Articles in Cooking

Rustic Mushroom Soup. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

My journey to being healthy has been one long and twisted adventure, basically covering my entire life. I’ve never been thin, nor do I want to be. I like my curves. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to eat healthy and exercise so I can live the best life I can. That means leaving behind old flavorless “diet” foods from another generation and embracing tasty healthy superfoods.

As a child I remember my mother joining Weight Watchers, and I would sometimes go to meetings with her. I also remember eating some absolutely horrible “diet” food with her. One of my mother’s favorites was toast with cottage cheese on top, sprinkled with cinnamon and Sweet’N Low.

These days, I am now a member of Weight Watchers. I am not on a diet, just being mindful of how I eat and what I eat. For me, this is a logical step on my journey to improving my well-being. I was a caregiver to my mother and single mother to my daughter for so many years I stopped taking care of me. Now it is my turn.

Recently, I discovered mushrooms are a superfood, or a food that is nutrient dense while being low in calories. Some superfoods, such as mushrooms, pomegranates and blueberries, are being studied for their ability to help fight cancer and other diseases.

I was not always able to eat mushrooms. I have a very distinct memory from childhood of mushrooms being sautéed on the stove, and when I smelled them I became nauseated. I hated mushrooms so much they turned my stomach. As an adult, I lost my aversion to mushrooms and enjoy cooking with them often.

Making soup with the superfoods

Rustic Mushroom Soup is very simple and fast to prepare, making it an ideal weeknight meal. Most markets now offer an organic baby leafy greens salad, usually with a mix of chard, spinach and kale. These mixes are great as a salad, but also perfect for tossing into a soup for added nutrition and flavor. And you do not have to prep anything, just open the bag.

Although kale is “so over” for many people, I enjoyed it before it became a superfood and will enjoy it after its 15 minutes of fame are over. Almost any leafy green can be substituted for the baby greens, including collard, mustard and turnip greens, Swiss chard or arugula.

A variety of mushrooms can also be used in this soup. Just chop them into bite-size pieces, then follow the recipe as written.

This soup is healthy, filling and satisfying, and the Weight Watchers Points Plus value for one serving is only 1 point.

Rustic Mushroom Soup

Serves 8

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ medium onion, thinly sliced

4 fresh thyme sprigs

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound crimini or brown mushrooms, quartered or cut into six pieces if large

1 container (32 ounces) vegetable broth

4 cups water

2 cups baby kale, chard or spinach salad mix

Directions

1. In a medium soup pot or saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium flame.

2. Add the onion, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper. Stirring occasionally, cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until the onion is softened.

3. Add the mushrooms and stir well to coat them with the aromatics. Cook 5 to 7 minutes until browned and the mushrooms have released their liquid.

4. Add the vegetable broth and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

5. Add the baby greens, cook for 1 to 2 minutes until wilted.

6. Serve with crusty bread and a salad.

Top photo: Rustic Mushroom Soup. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

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Blood Orange Chocolate Cake. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Using extra virgin olive oil in cake baking is not new. I’ve been doing it for years along with other health-minded folks. It imparts a rich, slightly herbal flavor to cookies, cakes and muffins that balances the inherent sweetness of my favorite recipes. And who’s kidding whom? It also makes me feel slightly more righteous and slightly less guilty. But when I opened the refrigerator and found the last of my favorite winter citrus and a container of crème fraîche ready for attention, it seemed only logical that these things belonged in a chocolate cake as well.

There is another ingredient in this cake that is far less known but deserves to be in everyone’s pantry. It’s an extract originating from Italy called Fiori di Sicilia (translated to “flowers of Sicily”). When I want to add a bit of mystery to my baking, I grab this little vial and add a few precious drops to the batter. It is a powerful combination of vanilla, citrus and less-defined floral scents. If you’ve ever tasted a traditional panettone from Italy during the Christmas holidays, you will recognize the flavor in an instant. While vanilla extract is always useful to round out a mix of flavors, this heavenly tincture can do all that and more.

Blood Orange Chocolate Cake

You can use any type of orange to impart the tangy flavor that complements a good dark chocolate, but the flavor complexity of a blood orange, with its raspberry undertones, makes this cake particularly yummy.

Serves 8

Ingredients

1¾ cups pastry or cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons orange zest

½ cup dark cocoa powder

½ cup boiling water

1 cup sugar

⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 cup crème fraîche

3 large eggs

½ cup orange juice

1 teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or Triple Sec liquor (optional)

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease a 9-by-5-inch baking pan. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and zest, and set aside.

2. Sift the cocoa powder into a separate bowl and add boiling water until it is the consistency of a thick, smooth and glossy paste. Let cool while preparing wet ingredients.

