Articles in Tradition

A live Dungeness crab. Credit: David Gomez/iStock

As Americans there are certain holiday food traditions many of us share: turkey at Thanksgiving, gingerbread at Christmas. But in addition to these commonalities, regional specialties, from tamales in Texas to kalua turkeys in Hawaii, contribute local flavor to our celebrations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the holiday table wouldn’t be complete without Dungeness crabs.

This succulent bottom-feeder was first harvested commercially from the San Francisco/Bodega Bay waters in the mid-1800s, and Bay Area residents have been feasting on its sweet meat ever since.

The region’s commercial crab fishing season opens just before Thanksgiving and lasts only as long as the crabs do. Often, the supply runs out not long after the ringing in of the New Year. With such a short season, Northern Californians strive to eat as many Dungeness crabs as possible before they disappear — and what better time to do it than the holidays?

Unlike the ubiquitous Thanksgiving turkey, Dungeness crabs are not associated with a particular winter holiday. Some people have them for Christmas, others for New Year’s Eve, or even Black Friday.

For Joy Sterling, whose family owns Iron Horse Vineyards in western Sonoma County, Thanksgiving is the best time for crabs. “Our tradition is to start with cold, cracked Dungeness crab fresh from Bodega Bay, just 13 miles from us as the crow flies,” she said. It’s served buffet style, as a pre-turkey appetizer, along with the winery’s unoaked Chardonnay. “We like a traditional Louis dressing, which is a Northern California invention, sliced Meyer lemons, bright Rangpur limes and regular limes.”

At the Stony Point location of Oliver’s Market in Santa Rosa, people begin lining up at 6:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve to buy Dungeness crabs for their holiday feasts. Before the day is over, the store will easily sell 1,000 pounds of crab. “It takes at least an hour to get through the line,” crab-lover Kelly Keagy of Santa Rosa said, “but people are nice and in a good mood.”

Keagy’s family has been eating crabs on Christmas Eve for the last 10 years, accompanied by warm sourdough bread and salad. “When the kids were little, crab wouldn’t have been high on their list of favorite foods,” she said. “Now that everybody is older, crab and Champagne are the highlights of our Christmas Eve.”

Supply and demand

Having a family tradition of eating Dungeness crabs at Thanksgiving can be a bit risky, due to supply fluctuations. Some would even call it foodhardy.

“Three things can affect availability at Thanksgiving,” said Scott Lenhart, founder of San Francisco Crabs, which supplies live Dungeness crabs to individuals, restaurants and retailers. “One is a bad crab season, or something like the oil spill a few years ago where they don’t catch any. Second, there can be strikes, when crab fishermen are negotiating for pricing. Then you can also have horrendous weather.”

International orders can also cut into the local crab supply. “China’s taken a huge amount of crab from us, and that’s one reason the prices are going up,” Lenhart said. “There’s a huge Asian market for Dungeness crab for special occasions, and for the rising middle class.”

Nick’s Cove crab cakes. Credit: Justin Lewis.

Nick’s Cove crab cakes. Credit: Justin Lewis

And because Northern California’s Dungeness crab season opens before those in Oregon and Alaska, out-of-state crabbers head south to get an early start. “They come to our waters and scour our crabs,” Lenhart said.

Even so, he always has Dungeness crabs on his Thanksgiving table. “I’ve been having Dungeness crab with turkey for a long time,” he said. The crabs are simply boiled with a little sea salt, and eaten without embellishment. “You don’t need garlic or butter. It’s good right out of the pot as soon as it’s cool enough to eat.”

Getting creative with crabs

At Nick’s Cove Restaurant, in the town of Marshall on Tomales Bay, executive chef Austin Perkins gives Dungeness crabs a gourmet twist. For the restaurant’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, as an alternative to the traditional turkey entrée, he serves up wood-fired whole Dungeness crab with fingerling potatoes and rosemary butter.

“Dungeness is a little bit sweeter and a lot milder than most other types of crab,” Perkins said. “We use it in many different ways at the restaurant, from crab cakes to our Dungeness crab mac and cheese.”

For those boiling crabs at home, he offered this advice: “After cooking, you need to remove the top part of the crab’s shell and remove all the intestines. After that, look for grayish gills on the sides and scrape those away as well.” Then the crab is ready to crack and eat, or use in a recipe.

Although Lenhart of San Francisco Crabs prefers his Dungeness crabs unadorned, he said he also likes them deep fried, or simmered in cioppino, San Francisco’s signature fish stew. “There’s nothing wrong with ginger crab at a nice Chinese restaurant, either,” he said. “But for Thanksgiving, you don’t need any sauces. You just can’t beat it.”

Nick’s Cove Dungeness Crab Cakes

Cooking Time: About 6 minutes per batch (3 minutes per side)

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3/4 pound Dungeness crab meat, cooked and shelled

2 cups mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 cup panko bread crumbs, plus an additional 1/2 cup for coating

Oil for pan frying (preferably rice bran oil or vegetable oil)

For garnish:

Spicy Paprika Aioli (recipe below)

Arugula and shaved fennel

Directions

1. Place all ingredients in a large bowl and combine with hands until thoroughly mixed.

2. Weigh out 1 1/2 ounce portions and form them into cakes.

3. Roll cakes to coat in more panko, and brown them on the top and bottom surfaces in a hot sauté pan coated with oil (about 3 tablespoons, enough to cover the bottom of the pan).

4. Serve with Spicy Paprika Aioli, arugula and shaved fennel.

Spicy Paprika Aioli

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons smoked paprika

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper

1/2 tablespoon salt

Directions

Whisk everything together to combine.

