Articles in Tradition
I spotted a pair of fresh Atlantic mackerel at my fishmonger in Umbria, Italy, this morning, their unmistakable sleek, glossy skin, marked like the waves of the ocean, steely blue and gray. It’s astonishing that a fish so reputedly fragile could be brought so far, from the Atlantic coast of France to this little market town in the Tiber valley, without damage, and yet this pair smelled as fresh as a sea breeze.
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In some quarters, mackerel has a reputation as poor folks’ food, and fancy chefs often scorn it. But I adore this fine fish. Beautiful to look at, even more so to taste, rich and fat and full of healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, mackerel is just the thing to pick me up after a surfeit of meat, which I’ve been consuming at a tremendous rate in the last couple of weeks. Nothing truly beats the mackerel you catch off a dock in Maine on a calm, early summer evening — jigging for mackerel, it’s called — but any fresh mackerel is worth the very slight effort it takes to prepare it. Emphasis is on “fresh,” however — your nose will tell you immediately if it’s not, but the visible evidence is just as reliable: When the shiny skin goes dull and the eyes lose their luster, that’s a fish to reject.
If you catch the mackerel yourself, gut it right there on the dock and toss the guts back in the water where they’ll make a fine supper for some other creature, whether finned or winged. If you’re buying from a fishmonger, have him or her gut the fish for you but leave the head and tail intact for a handsome presentation. The best mackerel recipe is the simplest: Build up a fire on the grill and throw the whole fish on, let the skin blister and bubble, then turn the fish (carefully — use a wide spatula and try not to break up the fish) once only, and cook the other side to a blister. Because the fish are small, rarely reaching as much as a pound, they cook quickly and are done in minutes. Serve with a wedge of lemon and enjoy!
Any fish you don’t consume immediately can be turned into a sort of soused mackerel, a recipe that comes from the eastern Adriatic and is reminiscent of Spanish escabeche.
1 to 1½ pounds fresh mackerel, grilled or broiled
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ cups water
Zest of an organic lemon
Juice of the same lemon, plus enough white wine vinegar to make 1½ cups
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
3 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Pinch of sea salt
3 or 4 fresh rosemary sprigs
1. Combine everything but the fish and simmer together for half an hour or so to reduce.
2. Once the marinade is reduced, set it aside to cool and then pour it over the fish — either the whole grilled fish or the fillets, which, once cooked, are very easy to lift off. Leave to marinate overnight or in the refrigerator a couple of days. Serve as part of an antipasto or meze.
But back to the Elizabeth David recipe, Maqueraux a la Façon de Quimper, which is simply poached mackerel with an egg-butter-mustard sauce. I use olive oil instead of butter — it goes better with a rich fish like mackerel. This is also a splendid sauce to serve with poached or grilled salmon.
Maqueraux à la Façon de Quimper
Adapted from Elizabeth David’s recipe in “French Provincial Cooking.”
Makes 2 main course servings, or 4 first-course servings
For the fish:
2 fresh mackerel, each weighing a little under a pound
6 cups water
1½ cups dry white wine
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 carrot, scraped and coarsely chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 branch celery, coarsely chopped
Handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
For the sauce:
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste
2 tablespoons chopped green herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, dill, fennel tops)
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
For the fish:
1. As soon as you get the mackerel home, gut them, if necessary, and rinse under running water. Keep them very cold until ready to cook. Put them in a bowl with ice cubes piled around and set the bowl, covered, in the refrigerator.
2. Make a court bouillon for poaching: In a saucepan or fish kettle large enough to hold the mackerel, combine the water, wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, carrot, onion, celery and parsley. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
3. Drain the mackerel and add to the simmering liquid. Bring back to a gentle simmer and cook for just 10 minutes, then remove the fish immediately from the court bouillon and set aside to cool.
4. When cool enough to handle, lift the skin off the fish and take the fillets off the bones. Check to be sure all the bones are gone, then arrange the fillets on a serving platter and keep cool while you make the sauce.
For the sauce:
You can make the sauce by hand in a bowl, using a wire whisk, but it is easier to make in a blender or food processor.
1. Combine the egg yolks and mustard in the processor and buzz briefly. Add the pepper, vinegar and herbs, and buzz once again, just to combine.
2. Now, with the motor running, slowly add the olive oil, just as you would with mayonnaise, a few drops at a time at first, and then in a steady dribble. The sauce should mount like mayonnaise but for this recipe it should be no thicker than heavy cream. Taste and add more lemon juice if it seems to need it.
3. Pile the sauce in the middle of the serving platter and serve immediately.
Top photo: Mackerel and a copper poissonnière. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
When I was just married I went with my new husband to a famous Jewish restaurant in London. I scanned the menu anxiously searching for something green.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “Do you have any vegetables, please?”
“Yes,” the waiter answered seriously, “we have dill pickles and latkes.”
