Articles in Vegetables

Brassica rapa at the Palo del Colle market in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Summer has yet to deliver its full range of vegetables, but one stalwart crop that keeps on giving is Brassica rapa (from rapum, Latin for “turnip”). Brimming with flavor, this vegetable is known variously in its native Italy as cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), broccoletti di rape or just rape (pronounced räp’-eh), rapi, rappini, friarielli, vrucculi and a gaggle of other aliases, depending on local dialects.

And as “if this is not confusing enough,” says Daniel Nagengast — who imports 700 different heritage seeds to the United States for his company Seeds from Italy — “there are perhaps 15 different cime varieties in southern Italy, and I keep on finding more.” Each has its own physical characteristics, growing patterns and flavor nuances. But what they all have in common is a bold, seductive bitterness in their raw state, not to mention a powerful nutritional profile.

Cime di rapa varieties in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for  Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Cime di rapa varieties in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Old varieties are new again

Although most Americans are familiar only with the tidy, commercially grown bunches sold in supermarkets under the name of “broccoli rabe” (a debased form of Italian native speakers prickle at), small-scale farmers around the country are creating a new awareness of Brassica rapa’s formidable culinary powers. A wide range of varieties are  popping up in local farmers markets and CSAs, and chefs are demanding heirloom types whose flavors recall the earth they are grown in. “San Francisco and New York high-end restaurants start the trends,” says Nagengast, explaining why he is crisscrossing southern Italy in search of variants unknown outside their native environment. “Then it takes off.” The idea is that savvy home cooks, like chefs, will seek them out for the same reasons they do certain wines and cheeses: distinctive terroir. Several of Nagengast’s transplanted seeds have been sown by Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, who grows them to be served at James Beard award-winning chef Dan Barber’s groundbreaking restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Boiled rapini are flavored with the delicious drippings of porchetta at Mozzarella e Vino in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Boiled rapini are flavored with the delicious drippings of porchetta at Mozzarella e Vino in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The old familiar ways with rapini

As much as the vegetable intrigues people, the extent of most Americans’ experience with Brassica rapa is as a side dish cooked with olive oil and garlic. Properly, this basic preparation involves parboiling the greens before sautéing them. First, peel the stems as you would asparagus legs to ensure that they cook at the same rate as the tops. Next, parboil them for two minutes — just long enough to bring out their sweet overtones. Then drain them, saving some of the cooking water. From here, you’ll sauté them with good olive oil, garlic and (optionally) chili flakes, moistening them with a little of the water you have set aside. (You could also change up the recipe by substituting onion and bacon for the garlic and hot pepper, the way Southern cooks make collards, kale and other field greens.) Now you can eat them as is or use them as directed in the recipes that follow.

Chef Viola Buitioni’s garlicky Umbrian "rapi e patate." Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Chef Viola Buitioni’s garlicky Umbrian “rapi e patate.” Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini and potatoes

For a more complex side dish, combine your garlicky sautéed greens with other vegetables: sautéed cime di rapa alongside a puree of fava beans, or ‘ncapriata, is food of legend in Puglia, brought together with the magic of high-quality olive oil. Chickpeas or white beans also make delicious and nutritious purees for the greens. Probably one of the happiest vegetarian marriages is between rapini and richly flavored potatoes such as Yellow Finns, Yukon Golds or fingerlings. I like chef Viola Buitoni’s way of tossing her sautéed greens with crisply fried tubers, an Umbrian-style dish she calls rapi e patate. If the greens are the feisty part of the couple, the potatoes are the sweet-tempered half.

Whole-wheat gemelli with rapini, bacon and chickpeas, which are creamier if you peel the skins off first. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Whole-wheat gemelli with rapini, bacon and chickpeas, which are creamier if you peel the skins off first. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Not just a side dish

In Puglia, it is common to cook the greens simultaneously with pasta in the same pot and, after draining, tossing them quickly together in olive oil flavored with garlic. Per the Italian tradition whereby meat is a second course, sausages might follow; but for a one-dish variation, I sometimes add warmed, crushed anise seeds and crumbled sausage to the pasta and greens. And there are so many other ways to dish out rapini and pasta. For instance, you can toss your garlicky sautéed greens together with diced bacon, chickpeas and just-cooked short pasta in a wide skillet; I like to use whole-wheat gemelli (“twins”) or penne imported from Italy. Be sure to save some of the hot pasta cooking water; combined with the olive oil and juices from the prepared rapini, it forms a sauce. Pass a cruet of your best olive oil at the table for finishing.

