Articles in Cooking

The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

As New England’s maple sap started to drip in March, David Moore of The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse in Lee, N.H., counted the days until it would stop flowing. Right about the time the maples are tapped out, Moore collects a less sugary sap from slender, white paper birch trees.

Moore, one of the only known commercial birch syrup producers in New England, says his reddish-brown syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. The viscosity at room temperature is slow, albeit a bit quicker than molasses. Its unique taste makes it well suited as an ice cream topping (Moore’s favorite); a glaze, salad dressing or braising liquid ingredient; and an intriguing baked goods sweetener.

In addition to its uses in the kitchen, birch syrup has high market values that could help maple syrup producers supplement future revenue streams in a sustainable fashion, according to researchers at Cornell and the University of Vermont. Its production relies on many of the techniques currently employed in making maple syrup, and birch trees are in rather good supply in the Northeast.

Birch syrup is not entirely a novelty in North America. Native Americans for centuries used it as an anti-rheumatic. Twentieth-century Alaskans also tapped it to fill gaps in wartime sugar supplies, and birch syrup production has become a cottage industry there. Still, last year’s 5,000 gallons of domestically produced birch syrup were just a drop in the bucket compared with the 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup produced.

Chef Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet bistro in Portsmouth, N.H., says Moore’s syrup has a rich, deep and slightly resinous quality that makes it suitable as a finishing syrup and a glaze for grilled chicken or pork. Mallett’s seasonal menu features brioche Texas toast, a thick slice of house-made bread stuffed with roasted mushrooms and cheese and served with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on ears of corn) butter, candy cap mushroom oil and a few drops of birch syrup.

“I like it on pancakes too, but it’s pretty expensive to slather on,” Mallett said.

The going rate for a quart of birch syrup is $78, compared with $10 for Grade A maple syrup. The selling price is very attractive, said Moore, who last year charged $25 for 8-ounce jars and sold out by the end of May. Moore sells his product at a half dozen locations in New Hampshire and will be taking some mail orders this year if supplies last.

“Making birch syrup takes more energy than making maple syrup,” explained Moore, who collects 100 to 120 gallons of sap (he typically gets about 5 gallons a day from each of his 170 taps) to make one gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup requires only 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup.

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Birch syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Abby van den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center said the profitability of birch syrup production in the Northern Forest — the region that stretches from Maine through northern New Hampshire and Vermont into northern New York — in the past has been limited due to the fact that the low sugar content of birch sap (about 1% compared with 2% in maple) means producers need lots of evaporator fuel to concentrate the sap to syrup density.

But she argues that reverse osmosis, a process used in Alaskan birch syrup production that concentrates sugar densities (to 8% or greater) in the sap before it goes into the evaporator mitigates that hurdle. Modern sap collection techniques such as using a vacuum also help to increase the sap collection during the short three- to four-week birch sap season.

Moore has considered using reverse osmosis, but he currently processes sap in a 3- by 12-foot double-panned evaporator inside the wooden sugar shack he built himself. He uses a team of draft horses to help haul the firewood (ash, hickory, maple and oak) needed to fuel the evaporator. The new reverse osmosis machine would require him to run power to the sugarhouse. He estimates adding reverse osmosis would cost $7,000. “It could be a tough sell for me,” Moore said.

Neither van den Berg nor Michael Farrell, director of Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program’s Uihlein field station in Lake Placid, N.Y., could provide more than anecdotal evidence that maple syrup producers are clamoring to make birch syrup.

At a maple syrup taste test he conducted for maple syrup producers earlier this year, Farrell threw birch syrup into the mix. When he asked for a show of hands from those who liked the taste of New England birch syrup, not one went up. The producers then were offered a taste of birch syrup made with reverse osmosis. “Nearly everyone changed their mind,” Farrell said.

“This altered process gives birch syrup a wider range of flavor that should appeal to more people. They’ve just got to be willing to taste it,” he said.

Chewy Ginger and Birch Syrup Lumberjack Cookies

Yes, birch syrup is expensive, but it adds an interesting twist to these spicy chewy cookies that people won’t place until you tell them. Think of it as money well spent for tea time conversation.

Makes 24 cookies

Ingredients

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), room temperature

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

½ cup birch syrup

⅓ cup finely diced candied ginger (optional)

Granulated sugar for rolling

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard powder, allspice, salt and black pepper.

3. Beat butter and sugar together in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Add egg and birch syrup. Mix to combine well. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in candied ginger, if using. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.

4. Roll dough into 1½-inch balls and then roll them in the raw sugar. Arrange on the baking sheets and gently flatten them with the bottom of a flat glass. Bake until set and crinkled on top, about 12 minutes.

Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for 2 minutes and then remove them to a rack to cool completely.

Top photo: The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

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Lamb and rhubarb stew. Credit: Kristin Nicholas

The first rumblings of spring have reached the Central Atlantic. The green tips of daffodils and jonquils are pushing through the still firm soil, and in some sunny spots, snowdrops and crocus are already starting to bloom. This means that the early crops of rhubarb should be out by month’s end. Fluorescent pink stems topped with deep green, chard-like leaves will soon fill the market shelves, so it seems a good time to tell some of the Silk Road history of this amazing plant.

