Articles in Cooking

Grandma Margaret's Frybread With Granny Lahoma's Harvest Vce-Corn Soup. Credit: Dawn Karima

In the United States, Thanksgiving is a tradition dating back to the Pilgrims and Native Americans — but it may surprise some to know that Native Americans continue to celebrate the holiday, just in their own manner.

“Thanksgiving Day is every day for Native Americans,” said Dawn Karima, a Creek-Cherokee author and musician who talks about food and culture in her two novels, “The Way We Make Sense,” a finalist in the Native American First Book Award Competition, and “The Marriage of Saint,” a New Mexico Book Award Finalist.

She recalled her grandfather’s words: “He said gratitude is one of the core values of our spirituality. We rise and give thanks every day and throughout the day for our blessings, families, people, culture and traditions.”

Thanksgiving has ‘complicated history’

Like many, Karima loves the Thanksgiving holiday dinner because it brings kinfolks together. Sharing family stories, songs and enjoying traditional foods along with her regular Southern cooking are routine.

“Since Thanksgiving has such a complicated history for my people, I think it was especially important for my family to integrate our traditions into this holiday,” she said. “We do that in several ways. We pray in our own Native languages at the table and also host a Stomp Dance the night before.”

Frybread, bean dumplings, hominy, corn soup and a stewed corn drink called osafki  are among the foods on her Thanksgiving table, along with roast turkey and pumpkin pies. Instead of the Pilgrim-based story of Thanksgiving, her family sings Cherokee hymns and tells Cherokee tales after supper at the Qualla Boundary Reservation in North Carolina.

“I’m stunned that so many folks are shocked that we’re still here! We’re not extinct, vanished, impoverished or primitive. Through my radio show, books and music, I hope that folks see that we are creative, energetic professionals, artists and leaders. We live in houses, not teepees. Creeks and Cherokees never lived in teepees. We drive cars instead of ride horses and hold good jobs. Even if we hunt or fish, we’re more likely to wear jeans and T-shirts than beads and feathers. We have names like Donna and John more often than names like “Thunder Heart”or “Spirit Something.”

‘Handful method’

Food is extremely important in Native cultures, Karima said.

“As Native Americans, we don’t delineate between the sacred and the secular, so food — the hunting, growing and gathering of it — represent a holy thing.”

Dawn Karima, a Creek-Cherokee, learned to cook alongside her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, cousins and elders. They never used cookbooks. Credit: D3Creativo

Dawn Karima, a Creek-Cherokee, learned to cook alongside her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, cousins and elders. They never used cookbooks. Credit: D3Creativo

From the time she was tiny, Karima cooked alongside her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, cousins and elders. They never used cookbooks, she said.

“I used my own tiny pans and mini-spatula. I spent hours with my great-grandma Margaret, a statuesque beauty, who taught me to cook with her ‘handful’ method. A ‘handful’ of this, a ‘handful’ of that. We used real homemade butter, sugar, salts and cream. She made the best cake ever, and taught me her recipe.  I learned to cook intuitively. Bean dumplings, fry bread, corn soup, greens, sweet tea and many foods.

“A few days ago, I was drinking osafki, our Creek hominy drink that takes days to make and I thought: ‘How wonderful that a relative cared enough to put some of her precious life into making this just so we could all enjoy it.’ I was amazingly blessed by it, I even teared up. But when I told my relative and thanked her, she just laughed. That’s how Native life is, I guess. Great, wonderful things are always happening when we walk in love.”

Preparing food is a privilege

“Preparing food is a privilege. God, Hesaketvmese, gives us Native women a traditional responsibility to provide for and nurture our families. Feeding our loved ones and our communities is our honor,” Karima said.

“Anytime you walk into a Creek or Cherokee home, we’ll ask, “Did you eat?”And even if you’re as full as a tick, you sit down and eat. I’m on the road a lot, but when I’m home on the Qualla Boundary Reservation, I keep a pot of beans and a pound cake ready for visitors. And the more Creek or Cherokee people like you, the more we tease you. So, if nobody offers you any food, gives you a nickname, or jokes with you, you should worry!”

