Articles in Recipe

My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna - egg curry - as a picnic treat for Bengali's New Year. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

In mid-April, the people of Bengal — a region straddling Bangladesh and parts of India, including my hometown in West Bengal — celebrate the Bengali New Year.

Bengalis of all religious persuasions celebrate this secular holiday with music, song and, of course, plenty of good food. So today I share with you food. Lots of it. Twenty-six Bengali dishes, to be precise

It’s only appropriate to go all out, food-wise, on naba barsha, as Bengalis call the holiday. Food in Bengali is synonymous with all events and happenings. But for festivals like the one for the new year, Bengalis go the whole nine yards on the dinner table.

People also buy new clothes and other new items with the belief that something done at the beginning of the year repeats itself year-round. Bengali traders crack open fresh new account books called the haal khata on this day.

A new year ahead, with taxes behind us

Ironically, the Bengali New Year, which falls during a season when the U.S. tax deadline looms, originated in the Mughal Empire, when it marked a fresh beginning after the collection of taxes.

So, celebrate the end of tax season with me by delving into this regional cuisine.

Bengal, with its west monsoon climate and proximity to rivers, offers a diet rich in fish, greens, rice and vegetables. Its seasonings are distinct and prominent with the use of mustard, poppy seeds, ginger and a Bengali Five Spice Blend consisting of mustard, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and fennel. This seasoning is called panch phoron: panch means five and phoron means tempering.

The Bengali meal ranges from light to heavy courses, with a sweet and sour chutney to cleanse the palate before dessert.

This slideshow offers an insight into some of the most traditional dishes on the Bengali table.

Starting the new year with a family recipe that travels well

The fact that the holiday lands midweek this year puts a wrinkle on food celebrations.

This year, however I’ve resurrected a well-seasoned egg dish that my grandmother used to call her “picnic dimer dalna” or picnic egg curry.

Our “picnics” consisted usually of multilayered lunch boxes, filled with puffy fried breads known as luchi and drier curries like alur dom. In our family’s case, it included these eggs, since my grandmother felt that we should get our protein as growing children.

This dish travels very well, and actually improves as leftovers. My children now love this as a special breakfast treat and it can be enjoyed with toasted bread almost as much as the luchi, which can be difficult to pull off on a school-day morning. The eggs, however, can be made the night before.

This particular recipe is also known as Kosha Dimer Dalna. The word kosha in Bengali refers to slow-cooked and refers to the slow-cooked onions in the dish.

This year, if you feel that you just might need an excuse for a new beginning and an opportunity to revisit your New Year’s resolutions, join the Bengalis in celebrating our Bengali New Year.

Kosha Dimer Dalna (Egg Curry with Clingy Caramelized Onion Sauce)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 to 50 minutes

Total time: 65 to 70 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons oil

3 medium-sized onions, sliced

1 tablespoon grated ginger

2 to 3 cardamoms

2 medium-sized tomatoes

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper, or to taste

8 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Chopped cilantro to garnish

Directions

1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and add in the sliced onions. Cook the onions on low heat, until they gradually wilt, soften and turn golden brown. This process will take about 30 to 35 minutes, but should not be rushed.

2. Add in the ginger and stir well.

3. Add in the cardamoms, tomatoes and red cayenne pepper. Cook for about five minutes until the mixture thickens and the tomatoes begin to soften.

4. In the meantime, make slits on the sides of the eggs and rub them with the salt and the turmeric.

5. Mix the eggs into the tomato mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, until the eggs are well-coated with the onion base.

6. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.

Main photo: My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna or egg curry as a picnic treat for us when I was growing up in Kolkata in India’s West Bengal province. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

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Spaghetti alla Bolognese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

When searching for the best spaghetti alla Bolognese, the first thing to be said is that by tradition it is made with tagliatelle, a pasta pretty much like fettuccine, and not with spaghetti, although it is quite commonly made with spaghetti.

Tagliatelle con Ragù alla Bolognese, as it is properly called, is one of those dishes that appears on many international menus and often made in an inferior way. Tagliatelle, tagliolini, pappardelle, tortellini and lasagna are some of the pastas made from sfoglia, as they are known in Bologna, that is, the “leaves” of pasta dough made from the finest white flour and eggs.

