Articles in Cooking

Grilled Polenta With Fontina and diced tomatoes can be made in about 30 minutes, if you use instant polenta. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

When the young teen superstar Mozart arrived in the Trentino region to play his first Italian gig, they had to call out the guards to protect him from being mobbed by fans. The Justin Bieber of his day, Mozart stayed in Rovereto, a small town that straddled the then-Italian-Austrian border. We don’t know what he played in the beautiful Baroque church, (a bratty show-off, he often improvised as he went along), but it’s a good bet that afterward he dined on polenta, polenta and more polenta.

Polenta vs. pasta

Polenta is to the far north of Italy what pasta is to the rest, and it is widely eaten throughout Trentino-Alto Aldige, Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, as well as in Tuscany. At one time smart Italian restaurants would not have been caught dead serving polenta, il cibo della miseria, the food of poverty. Basically it is a sort of thick porridge made from maize (corn) and water, and for centuries was a staple, belly filling food for impoverished rural people. Put that way, it sounds less than glamorous. Tell the folks today they’re getting gruel or grits — not buying into a slice of dolce vita lifestyle along with the Balsamic and sun-dried tomatoes — and you’re not going to sell a lot of packets. For many consumers, it’s still a case of overpriced and over-hyped.

Nonetheless, the wheel of polenta fortune has turned, and it has morphed into a fashionable food accessory, presented as elegant crispy triangles, diamonds and squares, as well as a smooth, buttery puree.

At its best, polenta can have a slightly nutty, sweet-corn-like taste, but essentially it is a carrier of other flavors and textures, a backdrop for sauces and a foil for meats, vegetables, fungi or cheese. It is remarkably versatile, served hot, cold, firm, supple or sloppy, thin or thick, or two fingers wide. Leftovers can be baked, fried or grilled. It can also be sweetened with sugar and cinnamon or used in cakes and pastries.

There are hundreds of regional recipes, but at its simplest, all that’s needed is butter and grated Parmesan or Grana Padano to transform a dull dish into something altogether more special. It is a country food made good.

Polenta, the old-fashioned way

There is something magical about the way polenta turns from a dull grain into a golden slice.

Making polenta the old-fashioned way is as good as a workout at the gym. Polenta is traditionally cooked in an unlined copper pan called a paiolo. The salted water must boil furiously in a vortex created by swirling the water clockwise (the reverse may well be the case in the southern hemisphere, if plugholes are anything to go by).

The cornmeal is added in a slow, steady drizzle (a pioggia, as if it were raining), then stirred vigorously (great for the biceps) with a bastone in the same direction for about 40 minutes lest it catch or congeal into hard lumps. The bastone, or wooden stirring stick, needs to be long, as polenta has a nasty habit of spitting viciously as it cooks. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, like a bubbling yellow swamp, it is poured onto a wooden board or even a scrubbed kitchen table, and cut with a wooden knife or long thread.

Modern methods

If you don’t have a paiolo, then it’s unlikely you will also have a big fireplace hearth with a cooking crane on which to hang your pot. Despair not — any large, heavy pot that gives an even heat will do, and it’s even possible to buy electric polenta makers with paddles a little like ice cream machines.

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Baked Polenta With Italian Sausages, Mushrooms and Cheese, topped with a good tomato sauce, can be a hearty, filling comfort meal. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

When looking for polenta to buy, consider the Molino Spadoni brand: Fioretto Polenta is yellow and fine-grained and becomes beautifully creamy; Bramata Polenta is thicker and more granular and produces a more rustic polenta.

Contemporary cheats, however, use instant polenta: The maize flour is steamed and pre-cooked, added to boiling water, stock or milk, and is ready within minutes. Valsugana is a popular instant brand in Italy.

Anna del Conte recommends another cooking method in “The Classic Food of Northern Italy”: cook it in a pressure cooker or the oven. Del Conte has also endorsed a revolutionary approach, at least in purist polenta circles, in which the polenta is added all at once to cold water.

Polenta: The five-minute method

Follow instructions on the instant polenta packet, adding extra hot liquid if you like your polenta on the runny side. Use stock or milk and water in place of just water if preferred for extra flavor.

Stir in a generous amount of butter and Parmesan to make a mash-cum-puree. Either serve as is or pour into a greased loaf pan and let cool until firm. Slice it thickly, brush with olive oil, and fry or grill until brown and nicely toasted.

Grilled Polenta With Fontina

Prep time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as an appetizer

Ingredients

3 to 4 plum tomatoes, diced or roughly chopped

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

12 slices of firm, cooked polenta (about ¾ cup uncooked)

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup Fontina cheese, shredded or sliced

Fresh basil leaves, shredded

Directions

1. Mix the tomatoes, salt and pepper together and set aside.

2. Brush both sides of the polenta slices with olive oil. Broil under a medium heat for 5 minutes or until one side is golden. Turn the slices over and top with the cheese.

3. Cook for another 5 minutes or until the cheese melts.

4. Place on serving plates and serve, topped with the tomatoes and shredded basil leaves.

 

Baked Polenta With Italian Sausages, Mushrooms and Cheese

Prep time: 40 minutes (plus chilling for several hours or overnight)

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as a main course

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

2 large garlic cloves, crushed

1 red pepper, cored, seeded and diced

2 Italian sausages with fennel seeds, casing removed, crumbled

2 cups mushrooms, chopped

3/4 cup of polenta (cornmeal)

1 tablespoon fresh, chopped parsley, plus extra for serving

Pinch of cayenne pepper

½ cup ricotta cheese

1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Salt and pepper

1/4 stick butter, diced

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Tomato sauce

Directions

1. Heat olive oil in a frying pan and lightly sauté the onion, garlic and red pepper.

2. Add the crumbled sausage and cook until the meat starts to change color.

3. Add the mushrooms and cook for another five minutes, then set aside.

4. Cook the polenta according to the packet instructions. When it is ready, remove from the heat and stir in the parsley, a pinch of cayenne pepper, the ricotta and Gruyere cheese. Add the sausage and sweet pepper mixture, fold in well, season with salt and pepper.

5. Pour the mixture into a shallow, round dish that has been lined with plastic wrap. Cool, then cover and chill for a few hours or overnight.

