Articles in Tradition
For many people the arrival of vine-ripened tomatoes marks the beginning of summer. But for me, it’s the mounds of corn at our farmers market. With countless ways to enjoy corn, one of the most delicious is to use corn kernels in an Asian-style congee or rice porridge.
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Certainly the easiest way to enjoy corn is to strip off the husks and place the cobs into boiling water or onto a blazingly hot grill. Featured center stage, a bowl of freshly cooked corn on the cob is wonderful. But corn is also an able supporting player when the kernels are cut off the cob and added to salads, soups, stews and pasta.
Congee, the best kept secret of the Asian kitchen
A meal in itself, congee is Asian comfort food. Putting good use to leftover rice, the most basic congee is a stew of boiled rice. Many cuisines have made the dish their own by layering in flavor with combinations of stocks, fragrant oils, fresh and dried herbs, spices, vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood.
Congee comes in many consistencies. Some feature the broth as much as the rice. Other versions have very little liquid and the congee has a consistency similar to porridge.
Any rice varietal will work nicely to make congee. Short grain, long grain, white or brown rice, it doesn’t matter. When the cooked rice is added to a liquid over heat, the starches thicken to create a sauce. Water can be used as the liquid, but a home-made stock adds much more flavor.
My congee borrows the general technique but is not an attempt to create an authentic dish as prepared in the Philippines, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia or Vietnam.
Because the starting point for congee is so flavor neutral, a variety of vegetables, seasonings and stocks can be added. A fine dice of carrots, green beans or broccoli works well, as does a shredding of kale, spinach or sorrel. Instead of olive oil, use sesame or truffle oil. Add aromatics such as raw garlic, fried garlic chips, turmeric, cilantro, cumin, saffron, pimentón or oregano. Homemade broth brings another level of flavor. You can use a dominating liquid like beef stock flavored with anise or take a more delicate approach using shrimp stock with a saffron infusion.
As an ingredient in congee, corn is an ideal companion because the firm sweet kernels contrast well with the creaminess of the boiled rice.
If lobster is not available, another protein can be used. Cooked or raw fish, crab meat or shrimp can be substituted for lobster. Or, shredded roast chicken or roast pork will pair nicely with the corn. A vegetarian version is easy to make by using homemade vegetable stock and fresh farmers market vegetables and herbs.
Cooking a lobster is probably easier than you might think. Bring 3 inches of water to boil in a large pot. Hold the lobster’s head submerged in the boiling water. Cover the pot with a lid. Cook five minutes. Remove the lid, submerge the part of the lobster that is not yet red. Cover. Cook another three minutes. Transfer the lobster to the sink. Reserve the water in the large pot.
When the lobster is cool to the touch, hold it over a large bowl. Remove the legs, claws and tail, reserving any liquid to add to the stock. Discard only the dark colored egg sack. The green tomalley is a delicacy and should be saved to be eaten warm on toast.
Removing the meat from the tail is relatively easy. Use kitchen shears to cut the shell underneath lengthwise and across the top of the tail. The meat will come out without effort. Cracking open the claws takes a bit more work and sometimes requires the use of a hammer. The body meat is especially sweet and requires the use of a pointed stick to separate the meat from the cartilage.
Some of the meat will be cooked. Some will be raw. Both can be used in the recipe.
Place all the shells into the pot with the cooking water and simmer covered thirty minutes. Strain out the shells and reserve the lobster stock.
Refrigerate the lobster meat and stock until needed. The preperation of the lobster can be accomplished a day ahead. If all that sounds like too much effort, use the other proteins mentioned above.
Homemade stock is preferable to canned, boxed or frozen stocks, which are often overly salted and can have a stale taste. Homemade chicken stock is a good substitute if other stocks are not available.
