Articles in Cooking
Thousands of years ago, pioneers among the central Malayo-Polynesian-speaking populations are believed to have traveled across the Indian Ocean and brought plantains, water yams and taro to India. Now, they have become central to the vegetarian cuisine in the Kerala region of southwest India.
Plantains are a variety of bananas from the plant Musa paradisiaca, which have thicker skins than regular bananas. Plantains are also sometimes called cooking bananas. Even when ripe, they are not very sweet, and they are not eaten raw.
The plantain rules at Kerala’s most important festival, Thiruvonam (or Onam for short), celebrated in late August or early September (depending on the lunar calendar) by Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike. The big event at Onam is the sadya (feast), which is served on fresh, green banana leaves around noon. Although rice is the centerpiece of the feast, several dishes both sweet and savory are prepared with plantains, each with its own taste and texture.
In every cuisine, there are certain dishes that make the menu more complete and more festive. They may not have the status of a course in and of themselves, but without them, the meal would lose some of its festive appeal. Two signature dishes of Onam Sadya are the deep-fried, salty and crispy golden yellow plantain chips and their sweet counterpart, sarkkara upperi, thick slices deep-fried and drenched in jaggery syrup. No matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious. Locally called upperi, but better known as banana chips, it is the favorite snack of Kerala and provides the crispy crunch to traditional feasts.
And then there is kaya mezukkupuratti, cubed green plantains cooked with salt and turmeric and then pan-fried over low heat in coconut oil until they fully absorb the flavor of the curry leaves and oil. It’s a dish that’s as unfussy and simple as you can imagine.
Plantains useful in curries
There are two types of curries made with just plantains for the Onam feast. They are also found in the signature mixed vegetable dish aviyal. One of the curries, varutha erisseri, is made by cooking chunks of green plantain in a sauce of golden brown toasted coconut. It has a complexity and aroma peculiarly and delightfully its own. The word “curry” often evokes a sense of tropical spiciness. Kerala’s cuisine is known for its variety of spicy curries, but there are also some mildly sweet, tropical fruit curries that are cooked in a mellow coconut and yogurt sauce.
The fruit curry kaalan is made by cooking ripe plantain slices in a thick coconut and yogurt sauce sweetened with jaggery and garnished with mustard and fenugreek seeds and fresh curry leaves.
Steamed ripe plantains are another must at the Onam feast. And, finally, rounding out the menu is a delicately smooth and creamy pudding — pazza pradhaman — made with homemade plantain jam cooked in coconut milk sweetened with jaggery and garnished with crushed cardamom and toasted coconut pieces.
Though not necessarily a part of the Onam feast, other plantain treats can be found in Kerala: sun-dried ripe plantains and banana fritters made with thin ripe plantain slices dipped in a mildly sweet batter and deep-fried.
Making deep-fried chips at home is not a difficult task. Thanks to food processors, slicing is a breeze. It is important to use oil that can be heated to high temperatures. The oil must be well heated before adding the sliced plantains for frying or otherwise, oil seeps in and will make them soggy. Hot oil sears the surface to a firm crispiness. For serving at feasts, they are generally quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into thin triangular slices. To serve as a snack, they are cut as full rounds or as half rounds. But no matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious.
- 6 firm green plantains
- 6 cups vegetable oil
- ½ cup concentrated saltwater (*see directions below)
- Peel off the thick green skins from the plantains, and wash them to remove any dark stain from the outside. Pat them dry with paper towels.
- When making the smaller, triangular chips, halve the plantain lengthwise, and cut each piece lengthwise again. Then cut each piece crosswise into thin slices. For the round chips, cut the whole plantain crosswise into thin rounds. A food processor comes in handy for cutting them into thin rounds. Fit the processor with the 2mm blade and slowly feed the peeled plantains through the top. This blade cuts the plantains evenly.
- Heat the oil in a heavy wok or deep-frying pan to 365 F.
- When the oil is hot, spread the plantain pieces evenly in the oil and deep-fry until they are golden and crisp, about 5 minutes.
- Add a teaspoon of concentrated saltwater to the oil, and cover the pan with a splatter screen. The water will really splatter and make a lot of noise.
- In a minute or so, when the water has stopped sputtering, remove the cover. By now, all the water should have evaporated, and the crispy fries will be golden and evenly salted.
- Drain well, and store in airtight containers. The best way to drain deep-fried plantains is to use a cake cooling rack placed over a cookie tray. The excess oil will drip through the cooling rack and fall onto the cookie tray.
- *Add one tablespoon of salt to a half-cup of water, and stir well. If there is no salt sediment at the bottom, add more salt, and stir until there is some salt residue left at the bottom and the water is saturated with salt.
Main photo: Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
The rise and fall of fettuccine Alfredo is a story of a simple dish taken from its home and embellished with flourishes before sliding into culinary familiarity, dullness and bastardization.
