Articles in Tradition
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.
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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
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
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
Many cultures around the world honor departed ancestors with holidays each year. Some feature altars. Some burn incense. But feasting is the common thread that runs through many of the celebrations.
The dead are part of that — with food offerings left in their honor.
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In Mexico’s two-day Day of the Dead celebration — el Día de los Muertos — Nov. 1 celebrates the lives of departed infants and children. Nov. 2 honors those who died as adults. On both days, families provide the favorite food and drink of the departed.
In China, families set out plates of food during for their ancestors at the Hungry Ghost Festival. An empty place at the dinner table is sometimes left for an ancestor to join in the feast.
The Hungry Ghost Festival, which is thousands of years old, is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Chinese families place ancestral artifacts on a table, burn incense and display photographs of the dead.
Remembering the dead with food, flowers and festive décor
Mexico’s tradition also features colorful altars to honor ancestors.
MexicanSugarSkull.com offers this detail on the offerings — ofrendas — that families set out on their Day of the Dead altars:
“They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil and bright red cock’s combs), mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.
Mexico’s Day of the Dead is believed to trace its origins to pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).
Not just a Mexican holiday anymore
Today, Day of the Dead has grown in popularity far behind the borders of Mexico and Latin America. The traditional observance from central and southern Mexico can now be seen in Día de los Muertos imagery and art around the world.
You can purchase just about anything you need for your own Day of the Dead celebration. From sugar skull molds to authentic Mexican Día de los Muertos folk art pieces, which are sometimes used as an altar decoration by celebrants. The happy skeletons are shown doing many different things, from cooking to selling wares at the market. There are even skeleton mariachi bands. Families will purchase the colorful skeletons that depict activities their departed family member enjoyed in life.
Making sugar skull decorations is very simple, using only three ingredients and a mold. The fun part is decorating them. I recruited my 7-year-old daughter and her friend to decorate the skulls. The kit came months ago, and my daughter had been bugging me since the day it arrived to make them. Not only was it a fun activity, it gave me a chance to talk about honoring our ancestors and remembering them in a fun — not sad — way.
I encourage families to make the skulls together, even decorating the skulls to resemble the deceased in their families and extended families.
Día de los Muertos Sugar Skulls
Prep time: 10 minutes
Drying time: 8 hours
Yield: 5 medium skulls
For the sugar skulls:
3 cups granulated sugar
3 teaspoons meringue powder
3 teaspoons water
For the royal icing:
1 pound powdered sugar
⅓ cup water
¼ cup meringue powder
Gel paste food coloring, assorted colors
For the sugar skulls:
1. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and meringue powder.
2. Sprinkle the water over the sugar mixture.
3. Using clean hands, knead the mixture until all the sugar is moistened and it feels like wet sand. Make sure there are no lumps.
4. Pack the mix firmly into the sugar skull mold.
5. Carefully invert the mold onto a baking sheet or piece of cardboard.
6. Gently tap the mold to release the sugar skull from the mold.
7. Let the skulls dry for at least 8 hours to overnight.
8. Decorate the skulls with royal icing.
For the royal icing:
1. In a stand mixer, beat the icing until it makes stiff peaks.
2. Divide the icing and use paste food coloring to make assorted colors.
3. Using a piping bag, decorate the skulls as desired.
Main photo: Mexican sugar skulls for Day of the Dead celebrations. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
Careful thought can ease your workload considerably, if that’s how you think of cooking, by squeezing three dinners from one initial cooking. It’s a novel way of viewing leftovers in that you’re not using them so much as you are making leftovers to be used according to a plan.
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First, in the method that follows, you’re not simply using leftovers, you’re following a game plan to create three nights of family dinners for four by using the foods from the first meal for the second meal and from the first and second meals for the third meal. You’ll add one or two foods to subsequent dinners Nos. 2 and 3. You can do all of this for about $40.
Ideally, dinner No. 1 should begin on a Sunday morning as you’ll be making a boiled dinner that can cook slowly all day either in a large slow cooker or on the stove top if your cook top has a simmer-control setting. A simmer-control setting is so low that a pot of water set on top of it will never boil; it will only shimmer on top.
The first meal is based on a New England boiled dinner, a family meal that was far more popular in the early 20th century than today and something of a misnomer as one never actually boils the chicken but rather poaches it. The second meal is based on an Alpine-type of baked casserole au gratin with fontina cheese. The third meal is based on a root vegetable soup purée with chunks of meat and vegetables.
