Articles in Tradition

Tonkatsu kare, or pork cutlet with curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

After several days in Japan, every foreign traveler notices that the Japanese love kare-raisu or curry rice as much as they do sushi and ramen. This dish of an aromatic but not very spicy curry sauce served with rice and protein can be found throughout the country, from the largest cities to the smallest remote mountain villages. There are entire restaurants specializing in kare-raisu, small family-run operations and large restaurant chains. The strange story of how this distinctive dish came to be a Japanese favorite starts with the British, their navy, and a Japanese physician’s observations on malnutrition.

After Japan emerged from centuries of isolation with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese government decided to model its newly developing navy after all aspects of the British navy, including the training of its officers and sailors. Around the same time, Japanese doctor Kanehiro Takaki, who had studied at an English medical school, was appointed as a navy physician. Takaki’s mission was to conquer the mysterious disease beriberi, which was very common among Japanese naval officers and seamen.

During his stay in England, Takaki did not see many cases of beriberi in the British navy. And he noted that the British sailors’ protein-rich diet that also included wheat bread — foods rich in vitamin B, which we now know is required to prevent beriberi — was very different from Japanese sailors’ simple diet of fish, vegetables and rice. He concluded that malnutrition was the cause of the beriberi epidemic and that the addition of such proteins to the diet could solve the beriberi problem in the Japanese navy. Takaki returned to Japan and worked to persuade the navy that it should adopt a Western diet containing protein for the sailors. Nutritious, filling and easy to make in a single pot, kare-raisu was perfect for the navy kitchen and was soon adopted by all branches of the navy. It became the custom in the navy to serve kare-raisu at the end of each week.

Also in that period, great changes were occurring on the Japanese culinary scene. The ban on meat eating that had been imposed on the commoner population was finally lifted. New ingredients such as butter and milk were introduced to the Japanese kitchen. The Emperor himself promoted Western-style meals, with the hope of building a stronger and taller Japanese population. Under these conditions, new Western-style dishes, collectively called yoshoku, were born, and some of these new creations were adopted by the navy kitchen. Kare-raisu, directly inspired by the curry-spiced stew dish served in the British navy, was one. This is how curry rice came to Japan from India by way of the British navy.

Here is an early kare-raisu recipe published in 1906 from the “Kaigun Kappo Jutsu Sankoshoor Navy Cooking Technique Reference Cookbook.

1. Cut meat, carrots, onions and potato into cubes.

2. Heat beef fat in a stock pot and cook flour.

3. Add curry powder, stock, meat and vegetables, and cook over low heat.

4. Add salt to taste.

5. Serve the curry sauce over steamed rice with pickled vegetables.

It is not at all different from the recipe in general use today.

Japanese curry with vegetables

Vegetables with rice and curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

In Tokyo, kare-raisu was first served to the public at high-class, white-tablecloth restaurants. Diners often dressed in Western attire and, wanting to be seen as modern, ate their curry with knives, forks and spoons, not the usual chopsticks. It is recorded that in 1877, Tokyo Fugetsu-do, a Western-style restaurant, served kare-raisu and its price was 8 sen (8 cents).

A few decades later, a different style curry was born in Tokyo. This new curry dish came directly from India by a rather serendipitous route. Ras Bihari Bose, an Indian activist, fled to Japan in 1915 when his plan with colleagues to overthrow the British Raj failed. But Japan was part of an Anglo-Japan Alliance, and Bose was not safe. Luckily, he fell under the protection of Aizo Soma, a businessman known for his benevolent activities. Soma owned and operated Nakamuraya, a store in Tokyo that produced newly introduced bread products along with the traditional Japanese sweets. Bose tasted Japanese kare-raisu while he was in hiding under Soma’s protection, but criticized it as “not at all authentic.” He proceeded to help Soma develop a more authentic Indian curry recipe. The result, Indo-kare, was introduced to Soma’s customers in 1927 at his new café-restaurant, which still exists.

Today kare-raisu and Indo-kare share the same popularity in Japan. My favorite kare-raisu is, of course, my mother’s curry. Her version is in between the European and Indian styles of curry. Beautifully caramelized onion with commercially prepared S&B Curry Powder and some flour in oil was cooked with carrot, potato, apple in chicken stock for more than four hours. As the sauce cooks, she checks the flavor several times and adds seasonings such as salt, sugar and shoyu (soy sauce). I followed my mother each step, tasted it as the curry cooked down and learned the very best flavor, texture and color in the prepared dishes. The end result was a velvety, brown, lightly thickened, aromatic sauce. Below is my recent kare-raisu recipe, inspired my shrimp curry recipe in my book  “The Japanese Kitchen.

Hiroko's Chicken Curry

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup canola oil
  • Half medium white onion, chopped in food processor
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, chopped fine in food processor
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped fine in food processor
  • 2 tablespoons Japanese S&B curry powder or Madras curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • About 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
  • 2½ cups chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons Tamari soy sauce
  • Sea salt
  • About ¼ cup apricot jam
  • About 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 2 chicken thighs and legs, skin attached, cut into 6 to 7 pieces
  • Half lemon
  • Cooked rice (short-, medium- or long-grain rice)

Directions

  1. Cook the onion in heated oil until it is lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Add the ginger and garlic and cook 1 minute more.
  2. Add the curry powder, turmeric and flour and cook until it is smooth. Add 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add an additional 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add the remaining ½ cup of the stock and stir with a whisk. Add the tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, tamari, sea salt, apricot jam and light brown sugar.
  3. Cook the curry sauce about 1½ hours -- longer is better. When the sauce is cooked halfway, squeeze the lemon half into the curry sauce and throw the used lemon into the sauce.
  4. Heat a little oil in the skillet and brown the chicken pieces on both sides.
  5. Transfer the chicken pieces to the curry pot. Cook the chicken in the sauce for 20 to 30 minutes over very low heat, covered.
  6. Serve the curry over hot, cooked rice.