6. When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 190 C. Use the plastic wrap to remove the polenta onto a board. Cut the polenta into wedges and place into an oiled shallow roasting dish, large enough to hold the polenta in one layer without crowding.

7. Dot with the diced butter and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until the polenta is golden.

8. Garnish with chopped fresh parley, serve with a good tomato sauce.

Main photo: Grilled Polenta With Fontina and diced tomatoes can be made in about 30 minutes, if you use instant polenta. Credit: Clarissa Hyman


Centuries of polenta

1. The culinary ancestor of polenta was pulmentum, a grain paste made from farro, a kind of spelt, in the form of either a hard cake or soft porridge. It was a staple for the legionnaires of ancient Rome.

2. Before maize was introduced to Italy from America in the 17th century, polenta was made using wheat, barley, oats, millet, chestnut flour or buckwheat. The last two are still used in parts of Tuscany as well as in Valtellina and other Alpine valleys.

3. When the new grain was unloaded in Venice, it would usually have come via Turkey. It is still sometimes called granoturco or Turkish corn in Italy.

4. Not all polenta flour is egg-yolk gold. In the Veneto, it is often made from special, extra-fine white maize, polentina bianca, and is so thin it is spooned rather than cut.

5. In parts of the Trento and Piedmont, black maize flour may be mixed with buckwheat to make polenta nera or polenta taragna.

6. There are also different gradings of polenta. Strictly speaking, the right degree of coarseness should be chosen for each dish. Coarse ground to go with rich meat and tomato sauces, sausages or salt cod; the finer variety for more delicate dressings of cheese, milk, butter or wild mushrooms. Either way, stone-ground polenta is worth seeking out for its more complex, extra-nutty taste.

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Braised short ribs with Japanese influence

When autumn comes with a chill in the air, I often prepare braised short ribs. Although this rich, robust-tasting dish is a favorite in America, I never imagined it would become my winter comfort food.

I was born in Japan and lived there until I moved to the United States as a middle-aged adult. My taste buds were trained in the Japanese way, to appreciate dishes that are prepared so that each ingredient speaks out. Preserving the natural flavor of each ingredient, rather than blending flavors to produce a new taste experience, is a fundamental tenet of Japanese cuisine. My taste buds were also nurtured to expect fermented seasonings that are rich in umami (savory flavor). This means the use of miso, shoyu (soy sauce), mirin, rice vinegar and dashi (kelp stock).

When I came to America, I found that people didn’t follow formulas as rigidly as in Japan. I first encountered braised short ribs at a restaurant in New York City, and its large portion size and bold, rich flavor seemed to embody the “mighty America” that so impressed and influenced me.

Back in Japan I was accustomed to beef that was meticulously cut into paper-thin slices and used in shabu-shabu (beef slices that are blanched in dashi and dipped in flavored sauces), sukiyaki (beef slices cooked in a mixture of sake, shoyu and sugar) and similar preparations.

Eventually I decided to create a lighter version of braised short ribs that incorporated Japanese influences. I studied many American braised short-rib recipes as a base before I successfully produced a lighter but rich-tasting version of this dish.

Short ribs recipe unites the best of both worlds

Here is how I approached my recipe (also featured in my cookbook, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen”). First, I use kelp stock to braise the meat. Kelp stock provides rich yet clean umami to the braised dish. By using kelp stock I can eliminate mirepoix — the chopped aromatic vegetables that are sautéed for the base in most Western braised short-rib preparations. This significantly shortens the prep time.

Second, I use sake in the braising stock because it also has excellent umami content. I choose sake that is moderately priced; premium sake made from heavily polished rice is less acidic, so it is not ideal for use in cooking.

Third, I do a quick blanching of the short ribs in the boiling water after they are well browned in the skillet. This technique cleans the meat by removing oil and burnt bits clinging to it. This further ensures that the braised dish has a clean taste.

Finally, I use shoyu as one of the key flavoring ingredients in the braising liquid. The additional umami from shoyu is a great asset to the dish.

It is an excellent idea to pair my braised short ribs with sake. To accompany this robust, strongly flavored dish it is not necessary to purchase premium sake such as ginjo or dai-ginjo. Junmai-shu, made from rice that has had 30 percent of the bran polished away, is somewhat acidic, fuller-bodied and earthy. It is a perfect match for the short ribs.

Tokubetsu (special) junmai-shu and kimoto junmai-shu (sake brewed in 100%  traditional technique), which I prefer for accompanying my braised short ribs, is excellent served warm, not hot. Warming this style to body temperature of about 98 F, called hitohada (skin temperature) in Japanese, is correct. This opens up the delicate sweetness, bouquet and flavor of the sake. Test the temperature by simply pouring a drop on the back of your hand.

For this holiday season, braised short ribs in the Japanese style with warmed sake is the way to go. You will find much more information about sake, including how to cool and heat it for different dishes, in my book, “The Sushi Experience.”

Hiroko’s Braised Short Ribs

It is best to begin making this dish a day in advance by marinating the meat the day before cooking. 

Prep time: 20 minutes  plus overnight marination

Cook time: 3 hours

Yield: 6 servings

 Ingredients

7 tablespoons shoyu

5 tablespoons honey

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon red pepper flakes

5 to 5 1/2 pounds bone-in short ribs (about 6 whole bones)

2 tablespoons canola oil or vegetable oil

1 cup sake

2 cups kelp stock (made by soaking 1 ounce kelp, or kombu, in 8 ounces water overnight)

2 tablespoons sugar

Simmered winter vegetables such as Japanese turnips, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts are excellent accompaniments.

Directions

1. In a large bowl, combine 6 tablespoons of shoyu, honey, Worcestershire sauce and red pepper flakes. Add the short ribs to the sauce and marinate overnight.

2. Heat the oven to 325 F. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Remove the short ribs from the marinade and wipe them with paper towels, reserving the marinade. Place the canola or vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add ½ of  the meat. Cook the ribs until all sides are golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes total. Transfer the browned short ribs to a sieve and lower the ribs into the boiling water. Quickly swish the ribs in the water and remove them, discarding the water after both batches of ribs have been cooked and washed.

