Articles in Recipe

Nuka-zuke pickled vegetables

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

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

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

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

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

Vegetables in nuka-miso.

Vegetables in nuka-miso. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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

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

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

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

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

Nuka-Zuke Pickling Base

Ingredients

2 pounds rice bran

6 ounce sea salt

About 6 cups filtered water or mineral water

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

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

1 cup dried soybeans

½ cup mustard powder

One small cabbage

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

Directions

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

Nuka-Zuke Pickles

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

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

Ingredients

Vegetables

Sea salt

Nuka-miso

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Condiments set off ful medames’ earthy mash of beans

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Federman’s Ful Medames

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Cook Time: 8 minutes

Total Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 16 ounces

Serving Size: 2

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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

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Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

Though I’d been anticipating it for weeks, it was while sitting at a stoplight that the intoxicating aroma of linden flowers (Tilia spp.) first hit my nose. I jerked my head around, craning over my shoulder and peering out the windows in a desperate attempt to locate the tree whose flowers supply my favorite herbal tisane.

No doubt the people in the surrounding cars thought I was nuts. If only they knew that the tree with the fiercely fragrant flowers could provide them with a divine beverage, they too would be thrilled by the scent.

As my years as a forager roll on, I become clearer about which crops are worth my time to harvest. I try to live on wild edible plants for as much of the year as possible, no easy task in the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season where I live in Colorado.

This means I have to work hard during the short period of growth, not only to harvest my favorite plants in great enough quantity to get me through the off-season, but also to preserve those plants, whether by drying, freezing, or canning.

As my go-to beverage, linden is high atop my list of desirable wild foods. Last year, I picked and dried enough linden flowers to fill a laundry basket. It wasn’t enough. In late winter, thirsting for my favorite tea, I pillaged the linden stocks of two friends.

Fragrant foraging in the shade

Also known as basswood or lime, linden is a deciduous tree with leaves shaped like slightly crooked hearts. In my area, they are used frequently as ornamental trees, mostly likely for their fragrant flowers and generous shade. The bees are particularly fond of linden, and one can often locate the trees by the sound of buzzing bees.

When the leaves first emerge and are still tender, they can be eaten in salads and sandwiches. The flowers clusters grow along with a long pale green leaf-like structure, known as a bract. When harvesting, pinch off the bract and flower clusters of linden. Since the trees flower abundantly, it is often most efficient to grab several flower clusters, avoiding the leaves, and strip them off all at once.

As with all flowers, to maximize fragrance, and therefore flavor, it is best the harvest linden flowers in full sun. It may sound obvious, but on a hot day, by all means, stand in the shade of the tree while harvesting flowers. It will make a difference when your arms tire.

 

petty-linden2

petty-linden2
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Linden tree leaf and flower. Credit: Wendy Petty

As always, be sure to forage in the cleanest possible location. Avoid linden trees that grow alongside busy streets or in areas that might have been sprayed with chemicals.

Herbalists know that although it is gentle enough for children and seniors alike, linden is strong medicine, soothing and demulcent. Throughout the scorching growing season, I enjoy cold infusions of linden flowers, which help me to deal with the heat and stay moisturized from the inside out. By winter, the sight of delicate linden flowers floating in my teacup call to mind the long days of summer.

Turn linden into teas and cocktails

With experience as a forager, I’ve given up commercial teas in favor of my wild herbal blends. Not only does this save me money, but I have the reassurance of knowing exactly where my tea came from. I’ve also become quite skilled as a drink-maker, despite initially not knowing much about the subject.

Even though I couldn’t really sniff out a great glass of wine, and don’t know the difference between whisky and whiskey, I make amazing concoctions and cocktails that are hits both in my house and at social events. As a wildcrafter, I have the advantage of bringing truly unique flavors to any party.

If you’ve got a tasty wild edible plant on your hands, I encourage you to experiment with ways to preserve it. Infuse it into vodka, later adding sugar syrup to taste if needed. Try it in vinegar, or in a shrub, which is an aged mix of infused vinegar and sugar. Combine it with whichever fruit is in season. Dabble in making homemade bitters. This year, I’ve got an experimental batch of linden vinegar going, as well as a jar of linden and lemon balm in gin.