Grandma Margaret’s Frybread

Yield: 15 to 20 pieces

Ingredients

6 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups warm water

Plenty of corn oil

Directions

1. In a glass mixing bowl, stir flour, baking powder and salt together.

2. Add warm water and stir into dough.

3. Knead the dough on floured wax paper.

4. Flatten the dough into 15 to 20 palm-size pieces.

5. Fry about 6 dough pieces in hot oil (about 350 F) for 3 minutes, until they are golden brown.

Frybread is served in place of dinner rolls at Thanksgiving. It’s also enjoyed as a dessert, topped with powdered sugar, and is a fixture at pow-wows as a taco, topped with cheese, meat, beans, lettuce and tomatoes.

Great Aunt Martha’s Tvlako Taklike — Bean Dumplings

(Tvlako is the Creek word for Bean and Taklike is the Creek word for Bread)

Yield: 20 to 30 dumplings

Ingredients

6 cups of water

4 cups pinto beans

8 cups yellow cornmeal

2 teaspoons baking soda

Directions

1. In a pan of salted water, bring beans to a boil. When the beans are tender, turn off the heat.

2. In a large glass bowl, stir cornmeal and baking soda together. Add boiled beans and some of the water you boiled them in to the bowl of cornmeal and baking soda. Stir the mixture into firm dough.

3. Pat the dough into 20 to 30 small ball shapes.

4. Drop bean balls into another pot of  boiling water. Cook the bean balls at a low boil for a half  hour.

These can be served with turkey in place of dressing or mashed potatoes.

Granny Lahoma’s Harvest Vce  (Corn) Soup

(Vce is the Creek word for corn)

Yield: 6 to 8 cups of soup

Ingredients

6 ears dried yellow corn, sliced off the cob

6 cups of water

Fatback strip meat

Salt, sugar and pepper

1 pound of dried beef or venison

Directions

1. In a large pot, soak dried corn for 48 hours in water with a little salt and sugar.

2. Add the fatback, more salt and some pepper.

3.  Simmer the corn, fatback and salt and pepper in the water you used for soaking for about 4 hours, or until the corn is tender. Do not overcook or let corn become mushy.

5. Add your dried meat and cover the pans, simmering for about 15 to 20 more minutes.

Serve with pieces of frybread. This is a wonderful appetizer for Thanksgiving.

Main photo: Grandma Margaret’s Frybread With Granny Lahoma’s Harvest Vce-Corn Soup. Credit: Dawn Karima

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Golden Crown Panaderia in Albuquerque, N.M., makes a golden turkey -- out of bread. Credit: Golden Crown Panaderia

The orders for bread shaped like a turkey roll in year-round at Golden Crown Panaderia in Albuquerque, N.M., but they start coming in fast and earnest at the beginning of November.

In Thanksgiving parlance, the turkey is the showstopper. It comes out glistening and golden, a centerpiece of magnificence and meaning, its scent of browned skin and moist meat and herbs so powerful it fills the room with its presence. The almost-national bird. Even in a time of mixed message food culture, no other American holiday is suffused with the image of a single, shared dish.

These were the images and connotations Pratt Morales was trafficking in when he decided, 30 years ago, to try to make a full roasted turkey out of bread.

“We started making it for vegetarians who wanted a centerpiece for Thanksgiving — and we still do — but now it’s become a great gift for local customers,” Morales said.

It wasn’t the first time Morales had tried to make something un-breadlike with yeasted dough. He’s done turreted castles, saguaro cactuses, horses with wagons trailed behind them. He’s sculpted dragons, roadrunners, doves in a nest, and once, bread-shaped cockroaches and mice for a pest control company. Cute parlor tricks, yes, but nothing like this. Turkey bread is a marriage of images: the staff of life and a sign of seasonal thankfulness all in one.

And so, after weeks of experimentation, turkey bread was born in a tiny family bakery in New Mexico.

Albuquerque’s oldest family-run bakery

It’s just before the lunch rush on a side street outside of Old Town in Albuquerque. The scent of yeast, sleeping loaves tinged with green chile peppers and warm cinnamon from just-baked wedding cookies seeps out of the constantly open door of a 1950s adobe ranch, home to Golden Crown Panaderia, the state’s oldest family-run bakery. Morales pulls chairs for customers while his son, Chris, kneads dough on a long table in the kitchen.

Forty years ago, Morales was a trained accountant just out of the National Guard when he decided to open a bake shop. He was raising his son by himself and needed an environment in which he could be a father and make a living at the same time.

“I can’t think of any better place to raise a son as a single dad than at a bakery,” Morales said. “There’s lots to do.”

