Articles in Technique
I’ve been exploring Mediterranean food for decades and written books about it, but only recently have discovered the phenomena of Greek yogurt, which was perplexingly unfamiliar.
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I didn’t know what Greek yogurt was, a term that first surfaced quite recently. I consulted other Mediterranean food experts and they were baffled, too. So I figured that it was one of two things: yogurt from Greece or a slick marketing term devised by American food companies to sell yogurt as a health food. Well, it’s certainly the latter.
More importantly, I have figured out that what marketers call Greek yogurt is none other than what I’ve been writing about and eating for 40 years, that is labna (also lubny or labneh or labne), which is strained yogurt.
Labna is the Arabic term, and it was only in Middle Eastern markets that you could find strained yogurt until quite recently. It is also called strained yogurt, kefir cheese and yogurt cheese. I had to laugh. For those of us who write about Mediterranean food and who eat it, hearing someone talk about Greek yogurt was like listening to a little kid marvel over a jack-in-the-box.
Yogurt in Greece and around the Mediterranean
Until the mid-1990s when high-quality yogurt became available I simply made my own because it’s ridiculously easy and there should be no hype about yogurt. Yogurt, a Turkish word (yoğurt), is a semi-solid cultured or fermented milk containing the bacteria Bacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These organisms present in the “starter,” given warmth, will ferment whole or skimmed fresh milk overnight.
Yogurt may have been known by the ancients Greeks as pyriate. Andrew Dalby, who wrote an important study on classical Greek gastronomy, wrote about the Greek physician Galen, who related this older term, pyriate, with the oxygala familiar in his own day, which was a form of yogurt and was eaten on its own or with honey. The first unequivocal description of yogurt is found in a dictionary called “Divanu lugati’t- turk” compiled by Kaşgarli Mahmud in 1072 during the Seljuk era in the Middle East.
Yogurt spread rapidly throughout the eastern Mediterranean, but it hardly penetrated the western and northern Mediterranean. The use of yogurt was first recorded in France in the 16th century, when it was said to have cured the ailing King Francis I. The yogurt was administered daily by a Jewish doctor who had traveled on foot from Constantinople accompanied by a flock of sheep, and that was the last France saw of yogurt until the 19th century.
Make your own Greek yogurt
The Turks are far more picky about yogurt than Americans, and as a result one finds very high-quality yogurt in Turkey. Most yogurt is made from cow’s milk, with some made from sheep’s milk, while goat’s milk yogurt is rare in Turkey. Yogurt is a staple food in the Middle East and is now ubiquitous in the United States. Making your own is easy and after straining the yogurt I still call it labna.
Makes 1 quart
1 quart whole milk
3 tablespoons whole plain yogurt
1. In a saucepan, bring the milk to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring frequently to make sure you do not scald the bottom of the pot. Once the milk is shimmering on the surface, simmer for 2 minutes. Pour the milk into a large mixing bowl and let cool until you can keep your little finger submerged in it to a count of 10.
2. Stir a few tablespoons of the hot milk into the yogurt and then quickly stir this back into the hot milk. Cover the bowl and leave overnight inside a turned-off electric oven. The next morning you will have homemade yogurt that will keep for a week. You can save some of this homemade yogurt as your starter for the next batch.
Note: To make strained yogurt, or “Greek yogurt,” pour the yogurt into a linen towel or several layers of cheesecloth, tie off, and hang from a kitchen sink faucet to drain overnight. In the Middle East strained yogurt is used as a breakfast spread for Arabic bread, served as a dip for hot foods, or eaten plain with some olive oil or honey.
Top photo: Greek yogurt. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Why let gingkos jar this glorious New York City scene? It’s late November. Central Park is at its peak in fall color. The Conservatory Garden up on Fifth Avenue and 105th Street is all decked out with its fall array of chrysanthemums.
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Yet it happened on my afternoon doggie walk, as I passed under a ginkgo tree, and the pungent smell about bowled me over. I am familiar with what is often called “nature’s stink bomb” and have developed a kind of acceptance and regard for the ginkgo, knowing its benefits, but simply, it smells like vomit. The stench is supposed to keep animals from eating the fallen fruit from this ancient Asian tree.
Ginkgo’s famous healthful qualities
But as a baby boomer who is keen to stave off memory loss, I know ginkgo biloba made from this tree species is one of the best-selling herbal medications. It is used in traditional medicine to treat blood disorders and improve memory. It also is an antioxidant, so I welcome the stench.