Whether you are new to linden or and old pro, you can’t beat classic linden tisane and honey infused with heady linden flowers.

Linden Honey

Pick off the freshest linden flowers (leaving behind stems and bracts), enough to loosely fill a jar. Pour fresh honey over the flowers, and leave them for at least three weeks in a warm place. Though there is no need to do so, if you wish to strain out the linden flowers after the honey has infused, set the linden honey in a sunny windowsill for a day, then strain out the flowers. The candied flowers can be enjoyed atop ice cream or cake. The floral-scented honey can be the genesis of myriad recipes. This recipe is so beautiful, you may want to consider making several extra jars of linden honey to use as gifts.

Cold-Infused Linden Tisane

Ingredients

1 cup loosely packed linden flowers (fresh or dried), bracts included

20 small wild rose heads (substitute one green tea bag)

½ gallon lukewarm water

Directions

1. Add the linden flowers, roses, and water to a ½ gallon mason jar. Leave the jar on a counter for 8 hours, then refrigerate it until cold.

2. Strain out the flowers, squeezing with your hands. Serve over ice, and with a drizzle of linden honey if you prefer sweet tea.

Linden Sparkler

Ingredients

½ cup cold-infused linden tisane

¼ cup white grape juice

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 ounce gin

½ cup seltzer water

Directions

Stir together all the ingredients, and serve them over ice.

Main photo: Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Open oysters ready to eat. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

In “For Your Eyes Only,” British super-spy James Bond informs us that the best things in America are chipmunks and oyster stew. We can understand oyster stew on many levels, including its aphrodisiac properties. Like Bond, a gentleman should know how to open oysters for his girl. And a girl should know how to eat the oyster.

The best oysters are those whose life is controlled by a careful balance of estuaries, temperature, salinity and water flow. Opening an oyster requires an oyster knife, of course, and then finding the hinge in the oyster where the two shell halves meet. The knife is wedged in to the little groove of the joint and rather than push hard, which often leads to injury, it is important to twist the knife until you hear the “pop” of the shell halves releasing their grip.

Most people who injure themselves opening oysters do so not with the knife but on one of the sharp edges of the oyster shell itself. Once the pop has occurred, push gently to separate the shells and run the knife around the entire edge of the oyster to separate them entirely. Then the knife is run once again to separate the oyster meat from the adductor muscle that holds it to the shell. The oyster stays in the deeper shell half rather than the flatter shell half as it will hold all the oyster juice too.

When eating raw oysters, I belong to the school of thought that only a few drops of lemon juice are required, and it is best to serve them cold, ideally on ice. Oyster opening and eating is a messy affair and one done without utensils. Once the oyster is opened there’s all manner of ways of serving or cooking it from dipped into a mignonette to baked with a topping to deep-fried. However, the purest way to eat an oyster is to open one and eat it raw.

Advice varies about the proper way to eat an oyster, but the idea that you don’t chew and just let them slide down your throat doesn’t seem right to me. If you do that, I don’t believe you’re tasting anything. The whole point to taste is that you masticate.

The oyster shell with its oyster and liquor is used as the vehicle to bring the oyster to your mouth and you do indeed slide the oyster into your mouth. Then take a couple of bites and, in the words of one poet, you tickle the oyster to death.

The first oysters opened go to the lady friend, and then the shucker slides one down for himself.

Main photo: Open oysters ready to eat. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Big Bowl with Quinoa, Roasted Beets, Beet Greens and Garlic Yogurt. Credit: Laurie Smith

There’s something incredibly comforting about a meal in a bowl. Noodle bowls — ramen, soba, phô — are familiar to most people these days, and I love these meals. But lately I’ve been focused on another type of meal in a bowl that isn’t a soup.

I call them “big bowls.” The ones that I make are vegetarian, though there is always room for meat in a big bowl.

