Articles in Cooking

A selection of cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s. Credit: Emily Contois

In the 1950s and 1960s, the food industry churned out a veritable buffet of newfangled food products with recipes to match, uniquely combining foods such as peanut butter, pineapple and Velveeta in a single dish. Such odd recipes made their way into the American culinary vernacular as the food industry sought domestic applications for food preservation technologies and products created during World War II.

Laura Shapiro tells this tale of convenience foods in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America.” Through recipes printed on can labels and the back of boxes, in free pamphlets and branded cookbooks, the food industry sought to instruct housewives, who were initially leery of these new convenience foods, on how to cook with them, at every meal and for every audience. As Shapiro argues, rather than being rooted in any particular gastronomic tradition, “packaged-food cuisine” was its own invented culinary phenomenon, aimed at promoting specific food products. As a result, these recipes often recommended flavor and ingredient pairings that were unusual, to say the very least.

I’ve rounded up a selection of such recipes, drawing from cookbooks such as “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book,” published in 1950, and Campbell’s “Easy Ways to Delicious Meals,” whose revised edition made its way onto bookshelves and into kitchens in 1968. Are these product-pushing recipes inventive or insane? Do they provide an unexpectedly right combination of savory and sweet or do they completely miss the mark? Are they surprisingly tasty or downright gross? You be the judge.

Recipes

1. Beans & Franks Chiquita. A simple recipe designed for a child to make, this dish starts with chopped onion cooked in butter (or margarine), then mixed with a can of beans and franks in tomato sauce. To this mixture, one adds the “Chiquita” portion of the recipe: sliced canned peaches, sliced bananas and a touch of nutmeg.

2. Beef Fizz. Described as “sheer wizardry as a pick-up,” this “refreshing” beverage recipe calls for a can of condensed beef broth mixed with a half cup of club soda and garnished with lemon.

3. Hawaiian Sandwich. In this recipe, which I alluded to in the intro, Velveeta “gets party-fancy” with “a really exotic flavor combination” that is “easy to fix and dramatic to serve.” Slather toasted bun halves with peanut butter. Then add a well-drained slice of pineapple and a slice of Velveeta. Bake or broil until the cheese melts, then top with a maraschino cherry.

 4. Marvelous Milk. While many a mom has cajoled a child into drinking her milk by stirring in a long squirt of chocolate syrup, how about beating in a mashed banana and a few drops of lemon juice?

5. Saucy Susans. If you’ve grown bored with basic biscuits, try this recipe, which substitutes tomato juice for the milk, resulting in pink-hued pastries. Bake the biscuit dough stacked in pairs with a slice of cheese sandwiched between to produce a breakfast-y version of grilled cheese and tomato soup.

6. Sunday Morning Sausage Ring. Perk up your weekend breakfast by combining 2 pounds of pork sausage with a couple of beaten eggs, some grated onion, bread crumbs and chopped parsley. Pack this savory concoction into a 9″ ring mold. Bake for 40 minutes at 350 F, taking out halfway through to pour off excess fat. Fill the ring with “Eggs à la King,” a soupy mixture of quartered hard-boiled eggs, cream sauce, canned mushrooms, chopped green pepper and pimiento, and paprika.

7. Wedgies. Don’t worry. Underwear-related social torture is not involved in this appetizer, but it is a “cake” made entirely from processed meat and cheese. Start with softened cream cheese and season it with minced onions or chives and a squirt of mustard. Spread the cream cheese on slices of bologna and then stack slices on top of one another like a layer cake. Then “ice” the tops and sides of your meat cake with a spreadable cheese. Decorate as you like with sliced olives. Chill, cut into wedges and serve.

Main photo: A selection of cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s. Credit: Emily Contois

 

 

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Tonkatsu kare, or pork cutlet with curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

After several days in Japan, every foreign traveler notices that the Japanese love kare-raisu or curry rice as much as they do sushi and ramen. This dish of an aromatic but not very spicy curry sauce served with rice and protein can be found throughout the country, from the largest cities to the smallest remote mountain villages. There are entire restaurants specializing in kare-raisu, small family-run operations and large restaurant chains. The strange story of how this distinctive dish came to be a Japanese favorite starts with the British, their navy, and a Japanese physician’s observations on malnutrition.

After Japan emerged from centuries of isolation with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese government decided to model its newly developing navy after all aspects of the British navy, including the training of its officers and sailors. Around the same time, Japanese doctor Kanehiro Takaki, who had studied at an English medical school, was appointed as a navy physician. Takaki’s mission was to conquer the mysterious disease beriberi, which was very common among Japanese naval officers and seamen.

During his stay in England, Takaki did not see many cases of beriberi in the British navy. And he noted that the British sailors’ protein-rich diet that also included wheat bread — foods rich in vitamin B, which we now know is required to prevent beriberi — was very different from Japanese sailors’ simple diet of fish, vegetables and rice. He concluded that malnutrition was the cause of the beriberi epidemic and that the addition of such proteins to the diet could solve the beriberi problem in the Japanese navy. Takaki returned to Japan and worked to persuade the navy that it should adopt a Western diet containing protein for the sailors. Nutritious, filling and easy to make in a single pot, kare-raisu was perfect for the navy kitchen and was soon adopted by all branches of the navy. It became the custom in the navy to serve kare-raisu at the end of each week.

