Articles in Tradition

Harīsa. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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.

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).

Tlitlu bi’l-Lahm (fresh pasta pieces with lamb in spicy harīsa sauce). Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Tlitlu bi’l-Lahm (fresh pasta pieces with lamb in spicy harīsa sauce). Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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!

Harīsa

Prep time: 1 1/4 hours

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Tummàla, a Sicilian Christmas specialty. Credit: Copyright 2015 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.

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

Assembling Tummàla. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Assembling tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

Tummàla. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Main photo: Tummàla, a Sicilian Christmas specialty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Beef ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Outside of the candy that the kids collect, Halloween may be the only American holiday that is not associated with a particular feast or recipe.

In fact, I didn’t know until recently that Halloween wasn’t celebrated in America until the late 19th century when Irish immigrants brought the Oct. 31 celebration to the United States and that the tradition of trick or treating didn’t become established until after World War II.  I knew that because my mom told me that growing up in Manhattan in the 1920s they never trick or treated.

So if there is no traditional Halloween food, it seems ideal for each family to invent one. When I lived in Massachusetts and my three children were little, we took them around the neighborhood in a short-lived frenzy of trick or treating, returning home for them to examine their candy and for us to hide three-quarters of it.

One-pot meals to warm up little devils

Braised lamb and eggplant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Braised lamb and eggplant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Then we would eat dinner, which often was something I put on the stove before we left with the spooks and goblins. Usually it was some one-pot meal that could cook unattended and to which we could return enjoying the heavenly wafting smells of lusciousness.

Since nothing was traditional, these meals became purely inventive. The kids were ravenous because late October is cold in New England and rushing house to house is tiring work for a kid. If it wasn’t nailed down, my kids would eat it.

A warm dinner to make you forget about candy

Braised buffalo short ribs in ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Braised buffalo short ribs in ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

There were several dishes they liked. Lamb with mushrooms and onions, braised veal with cabbage lasagna, my mom’s lasagna, which we called grandma’s lasagna, and pork with lentils were all demolished by my little hungry witches and goblins. They never did figure out that we tossed out several tons of their candy.

Braising lends itself to dishes that can be Halloween classics

Pork with lentils. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Pork with lentils. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Many of these Halloween stews and braises are long lost, because in those days I wouldn’t necessarily write them down. But one doesn’t really need to follow a recipe because the whole idea is slap-it-together-easy.

Here’s a braised veal recipe to start, but as you see by the photos, anything works, such as lamb and eggplant, pork and lentils, beef ragout or braised short ribs in ragout.

Braised Veal or Pork With Cabbage Lasagna

Braised Veal With Cabbage Lasagna. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Braised Veal With Cabbage Lasagna. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

A shoulder roast of veal is not a terribly expensive cut and it makes a nice family dinner. You can use a pork shoulder, too. I use a pig’s ear or pork skin instead of the bacon because they are flavorful without being fatty and can be discarded, but they’re hard to find, so bacon is fine. As for the lasagna, you don’t have to boil it when using the so called instant no-boil lasagna, just layer them dry. This is a delicious dinner that kept everyone in my family happy after one particularly cold Halloween outing.

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 4 hours (unattended)

Total time: 4 hours, 45 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

One 3-pound boneless veal shoulder roast, tied with kitchen twine

3/4 cup dry red wine

4 cups tomato sauce

One 2 3/4-pound green cabbage, cored

1/2 pound lean slab bacon (preferably), sliced

Salt to taste

2 cups low- or no-sodium chicken broth

2 ounces pancetta, chopped

1 pound no-boil (instant) lasagna

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2 cups freshly grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Directions

1. In a flameproof casserole, melt the butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat, then brown the veal roast on all sides, about 6 minutes. Pour in the wine and reduce until it is nearly evaporated, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the tomato sauce, partially cover, and simmer for 3 to 4 hours, turning the roast occasionally. Transfer the roast to a serving platter and remove the butcher’s twine.

2. While the veal is roasting, prepare the cabbage lasagna. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to the boil and cook the cabbage for 10 minutes. Remove the cabbage and when cool enough to handle and separate the leaves. Layer the bottom of the pot in which you boiled the cabbage with half the bacon. Layer the cabbage leaves on top with a light sprinkle of salt. Lay the remaining slab bacon slices on top, pour in the chicken broth, cover, and cook on a medium heat for 45 to 50 minutes. Drain.

