Articles in Vegetables

Pumpkin pappardelle with pumpkin and poppy seed. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Pumpkin is an ideal bland food with a distinctive taste. That’s a good thing because it means you have to do something to the pumpkin to make it palatable and delicious. Typically, pumpkin pie is a solution, but nowadays it’s going into all kinds of things from beer to cookies.

Pumpkin is a member of the Cucurbitaceae and winter squash family (its Latin binomial is Cucurbita pepo) and when it first arrived in Europe following its discovery in the New World after Columbus’ voyages it did not impress. The Sicilians, for example, thought so little of winter squash such as pumpkin, they even have a derogatory saying about it: “Sali mitticinni nà visazza conzala come vuoi è sempre cucuzza” (Add a lot of salt and seasoning because squash it always remains).

There are four basic species of Cucurbitaceae. Pumpkins or squash are easily hybridized so the range of colors and shapes is quite varied and it is difficult to tell one variety from another, resulting in many cultivars. If you are interested, a thorough and concise description of all the squashes can be found in my book “Mediterranean Vegetables.”

All that counts in this recipe is that you’ll need about 3 pounds of pumpkin flesh. The recipe calls for you to make your own pumpkin pasta and homemade ricotta cheese. That sounds hard, but it’s not. Just follow the instructions in the links.

Alternatively, use store-bought regular pappardelle with a high quality store-bought ricotta cheese. For the homemade pasta, follow the pasta-making instructions for “Homemade White Flour and Egg Pasta” in the pappardelle link below, adding 1 cup puréed and very well-drained pumpkin pulp to the mixture.

Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds

Prep time: 15 minutes, does not include making homemade pasta and ricotta

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

¾ pound pumpkin pappardelle

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

14 ounces fresh pumpkin flesh, cut into 1½ by 1½ by ¼-inch squares

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

¼ pound fresh ricotta cheese

¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. Prepare the pasta. Cut into 1-inch wide strips and let dry 4 to 24 hours. The recipe in the link will provide 1¼ pounds dried pasta. Set aside ¾ pound for this recipe and store the remainder.

2. Preheat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.

3. Add ½ tablespoon butter to the skillet and it will smoke almost immediately. Quickly lay the sliced pumpkin in the skillet and salt lightly. Let cook until golden on both sides, turning only once, about 6 minutes in all. Remove and set aside, keeping the slices warm.

4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing.

5. Transfer the pasta while still very hot to a bowl with the remaining butter and poppy seeds. Toss well then transfer to a serving platter or bowl. Top with the sliced pumpkin, 4 dollops of ricotta, and the Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.

Main photo: Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

If you are not clear exactly what Mediterranean food is, it’s actually very simple: It’s the cooking found in all the regions and provinces that have a littoral on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of that fact in a sense there is no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine because every region’s food, while tending to use the same ingredients, is strikingly different from one another. High on the list of staple Mediterranean foods are legumes.

Two Mediterranean countries famous for their legume dishes are Egypt and Greece. Here are two budget-friendly, healthy and delicious recipes that can be served in Near Eastern style, as both Greece and Egypt are considered Near Eastern countries. These dishes can be prepared as part of a larger meze or as an appetizer or side dish.

Edward William Lane tells us in his classic book “The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” first published in 1908 that many dishes prepared by the Egyptians consist wholly or for the most part of vegetables, “cabbage, purslane, spinach, bamiyeh [okra], beans, lupin, chick-pea, gourds, cut into small pieces, colocasia, lentils etc.”

Called salāṭa adas and made with tiny brown lentils slightly cooked with olive oil, garlic and spices, I had this lentil salad as a meze at the Tikka Grill, a restaurant on the corniche of Alexandria in Egypt. Although you don’t have to use freshly ground spices, you’ll find if you do, the result is a dish far fresher, more pungent and better tasting than one made with pre-ground spices. Too many home cooks keep spices far beyond their shelf life, so check the date on your jar.

Lentil Salad with Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices

Yield:6 servings

Preparation time: about 30 minutes

Ingredients

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon ground fenugreek

1 cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed well

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic and as soon as the garlic begins to sizzle remove from the burner, add the cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.

2. Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on. Drain and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad

This simple preparation called mavromakita fasolia in Greek can be made with canned black-eyed peas, as long as they are packed in only water. I prefer using dried black-eyed peas but they are not always to be found. Typically you would serve this salad as a meze, but it’s fine as a side dish too. This recipe was given to me by chef Estathios Meralis of the motor yacht M/Y Sirius out of Piraeus, Greece.

Yield: 6 servings

Preparation time: about 1 hour

Ingredients

2½ cups canned black-eyed peas (two 15-ounce cans) or 1 cup dried black-eyed peas

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste

Directions

1. If using dried black-eyed peas, boil over high heat in water to cover until tender, about 1 hour. Drain and rinse. If using canned peas, drain and rinse, then place in a bowl.

