Articles in Cooking
This lasagna recipe is Martha Rose Shulman’s family favorite, a two-day affair with made-from-scratch Bolognese ragù.
I was awakened one beautiful morning in June, when I was about 17, by the sound of my stepmother Mary running up the stairs by my bedroom door, weeping. I thought somebody had died. There had been death in my family before, and the running and the tears sounded eerily, scarily familiar. I ventured from my bed, down the stairs to the kitchen, where I found my stepsister amid some broken crockery. She looked very serious and sad. “What happened?” I asked, afraid to know the answer.
“Phydeau stole the lasagna.”
Phydeau was a crazy male Weimaraner that my parents had gotten when they bought our big stone house in Wilton, Conn., on two fenced acres of flat land. But no amount of running could calm that dog down. The lasagna in question was one of Mary’s specialties. She had spent two days on it; she’d made Bolognese ragù. She hadn’t made the pasta, but this was before no-boil lasagna noodles, so you had to cook them before layering them with the sauce, the béchamel and the Parmesan.
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Phydeau wasn’t known for his brains but he clearly had cunning. He couldn’t reach the back of the stove but somehow he must have jumped and pushed it along, jumped and pushed it along, until it reached an edge and fell, shattering the dish on the kitchen floor and splattering lasagna everywhere.
Phydeau’s days with us were now numbered. My parents found him a nice home with their handyman, Mr. Dewing, who could whistle like a warbler and adored the dog. They replaced him with two Hungarian Vizsla puppies named Bonnie and Clyde. They too were smart and cunning, but not as cunning as Mary. She found a higher shelf for cooling her lasagna and never left one out overnight again.
Lasagna with Ragù
Serves 6 to 8
The recipe for the ragù makes more than you need for this lasagna, but it will keep for five days in the refrigerator and freezes well for a few months.
For the ragù:
¾ pound lean beef, such as chuck blade or chuck center
¼ pound mild Italian sausage
1 ounce prosciutto di Parma
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery, with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
¾ cup dry red wine
1½ cups poultry or meat stock
1 cup milk
1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, with about half the juice, crushed or coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
For the béchamel:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour
3 cups milk (may use low-fat milk)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
For the lasagna:
¾ to 1 pound no-boil lasagna noodles, as needed
3 cups ragù
3 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (¾ cup, tightly packed)
2 tablespoons butter, for the top of the lasagna
1. Make the ragù a day ahead if possible. Coarsely grind together the beef, sausage and prosciutto, using a food processor or a meat grinder. Set aside.
2. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy non-stick skillet, and have a heavy 4- or 5-quart saucepan or casserole ready next to it. Add the pancetta, onion, celery and carrot, and cook, stirring, until the onion is just beginning to color, about 10 minutes. Stir the garlic and ground meats into the pan and turn the heat to medium. Cook, stirring and scooping up the meats, until all the pink has been cooked out, 10 to 15 minutes. The meat should not be browned, just cooked through. Spoon the mixture into a strainer set over a bowl and give the strainer a shake to drain some of the fat. Transfer to the saucepan or casserole.
3. Add the wine to the frying pan and reduce over medium heat, stirring any glaze from the bottom of the pan up into the bubbling wine. Reduce by half, which should take from 3 to 5 minutes. Stir into the pot with the other ingredients, and set over medium heat. Add ½ cup of the stock and bring to a simmer. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the stock evaporates, 8 to 10 minutes. Add another ½ cup of the stock and repeat. Stir in the remaining stock and the milk. Turn the heat to low, partially cover, and simmer 45 minutes to an hour, stirring often, until the milk is no longer visible. Add the tomatoes and their juice, salt to taste, and stir together. Turn the heat very low, so that the mixture is cooking at a bare simmer. Cook very slowly, partially covered, for 1½ to 2 hours. Stir often. The sauce should be thick and meaty when done. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Make the béchamel. Heat the butter over medium-low heat in a heavy saucepan. Add the flour to the butter and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes, until smooth and bubbling. Whisk in the milk and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring, for about 10 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and lost its raw flour taste. Season with salt, pepper, and pinch of nutmeg. The béchamel isn’t meant to be very thick.