3. Place the pancetta in a small frying pan and cook over medium heat until slightly crispy and rendered of some fat, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes. Set aside.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, and add the lasagna. Drain as soon as the lasagna is limp, about 1 minute. Reserve in a pot of cold water so the leaves of lasagna do not stick together.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

6. Spread some olive oil on the bottom of a baking dish or lasagna pan and cover with lasagna, cabbage, pancetta, salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and garlic, in that order. Continue in this order until you run out of ingredients, ending with a layer of lasagna, cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 40 minutes.

7. Slice the veal, pour a few ladles of sauce over the meat and serve with the cabbage lasagna.

Main photo: Beef ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Stacked in a Parisian shop display case, these inexpensive croques can be taken home and reheated as snacks or light meals. Note the translation on the sales tag, “Toasted Ham,” directed, no doubt, at hungry Anglophone tourists. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

You can judge a Parisian cafe by its croque. If a cafe can’t get these simple ham and cheese sandwiches right, what hope is there for their more complex fare? After tasting a dozen croques this summer, I must insist that France place Monsieur and Madame Croque (and the traditional cafe) on the endangered species list.

Fortunately, the few delicious versions I tasted prove all is not lost. Monsieur Croque is, of course, a grilled or toasted ham and cheese sandwich on sweet white bread — pain de mie — that’s dressed (ideally) with either creamy béchamel or cheesy Mornay sauce. Grated cheese, either Gruyère or Emmental, is layered inside (over the ham) and on top of the sandwich, and then browned top and bottom (with butter) until the melted cheese (with or without added sauce) starts to drip down the sides.

Madame Croque is exactly the same, but she sports a fried egg “hat” on her saucy head. This ever-popular culinary couple celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2001, according to most culinary historians.

The word croque comes from the French verb, croquer, “to bite,” or in some circles, “to crunch.” Hence the awkward translation, “Crunchy Mister.” Here then are the croques I crunched during my recent summer sejour (stay) in Paris — the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve grouped them by price because with the Parisian croque, you generally get what you pay for.

Croques less than 8 euros

At Café Duc d’Albret, the best inexpensive croque I tasted in Paris and one of the best overall: dripping with cheese and béchamel sauce, a nicely toasted bottom bread slice and made-to-order. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

At Café Duc d’Albret, the best inexpensive croque I tasted in Paris and one of the best overall: dripping with cheese and béchamel sauce, a nicely toasted bottom bread slice and made-to-order. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Le Duc d’Albret, rue Danielle-Casanova, 6 euros

La Fontaine, rue Cuvier, 7.5 euros

When I came across Le Duc d’Albret, a hole-in-the-wall cafe near avenue de l’Opéra, and saw croques on the menu starting at 6 euros (add 1 or 2 euros for the madame version and Poilâne bread, Paris’ popular upscale artisanal loaf), I assumed it would be a disappointment. Au contraire, it was excellent, toasted (top and bottom) by the owner in a commercial toaster oven while I watched. This croque even had béchamel in the center, giving it a creamy texture. Funky as the setup was, this was a made-to-order croque. As the owner, Madame Madeira, explained to me, “You cannot make a croque in advance.”

At La Fontaine, a friend’s favorite morning mom-and-pop cafe near the lovely Jardins des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement, their somewhat pricier croque set the stage for a string of similar disappointments — most notably croques preassembled (sometimes off premises or frozen), untoasted bottoms and with little if any béchamel sauce to help moisten an otherwise dry sandwich.

What good are Monsieur and Madame Croque without toasty bottoms and gooey interiors and tops? It can be done without the sauce, which was not part of the recipe for the original croques 100 years ago, but sauceless croques need lots of cheese and some butter in the toasting to produce a juicy croque.

