loaf sugar described that is sold in Hispanic markets. If you cannot find it, leave off decorating with sugar. The cookies are delicious with or without it.
For the cookies:
1 stick (8 tablespoons or ¼ pound) unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 cups instant corn masa, also called masa harina
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup water at room temperature
For the topping:
1 cup brown loaf sugar, shaved or coarsely grated
1. Preheat an oven to 350 F.
2. In the vessel of an electric food mixer or in a large mixing bowl, cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Add the granulated sugar in a slow, steady stream, continuing to beat until the mixture is well blended and creamy.
3. Whisk together the masa harina, baking powder, and salt.
4. To the creamed butter, add the water, alternating with blended dry ingredients. Beat the mixture with the paddle attachment of the electric food mixer, or by hand with a wooden spoon until a uniform dough is formed.
5. Line two baking sheets with bakers parchment. Scoop up a rounded tablespoon of dough and form it into a ball. Repeat this process and arrange 12 balls of dough on each of the parchment-lined pan, leaving at least an inch between each.
For the flower shape, press the bottom of a glass onto each ball to flatten to about ¼-inch, or flatten each by hand. The edges will appear to crack, but the cookie will stay intact and the rustic texture will just decorate the edges.
Use your fingers to make indentations first in the center, and then around the perimeter, sculpting a daisy shape. The idea is not only to give the cookie a decorative shape, but to thin out the disks for even baking from their perimeter through to their centers, making the cookies lighter and crunchier than if they were simply flattened.
6. If decorating with loaf sugar, after forming the flower shape, spoon about a small mound onto the center of each round.
For the loop shape, roll a similar-sized ball of dough into as thin a rope as you can manage, wetting your fingers lightly as you work to prevent the dough sticking to your fingers, if necessary. Pinch the two ends together to form an oval. The easiest method is to roll out each rope directly on the parchment-lined baking sheet, then pinch the ends together. This avoids the unnecessary step of lifting the loop from board to baking sheet and breaking it in the process.
7. Slide the rosquillas onto the middle rack of the oven and bake until cooked through and lightly browned on the bottom and around the edges, 20-25 minutes.
8. Transfer them at once to wire racks to cool completely. Store over night or for up to two weeks in air-tight containers, chilled.
Top photo: Corn masa cookies (rosquillas). Credit: Nathan Hoyt