5. Assemble the lasagna. Have the ragù, béchamel, lasagna noodles and grated cheese within reach. Butter or oil a 3-quart baking dish or gratin. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
6. Reserve about 6 tablespoons each béchamel and cheese for the top layer of the lasagna. Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of pasta over the béchamel and spread about 4 tablespoons béchamel over the noodles. Top with a thin layer of ragù (about 4 to 5 tablespoons) and a lightly sprinkling — about 1½ tablespoons — cheese. Repeat the layers until all but one layer of noodles and the béchamel and cheese that you set aside is used up (you might have some extra pasta). Add a last layer of lasagna noodles, cover the top with the béchamel you set aside, and finally, the cheese. Dot with butter. Cover with foil.
7. Bake the lasagna for 30 minutes, until bubbling and the pasta is cooked al dente. Uncover and continue to bake 5 to 10 minutes to brown the top. Remove from the heat and allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Advance preparation: The lasagna can be assembled a day or two ahead and kept in the refrigerator, or frozen for up to a month, well covered. Keep it in the refrigerator — don’t make the mistake Mary made.
Top photo: Meat lasagna. Credit: istockphoto
When I was just married I went with my new husband to a famous Jewish restaurant in London. I scanned the menu anxiously searching for something green.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “Do you have any vegetables, please?”
“Yes,” the waiter answered seriously, “we have dill pickles and latkes.”
That exchange demonstrates so much of what is wrong with traditional Ashkenazi fare. Certainly the food is delicious, rib-sticking and very tasty. Look at menus solid with dishes like matzo ball soup and kreplach, the delicious triangles of pasta filled with chopped meat floating generously in rich broth. There are slices of corned beef with a liberal side of deep fried potato latkes and over-large slices of lockshen pudding — noodles mixed with dried fruit and masses of fat and sugar. Of course all these dishes are wonderful and immersed with flavor and Jewish tradition. Lighter versions of some of the recipes form part of my book, “Jewish Traditional Cooking.” But maybe it would be sensible to serve one of these recipes as a treat or delicacy accompanied by a liberal quantity of vegetables and fruit, not all of them together at a single meal.
A diet for survival
The traditional Ashkenazi diet evolved from a fragile East-European existence and the shtetl — impoverished, flimsy villages.
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If people were fortunate enough to have a chicken, probably only for a festival, it was an old boiler, and in true Ashkenazi tradition it would have been placed in a large cooking pot with root vegetables and masses of water to make a soup. This soup would be extended with matzo balls or any kind of dough and rough bread, along with chopped gizzards and heart, and meat from the chicken’s neck. The neck skin would be separately stuffed with chopped fat and peppery flour and stitched, then roasted with the bird to create another meal called helzel. Those bubbas, grandmothers and mothers, knew that they could keep hunger at bay by adding calorie-laden extras. The chicken would likely be served at the festival meal with kasha, rice, potatoes or barley.
We are now in the 21st century and Ashkenazi tradition still follows that regimen. Jewish people manifest significant problems connected with obesity, including the so-called Jewish Disease, diabetes. Heart disease and cancers are known to be exacerbated by a high fat, high protein diet.
Adapting the Ashkenazi diet for the 21st century
So maybe it’s time to acknowledge this and accept change, as I did after marrying a lovely Sephardi man. After the Diaspora, the Sephardic Jews looked about their surroundings and adopted the cooking methods of their new neighbors using masses of cheap vegetables and fruits, cooking with olive oil rather than the artery-clogging schmaltz of their Jewish cousins. Instead of relying on frying or interminable stewing to add flavor, they began seasoning their food with fresh herbs, creating fragrant dishes redolent with glorious spices and mouthwatering taste.
When I wrote “Jewish Traditional Cooking” I wanted to include the inherited foods but lighten them where possible. Many of the appetizers are vegetable-based: baba ganoush, a fragrant Asian dish based on oven-roasted vegetables, and soup mit nisht – the ultimate low-calorie cauliflower soup that tastes of heaven but relies on the freshness of a good cauliflower, onions and a light stock and herbs. Lockshen pudding has exchanged its ancient stodgy image for a healthier alternative by adding masses of freshly grated apple, vanilla, mixed spices and fresh lemon zest.
Passover is no longer a stomach-clutching kilo-raising event in our home. We adore the lightness of a carrot and almond bake which rises soufflé-like for any chef, and the spinach and leek roulade with its lighter cheese filling still satisfies. For a modern Jewish woman understanding tradition and the demands of religion and custom, I looked to Morocco where I learned to cook fish in a tiny Fez kitchen with a mixture of fresh vegetables and a fabulous stuffing so that it can be eaten hot or cold. Turkish tradition showed me how to stuff a whole vegetable and experiment with butternut squash as the base for a stuffing of toasted pine nuts, lentils, brown rice, currants and masses of chopped mint, parsley and cilantro.