Because rice varietals absorb liquid at differing rates, have enough stock on hand. Adjust the amount of stock as you cook until you have the consistency you enjoy. If you want your congee to have more soup, use six cups of stock. If you would prefer less soup, use four cups. Taste and adjust the seasonings as well.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 ears corn, husks and tassels removed, washed, kernels cut off the cobs
1 medium yellow onion, washed, root end, top and outer skin removed, roughly chopped
4 large scallions, washed, root end and discolored leaves removed
4 to 6 cups homemade stock, lobster stock if available or use chicken stock or water
4 cups cooked rice
3 cups cooked or raw lobster meat (approximately two 2-pound lobsters) or another protein
1 basket cherry tomatoes, washed, each tomato cut into quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne to taste (optional)
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
1. Add olive oil to a heated pot on a medium flame. Sauté corn kernels until lightly browned.
2. Add chopped onions and sauté until lightly browned.
3. Fine chop scallion green parts. Cut white part into ¼-inch lengths and reserve.
4. Add scallion green parts to the sauté.
5. Pour stock into pot, stir well and simmer five minutes.
6. Add rice. Stir well. Continue to simmer.
7. The longer the rice cooks in the liquid, the softer it will become. If cooked too long, the rice will dissolve creating an unpleasant texture. When the consistency is what you like, shred the lobster meat and add along with the chopped cherry tomatoes. Stir well. Simmer two minutes.
8. Season to taste with sea salt, black pepper, cayenne (optional) and sweet butter (optional).
9. Serve congee hot in large bowls. Top with white scallion lengths.
Main photo: Corn-Lobster Congee topped with chopped tomatoes and sliced scallions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
In the springtime in Sicily a simply named dish reveals an explosion of flavor that belies its satisfying complexity. It is a dish special with spring vegetables — fava, peas, scallions and artichokes — and called frittedda (or fritedda).
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In western Sicily, where frittedda was born, it is served as a grape ‘u pitittu, a Sicilian expression that means “a mouth-opener,” a culinary concept much closer to a Middle Eastern meze than an Italian antipasto. Pino Correnti, a leading Sicilian gastronome, believes that the name of this preparation comes from the Latin frigere, because it is prepared in a large frying pan.
The young artichokes needed for this dish can be hard to find. They are very tender and have not yet developed chokes. Because this dish is affected by the age and size of the vegetables, you will have to judge for yourself the right cooking time and how much salt, pepper and nutmeg you want to use, so keep tasting. This is a good time to use a very good quality estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil from Sicily.
This is most definitely a labor-intensive preparation. However, it tastes so good and can last so long to be served successively as antipasti and side dishes that a Sicilian cook never shies away from the work. It is a time to grab a glass of wine and with a friend or lover shuck the pods of fava and peas.
Spring Vegetable Frittedda
Prep time: About 1 hour
Cook time: Between 1 hour and 1 hour, 40 minutes
Total time: About 2 hours, 45 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 pound fresh peas, shelled (from about 2 1/2 pounds of pods)
2 pounds fresh fava beans, shelled (from about 5 pounds of pods)
10 young artichokes, each not more than 3 inches long (if you use older artichokes, with fully developed bracts and chokes, cook them longer in Step 2)
Juice from 1 lemon
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pound scallions, white part only, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg
4 large fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
4 teaspoons sugar
1. Rinse the peas and the fava beans and set aside. Trim the artichokes, quarter or halve, and leave them in cold water acidulated with the lemon juice until they are all prepared. In a large sauté pan (preferably a 14-inch sauté pan), heat the olive over medium-low heat, then cook, stirring, the scallions until soft, about 3 minutes.
2. Add the artichokes and cook for 5 minutes longer (15 minutes if they are fully developed globe artichokes), then add 2/3 cup hot water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the peas and fava beans. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.
3. Moisten the vegetables with more hot water if they look like they are drying out. Cook another 20 to 40 minutes or until tender; keep checking. Stir the mint, vinegar and sugar together and then pour over the vegetables while still hot. Transfer to a serving platter or bowl and let it reach room temperature before serving.
Fritedda with spring vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright
Fried street foods are popular in every region of Italy, where you’ll often hear: “Fried, even chair legs are delicious.” Neapolitans in particular have a cult-like devotion to fried fare, especially pizza fritta.
After World War II, the city found itself in crisis, and the materials needed for pizza — the mozzarella and even wood for the ovens — became a luxury. Fried pizza, a less-expensive alternative nicknamed “pizza of the people,” was filled with “poor” ingredients — pork crackling, pepper and ricotta. Housewives sold it on the streets to supplement the family’s income. Times were so hard, customers could even buy pizza fritta on credit: Called pizza-at-eight, pizza a otto, it was eaten on the spot but paid for eight days later.