3. By machine or by hand, whisk together sugar, olive oil, crème fraiche and eggs until blended and smooth. Slowly incorporate orange juice, extract, liquor and cocoa. Finally, add dry ingredients until evenly mixed.

4. Pour batter into pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes. The cake is done when an inserted toothpick comes out with no wet batter clinging to it.

5. Dust with powdered sugar or drizzle with glaze created by mixing ¼ cup blood orange juice with powdered sugar until desired consistency. Garnish with fresh raspberries.

Top photo: Blood Orange Chocolate Cake. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Gulab jamun. Credit:R.V. Ramachandran

The plethora of colors, shapes and sizes of Indian sweets are bewildering. Taste, color and shape often vary from region to region, but gulab jamun, the spongy milky balls soaked in rose-scented syrup, are an exception. These are popular all over India, and just like naan and tandoori chicken, almost all Indian restaurants in the West include gulab jamun in their menu.

Gulab jamun is a delicious dessert consisting of dumplings, traditionally made of milk boiled down to a solid mass, mixed with flour and deep-fried in ghee to golden brown color and then soaked in rose and cardamom-scented sugar syrup. This sweet derives its name from two words — gulab, meaning rose, and jamun, the purple-colored jamun berry (Syzygium cumini) fruit of an evergreen tropical tree.

Muslim impact on Indian sweets

India has a national obsession with sweets and desserts. Traditionally, sweets have been made mostly with milk, ghee and honey.

Drawn by the fertile plains of the Punjab and the fabulous wealth of Hindu temples, invaders from central Asia began attacking India around 1000 A.D., with the aim of establishing Muslim kingdoms in India. The Mugahl emperor Babur conquered India in 1526 A.D. and this Muslim dynasty ruled in an unbroken succession for nearly 200 years.

Desserts of central Asian origin, often flour based, reached India during this time. North Indian food went through a profound transformation during this period. Palace cooks came from all over India and many other parts of the world, each specializing in a particular delicacy. Ingredients were imported from Afghanistan and Persia. When Persian food first arrived in India, the local cooks at the palace kitchens adapted their cuisine by combining the newly arrived ingredients with familiar tastes of local Hindu culinary traditions. Soon this food, including gulab jamun, was introduced in the Mughal courts.

Gulab Jamun’s origins are in Persia and the Mediterranean, where its equivalent, luqmat al qadi, consists of deep-fried dough balls dipped in honey syrup and sprinkled with sugar.

Frying gulab jamun. Credit:Shiyam Sundar

Frying gulab jamun. Credit: Shiyam Sundar

Milk-based sweets were already popular in India at that time. Morendka was a sweet made with khoa (made by simmering full-fat milk several hours, over a medium fire until the gradual vaporization of its water content leaves coagulated solids in milk) formed into the shape of eggs and deep-fried in ghee and coated with sugar. The Indian cooks adapted the recipe for this Persian sweet to include khoa.

Tricks for perfect gulab jamun

Cooks who are new to gulab jamun commonly make the mistake of frying the sweet at a very high temperature. This will result in the outside appearing too dark and the center becoming a lump of uncooked, solid dough. The temperature of the oil for frying has to be on low-to-medium heat.

Over the years gulab jamun has incorporated many subtle variations. A relatively easy version uses milk powder instead of khoa. Kala-jamuns are coated with sugar before frying, which gives them a dark brown color. Some cooks stuff the gulab jamun with slivered nuts and others make the dish with sweet potatoes.

Following is a recipe for gulab jamun using milk powder.

Gulab Jamun

Makes  20 to 25 pieces

For the dough:

1 cup milk powder

4 tablespoons ghee

⅓cup all- purpose flour

½teaspoon baking powder

6 to 7 tablespoons whole milk

For sugar syrup:

1¼ cups water

1¾ cups sugar

2 teaspoons cardamom powder

2 teaspoons rose water

For frying:

6 to 8 cups of sunflower oil or other oils with no fragrance

Directions

1. Place milk powder in a mixing bowl and rub in the ghee gently to form a sandy texture.

2. Combine the flour and baking powder and mix well and then add to the milk powder and ghee mixture and mix well.

3. Gradually add milk, a few spoonfuls at a time, and mix softly with clean fingers to make a soft dough. The mix should be like a soft dough but not like a thick batter. Be careful not to work the dough as it will increase the gluten. The less kneading,  the better.  You want the jamuns to be soft. Rest the mix for 10 minutes.