I believe that Ashkenazi Jews have to look to their Sephardi cousins to learn how to eat in the 21st century. They may not survive their traditional diet.
Top photo: Ruth Joseph. Credit: Western Mail, Thompson House, Cardiff
It seems Mediterranean food is back in the news, as it should be. As an author who writes about Mediterranean cuisines, I am often asked about my favorite cuisine and recipes. These are impossible questions, but heck let’s give it a shot. So here are my five greatest celebratory dishes of the Mediterranean. You can’t please everyone and the list won’t include everyone’s favorite, but here are my choices for legendary dishes.
The Mediterranean has been the home of great feast celebrations at least since Odysseus sailed the wine-dark sea with his men feasting on roast lamb. The popularity of Mediterranean food today draws all of us to its classic meals. We see this popularity everywhere from the promotion of the Mediterranean diet, to so-called Mediterranean dishes in scores of restaurants, and on the pages of food magazines.
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Think you don’t know Mediterranean food? If you’re eating pizza, yogurt, lasagna, tapas, bruschetta and couscous, you’re eating Mediterranean food. However, the world of Mediterranean food is huge, deep, and varied.
Celebrate with these great dishes of the Mediterranean
As soon as we hear about its health benefits we’re presented with a variety of famous and not-so-famous celebratory meals that are extravagant and rich and delicious that belies our perhaps false notion that Mediterranean food is mostly green vegetables with a touch of olive oil.
A celebration in the Mediterranean is a big deal and here are, arguably, the five greatest preparations in the Mediterranean, any of which can be made to celebrate. Each of these dishes is utterly unforgettable.
The Moroccan bastila (also transliterated pastilla) is a magnificent pigeon pie rich with eggs, butter, almonds, spices such as saffron and ginger, herbs such as cilantro and parsley, and orange flower water. The dish is encased in thin pastry leaves called warka, which are like phyllo pastry leaves, and finally dusted with confectioner’s sugar and powdered cinnamon.
In Morocco, it’s usually eaten at the end of Ramadan. If you try the recipe, read it several times before beginning so you are familiar with what happens. Given how labor-intensive the preparation is, you’ll only want to make it for friends who truly appreciate good food, and who love Moroccan food already. You’ll need a 16-inch round baking pan.
A large steel pan of saffron-infused and yellow sticky rice with fish, shrimp and runner beans or with chicken is an invitation to a great feast in Valencia. One of the great misunderstandings about paella is that true Valencian Spanish paella is made in one of two ways, with chicken or with seafood, and never with mixed meats. Today there are many variations, including dishes that mix meats and seafood. To make paella authentically, you cook it in a flat steel pan over an open fire outside without ever stirring the rice. You’ll need an 18-inch steel paella pan that can be purchased online from Dona Juana.
This classic preparation of coastal Provence is almost never made at home and tends to be a restaurant dish. That doesn’t mean home cooks can’t make bouillabaisse. My recipe seems more complicated than it should be because I wanted a recipe that doesn’t makes compromises. You should follow it exactly, and you’ll have an experience identical to the one I had at the Tetou restaurant in Golf-Juan in France, where we lingered over a bouillabaisse all afternoon. The gentle waves of the Mediterranean sea were lapping mere feet away from us while the air was redolent of saffron, fennel, orange, garlic, and rascasse, the essential scorpionfish.
The idea of a pasta pie is one of the most extravagant in all Italian cuisines. The 16th- and 17th- century cookbooks included recipes per far pasticcio (for making pie) which usually meant pasta pie.
One version of a pasta pie is the timballo, which is a kind of pasta pie or pasticcio in Italian. This dish is made in a ball mold that looks like a timbale or kettledrum, hence the name. One of the most famous renditions of this dish is found in the wonderful 1996 movie “Big Night.” In the film, the timpano (Neapolitan for timballo) is not made with a pastry crust, making its unveiling all the more tense as everything is held together precariously. One can make it in any kind of springform mold or deep pie pan with or without a short dough pastry crust.
The Arabs, Turks and Greeks all make a variation of the same preparation of spit-roasted, seasoned fatty meat on a vertical rotisserie. It is purely street food and never made at home, and perhaps shouldn’t be called “celebratory” as it is everyday snacking food in its birthplace. For me, though, every bite of a gyro is a celebration, so I include it.
The Turks call it döner kebabı, the Greeks gyro (pronounced YEE-ro), and the Arabs shāwurma. In Greece, a gyro is made with slices of meat rather than ground patties as it is in some places. Although it’s quite common to see electric rotisseries, many believe the hardwood charcoal rotisseries with their vertical shelves for charcoal are the best way to cook the meat.
