Articles in Cooking

Baby babka bites are a new twist on fruit-filled babka -- perfect for brunch, breakfast or lunch. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen

Tu B’Shvat, Jewish Arbor Day, is a patch of green in the chilly winter ennui. This year, the holiday falls on Feb. 3, and is a celebration of the gifts of trees — and if you consider Kabbalistic interpretations, ever-renewing life.

One of the four renewal or “new years” of the Jewish tradition, Tu B’Shvat (literally “the 15th day of the month of Shvat”) marks the date from which biblical agricultural tithing, both for the priestly classes as well as to the needy, was traditionally tallied. Giving is still integral to the holiday and in 20th-century America that took on new meaning. Families added money to their pushke, the pale blue metal charity box, earmarked for planting trees in Israel.

But the holiday’s roots run deeper than collecting money to plant trees. For centuries, Tu B’Shvat’s renewal is personal as well as environmental: The fruits are symbolic for reaching higher levels on the tree of knowledge.

The traditional food is fruit

When I taught Hebrew school, I told my youngest charges that the holiday is the birthday for trees and taught them “Oh, Beautiful” instead of liturgical songs. I brought in dried fruits, the most traditional Ashkenazi treat.

A few tentatively tasted the dried tart apricots, peaches, and apples. They couldn’t have been less happy looking at a prune, no matter how many times I explained that it was a just plum. My own children were a bit more open to the fruits, but then again, they’ve always eaten from my kitchen.

Later, after a tour in culinary school, I taught adults and teens, and I upped the ante, handing out chocolate-dipped glaceed fruits, fruit gel treats — and baby babka bites studded with modern dried fruits like strawberries and tart cherries, and bursting with cardamom, cinnamon and anise.

It was an unmitigated success, and I now make baby babka bites for the holiday every year.

Deeper meanings of fruits

Many Jewish holidays foods have distinct symbolic value. The Kabbalists imbued fruit with deeper meanings on Tu B’shvat that remain today.

The expulsions of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the end of the 15th century disbursed a large, vibrant, intellectual community. This was long before the orthodox, conservative or reform movements and even Hassidism with its mystical elements, had taken root. The expelled Iberian Jews carried their Middle Age mysticism with them as they settled around the globe, but particularly in Sefad (Tsaft) in Ottoman Palestine/Israel, which became the seat of the movement.

That mysticism, or Kabbalistic thought, is the study of the infinite and the finite (or mortal). It delves beyond apparent meanings, past simple allegories and rules and searches for secret hidden connections, and is often diagrammed as the tree of knowledge, with branches to climb to reach spiritual higher orders.

The tree and its fruits are the overarching metaphor used to elucidate the nexus of the spiritual and physical worlds. It is not surprising then that the 16th century’s leading Kabbalistic sage, teacher and mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, sought greater meaning than simply enjoying fruits for Tu B’Shvat. To celebrate the holiday, a Seder service was created that focuses on renewal and personal growth, and assigned symbolic value to fruits.

Tu B’shvat Seders and other modern celebrations

Today, it is common to see Kabbala-inspired Tu B’Shvat seders held as a women’s Seder, often vegan or vegetarian – where notions of fertility, renewal and life cycles are discussed in depth. For those who do not participate in a formal seder, this holiday is an opportunity to focus on the environmental component of the day and renew their pledge for composting and planting. Jewish Food scholar Joan Nathan takes the opportunity to teach children about sustainability and food traditions on Tu B’Shvat.

Judaism, in practice and theology, has always been affected by the world around it. What I do has evolved too. Although highly specific cooked food traditions for Tu B’Shvat are rare ­ — there is no matzo ball or cheese blintzes — fruit is always on the table, Seder or not.

I do what I do every day on Tu B’shvat — I cook, write and teach. But I also donate to shelters and food banks as my green-tinged celebration. The benefit of the celebrations is spiritual nourishment. That is the gift I receive. And I give back, just like the song I taught, from “tree to shining tree.”

Main photo: Baby babka bites are a new twist on fruit-filled babka — perfect for brunch, breakfast or lunch. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen

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Main photo: Cooked nabemono ingredients. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

After graduating from university, I got a secretarial job in a Tokyo office. Among the many tasks to which I was assigned, including the ridiculous role of serving cups of tea to company guests and my male office colleagues, there was one that I loved to perform every time: finding the best hot pot (nabemono) restaurant for our office New Year’s party. I was always hungry for good food, and the search — long before the Internet — was an interesting and challenging assignment.

Nabemono is a dish in which many varieties of very fresh raw or partially prepared ingredients are cooked in a large pot over a tabletop gas burner at the dining table. The dish is consumed throughout all seasons, but winter is the best time because the dish warms up your entire body.