Also in that period, great changes were occurring on the Japanese culinary scene. The ban on meat eating that had been imposed on the commoner population was finally lifted. New ingredients such as butter and milk were introduced to the Japanese kitchen. The Emperor himself promoted Western-style meals, with the hope of building a stronger and taller Japanese population. Under these conditions, new Western-style dishes, collectively called yoshoku, were born, and some of these new creations were adopted by the navy kitchen. Kare-raisu, directly inspired by the curry-spiced stew dish served in the British navy, was one. This is how curry rice came to Japan from India by way of the British navy.

Here is an early kare-raisu recipe published in 1906 from the “Kaigun Kappo Jutsu Sankoshoor Navy Cooking Technique Reference Cookbook.

1. Cut meat, carrots, onions and potato into cubes.

2. Heat beef fat in a stock pot and cook flour.

3. Add curry powder, stock, meat and vegetables, and cook over low heat.

4. Add salt to taste.

5. Serve the curry sauce over steamed rice with pickled vegetables.

It is not at all different from the recipe in general use today.

Japanese curry with vegetables

Vegetables with rice and curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

In Tokyo, kare-raisu was first served to the public at high-class, white-tablecloth restaurants. Diners often dressed in Western attire and, wanting to be seen as modern, ate their curry with knives, forks and spoons, not the usual chopsticks. It is recorded that in 1877, Tokyo Fugetsu-do, a Western-style restaurant, served kare-raisu and its price was 8 sen (8 cents).

A few decades later, a different style curry was born in Tokyo. This new curry dish came directly from India by a rather serendipitous route. Ras Bihari Bose, an Indian activist, fled to Japan in 1915 when his plan with colleagues to overthrow the British Raj failed. But Japan was part of an Anglo-Japan Alliance, and Bose was not safe. Luckily, he fell under the protection of Aizo Soma, a businessman known for his benevolent activities. Soma owned and operated Nakamuraya, a store in Tokyo that produced newly introduced bread products along with the traditional Japanese sweets. Bose tasted Japanese kare-raisu while he was in hiding under Soma’s protection, but criticized it as “not at all authentic.” He proceeded to help Soma develop a more authentic Indian curry recipe. The result, Indo-kare, was introduced to Soma’s customers in 1927 at his new café-restaurant, which still exists.

Today kare-raisu and Indo-kare share the same popularity in Japan. My favorite kare-raisu is, of course, my mother’s curry. Her version is in between the European and Indian styles of curry. Beautifully caramelized onion with commercially prepared S&B Curry Powder and some flour in oil was cooked with carrot, potato, apple in chicken stock for more than four hours. As the sauce cooks, she checks the flavor several times and adds seasonings such as salt, sugar and shoyu (soy sauce). I followed my mother each step, tasted it as the curry cooked down and learned the very best flavor, texture and color in the prepared dishes. The end result was a velvety, brown, lightly thickened, aromatic sauce. Below is my recent kare-raisu recipe, inspired my shrimp curry recipe in my book  “The Japanese Kitchen.

Hiroko's Chicken Curry

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup canola oil
  • Half medium white onion, chopped in food processor
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, chopped fine in food processor
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped fine in food processor
  • 2 tablespoons Japanese S&B curry powder or Madras curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • About 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
  • 2½ cups chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons Tamari soy sauce
  • Sea salt
  • About ¼ cup apricot jam
  • About 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 2 chicken thighs and legs, skin attached, cut into 6 to 7 pieces
  • Half lemon
  • Cooked rice (short-, medium- or long-grain rice)

Directions

  1. Cook the onion in heated oil until it is lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Add the ginger and garlic and cook 1 minute more.
  2. Add the curry powder, turmeric and flour and cook until it is smooth. Add 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add an additional 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add the remaining ½ cup of the stock and stir with a whisk. Add the tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, tamari, sea salt, apricot jam and light brown sugar.
  3. Cook the curry sauce about 1½ hours -- longer is better. When the sauce is cooked halfway, squeeze the lemon half into the curry sauce and throw the used lemon into the sauce.
  4. Heat a little oil in the skillet and brown the chicken pieces on both sides.
  5. Transfer the chicken pieces to the curry pot. Cook the chicken in the sauce for 20 to 30 minutes over very low heat, covered.
  6. Serve the curry over hot, cooked rice.

Main photo: Tonkatsu kare, or pork cutlet with curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo 

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Finnish chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. Credit: Martin Thompson

Finns treasure their solitary excursions into the endless woods and forests that fringe the 187,888 lakes and 179,584 islands of their hauntingly beautiful countryside. Throughout the summer and autumn, they prefer to keep their meditations on the beauty of the natural world to themselves: They rarely go in large groups, privacy is valued, and the social code generally prohibits more than a brief nod to anyone they meet. And, of course, they sensibly like to keep their prized foraging spots to themselves.