First Dinner: Boiled Dinner
Prep time: About 30 minutes
Cook time: 3-9 hours
Yield: 4 servings
One 4-pound chicken
2 pounds fresh kielbasa sausage or mild Italian sausage
1¾ pounds boiling potatoes, such as small Yukon gold or fingerling, peeled
1½ pounds fat carrots, scraped and cut in half
1 pound (7 or 8) small onions, peeled
1½ pounds fat parsnips, scraped
1¼ pound small turnips (7 or 8), trimmed of tops
2 small celery roots (1 pound), trimmed and peeled
2 celery stalks, cut in half
50 garlic cloves
Bouquet garni, tied in cheesecloth, consisting of parsley, celery stalk top, marjoram, bay leaf, and oregano
Water as needed
Salt to taste
1. Wrap the chicken in cheesecloth and tie off with kitchen twine. Place in a large stockpot with the sausage, potatoes, carrots, onions, parsnips, turnips, celery root, celery stalk, garlic, bouquet garni and peppercorns and cover with water. Turn the heat to high and bring to a near boil. Reduce the heat to very low the minute you see a bubble or two rise to the surface. Cook until all the foods are very tender, about 9 hours with a simmer control and about 3 hours without. At no time should the water boil; it should only shimmer on top. About halfway through the cooking, season a bit with salt. Bring to just below a boil on high heat. Reduce the heat to low, so it is just shimmering on the surface.
2. Remove the chicken and unwrap from the kitchen twine. Set the chicken in the middle of a large round platter. It will be so well-cooked it will collapse unless you handle it gently. Surround with all the other meats and vegetables except for the celery stalk and bouquet garni, which you will discard. Serve with any two of these accompaniments: horseradish with apple, Bavarian mustard, Cajun mustard, regular mustard, Mostarda di Cremona, apple sauce or hot sauce of your choice.
3. Save all food not eaten.
4. Strain the broth through a cheesecloth-lined strainer and return to a pot. Boil until the broth is reduce by a third. Cool and save.
Second Dinner: Baked Casserole au Gratin
Prep time: about 10 minutes
Cook time: 1¼ hours
Yield: 4 servings
Leftovers from boiled dinner, sliced
2½ ounces smoked slab bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil, vegetable oil, butter, pork lard or duck fat
½ pound cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 slices (about 2 ounces) French or Italian country bread
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground cinnamon
¾ pound fontina Val d’Aosta cheese, in thin slices
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, in thin slivers
2 cups chicken broth (from first meal)
1. Remove the meat from the chicken and discard the carcass. Chop or slice the chicken and sausage keeping them separated. Slice all the vegetables but keep them separate. Remove half of everything and set aside for meal No. 3.
2. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
3. In a sauté pan, cook, stirring, the bacon and cooking fat over medium heat until almost crispy, about 4 minutes. Add the cabbage and a little water to deglaze the pan and cook, stirring, until it is wilted, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
4. In four 8 x 1½-inch baking casseroles, or one larger baking casserole, or similar ovenproof vessel, place the bread and then layer half the leftovers on top and half the cabbage and sprinkle with nutmeg and cinnamon. Layer half the fontina cheese and then another layer of leftovers and cabbage and finally some slivers of butter. Finish with one more layer of cheese and butter. Pour ½ cup broth into each casserole and bake until golden brown and bubbling, 55 to 60 minutes. Serve hot.
Third Dinner: Root Vegetable Purée With Chicken and Sausage
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Leftover vegetables from dinner one
3½ cups chicken broth (from first meal)
3 tablespoons heavy cream
3 ounces fresh or frozen peas
Leftover meat from dinner one
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
4 slices (about 2 ounces) Italian or French country bread, pan-fried in butter until golden brown
1. Place all the leftover vegetables in a food processor with 2 cups broth and blend in pulses at first then continuously until smooth. Transfer to a soup pot with the cream, peas, remaining meat leftovers, remaining broth and ground ginger and heat over low heat until hot. Check the seasoning. Serve with bread.
Main photo: New England boiled dinner with chicken and vegetables. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye, What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie? — John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Pumpkin,” 1850
Scottish and Irish immigrants brought many Celtic Halloween traditions with them to the United States, including that of carving jack-o’-lanterns. But the pumpkin they embraced for the practice is a true American.