Morales raised his son while he raised his business, and now he and Chris work side by side with a team of dedicated bakers. Together, the father-son team has weathered competition from industrial competitors by doing everything better. The bakery has made a name for itself with its authentic biscochito (a dry wedding cookie), hand-thrown pizza crusts and a wide variety of specialty breads.

“What we do is time consuming and difficult to do,” Morales said. “Nobody else knows how to do it.”

At Golden Crown, bread has never left its central role as the staff of life. But the Turkey Bread — oh, there is nothing like the turkey bread. The bakery will make around 500 turkey breads in the run-up to Thanksgiving, in three varieties costing between $35 and $50 — green chile, peasant dough and even a dark-legged and white breasted version combining whole wheat and Italian white bread.

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Golden Crown Panaderia's storefront sells traditional New Mexican bakery items such as its biscochito wedding cookies. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

The making of a Thanksgiving centerpiece

There are no YouTube videos of anyone at Golden Crown making the turkey bread, no morning talk shows in which Morales brings his firecracker wit and energy to a New York stage and audiences of millions (though he is often visited by the Food Network). And with good reason. Like all of the bakery’s recipes, the method and ingredients have been honed and shaped over many decades. It’s all secret — the thing that has helped the family enterprise to thrive in a climate in which the family bakery as an institution has waxed and waned. So to see it made, in person, is to marvel at the power of muscle memory. It is as if you are watching a gymnast perform a routine of magnetic precision, one practiced so often he could do it blindfolded.

At a long, waist-high wooden table, Morales gathers his ingredients and prepares his surface. This dough — an egg-based mixture dotted with slices of jalapenos — is already made. First, he pats the dough into an oblong shape the size of a loaf of bread. With a dough slicer, he cuts off two pieces that will become the legs. Then he cuts the breast, forming a backbone by making a small ridge. He slices two slots for the wings and scores the legs so they will look like feathers when baked. The dough will rise twice. He scoops it with his hands from all sides, tucks it in, like you might tuck in a child or, perhaps, yes, a turkey you are preparing for an oven roast.

Morales knows exactly how this dough will rise, exactly how it will brown, exactly the right temperature to get it to bake through without become too overdone in any one spot. A sprinkle of parsley on top, and the bird is ready for the oven, where it is baked at 400 degrees. When it comes out, it will be browned in all the right places, rendered in deep crusty browns.

“We always get the same response from people who buy it as a gift for Thanksgiving,” Morales said. “The host opens the door and they say: ‘You didn’t have to bring the turkey!’ ”

Main photo: Golden Crown Panaderia in Albuquerque, N.M., makes a golden turkey — out of bread. Credit: Golden Crown Panaderia

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Baked apples with amaretti filling. Credit: © Nathan Hoyt

Despite the myths that get bandied around about what was served at the first Thanksgiving, the only report we have, from Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, says simply that the Wampanoag contributed five deer. The claim that there was turkey on that day is pure speculation. As for dessert, we might speculate on that, too. We can guess from the letters of settlers such as William Horton that they found ways to work with the “great store of fruits” they discovered (“Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers,” Alexander Young). Since the British have long had a love affair with the apple, they no doubt made use of the many species that grew wild here.

American history meets Italian tradition

The proverbial turkey feast with all the trimmings persists, even in households like the one I grew up in, where Italian cooking prevailed every other day of the year. The immigrants weren’t newcomers to thanksgivings. To all peoples with peasant traditions, the autumn feast is a familiar ritual. You could call ours a fusion Thanksgiving. The bird was dressed with bread-and-pork sausage stuffing; the pureed sweet potatoes were baked under a buttery, sweet walnut crust; and fennel bubbled in a béchamel-and-parmigiano gratin. No Thanksgiving ever began without garlicky stuffed mushrooms and the perfunctory antipasto platter, and there was always pumpkin pie for dessert — made from fresh zucca, of course.

I added my own rituals when I began cooking for myself. In the spirit of the harvest the early settlers enjoyed, apples are always on the table in one form or other. This year, they will be stuffed with amaretti, the delicious almond cookies of Lombardy. The dish hearkens back to my life in Italy, where I learned to stuff peaches with crushed amaretti for baking — a summer recipe of the Piedmont. In the autumn, I must substitute apples, with no regrets.