Although Finns have always collected berries and mushrooms, other types of plant-hunting have become nearly forgotten skills. Foraging was associated with war-time hardship (dandelion roots, for example, were used as a substitute for coffee) and rejected in favor of status-symbol, shop-bought food. However, Helsinki-based chef  Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. And it’s not just a way of finding food for free, but of celebrating healthy produce and enlightening minds.

As Tallberg says, “Once you understand where ingredients come from, you see their beauty and learn to respect their qualities with the minimum of processing.”

Catching the foraging bug

Tallberg got the foraging bug about 10 years ago when working in London. One day the legendary Kentish forager Miles Irving walked into the kitchen with a box of wild seakale.

“I was just knocked out when I tried it,” Tallberg recalled, “and when I came back to Finland, I realized I was living in a big green supermarket. The Everyman’s Rights Code allows anyone to pick anywhere except someone’s back garden or protected species.”

Tallberg does not consider wild plants as substitutes for cultivated vegetables and herbs, but as important ingredients in their own right, both in terms of taste and their nutritional qualities.

Taking advantage of one of Finland’s long summer days, Tallberg and I went foraging on a tiny island that lies within Helsinki’s city limits. We were surrounded by a surprisingly wide variety of edible plants: mild, strong, crunchy, coarse, fragrant, bulky, delicate. Less than an hour later, he served me the best salad I have ever eaten. And the cheapest.

Highlighting wild herbs and plants

The use of wild herbs and plants has become a hallmark of many modern restaurants in Finland and elsewhere — Noma in Copenhagen led the way with its version of the new Nordic Cuisine. But Tallberg wants to introduce (or re-introduce) wild plants to the home cook.

As we explored the thickets of greenery, Tallberg gave me a lesson in plant-hunting. The patches of wild strawberries, with tiny, twinkling fruit, were easy to spot and Tallberg showed me how to string them on a blade of grass to transport them safely home. Carpets of exquisite purple and yellow heartsease (Viola tricolor) were delicately perfumed with vanilla. And Japanese rose bushes (Rosa rugosa) were in bloom, their petals shocking pink against the dark green leaves.

After that, plant identification became trickier. Tallberg is adamant you should not eat or even pick any plant you cannot recognize with absolute certainty. If in doubt, leave it out, he advises.

“Start with the ones (plants) you already know to get you going,” he advised as he presented me with a bunch of sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella), which he describes as a smaller, more elegant version of common sorrel. “Many people think it’s a noxious weed, but it’s lovely with fish and shellfish or green asparagus.”

“When you find a new plant, stop and go back some 10 meters and walk towards the plants again. This way you will be able to make observations about some essential feature, such as color, height, leaf shape, scent and so on.”

foragingbag

foragingbag
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Mushroom forager's bag at Mikkeli Market, Finland. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Unless you go out with an experienced forager, it helps immensely to consult a book, such as Tallberg’sWild Herb Cookbook,” or take a course about native plants at a local community college. Websites, such as NatureGate, are also helpful. But, as Tallberg says, “Be sensible: don’t go harvesting herbs or plants along highways, on areas sprayed with herbicides, or near factories. Also avoid foraging near golf courses or other areas where herbicides or other pesticides may have been used. Consider sustainability and don’t tear out all the roots. The tools you need are the same as used in gathering mushrooms: a basket and a small knife, although I also include scissors in my basic tool kit. If you’re picking nettles, wear gloves.”

Able to identify culinary plants

As he gathered samples of chickweed,  fat hen and sweet cicely, Tallberg said he could identify more than 80 varieties of culinary plants but was still learning.

“I get so excited when I’m out foraging — I imagine how lovely the violets will be with fish or how polypody (Polypodium) is a natural flavor enhancer for game or how I’m going to use pine needles like rosemary or deep-fry nettle leaves or lichen and flavor them with juniper salt. … And then I remember I’m still in Helsinki — it’s crazy! Foraging has given me a new angle on life, not just gastronomy,” he said.

Tallberg has built a business supplying wild ingredients to other chefs, has written several books on the subject and acts as a national consultant and Finnish food ambassador. He was awarded the prestigious Finland Prize for his work with food, nature and conservation.

As we meandered, Tallbert was a companionable and enthusiastic soundtrack, “There are many different types of dandelion. … Oh, look, there’s some orpine. They’ve got juicy, succulent leaves and tops, and you can use them like a salad leaf or toss into a jus. … Ooh, just found some Polypodium vulgare, that’s quite liquorish and good for fish and game. … A bit later in the year, this is where I’ll find bilberries, rowanberries, wild raspberries … Wild yarrow will bring herbal tones to a salad. … I use maple leaves, when they’re young and shiny, like vine leaves. … Chickweed are like pea shoots but milder and more mellow and add volume to a salad.”