3. Combine the sake and kelp stock in a large pot over medium heat and bring it to a simmer. Add the sugar and the ribs (in a single layer) and bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Cover the pot with a lid, transfer it to the oven, and cook the short ribs for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

4. Remove the pot of short ribs from the oven. Carefully open the lid of the pot add the reserved marinade to the pot. Cover the pot with the lid and transfer it back to the oven. Cook the meat for 30 to 40 minutes.

5. Remove the pot from the oven and cool the short ribs in the cooking liquid. When it is cool, remove the short ribs from the cooking liquid and cut the meat from the ribs into the desired portions, eliminating as much of the fat as you wish. Store the beef in the cooking liquid until ready to serve.

6. Before serving, warm the short ribs in a pot, covered, with 1/3 of the cooking liquid. In another small pot, reduce the remaining cooking liquid until syrupy. Serve the beef with seasonal vegetables and the reduced liquid poured over the meat. Accompany the dish with crusty bread and vegetables.

Main photo: Braised short ribs in the Japanese way. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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In this risotto, the radicchio's bitterness balances the sweetness of the pumpkin (or squash). Credit: Aya Brackett

One of the reasons I enjoy writing books is that with each one I discover new facts, research and ideas. My latest book “Bitter” opened my eyes to the complexity of taste.

It began when my friends in the food world sent me suggestions as to what to include in my book. Coffee, chicories and beer were already on my list. But sorrel and rhubarb — weren’t they sour? Why did these food experts taste them differently than I?

We all think of basic tastes, such as bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and savory (also called umami). I knew fat belonged on that list and it has recently been added. But did you ever wonder why there were only six basic tastes? Surely taste is much more nuanced than that.


In the ancient world, scholars believed there were up to eight tastes and, by the 18th century, 11 basic tastes were proposed. So exactly how do we determine taste? Like most people, I thought the information from our taste buds on our tongue combined with our sense of smell to make a flavor. We’ve all experienced the lack of flavor in our food when we have a head cold. We do taste this way, but it is only part of the story.

Taste buds are not confined to our tongues. They are located all through our body, in our throat — down a shot of extra virgin olive oil and you’ll find those, in our lungs, stomach, intestines and, for some of us, in our testicles. So taste is not simply reliant on our tongue and nose; all our senses play a role.

Consider touch. Our fingers, lips, teeth, mouth; they all connect to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. It is responsible for the ice cream headache. Called the somatosensory system, these sensors help us taste by detecting temperature, texture, fattiness, pungency and tannins. The brain uses this information to create flavor. Interestingly many chefs have above average trigeminal nerve responses.

What we hear also affects how we taste. While extraneous sound distracts us and reduces the taste of our food, the noise inside our head increases it and the pleasure of eating. Crunchy, crisp foods are appealing because of the noise they make. Would you like a potato chip if it didn’t make a crunching sound? When we eat and drink, the tone of the background music and the instrument playing it can distort our sense of taste. A Campari and soda drunk while a brass band plays low-pitched music will be more bitter than if consumed while bright, high-pitched piece of music is played on a piano.

The most surprising fact I uncovered was the power of sight. It is often said we eat with our eyes, but I’d never comprehended the dominant role sight plays in what we taste. It is so forceful that it can distort and even override the information we receive from our other senses. As more than half of our brain is devoted to processing visual information, it must take shortcuts to handle all this data quickly.

Author Jennifer McLagan says taste is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Credit: Aya Brackett

Author Jennifer McLagan says taste is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Credit: Aya Brackett

With food our brain uses color to create flavor expectations, and the color of a food can confuse us and mask its real taste. British chef  Heston Blumenthal’s two-toned orange and beetroot jelly demonstrates this power of color to determine taste. Not until diners close their eyes do they realize that the orange jelly they are eating is made with orange beets and the dark red jelly is flavored with blood oranges. Eating with our eyes takes on a whole new meaning when we realize we cannot trust them.


Along with the sensory clues our brain employs to generate flavor, a number of other things influence its decisions. Our genes make some of us more sensitive to certain tastes. What our mother ate when she was pregnant shapes our likes and dislikes, our upbringing and our peers decide what we eat and don’t eat. Anything we have heard, or read about the food will prejudice us too. Even the shape of our plate, what it’s made from, and the cutlery we use —  all subtly affect how we taste. We all have the same anatomy yet every time we eat, numerous forces come into play, placing each of us in our own individual taste world.

Taste, I discovered is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Flavor is produced by our brain, which is swayed by a myriad of cultural, environmental, experiential and genetic factors that can be as important as our senses in discerning flavor. Many of them we are barely aware of and are only beginning to understand and study. Next time you eat, pay close attention and think very carefully about what is influencing the flavor of the food on your plate.

Radicchio and Pumpkin Risotto

Prep time: 10 minute
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 1⁄2 cups (625 milliliters) of chicken stock, preferably homemade

¼ cup (2 ounces) (60 grams) unsalted butter

1 shallot, finely chopped

6 ounces (170 grams) pumpkin, cut into 1⁄2-inch (1 centimeter) dice, about 1¼ cups

Sea salt

5 1/4 ounces (150 grams) radicchio leaves, rinsed and trimmed

1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) (100 grams) risotto rice (Vialone nano, Arborio, or Carnaroli)

2 tablespoons white wine or dry vermouth

Freshly ground black pepper

Parmesan cheese

Directions
1. Pour the stock into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat so the stock barely simmers.

2. In another saucepan, melt half the butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until translucent. Add the diced pumpkin and stir to coat the pieces with the butter. Season with salt, and cook until the pumpkin starts to soften slightly at the edges, about 5 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, cut the radicchio leaves in half lengthwise, then crosswise into ¼-inch (6-mm) strips. You should have about 4 cups.

4. Add the rice to the pan, stirring to warm the grains and coat them in butter. Stir in the radicchio and continue stirring until it wilts and changes color. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring until it evaporates; season with black pepper. Now add a ladleful of hot stock and keep stirring the simmering rice constantly until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Continue adding the stock, one ladleful at a time, when the previous liquid is almost completely absorbed.

