Articles in Technique

Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.

I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.

“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”

I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.

Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.

Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.

Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.

Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:

  • Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
  • Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
  • Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
  • If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
  • Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.

We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.

Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.

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Forager Matt Cohen discovers the skunk cabbage, a harbinger of spring. Credit: Susan Lutz

Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of  birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.

Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.

It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.

My new home is full of surprises.

Bittercress Stir-Fry

Courtesy of Matt Cohen

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)

4 cups bittercress

1-2 tablespoons tamari

Directions

1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.

3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.

4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.

5. Add tamari to taste.

6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.

Main photo: Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

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A slice of rapini pie. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

I just made the pie of my dreams. The Ligurians might call it torta pasqualina, Easter tart, a savory spring pastry usually filled with spinach, chard or borage. Theirs is enveloped in 20 layers of a delicate, lean dough stretched with olive oil into paper-thin sheets — 10 on the bottom, 10 on top. Mine is encased in a flaky tent of buttery American pie crust. The filling? It too commemorates spring, but it contains none of the traditional vegetables. No timid spinach here, no sweet, fading chard. My pie is a renegade. Unlike the Italian original, it is filled with the big, bold flavors of rapini, or broccoli rabe as it is called in the United States.

RAPINI, BY ANY NAME


What it's called around the globe:

Bitter broccoli: America

Broccoletti (broccoli-like): Rome

Broccoletti di rapa (broccoli-like turnip greens): Rome/Lazio

Broccoli raab: America

Broccoli rabe: America

Cime di rapa (“turnip tops”): Italy

Cima di rapa (“turnip top”): Italy

Friggiarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Friarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Friarielli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Frigitelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Rome/Lazio

Rape (shortened from cime di rape): Italy

Rapi (colloquial): Umbria

Rapine: Italy

Rapini, rapini: southern Italy, America

Rappini: Sicily

“Robb”: America

Vruocculi: Calabria/Italy


More from Zester Daily:

» Tips for cooking great brassicas

» Vegan country collard greens

» Give turnip greens the Italian treatment

» Turning rapini into funky kimchi

Rapini was relatively unknown in the northern regions of Italy, or in America until recent years. Arguably the tastiest of all greens that descend from the wild plants that have carpeted southern Italy since primordial times, rapini mingled with onion, garlic, tangy pecorino, smoky bacon and just enough egg to hold it all together under a flaky crust is a new take on an ancient pie.

I developed the recipe as part of my promotional relationship with the California rapini growers D’Arrigo Brothers, which owns the Andy Boy broccoli rabe brand. Most of the market rapini, which has been grown in the United States since the early 1970s, comes from the D’Arrigo growers in California, a farming family that put down their Sicilian roots in rich Salinas soil in 1924.

They were the first to recover the heirloom seed on the mountain slopes of their native Sicily. (There, the vegetable is known as “rappini” with a double “p.”) They also were the first to adapt the plant (Brassica rapa ruvo, cime di rapa in Italian, literally, “turnip tops”) to the California climate.

If you are one of those eaters who has tried rapini but found it too bitter to enjoy, you will discover its sweet side if you cook it the Italian way. The trick is to first boil rapini in plenty of salted water. After draining, and while it is still somewhat wet, coddle the rapini in a sauté pan with warm, high-quality olive oil infused with fresh garlic.

We all know that boiling vegetables in salted water transforms their flavor. This is especially true in the case of rapini, or broccoli rabe, which goes from bitter to pleasantly pungent after brief boiling. I asked food science expert and best-selling author Harold McGee for the scientific explanation. McGee is the author of several books on the chemistry and history of food. He also writes a column for The New York Times.

“Boiling leaches out some flavor components, and some salt will get into the tissues and suppress the sensation of bitterness. This is well documented but not yet understood,” McGee said. “The impression of sweetness may also have to do with the boiling damaging the cell walls and making the cell fluids, sugars included, more accessible to the taste buds.”

Besides the cooking method, consider the season. Vegetables always taste best when they are grown and eaten according to nature’s rhythms, and rapini is no exception.

“At the end of April,” said Gabriela D’Arrigo, a third-generation member of the clan, “those greens are at their peak season, and sweeter than any other time of year.”