Imported Italian linguine with shrimp, Brassica rapa and hot pepper, inspired by a Venetian dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Imported Italian linguine with shrimp, Brassica rapa and hot pepper, inspired by a Venetian dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini and seafood

Or consider seafood. The Venetians have a particular fondness for the charms of bitter ingredients, including cime di rapa (to use their term); surrounded by water as they are, they often combine the vegetables they cultivate on the lagoon islands with their Adriatic catch. Here is a heavenly dish I ate in a trattoria some years ago on the little island of Burano. It was originally made with fresh tagiolini and a local species of prawn called cannocchie, but it is just as good with linguine and shrimp (or other types of fresh seafood, such as clams or scallops). Start by parboiling your rapini (save the cooking water) and sautéeing the shrimp in fragrant olive oil with garlic and red pepper in a skillet wide enough to accommodate the pasta later. As soon as the shellfish is lightly colored, add dry white wine and let simmer gently for a minute or two, until the alcohol evaporates. Finally, toss in the rapini, cover the pan and turn off the heat. In the meantime, cook the linguine in the reserved cooking water. Drain, again reserving a little of the water, and add the pasta to the skillet. Toss the ingredients together gently, moistening them with a little pasta water if necessary.

Rosa Ross’s stir-fried beef and rapini in place of the traditional "gai lan," Chinese flowering broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rosa Ross’s stir-fried beef and rapini in place of the traditional “gai lan,” Chinese flowering broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

When bitter is sweet: An Asian spin

Author Jennifer McLagan has devoted an entire book to explaining why a taste for bitterness is the hallmark of discerning cooks and educated eaters. “Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity,” she writes in “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes.” I rather like the gentle Chinese way of describing the yin-yang perfection achieved when balancing bitter, salty or sour flavors (yin) with sweet and spicy ones (yang).

“We love bitter melon and flowering mustard greens and things like that,” says Hong Kong-born American chef Rosa Ross, author of “Beyond Bok Choy: A Cook’s Guide to Asian Vegetables” and other Chinese cookbooks. So, for example, in the original Chinese version of the dish Americans known as beef with broccoli, the bitter green called gai lan must be used — but “when I can’t find it here, I substitute Italian bitter broccoli,” Ross says.

Pizza topped with sweet fennel pork sausage, sautéed rapini, cacio Romano (soft Roman sheep’s cheese) and serrano pepper. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Pizza topped with sweet fennel pork sausage, sautéed rapini, cacio Romano (soft Roman sheep’s cheese) and serrano pepper. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Pizzas and pockets

Many pizzerias offer pies spread with vegetables — but they can be more alluring to the eye than they are tasty. A pizza topped with rapini, sausage and tangy cheese is a different, flavor-packed story. To make it, start by preparing your own dough; while it rises, parboil and sauté the greens per our basic recipe and, separately, sauté some crumbled sausage. Spread them both over the dough before baking; scatter cheese on top only in the last few minutes of baking to prevent it from burning. (Mozzarella is too bland in this case, so best to use a young, melting sheep’s cheese or soft Asiago fresco.) You can use the same ingredients as filling for calzones.

Rapini pie with an American-style crust makes for a twist on Italian tradition. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini pie with an American-style crust makes for a twist on Italian tradition. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini pie

On a similar theme, last spring I created a new interpretation of the traditional torta pasqualina (“Easter pie”), a savory pastry made of strudel-like dough filled with spring greens such as chard or spinach. Once again, I used an American-style pie crust because I love its structure and crumb — and I also substituted rapini in the filling, mixing them with egg and freshly grated Parmigiano to yield astonishingly good results. They have so much flavor that no additional ingredients are needed, save salt and pepper. Along with a side dish or two, this pie is substantial enough for a dinner; it can also be cut into smaller servings for an appetizer. I’ve been known to improvise with good frozen puff pastry as well, using the same filling to make small hand pies.