Main photo: Tonkatsu kare, or pork cutlet with curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo 

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Rigani-flavored baked chicken, with potatoes, has a different taste than one made with common oregano. Credit: Rosemary Barron

Making a favorite summer dish at a friend’s house recently, I used oregano that he’d bought in his local supermarket. The baked chicken I made that day didn’t taste at all like the dish I make at home with the oregano (rigani) I bring back from Crete, or buy tied in large bunches from a Greek deli in London.

My friend had taken care to source a fine chicken and good olive oil, the wine was flowing, and everyone was having a great time. But, as far as I was concerned, the chicken didn’t taste right. I wondered whether everyone who’s enjoyed wonderful, rigani-fragranced foods in Greece has found that their dishes, once they were back home, didn’t taste quite as good. The attractive label of the herb I’d used from my friend’s shelf had declared it “wild oregano,” but was it really oregano?

What is oregano?

The answer, I discovered, is both yes and no. In the world of commercial food-supply (and, sometimes, seed-supply), “oregano” can denote any herb in the Origanum family, which contains a number of subspecies. And this is where the cook’s problem lies: Each of these subspecies has a distinct character, and not all give good results in the kitchen.

True Greek oregano, or rigani, goes by the Latin name of origanum vulgare hirtum (or O. heracleoticum). Because the plant has more oil glands in its highly aromatic, dark-green leaves, rigani has a stronger flavor than common oregano — so strong that, eaten fresh, it can make your tongue tingle. This is the reason dried, not fresh, Greek oregano is used in the kitchen, an uncommon example of a dried herb being a better culinary choice than a fresh one. My friend had bought common oregano (origanum vulgare), a less flavorful subspecies, and the one most frequently found on the supermarket or grocery store shelf.

What’s in a name?

There’s some disagreement as to the origin of the word “oregano”: One source suggests that it’s based on the Greek word for acrid (some subspecies of oregano can taste bitter); another states that its Latin name derives from the Greek oros (mountain) and ganos (joy). If you’ve ever walked in the Greek foothills, you’ll know that this pungent herb truly is a “joy of the mountains,” covering the rocky land with magnificent abandon and perfuming the warm air with its strong, sweet scent. Rigani’s presence there dates at least to Greek antiquity, when the ancients encouraged its growth in the mountain grazing lands to improve the flavor of their goats and sheep.

The doctors of antiquity too knew the value of rigani. Hippocrates used its oil as an antiseptic and its tincture for his patients’ stomach and respiratory problems. Recently, scientists have discovered that the polyphenols and flavonoids in Greek oregano do indeed have strong health-giving properties, including, it is believed, some protection against the norovirus and the ability to block an enzyme associated with diabetes.

In the kitchen

For the Greek cook, right up until the days of refrigeration and antibiotics, rigani was invaluable as a preservative and a deterrent to flies. Out of these practical considerations came a large repertoire of marvelous dishes imbued with the taste and aroma of the “joy of the mountains.”

For flavor and beauty, rigani’s tiny, white flowers are especially prized. So too are the meat and milk of goats and sheep that feed off the summer-flowering herb, as well as foraging rabbits and other small game. Rigani, flowers or leaves,  flavors grills, oven-bakes, salads, sauces, and bean dishes like no other herb. In the village kitchen it’s measured in handfuls, not with a spoon. This provides a special pleasure for the cook: with finger and thumb, gently rub the rigani in your palm to lightly bruise it, before adding it to your dish. You’ll be releasing some of the herb’s oil and its pungent, lively aroma will lift your spirits as well as perfume your kitchen.

A few years ago, before both “wild” and “Greek” became food-marketing buzzwords, “wild oregano” bought outside of Greece was usually rigani. This isn’t always true today, with a commercial supply chain that’s confused and confusing. The most promising place to find real Greek oregano is in a store that you know takes sourcing ingredients seriously, or in a Greek or Middle Eastern deli where, late summer, you may even be lucky enough to find a large bunch of this fragrant herb that’s been gathered while in flower.

Rigani-Baked Chicken

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Note If you are using chicken pieces, boil the potatoes for 10 minutes before arranging in the baking dish.

Ingredients

  • One 4- to 5-pound chicken, whole or cut into serving pieces; remove skin and excess fat
  • Juice of 1½ lemons
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
  • ½ tablespoon coarse-grain sea salt, or to taste
  • 2 pounds of potatoes suitable for baking, cut into similar-size pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic (unpeeled), lightly crushed
  • A handful (or 4 tablespoons) rigani (dried Greek oregano), crumbled
  • Cracked black pepper to taste
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1½ to 2 cups chicken stock, as required
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped (for serving)

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 375 F (190 C, or Gas Mark 5).
  2. Rub the chicken with the juice of 1 lemon, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and the salt.
  3. Place the chicken (or arrange the pieces) in a deep, heavy baking dish and surround with the potatoes and garlic in a single layer. Sprinkle the chicken with the rigani, pepper, bay leaves, and the remaining olive oil, and dot with the butter.
  4. Add half the stock, and bake, uncovered, 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 F (180 C or Gas Mark 4) and continue baking until cooked through but still tender – about 1¼ hour longer for a whole chicken, 40 minutes longer for chicken pieces. Baste the chicken and potatoes frequently, adding more stock to the dish if necessary.
  5. Transfer the chicken, potatoes, and garlic to a serving platter and keep warm.
  6. Strain the pan juices into a small saucepan, remove the fat with a spoon, and add any remaining stock. If there is more than about 1 ½ cups of liquid, reduce it by rapid boiling. Combine the mustard, honey, and half the remaining lemon juice and stir into the sauce. Add salt, pepper, and remaining lemon juice to taste, and heat to warm.
  7. Pour sauce over the chicken and potatoes just to moisten, and sprinkle with the parsley. Serve the remaining sauce separately.