This time of year in Central Park, one will find many older Asian people on their knees, some wearing rubber gloves, picking through the fruit that has fallen on the ground. And each year, I ask myself, why don’t I collect a bag and try them out? So this year I did just that.
Ginkgo leaves are fan-shaped and green until the fall, when they turn a bright yellow. The leaves contain two types of chemicals, flavonoids and terpenoids, which are antioxidants. Studies show that ginkgo is good for promoting blood flow and treating anxiety, glaucoma, premenstrual syndrome and Reynaud’s disease.
It is important not to use ginkgo for at least 36 hours before surgery or dental procedures because of the risk of bleeding. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also not take ginkgo. Ginkgo may also interact with some medications and antidepressants. As with any supplement, it’s good for users to read up on ginkgo before ingesting it. Also keep in mind, the nut can be toxic to eat raw, and even picking it up can cause a rash like poison ivy.
Recipes from around the world
Asian women to whom I’ve spoken say it is no mistake that the nuts fall at this time of year because when they are cooked, they helps fight flu and colds.
The best way to use them is to remove the fleshy insides and skin from the nut. The flesh is discarded, and then the nut is boiled in salt water, fried, roasted or broiled. The nuts are used in Asian rice porridge and other desserts. Another chef used the nuts to make dried scallop and ginkgo nut congee, but instead of hassling with fresh ginkgo he uses tinned nuts because they are easier.
In a piece called “Gathering Ginkgo Nuts in New York,” a couple wrote about collecting the ginkgo nuts and trying various ways of cooking them. They finally hit on something when they separated the smelly pulp from the nut, washed the nuts, coated them in egg, salt, pepper and flour and dropped them in hot oil. Delicious was their assessment of this cooking method for a local, sustainable nut.
I have now collected about two pints of ginkgos, and today is the day I intend to try them. A friend gave me this recipe, which seems easy enough.
Roasted Ginkgo Nuts
2 pints of ginkgo nuts
Oil for frying, such as coconut or olive oil
Salt to taste
1. Using rubber gloves, collect the yellow squishy nuts from the ground. You know they’re ripe because they have fallen from the tree and they stink to high heaven. Still using rubber gloves, separate the pulp from the nut. (I did this outside on Park Avenue.)
2. Wash the nuts thoroughly and let them dry.
3. Pour a half-inch of your favorite oil into a pan. Salt the nuts. When the oil is hot enough to sputter, place the nuts in the pan. The nuts should pop like popcorn, except much louder. When they have split open and you can see the green of the nut.
4. Drain, and let cool. Eat like popcorn.
Top photo: Roasted ginkgo nuts. Credit: Katherine Leiner
We are concerned about species of animals that might be headed for extinction, but we don’t seem to be as concerned about our endangered culinary traditions. There are recipes that need to be saved. Food is who we are. It’s what binds us together culturally in this multicultural country. One such food from New England is red flannel hash.
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Red flannel hash is hardly made anymore, probably because it’s a way of using the leftovers from a New England boiled dinner, which also is rarely cooked anymore. A boiled dinner is simply corned beef brisket, beets, parsnips, carrots, onions, cabbage and potatoes with a few spices, boiled only in water for dinner and served with a horseradish sauce.
But red flannel hash is so good that it can be made from scratch without using leftovers. How it got its name will be instantly obvious once you’ve made it. If all you’ve ever had is the heartburn-producing canned corned beef hash then what awaits you is a surprise and a delight.
In the modern age of global food distribution and processed consumer food products, regional specialties like this fall out of favor and are in danger of being lost forever. Like recipes that call for local produce grown only in a small area or ethnic delicacies from small immigrant groups, these dishes are in jeopardy of becoming unknown.
Often said to be a food eaten by the colonists, red flannel hash more likely was concocted in the early 20th century as a way of using leftovers. Its characteristic red color comes from corned beef and beets. Typically cooks would start with chopped up leftover boiled dinner and add potatoes to make the dish a hash.
Because it was such a breakfast favorite, especially in New England diners, and not everyone had made a boiled dinner the night before, recipes appeared for making the hash from scratch.