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Broccoletti capati, "ready-to-go rapini" for sale at the Campo dei Fiori market, Rome. The Roman name for the vegetable is "broccoletti di rapa." Credit: Paolo Destefanis / www.paolodestefanis.com

Rapini Pie

Serves 6 to 8

This is my emigrant version of Italy’s torta pasqualina, also called scarpazzone. “Scarpa,” shoe, refers to the frugal peasant practice of including the stalk along with the leaves in the filling mixture. I do the same here, using the entirety of two rapini bunches, stems and tops alike (they really shrink after boiling). In the traditional spinach or chard version, pancetta pairs irresistibly with those mild, garlicky greens, but I prefer smoky bacon as a counterpoint to the pungent rapini in my newfound filling.

For the crust:

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, well chilled or frozen

6 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, well chilled or frozen

1 large egg

1 tablespoon lemon juice or unflavored vinegar

5 to 7 tablespoons ice water, just as needed

For the filling:

2 bunches rapini (“broccoli rabe”)

2 tablespoons kosher salt

3 slices bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large onion, chopped

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

3 large eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon fine dried bread crumbs

½ cup freshly grated medium-aged pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna or cacio Toscano

½ teaspoon salt

freshly milled black pepper to taste

For the egg glaze:

1 egg yolk, beaten well with pinch of salt

Directions for the pie pastry

1. Combine the flour and salt and pulse a few times in a food processor to blend.

2. Add the cold butter and vegetable shortening and pulse only until the fat is cut into bits the size of peas.

3. Through the processor’s feed tube, add the egg and lemon juice or vinegar, pulse once or twice, then add the ice water one tablespoon at a time, pulsing once or twice between additions, only until dough begins to show some clumps. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the inside walls of the vessel. Do not form a dough ball on the blade.

4. Turn dough out onto a piece of wax paper (if it looks sandy and dry, sprinkle on a tiny bit more water) and use your hands to bring it together into a ball. It should hold the form of your fingers when squeezed. Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or for up to 5 days until you are ready to make the filling.

Note: If butter and vegetable shortening were frozen, dough can be rolled without prior chilling.

Directions for the filling

1. Wash the rapini in cold water, drain.

2. Detach and separate the stems from the tops of the vegetable. Set the tops and the leaves aside. Using a small, sharp knife, peel any especially tough skin from the thicker lower stalks, much like you would peel the tough skin from the bottom of asparagus stalks.

3. Fill a large pot with plenty of water to cover all the greens and bring to a rolling boil. Add the kosher salt and the peeled stems, cover partially, and boil over high heat for 7 minutes. Now add the florets and leaves and cook them together with the stems for 3 minutes more. Drain the greens and allow them to cool. With your hands, squeeze out as much water as you can. Chop them finely and set aside.

4. Warm a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and cook the bacon until it begins to color, about 7 minutes. Drain off excess fat, stir in the butter and add the onion to the pan. Adjust the heat to medium-low and sauté until the onion is transparent, another 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and continue to sauté gently for about another 3 minutes until it softens and the onions are lightly colored, but do not brown the mixture. Stir in the rapini mixture, turning it over with the bacon and onion mixture to combine. Set aside to cool.

5. In an ample bowl, beat the eggs lightly and mix in the bread crumbs, grated cheese, salt and pepper. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the cooled rapini mixture, blending well.

6. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Select a 10-inch tart pan or pie tin. Butter it lightly. Divide the chilled dough into two portions, one slightly larger than the other. To use, roll out the larger ball of dough on a lightly floured, wide sheet of parchment or waxed paper using a floured rolling pin. Form an 11-inch round. Drape it around the pin and transfer it to the pie pan. Press it gently onto the bottom and sides.

7. Spoon in the filling.

8. Roll out the second ball of dough in the same manner into a slightly smaller circle. Lay it over the filling. Crimp the edges together to seal and trim off any excess to form an even edge. Cut a slash in the top to allow steam to escape. If there are any dough scraps, gather them up, re-roll them, and cut out leaves or rosettes. Decorate the top of the pie with the cutouts, pressing them gently onto the crust.

9. Brush the crust with the beaten egg and bake in the preheated oven until golden, about 1 hour, 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer it to a rack to cool for about 10 minutes. Serve hot or warm, cut into wedges.

Note: This pie keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat it in an oven preheated to 350 F until warm throughout, 20 to 30 minutes.