Genetic analysis of plant diversity tells us that rhubarb’s origins are probably on the Tibetan Plateau, but that it spread early into northwestern China and to some of the bordering areas of Central Asia and Mongolia.

The Chinese were the first to document the use rhubarb — as a medicine. The first mention of rhubarb use is in “The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica,” which is part of a Chinese oral tradition that probably reaches back to the second century B.C. In this work, rhubarb is used to treat malaria, people who have delirious speech with fever, and constipation, among many other maladies.

Trade to the West for medicinal purposes started early. In Greco-Roman culture, rhubarb was used as a general purgative, and was considered useful in combating many diseases. The Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides wrote in his first-century work, “De Materia Medica,” that rhubarb came from, “beyond the Bosporus,” in Turkey while the later Roman writer, Ammianus Marcellinus believed it to come from the “lands of the northern Caucasus near the Volga River inhabited by the Amazons” (Scythians).

Rhubarb’s long road

The reason for this confusion about the origin of rhubarb is because of the patchwork nature of trade on the Silk Road. Only rarely were shipments carried long distances by a single merchant or carrier. Most of the time, goods traded hands many times as they traversed the Old World.

As rhubarb’s reputation as a cure-all spread across continents, so the price of the root rose precipitously, until the finest quality rhubarb was more expensive than cinnamon or saffron.

It is difficult to find European references for rhubarb beyond Byzantium, but medicinal use of the stems and roots is noted by 10th-century “Arab” physicians Yahya ibn Sarafyun (Serapion the Elder) of Syria and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) of Uzbekistan.

These writers use rhubarb as a purgative, but also use it for many urinary tract diseases, and to increase the flow of semen. Interestingly, Marco Polo identified it growing in the 13th century in the mountains of Qinghai and Gansu provinces in northwestern China. So, like many other sources of knowledge that disappeared or were held close in monasteries in Europe’s Dark Ages, Levantine and Muslim scholars may have kept the study and use of medicinal rhubarb current for their times.

By the early 15th century, the vibrant trade of rhubarb from China to Uzbekistan and on to Persia on the Silk Road is documented by the Castilian ambassador to Timur’s court in Samarkand, Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo. The 16th-century Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens gives one of the first scientific descriptions of the modern age for rhubarb in his “Cruydeboeck” (“Herbal”) in 1554.

 Sweet and savory dishes with rhubarb

In the West, it is generally regarded that the first completely culinary uses of rhubarb (not as a medicinal tonic or potion) began in the late 18th and early 19th century. The earliest recipe I could find was in the 1807 edition of Maria Eliza Rundell’s “A New System of Domestic Cookery.” In the 1824 volume, Rundell has two seemingly delicious recipes for rhubarb tarts, both of which call for copious amounts of cane sugar.

That history aside, I would like to share a Silk Road recipe for rhubarb that probably predates Rundell’s by several centuries if not more. It is a traditional dish in northern Iran, near Mashad, but is also enjoyed in Turkmenistan and other parts of Central Asia where merchants helped naturalize rhubarb during the course of its transport on the Silk Road.

The recipe is for a lamb and rhubarb stew that uses rhubarb as a souring agent to complement the earthy lamb, much as sour plums or sour cherries are used in other recipes. I think that the recipe might be Central Asian in origin, because like many other Central Asian dishes, it also relies on herbs rather than spices for much of its flavor. It’s a great example of the foods that came flooding west from the various Persian conquests of the territories to its north and east, possibly during the Seljuk Dynasty.

Since rhubarb is being rediscovered as a vegetable, it is often available beyond its traditional short season, which allows this recipe to be made almost any time of the year. But with spring on the way, now is the time to make this dish to celebrate the seasonal rebirth that this time brings.

Lamb and Rhubarb Stew

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 tablespoons light sesame or peanut oil

¾ pound lamb cut into cubes

1 large onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents

3 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced

4 hot, dried, red chili peppers

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup water

1 cup beef or chicken stock (or a mixture of both)

1 to 2 teaspoons nutmeg, grated

¼ cup fresh mint, chopped (more to taste)

1 medium bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

1½ tablespoons sugar (more to taste)

3 cups fresh rhubarb, cleaned and cut into 1-inch slices (peeled if desired)

Directions

1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan and when hot, sear lamb cubes over high heat until golden brown around the edges, stirring constantly. When meat is done, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Lower heat to medium and add the onions, sautéing until they start to soften and color. Then add garlic, chili peppers, salt and pepper and stir until the garlic starts to swell and color. When garlic is done, add water and beef or chicken stock and cook to heat. When hot, add lamb back into the pot, add 1 teaspoon of the grated nutmeg to the stew. Cover and cook over medium-low or low for 1 hour, stirring occasionally, until lamb becomes tender.