Legend has it that the tagliatelle shape — strips of pasta about a half-inch wide — was invented in 1487 by Maestro Zafirano, a cook from the village of Bentivoglio, on the occasion of the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to the Duke of Ferrara. The cook was said to be inspired by the beautiful blond hair of the bride.

Despite the appeal of this apocryphal story, history tells us that tagliatelle was invented earlier. Pictorial representations of tagliatelle exist from before this date in the illustrations accompanying the various 14th- and 15th-century Latin translations of an 11th-century Arabic medical treatise, the Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa (Maintenance of health) written by Ibn Buṭlān, a physician in Baghdad, and translated into Latin as Tacuinum sanitati (or Tacuuinum Sanitatis). In the Compendium de naturis et proprietatibus alimentorum, a list of local Emilian nomenclature for foods compiled in 1338 by Barnaba de Ritinis da Reggio di Modena, the entry for something called fermentini indicates that it is cut into strips like tagliatelle and boiled.

My recipe is one of the richest enhancements of the classic ragù from Bologna, which was once much simpler. Two of my children lived in Bologna while they attended the University of Bologna and they have ideas about how to properly make the dish. The meats need to be lean, otherwise there will be too much fat in the sauce. The meat can be ground in a food processor using short bursts or pulses, resulting in a finely chopped effect. The Accademia Italiana della Cucina, the preeminent organization dedicated to protecting Italy’s culinary patrimony, attempted to codify ragù alla Bolognese which, as one can imagine, engendered a good deal of controversy. To codify such a sauce is surely a Sisyphean task because cuisine is not an immutable artifact of culture but a living, changing embodiment of numerous families in a society. It’s also exceedingly difficult to separate the cooking over time of different classes to a point where one could say “this is the true one.”

A study of Renaissance cookbooks does not provide a clear antecedent of the contemporary ragout. Books from that period include ragù-like dishes, but with seasonings that still hold onto the Arab-inspired medieval spicing of rose water, saffron, cinnamon, ginger and sugar. It should also be remembered that the influence of the French may have had a greater role than the Bolognese are willing to admit since the word ragù derives from the French ragoût and Emilia-Romagna was not only Francophile but inundated with French culture over time.

The seriousness with which the Bolognese considered ragù alla Bolognese is wonderfully captured and illustrated in the 14 pages devoted to ragù in Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s “The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Foodpublished in 1992.

Here is my recipe, recreated from the advice of Bolognese, from memory and from my many tastings.

Spaghetti alla Bolognese

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 2 1/2 hours

Total time: 3 hours, 10 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped

1 ounce prosciutto, finely chopped

1 ounce mortadella, finely chopped

3 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in tepid water to cover for 15 minutes, drained, rinsed and finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves

1/4 pound lean beef sirloin, finely chopped (not ground)

1/4 pound lean pork tenderloin, finely chopped (not ground)

1/4 pound lean veal sirloin, finely chopped (not ground)

2 chicken livers, membranes removed and finely chopped

1/2 cup dry red wine

1/4 cup tomato sauce

1 tablespoon water

1/4 cup beef broth

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 1/4 pounds tagliatelle, fettuccine or spaghetti

Directions

1. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium-heat and cook, stirring occasionally, the pancetta, prosciutto and mortadella until the pancetta is soft and a bit rendered, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley and cook, stirring as needed, until the vegetables have softened and turned color, about 10 minutes. Add the beef, pork, veal, and chicken livers and cook, stirring, until browned, about 10 minutes.

2. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Once the wine has evaporated, reduce the heat to low add the tomato sauce diluted with a little water and the beef broth. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cover and simmer for 2 hours. Add the cream and cook another 10 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, 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. Transfer to a serving platter. Ladle the ragù on top and serve immediately. (The ragù can be frozen for up to 6 months).

Note: A simpler method is to cook the onion with the celery and carrot in the oil and butter, adding the ground beef, but not the other meats, the wine, salt and pepper, nutmeg and 1 1/2 cups of tomato sauce. Follow the recipe above, eliminating all the ingredients except those called for in this note.

Main photo: Spaghetti alla Bolognese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

I used to think that I already knew about every fattening confection known to man or woman until I watched “The Great British Baking Show,” a television baking contest that recently concluded its current season. This is where I first heard about Povitica (pronounced po-va-teets-sa), a Croatian coffeecake that I was eager to try.