Top photo: A slice of rapini pie. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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A shepherd in the mountains near Sigishoara, Transylvania. Credit: Cordell Barron

In the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, western Romania, where transhumance — the movement of animals between winter and summer pastures — is still practiced, shepherds will now be settling their animals in the high meadows after a trek that could have lasted five weeks or more. Late autumn last year, these shepherds left with their flocks to walk hundreds of kilometers east, to the Danube floodplains, or northwest, to the lowland plains near Hungary. Now they’re back in their summer home.

A lack of historical records makes it impossible to establish a precise time that long-distance transhumance began in the Carpathians but, since the region’s shepherd communities date to the pre-Roman Dacians, it is likely that this form of year-round grazing has been practiced since then. They are part of a tradition that stretches throughout the Balkans to northern and central Greece and Albania; their movements between these countries were only curtailed by World War I, when new country borders were created and passports were needed to cross them.

Timing the spring trek

One income source for the shepherds is the lamb they can provide for Easter tables. Romanians consider a 10-kilogram (22-pound) lamb the perfect size for this, so the animal needs to be eight to 10 weeks old. The shepherds time their trek to arrive in the Carpathian uplands for lambing to take place there around early March, depending on when the Orthodox Easter falls that year. Flocks comprise sheep belonging to a number of villagers, and each sheep is marked, to distinguish it from a neighbor’s.

This biannual journey enriches the landscapes the animals cross by fertilizing the soils in the migratory corridors with sheep dung and encourages a remarkably rich biodiversity by transporting fruits and seeds on the wool. It has also, over the centuries, led to extensive cultural exchanges as the shepherds traveled long distances in search of grazing, and many contemporary traditions — in food, literature and song — have their roots in this practice.

Both landscapes and traditions are now in danger of disappearing. Land that has been an open route for the shepherds for centuries is becoming privately owned, motorists don’t take kindly to a flock of hundreds of sheep crossing the road in front of them, and many flocks are now transported in trucks.

A mobile dairy

Mamaliga fritters with mushroom sauce and pickled peppers. Credit: Rosemary Barron

Mamaliga fritters with mushroom sauce and pickled peppers. Credit: Rosemary Barron

During the trek, the ewes’ milk is made into cas and urda, two fresh cheeses similar in texture, respectively, to ricotta and Greek mizythra, and cascaval, a semi-hard cheese that’s kept for up to three months. Later in the summer, when the milk has a higher fat content, it’s turned into a feta-like cheese called telemea. The curds are salted, wrapped into cheesecloth orbs, and hung for 24 hours before they are placed on slatted wooden shelves to settle into heavy discs of mountain cheese. The nutrient-rich whey is given to the pigs and sheepdogs. Some of the cheeses are allocated to the sheep owners, the remainder sold at local markets.

Over the centuries, the shepherds have perfected the art of turning fresh milk into products that can be kept longer than a few hours. As well as cheeses, they make smantana, similar to soured cream or thick yogurt, which is the perfect accompaniment to another easily transportable food that has come to be known as the national dish of Romania, mamaliga.

Understanding Mamaliga

Mamaliga, a thick porridge made from maize flour (cornmeal), is similar to the polenta of northern Italy and other parts of the Balkans. Served in a huge variety of ways, it’s not unusual to find mamaliga on Romanian tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As cornmeal is easy to store, transport and cook, it is the perfect staple food for a long trek. The shepherds make mamaliga in large cauldrons suspended over an open fire and are particularly fond of it with small game and sarmale (stuffed fresh or slightly fermented cabbage leaves). Often, though, it’s eaten alone, with smantana or cheese, or wrapped around fresh, white cheese to make a grapefruit-size ball (or “bear”), which is wrapped in foil and baked in charcoal.

The best mamaliga is made from coarse, stone-ground cornmeal that retains some of the hull and germ of the grain, producing a thick, yellow-gold porridge with a slightly crunchy texture. For Romanian cooks, the making of mamaliga involves many rituals, some of which touch on the semi-mystical in the same way as bread-baking and grape-stomping do, and they use a special saucepan (ceaun) for the process. Modern cooks, however, frequently use a commercial coarse cornmeal that considerably cuts the preparation time. Both types of cornmeal are suitable for making these fitters, a popular to way to serve mamaliga at home.

Mamaliga Fritters With Mushroom Sauce

For a true taste of Transylvania, use a mixture of sunflower oil and butter to fry the fritters, though olive oil gives a fine, if Mediterranean-flavored result, too. Serve with braised rabbit or chicken, with any manner of vegetables, or with mushrooms in sour cream.