Simple, homemade food
Naples-born Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, made one for me recently explaining, “Pizza fritta comes in different shapes. Round, called montanare, or half moon calzone.” For the dough, which is the same as for classic oven pizza, Sorbillo uses only a minuscule pinch of leavening to create chewy, never spongy, dough. He stretches a round, fills it and pulls the ends into a whimsical mimicry of the clown Pulcinella’s hat. Sorbillo flash-fries at just the right temperature for a crisp, non-greasy outside and warm, gooey center.
“Pizza fritta is a simple food, easy to make at home because unlike classic pizza you don’t need a wood-burning stove, just a frying pan,” Sorbillo says. It’s very versatile and can be filled with virtually anything: a traditional ricotta, provolone and Neapolitan salami combo; mozzarella and ham; or sautéed broccoli rabe or other greens. And it is great plain or served with a side dipping of tomato sauce.
When you’re in Naples, be sure to have a classic wood oven-baked pizza at Gino’s famed restaurant on Via dei Tribunali. But if the lines are too long to get in, which they always are, enjoy a piping hot pizza fritta at his small fried pizza spot just a few doors down. If you can’t get to Naples, make Sorbillo’s fried pizza at home with the recipe below. Use his excellent dough recipe or use store-bought pizza dough.
Gino Sorbillo’s Pizza Fritta
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Prep time: 20 minutes, plus 8 hours passive
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
A tiny pinch, 0.07 ounces, brewers yeast
2 cups, about 1 pound, organic “0” or pizza flour
3 teaspoons salt
Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying
Sorbillo’s suggested fillings: sheep’s milk ricotta, thinly sliced ciccioli (Neapolitan pork salami), diced smoked provolone cheese, diced fresh peeled tomatoes, black pepper
1. Dissolve the yeast in 1 1/3 cups of warm water in a bowl, and then sift in the flour and salt. Knead on a floured work surface until smooth, 10 to 12 minutes. Divide the dough into 4 balls and let rise at room temperature, covered in a clean cloth, for about 8 hours.
2. Heat enough oil in a deep-sided skillet to cover one pizza at a time. Heat to 400 F.
3. Stretch each section into a flat circle, pressing down with your palm to flatten it. Put the ricotta, salami, provolone and a tablespoon of diced tomatoes in the center. Season with black pepper, fold over and pinch the edges closed, taking care to leave an air pocket in the center. Pull on the two ends a bit and slowly lower into the hot oil. Fry in the hot oil, about 1/2 minute per side, until golden. Drain on absorbent paper and repeat with the other three pizzas. Eat while warm.
Main photo: Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan
Steamed rice is a perfect side dish. Never threatening to overshadow the qualities of a main dish, rice is a good accompaniment for grilled proteins, braises, stir-fries and steamed veggies. But there are times when a meal needs not symbiosis but fiery contrast. That is when Chef Chris Oh’s kimchi fried rice can save the day.
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Located near Sony Studios, Oh’s Hanjip Korean BBQ is one of a dozen new restaurants that have created a culinary district in what was once sleepy Culver City, Calif.
An unlikely path to becoming a chef
If you met Oh before he was 30, you would have known an economics major who studied at the University of Arizona and followed his supportive parents into the world of entrepreneurial businesses. Within a few years of graduation, he owned a home, a real estate company and a car wash in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was living the American dream.
Then one day, as has happened to many others, he woke up and asked himself, “Is this it?” His answer was, “No.” He wanted to follow his passion and pursue the life of a chef. But this is where Oh’s story takes an unusual turn. Unlike many others who want culinary careers, Oh did not enroll in a cooking academy. He did not seek out a talented chef and apprentice himself for years.
He abandoned his successful life, sold his house and all his businesses, packed his car and drove to Los Angeles. He knew he wanted to be a chef, but his only cooking experience was preparing meals for his younger brother when they were growing up. He rented a house, bought a TV and turned on the Food Network. For days and nights too numerous to count, he sat on his couch and watched cooking shows. He studied classic recipes and learned to improvise by watching competition cooking shows.