Red Flannel Hash
2 ounces salt pork, sliced and cut into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ small onion, finely chopped
6 ounces cooked corned beef, finely chopped, not ground
1 pound cooked Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and finely chopped
¼ pound cooked turnips, finely chopped
1 pound cooked red beets, peeled, trimmed and finely chopped
¼ cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 large eggs, poached
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
2. In a 12-inch cast iron skillet, over medium heat, cook, stirring the salt pork until crispy. Remove and leave the fat in the skillet. Add the butter to the skillet, then over medium heat, cook, stirring the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Combine the corned beef, potatoes, turnips, beets and cream in a bowl, and toss gently with some salt and pepper.
4. Transfer the hash to the skillet and spread it out with a spatula so it covers the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until a crust forms, about 15 minutes.
5. Place the skillet in the oven and cook until the top is crisp, about 15 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, poach the eggs. Remove the hash from the oven, cut into wedges and serve with the crispy salt pork and poached egg.
Top photo: Red flannel hash. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Even the most jaded of adults will stand outside the plate glass window of a chocolate shop and stare at the candies inside with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. On a recent trip researching a series of articles about Switzerland, I spent time with chocolatier Dan Durig who has two shops in Lausanne on Lake Geneva.
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To celebrate the holidays and the New Year, Durig generously shared an easy-to-make chocolate ganache. He also patiently allowed me to videotape him preparing his signature vanilla-scented ganache-filled chocolates.
Born into a family of Swiss chocolate makers, Durig learned the craft from his dad, Jean Durig. Growing up near Manchester, England, and vacationing with his father’s family in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Durig lived comfortably in England and Switzerland. So when he was ready for a life change, relocating to Switzerland was easy to do.
Having always worked for his dad or other chocolatiers, he wanted to start his own business in Lausanne. In a quiet neighborhood within sight of Lake Geneva, Durig converted a branch office of BCV bank into Durig Chocolatier.
Locals told Durig the transformation of a bank into a chocolate shop changed the neighborhood for the better. The change was good for Durig as well. Within three years, his business was well established, he won several prestigious awards, he married and had a son. Putting together a team to work in the kitchen and in the front of the shop is, according to Durig, easier in Switzerland than other places because of the country’s well-established apprenticeship program. The clerks who work in the shop go through a retail management program. The chocolatiers learn their craft in a multiyear pastry apprenticeship based on the French model, combining four days of work with one day of school.
Made mostly by hand with the help of a few machines, Durig happily demonstrated how he crafts his chocolates. As he worked, two tempering machines that work 24 hours a day can be heard in the background, keeping separate batches of milk and dark chocolate at precisely the correct temperature. When melted without controlling the temperature, chocolate will cool and harden without its characteristic bright sheen and crispness.
Durig knows his chocolates are only as good as the ingredients he uses. To make his ganache, he sources high quality Swiss organic cream from local dairies and vanilla beans from Madagascar. He buys his cocoa and cocoa butter from quality, fair trade producers in Peru, Sierra Leone and Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic.
For best results at home, follow Durig’s lead and buy the highest quality chocolate and cream available. Chocolate should be made only with cocoa butter. Cream should not have any chemical additives.
To make the ganache-filled chocolates demonstrated by chef Durig in the video, purchase a candy-making mold in a restaurant or cooking supply store or online. Learning to temper chocolate is not for the faint of heart. Understanding that, Durig’s ganache recipe does not require tempering.
Durig Chocolatier’s Chocolate Holiday Ganache Squares
Using quality ingredients is essential in cooking, especially when making chocolates. After making the ganache, the chocolates should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
If served cold, the chocolates have a pleasing crispness. Allowed to warm to room temperature, they will have a melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. I put the chocolates in individual paper cups for easy serving.
As a matter of taste, I added caramelized nuts to the ganache. A half cup of almond slivers tossed with 1 tablespoon of white sugar and toasted over a low flame added a pleasing crunch to the citrus and herbal notes.
Serves 24 to 36 (about 130 pieces, depending on the size of the squares)
For the mixed spice:
Durig buys his mixed spice ready made. Making your own is easy enough. Once prepared, keep in an airtight container. If ground clove and fennel are not available, grind your own.
1¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground fennel
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground clove
For the chocolates:
500 grams (1 pint) cream
800 grams (28 ounces) organic dark chocolate (68% cocoa content), chopped into small pieces
10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) ground cinnamon
10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) mixed spice (see directions below)
100 grams (3 ounces) chopped organic candied orange peel
Organic cocoa powder for dusting
For the mixed spice:
1. Place all the ingredients into a small, electric grinder and pulverize into a fine powder.
For the chocolates:
1. Bring the cream to boil and remove from the heat.
2. Add the other ingredients to the cream and stir with a wire whisk until the chocolate is melted.
3. Pour into a 10-inch dish lined with baking paper.
4. Cool in the fridge for 4 hours.
5. Cut into ½- to ¾-inch squares and roll each square in the cocoa powder.
6. Set aside on a wire rack or sheets of waxed paper.
7. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to serve.
Top photo: Ganache-filled chocolates at Durig Chocolatier in Lausanne, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to revisit the year past, particularly for a wild foods enthusiast. This last foraging season was a doozie in my little corner of the Rocky Mountain region. It was a hard year for the plants, even harder for the people who endured the natural disasters, which only increases my gratitude for the wild foods I was able to pick, including porcini mushrooms for Thanksgiving dinner.
Rough year for wild food
Despite what was, in nearly every way, an unusually hard year for foraging, I was still able to harvest foods throughout the growing season.
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This year there were regular snows and hard freezes right up into May, which meant that nearly all of the tree fruit crops were lost, including wild plums and apples. Summer looked to be a repeat of the previous years’ droughts, complete with destructive forest fires. Then, just as summer was about to end, a flooding rainstorm hit the area, shredding the landscape and forcing people from their homes.
I won’t forget my joy in finding the first green tops of wild onions in the spring, and preserving them in butter kept safe in the freezer. High summer scented my fingers with Monarda fistulosa, also known as beebalm or wild oregano. As summer started to drag its heels, I made my annual trek into the forest to chase down Boletus edulis, porcini mushrooms.
Even now, in what I’ve taken to calling “the year without fruit,” months past the first freeze, and having endured many snow storms, the land still provides. Some hardy greens still cling tightly to the ground, and I’m looking forward to a quiet snowy day in the coming months when I can pick black walnuts out of their shells. My pantry is wonderfully well stocked.
Foraged Thanksgiving classics
I will revisit my year of foraging at Thanksgiving with dishes tickled with wild ingredients. They will taste distinctly of this place I love and cement my foraging memories. It is possible to make a nearly all-wild Thanksgiving meal, and I’ve done so in the past. But because the holiday is a time to be surrounded by friends and extended family, many of whom are unfamiliar with wild cuisine, I usually restrain myself from making an all-wild meal. Instead, I prefer to make a wild twist on traditional dishes — cranberry sauce mixed with highbush cranberries, turkey basted with wild allium butter, or pumpkin pie made with a black walnut crust.
Among my most successful wild-infused Thanksgiving dishes is a stuffing loaded with foraged porcini mushrooms, which can also be purchased from a store if you aren’t lucky enough to find your own. Stuffing made with porcini mushrooms tastes at once wild and luxurious, but also comfortingly familiar. Using the porcini soaking water in place of the traditional broth adds an extra dimension of mushroom flavor to the dish. The eggs in this recipe add extra binding power to the bread cubes, but they may easily be omitted if you are serving vegans or those with egg allergies. This Thanksgiving stuffing may also be made gluten-free by using gluten-free bread.
Wild Porcini Mushroom Stuffing
Serves 8 to 10
1 pound sourdough bread, cut into ½-inch cubes
3½ cups boiling water
2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
8 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery with leaves, sliced
8 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped off the stems
½ teaspoon salt, plus more if needed
10 fresh sage leaves, chopped
Freshly cracked pepper
2 eggs, beaten (optional)
3 tablespoons Italian parsley leaves, chopped
1. Evenly spread the bread cubes on two baking sheets, and toast them in a 350 F oven until they dry out and the edges begin to brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
2. In a medium bowl, pour the boiling water over the dried porcini mushrooms. Set it aside.
3. In a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, celery, thyme. Salt to the skillet and cook them until they turn soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.
4. Use a strainer to fish the mushroom slices out of the soaking water. Let the water drip out of them for a few seconds before adding them to the skillet with the onion and celery. Continue to cook the vegetables and mushrooms for another 5 minutes. Stir in the sage, and add cracked pepper, plus more salt if necessary, to taste. Remove the skillet from the heat.
5. Gently pour the mushroom soaking water into the skillet full of vegetables and mushrooms, taking care to leave behind any dirt that has settled in the bottom. If you are using eggs, whisk them into the liquid.
