Articles in Cooking

Nuala Cullen's herb-encrusted salmon is a show stopper for St. Patrick's Day, or any other day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group Inc.

Corned beef and cabbage. Irish stew. Soda bread. These are the foods Americans associate with Irish cooking, especially on St Patrick’s Day. But while these dishes are certainly old favorites, they have little to do with modern Irish cooking.

According to Nuala Cullen, culinary historian and author of the new cookbook “The Best of Irish Country Cooking,” contemporary Irish cuisine is both a rediscovery of the country’s rich culinary heritage and a reflection of its international influences.

“Food was generally simple and used seasonal homegrown produce,” said the Dublin-based writer of her childhood in post-World War II Ireland. “Even in urban areas, many families grew potatoes and salad vegetables. Soups and homemade bread were common, and there was no such thing as preprepared food.”

Today the approach is much the same, but with a creative twist.

“The ‘new style’ of Irish cooking incorporates a lot of outside influences, such as Asian and Thai, as well as all sorts of ingredients from continental Europe,” Cullen said. “It is a merging of these ingredients with a pride in fresh, quality Irish products to produce something fresh and exciting.”

Visitors to Ireland these days are often surprised to discover that there’s more to eat than corned beef and potatoes. “Many tourists expect lots of ham, cabbage, potatoes and fried food,” Cullen said. Instead, they find wonderful Irish cheeses, butter, fresh seafood, meats and vegetables.

Forget the green beer

While no particular dish is traditional for St. Patrick’s Day, a roast dinner around the family table is the typical format.

“For many years pubs and bars were closed on the day, so celebrating was done in the home,” Cullen said. “Most families will have their favorite Sunday dinner. The appetizer can be a warming soup or smoked salmon. The entrée is often roast chicken, beef, turkey or salmon, usually served with roast or mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.”

And no, Cullen confirmed, they do not wash it all down with green beer.

"The Best of Irish Country Cooking" is Nuala Cullen's fourth Irish cookbook. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.

“The Best of Irish Country Cooking” is Nuala Cullen’s fourth Irish cookbook. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.

Although Cullen’s cookbook does include traditional favorites such as corned beef and Irish stew, most of its recipes showcase Ireland’s fresh seafood, meats and produce.

Baked salmon encrusted with herbs; crab soup with saffron; mussels with bacon and red wine; and ham wrapped in pastry are just some of the unexpected dishes featured in “The Best of Irish County Cooking.”

And if you still feel the need to consume something green on St. Patrick’s Day, there’s always Cullen’s brightly hued “spring green soup,” or cream-simmered peas with little gem lettuces.

Baked Salmon Encrusted With Herbs

For maximum effect and not too much effort, this baked salmon has it all. Ask your fishmonger to split your fish lengthwise into two long fillets. A 3-pound fish will be enough for six with side dishes. From “The Best of Irish County Cooking” (Interlink Publishing, March 2015)

Yield: 6 to 7 servings

Ingredients

1-inch cube of fresh ginger

6 canned anchovies, drained

8 tablespoons butter, divided

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

3 tablespoons finely chopped scallions

Grated zest of 1 lemon

3 to 5 pounds salmon, filleted

¾ cup bread crumbs made from day-old bread

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce

3 egg yolks

1 ¼ cups cream

5 to 6 sorrel leaves, ribs removed, leaves chopped

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro or parsley

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Mash the ginger to a paste with the anchovies, 5 tablespoons of the butter, the parsley, scallions, and grated zest of half the lemon. Butter a sheet of parchment paper that will fit the salmon and use it to line a large baking sheet. Lay one salmon fillet on the paper, skin-side down, and spread with half the herb butter. Lay the other fillet on top, skin-side up, reversing the wide end over the narrow end of the bottom fillet. Spread the remaining herb butter on top. Cover the salmon with the bread crumbs, patting them down lightly, season well, and dot with the remaining butter.

2. Bake for 12 minutes per 1 pound of fish for smaller fish, but a 6- to 7-pound fish will not require more than an hour.

3. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Season the egg yolks with salt and pepper and beat them together. Bring the cream to a boil with the sorrel leaves and lemon zest and cook to reduce for a few moments. Cool slightly, then pour the cream mixture slowly into the yolks, stirring all the time. Return to the saucepan and over a low heat, cook, stirring continuously without allowing it to boil, until the sauce thickens slightly.

4. When the fish is cooked, use the parchment paper to lift the fish onto a heated serving dish and strain the buttery fish juices into the sauce. Add the cilantro or parsley and serve.

Note: If the sauce shows signs of becoming lumpy, scrape immediately into a blender and purée for a few seconds.

Main photo: Nuala Cullen’s herb-encrusted salmon is a show stopper for St. Patrick’s Day, or any other day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group Inc. 

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Soda bread. Credit: Copyright Ellie Markovitch

Soda bread is serious stuff. The Irish Heritage Society near me is having a contest, and people can enter in three categories: traditional white, traditional wheaten, and family bread non-specific. The first two can only contain flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk; ingredients that would have been available in Ireland when the bread was developed. The third, family bread non-specific, can have anything in it, and might include currants, caraway seeds, eggs and other enrichments.

The sweet quick bread common here is decidedly American and reflects the fact that the average Irish cupboard lacked or had limited quantities of sugar and butter. The traditional Irish soda bread is emblematic of other limits, like the way that flour works in bread dough, and how wheat grows.