Main photo: A live Dungeness crab. Credit: David Gomez/iStock

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Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Di Carroll always knew she wanted to live in Italy. Brought up in Cheshire, North West England, she felt an overwhelming affinity toward all things Italian from an early age, studied Italian at university, and worked as a translator, interpreter and wine merchant. Carroll’s particular love of Piedmont dates from a holiday trip to Turkey she took with her brother while still in her teens: The siblings made friends with a Piedmontese family, who invited them to visit during their journey back to the U.K.

From the start, Carroll says she was captivated with the Piedmont region in northern Italy. “I saw the hills and vines, castles and little villages, and immediately fell in love. We sat under the fig tree in our friend’s garden and they pointed out the ripe, black figs they would pick next morning for breakfast. It’s a memory I’ve always kept — and now I can do the same,” she says.

Carroll and her husband, Pete, moved to Italy 13 years ago. Their old farmhouse in the Basso Monferrato is remote, peaceful and off the “expat” track. It is not a tourist area, but it is within the official Barbera growing area and Pete cultivates a small vineyard for their own consumption.

Regional Piedmont cookbook

Carroll has slowly been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cooking skills. As we talked in her farmhouse kitchen in front of a wood-burning stove (“fabulous for roast chicken”), she was excited to show off a bottle of Gambadpernis (Partridge Leg), a lovely new DOC wine made by neighbor Bussi Piero.

“The production is tiny, there are only a few producers. Of course, they’ve been making wine ’round here for generations, although often they would just keep a lot of the grapes, dry them and eat them for Christmas,” she says.

[To earn DOC status (Denomination of Controlled Origin), a wine has to be made from grapes from a particular defined area and pass strict tests for standards in alcohol content, flavor, aroma, color and more. It ensures that the consumer is drinking an authentic wine, not a counterfeit or adulterated one.]

dicarrol

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Di Carroll, who moved to Italy with her husband 13 years ago, fell in love with the Piedmont region as a teen. She has been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cookery skills. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Carroll explained the concept of the congenial merenda sinoira, a gathering of a half-dozen people or more, where everyone gathers to talk and nibble around a farmhouse table laden with salami, ham and cheese, and a pezzo forte, a pasta piece de resistance — usually pasta with butter, sage and Parmesan.

“It’s a lovely ritual, which is why I decided to get a really large table, so when visitors come, that’s where we sit, not in armchairs and sofas,” she says.

Traditional Piedmont dishes

For Carroll, Piedmont is the perfect Italian region. “The continuity of food and life is important here. The Piedmontese have a unique style and outlook on life. They are courteous and respect your boundaries, welcoming and attentive, and they have a way of making you feel you matter.

“They are still very die-hard about eating their traditional dishes and particular about the quality of their ingredients. People still keep rabbits and hens for food,” she says. “In every family vineyard you will still find two or three mixed vines for the table. My butcher’s beef comes from two miles down the road, and he goes to see the animals before they are slaughtered to choose which one he wants. My main problem at first was that they don’t hang the meat here for any length of time. The butcher now matures it for three weeks for me, but I still can’t convince any of my Italian friends to do the same.

“Every house has a copy of The Silver Spoon, but there is still a great oral tradition of handing recipes down. As well as personal variations, many villages also have their own collective recipes, recipes that belong to the village. At the annual fiera (fair), when they open up the wine cellars, each one offers a traditional dish to go with the wine samples,” Carroll says.

Nonetheless, Carroll says she has brought a little bit of Britain to her corner of a foreign field. She is known locally for her occasional afternoon teas for female friends, complete with teapot (unheard of!) and fine bone china. As for her husband, he’s down at the local bar with the lads in the circulo, discussing everyone’s favorite subjects — politics. And football. And what’s for dinner that night.

La Bagna Càuda or Bagna Caoda (Hot dip)*

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

12 large cloves of garlic in their skins

12 salted anchovies

3 1/2 fluid ounces best-quality, fruity, aromatic olive oil

1 stick of unsalted butter

Black pepper, to taste

Chopped basil, to taste

Directions

1. Set the garlic to cook on a very low heat — between 175 F and 212 F, at the most — in the oven.

2. Meanwhile, melt the salted anchovies in the oil and butter, again on a very low heat, until they become a paste. If you do it on the stove, this part will take no more than 10 minutes.

3. When the garlic is soft and creamy, remove the skins, and mash them into the anchovy mixture. Season with black pepper and a little chopped basil, stir well.

* So called because it should always be served hot. This is usually served as a vegetable dip, with celery sticks, red bell pepper batons, roasted pumpkin pieces, endives, baked onions or raw fennel. Guests are given their bagna càuda in terra-cotta dishes over a tealight, which keeps it warm. It can also be served as a cold dressing on cooked bell peppers that have been cooked over a flame, skinned and arranged on a plate with the bagna càuda as a dressing.

Salsa Rossa

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 stick of celery, diced

1/2 onion, chopped finely

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (Ligurian preferred because of the fragrance and balance it gives to the sauce)

3 anchovy fillets in olive oil, crushed in a mortar

2 ounces fresh red peppers, chopped fine

1/2  fresh chili pepper

7 ounces tomato passata

1 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Red wine, to taste

Red wine vinegar, to taste

Directions

1. Gently fry the celery and onion in the oil.

2. When they start to turn light golden brown, stir in the anchovies, peppers, passata, sugar and black pepper. Add the wine and vinegar in small amounts and taste as you go; stirring spoon in one hand, tasting spoon in the other, until it you find a good sweet-sour-spicy balance of flavors that suit your palate.

3. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for a few minutes.

4. Serve as a condiment, rather than a covering sauce, with cold veal tongue.

Boiled veal tongue: Boil and simmer a fresh tongue in water with a bay leaf, large sprig of rosemary and an onion studded with a couple of cloves. The tongue is best made a day in advance.

Brasato al Barolo (Beef in Barolo)*

Prep time:  1 hour

Total time: 3 to 4 hours, plus overnight

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

4 ounces very thinly sliced lardo (or streaky bacon — not pancetta or lardons)

35 ounces pot roast beef, tied neatly with string

1 ounce unsalted butter

2 to 3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

2 to 3 sage leaves

Sprig of rosemary

Bay leaf

2 large cloves of garlic

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 or 2 cloves (the spice, not clove of garlic)

A “whiff” of cinnamon (the spicing has to be delicate)

1 bottle of Barolo or Barbera

Hot beef stock (homemade, preferably)

For the soffritto:

2 onions, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1 celery stick, chopped

A pinch of ground nutmeg

Directions

1. Cut the lardo into slivers.

2. Make small incisions into the meat and insert a piece of lardo into each one.

3. Fry the beef in butter and oil in a large casserole so it browns evenly on all sides.

4. Add the herbs and garlic to the pan and season with salt and pepper.

5. Add the spices (clove and cinnamon), heat gently for about 20 minutes with the lid halfway on.

6. Remove the meat, and replace any juices that drain from it back in the casserole. Set the meat aside.

7. Add the soffritto to the casserole dish, stir well, taste and add a little more salt. Replace the meat.

8. Add the wine and bring gently to a boil in order to evaporate the alcohol (otherwise it will be bitter).

9. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for at least 3 hours. Test periodically for “doneness” — when the meat feels very tender, almost falling apart. (You can cook it in the oven, but in Italy it is mostly done on top of the stove).

10. Top with hot stock from time to time, if necessary.

11. When done, remove from the heat and allow the meat to cool in its juices.

12. Several hours before serving, take the meat out and carve into medium-thick slices.

13. Strain the cooking juices and thicken slightly with cornstarch if desired.

14. Reheat the meat, arrange on a silver platter (if you wish to make a fine impression) and pour the sauce over the meat.

Tips for this recipe

  • This recipe needs Piedmont wine as it is most appropriate for the character of the dish, which is traditionally made in a deep, lidded casserole.
  • One of the secrets of success is to add a pinch of salt now and then, rather than in one go. Keep tasting as you go, it’s important to get the right balance of flavors.
  • The traditional accompaniment is potatoes mashed with olive oil and Parmesan, and carrot batons braised in oil and water, and sprinkled with fresh herbs such as sage, parsley and rosemary.

Il Bunet (or Bonet)

A chocolate and amaretti pudding favored throughout Piedmont.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 90 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

10 ounces amaretti biscuits

2 rounded tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder

17 fluid ounces whole milk

6 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of salt

2/3 cup white sugar

2 fluid ounces rum (optional, it was not used in days of yore)

1 cup sugar moistened with 2 tablespoons water for the caramel

One 2-pound rectangular loaf pan

Directions

1. Pulse the amaretti into a fine crumb in the food processor, mix in the cocoa powder, then add the milk.

2. Whip the egg whites into firm peaks with baking soda, taking care not to overbeat. Then whip the egg yolks and sugar into a velvety cream like zabaglione. Fold everything together carefully.

3. Make a caramel mixture by gently heating the sugar and 2 to 3 tablespoons water until the sugar dissolves; coat the bottom and sides of the loaf pan with the caramel mixture.

4. Pour the pudding mixture into the loaf pan and cook in a Bain Marie, or double-boiler bath, for 30 to 45 minutes at 350 F. When the pudding is firm to the touch and has pulled away from the sides of the pan, take it out of the oven, let it cool to room temperature before flipping over onto a serving platter and unmolding.

Hazelnut Cake

Often called La Langarola from the Piedmontese region of Le Langhe, which stretches south between Alba and Cuneo, and is where the renowned sweet round hazelnuts are cultivated.

Prep time: 1 hour

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

For the cake:

5 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of baking soda

3/4 cup light brown or granulated sugar

2 tablespoons rice or hazelnut oil (or a light sunflower oil)

2 1/2 cups finely chopped, skinned hazelnuts* or hazelnut flour if you can find it. (Processing the nuts in a food processor is acceptable, provided the result is a fairly fine crumble.)

Cinnamon or vanilla, if you prefer

The point of a knife blade of salt

Lined cake pan

Unsweetened cocoa powder, to dust baked cake

For the hazelnuts:

2 cups boiling water

3 cups baking soda

1 cup of hazelnuts

Bowl of very cold water

Directions

For the cake:

1. Whip the egg whites into peaks with baking soda; put to rest in the refrigerator.

2. Whip the eggs yolks and sugar into a firm mousse that resembles zabaglione, add the rice oil gently; fold in the finely chopped hazelnuts and a pinch of salt. (Many prefer the natural flavors of quality hazelnuts, but you can add a pinch of cinnamon or a little vanilla if you wish.)

3. Carefully fold the whipped egg whites and the egg and nut mixture together.

4. Pour the mix into a lined 9- to 9.5-inch-diameter cake pan, bake at 350 F for at least 45 minutes.

5. Halfway through cooking time, cover cake mix with grease-proof paper to avoid burning.

6. When cooked — a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean — remove from oven and allow to cool in the pan.