Each element of a big bowl is itself a side dish, but when you combine everything, the sum of the parts is a main dish. The first layer is always a bed of cooked whole grains that serves as a vehicle for a delectable vegetable or vegetable and bean dish. The vegetables and/or beans are in turn garnished with something flavorful — a salsa, pungent garlic yogurt, a spice mix like dukkah, fresh herbs or robust cheeses. You can also add nuts for texture and flavor. I supplement many of my vegetarian big bowls — the ones that don’t include beans — with proteins like poached eggs or marinated oven-baked tofu.

Big bowls suit families. You can mix and match grains and vegetable toppings, depending on your family’s preferences. The kids can eat each element separately, as kids are wont to do. Most of the elements in my big bowls are dishes that can be prepared ahead, so that the actual work is just a question of composing the bowls when you’re ready to eat. Cooked grains, for example, will keep for three days in the refrigerator (at least), as will bean dishes (always better the day after you make them). Baked marinated tofu is great for a week, if you can resist eating it all at once. This means you can be a weekend cook and still make wonderful, filling weeknight meals.

Big Bowl With Quinoa, Roasted Beets, Beet Greens, Garlic Yogurt and Walnuts or Dukkah

A great summer dish that’s good hot or at room temperature. I like beets and greens with lighter grains like bulgur or quinoa, but I wouldn’t say no to just about any grain topped with this Greek favorite.

Prep time: 20 minutes (can prep and cook some elements while beets are roasting)

Cooking time: 45 minutes to 1 hour

Total time: About 1 hour 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3 to 4 cups cooked quinoa (to taste)

Roasted beets with wilted greens (recipes below) 

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, parsley or mint

Juice of 1 lemon (more or less to taste)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Garlic yogurt (recipe below)

3 tablespoons chopped walnuts or 2 tablespoons dukkah (recipe below)

Directions

1. Spoon quinoa into wide or deep bowls.

2. Top with the roasted beets (diced and seasoned with half the herbs and lemon juice to taste) and wilted beet greens.

3. Drizzle olive oil over the vegetables.

4. Top with garlic yogurt.

5. Sprinkle dukkah or chopped walnuts and remaining chopped herbs over the yogurt.

Roasted Beets

Ingredients

2 bunches of beets with generous greens (2 different color beets if possible)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 425 F.

2. Cut the greens away from the beets, leaving about ¼ inch of stems. Scrub the beets and place in a baking dish or lidded ovenproof casserole.

3. Add ¼ to ½ inch of water to the dish. Cover tightly. Place in the oven and roast small beets (3 ounces/100 g or less) for 30 to 40 minutes, medium beets (4 to 6 ounces/115 to 180 g) 40 to 45 minutes, and large beets (8 ounces/225 g) 50 to 60 minutes, until easily penetrated with the tip of a knife. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the covered baking dish. Cut away the ends and slip off the skins when ready to use.

4. Dice the beets, toss with half the chopped fresh herbs and lemon juice to taste, and set aside.

Advance preparation: Unpeeled roasted beets keep well in the refrigerator for up to five days, even a week.

Seasoned Wilted Greens

Ingredients

1 or 2 bunches beet greens, stemmed and washed in 2 changes of water

1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions

1. Wilt the greens by blanching or steaming for about 1 minute. Shock in cold water. Drain and squeeze out excess water, a handful of wilted greens at a time. Chop medium-fine.

2. Heat olive oil in a skillet, add garlic and as soon as garlic is fragrant, add greens and salt and pepper to taste. Stir greens in olive oil for about a minute, until infused with olive oil, and garlic. Remove from heat.

Advance preparation: Wilted greens will keep for three or four days in the refrigerator in a covered bowl and freeze well for a month or two. Wilted seasoned greens will keep for two or three days but the fresher they are the better.

Garlic Yogurt

Ingredients

1 to 2 plump garlic cloves

Salt

1 to 2 cups drained or Greek yogurt

Directions

1. Mash the garlic, cut in half with green shoots removed, with ¼ teaspoon salt to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Stir into the yogurt.

Advance preparation: Don’t do this too far in advance. The garlic will become more pungent and eventually it will taste acrid.

Dukkah

This Middle Eastern nut and spice mix has become a staple in my home. I sprinkle it on all sorts of vegetable preparations, on yogurt, sometimes just into the palm of my hand to eat as a snack. In the Middle East, bread and raw vegetables are dipped in olive oil and then dipped into or sprinkled with dukkah. It goes hand in hand with drained yogurt. The mix has many variations, differing from cook to cook and country to country in the Middle East.