Unlike most Japanese meals, for which all of the prepared foods are served in individual small plates, empty serving bowls for nabemono are placed in front of each diner. Nabemono dining is a communal affair with the large cooking pot at the center of the table shared among the diners. At the yearly party everyone, even some of my male colleagues who would never dream of setting foot in a kitchen, helped cook the dish at the table while sipping beer or sake. The animated conversation ranged from how to cook the ingredients correctly to critiques of recent ball games. When the food is cooked, each diner carefully fetches the very hot items from the pot, transferring them into their own small bowl. There is often dipping sauce for each diner in small cups. The cooking is done in several batches. After the first batch is cooked and consumed, a second batch of ingredients is added to the pot. This repeated process continues until all is consumed. It’s a body and spirit warming, fun meal.

There are more than a hundred nabemono dishes across Japan, many of regional origin that make use of local ingredients. Some of the popular ones that Americans may recognize include shabu shabu (paper thin sliced beef cooked along with vegetables in kelp stock and served with flavored sauce) and sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef cooked in sweetened soy sauce along with vegetables). Other popular nabemono dishes employ tofu, shelled oysters, chicken, pork, assorted seafood, duck or vegetables.

One attribute common to all nabemono dishes is that they’re filled with plenty of vegetables, typically about 50% protein and 50% vegetables. Nabemono dishes, therefore, are a wonderful way to enjoy more vegetables in your diet. If you wish, a 100% vegetarian or vegan nabemono can be quite good, but I always like to include some protein in my nabemono to make the meal more satisfying in flavor and more balanced nutritionally.

The nabemono dining style originated in rural Japan, particularly the cold north. A large house, typically, was occupied by three or four generations of family members and equipped with an irori hearth at its center. This hearth was large enough so that all family members could sit around the fire for meals and warmth. A long iron pole with a hooked end was hung from the ceiling over the hearth and the hook held a large iron cooking pot that was placed directly over the fire. Meals were cooked in this one pot and shared by all.

However, building an irori hearth in a modern urban house with a single-generation family is not at all practical. In 1969, Iwatani Company invented a table top butane gas burner, thereby allowing Japanese family to enjoy nabemono anytime, anyplace. A slightly improved version of that tabletop gas burner is still in production, and is a very convenient piece of equipment even in American kitchen. I highly recommend that you get one (or even and electric or induction version) and start making nabemono and other tabletop fare at your home.

One special joy of nabemono dining comes at the very end of the meal, when the ingredients have all been cooked. You’ll find a highly flavored, concentrated sauce on the bottom of the pot that is perfect to mix with cooked rice for a very special dish. We add the cooked rice and some water, if necessary, and cook it until each grain of rice absorbs the full flavor of the sauce and is well heated. The rice is wonderfully delicious as is, or you can break one or two eggs into the pot, break the yolks, stir with the rice and cook until the eggs are barely done.

Stovetop Sukiyaki

Here is a sukiyaki recipe adopted from Hiroko’s American Kitchen (page 161). I created this recipe so that you can enjoy the traditional full flavor of sukiyaki meal without getting any special tools or ingredients such as table top gas burner and thinly sliced meat. This recipe also has three times more vegetables than meat. You will prepare this sukiyaki meal in a skillet in the kitchen and serve it at the table.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: Four servings

Ingredients

6 large cremini mushrooms

2 ounces carrot

6 ounces cabbage

10 ounces purple potato

2 ounces red bell pepper

2 ounces orange bell pepper

7 ounces red Swiss chard

2 boned short-rib (1 pound)

8 cipollini onions, peeled

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons butter

4 to 6 tablespoons shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)

1/2 cup sake

1/2 cup water

Directions

1. Cut each mushroom in quarters. Cut the carrot, cabbage, purple potato, red bell pepper and orange bell pepper into bite sized pieces. Cut the Swiss chard into half lengthwise in the center along the stem, and then, into 2-inch thick slices crosswise. Cut each short-rib into about 10 thin slices (about 2-inch x 2-inch square).

2. Place the potato and cipollini onion in a large pot with cold water to cover over high heat, bring it to a simmer, and cook about 7 minutes. After cooking the potato and cipollini for 7 minutes add the carrot, cabbage and bell peppers to the pot. Cook the vegetables for 3 more minutes. Drain all of the cooked vegetables in a strainer and air dry.

3. Season the beef with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat and sprinkle half of the sugar over the butter. Add the beef, sprinkle the remaining sugar over the beef, and cook the beef until both sides are golden, or for about 5 to 6 minutes total. Transfer the beef to a platter.

4. In a small saucepan add the sake and shoyu and cook it over high heat until the volume reduces to half. Turn off the heat.

5. Add the mushrooms, stem part of the Swiss chard and drained vegetables to the skillet. Cook the vegetables until the surfaces of each vegetable are lightly golden, or for about 3-4 minutes. Turn the vegetables once over for even browning. Turn off the heat.