7. To serve, dust with a little unsweetened cocoa powder, and offer to your guests with a glass of Moscato Naturale.

For the hazelnuts:

1. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan.

2. Let water continue to boil, add the baking soda to the water, which will foam.

3. Add the nuts to the boiling mixture and allow to boil for about 3 minutes. The water will turn black.

4. Have a bowl of very cold water handy. Place a nut in the cold water and try to rub off the skin. If it doesn’t come off easily, let the nuts continue to boil for a few minutes longer.

5. Continue to test one nut at a time. When the skin comes off easily, add the rest of the nuts to the cold water and start to peel.

6. Dry the nuts in a warm, but not hot, oven so as not to toast them or dry out the oils.

Main photo: Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Nasaump, a Wampanoag cornmeal grits dish for Thanksgiving. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Although there is no menu of the first harvest celebration that is usually called the first Thanksgiving, there are some sound ideas of what foods, if not precise preparations, were on the table.

Between 1620 and 1621 Edward Winslow, who arrived on the Mayflower and was a leader of the English settlement at Plimouth, wrote with William Bradford “Mourt’s Relation,” the full title of which was “A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimouth in New England.” Winslow wrote that “our Indian corn, even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meal as rice.”

The Thanksgiving celebration included at least 90 of the local Wampanoag, who we also know brought a good deal of the food and taught the settlers about growing crops. It is a safe bet that one of the foods made from “Indian corn” might have been nasaump, a kind of grits that used the type of multicolored flint corn the Wampanoag grew.

In 1643 a book by the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, describes nasaump as “a meale pottage, unparched. From this the English call their Samp, which is Indian corn, beaten and boiled, and eaten hot or cold with milk and butter, which are mercies beyond the Natives plaine water.”

From this brief description it seems safe to say that the dish is a thanksgiving food. It is very much like grits and one could make it savory or sweet, I suppose. This recipe is adapted from a description on the Plimoth Plantation website.

Two excellent sources for Rhode Island stone ground flint cornmeal are Gray’s Grist Mill and Kenyon’s Grist Mill, which has been in operation since 1696. I recommend you order their product because it has a distinctively different taste from store-bought masa harina or cornmeal.

Nasaump

This traditional Wampanoag dish is made from dried corn, local berries and nuts. It is boiled in water until it thickens, and is similar to oatmeal or grits.

Prep and Cooking Times: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 cup stone ground flint cornmeal (see sources above)

⅓ cup wild (preferably) or cultivated small strawberries

⅓ cup blueberries

2 tablespoons crushed walnuts

2 tablespoons crushed hazelnuts

2 tablespoons unsalted pumpkin seeds

3 cups water

¼ cup maple syrup

Directions


1. In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring almost constantly, about 5 minutes.

2. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until it becomes the consistency of a thick porridge or grits, 10 minutes. Serve hot.

3. The remainder not served can be cooled on a platter until hardened and cut into squares for frying in butter later.

Main photo: Nasaump, a Wampanoag cornmeal grits dish for Thanksgiving. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Khichuri, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables, is the perfect Indian comfort food to accompany the arrival of cold weather.

Autumn in New York brings back memories — and the comfort food — of my monsoon childhood. A perfect evening for me is a walk in the rain or snow, finished off with a hot bowl of freshly made khichuri.

The bubbly one-dish meal is as comforting to me as hot mac and cheese to my children.

I grew up eating khichuri in the coconut palm and banana leaf-dotted landscape of eastern India. I fondly refer to it as the Bengali risotto, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables.

When soup weather arrives, before I turn on the stockpot, I reach for the jars of colorful lentils. If you have not heard of or tasted khichuri, do not be surprised. Like most other classic Indian cooking, the true specialties are still the domain of the home cook. They are dishes that grace the everyday tables, beyond the boundaries of commercialization. Not party fare. But dishes to be savored with the family.

Food fit for the goddesses

For all its humble trappings, this dish is the complete balanced dish that is deemed to be the perfect offering for Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, and Durga, the multi-armed goddess who battles evil. The Hindu gods and goddesses demand a proper meal as a part of their prayer sequence and appropriate ayurvedic fare.

It is usually light and simple vegetarian fare. A mélange of rice and lentils replete with vegetables, finished with hot seasoned clarified butter, fits the bill.

The khichuri’s simple list of ingredients, however, should not suggest that this dish has no protocol. At the heart of Indian regional cuisine rests fastidious, yet practical, rules that remain the domain of the home cook. So khichuri is as nuanced as any other traditional Bengali offerings, which tend to be simple, wholesome and specific in their making.

The general concept of the dish is rice and lentils, with vegetables such as cauliflower, potatoes and peas. The two preferred lentils are yellow split lentils (moong dal) — or orange split lentils, also known as red split lentils (masoor dal or mushoor dal in Bengali). The final spice or flavor infusion for this dish rests in the finish or the tempering, and while the yellow split lentils use fragrant spices, the red lentils tend to be designated for a finish of crisp caramelized onions.

There is also a preferred proportion of two parts lentils to one part rice, with the rice usually being either parboiled or the delicate kala jeera variety that is native to the Bengali region. I tend to stay away from the fancier basmati rice when making khichuri, but you are welcome to use it, if that is what you have in your pantry.

An adaptable dish — in the way it is cooked and served

In spite of it being a traditionally slow cooked dish over the stove, it can be adapted — with some planning —  for the pressure cooker and is also a perfect natural for the slow-cooker aficionado.