Main photo: Rigani-flavored baked chicken, with potatoes, has a different taste than one made with common oregano. Credit: Rosemary Barron

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Nuka-zuke pickled vegetables

Every summer, a bounty of vegetables from my local green market inspires me to go back to nuka-zuke, an ancient Japanese pickling method based on fermented rice bran. Biting into crisp nuka-zuke carrot, radish, turnip, zucchini, cucumber, beet, eggplant or any other vegetable grown under the strong summer sun cools me off and makes me feel my body has absorbed the sun’s energy.

Pickled vegetables are ubiquitous throughout the world. You probably know that kimchi, sauerkraut, and brine-cured cucumbers and tomatoes are delicious. In New York, where I live, I have come to enjoy corned beef sandwiches – and what would one be without a great brine-cured pickle? These pickles, like nuka-zuke pickles, also have significant health benefits. They are all products of lactic acid fermentation and are wonderfully probiotic because of the bacteria involved in that process. These bacteria are proven to do many good things in our guts. They contribute to the growth of a healthful microbial community. They strengthen our immune system. They assist in good digestion. They help prevent constipation. They improve the body’s use of vitamins and minerals. They help to reduce blood cholesterol. And they decrease our sensitivity to allergens.

I learned the nuka-zuke pickling ritual from my mother. One of the wedding gifts I received from her was a small batch of her nuka-zuke pickling base to use as a starter. At that time she had been nurturing it for 38 years in her kitchen. This year, my nuka-zuke pickling base that began its life with my mother’s gift celebrates 25 years of service in my kitchen. It has come a long way, in time and distance, from its origin.

The idea of pickling vegetables in rice bran, a byproduct of milling rice, arose at the beginning of the Edo period (1600-1868) in Japan. This is when eating polished white rice became popular in the big cities of Japan. Back then there was no scientific knowledge about rice bran’s excellent nutritional value. But increasingly, many citizens suffered from beriberi – lack of vitamin B1 – because of their reliance on white rice. Consuming vegetables pickled in a rice bran base, which adds vitamin B1, resolved the vitamin deficiency.

To make nuka-zukepickling base, which is called nuka-miso (only because it looks like miso; no miso is used), rice bran is lightly toasted and mixed with sea salt, water and dried akatogarashi red chile pepper. My mother also added kelp to improve the flavor and mustard powder, which has antiseptic properties. To let fermentation start in this new pickling base, we first pickle, for example, one cabbage in the prepared base for about a week or so. During this time enzymes breaks down the protein, carbohydrate and fat in the rice bran and lactic acid fermentation occurs. When we remove the cabbage (at this stage the cabbage is too salty to consume, and so is thrown away) from the pickling pot we will find remarkable biological activity in the pickling base. In one gram of nuka-miso pickling base we find over one hundred million good probiotic bacteria.

Vegetables in nuka-miso.

Vegetables in nuka-miso. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

I can still vividly picture my mother pickling the vegetables, retrieving them from the pickling pot with a satisfied smile every time, taking care of the pickling base in the pot and serving the rinsed pickles sliced with razor sharp precision. I use all of the pickling tips that my mother taught me. Salt the vegetables before pickling. Toss and turn the pickling base one hundred times with my hands every day. This feeds oxygen to the bacteria. After some time using the pickling base it becomes wet from the water exuded from the vegetables. In such a case I add dried soybeans to absorb excess water. I always keep the pickling pot clean and hygienic. I add some salt if the pickling base became too sour.

Pickling vegetables in the nuka-miso base is lots of fun. I am dealing with living organisms, which though so very tiny react as a group like human beings. I know they do a very good job when I take care of their home — the pickling base — properly. I just pickled a couple of large carrots in the base very late last night before going to bed. I fetched them early this morning before they are too strongly flavored and become too salty. The very fresh, crisp carrots that were nurtured and massaged by my bacteria and enzymes overnight became tender, releasing a delightful fragrant aroma. I am always awed by the magical power of nature.

Some studies claim that the pickled vegetables have 2.5 to 10 times more vitamin B1 than fresh vegetables. The pickles also pick up other vitamins, minerals and lactic acid, from the base. But no matter how tasty and probiotic the nuka-zuke pickles are, we should control the size of the portion we consume, or risk taking in too much sodium.

When pickling time comes, I retrieve my nuka-zuke pickling base from the refrigerator where it has slept through the winter. I keep it in my large, deep blue, enameled pickling pot. When I open the lid of the cold pickling pot I think I can see trillions of my friendly bacteria waking up from their long sleep that began late last autumn at the end of the local fresh vegetable season. Hot, and sometimes humid, summer weather is ideal for these bacteria to become active again and do their wonderful work.

Here is the recipe for you to start your nuka-zuke pickling base. When you make it please think of the future of your pickling base. You could be handing down this probiotic-rich base to your children and those of succeeding generations.