Imported fusilli with rapini pesto, almond shards and pecorino Toscano. Fusilli are exceptionally suitable because the coils trap the pesto. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Imported fusilli with rapini pesto, almond shards and pecorino Toscano. Fusilli are exceptionally suitable because the coils trap the pesto. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Purees and pesto

We are nearly there, dear reader, but how can we overlook transforming these mighty greens into a purée for eating as is or making into a sauce? If you will first peel the skin from the stalks, you will prevent its fibrous texture from getting in the way of a silky creamed side dish or a velvety pesto. Then cut the stalks into several pieces to make them easier to work with and boil them, along with the leaves and buds, for at least seven minutes. Be sure to drain the greens well before pureeing them in a food processor with a little softened butter or good olive oil. You can eat them just as they are, creamy and hot, seasoned with another dab of butter or dribble of olive oil, plus a touch of coarse sea salt — they’re as good as creamed spinach, even without the roux.

Or, for a gorgeous and delicious alternative to the ubiquitous basil pesto, blend the purée with a touch of garlic; grated, aged sheep’s cheese or Parmigiano; and a little olive oil — because the cooked stems are full-bodied and naturally creamy, you’ll find it unnecessary to use as much oil as many pestos call for. You can also include pine nuts or almonds if you’d like. Like its basil counterpart, rapini pesto should accompany pasta cuts sturdy enough to carry it — linguine, bucatini, medium macaroni, potato gnocchi — or you can stir it into minestrone.

Rapini butter stirred into alphabet pasta makes ideal baby food. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini butter stirred into alphabet pasta makes ideal baby food. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Back to the beginning

It’s only too well-known that a preponderance of American children and adults alike hate vegetables — a fact that people in other parts of the temperate world find puzzling, especially as plants are the very stuff that humans most need for proper nourishment. I could write a book exploring the reasons for this, but consider just one for a moment. Although the theory that children need bland foods until they are old enough to handle more intense flavors is bandied about in credulous circles, experts tell us that the taste for particular foods is developed in infancy. The fare we are fed as children — whether it is good or not — is what we crave as adults. Pastina (“miniature pasta”) with butter is an Italian baby’s first solid food, revisited in adulthood whenever comfort food is in order. When my children were babies, I stirred rapini puree and butter into pastina for them, and they loved it. (Like any pasta, pastina tastes best served piping hot immediately after cooking — but naturally, it should be cooled down to warm for babies.) This is an ideal way to develop an infant’s taste for these miraculously healthful greens.

Main photo: Brassica rapa at the Palo del Colle market in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciding on a size

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pressure Cooker Porcini Wild Rice

Prep time: 45 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup wild rice

1/2 ounce dried porcini, crumbled

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

1 bay leaf

Pinch of salt

3 cups water

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carrots can pair nicely with traditional Middle Eastern flavors. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto

Here’s a vegetarian idea — carrots with tahini. Think hummus, only with the mild sweetness (and vitamin A) of carrots.

The Middle East has an ancient tradition of meatless dishes. As the 13th-century cookbook “The Description of Familiar Foods” shows, Christians in the Arab world approached Lenten cuisine differently than did the Europeans, replacing red meat not with fish (since the eastern Mediterranean is relatively fish-poor) nor with almonds (which probably didn’t have the same luxury appeal as they had for, say, the French, since one might have an almond tree of one’s own in the backyard). Instead, they mimicked the richness of meat by stewing vegetables long and slow with oil. This tradition survives in Turkey as a class of dishes called yağlı yemekler, and it eventually entered French cuisine under the name légumes à la grecque.

Some of the fast-day recipes in “The Description” use sesame oil rather than olive oil, and this gave me the idea of replacing the meat with sesame paste, better known as tahini. You want heft and meatiness? Tahini can handle that, as any hummus eater knows. (But as any hummus cook knows, tahini separates easily and must be thoroughly stirred up before use.)

Here are two versions of my idea. The first is modern in style; in effect, it’s hummus made with carrots instead of chickpeas. It’s bright and savory and has a charming salmon color. The other gets its exotic, intoxicating sweet-sour flavor from honey, vinegar and sweet spices. It’s based on the medieval dish sikbâj, which was always flavored with vinegar and saffron, whatever other ingredients it might contain. In the late Middle Ages it traveled to Europe, where it evolved in two directions: aspic (which requires the use of meat, of course) and the Spanish preparation of cooked vegetables dressed with vinegar known as escabeche. Both words, aspic and escabeche, come from sikbâj, by the way. (Take my word for it.)