Despite being deemed a complete meal, there are accompaniments, varied in textures and tastes, but usually something crisp and fried. These crisp accompaniments range from the well-fried seasonal fish to assorted chickpea flour-coated fritters. Our favorite varieties at home are eggplant or a red onion fritter called piyanjee. The fritter offers a crisp foil to the soft gooey consistency of the khichuri, offering a balance of indulgence and texture. Another popular accompaniment is a spicy omelet known as masala omelet.

My personal favorite khichuri is the red lentil version, which is simpler than the others and more forgiving to variation. With fresh peas scarce in the winter, I usually add some frozen peas, and I love to use a sweeter, softer onion such as the Vidalia to add a greater touch of sweetness to this rustic dish.

A hot bowl of Khichuri, the Bengali risotto, is a complete meal itself. But its soft texture is often accompanied by crisp fritters. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

A hot bowl of khichuri, the Bengali risotto, is a complete meal itself. But its soft texture is often accompanied by crisp fritters. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Bengali Red Lentil Risotto (Khichuri)

(Recipe adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Ingredients
1 cup dried red split lentils (masoor dal)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 cup short-grained rice (such as Arborio or kala jeera)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 medium-sized tomato, finely chopped

1 medium-sized potato, peeled and cubed

1/2 small cauliflower head, cut into small florets

3 to 4 green chilies, slit halfway lengthwise

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup frozen peas

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 1/2 teaspoons ghee (clarified butter)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 to 2 bay leaves

Directions

1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan put the red lentils and about 4 cups water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

2. Add the turmeric and simmer for about 10 minutes. The lentils should be partially cooked but not mushy at this point.

3. Add the rice, 3 more cups water, ginger, ground cumin and coriander, tomato, potato, cauliflower, green chilies, sugar and salt. Simmer for about 25 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally. The rice and lentil mixture should be a porridge-like consistency (add more water if too thick). The texture is important. You do not want the rice to completely lose its integrity, however it should be softer than a regular well-made bowl of rice. Add in the greens peas and stir well.

4. While this is cooking, heat the oil in a wok or skillet and add the onion and cook on medium heat until soft and pale golden. It is important to cook the onions low and slow to let them caramelize.

5. Stir the onions into the rice and lentil mixture and cook for about 2 minutes.

6. Turn off the heat and stir in the cilantro.

7. Heat the ghee in a small skillet and add the cumin seeds and the bay leaves. Cook for about 40 seconds until the cumin seeds darken and turn fragrant.

8. Pour the spice mixture over the rice and lentils.

9. Stir lightly and serve the mixture hot.

Main photo: Khichuri, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables, is the perfect Indian comfort food to accompany the arrival of cold weather. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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The Persian holiday of Mehregan features pomegranates. Credit: Jane Feldman

Mehregan, a Persian version of Thanksgiving, is an ancient Iranian holiday that celebrates the fall season and harvest. In New York City, Cafe Nadery in Greenwich Village kicked off its first Mehregan celebration recently with a literary and culinary arts festival. Highlights included storytelling, a pomegranate-peeling contest, readings, music and delicious food. The themes were memory and food.

“Our goal was to encourage audience participation. I was thrilled that so many people shared their childhood memories of comfort foods. Whether these special meals were Iranian or American, they were emblematic of the complexities of cross-cultural upbringings,” said event creator Yvette Perez, a mixed-heritage Iranian and lead singer of the Farsi funk group Mitra Sumara, which closed out the evening’s events.

“The festival was intended to broaden people’s understanding of Iranian-American culture and experience through a fun and eclectic event. We brought a lot of Persian flavor together and the people just kept coming. It was standing room only. We wanted to play up Mehregan, which is usually a softer holiday, compared to our Persian New Year and winter solstice festivities,” Perez said.

Persian food memories

“I recall endless barbecue summers at Riverside Park, as kabab sizzled on a portable grill, the centerpiece of my father’s family gatherings,” said Leila Darabi, a journalist who participated in Nooshe Jan, the storytelling part of the program.

Guests eagerly shared food memories as a microphone was passed around the cafe.

“Lubia Polo! My mother pulled this dish out of her hat after many years of not cooking it. I was just floored,” said Mona Kayhan of  the Persian Arts Festival, a co-producer of the event. “And my grandmother’s kabab! Grandmother lived in a Chicago suburb and no matter how sub-zero it was, she would bundle up and fire up her grill in the snow to cook kabab.”

Nahzi Nikki, one of the 21 co-owners of the cafe, told festival-goers that “when I die, I want to make sure you serve salad olivieh at my memorial. It’s a combination chicken, egg and potato salad that is delicious.”

Pomegranate peel-off

Pomegranates, a traditional food during Mehregan, were also celebrated with a competition to see who could peel one the quickest — and cleanest — way.

pomegranate peeling

Saeed Pourkay of Taste of Persia restaurant demonstrates his pomegranate-peeling expertise. Credit: Jane Feldman

As soon as the timer was set, red juicy seeds flew around as the excited crowd clapped and chanted to a rhythmic beat. The winning time was 3 minutes, 56 seconds.

At the end of the contest, judge Saeed Pourkay of Taste of Persia restaurant demonstrated his pomegranate expertise in less than 2 minutes: squeeze, turn, squeeze, turn the pomegranate to soften the insides; with a short sharp knife, cut a round circle around the top to pull off the stub; make four slits at the top; grab hold tight and pull apart into four pieces. Using the back of the knife, knock and tap, tap, tap. All the red, juicy seeds fell out like magic!