Croques from 8 to 10 euros

While the top of this croque at cafe Les Deux Palais was burnt in spots, the condition underneath was even worse. The bottom slice of bread was not even warm, let alone toasted. And note the absence of any cheese in the interior of the sandwich. An abuse of the name "croque monsieur." Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

While the top of this croque at Les Deux Palais was burnt in spots, the condition underneath was even worse. The bottom slice of bread was not even warm, let alone toasted. And note the absence of any cheese in the interior of the sandwich. An abuse of the name ”croque monsieur.” Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Le Ponthieu Café, ave. Franklin Roosevelt, 10 euros

Café Dada, ave. des Ternes, 8 euros

Café Les Deux Palais, blvd. du Palais, 9.5 euros

Café Les Mouettes, rue de Bac, 9 euros

Café La Palette, rue de Seine, 10.5 euros

At this higher price point, you’d expect croques at least as good as Le Duc d’Albret’s, but that was not the case this summer. At upscale Le Ponthieu, the Poilâne croque was not toasted on the bottom and there was no sign of béchamel. Too dry!

At hip Café Dada, I boldly sent back the half-toasted béchamel-free Poilâne croque and it came back a bit warmer but far from toasted. A double homicide! At elegant Les Deux Palais, things got even worse — untoasted bottom, commercial sandwich bread, no béchamel and minimal ham. Utterly inedible!

The croque madame at Les Mouettes on charming rue de Bac was decently made, but the fried egg was overcooked. Madame Croque without her runny yolk? Sacre bleu!

At La Palette, in the heart of the artsy 6th arrondissement, the open-faced croque was made on Poilâne’s rustic sourdough bread. It was nicely toasted, but I don’t think sourdough bread is right for a croque (Poilâine’s pain de mie is perfect). The slight sweetness of pain de mie complements the dark nutty flavor of the Gruyère cheese, which may be one of the secrets of the croque’s enduring international success.

Croques from 12 to 16 euros

The only croque offered at Le Select in the heart of Montparnasse’s historic cafe scene is a croque madame. They call it the Croque Select and it’s worthy of its moniker. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

The only croque offered at Café Select in the heart of Montparnasse’s historic cafe scene is a croque madame. They call it the Croque Select and it’s worthy of its moniker. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Café Select, blvd. du Montparnasse, 16.5 euros

Les Deux Magots, Place St. Germain, 12.5 euros

La Closerie des Lilas, blvd. du Montparnasse, gratis at bar

These three celebrated artist cafes on the left-bank, though no longer the center of the avant garde in Paris, are all producing very good croques. The well-made and tasty Croque Select at Café Select is, in fact, a croque madame — there is no choice on the menu.

At Les Deux Magots, the open-faced croque had the distinction of being the only one I had this summer with a béchamel sauce tasting of nutmeg, the favored spice for this creamy white sauce. A pleasant croque.

Hemingway’s haunt, La Closerie des Lilas, did not have croques on the menu, but the night I had dinner there, tiny tooth-picked croque squares, buttery and properly toasted, were served at the bar as hors d’oeuvres. Delicious.

Croques over 20 euros

At Café de la Paix you pay a premium for what originated as a cheap cafe snack in the early 1900s. But this rich confection is no mere sandwich. Moistened with béchamel, well-toasted top and bottom and artfully presented, the croque is accompanied by very good pommes frites and a green salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

At Café de la Paix you pay a premium for what originated as a cheap cafe snack in the early 1900s. But this rich confection is no mere sandwich. Moistened with béchamel, well-toasted top and bottom and artfully presented, the croque is accompanied by very good pommes frites and a green salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Café de la Paix, Place de l’Opéra, 20 euros

Café Fouquet’s, ave. des Champs-Élysées, 28 euros

For 20 euros and above, a croque should be everything a croque can be, and much, much more. This was indeed the case at Café de la Paix, a fashionable cafe/restaurant with Belle Epoch interiors and a rich literary history dating back to the 19th century.

The Paix croque tasted like rich pastry; the moist interior, adequate béchamel and a well-toasted top and bottom provided an explosion of flavor and texture. The pain de mie was sliced thinner than with most croques I sampled, to the sandwich’s crispy advantage, and the ham a bit thicker, which gave added flavor and texture. The presentation was impressive: The center was cut out of the croque body and served as a separate “croquette.” Green salad was stuffed into the body’s circular void. Excellent pommes frites came in a separate basket.