Nuka-Zuke Pickling Base

Ingredients

2 pounds rice bran

6 ounce sea salt

About 6 cups filtered water or mineral water

3 Japanese akatogarashi red chile peppers or 1 tablespoon Italian chile pepper flakes

5-inch long kombu (kelp), cut into halves

1 cup dried soybeans

½ cup mustard powder

One small cabbage

One large enameled or plastic pickling pot (about 5-quart capacity) with a lid

Directions

  1. In a large skillet over low heat, toast the rice bran in several batches until fragrant. In a large pot, add the salt and water and bring it to a gentle simmer. Stir the pot to dissolve the salt. Cool the salt water.
  2. In the pickling pot, add the rice bran. Add the cooled salt water in three batches. The mixture should have a texture and consistency similar to miso and should not be watery. Add the kelp, soybeans and mustard powder.
  3. Cut the cabbage into four wedges. Sprinkle some salt over the wedges and bury each of them in the pickling base. Twice every day — in the morning and in the evening — remove, set aside the cabbage and toss and turn the pickling base with your hand. Return the set-aside cabbage in the pickling base.
  4. Continue the process for seven days, at which time your nose will begin to sense a fragrant lactic acid aroma. When this happens, your pickling base is ready for use. If this does not occur after seven days, continue the same process for another three days. Remove the cabbage and dispose of it.

Nuka-Zuke Pickles

I encourage you to experiment with all varieties of vegetables pickled for various lengths of time. You may find that some small vegetables such as radishes cut in half or larger vegetables cut into much smaller pieces are deliciously pickled after only two hours or so in the base. Because of this, you don’t need to do long-range planning to enjoy these wonderful treats from nature.

Prep Time: 30 minutes plus 7 to 10 days for making and completing the pickling base
Cook Time: Pickling time for vegetables in the completed pickling base is about 2 hours in summer
Yield: 4 to 6 servings, if, for example, you pickle 4 cucumbers, 4 radishes and 1 medium carrot

Ingredients

Vegetables

Sea salt

Nuka-miso

Directions

  1. Thoroughly rinse the vegetables that you wish to pickle, and wipe them with paper towel. Place the vegetables in a bowl, sprinkle with some sea salt and rub the vegetables with the salt.
  2. Dig several holes in the pickling base and drop the vegetables into the depressions, noting how many went in so that you don’t miss any when you dig them out. Over-pickled vegetables are too salty to consume. Cover the vegetables completely with the pickling base.
  3. During the heat of summer, the vegetables pickle in 4-5 hours. You may cut the vegetables into smaller pieces to hasten the pickling process.

 Main photo: Nuka-zuke pickled vegetables. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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The quintessential Egyptian morning dish: ful medames. Credit: Roger Ainsley

My wife doesn’t much care for it, though that might be downplaying her disdain. When done well, it’s a two-day commitment, a tall order in this 24/7 working world. When prepared poorly, it turns into a nondescript glob with condiments (thank God for fresh lime juice).

And yet I find myself trying to produce an authentic bowl of that quintessential Egyptian morning dish: ful medames. Trying, and so far falling shy of succeeding, though a convenient cheat has opened the way to ful on demand. (More on that later.)

I could cite cultural affinity and the gene pool to explain my interest, but my good Egyptian mother was not inclined to plop native dishes down on the dining table. She was more intent on helping her mostly American-born children — and there were a lot of us — feel at home growing up in suburban Seattle. Meals were Anglo-American affairs, though very much in keeping with a tight budget. For breakfast: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes from spring to fall, Quaker Oats from fall to spring.

Dried fava beans endlessly cooked with tomorrow in mind were not on the menu for a working mother.

While ful medames stretches deep into Egypt’s past — Wikipedia notes that Ramses II was known to have offered nearly 12,000 jars of beans to the god of the Nile — my acquaintance only goes back to the previous decade. I was on assignment in the region in 2003 and figured it was about time I met my mother’s hometown. On the first morning in Cairo, I took a stroll around the tangled streets of Zamalek before seeking out breakfast. Ful was, of course, being served. And while I can’t say that first bite was revelatory, it was exotic enough to stick in my mind. Ful became inexorably linked to Egypt, a notion confirmed by later trips.

So when I recently came across a reference, I decided it was time to learn how to make this dish. Not that the basics are very complicated: soak dried fava beans in water for 12 to 24 hours, cover them with a change of water, bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down as low as possible while maintaining a slight simmer in a covered pan for 12 hours, only cracking the lid if you must to confirm if more water is needed. When they’re tender, mash up the beans to a rough texture, dress them with salt and condiments and you’re good to go: a vegetarian-friendly breakfast, high in protein and fiber, low in fat.

Condiments set off ful medames’ earthy mash of beans

Cooked long, the tough skins of the beans eventually go al dente (though one recipe suggesting only an hour-long simmer left skins like shards of plastic sandwich bags that were not about to surrender to teeth). My Zester Daily colleague Clifford A. Wright in his wonderfully encyclopedic book A Mediterranean Feast calls for putting the pre-soaked beans in boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes and then peel off the skin before the 12 hours of cooking begins. The beans break down to a creamy, soup-like consistency rather than a chewy, chunky texture. He, like others, also suggests cooking the beans with onion, tomatoes and red lentils.

The secret to ful medames is the condiments, which set off the earthy mash of beans. Red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper do well by it, as do ground cumin and coriander, lime juice, garlic sauce, tahini, grated boiled eggs. My personal favorite: topping them with a drizzle of date molasses and a runny sunnyside-up egg.

And then there’s the cheat: a recipe by Rebecca Federman, food blogger at Cooked Books, which appears on the Christian Science Monitor’s site. With a nod to a friend and to Cairo-born chef Claudia Roden, she offers up what surely is a sacrilege in some circles: ful made in minutes with canned fava beans. And if it’s not authentic, it’s quick enough for any fool to make and an earthy alternative to yet another morning spent with corn flakes.