4. Grease your palms with ghee or oil and pinch marble-sized pieces of dough and roll them into smooth round or oval-shaped balls. Make sure that the balls are small as they double in size once they are fried and soaked in sugar syrup. The dough balls should be smooth without any cracks as they will split and crumble when deep frying. Arrange the balls on a plate and cover with a kitchen towel to prevent from drying out.

5. For the syrup, in a sauce pan bring water to boil, add the sugar and allow it to dissolve. Simmer for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the stove and set aside.

6. Heat oil over slow to medium flame. I cannot emphasize enough that the temperature of the frying oil for frying must be low-to-medium to cook the gulab jamuns through completely.

7. Drop one jamun into the hot oil and check for coloring. Reduce flame if the dough is coloring quickly.

8. Drop the jamuns 8 to 10 pieces at a time and gently swirl the oil for them to float. Fry them until golden brown in color, 6 to 7 minutes approximately. Once they are a golden brown, remove them from the oil and let them drain on a paper towel. Then remove from the paper towel and soak them in the warm sugar syrup.

9. With the gulab jamuns in the syrup, flavor the syrup with cardamom powder and rose water and give a gentle stir to mix. Cover the gulab jamuns and let them soak in the syrup overnight or at least for an hour or so before serving.

Top photo: Gulab jamun. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

As New England’s maple sap started to drip in March, David Moore of The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse in Lee, N.H., counted the days until it would stop flowing. Right about the time the maples are tapped out, Moore collects a less sugary sap from slender, white paper birch trees.

Moore, one of the only known commercial birch syrup producers in New England, says his reddish-brown syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. The viscosity at room temperature is slow, albeit a bit quicker than molasses. Its unique taste makes it well suited as an ice cream topping (Moore’s favorite); a glaze, salad dressing or braising liquid ingredient; and an intriguing baked goods sweetener.

In addition to its uses in the kitchen, birch syrup has high market values that could help maple syrup producers supplement future revenue streams in a sustainable fashion, according to researchers at Cornell and the University of Vermont. Its production relies on many of the techniques currently employed in making maple syrup, and birch trees are in rather good supply in the Northeast.

Birch syrup is not entirely a novelty in North America. Native Americans for centuries used it as an anti-rheumatic. Twentieth-century Alaskans also tapped it to fill gaps in wartime sugar supplies, and birch syrup production has become a cottage industry there. Still, last year’s 5,000 gallons of domestically produced birch syrup were just a drop in the bucket compared with the 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup produced.

Chef Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet bistro in Portsmouth, N.H., says Moore’s syrup has a rich, deep and slightly resinous quality that makes it suitable as a finishing syrup and a glaze for grilled chicken or pork. Mallett’s seasonal menu features brioche Texas toast, a thick slice of house-made bread stuffed with roasted mushrooms and cheese and served with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on ears of corn) butter, candy cap mushroom oil and a few drops of birch syrup.

“I like it on pancakes too, but it’s pretty expensive to slather on,” Mallett said.

The going rate for a quart of birch syrup is $78, compared with $10 for Grade A maple syrup. The selling price is very attractive, said Moore, who last year charged $25 for 8-ounce jars and sold out by the end of May. Moore sells his product at a half dozen locations in New Hampshire and will be taking some mail orders this year if supplies last.

“Making birch syrup takes more energy than making maple syrup,” explained Moore, who collects 100 to 120 gallons of sap (he typically gets about 5 gallons a day from each of his 170 taps) to make one gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup requires only 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup.

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Birch syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Abby van den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center said the profitability of birch syrup production in the Northern Forest — the region that stretches from Maine through northern New Hampshire and Vermont into northern New York — in the past has been limited due to the fact that the low sugar content of birch sap (about 1% compared with 2% in maple) means producers need lots of evaporator fuel to concentrate the sap to syrup density.

But she argues that reverse osmosis, a process used in Alaskan birch syrup production that concentrates sugar densities (to 8% or greater) in the sap before it goes into the evaporator mitigates that hurdle. Modern sap collection techniques such as using a vacuum also help to increase the sap collection during the short three- to four-week birch sap season.

Moore has considered using reverse osmosis, but he currently processes sap in a 3- by 12-foot double-panned evaporator inside the wooden sugar shack he built himself. He uses a team of draft horses to help haul the firewood (ash, hickory, maple and oak) needed to fuel the evaporator. The new reverse osmosis machine would require him to run power to the sugarhouse. He estimates adding reverse osmosis would cost $7,000. “It could be a tough sell for me,” Moore said.

Neither van den Berg nor Michael Farrell, director of Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program’s Uihlein field station in Lake Placid, N.Y., could provide more than anecdotal evidence that maple syrup producers are clamoring to make birch syrup.