6. Transfer the bread cubes to a large bowl. Pour the contents of the skillet over the bread cubes and toss until the bread cubes have absorbed all of the liquid. Stir in the parsley.
7. Transfer the mixture into a greased two-quart baking dish, and bake at 350 F for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the bread is heated through and the top looks crunchy and brown.
Top photo: Wild porcini mushroom stuffing for Thanksgiving. Credit: Wendy Petty
Start a meal with an amuse-bouche, and you’ve gone from zero to 60 in five seconds. Fine dining chefs learned long ago that an amuse-bouche gives a preview to the meal with a palate-pleasing morsel. At home, an amuse-bouche turns an everyday meal into fun.
Strictly speaking, an amuse-bouche is an amusement for the mouth, usually a single bite or small plate served at the start of the meal in an upscale restaurant. The dish is not on the menu, is free of charge and spotlights the chef’s culinary interests.
From Michelin-star kitchens to home kitchens
Doing research for a series of articles about five-star hotels in Switzerland, I was hosted in a dozen upscale restaurants in Geneva, Lausanne, Vevey, Interlaken, Zurich and Lugano. Without exception, every meal was preceded with an amuse-bouche, and they were as different as the chefs who commanded those kitchens.
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Some amuse-bouche featured expensive ingredients such as caviar, lobster and foie gras. Others employed labor-intensive techniques that transformed solids into airy foams. All were small plates of luxuriousness and indulgence, like the lemon-scented carrot gelée flavoring a disk of veal tartare at Restaurant Le Mont Blanc at Le Crans, a ski resort in Crans-Montana not far from Geneva.
At the three-star Michelin restaurant in the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, the amuse-bouche prepared by Anne-Sophie Pic’s kitchen was a single plate with three disks of flavor, texture and temperature, employing ingredients as disparate as avocado, ham, figs, Parmesan cheese, shrimp, tomato and mozzarella.
Get inventive with small bites
In the home kitchen, an amuse-bouche can be as inventive and flavorful as any from a Michelin-starred restaurant, but it need not be as labor intensive. An espresso cup with a fragrant soup of roasted tomatoes and spinach with homemade croutons on the side is a great way to begin a meal but does not require the crew of prep chefs necessary in a fine-dining kitchen.
The best amuse-bouche are packed with flavor. The point is not to satiate hunger but to stimulate the appetite. Think of an amuse-bouche as a gateway to the meal. A single grilled scallop seasoned with finely grated Parmesan cheese. A shucked oyster topped with a few salmon eggs. A cube of roasted kabocha squash flavored with caramelized onions and shiitake mushrooms.
For a Vietnamese-themed dinner, I served an easy-to-prepare grilled shrimp with lemon grass to tell everyone the meal was taking its inspiration from Southeast Asia.
Lemon Grass Grilled Shrimp With Garlic and Onions
1 stalk lemon grass, washed, root end trimmed
4 medium sized raw shrimp, washed, shelled, deveined, pat dried
1 garlic clove, washed, peeled, finely chopped
1 teaspoon finely chopped yellow onion
⅛ teaspoon turmeric
Sea salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon olive or sunflower oil
1 teaspoon fish sauce, Nam Pla or Nước chấm (optional)
Dusting of cayenne powder (optional)
1. Scrape the white end of the lemon grass stalk against a fine grater. Use the first 2 to 3 inches of the stalk and discard the remainder.
2. In a bowl, toss the shrimp, grated lemon grass, garlic, onions, turmeric, salt, pepper, oil, fish sauce (optional) and cayenne (optional).
3. Preheat an outdoor grill to high or the oven to 400 F. If using an oven, place a small wire grill on a piece of aluminum foil on the bottom of a small baking tray.
4. Skewer the shrimp using two skewers to the shrimp to keep their shape.
5. Place the shrimp on the outdoor grill or in the oven.
Turn over after three minutes. Remove when shrimp have grill marks but are not overcooked.
6. Serve each shrimp on a small plate with garnish.
Top photo: An amuse-bouche from Chef Dominique Gauthier of Le Chat Botté at the Beau Rivage in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt
“Bread is like dirt,” said Naomi Duguid, describing an attitude she encountered while researching flatbreads in the Soviet Union. “Yes, it’s the essence of life, but it’s so ordinary. How can you give it attention?”
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Duguid smiles when she speaks and lifts her voice with its an appealing Canadian accent, inviting people into her considerations. The cookbook author was giving plenty of attention to a very flat bread at the Kneading Conference West, three days of workshops in mid-September centered on grains and baking.
