Articles in Cooking

I am a potato salad snob. It all dates to summers as a kid. Those lazy days when life was more casual, the rules  less rigid. Our family spent the summers at our lake house. Mom and Nana seemed more relaxed and so were our meals. Dad was working during the week, so we were pretty much the women and the kids.

Our summer house was modest. I remember the kitchen with its Formica cabinets and white Formica countertops trimmed with red. I thought they were so stylish. But it was the harvest gold range with electric burners that held a particular fascination. I loved watching the coils heat up and playing with the buttons to figure out how many coils lit up when I pressed low versus the all-red of high.

I always saddled up to my grandmother during most of the cooking that happened on that electric range — from her zucchini fritters to her awesome potato salad. That potato salad was a giant mound of creamy comfort. The perfect side to a burger, hot dog or grilled chicken. In fact I preferred it all by itself. As my main course.

Nana would wash the potatoes with the brush reserved just for washing potatoes. I, of course, have continued this tradition and keel over with laughter when someone tries to use it to clean dishes. My reaction, with a giggle is always, “Didn’t you wash your potatoes with a specially reserved brush?” I realize that these wonderful quirky methods create the rich tapestry of our heirloom memories.

A potato salad for any variety

I couldn’t tell you whether the potatoes were red bliss, Yukon Golds, russets or other. They were just potatoes. She put them into the pot, covered them with water, brought them to a boil and then asked me to poke them to see whether they were done. I stabbed away, fishing for the ones at the bottom and trying to have them swap places with the ones on the top. Once done, we drained the water and then rinsed the potatoes in cold water in the colander. I was able to scrape the skins off with just my fingers. This is where I began to truly understand the game of hot potato.

Nana cut up most of the potatoes, leaving a few to be mashed. She used the typical ingredients — onions, celery, salt, pepper, mayo. But her two secret ingredients were sweet pickle juice and hard-boiled eggs. Come to think of it, it’s what made her tuna salad amazing as well.

Nana was always about the presentation. She sliced a red or green pepper and saved a boiled egg to slice on the top. The final step was always four or five taps of the paprika can, and the best summer side dish in the world was ready. You could eat it warm or cold or, in my case, both ways. To this day I snub most other potato salads because nothing lives up to Nana’s creamy potato salad.

Nana's Creamy Potato Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Nana and Mom always made the best potato salad. Not surprisingly, there was no recipe. They just knew what to do and made it sort of the same every time. The basic ingredients were potatoes, eggs, onions, celery, parsley, mayo and the secret ingredient pickles, pickle juice or relish, depending on what was on hand. I have re-created it with this recipe. My stepson says it's like a creamy, yummy potato-egg salad. Success! Another generation experiences the love and memories that this side dish brings forward.

Ingredients

  • 5 pounds of organic potatoes
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • ½ cup pickle juice
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 5 to 6 hard-boiled egg yolks
  • 1 sweet onion, chopped
  • 3 to 4 celery stalks, chopped
  • ¼ cup parsley,chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Paprika for garnish
  • Pickle slices, pepper strips and hard-boiled egg rounds for garnish

Directions

  1. Place whole potatoes into a pot. Cover with water and boil for 20 to 30 minutes until soft. Drain and run cold water over them. Peel and place into a bowl.
  2. "Mash" them lightly so you have a combo of potato chunks and mashed potatoes. Add onions, celery and parsley.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the mayo, pickle juice, sugar and mustard. Pour over potato mixture until well coated. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Mash the egg yolks and add to the potato salad until well incorporated.
  5. Sprinkle with paprika and garnish any way you'd like.

Main photo: Nana’s Creamy Potato Salad. Credit: Carole Murko

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B.R. Cohn likes to harvest its Picholine olives when they are half green and half purple. Credit: Courtesy of B.R. Cohn Winery

When you buy a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, how much thought do you give to the variety of olives used to make it?

Two months ago if you’d asked me to name all the types of olives I knew, I would have managed to come up with a few: Kalamata, Mission … uh … green ones. Somehow it hadn’t crossed my mind that, like wine, olive oil reflects the variety of fruit that goes into it. And just as there are wines made with a single grape variety, there are single-variety olive oils, each with its own character.

This revelation came to me during a visit to B.R. Cohn Winery in the Sonoma Valley. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery is known for its range of extra virgin olive oils, which includes an estate oil made entirely from a French variety called Picholine.

B.R. Cohn’s Picholine olives are the size of soybeans, and yield only about 25 gallons of oil per ton compared to 50 gallons for other varieties. “Because of its low yield at the press, not many people make olive oil from the Picholine,”  winery president Dan Cohn said. “It’s very labor intensive.”

Even so, he believes the variety deserves to stand alone.

“Most of the wines we produce here are 100% Cabernet,” Cohn said. “I believe there’s something to be said about being true to the varietal.”