At a maple syrup taste test he conducted for maple syrup producers earlier this year, Farrell threw birch syrup into the mix. When he asked for a show of hands from those who liked the taste of New England birch syrup, not one went up. The producers then were offered a taste of birch syrup made with reverse osmosis. “Nearly everyone changed their mind,” Farrell said.

“This altered process gives birch syrup a wider range of flavor that should appeal to more people. They’ve just got to be willing to taste it,” he said.

Chewy Ginger and Birch Syrup Lumberjack Cookies

Yes, birch syrup is expensive, but it adds an interesting twist to these spicy chewy cookies that people won’t place until you tell them. Think of it as money well spent for tea time conversation.

Makes 24 cookies

Ingredients

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), room temperature

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

½ cup birch syrup

⅓ cup finely diced candied ginger (optional)

Granulated sugar for rolling

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard powder, allspice, salt and black pepper.

3. Beat butter and sugar together in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Add egg and birch syrup. Mix to combine well. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in candied ginger, if using. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.

4. Roll dough into 1½-inch balls and then roll them in the raw sugar. Arrange on the baking sheets and gently flatten them with the bottom of a flat glass. Bake until set and crinkled on top, about 12 minutes.

Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for 2 minutes and then remove them to a rack to cool completely.

Top photo: The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

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Lamb and rhubarb stew. Credit: Kristin Nicholas

The first rumblings of spring have reached the Central Atlantic. The green tips of daffodils and jonquils are pushing through the still firm soil, and in some sunny spots, snowdrops and crocus are already starting to bloom. This means that the early crops of rhubarb should be out by month’s end. Fluorescent pink stems topped with deep green, chard-like leaves will soon fill the market shelves, so it seems a good time to tell some of the Silk Road history of this amazing plant.

Genetic analysis of plant diversity tells us that rhubarb’s origins are probably on the Tibetan Plateau, but that it spread early into northwestern China and to some of the bordering areas of Central Asia and Mongolia.

The Chinese were the first to document the use rhubarb — as a medicine. The first mention of rhubarb use is in “The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica,” which is part of a Chinese oral tradition that probably reaches back to the second century B.C. In this work, rhubarb is used to treat malaria, people who have delirious speech with fever, and constipation, among many other maladies.

Trade to the West for medicinal purposes started early. In Greco-Roman culture, rhubarb was used as a general purgative, and was considered useful in combating many diseases. The Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides wrote in his first-century work, “De Materia Medica,” that rhubarb came from, “beyond the Bosporus,” in Turkey while the later Roman writer, Ammianus Marcellinus believed it to come from the “lands of the northern Caucasus near the Volga River inhabited by the Amazons” (Scythians).

Rhubarb’s long road

The reason for this confusion about the origin of rhubarb is because of the patchwork nature of trade on the Silk Road. Only rarely were shipments carried long distances by a single merchant or carrier. Most of the time, goods traded hands many times as they traversed the Old World.

As rhubarb’s reputation as a cure-all spread across continents, so the price of the root rose precipitously, until the finest quality rhubarb was more expensive than cinnamon or saffron.

It is difficult to find European references for rhubarb beyond Byzantium, but medicinal use of the stems and roots is noted by 10th-century “Arab” physicians Yahya ibn Sarafyun (Serapion the Elder) of Syria and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) of Uzbekistan.

These writers use rhubarb as a purgative, but also use it for many urinary tract diseases, and to increase the flow of semen. Interestingly, Marco Polo identified it growing in the 13th century in the mountains of Qinghai and Gansu provinces in northwestern China. So, like many other sources of knowledge that disappeared or were held close in monasteries in Europe’s Dark Ages, Levantine and Muslim scholars may have kept the study and use of medicinal rhubarb current for their times.

By the early 15th century, the vibrant trade of rhubarb from China to Uzbekistan and on to Persia on the Silk Road is documented by the Castilian ambassador to Timur’s court in Samarkand, Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo. The 16th-century Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens gives one of the first scientific descriptions of the modern age for rhubarb in his “Cruydeboeck” (“Herbal”) in 1554.

 Sweet and savory dishes with rhubarb

In the West, it is generally regarded that the first completely culinary uses of rhubarb (not as a medicinal tonic or potion) began in the late 18th and early 19th century. The earliest recipe I could find was in the 1807 edition of Maria Eliza Rundell’s “A New System of Domestic Cookery.” In the 1824 volume, Rundell has two seemingly delicious recipes for rhubarb tarts, both of which call for copious amounts of cane sugar.

That history aside, I would like to share a Silk Road recipe for rhubarb that probably predates Rundell’s by several centuries if not more. It is a traditional dish in northern Iran, near Mashad, but is also enjoyed in Turkmenistan and other parts of Central Asia where merchants helped naturalize rhubarb during the course of its transport on the Silk Road.