Although it has its roots in Roman cuisine, it is nothing but a restaurant dish in Italy and America. Fettuccine Alfredo became a classic of Italian-American cooking, but today is often served as third-rate tourist food in the Little Italy emporiums catering to them in America’s cities.
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This wasn’t always true. In the 1940s and 1950s, fettuccine Alfredo was a signature dish of continental-style French-service restaurants where waiters, with a flourish, would prepare the dish tableside in a chafing dish.
The classic story of its origins is that the dish was invented in a Roman trattoria on the Via della Scrofa near the Tiber River by Alfredo di Lelio, who opened his restaurant in the early part of the 20th century. He invented the dish for his wife, it is said, after she gave birth and lost her appetite.
The dish became famous to Americans after Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s in 1927 and raved about his preparation called fettuccine Alfredo. It was in America that cream started entering the recipe and that fettuccine Alfredo began its descent to a thick, heavy, glop of pasta. The original, although meant to be rich, was also light and silky because all that was used was butter and Parmesan cheese: cream and eggs were never meant to be used.
Interestingly, Italians do not refer to this dish as fettuccine Alfredo — or when they do they’re well aware of the American connection — but rather fettuccine al triplo burro, fettuccine with triple the amount of butter, the name of the original dish. Even more interestingly, two great cookbooks on Roman cuisine Ada Boni’s “La Cucina Romana” and Livia Jannattoni’s “La Cucina Romana e del Lazio” do not mention fettuccine Alfredo, indicating that it never was part of Roman cooking but is culinary fantasy.
The dish should be made with fresh fettuccine, but dried works just fine as well. The quality of the butter and cheese in fettuccine Alfredo are paramount. I recommend the Parmigiano-Reggiano butter made from the same cow’s milk the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from and which you must also use.
- 1 pound fresh fettuccine
- ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- ½ pound (about 4 cups) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
- Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing saving ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water.
- Meanwhile, cut the butter into thin pats or flakes and transfer half of them to a warmed large oval silver platter where you will do the final tossing. Place the cooked pasta over the butter, sprinkle the cheese on top. Toss, sprinkling some reserved pasta water. Add the remaining butter and toss, adding the pasta water to make the pasta look creamy. You will be tossing for 2 minutes. Sprinkle on the black pepper if desired. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
In the Southwest, the green chile harvest is well underway. Throughout New Mexico and my home state of Colorado, locals are ransacking the roadside stands, where roasting drums rumble incessantly, and stacking their freezers with bag upon bag of the long, blackened pods. Soon and often, they’ll be chopped and added to omelets, burgers, quesadillas, breads and countless other dishes, and even used by home brewers in beer. But above all, they’ll be reserved for batches of, well, green chile.
Though you will sometimes see the word spelled “chili,” the strong preference for the Spanish term in these parts is only natural. A majority here take “chili” to mean the spicy beef stew (with or without beans) so beloved in Texas, while green “chile” refers not only to any number of unripened strains of Capsicum annuum but also to a concoction whose versatility partly explains its significance to Southwestern cuisine.
Green chile recipes come with many variations
Other than the peppers themselves, its list of ingredients is up for fierce debate. It may be vegetarian or contain pork, though if you ask three cooks which cut is best you’ll get four answers. And while garlic, salt and pepper are virtually non-negotiable, just about every other potential component has its champions and detractors, from onions, tomatoes, tomatillos and chicken broth to herbs and spices like cilantro and cumin.
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Green chile can be thin or thick; it functions as a filling, sauce and/or stew at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even if they’ve heard of it before (and many haven’t), newcomers to the Southwest are often startled by green chile’s ubiquity.
For that matter, many New Mexicans — who consider the stuff their birthright — balk at the notion that Coloradans have a century-old green-chile tradition of their own. (Case in point: the good-natured controversy that occurred between state officials after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock included green chile in his 2014 Super Bowl wager with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.) In their view, the Colorado version, based primarily on crops from Pueblo, could only be a pale imitation if not an outright theft of their richer heritage, centered on the famed Hatch pepper and extending to an appreciation for red chile — made with the dried pods — that Coloradans don’t especially share. (In New Mexico, when you order any dish “Christmas-style,” you’ll get it with both red and green chile.)
Michael Bartolo begs to differ with that assessment. According to the Colorado State University researcher, DNA testing has shown that “what’s grown in the Pueblo area is unique. It’s not really related to anything grown in New Mexico.” In fact, “its nearest relatives are from the Oaxaca region of Mexico.”