Yield: About 1¼ cups

Ingredients

½ cup lightly toasted unsalted peanuts, almonds or hazelnuts (or a combination)

¼ cup lightly toasted sesame seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

2 teaspoons nigella seeds

1 teaspoon ground sumac

½ teaspoon kosher salt or coarse see salt (or to taste)

Directions 

1. Chop the nuts very fine. Mix with the toasted sesame seeds in a bowl.

2. In a dry skillet lightly toast the coriander seeds just until fragrant and immediately transfer to a spice mill and allow to cool.

3. In the same skillet toast the cumin seeds just until fragrant and transfer to the spice mill. Allow to cool.

4. When the spices have cooled, grind and add to the nuts and sesame seeds. Add the nigella seeds, sumac and salt and mix together.

Advance preparation: Dukkah will keep for at least a month in a jar if you keep it in the freezer.

Main photo: Big Bowl with Quinoa, Roasted Beets, Beet Greens and Garlic Yogurt. Credit: Laurie Smith

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Chef Regina Charboneau's new book about Mississippi River cuisines includes the recipe for her legendary biscuits. Credit: Brooke Jackson

In Julia Reed’s foreword for “Mississippi Current,” the new book by chef and restaurateur Regina Charboneau, she tells how she visits Charboneau’s Southern home to get doses of “biscuit love.” It’s an apt metaphor for the chef’s graciousness and hospitality, which she conveys, in part, through her croissant-influenced biscuits. If that sounds like an unlikely fusion, think again, for “Mississippi Current” gently merges the many culinary cultures found along the mighty river’s path.

One of Charboneau’s roles is culinary director of the American Queen, a luxury paddleboat that sails the Mississippi. When I asked her recently about her inspiration for the book, she said, “It was a confluence of my experience growing up in Natchez, traveling along the river with the American Queen and time spent with my husband in his hometown of Minneapolis. The American Queen played a huge role, as I was introduced to so many towns and stops along the river all with different cuisines and menu staples.”

Each chapter represents a gastronomic region along the Mississippi with recipes laid out as menus for different meals. The journey begins at the headwaters in Minnesota. The river’s culinary melting pot includes Native American, European, Jewish, African-American and Vietnamese cuisines, using ingredients that include wild rice, corn, lemongrass, cabbage, specialty greens and herbs. Her menus feature pork bánh mì style sandwiches, pirogi made with bacon and sweet potatoes, fried walleye, and wild rice and corn fritters — to name just a few.

Next stop is “Twain Country,” which encompasses Missouri down to where the Arkansas River meets the Mississippi. Beyond the history and heritage of Mark Twain, French, German, Irish, Italian and, most recently, Bosnian influences help define the area. Ingredients such as black walnuts, figs, catfish and locally produced Missouri wine find their way into recipes with Charboneau’s signature touch. The inspired dishes in this chapter include a jazz brunch featuring Eggs Sardou, black walnut cake with brandied plum sauce, and toasted ravioli — a St. Louis classic.

In the lower Mississippi area, stretching from Memphis into the Louisiana bayou, dishes include ingredients such as shellfish, cornmeal for bread and tamales, pork, bacon and grits. Oh, and bourbon, lots of bourbon. You can almost feel the soft breeze off the river reading through the menus with names like “Blessing of the Fleet Lunch” and “Gulf Seafood Dinner.”

A native Southerner with French training

Charboneau’s background as a native Southerner influences her dishes as does her French training in the kitchen. “Most are inspired by classic recipes and the agriculture of each region of the river,” she said. “But I brought in modern and personal twists to all of the recipes. For example, deviled eggs, a Delta tradition, have my personal and nontraditional touch by adding the crab meat and wasabi caviar.”

This style carries over into the cocktails and use of bourbon, Herbsaint and other types of alcohol throughout the book. A classic New Orleans Ramos Fizz is updated using Magellan gin flavored with iris and rosewater, bourbon is infused with figs and used to make a classic sidecar, Herbsaint shows up in hollandaise and a martini is enlivened with limoncello.