2. Toss the black-eyed peas with the scallions, garlic, dill, olive oil, pepper and salt. Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Workers make traditional Japanese miso at Great Eastern Sun in North Carolina.

Japanese miso can deliver great health benefits — and of course, everyone wants those. However, not all miso is created equal. Inexpensive miso made from low-quality ingredients through an automated process has little nutritional value and may be laden with chemicals. When you look at the traditional way of making miso, you can see why.

The most popular miso is made from rice, soybeans, salt, spring water and koji, the fermentation starter. Koji, aspergillus oryzae, is a type of mold. When mixed with steamed rice, it breaks down the carbohydrates into simple sugars. The resulting koji rice is mixed with cooked soybeans, sea salt and pure spring water. This mixture is then left in wooden barrels to ferment naturally. Dark brown miso, or aka-miso (often known as “red miso”), can take more than one year to ferment properly. During this period, the koji is assisted by hundreds of species of bacteria living in the wood of the barrels. They produce peptides and amino acids, organic acids and other nutrients, giving the miso its wonderful flavor and nutritional value.

Japan’s hot and humid summers are ideal for nurturing the proper fermentation of miso. Many years ago, I visited a friend’s miso brewery, Yamaki Jozo in Saitama Prefecture, on a sweltering summer day. The temperature was over 98 degrees F, and this in combination with the high humidity made me feel as if I were in a sauna. But the miso in the wooden vats seemed to be enjoying the day — the surface was bubbling joyfully. Billions of microorganisms in each barrel were producing nutrients and a delightful aroma. The miso must be carefully monitored during fermentation to maintain the right temperature, and stirred frequently. A worker in the fermentation room whispered to me that taking care of the miso every day was like watching his son growing up. Both need lots of attention and care for their proper growth.

But all that work pays off for the cook, because using good-quality miso produces wonderful-tasting dishes with little effort. Good miso contains lots of umami, savory flavor, enhancing all the other ingredients you use. In contrast, miso made in an automated factory substitutes artificial flavoring for the rich layers of flavor in the traditional product.

But American cooks don’t have to order a shipment of Japanese miso from abroad to get the real experience: Several American companies are now making very high quality, traditionally produced miso. On a day when I did not have time to walk 20 minutes to the Japanese food store, I discovered the American-made Miso Master brand at my neighborhood large chain supermarket in New York City. In my kitchen, this miso really surprised me. It had the quality and taste characteristics that I had long yearned for.

Japanese tradition comes to America

I was curious to find out how my favorite miso was made in America. So I headed to Great Eastern Sun, the North Carolina-based company that has been making Miso Master miso for 33 years. In 1979, when American interest in macrobiotic products was booming, John and Jan Belleme, the early partners of the company, traveled to Japan to investigate natural miso production. A small miso brewer, Takamichi Onozaki, in Yatai, a village in Tochigi Prefecture northeast of Tokyo, opened his arms and factory to the Bellemes and taught them the art of traditional miso production. Upon returning to America, they built the Great Eastern Sun factory in the village of Rutherfordton, 55 miles east of Asheville.

On my visit to the factory I found the same qualities that I had found at the miso factory in Japan: far from the city, with clean water, pure air and people who cared about producing high-quality food. Great Eastern Sun picked Rutherfordton not only because of the qualities of nature and people, but also because it sits at the same latitude as the village of Yatai in Japan.

Miso master Joe Kato with the fermentation barrels at Great Eastern Sun.

Miso master Joe Kato with the fermentation barrels at Great Eastern Sun. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

A Japanese miso master, Joe Kato, oversees production of the miso, which uses all organic and non-GMO ingredients. In the large processing room, six local American employees were working on koji rice. The rice had been steamed the day before, inoculated with koji mold and left spread on a large wooden stand in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. The workers were breaking up and turning the koji rice, which released a sweet, slightly chestnut-like fragrance. When I closed my eyes I felt as if I were standing in my friend’s miso factory in Japan. But soon the workers’ jokes and chatting in English brought me back to where I was.

Below you will find a very simple, but delicious recipe with which you can try real miso to enjoy a healthy diet. You may have had the somewhat boring typical miso soup at a Japanese restaurant, featuring wakame seaweed, tofu and scallion. This spicy kale miso soup recipe shows that you can use any seasonal vegetable from your refrigerator to make an excellent miso soup. You can find many more delicious uses for miso – dressings, marinades, sauces and more –in my book, Hiroko’s American Kitchen.”