Ash-E Reshteh (Persian Bean Soup)

Persian bean soup combines several types of beans

Persian bean soup combines several types of beans with herbs for a rich fall soup. Credit: Jane Feldman

(Yvette Perez’s family recipe)

Prep time: 15 minutes (or 24 hours, if soaking uncooked beans)

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

½ cup garbanzo beans

½ cup kidney beans

½ cup lentils

1 large bunch fresh, chopped parsley

3 large green onions or scallions, chopped

2 tablespoons turmeric

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

6 cups of water

1 pound chopped fresh spinach

1/2 pound Persian Reshteh noodles or linguini

2 large sliced onions

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon dried mint

1 cup Persian whey, kashk or plain yogurt

Directions

1. Soak, cook each bean type separately until tender and set aside. Rinsed canned organic beans can be substituted.

2. Combine parsley, scallions, turmeric, salt and pepper, and 6 cups water in a large pot. Bring to boil and then simmer for 20 minutes.

3. Add spinach, cook for 10 minutes. Break the noodles into 2-inch pieces and add to the rest of the mixture.

4. Let simmer until noodles are cooked (5 to 10 minutes).

5. Caramelize onions in butter in a separate pan (10 minutes). Stir in the dried mint until fragrant.

6. Add cooked beans to rest of soup mix, let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Keep on warm heat. Stir occasionally.

To serve, place soup in a large serving bowl and decorate the top with some of the fried onions and mint mixture. This makes six to eight smaller servings. Drizzle some yogurt or kashk on the top of each serving. Save extra on the side and add per taste.

Main photo: Juicy pomegranates are a mainstay of the Mehregan celebrations. Credit: Jane Feldman

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Grandma Margaret's Frybread With Granny Lahoma's Harvest Vce-Corn Soup. Credit: Dawn Karima

In the United States, Thanksgiving is a tradition dating back to the Pilgrims and Native Americans — but it may surprise some to know that Native Americans continue to celebrate the holiday, just in their own manner.

“Thanksgiving Day is every day for Native Americans,” said Dawn Karima, a Creek-Cherokee author and musician who talks about food and culture in her two novels, “The Way We Make Sense,” a finalist in the Native American First Book Award Competition, and “The Marriage of Saint,” a New Mexico Book Award Finalist.

She recalled her grandfather’s words: “He said gratitude is one of the core values of our spirituality. We rise and give thanks every day and throughout the day for our blessings, families, people, culture and traditions.”

Thanksgiving has ‘complicated history’

Like many, Karima loves the Thanksgiving holiday dinner because it brings kinfolks together. Sharing family stories, songs and enjoying traditional foods along with her regular Southern cooking are routine.

“Since Thanksgiving has such a complicated history for my people, I think it was especially important for my family to integrate our traditions into this holiday,” she said. “We do that in several ways. We pray in our own Native languages at the table and also host a Stomp Dance the night before.”

Frybread, bean dumplings, hominy, corn soup and a stewed corn drink called osafki  are among the foods on her Thanksgiving table, along with roast turkey and pumpkin pies. Instead of the Pilgrim-based story of Thanksgiving, her family sings Cherokee hymns and tells Cherokee tales after supper at the Qualla Boundary Reservation in North Carolina.

“I’m stunned that so many folks are shocked that we’re still here! We’re not extinct, vanished, impoverished or primitive. Through my radio show, books and music, I hope that folks see that we are creative, energetic professionals, artists and leaders. We live in houses, not teepees. Creeks and Cherokees never lived in teepees. We drive cars instead of ride horses and hold good jobs. Even if we hunt or fish, we’re more likely to wear jeans and T-shirts than beads and feathers. We have names like Donna and John more often than names like “Thunder Heart”or “Spirit Something.”

‘Handful method’

Food is extremely important in Native cultures, Karima said.

“As Native Americans, we don’t delineate between the sacred and the secular, so food — the hunting, growing and gathering of it — represent a holy thing.”

Dawn Karima, a Creek-Cherokee, learned to cook alongside her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, cousins and elders. They never used cookbooks. Credit: D3Creativo

Dawn Karima, a Creek-Cherokee, learned to cook alongside her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, cousins and elders. They never used cookbooks. Credit: D3Creativo

From the time she was tiny, Karima cooked alongside her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, cousins and elders. They never used cookbooks, she said.

“I used my own tiny pans and mini-spatula. I spent hours with my great-grandma Margaret, a statuesque beauty, who taught me to cook with her ‘handful’ method. A ‘handful’ of this, a ‘handful’ of that. We used real homemade butter, sugar, salts and cream. She made the best cake ever, and taught me her recipe.  I learned to cook intuitively. Bean dumplings, fry bread, corn soup, greens, sweet tea and many foods.

“A few days ago, I was drinking osafki, our Creek hominy drink that takes days to make and I thought: ‘How wonderful that a relative cared enough to put some of her precious life into making this just so we could all enjoy it.’ I was amazingly blessed by it, I even teared up. But when I told my relative and thanked her, she just laughed. That’s how Native life is, I guess. Great, wonderful things are always happening when we walk in love.”

Preparing food is a privilege

“Preparing food is a privilege. God, Hesaketvmese, gives us Native women a traditional responsibility to provide for and nurture our families. Feeding our loved ones and our communities is our honor,” Karima said.