That exchange demonstrates so much of what is wrong with traditional Ashkenazi fare. Certainly the food is delicious, rib-sticking and very tasty. Look at menus solid with dishes like matzo ball soup and kreplach, the delicious triangles of pasta filled with chopped meat floating generously in rich broth. There are slices of corned beef with a liberal side of deep fried potato latkes and over-large slices of lockshen pudding — noodles mixed with dried fruit and masses of fat and sugar. Of course all these dishes are wonderful and immersed with flavor and Jewish tradition. Lighter versions of some of the recipes form part of my book, “Jewish Traditional Cooking.” But maybe it would be sensible to serve one of these recipes as a treat or delicacy accompanied by a liberal quantity of vegetables and fruit, not all of them together at a single meal.
A diet for survival
The traditional Ashkenazi diet evolved from a fragile East-European existence and the shtetl — impoverished, flimsy villages.
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If people were fortunate enough to have a chicken, probably only for a festival, it was an old boiler, and in true Ashkenazi tradition it would have been placed in a large cooking pot with root vegetables and masses of water to make a soup. This soup would be extended with matzo balls or any kind of dough and rough bread, along with chopped gizzards and heart, and meat from the chicken’s neck. The neck skin would be separately stuffed with chopped fat and peppery flour and stitched, then roasted with the bird to create another meal called helzel. Those bubbas, grandmothers and mothers, knew that they could keep hunger at bay by adding calorie-laden extras. The chicken would likely be served at the festival meal with kasha, rice, potatoes or barley.
We are now in the 21st century and Ashkenazi tradition still follows that regimen. Jewish people manifest significant problems connected with obesity, including the so-called Jewish Disease, diabetes. Heart disease and cancers are known to be exacerbated by a high fat, high protein diet.
Adapting the Ashkenazi diet for the 21st century
So maybe it’s time to acknowledge this and accept change, as I did after marrying a lovely Sephardi man. After the Diaspora, the Sephardic Jews looked about their surroundings and adopted the cooking methods of their new neighbors using masses of cheap vegetables and fruits, cooking with olive oil rather than the artery-clogging schmaltz of their Jewish cousins. Instead of relying on frying or interminable stewing to add flavor, they began seasoning their food with fresh herbs, creating fragrant dishes redolent with glorious spices and mouthwatering taste.
When I wrote “Jewish Traditional Cooking” I wanted to include the inherited foods but lighten them where possible. Many of the appetizers are vegetable-based: baba ganoush, a fragrant Asian dish based on oven-roasted vegetables, and soup mit nisht – the ultimate low-calorie cauliflower soup that tastes of heaven but relies on the freshness of a good cauliflower, onions and a light stock and herbs. Lockshen pudding has exchanged its ancient stodgy image for a healthier alternative by adding masses of freshly grated apple, vanilla, mixed spices and fresh lemon zest.
Passover is no longer a stomach-clutching kilo-raising event in our home. We adore the lightness of a carrot and almond bake which rises soufflé-like for any chef, and the spinach and leek roulade with its lighter cheese filling still satisfies. For a modern Jewish woman understanding tradition and the demands of religion and custom, I looked to Morocco where I learned to cook fish in a tiny Fez kitchen with a mixture of fresh vegetables and a fabulous stuffing so that it can be eaten hot or cold. Turkish tradition showed me how to stuff a whole vegetable and experiment with butternut squash as the base for a stuffing of toasted pine nuts, lentils, brown rice, currants and masses of chopped mint, parsley and cilantro.
I believe that Ashkenazi Jews have to look to their Sephardi cousins to learn how to eat in the 21st century. They may not survive their traditional diet.
Top photo: Ruth Joseph. Credit: Western Mail, Thompson House, Cardiff
It seems Mediterranean food is back in the news, as it should be. As an author who writes about Mediterranean cuisines, I am often asked about my favorite cuisine and recipes. These are impossible questions, but heck let’s give it a shot. So here are my five greatest celebratory dishes of the Mediterranean. You can’t please everyone and the list won’t include everyone’s favorite, but here are my choices for legendary dishes.
The Mediterranean has been the home of great feast celebrations at least since Odysseus sailed the wine-dark sea with his men feasting on roast lamb. The popularity of Mediterranean food today draws all of us to its classic meals. We see this popularity everywhere from the promotion of the Mediterranean diet, to so-called Mediterranean dishes in scores of restaurants, and on the pages of food magazines.
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Think you don’t know Mediterranean food? If you’re eating pizza, yogurt, lasagna, tapas, bruschetta and couscous, you’re eating Mediterranean food. However, the world of Mediterranean food is huge, deep, and varied.
Celebrate with these great dishes of the Mediterranean
As soon as we hear about its health benefits we’re presented with a variety of famous and not-so-famous celebratory meals that are extravagant and rich and delicious that belies our perhaps false notion that Mediterranean food is mostly green vegetables with a touch of olive oil.
A celebration in the Mediterranean is a big deal and here are, arguably, the five greatest preparations in the Mediterranean, any of which can be made to celebrate. Each of these dishes is utterly unforgettable.
The Moroccan bastila (also transliterated pastilla) is a magnificent pigeon pie rich with eggs, butter, almonds, spices such as saffron and ginger, herbs such as cilantro and parsley, and orange flower water. The dish is encased in thin pastry leaves called warka, which are like phyllo pastry leaves, and finally dusted with confectioner’s sugar and powdered cinnamon.