5. After 20 to 25 minutes, the pumpkin should be cooked and the rice should be creamy and cooked but still slightly al dente. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let sit for 2 minutes. Check the seasoning, stir in the remaining half of the butter, and serve in warm bowls. Grate Parmesan over the top.

Notes
I love the winey hue that radicchio gives the rice in this dish, and the way its bitterness balances the pumpkin’s sweetness. Now I know that using the word pumpkin reveals my birthplace, but I just can’t get my head around “squash.” However, so I don’t confuse you, use a firm, dry pumpkin (or squash) such as Hubbard or kabocha, which has a mild chestnut flavor.
I prefer to make risotto in small batches. This will stretch to serve four as a starter, depending on the rest of your meal; you can also double the recipe. Do use homemade stock, as it will make all the difference to the final result. You could also use a well-flavored vegetable stock to make this dish vegetarian. You’ll probably only need 2 cups (500 ml) of
the stock, but it will depend on your rice, so it is better to have a little extra just in case.

Caramelizing the sprouts in oil eases their bitterness, as does the addition of the starchy chickpeas. Credit: Aya Brackett

Rony’s Brussels Sprouts and Chickpeas

Prep time: 1 hour advance prep (unless using canned chickpeas, then 10 minutes)

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

 

Ingredients
1 cup (6 1/4 ounces)  (180 g) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover

Sea salt

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

1 shallot, finely chopped

3/4 cup (175 milliliters) chicken stock, preferably homemade

17 1/2 ounces (500 grams) Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 tablespoons dry sherry

Directions
1. Drain the chickpeas and place in a saucepan. Cover them with cold water by 2 inches (5 cm) and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until cooked. This can take from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on the age of the peas, so you need to keep an eye on them. Check them at 30 minutes. When they are cooked, remove from the heat, uncover, stir in 1 teaspoon of salt, and leave to cool for 30 minutes. Drain the cooked peas and spread them out on a baking sheet lined with a towel to dry.

2. Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a large heavy frying pan with a lid, and place over medium heat. When hot, add the shallot and cook until soft. Add the chickpeas, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until lightly browned. Add ¼ cup (60 milliliters) of the chicken stock and bring to a boil, stirring to deglaze the pan by scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Tip the contents of the pan into a bowl.

3. Wipe out the pan and then add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Place over high heat, and when hot add the brussels sprouts. Try and get as many of the sprouts cut side down as you can; this will depend on the size of your pan. Cook the sprouts until dark brown on one side, then add the remaining chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, lower the heat, cover, and cook until the brussels sprouts are tender but still crisp.

4. Add the chickpeas, shallots, and any liquid and cook until warmed through. Check the seasoning and pour in the sherry. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Notes
My friend Rony loves food and is a good cook. When I visited him in New York he made brussels sprouts for dinner. It was before my conversion and I was not that keen to try them, but being well brought up I did. They were delicious. Caramelizing the sprouts in the oil eases their bitterness, as does the addition of the starchy chickpeas. There are two keys to this recipe: Cook your own chickpeas — they are superior to the canned ones — and cook the brussels sprouts in a very hot pan — as Rony said, “They should dance around in the pan.”

Main photo: In this risotto, the radicchio’s bitterness balances the sweetness of the pumpkin (or squash if you’re not from Australia). Credit: Aya Brackett

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Qara bi’l-tahina (pumpkin purée with sesame seed paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

In the Middle East food is shared and one place it is shared is on the meze table. Meze are small samplings of prepared dishes that make a meal. They are not appetizers, nor tapas, nor hors d’oeuvres but are actually more philosophically related to the Scandinavian smorgasbord.

Food is shared in another way. The food of the Levant, meaning the food eaten between the Turkish-Syrian border all the way to Egypt, is the same food eaten by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. One can’t really say there is Muslim food, Christian food and Jewish food, but there are certain foods that are typical for those communities centered around holidays such as Ramadan, Christmas, and Yom Kippur, for example, but the foods are not unique to those cultures because everyone eats them.

One very typical, almost obligatory, meze dish is hummus. Hummus means chickpea and does not mean dip. The proper name of the preparation called hummus is hummus bi’l-tahina, chickpeas with sesame seed paste.

One delightful variation of this dip is made with pumpkin, all the more appropriate this time of year when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. All the more so if we reflect on how much we can be thankful for especially at a time when the Middle East seems to be disintegrating into a frenzy of blood-letting. At a time when all religious communities, be they Jewish, Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi, Alawite, or Kurdish Muslim, are threatened in the Middle East and the stories from those lands are nothing but sadness, it behooves us to remember the rich contribution and integral role played by all these people who once –it is hard believe given the modern headlines — lived together. If there is one thing they all shared it was surely food.

And a dip is a food that is shared. Please don’t call it pumpkin hummus. It’s called qara bi’l-tahina and that means pumpkin with sesame seed paste.

This will be one of many dishes on the menu of a series of communal dinners arranged by Clockshop, a nonprofit arts and culture organization based in Los Angeles. The event will take place over three weekends in November, beginning Nov. 8 to celebrate what they call the Arab-Jewish diaspora. The meals will feature the culinary traditions, music and culture of this diaspora. If you live in the Los Angeles area you can check them out by RSVP.

Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste)

Yield:  6 servings
Prep time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Ingredients

5 pounds pumpkin flesh, cubed

1/2 cup tahina

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed in a mortar with 2 teaspoons salt until mushy

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

Seeds from 1/2 a pomegranate

Directions

1. Place the pumpkin slices in a saucepan and cover with water. Turn the heat on and bring to a gentle boil and cook until soft, about 40 minutes. Drain well and pass through a food mill. Return the pumpkin to the saucepan and cook over a medium-high heat until all the liquid is nearly evaporated, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and run until creamy. Transfer to a mixing bowl

2. Stir the tahina paste into the pumpkin and mix well. Stir in the garlic mixture and lemon juice. Mix well and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish the pumpkin mixture with parsley, some olive oil, and cumin. Decorate the outside edges of the platter with the pomegranate seeds and serve with Arab flatbread to scoop up the dip.

Main photo: Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

The Rev. Paul Dumais has spent much of his free time in the past year sorting truth from rumor concerning the science behind a traditional comfort food in his home state of Maine.