Choosing the right apples

Apples have as much a practical as a symbolic meaning for me. It seems a pity not to include them when they are so fresh and juicy in their season, especially now that there are such magnificent apples in the farmers markets. Besides, what fruit is associated as much as the apple with fertility, the underlying invocation behind all harvest celebrations?

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How to core an apple. Step 1: Trim the hairy blossom end. Credit, all photos: © Nathan Hoyt

These baked apples offer an alternative for guests who don’t like pumpkin pie (there have been more than a few of them at my Thanksgiving table over the years). Topped with good vanilla ice cream or thick cream in the English fashion, they are unbeatable comfort food on Thanksgiving or at any other time of the apple season to follow roast turkey, ham or game of any kind.

Granted, they are best made with the proper variety for the purpose — and disappointing with those that are unsuitable. Proper baking apples will keep their shape and juiciness during cooking. Apples that are richly flavored and perfectly wonderful for eating may disintegrate in the oven and burst into a froth; some turn mealy and tasteless or just don’t soften during baking. I have experimented with numerous varieties and found the most success with Fujis, Romes, Braeburns, Macouns and Northern Spies that are neither too large nor too small. As for the amaretti, no purchased cookies beat Lazzaroni Amaretti di Saronno for flavor. You can buy them at any food specialty store nowadays. Alternatively, use another good-quality almond cookie or substitute dry almond biscotti.

One of the best things about these baked apples is that they taste better made a day or two ahead, so that the flesh of the fruit has time to absorb the flavors of the filling. Just reheat at 400 F for 10 to 12 minutes before serving.

Experimenting with different varieties of baking apples: here, Macoun, Braeburn and Rome. Credit: @Nathan Hoyt

Experimenting with different varieties of baking apples: here, Macoun, Braeburn and Rome. Credit: @Nathan Hoyt

Baked Apples With Amaretti Filling

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 45 to 60 minutes

Total time: 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours

Yield: 6 individual portions

Ingredients

6 tablespoons white sugar, divided

6 ounces amaretti, crushed into coarse crumbs

1 tablespoon chopped candied orange peel, or substitute the zest of 1 orange

6 medium (8 to 9 ounces each) Fuji, Rome, Braeburn, Macoun or Northern Spies apples

Juice of half a lemon

4 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

Vanilla ice cream or Devon cream for serving

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Select a shallow, flame-proof baking pan on which the apples will fit without crowding. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the sugar across the bottom of the pan.

2. In a small bowl, combine the amaretti crumbs and candied orange rind or orange zest; set aside.

3. Prepare the apples (see step-by-step photos below). With a paring knife, trim off the hairy blossom end at the bottom of each apple. Preferably using a melon baller, core the apples, working from the stem down to carve out an ample stuffing cavity without puncturing the bottom. Brush the flesh inside and out with lemon juice as you work to prevent it from turning brown. With a paring knife, peel the skin off halfway down, leaving the skin on the bottom halves intact. Enlarge the opening at the top to show more stuffing, if you like. When all the apples are prepared, brush each with some of the melted butter and immediately roll the top of each apple in some of the remaining sugar to coat.

4. Transfer the apples to the baking pan. Spoon the filling into each cavity and scatter some on top. Sprinkle any remaining sugar over all, and dribble the remining butter on top of the filling.

5. Place the apples on the center rack of the oven. Bake until they are soft but not collapsed and the juices bubbly, 45 minutes to 1 hour (cooking time varies depending on the apple size and variety).

6. Remove the pan from the oven and turn on the broiler. Slide the apples about 2 inches under the broiler flame until the tops caramelize nicely, 1 to 2 minutes, watching them carefully to prevent burning.

7. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or heavy cream.

Main photo: Baked apples with amaretti filling. Credit: © Nathan Hoyt

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Griddled tuna, chiles and tomatoes. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

When we dine alone we have an unfortunate habit of not treating ourselves with any respect. We sometimes scarf down our food over the sink, or we make a boring sandwich, or we eat too fast, or perhaps have leftovers. I was confronted with this when facing a single piece of leftover tuna in my fridge.

I always thought writing a book about what a food professional eats when they dine alone would be a cool idea. My friend and fellow Zester Daily writer Deborah Madison and her husband, artist Patrick McFarlin, whose watercolors illustrate “What We Eat When We Eat Alone,” wrote that book so I’m left with this article.