Serves 3 to 4

For the mamaliga:

½ cup whole milk

1 cup water

¾ teaspoon fine-grain sea salt

1 scant cup coarse cornmeal (maize flour), preferably organic

3 tablespoons organic sunflower oil

2 tablespoons butter

For the mushroom sauce:

1 tablespoon butter

6 ounces wild, field or button mushrooms, wiped clean, trimmed and thinly sliced

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons sour cream, to taste

3 tablespoons lightly chopped fresh dill

For serving:

Watercress sprigs or other green leaves

Small pickled peppers

Directions

1. Combine the milk and water in a heavy saucepan, add the salt, and bring to barely a boil

2. Pour in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly in a clockwise direction with a wooden spoon. Over a low heat, simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the mixture is thick enough to just support the spoon standing upright. Set aside uncovered for 10 minutes

(If you are using a commercial cornmeal, follow the directions for a thick mixture.)

3. To make the mushroom sauce, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small, heavy saucepan set over low heat. Add the mushrooms, cover the pan, and simmer 6-8 minutes (button mushrooms) to up to 15 minutes (field or wild mushrooms), until soft. Strain the mushrooms over a bowl and set both mushrooms and liquor aside.

4. Turn out the cornmeal (mamaliga) onto a wooden board and spread into a 1-inch-thick layer with a spatula or palette knife. Smooth the surface and neaten the edges. Cut into 2×3-inch rectangles, or any shape you prefer (but keep manageable in size, otherwise they will break up later). Use the palette knife to loosen each one from the board

5. Set a frying pan over low-medium heat and add the sunflower oil and 2 tablespoons butter. When hot but not smoking, fry the fritters until golden brown on both sides, turning once.

6. Meanwhile, check the mushroom cooking liquor. If there is more than 4 tablespoons, reduce in a heavy pan set over medium heat. Lower the heat, add the mushrooms and stir in the sour cream. Heat to hot but not boiling (or the cream will curdle and spoil the appearance of the dish). Gently stir in the dill and add salt and pepper (the sauce should be highly seasoned)

7. Transfer the fritters to a warm platter and surround with watercress, pickles, and the mushroom sauce.

Top photo: A shepherd in the mountains near Sigishoara, Transylvania. Credit: Cordell Barron

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Whole wheat pancakes. Credit: Jacob VanHouten/iStock

The soup kitchen where I work has a beautiful griddle, perfect for pancakes — the food that spins my world. Yet I’ve been hesitant to make them because I like to serve them fresh, and serving 100 people necessitates making them ahead of time and keeping them warm. I’m also dedicated to whole grains, but people who eat here are the same as many Americans, dubious about whether they’ll like whole-grain foods. I often hear people ask for white bread for breakfast and reject whole-wheat rolls for lunch.

These breads are soft stuff that comes from plastic sleeves, the easy-to-catch remnants from supermarkets. Stale bread travels more freely to food pantries and soup kitchens than other foods, such as produce. That’s because bread looks better longer than fruit and vegetables, which show smelly and off-putting signs of age sooner. Produce is just more perishable than bread.

Plus, produce is more susceptible to food-safety problems. When’s the last time you heard of a sliced bread recall? You can probably remember salmonella in spinach, tomatoes and jalapeño peppers, not to mention more shelf-stable foods, such as peanuts.

How we got hooked on white bread

The preference for white bread goes beyond its mere shelf-stability. Long a hallmark of the rich, white flour only became inexpensive in the late 1800s, when roller milling became common.

White flour is made from just the endosperm, the center part of a grain kernel, minus the bran and germ. These subtractions were pricey when stone milling was the main route to flour. Bran and germ also offer problems.

Roller milling was a boon to flour because it separates the component parts of the grain, making it easier to divide them. Germ contains oils that make flour spoil more easily. These oils can also gum up the mill process. In Michael Pollan’s latest book “Cooked,” anonymous millers told him that germ is such a trouble to milling that it is generally removed from national brands of whole-wheat flour.

Bran is less bothersome at the mill, but bakers don’t love how it acts like knives in rising dough. This makes whole-wheat breads more dense than their puffy, fluffy, white cousins.