It’s clear that tahini existed in the Middle Ages, because cookbooks of the time call for it in a number of recipes — but none contain carrots. I can’t say that either of the following dishes has ever actually been made in the Middle East, but that has not stopped me from giving them plausible Arabic names.

Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright Charles Perry

Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright Charles Perry

Carrots With Tahini (Jazar bi-Tahini)

Prep time: 4 to 5 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

1 onion

2 tablespoons oil

1 pound carrots

2 cups water

1/2 cup tahini (stir before measuring)

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Directions

1. Peel the onion and slice half of it crosswise as thinly as possible (reserve the remaining half onion for another use).

2. Pour the oil into a frying pan and heat for 2 minutes or so over high heat. Add the onion slices and fry for 10 minutes, stirring often to separate the rings and prevent uneven browning. Reduce the heat to medium and stir continuously until golden brown, about 5 minutes more. Transfer the onions to a paper towel to drain. Pick out any excessively browned bits.

3. Peel and trim the carrots and chop roughly. Bring the water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the carrots and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, transfer to a food processor and purée, about 40 seconds.

4. Add the tahini, lemon juice, salt and cumin to the carrots. Process until smooth, 20 to 30 seconds. Adjust the seasonings to taste. To serve, garnish with the browned onions.

Carrot-Tahini Escabeche (Sikbâj Muzawwar)

Prep time: 4 to 5 minutes

Cooking time: 35 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients 

1 onion

2 tablespoons oil

1 pound carrots

2 cups water

10 threads saffron

1/2 cup vinegar

1/4 cup honey

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 cup tahini (stir before measuring)

2 to 3 sprigs mint leaves

Directions

1. Peel and chop the onion. Pour the oil into a frying pan and heat for 2 minutes over high heat. Add the onion and fry until golden, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring often. Transfer the onion to a paper towel to drain.

2. Peel and trim the carrots, then cut into chunks about 1/3-inch long.

3. Pour the water into a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the carrots and cook until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain the water and transfer the carrots to a bowl.

4. In a separate bowl, crush the saffron to powder with the back of a spoon and dissolve it in the vinegar, then add the honey, cinnamon and coriander. Add the tahini and thoroughly stir everything together. Adjust the vinegar, honey, spices and salt to taste.

5. Mix the carrots and fried onion with the tahini-saffron sauce. To serve, garnish with mint leaves.

Main photo: Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright 2015 Charles Perry

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London's large Ghanian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Credit 2015 Cynthia Bertelsen

Cassava, to me, is the Sleeping Beauty of the African kitchen.

The first time I ate cassava, I was on a leaky porch in Paraguay in a torrential rain. The cook plunked down before me a painted enamel platter, stacked high with what looked like chunks of potatoes. She placed a small bottle filled with vinegar and tiny green hot peppers next to my plate. Before cutting into a tough piece of beef, I upended the bottle over the meat. I forked a couple of potatoes onto my plate, too.

Only they weren’t potatoes. The white tuber was cassava, which originated in central Brazil. Known scientifically as Manihot esculenta and other common names such as manioc or yuca, it later spread to Africa’s Congo Basin by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

It wasn’t love at that first chewy bite. But when I saw cassava afterward, I made sure it ended up on my plate or in my shopping bag. Potatoes don’t grow well in the tropics, where I lived at the time. So cassava began to take potatoes’ place in my kitchen. I learned to love cassava because of its texture and propensity to soak up other flavors.

A staple of the African diet

In the years I lived in Africa, I came to know cassava especially well. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, cassava provides a whopping 37% of daily caloric intake. It is popular throughout Africa and the third most widely eaten starchy food in the world, after wheat and rice.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “the most important traditional culinary preparations of cassava in Africa are:

  • boiled or roasted roots (akin to potatoes),
  • fufu (cassava flour stirred with boiled water over low heat to create a stiff dough like polenta),
  • eba (called gari in Nigeria, is similar to toasted bread crumbs, then soaked in hot water to produce a thick paste),
  • and, chikwangue (steamed, fermented pulp wrapped in leaves, not unlike tamales).”

Cassava grows underground and is easier to cultivate than corn, requiring far less labor. Resistant to drought and most insects and diseases, it is highly sustainable. It also cannot easily be burned and destroyed in war situations.

