Articles in Recipe

Martha Rose Shulman's vegetarian black bean tostadas. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

In the summer of 1968, I was introduced to the secrets of Mexican cooking. At that time Mexican food was not something you knew or thought much about if, like me, you were a Jewish American princess from Connecticut. I had tasted tacos on an Acapulco beach while on vacation with friends in 1963, and had never forgotten them, but I didn’t know what it was that made them taste so good.

Five years later I was a socially active high school graduate who also happened to have a curious palate. I spent that summer working with migrant farm workers from South Texas as a camper-volunteer at an American Friends Service Committee Quaker youth work camp in Central Michigan. Our group had been assigned to help with a housing grant for migrant farm workers who wanted to relocate to Michigan and work in the auto industry. But at the last minute the money did not come through, so when we arrived the counselors had to find something for us to do. Instead of building houses we became, in essence, social workers and activity planners for the children who lived in the migrant camps. We created a little school for the younger children to attend during the day while their parents worked in the fields, and every night we’d visit the camps and organize activities like baseball games and dances.

I became close to a few of the families. I got to know the kids well and spent time with the parents. One woman in particular, Señora Saenz, a large woman who had 10 children, took a liking to me. I visited the Saenz family every night in their little cabin, which smelled pleasantly of cumin and chili. Here, in the Saenzes’ one-room cabin, I realized that those two spices were the key to my long-ago taste memory from Acapulco.

I had developed a passion for cooking the previous summer, and at the Quaker work camp I took over in the kitchen early on, cooking feverishly for the group of 24 every night. I wrote to my stepmother, requesting that she send casserole recipes, and she hastily dispatched a sheaf of index cards. I had a huge kitchen to work in, but I had to pull off the recipes using pretty awful ingredients: USDA surplus items, standard issue for welfare recipients.

A lesson in cooking Mexican food

One day when I was visiting Señora Saenz, I asked if she and her older daughters would teach me to cook Mexican food. I offered to teach them how to make a cake in exchange, although I knew nothing about baking beyond cake mixes. The family was enthusiastic, and the next evening when I arrived at the camp they had all the ingredients ready for beef tacos and enchiladas — chili and cumin, onion and ground beef, corn tortillas and oil, tomatoes, tomato sauce, cheese and chilies.

Mrs. Saenz showed me how to heat the oil in a frying pan and sizzle the cumin and chili powder before adding the onions and browning the meat to make picadillo. Once the meat was cooked, she showed me how to season and soften the tortillas in cumin- and chili powder-spiked oil before making enchiladas. Then she showed me how to make a red sauce for enchiladas. We made some quick tacos with the beef picadillo and shredded cabbage, then we made enchiladas. Afterward I opened my box of cake mix, added what needed to be added and baked a cake, which we finished with white frosting from the box. In retrospect, I am sure that Mrs. Saenz and her daughters probably knew how to make cake from scratch, but nobody said anything about it.

At the end of the summer when I went home, one of the first things I did was give a Mexican dinner party for my friends. I scoured the markets in Westport, Conn., looking for corn tortillas. It was a challenge (it would be another two decades before decent Mexican food or even Tex-Mex was accessible beyond the border states). I finally found them –  corn tortillas packed in a flat yellow can — in the exotic foods section of the local supermarket. I wonder how long they’d been there. Who was making Mexican food in Connecticut in 1968? I made exactly what Señora Saenz had taught me to cook — tacos and enchiladas. My friends loved the meal.

I had no idea then that, five years later, I would decide to make a career of cooking. By then I was living in Texas and had spent quite a lot of time in Mexico. I was also now a vegetarian and no longer made the beef picadillo I had learned to make in Michigan. But when I made enchiladas or refried beans I still used the techniques I had learned from Señora Saenz –  sizzling the spices in oil before adding other ingredients and seasoning the oil for the tortillas with cumin and chili powder. That’s why I was able to develop my first signature dish, Black Bean Enchiladas, and that’s why they were so good.

Refried Bean Tostadas

Prep time: About 30 minutes

Cook time: 2 hours unsupervised cooking for the beans; 15 minutes for the refried beans

Total time: 3 hours (2 hours unsupervised)

Yield: 4 servings

For the beans:

Ingredients 

½ pound (about 1⅛ cups) black beans, pinto beans, or similar heirlooms, washed and picked over for stones, soaked for at least 4 hours or overnight in 1 quart water

1 medium onion, cut in half

2 large garlic cloves, minced

¼ cup chopped cilantro

Salt to taste (I think beans need a lot, at least 1 teaspoon per quart of water used)

Directions

1. Place beans and soaking water into a large, heavy pot. Add halved onion and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any foam that rises, then add garlic and half the cilantro, reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes.

2. Add salt and continue to simmer another 1 to 1½ hours, until beans are quite soft and broth is thick and fragrant. Taste and adjust salt. Stir in remaining cilantro. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove and discard onion. For the best flavor, refrigerate overnight.

For the tostadas:

Ingredients

The simmered beans, above

2 tablespoons grape-seed, sunflower or canola oil

1 tablespoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 teaspoons mild chili powder

8 corn tortillas

¾ pound ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

1 to 2 serrano or jalapeño chilies (to taste), minced

2 slices red or white onion, finely chopped and soaked for 5 minutes in water to cover, then drained, rinsed, and drained on paper towels

¼ cup chopped cilantro (more to taste)

Fresh lime juice and salt to taste

2 cups shredded cabbage

2 small or 1 large, ripe avocado, diced or sliced

¼ cup chopped toasted almonds

About 3 ounces (¾ cup) queso fresco for crumbling

Directions

1. Drain off about ½ cup of liquid from the beans, retaining it in a separate bowl to use later for moistening the beans should they dry out. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy nonstick frying pan and add the ground cumin and chili.  Cook, stirring over medium heat, for about a minute, until the spices begin to sizzle and cook. Add the beans. Fry the beans, stirring and mashing with the back of a spoon, potato masher or a wooden pestle until they thicken and begin to get crusty on the bottom. Stir up the crust each time it forms, and mix into the beans.  Cook until the beans are thick but not dry, 10 to 15 minutes.  They will continue to thicken and dry out when you remove them from the heat. Add liquid you saved from the beans if they seem too dry, but save some of the liquid for moistening the beans before you reheat them, if you are serving them later. Taste the refried beans and adjust the salt (they probably won’t need any as the broth reduces when you refry them).

2. Cut the tortillas in half. To toast in the microwave, place as many as will fit in a single layer and cook for 1 minute. The tortillas will be moist on the bottom. Flip them over and microwave for another minute. If they are not yet crisp, flip again and zap for 30 seconds to a minute. Alternatively, deep-fry the tortillas in sunflower oil or grape-seed oil until crisp and drain on paper towels.

3. In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, chilies, onion and cilantro. Season to taste with salt. Stir in the lime juice if using. Let sit for 15 to 30 minutes for the best flavor.

4. Spread a layer of refried beans (about 2 tablespoons) over each tortilla half. Top with cabbage. Spoon salsa over the cabbage and top with sliced or diced avocado, a sprinkling of chopped toasted almonds and a sprinkling of queso fresco.

Advance preparation: The refried beans will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. Set aside in the pan if you are serving within a few hours. Otherwise, transfer the beans to a lightly oiled baking dish, cover and refrigerate. To reheat, cover with foil and bake in a 325 F oven for 20 minutes.

Main photo: Black Bean Tostadas. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Purslane, Corn, Squash and Squash Blossom Soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Mexicans have foraged verdolagas (purslane, or Portulaca oleracea), a native of India and Persia, for centuries, and it remains a favorite green from Tijuana to Cancun. Because the annual plant isn’t a bit fussy about a sprout site, and because it’s a succulent, it germinates easily from a cutting or seed and needs little water once started.

Wild purslane is thrilled with most any sunny spot, where it spreads flat on the ground quickly from a single root and multiplies like chickenpox in kindergarten after it goes to seed. Sadly it’s less cherished in the U.S., where the plant is best known as a common weed and a gardener’s biggest nightmare. Farm-grown purslane, unlike in the wild, grows vertically, and can reach knee high for easy harvesting.

Green with a red blush on some of the 40 cultivated varieties, its edible ½-inch to 2-inch long leaves look like delicate baby jade plants. Larger leaves and stems are crunchy with a mouth feel like cactus paddles and okra but more delicate, with a tangy, slightly salty citrus-pepper bite.

With purslane, flavor depends on when it’s picked

In the book “In Defense of Food,” Michael Pollan calls purslane one of the most nutritious plants on earth. It contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable, on par with some fish. When the plant is thirsty, it switches to photosynthesis: At night, its leaves trap carbon dioxide, which converts into malic acid, and in daylight, the acid transforms into glucose. Purslane has 10 times the acid content in the morning vs. when it’s picked in the afternoon, so expect it to be slightly sour in breakfast quesadillas and almost sweet at dinner.

Mexicans cherish the plant’s citrus taste and look forward to the warm summer months when it is widely available. Tiny, delicate half-inch leaves are perfect for salads and to tuck into sandwiches; thick, larger leaves and thick stems cut into pieces are best for a more toothsome bite in cooked dishes, especially soups and rustic stews, where their natural pectin is appreciated for thickening qualities.

I suggest looking for luscious cultivated bunches at a greengrocer, Mexican market or farmers market rather than scrounging around town hunting for miserly sidewalk shoots. Unless you’re a fan of foraging, you probably won’t have a clue what time of day the store-bought purslane was picked; even so, its juicy leaf texture will woo you back for more.

Once picked or purchased, keep purslane fresh for another day or two in a container out of the sun with cut stems in a few inches of fresh water. Most people cut off and discard the thickest, chewy stem bottoms and use only delicate stem tops and leaves in recipes.

As in other Mexican soups and sauces, flavor and texture are everything. This soup is perfect for the family or when friends stop by; if fussy grandmothers are invited to a special-occasion dinner, strain the finished soup for a traditionally upscale smooth liquid.

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Purslane from Coleman Family Farm at the farmers market in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Purslane, Corn, Squash and Squash Blossom Soup (Sopa de Verdolagas, Maiz, Calabazas y Flores de Calabazas)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 60 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 cup chopped white onion
  • 2 to 2½ cups scraped kernels from 3 ears summer sweet corn
  • 3 yellow zucchini or crookneck squash, about 6 inches each
  • 3 cups purslane leaves with delicate stems, 2 tablespoons of the tiniest half-inch leaves reserved for garnish
  • 2 large handfuls squash blossoms, 6 reserved for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth at room temperature
  • ⅓ cup grated Mexican queso añejo or Parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup Mexican crema or sour cream

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Toss in the onion and cook, stirring every few minutes until translucent. Add the corn kernels, stir and continue cooking 5 minutes. Cut the squash in quarters lengthwise and then into half-inch slices. Scoop into the pot and stir, cooking another 5 minutes.
  2. Pull off leaves and delicate stems from the thick purslane stems, enough to have about 3 cups. Add them to the pot and stir. Turn down the heat and simmer gently 5 minutes.
  3. Remove the five sharp green sepals at the base of each squash blossom. Snap off the stems from six of the prettiest blossoms and reserve for garnish. Slide the other blossoms and stems into the pot. Cook, stirring for a minute, and then turn off the heat.
  4. Ladle half the hot vegetables into a blender or processor. Pour in 1 cup broth. With the air vent open, purée 30 seconds and pour into the used mixing bowl. Ladle the remaining hot vegetables into the blender with another cup of broth. Purée 30 seconds, but this time pour it into the cooking pot. Scrape the purée from the bowl into the pot with a rubber spatula. Pour in the remaining broth. Bring to a fast boil (big bubbles you can’t stir down), and then lower the heat to a bare simmer for 2 minutes.
  5. Ladle into serving bowls. Garnish each with one of the reserved squash blossoms in the center, a sprinkle of grated cheese, some tiny purslane leaves and a small dollop of crema.

Main photo: Purslane, Corn, Squash and Squash Blossom Soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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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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Fish and chips with mushy peas to go from Armstrong's Fish and Chips in Prestwich, Manchester. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

When it comes to national icons, the rest of the world thinks of Britain in terms of the changing of the guard, Shakespeare’s birthplace, Princess Di and good old fish and chips. And, now, the latter is taking to the skies. You could say they’re frying high, except it would be a terrible joke.

National airline British Airways has just introduced a “Flying Fish and Chip Supper” on board various short-haul flights from Heathrow Airport to destinations such as Athens, Greece, or St. Petersburg, Russia.

BA has linked up with the Quayside fish and chip shop (chippy as it is known in the vernacular) in Whitby, Yorkshire, which was recently awarded the prestigious title of “Best in Britain” in the 2014 National Fish & Chip Awards.

Three excellent fish and chip shops

Despite the sad truth that the standard of fish and chips has long been in decline throughout the UK, honored more in Pavlovian anticipation than the flabby and greasy actuality of stale oil, cheap vinegar and frozen potatoes, there are still some excellent fish and chip shops to be found around the country.

  • The Fish House in Fleetwood, Lancashire. The Richardsons are a family of former fish merchants with Marine Stewardship Council certification and superb fresh fish and chips.
  • Kingfisher in Plymouth, Devon. This restaurant is also a candidate for everyone’s ideal chippy with sustainable fish and fresh Maris Piper chips — fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside.
  • Frankie’s in Shetland Isles. This is Britain’s most northerly fish and chip cafe and takeaway where you can probably get the best haddock ever known to Scotsman. Chip shop dreams are made of this — and who am I to disagree?

Stuart Fusco, chef-director of Quayside, has been working with BA to give his expert opinion on its sustainable cod fillet and chunky chips. Fusco says in a business travel news release that “cooking up a good batter on board presents some unique challenges,” which may be something of an understatement, given that our ability to taste saltiness and sweetness is reduced by about 30 percent at high altitude.

BA’s menu development manager Sinead Ferguson explains they have to pre-fry both the fish fillets and the chips, “but the length of time we do this for is fundamental to giving the chips and batter that desired crunch.”

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Stuart Fusco, head chef at Quayside, which has been named "Best in Britain" in the 2014 National Fish and Chip Awards, is behind British Airways' effort to serve fish and chips onboard short-haul flights throughout August. Credit: Nick Morrish/British Airways

History of fish and chips

The technique of shallow-frying fish in oil, originally to be served cold, is thought to have been introduced by Sephardic Jews in 19th century London. At the time fresh fish was widely available from the North Sea, and traders realized that frying the fish helped prolong shelf-life as well as mask any less-than-fresh aromas.

Fried potato stalls were also popular in working-class areas, boosted by the advent of cheap cooking oils, cast iron industrial ranges and patented inventions such as automatic potato peelers.

The great moment when fish met chip, however, plunges us into hot controversy. Some say the East End, others claim Dundee, Bradford, Oldham or Mossley near Manchester as the birthplace of the nation’s chippy. Certainly the borderland between Lancashire and Yorkshire was fertile territory for this new street food: a strong tradition of potato eating; access from the ports via the new railway network; working families who needed cheap, quick and nutritious food.

Although things have never been quite the same since the hygiene police banned the use of traditional newsprint for wrapping paper (which effectively blotted up the fat without steaming the contents), a proper portion of fresh, well-made fish and chips can hit the spot like no other.

However, if there is one thing better, it is a chip butty. To construct, lavishly spread sliced white bread or barm cakes with butter. Fill to capacity with salted, well-vinegared chips, hot enough to melt the butter. Simply divine.

Four Fish Batters

Yield: Each of the following four recipes produces enough batter to deep-fry 4 pieces of fish

1. Dissolve one package of active dried yeast in ¼ cup of tepid water. Sieve 2 cups all-purpose flour and a teaspoon of salt into a bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in 1 cup of tepid water plus the yeast and water mixture; whisk well. Leave covered for a few hours before using.

2. Sift 1 cup self-rising flour with a pinch of salt, then add 1 egg, 1 tablespoon oil or melted butter and ⅔ cup milk to make a smooth batter.

3. Place ¾ cup all-purpose flour in a bowl, make a well. Add an egg yolk, 3 tablespoons beer and a little salt. Mix together. Combine 3 tablespoons milk and 2 tablespoons cold water. Gradually add to the first mixture. Rest for at least 30 minutes, then fold in 2 stiffly beaten egg whites.

4. To make a tempura batter, loosely whisk 1 cup of very cold water and a refrigerator-temperature egg with 1 cup all-purpose flour, ¼ cup cornstarch and a pinch of salt.

A Word About Mushy Peas

Mushy –  what a word! You couldn’t invent another that so aptly describes the texture and consistency of this northern delicacy that adds a touch of subtle color to the burnished palette of the fish and chip plate.

Old Cumbrian directions for Pease Pudding, aka Mushy Peas:

1. Soak two cups of dried marrowfat or split green peas overnight with a pinch of baking soda.

2. Drain and place into a pan with a sliced onion. Cover with water and simmer for 2 hours until soft and the water absorbed.

3. Purée until thick but still somewhat lumpy, then add 2 tablespoons butter, a beaten egg, salt, pepper and a little nutmeg. Reheat gently, stirring constantly.

Alternatively, buy a tin of Lockwood’s Mushy Peas (and tart up with a bit of fresh mint).

Main photo: Fish and chips with mushy peas to go from Armstrong’s Fish and Chips in Prestwich, Manchester. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Finnish chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. Credit: Martin Thompson

Finns treasure their solitary excursions into the endless woods and forests that fringe the 187,888 lakes and 179,584 islands of their hauntingly beautiful countryside. Throughout the summer and autumn, they prefer to keep their meditations on the beauty of the natural world to themselves: They rarely go in large groups, privacy is valued, and the social code generally prohibits more than a brief nod to anyone they meet. And, of course, they sensibly like to keep their prized foraging spots to themselves.

Although Finns have always collected berries and mushrooms, other types of plant-hunting have become nearly forgotten skills. Foraging was associated with war-time hardship (dandelion roots, for example, were used as a substitute for coffee) and rejected in favor of status-symbol, shop-bought food. However, Helsinki-based chef  Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. And it’s not just a way of finding food for free, but of celebrating healthy produce and enlightening minds.

As Tallberg says, “Once you understand where ingredients come from, you see their beauty and learn to respect their qualities with the minimum of processing.”

Catching the foraging bug

Tallberg got the foraging bug about 10 years ago when working in London. One day the legendary Kentish forager Miles Irving walked into the kitchen with a box of wild seakale.

“I was just knocked out when I tried it,” Tallberg recalled, “and when I came back to Finland, I realized I was living in a big green supermarket. The Everyman’s Rights Code allows anyone to pick anywhere except someone’s back garden or protected species.”

Tallberg does not consider wild plants as substitutes for cultivated vegetables and herbs, but as important ingredients in their own right, both in terms of taste and their nutritional qualities.

Taking advantage of one of Finland’s long summer days, Tallberg and I went foraging on a tiny island that lies within Helsinki’s city limits. We were surrounded by a surprisingly wide variety of edible plants: mild, strong, crunchy, coarse, fragrant, bulky, delicate. Less than an hour later, he served me the best salad I have ever eaten. And the cheapest.

Highlighting wild herbs and plants

The use of wild herbs and plants has become a hallmark of many modern restaurants in Finland and elsewhere — Noma in Copenhagen led the way with its version of the new Nordic Cuisine. But Tallberg wants to introduce (or re-introduce) wild plants to the home cook.

As we explored the thickets of greenery, Tallberg gave me a lesson in plant-hunting. The patches of wild strawberries, with tiny, twinkling fruit, were easy to spot and Tallberg showed me how to string them on a blade of grass to transport them safely home. Carpets of exquisite purple and yellow heartsease (Viola tricolor) were delicately perfumed with vanilla. And Japanese rose bushes (Rosa rugosa) were in bloom, their petals shocking pink against the dark green leaves.

After that, plant identification became trickier. Tallberg is adamant you should not eat or even pick any plant you cannot recognize with absolute certainty. If in doubt, leave it out, he advises.

“Start with the ones (plants) you already know to get you going,” he advised as he presented me with a bunch of sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella), which he describes as a smaller, more elegant version of common sorrel. “Many people think it’s a noxious weed, but it’s lovely with fish and shellfish or green asparagus.”

“When you find a new plant, stop and go back some 10 meters and walk towards the plants again. This way you will be able to make observations about some essential feature, such as color, height, leaf shape, scent and so on.”

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Mushroom forager's bag at Mikkeli Market, Finland. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Unless you go out with an experienced forager, it helps immensely to consult a book, such as Tallberg’sWild Herb Cookbook,” or take a course about native plants at a local community college. Websites, such as NatureGate, are also helpful. But, as Tallberg says, “Be sensible: don’t go harvesting herbs or plants along highways, on areas sprayed with herbicides, or near factories. Also avoid foraging near golf courses or other areas where herbicides or other pesticides may have been used. Consider sustainability and don’t tear out all the roots. The tools you need are the same as used in gathering mushrooms: a basket and a small knife, although I also include scissors in my basic tool kit. If you’re picking nettles, wear gloves.”

Able to identify culinary plants

As he gathered samples of chickweed,  fat hen and sweet cicely, Tallberg said he could identify more than 80 varieties of culinary plants but was still learning.

“I get so excited when I’m out foraging — I imagine how lovely the violets will be with fish or how polypody (Polypodium) is a natural flavor enhancer for game or how I’m going to use pine needles like rosemary or deep-fry nettle leaves or lichen and flavor them with juniper salt. … And then I remember I’m still in Helsinki — it’s crazy! Foraging has given me a new angle on life, not just gastronomy,” he said.

Tallberg has built a business supplying wild ingredients to other chefs, has written several books on the subject and acts as a national consultant and Finnish food ambassador. He was awarded the prestigious Finland Prize for his work with food, nature and conservation.

As we meandered, Tallbert was a companionable and enthusiastic soundtrack, “There are many different types of dandelion. … Oh, look, there’s some orpine. They’ve got juicy, succulent leaves and tops, and you can use them like a salad leaf or toss into a jus. … Ooh, just found some Polypodium vulgare, that’s quite liquorish and good for fish and game. … A bit later in the year, this is where I’ll find bilberries, rowanberries, wild raspberries … Wild yarrow will bring herbal tones to a salad. … I use maple leaves, when they’re young and shiny, like vine leaves. … Chickweed are like pea shoots but milder and more mellow and add volume to a salad.”

Back at his flat, he explained the building blocks of wild salad making: “You’re looking for acidity, aroma and sweetness.”

To the haunting music of Aino Vena, we drank refreshing Nordic Koivu, birch sap water, as Tallberg made a vinaigrette with a splash of sea buckthorn juice. The salad was vivid and intense. I could feel myself getting healthier as I ate. Together with an omelette, local goat’s cheese and yogurt with wild strawberries, violets and bee pollen, it was the real taste of Finland.

Pork Chops With Fat Hen and Mustard*

Ingredients

  • Yield: 4 servings
  • Four 7-ounce pork chops (use first-class pork for this dish)
  • 2 handfuls of fat hen
  • 2 tablespoons strong mustard
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • Olive oil
  • Freshly ground sea salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Season the pork chops with sea salt and pepper, brush with oil and fry on a hot cast-iron pan until just cooked.
  2. Cook the fat hen in water flavored with honey and salt for a couple of minutes, drain, toss with a drop of olive oil and serve with mustard.
  3. * This goes well with Carrots With Sweet Cicely

Carrots With Sweet Cicely

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

14 ounces small carrots

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons honey (brown sugar or treacle will do, too)

2½ cups water

half a handful of sweet cicely, finely chopped

2 ounces butter

Directions

1. Peel the carrots (unless you are using new season ones that have a thin peel containing plenty of flavor).

2. Place all the ingredients in a pot (apart from the sweet cicely), covering the carrots with water. Cook until almost all of the water has evaporated and a shiny butter glaze remains. Add the sweet cicely.

 

Steamed Fillet of Salmon With Ox-Eye Daisy Shoots

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 (4-ounce) pieces of salmon, boned

1 cucumber, sliced lengthways

4 tablespoons salad dressing*

Freshly ground sea salt and pepper

Directions

1. Season the salmon pieces with sea salt and pepper, steam them for about 3 minutes and leave to stand in room temperature for about 10 minutes, after which they will be ready.

2. Peel the cucumber, spoon out the seeds and cut the cucumber lengthwise into thin slices (with a cheese slicer or mandolin cutter).

3. Toss the shoots and cucumber in the salad dressing, season with sea salt and pepper and serve with the salmon at room temperature.

 

* Salad dressing

Ingredients

2 generous cups of cold-pressed olive oil

1¼ cup vegetable oil

¾ cup white wine vinegar

1½ tablespoon dried tarragon

4 medium-size garlic cloves, sliced

4 to 5 ounces Dijon-type mustard

Juice of half a lemon

Directions

1. Mix the ingredients in a jug blender or with a hand blender, and strain them by pressing through a strainer with a small ladle to ensure all aromas are captured.

Recipes are from: “Wild Herb Cookbook” by Sami Tallberg (2012), available in both Finnish- and English-language editions.

Main photo: Finnish chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. Credit: Martin Thompson

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Iced Zucchini Soup With Crème Fraiche and Herbs. Credit: Sue Style

Iced soups are perfect for sweltering summer days, lip-smacking good and super refreshing — think salad in a glass or bowl. Best of all, most don’t need cooking. Here are five recipes, three of them pillar-box red and the other two the palest of greens.

Chilled soups cover the color spectrum

The three reds include a couple of gazpachos, both of them slight variations on the classic tomato-pepper-onion-garlic-olive combo. One brings watermelon to the mix, to provide a sweet counterpoint to the tomatoes’ acidity; the other adds strawberries. The third is salmorejo, gazpacho’s first cousin. It’s a typical supper dish in Cordoba, Spain, where summer temperatures routinely soar into the hundreds. There’s a distinct family likeness with gazpacho, but salmorejo has no cucumber, onions or peppers, and the result is thicker, smoother and sinfully creamy (but without cream).

For the two green soups, one has a European feel to it, featuring lightly cooked zucchini with loads of tender herbs. The other looks to Asia for its inspiration, in a smooth emulsion of cucumber, green chili, coconut milk, cilantro and avocado.

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Gazpacho with strawberries. Credit: Sue Style

Gazpacho With Strawberries

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 0 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes, plus several hours to chill the soup

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

½ pound (500 grams) tomatoes

½ pound (500 grams) strawberries

1 small red pepper

½ green pepper

½ a cucumber

1 clove garlic, mashed

⅓ to ⅔ cup (100 to 150 milliliters) olive oil

Splash of sherry vinegar

Salt and white pepper to taste

Mint sprigs

Instructions

1. Quarter tomatoes and remove cores. Roughly chop tomatoes and put in a large, deep bowl (or blender/food processor).

2. Remove stalks from strawberries, rinse well and add to the bowl/blender.

3. Remove seeds and cores from both kinds of pepper and chop the flesh roughly. Peel the cucumber, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. Chop flesh roughly.

4. Add chopped peppers and cucumber to the bowl/blender along with the crushed garlic.

5. Blend till very smooth, then add the oil in a steady stream till gazpacho is smooth and somewhat lighter in color.

6. Season with salt, pepper and 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar.

7. Chill the gazpacho.

8. To serve, spoon into glasses and garnish with mint sprigs.

Gazpacho With Watermelon

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 0 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes, plus several hours to chill the soup

Yield: 4 to 6 servings, makes about 6 cups (1.5 liters)

Ingredients

2 pounds (1 kilogram) tomatoes

1 red pepper

1 cucumber

1 medium red onion

1 pound (500 grams) watermelon, preferably seedless, weighed after skinning

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

½ cup (125 milliliters) olive oil, plus a little more to drizzle on top for serving

Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 3 Romaine lettuce leaves, finely shredded, for garnish

Instructions

1. Remove cores from tomatoes and discard. Cut flesh in quarters and put in a large bowl (if using a hand-held blender for the soup) or in a blender or food processor.

2. Remove stalk and seeds from red pepper, set aside a chunk for the garnish (enough for about 2 tablespoons, finely chopped) and roughly chop the rest. Add to bowl/blender.

3. Peel cucumber, set aside a 1-inch (3-centimeter) chunk for the garnish and roughly chop the rest and add to bowl/blender.

4. Chop the onion finely, set aside about 1 tablespoon for the garnish and add the rest to bowl/blender.

5. Set aside a chunk of watermelon (enough for 2 tablespoons, finely chopped) for the garnish, chop the rest roughly and add to bowl/blender.

6. Add sherry vinegar and blend the soup till really smooth. If you want and can be bothered, push it through a strainer to remove any wayward pips, but this is a counsel of perfection and the soup will be fine without straining.

7. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

8. With the blender motor still running, add the olive oil in a steady trickle, continuing to blend till well mixed and emulsified.

9. Chill the soup well.

10. Put the finely chopped garnishes (including shredded lettuce) in ramekins, keeping each kind separate.

11. To serve, pour gazpacho into bowls or glasses, drizzle a thread of olive oil on top of each serving and hand around the different garnishes for everyone to sprinkle on as the mood takes them.

Salmorejo (Iced Tomato and Bread Soup from Córdoba, Spain)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 0 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes, plus several hours to chill the soup

Yield: Makes enough for 6 soup bowls or 10 to 12 small glasses

Ingredients

4 ounces (100 grams) day-old bread, trimmed of crusts (weighed after crusts have been removed)

1¾ pounds (750 grams) tomatoes (4 to 5 medium)

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped

4 tablespoons sherry vinegar or wine vinegar

½ cup olive oil

Salt to taste, about 1 teaspoon

2 hen eggs or 12 quail eggs

2 to 3 slices cured ham (ibérico, serrano, prosciutto etc.)

Instructions

1. Cut the bread in chunks, put in a bowl and pour on just enough cold water to cover. Leave to soften.

2. Quarter the tomatoes and put them in a blender with the crushed garlic and chopped apple (or place in a large bowl and use a hand-held blender).

3. Add the vinegar and blend till smooth.

4. Tip the soaked bread into a colander, press or squeeze out all excess water, add to the blender and blend once more.

5. With the motor still running, dribble in the oil in a steady stream — the salmorejo will thicken and turn from rosy pink to the color of an Andalusian sunset.

6. Season with salt to taste and blend again.

7. Chill the salmorejo for several hours.

8. For the garnish, bring a saucepan of water to a boil, drop in the eggs and boil (10 minutes for hen’s eggs, 3 minutes for quail’s eggs).

9. Drain eggs, refresh in cold water and peel.

10. Chop the hen’s eggs fairly finely; cut quails’ eggs in half. Cut the ham in fine strips.

11. Serve salmorejo in small bowls or glasses, and scatter strips of ham and chopped/halved eggs on top.

Iced Zucchini Soup With Crème Fraiche and Herbs

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes, plus several hours to chill the soup

Yield: Makes 6 cups (1.5 liters) or 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2 medium zucchini, about 1½ pounds (750 grams)

Salt

A generous handful of tender fresh herbs (try flat-leaf parsley, mint, chives and tarragon)

3 cups (750 milliliters) chicken stock, preferably home-made

A scant cup (200 milliliters) crème fraiche, plus a little more for the garnish

Instructions

1. Top and tail the zucchini, slice fairly thinly and steam or cook in boiling water with a pinch of salt for 6 to 8 minutes or until barely tender. Alternatively, put trimmed, sliced zucchini in a microwave-safe dish, add half a cup of water and a pinch of salt, cover with microwave-safe clingfilm and microwave on maximum power (900 watts) for 6 to 8 minutes.

2. Trim the herbs, reserve a few sprigs for garnish and chop the rest roughly.

3. Drain the zucchini, tip into a blender, add the roughly chopped herbs and blend till smooth.

4. Add the stock and crème fraiche and blend again. You may need to do this in two batches, or blend the soup in a large bowl using a hand-held (stalk) blender.

5. Check the seasoning, adding more salt if necessary.

6. Chill the soup thoroughly.

7. To serve, float a blob of crème fraiche on top and garnish with the reserved herb sprigs.

Iced Cucumber Soup With Avocado and Cilantro

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 0 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes, plus 30 minutes to salt the cucumber and several hours to chill the soup

Yield: Makes 4 cups (1 liter)

Ingredients

2 large cucumbers, about 2 pounds (1 kilogram) total

1 teaspoon salt

Optional: 1 fresh green chili (jalapeño or similar), or a pinch of cayenne or Espelette pepper

1 avocado

14 ounces (400 milliliters) coconut milk

5 ounces (150 milliliters) Greek yogurt

Plenty of chopped cilantro plus a few sprigs for the garnish

Juice of 1 lime

Instructions

1. Peel the cucumbers and cut in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds with a teaspoon and chop flesh into small chunks. Place in a colander, sprinkle with salt and leave in the sink to drain for about 30 minutes.

2. Cut the chili in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut the chili in very fine strips, then chop finely.

3. Cut the avocado in half, remove the pit and peel and chop the flesh roughly.

4. Rinse the cucumbers in cold water and shake dry.

5. Put the cucumbers, chopped chili (or cayenne/Espelette pepper), avocado, coconut milk, yogurt, cilantro and lime juice in a blender and blend till smooth. Be careful not to overdo this or the soup may curdle.

6. Check the seasoning and add more salt if needed.

7. Chill the soup well.

8. Float an ice cube on top and add sprigs of cilantro to serve.

Main photo: Iced Zucchini Soup With Crème Fraiche and Herbs. Credit: Sue Style

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Chocolate icebox cake with Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Ghirardelli chocolate. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Sometimes hand-me down family recipes need a little nudge to make them suit today’s tastes. In the case of my grandma’s icebox cake, she traditionally labored over creating homemade pound cake and then paired it with homemade chocolate mousse-like pudding. My mom updated it for her day by using Jell-O pudding instead. It was tasty enough to be my favorite dessert as a 6-year-old, but as an adult, I want something more. More chocolate, to be specific.

So I followed a big sister’s suggestion and combined the best of these family ideas. I added all the extra-dark chocolate I could find to the pudding as it cooked. Valrhona, Scharffen Berger, Callebaut, Guittard, Ghirardelli — pick your poison. And it didn’t seem to matter how much I threw in, so I took advice from my 8-year-old grandnephew, who is fond of promoting “add as much chocolate as you want” to almost any dessert recipe, and included three full bars of Valhrona, 1½ boxes of Scharffen Berger and a partial bag of Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips. And always on the lookout for simple and fast, I found that a three-loaf package of store-bought pound cake works just as well as homemade when chocolate is the star of the dessert.