The recipe is for a lamb and rhubarb stew that uses rhubarb as a souring agent to complement the earthy lamb, much as sour plums or sour cherries are used in other recipes. I think that the recipe might be Central Asian in origin, because like many other Central Asian dishes, it also relies on herbs rather than spices for much of its flavor. It’s a great example of the foods that came flooding west from the various Persian conquests of the territories to its north and east, possibly during the Seljuk Dynasty.

Since rhubarb is being rediscovered as a vegetable, it is often available beyond its traditional short season, which allows this recipe to be made almost any time of the year. But with spring on the way, now is the time to make this dish to celebrate the seasonal rebirth that this time brings.

Lamb and Rhubarb Stew

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 tablespoons light sesame or peanut oil

¾ pound lamb cut into cubes

1 large onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents

3 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced

4 hot, dried, red chili peppers

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup water

1 cup beef or chicken stock (or a mixture of both)

1 to 2 teaspoons nutmeg, grated

¼ cup fresh mint, chopped (more to taste)

1 medium bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

1½ tablespoons sugar (more to taste)

3 cups fresh rhubarb, cleaned and cut into 1-inch slices (peeled if desired)

Directions

1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan and when hot, sear lamb cubes over high heat until golden brown around the edges, stirring constantly. When meat is done, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Lower heat to medium and add the onions, sautéing until they start to soften and color. Then add garlic, chili peppers, salt and pepper and stir until the garlic starts to swell and color. When garlic is done, add water and beef or chicken stock and cook to heat. When hot, add lamb back into the pot, add 1 teaspoon of the grated nutmeg to the stew. Cover and cook over medium-low or low for 1 hour, stirring occasionally, until lamb becomes tender.

3. When lamb is nearly done, add the chopped mint and stir well. Then add the cilantro and sugar and stir in as well. Cook for another 3 to 5 minutes and then add the rhubarb and cook another 3 to 5 minutes or until the rhubarb softens, but is still firm (not soggy). Remove from heat, grate the remainder of the nutmeg in and serve. This dish works best served with barley, but one can use millet or rice as well.

In addition to delicious desserts and savory stews, rhubarb is once again being used as medicine. It has joined the growing list of, “superfoods” because it is packed with vitamins C and K, is high in fiber, and contains calcium. Rhubarb extract is also being investigated as a chemotherapy agent to stop the spread of some cancers and to trigger cell death (apoptosis) in some tumors; as a cholinesterase inhibitor to help treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia disorders; as an antimicrobial drug; and as an antioxidant. The ancients knew that rhubarb was good for you, they just didn’t know why.

Top photo: Lamb and rhubarb stew. Credit: Kristin Nicholas

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Dandelion miso soup. Credit: Wendy Petty

“So, let me get this straight. You are keeping dandelions as a houseplants? Can’t you see it’s snowing outside?” My buddy aimed her attention toward the straggly weed I’d positioned near the window to catch early morning light, “Why?”

I explained that I had wanted to be like Euell Gibbons and grow my own salad greens in the middle of winter. “Ewe … who? I thought you have a black thumb.”

It’s true. I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever touched. One even died of thirst in the cruelest of places, hanging above my shower. Still, as a forager, my desire to enjoy fresh dandelion greens in the snowy months had overcome any fear of dooming another plant to die inside my home.

Gibbons is considered by most to have ushered in the modern era of foraging with his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” originally printed in 1962. I must have read Gibbons’ book a dozen times before I went to college. Still, when I opened it again last summer, the words sparkled on the page, as if I were reading them for first time.

Having stocked my pantry with wild food for many years, I’d come to take for granted the book written by the man some refer to as the grandfather of foraging. When I reread the chapter titled “A Wild Winter Garden in Your Cellar,” it felt as if I’d been given a gift.

In it, Gibbons chronicled how he grew wild vegetables indoors in winter. He used a method not dissimilar from the one some use to force bulbs such as tulips or hyacinth to grow out of season. In the fall, Gibbons dug up and potted dandelions and left them outside in the cold so they’d go dormant, then brought the pots inside his cellar to reawaken and grow tender new greens to nibble throughout the cold months.

Dandelions wintering in the garage

Facing the looming winter of the Rocky Mountains, I excitedly planned to harvest dandelions and force them to grow throughout the off-season, just as Gibbons had done. Late in October, word came that a winter storm was approaching. I went out into my yard with a bucket, dug up several dandelion plants, and placed them in my cold garage for safe keeping.