6. Push the vegetables to one side of the skillet and return the beef to the skillet. Pour the reduced sake and shoyu over the beef and vegetables and turn on the heat to medium-high heat. Add the leafy part of the Swiss chard to the skillet and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, frequently basting the beef and vegetables with the sauce.

7. Divide the vegetables and beef among deep bowls and serve.

Main photo: Cooked nabemono ingredients. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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The author would rescue these well-loved kitchen tools in a fire. Credit: Tina Caputo

As a food writer and obsessive home cook, I own an array of kitchen tools and gadgets that, in the eyes of some people, may qualify me as a hoarder. I have devices created specifically for removing the pits from mangoes, picking up and serving stalks of asparagus — only asparagus! — and stamping out perfect ravioli one at a time.

I scored my most recent acquisitions as part of my quest to make authentic Detroit-style pizza in my California kitchen. These items included a specialized square pan, a plastic lid to cover the pan while the dough is proofing, two pizza stones (you need two to simulate the deck ovens used by Detroit pizza cooks) and a cutter designed for square pizzas. My husband said I was insane.

Although his comment seemed a bit unfair — I didn’t hear him complaining of my madness while he was inhaling the delicious pizza I created with my new tools — it did get me thinking. How much of this stuff do I really need? If our kitchen was on fire and I could rescue only a few items, which ones would they be? I ended up with seven, in no particular order:

Microplane grater/zester. Why did it take so long for someone to invent a tool that can make quick work of a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, zest an orange in minutes flat and easily transform a hunk of ginger into a finely grated mound, all without grating your knuckles in the process? $10 well spent!

Chef’s knife. I have a block full of knives of different sizes, weights and serrations, but the one I almost always reach for is a classic chef’s knife. When I bought it, it pained me to have to fork over $100 for a single knife, but it’s proved itself worthy of the investment in its usefulness and longevity. Here’s my justification: I use my chef’s knife at least three times a week, and I’ve had it for eight years. That means I’ve used it 1,248 times, at a per-use price of only 8 cents. A bargain!

Immersion/stick blender. Before this small appliance came into my life, I wasted untold hours ladling tomato sauce and soups into a blender, in several batches, just to puree them into the desired smoothness. Now I just stick this clever device straight into the pot and blend soups and sauces into submission — no time wasted, no messy clean-up. Blender, who?

Stand mixer. When I was in my 20s my mom gave me a KitchenAid stand mixer for Christmas. As a single girl with no roommates, I wondered what I would do with such a grown-up appliance. As it turned out I found plenty of things to do with it, from whipping up mom’s recipe for buttercream frosting to rolling out and cutting fresh pasta dough (using the mixer’s pasta-making attachment) to mixing up Detroit-style pizza dough.

Pressure cooker. I own both a pressure cooker and a slow cooker/crock pot, and I’d let the crock pot burn in my theoretical kitchen fire every time. Although it may sound effortless to throw a few ingredients into a crock pot, plug it in and have a succulent dinner waiting six hours later, the reality is far more labor intensive. Before those ingredients go into the pot there are vegetables to chop and meat to brown, and there is no way I’m doing all that at 6 a.m. before work. Using a pressure cooker, a beef stew that would have taken all day to simmer in a crock pot is ready (and equally delicious) in less than an hour.

Enameled cast iron Dutch oven. There is a time and place for taking it slow, and this pot is the ideal vessel for doing just that. Cast iron has excellent heat distribution and retention, which makes it better than stainless steel for cooking long-simmering soups and marinara sauces. I wouldn’t cook my spaghetti sauce in anything else. As a bonus, the enamel coating means there’s no need to season the pot, and it’s super easy to clean.

A kitchen calculator makes it easy to customize recipes to feed fewer people. Credit:Tina Caputo

A kitchen calculator makes it easy to customize recipes to feed fewer people. Credit: Tina Caputo

Kitchen calculator. Want to cut a recipe down by half or a third, but don’t know how many tablespoons are in 1/8 cup? Need to quickly convert tablespoons to teaspoons or liquid cups to dry cups? Presto! This little calculator does it all. Sure, there’s probably an app for that, but I’d rather spill chicken broth on a sturdy $30 gadget than a $600 tablet.

Sadly, my new pizza slicer didn’t make the cut.

Main photo: The author would rescue these well-loved kitchen tools in a fire. Credit: Tina Caputo

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Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac is local lemon for foragers who live in places where there’s no chance of plucking one from a tree. When picked at peak ripeness, but before rain can wash off its tart coating of edible acids, sumac is just as pucker-worthy as any children’s sour candy. That tart flavor of sumac is a valuable part of my wild edible spice rack, and I turn to it often. The other great advantage of sumac is that it stores very well if kept cool and dry.