The moist climate of Ireland is suited to growing soft or pastry wheat, which is better for making pastries and quick breads rather than yeasted or naturally leavened breads. Arid summers, like those in the American wheat belts, grow hard or bread wheats, which have enough gluten to develop the structure that builds tall loaves of bread.

All wheats have gluten, which is a type of protein. The amount and quality of gluten varies in hard and soft wheats. Gliadin and glutenin are two components of gluten, and each wheat style has different proportions of both. That’s why flours made from different grains work differently. Hard wheats have more glutenin, and soft wheats have more gliadin, which is sometimes described as having sliding properties. If you cook whole grains, hard wheats really are harder to the tooth.

Soft wheats work great for quick breads and things that climb with the aid of chemical leavening. Soda bread, especially if made with purist rules, is a great demonstration of chemical leavening at work. Buttermilk plus baking soda creates an acid-base reaction, and carbon dioxide bubbles throughout the dough; the heat of the oven traps the gases, and voila, there is bread.

In praise of baking powder

Baking powder is another type of chemical leavening; liquid activates its acid-base reaction. These products of the 19th century simplified baking. Before the birthday of baking powder — around 1865, depending on whom you salute as its inventor — people had to use natural yeasts to make baked goods rise. Old cookbooks have lots of instructions for ways to charm leavening out of thin air, or from potato peelings and even milk.

Sourdough baking is all the rage, but I am in awe of baking powder. This shelf stable stuff makes my whole wheat pancakes climb sky high. It is a little angel in my pantry, helping flour soar. I am loyal to a single brand, Rumford. It’s double-acting baking powder, which means it rises once when liquid hits the dry ingredients, and again in the heat of the oven, or on the griddle.

I am also loyal to fresh milled whole-grain flour. I love the way it tastes, sweet and hardy, and the way the food sits in my brain. Stone milling is a process that keeps all the parts of a grain kernel, the bran, germ and endosperm, together. Roller milling is how most flour is made, and the process separates all of these parts, combining parts of them at the end as the mill sees fit. The germ is generally removed because it spoils easily.

Luckily, stone milling operations are popping up all over the country as people revive small-scale grain production. The one near me, Farmer Ground Flour, mills a type of soft white wheat that makes great quick breads.

I have no family recipe for soda bread, but I’ve made a beautiful mutt loaf that highlights my kitchen affinities.

Soda Bread
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 cups stoneground white whole wheat pastry flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons butter

1 egg

3 tablespoons yogurt

1/2 cup milk

Directions

1. Combine dry ingredients with a whisk.

2. Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes.

3. With a pastry blender or your fingers, incorporate butter into the flour mixture. The result does not have to be smooth — some pea-sized pieces are OK, even good.

4. Whisk together egg, yogurt and milk. Using a fork, blend until everything is just barely incorporated.

5. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead very lightly, just about five times.

6. Pat into a round about 8 inches across and transfer to a buttered cookie sheet. Score into six  pieces.

7. Let dough rest 10 minutes while preheating oven to 400 F.

8. Bake for 25 minutes, until golden brown at the edges.

Main image: Soda bread. Credit: Copyright Ellie Markovitch

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Beef and Guinness stew. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Not so long ago, most Americans’ idea of how to enjoy beef was to dig into a slab of steak as big as the plate it was served on. Thankfully, culinary fashions have changed. Today, the so-called lesser cuts are giving the primes a run for their money not only because they are cheaper but because they have more flavor. Delicious parts like short ribs and oxtail are so much the rage, that they, too, have become wildly pricey.

To my mind, chuck and blade steak, still relatively economical, are two of the most promising cuts for braising, my favorite cooking method for meat in general. This simple technique of searing and caramelizing foods in fat or oil before simmering them in a cooking liquid, often alcoholic, enriches their flavor and tenderizes them at the same time. Add vegetables, and you’ve made a classic stew. Not only are stews nourishing and sustaining in cold weather but, when made ahead, they actually improve.

The raw materials of stews around the world

There are pedestrian variants consisting simply of meat and root vegetables. And then there are the more artful braises at which the French are so adept, exemplified by boeuf à la Bourguignonne, which is laced during long, slow cooking with the namesake region’s fabled wine. The Italians have their own variations on the theme: The Sicilians enrich their spezzatino with Marsala, for instance, while the Piedmontese dedicate an entire bottle of Barolo for every kilo of beef in their brasato. The Belgians make heady carbonnades with beef chunks, abundant mushrooms and onions braised in light beer with a hint of vinegar and sugar. All of these braised stews are based on cheap cuts, the fat and connective tissue of which render the meat moist and incredibly tender during long, slow cooking.

For me, one of the most delicious is Ireland’s traditional beef stew fortified with rich, dark stout, a beer brewed with roasted, malted barley. The English have their version in the old prescription for “Sussex stew,” a beef braise simmered with mushroom ketchup and ale, but I believe no cooking liquid suits an Irish stew more than Dublin’s Guinness. This malty stout is creamy with a pleasant bitterness that makes for a powerful yet subtle cooking liquid, imparting its own complex layer of flavor while producing a velvety gravy. The resulting dish is one with a double life: Eat it as a stew, or cover it with a crust for a pie.

Candlelight dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Candlelight dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

What makes stout particularly suited to beef stews is what Chrissie Manion Zaepoor of Kookoolan Farms — a stout expert, craft mead maker and pasture-raised meat producer in Yamhill, Oregon — calls “roastiness.” “It’s like espresso,” she says. “It has a smoky, grilled flavor that’s nice with beef, and it’s herbaceous in a way that wine isn’t.”