3. When lamb is nearly done, add the chopped mint and stir well. Then add the cilantro and sugar and stir in as well. Cook for another 3 to 5 minutes and then add the rhubarb and cook another 3 to 5 minutes or until the rhubarb softens, but is still firm (not soggy). Remove from heat, grate the remainder of the nutmeg in and serve. This dish works best served with barley, but one can use millet or rice as well.

In addition to delicious desserts and savory stews, rhubarb is once again being used as medicine. It has joined the growing list of, “superfoods” because it is packed with vitamins C and K, is high in fiber, and contains calcium. Rhubarb extract is also being investigated as a chemotherapy agent to stop the spread of some cancers and to trigger cell death (apoptosis) in some tumors; as a cholinesterase inhibitor to help treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia disorders; as an antimicrobial drug; and as an antioxidant. The ancients knew that rhubarb was good for you, they just didn’t know why.

Top photo: Lamb and rhubarb stew. Credit: Kristin Nicholas

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Dandelion miso soup. Credit: Wendy Petty

“So, let me get this straight. You are keeping dandelions as a houseplants? Can’t you see it’s snowing outside?” My buddy aimed her attention toward the straggly weed I’d positioned near the window to catch early morning light, “Why?”

I explained that I had wanted to be like Euell Gibbons and grow my own salad greens in the middle of winter. “Ewe … who? I thought you have a black thumb.”

It’s true. I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever touched. One even died of thirst in the cruelest of places, hanging above my shower. Still, as a forager, my desire to enjoy fresh dandelion greens in the snowy months had overcome any fear of dooming another plant to die inside my home.

Gibbons is considered by most to have ushered in the modern era of foraging with his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” originally printed in 1962. I must have read Gibbons’ book a dozen times before I went to college. Still, when I opened it again last summer, the words sparkled on the page, as if I were reading them for first time.

Having stocked my pantry with wild food for many years, I’d come to take for granted the book written by the man some refer to as the grandfather of foraging. When I reread the chapter titled “A Wild Winter Garden in Your Cellar,” it felt as if I’d been given a gift.

In it, Gibbons chronicled how he grew wild vegetables indoors in winter. He used a method not dissimilar from the one some use to force bulbs such as tulips or hyacinth to grow out of season. In the fall, Gibbons dug up and potted dandelions and left them outside in the cold so they’d go dormant, then brought the pots inside his cellar to reawaken and grow tender new greens to nibble throughout the cold months.

Dandelions wintering in the garage

Facing the looming winter of the Rocky Mountains, I excitedly planned to harvest dandelions and force them to grow throughout the off-season, just as Gibbons had done. Late in October, word came that a winter storm was approaching. I went out into my yard with a bucket, dug up several dandelion plants, and placed them in my cold garage for safe keeping.

Fast forward to the beginning of February when I engaged with another snow-weary forager, bemoaning the lack of fresh greens. I dramatically complained that I’d give my left leg to taste bitter dandelion leaves. Only then, months after I’d dug them up, did I remember my plans to make dandelions dance in winter as Gibbons had done.

I rushed out to the garage, and sure enough, there was my bucket of dandelions, exactly where I’d left it the previous fall, between a stool and some rakes. The poor plants had been freeze-drying all that time, piled in the bucket without any water. I reached in, and fished around the dirt clods for a plant. My heart fell as I pulled out a hard, shriveled root.

Dandelions foraged from outdoors. Credit: Wendy Petty

Dandelions foraged from outdoors. Credit: Wendy Petty

As much as I felt like it might take an act of wizardry to revive the dandelions, I hated the thought of wasting plants more. Without much hope, I planted a few crusty taproots in a bowl, gave them some water, and tucked them into a corner of the kitchen.

I hate to admit that I once again forgot about the dandelions, which is why I nearly spilled my cup of coffee when, one morning the next week, my gaze fell upon that bowl and the tiny jagged leaves it contained. I did my best Dr. Frankenstein impression, “It’s alive!”

Filled with renewed enthusiasm for my project, I smothered my little potted dandelions with TLC. Every day, I moved them from the east window to the west, so they could catch the most sunlight. I sang to them and kissed their leaves goodnight. It was exhausting, all the effort it took to grow weeds.

After a month of babying, my dandelions had only produced a few disappointingly spindly leaves, not nearly enough to make a salad. Worse, I couldn’t bear to eat them because I had grown attached (I wasn’t kidding about the lullabies and kisses). Experiment failed.

Spring brings a new wild crop of dandelions

Let’s face it, I’m no Euell Gibbons. No doubt he was the type of guy who made his bed every day and polished his foraging boots. I, on the other hand, am famous for killing houseplants, and dug up a bucket of dandelions, only to forget them until it was nearly too late. I’ll admit to feeling a little melancholy about my dandelion misadventures.