While the term “Hatch chile” is a catch-all for several varieties grown in and around the town of Hatch, N.M., “Pueblo chile” is basically synonymous with two types: the Mirasol, named for the way its root points toward the sun, and an adaptation called the Mosco, Bartolo’s own cultivar. As Bartolo explains, “Over 20 years ago, I collected some seeds from my uncle, Harry Mosco, and began making selections over about five years. I was looking to increase yield and produce a lot of big fruits with thick meat, making them more amenable to roasting.” He adds that Pueblo crops benefit from higher diurnal temperature shifts than their New Mexican counterparts, which aid in the development of sugars for fruitier flavor profiles. (And Bartolo has “new varieties in the pipeline as well,” including one called the Pueblo popper: “Imagine a large, roundish pepper that doesn’t have a huge amount of heat, to be used more for stuffing.”)
Truth be told, the likelihood that most people could taste the difference between chiles grown on either side of the state line is slim to none. So don’t worry: If roasting stands don’t exist where you live, you should still be able to find one cultivar or another that will suffice, including Anaheims (which were brought to California from New Mexico, though they tend to be milder than their Southwestern cousins).
Here is a basic recipe for green chile, one that emphasizes the flavor of the key ingredient itself. To that end, I personally prefer pork loin over fattier cuts. On this template, however, you can begin to build more complex variations as you please.
Cooking time varies, and can be up to 2.5 hours.
- 2 pounds pork loin
- 8 garlic cloves
- 2½ to 3 cups whole roasted green chiles
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 tablespoons flour, divided
- 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Place the pork loin in a good-sized pot and add water until it’s submerged by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a high simmer and cook 1 hour.
- While the pork is cooking, mince the garlic and set aside. Remove the roasted skins from the chiles. (You can wash them off, but you’ll lose essential oils in so doing, and they crumble away easily enough without rinsing.) Destem, deseed and chop the chiles crosswise; set aside.
- Once the pork is ready, set it aside to cool, reserving the cooking water. (Transfer it to a pitcher if possible.)
- In another large pot, heat the vegetable oil on a medium-low burner or flame and add the garlic. When it's golden brown, add 4 tablespoons flour and begin whisking constantly for a few minutes, until it’s a coppery color and smells nutty. It should be thickening as well; if not, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour a little at a time until it’s somewhat thick and bubbling.
- Continue to whisk vigorously as you add the reserved liquid to the pot in a thin stream. Next, add the chiles and the tomatoes. Then shred the cooled pork by hand and add it to the pot; finally, season with salt and pepper.
- Reduce the heat to low and position the lid to cover the pot loosely. Cook at least one hour, adjusting the seasoning to taste as you go.
Main photo: Green chile. Credit: Ruth Tobias
Let the ingredients speak. It is something my Nana always urged. What better time than late summer and early fall to allow your garden to dictate your menu.
If you are growing vegetables, much of the wait is over. Cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, eggplant, onions and much more are streaming in. Herbs, too, are abundant and running wild — tarragon, basil, lavender, mint, lemon balm, oregano, sage, rosemary, parsley, cilantro. The list is almost endless.
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I want to hoard. I am afraid to eat it all for fear there will be no more. But I resist that instinct and step into the garden and let it speak to me. What is ripe right now? What can I preserve for the January meals? What do I want to eat and make right now with my garden bounty? And herein lies the secret — nothing is better than garden-to-table menu making and recipe creation.
Each day I peruse the garden and decide what’s for lunch or what’s for dinner. With the abundant zucchini and onions, and freshly laid chicken eggs, I whip up a simple frittata finished off with assorted herbs. It does the trick for lunch. A dinner could be a lamb burger, prepared with mint and rosemary, and served with an arugula and watermelon salad, and corn on the cob. Perhaps, I will turn tomatoes into a luscious sauce with basil and a touch of cream and serve over fettuccine. Or prepare stuffed peppers with black beans, rice and fresh herbs.
The trick is not to get bogged down with the recipe. Sometimes, if I need a little inspiration, I will page through a few cookbooks and even Google an ingredient. We are lucky to live during a time of readily available recipes. By reading several, it helps trigger creativity. I have included recipes with the hope that they serve as guides, not rules, to inspire you to discover the flavor profiles that work well together. I urge you to have at it in the kitchen. With the freshest of ingredients, you need not fear the results.
How a recipe develops
The garden is producing food faster than we can eat it. Other than tomatoes, two of the most abundant crops are kale and corn. One day I had people over for dinner and didn’t have fixings for a green salad so I decided to use my kale. But kale is tough. I remembered reading that salt and lemon tenderized the kale … and the rest is history. My Corn and Kale Salad recipe was born. Simple, delicious and healthy.
- 8 to 10 stalks of kale, stems removed and leaves cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 2 to 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 to 4 ears of leftover corn, kernels removed
- 1 tablespoon minced tarragon
- Pepper to taste
- Place kale in your serving bowl. Sprinkle sea salt all over kale and massage into the kale for 1 to 2 minutes. The massaging helps to tenderize the kale.
- Sprinkle with the lemon juice and set aside.