Fast forward to the beginning of February when I engaged with another snow-weary forager, bemoaning the lack of fresh greens. I dramatically complained that I’d give my left leg to taste bitter dandelion leaves. Only then, months after I’d dug them up, did I remember my plans to make dandelions dance in winter as Gibbons had done.

I rushed out to the garage, and sure enough, there was my bucket of dandelions, exactly where I’d left it the previous fall, between a stool and some rakes. The poor plants had been freeze-drying all that time, piled in the bucket without any water. I reached in, and fished around the dirt clods for a plant. My heart fell as I pulled out a hard, shriveled root.

Dandelions foraged from outdoors. Credit: Wendy Petty

Dandelions foraged from outdoors. Credit: Wendy Petty

As much as I felt like it might take an act of wizardry to revive the dandelions, I hated the thought of wasting plants more. Without much hope, I planted a few crusty taproots in a bowl, gave them some water, and tucked them into a corner of the kitchen.

I hate to admit that I once again forgot about the dandelions, which is why I nearly spilled my cup of coffee when, one morning the next week, my gaze fell upon that bowl and the tiny jagged leaves it contained. I did my best Dr. Frankenstein impression, “It’s alive!”

Filled with renewed enthusiasm for my project, I smothered my little potted dandelions with TLC. Every day, I moved them from the east window to the west, so they could catch the most sunlight. I sang to them and kissed their leaves goodnight. It was exhausting, all the effort it took to grow weeds.

After a month of babying, my dandelions had only produced a few disappointingly spindly leaves, not nearly enough to make a salad. Worse, I couldn’t bear to eat them because I had grown attached (I wasn’t kidding about the lullabies and kisses). Experiment failed.

Spring brings a new wild crop of dandelions

Let’s face it, I’m no Euell Gibbons. No doubt he was the type of guy who made his bed every day and polished his foraging boots. I, on the other hand, am famous for killing houseplants, and dug up a bucket of dandelions, only to forget them until it was nearly too late. I’ll admit to feeling a little melancholy about my dandelion misadventures.

Then one day last week, I noticed the early March sunlight had coaxed the first dandelions out of the ground. After only three days, they were larger than my dandelion houseplants had grown in a month.  I happily dug them and enjoyed my first taste of spring in the form of dandelion miso soup. In the future, I think I’ll leave the dandelion gardening in the expert hands of Mother Nature.

Dandelion Miso Soup

Serves 1

Ingredients

2 cups water

2½  tablespoons white or yellow miso

2 newly emerged dandelion plants, washed and chopped

1 tablespoon minced chives or green onion tops

Directions

1. Prepare the dandelion plants by washing them under cool running water. Chop the plants in their entirety. If they are the first of spring, the roots should be tender enough to eat. You will be able to tell because your knife will slice through them as easily as a carrot.

2. Over high heat, bring the water to a boil, add the dandelion roots, and cook for 7 minute.

3. Turn off the heat, and briskly stir in the miso until it dissolves completely into the water.

Gently fold the dandelion greens and chives into the soup, and enjoy it immediately.

Top photo: Dandelion Miso Soup. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Pumpkin and walnut borek from Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman

Most cooks acquainted with Turkish food know of borek, a dish of phyllo-like pastry leaves called yufka brushed with butter or oil, layered with meat or cheese, and baked. In Istanbul and other parts of Turkey yufka, when not made at home, is usually purchased fresh and pliable at weekly markets and from specialists called yufkaci.

A few years ago while traveling along Turkey’s central Black Sea coast I discovered yufka’s other incarnation, as a thin cracker-crisp round meant to be rehydrated — or not — before being incorporated into borek.  On the Black Sea, yufka is also rolled, sliced and dried for islama, a dish of yufka spirals topped with chicken or turkey and crushed walnuts and doused with melted butter and broth. And I found that when it comes to filling their borek, central Black Sea cooks go with the season.

Late one February, at a family-owned restaurant 25 miles inland, I feasted on zilbert boregi, a short stack of yufka sheets encasing sautéed borage. Light and crispy, its filling tasting of artichoke and asparagus with a hint of mushroom, that borek hinted at the spring that was beginning to show itself in the region’s budding fruit trees. Six months later in a town a few hours east, I feasted on borek spilling mushrooms foraged from nearby hills, their meatiness foretelling the coming winter.

A sweet deviation

But my favorite Black Sea borek is one that was made for me by Esen, a rare woman in a male-dominated trade who owns a yufka shop not far from the central Black Sea fishing town of Sinop. A short sturdy woman in her late 30s, Esen toils over her big round gas-fired griddle from the wee hours of the morning until late in the afternoon, turning out katlama (stacked yufka rounds with a slick of butter in between) and layered and rolled sweet and savory borek.