Back at his flat, he explained the building blocks of wild salad making: “You’re looking for acidity, aroma and sweetness.”

To the haunting music of Aino Vena, we drank refreshing Nordic Koivu, birch sap water, as Tallberg made a vinaigrette with a splash of sea buckthorn juice. The salad was vivid and intense. I could feel myself getting healthier as I ate. Together with an omelette, local goat’s cheese and yogurt with wild strawberries, violets and bee pollen, it was the real taste of Finland.

Pork Chops With Fat Hen and Mustard*

Ingredients

  • Yield: 4 servings
  • Four 7-ounce pork chops (use first-class pork for this dish)
  • 2 handfuls of fat hen
  • 2 tablespoons strong mustard
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • Olive oil
  • Freshly ground sea salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Season the pork chops with sea salt and pepper, brush with oil and fry on a hot cast-iron pan until just cooked.
  2. Cook the fat hen in water flavored with honey and salt for a couple of minutes, drain, toss with a drop of olive oil and serve with mustard.
  3. * This goes well with Carrots With Sweet Cicely

Carrots With Sweet Cicely

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

14 ounces small carrots

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons honey (brown sugar or treacle will do, too)

2½ cups water

half a handful of sweet cicely, finely chopped

2 ounces butter

Directions

1. Peel the carrots (unless you are using new season ones that have a thin peel containing plenty of flavor).

2. Place all the ingredients in a pot (apart from the sweet cicely), covering the carrots with water. Cook until almost all of the water has evaporated and a shiny butter glaze remains. Add the sweet cicely.

 

Steamed Fillet of Salmon With Ox-Eye Daisy Shoots

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 (4-ounce) pieces of salmon, boned

1 cucumber, sliced lengthways

4 tablespoons salad dressing*

Freshly ground sea salt and pepper

Directions

1. Season the salmon pieces with sea salt and pepper, steam them for about 3 minutes and leave to stand in room temperature for about 10 minutes, after which they will be ready.

2. Peel the cucumber, spoon out the seeds and cut the cucumber lengthwise into thin slices (with a cheese slicer or mandolin cutter).

3. Toss the shoots and cucumber in the salad dressing, season with sea salt and pepper and serve with the salmon at room temperature.

 

* Salad dressing

Ingredients

2 generous cups of cold-pressed olive oil

1¼ cup vegetable oil

¾ cup white wine vinegar

1½ tablespoon dried tarragon

4 medium-size garlic cloves, sliced

4 to 5 ounces Dijon-type mustard

Juice of half a lemon

Directions

1. Mix the ingredients in a jug blender or with a hand blender, and strain them by pressing through a strainer with a small ladle to ensure all aromas are captured.

Recipes are from: “Wild Herb Cookbook” by Sami Tallberg (2012), available in both Finnish- and English-language editions.

Main photo: Finnish chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. Credit: Martin Thompson

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Sad Cake. Credit: Barbara Haber

A British friend recently told me about a cake she grew up with called Sad Cake. That title struck me as pretty funny because when we think about cake we are conditioned to connect it to happiness — birthdays, anniversaries, all sorts of joyous celebrations. It turns out, though, that this British cake found in Lancashire got its name because it’s made from leftover pastry and has no filling such as the layer of candied peel, lots of currants and spices found in Eccles cake, a British favorite. Instead, sad cake is studded with just a few currants, and comes out of the oven looking flat and a little dejected.

Deflating dishes

Discovering sad cake got me thinking about the sorts of foods that sink my spirits, and I will be quick to say that what brings on melancholy in me may give others joy. For instance, when I order a restaurant main course described as including green vegetables only to wind up with a large hunk of meat, a pile of potatoes and two lonely string beans artfully placed, I feel a little sad because I wanted more of the beans. No doubt, this same plate of food would be completely satisfying to someone else.

I remember a time when I ordered tarte tatin, fully expecting to receive the classic upside-down caramelized apple pie, thick and toothsome. What was placed before me was a deconstructed version of the dish, a circle of pastry on one side of the plate, a pile of stewed apples across from it, and in the middle a little puddle of caramel sauce. The pastry chef no doubt had fun taking apart this wonderful dish, but I was left feeling bereft, longing for a thick slice of this beloved pie in which the flavors commingle.

Another sort of food that lowers my mood is the sight of blue or pink frosting on cakes. For me, only chocolate or caramel frosting will do, a prejudice I suspect comes down from my mother who used to say rude things about artificially dyed foods. This brings me to an important distinction I must make between foods that make me sad and those that are revolting. Sad foods leave me feeling forlorn and disappointed. Revolting foods are downright stomach-turning.