I thought one evening when dining alone that I wanted something a little more elegant than the usual alone fare. One important limitation to dining alone is that one doesn’t want to put much effort into it and that means, theoretically, very little to clean. Eating an elegant dinner alone is an exercise in having your cake and eating, too.

It can be done and this particular “menu” was devised by the strange coincidence of my pot-grown shishito chile plant having only two chiles on it for harvesting, a red one and a green one, and my smaller tomato plant having two tomatoes, and having an abundance of red de arbol chiles from another plant. The tuna was a raw piece that didn’t get used in a recipe test. Presto! Elegant dinner for one.

Another limitation to dining alone is one of motivation. What’s the point if you’re alone? That’s a fair question, and the answer is that it makes you feel good as long as it’s easy. This particular dinner was just that, plus it tasted great, took less than 10 minutes to cook, looked photo-worthy, was plated elegantly and simply, and made me feel like I didn’t even do any work to eat so finely. By any measure, that’s success for cooking for yourself and dining alone. I had three things to clean afterward, the skillet, the plate and the cutlery, all of which took two minutes.

I’m not providing a recipe because that defeats the purpose of simple. This preparation doesn’t need a recipe because there is no preparation, only cooking. The amount all depends on how hungry you are. The evening I made this the amounts described above were enough, but increase the amounts if you’re hungry.

Preheat a cast iron skillet or griddle over high heat for 10 minutes. Rub a piece of tuna (or swordfish), the shishito chiles and the tomatoes with olive oil. Salt everything.

Place the tuna (a 5-ounce piece is ideal), shishito chiles, de arbol chiles and halved tomatoes on the skillet and cook 4½ minutes. Turn everything with a spatula and cook the fish another 4½ minutes, removing any food that is charred beyond what you want. Arrange everything attractively on a plate, drizzle with olive oil, and place a basil leaf on top. That’s dinner!

Main photo: Griddled tuna, chiles and tomatoes. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Maple-hazelnut fudge. Credit: Charles Perry

As we slide into the holiday season, my mind turns toward maple: maple syrup, maple frosting — and maple fudge.

The world has quite enough chocolate fudge, in my heretical opinion. Chocolate is certainly majestic, but maple has something wonderful and poetical to say for itself. Nobody who has had a bite of maple fudge will ever turn another down. It’s the ideal Thanksgiving sweet, the boss of all stocking stuffers.

These days, a lot of people seem to think that fudge making is so difficult it has to be left to professionals. Oh, fudge, I say. Homemade fudge is an American tradition. Nineteenth-century college girls are said to have invented chocolate fudge — apparently without spoiling their grade-point average.

The anatomy of a beloved candy

Culinarily speaking, fudge is related to caramel because it involves cooking a dairy product (milk, half-and-half or cream) to the point that it undergoes the Maillard reaction, which produces appetizing browned flavors. Specifically, fudge is related to the 19th-century Mexican candy called panocha, which included the decisive step of stirring in chopped nuts.

Fudge has a luxurious texture because it is whipped as it cools to prevent the formation of large crystals. Small crystals melt easily and appealingly, and a fat-based ingredient — butter or chocolate (or both) — adds its own lusciousness. The faint bitterness of the nuts takes the curse off the overwhelming sweetness of the candy, which is why nuts have become all but universal in fudge recipes.

For maple fudge, the most common nuts are walnuts or pecans, which are both excellent. On general principle, I would first toast them at 350 F until they can easily be pierced by a needle, about 7 minutes. I have also tried toasted coconut as a substitute, which is pretty good, though I was surprised to find that the coconut flavor dominated the maple more than I liked. Ultimately, I decided I favored the version made with toasted hazelnuts. Because, face it, hazelnuts are awesome.

It’s not as hard as you think

Many fudge recipes call for a pastry marble to cool the syrup on, which can make those who don’t own one uneasy. So just use a baking pan instead. (I wouldn’t recommend a cookie sheet without a raised edge, however, because if it isn’t perfectly level, the hot syrup can drip right off.) You do need a good thermometer, but these days any serious cook has one.

In short, the following recipe is somewhat flexible. You can cook the syrup to 240 F or so; you can let it cool to 105 F before beating it; you can beat it longer than the specified time. The crucial thing is that the syrup must reach the soft-ball stage, 238 F at sea level. (If you live at an elevation above 3,500 feet, you are probably familiar with the degree to which you must adjust your temperatures.)