Even though he had never worked in a professional kitchen, after his third interview, he was hired to be a line cook. A quick study, within two years Oh was working with some of Los Angeles’ top chefs. Fast forward another two years and he was the chef-owner of two food trucks and three restaurants. Along the way he won the third season of The Great Food Truck Race and had become a judge on cooking shows.
Korean flavors for American palates
The driving force behind his success is Oh’s love of Korean food. Many people have not experienced Korean food so his intention is to create dishes with authentic flavors but to make them more friendly to the American palate. Korean barbecue, he told me, isn’t just for Korean people.
Eating at a Korean barbecue restaurant is like going to a dinner theater except the show is not on stage but on the table. A gas-powered brazier gets the spotlight. Using tongs and chop sticks, everyone at the table plays chef and places thin slices of meat, seafood and vegetables on the hot grill. The conversation bubbles and the meat sizzles as everyone picks off the flavorful crispy bits and eats them with rice.
Based on his mother’s recipe, Oh adds a few chef’s secret touches to elevate his kimchi fried rice. Essential to the flavor profile is the addition of a barely cooked egg. Just before eating, the egg is broken up and mixed into the rice. The kimchi fried rice with its comfort-food creaminess is a good complement to the tasty, crispy bits that come off the grill.
Hanjip Korean BBQ’s Kimchi Fried Rice
Of the special ingredients needed to make the dish, only kimchi is essential. Found in the refrigerated section in Asian markets, there are many varieties of kimchi. The version used in Oh’s recipe is made with Asian cabbage. Most often sold in jars and prepared with MSG, there are brands that prepare their kimchi without MSG and are recommended.
Kimchi continues to ferment in the jar, which explains the gas that sputters out when the lid is unscrewed. To protect against juices staining clothing and the counter, always open the jar in the sink where cleanup is easy.
Furikake and nori, the other specialty ingredients called for in the recipe, are also found in Asian markets. Nori is a dried seaweed sold in sheets or pre-cut into thin strips. Furikake comes in several varieties. Chef Oh’s furikake is a mix of sesame seeds, nori, bonito flakes and seasoned salt.
For a vegetarian or vegan version, omit the butter and egg and use kosher salt instead of beef bouillon.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes or 45 minutes if the rice must be cooked or 60 minutes if using a sous vide egg
Total time: 20 minutes or 65 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 egg, sous vide 60 minutes or coddled for 4 minutes in boiling water or fried sunny side up
1 tablespoon sweet butter
2 tablespoons sesame oil
¾ cup chopped kimchi
3 cups cooked white rice, Japanese or Chinese
Pinch of beef bouillon powder or kosher salt
2 tablespoons kimchi juice
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic
2 tablespoons scallions, washed, ends trimmed, chopped
2 tablespoons nori strips for garnish
1 teaspoon furikake for garnish
1. Cook the egg sous vide, coddled or fried sunny side up. Set aside.
2.Heat wok, carbon steel or cast iron pan over high heat.
3. Add butter. Lower the flame and stir well to avoid burning.
4. Add sesame oil and kimchi. Stir well to combine.
5. Add cooked rice. Mix well with oils and kimchi. Do not over stir to encourage bottom layer to crisp.
6. Season with beef bouillon powder or kosher salt, kimchi juice and garlic. Stir well.
7. Add scallions and stir well.
8. When the rice is well coated and some of the grains are crispy, transfer to a serving dish.
9. Top with the egg and garnish with the nori strips and furikake.
10. Serve hot.
Main photo: Kimchi in wok to make kimchi fried rice at Hanjip. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
Italian-Americans will tell you flat out that linguine accompanies seafood. Well, at least Long Island Italian-Americans will tell you that. My grandfather, who was from a small village 85 kilometers east of Naples, immigrated to New York in the early 20th century and lived there the rest of his life. He took my mother fishing in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and they brought home bluefish, porgies, flounder or fluke on the subway back to their Manhattan tenement. Many different preparations would be made, but if it were to be a pasta dish, the pasta was linguine.