But before I go on about this cake, let me hasten to add that I take pride in not watching television cooking contests because I get angry at the sight of haughty judges taking little nibbles of a dish while anxious and browbeaten young cooks wait for a verdict on their efforts. I dislike watching the power relationship between the mighty judges and the humiliated contestants. Furthermore, since I can’t taste the food being judged, who’s to say that I would agree with the praise or condemnation bestowed upon a dish? Everyone knows that tastes vary, that ingredients and flavors appealing to one person will leave another cold. For instance, were I to judge a contest, any dish containing cilantro or beets would automatically fail with me, but I at least recognize that this isn’t fair.

So, if I dislike cooking contests, then why did I watch and enjoy “The Great British Baking Show”? And why did I find myself eager to bake Povitica, the complicated and gorgeous sweet bread I’d never heard of that was one of the challenges facing the British contestants?

Learning experience

To start with, I find the setup of this British show interesting in that a diverse group of 12 talented amateur bakers are brought in from around Britain to compete for the crown. And I should add that there is no big prize money involved — just the honor of winning. One of the men was a construction worker, and one of the women was a 17-year-old schoolgirl, so the makeup of the group defied stereotypes. I was struck by the sweet natures of the contestants, who routinely helped one another so that if someone finished a bake early, then he or she would pitch in to help another complete a dish.

What I especially liked was that one of the judges, Paul Hollywood, an artisan baker, was terrific at explaining the qualities expected of any of the three baking challenges that occur during each show. Contestants placed their dishes on a table and Hollywood cut them in half before pointing out their successes or shortcomings. He brings important standards to the contest, examining the overall appearance of the product, whether or not fillings and frostings are even and of good consistency and not lopsided or runny, or if a batch of cookies is uniform and not mismatched. Underbaked dough is usually the worst offense and is guaranteed to put a contestant at the bottom of the heap.

As a viewer, I can see for myself the points Hollywood makes, and when a dish hits the mark, his explanation brings new understanding to what successful baking is all about. Of course the flavor of a dish also counts and is discussed, but as I have already mentioned, taste is a matter of opinion and the judges on the show sometimes disagree.

The emphasis in this program on the visual gave me an insight as to why I sometimes watch another reality show, “Project Runway,” where young clothing designers compete for a large cash prize and the chance to show their work at a New York fashion week. Top designers serve as judges and point out the flaws and glories of a given garment, and I learn from their sophisticated sense of design, for I can see what they are talking about.

While I would never attempt to stitch up a garment  — sewing machines have always terrified me — I couldn’t wait to whip up Povitica, which turned out to be a challenging yeast product with a tricky shape.

Perfecting Povitica

It is similar to cinnamon bread in that the dough is rolled flat, covered with a filling, then rolled and placed into a standard bread pan.

Povitica dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out thin and filled with a mixture of chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Povitica dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out thin and filled with a mixture of chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

But with Povitica the dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out extremely thin and then filled with a heavy mixture of chocolate and walnuts, all of which inhibit the rising of the dough. Then, the rolled dough goes into the pan and is intricately shaped so that the finished product, when sliced, exhibits beautiful swirls. My first attempt at Povitica, using an online recipe, was a flop. The dough didn’t rise properly and the finished cake was inedible except for the filling of chocolate and walnuts, which I forbade myself from scraping off and eating.

With my next attempt I added more yeast to the dough and bravely carried on. I made another important adjustment to the traditional recipe by not spreading the rolled dough with butter before putting on the filling, for the slippery butter made it difficult to evenly apply the filling. Instead, I put the butter into the filling so that distributing it over the dough became a cinch.

If I do say so myself, my second Povitica turned out to be a demystified triumph, rising beautifully during the bake and when cut in half exposing the signature swirls of the dish. I will make one again without trepidation, and I now find myself looking forward to next season’s British Baking Show when I hope to learn about even more new fattening treats.

Povitica

Prep time: 1 hour

Rising time: 3 hours

Baking time: 1 hour

Total time: 5 hours

Ingredients

For the dough:

1 package rapid-rise yeast

1/3 cup sugar

3/4 cup milk, heated to 115 F

1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1 large egg

2 1/2 cups flour

For the filling:

2 cups walnuts

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup milk

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Glaze:

1 egg white

1 teaspoon sugar

Instructions

Make the dough:

1. In the stand of a mixer fitted with a paddle, add yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar and half of the warm milk.

2. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes.

3. Add remaining sugar and milk, salt, butter and egg, and mix for 30 seconds.

4. With motor running, slowly add flour and beat until smooth and dough is not stuck to the sides of the bowl.

5. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let rise for about 90 minutes.

Make the filling:

1. In a food processor, chop walnuts together with sugar and cocoa until walnuts are finely chopped. Do not grind them to a paste.

2. Heat milk and butter to boiling and pour over the nut mixture.

3. Add egg yolk and vanilla to nut mixture and stir thoroughly.

4. Keep mixture at room temperature until ready to spread on dough.

Constructing the cake:

1. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with butter.

2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out risen dough as thin as you can until dough is at least 15 inches long and 10 inches wide. (I use a tabletop for this.)

3. Spread dough with nut mixture.

4. Starting from the long end, roll dough into a tight cylinder.

5. Place in pan in a U shape and circle the ends of the cylinder over the top of the dough already in the pan.

6. Cover and let rise for about 90 minutes.

7. Beat egg white with a fork until foamy and spread over surface of the cake.

8. Sprinkle top with pearl sugar or with regular granulated sugar.

9. Heat oven to 350 F and bake about 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let cool in the pan.

Note: Make sure filling is spreadable. If too thick, add a small amount of milk before spreading on the dough. Before the last 15 minutes of baking, if cake is brown enough, cover with foil to prevent burning. When ready to slice the cake, it is easier to cut from the bottom or sides.

Main photo: Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

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Mushrooms and wild rice for pressure cooker porcini wild rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

We’ve all heard some version of the story that has kept us from using pressure cookers. “A second cousin of a friend of a friend of my grandmother’s exploded a pressure cooker once upon a time. Her precious pet poodle lost his eyesight and an ear, and they were picking pieces of shrapnel out of the ceiling for 18 years after.” I knew the story so well that I was convinced it has happened to someone in our family, though upon investigation, I could find no evidence of any of my relatives having ever experienced an exploding pressure cooker.

Still, the vague feeling of unease surrounding pressure cookers followed me well into my adulthood. After watching an Indian friend use a pressure cooker daily, I started to reconsider my fear of them. The idea of being able to make all of my favorite boiled, steamed, and braised dishes in a fraction of the usual cooking time was very appealing. So I did what we all do in this age, I researched pressure cookers on the Internet.

I discovered that modern pressure cookers are different from the ones our grandmothers used. While some are still sold with a weighted jiggling valve, most come with a spring-loaded pressure-release valve, known as second-generation pressure cookers. Third-generation cookers are the new electric models. These modern pressure cookers have redundant safety mechanisms that make catastrophe nearly impossible.

I found that there were some variables to consider. Stovetop or electric? Four-, 6-, 8- or 10-quart pot? Multiple pressure settings or just one? The brand that consistently won comparison testing was out of my price range, so it was a matter of finding the right combination of these variables that would work for me. My research led me to conclude that one could nitpick the details, but as a novice, so long as I selected a second-generation stainless steel model with a stated operating pressure of 15 PSI, I’d be in good shape.

Though electric pressure cookers are credited by some as being responsible for the renewed popularity of the appliance, I quickly eliminated this option. Most electric pressure cookers operate at a slightly lower PSI than stovetop models. Knowing that I was also losing some pressure due to living at high altitude, the combined loss of pressure made this a less desirable option for me.

Deciding on a size

I had thought for certain I’d get an 8-quart model. After all, why wouldn’t bigger be better, especially for making stock, which was one of the main reasons I wanted a pressure cooker? I soon learned that a larger pressure cooker may be too big for my small household for most occasions, and if I really needed to make a greater quantity of stock, the speediness afforded by pressure cooking would make it possible to run two consecutive batches.

Some pressure cookers have low- and high-pressure settings, or in the case of some electric models, many settings. Again, I had initially thought that more would be better. Then I found out that the low setting is mostly used for cooking things such as tender vegetables and desserts. I knew I wasn’t likely to make those foods in a pressure cooker. Deciding to purchase a cooker with only one pressure setting gave me more budget-friendly options.

In the end, I purchased a respectable 6-quart stainless steel stovetop model with one pressure setting for a reasonable price.

To be honest, my first time using my new pressure cooker, despite having read extensively about how safe modern ones are, I was terrified as it came up to heat. I kept picturing that poor poodle and pieces of metal embedded in the ceiling. I didn’t want to stand near it, and seriously contemplated wearing safety glasses.