This is because wheat’s main goal is reproduction. Wheat germ is the part of a kernel meant to start another plant. Bran is several layers of armor that protect the next generation of wheat — the germ and its food, the endosperm. Any function or flavor we get is secondary to the plant’s intention.

While bran’s benefits used to be dismissed, the current thinking is that the indigestible fiber slows down metabolism of the starches in flour. Because starches convert to sugars in digestion, eating whole grains translates to lower blood-sugar levels. However, habits make whole-grain baked goods a hard sell.

Bran and germ contain most of the flavor you can find in a wheat berry. That starchy endosperm doesn’t have a lot of flavor on its own. White flour takes its flavors from its processing. White flour gets flavors from fermentation (by yeast or sourdough), from salt and sweeteners added during processing, and from the chemical reactions of baking, which both colors and creates crust.

Embracing whole wheat

Whole-grain flours have more taste, and that is troubling. Luckily, there are some methods to help the dedicated white-flour eater take the leap.

Just as some fish are more fishy tasting than others, some whole wheats are wheatier. As with fish, freshness counts a lot, too.

Wheats are red or white. This classification refers to the color of the bran. Red wheats have more tannins than whites. Tannins in whole wheat can be perceived as bitter. However, even dedicated whole wheatsters like me can taste the sweetness of white wheats. I am a huge fan.

More reds are grown than whites because white wheats tend to sprout easily in the field. This is another example of the plant’s first function taking precedence over its edibility again.

Brands to consider

If you can get locally grown and milled flour, find out about the color of the kernels. I have a pretty steady affection for the white whole-wheat pastry flour from Farmer Ground Flour. The pancakes I make from it ride little magic carpets in my mind. They’re oh so sweet and fluffy.

White whole-wheat flours are manufactured by many national brands. My favorite are King Arthur, Arrowhead and Bob’s Red Mill. If you are trying to persuade people to use whole grains, these types of flour are good suggestions for first-time users.

Of course, there is still the hurdle of texture, especially in leavened breads. Whether the wheat is white or red, the knife-like action of bran can keep your loaf from fluffing. If you’re baking for eaters who demand softness, use half white whole-wheat flour and half unbleached flour. You could ease people into your program with foods that are supposed to be denser, like banana breads, where you could easily get away with 100% white whole-wheat flour.

Don’t cater too much to those preferences, though. When I made pancakes at work, I used a combination of King Arthur white whole-wheat flour and that heavenly pastry flour from Farmer Ground. The cakes were light, fluffy and well-loved. We served scrambled eggs, sausages and pancakes topped with blueberries.

The only complaints we got were from people who didn’t like pancakes for lunch.

Top photo: Whole-wheat pancakes. Credit: Jacob VanHouten/iStock

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Potato Kebabs (Kartof Kababï). Credit: Charles Perry

They like their shish kebab in the Caucasus. The Azerbaijanis even make a potato version. It’s not really that exotic — just a fancier way of making roasted potatoes, really — but it is delicious, looks cool and might help vegetarians feel less like wallflowers at the barbecue.

The idea is simple. String small potatoes on skewers and grill until nicely browned. To serve, sprinkle with salt, red pepper, green onions and melted butter. It’s the sort of thing that is quite convenient to do when you’re barbecuing something else.

Probably the Azerbaijanis’ inspiration was the older Middle Eastern tradition of grilling chunks of eggplant on a skewer. They adapted the dish to the potato after it arrived from the New World. And they did the same with another New World import, the tomato.

Tomato kebab is a little less exotic though, at least if you were around for the Greek food craze that swept the country in the 1960s. Back then souvlaki just wasn’t souvlaki unless you inserted cherry tomatoes between your chunks of wine-marinated beef. Pomidor kababï is the same idea except that it does without the meat.

Interestingly, according to the photo I’ve seen, the tomatoes are pierced through the sides, rather than from the stem end. The recipe recommended small, juicy, fully ripe tomatoes, apparently of some size between cherry and Roma, which I imagine are best if you can get them.

Both these ideas come from “Azärbayjan Kulinariyasï,” a polyglot coffee-table cookbook published in Azeri, Russian and English.

Yes, there is an English translation but you can’t necessarily go by it. Take the recipe for gabirga-kabab, which reads, “Cut into equal pieces fat mutton brisket. These pieces string on a spit with flesh on one side and roast over charcoals. Dress with coiled onions, shredded herbs and pomegranate grains, when serving.”