The meat used for these dishes is varied. Generally it is a combination of the best cuts of top sirloin, loin, and shoulder of lamb. These cuts are not necessarily ground but pounded very thin, layered, seasoned and skewered.
Any one of these five preparations will be a challenge with a great reward. Make any of these and you will understand more about the culinary patrimony of the Mediterranean than you can imagine.
Bouillabaisse at the Tetou restaurant in Golf-Juan. Credit: Ali Kattan-Wright
Canadian bakers hold the butter tart in the same esteem as their American counterparts hold the apple pie. Both are icons of their respective nations. Although, admittedly, some may disagree with the belief that the butter tart is a Canadian classic, no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “noun – Canadian: a tart with a filling of butter, eggs, brown sugar, and, typically, raisins.”
Of course, we in the Colonies long ago dispensed with the need to have Mother England’s approval, but a vote of confidence from the Oxford is never a bad thing.
Neither is a butter tart.
Butter tarts a distinctly Canadian treat
It’s an English Canadian relative of the French Canadian sugar pie (tarte au sucre). For both, butter is a vital ingredient, although the tarte au sucre uses maple syrup instead of brown sugar.
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One of the first recipes for butter tarts appeared in “The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook.” This fundraising cookbook was published in 1900 in Barrie, Ontario. It included a recipe for a “filling for tarts,” which was submitted by Mrs. Malcolm (Mary) MacLeod, according to Bruce Beacock, the archivist of the Simcoe County Archives, which houses a copy of the cookbook.
Later, in 1908, the “Vogue Cook Book,” published by the Toronto Daily News, included a butter tart recipe from Mrs. G.M.B. of Toronto, and three years after that, the “Canadian Farm Cook Book” included six recipes for butter tarts.
Today, serious Canadian bakers are bound to have their own butter tart recipe, handed down from their great-aunt or their mother or clipped from a magazine and tweaked to the baker’s own taste.
My butter tart recipe came from my father and needed no tweaking. Everyone who tried his butter tarts agreed they were the best they’d ever eaten.
Dad had been a baker since he was 10 years old, when he took over kitchen duties because his mother was confined to bed for a year. Since he was too easygoing to object, his siblings consigned him to the kitchen so they wouldn’t get stuck there themselves. Although at first he wasn’t any more enthusiastic about cooking and baking than they were, he quickly surprised himself by growing to love his new job, particularly baking, which became his passion.
The cakes and pies of his youth were eventually joined by French pastries rich with cream and fruit, chocolate tarts that looked (almost) too beautiful to slice and macarons (a Saturday afternoon adventure long before they became a food trend) that shone like jewels and tasted like ambrosia.
The truth is, a blasphemous thing to admit, for sure, I didn’t much care for butter tarts until my father started making his. There were so many other delights to choose from, and the butter tarts my aunts and grandmothers made, while nice, were nothing special; but with the first batch of Dad’s butter tarts, I changed my mind.
He hadn’t been interested in making them until a package of store-bought butter tarts, with pastry like cardboard and filling like glue, so embarrassed him — they had been eaten by friends who dropped over for coffee — that he headed into the kitchen, got out his yellow ware bowl and began measuring the ingredients for pastry: flour, salt, lard, vinegar and water.
After the pastry had rested for a while, he took the wooden rolling pin with its faded red handles (a shower gift my mother happily passed on to him), and gently rolled out the pastry, cut circles with a juice glass, and after fitting them into the tart pan, crimped the edges with his finger and thumb.
While the pastry chilled in the refrigerator, he turned to the filling — which any butter-tart baker or butter-tart eater will tell you is the most vital part of the whole thing — and assembled the requisite butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, raisins and pinch of salt.
The aroma of the baking tarts made me swoon. We crouched in front of the oven door and watched the liquid bubble while the crust turned golden.
After allowing the butter tarts to cool for as long as I could stand, I bit into my first perfect dessert. The filling was still a bit too warm; it slipped down my chin and onto my fingers. When I’d finished the tart — leaning over the counter and devouring it in four gooey bites — I licked the filling from my fingers. This is still the proper way to eat a butter tart (although it’s important to let it cool enough that you don’t burn your tongue, your chin or your fingers).
I smiled, he nodded, the French pastries were delegated to second choice and my love affair with a Canadian classic began.