This scraggly-looking plant also can take climatic abuse, growing well in poor soil and during droughts. The long, brown roots stay fresh in the ground, sometimes for up to two years. But once harvested, cassava rots fast, in spite of its bark-like peel. That’s the reason for the wax you see on most cassava sold in Western markets.

A tip for finding the freshest cassava

Sometimes “fresh” cassava in supermarkets tends to be old, with black lines running through it, especially under and around the peel. I constantly poke and prod cassava that’s for sale. My hope is to find roots bearing small wounds inflicted by some savvy shopper: one who has broken off the pointed tips of the waxed roots to peer into the whiteness, seeking — and rejecting — the telltale black lines.


Having chosen pristine cassava for your meal, what happens next?

First, peel the cassava with a sharp knife. A vegetable peeler does not work as well. Remove the thin, white membrane surrounding the cassava under the bark-like peel. Cut the roots into equal lengths. Boil in salted water until tender enough so a knife slips in easily.

EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME

This is the second in a series exploring the food of the African continent, with a focus on individual ingredients and traditional recipes to bring the African pantry to your home.

The first article featured the peanut.

Future articles will feature black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.

Cassava can be quite fibrous, with a tough, stringy core that must be removed. Generally this core is not a problem, because as cassava cooks, it splits apart and the core can easily be removed. If you’d rather not hassle with peeling and boiling, seek a market specializing in Asian and other international foods. In the freezer section, you will likely find frozen cassava, ready to cook. You might also find cassava in cans there, too.

Now that you’ve got your peeled cassava on the kitchen counter, you’re probably wondering about the best way to cook it.

Skilled cooks in Africa developed a number of methods — grating, pounding and drying cassava into flour — to make its rather bland flavor pop in the mouth. Such techniques have resulted in commercial products that take a lot of the burden off of the cook. Tapioca pudding is made from dried cassava, available in nearly any grocery store.

Cassava flour can be used for making fufu, too. Gari adds texture to soups and other dishes. It can also be used in place of panko, a real boon to those on a gluten-free diet.

But if you opt to start from scratch, add large chunks of cassava to a meaty stew instead of potatoes. Try eating boiled cassava drenched with a spicy peanut sauce. Or simply fry it in the same way you might do with potatoes for French fries. Served a fiery pepper sauce, fried cassava offers a fresh taste of Africa.

Give cassava a try. I guarantee you will fall in love with it, too.

Cassava “French Fries”

Cassava gives a gluten-free twist to French fries. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Cassava fries provide a chewy twist to potato French fries. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes, depending upon the number of roots

Cook time: 25 to 40 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes to 1 hour

Yield: Serves two

Ingredients

4 10- to 12-inch-long cassava roots

1 tablespoon salt

Vegetable oil for frying

Directions

1. With a sharp knife, remove the pointed tips and peel the cassava, making sure to remove the thin membrane just under the bark-like peel.

2. Cut the cassava into 4- to 6-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise and then cut those into French fry-size sticks.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stove top. Add about 1 tablespoon of salt and the cassava. Reduce heat to a fast simmer, and cook the cassava until quite tender, usually about 20 to 30 minutes. Check doneness by poking a piece with a knife.

4. When done, drain the cassava and let cool slightly. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, heat oil to a depth of 1/4 inch over medium-high heat. Add the drained cassava and cook until cassava is a light golden brown.

5. Remove cassava from the oil, drain on paper towels, arrange on serving plates, and place a few tablespoons of the pepper sauce (recipe below) on each plate. Serve immediately.

Pepper Sauce

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups

Ingredients

10 habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers, orange or red, seeded and roughly chopped

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

4 Roma tomatoes, chopped

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

Salt to taste

1 cup vegetable oil, divided

Directions

1. Place all the ingredients, except for 1/2 cup of the oil, in a blender or food processor. Purée.

2. In a heavy skillet, heat the remaining 1/2 cup of oil over medium-high heat. Being cautious to avoid splattering oil, add the sauce and reduce the heat immediately to medium-low. Cook the sauce for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning.

3. Remove from heat, and let the sauce cool.

4. Store in a clean glass jar in your refrigerator, where it will be good for about a week. Be sure the sauce is always topped with a thin layer of oil. This helps to keep it safe and fresh.