In Morocco, it’s usually eaten at the end of Ramadan. If you try the recipe, read it several times before beginning so you are familiar with what happens. Given how labor-intensive the preparation is, you’ll only want to make it for friends who truly appreciate good food, and who love Moroccan food already. You’ll need a 16-inch round baking pan.
A large steel pan of saffron-infused and yellow sticky rice with fish, shrimp and runner beans or with chicken is an invitation to a great feast in Valencia. One of the great misunderstandings about paella is that true Valencian Spanish paella is made in one of two ways, with chicken or with seafood, and never with mixed meats. Today there are many variations, including dishes that mix meats and seafood. To make paella authentically, you cook it in a flat steel pan over an open fire outside without ever stirring the rice. You’ll need an 18-inch steel paella pan that can be purchased online from Dona Juana.
This classic preparation of coastal Provence is almost never made at home and tends to be a restaurant dish. That doesn’t mean home cooks can’t make bouillabaisse. My recipe seems more complicated than it should be because I wanted a recipe that doesn’t makes compromises. You should follow it exactly, and you’ll have an experience identical to the one I had at the Tetou restaurant in Golf-Juan in France, where we lingered over a bouillabaisse all afternoon. The gentle waves of the Mediterranean sea were lapping mere feet away from us while the air was redolent of saffron, fennel, orange, garlic, and rascasse, the essential scorpionfish.
The idea of a pasta pie is one of the most extravagant in all Italian cuisines. The 16th- and 17th- century cookbooks included recipes per far pasticcio (for making pie) which usually meant pasta pie.
One version of a pasta pie is the timballo, which is a kind of pasta pie or pasticcio in Italian. This dish is made in a ball mold that looks like a timbale or kettledrum, hence the name. One of the most famous renditions of this dish is found in the wonderful 1996 movie “Big Night.” In the film, the timpano (Neapolitan for timballo) is not made with a pastry crust, making its unveiling all the more tense as everything is held together precariously. One can make it in any kind of springform mold or deep pie pan with or without a short dough pastry crust.
The Arabs, Turks and Greeks all make a variation of the same preparation of spit-roasted, seasoned fatty meat on a vertical rotisserie. It is purely street food and never made at home, and perhaps shouldn’t be called “celebratory” as it is everyday snacking food in its birthplace. For me, though, every bite of a gyro is a celebration, so I include it.
The Turks call it döner kebabı, the Greeks gyro (pronounced YEE-ro), and the Arabs shāwurma. In Greece, a gyro is made with slices of meat rather than ground patties as it is in some places. Although it’s quite common to see electric rotisseries, many believe the hardwood charcoal rotisseries with their vertical shelves for charcoal are the best way to cook the meat.
The meat used for these dishes is varied. Generally it is a combination of the best cuts of top sirloin, loin, and shoulder of lamb. These cuts are not necessarily ground but pounded very thin, layered, seasoned and skewered.
Any one of these five preparations will be a challenge with a great reward. Make any of these and you will understand more about the culinary patrimony of the Mediterranean than you can imagine.
Bouillabaisse at the Tetou restaurant in Golf-Juan. Credit: Ali Kattan-Wright
Canadian bakers hold the butter tart in the same esteem as their American counterparts hold the apple pie. Both are icons of their respective nations. Although, admittedly, some may disagree with the belief that the butter tart is a Canadian classic, no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “noun – Canadian: a tart with a filling of butter, eggs, brown sugar, and, typically, raisins.”
Of course, we in the Colonies long ago dispensed with the need to have Mother England’s approval, but a vote of confidence from the Oxford is never a bad thing.
Neither is a butter tart.
Butter tarts a distinctly Canadian treat
It’s an English Canadian relative of the French Canadian sugar pie (tarte au sucre). For both, butter is a vital ingredient, although the tarte au sucre uses maple syrup instead of brown sugar.
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One of the first recipes for butter tarts appeared in “The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook.” This fundraising cookbook was published in 1900 in Barrie, Ontario. It included a recipe for a “filling for tarts,” which was submitted by Mrs. Malcolm (Mary) MacLeod, according to Bruce Beacock, the archivist of the Simcoe County Archives, which houses a copy of the cookbook.
Later, in 1908, the “Vogue Cook Book,” published by the Toronto Daily News, included a butter tart recipe from Mrs. G.M.B. of Toronto, and three years after that, the “Canadian Farm Cook Book” included six recipes for butter tarts.
Today, serious Canadian bakers are bound to have their own butter tart recipe, handed down from their great-aunt or their mother or clipped from a magazine and tweaked to the baker’s own taste.
My butter tart recipe came from my father and needed no tweaking. Everyone who tried his butter tarts agreed they were the best they’d ever eaten.
Dad had been a baker since he was 10 years old, when he took over kitchen duties because his mother was confined to bed for a year. Since he was too easygoing to object, his siblings consigned him to the kitchen so they wouldn’t get stuck there themselves. Although at first he wasn’t any more enthusiastic about cooking and baking than they were, he quickly surprised himself by growing to love his new job, particularly baking, which became his passion.
The cakes and pies of his youth were eventually joined by French pastries rich with cream and fruit, chocolate tarts that looked (almost) too beautiful to slice and macarons (a Saturday afternoon adventure long before they became a food trend) that shone like jewels and tasted like ambrosia.