Layers of traditional borek. Credit: David Hagerman

Layers of traditional borek. Credit: David Hagerman

One morning I asked Esen what she intended to do with a big pumpkin sitting on a table near her griddle. She smiled and grabbed the pumpkin by its stem, raised it over her head and threw it on the concrete floor where it split neatly in two. After peeling and grating the vegetable she roughly chopped two handfuls of walnuts and measured out a bit of sugar. Then she laid a leaf of dried yufka on her griddle, brushed it with oil and built a borek.

Sparely sugared, it was a delightful departure from the syrup-soaked Turkish pastries I’d eaten up till then, with crunchy walnuts and crispy pastry contrasting beautifully with softened pumpkin.

Pumpkin and Walnut Borek (Kabak ve Cevizli Boregi)

Dried yufka and a hot griddle make for a crispier, lighter borek. Baking sheets and an oven work just as well and fresh phyllo sheets, fused and left to dry, are a fine substitute for dried yufka. Don’t worry if the dough tears or wrinkles as you’re making the borek; imperfections add to the charm of this rustic dish.

Plan to lay out your yufka or phyllo to dry at least six hours before assembly. Once that’s done the dish comes together quickly because the borek is baked flat, in one big piece.

Serve this dish for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. It also makes a wonderful dessert, served (untraditionally) hot from the oven with a scoop of ice cream.

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

10 sheets of phyllo

3 cups grated pumpkin or sweet squash

1½ cups chopped walnuts

4 tablespoons sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

Canola or other light cooking oil

4 tablespoons butter, melted

Directions

1. Lay a single sheet of phyllo flat on a work surface. Using a pastry brush, wet it lightly with water. Lay another sheet of phyllo on top of the wet sheet and then use a rolling pin to fuse the two together. Repeat with the remaining eight sheets of phyllo, fusing them 2-by-2 to make five thick sheets in total. Transfer all to cookie sheets or paper towels and leave uncovered in an airy room to dry for at least six hours or as long as overnight.

2. Once the pastry is dry, place the pumpkin, walnut, sugar and salt in a medium bowl and mix with a fork or your fingers.

3. To assemble the borek, lightly oil a cookie sheet large enough to accommodate the yufka or phyllo (at least 15 by 10 inches). Place one sheet of pastry on the cookie sheet (if the pastry hangs over the sides of the cookie sheet just fold the excess inward) and lightly brush it with butter.

4. Sprinkle one quarter of the filling over the buttered pastry — it will not cover the phyllo completely. Place another pastry sheet on top of the pumpkin-walnut filling, pressing it lightly onto the filling with your palms (don’t worry if it cracks a bit). Butter that pastry sheet too. Top with one quarter of the filling, and repeat until all of the filling and pastry is used up. Brush the top piece of pastry with butter.

5. Bake the borek in a 350 F oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the top is showing splotches of golden brown (if your oven is small reverse the position of the cookie sheet halfway through).

6. While the borek is baking, lightly oil another cookie sheet. Remove the borek from the oven and place the second oiled cookie sheet upside down over its top. Squeezing the two cookie sheets together, flip the borek, carefully remove the first cookie sheet, and return it to the oven to bake another 12 to 15 minutes, or until nicely browned.

7. Cut the borek into 6 or 8 squares and serve hot or at room temperature.

Top photo: Pumpkin and walnut borek from Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman

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Pasta (pennucce) with broccoli rabe and garlic-anchovy-chili sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: If you’ve spent this apparently endless winter as I have, in the icy-cold, snow-raddled Northeastern U.S., you are by now, like me, longing for a bit of sunshine, a sprinkle of warm weather, a hint that spring is just around the next bend. But with yet another big snowstorm predicted to hit by midweek, I’m still counting on trustworthy brassicas to liven my table until the first asparagus starts to sprout.

AolivesAnd trustworthy those brassicas, aka cruciferous vegetables, are. (Why cruciferous? Before the flower opens, the four closed petals form a little cross atop the bud.) By any name, his big family covers an ample range of members, including, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, turnips, wasabi and even radishes. All, without exception, are huge nutritional powerhouses, sources of important phytochemicals (plant-based, naturally occurring chemicals), especially of various carotenoid and sulfur-containing compounds that may be important cancer fighters. This is nutrition-speak for saying, yes, they are very, very good for you! You can taste it in their characteristic spicy pungency.

They are also, when properly prepared, incredibly delicious — though you wouldn’t think so from generations of picky eaters, including at least one president of the United States, who have turned up their noses, and rightly so, at the sulfurous aromas of overcooked broccoli and cabbage, evocative of nothing so much as boardinghouse (or boarding school) kitchens.