Asked for her favorite recipe in “Mississippi Current,” she said, “The sweet potato pirogi is one because it is the epitome of what I have tried to do with the book: taking something traditional and experimenting with the ingredients to make something that feels simultaneously old and new. The shrimp and smoked tomato cream over savory grits because it is the way I cook and a tradition in my own home for friends and guests. It feels like the dish is catching up in popularity to my biscuits!”

Her biscuits are legendary, layered with a pound of butter and margarine making each bite puffy, flaky and crisp. The dough is barely mixed so that big lumps of margarine get incorporated by folding and rolling, similar to the French lacquered doughs of croissant and puff pastry. She shares the recipe in the book with copious notes about her technique. The dough is frozen after being cut in biscuit shapes, a step that Charboneau said is crucial to the flakiness of the final product.

Charboneau frequently says Mississippi River water runs through her veins. In “Mississippi Current” she shares her passion for the history, culture, heritage and food of the regions along the banks of that mighty river.

Regina's butter biscuits. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Baking the croissant-influenced biscuits in muffin tins helps keep their shape with perfect crispness on the bottom. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Regina's Butter Biscuits

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 3 hours

Yield: Makes about 2 dozen large

Serving Size: Start with one biscuit

Ingredients

  • 4 cups flour
  • ¼ cup baking powder
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1½ cups (3 sticks) salted margarine, chilled and cut in ½” cubes
  • ½ cup (1 stick) salted butter, chilled and cut in ½” cubes
  • 1¾ cups buttermilk, chilled

Directions

  1. Put the flour, baking powder and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Turn the machine on low and blend the dry ingredients for 15 seconds.
  2. Add the magarine and butter cubes and the buttermilk to the flour mixture before turning on the mixer. Turn the mixer on medium and count to 10. This goes very quickly; the key is to not overmix the dough. There will be large chunks the size of quarters of butter and margarine in the dough. That’s just how it should be. Don’t mix it any more. Once the dough is rolled and folded, it will become smooth.
  3. Scrape the dough from the bowl onto a generously floured work surface and shape into a rectangle about 2 inches thick. Fold the dough into thirds and with a rolling pin, roll the dough out to a 2 inch thickness. Fold it again into thirds, give the dough a quarter turn, and roll it out again to a 2 inch thickness. Continue folding, turning and rolling the dough until it is smooth and the dough has yellow ribbons of butter and margarine. This is a sign that the biscuits will be flaky.
  4. Roll the dough to 1½ inch thickness. Using a 2 inch biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds. When rerolling the dough, gently stack it to retain the layers. Do not overwork the dough.
  5. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the biscuits to plastic bags. The unbaked biscuits can be frozen for two months.
  6. To bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Place however many frozen biscuits you want to serve in the cups of muffin tins. Let thaw in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Bake until golden brown, 23-25 minutes. Serve right out of the oven – biscuits are best freshly baked. Baking them in muffin tins is key as it helps the biscuits keep their shape and get the perfect crispness on the bottom.

Main photo: Chef Regina Charboneau’s new book about Mississippi River cuisines includes the recipe for her legendary biscuits. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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I am a potato salad snob. It all dates to summers as a kid. Those lazy days when life was more casual, the rules  less rigid. Our family spent the summers at our lake house. Mom and Nana seemed more relaxed and so were our meals. Dad was working during the week, so we were pretty much the women and the kids.

Our summer house was modest. I remember the kitchen with its Formica cabinets and white Formica countertops trimmed with red. I thought they were so stylish. But it was the harvest gold range with electric burners that held a particular fascination. I loved watching the coils heat up and playing with the buttons to figure out how many coils lit up when I pressed low versus the all-red of high.

I always saddled up to my grandmother during most of the cooking that happened on that electric range — from her zucchini fritters to her awesome potato salad. That potato salad was a giant mound of creamy comfort. The perfect side to a burger, hot dog or grilled chicken. In fact I preferred it all by itself. As my main course.