What usually turns off people are foods outside of their culture and experience. If you didn’t grow up eating chicken feet or even rabbits, the thought of them can send chills. The mere idea of eating other small wild animals is repulsive to people who are not used to dining on squirrels or raccoons. What I find disagreeable these days is how bacon turns up in unexpected places. I was served a sugar cookie recently, and instead of coming across chocolate chips or raisins, I bit into little chunks of greasy bacon. Disgusted by this innovation, I discreetly spat a mouthful into a napkin and ditched the rest of the cookie. So, it is the unpleasant combination of ingredients and flavors that also are candidates for my revolting foods category. I don’t like Fluff with peanut butter, or bananas with anything, but unlike many people, I just love Miracle Whip, especially on cold chicken sandwiches. Again, I find that tastes vary considerably, not only from one country to another but from one family to the next.

One person’s anger is another’s …

The last related category in my compendium is foods that make you angry. When the medium-rare hamburger I ask for in a decent restaurant comes back well-done and gray, my passions rise. Sometimes entire meals can be vexing. I once attended a tasting dinner at a high-end restaurant, and of the six people around our table, only my husband was new to the game. Each course had different dishes that were set before us, and the idea was to take a taste and then pass the plate on to the person seated at our right. That way we all had a taste of everything without getting stuffed, and as far as I was concerned, the meal could have gone on forever, for we foodies, or “foodists” as some would prefer, were feeling happy about having our appetites and curiosity appeased. However, when I later asked my husband if he had enjoyed the meal, he told me that it made him mad because every time he really liked something, the plate was snatched away and he was handed something not nearly as good. Go figure.

The moral of all of this is that food creates mood, a well-known observation that is played out in literature and life. In “Like Water for Chocolate,” a young girl, thwarted in love, projects her grief onto the food she prepares, causing all who eat it to cry and sob. A more recent novel, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” uses a similar magical device to give a young girl the ability to identify the cook’s genuine emotions in what she eats. In tasting her mother’s lemon cake, for instance, the girl discovers that her seemingly cheerful mother is a lonely and unhappy woman. These books, though full of high drama and literary license, are just another way of telling us that food affects our emotions.

I would only add that we each experience this truth in our own way.

Main photo: Sad Cake. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Using best beginner canning tips yields, from left, homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes, and green beans even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz

The process of canning food can seem daunting at first. There’s a long list of equipment to assemble, complex instructions to follow, and the nagging feeling that if you do it wrong you may inadvertently spoil the fruits of your labor. I’ve done my fair share of canning, but after moving four times in the past five years, I’ve been repeatedly thrust back into beginner mode. Even for an experienced food preservationist, canning food in an unfamiliar kitchen is like being a newbie again.

With each move and each misplaced box of Mason jars, I have returned to basics. And nothing is more basic to a well-stocked kitchen than canning. I enter my new kitchen like all first-time canners — open to many possibilities as I begin to work in unfamiliar territory. With these tips and strategies you’ll stay organized and ready to preserve that bushel of fragrant peaches you couldn’t resist at your local farmers market.

5 best canning tricks for beginners

1. Create a canning center somewhere in your home.

Nothing will derail your project faster than an inability to find your tools. The location for your canning center doesn’t have to be large or fancy. It doesn’t even need to be in the kitchen. For the past year, I’ve kept my canning supplies in two giant plastic storage containers. One container corrals my canner, various small tools and my favorite canning recipes. The second container is full of canning jars stacked in their original storage flats or carefully wrapped in packing paper. Choose any color you like for your system. (My containers are bright blue — unlike any other storage container I own.) Just make sure that you can identify your canning supplies at 20 paces, even in a crowded storage room or basement.

2. Be a jar hoarder and an equipment re-gifter.

I hesitate to tell anyone to be a hoarder, but it is necessary to have a  selection of jar sizes on hand if you want to can a variety of foods. Whether you’re new to canning or you’ve purged your home of jars before a cross-country move as I did, you’ll need to stock up on jars. Look at your favorite recipes — or recipes you want to try — and see what kind of jars (and how many) the recipe requires. I hoard every canning jar that comes my way. I also watch for sales at my local hardware store and big box stores. Canning jars start going on sale in late summer, especially in stores that consider canning a summer-only pursuit.

You can free up space for your jar stash by purging your home of unnecessary kitchen equipment. I get rid of any tool I haven’t used in two years and generously gift my friends and neighbors with tools I no longer use.

3. Test your equipment before you want to use it.

If you don’t use all the burners on your stove on a regular basis, check them to make sure they’re operational — especially the largest front burner. Check all glass canning jars for nicks and cracks. Be sure that metal rings are free of rust. It’s easy to break a thermometer or discover that the batteries have corroded inside your favorite kitchen timer since you last used it. The time to discover these problems is before you have a flat of ripe strawberries sitting on your kitchen counter. If the tools and jars look OK, wash them in hot soapy water (except electronic devices, of course) and let them dry thoroughly before starting your project.

4. Allow twice as much time as you think you need for the process.

It’s amazing how long it can take to read directions, especially for a beginner. Recipes are usually written for experienced cooks, and I’ve found that they often underestimate the time required. Read the amount of work time suggested by your recipe and double it. This will give you time to hunt down missing tools and still finish your project before you need to pick kids up from school or make dinner. If you finish early, congratulate yourself and use the time to make yourself a cup of tea after all your hard work. The dirty dishes can wait.