The truth is, a blasphemous thing to admit, for sure, I didn’t much care for butter tarts until my father started making his. There were so many other delights to choose from, and the butter tarts my aunts and grandmothers made, while nice, were nothing special; but with the first batch of Dad’s butter tarts, I changed my mind.
He hadn’t been interested in making them until a package of store-bought butter tarts, with pastry like cardboard and filling like glue, so embarrassed him — they had been eaten by friends who dropped over for coffee — that he headed into the kitchen, got out his yellow ware bowl and began measuring the ingredients for pastry: flour, salt, lard, vinegar and water.
After the pastry had rested for a while, he took the wooden rolling pin with its faded red handles (a shower gift my mother happily passed on to him), and gently rolled out the pastry, cut circles with a juice glass, and after fitting them into the tart pan, crimped the edges with his finger and thumb.
While the pastry chilled in the refrigerator, he turned to the filling — which any butter-tart baker or butter-tart eater will tell you is the most vital part of the whole thing — and assembled the requisite butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, raisins and pinch of salt.
The aroma of the baking tarts made me swoon. We crouched in front of the oven door and watched the liquid bubble while the crust turned golden.
After allowing the butter tarts to cool for as long as I could stand, I bit into my first perfect dessert. The filling was still a bit too warm; it slipped down my chin and onto my fingers. When I’d finished the tart — leaning over the counter and devouring it in four gooey bites — I licked the filling from my fingers. This is still the proper way to eat a butter tart (although it’s important to let it cool enough that you don’t burn your tongue, your chin or your fingers).
I smiled, he nodded, the French pastries were delegated to second choice and my love affair with a Canadian classic began.
Dad’s Butter Tarts
Makes 12 tarts
For the pastry:
2½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup cold lard
¼ cup cold water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
For the filling:
⅓ cup melted unsalted butter
½ cup light corn syrup
¾ cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs, beaten
¾ cup raisins
For the pastry:
1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter or your fingertips, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.
2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more water, depending upon how the dough comes together and the time of year.) Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Have ready a 12-cup tart pan.
3. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to a thickness of about ⅛ inch. Using a 4-inch diameter round cutter (or a juice glass), cut out 12 circles. Fit each circle into a cup in the pan. Place the pan into the refrigerator.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
For the filling:
In a medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, vanilla and salt. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth.
To assemble the tarts:
1. Divide the raisins among the 12 tart shells. Spoon the filling evenly into the shells.
2. Bake until the filling is browned on top and the pastry is golden, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely before removing from the pan and eating.
Top photo: Butter tarts. Credit: Sharon Hunt
One salient public health fact about indigenous people of California before colonization is that they rarely experienced food shortages or malnutrition. A temperate climate; bountiful fruits and vegetables; game and fish resources; and the especially abundant acorns derived from many oak varieties ensured a nutritious and varied food supply for all. Foodways, the cultural knowledge about how to grow, gather, forage, hunt, prepare, serve, celebrate and dispose of foods, is one aspect of the traditional ecological knowledge that native Californians possessed.
Indigenous oak and acorn wisdom
Beverly Ortiz, an anthropologist, and Julia Parker, acorn aficionado, storyteller and renowned basket-weaver artist, have focused their work on California indigenous people and their deep relationship with oaks and acorns. The two women co-wrote “It Will Live Forever: Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation.” Parker, a Kashaya Pomo/Coast Miwok native, learned from her husband’s Yosemite Miwok/Paiute people. Ortiz quotes Parker, “The elders told me when it comes, get out and pick and gather, even if it’s one basketful, so the acorn spirit will know you’re happy for the acorn, and next year the acorn will come.” She adds, “When the acorn does come, there’s dances and songs. Take from the earth and say please. Give back to the earth and say thank you.”
Californian Indian acorn cultures
Different acorn varieties, a staple food for California Indians for more than 4,000 years, contain high levels of fat, protein and carbohydrates, as well as an abundance of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. It is estimated that those adults who lived in the Sutter Buttes region — the northern part of the Central Valley of California — consumed the equivalent of a ton of acorns per year. Gathering acorns from field to table required a substantial amount of time, a practice understood and carried out predominantly by women. An excellent online source for historical photographs of the acorn processing can be found in the National Archives.
Facts about gathering and processing acorns
- Collection normally occurs in the fall, but gatherers must make sure to head out before small animals steal the cache.
- Sprouted acorns can also be collected in the early spring.
- Check that there are no small holes in the acorns; this usually indicates an infestation of larvae.
- After collection, the acorns are dried in the sun to decrease the potential for spoilage and mold.
- What was not stored in elevated granaries for later use was shelled and winnowed in handwoven baskets with appropriate tools.
- With a mortar and pestle, nuts were pounded into a meal or flour and sifted accordingly.
- Different species contain varying amounts of tannic acid, which make the nut astringent and bitter. Depending on the species picked, the acorns required leeching, traditionally in running water.
- Today, the acorns can be ground, soaked and rinsed repeatedly until the tannic acid-laden brown water runs clear. The sweet nutty flour, now properly prepared, is ready to cook, like most carbohydrate-rich foods, to accompany meat, fish or fowl as a mush or baked into breads.