“Anytime you walk into a Creek or Cherokee home, we’ll ask, “Did you eat?”And even if you’re as full as a tick, you sit down and eat. I’m on the road a lot, but when I’m home on the Qualla Boundary Reservation, I keep a pot of beans and a pound cake ready for visitors. And the more Creek or Cherokee people like you, the more we tease you. So, if nobody offers you any food, gives you a nickname, or jokes with you, you should worry!”

Grandma Margaret’s Frybread

Yield: 15 to 20 pieces

Ingredients

6 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups warm water

Plenty of corn oil

Directions

1. In a glass mixing bowl, stir flour, baking powder and salt together.

2. Add warm water and stir into dough.

3. Knead the dough on floured wax paper.

4. Flatten the dough into 15 to 20 palm-size pieces.

5. Fry about 6 dough pieces in hot oil (about 350 F) for 3 minutes, until they are golden brown.

Frybread is served in place of dinner rolls at Thanksgiving. It’s also enjoyed as a dessert, topped with powdered sugar, and is a fixture at pow-wows as a taco, topped with cheese, meat, beans, lettuce and tomatoes.

Great Aunt Martha’s Tvlako Taklike — Bean Dumplings

(Tvlako is the Creek word for Bean and Taklike is the Creek word for Bread)

Yield: 20 to 30 dumplings

Ingredients

6 cups of water

4 cups pinto beans

8 cups yellow cornmeal

2 teaspoons baking soda

Directions

1. In a pan of salted water, bring beans to a boil. When the beans are tender, turn off the heat.

2. In a large glass bowl, stir cornmeal and baking soda together. Add boiled beans and some of the water you boiled them in to the bowl of cornmeal and baking soda. Stir the mixture into firm dough.

3. Pat the dough into 20 to 30 small ball shapes.

4. Drop bean balls into another pot of  boiling water. Cook the bean balls at a low boil for a half  hour.

These can be served with turkey in place of dressing or mashed potatoes.

Granny Lahoma’s Harvest Vce  (Corn) Soup

(Vce is the Creek word for corn)

Yield: 6 to 8 cups of soup

Ingredients

6 ears dried yellow corn, sliced off the cob

6 cups of water

Fatback strip meat

Salt, sugar and pepper

1 pound of dried beef or venison

Directions

1. In a large pot, soak dried corn for 48 hours in water with a little salt and sugar.

2. Add the fatback, more salt and some pepper.

3.  Simmer the corn, fatback and salt and pepper in the water you used for soaking for about 4 hours, or until the corn is tender. Do not overcook or let corn become mushy.

5. Add your dried meat and cover the pans, simmering for about 15 to 20 more minutes.

Serve with pieces of frybread. This is a wonderful appetizer for Thanksgiving.

Main photo: Grandma Margaret’s Frybread With Granny Lahoma’s Harvest Vce-Corn Soup. Credit: Dawn Karima

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Braised short ribs with Japanese influence

When autumn comes with a chill in the air, I often prepare braised short ribs. Although this rich, robust-tasting dish is a favorite in America, I never imagined it would become my winter comfort food.

I was born in Japan and lived there until I moved to the United States as a middle-aged adult. My taste buds were trained in the Japanese way, to appreciate dishes that are prepared so that each ingredient speaks out. Preserving the natural flavor of each ingredient, rather than blending flavors to produce a new taste experience, is a fundamental tenet of Japanese cuisine. My taste buds were also nurtured to expect fermented seasonings that are rich in umami (savory flavor). This means the use of miso, shoyu (soy sauce), mirin, rice vinegar and dashi (kelp stock).

When I came to America, I found that people didn’t follow formulas as rigidly as in Japan. I first encountered braised short ribs at a restaurant in New York City, and its large portion size and bold, rich flavor seemed to embody the “mighty America” that so impressed and influenced me.

Back in Japan I was accustomed to beef that was meticulously cut into paper-thin slices and used in shabu-shabu (beef slices that are blanched in dashi and dipped in flavored sauces), sukiyaki (beef slices cooked in a mixture of sake, shoyu and sugar) and similar preparations.

Eventually I decided to create a lighter version of braised short ribs that incorporated Japanese influences. I studied many American braised short-rib recipes as a base before I successfully produced a lighter but rich-tasting version of this dish.

Short ribs recipe unites the best of both worlds

Here is how I approached my recipe (also featured in my cookbook, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen”). First, I use kelp stock to braise the meat. Kelp stock provides rich yet clean umami to the braised dish. By using kelp stock I can eliminate mirepoix — the chopped aromatic vegetables that are sautéed for the base in most Western braised short-rib preparations. This significantly shortens the prep time.

Second, I use sake in the braising stock because it also has excellent umami content. I choose sake that is moderately priced; premium sake made from heavily polished rice is less acidic, so it is not ideal for use in cooking.

Third, I do a quick blanching of the short ribs in the boiling water after they are well browned in the skillet. This technique cleans the meat by removing oil and burnt bits clinging to it. This further ensures that the braised dish has a clean taste.

Finally, I use shoyu as one of the key flavoring ingredients in the braising liquid. The additional umami from shoyu is a great asset to the dish.

It is an excellent idea to pair my braised short ribs with sake. To accompany this robust, strongly flavored dish it is not necessary to purchase premium sake such as ginjo or dai-ginjo. Junmai-shu, made from rice that has had 30 percent of the bran polished away, is somewhat acidic, fuller-bodied and earthy. It is a perfect match for the short ribs.