 

Spicy Kale Miso Soup

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 8 minutes

Total time: 18 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

½ bunch kale

1 teaspoon canola oil

½ cup chopped red onion

¼ cup finely julienned ginger

¼ teaspoon toban jiang (fermented chile bean sauce) or red pepper flakes

3 cups dashi stock or low-sodium chicken stock

1½ tablespoons aged brown miso from Miso Master or other high-quality miso producer

Directions

  1. Cut off the very bottom of the hard stems of the kale, and cut the remaining kale, including the stems, into thin slices crosswise.
  2. Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium heat, and then add the onion. Cook the onions for 1 minute, stirring until they are slightly translucent. Add half of the ginger and the toban jiang, and give the mixture several stirs. Add the kale and cook, stirring, until the leaves are wilted.
  3. Pour in the stock and bring it to a simmer. Decrease the heat to low and cook, covered, for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat.
  4. Add the miso, stirring briskly with a whisk until it is dissolved.
  5. Divide the soup into small soup bowls, garnish with the remaining ginger and serve.

 Main photo: Workers tend the koji rice at Great Eastern Sun’s facility in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo 

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Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry. Credit: Maddy Crowell

A number of Chicago’s 3,000 Burmese refugees have found a place that feels like home, improbably situated in the middle of a thriving metropolis of 2.6 million people: a lush, sprawling acre of Midwestern farmland. Tucked inside an 8-foot-tall metal fence and pinched between the shadows of large brick apartment complexes, this all-organic farm gives these and other refugees a chance to do what they know best.

“Just about everybody here was a farmer back home,” says Linda Seyler, the manager of the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm. “They used the word home a lot, especially when we were building this. It’s in a ‘being resettled finally’ sense.”

AUTHOR


Maddy Crowell

Maddy Crowell is a multimedia freelance journalist who has previously reported out of Ghana and Morocco. Twitter: @madcrowell

Converted from the ruins of a candy distribution warehouse, the land was purchased by the Refugee Agricultural Partnership (an arm of the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement) from the city of Chicago for $1 (although apparently the city has yet to collect). Located in the ethnically diverse Albany Park neighborhood, it is the only refugee farm in Illinois, and one of a small handful in the United States.

Seyler says many of the urban farmers at Global Garden spent at least 20 years of their lives in refugee camps after being forced out of their home countries. “That’s 20 years in limbo,” she says. “They were not allowed to work, and everything is rationed — food, water, living space.”

With the farm, the refugees nurture a small piece of land they can call their own, rent free. For many, it’s also an escape from the chaos of the city. A hundred individual plots feed about 100 Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese and Congolese families, and anything left over can be sold at a nearby farmers market.

It’s a living amoeba of shared space, with farmers tending not only their own gardens but also their neighbors’. Some farmers push their growing season as late as November to get the last of the summer harvest.

Despite ministering to four different ethnic groups, Seyler found surprising agreement when it came to choosing which crops would kick-start the farm. “There would be one picture of some greens in the catalog, and they’d all say, ‘We like that!’ The pictures evoked something,” she says. She ordered anything they requested from a Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog.

Roselle is a sour surprise

At first, the farm was dotted with standard American crops — spinach, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, basil, thyme, sunflowers, mustard greens. Soon, however, Seyler began to notice a crop she didn’t recognize.

Chin baung, or roselle in English, announced itself in the form of red sticks poking up from the ground and appeared on the farm three years ago. A chewy, leafy, tart relative of the hibiscus family, the plant is as common in Myanmar as basil is here. Many Burmese families began searching it out as soon as they emigrated.

“My dad first ordered it from Thailand because he didn’t know there were seeds here,” explains 16-year-old Su Mon, a Burmese refugee who has spent the past seven years in Chicago. Mon sells her family’s vegetables at a local farmers market in Chicago every Saturday, including bunches of chin baung. “It’s very, very popular. Every Burmese family plants it.”

Before the Albany Park farm was founded in 2011, the Mon family stocked up on chin baung by traveling to Fort Wayne, Ind., which has a large Burmese population. Although the seeds are expensive, chin baung grows fast and stays hearty in the field a long time. It emerges as a maroon stem, and then buds into a three-leaved green leaf, edible immediately.

Known as mei qui qie in Mandarin Chinese, krajeap in Thai and asam paya in Indonesia, the plant does more than add a tangy kick: it’s full of iron, calcium, niacin, riboflavin and vitamin C, and can either be ground for tea or chopped up and added to salads. Mexicans put its red flowers in their tea for a tart Flor de Jamaica-flavored accent. Most Burmese throw the leaves on top of anything, from chicken soup to fish curry.

At the local Horner Park farmers market, one bunch of chin baung sells for $2 and is becoming popular among American customers looking to add some exotic leafy greens to their dinners. It provides a chewy complement to a lemony chicken or whitefish.