Cohn looks for a specific flavor profile in the Picholine oil that reflects the olive’s character. “I like a little grassiness in the front of the palate, then a little apple, then a little butter and just the right amount of pepper in the finish,”  he said.

Seeking out varietal olive oil

Talking to Cohn about the winery’s prized Picholine oil made me wonder how common single-variety olive oils really are. A visit to my neighborhood market confirmed my suspicions: Of the two dozen extra virgin olive oils on the shelves, nearly all were multi-olive blends.

However, further investigation turned up a handful of merchants selling varietal olive oils online. Among them was a local operation called The Olive Press, which runs tasting rooms in Sonoma and the Napa Valley to showcase its blended and single-variety oils from California.

“Blends are popular because they allow millers to manipulate the overall delivery of an oil,”  production manager Chris Gilmore said. “Some millers prefer to either round out or, in some cases, bolster robustness through the introduction of other varietals. This effort produces some very interesting oils, much like the blending of the central five Bordeaux varietals produces exceptional diversity in wine rather than highlighting just one.”

 

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The Olive Press in Sonoma offers samples of several single-variety extra virgin olive oils. Credit: Tina Caputo

But there is also a dark side to blending. “Internationally, blending is largely an effort to mask inferior export oils headed for the United States,” Gilmore said. “The grim truth is that foreign exporters will ‘blend’ a high volume of defective oil with perhaps a bit of fresh oil in the hopes of giving some life to the product. The lower prices of these oils make them attractive despite the fact that they contain none of the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.”

Gilmore likes making single-variety olive oils because it allows him to showcase the aromas and flavors of individual varieties. “Each varietal displays characteristics unique to that type of fruit, much like a pinot grape holds vastly different potential than Cabernet,” he said. “To make a well-balanced single-varietal oil is both challenging and rewarding, and it’s what gets me excited every fall.”

Tasting the difference

To taste the differences for myself, I dropped in at The Olive Press and sampled an array of varietal olive oils. Vicki Zancanella, the tasting room’s resident olive oil expert, guided me through the offerings.

OILVE OIL LINKS


To order single-variety olive oils online, visit:

» theolivepress.com

» nvoliveol.com

» oliandve.com

» allspiceonline.com

“A good extra virgin olive oil should have three things,” she said. “It should have fruitiness at the front of your palate, bitterness at the back and pungency as it goes down your throat.” And just as there are common descriptors for tasting wine, there are classic aromas and flavors in extra virgin olive oil, such as freshly cut grass and tomato leaves.

The varietal oils I tasted varied in intensity from delicate to robust, and showed a fascinating range of flavor profiles:

Arbosana: A delicate oil with a subtle aroma of banana peel, and mild bitterness at the back of the throat. Best for salads, mild greens and roasted vegetables.

Mission: Buttery, with aromas of grass, plums and tomatoes. Rich, with some bitterness on the finish. Ideal for cooking and baking.

Ascolano: Stone fruit aroma, and buttery on the palate, with peppery, pungent notes. Great for fruit salads and fresh tomatoes, or for baking.

Arbequina: A medium-intensity oil, with aromas of tomato leaves and forest floor. Some astringency on the palate, produces a nice burn at the back of the throat. Good for salads, or cooking chicken or fish.

Koroneiki: Robust, with fruity, herbaceous aromas. Smooth, creamy texture and prominent bitterness. Blend with balsamic vinegar for salad dressing or use for cooking hearty Greek fare.

Picual: Powerful “green” aroma of tomatoes, greens and tomato leaves. Quite bitter on palate, with green tomato notes and pungency at back of the throat. Drizzle lightly over caprese salads or simple pasta.

With so many flavors and uses to explore, it looks like I’m going to have to make room in my pantry for a few new bottles.

Main photo: B.R. Cohn likes to harvest its Picholine olives when they are half green and half purple. Credit: Courtesy of B.R. Cohn Winery

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Worth the trouble: a pizza-sized s’more. Credit: Charles Perry

The invention of the s’more was a landmark in American culinary history, comparable to the equally simple and classic root beer float. Neither s’mores nor floats can really be improved.

But the s’more can be made bigger, lots bigger, as you might want to do as a salute to the return of camping season. This isn’t the sort of s’more you make over a campfire; it’s definitely more of a s’more on the scale of a pizza, made (but not cooked) on a pizza stone. It is a bit of trouble to make — you have to start it the day before and you need a good thermometer — but your guests will be amazed.

The best part is, you may very well have all the ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator right now. The main things you need are unflavored gelatin, graham crackers, bittersweet chocolate and cream.

It’s very similar to marshmallow pie with chocolate ganache frosting, which was really conceived of as a plus-size Mallomar rather than any variety of s’more. The pizza shape results in a higher proportion of frosting and crust to filling — in particular, there’s more of the graham crust, with its toasty, buttery aroma and cinnamon perfume. The filling is still that incomparably creamy homemade marshmallow, which does not need to be melted to be luscious.