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The array of pastas you will encounter in a market aisle look innumerable. There are many more pastas, and perhaps you haven’t thought what you could do with them. This is a wonderful time to start experimenting. The Italians are said to have invented about 700 pasta shapes. This includes specialty pastas made for certain occasions. I still have my box of Menucci brand 1776-1976 pasta made for the U.S. Bicentennial and am still trying to figure out if I should put it in a living room shadow box or the kitchen pantry.
One problem faced by the cook is what sauce for what pasta. Books have been written on this, but let’s keep it simple here. In the 1960s when I first started working in restaurants, I began cooking. I was mostly influenced by the cooking of my Italian grandfather and by my mom who made Italian food at home. I was also greatly influenced by my travels to Italy, by the restaurants I worked in, which were staffed by Italians, and by the cookbooks of Ada Boni, a famous mid-20th century Italian author.
The matching of pasta shapes with sauces is something of an art. There is usually some logic to it, but not always. Tubular pastas such as cut ziti or rigatoni are great in baked dishes and with thick ragouts that can get stuck in the tubes. Seashell pasta and chickpeas make sense because the shells capture the peas. Wide, flat pastas such as fettuccine and pappardelle are nice with sauces that cling to their wide surfaces.
If there was one thing I learned from my grandfather it was that seafood always went with linguine, the flat filiform pasta about 2 millimeters wide. Here are three great linguine and seafood recipes that would have made my grandfather swoon:
Linguine alla Pescatore
Preparation and cooking time: 2 hours
Yield: 6 servings
Linguine alla pescatore means linguine in the style of the fishermen. I’ve always doubted these dishes are actual fishermen’s dishes as implied by the name. The various “pescatore” dishes in Italy always struck me as trattoria dishes. In any case, this is a simple preparation with flavors that bely the simplicity. The secret, besides the freshest seafood, is the marinade the seafood sits in made with saffron, chile flakes, garlic and parsley. Once you’re ready to serve, the cooking happens quickly.
¾ pound swordfish, cut into ½-inch cubes
12 oysters, shucked, with their liquid
½ pound medium shrimp, shelled
4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
Pinch of saffron, crumbled slightly
½ teaspoon red chile flakes
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
Salt to taste
3/4 pound linguine
1. In a bowl, toss the swordfish, oysters, shrimp, anchovy fillets, parsley, garlic, saffron, chile flakes, black pepper and 4 tablespoons of olive oil together. Leave to marinate for 2 hours.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing.
3. In a large sauté pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over high heat, then cook the seafood mixture, stirring frequently, seasoning with salt, until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer the pasta to the pan and toss several times, letting the pasta cook and absorb some of the juices. Serve immediately.
Linguine With Salmon, Basil and Mint
Preparation and cooking time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
This is a subtle dish and since everyone loves salmon it is delightful with the fresh herbs.
1/2 pound linguine
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound salmon, cut into bite-size pieces
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing.
2. Meanwhile, in a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the salmon, onion, garlic, basil and mint until the salmon is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle the lemon juice on the fish. Transfer the fish and pasta to a serving bowl, toss well and serve immediately without cheese.
Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans
Preparation and cooking time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
When my children and the children of my friends were little, before their palates became adventurous, we adults who cooked for both adults and young children faced a dilemma. The adults didn’t want boring “kid food” and the children were finicky, all to a different degree. I refused to slave over two separate meals, so I relied on this quick preparation that fit the gustatory bill, pleasing all kinds of palates.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
12 ounces tuna, canned in water and drained
1/2 cup loosely-packed fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound linguine
1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch lengths
1. In a flameproof casserole large enough to contain all the pasta, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat with the garlic, tuna, and oregano. Once it begins to sizzle, cook for 2 minutes then remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta and green beans to the casserole and toss with the tuna. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright
South Africa’s potjie — the country’s iconic three-legged cast iron pot and culinary workhorse — is a centuries-old piece of cooking equipment experiencing a contemporary revival now in its fourth decade.
In recent years, the potjie has almost taken on the power of a magic cauldron in South African society: It’s the place in which a hearty one-pot meal (called potjiekos) is cooked over an outdoor fire and over which people of all backgrounds enjoy being together outdoors. Yet while potjiekos is today a beloved ritual that even inspires contemporary chefs, for generations it was significantly overlooked.