Dad’s Butter Tarts
Makes 12 tarts
For the pastry:
2½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup cold lard
¼ cup cold water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
For the filling:
⅓ cup melted unsalted butter
½ cup light corn syrup
¾ cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs, beaten
¾ cup raisins
For the pastry:
1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter or your fingertips, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.
2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more water, depending upon how the dough comes together and the time of year.) Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Have ready a 12-cup tart pan.
3. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to a thickness of about ⅛ inch. Using a 4-inch diameter round cutter (or a juice glass), cut out 12 circles. Fit each circle into a cup in the pan. Place the pan into the refrigerator.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
For the filling:
In a medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, vanilla and salt. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth.
To assemble the tarts:
1. Divide the raisins among the 12 tart shells. Spoon the filling evenly into the shells.
2. Bake until the filling is browned on top and the pastry is golden, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely before removing from the pan and eating.
Top photo: Butter tarts. Credit: Sharon Hunt
A few carrots that didn’t get pulled one summer made their beautiful lacy flowers the next year, and it was easy to see that those blooms looked a lot like Queen Anne’s lace, cilantro blossoms and the diminutive chervil flower. Were they somehow related? More than just a pretty face, I knew there was something behind these flowers and the gorgeous vegetables I loved, something that united them and their forms, flavors and behaviors. But what?
I took those unread botany books off the shelves and found out that yes, these were all members of the umbellifer family and they all make umbel-like flowers, though varying enormously in size. This family includes a lot of wild but familiar plants, including the deadly hemlock, and it turns out that — minus the hemlock — they all happen to be harmonious in our mouths, both the vegetables and the many herbs in that family.
It’s all relative when it comes to vegetables
I started looking more into plant families, who is in them, their stories, their shared characteristics and the way they play in our kitchens. Like people, plant family members are indeed relatives.
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The daisy (composite) family, a group of ruffians, includes the prickly artichokes and cardoons; salsify and scorzanera all with their habit of oxidizing; the bitter chicories; plus milk thistle, dandelion and burdock — a feisty bunch of plants. Break any of the roots and a thick white sap appears. Taste it and you will recoil from its bitterness. But a lot of these bitter plants are good for the liver, it turns out. Interesting.
Members of the nightshade family have been universally resisted wherever they’ve been introduced. Tomatoes were thought to cause stomach cancer. The Russian Orthodox Church believed potatoes were not food because they weren’t mentioned in the Bible, and besides, why eat what a dog didn’t even find interesting? Eggplant was thought to cause leprosy, and the consumption of eggplant (and nightshades in general) stimulates the pain of arthritis, which is why some people avoid it, even today. Belladonna got its name because when ingested, the pupils of the eyes grew large and dark, which was considered a form of beauty in women. The difficulties in this family, presumed or real, are due to alkaloids that can be deadly in large quantities but helpful in smaller ones; we all get our eyes dilated by the optometrist so the doctor can look deeply into our eyes, though not because of their lustrous beauty.
The chenopods, or goosefoots (yes, I looked at a goose’s gnarly foot to confirm the association), include spinach, chard, beets, wild spinach or lamb’s-quarters, and all are related to quinoa and amaranth, whose leaves can be and are eaten as well as the seeds. Speaking broadly, they are interchangeable in the kitchen with respect to flavor. And if you have chard bolting in your garden, might you still be able to eat the leaves as they becomes smaller and further apart on their ever-lengthening stems? Indeed you can. And at this stage they taste more like some of the wild greens they’re related to. This is the kind of stuff that I find fascinating!
Anyone who gardens has opportunities that deepen one’s vegetable literacy and excitement. You’ll find treasures that won’t appear in your supermarket, such as coriander buds that are still green and moist, so surprising in the mouth and so well-paired with lentils. You get to see — and eat — the whole plant, not just the parts and pieces that show up in the store. Broccoli leaves, as well as the crowns and stems, are quite tasty, and the same is true of radish and kohlrabi leaves.
Leeks produce enormous ribbons of leaves, sometimes referred to as flags, and indeed you can wave them back and forth to signal someone, if need be. When left in the garden over winter, the shanks can grow to a few feet in length(!), by which time a firm core has formed, too dense to eat, but a great ingredient for soup stock. When a leek is left in the garden long enough to bloom, its enormous spherical flower mimics that of the pretty chive blossom. And when you finally encounter a mature leek in the garden you can see that it is a mighty and noble vegetable (one variety is named King Richard). Is it surprising that the leek is the national symbol of Wales?