- When ready to serve, heat up butter in a skillet, add corn and sauté until warm and beginning to brown slightly. Add tarragon and then toss in with the kale.
An heirloom meal’s moment
My friend David Moore asked me to cook up a casual dinner, saying, “In the interest of this being an heirloom meal, I thought you should make corn pudding. It’s our family’s favorite heirloom food.” I said, no problem. I adapted his “non-recipe” into a workable one.
You can only imagine how surprised I was when Moore put the corn pudding on the table. I proclaimed, “Shouldn’t we wait until after the main course?” To which Moore responded, “It is part of the main course.” And I burst out laughing, admitting I thought it was dessert and I even made whipped cream to go on top. And boy was it delicious. This is a keeper and I was told it was better than his dad’s!
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 to 8 servings as a side
4 ears fresh corn shucked and cut off cob (or 3 to 4 cups frozen kernels, thawed)
4 farm fresh eggs
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup whole milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoon organic sugar
½ stick butter
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons salt
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Butter a square 8-by-8-inch baking dish.
3. Blend all the ingredients in a food processor for about 3 to 5 minutes until corn is nicely blended while still retaining some texture. Pour into baking pan and bake until golden brown, about 35 to 45 minutes.
4. Cool and serve warm as a side or as dessert.
Tarragon Chive Pasta Salad
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 8 servings as a side
1 pound tri-color rotini
¾ cup olive oil, divided; ¼ cup to toss with pasta, ½ cup for the dressing
1 cup scallions, sliced
¾ cup chives, minced
¼ cup tarragon, minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup champagne vinegar
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes to taste
1. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain and toss in a large bowl with ¼ cup of olive oil. Cool. Add scallions, chives and tarragon.
2. Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Slowly add in the ½ cup of olive oil in a stream until incorporated. Pour over pasta and mix.
3. Best if pasta sits at room temperature for at least 4 hours or chills overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Late Summer Roasted Heirloom Tomato Risotto
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 generous dinner servings or 6 side servings
1 quart cherry tomatoes, halved or 4 cups tomatoes, quartered
3 tablespoon olive oil
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 to 2½ tablespoons of butter or olive oil (I use both, 1-plus tablespoon butter, 1-plus tablespoon of olive oil)
¾ cup of a mix of shallots and onions, chopped (I used 2 shallots and 1 small onion)
2 cups of Arborio rice
½ cup white wine
8 cups chicken stock
1 cup Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
Clean and halve the cherry tomatoes.
Toss with olive oil, garlic, basil, salt and pepper. Spread over a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Roast for 25 minutes.
2. While tomatoes are roasting, heat butter and oil in a large saucepan or risotto pot over medium flame. When butter is melted, add chopped shallots and onions. Sauté for 2 to 4 minutes until translucent.
3. Add Arborio rice and stir to coat thoroughly with butter and oil; continue to sauté for another minute or so. Add white wine and stir until it is completely absorbed.
4. Next, begin the process that makes risotto creamy. Add a ladle of hot chicken broth and stir constantly until it is absorbed. Repeat until most, if not all, of the broth has been used and the rice is tender but not mushy.
5. Remove from heat, add the Parmesan cheese, fold in your tomatoes (which probably came out of the oven 5 minutes or so ago) and serve immediately.
Main photo: Fresh ingredients from the garden. Credit: iStockphoto / pilipphoto
Four generations of Di Palos have run an Italian specialty market in New York City’s Little Italy, so having Lou Di Palo, great-grandson of the founder, write a guide to Italian ingredients, “Di Palo’s Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy,” is a natural. Each chapter in this fun collection focuses on a specific food with history, buying and storing tips, and recipes. Discover everything you need to know about fresh mozzarella, ricotta, olive oil, espresso and more.
I’ve been shopping at Di Palo’s since I was old enough to ride the subway alone and was charmed by this incredible collection of stories, factoids and advice. The history of a store that’s been a fixture in the neighborhood for more than a century is a fascinating glimpse into the history of Italian food in America. Countless celebrities shop there and some sing Lou Di Palo’s praises on the book jacket, including Ruth Reichl and Pete Hamill. Martin Scorsese wrote the book’s foreword.
Frommer’s wisely notes, “Before there was Mario Batali or Anthony Bourdain, there was Lou Di Palo, a true New York food celebrity.”
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
By Lou Di Palo, Rachel Wharton
Below is an excerpt from Di Palo’s book on buying ricotta:
“Like other latterias, we sell ricotta in several shapes: In tall perforated metal tins with a mound of ricotta piled up on top to keep it pressing down, or in squat woven baskets made of plastic. The former are drier and better for cooking or baking, the latter are best when you want to serve ricotta sliced on a plate, drizzled with honey or jam. We also stock imported sheep’s milk ricotta when sheep are giving milk. It is at its best in the spring, when the grass is new and sweet — if you see imported sheep’s milk ricotta in the summer, it’s likely not very good.