But for the Burmese, chin baung is invariably the featured ingredient of any meal. Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry, a deeply flavorful whirlwind for the taste buds — spicy and sour at the same time.

burmaman

burmaman
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A Burmese refugee sits after a long day of farming. Credit: Maddy Crowell

Chin Baung Kyaw (Fried Roselle Leaves)

Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 3 to 5 servings

Ingredients

2 bunches roselle leaves

1 tablespoon cooking oil

¼ tablespoon turmeric powder

¼ tablespoon red chili powder

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon pounded dried shrimp (optional)

1 small can of shredded bamboo shoots (not raw)

6 green chilies

Bean noodles (optional)

Directions

Prepare the roselle by breaking off the leaves at the base. Wash and drain the leaves.

Heat the oil in a frying pan.

Add turmeric, red chili powder, onion and garlic. Stir until the onion paste is golden brown.

Add the dried shrimp if using, roselle leaves, 1 tablespoon of water and stir well. Add salt if desired.

When the roselle leaves are soft, add the shredded bamboo shoots and green chilies. For extra spice, cut small slits into the chilies.

Cover and let simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a separate pan, heat up the bean noodles if using or steam rice for extra texture.

Main photo: Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry. Credit: Maddy Crowell

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Pears are the star in Rincón de Soto, Spain. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Pears and Rioja are a marriage made in Spanish heaven, but although the region of La Rioja is synonymous with wine and bull running (one ponders the connection), it also has another claim to fame. The small town of Rincón de Soto may be little more than a main plaza, modern town hall, church and railway line, but it is on the map of European culinary produce thanks to pears.

In the Rioja Baja, a gently terraced swath of fertile fields, orchards and plane trees with ever-dancing leaves, the famous vines take second place to pears, peaches, cherries, cauliflower, onions, sprouts and cardoons. The growing area is defined by a natural margin: the Ebro River that separates it from the mountains of Navarre to the north, and the craggy, Riojan hills, where a network of dinosaur footprints remains eerily well-preserved.

Protected status for pears

Pears have been grown for centuries on the riverbanks. Over the years, many trees were abandoned, but the town’s success in gaining DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status for the pears has been a big boost in maintaining the orchards.

At the annual Jornadas de Exaltacion or pear festival in late September, the pear cookery competition is always keenly contested. There is also a kids’ competition. As the tension mounts, everyone chomps on hot chorizo sausages on bread, and in the evening there are pears poached in Rioja. The party carries on into the wee hours. It’s a day, indeed, of exaltation.

In Spain, the preference is for large Conference pears, although connoisseurs favor the delicate flavor of the smaller Blanquilla.

In 1747, the latter was enjoyed at the court of Philip V, where it was described as “an exquisite fruit,” and the royal pastry cook recommended it for drying, confits or preserving in syrup. Sometimes known as a “water pear,” the Blanquilla is crisp, juicy and aromatic. As it ripens, the Blanquilla becomes highly perfumed and meltingly soft, and the bright lime-green skin takes on a reddish tinge.

Blanquilla vs. Conference pears

The Blanquilla, however, is more difficult to grow, and it nearly disappeared in the 1960s, as agriculture became more intensive. It was largely replaced by Conference pears, which have green-yellow, naturally russeted skins and buttery flesh. However, it’s the local geography and climate that give these highly prized Rincón pears their special balance of sweetness and acidity, as well as their keeping quality and texture that allows the fruit to hold up when cooked.

Pruning and picking of these varieties is still done by hand. The pears are delicate and easily bruised, and each one is picked with  care. They must be held by the base and raised upward so the stalk snaps clean from the branch. The pears are placed into padded containers to avoid damage and transported within six hours of picking to one of the local packing stations, where teams of women pack them in perfect formation. Each one a swaddled infanta, each one a perfect taste of La Rioja.

olla

olla
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Olla Gitana, a stew created for days when there was little meat for the pot, is probably vegetarian more by default than choice. It also is a good dish to serve before a juicy lamb chop or veal escalope, or as a vegetarian main course. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Olla Gitana

Olla means a tall, pot-bellied cooking pot, and this vibrant, autumnal stew probably originates with Roman travelers who arrived in Spain in the 1450s, settling mostly in Andalusia. A stew created for times when there was little meat for the pot, this dish is probably vegetarian more by default than choice. The vegetarian ethos has spread these days beyond the big cities, although in many a pueblo ham is still classed as a vegetable and they would probably regard this as a good dish to serve before a juicy lamb chop or veal escalope.

Prep Time: Overnight if you soak the beans; 30 minutes if you use canned beans.