I was reminded of this as I stood and surveyed my pantry. At mid-winter in the Rockies, a forager can sometimes have a hard time finding enough activities to satisfy the urge to wildcraft. One can only spend so much time looking for tiny leaves of green beneath the leaf duff and snow, and sampling fermented-on-the-tree crab apples.

In the darkest months of the off-season, my larder offers up opportunities to work with the wild foods I adore. I spend much of the summer putting up as many wild foods as I can manage, in all forms – frozen, pickled, canned and dried. Seeing my shelves lined with these gorgeous preserves, I get the same feeling that some must get when gazing upon jewels, or the proverbial kid in a candy store. Recently, it was my tin full of red sumac that beckoned to me.

Though every forager I know, and many people who belonged to outdoor-based clubs as kids, has tried the sumac version of lemonade, sumac is probably best known as being a key component in za’atar spice blend, appearing along with herbs, sesame seeds and salt.

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

I often sprinkle ground sumac into recipes, savory and sweet, to add a little zip of brightness. Standing in my pantry looking at my tin of foraged sumac, I suddenly had a strong memory of a time in my childhood when it seemed every dish was seasoned with lemon pepper, and knew this would be an ideal place to substitute sumac.

I had thought that lemon pepper was a relic of the past, but a quick survey of my friends quickly revealed that many still use it frequently. I wasted no time in blending a batch of sumac pepper. Not only was it pretty to look at, it was seriously tart, without the aid of the citric acid that it used in many commercial lemon pepper blends. After a few days of testing, I found that sumac pepper was good in all the places you’d expect lemon pepper to excel. Sumac pepper can be sprinkled atop fish, meats, vegetables, and even breads and rice. My favorite place to use sumac pepper is atop fresh warm buttered popcorn.

If you would like to pick your own sumac but worried about confusing it with poison sumac, let me reassure you they are very easy to tell apart. Poison sumac has white berries, whereas all of the edible sumacs have red berry clusters. Sumac berries can be hairy or smooth, depending upon the species.

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac grows as a shrub with leaflets that are pinnately compound, which is to say that they are arranged somewhat like a feather, and the berry clusters grow in dense spikes at the end of branches. If you’ve not seen sumac growing before, you might hear the word berry and think of a juicy strawberry. But all the flavor of sumac is on the outside of its small dry berries. This is why the flavor of sumac is greatly diminished after rain or snow.

At peak ripeness, which is usually late summer in my area, I harvest a big basket full of sumac. I simply pack my sumac into a tin, and it keeps quite well. I’m usually able to use it right up through harvest time the following year. Though, one time, it did develop a rancid oil smell after a year.

There is one caution with sumac. It is related to mangoes and cashews, so anyone with strong allergies to those foods should also avoid sumac.

The following recipe calls for ground sumac. Often, the whole berries are ground up and used. I find the central seed of the berry to be unpleasantly hard, even when ground. The seeds can also lend a tannic astringency to recipes. So, I strip my sumac from the branches, and grind the berries in a molcajete. You could also pulse the berries in a spice grinder. Next, shake the ground berries through a sieve. This produces a pink fluff of sumac that is ready to be used in recipes.

Sumac Pepper Blend

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1/3 cup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons ground sumac

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon salt (optional)

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon granulated onion

Directions

Stir all of the ingredients together, and store the sumac pepper in small jar in a cool dark place.

Main photo: Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Polenta pasticciata, in

Corn polenta has traveled the globe to become a staple in world-class restaurants. Yet for more than 400 years, it sustained the peoples of Italy’s poor northeastern regions. Its origins go back even further, to the pulmentum of the Romans that was a mainstay of the commoner. Prior to the 17th century — before corn was transplanted to Italy from the New World — this porridge was made from hulled and crushed grains of various kinds, including farro (also known in English as “emmer”), barley and millet as well as chestnut, fava bean or chickpea flour.

Polenta as a staple

After maize took firm root in the soils of northern Italy, it became the primary staple. It wasn’t eaten fresh but rather dried and ground into polenta. For four centuries, it alone kept the wolf from the door for the common people in Veneto and Lombardy. In the 1800s, it became fashionable for the wealthy to eat it until it was ubiquitous at every meal, accompanying virtually every dish, as bread does today in other regions.

The poor ate it plain — there was often little else to eat. The upper class added condiments to it or made it into elaborate baked dishes called pasticci. Eventually, cornmeal infiltrated central and southern Italy, including the island of Sardinia, where my ancestors ate it with tomatoey stewed lamb tripe or layered with meat sauce and sheep’s cheese, much like lasagna, in a baked dish called polenta pasticciata.