“You’ll also sometimes see ricotta forte, or ‘strong ricotta,’ a specialty from Puglia that got its start as a way to use up older product. What vinegar is to wine, ricotta forte is to ricotta. It smells and tastes like a strong gorgonzola. It’s simply fermented ricotta, or ricotta turned a little sour, with a little fresh ricotta added for balance. (We usually don’t eat it fresh, but add it to calzones or stir in a spoonful to tomato sauce.)
“When ricotta is salted and pressed, over time it becomes a solid cheese with a much longer shelf life, though it still retains its fresh, milky flavor. There are two versions, both called ricotta salata, or salted ricotta: One is very dense, dry, and salty and is typically grated onto pasta. The other is more of a table cheese — it’s moister and less salty and very good with slices of fresh tomato or drizzled with olive oil.
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“The funny thing is that they usually go by the same name, so you have to ask to make sure you are getting the right one. Sicilians also bake ricotta into a mild cheese called ricotta infornata, which is firmer, with a more caramelized flavor. We make it at Di Palo’s too, sometimes baked with acacia or chestnut honey.
“In addition to ricotta, one of the most common formaggio frescos made in Italy is called caciotta, and we also make that daily at Di Palo’s. It’s made like ricotta, but we use rennet to break the milk rather than vinegar. The milk is heated to a lower temperature, and then it is also pressed a little more intensely into a basket shape and aged for a day or two. It’s similar to American ‘farmer’s cheese,’ and is a little drier and more solid than ricotta. There is also cacioricotta, which is a dry, denser caciotta made at the same high temperature as ricotta and then salted. It’s usually shaved or grated over pasta.”
The following recipes are excerpts from the book:
My grandmother simmered her meatballs in her sauce, but her real secret weapon was our ricotta. It keeps the meatballs incredibly moist, and adds a little richness. Because she was from Basilicata, she actually used a mix of caciocavallo, or whatever aged pecorino she had on hand, rather than provolone or pecorino Romano, but good quality versions of these two cheeses are much easier to find. Whenever we make these in our store, they go quickly.
- 1 pound of ground beef, about 20 percent fat to 80 percent lean
- 1 egg
- ½ cup seasoned bread crumbs
- ¼ pound grated aged provolone
- ¼ pound freshly grated pecorino Romano
- ½ pound fresh, good quality, whole milk ricotta
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- ¼ cup fresh chopped parsley
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 quart marinara sauce
- In a large bowl, mix meat, egg, bread crumbs, cheeses, garlic, and parsley well with your hands.
- Roll into small meatballs, about 2½ inches wide, and place onto a sheet pan.
- In a large saucepan, heat the marinara sauce over low heat.
- Heat an inch of olive oil over medium high heat in a large skillet. Add meatballs, cooking them in batches, if necessary, and pan-fry until browned on all sides.
- Place meatballs in marinara sauce and let simmer for 20 minutes.
Concetta Di Palo’s Ricotta Cheesecake
Yield: 19-inch cake
This recipe from my grandmother Concetta is a good example of our cooking philosophy: Let the ingredients speak for themselves. This cake is rich, moist and less sweet than traditional American cheesecakes — a little more complex. We’ve been handing out this recipe since at least World War II — you can tell by the zwieback cookies the original recipe called for. The current version is on a postcard with a caricature of my father scowling from the back of the store, drawn by Soho artist Jacob El Hanani, who has been shopping with us for decades. We had the same photo screen-printed onto a tile that we placed in our dairy when we renovated a few years ago, so my father could still watch over us as we made the ricotta, just like he used to.
Butter for greasing the pan
2 cups sugar, divided use
½ cup crushed zwieback cookies or graham crackers, plus extra for garnish
3 pounds good quality, fresh, whole cow’s-milk ricotta
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 teaspoons orange blossom water
¾ cup of heavy cream
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and butter a 9-inch springform pan.
2. In a small bowl, mix ½ cup of the sugar with the cookies or crackers and then evenly coat the bottom and sides of the buttered pan with the mixture.
3. In a large bowl, beat the remaining sugar and the ricotta, eggs, vanilla, orange blossom water and cream together until very smooth.
4. Pour mixture into springform pan. To prevent the cheesecake from cracking, place into a larger pan or oven-proof dish and fill it halfway up the side with water.
Main photo: Lou Di Palo at Di Palo’s counter in Little Italy. Credit: Ballantine Books
Wild mountain huckleberries are everything store-bought blueberries dreamed they could be.
The flavor of the two is similar, but concentrated in huckleberries and balanced with a slight acidity. It’s hard to imagine that the huckleberry, only a fraction of the size of a pea, could possess such intense flavor. But you know what they say about small packages. This particular small package delivers the apex of summer to me, for it ripens only after the mountains have seen their peak heat.