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Tracing its long family tree back to at least 3000 B.C., the pumpkin and other squashes probably originated in the Tamaulipas mountains in Mexico. One of the Three Sisters — along with climbing beans and corn — pumpkins formed a major part of the diet of early Americans. By 1000 B.C., the pumpkin arrived in what is today the United States. And by the time the English settled in Jamestown, Va., in 1607, Native Americans had developed sophisticated recipes and uses for the pumpkin.
A popular recipe was a type of pudding sweetened with maple sugar, similar in spirit to English puddings. Nowadays, pumpkins strut their stuff in pies, not unlike those baked by my English ancestors. Long a symbol of autumn in the United States, pumpkins now see the light of day primarily for ornamental reasons. Ninety percent of pumpkins end up carved into jack‑o’‑lanterns, and the rest make their way into cans as pumpkin-pie filling or puree. Every grocery store stocks pumpkins, piled in heaps at the entrance.
Seeing all those pumpkins whets my appetite. So, I just baked my first pumpkin pie of the season.
Canned pumpkin puree confession
Yes, I confess: I used to follow the recipe on the label of the Libby’s can of pumpkin puree. To show you that I don’t slavishly follow recipes, I added a ¼ teaspoon of vanilla and heaping spoonfuls of all the spices, as well as a big hit of freshly grated nutmeg. Sometimes, I used cream instead of evaporated milk, an ingredient actually not out of line because many vintage cookbooks of the 19th century mention using cream or a mixture of cream and milk.
And, yes, I know that making your own puree is far more earth-friendly. I’m all for that. But since I cannot find those nice little sugar pumpkins and other types for sale right now, I use the “traditional” method, as I know it. My mother never used anything but Libby’s. But I am sure my grandmothers struggled with the food-mill method of creating puree from boiled or roasted pumpkin.
Regardless of the method, some things don’t change when it comes to pumpkin pies. First of all, the aroma. It fills the house as the pie is baking, and that brings back all sorts of memories. School days, leaf forts, decorating the front porch for trick-or-treaters, choosing the candy to give out at Halloween.
And the smell of cinnamon. I don’t know about you, but I nearly swoon when I catch a whiff of Saigon cinnamon. I try to restrain myself and not dump too much into the custard mix. The rich aroma of freshly grated nutmeg pumps up the flavor of the pie, too, not to mention that of cloves and ginger. The medieval overlay of these spices causes me to think about the ties to my cultural past. Because of that, for me, autumn signifies the aroma of these spices.
Hearkening back to pumpkin pies past
I’m intrigued by the fact that I’m standing in my kitchen in Virginia — one of the first areas settled by English men and women from 17th-century England, some my own ancestors — and I’m baking a dish based on flavors and techniques dating back to those days. Baked puddings abound in traditional English cooking. Yes, pumpkin pie is basically a baked pudding, even though it goes by the name “custard pie” these days and wears a crust.
Take a look at Mary Randolph’s “Pumpkin Pudding,” a very English and yet very American recipe, from her 1824 cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife”:
Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry, rub it through a sieve, mix with the pulp six eggs quite light, a quarter of a pound of butter, half a pint of new milk, some pounded ginger and nutmeg, a wine glass of brandy, and sugar to your taste. Should it be too liquid, stew it a little dryer; put a paste [crust] round the edges and the bottom of a shallow dish or plate, pour in the mixture, cut some thin bits of paste, twist them and lay them across the top and bake nicely.
Pumpkin pie is not only for dessert any more, either. I find pumpkin pie a great breakfast food, just as many people did in the past.
I’ll probably make another pumpkin pie very soon. For some reason, I see only a small sliver left in the pie pan.
Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie
For the crust:
1 partially baked 9-inch pie crust
Dry beans (for shaping the pie crust)
For the filling:
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ heaping teaspoon ground ginger
¼ heaping teaspoon ground cloves
⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk or 1½ cups heavy cream or whole milk
For the garnish
For the partially baked crust:
1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Arrange the dough in the pie pan, crimping the edges, pressing down slightly to anchor the dough to the edges of the pie pan.
3. Place two sheets of aluminum foil, slightly overlapping, over the dough in the pan. Press down gently and make sure that the foil touches all the surfaces. Pour in enough dry beans to come to the edge of the pie pan. This allows the pie crust to retain its shape.
4. Bake 15 minutes with the beans. Then slowly remove the foil and beans by grabbing the corners of the foil and pull up and out. Bake the crust 5 more minutes.