Dumais, a Catholic priest who lives in Lewiston, has been studying the chemical composition of ployes (rhymes with toys). He’s attempting to discern the scientific facts about the batter for these traditional French Acadian buckwheat pancakes or flatbreads from the theatrical stories passed down by generations of Acadian people living in northern Maine.

For example, his grandmother would use only Rumford baking powder in her ployes. “The rumor was that if you didn’t use Rumford’s, your ployes would turn green,” said Dumais, adding that he can’t scientifically support that claim.

He can, though, methodically corroborate his grandmother’s “feel” for when there is enough water in the mix because he’s calculated that a hydration rate of 170% (170 grams of water to 100 grams of flour) makes the best ployes. If the batter is too thick, they don’t cook evenly. If it’s too thin, the finished product is not hearty enough to do its job of providing a simple carbohydrate filler food for the local population. One serving of ployes has 100 calories, 21 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein.

Dumais says “flatbread” is a more accurate term than “pancake” for ployes because they are not traditionally eaten for breakfast and traditionally not served with maple syrup. They are buttered, rolled and served at lunch or dinner with savory dishes like creton, a pork spread containing onions and spices; baked beans; and an Acadian chicken stew called fricot.

Never flip a ploye

Ployes are never, ever flipped like a flapjack. The batter, which must not be over mixed, is portioned on a dry, hot griddle; swished once into a 4- or 5-inch circle; and cooked face up so you can see the heat “fait les yeux” or “make the eyes.” Those “eyes” are the air bubbles that dot the surface of perfectly cooked ployes.

Dumais is a Mainer in the true sense of the word. He serves as Catholic chaplain to Central Maine Medical Center and Bates College and is a founding member of the Fraternity of St. Philip Neri. He was born and raised in the small town of Madawaska, which sits in the middle of a place called “the Valley” in Aroostook County. “The Valley” forms part of the international border with Canada along the St. John River. Madawaska, which now has a population of 4,000, was founded by French-speaking agrarian settlers in 1785 after they were forcefully dispersed by the English from the region of Acadie, a part of New France that included sections of what we now recognize as Eastern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces.

Ployes mixes from Bouchard Family Farms. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

Ployes mixes from Bouchard Family Farms. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

Dumais is armed with both taste memory and newfangled kitchen gadgets (like his  infrared thermometer, a highly accurate kitchen scale and his preferred Danish dough whisk) and is enthusiastically fond of mixing experimentation with deep-set culinary tradition. His end game — spurred on by his Great Aunt Prescille’s faint memory — is to produce a ploye batter much like his great-great-grandmother made from local grains and natural, ambient yeast.

Dumais recently evangelized the scientific wonders of ployes at the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. The starting point in his public demonstration involves ready-made ployes mixes from two sources: his cousins’ garage in Frenchville, and the more commercially available mix sold by Bouchard Family Farms. The measurements — 1 cup of ployes mix to 1⅓ cups of cold water — are spelled out on the side of the stand-up paper sacks. So are instructions for letting the batter rest for 5 minutes, the proper amount for each ploye (3 ounces), recommended thickness (⅛ inch) and expected cooking time (60 to 90 seconds). Dumais does advise users of these mixes to play with the amount of water added as he believes the viscosity should be a bit thinner than the labels’ recipe prescribes.

The ingredients for these mixes comprise a simple list and look much like his mother’s “from scratch” recipe (below), which serves as his second data point. Here he likes to demonstrate his hydration discoveries, making dramatic pouring gestures of too-slow ploye dough that has only 100 percent hydration and requires the cook to work too hard to spread it on the hot griddle. He also shows how too-fast batter quickly seeps across the boundaries of its allotted griddle real estate.

Sharing tips for success

But Dumais gets most animated when he presents his progress on developing a recipe for the naturally leavened ployes he suspects his ancestors made, even though he has been unable to find historical documentation of this process in the University of Maine Acadian Archives. He relays the story of when he tasted a savory pancake made by a Somali immigrant named Angela at a potluck dinner celebrating an urban farming program run by St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston last winter. They did not have a spoken language in common, but it didn’t matter. With bread as a cultural currency they both understood, Angela could convey that the secret to her bread was a yogurt-based starter that she kept in a jar and from that jar she began each new batch of pancakes.

A vertical stack. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

A vertical stack. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

It clicked for Dumais at that moment and he ran with the fermented flour starter idea, playing with flour amounts and types, feeding times, temperatures and hydration ratios. “Then one day, I made a batch. Watched and tasted. And finally thought, ‘Why, I think I’ve got it!’ ” Dumais said.

As he poured, swished once to form the right-sized circumference for the flatbread and watched for the heat to fait les yeux, Dumais said, “Now that is a ploye my mémé could be proud of.” These ployes looked much like the others, but had a bit of a sourdough finish.

In honor of the 2014 Acadian World Congress held in multiple locations along the U.S.-Canadian border over two weeks in August, Dumais hosted a continual feast near an ancestral homestead.

“My personal little quest was to reintroduce the naturally leavened ployes in honor of the event,” Dumais said. One evening he cooked alongside his mother to create some chicken stew and his new recipe for old-fashioned ployes for family.

Just as his mother had done every other time she’d eaten Acadian chicken stew, Dumais said for this meal “she buttered a ploye, rolled it up and dunked the end in her stew and remarked to another family member: ‘These are made without baking powder. They are very good.’

“Part of what might be difficult to appreciate is that people eat ployes all the time. … My mother was able to appreciate the moment largely because I had been in conversation with her all along,” he said.

People enjoyed Dumais’ ployes, but it “was an understated return of the traditional Acadian flatbread,” he said. The fact that they were made with family, for family, in an open-air kitchen on the banks of the St. John River near a cedar cabin built by his grandfather was satisfaction enough for him.

Ployes from scratch

This is Father Paul Dumais’  formula to replicate his mother’s ployes, traditional French Acadian buckwheat savory flatbreads. A scientifically enthusiastic baker, he highly recommends weighing the dry ingredients to yield the most authentic ployes.