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I remember how angry I was when I realized that the scrubby little plant that had been at my ankles at every hike of my childhood was actually loaded with tasty huckleberries. I likely would have had a distinct advantage in picking them as a child too because the fruit dangles delicately below the plants’ foliage, often completely disguised from above.
In my small region of the Rocky Mountains, there are several species of the genus Vaccinium, with berries ranging in color from red to blue to black. Some would argue that it is most appropriate to refer to them as blueberries, and you might also hear them called billberries, grouseberries or whortleberries.
I learned them as huckleberries, and the fun-to-say name has stuck with me. It often happens that common names for plants vary from region to region. A plant known for generations to one household as pigweed may be a plant from an entirely different genus to someone in a different part of the world. This is why foragers need to refer to Latin binomials when specifying a plant.
Huckleberry plants are usually tall enough to get your boots wet, but rarely tall enough to get your calves wet. I find the pale green of their leaves to be distinctive, and instantly recognize the carpets of huckleberry plants rolled out on the moist soil beneath conifer or mixed conifer and aspen trees. Huckleberry plants are branched and shrubby, with alternating leaves that I’ve most often observed to be less than an inch long.
The fruit are slightly different in appearance from the blueberries most people recognize from the store. In addition to being smaller than a pencil eraser, they have what looks almost like a belly button at their growing end.
For me, the only complication comes in the fact that huckleberries ripen at the same time porcini burst forth on the mountain. To collect enough of the tiny fruit to use in a recipe takes a serious amount of time and effort, and I’m often torn as to whether to use my time to hunt mushrooms or huckleberries. Some years, I’ve merely enjoyed them as trail snacks. In the end, I’ve never regretted picking enough to use in a recipe.
It is a natural to preserve huckleberries as a jam, though I’ve never collected enough to make more than two tiny 4-ounce jars. A few years back, after noticing that my wild syrups sat in the pantry without being used, I discovered that I much prefer making shrubs, which are like syrups made with a healthy dose of vinegar. Most often flavored with fruit, shrubs are, to my mind, the grown-up answer to syrups. Shrub can be used in many of the same places as syrup, such as in fizzy water and cocktails, or to dress fruit salads, but the vinegar used to make shrub gives it a perfect punch of sour meets sweet.
If you prefer to enjoy your huckleberries right away, they are a great addition to all manner of baked goods. You might want to try them in a straight-up blueberry muffin recipe. I recommend using a recipe that calls for sour cream, which I’ve found reliably makes superior blueberry muffins. I really enjoy scones, and think that huckleberries make them only better.
The only trouble with making scones is that the dough is a bit stiff, which can make adding delicate huckleberries a challenge. I’ve gotten around this to a large extent by freezing the berries before they are incorporated into the recipe. The scones recipe I use is adapted from one of my grandmother’s old community church cookbooks, and was attributed to a woman named Edith Hibbard.
There are some shrubs that I prefer to make with fruit that has never been cooked, only macerated with sugar. However, I think it is easier to maximize the flavor and amount of juice in huckleberries by making a cooked syrup.
Preparation time: 2 hours
1 part fruit (all parts by volume, not weight)
3 parts sugar
1 part water
Rice vinegar or other light clear vinegar, equal in measure to the amount of huckleberry syrup
1. In a pot, lightly crush the huckleberries together with the sugar, and let them sit for an hour.
2. Add the water, and bring the huckleberries to a boil. Being such small berries, this is all they need to cook. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the huckleberries cool to room temperature.
3. Strain out the solids from the huckleberry syrup, and be certain to save them to put atop ice cream or your morning toast.
4. Measure the syrup, and combine it with an equal amount of rice vinegar. Stir gently to combine. Pour the shrub into mason jars, and store them in a very cold pantry or refrigerator for at least six months before serving. Once aged, the sharp edges of the vinegar will soften and become the perfect balance for the fruit.
Huckleberry Cream Scones
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon cream
1 egg, beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup huckleberries, frozen
1 tablespoon coarse sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.
2. Add in the cubes of butter, and gently toss them with a fork to coat them with flour. Then use the back of the fork to crush the pieces of butter into smaller and smaller pieces as they combine with the flour. Stop when most of the butter is unrecognizable.
3. Make a hole in the center of the flour and butter mixture. Add the ¾ cup cream, egg and vanilla to the depression and use the fork to gently beat them together before gently combining them with the flour and butter. Just before the dough comes together, add the huckleberries. As gently as possible, continue stirring, just until the dough holds together.
4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and press the dough into a circle 1½ inches thick. Use a butter knife to cut the circle into six wedges. Gently separate the wedges so that they are at least 2 inches apart, and blunt the pointy end with your finger.
5. Brush the top of each with the extra tablespoon of cream, and sprinkle on some of the coarse sugar.
6. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the bottoms and tops of the scones are lightly brown.