- Cooking tools created from maple bark, leaves and dogwood branches such as an acorn flour knocker, soup whip and dough carrier all aided the production of acorn mush and dough.
Today, some California Indians still gather and cook acorns, though not in the same quantities. These days a flour grinder might be used instead of a mortar and pestle to process the nuts. There are no grocery stores or online sources for acorn flour, except a finely ground and highly refined acorn starch found in Korean-centered food stores. Koreans make an acorn jelly called dotorimuk.
Part 1 of the acorn series:
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Sunhui Chang, chef of Fusebox restaurant in Oakland, Calif., noted that when he grew up the elders loved the bland dotorimuk mainly because of the seasoning of soy sauce, sweet wine vinegar, scallions, garlic, sugar, sesame sauce and chili powder. If you would like to make your own unrefined acorn flour, the best way to begin is by gathering acorns from oak trees. Ortiz and Parker in their book provide a glimpse into the nuanced, sophisticated and cultural context that results in nourishing a community and culture. Pick it up and read it, then gather local acorns, make your own flour and participate in reviving a native food. This way you can be a part of the resilience and hope.
Signs of resilience, signs of hope
Here are some other efforts under way to revive native oaks and their habitats in California. In one instance, Californians are working with the California Academy of Sciences on a reoaking project to remedy the serious dilemma of sudden oak death; with others they are collaborating with a local land trust to buy back indigenous lands for stewardship by California Indians; with cartographers they are mapping Winnemem Winto sacred sites; with arts organizations they are undoing the desecrations of the past with ceremony, dance and song; and with the support of their tribes and other organizations, they are working with land managers to bring back prescribed burning of the landscape for cultural purposes and for the health of the environment.
As we inch forward, perhaps we should keep in the forefront that the mind, hand and environment are inexorably intertwined. Pay tribute to those who carry the knowledge. Work with nature and the knowledge holders to invigorate traditions. Either way, we run the wonderful risk of regaining some lost cultural and biological diversity and reviving a slice of the lost landscapes, cultures, and the original people who managed it.
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.
Top photo: An acorn sits on a leaf. Credit: iStockPhoto
Indian food lovers in the United States often have a vague concept of what biryanis are — a perception that stems from Indian restaurants that spike basmati rice with spices and dot it with either pieces of meat or vegetables. From the Persian biriyan (to fry before cooking), true biryanis were introduced and made popular by several invaders; the Moghuls were a prime influence, having gathered their knowledge from the Persians. The Nawabs of Lucknow and the Nizams of Hyderabad also popularized these layered meat-rice-nut dishes all across India, where there are more than 35 varieties.
The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate the biryani — some even included pounded silver leaves. I consider such biryanis to be meals in themselves; the only accompaniments they need are a simple yogurt-based raita (even a bowl of plain yogurt will suffice), pickles (either homemade or store-bought), and flame-toasted lentil wafers (papads).
The constitution of a biryani is rather simple. First, meat is often marinated and braised, spiced and simmered in various sauces. To prepare the rice layer, clarified butter is perfumed with whole spices, and sometimes with nuts and raisins. Then basmati rice is steeped in the butter (with water) to partially cook it. Finally, alternating layers of the meat curry and rice pulao are spread in a casserole and baked until the flavors mingle and the rice grains are tender. Although many of the biryanis are meat-based, vegetarians have adapted these dishes to include legumes and vegetables.
Kichidi, a savory and soothing porridge
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love biryanis, but the dish that gets no respect is one that is a close sibling, albeit a dowdy one in some Indians’ minds. Kichidis are soothing and simple porridges usually eaten when convalescing from an illness. The easily digestible grains, when eaten with plain yogurt, make for a comforting meal. Often, the trilogy of pickles, papads and yogurt accompanies kichidis to complement the porridge’s softness with pungency and crunch.
Of all the stories I heard in my childhood days, the one that always made me sit up and listen was this one about kichidis. To set the stage, it’s helpful to know about Akbar, the third and highly revered emperor of the Moghul empire, who ascended the throne at the tender age of 13, around 1556. Over the course of his rule, he developed a deep bond and friendship with his trusted inner circle adviser, Birbal, whose wit, impartiality, compassion and intelligence were legendary. Stories were penned over the years that regaled many a child at bedtime. This one particularly stuck with me, appealing to my culinary sensibilities.
Birbal listened patiently to the poor Brahmin’s predicament. The Brahmin, with teeth still chattering from the previous night’s bone-chilling experience in the frigid waters of the lake, recounted how he was promised 100 rupees for spending the night in its icy bed. He had managed to survive the frigidity by cozy thoughts that his children’s bellies would soon be filled with the help of this small fortune. He called upon Rama for strength, hands folded in pious servitude, looking toward a lighted oil lamp 200 feet away for the only flicker in an otherwise charcoal-black night. His prayers helped him make it to the crack of dawn, when he emerged from the lake with frozen, shriveled skin but a warmed heart filled with the hope of a hot meal for his hungry babies.