5. Conduct a test run.

I do a dry run of every canning project as I start to boil water in my canner. (This is yet another reason to double the time required for any recipe.) It may seem silly — especially if you’ve already read the directions once — but it’s easy to make mistakes or take the layout of your kitchen for granted while working under pressure. You won’t realize how far away your stove is from the closest available countertop until you try to unload a dozen boiling jars from a steaming canner. And potholders always seem to run away just as the timer goes off. A dry run will help you work out the kinks in your process and put the tools you need in the place you’ll need them.

Main photo: Using the best beginner canning tips yields homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes and green beans, even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Chocolate icebox cake with Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Ghirardelli chocolate. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Sometimes hand-me down family recipes need a little nudge to make them suit today’s tastes. In the case of my grandma’s icebox cake, she traditionally labored over creating homemade pound cake and then paired it with homemade chocolate mousse-like pudding. My mom updated it for her day by using Jell-O pudding instead. It was tasty enough to be my favorite dessert as a 6-year-old, but as an adult, I want something more. More chocolate, to be specific.

So I followed a big sister’s suggestion and combined the best of these family ideas. I added all the extra-dark chocolate I could find to the pudding as it cooked. Valrhona, Scharffen Berger, Callebaut, Guittard, Ghirardelli — pick your poison. And it didn’t seem to matter how much I threw in, so I took advice from my 8-year-old grandnephew, who is fond of promoting “add as much chocolate as you want” to almost any dessert recipe, and included three full bars of Valhrona, 1½ boxes of Scharffen Berger and a partial bag of Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips. And always on the lookout for simple and fast, I found that a three-loaf package of store-bought pound cake works just as well as homemade when chocolate is the star of the dessert.

With all that input — and all that chocolate — this cake might just live on to be a five-generation heirloom. I think Grandma would be proud.

Extra Chocolatey Icebox Cake

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 12-16 servings

Ingredients

  • 3 store-bought pound cakes
  • 18 ounces or more of dark chocolate (bars, bits or chips)
  • 2 large (5-ounce) boxes of Jell-O Cook and Serve Chocolate Pudding
  • 6 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups whipped cream

Directions

  1. Cut pound cakes into ½ inch slices. Each cake should supply enough slices to fit in a single layer in a 9 x 13 baking pan.
  2. Break up chunks of dark chocolate bars. Combine two boxes of pudding mix and 6 cups of whole milk in a large saucepan set over medium high heat. When it starts to warm up, add chocolate pieces and continue to stir until the mixture boils. Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. Line a 9 x 13 baking pan with one layer of ½ inch slices of pound cake. Spread one-third of the pudding over the layer of cake. Repeat layering process two more times, alternating cake and pudding.
  4. Insert a few toothpicks in the top of the cake to keep plastic wrap from resting directly on pudding and cover. Refrigerate for 12 hours to allow the cake to chill and the pudding to settle.
  5. Prior to serving, spread a layer of freshly whipped cream over top of cake.

Notes

If you have a stash of good-quality baking chocolate, I encourage you to simply empty it into the pudding. It seems to be able to absorb quite a bit without consequence. You can serve this cake with as little as 3 hours’ chilling time, but it is best if left to settle and chill overnight or at least 12 hours.

Main photo: Chocolate icebox cake with Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Ghirardelli chocolate. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Consuming whole grains is making us healthier eaters. Take rice, which since ancient times has been one of the most popular grains eaten around the world, particularly in Asia.

Many Japanese  people, including myself, are making the switch from white rice to brown rice, opting for unmilled or partially milled. Brown has become the new white — for its purity, if you will.

The brown part, the bran and the germ of the grain, contains all the good stuff — protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Besides its nutritional value, brown rice is better than white rice because it keeps you full for a long time and it takes longer to digest compared with white rice. This is because white rice is mainly starch, which turns into sugar when it goes into your digestive system. In fact, Japanese people are dieting on brown rice to lose weight and detox.

It helps to know how to cook brown rice to ensure optimum flavor and texture — nutty, sticky, aromatic and sweet. What I look for in my brown rice is good moisture and stickiness, but not mushiness. I also want my rice to be flavorful in its natural state and tasty even at room temperature.

What is the best way to achieve this perfect balance for rice? Japanese people will give you a variety of answers, but many cooks are still searching for the best method. After all, we have been spoiled eating white rice.

You need to know that it takes a little longer to cook brown rice because it has another layer of skin. The idea is to soften it. Basically, all it takes to cook brown rice is water and a little salt. I don’t use any oil or butter when cooking rice as Western cooks do, but that’s optional. The main question is the vessel in which the brown rice is cooked. You are looking at about an hour to cook rice from prepping to done, no matter what you use. Here are several options to consider.

Pressure cooker

I love cooking brown rice with a pressure cooker. Many brown rice aficionados swear by it. The rice comes out nutty, sticky, sweet and shiny — all the qualities I am looking for.