People sat on folding chairs under a tent and watched her make crackers. She and Dawn Woodward, the baker-founder of Evelyn’s Crackers stood at tables in front of a mobile wood-fired oven. Attendees asked questions, rolled dough and took notes.
The fourth year of the conference at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Station was just underway. Bakers, farmers and people otherwise interested in grains came from as far as South Africa to learn everything they could about flour and its life from field to loaf. There were classes in sourdough, pastries, pizza, local flours, and soba noodles. People built an oven. Experts gave presentations on barley breeding, malting, baking science and gluten intolerance.
This is the sister event of the Kneading Conference, which began seven years ago in Skowhegan, Maine. Wheat breeder Steve Jones has spoken at that conference and is the director of the station at Mount Vernon, Wash. Bringing this bread brainstorm home made a lot of sense.
The western version is rooted in the Skagit Valley, lush farmland nestled along the Interstate 5 corridor just north of Seattle. The area was once used to grow oats for the city’s horses. Now farmers grow 80 different crops, including tulip bulbs, vegetable seeds and potatoes.
These farmers grow grains in rotation, to help build up the soil and break cycles of disease and pests. The grains generally go to the commodity market, which means the farms lose money compared with what they earn from the land other years.
Jones and others are helping farmers earn money from grains as specialty crops. Skagit Valley Malting Co., a small-scale malthouse, is almost up and running, malting test runs of barley for breweries, distilleries and culinary use. With help from the breeding program at the WSU station, vegetable farmers are branching into grain production. Nash’s Organic Produce is now growing and milling Espresso wheat, and marketing it along with their vegetables.
The conference highlighted these local projects and others in the region, such as Camas Country Mill. Farmer and owner Tom Hunton spoke about the way his Willamette Valley mill has facilitated production and use of grains, and other field crops. Growers now ask what they can grow for the mill, and consumers are eager to buy the flours and other foods the mill provides.
Wayne Carpenter and Mike Doehnel from Skagit Valley Malting spoke about custom malting. Bakers from Seattle and the surrounding area spoke about using local flour.
Jonathan Bethony is the staff baker at the station’s The Bread Lab. This bearded fellow is a dynamo, ready to tackle wheat varieties in all their complexity, and figure out how to make the most of all the flour’s qualities, good and bad. His tours of the lab, with Ph.D. student Colin Curwen-McAdams — who endearingly linked his studies in seed breeding to baking with his mother — were both lively and thought-provoking.
Bethony gave an enthusiastic presentation on how to work with sourdough, praising the reactions that occur between its wild yeast and bacterial components.
Breadmaking tips from the experts
“If the world would just work like a sourdough, we’d be all set,” he said. Bethony drew parallels between starters and any other relationship. Leave your starter in the fridge for a while, and like a neglected friend, it is going to need a while to warm up and be ready to use.
Scott Mangold from Breadfarm Bakery referred to Bethony as he gave a workshop called Learning to Love Your Local Wheat. “Jonathan said he started looking for signs he knew from baking with white flour, and stopped worrying whether it’s going to fall apart,” Mangold said. “That was a big breakthrough for me, to just trust that it is going to work.”
Bakers are trained to expect certain performance from flour, because most flour is milled to narrow industry standards, from grains that have very specific quality profiles. Local flours tend not to fit these strictures, and can really behave differently in leavened doughs, causing the anxiety that necessitated a workshop with such a name.
“When I’m testing new flour, I’m making observations and writing everything down,” Mangold said, passing around a chart that detailed the way he used his hands and eyes to gather information from different batches of bread.
This and other workshops — one on soba noodles led by Sonoko Sakai — had bakers up and at the bowl, honing the practice of work and observation. Bakers from King Arthur Flour led discussions and classes that were a little more geared to professional baking, but not too much for the experienced home baker. Richard Miscovich showed people how to use wood-fired ovens for bread and beyond, a live version of his new book, “From the Wood Fired Oven.”
Lectures and discussions on baking science, barley breeding and gluten intolerance also filled the schedule, and two keynotes framed the larger conversation about grains in practical and symbolic terms.
Darra Goldstein, founding editor of Gastronomica, spoke about bread culture, using examples of bread in Western art as a lens to discuss its symbolism. She showed how people used to hold bread close to the heart, and how 20th century paintings have bread on cutting boards.