Then one day last week, I noticed the early March sunlight had coaxed the first dandelions out of the ground. After only three days, they were larger than my dandelion houseplants had grown in a month.  I happily dug them and enjoyed my first taste of spring in the form of dandelion miso soup. In the future, I think I’ll leave the dandelion gardening in the expert hands of Mother Nature.

Dandelion Miso Soup

Serves 1

Ingredients

2 cups water

2½  tablespoons white or yellow miso

2 newly emerged dandelion plants, washed and chopped

1 tablespoon minced chives or green onion tops

Directions

1. Prepare the dandelion plants by washing them under cool running water. Chop the plants in their entirety. If they are the first of spring, the roots should be tender enough to eat. You will be able to tell because your knife will slice through them as easily as a carrot.

2. Over high heat, bring the water to a boil, add the dandelion roots, and cook for 7 minute.

3. Turn off the heat, and briskly stir in the miso until it dissolves completely into the water.

Gently fold the dandelion greens and chives into the soup, and enjoy it immediately.

Top photo: Dandelion Miso Soup. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Pumpkin and walnut borek from Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman

Most cooks acquainted with Turkish food know of borek, a dish of phyllo-like pastry leaves called yufka brushed with butter or oil, layered with meat or cheese, and baked. In Istanbul and other parts of Turkey yufka, when not made at home, is usually purchased fresh and pliable at weekly markets and from specialists called yufkaci.

A few years ago while traveling along Turkey’s central Black Sea coast I discovered yufka’s other incarnation, as a thin cracker-crisp round meant to be rehydrated — or not — before being incorporated into borek.  On the Black Sea, yufka is also rolled, sliced and dried for islama, a dish of yufka spirals topped with chicken or turkey and crushed walnuts and doused with melted butter and broth. And I found that when it comes to filling their borek, central Black Sea cooks go with the season.

Late one February, at a family-owned restaurant 25 miles inland, I feasted on zilbert boregi, a short stack of yufka sheets encasing sautéed borage. Light and crispy, its filling tasting of artichoke and asparagus with a hint of mushroom, that borek hinted at the spring that was beginning to show itself in the region’s budding fruit trees. Six months later in a town a few hours east, I feasted on borek spilling mushrooms foraged from nearby hills, their meatiness foretelling the coming winter.

A sweet deviation

But my favorite Black Sea borek is one that was made for me by Esen, a rare woman in a male-dominated trade who owns a yufka shop not far from the central Black Sea fishing town of Sinop. A short sturdy woman in her late 30s, Esen toils over her big round gas-fired griddle from the wee hours of the morning until late in the afternoon, turning out katlama (stacked yufka rounds with a slick of butter in between) and layered and rolled sweet and savory borek.

Layers of traditional borek. Credit: David Hagerman

Layers of traditional borek. Credit: David Hagerman

One morning I asked Esen what she intended to do with a big pumpkin sitting on a table near her griddle. She smiled and grabbed the pumpkin by its stem, raised it over her head and threw it on the concrete floor where it split neatly in two. After peeling and grating the vegetable she roughly chopped two handfuls of walnuts and measured out a bit of sugar. Then she laid a leaf of dried yufka on her griddle, brushed it with oil and built a borek.

Sparely sugared, it was a delightful departure from the syrup-soaked Turkish pastries I’d eaten up till then, with crunchy walnuts and crispy pastry contrasting beautifully with softened pumpkin.

Pumpkin and Walnut Borek (Kabak ve Cevizli Boregi)

Dried yufka and a hot griddle make for a crispier, lighter borek. Baking sheets and an oven work just as well and fresh phyllo sheets, fused and left to dry, are a fine substitute for dried yufka. Don’t worry if the dough tears or wrinkles as you’re making the borek; imperfections add to the charm of this rustic dish.

Plan to lay out your yufka or phyllo to dry at least six hours before assembly. Once that’s done the dish comes together quickly because the borek is baked flat, in one big piece.

Serve this dish for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. It also makes a wonderful dessert, served (untraditionally) hot from the oven with a scoop of ice cream.

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

10 sheets of phyllo

3 cups grated pumpkin or sweet squash

1½ cups chopped walnuts

4 tablespoons sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

Canola or other light cooking oil

4 tablespoons butter, melted

Directions

1. Lay a single sheet of phyllo flat on a work surface. Using a pastry brush, wet it lightly with water. Lay another sheet of phyllo on top of the wet sheet and then use a rolling pin to fuse the two together. Repeat with the remaining eight sheets of phyllo, fusing them 2-by-2 to make five thick sheets in total. Transfer all to cookie sheets or paper towels and leave uncovered in an airy room to dry for at least six hours or as long as overnight.

2. Once the pastry is dry, place the pumpkin, walnut, sugar and salt in a medium bowl and mix with a fork or your fingers.

3. To assemble the borek, lightly oil a cookie sheet large enough to accommodate the yufka or phyllo (at least 15 by 10 inches). Place one sheet of pastry on the cookie sheet (if the pastry hangs over the sides of the cookie sheet just fold the excess inward) and lightly brush it with butter.