5. Let cool almost completely on a rack.
For the filling:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Place all the ingredients in a large bowl, in the order given, whisking after each addition.
3. Pour into the partially baked pie shell.
4. Bake about 45 minutes or until a sharp knife inserted into center comes out clean. Check throughout the baking. If the edges of the crust get too dark, place a ring of foil over the exposed pie crust. At that point, the surface of the pie along the edges will have puffed up and cracked slightly.
5. Allow to cool. Serve with whipped cream garnish.
Main photo: Pumpkins. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen
Dried pasta can cost anywhere from $1 to $7 or more per pound. Pasta is just flour and water, so what, if anything, makes the expensive stuff any better? Is there a taste and texture difference between brands? Is artisanal pasta worth the price?
I traveled throughout Italy to find out, interviewing food bloggers, chefs, pasta manufacturers and home cooks. Every Italian I spoke with emphatically believed that he or she could taste the difference and that good pasta wasn’t cheap, but was worth the price. I listened to technical explanations of the difference between Teflon and bronze extrusion, the value of water, length and types of drying techinques.
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They were all convincing, but I was finally won over completely when I attended the food festival I Primi d’Italia, dedicated to Italy’s famed first-course specialties: pasta, risotto and polenta. The festival is held each year in Umbria, in the historic town of Foligno, which is completely transformed with tasting and demo stations in every piazza, courtyard and cobblestone street as it plays host to this delightful event.
I attended a workshop on how to evaluate dried pasta led by Gennaro Esposito, a two-star Michelin chef from Naples. He did a side-by-side test that highlighted the ways to tell so-so pasta from great pasta.
Try this at home
Try it yourself at home. It’s easiest to see the difference using spaghetti, so select an artisanal imported Italian pasta, and compare it to a bargain brand.
Fill two pots with the same amount of water and salt and bring to a boil. So that it’s a blind test, ask a friend to help so you don’t know which pasta is which. Have your friend put in the same amount of pasta to each pot. After a minute or two, stir the pastas and take a whiff of the water. Which pasta has a fresh wheat aroma?
- Once the pasta is al dente, drain, and test its ability to absorb sauce. Put a few strands of each into two different bowls with a little water and after several minutes note which pasta absorbed more water. That means it will better absorb sauce and is the better pasta.
- Then pinch both types of pasta between your thumb and index finger. The inferior pasta will be gummy to the touch and soft in the middle, while the better pasta stays al dente.
- Finally, taste each pasta plain, with no sauce. That should be enough to convince you!
Ways to Spot Superior Pasta
To learn how to spot superior pasta I visited Garofalo, a famed Naples pasta company, where I was taught that superior pasta, when raw, should be yellow (not white), it should smell like fine wheat, and it should break cleanly and easily—without scattering bits about.
When cooked, it should:
- Taste delicious, even without sauce.
- Have a lovely aroma, like crusty bread.
- Leave the cooking water clear and uncloudy.
- Stick to the sauce. If the sauce slides off, it’s a sign that the pasta was not properly dried. Pasta that is too slippery means that the past maker rushed the drying process using a high temperature, which causes the pasta’s starch to form a sort of glaze on the pasta, making it shiny and impenetrable for sauces.
- Remain firm the last bite. If left in a plate without sauce, it should not collapse and lose its shape.
To underscore just how important good pasta is, the team at Garofalo taught me a fabulous show-stopping recipe. It really underscores the characteristics of quality pasta — the ability to keep from getting mushy when cooked.
Bucatini Dome (Cupola di Bucatini)
It’s hard to top this dish for pure drama. The stately dome of pasta houses a colorful filling of string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of rich Italian cheese.
But don’t get intimidated. It’s actually quite easy to create. The trick is to use bucatini, which are thick long pasta that keep their shape as you coil them into the round dome cake pan. If you don’t have one, use a metal bowl instead. Don’t let lack of equipment keep you from tackling this architecturally magnificent — and delicious — dish.
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 70 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
14 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan
5 slender zucchini (about 2 pounds), minced
3 medium carrots, minced
¾ pound haricot verts or very thin string beans, minced
1¼ pounds bucatini
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup grated pecorino cheese
¾ pound deli-sliced high-quality provolone cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Very generously butter an 8- to 9-inch dome-shaped oven-safe container such as a Pyrex or metal bowl.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan and add zucchini; fry until soft. Put the zucchini into a large bowl. Using the same pan, cook the carrots and string beans in 1 tablespoon of butter over low heat, covered, until tender, adding a few drops of water, if needed. Stir into the bowl with the zucchini until well combined. Set aside 1 cup of this vegetable mixture as garnish for later.
3. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for ⅔ of the package’s recommended time. Drain and divide, putting ¾ of the pasta into the large bowl of vegetables and the remaining ¼ into a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of butter. Set aside; the small bowl, it will be used for the outer part of the dome.
4. Add 9 tablespoons of butter to the pasta-vegetable bowl and stir until the butter melts, then stir in the beaten eggs, pecorino cheese, and freshly grated black pepper. Using kitchen scissors, cut into the pasta mixture so it is broken up a little. Set aside.
5. From the plain buttered pasta, using one strand and starting in the center of the prepared domed container, twirl the pasta around itself to form a coil. Continue the coil with another strand of pasta starting where the last strand ended so it is in one continuous line; continue with additional strands until half way up the pan. Line the pasta with slices of cheese, pressing the cheese firmly against the pasta. Put in half of the vegetable-pasta mixture, pressing firmly into the bottom and sides of the bowl to remove any air pockets and densely pack the filling. Top with cheese slices.
6. Continue coiling the plain pasta around the dome to the top, adding a strand at the exact spot the last ended. Line the sides with more cheese slices and top with the remaining vegetable-pasta mixture and slices of cheese. Press the pasta down firmly with a spatula or wooden spoon. This is key to getting a nice compact dome that stays together nicely when sliced. Cut the remaining plain buttered pasta with scissors and press on top of the mixture.
7. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 15 minutes, until golden and set. Let rest 10 minutes, then put a serving plate on top of the bowl, and invert it. Hit with a wooden spoon to help the pasta release from the pan, and, using the tip of a spoon or butter knife along the bottom edge of the bowl, begin to remove the bowl from the pasta. Serve garnished with the reserved cup of minced vegetables.
Main photo: Bucatini Dome houses string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of cheese. Credit: “Pasta Modern” by Francine Segan
If you are not clear exactly what Mediterranean food is, it’s actually very simple: It’s the cooking found in all the regions and provinces that have a littoral on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of that fact in a sense there is no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine because every region’s food, while tending to use the same ingredients, is strikingly different from one another. High on the list of staple Mediterranean foods are legumes.
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Two Mediterranean countries famous for their legume dishes are Egypt and Greece. Here are two budget-friendly, healthy and delicious recipes that can be served in Near Eastern style, as both Greece and Egypt are considered Near Eastern countries. These dishes can be prepared as part of a larger meze or as an appetizer or side dish.
Edward William Lane tells us in his classic book “The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” first published in 1908 that many dishes prepared by the Egyptians consist wholly or for the most part of vegetables, “cabbage, purslane, spinach, bamiyeh [okra], beans, lupin, chick-pea, gourds, cut into small pieces, colocasia, lentils etc.”
Called salāṭa ‘adas and made with tiny brown lentils slightly cooked with olive oil, garlic and spices, I had this lentil salad as a meze at the Tikka Grill, a restaurant on the corniche of Alexandria in Egypt. Although you don’t have to use freshly ground spices, you’ll find if you do, the result is a dish far fresher, more pungent and better tasting than one made with pre-ground spices. Too many home cooks keep spices far beyond their shelf life, so check the date on your jar.
Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices
Preparation time: about 30 minutes
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds
½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds
½ teaspoon ground fenugreek
1 cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed well
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic and as soon as the garlic begins to sizzle remove from the burner, add the cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.
2. Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on. Drain and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.
Black-Eyed Pea Salad
This simple preparation called mavromakita fasolia in Greek can be made with canned black-eyed peas, as long as they are packed in only water. I prefer using dried black-eyed peas but they are not always to be found. Typically you would serve this salad as a meze, but it’s fine as a side dish too. This recipe was given to me by chef Estathios Meralis of the motor yacht M/Y Sirius out of Piraeus, Greece.
Yield: 6 servings
Preparation time: about 1 hour
2½ cups canned black-eyed peas (two 15-ounce cans) or 1 cup dried black-eyed peas
2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste
1. If using dried black-eyed peas, boil over high heat in water to cover until tender, about 1 hour. Drain and rinse. If using canned peas, drain and rinse, then place in a bowl.