The court ministers marveled at the Brahmin’s fortitude and quizzed him at length on his successful survival. But once they heard that he had made it through with the “warmth” from the flickering light 200 feet away, they refused him his meager prize.”You cheated us you insolent man,” they fumed. “You heated yourself with the oil lamp 200 feet away.” The Brahmin’s earnest pleadings fell on deaf ears even when he insisted on presenting his case to the usually fair-minded emperor, Akbar.
Birbal stroked his beard as he listened to the Brahmin’s misery. It was time to teach the cruel ministers and Akbar a lesson. He invited them to a simple dinner of kichidi in his palatial courtyard. With help from the Brahmin, he lit a small fire from dried twigs. He fashioned a supporting structure 50 feet high from which dangled a large earthenware pot filled with rice, lentils and gold-yellow turmeric. The crowds gathered and waited with growing impatience for the humble, delicately spiced porridge.
Akbar’s anger rose along with the wisps of smoke from the pitiful twig fire as he demanded explanation for Birbal’s obvious stupidity in trying to cook a pot of kichidi 50 feet away from such a weak flame. “Jahanpana,” he said with respect, addressing him as King of the World, “if a flickering light 200 feet away could warm a Brahmin standing in waist-high icy-cold water, why can’t I cook this kichidi only fifty feet away.” Akbar realized his folly, duly reprimanded his ministers, and ordered them to pay the Brahmin five times what was promised to him. Birbal once again prevailed!
Rice-Lentil Porridge with Caramelized Onion (Pyaaz kichidi)
Makes 6 servings (about ½ cup each)
1 cup uncooked white basmati or long-grain rice
½ cup split and skinned green lentils (mung/moong dal — yellow in this form)
4 cups cold tap water
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons ghee or melted butter
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium-size red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 to 4 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies, stems removed, slit in half lengthwise (do not remove seeds)
1 medium-size tomato, cored and finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
1. Plunk the rice and dal into a medium-size saucepan and add enough water to cover the grains. With your fingertips gently rub and swish the grains, at which point the water will get cloudy. Pour the water out and repeat three to four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
2. Add 4 cups cold water to the pan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring once or twice to separate the grains. Skim off any suds that may float to the top. Stir in the turmeric, lower the heat to medium, and simmer, partially covered, until most of the water evaporates. Cover the pan and continue to simmer about 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the burner and allow the pan to sit undisturbed an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the cumin and let it sizzle, turn reddish brown, and smell nutty, about 10 to 15 seconds. Immediately add the onion and chilies and stir-fry 4 to 6 minutes, until the onion turns purple-brown, 5 to 7 minutes. This is a good time to make sure your stove fan is on because of the pungent fumes from the roasting chilies.
5. Add the remaining ingredients and stew the mélange, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the tomato softens, 2 to 4 minutes.
6. Scrape the skillet’s contents into the now-cooked rice-lentil mixture and mix well; serve.
Tip: If onions, chilies and tomatoes bother your stomach, leave them out. The humble cumin seeds and ghee are equally satisfying on their own.
Top photo: Indian kichidi. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
Traditional Valentine’s Day gifts are chocolates or flowers, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if the chocolates aren’t from a drugstore. But it seems to me that lovers with a little more imagination could come up with their own traditions and, to start with, might find some inspiring ideas in the literature on aphrodisiacs.
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It should come as no surprise that this literature is vast, going back to ancient times, for, clearly, humans have always been interested in anything that can enhance their sexuality. The lore of aphrodisiacs is filled with examples of potions thought to have magical properties. One of them, yohimbe, derived from the bark of African evergreen trees, has a bit of science to back it up and is thought to be nature’s version of Viagra.
But the aphrodisiac qualities of most foods or other substances once believed to enhance desire are now seen as folklore. New World foods such as tomatoes, once called “love apples” were scarce and exotic-seeming when they first came to Europe, and the humble potato was likewise designated as having aphrodisiac properties just because it too was at first hard to get.
But the foods that have had the most sustained reputation as sexual enhancers derive from what is known as the “doctrine of signatures,” which are foods that resemble human genitalia. Carrots and bananas come to mind and, of course, oysters. My favorite, however, is the mandrake root. This plant, when mature, has roots that resemble people, prompting the ancients to assign it all kinds of medicinal and magical properties. It was used as an analgesic and anesthetic, treating everything from toothaches to hemorrhoids, but people also used it as an aphrodisiac.
Because the root of the plant resembled a human, it was thought that whenever unearthed, the root would scream, killing any person who heard it. When Harry Potter and his classmates studied the mandrake in herbology class, students were instructed to wear earmuffs as protection. As for its effectiveness as an aphrodisiac, people in the know have been forced to conclude that, as with most aphrodisiacs, its sexual-enhancing properties are more in the imagination than in fact, but, for the curious, I hasten to point out that packets of mandrake are available on Amazon for $3.99.
Food writers, food porn and aphrodisiacs
Connections between food and sex are so ordinary that they have come to be a cliché. How many times have we stumbled across the term “food pornography,” which usually refers to photographs of such tempting and caloric foods as profiteroles dripping with chocolate, guilty pleasures the figure-conscious prefer to gaze at instead of eat.