This was now my benchmark for a great croque. Although ridiculously expensive, the Paix croque was 8 euros less and more satisfying than the double-decker monster croque at the elite watering hole, Café Fouquet’s, on the Champs-Élysées. Sure, the Fouquet’s croque was enough for four and came with salad, excellent frites and several miniature financier dessert cakes at the end. But the sandwich itself, again on the dry side, does not sit as high in my pantheon of Parisian croques as Café de la Paix’s tour de force.

Will the Parisian croque croak?

Monsier Croque and Madame Croque have been around for more than 100 years. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Monsier Croque and Madame Croque have been around for more than 100 years. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Something has to be done to save the Parisian croque! Especially at a moderate 8 to 10 euros. If a good croque cannot be made profitably at that price, it should not be on the cafe’s menu.

There have been stories of late about the official Parisian tourism office’s efforts to boost the sagging fortunes of traditional Parisian cafes by transforming the often arrogant and unfriendly garçon de café into a nicer tourist-friendly fellow.

I suggest, instead, that the grand panjandrums at the Parisian tourism office apply their resources to improving Monsieur Croque, not Monsieur Garcon, who is just fine the way he is. Why not create AOC (Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée)-style guidelines for the croque monsieur, as for wine, cheese, eggs and other products?

For a sandwich to be labeled on a Parisian menu as a croque monsieur or madame, it must be:

  • Assembled on the premises
  • Cooked to order
  • Made with imported Gruyère or Emmental
  • Butter used in the toasting or grilling process
  • Toasted top and bottom
  • Contain either béchamel or Mornay sauce

These simple standards would help elevate the moribund Parisian croque (and cafe) to its former glory and help restore France’s reputation as the gastronomic capital of Europe — one croque at a time.

Main photo: Stacked in a Parisian shop display case, these inexpensive croques can be taken home and reheated as snacks or light meals. Note the translation on the sales tag, “Toasted Ham,” directed, no doubt, at hungry Anglophone tourists. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

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This lovely Peruvian- Inspired Pumpkin and Rice Tower, courtesy of Peruvian healthy food writer Morena Escardo, is perfect for a dinner party. Credit: Copyright 2015 Morena Escardo/ TheWeiserKitchen

Everyone is always shocked when I use pumpkin in Latino or Middle Eastern foods. But it’s nothing new. Not for Jews and not for me.

For Jews of Sephardic or Mizrachi backgrounds, edible gourds — pumpkins and thick-skinned squashes (which I often think of as winter squashes) — are everyday foods. Pumpkin is also a vital part of the Jewish New Year’s feast. The pumpkin, or k’raa in Hebrew, is a symbolic food connected to the wish that evil decrees be torn, squashed, quashed, vacated or otherwise gone. Why so many possibilities? The meaning varies from community to community, and the way those edicts are dissolved is a source of fun and global creative wordplay. But the pumpkin, no matter the variety, is always on the table.

My paternal roots as an Ashkenazi Northeasterner run for four generations, and pumpkin simply meant fall and Thanksgiving. It was ubiquitous, and came in cans aplenty. For me it was all-American food all the way growing up, but until I started traveling the world, tasting and cooking along the way, I didn’t realize that it was global. Or in any way Jewish-esque.

So when it comes to fall and the multitude of Jewish and American holidays, pumpkin reigns supreme in my kitchen. Here are some dishes that feature this versatile squash:

Main photo: This lovely vegetable dish called Pumpkin Arroz Tapado, courtesy of Peruvian healthy-food writer Morena Escardo, is perfect for a dinner party. Credit: Copyright 2015 Morena Escardo/TheWeiserKitchen

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The buttery orange broth of Secret Soup hides a plethora of fresh vegetables alongside lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime and chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

In a recent stroke of luck, I was able to join my parents on a last-minute trip to Laos. Naturally, the first thing on my mind was: What will the food be like? Never having encountered Lao cuisine in the United States, I had no idea what to expect. So my palate was piqued when we arrived in Luang Prabang, the country’s former northern capital at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

A foodie adventure

The Bamboo Tree restaurant lures with the enticing scents of coconut and lemongrass. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

The Bamboo Tree restaurant lures with the enticing scents of coconut and lemongrass. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Once settled in we immediately sought out some local food and stumbled across a restaurant off the main road, named Bamboo Tree. Lured by the enticing scents of coconut and lemongrass and by a menu on which we recognized nothing — always a good indicator of foodie adventure — we sat down. The menu told of the restaurant’s Lao chef and owner Linda Moukdavanh Rattana, who was raised cooking in her family’s Lao restaurant and whose favorite dish was something called “Secret Soup,” which combined classic local ingredients. Ordering it was a no-brainer.