Cook Time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 cup dried chickpeas (or 2½ cups cooked chickpeas)

1 cup dried white beans (or 2½ cups cooked beans)

2 cups chopped green beans

1 butternut squash or small pumpkin, seeded, peeled and cubed

1 medium carrot, sliced

2 firm Conference pears, peeled, cored and chopped

2 bay leaves

4 cups vegetable stock

Salt and black pepper

1 large onion, diced

¼ cup olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, diced

One small slice of stale country bread, crust cut off and fried in oil

¼ cup toasted almonds

A pinch of saffron, lightly crushed and soaked in a little hot water

3 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped

½ tablespoon pimentón de la Vera  (smoked Spanish paprika)

Chopped, fresh mint

Directions

1. Soak the chickpeas and beans overnight. Drain and put into a pot with fresh water, bring to a boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes until soft. Drain, place in a large casserole.

2. Add the green beans, pumpkin, carrots, pears, bay leaves, stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until everything is tender.

3. In a pan, fry the onion slowly in the oil for at least 15 minutes, until soft and golden.

4. Meanwhile, pound the garlic, bread, almonds, saffron and a pinch of salt in a mortar until well combined. Stir in a ladle of stock from the bean pot.

5. Add the tomatoes to the onion mixture, fry over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the pimentón to the mixture, cook for another minute. Add the onion-and-tomato mixture to the bean pot.

6. Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the contents of the mortar to the pot. Simmer a little longer; add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with mint, serve.

 

Duck Breast With Honey-Spiced Pears

The success of this dish depends on the delicate balance of sweet and savory flavors.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 duck breasts

A little olive oil

2 level tablespoons butter

¼ cup honey

3 cloves

1 tablespoon mixed peppercorns (white, green and pink)

1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half

2 ripe Conference pears, peeled, cored and halved or quartered

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt

Directions

1. Fry the duck breast in a little olive oil (15 to 20 minutes, depending on thickness and preference). Set duck breast aside to rest for 5 minutes; slice and arrange on serving plates.

2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, add the honey and spices. Cook gently for a few minutes, until the honey melts and starts to bubble.

3. Add the pears, turn gently in the butter mixture until the edges start to caramelize.

4. Add the lemon juice; salt to taste.

5. Remove the pears, arrange alongside the duck. Strain the sauce and drizzle over the duck.

Ham and Pear Parcels

Prep Time: 20 to 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 parcels

Ingredients

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons of cream, curd or ricotta cheese

¼ cup blue cheese

1 small pear, peeled and diced

A few walnuts, chopped

Black pepper

6 to 8 slices of  jamón serrano (cured Spanish ham)

Chive strands

Directions

1. Mash the soft cheese with the blue cheese.

2. Add the pear and walnuts to the cheese mixture, season with black pepper to taste.

3. Spread on slices of cured Spanish ham and roll into tubes. Tie decoratively with chives.

4. Use any surplus filling on crackers.

 

Pears Poached in Muscatel and Spices

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 whole large (or 8 small), firm Conference pears, peeled

3¼ cups Moscatel wine

A few black peppercorns

3 cloves

Juice of 1 lemon

1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half

Toasted, slivered almonds (optional)

Directions

1. Place pears in a pan just large enough to allow them to remain upright.

2. Pour wine over the pears, add all the other ingredients except for the almonds.

3. Bring the ingredients to a boil; cover, simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.

Optional, serve sprinkled with almonds.

 

Rioja Pear Cake

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cooking Time: 40 to 50 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

8 firm Conference pears

Red Rioja wine, plus sugar and cinnamon to taste

1¾ sticks butter, softened

1 cup caster sugar, plus 1 tablespoon

4 medium eggs, separated

1 generous teaspoon vanilla extract

1½ cups self-rising flour

2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

Salt

Whipped cream

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Peel and slice the pears. Place into a pan, add sugar and cinnamon to taste, and pour in enough wine to cover the fruit. Bring gently to a boil, reduce heat and lightly poach until tender. Drain the pears, saving the liquid. Set pears aside.

3. Cream the butter and sugar, beat in the yolks one by one; add the vanilla extract.

4. Add the flour, mix until well-combined.

5. Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until snowy. Carefully fold them into the cake mixture. Pour into a buttered, 9-inch-round cake pan with a removable base.

6. Arrange the pears in a neat pattern over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with the nuts and a tablespoon of sugar. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top is well risen (although it will shrink back down), and a toothpick comes out clean.

7. Reduce the wine until it is syrupy, serve with the cake and whipped cream.

Main photo: Pears are the star of a festival in Rincón de Soto, Spain. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes. Credit: Barbara Haber

I will go to any length to obtain a recipe that interests me, and this leads to an embarrassing admission. While waiting in my eye doctor’s office recently, I was thumbing through a tattered old magazine and came across a recipe for quick pecan rolls that was unusual in that the dough included not just yeast, but also baking powder and a bit of baking soda. This combination was new to me, and I had to find out if it was any good. Since the recipe went on and on, listing ingredients and directions for the topping, the filling and the glaze as well as the dough, I expedited matters by tearing out the page and slipping it into my purse.