Just how much stout to add depends on the other ingredients. Too little and, well, you’re missing the point; too much and the stew will be bitter. I find the best proportion is about one-third stout to two-thirds stock. Guinness is an old reliable for the Irish purist, but you can experiment with any of the local craft stouts that are widely available these days, each of which will impart their own individual character.

As for the stock, its quality is essential to the success of the stew. I rarely rely on commercially made stock, which (besides being close to tasteless) too often contains sugar, green pepper, mushroom or other ingredients I would not use in my own recipe. But if need be, I find most commercial chicken stocks more palatable than their beef counterparts. Whether the stock is homemade or store-bought, adding stout will enrich it.

What to drink with Irish stew?

The pleasure of eating this singular stew is increased manyfold when it is accompanied by a swig of the same good stout you’ve cooked with. The pleasant bitterness of the drink rises to the rich, deep flavors of the braise and so nicely sets off the sugars in the onions and carrots. The Irish, like the rest of their compatriates in the British Isles, drink their beer cool, not cold, like a fine red wine. Pour with care for a full, creamy head. On St. Patrick’s Day, be sure to have on hand a loaf of soda bread peppered with caraway seeds to slather with soft Irish butter for the proper holiday spirit. Slainte!

Irish Beef-and-Beer Stew

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: About 2 1/4 hours

Total time: About 3 hours

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

4 pounds well-sourced (preferably organic) blade steaks or boneless beef chuck-eye roast, trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1 1/4-inch pieces

3/4 cup good-quality unsalted butter, preferably Irish

3 medium onions, chopped

3 large cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

Stems from 1 bunch parsley, minced

3 bay leaves

2 teaspoons dried herbes de Provence

1 1/4 cups stout, such as Guinness

2 3/4 cups homemade, salt-free meat stock, or low-sodium chicken broth

3 carrots, peeled and sliced

3 turnips, peeled and cubed

4 to 5 teaspoons fine sea salt, or to taste

Freshly milled black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 pounds small Yukon Gold, fingerling or Red Bliss potatoes, scrubbed, skin on

8 ounces freshly picked and shelled or frozen petite peas (optional)

Directions

1. Blot the meat with paper towels to remove moisture. In a heavy, ample, oven-proof braiser or Dutch oven, warm 1/4 cup of the butter over medium heat. Slip in just enough meat cubes to leave sufficient room around each one for proper searing. You will need to brown the meat in several batches, adding up to 1/4 cup of the remaining butter as needed (reserve the rest for browning vegetables later). Each batch will take about 10 minutes to brown all over; when it’s done, transfer it to a large bowl and repeat the process until all the meat is browned before starting the next.

2. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until they are softened and lightly caramelized, about 4 minutes. Stir occasionally to dislodge any meat bits from the pan surface. Stir in the parsley stems, bay leaves and dried herbs and sauté for another minute or two.

3. Return the browned meat and its juices to the pan. Pour in the stout followed by the stock. Stir the ingredients together well and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook over the lowest possible heat for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. (I like to set a metal heat diffuser, called a “flame tamer,” between the flame and the pot to neutralize any hot spots and ensure even cooking.) Alternatively, you can heat the oven to 300 F, slide the covered pot onto the middle shelf and cook for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.

4. Meanwhile, in a separate, ample skillet, warm the remaining butter. Add the carrots and turnips and sauté until they are nicely colored, 10 to 12 minutes. Reserve.

5. After 1 1/2 hours, stir the carrots and turnips into the stew. Cook for another 45 minutes, or until both the meat and root vegetables are very tender. When it is done, add salt and pepper to taste.

6. In the meantime, cover the potatoes in 3 inches of cold water and bring to a boil; then simmer over medium heat until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and keep warm.

7. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour with enough cold water (or cold stock) to make a thin, smooth paste or slurry. If you have been cooking the stew in the oven, remove it now and put it on the stove top over low heat.

8. Remove the cover from the pot and stir the slurry into the stew a little at a time to blend well. Add the peas if desired. Simmer until the gravy thickens and heats through and the peas are warm, no more than 5 minutes. Serve hot with boiled potatoes.

Notes: Using a well-marbled cut that will be rendered moist and tender during cooking is important to the success of any meat stew. Shoulder cuts, including blade steak or chuck, are ideal; avoid leg meat, which will be dry and tough by comparison. Searing small batches in hot butter before adding the cooking liquid caramelizes them, creating another layer of flavor. The root vegetables are sautéed separately and incorporated late to prevent them from disintegrating into the gravy. Peas are optional; I love them for their little bursts of sweetness, but don’t overcook! Boiled potatoes go well with the stew, and there will be plenty of gravy to sauce them. The stew will keep in a refrigerator for up to four days, or it can be frozen. To make a pie, cool the stew and divide it into individual crocks or larger baking dishes, as you prefer, then top with your favorite unsweetened pie crust or puff pastry. Brush the crust with egg wash (a whole egg yolk thinned with a little cold water or milk). Preheat the oven to 400 F and bake until it is heated through and the crust is golden, about 20 minutes, depending on pie size.

Main photo: Beef and Guinness stew. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 

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American heritage purple popcorn reveals the beauty of this gluten-free, kid-friendly, ancient superfood. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Popcorn is an ancient superfood — a simple and nutritious form of a 9,000-year-old staple. Popcorn is DIY food preservation at its most basic and most delicious.