Prep time: 1 minute

Cook time: 9 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes (including rest time of about 5 minutes for the batter)

Yield: 10 ployes

Ingredients

100 grams (½ cup plus 1 tablespoon) buckwheat flour

100 grams (a scant ¾ cup) all-purpose flour (Dumais uses King Arthur)

4 grams (½ teaspoon) salt

6 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder (Dumais uses Rumford)

340 grams (1¾ cup) cold water (possibly more)

Directions

1. Preheat a griddle to 400 F.

2. Stir together buckwheat and all-purpose flours, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Using a wire whisk, beat in the cold water until all the lumps are dissolved.

3. Let the batter sit for approximately 5 to 10 minutes.

4. In a circular motion, use back of spoon to spread 3 ounces of batter to ⅛ inch thick circles that are 5 inches in diameter. Cook ployes for 1½ minutes until the tops are bubbly and dry. Remove from griddle and serve warm, slathered with butter, with savory soups and stews.

Main photo: Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

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A sign posted by Quivira’s guru Jim Barauski writes the tenets of Biodynamic farming for all to see. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Travel through Northern California and signs of the severe drought are everywhere. In suburban Healdsburg, front lawns are dead, flowers faded, home vegetable gardens finished weeks early. The same can be seen in Sebastopol, Sonoma and Santa Rosa. The Russian River above Redwood Valley is dry.

An article in “The Press Democrat” in Santa Rosa reported a high school sophomore’s unique water fence concept, a fence that stores rainwater. Ingenious. But there’s been no rain to store for at least three months.

California’s groundwater resources are in jeopardy, declining for many years at rates never seen before.

“Reliable groundwater supplies in California are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans. About half of the fruits and vegetables are grown in California. Without an improved management of groundwater in the state, California’s agricultural capacity will become smaller and unreliable,” says Miles Reiter, chairman and CEO of Driscoll’s, a leading supplier of fresh berries.

How are wineries faring in drought?

If the drought is endangering fruits and vegetables, what are its effects on the region’s vineyards?

Quivira and DaVero, two vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, have incorporated the practices of biodynamic farming.

Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. It stresses a holistic understanding of agriculture, treating all aspects of a farm, from soil fertility to the livestock, as interrelated. The principles, that agriculture seeks to heal the earth, were introduced by Rudolf Steiner in 1924.

People tending biodynamic vineyards have spent years conditioning their soils with preparations made of fermented manure, minerals and herbs, and understanding the use of earthly and cosmic rhythms and cycles in creating a healthy farm.

Biodynamic farmers also pioneered some of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ventures. CSAs began taking root in Europe and Japan in the 1960s, and the movement had come to the United States by the mid-1980s.

Biodynamic guru

Quivira Vineyards and Winery specializes in small-lot wines from varietals specifically matched to the effects of hot summer days and cool coastal nights on its soil.

Jim Barauski, the biodynamic guru for Quivira says, “Going biodynamic was a decision made with a conscience toward moving away from cultivation and building better soils. Anthroposophy is the spiritual science behind biodynamics. If we take something out of the soil, we put something better back in. We feed the microbiotic life with natural, time-tested techniques.”

The winery’s large demonstration garden is a real awakening. The herbs and berries are neatly arranged in beds, the signage hand-printed and not a weed in sight. The beehives — a design called Golden Hives — were designed for the health and development of the colony and to minimize the impact from human interaction (more frequent opening of hives weakens their health).

Vineyard manager Ned Horton says he quietly works with the bees and rarely, if ever, gets stung.

“The health of the bees has been challenged on many levels, and the difference in bien (one-being, or oneness, that describes a bee colony) has to be understood within the context of the global landscape and the current one-dimensional human world view. The challenges for the well-being of the bees reflect our own struggle in our striving for health and happiness. The bees are intended to support the gardens and herbs, and the gardens of course, support the wines,” Horton says.

Each year, Quivira also plants a substantial amount of cover crops, which helps conserve water use. These plants also decompose, fortifying the soil, and open pathways for worms that aerate the soil, eventually creating a balance or a homeostasis.

Winemaker Hugh Chappelle says, “The light from the environment falls into matter so there is some quality of light in the wine. The entire vineyard is, in a way, like a human being, so complex and so individual. But as much as possible, each living thing on the farm supports the other.”

Winery started with olives

DaVero Farms and Winery, started by Ridgely Evers and Colleen McGlynn in 1982, is a 30-acre farm on which the couple had planted one olive tree. In 1990 they began to import olive trees from Tuscany. Through the years, their olive oil has been acknowledged as some of the best in the world.

In 2000, the couple planted their first small vineyard in Sangiovese and then the rare Sagrantino, Italian varietals because the Dry Creek Valley’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean region, characterized by hot, dry summer days and cool nights.

In 2007 Evers and McGlynn began the process of converting DaVero to biodynamic. Mary Foley, the original soil manager, transformed the soil into a vibrant, healthy farm. Foley, however, moved to the Sierra and advises from afar; Michael Presley now has the job.

As the tour finished with a lunch and wine tasting, the temperature at the vineyard had hit 95 degrees.

Presley promised it would begin to rain on Sept. 22. “It always does,” he claims.

Having seen a series of seemingly magical transformations through biodynamic gardening at the wineries, anything seemed possible.

It rained on Sept. 18.

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Roasted Cauliflower salad by Colleen McGlynn, who started DaVero Farms and Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., in 1982. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Colleen McGlynn’s Roasted Cauliflower

Prep time: 25 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients
1 head cauliflower
1 garlic glove
3 pieces of anchovy
1 wedge preserved lemon
Fruity olive oil
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons salted capers
Chili flakes, to taste
Handful of Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Kosher salt and pepper
Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Separate cauliflower into florets and toss in a bowl with a film of mild olive oil, salt to taste, spread on a sheet pan and put into 350 F oven for 10-15 minutes, or until browned.
3. Make a vinaigrette by mashing together the garlic, anchovy and lemon wedge into a paste. (If you don’t have preserved lemon, you can substitute the zest and juice of one lemon.) Put into a bowl, squeeze in the lemon juice and a “good glug” of fruity olive oil.  Stir together.
4. Combine the warm cauliflower with the raisins, capers, a pinch of chili flakes and chopped parsley, add to the vinaigrette.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Quivira Vineyards and Winery’s Jim Barauski has posted a sign outlining the tenets of biodynamic farming. Credit: Katherine Leiner

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Roasted tomatoes in a wire mesh strainer over a nonreactive bowl. Credit: David Latt

Autumn and winter are wonderful seasons to enjoy family celebrations and the crackling glow of fireplaces. But for those of us who rely on farmers markets and a farm-to-table cycle, those cold weather months are not as much fun as summer.