Coconut milk and chilies

Chili and garlic, on display at the local market, are two crucial players behind the spicy heat of many Lao dishes.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Chili and garlic, on display at the local market, are two crucial players behind the spicy heat of many Lao dishes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

The soup arrived with a handsome buttery orange color that foretold of coconut milk and chilies, with green hints of basil and kaffir lime leaves. One slurp later I was in gastronomic exotica, floating through a savory journey of creamy coconut offset by tangy lemongrass, spicy ginger, citric lime, aromatic basil and kicking chili heat, rounded out by a rich harvest of vegetables. Somewhat to my culinary embarrassment, I am not usually a fan of coconut- and chili-based food — Thai, mostly — since I tend to find it too cloyingly sweet, spicy or oily. But this soup opened my taste buds to the complex yet comforting flavors these ingredients can have when plucked fresh and combined in a meticulous way that allows each subtle flavor to come forth. If this was Lao food, I needed to learn more. When I heard Linda offered cooking classes, I signed up.

Three key ingredients

The three key ingredients of Lao cuisine -- lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal -- alongside chili, garlic, and onion, which are common to many Southeast Asian foods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

The three key ingredients of Lao cuisine — lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal — alongside chili, garlic, and onion, which are common to many Southeast Asian foods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

As our class visited the local market for ingredients and choose dishes to cook (obviously my vote was for Secret Soup), I took my culinary questions to the source. According to Linda, the three key flavors of Lao cooking are galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime. Although these ingredients also appear in Thai and other Southeast Asian food, Linda affirmed they form the triumvirate base of Lao cuisine.

Among these ingredients I became particularly fascinated by galangal, which I had never seen before, and coconut milk, which I usually find too overpowering. Linda informed us that while related to ginger, galangal is much harder in texture and has more earthy and citrus flavors — so the two should never be substituted. As for the fresh coconut milk, it is easily found in Laos and its freshness is crucial for creating a dish that isn’t too creamy or sweet. But where fresh milk is hard to come by (as in the United States), one can substitute pure canned milk that avoids sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives. Either way, adding coconut milk at both the beginning and end of the cooking process is key to balancing the chilies’ heat without veering toward overly sweet.

Complex flavors

A variety of spices are used in Lao cuisine to produce different levels of heat and add flavor complexity in balance with ingredients like coconut milk and lemongrass. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

A variety of spices are used in Lao cuisine to produce different levels of heat and add flavor complexity in balance with ingredients like coconut milk and lemongrass. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

As with many Lao dishes, Secret Soup embodies a larger theme of Lao cuisine: years of mutual culinary influence with neighboring countries. For example, Laos and northeastern Thailand (Isan) were once part of the same country, leading to a shared culinary heritage. The Secret Soup contains items typically associated with Thai food, such as coconut milk and chilies, while also emphasizing the complex umami flavors, aromatic fresh herbs and spicy edge apparent in both Lao and Thai dishes. Yet the soup also displays typical Lao spicy-sour-bitter notes — from the blend of galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime and chili — instead of classic Thai sweet-sour flavors. Other Lao dishes might delicately indicate that the Lao originally migrated from China, carrying Chinese techniques with them, and many foods in the Laotian capital Vientaine still carry the legacy of French Indochina.

Authentic Lao cuisine

Local market vendors display their many varieties of sticky rice, a Lao diet staple. Lao people eat more sticky rice than anyone else in the world. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Local market vendors display their many varieties of sticky rice, a Lao diet staple. Lao people eat more sticky rice than anyone else in the world. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

These similarities, according to Linda, often make it difficult to identify “authentic Lao” cuisine. In fact, the close correlations between Thai and Lao food are the reason for the seeming lack of Lao restaurants in the United States. Many Lao restaurants are established under the guise of Thai, since the latter have achieved more mainstream popularity. But a number of Thai places can actually be identified as Lao through traditional Lao dishes such as sticky rice — the staple food of the Lao — papaya salad, fermented fish paste, or others, such as Secret Soup, based on the three key Lao ingredients. Ultimately, Secret Soup was not only my first taste of Laos — it also gradually expressed the country’s elaborate history of culinary exchange, appropriately lending the dish’s title new meaning. Just as I pass on the recipe from Linda here, you can carry on the tradition by translating the culinary complexities of Laos to your own dinner table.