These presentations presented ideas people considered throughout the rest of the conference, and when they went back home.
The farmer-miller-baker model Oechsner presented is something people could see happening, and help make happen, in their own back yard. Bakers mused about how to bring bread close to the heart again. If we do away with bakery bags, will we have lovely images of people carrying bread close to their chests posted on the bakery walls?
The discussions illustrated the ways that grains have glued us together, body and soul, and we can imagine that gorgeous connection again.
Top photo: Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai demonstrates breadmaking at Kneading Conference West. Credit: Amy Halloran
With the outdoor barbecue mothballed for the season, cooks might think the joy of food caramelized by intense heat has to wait until summer. But maybe not. A chance discovery in a Korean restaurant supply store led to my discovering the pleasures of a cast-iron griddle that comes with a heat-resistant wooden platter that allows sizzling dishes to be carried directly to the table.
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In Latin restaurants, the pleasures of fajitas are well-known. Vegetables, usually onions and bell peppers, join meats, poultry and seafood on a cast-iron griddle to char and caramelize fats with as much sweetness as if they were prepared on the open flame of an outdoor barbecue. Asian chefs also place cast-iron griddles on heat-proof wooden platters so that diners can enjoy the aromas and excitement of vegetables and proteins charring right before their eyes.
The key to using a cast-iron griddle is being prepared. Like wok cooking, all the ingredients must be prepped before cooking begins. And once the ingredients are on the griddle, no distractions are allowed. To prevent burning, the vegetables and proteins must be turned constantly. A set of long-handled tongs is essential, as is a good exhaust fan over the stove to clear away any smoke.
All ingredients should be cut into bite-sized pieces, the better to cook quickly and also the better to create the greatest surface area for caramelization.
Griddles come in oval and rectangular shapes. Sizes vary from 8 to 14 inches. The recipe assumes a griddle at least 11 inches in length. A smaller size would require that the sautéeing take place using batches rather than all the ingredients at once.
Before using, the griddle needs to be tempered. Wash it thoroughly with soapy water and rinse with clean water. Place on a high flame (gas or electric) until all moisture has dried. When it is cool to the touch, place a small amount of oil on a paper towel and wipe it across the surface.
Before you store your griddle, cover it in plastic.
Before using it again, clean the griddle in case any rust has collected on the cooking surface. Place it on the burner on the highest possible heat. Do not apply oil.
Ingredients for griddle dishes should be tossed in oil and seasoned in a bowl before they’re placed on the hot griddle.
Cast-iron Griddle Sauté
2 pounds deboned chicken thigh or breast meat, skin removed, washed and pat dried. Alternately, use 2 pounds shelled, deveined shrimp, washed and pat dried; 2 pounds octopus tentacles, washed and finely sliced; 2 pounds filet mignon, washed and pat dried; 2 cups firm tofu, or 2 pounds skinned, deboned duck meat
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 large garlic clove, skin removed, finely chopped
½ cup Italian parsley, washed, dried, leaves only, finely chopped
½-inch ginger knob, washed, peeled, finely chopped (optional)
Sea salt and pepper to taste
⅛ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1 large yellow onion, peeled, stem and top removed, washed, sliced thin, longitudinally
1. Except for the shrimp, cut the chicken (or other protein choice) into bite-sized pieces, approximately ½-inch square.
2. Place chicken into a bowl, toss with ⅔ tablespoon olive oil, the garlic clove, parsley, ginger (optional) and season with sea salt, pepper and cayenne (optional). Set aside.
3. In a separate bowl, toss the sliced onion with the remaining oil. Season with sea salt and pepper.
4. Using tongs, place the onions on the hot griddle. The onion will sizzle and smoke, which is why you want the exhaust fan on high otherwise your cooking will rouse your smoke alarms. Keep turning the onions until they turn light brown. The caramelization has started.
5. Add the seasoned chicken or alternative. Toss well with tongs, combining the protein with the onions. Stir and toss until all pieces are cooked evenly and acquire a light brown patina.
6. Using oven mitts, transfer the sizzling hot cast-iron griddle to the wooden platter and carry it to the table where everyone is waiting for the feast to begin.
7. Serve with pasta, rice or a steamed green like spinach, broccoli or asparagus.
Top photo: Cast-iron Korean griddles on their heat-proof wooden platters at Gio Restaurant Equipment in Los Angeles. Credit: David Latt