Before doing this, I looked around because I remembered a scene in “The Sopranos” when Tony Soprano rips an article from a magazine in his psychiatrist’s office and gets caught and reprimanded by his doctor. I didn’t want that to happen to me. But I knew that I would obsess about the recipe if I didn’t have it, couldn’t wait to try it, and did so within a couple of days.

Culinary karma?

The dish required no rising, went right into the oven and came out looking beautiful. The rolls were puffed up and browned and turned out of the pan easily, showing off their topping of glistening caramelized pecans. When the rolls had cooled, I broke off a piece and could only conclude that the roll reminded me of Bisquick, and I instantly decided I would never make this recipe again. Maybe I was being punished for my crime.

A more honorable quest occurred when a cousin by marriage, who prides herself on her cooking, served me a beautiful puréed mushroom soup she said was made without cream, a happy fact to me because the dish was rich enough and full of flavor. When I requested the recipe, I was surprised and bitterly disappointed when told recipes from that household were never given out; in my book, withholding recipes is equivalent to withholding love.

But my determination to track down the dish was inflamed. I should add that this took place in an era before the Internet, so the challenge of finding the recipe was difficult. I had to operate on hunches, and my first deduction was that this cousin hadn’t invented the recipe but got it from a source more sophisticated than a folksy newspaper column or women’s magazine. Since I knew she was an avid reader of cookbooks, I went to the public library where I looked through book after book only to find puréed mushroom soup recipes loaded with cream. Undaunted, I searched until I came across Danny Meyer’s “Union Café Cookbook,” where I found a recipe billed as “Creamless Mushroom Soup.” Quivering with anticipation, I tried the dish and immediately recognized it as the recipe that would quench my intrepid search.

What Nigel Slater missed

I was reminded of this incident when reading Nigel Slater’s autobiography, “Toast,” in which he describes his prickly relationship with his stepmother and convincingly illustrates her greatest fault by telling us that she refused to give him her recipes. Instead of using cooking as a bonding technique, she veered in the opposite direction. Denying him her lemon pie recipe upset Slater most. One day when her pie was underway, the young Nigel passed nonchalantly through the kitchen, back and forth, all the while gauging what went into the pie, and jotting down the recipe when out of sight.

Recipe collecting to the rescue

Frantic people come to me for recipes, sometimes. While preparing dinner one evening, I was interrupted by a telephone call — an intrusion I hate — but it was a good friend on the line, apologetically explaining that her husband had just called to say he was bringing home a colleague for dinner. She happened to have some new red potatoes on hand, had remembered that I once served a great roasted potato dish, and could I please tell her how to make it. “What could be more important?” I answered, and happily passed on the recipe.

‘Elevator Lady Spice Cookies’

Good recipes can sometimes be found at strange times and places. I have in my files a recipe called “Elevator Lady Spice Cookies,” which I make now and then because they are moist and delicious. I tried to remember where the recipe came from without success until I reread Peg Bracken’s “I Hate to Cook Book,” a classic that is full of laughs and some surprisingly good recipes. In it, she recounts the time she gave a cookie to the woman running her office elevator only to be told, “I can sure make a better spice cookie than that.” She brought the recipe to Bracken who agreed it was better, proving to all of us that our time in elevators can be well-spent.

People not particularly interested in cooking may think the single-minded pursuit of recipes trivial or even madness, but I know better. On those days when a troubled world is too much with me, I can find a little solace in preparing a stupendous recipe I took the trouble to find.

Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 5 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds small red potatoes, scrubbed well but not peeled

4 tablespoons olive oil

10 garlic cloves peeled and coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

Directions

1. Preheat oven at 375 F.

2. Cut larger potatoes in half and leave small ones whole.

3. Using rimmed half sheet baking tin, put oil into pan and add potatoes, rotating them in oil on all sides.

4. Sprinkle chopped garlic over all of the potatoes.

5. Drizzle soy sauce over all of the potatoes.

6. Sprinkle pepper over everything.

7. Bake until potatoes are completely tender.

Main photo: Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Green tomatoes on the vine. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Anybody who grows tomatoes during the summer reaches that fall day when the weather may have cooled (though not so far in this scorching September in Southern California), the tomato plants look brown, and it’s time to decide whether or not to pull them. They may still be sporting a fair amount of fruit, but that fruit stays green. Some may blush, but they will never be juicy, sweet, red summer tomatoes.