The traditional s’more (and Mallomar) filling has a vanilla flavor, but you might want to try coffee liqueur instead. Of course, that would technically make it a … s’mocha.

Let me call your attention to National S’mores Day, which is coming up on Aug. 10. Study this recipe (and marshmallow pie too). You have plenty of time to practice.

Oh, I know! Put fresh marshmallow on them and dip them in ganache! What to call them, I wonder? S’lesses?

S’mores alla Pizza

Prep Time: 5 hours

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 5 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: Serves 16

Ingredients

    For the crust
  • 20 graham crackers, 9½-10 ounces
  • 4 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Optional: dash nutmeg
  • 5 ounces butter, melted
  • For the filling
  • 1 cup water (half for step 1, half for step 3)
  • 2 (1-tablespoon) packets unflavored gelatin
  • ½ cup light corn syrup
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract or coffee liqueur
  • For the ganache frosting
  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 8 ounces cream

Directions

    For the crust (prep time: 1 minute; cook time: none; total time: 30 minutes)
  1. Break up the crackers and put them with the sugar and cinnamon (and nutmeg, if using) into a food processor. Process until fine, about 20 seconds. Pour in the melted butter and pulse about 10 times, until just amalgamated.
  2. Pour the crumbs onto a 12- or 13-inch pizza stone (the cheap metal kind with a rim actually works fine for this) and spread with your fingers almost to the edge. Crimp a low pizza-type rim around the edge between the edges of your hands and flatten the center with your palms. Refrigerate at least half an hour before filling.
  3. For the filling (prep time: 20-25 minutes; cook time: 10 minutes; total time: 5 hours)
  4. Put ½ cup water in a mixing bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer and sprinkle 2 packets of gelatin over the surface. Allow the gelatin to sit until it forms a rubbery mass, about 5 minutes, then set the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Leave without stirring until the gelatin is entirely dissolved (no floating layer), 10 to 15 minutes.
  5. Remove the bowl from the saucepan and set aside until cool, 10 minutes. Return the mixer bowl to the mixer (if you have used a mixing bowl to dissolve the gelatin, scrape the gelatin into the bowl of a mixer) and whip the dissolved gelatin, as if it were egg whites, for 1 minute.
  6. In a small saucepan, mix the corn syrup, sugar and remaining ½ cup water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium and place a lid on the saucepan for 3 minutes so that steam can wash any sugar crystals off the walls.
  7. Remove the lid, raise the heat to high and insert a thermometer probe into the syrup. When it reaches 238 F, about 10 minutes from the start of cooking (the sign is that if a bit of syrup is dropped into cold water, it forms a firm ball), pour the syrup into the gelatin, scraping out all the syrup you can with a spatula. Beat on high until the temperature of the mixture is just warm, 20-25 minutes.
  8. Beat in the vanilla or other flavoring and scrape the warm marshmallow onto the pizza crust. With a spatula, working carefully but without wasting time, spread it over the surface as evenly as possible, making the center slightly lower than the edges. Return the pizza stone to the refrigerator and refrigerate 4 hours to overnight.
  9. For the ganache frosting (prep time: less than 1 minute; cook time: 5 minutes; total time: 1 hour, 6 minutes)
  10. Chop the chocolate into small pieces, put into a food processor and process to the consistency of coarse sand.
  11. Put the cream in a small pan or saucepan and bring to a full boil. Pour the hot cream onto the chocolate and process until smooth, 10-15 seconds. Spoon onto the marshmallow with a spatula fairly close to the edge, allowing drips here and there. Refrigerate until the ganache hardens, at least 1 hour.
  12. To serve, cut the “pizza” into wedges with a warmed sharp knife or a pizza cutter. Slide a warmed knife or pie server under the slice and carefully remove it.

Notes

Monroe Boston Strause, who invented the graham cracker crust in the 1920s for his famous Black Bottom pie, wrote that you can make the crust stiffer by adding 2 tablespoons water and 5 teaspoons corn syrup to the graham crackers and baking it at 425 F for 5 minutes. I’ve never tried this, because, frankly, I like a crumbly crust, but if you want a stiffer crust, that’s what Strause said, and he was nationally known as the Pie Man in his day.

These days Nabisco is marketing its graham crackers in a box with three packets of nine crackers each, but I think this crust needs a total of 20, so you’ll have to think of some use for the remaining seven crackers.

Main photo: A pizza-sized s’more. Credit: Charles Perry

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Sweet cherry-pineapple salsa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Having been raised under the shade of a sweet cherry tree, I always took great pride in asserting Michigan’s cherry dominance. It was not until researching this piece that I made a shocking discovery: Most sweet cherries are grown in the West. To be specific, Utah, California and Oregon.