Bamboo Tree Secret Soup

Fresh coconut milk sits side by side with oil -- which is used sparingly in Lao dishes -- surrounded by fresh vegetables and a variety of pastes used for umami flavor and spicy kick. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Fresh coconut milk sits side by side with oil — which is used sparingly in Lao dishes — surrounded by fresh vegetables and a variety of pastes used for umami flavor and spicy kick. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Ingredients

5 stalks lemongrass

10 slices galangal

1 handful each of shallots, onions and garlic, sliced

2 tablespoons sunflower or soybean oil

5 kaffir lime leaves

3/4 pound of chicken filet, sliced

2 cups coconut milk, separated

1 to 2 teaspoons chili paste, amount to taste

1 handful mushrooms, jelly, oyster, maitake or combination

1/4 handful potato, cubed

1/4 handful green beans or long beans

1/4 handful eggplants, cubed

3 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons soybean paste

1 teaspoon chili powder

Red chilies, to taste, crushed

2 cups water

5 basil leaves

3 tablespoons lime juice (kaffir or regular)

Extra coconut milk (optional)

Directions

1. Finely chop lemongrass, galangal, shallots, onion and garlic.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil over high heat in wok, then stir-fry lemongrass, galangal, shallots, onion, garlic and kaffir lime leaves until golden brown.

3. Add chicken, stirring over high heat. Stir in 1 cup coconut milk and the chili paste, cooking for a couple minutes.

4. Stir in the other ingredients, finishing with the rest of the coconut milk and the water. Cook for 10 minutes.

5. Just before serving, add the basil leaves and lime juice, and more coconut milk, if preferred.

Notes:

  • Galangal, kaffir lime and lemongrass can be ordered online or found in specialty Asian markets. Do not substitute for any of these ingredients as they are crucial to the soup’s flavor — but they’re also just for flavor, so don’t eat them!
  • For the chicken, I would suggest sticking with white meat, which works very well.
  • Add the rest of the coconut milk, and the water, gradually — you can use less than the recipe calls for, depending on how much of the coconut flavor you prefer. But also make sure to taste the final result after everything cooks, since you may end up wanting to add in that extra coconut milk before serving.
  • If your wok isn’t large enough for all of the ingredients, transfer to a pot on high heat after the first cup of coconut milk and the chili paste are added.

Main photo: The buttery orange broth of Secret Soup hides a plethora of fresh vegetables alongside lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime and chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

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Corn, potato and shrimp chowder with bourbon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Once, you couldn’t make a chowder in New England without purists frowning over your shoulder. I learned this as a young chef working aboard a ship cruising the waters of Nantucket, catering to the tastes of paying guests. We could give them moules marinières scented with wine; we could make garlicky coquilles Saint Jacques, a French dish that was in fashion then, from the lovely little bay scallops that we gathered in the early mornings off the boat; but we couldn’t, on any account, meddle with their chowder. Orders to abide by tradition were passed down from the captain, an overbearing man steeped in the lore of the locals. His notion of the dish was informed, he said, by a chapter in “Moby-Dick,” a copy of which lived on the bookshelf next to all the nautical charts. You might recall the chowder of Melville’s day, shared between Ishmael and Queequeg at the Try Pots Inn on the very same Nantucket Island where I was initiated into the local ways with fishy broth: “It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentiful seasoned with pepper and salt.”

Only recently have I revisited that time-honored tradition and given any thought to the Nantucket captain and his chowder obsession. By all historical accounts, his beloved stew owes more to the bivalve-loving Wampanoag than to the fish-phobic Pilgrims. The truth is that chowders are as varied as other soups; they always have been and always will be, reflecting regional customs, ingredients at hand, current trends or, simply, inspiration.