Iron pots a tradition
Outdoor cooking was a tradition in South Africa before colonial times, with the country’s indigenous people cooking in clay pots over open fires. According to author and potjie expert Dine van Zyl, “The Dutch settlers brought iron pots to South Africa from Europe, where they had been hung from hooks over fireplaces. These Afrikaners hung the pots from their wagons when they trekked … the potjie was their whole kitchen. When they camped, they’d make a fire and cook whatever they had; some salted meat and maybe some dried apricots. They’d also use what was available … seafood if near the coast, or game if they were in the interior.”
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Everything changed with the advent of the stove, about 100 years ago. “People could easily cook in their kitchens and no longer needed potjies. The pot was used only nostalgically, on hunting, fishing or camping trips, or it sat on a front stoep (veranda), planted with a geranium.”
Then, in the ’80s, Van Zyl had an aha moment. While living on a farm without electricity, she was forced to turn to a potjie pot over an indoor fireplace. One night, friends joined her and they made a potjie outside. “I looked at my friends singing, dancing and cooking under the stars and I realized that potjiekos gives South Africans exactly what they want and need. It’s much more than cooking,” she said. “If you want to only cook, you do it on the stove.”
Van Zyl wrote the first book on potjiekos in 1983, which led to a popular revival that hasn’t stopped. “One wonderful thing about potjies is that they got men cooking. For the first time ever, men and women sat around the fire together, cutting up the meat and the vegetables.”
A potjie is traditionally made with tough cuts of meat, often lamb or beef neck or shin, or oxtail. The meat is seared first in the hot pot, then onions and spices, followed by a small amount of liquid are added. Then the layering up begins: first the hard vegetables like carrots and potatoes, then those requiring less cooking time, like green beans and cabbage — all vegetables that have been collectively cut up around the fire. The lid goes on and the pot simmers and steams unstirred for several hours, while everybody socializes.
As for the no-stirring rule, Van Zyl says it’s a tradition based on sensible cooking. “While the different components should all be perfectly cooked, which is why it’s layered, it’s nonsense that it must look like a cassata,” she said. “While you don’t mix it, toward the end you can ‘pull it through’ — place your spoon at the bottom of the pot and gently lift some of the meat and gravy to the top. Otherwise it becomes a mess when people start digging.”
Tradition gets a modern twist
Now, the tradition is fueling one of South Africa’s hottest chefs. In his mid-30s, Bertus Basson is chef patron of acclaimed Overture Restaurant in the Cape Winelands. His tasting menus are sophisticated and distinctly modern South African, rooted in local flavors and sensibility. While Overture and a second restaurant, Bertus Basson at Spice Route, are indoor kitchens, Basson’s creativity is stoked by outdoor fire and smoke. He often hits the road with outdoor pop-ups, and he is a regular judge on The Ultimate Braai Master, a grueling 60-day outdoor cooking reality TV show going into its fifth season.
Which is why it’s not surprising that potjie will soon be on Basson’s menu. When an easy dining annex to Overture is completed, it will feature open pit cooking with an installation of potjie pots. Basson is also hitting the festival circuit with a mobile spit fitted with potjie hooks.
“I grew up with potjies. My favorite was my father’s lamb shin pot braised in a little Worcestershire sauce and beer,” Basson said. He is quick to point out that when talking potjies, the layering method is the traditional Afrikaner way; it’s only one way to use a potjie pot. “South Africans of all backgrounds are cooking with potjie pots, whether Afrikaans, black African, or other, and what they cook and how they cook it differs. In addition, there are three-legged pots and also flat-bottomed pots, which are used for baking — my mom makes a kick-ass apple tart in hers. Potjies have survived generations. In fact, it’s traditional to pass on the pots, which just get better with age.”
In a country with a history of division, shared traditions are important. “Chefs have a responsibility to help South Africans celebrate our food and what we are, which can ultimately break down barriers,” said Basson.