Cooking it in a pressure cooker does not require soaking, and it doesn’t take too much water to cook the rice. You’ll want a ratio of about 1-to-1.5 rice-to-water. While cooking, you’ll have to keep an eye on the pressure cooker while the pressure is building and you must handle the pressure cooker with care, so you don’t burn yourself. These tasks may be challenging for some cooks. Also, each pressure cooker works slightly differently, so you need to follow your manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

Using a pressure cooker is faster than other methods as well, about five minutes to prep the rice and 35 minutes to cook it, including the steaming.

Donabe clay pot

The donabe — a Japanese clay pot — has been used in Japan to cook rice and other dishes since ancient times. Sitting around the wood-burning stove waiting for the rice to cook in the donabe was one of my favorite childhood pastimes with my grandmother.

Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

The grains love the even heat of the clay pot — the individual grains literally stand up when rice is cooked in a donabe. The donabe method is easier than you may think, but I know of two American friends who broke their donabes before they even cooked a grain of rice in them. A donabe needs to be seasoned properly, similar to using a tagine.

The donabe method for cooking rice is straightforward: The rice is soaked overnight in the pot with the measured water. The water-to-rice ratio is about 1-to-2. The rice is cooked to a boil over medium high heat for 30 to 35 minutes. The lid must be closed, and no peeking is allowed during cooking. Then, the heat is turned off and the rice rests for another 30 to 40 minutes. Still, no peeking until the timer goes off.

This method will give you a nutty, aromatic rice with good texture. Cooking brown rice in a donabe pot is a slow process, but the method is pleasing to the eye and palate. A good source for donabe pots is Toiro Kitchen.

Electric rice cooker — the no-brainer method

Rice cookers were invented in the 1950s in Japan. They had a life-changing effect on Japanese cooks like my mother and grandmother because they allowed them to walk away from the pot.

The rice cooks rather perfectly each time, so long as you allow it to soak beforehand and hit the water-to-rice ratio right. In a rice cooker, it can range between 1-to-1 and 1-to-1.2. The rule of thumb is to allow at least 20 minutes for soaking.

In recent years, rice cooker companies have come up with more advanced devices that look and think like robots. Some rice cookers come with a cast iron or clay inner cooker — ultra-modern technology enveloping old-fashioned equipment. They come with timers and various cooking settings for everything from porridge to sushi rice to brown rice. Some can even be used to bake bread. Costs can range from $150 to $800.

My Tiger rice cooker comes with a load of fancy features, but I use only the buttons for basic rice and brown rice. It’s a reliable machine. I should explore the other buttons. You can also buy rice cookers made in China that cost less than $30 but still cook a decent bowl of rice. You can find them at Target and Costco, among other retailers.

Stove or oven method

The simplest way to cook brown rice is on the stove top or in the oven. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Le Creuset and Lodge make Dutch oven pots with a lid that you can place in the oven.

Baked brown rice comes out slightly moister and stickier than the stove top method. Here are the recipes for both, if you want to see which you prefer. Just like all the other rice recipes, no peeking is allowed while steaming the rice.

Stove Top Brown Rice

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 60 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice

2¾ cups of water

¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)

Directions

1. Combine rice, water and salt in a heavy pot and bring to a boil.

2. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook for 45 minutes.

3. Remove from heat with the lid on and let stand for 10 minutes to allow for further steaming.

4. Fluff with a rice paddle or fork. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls (this portion makes 4 onigiris) and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.

Baked Brown Rice

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 60 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2½ cups water

1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice

¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)

Directions

1. Bring water to a boil and preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the brown rice in an 8-inch square dish or a 7½-inch-by-2¾-inch Le Creuset pan baking dish.

2. Pour boiling water over the rice, cover tightly with aluminum foil and put it in the oven to bake for 45 minutes. Do not peek.

3. Remove from oven, toss the rice with a fork or rice paddle, put the cover back on and let the rice stand for 10 minutes.

4. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.

Main photo: Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

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Rigani-flavored baked chicken, with potatoes, has a different taste than one made with common oregano. Credit: Rosemary Barron

Making a favorite summer dish at a friend’s house recently, I used oregano that he’d bought in his local supermarket. The baked chicken I made that day didn’t taste at all like the dish I make at home with the oregano (rigani) I bring back from Crete, or buy tied in large bunches from a Greek deli in London.

My friend had taken care to source a fine chicken and good olive oil, the wine was flowing, and everyone was having a great time. But, as far as I was concerned, the chicken didn’t taste right. I wondered whether everyone who’s enjoyed wonderful, rigani-fragranced foods in Greece has found that their dishes, once they were back home, didn’t taste quite as good. The attractive label of the herb I’d used from my friend’s shelf had declared it “wild oregano,” but was it really oregano?

What is oregano?