Popcorn is simply preserved corn … a way of saving the harvest. Fresh corn can, of course, be boiled, roasted, steamed or baked. But corn became a staple in the Western Hemisphere because it could be dried and stored all winter. Corn was first domesticated in Mexico from a wild grass nearly 9,000 years ago. Archeologists have discovered corncobs from the northern coast of Peru that could date to 6,700 years ago, and scientists believe that this dried corn was eaten as popcorn and ground into corn flour.

HERITAGE DIY


First in a historic how-to series for home cooks, canners and kids

Benjamin Franklin remarked on the magical properties  of corn that would “pop.” Franklin marveled at the mysterious recipe of “parching corn,” which he wrote about in 1790. He described how the Native Americans “fill a large pot or kettle nearly full of hot ashes, and pouring in a quantity of corn, stir it up with the ashes, which presently parches and burst the grain.” This “bursting” was shocking to Franklin, since it “threw out a substance twice its bigness.” Franklin boasted that popcorn — when ground to a fine powder and mixed with water — created a veritable superfood, claiming that “six ounces should sustain a man a day.”

“Superfood” may seem like a bit of hype for a snack most often eaten while watching bad movies. But in 2012, researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania reported that popcorn has more antioxidant polyphenols than any other fruit or vegetable. One serving provides more than 70% of a person’s daily serving of whole grain, and a single 4-cup portion provides 5 grams of fiber. Popcorn is no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s a virtuous reward.

The “bursting” that gives popcorn its name is the result of physics inherent in that tiny white or golden nubbin. Inside a popcorn kernel’s outer hull lies the endosperm, which is made of soft starch and a bit of water. Although all types of corn will “pop” to some extent, popcorn will actually explode and turn inside out when heated. To pop successfully, a kernel of dried popcorn should ideally have a moisture level of 13.5% to 14%. When the kernel is heated to an internal temperature somewhere between 400 to 460 F, the water in the endosperm expands, building up pressure that eventually causes the hull to burst. Steam is released and the soft starch inside the kernel puffs up around the shattered hull.

A popcorn worth the obsession

The type of popcorn that comes out of the microwave is often a poor substitute for heritage breeds or locally sourced popcorn. My children and I are currently obsessed with purple popcorn, which we buy dried on the cob at our farmers market or as “Amish Country Purple Popcorn” from the Troyer Cheese Company. I prefer to roast it in a skillet with canola oil and coarse sea salt — simple and basic. My kids’ prefer their popcorn covered in a spice mixture we created, containing cocoa powder, sugar, and cinnamon (though this may counteract some of the health benefits). For adults I add an additional “kick” with cayenne pepper. Try this with a few types of popcorn — each in its own bowl for the sake of comparison — and you’ll have more than a movie snack, you’ll have a healthy, crowd-pleasing conversation starter that won’t last long.

Cinnamon-Cocoa Popcorn With a Kick

Cook time: 15 minutes, no prep time required.

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 3 to 4 servings

Ingredients

1/4 teaspoon cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)

3 tablespoons canola oil

1/3 cup popcorn kernels

Directions

1. Heat a 2- to 3-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes.

2. While pan heats, place cocoa powder, cinnamon, sugar, sea salt and cayenne pepper (if desired) in a small bowl. Stir to combine.

3. Back at the stove, turn heat down to medium high and add oil to heated pan. Carefully place two or three popcorn kernels in oil and cover pan with lid.

4. After test kernels pop, add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer — about 1/3 cup.

5. When kernels start to pop, lower heat to medium and shake pan gently until popping stops. (I like to rotate the pan in a circular motion over the burner to keep the popcorn moving.)

6. Pour popped corn into a large bowl. Sprinkle popcorn with topping mixture, toss to coat evenly, and eat immediately. Coated popcorn can be stored in an airtight container for several days, but it will lose a bit of its crunch.

Main photo: American heritage purple popcorn reveals the beauty of this gluten-free, kid-friendly, ancient superfood. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Falafel, a Middle Eastern dish of spiced mashed chickpeas, is formed into balls or patties, deep-fried and sometimes eaten in a pita. Credit: Copyright 2012 iStock/mphillips007

Majdi Al Khdraa, 25, brings a plate of falafel balls out of the Alshami restaurant kitchen to a family of five seated at one of the diner’s nine snug stalls. As he walks, he peeks a glance at the door, where Lebanese and Syrian sweets and platters of pudding called muhallabia tempt passersby.

After delivering the falafel, Al Khdraa pats a little boy on the head. A thin smile protrudes from his veneer of five-o’clock shadow as he returns to the cash register. At his perch, he observes the chaos of pedestrians, cars and street vendors on Avenue Al Maghrib Al Arabi in Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, but keeps diners in his periphery, ready to dash over with extra pita or a napkin.

The Author


Ben Bartenstein
Ben Bartenstein reports for Round Earth Media from Spain and Morocco. His writing also appears on the websites for Minnesota Public Radio and Macalester College. Ben is active in the Asian American Journalists Association.

 

The Photographer


Julia Barstow

Julia Barstow is a junior at Bennington College in Vermont, studying photography, media, and video. She is currently studying journalism in Morocco where she plans to cover issues related to culture and the environment.

When Al Khdraa was a boy in Damascus, Syria, long before the war that has engulfed his country, his family operated a cosmetics shop. He went to school, studying English and French and dreaming of potential studies abroad. But as the Syrian civil war escalated in July 2012, Al Khdraa and his family sold their house, car and other belongings. They each packed a bag of clothes and fled by plane to Lebanon.