From studying the Azeri and Russian texts and the photos, you can figure out that “coiled onions” are onion rings, “shredded herbs” are cilantro and “pomegranate grains” can be narsharab, a sweet-sour molasses made from boiled-down pomegranate juice, like the Lebanese dibs rumman but rather more tart.

As for this potato kebab recipe, the book calls for 16 “middle-sized potatoes left whole” but the photo shows oblong new potatoes cut in half. It sounds as if you can use just about any smallish spuds so long as they aren’t so thick that they will take too long to cook.

By the way, if you’re thinking about grilling tomatoes this way, you had better use the Middle Eastern skewers with a flat blade shape. On old-fashioned round skewers, the tomatoes will tend to slip, making it hard to turn the skewer over. They will cook in about 20 minutes.

Potato Kebabs (Kartof Kababï)

Serves 2

Ingredients

6 small potatoes

2 ounces (½ stick) butter, melted

Salt and ground red pepper to taste

1 bunch green onions, roots and ½ of green part trimmed

Directions

1. Cut and skewer the potatoes. Remove the eyes.

2. Start your barbecue. If using charcoal, burn until the briquettes are covered with gray ash.

3. Brush the potatoes very lightly with melted butter and grill, turning over from time to time to check doneness. When the potatoes can easily be pierced with a fork (taking care not to break them) and are browned on  both sides, about 45 minutes, remove and serve, sprinkled with salt and pepper and garnished with green onions with the rest of the melted butter on the side.

Top photo: Potato Kebabs (Kartof Kababï). Credit: Charles Perry

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Tortilla Espanola. Credit: Terra Brockman

I know spring has sprung when the hens start churning out eggs, and when the root vegetables from last fall start to sprout. And I know that now is the perfect time to use those new eggs and old potatoes in a classic Spanish tortilla, or tortilla Española.

Before getting to this workhorse of Spanish cuisine, which according to Penelope Casas in her classic “The Foods and Wines of Spain,” “can be eaten at any time of the day or night, and transcends any conventional meal categories,” let’s visit the hens and potatoes.

Even while snow covered the ground in mid-March, the eggs started rolling in because bird brains and bodies respond not to temperature, but to day length. And when there are more than 12 hours of light, the hens kick into high gear. This makes sense when you consider that the best time to bring a baby chick into the world is when it’s a hospitable place with a smorgasbord of tender vegetation, worms and insects.

Potatoes don’t have brains (although they do have eyes), but nature has nevertheless made them wise, and they respond to both temperature and light. As long as it is dark and cool, they stay in a state of suspended animation. But introduce some light and heat, as I do when I periodically move potatoes from the root cellar into the kitchen cabinet, and before you know it, you have sprouts. Depending on the variety of potato, the sunward-yearning sprouts, with a burst of proto-roots at their base, can be white, pink or lovely lavender.

Don’t worry about those sprouts

Of course, “lovely” and “sprout” don’t usually go together when people talk about potatoes. If you buy non-organic potatoes, it’s probably been decades since you’ve had one sprout on you. Many people think a sprouted potato is one that has gone bad.

But what’s really bad is that the vast majority of potatoes in our food chain are sprayed with chemicals — usually chlorpropham or maleic hydrazide, under brand names such as Bud Nip or Taterpex. These plant growth regulators inhibit cell division so the treated potatoes won’t send up sprouts for up to a year after harvest. This is just the way growers, shippers and grocery stores want them.

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A potato beginning to sprout. Credit: Terra Brockman

But it may not be the way you want them. Many consumers prefer organic produce to food that has been treated with pesticides, synthetic fertilizer and other chemicals. While there are valid food preservation and economic incentives to use chemicals to prevent sprouting, it also makes sense to try to lighten our toxic load at every opportunity.

Many European Union countries have banned at least one of the common plant growth inhibitors, maleic hydrazide. Meanwhile, in the U.S., we hear little or nothing about sprout-inhibiting chemicals, and go happily on our way, believing that an un-sprouted potato is fresh and perfect, while the sprouted one is old and possibly dangerous.

It is true that the green-tinged potatoes, and in particular their sprouts, contain naturally-occurring glycoalkaloids, which are toxic at high concentrations. But once you pare away any green spots, and snap off any sprouts, you’ve got a perfectly good potato, ready to be married with some new eggs in a Spanish tortilla.