Tokubetsu (special) junmai-shu and kimoto junmai-shu (sake brewed in 100%  traditional technique), which I prefer for accompanying my braised short ribs, is excellent served warm, not hot. Warming this style to body temperature of about 98 F, called hitohada (skin temperature) in Japanese, is correct. This opens up the delicate sweetness, bouquet and flavor of the sake. Test the temperature by simply pouring a drop on the back of your hand.

For this holiday season, braised short ribs in the Japanese style with warmed sake is the way to go. You will find much more information about sake, including how to cool and heat it for different dishes, in my book, “The Sushi Experience.”

Hiroko’s Braised Short Ribs

It is best to begin making this dish a day in advance by marinating the meat the day before cooking. 

Prep time: 20 minutes  plus overnight marination

Cook time: 3 hours

Yield: 6 servings

 Ingredients

7 tablespoons shoyu

5 tablespoons honey

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon red pepper flakes

5 to 5 1/2 pounds bone-in short ribs (about 6 whole bones)

2 tablespoons canola oil or vegetable oil

1 cup sake

2 cups kelp stock (made by soaking 1 ounce kelp, or kombu, in 8 ounces water overnight)

2 tablespoons sugar

Simmered winter vegetables such as Japanese turnips, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts are excellent accompaniments.

Directions

1. In a large bowl, combine 6 tablespoons of shoyu, honey, Worcestershire sauce and red pepper flakes. Add the short ribs to the sauce and marinate overnight.

2. Heat the oven to 325 F. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Remove the short ribs from the marinade and wipe them with paper towels, reserving the marinade. Place the canola or vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add ½ of  the meat. Cook the ribs until all sides are golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes total. Transfer the browned short ribs to a sieve and lower the ribs into the boiling water. Quickly swish the ribs in the water and remove them, discarding the water after both batches of ribs have been cooked and washed.

3. Combine the sake and kelp stock in a large pot over medium heat and bring it to a simmer. Add the sugar and the ribs (in a single layer) and bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Cover the pot with a lid, transfer it to the oven, and cook the short ribs for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

4. Remove the pot of short ribs from the oven. Carefully open the lid of the pot add the reserved marinade to the pot. Cover the pot with the lid and transfer it back to the oven. Cook the meat for 30 to 40 minutes.

5. Remove the pot from the oven and cool the short ribs in the cooking liquid. When it is cool, remove the short ribs from the cooking liquid and cut the meat from the ribs into the desired portions, eliminating as much of the fat as you wish. Store the beef in the cooking liquid until ready to serve.

6. Before serving, warm the short ribs in a pot, covered, with 1/3 of the cooking liquid. In another small pot, reduce the remaining cooking liquid until syrupy. Serve the beef with seasonal vegetables and the reduced liquid poured over the meat. Accompany the dish with crusty bread and vegetables.

Main photo: Braised short ribs in the Japanese way. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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Qara bi’l-tahina (pumpkin purée with sesame seed paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

In the Middle East food is shared and one place it is shared is on the meze table. Meze are small samplings of prepared dishes that make a meal. They are not appetizers, nor tapas, nor hors d’oeuvres but are actually more philosophically related to the Scandinavian smorgasbord.

Food is shared in another way. The food of the Levant, meaning the food eaten between the Turkish-Syrian border all the way to Egypt, is the same food eaten by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. One can’t really say there is Muslim food, Christian food and Jewish food, but there are certain foods that are typical for those communities centered around holidays such as Ramadan, Christmas, and Yom Kippur, for example, but the foods are not unique to those cultures because everyone eats them.

One very typical, almost obligatory, meze dish is hummus. Hummus means chickpea and does not mean dip. The proper name of the preparation called hummus is hummus bi’l-tahina, chickpeas with sesame seed paste.

One delightful variation of this dip is made with pumpkin, all the more appropriate this time of year when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. All the more so if we reflect on how much we can be thankful for especially at a time when the Middle East seems to be disintegrating into a frenzy of blood-letting. At a time when all religious communities, be they Jewish, Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi, Alawite, or Kurdish Muslim, are threatened in the Middle East and the stories from those lands are nothing but sadness, it behooves us to remember the rich contribution and integral role played by all these people who once –it is hard believe given the modern headlines — lived together. If there is one thing they all shared it was surely food.

And a dip is a food that is shared. Please don’t call it pumpkin hummus. It’s called qara bi’l-tahina and that means pumpkin with sesame seed paste.

This will be one of many dishes on the menu of a series of communal dinners arranged by Clockshop, a nonprofit arts and culture organization based in Los Angeles. The event will take place over three weekends in November, beginning Nov. 8 to celebrate what they call the Arab-Jewish diaspora. The meals will feature the culinary traditions, music and culture of this diaspora. If you live in the Los Angeles area you can check them out by RSVP.

Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste)

Yield:  6 servings
Prep time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Ingredients

5 pounds pumpkin flesh, cubed

1/2 cup tahina

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed in a mortar with 2 teaspoons salt until mushy

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

Seeds from 1/2 a pomegranate

Directions

1. Place the pumpkin slices in a saucepan and cover with water. Turn the heat on and bring to a gentle boil and cook until soft, about 40 minutes. Drain well and pass through a food mill. Return the pumpkin to the saucepan and cook over a medium-high heat until all the liquid is nearly evaporated, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and run until creamy. Transfer to a mixing bowl

2. Stir the tahina paste into the pumpkin and mix well. Stir in the garlic mixture and lemon juice. Mix well and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish the pumpkin mixture with parsley, some olive oil, and cumin. Decorate the outside edges of the platter with the pomegranate seeds and serve with Arab flatbread to scoop up the dip.

Main photo: Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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