“It was the only choice we had,” Al Khdraa says.

Morocco is safe landing spot

After 15 days in Beirut, the family flew to Morocco, one of the few countries that would accept them for permanent residency. In the eyes of Syrians, Al Khdraa says, Morocco is the safest landing spot in the Arab world. Morocco granted about 3,600 Syrian refugees legal status last year, according to a government report. These documents must be renewed annually.

Several months after arriving in Rabat, Al Khdraa got a job at Alshami. Wasim Alkhouga, 35, had just opened up the diner, and he quickly recruited a team of mostly Syrian refugees.

“It’s hard to find each other,” Alkhouga says. He recalls his arrival in Rabat two decades ago when his family relocated for work. He was 10 at the time and spent his first year blundering words in Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, which is quite different from his own, he says. In a city that’s receiving dozens of Syrian refugees by the month, Alshami reminds the city’s burgeoning émigré community of home.

From the lunchtime grab-and-go shawarma sandwich for 18 MAD ($1.88), to the light but filling lentil soup ($1.26), to their “famous” falafel ($2.09), the diner attracts Moroccans, Syrians and tourists. Al Khdraa recommends his personal favorite, the mix grill ($6.17), an array of shish, lamb and chicken kebabs.

Syrian falafels are a popular street food

Although the Egyptians claim to have invented the falafel, the Syrian variety of chickpeas, garlic and spices became a phenomenon, sold by street vendors, fast food chains and restaurants around the world. In what is known as the Levant region (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan), the croquettes are often served with tahini and pita as a precursor to the main course. During Ramadan, the balls are sometimes eaten for iftar, the meal after sunset that breaks the fast.

Alkhouga learned falafel fundamentals from his father. There are only a handful of ingredients, but he says patience is everything. The process begins with soaking chickpeas in water for 10 hours and ends with five minutes in boiling vegetable oil. “Don’t touch it,” Alkhouga warns, “or it will shatter.”

Alkhouga applies this singular approach to all food. He takes traditional ingredients to create timeless flavors known throughout the region. Unlike most restaurants, Alshami barbecues the shawarma meat before cooking, Al Khdraa says, pointing to the rotisserie outside. After garnishing, the shawarma is lightly cooked for 25 minutes and served hot. While it’s a steady process, Alshami makes large quantities to accommodate lunchtime demand, so the wait time is insignificant.

As he attends to a steady stream of customers, Al Khdraa says he carries painful memories of his home city 2,400 miles away. He says that he has adapted to Rabat, but longs for the day when he return. Once the violence stops, Alkhouga also says he’d “return in an instant.”

Both realize that day could be years off, but neither forgets the friends and family who stayed in Syria amid death tolls that have averaged about 150 people per day during the course of the four-year civil war, according to the United Nations. Al Khdraa calls home nearly every week and adds, “They say, ‘We made it for this week.’ “

Majdi Al Khdraa, 25, carries an order of Al Shami’s specialty, falafel. Credit: Julie Barstow

Majdi Al Khdraa, 25, carries an order of Alshami’s specialty, falafel. Credit: Copyright Julie Barstow

Alshami’s Falafel

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 5 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of chickpeas

3/4 to 1 ounce (20 to 30 grams) of garlic cloves

1 tablespoon of salt

Few pinches of parsley

Cumin, pepper, to taste, optional

Soy or corn oil

Directions

1. Put chickpeas in water at room temperature for at least 10 hours.

2. Grind up chickpeas in a blender, or preferably an ice crusher.

3. Add seasonings.

4. Place mixture in falafel scooper to form into balls.

5. Set balls into boiling soy or corn oil for five minutes. Temperature at least 320 F.

6. Serve right away with pita bread and tahini sauce.

Main photo: Falafel, a Middle Eastern dish of spiced mashed chickpeas, is formed into balls or patties, deep-fried and sometimes eaten in a pita. Credit: Copyright 2012 iStock/mphillips007

Ben Bartenstein and Julia Barstow are in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program.

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London's large Ghanian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Credit 2015 Cynthia Bertelsen

Cassava, to me, is the Sleeping Beauty of the African kitchen.

The first time I ate cassava, I was on a leaky porch in Paraguay in a torrential rain. The cook plunked down before me a painted enamel platter, stacked high with what looked like chunks of potatoes. She placed a small bottle filled with vinegar and tiny green hot peppers next to my plate. Before cutting into a tough piece of beef, I upended the bottle over the meat. I forked a couple of potatoes onto my plate, too.

Only they weren’t potatoes. The white tuber was cassava, which originated in central Brazil. Known scientifically as Manihot esculenta and other common names such as manioc or yuca, it later spread to Africa’s Congo Basin by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

It wasn’t love at that first chewy bite. But when I saw cassava afterward, I made sure it ended up on my plate or in my shopping bag. Potatoes don’t grow well in the tropics, where I lived at the time. So cassava began to take potatoes’ place in my kitchen. I learned to love cassava because of its texture and propensity to soak up other flavors.

A staple of the African diet

In the years I lived in Africa, I came to know cassava especially well. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, cassava provides a whopping 37% of daily caloric intake. It is popular throughout Africa and the third most widely eaten starchy food in the world, after wheat and rice.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “the most important traditional culinary preparations of cassava in Africa are:

  • boiled or roasted roots (akin to potatoes),
  • fufu (cassava flour stirred with boiled water over low heat to create a stiff dough like polenta),
  • eba (called gari in Nigeria, is similar to toasted bread crumbs, then soaked in hot water to produce a thick paste),
  • and, chikwangue (steamed, fermented pulp wrapped in leaves, not unlike tamales).”