Food writers have had a continuing presence in the realm of food and sex. In 1963, Mimi Sheraton came out with “The Seducer’s Cookbook,” a pre-feminist, sexually-liberated romp connecting the human appetite for food with sex. And the intrepid Gael Greene has for years amused and enticed her readers with such titles as “Delicious Sex” and “Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess.”
But, the classic tome on the subject, having a cult-like following, is “Venus in the Kitchen or Love’s Cookery Book,” British novelist Norman Douglas’ ode to food and love. By the time it was published in 1952, the writer was at the end of his sexually adventurous life, and the old reprobate produced this book more for the amusement of his aging friends than for its efficacy in the bedroom. Commenting on recipes he had researched, Douglas mentions in his preface his “retaining a few delectable absurdities to show the length to which humanity will go in its search for the lost vigour of youth.” He offers, for instance, a recipe for skink, an African lizard he batters in egg and fries in olive oil. But most of his recipes use familiar ingredients, and can be characterized as being full of such Mediterranean deep flavors as garlic, anchovy, olives and wine.
This makes me acknowledge that foods filled with earthy flavors and aromas arouse the senses and are conducive to romantic dinners. One could do worse than look to Douglas for inspiration, and his influence on Elizabeth David came at a formative moment in her life. They met on Capri when she was 26 and he was 72. They struck up a friendship that involved long walks and Mediterranean lunches filled with sophisticated talk about food, conversations most other British found unseemly. Douglas carried around a lump of Parmesan cheese that he would hand over to waiters for grating, and he cautioned cooks to tear rather than chop the basil going into his dishes, details that did not escape David’s eagle-eye.
Set the mood with good food
M.F.K. Fisher is another writer who expressed the sensuality of food, often with the simplest of recipes. I still make her unusual rice pudding, topped with meringue and filled with plump raisins and fragrant spices that permeate the kitchen while cooking and after. And her description of peeling and eating a juicy tangerine is so sexy that it could serve as the perfect shared dessert after a hearty Mediterranean meal.
So to set the mood for a romantic Valentine’s dinner, choose favorite foods that may already have some stored memory between you and your partner. In other words, come up with your own traditions for pleasure, and if stuck for ideas, you could do worse than turn to the likes of Douglas, David and Fisher for inspiration.
Caviar Omelet (adapted from Norman Douglas’ “Venus in the Kitchen”)
4 eggs, well-beaten
1 teaspoon dried bread crumbs
2 teaspoons of caviar
½ teaspoon chopped chives
½ teaspoon chopped parsley
¼ teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 tablespoon butter
1. Mix together all ingredients except the butter in a bowl.
2. Warm butter in a frying pan. When hot and bubbly, pour in the egg mixture and make sure it covers the bottom of the pan. When cooked on one side, flip over and cook on the other side. Serve.
Photo: Chocolates for Valentine’s Day. Credit: Barbara Haber
The hot-sour-salty-sweet flavor combinations that dominate in Bangkok and central Thailand and in the Isaan region bordering Laos in the country’s east, make scant appearance up north. Northern Thai food is instead — in the words of northerners themselves — kem-kon (concentrated, intense) and rot-jat (strongly flavored). In your face: spicy, salty and sometimes bitter.
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Ingredients such as odiferous bplaa raa (literally “rotten fish”), a long-fermented fish condiment that northerners use more often than regular fish sauce, and tua nao, fermented soy beans that are mashed and shaped into disks or small bricks before being dried in the sun, lend the cuisine a jolt of umami and an elusive earthiness. Fresh and dried chilies are ubiquitous. Depth and complexity come from a range of dried spices more often associated with Malay or Indian foods (cloves, cinnamon, coriander seed, nutmeg and cumin); black, white and long peppers; and a regional variety of prickly ash (more commonly known as Sichuan peppercorn). Smokiness comes from the barbecue, ingredients such as green chilies, shallots, tomatoes and garlic are often grilled before they’re added to a dish.
Northerners prefer khao niaow, or sticky rice, over non-glutinous rice. At the table they use one hand to turn knobs of warm rice into small patties by pressing and shaping the grains between their palm and the tips of the fingers. Then they use the rice as Middle Easterners and northern Africans would bread, to carry bits of food and the cooking juices and liquids of stews and soups from plate or bowl to mouth.
Nam priks bask in the hot stuff
The northern Thai cook’s touchstones are dips known as nam prik (“chili water” is the literal translation), small bowls of concentrated flavor that pair beautifully with the fresh herbs (mint, various basils and cilantro among others) and blanched and uncooked vegetables (fresh and leafy greens such as Chinese mustard and various lettuces, and cucumbers, tart cherry tomatoes and winter squash) that are always presented alongside.
These vegetables and dips are usually served as part of a full meal, but in a non-Thai setting they work well as finger foods to go with drinks (and are a relatively virtuous alternative to chips and dips — although pork rinds, a beloved snack in pork-obsessed northern Thailand, often make an appearance). The dips can also be eaten together as a light meal.
Minced Pork and Tomato Dip (Nam Prik Ong)
This mild nam prik has a flavor and texture reminiscent of Bologna-style ragu. Leftovers are wonderful tossed with wide rice noodles and a handful of scallion greens chopped with Thai basil.
Nam prik ong is usually eaten with pork rinds (rice crackers work well, too) and with blanched, rather than raw, vegetables. Chunks of peeled winter squash (kabocha, butternut, etc.) are a must. Try also wedges of round green cabbage, cauliflower, long beans, carrots and Chinese greens like baby bok choy and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), their leaves squeezed dry.
7 dried red chilies
3 shallots, roughly chopped (about 2 ounces)
2 teaspoons Thai or Malaysian shrimp paste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
5 plump cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 tablespoons ground pork
2 cups roughly chopped tomatoes
½ cup chicken or pork broth
Fish sauce, to taste
1. Toast the chilies in a dry skillet over medium heat until darkened but not burned. Allow to cool and place in a mortar or the bowl of a blender.
2. Add the shallots, garlic and shrimp paste to the chilies and pound or blend to a rough paste (if using blender, add up to 1 tablespoon water to aid processing).
3. Heat a small skillet (preferably non-stick) over medium heat and add the oil. Swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic and sauté until it begins to change color. Add the chile-shallot-shrimp paste mixture and cook, stirring, until the raw smell of the shrimp paste dissipates, about 3 minutes.
4. Add the chopped pork and, breaking it up with a fork, cook just until the pink color disappears.
5. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until they begin to break up, about 2 minutes. Add the broth, lower the heat to medium-low, and let the mixture simmer until the broth is nearly evaporated, leaving a paste of medium thickness.
6. Taste and adjust for salt, if necessary, with fish sauce, adding ¼ teaspoon at a time.
7. Transfer the nam prik to a bowl, let cool, and serve at room temperature with a generous platter of vegetables for dipping.
Roasted Eggplant and Green Chili Dip (Dtam makhya)
This dip, though not a nam prik in name, is certainly one in spirit. It’s often eaten with fresh mint and pork rinds. It’s also wonderful shmeared over a warm soft corn tortilla to roll around grilled or roasted pork, mint and cilantro.
2 large long Asian eggplant (about 500 grams)
5-7 long green chilies
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 red shallots, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon Bplaa raa (often available in southeast Asia markets, in jars labeled “pickled mud fish”) or fish sauce
Pinch of sugar
Salt to taste
Fish sauce, to taste
½ teaspoon cooking oil
1. Grill, broil, roast (at about 350 F) or cook the eggplants and chilies directly over a gas flame until soft and browned all over. Let cool, then peel and chop together, by hand or in a food processor, to a very rough puree. Set aside in a mortar.
2. Add garlic, shallots, bplaa raa, and sugar and briefly pound with a pestle to mix. Taste for salt and add fish sauce, if necessary, ½ teaspoon at a time.
3. Heat the oil in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat, then add the eggplant mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until its color deepens slightly, about 2-3 minutes. Do not let the eggplant brown.
4. Transfer to a bowl and servewarm or at room temperature.
Red-Eye Smoked Fish and Chili Dip (Nam prik dta daeng)
Dta daeng means “red eyes,” which is what you might have after eating this super-spicy dip. Smoked mackerel is a fine substitute for the smoked river fish sold in northern Thai markets; feel free to experiment with hot-smoked salmon or any other smoked fish. Traditionally the smoked fish, shallots and garlic would be grilled, but these days northern Thai cooks are happy to use the microwave. The number of chilies called for results in an authentically fiery dish. Reduce by up to two-thirds for a much milder dip; you could also remove the seeds.
Serve this dip with any combination of fresh Asian long beans (or green beans), sliced cucumber, napa cabbage and Chinese mustard leaves, wing beans, and herbs such as mint, Thai or purple basil, sawtooth herb and Vietnamese mint. Leftovers are great stirred into scrambled eggs.
4 ounces smoked mackerel, bones removed
5 unpeeled shallots
8 unpeeled garlic cloves
25 whole Thai dried red chilies, stemmed
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 tablespoon Thai or Malaysian shrimp paste
½ teaspoon cooking oil
½ cup water
1. Remove any skin from the fish. Cut the fish into chunks and microwave until its moisture is rendered and it has begun to crisp, about 3-5 minutes depending on the size of the chunks and the fattiness of the fish. Set aside to cool.
2. Place garlic cloves on plate, cover with microwave-safe plastic wrap, and microwave till very soft, 2-3 minutes. Repeat with the shallots, which will take 4-5 minutes. Set aside to cool, then peel.
3. Toast the chilies in a skillet over medium heat until they darken, stirring constantly so they don’t burn. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
4. Pound the fish and chilies in a mortar or chop in a food processor to rough puree. Add the shallots and garlic and pound or process to a paste.
5. Place a (preferably nonstick) skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, heat for a few seconds, and then add the tomatoes and the shrimp paste. Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the water and continue to cook, stirring and mashing the tomatoes with the back of your spatula or spoon, until the moisture has almost evaporated, about 3 more minutes.
6. Add the chile-shallot-garlic-fish paste and cook, stirring, until the ammonia smell of the shrimp paste has dissipated and the combination paste has started to darken and take on an oily sheen, 4-5 minutes. There should be no moisture left in the pan.
7. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Serve at room temperature.
Top photo: Nam prik ong, a northern Thai style “dip” made of tomato and ground pork often served with pork rinds (bowl left). Credit: David Hagerman