Now, after several months of using it regularly, I fear my pressure cooker far less than pot handles overhanging the stovetop when kids are around. In the worst case scenario, if I forget to turn down the heat or the vent clogs, the silicone gasket will tear and the steam will escape quickly, but without an explosion. Far from maiming a pet and needing to remodel the kitchen, this would mean investing in a new $10 gasket.

My pressure cooker has simplified my meal preparation throughout the week. I use it to put large quantities of staples into the refrigerator that I can and recombine with fresh vegetables throughout the week to make quick meals. Most weeks, I use the pressure cooker to cook a few pounds of potatoes, a pound of beans, some wild rice, and meaty bones provide pieces of meat and stock.

I’m in awe of the fact that I can cook a roast in an hour, or go from dry, unsoaked beans to a meal in about the same time. These tasks used to take hours, and forethought.

One of my favorite foods to cook with the pressure cooker is wild rice. I had some wild rice in the cupboard that was given as a gift from a friend who harvested it. I’d put off cooking it for an embarrassing length of time because it requires so much time to cook. The pressure cooker cooks it up beautifully in half an hour. Each piece cooks through but remains wonderfully chewy between the teeth. I like it so much that I quickly used all that my friend had given me, and make a big batch every week to eat on its own, to combine with grains, and to add to soups.

Pressure Cooker Porcini Wild Rice

Prep time: 45 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup wild rice

1/2 ounce dried porcini, crumbled

1 head wild Allium bulbils (substitute a clove of garlic)

1 bay leaf

Pinch of salt

3 cups water

Directions

1. Add all of the ingredients to the pressure cooker, and give them a quick stir just to make certain everything is wet.

2. Close and seal the pressure cooker, bring it to pressure according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Cook at high pressure for 25 minutes.*

3. Remove the pressure cooker from the heat and let it depressurize on its own.

A tiny amount of water will remain along with the cooked wild rice. This is a good thing because it has kept the wild rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot while it cooked. You can either use or drain it.

*For every 1,000 feet of gain above 2,000 feet in altitude, increase the cooking time by 5%.

Main photo: Mushrooms and wild rice for Pressure Cooker Porcini Wild Rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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By keeping legumes and grains on hand in your pantry, you can create quick, healthy weeknight dinners like this Tomato Rice with Peanuts. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

I am a culinary instructor, a cookbook author, a food blogger. And yet, despite my ability to plan very well all the other aspects of my life, I have a confession to make: I am meal-planning challenged.

For those of us who view with rose-colored glasses those who can successfully execute a weekly meal plan, I have often attempted this feat, and, finally, given up. I’ve realized that it’s perfectly fine to embrace a daily practice of winging it when it comes to dinner. And you can, too.

Here’s my secret. With lentils or dal as the cornerstone of my family table — and of many Indian tables — the possibilities are endless for a quick, easy and healthy dinner, with the addition of vegetables into the mix. As long as I have a variety of legumes and grains stocked in my pantry, I’m good.

Despite my meal-planning-challenged self, I often produce a balanced meal on short notice. I have 10 examples here in the slideshow.

Winging it runs in the family

There’s a history of that in my family. As a child of a mother who worked outside the home, I never saw my mother poring over menus or meal plans. Our meals were simple to elaborate – depending on the day and the time available to cook. And while my mother didn’t obsess over food groups, somehow, her meals always ended up being well-balanced.

That turned me into a very practical mother who views the weeknight dinner as a ritual that is not up for a lot of discussion or drama. I have found that by doing my own cooking, it saves me the hassle of worrying over details such as sodium content, whether something’s organic or the meal is well-balanced. Since I’m doing the cooking, I pretty much control what’s happening in those departments.

There’s plenty of peer pressure to do it the hard way.

Keeping up with the meal-planning warriors

We seem to have a battle of the parents – often mothers — who tout their ability to produce multidimensional, unprocessed meals every day for their weeknight dinners. They wage that war armed with apps on everything from meal planners to calorie counters and recipe trackers. These well-armed planners are pitted against the seemingly meal-planning-challenged parents, who feel they should follow suit.

Instead, busy, working parents often find it easier to pick up a pizza or Chinese takeout – and then feel chagrined when they analyze the nutritional content of those meals.