Main photo: A traditional potjie is made with tough cuts of meat, then layered with hard vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone
Given how easy it is to make harīsa, the ubiquitous chile paste of North Africa, I’ve never had much use for those inferior tubes of the stuff. Harīsa is the most important condiment used in Algerian and Tunisian cooking, and you need to make this recipe and keep it in the refrigerator before attempting any other Algerian or Tunisian recipe you might have in my or others’ recipes.
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It’s hard to believe that so essential a condiment could evolve only after the introduction of the New World capsicum after Columbus’ voyages. It’s thought that the chile entered North Africa by way of the Spanish presidios that dotted the coast in the 16th century or came up from West Africa overland from the Portuguese holdings there.
Harīsa comes from the Arabic word for “to break into pieces,” which is done by pounding hot chiles in a mortar, although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chile paste is also found in the cooking of Libya, and even in western Sicily where cùscusu is made. In Tunisia it would be prepared fresh at home. The simplest recipe is merely a paste of red chile and salt that is covered in olive oil and stored.
Harīsa is sold in tubes by both Tunisian and French firms. The Tunisian one is better, but neither can compare to your own freshly made from this recipe.
I first became intrigued with making harīsa from a preparation made by Mouldi Hadiji, my Arabic teacher more than 30 years ago. I concocted this version, based on a Berber-style one I had in Djerba, from a recipe description given to me by a merchant in the market in Tunis, who unfortunately provided measurements that could last me a century (calling for 50 pounds of chile).
Some cooks also use mint, onions or olive oil in their harīsa. You also don’t have to use the exact dried chiles I call for, but at least one should be quite piquant.
Be careful when handling hot chiles, making sure that you do not put your fingers near your eyes, nose or mouth, or you will regret it. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling chiles. After you make your first harīsa, with all the modern conveniences, I hope you can appreciate what exacting work this was, making it in the traditional mortar — 50 pounds of the stuff!
Prep time: 1 1/4 hours
Yield: 1 cup
2 ounces dried Guajillo chiles
2 ounces dried Anaheim chiles
5 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Extra virgin olive oil for topping off
1. Soak the chiles in tepid water to cover until softened, 1 hour. Drain and remove the stems and seeds. Place in a blender or food processor with the garlic, water and olive oil and process until smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides.
2. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and stir in the caraway, coriander and salt. Store in a jar and top off, covering the surface of the paste with a layer of olive oil. Whenever the paste is used, you must always top off with olive oil making sure no paste is exposed to air, otherwise it will spoil.
Variation: To make a hot harīsa, use 4 ounces dried Guajillo chiles and 1/2 ounce dried de Arbol peppers.
Note: To make ṣālṣa al-harīsa, used as an accompaniment to grilled meats, stir together 2 teaspoons harīsa, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons water and 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley leaves.
Main photo: Harisa. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright
Families all seem to have their own Christmas classics — roast turkey, baked ham, crown roast or pork, or prime rib. Many Italian-Americans will have lasagna or a feast of seven fishes. One spectacular preparation for a change of pace is to follow some families and make the classic Sicilian Christmas tummàla.
Tummàla is a timbale of rice, a magnificent concoction of layers of baked rice, poached chicken, veal meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses and a cheesed omelet to create a golden mantle.
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Although a Christmas specialty, Sicilian cooks prepare tummàla for all sorts of celebrations when a grand culinary gesture is warranted. It is considered a representative example of cucina arabo-sicula, a contemporary folkloric expression of a supposed Arab culinary sensibility found vestigially in the contemporary Sicilian kitchen, some 800 years after the last of the Arab-Sicilian population disappeared. At the very least, it is considered Arab-Sicilian because the Arabs introduced rice to the island in the ninth or 10th century.
The Italian translation of the Sicilian tummàla is timballo, leading one to believe that this dish is derived from the French timbale, a baking mold in the shape of a kettledrum, hence its name.
In fact, the name comes either from Muhammed Ibn al-Thumna, the 11th-century emir of Catania, or from tummala, the purported Arabic name for a certain kind of plate, although that etymology is not confirmed.
Assembling a Sicilian classic
Traditionally, this dish is made with a chicken with its unborn eggs. The cheeses called for are pecorino pepato, caciocavallo and fresh mozzarella. Pecorino pepato is a young pecorino cheese made with peppercorns thrown into the curd. Caciocavallo is a spun-curd cow’s milk cheese and can be replaced with provolone.