With storm clouds outside, staring into the refrigerator looking for inspiration, I yearn for the produce of summer: leafy greens, corn and full-bodied tomatoes. But there is a way to enjoy the sweet-acidic deliciousness of tomatoes even in the darkest days of winter. Just look in your freezer.

Instead of relying on cans of store-bought whole stewed tomatoes, tomato paste and tomato sauce, buy ripe tomatoes at the farmers market, roast and freeze them to be used in braises, soups and sauces. Once blasted with heat in the oven, the tomatoes happily take to the freezer if they are covered in liquid.

Enjoy frozen roasted tomatoes whole or puree into sauce, and as rain beats against your windows and snow accumulates on your lawn, you will call back those heady summer flavors.

A Taste of Summer From Your Freezer


One in a series of stories about freezing late-summer produce to enjoy all winter.

Oven-roasted tomatoes to use as a side dish or in sauces

Use ripe and over-ripe tomatoes. If you can find only unripe, hard tomatoes, leave them in a sunny spot on the kitchen counter until they ripen. Bruised tomatoes are OK as long as you use a sharp paring knife to remove the damaged parts. Avoid tomatoes with broken skin because of the risk of mold.

Any kind of tomato can be used: heirloom, Roma, cherry, large or small salad tomatoes.

This time of year, over-ripe tomatoes are deeply discounted at our farmers market so I buy five pounds or more to make a lot of sauce to freeze.

A food mill is helpful when making the sauce. If one is not available, a fine meshed wire strainer will do almost as well.

When roasting the tomatoes, it is important to use parchment paper or a nonstick Silpat mat to prevent the tomatoes from sticking to the baking sheet. With a Silpat mat, none of the good bits that caramelize on the bottom are wasted.

Roasted Tomatoes

Tomatoes love the sun’s heat when they’re growing. And they love the oven’s heat that coaxes a rich umami sweetness out of their naturally acidic souls.

That sweetness is at the heart of the roasted tomatoes that will be in your freezer.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Roasting time: 60 minutes

Yield: 1 to 2 quarts

Ingredients

5 pounds tomatoes, washed, patted dry

1 tablespoon olive oil

¼ teaspoon sea salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Line a large baking sheet with a Silpat mat or parchment paper cut to size. Use a baking sheet with a 1-inch lip to capture any liquids created during roasting.

3. Use a sharp paring knife to cut a “V” shape around the stem, remove and discard. With cherry tomatoes, any stems can be brushed off the surface without making a cut.

4. Place the de-stemmed tomatoes on the lined baking sheet, stem side up.

5. Drizzle with olive oil and season with sea salt and pepper.

6. Place in oven and roast 60 minutes.

7. Remove and let cool.

Freezing Whole Roasted Tomatoes

When you remove the baking sheet from the oven, you’ll notice a clear liquid has accumulated on the bottom. Some of that is olive oil. But most of the liquid is a clear tomato essence prized by chefs for its clean flavor.

If you are freezing some of the roasted tomatoes whole, use the clear liquid to cover the tomatoes in the deli containers.

Use airtight containers that are about the same width as the tomatoes so you will need a small amount of liquid to cover them.

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Discounted tomatoes at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. Credit: David Latt

Defrosting Whole Roasted Tomatoes

When you want to use the tomatoes, take them out of the freezer in the evening and let them defrost overnight. If any ice crystals have accumulated on top of the tomatoes, rinse off the ice before defrosting.

If you want to serve them whole, the tomatoes can be warmed in the oven or microwave. They are delicate, so handle them carefully.

Whole Roasted Tomato, Easy-to-Make Pasta Sauce

A deliciously simple pasta sauce to make any time of the year, not just in winter. Serve the pasta with steamed vegetables, a charred steak or a grilled chicken breast and you will have a perfect cold weather meal that warms body and soul.

The flavorful tomato sauce can become a vegan dish by simply omitting the butter and cheese.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Sauté time: 5 minutes

Pasta cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 pound fresh or packaged pasta

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup Italian parsley leaves, washed, roughly chopped (optional)

1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped

2 to 3 whole, large roasted tomatoes, skins removed

1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Place a large pot of water on high heat. Add 1 tablespoon sea salt to the water. Bring to a boil. Add the pasta. Stir well every 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Place a heat-proof cup in the sink next to a large strainer. When the pasta is al dente to your taste, about 10 minutes, pour the pasta into the strainer, capturing one cup of the salted pasta water. Reserve.

3. Toss the cooked pasta to prevent clumping.

4. At the same time the pasta is cooking, place a large sauté pan on a medium-high flame. Heat the olive oil.

5. Add the parsley and garlic. Lightly brown.

6. Holding the roasted tomatoes over the sauté pan, use your hands to tear them apart so you capture all the liquid. Add any liquid from the deli container.

7. Stir well and cook until the liquid is reduced by half.

8. Taste and salt, if needed; add a tablespoon or more of the pasta water.

9. Stir well and add butter. Taste and adjust seasoning by adding sea salt and black pepper.

10. When ready to serve, add the cooked pasta to the sauté pan. Over a medium flame, toss the pasta in the sauce to coat.

11. Serve hot with a bowl of Romano or Parmesan cheese.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

The tomatoes used to make the sauce are prepared and roasted in the same manner as those used to create whole roasted tomatoes.

Directions

1. Working with small batches, remove the roasted tomatoes from the baking sheet and put some of the roasted tomatoes into a food mill or fine mesh, wire strainer placed over a nonreactive bowl. Press the tomatoes through, collecting all the juice in the bowl.

2. Use a spatula to scrape off the pulp that will accumulate on the bottom of the food mill or the strainer. Add the pulp to the juice.

3. Discard the tomato skins. Or add to your compost. Or, even better, reserve in the freezer to use with other vegetable scraps to make vegetable stock.