2. Toss the black-eyed peas with the scallions, garlic, dill, olive oil, pepper and salt. Serve at room temperature.
Main photo: Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Japanese miso can deliver great health benefits — and of course, everyone wants those. However, not all miso is created equal. Inexpensive miso made from low-quality ingredients through an automated process has little nutritional value and may be laden with chemicals. When you look at the traditional way of making miso, you can see why.
The most popular miso is made from rice, soybeans, salt, spring water and koji, the fermentation starter. Koji, aspergillus oryzae, is a type of mold. When mixed with steamed rice, it breaks down the carbohydrates into simple sugars. The resulting koji rice is mixed with cooked soybeans, sea salt and pure spring water. This mixture is then left in wooden barrels to ferment naturally. Dark brown miso, or aka-miso (often known as “red miso”), can take more than one year to ferment properly. During this period, the koji is assisted by hundreds of species of bacteria living in the wood of the barrels. They produce peptides and amino acids, organic acids and other nutrients, giving the miso its wonderful flavor and nutritional value.
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But all that work pays off for the cook, because using good-quality miso produces wonderful-tasting dishes with little effort. Good miso contains lots of umami, savory flavor, enhancing all the other ingredients you use. In contrast, miso made in an automated factory substitutes artificial flavoring for the rich layers of flavor in the traditional product.
But American cooks don’t have to order a shipment of Japanese miso from abroad to get the real experience: Several American companies are now making very high quality, traditionally produced miso. On a day when I did not have time to walk 20 minutes to the Japanese food store, I discovered the American-made Miso Master brand at my neighborhood large chain supermarket in New York City. In my kitchen, this miso really surprised me. It had the quality and taste characteristics that I had long yearned for.
Japanese tradition comes to America
I was curious to find out how my favorite miso was made in America. So I headed to Great Eastern Sun, the North Carolina-based company that has been making Miso Master miso for 33 years. In 1979, when American interest in macrobiotic products was booming, John and Jan Belleme, the early partners of the company, traveled to Japan to investigate natural miso production. A small miso brewer, Takamichi Onozaki, in Yatai, a village in Tochigi Prefecture northeast of Tokyo, opened his arms and factory to the Bellemes and taught them the art of traditional miso production. Upon returning to America, they built the Great Eastern Sun factory in the village of Rutherfordton, 55 miles east of Asheville.
On my visit to the factory I found the same qualities that I had found at the miso factory in Japan: far from the city, with clean water, pure air and people who cared about producing high-quality food. Great Eastern Sun picked Rutherfordton not only because of the qualities of nature and people, but also because it sits at the same latitude as the village of Yatai in Japan.
A Japanese miso master, Joe Kato, oversees production of the miso, which uses all organic and non-GMO ingredients. In the large processing room, six local American employees were working on koji rice. The rice had been steamed the day before, inoculated with koji mold and left spread on a large wooden stand in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. The workers were breaking up and turning the koji rice, which released a sweet, slightly chestnut-like fragrance. When I closed my eyes I felt as if I were standing in my friend’s miso factory in Japan. But soon the workers’ jokes and chatting in English brought me back to where I was.
Below you will find a very simple, but delicious recipe with which you can try real miso to enjoy a healthy diet. You may have had the somewhat boring typical miso soup at a Japanese restaurant, featuring wakame seaweed, tofu and scallion. This spicy kale miso soup recipe shows that you can use any seasonal vegetable from your refrigerator to make an excellent miso soup. You can find many more delicious uses for miso – dressings, marinades, sauces and more –in my book, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen.”
Spicy Kale Miso Soup
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 8 minutes
Total time: 18 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
½ bunch kale
1 teaspoon canola oil
½ cup chopped red onion
¼ cup finely julienned ginger
¼ teaspoon toban jiang (fermented chile bean sauce) or red pepper flakes
3 cups dashi stock or low-sodium chicken stock
1½ tablespoons aged brown miso from Miso Master or other high-quality miso producer
- Cut off the very bottom of the hard stems of the kale, and cut the remaining kale, including the stems, into thin slices crosswise.
- Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium heat, and then add the onion. Cook the onions for 1 minute, stirring until they are slightly translucent. Add half of the ginger and the toban jiang, and give the mixture several stirs. Add the kale and cook, stirring, until the leaves are wilted.
- Pour in the stock and bring it to a simmer. Decrease the heat to low and cook, covered, for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat.
- Add the miso, stirring briskly with a whisk until it is dissolved.