Ful medames from cans: Perhaps not authentic, but quick enough for any fool to make. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Ful medames from cans: Perhaps not authentic, but quick enough for any fool to make. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Rebecca Federman’s Ful Medames

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Cook Time: 8 minutes

Total Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 16 ounces

Serving Size: 2

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup olive oil or more.
  • 1 medium onion, chopped fine
  • 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
  • 1 can of ful (fava beans), drained (I add some of the liquid from the can to the dish. You may want to add all the liquid, but then watch the salt).
  • Some cumin, coriander, cayenne
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat until warm and then add the onion until softened, about 5-6 minutes.
  2. Add the garlic until fragrant, 30 seconds or so, and then spices and salt and pepper.
  3. Cook until warmed through. Add more liquid or olive oil if the dish looks to be dry.
  4. Serve with lemon wedges, hard-boiled egg, and parsley and a drizzle of olive oil on top.

Main photo: The quintessential Egyptian morning dish: ful medames. Credit: Roger Ainsley

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Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs. Credit Laura Kelley

Dr. Seuss’ Sam-I-Am would smile at the sight of these green eggs.

Century Eggs, or 1,000-Year Eggs, are classics in their own right, not a riff on a timeless children’s book. You won’t find them in Sam-I-Am’s house, box, car, tree or train, but these eggs appear in a rice porridge, or congee, that is enjoyed throughout Asia. The eggs in this congee are indeed green, or at least the yolks of homemade 1,000-Year Eggs are.  And the ham is represented by bits of diced pork suspended in the rice porridge.

Congee is perhaps the most commonly eaten food in the world. People across Asia enjoy rice porridge with a variety of condiments on nearly a daily basis. That’s possibly as many as 3.5 billion bowls of congee eaten daily. These porridges are often eaten for breakfast or for a late supper or snack, but are also considered the best food for people convalescing from an illness and are acceptable complementary foods for young infants in most cultures as well. Congee is another one of the ancient foods that are also considered good medicine.

Most often made from rice left over from the previous night’s dinner, congee is made by simply simmering rice in a liquid until it begins to lose its form. Some congees are drier — like prepared oatmeal — while others are more moist — like rice soup. When there is no leftover rice or it has been earmarked for a fried rice dish, congee can be made from uncooked rice. The raw rice is generally washed and soaked before cooking and requires more water and time to prepare. One way to reduce the time needed to cook congee from raw rice is to freeze the raw rice overnight. The freezing and thawing breaks down the rice, and it cooks quickly when compared to unfrozen raw rice. In high altitude or cold areas where rice is traditionally imported, congees are made from other grains or vegetables such as millet, wheat or corn.

Homemade 1,000-Year Eggs

The most wonderful thing about congees is the variety of ingredients used to flavor them, everything from fish paste or bean paste to bits of meat, fish, shrimp or other shellfish, and even snails. Vegetables, especially spring onions and preserved radish are commonly used, but I’ve also seen congees with bits of pickled tamarind and tea leaves in them. Flavors range from sour to spicy, savory and, although not too common, can even be mildly sweet.

Pine-patterned egg. Credit: Laura Kelley

Pine-patterned egg. Credit: Laura Kelley

The following congee dish features slices of my homemade 1,000-Year Eggs. Also called Century Eggs, pine-patterned eggs, or “pidan”  in Chinese, they are made by coating fresh, fertilized but uncooked eggs in a caustic mud casing of wood and charcoal ash, tea, salt, lime and rice chaff and burying the eggs in a soil-lined container outside. Then one lets them sit for three or four months exposed to the elements — longer in colder weather — before harvesting. Leaving fertilized eggs outside in the heat, one would expect them to rot. Instead something magical happens and the egg proteins are transformed by the chemicals in the caustic mud. The usually yellow yolk becomes a dark, forest green, and the clear or white yolk becomes amber to brown — all without cooking.

After the ingredients to make Century Eggs are mixed,  the NaOH (sodium hydroxide) is first adsorbed to the surface, and, owing to a change in the osmotic pressure, NaOH enters the egg through the pores and subsequently penetrates the semi-permeable membrane, coming into contact with the egg protein, causing it to become denaturized and hydrolyzed into polypeptides and finally into amino acids.

Nutritional benefits

The result is that 1,000-Year Eggs are much higher in protein and much lower in carbohydrates than unpreserved duck eggs. Other nutritional elements such as amino acids and fatty acids are about equal between the two egg forms, although the preserved egg generally has a bit less of everything in it.

To harvest the eggs, one just need clean them, crack the shells and eat — no cooking needed. If refrigeration is available, they can be stored for long periods. They are enjoyed in congees and soups across eastern Asia, in salads and noodles in Myanmar and Thailand, with tofu and sauce in a number of places, like Taiwan. One of my favorite ways to enjoy them is simply wrapped in pickled ginger as they do in Cantonese cuisine. The flavor of the egg is strong, sort of like a pungent cheese, but it is enjoyable.  In this congee, the 1,000-Year Eggs provide accent and interest to the savory rice porridge.

For a detailed recipe on how to produce 1,000-Year Eggs the traditional way, see the “Silk Road Gourmet” website. If making them the traditional way at home is more Century Egg than you can muster, you can find the eggs in most Asian markets. I enjoy the homemade variety because it is less salty and pungent and has far-gentler ammonia aroma than store-bought eggs.

For a middle ground, try the recipe below. Wherever you enjoy the Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs, whether it is in a house with a mouse or in a box with a fox, I hope you savor it as much as Sam-I-Am.

Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 cups, 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • ½ pound pork, minced
  • 5 to 6 spring onions
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 2½ to 3 cups short-grain rice, cooked
  • 4 to 5 cups liquid (water, broth, or stock, or a mixture)*
  • ½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
  • 2 to 3 Century Eggs, sliced into quarters or eighths
  • Suggested condiments: more minced spring-onion greens, soy sauce, black or red vinegar, sliced pickled ginger, and chili oil

Directions

  1. Heat the sesame oil in a large saucepan. When the oil starts to smoke, add the pork and stir rapidly until it becomes opaque and begins to become firm, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the whites of the spring onions, and the garlic, both minced, and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the liquid and stir until warmed to a boil. Add the cooked rice and return to a boil.
  2. Lower heat, and simmer covered until rice is fully saturated and begins to fall apart. Stir every 10 minutes or so to avoid burning. Cooking time will vary with the type of rice used and can range from 15 to 20 minutes for sweet rice to 45 to 50 minutes for haiga rice (whole grain, white rice, but hulled).
  3. When the congee is done, ladle it into individual bowls and garnish with some of the spring-onion greens and the sliced 1,000-Year Eggs. Place a selection of condiments on the table for your guests to choose from.

Notes

-- The type of cooking liquid can vary depending on how savory you want your congee. One of my favorite mixtures is 2 cups beef stock, 2 cups chicken stock and 1 cup water. The more stock added, the more off-white or tan-colored the congee will appear. Recommend using 4 cups of liquid for regular short-grain rice and 5 cups of liquid for hiaga or brown rice.

-- Cooking time will vary widely depending on the type of rice used. Cooking time here is estimated for short-grain haiga rice.

Main photo: Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs. Credit Laura Kelley

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Grilled braciole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

You just can’t escape a barbecue grill on the Fourth of  July. The holiday demands outdoor cooking followed by fireworks. And the curious thing about Americans’ Independence Day food traditions is that they are not confined to one or two expected dishes. Almost anything goes.

When I lived in Arlington, Mass., July 4 was an especially big deal because my house was about 100 yards from the route taken by William Dawes when he rode the southern route to Lexington while Paul Revere took the northern route on April 18, 1775, (as you know, Revere got all the fame and Longfellow’s poem).

Traditional New England fare

Traditional July 4 fare in New England, especially in the 19th century, was poached salmon with egg sauce, fresh peas and new potatoes, lemonade, and blueberry cobbler. Not once in the 14 years I lived in New England did we have this menu. What we did have was anything we damned pleased — hamburgers and hot dogs being on everybody’s  go-to menu, along with potato salad, a bean salad, and, of course beer, plus soda and juice for the kids.

This July 4 perhaps a little innovation is in order such as the favorites of Italian-Americans, braciole, stuffed meat roll-ups. They go by other names such as involtini, but for any Italian-American they’re always known as braciole and they’re always braised in ragù or grilled. But this was not always so. Interestingly, the word braciole derives from the word for charcoal, implying that it was originally cooked alla brace, that is, grilled and that it was a cut of meat with the bone.

Braciole was once synonymous with “cutlet.” The place to begin is with the cut of meat. Not all braciole are cut from the same meat. If you  grill the braciole, you might want to use a large piece of beef such as sirloin tip or beef round from which you can slice nice flat steaks that can be pounded thinner in order to roll them up.

Braciole on the grill. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Braciole on the grill. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Pound them as thin as scaloppini with a mallet or the side of a heavy cleaver. Lay the meat slice in front of you and place a heaping tablespoon of stuffing on the end nearest you. Roll once away from you and, pressing with your fingers so it’s tight, keep rolling and secure the ends or anything that looks loose with toothpicks. Now you’re ready to grill.

Here is a recipe to get you started after which you will only be limited by your imagination. The roll-ups can be prepared the day before and kept refrigerated until time to grill. 

Grilled braciole

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cook Time: 12 minutes

Total Time: 52 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

These beef roll-ups are stuffed with pecorino cheese, currants, and pine nuts. They are popular fare in the summertime around Palermo in Sicily.

Ingredients

  • 12 large bay leaves, preferably fresh
  • 1 tablespoon currants
  • 1 ¾ pounds beef round, cut into twelve 3x5-inch-slices
  • 6 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for basting
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino cheese
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts
  • 6 tablespoons finely chopped onion
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Twelve 8- to 10-inch wooden skewers
  • 1 large onion, quartered, and separated

Directions

  1. Prepare a hot charcoal fire to one side of the firebox or preheat a gas grill on high for 15 minutes.
  2. If using dried bay leaves, soak them in tepid water for 30 minutes and drain. Soak the currants in tepid water for 15 minutes.
  3. Place the beef slices between 2 pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap and flatten with a mallet or the side of a heavy cleaver until they are about 1/16 inch thick, being careful you don’t rip the flesh.
  4. In a small sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Drain the currants and add to the bread crumbs with the pecorino, pine nuts, onion, and salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly and set aside.
  5. Roll the bread crumb mixture in the beef slices to create beef rolls.
  6. Double skewer all the ingredients: hold 2 skewers parallel to each other about ½ inch apart between your thumb and forefinger. Slide a bay leaf, an onion slice, and a beef roll onto each set of skewers.
  7. Place the skewers on the grill close to the fire, if possible, and baste with olive oil. Cook until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes on each side. Move to the cooler side of the grill if there is too much flare-up. Serve hot.
Grilled braciole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Preparing Italian Romano beans for the pot. Credit: Paolo Destefanis from

An Italian-American friend, now happily domiciled in Italy, remarked that there was one thing he couldn’t abide about Italian food in his otherwise happy eating adventures there. “They don’t like their vegetables crunchy,” he protested.