With all that input — and all that chocolate — this cake might just live on to be a five-generation heirloom. I think Grandma would be proud.

Extra Chocolatey Icebox Cake

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 12-16 servings

Ingredients

  • 3 store-bought pound cakes
  • 18 ounces or more of dark chocolate (bars, bits or chips)
  • 2 large (5-ounce) boxes of Jell-O Cook and Serve Chocolate Pudding
  • 6 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups whipped cream

Directions

  1. Cut pound cakes into ½ inch slices. Each cake should supply enough slices to fit in a single layer in a 9 x 13 baking pan.
  2. Break up chunks of dark chocolate bars. Combine two boxes of pudding mix and 6 cups of whole milk in a large saucepan set over medium high heat. When it starts to warm up, add chocolate pieces and continue to stir until the mixture boils. Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. Line a 9 x 13 baking pan with one layer of ½ inch slices of pound cake. Spread one-third of the pudding over the layer of cake. Repeat layering process two more times, alternating cake and pudding.
  4. Insert a few toothpicks in the top of the cake to keep plastic wrap from resting directly on pudding and cover. Refrigerate for 12 hours to allow the cake to chill and the pudding to settle.
  5. Prior to serving, spread a layer of freshly whipped cream over top of cake.

Notes

If you have a stash of good-quality baking chocolate, I encourage you to simply empty it into the pudding. It seems to be able to absorb quite a bit without consequence. You can serve this cake with as little as 3 hours’ chilling time, but it is best if left to settle and chill overnight or at least 12 hours.

Main photo: Chocolate icebox cake with Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Ghirardelli chocolate. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Mission figs and Cambozola cheese. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Fig season is here! Farmers markets and grocery stores have baskets of plump, juicy figs, drops of sweet sugary nectar often found oozing from them. Living in California has many advantages, including the ability to have fruit trees in your yard. Fig trees are scattered everywhere in my city. Many people just ignore the fruit, leaving it to the birds and squirrels. That means a lot of fat, happy birds and squirrels.

My introduction to figs was, naturally, a Fig Newton. I learned to love the taste and texture of a cooked fig from that cookie. My mother enjoyed fresh figs, and soon I loved fresh figs too. But I really loved the cookies.

As I got older and began to go to fine dining restaurants, I would often find unique and appealing fig dishes on the menu. There were sweet desserts, savory entrées and interesting appetizers. I realized the flavor of a fig complements so many other flavors: aged and fresh cheeses, salty cured meats, dessert wines and many nuts.

Fresh figs can be roasted, grilled, stuffed, used as a pizza topping, wrapped in salty cured meat, tossed with a salad or pasta, cooked down into a sweet sauce or baked in a tart or cake. I have even sampled a fig cocktail. But don’t forget you can eat them as nature made them, sweet and plump and juicy. If nothing else, figs are versatile little fruits that have been enjoyed for thousands of years.

Types of figs

My fig of choice is the California Mission fig, with its purple-black skin and deep red flesh. The Mission fig gets its name from the Spanish missionaries who planted them as they traveled up the California coast from Mexico.

Depending on your location, there may be different varieties of figs at your local market:

  • Brown Turkey figs are large and pear shaped, with brown skin.
  • Calimyrna figs are rather round and green skinned. They are often found dried, but when fresh they are honey sweet.
  • Kadota figs are green skinned, with luscious amber-colored flesh when ripe.
  • Black Mission figs are black skinned with amazingly deep red flesh.

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Figs, Cambozola cheese and pork chops. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Fig and Cheese Stuffed Pork Chops

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 4 bone-in pork loin chops, about 1-inch thick
  • Sea salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 to 6 fresh figs, cut into small pieces
  • 1 cup Cambozola cheese, cut into small pieces
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten with about a teaspoon of water
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 350 F. With a sharp knife, cut a pocket into the chop starting from the end farthest from the bone. Cut carefully through the middle of the chop, almost to the bone. Repeat with the remaining chops.
  2. Season the chops with salt and pepper on both sides and inside the pocket.
  3. Place a small amount of figs into the pockets of the pork chops.
  4. Cover the figs with a good amount of cheese, pressing it down into the figs.
  5. Close the top flap of the pocket over the figs and cheese, adjusting as needed to seal the seam.
  6. Place the flour, egg and panko bread crumbs each into a separate shallow dish or plate.
  7. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
  8. Coat each chop with flour, patting to remove any excess.
  9. Dip each chop into the egg mixture, making sure to coat them evenly.
  10. Place the chops into the panko breading, pressing lightly and turning them to cover the chops completely. Make sure the seam is well coated with panko to prevent the cheese from oozing out while cooking.
  11. Place the chops onto the prepared baking sheet.
  12. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the juices run clear.

Fig-Stuffed Panko Pork Chops. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Fig and Cheese Stuffed Pork Chops. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Main photo: Mission figs and Cambozola cheese. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

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