At a recent event, I was asked about the good old family dinner. I flippantly mentioned that most people would say I raise my children on rice and beans.

I mention lentils as an extended example. I am sure most people have favorite dishes in mind and a culinary repertoire that are relatively simple, full of childhood nostalgia and lacking any artificial trappings of flavor or processed ingredients. My lentils can be someone else’s chicken noodle soup – or whatever your pantry offers.

My favorite comfort food will always be red lentils. So, depending on my mood, I can make a meal of red lentils by adding anything from kale to carrots to chicken. It brings back memories of warmth, simplicity and family time.

My son often feels the same way about his morning eggs, which I scramble simply for him. He tells me that they start his day right. Once again, it is sometimes the simple, unplanned things that resonate with us most at the meal table.

So embrace your meal-planning-challenged self. I can get you started with 10 one-dish meals that range from light and lively to elaborate, comforting and elegant. Dishes like khichuri or a biryani are always nourishing and they can do the trick in your household, just as they do in mine.

You can get started with this recipe from my cookbook, “Spices and Seasons,” for Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf.

Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

For the pilaf:

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 tomato, chopped

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

3/4 cup bulgur or cracked wheat

3/4 cup cooked red kidney beans or chick peas

1/2 teaspoon red cayenne pepper powder (optional)

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick, broken

2 cups water

For the garnish:

Juice of 1 lime or lemon

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a pot on medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and when they begin to sizzle, add the onion and sauté for about 6 minutes, until it wilts and begins to turn gently golden.

2. Add the tomato, salt, and bulgur and mix well.

3. Stir in the red kidney beans, cayenne pepper powder (if using), and the cinnamon stick. Mix in 2 cups of water and gently bring to a simmer.

4. Cover and cook on low heat for about 25 minutes, until the water is absorbed and the bulgur is soft and cooked through.

5. Squeeze in the lime or lemon juice, stir in the cilantro and serve.

Note: This recipe also can be made with quinoa or faro, depending on your preference, and you can add in vegetables such as mushrooms or zucchini to modify.

 Main photo: By keeping legumes and grains on hand in your pantry, you can create quick, healthy weeknight dinners like this Tomato Rice With Peanuts. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

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Polenta cake makes a healthy breakfast option. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

Cake. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And why not? Some studies show that a high carbohydrate and high protein breakfast actually helps people shed pounds. So it turns out your Marie Antoinette breakfast need not be a guilty pleasure. You can actually have your cake and lose weight, too.

In fact, this easy one-bowl take on the classic Italian Amor Polenta cake of Lombardy is far healthier than most processed breakfast cereals — full of the wholesome goodness of corn, butter, eggs and almonds. Flavored with citrus zest and apple eau-de-vie, and served with berries, it’s a satisfying breakfast that will keep you going all day long.

While cornmeal can be made from just about any variety of dent corn, the older heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, Floriani Red and Painted Mountain are superior in taste. Now that locally grown and locally milled grains are enjoying a renaissance across the U.S., you can probably find delicious and nutritious corn grown by someone near you. And if you want the freshest and most nutritious cornmeal possible, you can even invest in a countertop grain mill.

If you don’t have a source of freshly ground corn, just about any store-bought cornmeal will be fine in this cake, whether it says polenta on the package or not. But if you want to make the traditional Amor Polenta or Dolce Varese, look for the finely ground farina di mais fioretto or the even more refined farina di mais fumetto.

Although this cake has butter, eggs and sugar, as any good cake must, it is not a butter bomb or a sugar rush. Rather it’s a not-too-rich, not-too-sweet slice of perfection — just right as an accompaniment to your morning tea or coffee. So say goodbye to processed cereals and hello to healthy polenta cake for breakfast.

Healthy Breakfast Polenta Cake

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: One (8- or 9-inch) loaf cake, about 10 servings

Ingredients

2 sticks (8 ounces) butter

3/4 cup sugar

Zest of one lemon

Zest of one orange

3 eggs

3 tablespoons apple brandy, amaretto, or other liqueur

1/2 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (or vanilla or almond extract)

1 cup cornmeal

1 3/4 cup almond flour

1/3 cup unbleached wheat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a loaf pan and dust with cornmeal.

2. Put the butter, sugar, and lemon and orange zest in a mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Then add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl.