This is the point at which I pull my browning plants, but not before harvesting the green tomatoes. I feast on the obvious: fried green tomatoes (I didn’t grow up with them, but I learned to love them during the 12 years I spent in Texas) and fried green tomato sandwiches. I even make green tomato relish and green tomato pickles like the ones I used to shun at the deli when I was a kid (I liked the dill pickles much better). But I also make the not-so-obvious: Mediterranean green tomato frittatas, pasta with green tomato pesto, and salads with green and red tomatoes that cry out for Russian dressing. One of my new favorite green tomato dishes is an amazing sweet tart. It’s an adaptation of a recipe in a cookbook by the late Bill Neal, who was renowned for his Southern cooking, and I will now be making it every fall as my tomatoes go from red to green.

Green tomatoes are not at all like red tomatoes, and they don’t resemble tomatillos, which have a much more pungent flavor and a different texture. They are hard, and they hold back their flavor until you cook them. Interestingly, their nutritional profile is not too different from ripe tomatoes, though they don’t have the antioxidant-rich lycopene present in red fruit.

Green Tomato Tart. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Green Tomato Tart. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Sweet Green Tomato Tart

This is based on a recipe by the late Bill Neal, a great Southern cook and baker. It is an unbelievable tart, and somewhat mysterious: It tastes a bit like a lemon tart, but the green tomatoes contribute texture and body, as well as their own fruity flavor; then there are the spices that are reminiscent of pumpkin pie. The original recipe is sweeter than mine, though this is plenty sweet. Neal says to blanch and peel the green tomatoes, but I found that they were very difficult to peel, so I didn’t. The peels don’t get in the way.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield:  9-inch tart, 8 servings

Ingredients

9-inch sweet pastry, fully baked

1 pound (450 grams) firm green tomatoes

3/4 cup  (165 grams) organic sugar

2 tablespoons (20 grams) flour

1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon (pinch) salt

2 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Set the tart shell on a baking sheet.
  2. Slice the tomatoes and place into a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse until roughly pureed and transfer to a fine strainer set over a bowl. Let drain for 15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, sift together the sugar, flour, ginger, cinnamon and salt.
  4. Return the tomatoes to the food processor and add the sugar mixture. Pulse until well combined. Beat the eggs and add to the processor, along with the lemon juice and zest. Pulse again until well combined. The mixture should be processed until it is a coarse puree. Pour into the baked tart shell.
  5. Bake 30 minutes in the middle of the oven, or until the filling is set. Don’t touch as the top is sticky and will adhere to your finger. Just jiggle the baking sheet gently to make sure the tart is set. Remove from the heat and cool on a rack.

Oven-Baked Green Tomato and Feta Frittata

This baked frittata has Greek overtones. It puffs in the oven, though it will deflate soon after you remove it. I prefer to serve it at room temperature. It’s a good keeper and packs well in a lunchbox. 

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 pound green tomatoes

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

9 large eggs

2 tablespoons low-fat milk

About ½ cup fine cornmeal, or a combination of flour and fine cornmeal, for dredging

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (more as needed)

2 garlic cloves, minced or pureed

2 tablespoons snipped chives

1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram

3 ounces feta, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Core the tomatoes and slice about 1/3 inch thick. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Beat the eggs and milk together in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper (I use about 1/2 teaspoon salt). Quickly dip the tomato slices into the egg mixture and dredge lightly in the flour or cornmeal. Place on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium-high heat and fry the sliced tomatoes for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, just until lightly colored. Transfer to a rack set over a sheet pan, or to paper towels. You’ll probably need to do this in batches, so you might need to add more oil before adding the second batch. Quarter half the fried tomatoes. Wipe away any cornmeal residue from the pan.
  3. Stir the garlic, chives, marjoram, feta and the quartered fried green tomatoes into the beaten eggs.
  4. Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Swirl the pan to make sure the sides are coated with oil, and pour in the eggs, scraping every last bit of the mixture out of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Tilt the pan to distribute the eggs and filling evenly over the surface and gently lift up the edges of the frittata with the spatula, to let the eggs run underneath during the first minute or two of cooking. Distribute the whole fried green tomato slices over the surface of the frittata, turn off the burner and place the pan into the preheated oven. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until puffed, set and lightly colored. Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Main photo: Green tomatoes on the vine. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

It’s the end of a long, wet and unusually cool summer in the Virginia mountains. And, to my joy, the water-logged soil yields more than the mildew spreading like talcum powder across my prolific yellow summer squash (Cucurbita pepo), also called crookneck squash.

About an hour before dinner, I pick half a dozen of the young, fresh squash — all no longer than 6 inches. Tiny hairlike spines on the broad leaves of the plant prick my fingers as I grab the first squash I see.

Mother Nature is ingenious in ensuring that species propagate by developing defense mechanisms such as strong odors or prickly thorns. With summer squash, the leaves’ spines are a good indication of freshness, which is useful when choosing produce at the supermarket. Also, this variety’s thin, fragile neck makes it somewhat difficult to ship commercially, so summer squash available at groceries have been bred to have shorter, wider “crooks” than the variety I grow in my garden.

Botanists believe squash, like the ones growing in my garden, originated in Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Food historians credit Christopher Columbus, who voyaged to the New World in 1492, with helping to spread squash to the Old World by returning with squash seeds. Images of various New World squashes started to appear in Italian paintings around 1515.

Today, almost every cuisine in the world features squash — members of the gourd (Cucurbitaceae) family — in one form or another, be it the thicker-skinned varieties like pumpkin or the thinner-skinned varieties of zucchini or opo squash.

Summer squash a Southern staple

Yellow summer squash holds a special place in the repertoire of many Southern cooks in America. There’s the popular Stewed Squash and the old standby, Pickled Squash.

But another beloved Southern dish captured my fancy years ago: Squash Casserole, a gratin-like dish. Some cooks call it Baked Squash or Squash Pudding. Most recipes include a topping made from a sleeve of crushed buttery Ritz crackers, a quick answer to the problem of not having buttery bread crumbs on hand.

A favorite side dish at Southern family reunions and other celebrations, Squash Casserole comes in about as many shapes as there are cooks who make it.

Mary Randolph, linked to the Virginia gentry as a relative of Thomas Jefferson, wrote “The Virginia Housewife” (1824), considered the first cookbook of the American South by many culinary historians. Her cookbook influenced others, such as “The Kentucky Housewife” and “The Carolina Housewife.” And, just like Randolph, I usually like to keep things simple when it comes to summer squash. Translation: I never have Ritz Crackers, or bread crumbs for that matter, on hand.

Squash dish, made simple

In one of her two recipes for squash, Winter Squash, Randolph advocates boiling it and topping it with butter, simple enough treatments. I grew up eating yellow squash boiled with big chunks of bacon thrown in, a somewhat similar recipe.

For my dinner, I cut the squashes into small cubes, salt them, leave them in a colander for about 30 minutes to drain, and then rinse off the salt and dry the cubes. After heating a small amount of olive oil at high heat in my cast-iron skillet, I cook the pieces of squash until the cut edges brown. A twist of black pepper and a dash of smoked paprika and this side dish stands up well to most main courses, meat-based or vegetarian.

In the chill of late summer nights, I long for the filling heft of a casserole. Randolph’s other squash recipe, Squash or Cimlin — cimlin or “cymling” is an old-fashioned word for pattypan squash. Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife” gives the following recipe, a somewhat close relative to modern Squash Casserole:

Gather young squashes, peel, and cut them in two; take out the seeds, and boil them till tender; out them into a colander, drain off the water, and rub them with a wooden spoon through the colander; then put them into a stew-pan, with a cupful of cream, a small piece of butter, some pepper, and salt, stew them, stirring very frequently until dry. This is the most delicate way of preparing squashes.

One interesting note: Randolph makes no mention of bacon fat in this recipe.

Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Bacon and squash, a tasty combination

One thing to remember about traditional Southern cooking is that pork, and pork fat, plays a starring role. History and circumstances dictate much of tradition when it comes to food habits. The American South is no different from France that way. Pigs fared better than cattle in the warm and humid Southern climate, fending for themselves in the forests. Pork could also be preserved better when salted and smoked as ham and bacon.

The following recipe incorporates a number of cooking techniques mentioned in “The Virginia Housewife” yet honors modern tastes and preparation methods. What remains constant is the delicate taste of the squash.

And the tang of bacon.

Yellow Squash au Gratin, Southern Style

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 side-dish servings

Ingredients

  • Butter or shortening for greasing
  • 5 to 6 cups yellow summer squash, cut into ½-inch slices
  • 4 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or light olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely minced
  • 3 tablespoons green bell pepper, finely minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
  • 1 cup grated Jack cheese
  • ¾ cup sour cream
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 1-quart, oven-proof baking dish with butter or shortening.
  2. Place the sliced squash in a medium saucepan; add water to cover. Add about ½ tablespoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Bring squash to a boil; cook for 10 minutes until just barely tender to the poke of a sharp knife. Drain squash until almost all the water is out.
  3. Put the bacon into a cast-iron skillet with the 2 tablespoons of oil. Fry until bacon is crisp. Remove bacon from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Pour out all but 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil from the skillet; sauté the onion and green pepper until lightly caramelized; add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from the skillet and mix with the bacon. Set aside.
  4. Add the onion mixture, cheese and sour cream to the hot squash; sprinkle in more salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with a flexible spatula. Scrape squash mixture into prepared baking dish and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes and then turn off heat. Serve immediately.

Notes

You may substitute zucchini for the yellow squash. Or you can combine the two if you wish.

Main photo: Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

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