He is quite right. When it comes to cooking vegetables, “al dente” is not their cue. Like me, they like them tender and sweet. The crunch crowd will no doubt challenge this, citing, perhaps, the prowess of the Chinese with their crisp, stir-fry style. I could concur, but I would no more stir-fry green beans than my Chinese friend might cook rice my way — sticky rice for her; soupy, Italian-style risotto for me; and vive la différence!

From other quarters, I am told steaming conserves more vitamins than boiling. I have never been willing to sacrifice the pleasures of a boiled bean for the preservation of a few micronutrients, but if I ever suffer remorse at the thought of killing off a few, a recent report will quiet those doubts. Italian scientists evaluating cooking methods concluded that none retains 100% of the nutrients. Hurrah! Never again will I have to suffer the reproach of purportedly health-minded folk when I admit that my vegetables taste so good because I boil them. In a recent story on rapini, I gave the scientific explanation for why this sweetens vegetables. (In a nutritional analysis, research shows a slight increase in natural sugars when food is boiled rather than steamed.) You need only compare the taste between a steamed and a properly boiled batch of beans as proof that cooking past the crunch point, but just before the beans become too soft, delivers their best flavor and sugary qualities.

Green Beans, Italian Style

Green beans, (Phaseolus vulgaris, Leguminosae), a native plant of the New World, are one of summer’s gifts I most eagerly await. They are the unripe pods of the bean plant, named green beans for this reason, though there are yellow, red and purple types, and other hues that span the color spectrum. (The seeds cradled within, referred to as “shell beans,” are the beans we typically dry and rehydrate before cooking.) There are so many varieties that botanists have stopped counting. (The whims of fashion, even in the botanical world, make cultivars come and go, and new ones debut now and then.)

Boiled Italian Romano beans, hot, steamy and ready for anointing with the best olive oil. Credit: Paolo Destefanis

Boiled Italian Romano beans, hot, steamy and ready for anointing with the best olive oil. Credit: Paolo Destefanis

Probably no vegetable suffers more from mis-cooking. They are usually undercooked in favor of crunch. (If the beans are old, there will be no crunch, but rubberiness.) Or, they are overcooked because of supermarket conditions in which the poor specimens arrive many weeks after they have been severed from their umbilical vines in Mexico or Chile or another faraway place, and shipped thousands of miles, arriving shell-shocked and sapped of any life. Many people complain that no matter how long they cook supermarket-variety green beans, they remain tough. Such old beans deserve a resting place in the compost bin, not a workout in the cooking pot.

Like tomatoes or corn, green beans are best eaten soon after they are harvested, before the seeds begin to bulge in their pods and brown markings appear. If you have a farmers market nearby, ask whether their beans have been picked that morning. If not, wait until they can promise you they’ll treat them with the same respect they show their corn. “Day-picked” should apply to green beans as much as to maize.

Growing techniques

Best of all, grow them if you can. Once you have tasted green beans straight from the vine and cooked properly, store-bought will never do. Romano flat beans, Kentucky Wonders, Sultan’s Crescents, Haricots Verts, German Pole Beans and Indie Gold are among those that have had a turn in my garden. The long and flat, meaty Italian snap beans that are stringless, variously called Romano, Roma, Rampicanti or Marconi are, hands down, my favorites. Nothing compares to their flavor, not to mention the thrill of seeing their long, broad pods swinging and twirling on the vines. They grow up to 10 inches if you let them, and still cook up tender, but stop at 5 inches — remember, newborn! I reseed the bed every three weeks until August for an extended harvest into the fall. Plant them after the soil warms up well, sit back and get ready for some fun. You can nearly hear them grow. If you can’t keep up with the harvest, you can find comfort in knowing the overgrown pods can be left to mature on the vine until you are ready to reap their big, fat seeds for using fresh or storing, dried.

So remember, the key to great-tasting green beans, whether you plant or buy them, is twofold. First, youth and freshness are vital—newborn are best, but no older than a few days. Second, boil them until they nearly melt (but not quite!) on your tongue at the first bite. You might realize that you have never really tasted green beans before in their grassy, buttery glory, bursting with the essence of summer.

Garden Green Beans, Italian Style

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 6 minutes

Total Time: 11 minutes

Yield: 4 side-dish servings

The supermarket offerings of my childhood in a small American town didn't satisfy my mother, who before marrying and coming to America was accustomed to shopping for vegetables in the overflowing stalls of Rome's radiant street markets. Our family planted a garden every spring. Since then, my life has been filled with gardens, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Whether you buy green beans freshly picked from a farmer or can grow your own, make them the way the Italians do, still hot from the colander, anointed with the best extra virgin olive oil and, if you like, a memory of fine sea salt. They are a revelation.

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds freshly picked green beans
  • kosher salt
  • best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • fine sea salt

Directions

  1. Wash the beans in cold water to remove any grit.
  2. Snip the umbilical tips, leaving the pointed ends intact.
  3. Fill an ample pot with enough cold water to generously cover the beans.
  4. Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Cook the beans over high heat until there is no crunch left, but they are not overcooked, 5 to 6 minutes, depending on the variety and size of the beans. (Roman flat beans will take longer than smaller types.)
  5. Drain at once, transfer to a serving bowl, and dress with the olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with fine sea salt at the table, if you like.

Notes

Variations: You can squeeze fresh lemon over the beans at the table, but I like them plain and simple. Another variation is to coddle them briefly, once cooked, in extra virgin olive oil into which you have first dissolved a few drained anchovy filets preserved under oil.