Brassica vegetables perfectly suited to Mediterranean cooking

But believe me, it takes no great cooking skills to bring these vegetables to their full glory. In fact, several family members (like radishes) benefit from little or no cooking at all. And Brussels sprouts, shaved on the blade of a mandolin (or, to save your fingers, in a food processor), can be tossed with a very simple dressing made from olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of lemon zest, a little spoonful of mustard and a big spoonful of Greek yogurt all mixed together then poured over the sprouts. Leave them to tenderize in the dressing for half an hour before serving, and, if you want a more substantial salad, mix in a chopped hard-boiled egg or two.

Brussels sprouts aren’t actually well known in the Mediterranean, but they should be because they grow well in the cold but not bitter winters that characterize much of the region. Even if not particularly identified with the Mediterranean, they still benefit from a Med treatment in the kitchen: oven-roasting, for instance. Stir halved sprouts with a chopped clove of garlic, maybe a little chopped onion, some slivers of thick-sliced pancetta or country ham, a couple of glugs of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper, then spread them in a baking dish and set them in a hot oven (400 F) for about 20 minutes, stirring them up a couple of times, until the sprouts are crisp and brown on top and tender but not falling apart.

My all-time favorite member of this vast family, however, is totally Mediterranean, so much so that it was unknown in the United States except to Italian-American gardeners until just a few decades ago. That’s the vegetable known here as broccoli rabe or broccoli raab or rapini — all names that betray its origin in Italian market gardens, where it has long been a winter staple And my favorite way of cooking this delight goes back a long time to when I lived in Rome in the late 1970s and a tiny restaurant in the tiny Piazza Montevecchio offered orecchiette alla barese. Orecchiette are a famous Pugliese pasta — shaped like little ears, which is what orecchiette means. In the town of Bari, Italy, it’s traditionally served with this stupendous steamed broccoli rabe, the whole thing dressed with a mini-sauce of garlic, anchovies and crushed dried chili peppers steeped in hot olive oil.

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Broccoli rabe fresh at the market. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

I’ve made this dish for years — to me it’s the absolute quintessence of the Mediterranean eating, pasta, garlic and good oil with a terrific pungent green, totally vegetarian except for the anchovies (and if you leave them out, you’ll have to add more salt), totally healthful, quick and easy and loved by almost everyone who samples it.

When I made this for Sunday supper, I didn’t happen to have any orecchiette on hand, so I used the whole-wheat pennucce, which look like short, lightly ridged penne, from Benedetto Cavaglieri. That pasta-maker’s wares are available from Williams-Sonoma and a few other online providers. You could also use farfalle, conchiglie or fusilli.

Orecchiette alla Barese

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

2 bunches broccoli rabe (aka rapini), weighing 1 pound each

Sea salt

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

6 anchovy fillets, chopped, or cut to your size preference

1 small dried hot red chili, crumbled, or hot red pepper flakes to taste

1 pound orecchiette or similar pasta

Directions

1. Clean the broccoli rabe, discarding any wilted or yellowing leaves along with the tough part of the stems. Chop the broccoli rabe in pieces about 1 inch long. Rinse thoroughly and set aside.

2. In a large pasta kettle, bring about 4 cups of water to a rolling boil and add a generous spoonful of salt.

3. While the water is coming to a boil, start the garlic-anchovy sauce by adding the chopped garlic to the olive oil in a small saucepan. Cook over gentle heat just until the garlic bits are soft.

4. Stir in the anchovy pieces and use a fork to crush and mash them into the hot oil.

5. Add the chili pepper and stir. If the pasta is not yet ready, remove from the heat — but heat it again just to the sizzling point before pouring it over the pasta (see below).

6. Tip the pasta into the rapidly boiling water, stir with a long-handled spoon, and cover the pot. As soon as the water boils again, remove the lid and cook — orecchiette will take 12 to 15 minutes to become al dente.

7. Halfway through the cooking time, add the broccoli rabe to the pasta and stir to mix well. Continue cooking until the pasta is done — the broccoli rabe should cook just 5 to 6 minutes, so if you’re using something other than orecchiette, time it according to the package directions.

8. Have ready a warm serving bowl. Heat the olive oil sauce to sizzling if it has been removed from heat.

9. When the pasta is done, but still a bit al dente, drain the pasta and greens and turn them immediately into the warmed serving bowl. Stir to distribute the greens throughout the pasta, then dribble the hot garlic-anchovy-chili oil over the top. Toss again, adding a little more olive oil if you wish, then add a generous amount of ground pepper. Serve immediately.

(Note: Grated cheese is not appropriate with this pasta.)

Top photo: Pasta (pennucce) with broccoli rabe and garlic-anchovy-chili sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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