Main photo: Mountain huckleberries. Credit: Erica Marciniec
When we think of the diets of our founding fathers and mothers, we imagine porridges, breads, fresh and preserved fruits and vegetables, and gently flavored roast meats. What most people don’t realize is that the colonists had a taste for exotic fare from all over the world and would pay dearly for delicacies from India, China, Indonesia and other places far from the shores of North America.
In addition to buying authentic food items, the colonists tried to recreate these dishes based on taste and the ingredients they had on hand. Unique dishes were devised that approximated Asian curries, soups and sauces; chutneys; and spicy fruit and vegetable pickles like mango and lemon pickles.
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These Western adaptations of Asian dishes are usually edited out of reconstructed colonial menus offered at historical restaurants. Perhaps proprietors fear that modern customers would not associate these dishes with colonial menus and, therefore, would not buy them. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, these Asian-inspired dishes were popular menu items at local taverns and were often enjoyed as home-cooked meals.
Despite what we have been led to believe about our founders’ culinary choices — they often liked it spicy.
Colonial curry recipe
The earliest mention of a colonial recipe for curry can be found in the mid-18th-century manuscripts of Anna De Peyster. It is a recipe for Butter Chicken, which is probably of Parsi origin, although versions of the dish are now enjoyed throughout Southern Asia and the Himalayas. De Peyster’s recipe uses mace, lemon zest and lemon juice, cream, and a bit of parsley and ground black pepper to produce a dish that is delicious but pales in comparison to the authentic South Asian standard.
More developed Western recipes for Butter Chicken are found in the 1774 edition of Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple” and the 1824 edition of Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife. Glasse’s recipe calls for ginger, turmeric and black pepper to flavor the stew of chicken and onions, and then finished with cream and lemon juice. Randolph’s recipe calls for a complex mix of spices, including turmeric, coriander and cumin seeds, ginger, nutmeg, mace and Cayenne pepper, to which onions, garlic and a small amount of lemon or orange juice is added to complete the curry. (For more information on historical curries see the Silk Road Gourmet website.
In the years between the publication of the curry recipes by Glasse and Randolph, curry powders became the rage in both British and American cuisine. The first commercially available curry mixes were sold in London in 1784.
Although the origins of curry powders are a bit obscure, research suggests they are a Western invention and were intended to recreate the Indian masala spice mixes that form the basis of many curries. While the ground spice mixes were often marketed under exotic, foreign banners, they were not used by Asian cooks. The intention of the makers was to provide a standardized spice mix that made it easier for Western cooks to make curries.
Fruit and vegetable pickles
Other types of Asian dishes that were popular in 18th century Britain and America were chutneys and spicy fruit and vegetable pickles called achar in Hindi. Glasse’s 1774 book includes recipes for mango pickle and lemon pickle.
Her lemon pickle recipe uses 12 lemons sliced into quarters and salted for several days. To this is added sliced and salted ginger, parboiled and salted garlic cloves, a small handful of lightly bruised mustard seeds, and ground chili peppers. She calls for all ingredients to be mixed together after salting, covered with the best white-wine vinegar and then stored for one month before using.
If you compare Glasse’s recipe for lemon pickle with a modern recipe for South Indian Lemon Pickle (below), you will see the similarities between the two dishes.
- 1½ - 2 pounds lemons
- ½ - ¾ cup salt
- 4 teaspoons light mustard seeds
- 1 tablespoon cilantro seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- ½ cup mustard oil
- ¼ cup light sesame oil
- ¼ cup grape-seed oil
- ½ teaspoon asafetida
- 2 teaspoons red chili pepper, ground
- 4 teaspoons fenugreek seeds, ground
- ¾ cup lemon juice
- ½ cup sugar (demerara or jaggery)
- Cut each of the lemons into eight pieces, and coat each piece in salt. Place slices into a jar and tamp down or squeeze as you go to release most of the juice in the lemons. Leave a couple of inches at the top of the jar to allow space for lemons to shift.
- Cover and place on a sunny windowsill for 10 days to 2 weeks. Shake daily to mix the salt and the lemons. When the curing time has elapsed, the lemons will have softened significantly and reduced in volume. The lemons are ready when the peels are soft and pliable.
- Once the lemons have cured, lightly roast each of the whole spices separately in a dry sauté pan. They should be fragrant and just beginning to color when done. Be careful not to burn them or your pickle will have a scorched flavor instead of a lightly roasted one. Set aside to cool.
- Heat the oils in a sauté pan. When warm but not sizzling hot, remove from the fire, add the asafetida. Stir and cover the pan. Let sit for 2 to 3 minutes. Then add the rest of the whole roasted seeds and the ground spices; mix well. Cool for another five minutes, as you prepare the lemon slices.
- In a large bowl, mix the salted lemon slices, the lemon juice and the sugar until blended. Add the oil and spice mixture; mix well.