Simple ingredients combine for a spring Spanish tortilla

Penelope Casas writes that “A Spanish tortilla has nothing in common with its Mexican counterpart except its Latin root — torte, meaning a round cake.” There are fancier recipes to be found, but this five-ingredient version, adapted from Casas, is the truest and best I know. So get some fresh eggs and scoop those sprouting potatoes out of your cabinet. It’s springtime and that’s tortilla time.

Tortilla Espanola

Serves 4 as a main course, or 8 as an appetizer

Ingredients

¼ cup olive oil (or more to keep potatoes from sticking together)

4 or 5 waxy potatoes such as Yukon Gold (about 1½ pounds) sliced into ¼-inch rounds

1 medium Spanish onion, ¼-inch dice

Salt to taste

5 large eggs

Directions

1. In a deep 9-inch skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the potato slices one at a time and alternate layers of potato and onion, salting the layers generously. Cook slowly over medium-heat, lifting and turning now and then. You don’t want the potatoes or onions to brown, just to soften nicely. The potatoes should be tender, but not breaking apart or sticking together.

2. While the potatoes are cooking (15 to 20 minutes), lightly beat the eggs with a generous pinch of salt, and set aside. When the potato-onion mixture is cooked, gently drain in a colander set over a bowl, saving the oil for later.

3. Put the potato-onion mixture into a bowl, and let cool about 5 minutes. Then pour the beaten eggs over the mixture, and let it sit anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours. This step helps marry the flavors.

4. In a 10-inch non-stick pan, heat about a tablespoon of the reserved oil. Dump the egg-potato-onion mixture into the pan, as if it were a thick omelet. Cook about halfway through, until the bottom is golden brown. Most of the egg on the top should be almost but not quite set.

5. Using a large inverted plate set on top of the pan, carefully flip the omelet onto the plate.

6. Add another half tablespoon of the reserved olive oil to the pan, and carefully slide the tortilla back into the pan, to finish cooking, which will take only a minute or two. Slide onto a plate, and serve hot or at room temperature.

Top photo: Tortilla Espanola. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Spuma di tonno sott’olio. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Canned tuna is one of those great foods that is undervalued and underappreciated. You need to think of it as more than cat food for humans. Canned tuna is more than something you dump mayonnaise into for a sandwich. Canned tuna can be the basis for some impressive and noble dishes.

You will need to think beyond the standard dried out albacore tuna sold as some kind of bland chicken from the sea. What you really are looking for is tender tuna packed in olive oil. This is what the Italians call tonno sott’olio. Its uses are many, and the Italians will incorporate it into toast points, salads and tossed with pasta.

One delightful way of using canned tuna is for an antipasto from the region of Umbria called spuma di tonno sott’olio, which means “foam of tuna under oil.”

The Italian spuma, which means foam, is given to preparations that are beaten or whipped so the final result is not quite like the ethereal preparations found in the avant-garde cooking of 21st-century restaurant chefs called foams, but is meant to be light and flavorful. As Umbria is an inland region without a coastline, its seafood has traditionally been preserved either with salt or in oil or vinegar.

So now the bad news, or should I say the cautionary news? Good quality oil-packed tuna is going to be more expensive than the tuna you’re used to buying.

Consider this: You go to the market to buy fresh sashimi-grade tuna belly and it’s $25 a pound and tastes wonderful. Do you think your $3 a pound chunk light tuna canned in water is going to taste remotely similar? No, it’s not, and that’s why you need to think of this preparation as something special and look for some Italian tuna fillets packed in the best extra virgin olive oil. A 6-ounce jar will probably cost you $15.

You can preserve your own tuna too. Place the freshly bought tuna in a pan filled with water salted with sea salt and bring to a gentle boil. Turn the heat off and let the tuna sit in the hot water for 20 minutes. Then drain, pat dry with paper towels and pack the fish in glass jars and fill with the best olive oil. The tuna pieces can also be deep fried instead of poached. This is a special antipasto so treat it specially.

Spuma di Tonno sott’Olio

Serves 8 as an antipasto course

Ingredients

12 ounces canned tuna in extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons anchovy paste

½ pound mascarpone cheese

Olive oil

1 hard-boiled large egg, shelled and sliced

1 oil-preserved artichoke heart, sliced

Directions

1. Blend the tuna in a food processor with the anchovy paste and mascarpone until smooth. Place parchment paper in a 5-by-2-inch round terrine, and oil the parchment paper well with olive oil.