In its simplest guise, polenta is served “loose” as a side dish, like its close cousin, the grits of the American south. It can be flavored simply with a dribble of olive oil or butter and Parmigiano cheese for a dish called polenta unta. Cooks in Italy’s Alpine regions like to slather it with soft cheeses such as runny gorgonzola dolce or taleggio. Often, it provides a bed for soaking up the tasty juices of cooked meats (such as sausages) or vegetables, for instance sautéed mushrooms. Or it might be turned out onto a marble slab, allowed to set, then cut into pieces that have countless uses. When fried or grilled, they become crostini di polenta, polenta “toasts.” For pasticciata, the squares are layered with a sauce and topped with cheese before baking, much like lasagna.

Traditional and modern cooking methods

Cooking polenta in the traditional copper paiolo is still a daily ritual in some parts of the polenta belt (Veneto, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Lombardy), though restaurant chefs typically replace the wooden stirring tool, called a bastone, with an electric stirring mechanism that attaches to the pot. For home cooking, a sturdy wooden spoon will do, provided it has a long handle to prevent splattering and/or burning your hand. (The whisk is not commonly used in Italy, but I have found that a heavy professional grade one is ideal for turning out a fine, lump-free polenta.) You’ll also need a heavy-bottomed pot.

But the real secret to perfect results lies not so much in the equipment as in the method. Continual stirring in one direction (clockwise, according to tradition) transforms cornmeal into billows of creamy golden polenta. The addition of the grains in a slow, steady stream a pioggia, “like rain,” assures that they are incorporated smoothly. If the polenta seems to be drying out before it is cooked, a little boiling water is added to keep it soft and easy to stir. Polenta is ready when it pulls away easily from the sides of the pan with the spoon. (The COOK’s test kitchen developed a microwave technique that requires minimal stirring to accompany an article I wrote in 1989 that received much attention, and some years later, Marcella Hazan published a recipe titled “Polenta by No-Stirring” in her book “Essentials of Italian Cooking,” which produces good results. I recently asked Victor Hazan, the late author’s husband and collaborator, about it, and he explained the derivation of the method. See my post on Forktales for the details.)

Polenta may be yellow or white, depending on the maize variety. Both are milled into fine or coarse grinds. The fine type is preferred for loose polenta. The coarse grind produces pleasantly gritty, rustic-style polenta that the Italians say can be sensed sotto i denti, “under the teeth.” It is ideal for cutting into pieces, as described earlier. (Note that the American type of cornmeal typically used for muffins or cornbread is not interchangeable with polenta; it is a different product entirely and will produce an inedible, cement-like porridge if cooked in water.)

Nowadays, there is another factor to consider. “Instant” polenta, which is pre-cooked before it is dehydrated, has virtually replaced the long-cooking kind — even in Italy. Although one can get it on the table much more quickly, it doesn’t compare to the richly flavored, silky original that can take 40 minutes or more to cook. Like so many “new and improved” foods, convenience is put ahead of quality and flavor. However, quick-cooking polenta does work well in dishes with several components, so you can have success making my maternal grandmother Giulia’s polenta pasticciata with either variety. Nonna Giulia Esu died long before I was born, but her recipe for this provincial Sardinian dish was one of her jewels that was passed down by my mother.

Nonna Giulia’s Polenta “Lasagna” With Pork and Red Wine Ragù

Note: The finest pecorino (sheep) cheeses are produced in Sardinia, Lazio and Tuscany. You can find the young, semi-soft varieties at most fine cheesemongers; alternatively, you can substitute Spanish Manchego as directed.

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: About 1 hour

Total time: About 2 1/4 hours

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the sauce:

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, minced

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 carrot, chopped

1 small celery stalk with leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon pulverized fennel seeds

1 pound ground pork

½ cup good-quality dry red wine

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 (35-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained, seeded and chopped, juices reserved

3 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

For the polenta:

7 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

2 cups fine- or coarse-grained imported Italian yellow polenta or “quick-cook” polenta

Olive oil for preparing work surface and baking dish

To assemble:

1/2 pound semi-soft pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna (or Manchego aged three to six months), shredded

Directions

For the sauce:

1. Warm the oil in a skillet. Stir in the onion, garlic, carrot and celery and sauté over medium-low heat until vegetables are soft, 12 to 15 minutes.

2. Add the fennel seeds, pork and continue to sauté until the meat colors lightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Stir in the wine and allow to evaporate (about 1 minute).

3. Dilute the tomato paste in a few tablespoons of the reserved canned-tomato juices and add it to the skillet, followed by the tomatoes with another 1/2 cup of the reserved juices, basil and salt. Stir well. Partially cover and simmer over the lowest possible heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently. The sauce should become thick and fragrant. If it seems to be drying out, add a few more tablespoons of the reserved tomato juices.

For the polenta:

1. While the ragù is simmering, bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. (Keep a kettle of boiling water on the back burner should you need extra.) Add the salt.

2. Stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon, add the polenta in a slow, constant stream to prevent lumps from forming. Simmer, stirring constantly, until the polenta is very thick and creamy and pulls away from the side of the pan, about 40 minutes. If you are using quick-cook polenta, you may need to add a little boiling water to ensure that it doesn’t get too thick. (You can also cook it longer than the instructions specify in order to obtain a creamy consistency — up to 20 minutes or so, adding more boiling water as needed.)

3. Use a rubber spatula dipped into hot water to spread the polenta out into a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Let set until cooled completely and firm, about 15 minutes. Cut into even 3-inch-by-4-inch rectangles; set aside. Lightly oil a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.

To assemble:

1. Heat the oven to 450 F.

2. Arrange half the polenta pieces on the bottom of the baking dish. Top them with half of the sauce and spread to cover. Sprinkle half the cheese over the sauce. Repeat with another layer of sauce, followed by the remaining cheese. Bake until heated through and the cheese is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into pieces and serve.

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

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Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast. Credit: David Latt

The pursuit of a healthy diet is frequently lamented as an exercise in deprivation. Often the ingredients that must be given up are ones that delight the palate and excite the soul. Chef Paul Fields saw no such deprivation when he signed on to be the chef at the upscale, gluten-free Inn on Randolph in Napa, California. He serves a breakfast of Beluga lentils with roasted vegetables, sausage and a poached egg.

The Napa Valley is renowned for quality vineyards and award-winning restaurants. The city of Napa is less well-known. Recently in the news because of an earthquake that caused considerable damage in the downtown commercial district, the city is reviving and becoming a locus for inventive chefs and quality accommodations.

Fields is one of those chefs drawn to the valley’s bounty of agricultural products. He prides himself on being a good purveyor. He collaborates with local farmers and has a garden on the property so the produce he cooks comes fresh and organic to his kitchen. For him, no matter what a guest’s dietary restrictions might be, his goal is to create nutritious, well-plated delicious meals.

In search of a breakfast that would do just that, Fields turned to an old favorite: lentils.

Hungry guests about to begin a day of wine tasting, cycling or hiking in the valley need a hearty meal. Often regarded as low on the culinary totem pole, lentils are a heritage legume, mentioned in the Bible and served around the globe as a source of low-cost protein that is rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. It is cultivated in a rainbow of colors and sizes including the Red Chief, the brown Pardina, the Crimson and the French Green. For his signature breakfast dish, Fields uses the glossy black Beluga lentil.

Fields accomplishes a bit of magic with what some might call the most prosaic of ingredients — a handful of lentils, a carrot, a piece of squash and an egg. A combination of contrasting flavors and textures, the dish is delicious and visually beautiful, a good way to begin the day.

Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast

In addition to being gluten-free, the dish can be vegetarian-vegan when the butter, sausage and egg are omitted.

The organic Beluga lentils that Fields uses come from the Timeless Food company based in Conrad, Montana. To add heat without spiciness, dried cayenne peppers cook along with the lentils and charred onion.

Adding to the convenience of the dish, the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausages may be cooked beforehand and reheated just before serving. Only the poached egg should be prepared at the last minute.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, roughly chopped

1 whole dried cayenne pepper

1 cup black Beluga lentils

2 1/2 cups water

4 carrots, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, cut on the bias or into rounds

1 cup squash (butternut or acorn), washed, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch chunks or long slabs

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 sausage links, chicken apple sausage or use what you like from your local market

1 tablespoon sweet butter

5 tablespoons sherry vinegar, divided

4 large eggs

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, heated over a low flame, reduced to 1 tablespoon

2 tablespoons micro-greens (kale, chives, pea shoots), washed, dried and Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped

1/2 cup parsley leaves, washed, dried, roughly chopped

Directions

1. In a large saucepan or small pot, heat ½ tablespoon olive oil. Sauté the onion over medium heat until lightly charred. Add dried cayenne pepper and continue sautéing 5 to 6 minutes. Add lentils and water. Stir well.

2. Bring to a simmer and cook for 25 to 35 minutes uncovered or until the lentils are a little softer than al dente. Set aside.

3. Preheat oven to 450 F. Toss carrots and squash with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, season with sea salt and black pepper.

4. Place on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat sheet or parchment paper. Using tongs, turn after 10 minutes and cook about a total of 15 to 20 minutes or until al dente. Remove and reserve.

5. Large sausages can be prepared whole, in which case the skin should be punctured all over with a sharp paring knife so the sausages do not swell during cooking, or cut into 1/2-inch rounds or 2-inch bias-cut pieces. Heat a sauté pan over a medium flame. Place the sausages into the pan and sear on all sides, using tongs to turn them frequently. When the sausages are cooked, remove from the pan, drain on a paper-towel-lined plate and reserve.