- Spoon the mixture into jars, cover, refrigerate 1 to 2 weeks before serving.
- As an alternative, place the mixture into properly sealed Mason jars, and set in a cool, dark place for 1-2 weeks before serving. Store opened jars in the refrigerator.
Total curing time: 2 to 4 weeks
It is clear that Glasse is recreating the recipe based on the flavor of the pickle as opposed to adapting an Indian recipe to available ingredients and preparation methods. Unaware that the sourness of the pickle came from the play of salt and lemon juice, Glasse used vinegar as a souring agent.
What is interesting to me is that Glasse’s pickle isn’t all that bad. The South Indian recipe is certainly richer, sweeter and more complex, but for someone who had only tasted a foreign dish imported from thousands of miles away, Glasse did a great job approximating the recipe for lemon pickle.
In addition to curries and South Asian pickles, the British and Americans of the 18th century were very interested in recreating Asian soy sauces and fish sauces. For example, an early attempt to produce an ingredient that introduced salt and umami to dishes was mushroom ketchup.
Indeed, the word “ketchup” is derived from the Indonesian word “kecap,” which is used broadly to describe fermented sauces but also specifically is used to denote the family of Indonesian soy sauces. Not knowing that soy sauces are usually produced from beans — the most common being the soybean — Westerners salted mushrooms for days or weeks and then harvested the liquid produced after degradation and crushing.
Mushroom ketchup was used to flavor savory stews of meat and vegetables and as an ingredient in savory sauces as well. It was an indispensable ingredient in the colonial kitchen — and a Western recreation of what was then considered an exotic Asian flavor.
Main photo: Hannah Glasse’s Butter Chicken. Credit: Laura Kelley
One of the oddest questions I get when serving fish is, “Does this fish have bones?” My answer is always, “Assume it does.” I answer that way to encourage people to eat slowly, to eat as if it does have bones, because all fish have bones. Even when you buy a boneless fillet of fish, you can’t be sure it doesn’t have a stray bone.
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For the most part all fish in this country, except fish from ethnic markets, is sold as fillets or steaks. Whole fish are hard to find and when you do find them, the selection often is limited to trout or sea bass. Most people who like fish are hesitant about buying and cooking whole fish because they’re not sure how to cook it and not sure they know how to eat it.
You’ll see evidence of this whenever a host or restaurant serves a fillet of fish with a fish knife. That’s silly because one does not need a fish knife with a fish fillet. One uses a fish knife only with whole fish. The purpose of a fish knife is to remove the flesh from the backbone and to scoop sauce on top of that flesh.
I also have noticed a lack of knowledge about fish species and a tendency for cooks to complicate a preparation. Fish can be cooked quite simply because when it is fresh, very little adornment, if any, is needed.
Here are three fish preparations that novices can make. The first is a baked fish that includes a recipe because it is a bit more involved than the other two, but not hard. The second, a griddled fish, and the third, a fried fish, are so simple they don’t require recipes.
- 2 pounds swordfish, in one piece, 3/4- to 1-inch thick, skin removed
- ¾ cup dry bread crumbs
- 8 anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley plus more for garnish
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Cut the swordfish into four pieces. Slice each piece horizontally, keeping the pieces matched. The reason you are doing this is because a layer of seasoning will be put between the two halves like frosting in a layer cake.
- In a bowl, prepare the seasoning by mixing together the bread crumbs, anchovies, garlic, oregano and parsley, and moisten with the olive oil. This bread-crumb coating should look like wet sand.
- Preheat the oven to 425 F.
- Lightly oil a 12-by-9-by-inch baking casserole. Arrange the four bottom pieces of the sliced swordfish in the casserole and coat them with half the bread crumb mixture. Lightly salt and pepper. Layer the four top pieces of swordfish over the bread-crumb coating and then lightly salt and pepper. Spread the remaining bread-crumb mixture on top of the top layer of swordfish. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top and put it into the oven until the crust is a golden brown and the fish is springy to the touch, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle with parsley and serve.
You can make this with cod or red snapper too. Figure on 6 ounces per person. Preheat a cast iron griddle or skillet over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Rub both sides of the fish with a little olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Place on the griddle and cook for 10 minutes, turning only once with a spatula, making sure you just leave the fish on the griddle without fiddling with it, touching it or turning it.
A good rule of thumb when cooking fish on the griddle is to cook at this heat for 10 minutes per inch of fish measured at the thickest part. Serve with a wedge of lemon and garnish with parsley.
This can be made with any fish fillet. In a 10-inch cast iron skillet, heat ½ cup extra virgin olive oil over medium-high heat. Dredge the fish fillets on both sides in fine dry bread crumbs. Carefully place into the skillet (so the oil doesn’t splash) and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 8 minutes in all. Serve with salt, pepper and a wedge of lemon.
Main photo: Baked swordfish with golden crust. Credit: Clifford A. Wright