Mozzarella is used in place of fresh tuma, a fresh pecorino cheese that is only found at the source of production, so it’s not available in this country. It is possible to find a young tuma aged between three and six months in Italian markets in the United Sates. One can also try Internet sources such as Murray’s Cheese or igourmet.com.
Finally, don’t let the list of ingredients intimidate you. Great length, in this case, does not mean great difficulty.
Sicilian Christmas Tummàla
Prep time: 1 1/2 hours
Cooking time: 3 1/2 hours
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
One 3-pound chicken
2 medium onions, cut into eighths
2 celery stalks, cut into chunks
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered
5 fresh parsley sprigs
10 black peppercorns
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
3 tablespoons milk
3/4 pound ground veal
3/4 pound pecorino pepato cheese, grated, divided
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
7 large eggs (2 hard-boiled and sliced)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons pork lard
1/2 pound mild Italian sausage, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1/4 pound pork rind (optional), cut into thin strips
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 1/2 cups (1 1/4 pounds) short grain rice, such as Arborio rice, soaked in tepid water to cover for 30 minutes or rinsed well in a strainer, drained
Unsalted butter as needed
1 cup dry bread crumbs
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
1/4 pound caciocavallo cheese, thinly sliced
1/4 pound pecorino cheese, grated
1. In a large stockpot that will fit the chicken comfortably, place the chicken with its gizzards, onions, celery stalks, tomatoes, parsley sprigs and peppercorns. Cover with cold water and bring to a near boil over high heat. As soon as the water looks like it is going to boil, reduce immediately to a simmer and cook the chicken until the meat falls off the bone when pushed with a fork, without letting the water boil, 2 hours. Don’t let the water bubble; otherwise it toughens the chicken.
2. Meanwhile, prepare the veal croquettes. In a bowl, soak the fresh bread crumbs in the milk. If the mixture looks soggy, squeeze the milk out. Add the veal, half of the pecorino pepato, the garlic, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the pepper. Lightly beat 1 egg and add to the mixture. Mix well with a fork or your hands. Form croquettes the size and shape of your thumb. Cover and put aside in the refrigerator.
3. Drain the chicken, saving all the broth in a smaller pot. Remove and discard all the skin and bones from the chicken and cut the meat into small pieces.
4. In a large sauté pan, cook, stirring, the chopped onion in 1 tablespoon lard over medium heat until golden, about 8 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining lard to the pan and cook the veal croquettes until they are browned. Add the sausage and the pork rind and cook for 10 minutes. Add the sautéed onion, the remaining 4 tablespoons parsley and the tomato paste diluted in 1 cup hot water. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Set aside.
5. Preheat oven to 350 F.
6. Bring the chicken broth from step 1 to a boil and reduce by one-third. Pour 2 1/2 cups broth into a heavy saucepan, bring to a boil, add the rice and about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Cook, covered and without stirring, until al dente, about 15 minutes. Pour about 3/4 cup broth into the veal-sausage mixture.
7. Drain the rice, if necessary, and mix it with the remaining pecorino pepato.
8. Butter a deep baking dish or baking casserole and spread 1 cup dry bread crumbs on the bottom, shaking vigorously to spread them thin so that they coat the bottom of the baking dish, dumping out any excess.
9. Spread the rice on top of the bread crumbs, about 3/4 inch deep. Spread three-quarters of the chicken and half of the veal croquettes and sausage mixture on top of the rice. Make a layer of hard-boiled egg. Layer the mozzarella cheese on top of the eggs. Cover with the remaining veal and sauce. Spread on a layer of caciocavallo cheese. Mix the remaining chicken with the remaining rice and spread it on top.
10. Beat the remaining 4 eggs lightly and combine with the pecorino cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce evenly over the top.
11. Bake until the top has a nice golden crust, about 1 hour. Check from time to time to be sure it doesn’t dry out. The tummàla can be served directly from the baking dish with the pan sauces or with tomato sauce.
Main photo: Tummàla, a Sicilian Christmas specialty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright