Articles in Recipe
Have you ever truly considered the merits of black pepper? If not, no one would blame you. This staple seasoning is so commonplace it’s barely an afterthought for most people while cooking or eating. True, peppercorns — the fruits from flowering vines that inspired the ancient spice trade — have been around forever. Given this overfamiliarity, black pepper may be the single most misused and misunderstood ingredient in the kitchen today.
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I’ve long been blasé about pepper. Using finely ground black pepper growing stale in a shaker is unthinkable for any professional cook. But even Tellicherry peppercorns, a prized variety of this fruit cultivated on India’s Malabar Coast, ground from my peppermill gets me persnickety. I generally find myself resisting the ever-present cookbook instruction to “season with salt and pepper.” Some recipes assert “freshly ground black pepper,” but it’s all the same to me.
Used so automatically, black pepper, I’ve believed, is sticking its (sharp, biting) nose where it does not belong. When it comes to seasoning meat, and nearly everything I cook, I stick to salt, adding pepper only when and if its musty pungency will complement the dish.
I found a like-minded soul when Sara Dickerman in Slate denounced black pepper’s place in the seasoning pantheon with salt, as if our prized salt was stuck on a perpetually bad date. Her point, for which she was denounced by pro-pepper enthusiasts, was this: Black pepper has wrongfully earned its place at the table.
This winter, as I produced quarts of beef and chicken broth and mugs of homemade chai, I found myself radically rethinking this spice. I’d palm four or five puckered peppercorn orbs and roll them into the steaming liquids where they’d imbue their warming, spiced, woodsy aromas. In the building of flavors, black pepper is foundational, essential. I would seriously miss it.
That’s when I realized that I’d been ignoring a medieval spice merchant’s riches of peppercorns in my spice basket. Purchased six months before at The Spice & Tea Exchange in downtown Portland, Ore., along with Ceylon cinnamon sticks, saffron and Hungarian paprika, were five wildly different types of peppercorns. If these had been samples of sea salts or olive oils, I would have tasted them on the spot. But it took a giant pot of beef stock simmering on the stove to get me to study each specimen.
Most surprising were the long pepper shaped like a tiny pine cone and the African kili pepper resembling a twig and filled with bitter seeds. I compared the black and white ponape peppercorns both from the Pohnpei plant, the difference being the black is picked green and matured before sun drying while the white is picked red ripened, then fermented and skinned before sun drying. The intriguing, purple-black Tasmanian pepper, not even related to black pepper, botanically speaking, is a sweet dried berry used for seasoning in aboriginal cooking.
Mind you, these five were less than a whiff of the pepper world. My collection didn’t even include green peppercorns or black peppercorns from other continents or the unrelated pink and Sichuan peppercorns to boot. But truly, they were sufficient to shake me from my own misunderstandings.
I crushed each pepper in a mortar and pestle to get at their flavors, since it’s misleading to sense their aromas through smell. With my finger, I gingerly pressed the bits onto my tongue, anticipating mind blowing heat. Instead, I experienced the nuances of pepper, from spiced sweetness hinting of garam masala in the long pepper to the mild, citrusy burn of the white pepper. For the first time, I appreciated these spices for what they offered on their own terms.
Giving black pepper a starring role in two courses
In the following weeks, I crushed long pepper for a Middle Eastern vegetable stew with chickpeas and dropped it whole into my brewing chai. I ground white pepper into clam chowder and French onion soup with gladness. As I prepared dinner, I considered which pepper might enhance its flavors. My new favorite, the long pepper, the bona fide black pepper of the Greeks and Romans, now owns shelf space in my spice cabinet.
It was no leap to invoke the most pepper-forward preparation of all: steak au poivre, or pepper-crusted steak. I served it, by golly, with a creamy peppercorn dressing over salad mix. It seems I’ve learned that there are times, after all, when there is no such thing as too much black pepper.
Pepper-Crusted Steak Salad With Buttermilk Peppercorn Dressing
Prepare the dressing for this meal first and let it sit at room temperature while you prepare the steak. This allows the dressing’s flavors to develop.
For the dressing:
Makes 2 cups
1 cup sour cream
¾ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, such as Tellicherry or long pepper
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup finely chopped chives
For the steak salad:
1 heaping teaspoon each ponape black and white peppercorns
1 10-12 ounce flat iron steak
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 cups mixed salad greens
1 cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano
For the dressing:
1.Whisk the sour cream, buttermilk, lemon juice, pepper and salt until smooth. Stir in the chives and taste for seasoning. If using right away, leave the dressing at room temperature to allow the flavors to develop.
If preparing in advance, store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 5 days to use as a dressing and a dip.
For the steak salad:
1. Crush the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle until most are very coarsely crushed and some remain whole.
2. Dab the steak dry with a paper towel and season generously with the salt. Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat with the oil. When the oil begins to smoke lay the steak in the center of the pan and cook without moving for 3 minutes. Turn the steak and cook for 3 minutes more.
For rare, transfer the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes. For medium-rare to medium, turn off the heat but leave the steak in the pan for 1-3 minutes more, testing for your preferred doneness with an instant-read thermometer (130 F for medium-rare; 135 F for medium) and transferring the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes when done. (The steak can be cooked in advance and cooled to room temperature or served warm.)
3. Pile the salad greens in the center of 4 plates. Dollop on the dressing to taste. Layer on the steak and garnish with the shaved cheese.
Top photo: Pepper varieties, clockwise from the top: Tasmanian pepper, kili pepper, ponape white pepper, ponape black pepper, long pepper. Credit: Lynne Curry
One of the most beautiful cities in Sicily is Syracuse, which has a history extending to the ancient Greeks. There is a method of cooking in Syracuse, especially applied to Sicilian fish, but other foods as well, that makes for beguiling dishes.
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Stemperata is a Syracusean method of cooking that means something like “melting sauce” or “tempering sauce.”
The idea behind “melting sauce” is to meld a number of aromatic ingredients together by cooking slowly until the sauce or food is infused with flavor. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of vinegar that evaporates, or “melts,” into the sauce and it is the vinegar that gives the dish its distinctive flavor. Whenever you see a dish described as stemperata, you know it is a dish from Syracuse.
The concept of stemperata finds its roots in medieval cooking. According to the prevailing theory of dietetics at the time, prepared food had properties that would match the temperament of the person eating it.
In the mood for Sicilian fish
Certain foods were ideal for particular conditions or temperaments. The nature of foods could be changed by tempering the food with additions such as sauces or spicing.
In medieval Italian cookbooks one runs across the term temperare, which takes on a greater meaning than “to temper.” It implies that one corrects the food so it will conform to a dietetic humoral notion. So the Italian stemperare has the sense of taking something away, and in this recipe it is the vinegar that “is taken away” through evaporation to moderate the taste of the sauce.
This Sicilian fish dish is called pesce spada alla “stemperata” and it is typically made with swordfish, but two whole red snapper work well. The recipe, though, is written for swordfish.
Pesce Spade alla ‘Stemperata’
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ celery stalk, finely chopped
1½ tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped if large
10 large green olives, pitted and chopped
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
⅓ cup water
1½ pounds swordfish steaks, cut into ½-inch-thick slices
All-purpose flour for dredging
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1. In a large sauté pan or earthenware casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring frequently, the onion and celery until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. (If using earthenware and if it is not flameproof, or if you don’t know, you will need to use a heat diffuser. Earthenware heats up slower but retains its heat longer than non-earthenware casseroles. When using earthenware, food may cook slower at first and then cook very quickly while retaining its heat, so adjust accordingly). Reduce the heat to medium, add the capers, olives and tomatoes, and stir. Pour in the water, stir again, and cook until denser, 10 minutes.
2. Dredge the swordfish slices in the flour, tapping off any excess flour. Set aside.
3. Arrange the swordfish slices in the pan or casserole on top of the sauce, spooning some sauce on top of the swordfish. Drizzle the vinegar over the fish, cover, and cook over medium heat until the vinegar is evaporated, 5 to 6 minutes. Serve hot.
Top photo: Pesce spade alla “stemperata” made with red snapper. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Rosquillas are an explosion of Mesoamerica in your mouth that starts in a remote mountain village in Nicaragua. I am visiting my daughter, Gabriella, in the campo, studying Spanish while decompressing from life in America; leaving behind computer, cellphone and running water, and breathing sweet mountain air.
El Lagartillo is a sparse farming settlement on a steep hilltop with a view all the way to Honduras from its rocky summit. Here, in my bed in a house at the edge of the forest, I am awakened at daybreak by the din of a thousand birds. My host, Amparo, says they are singing from happiness.
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A century of struggle
For five centuries, many foreigners have been lured by this sizzling land of volcanoes and cloud forests. From the conquistadores to William Walker, the American adventurer who installed himself as president in 1856, to the U.S. Marines in the early 20th century, Nicaragua has endured conquest, occupation, oppression and brutality.
After the Marines, people endured the Somoza regime until the Sandinista revolution, when campesinos were awarded the land for which they had fought. Twenty-six families banded together to form a farming cooperative in El Lagartillo until CIA-sponsored contras decimated the village in Ronald Reagan’s secret war. The survivors were determined to rebuild, and the village has been reborn.
“Little by little, we began to find our way again,” writes Tina Pérez, whose husband and young polio-stricken daughter were among those killed. “One day…I saw [my daughter] Maria Zunilda … I said … ‘You look so beautiful. How can you be here, you are dead?’… She said …’I am fine except that we work so hard … We work for the revolution, Mommy.” At this village’s heart is a shrine. A plaque under the tree where Maria Zunilda died is inscribed: “1985/For peace against all aggression/ The heroes of Lagartillo live at the plough, which works the earth to the song of the birds and the sound of the militia men’s guns.”
The stone is surrounded by six bamboo cabañas that comprise Hijos del Maiz Spanish School. Its mission is to “support dreams in the community … exchanging with other … cultures in a dynamic transformation toward social justice.” During the day, it is a village of women. They sweep, scrub, cook, make cheese, soak and hull maiz. Their children play in the road, skittering away when an occasional horse and rider passes by or a pickup rumbles through, scaring up billows of dust. Chickens peck and scratch everywhere. Scarlet bougainvillea are lit with electric blue hummingbirds.
The families have a school and a library administered by a survivor in a wheelchair. A miller grinds hominy into masa, and Lisbet, my teacher, runs a cafe, offering freshly squeezed juice from the fruits of her trees.
Corn masa cookies
At dawn, Amparo fires up an adobe oven upon which to cook tortillas. I follow her to the mill with a pail of lime-slaked maiz that was boiled the day before, to be ground into masa, the dough that is made into staple breadstuffs.
“Si no hay tortillas, no hay comida,” she says. “If there are no tortillas, there’s no food.”
Juan Cerros, a campesino from nearby Las Lajas, pulls up on his mule with a sack of the maiz slung over the saddle. Electricity reached El Lagartillo a year ago and the powered machine here grinds corn much faster than he can do it by hand. Amparo explains that he makes rosquillas, the magical cookies, to sell.
It is not until my last evening in El Lagartillo that I finally taste them. When the relentless sun begins to wane, I wander into Francisca’s house. She is in the courtyard, flanked by other women who mix fresh masa with sugar, leavening, and shortening.
They pinch off pieces of the dough and shape them into flowers. Francisca piles shaved loaf sugar in their centers before baking them in a concrete oven in the back yard. The women work in silence.
The next morning, we set out on the dusty road for the long journey back to Managua. As we bump along in the back seat of a truck, Gabriella pulls out a bag filled with rosquillas that Francisca has sent along for the trip.
I take a bite and close my eyes. It hits me with a taste like no other that makes you think of the sacred food of the ancients, the life blood of empires. It is sweet and pleasantly sour like only masa can be. Far away now from the tiny village, I bake these cookies in communion with the wise and gentle people of El Largartillo who treasure the fields and the forests.
Rosquillas (Nicaraguan Corn Masa Cookies)
Makes about 20 cookies
In my own kitchen, I make the rosquillas even if I cannot get fresh ground masa. Instead, I use masa harina, masa flour which is available in Hispanic markets. Unlike an American sugar cookie, the use of masa harina rather than wheat flour results in a crispy but tender cookie with a pleasantly gritty texture not unlike that of Scottish shortbread.
Note that Bob’s Red Mill brand masa harina, while organic, doesn’t taste like the original or have the same fine texture, so you won’t be able to make authentic-tasting rosquillas with it.
The simple cookie has two characteristic shapes. The first, like those of Francisca’s in the photo, is circular and fairly flat, pressed with fingers to resemble a flower. Francisca heaped a bit of loaf sugar, which has a rich, molasses-like flavor, in the center to resemble the disc of a daisy.
The alternative shape is a loop, formed by rolling out little balls of the dough into thin ropes and pinching the two ends together, like an oval-shaped pretzel. Because rosquilla dough is crumbly in nature, the loops can be a bit more challenging to form, but persevere, it’s doable. Historic recipes for rosquillas prescribe lard. Francisca used a butter-like shortening. I use butter.
The water that is called for in this recipe replaces the natural moisture in fresh masa dough.
As for the topping, there is no substitute for the artisanal brown loaf sugar described that is sold in Hispanic markets. If you cannot find it, leave off decorating with sugar. The cookies are delicious with or without it.
For the cookies:
1 stick (8 tablespoons or ¼ pound) unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 cups instant corn masa, also called masa harina
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup water at room temperature
For the topping:
1 cup brown loaf sugar, shaved or coarsely grated
1. Preheat an oven to 350 F.
2. In the vessel of an electric food mixer or in a large mixing bowl, cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Add the granulated sugar in a slow, steady stream, continuing to beat until the mixture is well blended and creamy.
3. Whisk together the masa harina, baking powder, and salt.
4. To the creamed butter, add the water, alternating with blended dry ingredients. Beat the mixture with the paddle attachment of the electric food mixer, or by hand with a wooden spoon until a uniform dough is formed.
5. Line two baking sheets with bakers parchment. Scoop up a rounded tablespoon of dough and form it into a ball. Repeat this process and arrange 12 balls of dough on each of the parchment-lined pan, leaving at least an inch between each.
For the flower shape, press the bottom of a glass onto each ball to flatten to about ¼-inch, or flatten each by hand. The edges will appear to crack, but the cookie will stay intact and the rustic texture will just decorate the edges.
Use your fingers to make indentations first in the center, and then around the perimeter, sculpting a daisy shape. The idea is not only to give the cookie a decorative shape, but to thin out the disks for even baking from their perimeter through to their centers, making the cookies lighter and crunchier than if they were simply flattened.
6. If decorating with loaf sugar, after forming the flower shape, spoon about a small mound onto the center of each round.
For the loop shape, roll a similar-sized ball of dough into as thin a rope as you can manage, wetting your fingers lightly as you work to prevent the dough sticking to your fingers, if necessary. Pinch the two ends together to form an oval. The easiest method is to roll out each rope directly on the parchment-lined baking sheet, then pinch the ends together. This avoids the unnecessary step of lifting the loop from board to baking sheet and breaking it in the process.
7. Slide the rosquillas onto the middle rack of the oven and bake until cooked through and lightly browned on the bottom and around the edges, 20-25 minutes.
8. Transfer them at once to wire racks to cool completely. Store over night or for up to two weeks in air-tight containers, chilled.
Top photo: Corn masa cookies (rosquillas). Credit: Nathan Hoyt
Danish is famous. It comes in many forms and with a lot of things that are copied but have no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.
In Denmark, Danish pastry is called wienerbrød, meaning “bread from Vienna.” That is the general term, but there are individual names for each particular kind. When you go to the baker in Denmark in the morning, there will be a variation of Danish — all sweet and never savory. We Danes do not do savory and Danish together.
Danish is mostly sold in the mornings. Many kinds will be sold out before afternoon, as bakers don’t make new ones because Danes eat different cakes in the afternoon. A Danish is really a morning pastry, just like the croissant in France. People tend to buy wienerbrød from the baker and not make them at home because it takes time, particularly to make the dough. Most Danes have one or two favorites they always eat, so when sent to the baker on weekend mornings it’s a big responsibility to get your family’s wishes right.
Eating Danish is part of Danish culture
Wienerbrød is really embedded in Danish culture and remains very popular. It’s not eaten every day; it’s mostly reserved for weekends or special occasions. At work, it’s common to have Friday breakfast together with colleagues, and wienerbrød is often part of that. Sometimes it is exchanged for a multigrain bun, for health reasons.
Excellent wienerbrød in Copenhagen:
I recommend you try to make wienerbrød yourself. The results are worth it. If you happen to travel to Copenhagen, below are a few of the best places to buy wienerbrød.
Visit Brød for the cinnamon bun called kanelsnegl.
Try Lagekagehuset, a bakery chain with an outlet in Copenhagen Airport, among other locations, for chokoladeboller, spandauer, frøsnapper and tebirkes.
Café Europa, located in central Copenhagen, has excellent cinnamon Danish, or kanelsnegl.
La Glace, which is a time capsule where you can get a sense of old Copenhagen and have morning coffee, makes terrific wienerbrød.
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Wienerbrød is similar to a croissant; it’s a yeast dough folded with butter three times. Some bakers use margarine because it’s easier to work with, and they claim it gives a better texture. I don’t agree. I like butter best.
It’s important to make Danish in a kitchen that is not too hot; otherwise the butter melts. With a basic dough you can make all the varieties of wienerbrød. The variation comes in the remonce, which is a mixture of butter, sugar, sometimes marzipan, custard, jam and different nuts and seeds.
Different types of wienerbrød have names like spandauer, tebirkes, frøsnapper, snegl, rosenbrød, tryksnegl and chocoladebolle. The baker who comes up with the idea for a particular type usually also gives it a name.
If served in the afternoon with coffee, the cake has different names and is bigger. The most common name would be wienerbrødsstang, where the last part of the word, -stang, means “long piece.” Borgermesterkrans is another variant: borgmester means “mayor,” and -krans means it has a circular shape. They are cut out and eaten in pieces with your fingers, so they’re very handy. Often they are part of a bigger cake selection, like cream cakes and butter cookies.
Many stories exist about how the wienerbrød started in Denmark. The stories probably all have some truth to them, but it is difficult to pinpoint who was the first to bake wienerbrød. The inspiration most likely came from Vienna. One of the stories goes that the tradition started in 1843 in Copenhagen by a local baker who had visited Vienna and learned how to make croissants. Knowing how the locals loved sugar, he added some remonce, that is the sweet paste made of sugar and butter. It was an instant success, and the pastry’s local name became wienerbrød after the origin of the recipe. It was sold from the baker’s bakery in central Copenhagen, and initially, only the originating baker had the right to sell wienerbrød. However, in 1850, the magistrate allowed five conditors (bakers that only bake cakes) to bake wienerbrød.
For the dough:
1 ounce fresh yeast
⅔ cup lukewarm water
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon superfine sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2⅓ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cold butter, thinly sliced
For the filling:
1 vanilla bean
1 cup light cream
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
For the icing (optional):
1½ cups confectioner’s sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
For the dough:
1. In a mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water.
2. Stir in the egg, superfine sugar and salt. Add the flour and stir until the dough comes together and leaves the edge of the bowl.
3. Turn the dough onto a floured counter and knead for five minutes, until it is shiny but not sticky.
4. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
5. Roll out the dough into a 20-inch square. Spread the thin slices of butter over the dough about 4 inches in from the edge, so the square of dough has a smaller square of butter on top.
6. Fold the corners of the dough over the butter to meet in the center, making a square package.
7. Carefully roll the dough into a 16-by-24-inch rectangle, making sure it doesn’t crack and the butter stays inside the dough package. Next you want to fold the dough so the butter becomes layered within it: Fold the bottom third of dough over the middle third and fold the top third down over that.
8. Roll out the dough again and fold the same way.
9. Put the dough in the refrigerator for 15 minutes, then repeat the rolling and folding process three times, remembering to let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 15 minutes each time.
For the filling:
1. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a knife.
2. Put the vanilla seeds and cream in a pan and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks and superfine sugar together until the mixture is pale and fluffy, then stir in the cornstarch.
3. Pour a little bit of the hot cream into the egg mixture to temper it, then pour all the egg mixture into the pan.
4. Return the pan to a decreased heat and whisk until the custard starts to thicken. Take care not to let the custard boil, and beat continuously to avoid scorching. Remove from the heat and let cool before use.
5. Roll out the dough to a 20-inch square, then cut it into five rows of 4-inch squares. Place 2 teaspoons of the filling on each square. Take each square’s corners and fold them into the middle over the filling, pressing the edges together to seal. Turn each pastry upside down and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with a dish towel and let rise for 20 minutes at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Brush the pastries with a little beaten egg and bake them for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack.
For the icing:
1. Mix the confectioner’s sugar and cocoa powder together in a bowl, adding a little bit of hot water, and whisk to make a smooth, dark brown paste.
2. Place a spoonful of the icing on each pastry and let set for 10 minutes before serving.
Top photo: Danish, or wienerbrød. Credit: Trine Hahnemann
After my stove, my freezers are the most important kitchen gear I own. I have a large standup one in my kitchen, a chest freezer in the basement, and the freezer that is part of my old refrigerator, also stored in the basement, and all of them are full.
I think of them as essential parts of my pantry, and their contents always enter into my plans for my next meal. As someone who likes bread for breakfast, but not the same kind every day, I store an array that can satisfy any of my moods. Sometimes I want a hearty whole grain loaf, so I pull out a slice from the loaf I baked using Joanne Chang’s recipe from “Flour.”
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If I go for something a little sweet, I have home-baked coffee cakes that are not too rich or frosted, yet have that slight sweetness, yeastiness and pull I find so satisfying. I always keep store-bought rolls, and am especially fond of ciabattas, which go from the freezer to the convection setting on my toaster oven, ready to eat by the time the coffee is brewed.
I would add that these rolls are improved by this process, for they come out with a crunchy crust after having been subjected to thick plastic bags that make their crusts flaccid. Sourdoughs, sandwich loaves, and bagels are also in my kitchen freezer awaiting their turn at the toaster oven.
Freezing meals, not just foods on sale
Of course I have cooked dishes in my freezers, and this is the most important reason to have so much freezer space. Instead of filling the spaces with foods on sale in the super market — a pile of chickens, for instance — I use my freezers as a convenience, making sure that appealing cooked dishes are available all year round and get used up in a timely way. For instance, when I am in a cooking mood I prepare thick soups to serve on those winter nights when I may not feel like cooking.
Other dishes are great candidates for the freezer, such as cabbage rolls, because the dish has so much sauce that it freezes and preserves well. And, clearly, one does not have to come from Eastern Europe to love this dish. An Irish friend dropped by recently, joined us for a cabbage roll dinner, and wouldn’t leave until he got the recipe. And I have friends I already know love this dish, so I can always come up with a last-minute meal I know will please them. I just have to mash some potatoes and dinner is set.
The other good use I make of my freezer is to preserve foods that can otherwise go bad. Whole wheat flour is a prime example. And I keep many of my other grains in the freezer to keep away those kitchen moths that are known to invade.
My interest in convenience means that I will keep on hand cuts of meat my family enjoys. Because we all like chicken thighs, I buy them in bulk and clean and skin them before packaging and freezing so that when they thaw they are ready to go into any dish I choose. But I don’t stuff my freezers with bulky items, especially large cuts of meat or turkeys. This may be because I came across a story some years ago that I have since thought of as a cautionary tale.
A man was given a 30-pound turkey one summer, which he decided to freeze until Thanksgiving. He managed to stuff it into his old chest freezer, pushing it around the internal coils. When he went to get it, he found the turkey hopelessly stuck and impossible to retrieve because, of course, it was no longer malleable and capable of bending around the coils. He had no choice but to unplug the freezer and wait for the turkey to thaw.
Be careful about what goes in the freezer
I sometimes store foods that are available only at stores far from home, but such long-distance shopping can backfire. I have a friend who likes fresh beef tongue, something you don’t find in neighborhood groceries, so she had to travel some distance to get one. When she got home and unwrapped it, she found that it was smelly and had gone bad. In a rage, she called up the butcher who sold it and gave him a piece of her mind, emphasizing that she lived far away from his shop so that returning it wasn’t going to be easy. He told her to put it in her freezer until the next time she was in the area to which she replied, “What do you think I’m running here? A morgue?”
So I am cautious and selective about what goes into my freezers. I remind myself that I don’t think of freezing food necessarily as a way to save money, but rather as a convenience and a way to eat well. When I have a good crop of tomatoes from my garden, many go into a marinara sauce. And I have a favorite corn chowder recipe I prepare in August and pull out in February. Being so enamored of freezing food has led to some teasing by family members. Recently, I went to my basement to put away muffins I had just made when I found taped to the top of the freezer a cartoon showing a husband, wife, and their own chest freezer. The caption has the wife saying, “Do you still want this?” Tucked under her arm is an object shaped like a man and wrapped like a mummy, which she fails to recognize as a leftover corpse.
1 head cabbage with large tender leaves
2 medium potatoes, coarsely chopped
1 large onion, coarsely
1 (28 ounce) can of tomatoes
1 can sauerkraut
1 (15 ounce) can tomato soup
Juice of one lemon
1½ cups brown sugar (or less, according to taste)
2 pounds chopped beef, uncooked
2 carrots sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1. With paring knife, make cuts around stem of cabbage, then steam for five to 10 minutes, allowing leaves to soften so they can be rolled without splitting.
2. Using a food processor, process potatoes, onion and eggs, until all lumps of potato and onion are gone.
3. In large 8-quart Dutch oven pour in the tomatoes, sauerkraut, tomato soup, lemon juice and brown sugar. Add the vegetable mixture from the food processor and the raw, sliced carrots. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. When cabbage leaves are cool and pliable, fill each one with a heaping tablespoon of meat, roll loosely and place in Dutch oven on top of ingredients. If cabbage leaves are stiff, put remaining cabbage back into the steamer until leaves are pliable.
5. Simmer the dish for 1½ hours. It tastes best the day after it is cooked.
Note: I found at a Chinese market a cabbage that is wide and flat. It has very large leaves that are easy to roll. Standard cabbages can be more difficult to handle.
Top photo: Stuffed cabbage rolls. Credit: Barbara Haber
Sun, Sea & Olives: It isn’t easy getting people to eat what they’re not used to, and if what they’re used to is a hefty steak and baked potato with butter and sour cream on top, it can take a lot of diplomacy to convince the guy (it’s almost always a guy) that fish and salad are a better choice. So what to do?
For people who’ve been eating the Mediterranean way for years — lots of vegetables, very little dairy, plenty of seafood, not much meat and an ample glug of olive oil on top — it seems like a no-brainer. The food is delicious even or especially if it’s good for you. How could you not like it? But what about those die-hard American beef eaters? How do you get them to switch to a Mediterranean diet and be happy doing so?
Slowly, slowly and little by little is my advice. Add fish once a week but make it really good — tempting, tasty, irresistible — as in the recipe below for breaded fried fish. Serve it with a spicy salsa made with diced fresh tomatoes, avocados and a little green chili or make a tomato sauce, just like a pasta sauce, only add plenty of crushed red pepper, a bit of cumin and a spritz of lemon juice to liven things up. The walls of culinary resistance may come tumbling down and soon enough you’ll be serving, and loving, braised salmon, crisp green salad and bitter greens to take the place of that baked potato.
Better than an ode to childhood meals
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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Fried Breaded Fish Sticks
Use a meaty, white-fleshed fish for this; cod, haddock, halibut or hake are all good choices. Buy boneless fillets or have a whole fish boned and filleted. To approximate 2 pounds of fillets, you will need 4 pounds of whole fish (sometimes called “round weight”).
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 pounds white-meat fish fillets (see suggestions above)
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
¼ to ½ teaspoon ground chili pepper
1 cup toasted bread crumbs, preferably made from whole grain bread
¼ cup finely chopped or ground walnuts or almonds
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Garnish: Tomato sauce, tomato-avocado salsa, or plain lemon juice
1. Rinse the fish fillets and pat them dry. Run your hands over the fillets to be sure all the pin bones have been removed. If any remain, use tweezers to pull them out.
2. Cut the fillets in smaller pieces, either one piece to a serving or, if you wish, make fish fingers, about 1 inch wide by 2½ inches long.
3. Set out three soup plates. Put the two flours and the salt in one plate and toss together with a fork. Crack the egg into the second plate. Add a teaspoon of water and beat the egg and water together with a fork. Combine the bread crumbs and nuts in the third plate.
4. Dip a piece of fish in the flour, turning it to coat lightly all sides. Shake off any excess. Then dip it in the egg, again turning to coat lightly all sides and letting excess drip off. Finally dip the piece in the bread-crumb-nut mixture, pressing well to let the crumbs adhere to the fish on all sides. Set each fish piece on a wire rack to dry slightly while you finish all of them.
5. Add the oil to a heavy skillet large enough to hold a number of fish pieces in a single layer and set the skillet over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer slightly, add as many fish pieces as you comfortably can fit in the pan. The fish should sizzle and brown on one side in 3 to 5 minutes; turn gently, using tongs, and brown the other side. Resist the temptation to keep turning the fish — that will reduce the amount of oil absorbed. When each piece is done, set it on a rack covered with paper towels. (If you’re doing a lot of fish, you might want to transfer the drained pieces to a very low oven — 150 F to keep warm.)
6. When all the fish is done, serve immediately, accompanied by tomato sauce (recipe below), or make a simple tomato-avocado salsa with chopped red onion, a little green chili and basil.
This is a variation on the simple tomato sauce I often serve with pasta. Serve it as is or spice it up with cumin, crushed red chili pepper and a spritz of lemon juice.
Makes about 2 cups of sauce
2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin
1 small green jalapeño pepper, seeded and thinly sliced (optional)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 (28 ounce) can of whole peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme) or ½ teaspoon ground cumin
Juice of half a lemon or to taste
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine garlic, jalapeño if using, and oil in a saucepan and set over low heat. Let cook very gently, just until the vegetables are softened, but do not let them brown.
2. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and raise the heat to medium low. Add in the minced fresh herbs or the cumin. Simmer while breaking up the whole tomatoes with the side of a spoon as they cook down and the sauce thickens.
3. When the sauce is very thick (after 20 or 30 minutes of simmering), remove from the heat and purée the contents of the pan in a food processor or blender or using a vegetable mill or handheld blender. Taste and add lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
Note: If you don’t use all the sauce, it will keep for a week in the refrigerator. You can also freeze it in half-cup quantities to use later for pasta, pizza or in place of commercial ketchup.
Top photo: Fried breaded fish sticks with tomato sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Lime ought to show up more often in cakes; that’s my philosophy. Lemon is great, sure. But there are already plenty of lemon cakes and lemon frostings. No doubt lemon is a cheery and optimistic flavor. But lime is rich and exotic.
Following this line of thought, I ended up with a cake with a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting and a filling of fried bananas. The palate just wants what it wants.
The evolution of cake experiments
My first step down the lime path was obvious — coconut cake with lime zest and a bit of lime juice in the frosting (because I believe fruit-flavored frostings should be sweet-sour). Lime in the coconut, get it? I’m referring to “Coconut,” that 1970s hit song about a woman who mixed lime and coconut juice, got a stomachache and called her doctor, who surprisingly prescribed drinking more lime and coconut.
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The doctor in the song sounded a little peevish because she’d called him in the middle of the night. Still, everybody in the song seemed fine with this prescription, and so did everybody who tasted my lime in the coconut cake.
Next I made a lemon poppy seed pound cake substituting lime juice and zest for the lemon. It was a big hit, because people who love pound cake love it passionately, and because I’d topped it with a cream cheese frosting. I’d noticed that people who love pound cake passionately also have a thing for cream cheese.
When I frosted a cake with lime butter cream and filled it with lime curd, it struck me that I might be binging on limes. Meanwhile, I’d gotten interested in ways to use bananas in cake, but not as banana bread, of which I’m not a big fan. However, I am a big fan of butterscotch, an unjustly neglected flavor in my book.
Finding flavors that complement each other
So I decided to make a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting, just to check off all the possibilities. It was pretty good because this butterscotch cream cheese frosting takes other flavors, such as ground instant coffee, beautifully.
Cream cheese frosting is mostly used on dense cakes like carrot cake, rather than on butter cake, and the recipes tend to make just barely enough to frost a cake. Here was where my banana experimentation paid off, apart from the fact that banana and butterscotch go together beautifully.
Fry some bananas soft with butter and brown sugar, and they make a terrific filling, suavely giving you more cream cheese frosting to cover the outside of the cake.
In retrospect, this was all obvious, so obvious. I’m almost embarrassed to mention it. But just almost.
Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake
Makes 1 two-layer cake
For the cake:
3 cups flour plus about 2 tablespoons for flouring the pans
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
2 sticks butter, softened, plus more for greasing cake pans
2 cups sugar
For the banana filling:
3 ripe bananas
About ½ stick butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
The juice of ½ a lime
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
½ stick butter
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
¼ cup brown sugar
1 pound confectioner’s sugar
Juice and zest from ½ a lime
For the cake:
1. Turn on the oven to 350 F.
2. Mix 3 cups of flour, salt and baking powder and set aside.
3. Add the vanilla to the milk and set aside.
4. Grease two 9-inch cake pans. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour into one pan and shake around until the interior is floured, then pour the remainder into the other pan and repeat.
5. Beat the butter until light and fluffy, then pour in the sugar in a thin stream while beating until the mixture is light and the mixer’s motor has reached its highest speed.
6. Add the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after each addition.
7. Add 1 cup of the flour mixture and beat at medium slow speed, encouraging the absorption with a spatula, just until the flour is absorbed.
8. Add half of the milk and repeat, then another cup of flour, the rest of the milk and the rest of the flour.
9. Divide the mixture equally between the two cake pans and bake until the layers are lightly browned and pulling away from the sides of the pan, about 35 to 40 minutes. The tip should spring back if touched and a toothpick inserted in the cake should come back without any damp crumbs on it.
10. Set the cake pans on a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and return to the rack until cool.
For the banana filling:
1. Peel the bananas and slice each in half lengthwise.
2. Melt the butter in a large frying pan and arrange the slices on it. Cook over medium low heat until the bananas soften, about 15 minutes. Turn them over with a spatula, sprinkle with the brown sugar and fry another 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Sprinkle with lime juice and leave to cool.
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
1. Melt the butter in a small pan over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until most of the foam has settled and the butter has a cooked, but not browned, flavor. Pour the butter off into a bowl and return to the refrigerator until solid, about 10 minutes.
2. Whip the cream cheese in a mixer until quite fluffy.
3. If you have a mortar, grind the brown sugar as fine as possible. Add the brown sugar to the cream cheese and whip until the mixture looks smooth. Add the butter and beat until smooth. Add the confectioner’s sugar and beat at the lowest speed until the sugar is incorporated. Add the zest and juice of the lime and beat until smooth; you may add more zest or juice to taste.
To assemble the cake:
Set one cake layer upside down on a plate. Spread a very thin layer of frosting onto the exposed side. With a spatula, transfer the fried bananas onto the cake layer, then top it with the other cake layer, right side up. Scoop all the frosting onto the top of the cake and work down over the sides with a spatula.
Top photo: Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake. Credit: Charles Perry
Broccoli was in the spotlight at the American Institute for Cancer Research’s recent annual conference, where global scientists shared their findings on the connection between diet and cancer. Had the researchers been giving out awards, broccoli’s baby sprouts, not just broccoli, would have snatched gold.
How you prepare broccoli, though, is the key to its cancer-fighting ability, said Elizabeth Jeffery, co-chair of one of the conference’s sessions and a professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her latest research could dramatically change your culinary habits.
Queen of the crucifers
You know the stinky smell that fills your kitchen when you’re cooking broccoli? That’s because of healthy sulfur-filled compounds, which exist in all crucifers. An enzyme in crucifers — marked by that kick you get when you bite into a raw one — turns sulfurs into two cancer-fighting categories:
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– Indoles, which help break down hormones as well as target a group of genes that promote prostate cancer. (The latter finding was reported by Wayne State University scientist Fazlul Sarkar at the conference.)
– Isothiocyanates (pronounced eye-so-thigh-o-sigh-a-nates), which counteract carcinogens in general and speed up their removal from the body. (Of course, broccoli also has many more healthy compounds.)
Broccoli bears the crown of queen of the crucifers because compared with other crucifers, it contains more of a particularly important isothiocyanate called sulforaphane.
Because heat degrades the enzyme that produces sulforaphane, many food scientists, until now, have recommended we eat crucifers raw or very lightly cooked. In her recent broccoli research, however, Jeffery has developed a more sophisticated approach to maximizing sulforaphane. Her work shows that how you make the broccoli and what you pair it with are vital.
Tips on handling broccoli
To capitalize on sulforaphane, first cook broccoli lightly, Jeffery said. Steam it in a little liquid for 3 to 4 minutes until bright green, using a steamer so that it doesn’t touch the cooking liquid. Or blanch it for 20 to 30 seconds, no more. Those methods are surprisingly better than eating it raw, she said, because when the enzyme acts on broccoli’s sulfur-containing compounds, the compounds can swing either way — and get turned into sulforophanes, which fight cancer, or nitriles, which don’t. “Every molecule of nitriles formed is a sulforaphane not formed,” Jeffery said. And just a little heat will keep nitriles from forming.
To counteract the enzyme reduction caused by heating Jefferey has a second suggestion:
Eat steamed broccoli along with a little raw crucifer — arugula, watercress, a little wasabi or spicy mustard, or perhaps even better, raw red radish. (The stronger the kick, the more enzyme you’re getting.) Red radishes contain sulforaphane and don’t have the inherent ability to produce nitriles. You don’t need much, Jeffery said — just two to three radishes or a ½ teaspoon of mustard or wasabi. And you don’t have to eat them in the same bite as broccoli, just in the same meal.
Here’s the final and most liberating finding for those of us chained to our kitchens: As long as you eat raw crucifers in the same meal, you can go ahead and cook broccoli any way you want, Jeffery said. The enzymes in the raw crucifers will act on compounds in the cooked ones.
Why broccoli sprouts?
While President George H.W. Bush was banning broccoli on Air Force One back in 1990, Johns Hopkins researcher Paul Talalay was busy exploring the crucifer’s newborn sprouts. What, he wondered, was the ideal number of days needed to germinate seeds to get the best sulforaphane content as well as taste?
The answer: three days. He and his son went on to develop a side business selling young broccoli sprouts. (Talalay, now 91, still collaborates on research and goes to his lab almost every day.)
In contrast to mature broccoli, broccoli sprouts have, on average, 20 times the amount of compounds that develop into sulforaphane, said Yanyan Li, a professor of food science at Montclair State University who is studying sulforaphane. Since the 1990s, researchers have been identifying cancer stem cells in many types of cancer, and Li has recently found that sulforaphane targets breast cancer stem cells at relatively low concentrations.
How much is enough?
To obtain that level of sulforaphane, however, you’d need to eat several pounds of broccoli — or, Li suggested, just a heaping cup of raw sprouts, lightly steamed and consumed along with a few raw radishes. Sulforphane is eliminated from the body relatively quickly, she said, so “eating them three times a day would be ideal to maintain the level.”
For the average person, that’s not really feasible, she acknowledges, and scientists at the conference agreed that eating crucifers four to five times a week is a reasonable goal for most — as long as you chew the vegetables well. By breaking the cell walls, you’re releasing those pungent enzymes.
Jeffery’s lab is now comparing the sulforaphane content in common varieties of broccoli, but that research is not yet ready for prime time.
Broccoli Sprout Salad With Synergy
(Recipe courtesy of Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook)
For the dressing:
½ lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the broccoli sprout salad:
2 containers broccoli sprouts
4 red radishes, ½ thinly sliced, ½ julienned
1 handful baby arugula
½ carrot, cut into slivers with a peeler
¼ yellow pepper, finely chopped
1 orange, cut into segments as garnish
1. Combine all ingredients for the dressing and mix well.
2. Steam the sprouts until bright green, then cut off their green tops to use in the salad.
3. Arrange salad ingredients on two small plates. Spoon dressing lightly over salad.
Top photo: Broccoli sprout salad. Credit: Holly Botner / jitterycook.com