Next, I discovered that Utah also supported its sweet cherry stronghold by designating the cherry as its state fruit back in 1997. Meanwhile, Michigan is still trying to make up its mind about that subject. Proposed legislation designating a state fruit has been stalled in committee for more than a year, with heavy opposition from the blueberry contingent. Not only was my state not among the Top 3, it couldn’t even muster sufficient political muscle behind its homegrown sweet cherries. I never would have guessed that a simple story about a spicy cherry salsa would cause me such emotional upheaval.

Despite my disappointment in this news, I still am crazy about sweet cherries in June and July. I like to throw them on waffles in the morning, salads in the afternoon and start any party with a simple, kicked-up cherry salsa, especially if it’s an impromptu gathering and I’ve only got 15 minutes before running out the door. This light, fruity salsa is sure to disappear as fast as guacamole on Cinco de Mayo or cherry pie on the fourth of July. But that’s another story with a happier ending, because cherry pie uses tart cherries, and Michigan wins that contest hands down.

Sweet Cherry-Pineapple Salsa

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 cups

Ingredients

  • 1 pound sweet cherries, pitted
  • ½ pound fresh or canned pineapple
  • 1 jalapeño pepper
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo chili pepper, or to taste
  • ¼ cup parsley, minced

Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture reaches a chunky sauce consistency.
  2. This can be served immediately, but it is best if allowed to marinate for up to three hours while the sweet and spicy flavors get to know each other. Serve with tortilla chips.

Main photo: Sweet cherry-pineapple salsa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck 

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Tiny tomatoes with caper and green olive sauce.

It’s a strange world, where we pick flower buds, spread them out to dry in the sun, then leave them to macerate in salt or vinegar. If they are left undisturbed on their spiny bushes, caper buds burst into glorious bloom in the early morning sunshine. For a few short hours, their long, waving stamens are irresistible to bees, then their lovely pink-white petals quickly wither in the strong afternoon sun. Who could possibly have discovered that, once “cured”  (dried, salted or soaked in vinegar), the rather vegetal-tasting caper bud develops a delicate, earthy flavor with a lovely floral overtone? It’s this symphony of tastes that make capers so alluring.

Source of wealth for islanders

The appeal of capers has been long-lasting and far-reaching. Until recently, few caper flowers were ever seen on the Greek Cycladic islands of  Santorini, Andros, Folegandros, or coastal Crete and Cyprus, as the buds were rarely given the chance to flower.  In Greece, capers have always been a valued local food and flavoring, and the caper trade a source of wealth for the islanders.

Caper seeds have been found in Belgian ditches dating as far back as the Middle Ages. And early British cookbooks contain recipes for mutton and skate with caper sauce, and suggest liberal use of capers in salads and with cold meats. Since the caper bush, or shrub (capparis spinosa), can’t thrive in these countries, capers had to be traded. So what was it that made them so attractive to those medieval northern Europeans?

It may have been the plant’s good-health qualities that have given it such value throughout its long history. There is evidence that the Sumerians (circa 2000 B.C.) used capers medicinally, and it’s obvious that the ancient Greeks understood the process necessary to turn caper buds into delicious capers: In the 4th century B.C., the “father of botany,” Theophrastus, remarked in his seminal work, “Enquiry into Plants,” that the wild caper plant appeared not to like cultivated land and those grown in such conditions produced smaller, softer capers of inferior flavor. They still do.

How capers work

When capers, caper leaves or berries are cured, an enzymatic reaction takes place and a flavanoid glycoside, glucocapparin, a mustard-oil that gives the caper its taste, is released from the plant tissues. In this, capers resemble their cousins in the cabbage family — cress, mustards, horseradish — all of which contain mustard-oil glycosides. Another of its flavonoids is rutin, a strong antioxidant which, pharmacologically speaking, improves capillary function. It’s considered to be anti-rheumatic, and therefore an effective treatment for arthritis and gout, a diuretic and, in non-medical-speak, a “liver protector” and “kidney disinfectant.”

Caper bush in Santorini

A caper bush grows in Santorini, Greece. Credit: Rosemary Barron

An attempt at caper-gathering

The caper plant loves hot, dry summers with a smattering of spring rainfall, making the Aegean Mediterranean, swept by a strong sea breeze, the perfect home. There, the caper plant can nestle into the cracks and crevices of cliffs and stone walls.

But it was only when I tried to preserve my own capers for my Santorini cookery school that I realized just how difficult it was to create their lovely, tart pungency. The first problem was in the gathering of them—the best crops of buds always seemed to be just out of reach, dangling over alarmingly-steep cliffs. The bushes’ thorny stems make picking them painful work and a good harvest requires near-daily collections over four to five weeks, as the buds don’t all develop at the same time.

Local skilled gatherers pick young, tender leaves at the same time as the buds, for pickling. Later in the summer, after the caper buds that managed to escape the earlier harvest have flowered and fruited, the berries are collected and preserved in brine. For finest flavor, Cycladic islanders preserve wild capers in salt. It’s worth searching for these at home, as they have less of the acidic tang of vinegar-preserved capers and a greater depth of flavor. Interestingly, though, the most rutin is found in the dried buds, a process that, until recently, was a common way of curing capers on Santorini.

If you are in doubt as to the difference in taste and texture between wild and cultivated capers, don’t take my word for it — try both together. And perhaps spare a thought too for those great sages of the past, who so well-appreciated that food not only had to do you good, but had to taste good, too.

Paired with tomatoes

In early summer on Santorini, tomato plants give in to the dry heat and collapse, dotting the island’s gray, volcanic soil with ripe, tiny, deep-crimson tomatoes. For a few short weeks, they can be made into this pretty meze.

To prepare salt-preserved capers for the table, soak them in several changes of cold water; brine- and vinegar-preserved capers only need rinsing.

Tiny Tomatoes with Caper and Green Olive Sauce

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 8 meze servings or serves 4 as a first course

Variation: Although it takes more work, this dish is at its traditional best when the olives, capers and garlic are mashed in a mortar or bowl before you add the vinegar and olive oil. The sauce texture will be coarser, but its flavor will be more refined.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 24 tiny, or cherry, tomatoes
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar (if tomatoes aren't sun-ripened, optional)
  • For the caper and green olive sauce:
  • 1 cup Greek cracked green or Nafplion olives, or brine-packed, pit-in, Spanish green olives
  • 2 tablespoons salt-packed (or brine- or vinegar-preserved) capers, soaked, rinsed, and patted dry
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon red-wine vinegar
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • For serving:
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh fennel fronds or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
  • 4 thin slices whole-wheat or country-style bread, toasted

Directions

  1. In a small, heavy skillet over very low heat, heat the olive oil. Add the tomatoes, sprinkle with the sugar, cover, and cook for about 3 minutes, or until their skins split. Set aside in the skillet to cool.
  2. Make the sauce: Blanch the olives in boiling water for 5 seconds. Drain, pit, and chop. In a food processor, combine the olives, capers, and garlic. Process until well mixed. With the machine running, add the vinegar, drop by drop, then the olive oil (to taste) in a steady stream.
  3. Spread the sauce over a small platter. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to the platter. Garnish with fennel or parsley. Cut each slice of toast into 4 triangles. Sprinkle the bread with the liquid remaining in the tomato pan.

 

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Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs. Credit Laura Kelley

Dr. Seuss’ Sam-I-Am would smile at the sight of these green eggs.

Century Eggs, or 1,000-Year Eggs, are classics in their own right, not a riff on a timeless children’s book. You won’t find them in Sam-I-Am’s house, box, car, tree or train, but these eggs appear in a rice porridge, or congee, that is enjoyed throughout Asia. The eggs in this congee are indeed green, or at least the yolks of homemade 1,000-Year Eggs are.  And the ham is represented by bits of diced pork suspended in the rice porridge.

Congee is perhaps the most commonly eaten food in the world. People across Asia enjoy rice porridge with a variety of condiments on nearly a daily basis. That’s possibly as many as 3.5 billion bowls of congee eaten daily. These porridges are often eaten for breakfast or for a late supper or snack, but are also considered the best food for people convalescing from an illness and are acceptable complementary foods for young infants in most cultures as well. Congee is another one of the ancient foods that are also considered good medicine.

Most often made from rice left over from the previous night’s dinner, congee is made by simply simmering rice in a liquid until it begins to lose its form. Some congees are drier — like prepared oatmeal — while others are more moist — like rice soup. When there is no leftover rice or it has been earmarked for a fried rice dish, congee can be made from uncooked rice. The raw rice is generally washed and soaked before cooking and requires more water and time to prepare. One way to reduce the time needed to cook congee from raw rice is to freeze the raw rice overnight. The freezing and thawing breaks down the rice, and it cooks quickly when compared to unfrozen raw rice. In high altitude or cold areas where rice is traditionally imported, congees are made from other grains or vegetables such as millet, wheat or corn.

Homemade 1,000-Year Eggs

The most wonderful thing about congees is the variety of ingredients used to flavor them, everything from fish paste or bean paste to bits of meat, fish, shrimp or other shellfish, and even snails. Vegetables, especially spring onions and preserved radish are commonly used, but I’ve also seen congees with bits of pickled tamarind and tea leaves in them. Flavors range from sour to spicy, savory and, although not too common, can even be mildly sweet.

Pine-patterned egg. Credit: Laura Kelley

Pine-patterned egg. Credit: Laura Kelley

The following congee dish features slices of my homemade 1,000-Year Eggs. Also called Century Eggs, pine-patterned eggs, or “pidan”  in Chinese, they are made by coating fresh, fertilized but uncooked eggs in a caustic mud casing of wood and charcoal ash, tea, salt, lime and rice chaff and burying the eggs in a soil-lined container outside. Then one lets them sit for three or four months exposed to the elements — longer in colder weather — before harvesting. Leaving fertilized eggs outside in the heat, one would expect them to rot. Instead something magical happens and the egg proteins are transformed by the chemicals in the caustic mud. The usually yellow yolk becomes a dark, forest green, and the clear or white yolk becomes amber to brown — all without cooking.

After the ingredients to make Century Eggs are mixed,  the NaOH (sodium hydroxide) is first adsorbed to the surface, and, owing to a change in the osmotic pressure, NaOH enters the egg through the pores and subsequently penetrates the semi-permeable membrane, coming into contact with the egg protein, causing it to become denaturized and hydrolyzed into polypeptides and finally into amino acids.

Nutritional benefits

The result is that 1,000-Year Eggs are much higher in protein and much lower in carbohydrates than unpreserved duck eggs. Other nutritional elements such as amino acids and fatty acids are about equal between the two egg forms, although the preserved egg generally has a bit less of everything in it.

To harvest the eggs, one just need clean them, crack the shells and eat — no cooking needed. If refrigeration is available, they can be stored for long periods. They are enjoyed in congees and soups across eastern Asia, in salads and noodles in Myanmar and Thailand, with tofu and sauce in a number of places, like Taiwan. One of my favorite ways to enjoy them is simply wrapped in pickled ginger as they do in Cantonese cuisine. The flavor of the egg is strong, sort of like a pungent cheese, but it is enjoyable.  In this congee, the 1,000-Year Eggs provide accent and interest to the savory rice porridge.

For a detailed recipe on how to produce 1,000-Year Eggs the traditional way, see the “Silk Road Gourmet” website. If making them the traditional way at home is more Century Egg than you can muster, you can find the eggs in most Asian markets. I enjoy the homemade variety because it is less salty and pungent and has far-gentler ammonia aroma than store-bought eggs.

For a middle ground, try the recipe below. Wherever you enjoy the Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs, whether it is in a house with a mouse or in a box with a fox, I hope you savor it as much as Sam-I-Am.

Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 cups, 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • ½ pound pork, minced
  • 5 to 6 spring onions
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 2½ to 3 cups short-grain rice, cooked
  • 4 to 5 cups liquid (water, broth, or stock, or a mixture)*
  • ½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
  • 2 to 3 Century Eggs, sliced into quarters or eighths
  • Suggested condiments: more minced spring-onion greens, soy sauce, black or red vinegar, sliced pickled ginger, and chili oil

Directions

  1. Heat the sesame oil in a large saucepan. When the oil starts to smoke, add the pork and stir rapidly until it becomes opaque and begins to become firm, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the whites of the spring onions, and the garlic, both minced, and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the liquid and stir until warmed to a boil. Add the cooked rice and return to a boil.
  2. Lower heat, and simmer covered until rice is fully saturated and begins to fall apart. Stir every 10 minutes or so to avoid burning. Cooking time will vary with the type of rice used and can range from 15 to 20 minutes for sweet rice to 45 to 50 minutes for haiga rice (whole grain, white rice, but hulled).
  3. When the congee is done, ladle it into individual bowls and garnish with some of the spring-onion greens and the sliced 1,000-Year Eggs. Place a selection of condiments on the table for your guests to choose from.

Notes

-- The type of cooking liquid can vary depending on how savory you want your congee. One of my favorite mixtures is 2 cups beef stock, 2 cups chicken stock and 1 cup water. The more stock added, the more off-white or tan-colored the congee will appear. Recommend using 4 cups of liquid for regular short-grain rice and 5 cups of liquid for hiaga or brown rice.

-- Cooking time will vary widely depending on the type of rice used. Cooking time here is estimated for short-grain haiga rice.

Main photo: Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs. Credit Laura Kelley

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Peppery Fried Chicken Wings. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton,

Is there any more American a dish than fried chicken? Each succeeding wave of immigrants has brought it in some shape or form, and it is woven throughout our gastronomical fabric. The first were the Scots, who were prone to cook it before dipping it in egg and crumbs, then cook it again in boiling fat. West African slaves transplanted their version, by all accounts more tantalizing, to the American South. Not only did they fry the birds for their masters, they were allowed to keep chickens of their own. Hogs were free-man’s food, but they were the compost engines of the colonial kitchen and their rendered fat was plentiful. If Martha Washington’s cooks fried chickens for her lavishly in butter, they dipped theirs in a spicy flour coating before frying them in lard.

Beginning in the mid-1700s, African-American women, renowned for their fried chicken prowess, became vendors for live or cooked poultry. Even before Emancipation, they cooked it up in big iron frying pans and peddled it on the streets. During segregation, they sold it from their home kitchens or opened establishments black folk could eat in. Once fried, chicken was a portable meal. “In days when traveling meant hazarding the vagaries of racial laws on Southern roads and being hungry without having a place to eat, a shoebox of fried chicken became a virtual talisman against starvation on the road for many blacks,” wrote Jessica B. Harris in “Iron Pots &  Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking.”

Black or white, Southerners proudly claim they eat 10 times as much fried chicken as everyone else. In his book “American Taste,” James Villas contends that to know about fried chicken you have to have been weaned and reared on it in the South. Having grown up on Italian fried chicken, I could quibble with that. Fried chicken has other roots. Pollo fritto, scented with garlic, traveled to Ellis Island with Sicilian immigrants. Austrians brought their schnitzel ideas to the Midwest, converting from veal to chicken and utilizing the whole bird, not just the breast. In 1858, Lizzie Black Kander, a Jewish emigrant in Milwaukee, recorded three recipes for “Fried Spring Chicken” in the “Settlement Cookbook” among single entries for reindeer steak, mud hens, partridge and goose.

If turkey is supposed to be the emblematic American bird, it gets no more than a perfunctory write-up. Recipes call for using 1½-pound chickens. One prescribes dredging the youngster in flour and ginger, and frying it in plenty of butter or chicken fat. A second calls for coating it in cracker crumbs, followed by an egg bath, then the crumb treatment again before frying. A third says to massage it with plenty of butter and seasonings (we are left to wonder what those were), roll it in fine bread crumbs and oven-fry. Such tender young birds as she describes, raised to peck and scratch in the barnyard, make the most delicious-flavored fried chicken.

Fireworks on the Hudson River. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Fireworks on the Hudson River. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

American humorist Calvin Trillin would eventually write “Fried-Chicken War,” an account of the fierce competition in Crawford County, Kan., between two local fried chicken establishments. When the owner of Chicken Annie’s moved to have the road on which both stood named “Chicken Annie’s Road,” Chicken Mary took umbrage.

Overall, though, the fried chicken revolution was peaceful. It has my vote for Independence Day. Is there any food more emblematic of the people who built America than this evocative bird, its skin enticingly crisp, its meat moist and juicy? Leaving behind the grim associations with slavery, fried chicken is in the best sense American, a dish originating at a time when we were farming people, a dish of merged continents and mixed heritage, one that spanned our nation from bayous to prairies to the vast expanses beyond.

Many ways to fry a chicken

Pan-fried, deep-fried or oven-fried; batter-dipped or breaded; dredged first in flour — or not; dipped in egg — or not; rolled in breading or cracker meal instead; fried in oil or lard, butter or schmaltz? Bacon or ham thrown into the skillet for added flavor? What is best? As Villas wrote in 1982, “Without question, the most important secret to any great fried chicken is the quality of the chicken itself, and most of the 3 billion pullets marketed annually in the U.S. have about as much flavor as tennis balls.”

Two great Southern cooks have taught me how to make sublime fried chicken. One, the late legendary African-American chef Edna Lewis; the other, her protege, Joe Randall, who runs a cooking school in Savannah, Ga. My primal memories of fried chicken are of the dish as prepared by my mother in the Italian way, and accompanied by apple fritters made from the leftover batter. There are as many ways as there are cooks, and here’s one of mine, adapted for chicken wings. You can make it the evening before if you like and have it all ready for the picnic basket or the backyard get-together the next day. Serve the wings before the hamburgers, or with the hamburgers, or even instead of the hamburgers.

Peppery Fried Chicken Wings With Garlic and Rosemary

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

This is adapted from a recipe for fried chicken that I learned to make from a Tuscan cook I knew. The wings are my favorite part, perfect as finger food and with all that surface for crisp coatings to stick to. The chicken becomes crispy outside and at the same time, succulent inside, redolent with rosemary and fresh garlic. Cayenne pepper gives them a terrific little kick; if you like it hot, add more. To make it in the traditional Tuscan way, omit the cayenne and serve the cooked chicken with lemon quarters for squeezing at the table.

Ingredients

  • 16 chicken wings, preferably organic and free-range, at room temperature
  • 8 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves, or 2 tablespoons dried crushed rosemary leaves
  • About 1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Fine sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 large eggs
  • Grape seed, safflower, peanut or other vegetable oil for frying

Directions

  1. Wash the wings and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Keep the wing tips intact and cut the wings at the joint to separate the drummettes. In a bowl, combine the wings with the garlic and rosemary and massage the herbs into the meat.
  2. Spread the flour on a sheet of waxed paper. Season with salt to taste and plenty of cayenne pepper. Beat the eggs in a wide bowl next to the waxed paper. Line a large platter with a double layer of paper towels, keeping additional paper towels on hand.
  3. Pour the oil to a depth of about 1 inch in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet and warm over medium heat until sizzling hot. Just before you are ready to begin frying, lightly dredge each piece of wing in the flour. Dip the wing piece into the beaten eggs to coat then dredge lightly in the flour once again. (Keep in mind that if the chicken is coated in flour and egg and left to sit for even a few minutes, the coating will become soggy and the chicken will not be crisp and light.)
  4. Slip the chicken wings into the hot oil, piece by piece. Do not crowd the pan with too many pieces at once, or they will not cook evenly. Fry until golden and thoroughly cooked through to the bone, about 10 minutes in total for each piece, depending on the size. Transfer to the paper towels. Turn each wing piece over on the paper to ensure that excess oil is absorbed from both sides, using additional paper towels as necessary to drain thoroughly. Sprinkle them with sea salt while they are still hot.
  5. When all the chicken is cooked and drained, pile the wings on a clean, hot platter and serve.