3. Beat in the liqueur and Fiori di Sicilia or other flavoring.

4. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients: the polenta, almond flour, wheat flour, baking powder and salt.

5. While the mixer is running at low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until just combined.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until a lovely aroma comes from the oven, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes

7. Let cool in the pan for about 1/2 hour, and then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife and tip it out onto a rack to cool completely.

8. Slice and serve with fresh fruit, or frozen fruit or fruit jam you may have from last summer.

Main photo: Breakfast polenta cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

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Bottles of maple syrup from Crown Maple at Madava Farms. Credit: Copyright 2015 Christine B. Rudalevige

Crown Maple at Madava Farms is physically located in Duchess County, New York, about 90 minutes north of Manhattan. But philosophically, it sits squarely at the intersection of the food world’s obsession with artisanal products, an engineer’s love of precision technology, and high-end marketing prowess.

The romance of foraging sap from trees rooted in an organic (certified organic, in fact) snow-packed setting just as winter thinks about turning into spring still holds at Crown Maple. Yet, this outfit has upped the ante for its locally sourced sweetener with a multimillion-dollar operation that maintains quality control and traceability from tap to table and an extensive chefy clientele ready and willing to use it across their New York City menus.

“Maple syrup is basically a forage crop,” said Crown Maple CEO Compton Chase-Lansdale.

It’s a popular product, certainly, but there is no brand in the maple industry that is akin to Coke in the soda realm or Kleenex in the facial tissue market. Chase-Lansdale talks of myriad partnerships (almond milk and maple syrup, spice mixes and maple sugar, chocolate and maple syrup, for example) that he hopes will propel the Crown Maple brand up from the breakfast table into the wider world of savory and sweet foods.

Back to the farm

Knowing little more about maple syrup than its affiliation with pancakes back in 2007, Robb Turner purchased more than 800 acres of pretty, pristine land in Dover Plains with a small log cabin as a family retreat. Turner, who runs a private equity firm in New York within the energy sector, grew up on a farm northern Illinois and wanted his daughters to get more exposure to the great outdoors than their suburban New Jersey lifestyle was offering.

What Turner and his wife, Lydia, hadn’t realized at the time was they had purchased part of the Taconic Hardwood Forest, a unique terroir that extends from the eastern edge of New York’s mid-Hudson Valley up into central western Vermont. It was chock full of mature sugar and red maple trees. Turner was schooled about the sugar bush while walking the property, which hadn’t been farmed or even cleared since the Civil War era, with neighbors whose families had used the land for recreational purposes, like trout fishing, for generations.

In 2010, after Turner spent three years methodically researching time-honored traditional practices of the maple syrup industry in northeastern United States and in Canada and newfangled technology that could be applied to the process of converting 43 gallons of raw sap into 1 gallon of syrup, Crown Maple at Madava Farms was born. The name of the farm is a mashup of Robb and Lydia’s two daughters’ names – Madeline and Ava.

20,000 trees

The Crown Maple syrup operation itself, developed with the help of foresters, scientists and engineers, includes 20,000 trees, 50,000 taps and 200 miles of plastic tubing that carries sap to three pump houses with the help of a vacuum system. A field team of eight men maintain that vacuum at 27 inches mercury with the help of sensors that establish a Bluetooth connection to monitoring applications on their handheld Android devices. At a rate comparable to the flow of five bathtub spigots going full bore, the sap flows down the hill from the pump houses into four, 9,300-gallon tanks. Once inside the 27,000-square-foot sugar house that resembles a Napa Valley winery facility in terms of function and style, the sap gets purified with the help of a Dissolved Air Flotation (DAF) machine, the only one of its kind in operation in the U.S. maple industry. This apparatus shoots microbubbles into the sap to which impurities attach themselves, get floated to the top and are scraped off via a mechanical arm.

The purified sap then courses into a reverse osmosis machine, which pulls out about half of the sap’s water content, a necessary step when working with this scale, explains Tyge Rugenstein, Crown Maple’s chief operating officer who also holds a Ph.D. in decision sciences and engineering systems/operations research from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The evaporator then boils the sap at 217 F until the sugar content of the syrup rests at 68 Brix. Then it’s pumped into 55 -gallon barrels — some of those lent to Crown Maple from bourbon and rum makers in order to impart those flavors into the syrup for specialty products. The barrels get tapped one at a time in the bottling room where they are divided into custom-made Italian glass bottles that resemble small batch whiskey flagons as opposed to run of the mill plastic jugs.