The name knotweed (the family that includes rhubarb, sorrel and buckwheat) refers to jointed stems, but you might see that the blossoms of these plants resemble the kind of embroidery that consists of little knots. Not the botanical definition, but my own, and you may have your own interpretation of names, too. I might add it doesn’t take much imagination to bring these three challenging plants together in a recipe.
Does any of this matter? Yes and no. We can still buy vegetables and cook them without knowing a bit of botany or history. But it is enormously fun to bring the familial nature of vegetables into view, to know that what relates in the garden often does so in the kitchen, which encourages both confidence and daring. And if you garden at all, your eyes will be open to possibilities that just don’t exist elsewhere.
To me, vegetable literacy enriches our world — and our culinary possibilities — by regarding the whole, wonderful plant and its relatives, not just the pieces and parts of a few cultivars.
Top photo: Deborah Madison holds an allium. Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer
Nine years ago, Ferran Adrià of elBulli, the most féted chef on the planet, came to London to demonstrate his extraordinary techniques to an invited audience of some 200 chefs and food writers — mostly British but with a fair sprinkling of Europeans and Americans. However, the mood in the hall was somber. It was March 11, 2004, the same morning that the Atocha railway station in Madrid had been blown up by terrorist bombers as commuters arrived for work.
The demonstration theater — a large underground bunker beneath a luxury hotel just up the road from the Houses of Parliament where Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plotters were deflected from a similar purpose a few hundred years earlier — had been converted into a gleaming space laboratory. When our instructor began to speak, it was to request a minute’s silence in memory of the 180 people already reported dead; the final toll was 191. Such moments are hard to forget.
Fortunately for me, as a Spanish speaker, Adrià addressed his audience in Spanish rather than Catalan, with translation into English provided over earphones. Simultaneous translators don’t always deliver the full picture, so I kept my own notes as a reminder of what he said. What follows is an edited version of his thoughts that day.
Ferran Adrià discusses why and how we eat
“Never forget, ladies and gentlemen, that the primary purpose of serving good food in pleasant surroundings is to give pleasure. We are not revolutionaries in the usual sense of the word. We have only one aim in what we do: to be happy ourselves and to make others happy. This is a useful service in a world where unhappiness is not unusual, as today’s terrible events have shown.
“Catalans are, as you must know, an independent people who have only recently been free to speak their own language. We do, however, recognize ourselves as part of the Spanish nation. Our aim is to make Spanish cooking contemporary, starting with Catalonia and moving through the regions applying our new techniques.
“We are inventing these techniques in order to express ourselves. We are not following fashion and we have no wish to repeat ourselves. Which is why I find it extraordinary that gastronomy is the only science in which innovation is not invested in or even encouraged, which is the reason we decided to continue our investigations alone.
“What is essential as a cook is to enjoy eating; if you don’t like eating, how can you enjoy cooking? When you’re at table, you don’t need to know the process by which the food arrives in front of you. But you do need to know how to read a plate. Pan con tomate in Catalonia is the most normal thing, but if you put it in front of someone who can’t read the plate, they won’t know what to do with it.
The first process is sight: This explains what we are about to eat. Joël Robuchon, for instance, explains exactly how to eat by the arrangement on the plate. Next comes smell: We have stopped smelling our food; it’s considered bad manners to put your nose to the plate and collect the odors. Then comes temperature: The contrast of temperature — frozen ice cream to boiling broth — does astonishing things to the palate. Now comes texture: froth, gelatin, asparagus, the mouth responds differently to each.
“At last we come to taste: Dulce, amargo, salado, acido — sweet, bitter, salty, acid — these are the four tastes. Grilled chicken with nothing but salt has neither acidity nor bitterness, but an oyster is salty, bitter and sweet. One person will detect saltiness and another won’t. The Japanese have a low threshold for salt, but among Spaniards it’s very developed because of the salt-cured ham and salty anchovies we eat from childhood.
“It’s all in the mind. There’s no real difference between eating a lamb and a puppy. And when I tell you that I know for sure my mother’s tortillas are the best in the world, it’s the heart that tells me it’s true. As a cook you must be honest. We must use what we know, which is why I share my expertise.
“At elBulli, we are 40 chefs serving 70 covers, evening only. We are not providing home-cooking. No one is going to drive 200 kilometers for a plate of bread and butter. When someone pays 300 euros for a meal, he wants something different.
“We started our experimentation with cocktails and discovered that a frozen margarita in a syringe sprayed with a little salt on the tongue is far more powerful than a whole margarita in a glass. The experience is of two temperatures — hot beneath, cold above. You can produce the same effect for children with frozen orange juice, like a homemade Fanta, though they won’t like it if they’re used to commercial Fanta.