2. Spoon the mixture in and smooth the top flat. Cover with plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate for 2 hours. Unmold and garnish the top with sliced hard-boiled egg and artichokes and serve.

 Top photo: Spuma di tonno sott’olio. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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The author's favorite birthday cake since childhood: chocolate, topped with her mom's buttercream frosting and chocolate chips. Credit: Tina Caputo

My birthday falls just after the first day of spring, and along with warm sunny weather there’s one thing I always look forward to when the season changes and I clock in another year on the green side of the grass: cake. Not just any cake, but a rich chocolate one slathered with my mom’s famous vanilla buttercream frosting.

I don’t normally get excited about frosting — it’s usually too sweet or too gritty for my taste — but this one has a light and silky texture, with the perfect amount of sweetness and vanilla flavor. I could eat it with a spoon (and sometimes do).

I can’t think of anything more perfect for topping a springtime cake, whether it’s devil’s food, yellow or red velvet.

Mom’s magical frosting is based on a recipe she found in an Eastern Star cookbook, a post-wedding gift from her grandmother in the mid-1960s. Mom fiddled around with the recipe, tweaking the amount of sugar and flour, and eliminating the use of shortening until she made it her own. “After that I don’t think I ever made another frosting,” she told me.

Mom’s process involves boiling milk and flour in a saucepan until it’s thick and lump free. While the mixture cools, butter, margarine and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until fluffy and creamy. The cooled flour mixture is gradually added to the mixing bowl, along with vanilla, until all the ingredients are incorporated and the frosting looks like whipped cream.

When I asked my mom why she uses equal parts margarine and butter in her recipe, she wasn’t exactly sure. “The original recipe called for half shortening,” she said, “but I couldn’t stand the idea of eating raw Crisco.” She thought margarine was a more palatable option.

Although the Eastern Star recipe was simply titled “Frosting,” mom has always called her frosting “buttercream.” I recently learned that technically, that’s not quite correct.

Classic buttercream frosting

According to John Difilippo, who teaches baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, there are many versions of buttercream frosting. But the one most commonly used by American pastry chefs, he said, is Italian buttercream. It’s made by boiling sugar and water into a syrup and combining the mixture with whipped egg whites. Finally, butter and vanilla are beaten into the mixture until smooth. French and Swiss versions are slightly different, but all include egg whites or whole eggs, and some form of cooking to pasteurize the eggs and ensure a more stable frosting.

Difilippo had never heard of a buttercream recipe quite like my mom’s, but he was able to solve the shortening mystery.

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Butter and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Credit: Tina Caputo

“It’s a very common process, just for saving cost,” he said. “Crisco is much cheaper than butter.”

The person who contributed the Eastern Star recipe may have learned it from a relative who grew up during the Depression, when many people couldn’t afford the luxury of an all-butter frosting or one using eggs.

“A lot of people simply make recipes the way their mother or grandmother taught them,” Difilippo said.

True enough. For all the years I’ve been making my mom’s frosting, I’ve always used equal parts butter and margarine. Now that I know the reason behind the margarine, it’s going to be all butter from here on out.

I don’t think my mom will mind my tinkering with her recipe. After all, she’s the one who started it.

Karen’s Buttercream Frosting

Makes enough for one 9-inch layer cake (if you like a lot of frosting on your cakes, increase recipe by one half)

Ingredients

1 cup milk

4½ tablespoons flour

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, room temperature

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

1. Cook milk and flour in a saucepan until mixture is thick and starts to bubble, starting at medium heat, then turning down to low. Stir constantly to make sure there are no lumps. Remove from heat, cover pan and let cool completely.

2. Beat butter in a stand mixer at medium speed, adding sugar a little at a time, until mixture is very creamy and fluffy. Be patient — this will take about five minutes.

3. While mixing at low/medium speed, gradually add the cooled flour/milk mixture, then the vanilla, until all ingredients are incorporated. The finished frosting should be light and fluffy, similar to whipped cream.

Top photo: The author’s favorite birthday cake since childhood — chocolate, topped with her mom’s buttercream frosting and chocolate chips. Credit: Tina Caputo

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