Key ingredients

Onions fresh from the garden. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Folktales

Onions fresh from the garden. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Some Yankee versions are still broth-based, such as the one Melville immortalized, but others — whether at the hands of the French or the colonists — came to be fortified with milk or cream. A Zester colleague, scholar Clifford Wright, cites the recipe of one Lydia Maria Child recorded in the mid-19th century cookbook “The Frugal Housewife” as the standard for authenticity (see box for link). That version makes the use of milk official, along with quahogs such as cherrystones, potatoes, onion and butter. Ideally, Wright says, you should use raw, fresh creamery milk, but if that’s not an option, “mix whole milk with cream for a substitute.”

The evolution of New England chowder

Watercolor illustration originally published in “Suburbia Today” for “Discriminating Diner,” by Julia della Croce, 1981. Credit: Copyright 1981 Laura Cornell

Watercolor illustration originally published in “Suburbia Today” for “Discriminating Diner,” by Julia della Croce, 1981. Credit: Copyright 1981 Laura Cornell

Native American cooking is no doubt the true source of our New England chowders. According to historian and author Linda Coombs of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Martha’s Vineyard, the mother of all New World quahog chowders was corn-based. Her ancestors — those gentle people who lived on the islands of southern New England, farming and whaling well before the first English appeared — relied on maize as well as beans and winter squashes year-round. “Fresh or dried, they were the basis for soups or stews or any dish,” she explained when I spoke with her on the subject recently. The cooks then added “game, fowl, fish, clams or other seafood to get a tasty broth. It was all mixed together in a big earthenware pot that was balanced on a sizzling-hot tripod of rocks over a low fire and stoked continually with small twigs to prevent direct contact with the kettle.” Consider as well a first-hand account by one John Bartram, an early American explorer of New England: “This repast consisted of three great kettles of Indian corn soup…with dried eels and other fish boiled in it” (“Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Production, Animals and Other Matters Worthy of Notice,” 1751). What might we call such a dish but — chowder?

Beyond the clam

Fresh ears of corn. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Fresh ears of corn. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

While the natives prized clams for both their meat and their shells, the early colonists’ chowders contained no clams at all but rather assorted fish. “Clams became accepted to them in time, but it is on record that in the 1620s, the Pilgrims fed clams and mussels to their hogs with the explanation that they were ‘the meanest of God’s blessings,’ ” writes Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont in their “Eating in America: A History.” 

Although I was bound to the Nantucket captain’s version while cooking on the boat, once I got my own kitchen, I quickly shed the Puritanical approach. My experiments with chowder have been far-flung, ranging from tomatoey zuppe of salt cod and potatoes to winey mussel stews flavored with sweet and smoky pimentón de la Vera to milky fish soups scented with dill, to name just a few. In the summertime, I’m especially enamored with chowder made from freshly picked sweet corn. A recent experiment combining the kernels with new potatoes and shrimp, finished with a little cream and bourbon, resulted in a soup of delicate and unexpected flavors. I call it the Do-As-You-Damn-Well-Please Chowder, and I think it’s a keeper.

Do-As-You-Damn-Well-Please Chowder With Corn, Potatoes, Shrimp and Bourbon

Corn, potato and shrimp chowder with bourbon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Corn, potato and shrimp chowder with bourbon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Total time: About 50 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 pound raw small or medium shrimp in the shell

10 sprigs of Italian parsley

1 bay leaf

3/4 pound Yukon Gold, fingerling or Red Bliss potatoes

4 ears fresh corn

Scant 2 teaspoons good olive oil

1/4 pound bacon, diced

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 yellow onion, chopped

1/2 teaspoon minced red or green jalapeño (or to taste)

2 ounces bourbon

1 cup heavy cream

Fine sea salt to taste

Directions

1. Peel and devein the shrimp, reserving their shells. Cut them in half horizontally and rinse in cold water; reserve, chilled, for later. Rinse the shells in cold water and put them in a saucepan with 3 cups cold water. Add the parsley stems (reserve the leaves) and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, partially cover the pan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally and skimming any scum that floats to the surface, about 20 minutes. Strain and set aside.  

2. In the meantime, peel and dice the potatoes and cover them with cold water; set aside. Using a sharp knife, scrape the corn kernels off the cobs; set aside.

3. In an ample Dutch oven or wide, heavy-bottomed braiser, warm the olive oil. Add the bacon and sauté it over medium-low heat until nicely browned, then transfer to a paper towel to drain and set aside.