6. Heat a large sauté pan. Transfer the lentils from the pot to the sauté pan. Simmer to reduce the liquid by half. Add butter and combine with the lentils’ broth to create a sauce. Stir well.

7. Add 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar to brighten the flavors. Taste and adjust the flavors using sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a bit more butter and vinegar. The sauce should be thick, so, if needed, simmer a few minutes longer to reduce excess liquid.

8. Fill a medium-sized sauce pan or a small pot with a quart of water. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons vinegar, which will help coagulate the egg white around the yolk. Bring to a simmer.

9. If the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausage have been prepared ahead, reheat.

10. Open an egg, being careful not to break the yolk. Stir the hot vinegar water before sliding in the egg. The gentle vortex helps shape the egg.

Cook 3 1/2 minutes for a loose yolk and 4 1/2 to 5 minutes for a medium yolk. Fields suggests using a kitchen timer so the eggs do not overcook.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the poached egg from the water and drain on a paper towel for 2 to 3 seconds.

11. If possible, heat the plates. Drizzle or use the back of a spoon to mark each plate with a small amount of the reduced balsamic vinegar, which is not only decorative but adds another layer of sweet-acidic flavor.

12. Put the carrots into the pan with the lentils and toss well to coat with the sauce. Place the squash on each plate. Spoon the lentils and carrots onto the squash. Add the sausage and top with the poached egg.

13. Dust with sea salt and black pepper. To add color and a little crunch, sprinkle micro-greens and chopped Italian parsley leaves on top. Finish with sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil.

Serve hot.

Main photo: Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast. Credit: David Latt

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Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry

“Chicken with cheese”: The words conjure up visions of that college-student standby, the fried-chicken melt. But poulet au fromage is something quite different — something elegant and perfectly delicious.

Exemplifying the cookery of early 18th-century France, long before the famous chef Marie-Antoine Carême came along and codified haute cuisine, the recipe appears in “Nouveau Traité de la Cuisine,” Published in the 1740s by a writer who used the pen name Menon. (Note that it wasn’t until the 20th century that chefs regularly began to publish their recipes while they were still fashionable; before then, chefs typically didn’t reveal their secrets until after they’d retired. So published recipes tended to represent the cuisine of an earlier era.)

Haute cuisine standards

Anyway, poulet au fromage is a delightful dish with a family resemblance to the 19th-century haute cuisine standard veal Foyot. In both cases, meat is simmered with broth and white wine and then baked under a covering of Gruyère (or Swiss) cheese; the ingredients meld into a concoction with a savory, sophisticated flavor.

But there are differences (besides the obvious fact that veal Foyot contains veal, which is expensive and troubles some people on ethical grounds). Poulet au fromage includes a substantial amount of herbs, which was more characteristic of French food in the 18th century than it was in the 19th (and is perhaps a little more to our present-day tastes). And it does not include fried minced onions, as veal Foyot does. If you felt like discreetly sprinkling some lightly fried onions on the chicken before adding the final cheese layer, however, I would be willing to close my eyes.

Menon’s recipe calls for a whole chicken, but the chickens of his day were younger and therefore more tender than those we can conveniently get in our supermarkets. I substitute chicken breast; to make up for the slight loss of flavor due to the absence of bones, I tend to add a bit of bottled chicken base.

Properly, the herbs should be added in the form of a bouquet wrapped in cheesecloth. But if you do that, you have to transfer everything to a saucepan, because in a frying pan the liquid will nowhere near cover the bouquet. It’s therefore more convenient to add all the herbs loose; given that are no other ingredients in the cooking liquid, they’re easy enough to strain out later.

Poulet au Fromage

Prep time: About 20 minutes

Cook time: About 1 1/2 hours

Total time: About 1 hour 50 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken breast

2 ounces butter

3/4 cup dry white wine such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc

1/2 cup chicken broth

3 sprigs parsley

2 shallots, sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

3 whole cloves

1 bay leaf

2 small sprigs fresh thyme

3 leaves fresh basil

Salt and pepper

1 pound Swiss or French Gruyère cheese, grated

Directions

1. Remove any bones and skin from the breasts, pound them with a kitchen mallet to flatten and cut them into pieces 1 1/2- to 2-inches square. Melt the butter in a large pan and fry the pieces in two batches until lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

2. Add the wine, broth, parsley, shallots, garlic, cloves, bay leaf, thyme and basil along with salt and pepper to taste. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, loosely covered, for 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 475 F.

3. Remove the meat from the pan. Strain the cooking liquid and transfer half of it to a 2-quart casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the cheese, add the chicken pieces and the rest of the cooking liquid, and top with the remaining cheese. Cover the baking dish tightly and bake until the cheese is entirely melted, 10 to 12 minutes.