“In 1988 we experimented with caramelizing. If you take a strawberry and dip it into caramel, you have caramelized strawberry. But if you paint it with gelatin and caramelize the sugar with a gas gun, the eating experience is far more thrilling. We made olive-oil caramelos and foie gras and mango caramelos. If you put things that don’t taste good together, the result won’t taste good either.
Adrià discovers delectable air
“In 1994 we started frothing. We made hot chocolate mousse with Campari and served it with an even more bitter sorbet; we served eggy bread with a vanilla foam. In 1995 we began to use air. Air is the flavor captured as a perfume, that’s all it is. When you use a vacuum, the air will raise a liquid. We found that carrot juice has an element which will hold air, so we prepared air with wasabi, air with melon and passionfruit. We were experimenting with texture at the time. So we fried fish bones — salmonete (red mullet) — till crisp and we served them with foam. Next we used a candy floss machine to cover the bones in candy floss. …
“In 1999, we began to experiment with hot gelatin. We discovered that agar-agar, seaweed gelatin, doesn’t actually melt till it reaches 90 degrees (Celsius). So we made a hot jelly with parmesan and squirted it into cold water so that it set into spaghetti strings. The same thing can be done by using agar-agar to set mangoor melon juice: If you shake it into limed water, it sets into little balls like caviar.
“Is it cooking or is it chemistry? It doesn’t matter. It’s no different from what happens when you bake a cookie for the first time. It’s the transformation that makes the magic.”
On July 30, 2010, Adrià’s restaurant on the outskirts of the village of Rosas closed to its paying punters (customers) and is due to reopen in 2014 as a center for creation and innovation. Which, of course, is how it all began.
Top illustration: A group of chefs at work in Barcelona. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
I was trying to make a tart aux pommes (apple tart.) I followed the instructions in my cookbook and the final product tasted and looked delicious. But when I placed my finished dish beside the picture in the cookbook, it didn’t quite match up, which made me think: Was my dish made the way the chef intended? If the chef was here, would he or she have guided me differently?
A seed was planted. I wanted to transform the way people follow recipes. I came up with an idea that marries technology with the passion and skill that collaborate in the creation of master recipes.
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Here’s the crazy part: I was a guy from the music business without a single contact in the food industry, and zero cooking experience aside from my own kitchen. There’s something to be said for determination.
When Top Chef Masters winner Rick Bayless, founder of Chicago’s Frontera Grill and award-winning Topolobampo, agreed to cook for us, I devoted my heart and soul to getting it right. I tried every recipe we were going to shoot in my own kitchen before we got to the set. To my family’s initial enjoyment — and ultimate dismay — I cooked Mexican food for three weeks.
Learning from chefs is the key to recipe video app
And I ruined more than half the recipes. Enchiladas are messy, I misread several steps, and making a mole is just plain hard. No matter that I was determined, I couldn’t seem to get the results I wanted. But after we shot our segment with Rick, I remade some of those recipes by following the video, and they were perfect. Being able to watch exactly how Bayless executed his recipes changed and refined the way I cook.
I remember the set being silent. It was nearing the end of a 14-hour shooting day and Rick was preparing his last recipe, potato-chorizo tacos. He began blending tomatillos. I watched them change color and texture, and then he stopped the blender, opened it and paused. His eyes closed and he inhaled deeply, smiling as he took in the aroma.
Chefs like Rick are present. They use all of their senses: listening for when something is done; smelling when it’s time for the next step. They recognize nanomoments that call for the next decision, fleeting interludes that novices like me are likely to miss. These chefs have an innate respect and appreciation for ingredients and what they can become.
It’s inspiring to watch chefs like Rick, Nancy, Jonathan and Anita in their element. They’re like musicians. A guitar is replaced with a knife, sheet music with raw ingredients, and harmony with a final dish — an outcome of labor, love and inspiration. Reading their recipes can give a home cook incentive, but watching professional chefs in action gives a novice another dimension of inspiration. More practically, it provides the tools necessary to make an enchilada that looks, and tastes, like a Master’s enchilada.