4. Sprinkle one quarter of the filling over the buttered pastry — it will not cover the phyllo completely. Place another pastry sheet on top of the pumpkin-walnut filling, pressing it lightly onto the filling with your palms (don’t worry if it cracks a bit). Butter that pastry sheet too. Top with one quarter of the filling, and repeat until all of the filling and pastry is used up. Brush the top piece of pastry with butter.

5. Bake the borek in a 350 F oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the top is showing splotches of golden brown (if your oven is small reverse the position of the cookie sheet halfway through).

6. While the borek is baking, lightly oil another cookie sheet. Remove the borek from the oven and place the second oiled cookie sheet upside down over its top. Squeezing the two cookie sheets together, flip the borek, carefully remove the first cookie sheet, and return it to the oven to bake another 12 to 15 minutes, or until nicely browned.

7. Cut the borek into 6 or 8 squares and serve hot or at room temperature.

Top photo: Pumpkin and walnut borek from Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman

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Pasta (pennucce) with broccoli rabe and garlic-anchovy-chili sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: If you’ve spent this apparently endless winter as I have, in the icy-cold, snow-raddled Northeastern U.S., you are by now, like me, longing for a bit of sunshine, a sprinkle of warm weather, a hint that spring is just around the next bend. But with yet another big snowstorm predicted to hit by midweek, I’m still counting on trustworthy brassicas to liven my table until the first asparagus starts to sprout.

AolivesAnd trustworthy those brassicas, aka cruciferous vegetables, are. (Why cruciferous? Before the flower opens, the four closed petals form a little cross atop the bud.) By any name, his big family covers an ample range of members, including, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, turnips, wasabi and even radishes. All, without exception, are huge nutritional powerhouses, sources of important phytochemicals (plant-based, naturally occurring chemicals), especially of various carotenoid and sulfur-containing compounds that may be important cancer fighters. This is nutrition-speak for saying, yes, they are very, very good for you! You can taste it in their characteristic spicy pungency.

They are also, when properly prepared, incredibly delicious — though you wouldn’t think so from generations of picky eaters, including at least one president of the United States, who have turned up their noses, and rightly so, at the sulfurous aromas of overcooked broccoli and cabbage, evocative of nothing so much as boardinghouse (or boarding school) kitchens.

Brassica vegetables perfectly suited to Mediterranean cooking

But believe me, it takes no great cooking skills to bring these vegetables to their full glory. In fact, several family members (like radishes) benefit from little or no cooking at all. And Brussels sprouts, shaved on the blade of a mandolin (or, to save your fingers, in a food processor), can be tossed with a very simple dressing made from olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of lemon zest, a little spoonful of mustard and a big spoonful of Greek yogurt all mixed together then poured over the sprouts. Leave them to tenderize in the dressing for half an hour before serving, and, if you want a more substantial salad, mix in a chopped hard-boiled egg or two.

Brussels sprouts aren’t actually well known in the Mediterranean, but they should be because they grow well in the cold but not bitter winters that characterize much of the region. Even if not particularly identified with the Mediterranean, they still benefit from a Med treatment in the kitchen: oven-roasting, for instance. Stir halved sprouts with a chopped clove of garlic, maybe a little chopped onion, some slivers of thick-sliced pancetta or country ham, a couple of glugs of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper, then spread them in a baking dish and set them in a hot oven (400 F) for about 20 minutes, stirring them up a couple of times, until the sprouts are crisp and brown on top and tender but not falling apart.

My all-time favorite member of this vast family, however, is totally Mediterranean, so much so that it was unknown in the United States except to Italian-American gardeners until just a few decades ago. That’s the vegetable known here as broccoli rabe or broccoli raab or rapini — all names that betray its origin in Italian market gardens, where it has long been a winter staple And my favorite way of cooking this delight goes back a long time to when I lived in Rome in the late 1970s and a tiny restaurant in the tiny Piazza Montevecchio offered orecchiette alla barese. Orecchiette are a famous Pugliese pasta — shaped like little ears, which is what orecchiette means. In the town of Bari, Italy, it’s traditionally served with this stupendous steamed broccoli rabe, the whole thing dressed with a mini-sauce of garlic, anchovies and crushed dried chili peppers steeped in hot olive oil.

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Broccoli rabe fresh at the market. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

I’ve made this dish for years — to me it’s the absolute quintessence of the Mediterranean eating, pasta, garlic and good oil with a terrific pungent green, totally vegetarian except for the anchovies (and if you leave them out, you’ll have to add more salt), totally healthful, quick and easy and loved by almost everyone who samples it.

When I made this for Sunday supper, I didn’t happen to have any orecchiette on hand, so I used the whole-wheat pennucce, which look like short, lightly ridged penne, from Benedetto Cavaglieri. That pasta-maker’s wares are available from Williams-Sonoma and a few other online providers. You could also use farfalle, conchiglie or fusilli.