Cassava grows underground and is easier to cultivate than corn, requiring far less labor. Resistant to drought and most insects and diseases, it is highly sustainable. It also cannot easily be burned and destroyed in war situations.

This scraggly-looking plant also can take climatic abuse, growing well in poor soil and during droughts. The long, brown roots stay fresh in the ground, sometimes for up to two years. But once harvested, cassava rots fast, in spite of its bark-like peel. That’s the reason for the wax you see on most cassava sold in Western markets.

A tip for finding the freshest cassava

Sometimes “fresh” cassava in supermarkets tends to be old, with black lines running through it, especially under and around the peel. I constantly poke and prod cassava that’s for sale. My hope is to find roots bearing small wounds inflicted by some savvy shopper: one who has broken off the pointed tips of the waxed roots to peer into the whiteness, seeking — and rejecting — the telltale black lines.


Having chosen pristine cassava for your meal, what happens next?

First, peel the cassava with a sharp knife. A vegetable peeler does not work as well. Remove the thin, white membrane surrounding the cassava under the bark-like peel. Cut the roots into equal lengths. Boil in salted water until tender enough so a knife slips in easily.

EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME

This is the second in a series exploring the food of the African continent, with a focus on individual ingredients and traditional recipes to bring the African pantry to your home.

The first article featured the peanut.

Future articles will feature black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.

Cassava can be quite fibrous, with a tough, stringy core that must be removed. Generally this core is not a problem, because as cassava cooks, it splits apart and the core can easily be removed. If you’d rather not hassle with peeling and boiling, seek a market specializing in Asian and other international foods. In the freezer section, you will likely find frozen cassava, ready to cook. You might also find cassava in cans there, too.

Now that you’ve got your peeled cassava on the kitchen counter, you’re probably wondering about the best way to cook it.

Skilled cooks in Africa developed a number of methods — grating, pounding and drying cassava into flour — to make its rather bland flavor pop in the mouth. Such techniques have resulted in commercial products that take a lot of the burden off of the cook. Tapioca pudding is made from dried cassava, available in nearly any grocery store.

Cassava flour can be used for making fufu, too. Gari adds texture to soups and other dishes. It can also be used in place of panko, a real boon to those on a gluten-free diet.

But if you opt to start from scratch, add large chunks of cassava to a meaty stew instead of potatoes. Try eating boiled cassava drenched with a spicy peanut sauce. Or simply fry it in the same way you might do with potatoes for French fries. Served a fiery pepper sauce, fried cassava offers a fresh taste of Africa.

Give cassava a try. I guarantee you will fall in love with it, too.

Cassava “French Fries”

Cassava gives a gluten-free twist to French fries. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Cassava fries provide a chewy twist to potato French fries. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes, depending upon the number of roots

Cook time: 25 to 40 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes to 1 hour

Yield: Serves two

Ingredients

4 10- to 12-inch-long cassava roots

1 tablespoon salt

Vegetable oil for frying

Directions

1. With a sharp knife, remove the pointed tips and peel the cassava, making sure to remove the thin membrane just under the bark-like peel.

2. Cut the cassava into 4- to 6-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise and then cut those into French fry-size sticks.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stove top. Add about 1 tablespoon of salt and the cassava. Reduce heat to a fast simmer, and cook the cassava until quite tender, usually about 20 to 30 minutes. Check doneness by poking a piece with a knife.

4. When done, drain the cassava and let cool slightly. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, heat oil to a depth of 1/4 inch over medium-high heat. Add the drained cassava and cook until cassava is a light golden brown.

5. Remove cassava from the oil, drain on paper towels, arrange on serving plates, and place a few tablespoons of the pepper sauce (recipe below) on each plate. Serve immediately.

Pepper Sauce

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups

Ingredients

10 habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers, orange or red, seeded and roughly chopped

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

4 Roma tomatoes, chopped

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

Salt to taste

1 cup vegetable oil, divided

Directions

1. Place all the ingredients, except for 1/2 cup of the oil, in a blender or food processor. Purée.

2. In a heavy skillet, heat the remaining 1/2 cup of oil over medium-high heat. Being cautious to avoid splattering oil, add the sauce and reduce the heat immediately to medium-low. Cook the sauce for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning.

3. Remove from heat, and let the sauce cool.

4. Store in a clean glass jar in your refrigerator, where it will be good for about a week. Be sure the sauce is always topped with a thin layer of oil. This helps to keep it safe and fresh.

Main photo: London’s large Ghanaian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Copyright Cynthia Bertelsen

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Meyer Lemon Pizzelles From Bon Appétempt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Photos of perfect-looking prepared food in glossy magazines used to make Amelia Morris mad — really mad. So in 2009 she decided to start a blog called Bon Appétempt to help beginners like her feel good about their cooking attempts, no matter how badly they turned out.

“I want to show what life is like for the rest of us: messy, poorly lit and falling well short of our aspirations,” she wrote in one of her first blog entries.


“Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)”
By Amelia Morris, Grand Central Publishing, 2015, 320 pages
» Click here to buy the book


Bon Appétempt is a now an award-winning blog that features recipes Morris adapted from magazines, along with fun cooking videos shot by her husband, bits of food memories and photos of herself and her family — because, after all, food is all tied up with relationships: who you’re cooking with, and for, even if it’s just yourself on a lonely night.

This is abundantly clear in Morris’ new memoir — “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)” — where she traces her journey as a novice cook while navigating difficult relationships with her parents (her father hoped she’d become a wrestler), and trying to find herself as a writer.

Cooking to heal and celebrate

Through financial hardships, deaths of family members, a long-distance relationship, and then marriage and parenthood, Morris consistently turned to cooking to soothe hurts, celebrate happy gatherings and give herself a feeling of pride and success.

Amelia Morris, author of “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)”   Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Amelia Morris, author of “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!).” Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Recipes that have given her comfort and joy, such as “My Mom’s Chicken Cordon Bleu” and “Simple Vanilla Cake With Dulce De Leche,” which she learned from a woman in Argentina, fill the pages.

Cooking as a creative activity is something Morris understands well, which is why she’s honest and even proud of her flops — each one made her a better cook.

“… [A]ll of these so-called failures taught me that though writers would like readers as much as chefs would like eaters, at the end of the day, if there are none of either to be found, we can continue creating anyway just to feed ourselves,” she writes.

I caught up with Morris to ask her to tell us more about her story. She happily shared a recipe for an Italian cookie called pizzelle that she adapted from the version her grandmother used to make (see below).

Q&A With Bon Appétempt’s Amelia Morris

It seemed that cooking sustained you through the trials of becoming a writer, is that correct?

It did — it helped me in a lot of ways. Working on a novel took a long time and was lonely work. It was nice to get away from computer and go make dinner. Cooking is a tangible thing; it feeds your family, it feeds yourself. It’s way to take care of yourself.

Can you describe one of your cooking failures?

There was one with fried chicken — I used a cookie sheet for the oil, so it dripped off the sides. People were coming over for dinner, so I jumped into the shower and my husband came in and said, “There’s black smoke coming out of the oven, I don’t know what to do!” All I could think of was the blog, so I said, “Can you get a picture of the black smoke?” It was comical! I did serve the chicken to our dinner guests, but it wasn’t great.

You tell the story of a fabulously ruined cake that you had planned to serve for Christmas.

Yes, the chocolate peppermint cake. It’s one of those things with baking — you think if you follow the rules and have the tools, you can do it! I set myself up for success. I started three days ahead and made all the components. I was so impressed with what I’d done — Matt took pictures of me putting it together. The cake was layers of ganache-cream-cake, ganache-cream-cake. But as I began to ice it, all the icing started to slide — and there was no stopping it! We started taking pictures of it — you can see the whole thing on the blog.

When did you cross the line as a cook and begin to really feel confident?

It took a really long time. Through the blog, people started coming to me with cooking questions and recipe tips, as if I was this knowledgeable cook, and I resisted it. But recently I realized — I am a decent cook. I don’t have formal training, I learned by just doing it. Seeing my grandma cook, I am sure I absorbed some basic knowledge.

Who are some of your favorite food-memoir writers?

Ruth Reichl was my introduction to food memoirs — I really love her writing. Also, M.F.K. Fisher‘s “How to Cook a Wolf” — I loved it from the minute I opened it up. I also love Molly Wizenberg’s books, and am inspired by “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.” He had a diner in Manhattan for a long time; he’s an interesting guy and his cookbook is really great.

Is there anything that still scares you, cooking-wise?

Yes! I’ve always wanted to grill a whole fish. That seems hard and scary, as well as cooking any big cuts of meat.

Meyer Lemon Pizzelle (Adapted From Food 52)

Prep time: About 25 minutes
Cook time: About 45 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes
Yield: About 40 to 50 cookies*, depending on iron size
(*If you want to make a ton like Grandma did, you should double this recipe.)

Ingredients

1 2/3 cups granulated sugar

6 large eggs, room temperature

2 sticks of butter, melted and cooled plus more for brushing on the pizzelle iron

3 teaspoons vanilla extract

Zest of 2 to 3 Meyer lemons (If you can’t find Meyer lemons, substitute with regular lemons or oranges.)

4 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into measuring cup

4 teaspoons baking powder

Directions

1. Combine the sugar and eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes until well incorporated. The eggs must be at least room temperature.

2. Slowly drizzle the melted butter into the mixture, while mixing on medium speed. Add the extract then the zest.

3. On low speed, add the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and the baking powder, one teaspoon at a time.

4. The batter should have a satin sheen to it, but should be light and stiff. If your batter is too liquid, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time until the batter is stiff.

5. I can’t speak for other pizzelle irons, but I have this one, and here is my advice for using it: Make sure the iron is super hot before beginning! Also, to avoid getting the batter stuck in the iron, I quickly brush all four sides of it with melted butter. Using a tablespoon scoop, place dollops of batter onto the iron. Close the iron tight and wait about 30 seconds before opening. Repeat 20 to 25 more times depending on iron size. Fresh, hot cookies can be rolled or shaped into cups, although I haven’t experimented with that yet. Next year!

Main photo: Meyer Lemon Pizzelles, hot off the press. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

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Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: David Latt

The lesser partner of center-stage bacon and eggs at breakfast, toast is often pushed to the edges of the plate waiting for a bit of butter and jam. But toast is forgotten no longer. Chef Jason Travi of Superba Food + Bread in Venice, California, has placed toast center stage, and not just for breakfast. No longer just dressed in sweet jams, toast appears on the restaurant’s menu topped with sautéed kale, prosciutto, avocado, smoked trout and muhammara, the spicy Middle Eastern condiment.