4. Raise the temperature to 500 F, remove the cover from the casserole and return to the oven until the cheese has begun turning brown in spots, 5 to 7 minutes.

 Main photo: Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry

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If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben185

To the Vegemite virgin, the dark brown paste may look like axle grease and smell like rusty nails, but to many an Aussie, the salty spread is comfortingly delicious, as well as essentially synonymous with Australia itself. It’s a common joke that Vegemite is an Antipodean baby’s first solid food. It’s also routinely cited that Vegemite can be found in the cupboards of at least 80 percent of Australian homes. What’s more, traveling Aussies don’t leave home without it.

Primarily a yeast extract that remains after the beer brewing process, Vegemite contains few calories and no fat, but a fair amount of sodium. A rich source of B vitamins, which play a role in metabolizing macronutrients and in producing energy in the body, Vegemite has routinely been promoted for its purported health benefits. In the late 1930s, its advertising even featured an endorsement from the British Medical Association for its B vitamin content. Although less “veggie” than its name might imply, Vegemite is vegan, vegetarian, certified kosher and certified halal.

Vegemite was developed as a copy of a British product, Marmite, a spread of similar texture and flavor — though it’s best not to say so to a Vegemite die-hard. In the early 1920s, Fred Walker, an Australian entrepreneur, engaged Dr. Cyril P. Callister, one of Australia’s first food technologists, to develop the product. After considerable experimentation, Callister developed Vegemite in 1923. Based upon a mutual interest to develop cheeses with a longer shelf life, Walker later combined forces with American cheese producer James Kraft, forming the Kraft Walker Cheese Company in 1926. This partnership eventually resulted in an American company owning Australia’s national food, though Vegemite has always been produced in Australia and from mostly local ingredients.

Despite Vegemite’s widespread popularity today, in its early years the spread was slow to entice Australian appetites, as Marmite held on to a significant portion of the market share. According to Vegemite’s heritage website, however, by the early 1940s Vegemite had become a “staple food in every Australian home and in every Australian pantry.” Over the course of the 20th century, the spread would become an Australian icon.

Try Vegemite this Australia Day

Australia Day, marked each year on Jan. 26, is a national holiday celebrating the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Britain arrived at Sydney Cove. Kraft attempted to cement the connection between the holiday and Vegemite in 2012, the year of the spread’s 89th anniversary. That year, Kraft rebranded Vegemite jars “Australia,” though retaining the recognizable red and yellow color palette.

One way for an American to celebrate Australia Day is to try Vegemite. The strange truth you’ll have to overcome, however, is that most non-Australians absolutely despise the stuff. With an Australian father, I grew up eating Vegemite and love it, but have yet to convert a single American friend to its delightful, savory charms. Part of the issue is likely a case of mismatched expectations, since Vegemite looks like chocolate, but tastes like, well, straight up saltiness.

A more apt description of Vegemite’s flavor profile might be umami incarnate. Despite appreciation for other foods boasting savory, umami flavor — from bacon to Parmesan, soy sauce to mushrooms — most non-Aussies just can’t handle Vegemite. Though Oprah claims to like it, a popular video circulated last year in which 10 American children tasted Vegemite for the first time with dismal results: no tears, but lots of squealing. Suffice it to say, none of them gave Vegemite their kid seal of approval. In 2011, President Barack Obama confessed to then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that he found the spread “horrible,” disappointing Vegemite lovers. In 2012, singer Niall Horan of the group One Direction echoed this sentiment when he tasted Vegemite toast live on Australian television only to spit it out and later share on Twitter, “Can clearly say vegemite is horrible!”

A ‘culturally specific food’

In 2003, psychology researchers Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal quantifiably confirmed the oft-stated assertion that only Australians enjoy Vegemite. From a survey of 202 participants, the authors concluded, “The eating of this food product and especially the enjoyment of it are specifically linked to Australian birth and ancestry.” They also asserted, “This sticky brown paste remains a candidate for the most culturally specific food.”

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

The deck may be stacked against Vegemite, but if you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast, which is the way most Australians enjoy it at breakfast. Spread the toast first with butter, allowing it to melt in, and then evenly spread a thin layer of Vegemite. A common mistake for first-time Vegemite tasters is to slather it on too thickly like one would peanut butter or a chocolaty spread, an amount unpalatable to even most devoted Vegemite enthusiasts. Recipes from Vegemite’s website suggest you jazz up your Vegemite toast with tomato, egg, cheese or avocado.

If you’re ready to try Vegemite at every meal, you can make turkey burgers, seasoned with Vegemite, onions, rice wine and a touch of sugar, for lunch. Then you can try Vegemite flavored couscous or sweet potato and rosemary pizza with a Vegemite sauce for dinner.

You just might find that you love Vegemite. If nothing else, it’ll be your saltiest Jan. 26 on record.

Main photo: If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben 185

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