Freezing Roasted Tomato Sauce

Put the open deli containers on a counter. Stir the tomato juice to mix with the pulp.

Fill each deli container to a half-inch below the top so that when the sauce freezes, the liquid will have room to expand and will not force open the lid.

When cooled, the filled containers can be placed in the freezer.

Defrosting Roasted Tomato Sauce

Even without defrosting, the frozen sauce can be used at the last minute, when you want to thicken a soup, add a layer of flavor to a braise or make a simple pasta sauce.

There are infinite ways to use this versatile sauce. One of my favorites is an easy-to-make pasta with sautéed vegetables.

If any ice crystals accumulate on the top of the sauce, rinse off the ice before defrosting.

Penne Pasta With Roasted Tomato Sauce and Sautéed Vegetables

Prep time: 10 minutes

Sauté time: 10 minutes

Pasta cooking time: 10 minutes

Total cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 pound fresh or packaged pasta

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 carrots, washed, stems removed, peeled, cut into rounds

1 medium yellow onion, washed, stems removed, peeled, roughly chopped

8 large shiitake mushrooms, ends of the stems removed, washed, patted dry, roughly chopped

2 cups broccolini or broccoli, washed, cut into florets, the stems cut into slabs

2 garlic cloves, peeled, smashed, finely chopped

12 ounces frozen tomato sauce, defrosted on the counter overnight

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

¼ teaspoon pepper flakes or pinch of cayenne (optional)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

Directions

1. Place a large pot of water on high heat. Add 1 tablespoon sea salt to the water. Bring to a boil. Add the pasta. Stir well every 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Place a heat-proof cup in the sink next to a large strainer. When the pasta is al dente to your taste, pour the pasta into the strainer, capturing one cup of the salted pasta water. Reserve.

3. Toss the cooked pasta to prevent clumping.

4. At the same time the pasta is cooking, place a large sauté pan on a medium flame.

5. Heat the olive oil.

6. Add carrots, onion, shiitake mushrooms, broccolini and garlic. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add roasted tomato sauce, butter and pepper flakes. Stir well. Taste. If salt is needed, add a tablespoon or more of the pasta water.

8. Simmer on a medium flame and reduce.

9. Taste, adjust seasoning and continue simmering if you want the sauce to be thicker.

10. When the sauce is the consistency you like, add the cooked pasta, coat well.

11. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more sea salt or black pepper.

12. Serve hot with a bowl of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Main photo: Roasted tomatoes in a wire mesh strainer over a nonreactive bowl. Credit: David Latt

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Smiling sugar skulls are a mainstay of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations on Nov. 1 and 2.

Many cultures around the world honor departed ancestors with holidays each year. Some feature altars. Some burn incense. But feasting is the common thread that runs through many of the celebrations.

The dead are part of that — with food offerings left in their honor.

In Mexico’s two-day Day of the Dead celebration — el Día de los Muertos — Nov. 1 celebrates the lives of departed infants and children. Nov. 2 honors those who died as adults. On both days, families provide the favorite food and drink of the departed.

In China, families set out plates of food during for their ancestors at the Hungry Ghost Festival. An empty place at the dinner table is sometimes left for an ancestor to join in the feast.

The Hungry Ghost Festival, which is thousands of years old, is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Chinese families place ancestral artifacts on a table, burn incense and display photographs of the dead.

Remembering the dead with food, flowers and festive décor

Mexico’s tradition also features colorful altars to honor ancestors.

MexicanSugarSkull.com offers this detail on the offerings — ofrendas — that families set out on their Day of the Dead altars:

“They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil and bright red cock’s combs), mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.

 

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death -- with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death — with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is believed to trace its origins to pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

Not just a Mexican holiday anymore

Today, Day of the Dead has grown in popularity far behind the borders of Mexico and Latin America. The traditional observance from central and southern Mexico can now be seen in Día de los Muertos imagery and art around the world.

You can purchase just about anything you need for your own Day of the Dead celebration. From sugar skull molds to authentic Mexican Día de los Muertos folk art pieces, which are sometimes used as an altar decoration by celebrants.  The happy skeletons are shown doing many different things, from cooking to selling wares at the market. There are even skeleton mariachi bands. Families will purchase the colorful skeletons that depict activities their departed family member enjoyed in life.

Creating Mexican calaveras - the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations - is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters get as much joy out of decorating the skulls as their parents do.

Creating Mexican calaveras – the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations – is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters enjoy decorating the skulls as much as their parents do. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Making sugar skull decorations is very simple, using only three ingredients and a mold. The fun part is decorating them. I recruited my 7-year-old daughter and her friend to decorate the skulls. The kit came months ago, and my daughter had been bugging me since the day it arrived to make them. Not only was it a fun activity, it gave me a chance to talk about honoring our ancestors and remembering them in a fun — not sad — way.

I encourage families to make the skulls together, even decorating the skulls to resemble the deceased in their families and extended families.

Día de los Muertos Sugar Skulls

Prep time: 10 minutes

Drying time: 8 hours

Yield: 5 medium skulls

Ingredients

For the sugar skulls:

3 cups granulated sugar

3 teaspoons meringue powder

3 teaspoons water

For the royal icing:

1 pound powdered sugar

⅓ cup water

¼ cup meringue powder

Gel paste food coloring, assorted colors

Directions

For the sugar skulls:

1. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and meringue powder.

2. Sprinkle the water over the sugar mixture.

3. Using clean hands, knead the mixture until all the sugar is moistened and it feels like wet sand. Make sure there are no lumps.

4. Pack the mix firmly into the sugar skull mold.

5. Carefully invert the mold onto a baking sheet or piece of cardboard.

6. Gently tap the mold to release the sugar skull from the mold.

7. Let the skulls dry for at least 8 hours to overnight.

8. Decorate the skulls with royal icing.

For the royal icing:

1. In a stand mixer, beat the icing until it makes stiff peaks.

2. Divide the icing and use paste food coloring to make assorted colors.

3. Using a piping bag, decorate the skulls as desired.

Main photo: Mexican sugar skulls for Day of the Dead celebrations. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee 

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