Why toast? Why now?

Dishes long associated with childhood meals have been improved with quality ingredients to the delight of diners. Chefs gave kid-friendly mac and cheese a makeover by adding English cheddar, fresh Maine lobster and truffle oil.

Travi was following a toast trend begun by all accounts by chef Giulietta Maria Carrelli of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club in the San Francisco Bay area. At Superba Food + Bread, chef Travi took me into his kitchen for a video demonstration of a signature dish: grilled toast with walnut muhammara and burrata. Before we began, he talked about his partnership with Jonathan Eng, the baker responsible for making the freshly baked breads used in the restaurant.

Good toast requires great bread

At Superba Food + Bread, Eng was encouraged to be innovative. The restaurant promoted collaboration. Often Eng will come up with an idea for a new bread. He and Travi would then explore toppings that would be a good match for the texture and flavor of the new bread. Sometimes Travi asked for a bread to go with a particular dish, such as the sprouted wheat loaf he asked Eng to make with millet, flax and sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. While the many sandwiches on the menu come with a variety of breads, all the toasts are made with the pain au levain.

To make his version of the classic French sourdough, Eng modified the recipe using a 16-hour cold fermentation. Using an Italian Bassanina Tubix steam pipe oven, he bakes the pain au levain loaves in 750- and 1,500-gram sizes. Both are used in the restaurant and sold in the bakery.

The only way the restaurant will be guaranteed to have freshly baked bread for the day’s service is if Eng starts work at 2 a.m. six days a week. When he arrives, the cleaning crew is just leaving. For a few hours he enjoys having the quiet restaurant all to himself. By the time Travi’s crew arrives for the breakfast service, Eng has his loafs stacked high on the wood counters, ready for the day’s diners.

A mother’s recipe passed down to her son, the chef

Chef Travi remembers watching his mother cook when he was growing up. From her Lebanese family, she learned to prepare Middle Eastern classics. One particular dish stayed in his memory, her muhammara, a spicy dip made with peppers, walnuts, bread crumbs and olive oil.

To complement the spicy flavors of the muhammara, Travi adds freshly made burrata and the crunch of pickled radish.

Muhammara-Burrata Toast With Pickled Radish

While the spread will work on any bread, Eng encourages using a good quality sourdough that is baked fresh and eschews preservatives. Although ready-made bread crumbs can be used, the quality of the muhammara will be improved when they are homemade.

The muhammara can be made the day of use or reserved covered in the refrigerator for up to five days. The radishes should pickle for two days and then can be refrigerated in an airtight container in the pickling liquid for several days.

The Aleppo powder Travi prefers is frequently unavailable. He suggests substituting cayenne powder. The heat from the two are different, so taste and adjust the amount used.

Pomegranate molasses is available in Middle Eastern and Israeli markets and sometimes in the International sections of supermarkets.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 whole red pepper, washed, to yield ¾ cup roasted red peppers

6 slices freshly baked bread, divided

¼ cup raw walnuts

1½ teaspoons pomegranate molasses

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

¼ to ½ teaspoon Aleppo powder or cayenne

1 tablespoon olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups fresh burrata

1 tablespoon Italian parsley leaves, washed, dried

1 tablespoon pickled radishes (see recipe below)

Directions

1. Heat oven to 450 F. Place the whole red pepper on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Cook 15 to 30 minutes depending on size or until the skin is lightly browned and the flesh is tender. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

2. When the pepper is cool to the touch, use a pairing knife to cut off the stem and peel away the skin. Discard the skin and seeds. Finely chop the flesh. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.

3. Tear two slices of fresh bread into pieces. Heat a nonstick pan. Toast the pieces in the pan. Remove. Allow to cool. Place into a blender and pulse to make crumbs. Return the bread crumbs to the pan. Do not use oil. Toast the bread crumbs until lightly brown. Set aside to cool. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.

4. Reduce the oven to 325 F. Place the walnut pieces on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Bake about 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown.

5. Remove and allow to cool.

6. Place red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate molasses, ground cumin, ground coriander, Aleppo powder or cayenne and olive oil into a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

7. Taste and adjust flavor by adding sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

8. Heat a grill or a grill-pan. Place the remaining bread slices on the grill just long enough for grill marks to appear. Remove.

9. Place the toast slices on a cutting board and then spread a layer of muhammara on each slice. Decoratively spoon on three or four teaspoon-sized mounds of burrata, season with sea salt and black pepper, sprinkle on pickled radish and parsley leaves.

Lebanese-Style Pickled Radish

At a supermarket or farmers market, buy fat, firm radishes with unwilted leaves attached to ensure they are freshly picked.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 2 minutes

Pickling time: 2 days

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 large radishes, washed, stems and root ends removed

¼ cup water

¼ cup white vinegar

¼ cup white sugar

Directions

1. Clean the radishes to remove all dirt. Cut away any blemishes and discard.

2. Using a sharp chef’s knife, julienne the radishes, cutting from stem top to root end. The strips should be as uniform as possible, about 1/8-inch thick.

3. Place the julienned radishes in a non-reactive bowl.

4. Place water, vinegar and sugar into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar.

5. Pour the hot liquid over the radish. Cover. Let sit on the counter 2 days.

6. The pickled radish will keep up to a week in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Main photo: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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