4. Warm the butter in the bacon drippings and stir in the onions and jalapeño. Sauté over medium-low heat until they are limp, about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the diced potatoes and add them to the onions. Continue to sauté over medium-low heat until the potatoes begin to soften, about 10 minutes, stirring to prevent them from browning excessively.

5. Stir in the reserved shrimp stock, cover partially, and bring the liquid to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 15-20 minutes. Pour in the bourbon and continue to simmer until the alcohol evaporates, 2 minutes. Stir in the corn kernels and the reserved shrimp; cover.

6. As soon as the shrimp is pink and cooked through, remove the cover and stir in the cream. Heat through, about 3 minutes. Chop the parsley leaves and stir them into the chowder along with the bacon; salt to taste. Eat hot. If you make the chowder ahead of serving time, bring it to room temperature before chilling it for up to 3 days. To reheat, warm it over a low flame, covered, until heated through (avoid simmering it).

Main photo: Corn, potato and shrimp chowder with bourbon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Pasta isn't just for cold weather dinners anymore. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Everyone loves pasta, but during hot summer days a bowl of steaming pasta doesn’t sound that appealing.

Some people make cold macaroni salads, but I think pasta is not meant to be eaten cold and besides, those macaroni salads usually have mayonnaise in them and fill you up too much. The Italians have an ideal solution. Basically it’s a dish of hot pasta that cools down by virtue of being tossed with uncooked ingredients. They call it a salsa cruda. This is a raw sauce used with pasta. It’s quite popular during a hot summer.

The basic idea behind a salsa cruda is that the ingredients in the sauce are not cooked and are merely warmed by the hot pasta after it’s been drained.

Dressed up tuna and vegetables with bowties

Farfalle with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Farfalle with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In the first dish, farfalle with raw sauce, the salsa cruda is made of canned tuna, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic. It is tossed with the farfalle, a butterfly or bowtie-shaped pasta.

A first course for a meal with grilled fish

Fettucine with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Fettucine with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

A second idea is fettuccine tossed with a melange of uncooked ingredients such as olives, capers, tomatoes, mint, lemon, parsley and garlic, which is typical of southern Italy and constitutes a raw sauce that screams “summer.” This is a nice first-course pasta before having grilled fish.

Letting your pasta cook its own sauce

Spaghetti with sardines, tomato and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Spaghetti with sardines, tomato and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In a third preparation, also perfect for a hot summer day, the salsa cruda is made with canned sardines tossed with fresh mint and parsley, and ripe tomatoes that are heated through only by virtue of the cooked and hot spaghetti. It should be lukewarm when served and is nicely accompanied by crusty bread to soak up remaining sauce.

Creamy salsa cruda with ricotta

Tubetti with ricotta, artichoke, Prosciutto and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Tubetti with ricotta, artichoke, Prosciutto and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

This dish can be whipped up in no time as it uses a raw sauce with fresh ricotta that melts slowly from the heat of the pasta, but not completely, and with thinly sliced prosciutto. And better still would be to use fresh artichokes, if you don’t mind the work involved. Instead of garnishing with parsley, you garnish this dish with finely chopped tomato.

Fettuccine With Raw Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3/4 pound spaghetti

Salt to taste

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves

1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 canned sardines in water, drained and broken apart

2 teaspoons capers, chopped

Extra virgin olive oil to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing.

2. In a large bowl that will hold all the pasta, stir the garlic, parsley and mint together and then mix with the tomato, sardines, capers, olive oil and a pinch of salt. Transfer the pasta to the bowl and toss with the sauce and abundant black pepper and serve.

Tubetti With Ricotta, Artichoke, Prosciutto and Mint

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 pound tubetti or elbow macaroni

Salt to taste

1/2 pound ricotta cheese

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

8 to 9 fresh or canned artichoke foundations, chopped (14-to 16-ounce can) or 3 very large fresh artichokes, trimmed to their foundations

1/4 pound thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 small tomato, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing.

2. Meanwhile, in a bowl, gently toss the ricotta, olive oil, artichokes, prosciutto, mint, lemon juice, salt and pepper together. Transfer the pasta to the bowl and toss with the cheese and artichoke mixture. Sprinkle the tomato on top and serve.

Main photo: Pasta isn’t just for cold-weather dinners anymore. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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