- Divide the soup into small soup bowls, garnish with the remaining ginger and serve.
Main photo: Workers tend the koji rice at Great Eastern Sun’s facility in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo
It’s tomato canning time in Campania, southern Italy. This region more than any other relies on home-preserved plum tomatoes to stock the larder for the year. These are the tomatoes that will go into the daily plate of pasta al pomodoro, or onto pizzas and dozens of other regional favorites.
My neighbors in Nusco, the tiny medieval village in the province of Avellino where I spend part of the year, are a retired couple who share their house with one daughter. It’s just the three of them, so I was amazed when they told me that the next week Signora Antonietta was going to process 250 kilos of tomatoes (that’s one-quarter ton of fresh tomatoes). Each family has its own recipes for home-canned tomatoes, but the result is the same: enough bottles and jars of the precious “red gold” to prevent them ever having to buy tomatoes from a store.
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“The most important thing is to know where your tomatoes have been grown,” says Antonietta’s husband, Pietro. “We like to make sure ours are free of pesticides.” Nusco is only an hour’s drive from Puglia, where many of the tomatoes for the canning industry are grown, but there are reports of undocumented immigrants being exploited as pickers in near-slavery conditions. Pietro prefers to buy his from a local farmer.
San Marzano tomatoes
The most famous tomato of all is the fabled San Marzano, the Holy Grail of plum varieties. Legend has it that the first seeds of San Marzano came to Campania in 1770 as a gift to the Kingdom of Naples from the Kingdom of Peru. It was planted extensively in what is now the township of San Marzano, near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, mainland Europe’s largest active volcano. Millions of tons were harvested annually until the 1980s, when a blight struck the crop.
Campanian researchers are divided about whether that variety still exists. Some claim the original San Marzano was lost to the disease, while others maintain that a few seeds remained in the region’s refrigerated seed bank and were used to rebuild the gene pool. Whichever variety it now is, Pomodoro San Marzano has been granted DOP status (Protected Denomination of Origin) and can be certified only if grown within specified areas of Campania. It has been recognized as a keystone of the Mediterranean diet.
What’s so special about it? “The San Marzano has an elongated plum shape, firm flesh and very few seeds,” says Vincenzo Aita, a specialist in Campanian agriculture. “The skin is a deep bright red, and peels off easily. Most importantly, it has a rich, intense flavor, low acidity (but is high in nutrients), and is the best for canning and for making our Neapolitan tomato ragù — a sauce that needs to be simmered for at least 6 hours.”
The San Marzano is tricky to grow: It needs to be staked carefully and handpicked when ripe, which means passing through the fields six to eight times per season. So it’s more expensive than other plum tomatoes, but well worth the extra — if you can find it.
Signora Antonietta favors preserving her tomatoes unpeeled. She washes, then puts them in a vast pan over a gas burner in her garage, gently cooking them for about an hour until the pulp is soft. The tomatoes are then passed through a mill, where some of the skins are separated from the juice and pulp.
“Some people prefer to drain the tomato water before milling, but I like to keep all of the tomatoes’ goodness in the jar. After all, I can always cook it down if I need it thicker,” she says, as she stirs salt to taste into the tomato purée. The passata or salsa is bottled — in recycled jars and beer bottles with new caps — before being placed in an even bigger pan to be covered in water and boiled for 45 minutes to sterilize the preserves.
Stocking the larder
A few kilometers away, in Montella, Signora Rosa and her family are being even more ambitious. “We’re doing 450 kilos of tomatoes this year,” she says as she rallies her daughter, grandson and nephew to action. Here the tomatoes are worked using two different methods. Some whole tomatoes are held in boiling water for a minute or so before being peeled. They are then placed in the bottles with one fresh basil leaf before being closed and sterilized.
For her passata, Rosa washes the tomatoes before adding them to a large pan in which a few liters of water have been brought to a boil. She cooks them for about an hour before removing them from the pan using a slotted spoon to drain away some of the excess liquid. The tomatoes are then milled — using an old electric machine that was her mother’s, and that can process 300 kilos per hour — bottled and sterilized, unsalted, as above. Other families prefer to purée their tomatoes raw before sterilization, or cut the raw tomatoes into chunks and mix them into the salsa before the final boiling in the jar. It’s a personal choice and one that will be appreciated every day of the coming year.
Main photo: Signora Rosa, center, and her family work on the tomatoes in the garden. Credit: Carla Capalbo