Orecchiette alla Barese

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

2 bunches broccoli rabe (aka rapini), weighing 1 pound each

Sea salt

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

6 anchovy fillets, chopped, or cut to your size preference

1 small dried hot red chili, crumbled, or hot red pepper flakes to taste

1 pound orecchiette or similar pasta

Directions

1. Clean the broccoli rabe, discarding any wilted or yellowing leaves along with the tough part of the stems. Chop the broccoli rabe in pieces about 1 inch long. Rinse thoroughly and set aside.

2. In a large pasta kettle, bring about 4 cups of water to a rolling boil and add a generous spoonful of salt.

3. While the water is coming to a boil, start the garlic-anchovy sauce by adding the chopped garlic to the olive oil in a small saucepan. Cook over gentle heat just until the garlic bits are soft.

4. Stir in the anchovy pieces and use a fork to crush and mash them into the hot oil.

5. Add the chili pepper and stir. If the pasta is not yet ready, remove from the heat — but heat it again just to the sizzling point before pouring it over the pasta (see below).

6. Tip the pasta into the rapidly boiling water, stir with a long-handled spoon, and cover the pot. As soon as the water boils again, remove the lid and cook — orecchiette will take 12 to 15 minutes to become al dente.

7. Halfway through the cooking time, add the broccoli rabe to the pasta and stir to mix well. Continue cooking until the pasta is done — the broccoli rabe should cook just 5 to 6 minutes, so if you’re using something other than orecchiette, time it according to the package directions.

8. Have ready a warm serving bowl. Heat the olive oil sauce to sizzling if it has been removed from heat.

9. When the pasta is done, but still a bit al dente, drain the pasta and greens and turn them immediately into the warmed serving bowl. Stir to distribute the greens throughout the pasta, then dribble the hot garlic-anchovy-chili oil over the top. Toss again, adding a little more olive oil if you wish, then add a generous amount of ground pepper. Serve immediately.

(Note: Grated cheese is not appropriate with this pasta.)

Top photo: Pasta (pennucce) with broccoli rabe and garlic-anchovy-chili sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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The Irati tapas bar in Barcelona. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

During a recent dinner party I found myself making a distinction between ingredient-driven cooking and culture-driven cooking and explaining that I believe the best cooking is culture-driven. Here’s what I mean by that.

When a cook is inspired to a manner of cooking derived from a particular culture, their creation respects that culture. They are cooking in a culture-driven mode whether the dish cooked is an old standard or a new recipe. The inspiration keeps the newly created or inspired dish true to the heart and soul of that particular cuisine.

Ingredient-driven cooking, on the other hand, is all too often the fetishization of a food incorporated into a cooking that lacks the very soul that we want to taste. Ingredient-driven cooking is enamored with the food rather than the culture of the cook or cuisine.

Culture should trump fashion

As consumers and cooks we confront a barrage of the latest “hot” ingredients, methods and prepared dishes. Food marketers, restaurant chefs, bloggers and food magazine editors contribute to this onslaught of looking for the next hot thing. It might be a food promoted for its trendy ingredients, such as açai berry or a new kind of grain such as quinoa, or a resurrected vegetable such as kale, or a method such as sous-vide or a whole category such as tapas or sushi.

Twenty-years ago, fresh pasta became more desirable and fashionable than dried pasta, its proponents seemingly ignorant over the uses of both in Italian cooking. They were ingredient-driven, not culture-driven.

Tapas is a good place to start to talk about this distinction because in America tapas have no other meaning than “appetizers on little plates that we will call tapas.” But tapas are a category of not merely foods, but of a way of eating, and not just in Spain, but historically and specifically, in Andalusia. A tapa in Spain is not an appetizer. It is much more, it is part of a culture.

Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t invent new things, new categories, but let us respect the culture from which new culinary gifts came. Let’s be gracious and learn about this culinary culture. It will help us cook better. After all, hundreds of years of development of the tapas bar in Andalusia will provide more foundation to our culinary thinking than the 10 years the word has been popular in the United States.

Look past the hot ingredients

I’ve looked at restaurant menus of Mediterranean-inspired restaurants and I see a variety of well-known meze under a category heading called “tapas.”  Hummus is not tapa, it’s a meze. They are not similar because they are little foods on small plates. That’s not what is germane about these foods. What’s germane is that they come from and are eaten within a particular culinary culture and that they function in a particular way.  As an aside, “hummus” does not mean “dip” it means “chickpea” and the meze you eat when you eat hummus is hummus bi’l-tahina, chickpeas with sesame seed paste.

That might seem a minor issue, but it’s essential to what I’m saying. In America, it seems the fetishization of food is in full throttle. Americans celebrate ingredients totally devoid of their cultural and emotional context.

In America, we eat sushi, presented as raw fish, and rarely as Japanese food. Restaurants serve tapas, little foods (growing bigger all the time in America) on little plates, and not a cultural heritage of Andalusia. Imagine looking at a Vermeer painting and admiring the frame and not the tilt of the maid’s head, the pouring of the milk, or the light from the window. This is what ingredient-driven cooking is like.