Crown Maple sugar house

The sugar house at Crown Maple at Madava Farms. Credit: Copyright 2014, courtesy of Crown Maple

The 12-ounce bottles — marked under the newly adopted national maple grades of Light Amber, Medium Amber, Dark Amber and Extra Dark — are sold for between $16.95 and $30.95 online and in specialty grocers mostly east of the Mississippi River; used in the kitchens and cocktail shakers at Eleven Madison Park, Left Bank, Le Bernardin and Per Se, to name a few; sold in the cafe on the front of the sugar house; and doled out in the tasting room, the walls of which are lined with glossy maple wood, some of it showing the holes of taps of the past.

Mother Nature’s in charge

Watching the syrup being transformed — a process that is open to the public on weekends when the sap flows through early April — at this level is a study in nature meeting technology. Rugenstein argues that meeting only affects the taste of the end product in a beneficial way.

“We control the quality of the product at every step in the process,” said Rugenstein, explaining their process is much like small artisans who take the sap, make the syrup themselves, and sell it directly to the customer. But much of the pure maple syrup sold on a wider scale is packed and distributed by consolidators who blend syrups of varying quality from many producers into a single product.

What even this well-funded operation can’t control, though, is Mother Nature: The sap needs warm days and freezing nights to keep flowing. It is the trees that decide how much of each grade of syrup in which quantities each year. And once the trees start to bud, the season is over.

“In that regard, we are in the same boat as everyone else,” Rugenstein said.

The jury is still out on whether or not the 2015 sugaring season will be a boom or bust, but Crown Maple is technologically ready to make the most of whatever comes.

Maple potato leek soup

Maple Potato Leek Soup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Christine B. Rudalevige

Maple Potato Leek Soup

Crown Maple at Madava Farms in upstate New York employs two chefs to develop recipes that use maple syrup in a variety of savory ways. This soup is one of them.

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons butter
3 large leeks, white parts and light green parts only, cleaned and chopped
6 cups chicken or turkey stock
1 1/2 pounds peeled and chopped russet potatoes (about 3 large)
1/2 cup dark maple syrup
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
Salt and white pepper to taste
Chopped chives and crispy bacon for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Melt butter in an 8-quart pot over medium heat. Add leeks and cook gently until they are tender but not browned (about 5 to 7 minutes).

2. Add chicken stock and potatoes to pot. Bring to a simmer and cook potatoes until they are tender (about 20 minutes).

3. Add syrup and milk. Warm the mixture, but do not let it boil. Use a stick blender to puree the soup. Stir in cream.

4. Season with salt and white pepper. Serve hot with garnishes, if using.

Main photo: Bottles of maple syrup from Crown Maple at Madava Farms. Credit: Copyright 2015 Christine B. Rudalevige

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Just because it's seafood, it doesn't mean it's difficult. You can cook up a delicious seafood stew in less than a half hour. Credit: Copyright 2015 Cheryl D. Lee

When the usually benign words sea and food are put together, they suddenly become something that brings fear to the hearts of even the most experienced cooks. Seafood has the reputation of being hard to work with because it is easy to overcook.

A stew made with seafood is a fast and easy way to cook all manner of fish and shellfish. Gently simmering the seafood in a richly seasoned broth brings out the delicate flavor of the fish.

Simple Seafood Stew

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 large white onion, chopped

5 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped

1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, lightly chopped

1 (28-ounce) can of cut tomatoes with basil

16 ounces clam juice

1 cup white wine

3 pounds fish filets (I used yellowtail, black cod and Pacific red snapper), cut into 2-inch pieces

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

Directions

1. In a large, heavy pot, heat the oil over a medium-high flame.

2. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes, until softened.

3. Add garlic, thyme and oregano and cook 1 minute while stirring.

4. Add tomatoes with their juice, clam juice and wine.

5. Gently stir in the pieces of fish.

6. Raise heat to high and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.

7. Simmer the stew 15 minutes, or until fish is just cooked through.

8. Add salt, adjust seasoning as needed.

9. Serve immediately.

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Main photo: Just because it’s seafood, it doesn’t mean it has to be difficult. You can cook up this delicious seafood stew in half an hour. Credit: Copyright 2015 Cheryl D. Lee

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