Notes

Recipe is from "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)

Main photo: Peppery Fried Chicken Wings. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)

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A grilled onigiri can be the perfect Fourth of July finger food. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Not everyone uses the word “barbecue” in Japan, but when it comes to cooking over the flame, Japanese have a long tradition — and grilled onigiri is the star!

Onigiri is essentially rice shaped into balls. When onigiri is brushed with some soy sauce and grilled until it is brown and crispy, it becomes Yakionigiri (yaki means to grill). In our family, my father would make it using a Hibachi, the classic Japanese grilling device that holds burning charcoal. He would take his time brushing the soy sauce on the onigiris. You don’t need anything else to make grilled onigiri taste good.

It’s a great side dish, or an appetizer or snack, and if you happen to have a gluten-intolerant person in the mix, offer a grilled onigiri and he or she will be grateful.

The preparation is easy, and you can even use day-old rice. Old rice has a way of perking up with heat.

There is no pre-seasoning required. It takes about five to eight minutes on each side to brown the onigiri, depending on how far the grill is from the heat source.  The shape of an onigiri is a matter of preference. In my family, it has always been triangular in shape — sort of like a pyramid. It can take some practice to get the pyramid to stand up, but you eventually figure out how to apply just the right amount of pressure to the rice to form the three corners.

You can also make them round or oval in shape. My father’s onigiri was made with brown rice. My grandmother’s onigiri was white rice. I like them both, but you have to remember to use short- or medium-grain rice. Long-grain rice will not make onigiri; you need rice that sticks. My family’s onigiris were filled with either a pickled plum or katsuobushi, dried bonito flakes seasoned with a little soy sauce. The contrasting flavors of the bland rice next to the savory bonito was heavenly.

You can grill onigiri while you grill the meat or fish or vegetables. All you need to do is keep an eye on it so the onigiris don’t burn.

Besides the straight soy sauce, you can add miso to the soy sauce to make your onigiris taste more savory. Add mirin if you want to add a little sweetness. The thing you want to remember is to serve onigiris right off the grill, while they are still hot. That way, they are crispy and really delicious.

Grilled onigiri

You can grill onigiri while you grill the meat or fish or vegetables. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Grilled Onigiris

Prep Time: 30 minutes (Note: Brown rice must be soaked overnight)

Cook Time: 10 to 16 minutes to grill onigiris

Total Time: 40 to 46 minutes

Yield: Makes 8

Rice recipe

2 cups white short-grain or brown short-grain rice, such as Koda Farms Kokuho Rose

2½ cups of water (or follow rice cooker manufacturer’s instructions)

Salt water (see note above)

2 tablespoons salt in a small bowl

1. Cook the rice first, with the measured 2½ cups water, or cook according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

2. When the rice is cooked, divide it into eight equal portions. Make the onigiri while the rice is hot. Take one portion of rice and put it in a teacup or small bowl.

3. Shape the onigiri: Moisten your hands lightly with the salt water to keep the rice from sticking (if you like your onigiri saltier, moisten your hands in the water, then dip your index finger into the bowl of salt and rub the salt on your palms). Mold the rice using your hands: For a triangular shape, cup one hand to hold the rice ball. Press gently with your other hand to create the top corner of the triangle, using your index and middle fingers and thumb as a guide. Turn the rice ball and repeat two more times to give the onigiri three corners. The onigiri can also be round or oval in shape.

4. Repeat with the rest of the rice to form eight onigiri.

Soy miso sauce

¼ cup miso (red miso paste)

1 to 2 teaspoons mirin to taste

1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce

¼ cup finely chopped chives

1. In a medium bowl, blend the miso, mirin and soy sauce.

2. The chives can be whisked into the sauce, or sprinkled over as a garnish just before serving.

Grilled onigiri assembly

8 onigiri

Vegetable oil

Prepared soy miso sauce

1. Baste the onigiri with a little oil to prevent it from sticking to the grill.

2. Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot, or heat the broiler. Line the grill pan or a baking sheet (if using the broiler) with foil. Grill the onigiri on both sides until crisp and slightly toasted; this can take from 8-10 minutes on each side depending on the heat and cooking method. While grilling, baste the onigiri with the sauce on each side a few times until it is absorbed and becomes crisp; the onigiri should not be moist from basting when done. Watch carefully, as the onigiri can burn.

3. Serve immediately while the onigiri are piping hot. Sprinkle with chives.

Main photo: A grilled onigiri can be the perfect Fourth of July finger food. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

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