Now this does not mean we should not be concerned with ingredients. However, when the ingredient drives our cooking over and above the culinary context, it becomes a fetish. Do we want to cook and eat saumon à l’unilateral because of omega-3 or because of the French technique of cooking on one-side-only, skin-side-down, in a covered pan over high heat that creates an extraordinarily delicious and easy-to-prepare dish that has been popular with French families for generations?

Similarly, consider the fashion of heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes can be wonderful, but it isn’t the heirloom quality that makes them wonderful. It’s where they are grown and how they are grown that make them wonderful. However, one does not buy $5-a-pound heirloom tomatoes simply to make a tomato sauce. What I’m suggesting is that you buy tomatoes best suited for the preparation you are making and not what other people say, i.e. fashion.

We don’t cook in a vacuum. We cook because we live and breathe a culture that provides an ineluctable connection and foundation to who we are.

Top photo: The Irati tapas bar in Barcelona. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Fudge bottom pie. Credit: Barbara Haber

We are frequently reminded that food prompts memory, a recognition that has led to the flourishing of food memoirs, a literary genre that has taken off in recent years. Many writers are inspired by Marcel Proust’s description of nibbling on a petite Madeleine only to be flooded by memories that resulted in the thousands of pages that make up “Remembrance of Things Past.”

Other good writers, M.F.K. Fisher especially, have constructed narratives around recalling a precise food moment in their lives. I am taken with Fisher’s description of the tangerines she left for hours on a radiator on a severely cold day in France. She tells us that “on the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.” Fisher’s ability to capture sensuality in spare prose is what I like best about her writing.

Powerful childhood food memories

As for me, I have no plans to write a full-length food memoir because I am conscious of the “so what” factor when I read some of these books, a sinking feeling that what a writer finds endlessly fascinating about her own life may be tedious reading for others. But I cannot help but indulge myself just a little by describing a few of my food memories that have been lasting points of reference in my life.

For instance, when I look at a tall glass of newly poured milk I am brought back to my childhood and my older brother who tormented me with constant teasing. When we sat around the dinner table, he would quietly mutter taunts that he knew only I could hear.

One day, when he leaned toward me to whisper something insulting, I reached for the tall glass of milk our mother had just poured and threw all of it into his face. I hung around long enough to see his expression change from an evil glint to horrified shock, and then ran for my life into the bathroom where I locked the door and waited for everyone to calm down.

Another recollection from my youth has to do with being present at a post-funeral gathering. The departed was an elderly distant relative I had never met and I didn’t know most of the people who came to pay their respects. Many arrived with boxes of candy, and I positioned myself at the door to take their coats, graciously accept the candy and then head for the bedroom where I dumped the coats and opened each candy box to select and devour my favorite pieces.

Happily, not all of my food memories involve childish bad behavior. I am touched by remembering how my mother, who hated the smell of cooking fish, figured out a comfortable way to cook and serve one of my father’s favorite fish dishes. She would go to our backyard patio with her ingredients and an electric pot, then assemble the dish, set it to cook, and flee back inside, entirely escaping all cooking smells. The only drawback was that the dish appeared only in the warmer months because my mother was not inclined to brave Wisconsin winters to cook for the man she loved.

College love and fudge bottom pie

Another memory that has me in its grasp is about a pie I used to eat during my college years. I attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and regularly took my meals at the student union cafeteria. This being a dairy state and a campus with a large agricultural component, the food was fresh, cheap and good. Best of all, the union was and still is a central meeting place where students from its disparate colleges would gather to rendezvous and meet new people.

Every now and then the cafeteria would serve fudge bottom pie, an iconic dish with a huge fan base, and I was undoubtedly its biggest admirer. The bottom of the pie is a graham cracker crumb crust that is covered with a thick coating of chocolate — not too hard and not too soft — and over this a custard filling that is the largest component of the pie. This custard is neither stiff and solid nor runny and gloppy. It must be just right. And the top of the pie is spread with a thin layer of sweetened whipped cream and flourished with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings.

Years after college, I tried to create this pie at home, but could never get any of my attempts to taste as good as I had remembered. I finally stopped trying when I realized that the meaning of this pie is as much about my blissful undergraduate years as it is about something good to eat. I came to realize that fudge bottom pie was a symbol of carefree youth, the excitement of meeting new people, and falling in love for the first time when a slice of that pie was shared with someone special.

I now realize that fudge bottom pie is my Proustian moment, my petite Madeleine, but with a twist. I have to only think about it, not eat it, and I am flooded with memories of my college years when life was uncomplicated, carefree and full of adventure.

Top photo Fudge bottom pie. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol, and above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

Nothing gives a cocktail a kick quite like bitters. Whether it’s an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail, those quick dashes from a paper-wrapped bottle turn simple alcohol into something mysterious, tangy and alluring. There are big-name bitters — Angostura and Peychauds — with secret recipes and exotic back stories. At some hipster cocktail bars, you will find mixologists with steam-punk facial hair who have whipped-up their own concoctions of bitters that are just as mysterious and secret.