The answer, I discovered, is both yes and no. In the world of commercial food-supply (and, sometimes, seed-supply), “oregano” can denote any herb in the Origanum family, which contains a number of subspecies. And this is where the cook’s problem lies: Each of these subspecies has a distinct character, and not all give good results in the kitchen.

True Greek oregano, or rigani, goes by the Latin name of origanum vulgare hirtum (or O. heracleoticum). Because the plant has more oil glands in its highly aromatic, dark-green leaves, rigani has a stronger flavor than common oregano — so strong that, eaten fresh, it can make your tongue tingle. This is the reason dried, not fresh, Greek oregano is used in the kitchen, an uncommon example of a dried herb being a better culinary choice than a fresh one. My friend had bought common oregano (origanum vulgare), a less flavorful subspecies, and the one most frequently found on the supermarket or grocery store shelf.

What’s in a name?

There’s some disagreement as to the origin of the word “oregano”: One source suggests that it’s based on the Greek word for acrid (some subspecies of oregano can taste bitter); another states that its Latin name derives from the Greek oros (mountain) and ganos (joy). If you’ve ever walked in the Greek foothills, you’ll know that this pungent herb truly is a “joy of the mountains,” covering the rocky land with magnificent abandon and perfuming the warm air with its strong, sweet scent. Rigani’s presence there dates at least to Greek antiquity, when the ancients encouraged its growth in the mountain grazing lands to improve the flavor of their goats and sheep.

The doctors of antiquity too knew the value of rigani. Hippocrates used its oil as an antiseptic and its tincture for his patients’ stomach and respiratory problems. Recently, scientists have discovered that the polyphenols and flavonoids in Greek oregano do indeed have strong health-giving properties, including, it is believed, some protection against the norovirus and the ability to block an enzyme associated with diabetes.

In the kitchen

For the Greek cook, right up until the days of refrigeration and antibiotics, rigani was invaluable as a preservative and a deterrent to flies. Out of these practical considerations came a large repertoire of marvelous dishes imbued with the taste and aroma of the “joy of the mountains.”

For flavor and beauty, rigani’s tiny, white flowers are especially prized. So too are the meat and milk of goats and sheep that feed off the summer-flowering herb, as well as foraging rabbits and other small game. Rigani, flowers or leaves,  flavors grills, oven-bakes, salads, sauces, and bean dishes like no other herb. In the village kitchen it’s measured in handfuls, not with a spoon. This provides a special pleasure for the cook: with finger and thumb, gently rub the rigani in your palm to lightly bruise it, before adding it to your dish. You’ll be releasing some of the herb’s oil and its pungent, lively aroma will lift your spirits as well as perfume your kitchen.

A few years ago, before both “wild” and “Greek” became food-marketing buzzwords, “wild oregano” bought outside of Greece was usually rigani. This isn’t always true today, with a commercial supply chain that’s confused and confusing. The most promising place to find real Greek oregano is in a store that you know takes sourcing ingredients seriously, or in a Greek or Middle Eastern deli where, late summer, you may even be lucky enough to find a large bunch of this fragrant herb that’s been gathered while in flower.

Rigani-Baked Chicken

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Note If you are using chicken pieces, boil the potatoes for 10 minutes before arranging in the baking dish.

Ingredients

  • One 4- to 5-pound chicken, whole or cut into serving pieces; remove skin and excess fat
  • Juice of 1½ lemons
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
  • ½ tablespoon coarse-grain sea salt, or to taste
  • 2 pounds of potatoes suitable for baking, cut into similar-size pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic (unpeeled), lightly crushed
  • A handful (or 4 tablespoons) rigani (dried Greek oregano), crumbled
  • Cracked black pepper to taste
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1½ to 2 cups chicken stock, as required
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped (for serving)

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 375 F (190 C, or Gas Mark 5).
  2. Rub the chicken with the juice of 1 lemon, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and the salt.
  3. Place the chicken (or arrange the pieces) in a deep, heavy baking dish and surround with the potatoes and garlic in a single layer. Sprinkle the chicken with the rigani, pepper, bay leaves, and the remaining olive oil, and dot with the butter.
  4. Add half the stock, and bake, uncovered, 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 F (180 C or Gas Mark 4) and continue baking until cooked through but still tender – about 1¼ hour longer for a whole chicken, 40 minutes longer for chicken pieces. Baste the chicken and potatoes frequently, adding more stock to the dish if necessary.
  5. Transfer the chicken, potatoes, and garlic to a serving platter and keep warm.
  6. Strain the pan juices into a small saucepan, remove the fat with a spoon, and add any remaining stock. If there is more than about 1 ½ cups of liquid, reduce it by rapid boiling. Combine the mustard, honey, and half the remaining lemon juice and stir into the sauce. Add salt, pepper, and remaining lemon juice to taste, and heat to warm.
  7. Pour sauce over the chicken and potatoes just to moisten, and sprinkle with the parsley. Serve the remaining sauce separately.

Main photo: Rigani-flavored baked chicken, with potatoes, has a different taste than one made with common oregano. Credit: Rosemary Barron

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