Nana would wash the potatoes with the brush reserved just for washing potatoes. I, of course, have continued this tradition and keel over with laughter when someone tries to use it to clean dishes. My reaction, with a giggle is always, “Didn’t you wash your potatoes with a specially reserved brush?” I realize that these wonderful quirky methods create the rich tapestry of our heirloom memories.

A potato salad for any variety

I couldn’t tell you whether the potatoes were red bliss, Yukon Golds, russets or other. They were just potatoes. She put them into the pot, covered them with water, brought them to a boil and then asked me to poke them to see whether they were done. I stabbed away, fishing for the ones at the bottom and trying to have them swap places with the ones on the top. Once done, we drained the water and then rinsed the potatoes in cold water in the colander. I was able to scrape the skins off with just my fingers. This is where I began to truly understand the game of hot potato.

Nana cut up most of the potatoes, leaving a few to be mashed. She used the typical ingredients — onions, celery, salt, pepper, mayo. But her two secret ingredients were sweet pickle juice and hard-boiled eggs. Come to think of it, it’s what made her tuna salad amazing as well.

Nana was always about the presentation. She sliced a red or green pepper and saved a boiled egg to slice on the top. The final step was always four or five taps of the paprika can, and the best summer side dish in the world was ready. You could eat it warm or cold or, in my case, both ways. To this day I snub most other potato salads because nothing lives up to Nana’s creamy potato salad.

Nana's Creamy Potato Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Nana and Mom always made the best potato salad. Not surprisingly, there was no recipe. They just knew what to do and made it sort of the same every time. The basic ingredients were potatoes, eggs, onions, celery, parsley, mayo and the secret ingredient pickles, pickle juice or relish, depending on what was on hand. I have re-created it with this recipe. My stepson says it's like a creamy, yummy potato-egg salad. Success! Another generation experiences the love and memories that this side dish brings forward.

Ingredients

  • 5 pounds of organic potatoes
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • ½ cup pickle juice
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 5 to 6 hard-boiled egg yolks
  • 1 sweet onion, chopped
  • 3 to 4 celery stalks, chopped
  • ¼ cup parsley,chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Paprika for garnish
  • Pickle slices, pepper strips and hard-boiled egg rounds for garnish

Directions

  1. Place whole potatoes into a pot. Cover with water and boil for 20 to 30 minutes until soft. Drain and run cold water over them. Peel and place into a bowl.
  2. "Mash" them lightly so you have a combo of potato chunks and mashed potatoes. Add onions, celery and parsley.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the mayo, pickle juice, sugar and mustard. Pour over potato mixture until well coated. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Mash the egg yolks and add to the potato salad until well incorporated.
  5. Sprinkle with paprika and garnish any way you'd like.

Main photo: Nana’s Creamy Potato Salad. Credit: Carole Murko

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Worth the trouble: a pizza-sized s’more. Credit: Charles Perry

The invention of the s’more was a landmark in American culinary history, comparable to the equally simple and classic root beer float. Neither s’mores nor floats can really be improved.

But the s’more can be made bigger, lots bigger, as you might want to do as a salute to the return of camping season. This isn’t the sort of s’more you make over a campfire; it’s definitely more of a s’more on the scale of a pizza, made (but not cooked) on a pizza stone. It is a bit of trouble to make — you have to start it the day before and you need a good thermometer — but your guests will be amazed.

The best part is, you may very well have all the ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator right now. The main things you need are unflavored gelatin, graham crackers, bittersweet chocolate and cream.

It’s very similar to marshmallow pie with chocolate ganache frosting, which was really conceived of as a plus-size Mallomar rather than any variety of s’more. The pizza shape results in a higher proportion of frosting and crust to filling — in particular, there’s more of the graham crust, with its toasty, buttery aroma and cinnamon perfume. The filling is still that incomparably creamy homemade marshmallow, which does not need to be melted to be luscious.

The traditional s’more (and Mallomar) filling has a vanilla flavor, but you might want to try coffee liqueur instead. Of course, that would technically make it a … s’mocha.

Let me call your attention to National S’mores Day, which is coming up on Aug. 10. Study this recipe (and marshmallow pie too). You have plenty of time to practice.