But if I’m going to use bitters when sharing an Old Fashioned with my husband, I’m going to want to make my own. And that required some research.

It turns out that bitters have a long and distinguished history, a history that stretches back before the invention of distilled spirits. The angostura bitters that you find at supermarkets and liquor stores began life not as a cocktail mixer, but as a medicine.

The bitters recipe created by Dr. Johann Siegert in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in the 1820s was meant as a digestive aid for the troops of Simon Bolivar. Folk medicine has long held that a bitter taste helps digestion. For centuries, herbalists and self-taught doctors have known that healing plants can be preserved if saved in tincture form. And a tincture is simply an herb that has been left in alcohol long enough.

I dove into online research with gusto, discovering the high-alcohol patent medicines of the 19th  century colonial era, and even some stretching back to medieval medical writers such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. But these historic recipes were extensive and required access to some bizarre herbs. Even a fairly modern recipe reverse-engineered from the Angostura original required roots and seeds that I wouldn’t find at my local grocery store.

Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.

Dash Bitters is the brainchild of Gina and Brian Hutchinson, a husband-and-wife team of DIY cocktail mavens who ran into the same problem I had.

“We found lots of old recipes online from small-town pharmacies,” Gina told me, “but when we tried to order the ingredients, we could only order in big bulk batches.” Herbs like gentian root, wormwood and burdock could only be ordered by the pound.

“You only need a teaspoon of gentian root for bitters,” Gina said, “A pound is more than any person will need in their entire lifetime. It would have been nice to have just bought a kit and not have to pay for shipping of each five times over.” That was their brainstorm. Dash Bitters was born.

Making bitters at home

I immediately went to dashbitters.com and ordered the 1889 kit, meant to reproduce the Angosturian digestive aid for Simon Bolivar’s troops. Dash’s packaging is simple and elegant, but the herbal ingredients were the real revelation: pungent, beautiful, each with their own stories that stretched back to the era when medicine and magic were nearly identical.

Gentian Root,  the star ingredient,  actually has medical value as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. But in 1653 British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that gentian “comforts the heart and preserves it against faintings and swoonings: the powder of the dry roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.” That makes for a powerful Manhattan.

The Dash kit also contains a redolent packet of cardamom. Its sweetness is a nice balance to the bitterness of gentian, and Bolivar’s army would have found it useful because it’s a proven aid for heartburn and gastric complaints.

The most interesting of the herbs to me were the round peppery seeds called grains of paradise. This West African spice was first discovered by Europeans during the Renaissance. My research took me away from the Internet and into the real world, where I had the pleasure of visiting the extraordinary collection of medieval texts of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. Its scientific director, Alain Touwaide, showed me reproductions of historic texts and illustrations of Grains of Paradise, which he told me was more popular than black pepper in 14th-century France, and three times more expensive.

According to Touwaide’s copy of the “Tractatus de Herbis,” the spice’s pungent flavor was said to have the properties of “warming, drying and giving ease.” In “The Boke of Nurture,” John Russell described Grains of Paradise as provoking “hot and moist humors,” and apparently, that was medieval code for “aphrodisiac.” Oddly enough, a 2002 medical study showed that extracts of Grains of Paradise “significantly increased” the sexual activity of lab rats.

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Dog bite treatment, gastric cure, aphrodisiac … you can see why bitters quickly migrated from the medicine chest to the cocktail bar.

Extracting the essence of these magical herbs is not a short process, and I felt like a medieval alchemist as I boiled, strained and transferred the herbal concoction from one tincture jar to another. Three weeks later, I had my own small jar of pungent, aromatic bitters, ready for its first introduction to some locally-made bourbon and a bit of sugar.

But I discovered one other interesting fact about making bitters that Gina had warned me about.  Even a small kit gives you a lot more bitters than you’ll use on your own. The solution: cooking with bitters!

So as you sip your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, you can use the rest of your alchemical digestive aid on a batch of chocolate cookie sandwiches with cherry walnut bitters frosting. It’s for your health, after all.

Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting

(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)

Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies

Ingredients

1½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt for cookies, plus an additional pinch for frosting
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup arrowroot powder
⅛ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup grapeseed oil
⅓ cup agave nectar
⅔ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon Cherry Walnut Bitters
1½ to 1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix almond flour, salt, baking soda, arrowroot powder and cocoa powder.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil, agave nectar and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

4. With a teaspoon, scoop the dough one teaspoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least two inches between each cookie. The dough will spread.

5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look dry and the color darkens.

6. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes while you make the frosting.

7. Beat together cream cheese and butter on medium speed until mixture is fluffy, about one minute. Scrape down bowl with a spatula. Add cherry walnut bitters and salt. Mix on low for another minute.

8. With the mixer on low, slowly add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar; beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl. If consistency is too soft to hold its shape, add additional confectioners’ sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Frosting can be kept refrigerated, in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed on the surface, for several days.

Top photo: Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol and, above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

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