* * *

For Gardeners: Sources for Italian-Style Flat Green Snap Beans

The two principal categories gardeners are concerned with, the climbers (pole variety) and the low-growing bush beans, are available from these sustainable seed companies.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Seeds From Italy
Seeds of Change
Territorial Seed Co.

Main photo: Preparing Italian Romano beans for the pot. Credit: Paolo Destefanis from “Veneto: Authentic Recipes from Venice and the Italian Northeast” by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books, 2003)

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Making beautiful fresh pasta takes some effort, but with the right technique, it can be relaxing and fun. Credit: Tina Caputo

As a first generation Italian-American, I was raised on culinary delights my friends could only imagine: a never-ending supply of homemade tomato sauce and meatballs; fried bread dough glistening with olive oil; fresh pasta made from scratch. Perhaps because she couldn’t stand the thought of her son having to eat dried spaghetti and sauce from a jar, my Italian grandma made sure my mom — a non-Italian from West Virginia — learned how to cook my dad’s favorite dishes.

Although she had no experience making Italian food, my mom was a quick and enthusiastic learner. It was she who first taught me how to make fresh pasta in our basement,  albeit against my will.

Unlike people with fond childhood memories of cooking at their mothers’ elbows, I was not interested in learning to make pasta as sassy pre-teen. When my mom tried to reason with me,  “If you don’t help, how will you know how to do this yourself someday?”  I shot back, “I’ll have my maid do it for me.”

It’s a wonder she didn’t whack me with a rolling pin.

It wasn’t until I moved from home and had to fend for myself in the kitchen that her words sunk in. Where was the fresh fettuccine going to come from, if not my own hands?

Technique makes all the difference

If my mom felt the warm glow of I-told-you-so when I finally asked for her recipe, she didn’t show it.

I made fresh pasta many times over the years and came to understand all too well why my mom had been so eager for extra hands. The process seemed to take forever! I’d spend half a day cranking dough through the pasta roller, and by the time I was finished, all I’d want to do was order pizza and go to bed.

Until a few years ago, when my Aunt Lena invited me to her house for a linguine lesson, I never suspected that pasta-making could be anything other than an act of martyrdom. That day, my aunt taught me a few things that helped explain why my previous attempts had been so exhausting. Here’s what I’d been doing wrong:

I made my dough with a food processor, which can make it too stiff. Only by kneading the dough with your hands can you feel when the texture is right.

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Crack eggs into the flour well, being careful not to break the dam. Credit: Tina Caputo

Because my dough was so unyielding, I had to run it through the roller more times than normally would be necessary. This made the process take longer than it should have.

I didn’t let the dough rest properly. Letting it sit for 10 minutes or so before each trip through the pasta roller relaxes the gluten and makes the dough easier to work with. (Aunt Lena also taught me that while the dough rests, I should rest too — with a glass of red wine in hand.)

In only two hours, the two of us cranked out enough pasta to feed a dozen family members, with plenty of leftovers. And the experience was fun and relaxing!

To make my pasta pursuits even more enjoyable, I’ve since adopted an innovation recommended by my mom: a pasta roller/cutter attachment for my KitchenAid stand mixer. I was reluctant to give up my hand-crank machine at first, but changed my mind when I discovered that because the mixer’s motor turns the rollers automatically, I could use both hands to guide the dough as it came out of the roller. That makes solo pasta-production much easier.

Now that I know that making fresh pasta doesn’t have to involve five hours of hard labor, I don’t wait for a special occasion to make it.

Fresh Pasta

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2¾ cups all-purpose flour

3 eggs (room temperature)

3 ounces tepid water

1 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Mound flour on a cutting board or clean work surface and make a well in the center of the flour. Crack the eggs into the well and add water and salt. Use a fork to break the yolks and slowly begin scooping flour into the well, a little at a time, until all the flour is incorporated into the liquid.

2. Knead dough until smooth. If the dough feels sticky, it is too wet; add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it feels smooth and doesn’t stick to your hands. Form dough into a log shape.

3. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let it rest 10-15 minutes. While you’re waiting, you can relax and drink some wine (this also applies to steps 4 and 7).

4. Knead again for a few more minutes until dough is smooth, adding a bit more flour if needed. Cover and let rest for another 10-15 minutes.

5. Slice log into five pieces of equal size. Dip each slice in flour to coat and brush off any extra flour. Roll each slice with a rolling pin to flatten into small ovals and sprinkle with flour.

6. Run dough slices through a hand-crank pasta machine or KitchenAid mixer roller attachment at the 1, 4 and 6 (wide, medium and small) thickness settings. (Run all the sheets through on the wide setting, then roll all of the sheets on medium, etc. That allows the sheets to rest for a few minutes between rollings.) Skip the smallest setting if sheets have reached the desired thickness after two trips through the roller. You should be able to see the outline of your hand through the sheet. When dough is coming out of the roller, pull on it gently to stretch it out. Sheets should be smooth and elastic.

7. Cut sheets in half so they are each about 12 inches long. Lay sheets on a tablecloth, dust with a little flour and turn them over. When edges begin to dry (in 20-30 minutes), the pasta is ready to cut. Don’t let it dry too much, or sheets will buckle and get caught in roller.

8. Run pasta sheets through cutter and arrange noodles in loose nests on a tablecloth. Sprinkle with a little flour to keep strands from sticking together. Cook in boiling salted water until al dente (2-3 minutes). If you’re not planning to eat the pasta that day, leave it to dry completely, turning nests over after an hour or so. Dried pasta will keep in the pantry for a few months.

Top photo: Making beautiful fresh pasta takes some effort, but with the right technique, it can be relaxing and fun. Credit: Tina Caputo

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