Oh, I know! Put fresh marshmallow on them and dip them in ganache! What to call them, I wonder? S’lesses?

S’mores alla Pizza

Prep Time: 5 hours

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 5 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: Serves 16

Ingredients

    For the crust
  • 20 graham crackers, 9½-10 ounces
  • 4 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Optional: dash nutmeg
  • 5 ounces butter, melted
  • For the filling
  • 1 cup water (half for step 1, half for step 3)
  • 2 (1-tablespoon) packets unflavored gelatin
  • ½ cup light corn syrup
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract or coffee liqueur
  • For the ganache frosting
  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 8 ounces cream

Directions

    For the crust (prep time: 1 minute; cook time: none; total time: 30 minutes)
  1. Break up the crackers and put them with the sugar and cinnamon (and nutmeg, if using) into a food processor. Process until fine, about 20 seconds. Pour in the melted butter and pulse about 10 times, until just amalgamated.
  2. Pour the crumbs onto a 12- or 13-inch pizza stone (the cheap metal kind with a rim actually works fine for this) and spread with your fingers almost to the edge. Crimp a low pizza-type rim around the edge between the edges of your hands and flatten the center with your palms. Refrigerate at least half an hour before filling.
  3. For the filling (prep time: 20-25 minutes; cook time: 10 minutes; total time: 5 hours)
  4. Put ½ cup water in a mixing bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer and sprinkle 2 packets of gelatin over the surface. Allow the gelatin to sit until it forms a rubbery mass, about 5 minutes, then set the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Leave without stirring until the gelatin is entirely dissolved (no floating layer), 10 to 15 minutes.
  5. Remove the bowl from the saucepan and set aside until cool, 10 minutes. Return the mixer bowl to the mixer (if you have used a mixing bowl to dissolve the gelatin, scrape the gelatin into the bowl of a mixer) and whip the dissolved gelatin, as if it were egg whites, for 1 minute.
  6. In a small saucepan, mix the corn syrup, sugar and remaining ½ cup water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium and place a lid on the saucepan for 3 minutes so that steam can wash any sugar crystals off the walls.
  7. Remove the lid, raise the heat to high and insert a thermometer probe into the syrup. When it reaches 238 F, about 10 minutes from the start of cooking (the sign is that if a bit of syrup is dropped into cold water, it forms a firm ball), pour the syrup into the gelatin, scraping out all the syrup you can with a spatula. Beat on high until the temperature of the mixture is just warm, 20-25 minutes.
  8. Beat in the vanilla or other flavoring and scrape the warm marshmallow onto the pizza crust. With a spatula, working carefully but without wasting time, spread it over the surface as evenly as possible, making the center slightly lower than the edges. Return the pizza stone to the refrigerator and refrigerate 4 hours to overnight.
  9. For the ganache frosting (prep time: less than 1 minute; cook time: 5 minutes; total time: 1 hour, 6 minutes)
  10. Chop the chocolate into small pieces, put into a food processor and process to the consistency of coarse sand.
  11. Put the cream in a small pan or saucepan and bring to a full boil. Pour the hot cream onto the chocolate and process until smooth, 10-15 seconds. Spoon onto the marshmallow with a spatula fairly close to the edge, allowing drips here and there. Refrigerate until the ganache hardens, at least 1 hour.
  12. To serve, cut the “pizza” into wedges with a warmed sharp knife or a pizza cutter. Slide a warmed knife or pie server under the slice and carefully remove it.

Notes

Monroe Boston Strause, who invented the graham cracker crust in the 1920s for his famous Black Bottom pie, wrote that you can make the crust stiffer by adding 2 tablespoons water and 5 teaspoons corn syrup to the graham crackers and baking it at 425 F for 5 minutes. I’ve never tried this, because, frankly, I like a crumbly crust, but if you want a stiffer crust, that’s what Strause said, and he was nationally known as the Pie Man in his day.

These days Nabisco is marketing its graham crackers in a box with three packets of nine crackers each, but I think this crust needs a total of 20, so you’ll have to think of some use for the remaining seven crackers.

Main photo: A pizza-sized s’more. Credit: Charles Perry

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