Maple-Nut Fudge

Prep time: 5 to 10 minutes

Cooking time: 30 to 35 minutes

Total time: About 2¾ hours (includes cooling time)

Yield: 25 to 36 pieces

Ingredients

4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter, divided, softened

3 cups sugar

¾ cup maple syrup

1½ cups half-and-half

3 tablespoons corn syrup

Pinch salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

1½ cups roughly chopped nuts — pecans, walnuts or toasted hazelnuts — toasted for 5 to 7 minutes at 350 F

Directions
1. Line an 8-inch baking dish with aluminum foil (make sure that the edges extend past the rim) and grease with 1 tablespoon softened butter.

2. In a 3-quart pot over low heat, stir together the sugar, maple syrup, half-and-half, corn syrup and salt until smooth. Continue to stir until the sugar is dissolved, 5 minutes.

3. Insert the sensor of a candy thermometer into the mixture. Increase the heat to bring to a boil and cook without stirring until the syrup reaches the soft-ball state (238 F), about 15 minutes. The syrup will foam up alarmingly but settle down by 225 F. Warning: The heated syrup can cause severe burnsWear an apron and use oven mitts.

4. Remove the thermometer probe from the pan and pour the fudge onto a pastry marble (if you don’t have one, use a 12-by-18-inch baking pan sprayed with nonstick spray). Divide the remaining 3 tablespoons of softened butter into several pieces and dot them here and there on top.

5. Clean the thermometer sensor and stick it anywhere in the fudge. When the temperature measures 110 F (about 5 minutes on a marble, 10 or 12 minutes on a baking pan), scrape the fudge into a mixer bowl with the mixer paddle attached, add the vanilla and beat until the fudge is thick and losing its shine, 5 to 10 minutes.

6. Mix in the nuts. Turn the fudge into the prepared baking dish and let it cool to room temperature, 2 hours.

7. Remove the fudge from the dish by lifting the edges of the aluminum foil and transfer it to a work surface. Rub a chef’s knife with a piece of paper towel wetted with vegetable oil and make 4 cuts in one direction and then 4 cuts in the other, or 5 cuts in each direction, re-oiling the knife as necessary. Wrap the pieces in waxed paper.

If it is not to be eaten immediately, store the fudge in an air-tight container (it can otherwise absorb moisture and soften, particularly in damp weather). It will keep several weeks in a refrigerator, but generally speaking, it’s a gift best given fresh.

Main photo: Maple-hazelnut fudge. Credit: Charles Perry

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

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

Polenta vs. pasta

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

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

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

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

Polenta, the old-fashioned way

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

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

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

Modern methods

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

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

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

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

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

Polenta: The five-minute method

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

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

Grilled Polenta With Fontina

Prep time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as an appetizer

Ingredients

3 to 4 plum tomatoes, diced or roughly chopped

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

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

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup Fontina cheese, shredded or sliced

Fresh basil leaves, shredded

Directions

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

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

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

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

 

Baked Polenta With Italian Sausages, Mushrooms and Cheese

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

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as a main course

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

2 large garlic cloves, crushed

1 red pepper, cored, seeded and diced

2 Italian sausages with fennel seeds, casing removed, crumbled

2 cups mushrooms, chopped

3/4 cup of polenta (cornmeal)

1 tablespoon fresh, chopped parsley, plus extra for serving

Pinch of cayenne pepper

½ cup ricotta cheese

1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Salt and pepper

1/4 stick butter, diced

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Tomato sauce

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Centuries of polenta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Braised short ribs with Japanese influence

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

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

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

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

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

Short ribs recipe unites the best of both worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiroko’s Braised Short Ribs

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

Prep time: 20 minutes  plus overnight marination

Cook time: 3 hours

Yield: 6 servings

 Ingredients

7 tablespoons shoyu

5 tablespoons honey

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon red pepper flakes

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

2 tablespoons canola oil or vegetable oil

1 cup sake

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

2 tablespoons sugar

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

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Radicchio and Pumpkin Risotto

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

Ingredients

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

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

1 shallot, finely chopped

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

Sea salt

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

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

2 tablespoons white wine or dry vermouth

Freshly ground black pepper

Parmesan cheese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rony’s Brussels Sprouts and Chickpeas

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

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

 

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

Sea salt

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

1 shallot, finely chopped

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

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

2 tablespoons dry sherry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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