Top photo: David Ellner. Credit: Danny Sanchez
“I grew up thinking that real families were at the kitchen table,” Alison Schneider explained to me. We were sipping tea and nibbling at the last of our lunches at a wood-plank table in Haven’s Kitchen, a year-old recreational cooking school, food boutique and event space in New York’s Greenwich Village. I glanced up. A group of cooks moved easily about the kitchen. They chatted and poked fun at one another, stopping to laugh. A handful of young women — employees every one — tapped away intently at laptops at the other end of the table. Staff hurried up and down a curved staircase, carrying bouquets of flowers and calling out to one another. It felt like we were, indeed, sitting at the nucleus of a cozy, bustling home. And that’s just the way Schneider wants it.
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Schneider grew up in New York, the only child of a mother who had adopted an anti-housework feminist ideology. But, enamored with television images of happy-go-lucky families who congregated for family meals, Schneider caught the cooking bug anyway. She taught herself by reading cookbooks (“I devour them like novels,” she told me), and by high school, she was cooking for anyone who would sit to her table.
Fast forward. Schneider, in her mid-20s, found herself working in urban development, and before long had racked up a couple of years of professional experience and become a mother of five, one who cooked dinner for her family every night.
After taking a handful of classes at the Natural Gourmet Institute, Schneider began to teach informally out of her home. “I wasn’t comfortable asking people for money. I didn’t feel qualified,” she explained. Her friends goaded her on, though, and Schneider began to contemplate pursuing a graduate degree. “I was interested in ingredients and techniques, and why people eat what they eat,” she said.
Culinary school didn’t seem right — a career as a chef didn’t seem possible with a passel of kids at home — and neither did the more policy-oriented fields of nutrition nor public health appeal to her. So in 2009, Schneider enrolled in the food studies program at New York University, taking one course at a time to accommodate her role as a parent. “I went back to school when my youngest was in nursery school, and back to work when he was in kindergarten,” she recalled, counting backward on her fingers.
The idea for Haven’s Kitchen is born
Work meant leading tours for GrowNYC, where Schneider came to intimately know the farmers and the market. She was struck by the disconnect most adults seemed to feel with the food available at the Union Square Greenmarket and began doling out her contact information to participants who wanted to learn more. She was soon overwhelmed by inquiries. “I became really interested in this gap between something that’s catching on — Michael Pollan and his call to buy local and organic— and something that’s not. Beans, grains,” Schneider explained. The need to bridge thinking about good food and cooking good food was one she didn’t see being met anywhere else.
That’s when the seed for Haven’s Kitchen was sown. “I began dreaming of a space near the market where I could have a recreational school, for people who were not going to be chefs or nutritionists, but who needed basic knife skills and the like in order to make them want to cook when they get home from work.”
In fall 2010, she began looking for a place to set up shop. At first, she only looked at kitchens, envisioning something with a “beautiful table for classes, parties and maybe a small retail space.” But when Schneider stumbled across an abandoned carriage house on West 17th Street, just a few blocks from Union Square, her vision of something that could “feel like a home” expanded to fill the space.
The building needed restructuring in addition to kitchen infrastructure. When I asked what gave her the courage to open in such a large space, in such a notoriously expensive area to boot, she chuckled. “I had to be naïve and guileless to take it on.”
Today, the space is a beautiful retreat from the city’s noise. Livable elegance was Schneider’s approach. Full of light, bright tile, framed artwork, and rustic accents, the three-story space feels more like a page out of Dwell than a sterile teaching kitchen, replete with “living rooms,” bars, cafe tables and two kitchens.
For Schneider, comfort is paramount. “There are so many people telling you what not to eat and do. Too many rules! It’s a big problem in the food movement. For me, sustainability is not a stamp, it’s about longevity. It’s about learning to shop with thought, keep your pantry stocked and use what you have.”
Today, Haven’s Kitchen is walking its walk through a number ventures. There are cooking classes taught by Schneider herself and the immensely well-credentialed kitchen staff; supper club events that feature an impressive array of guest chefs (think Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, Mark Bittman, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and the Franny’s crew); a private event space that has been host to weddings, dinner parties and corporate events; and a bustling cafe and retail store.
Since Haven’s Kitchen opened its doors in January 2012, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And though continued success isn’t guaranteed, especially in a city whose celebrity chef worship and restaurant dining culture seems contrary to encouraging home cooking, Schneider has reason to have faith. “Class attendees write daily saying they’re cooking at home, and my kids can sit at the counter and do homework after school and help in the kitchen, too,” Schneider said, beaming. “Plus, Joan Gussow has been here twice. How lucky am I to be a human being who got to meet her idol? I realized that everything I was scared of was not having that kitchen table, and I made that happen. It’s pure joy.”
Top photo: The Haven’s Kitchen staff prepares for a dinner party in the main kitchen. Credit: Sara Franklin