Main photo: London’s large Ghanaian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Copyright Cynthia Bertelsen

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Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

Although cauliflowers are sold in our supermarkets all year round, this beautiful member of the wild cabbage family (Brassica oleracea) is at its bright and healthy best in early spring. Cauliflowers harvested at that time have had the benefit of a longer growing season (about 80 days, instead of 50 days for their summer-grown counterparts), allowing their valuable nutrients more time to develop.

The cauliflower, whose name derives from the Latin caulis (stem) and floris (flower) is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers. The edible part of the plant, the head of tender stems and flower buds, is known as a curd. Similarly to broccoli and calabrese (close relatives), the cauliflower stores nutrients for the developing flowers at the base of the buds, so a fresh, crisp curd is packed full of vitamins and minerals. Its Latin botanical name, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis (meaning cluster, or grapelike), is an apt description of this remarkably clever vegetable, which grows with a protective layer of leaves curled around its head.

Hats off to the French, though, for giving cauliflower (chou-fleur, or cabbage-flower,) a prettier, and horticulturally more correct name, than the rather pedestrian Anglo-Saxon “flower on a stalk.”

Mysterious origins

There is disagreement over the origin of the cauliflower. Some say it was developed by 11th century Arab gardeners, or by Romans a thousand years earlier. But the wild cabbage grew throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean and, with its tendency to produce “freaks,” prototypes of the cauliflower probably originated spontaneously in different places. Curious gardeners have since, through seed selection, improved nature’s work and we are now reaping the benefits.

Medieval Italian kitchens and, later, those of Louis XIV of France, served stylish and elegant cauliflower dishes. Catherine de Medici is said to have appreciated the lovely vegetable, and to have introduced it to France to help alleviate arthritis. But its earlier French name, chou de Chypre, suggests it arrived from Cyprus and Cypriots are, understandably, happy to claim its origin. For the past 200 years, the cauliflower has been a popular winter vegetable in northern Europe, but without its former prestige in serious kitchens. Until now.

Hardly humble

With cauliflowers piled high in our markets, this inexpensive and highly nutritious brassica is at last losing its humble status and taking its rightful place on our tables. A reputation for being bland and soggy is the fault of the cook, not of the cauliflower. Its very gentleness is the perfect foil to many fine flavors, and it takes only a few minutes to cook.

“Organic” and “local” have real meaning when selecting cauliflowers: snails, aphids and caterpillars love them, so pesticides are often used and, once harvested, their nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly. Most cauliflowers are attractively creamy-white, but we also have wonderfully colorful varieties. Buy cauliflowers that smell and look fresh, with deep-green, outer leaves and tight heads; avoid brown-spotted white ones, or dull-looking purple, yellow or green heads. Size doesn’t affect flavor, but age does: older cauliflowers taste and smell stronger.

Richer in vitamins and minerals than any other brassica, cauliflowers are an excellent source of vitamin C, folic acid and potassium; a very good source of niacin, copper, manganese and vitamins A, K, B5 and B6; and a good source for protein, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamins B2 and B3. Raw, they are even better.

Avoid nutricide

Cauliflower cooks quickly: Keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. After this time, cauliflower loses 20% to 30% of its phytochemicals; after 10 minutes, 40% disappear. Where possible, cook in ways that don’t commit nutricide – in soups and stews, grilled or baked. In its wonderful ability to host spicy flavors, some of the best preparations for cauliflower can be found in the kitchens of the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean. With winter soon drawing to an end, it’s time to enjoy the vegetable that has spent the past three months developing the nutrients we need to take us into a healthy spring.

The cauliflower is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers.

Cauliflower cooks quickly: keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

 Simple Greek ways to serve

  • Serve raw or lightly-steamed small florets with a dip of mashed anchovy, capers, herbs, and olive oil or with hummus, small radishes and young wild green leaves.
  • Mix thinly sliced cauliflower florets and fine-julienned carrots with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, lightly chopped flat-leaf parsley, and Greek oregano (rigani ).
  • Dip small florets in a light garbanzo-flour batter and gently fry the fritters in olive oil; serve with olive oil and lemon juice mayonnaise, olives, and lemon wedges.

Cauliflower à la Greque

À la Greque (French for “in the Greek style”) describes a method of cooking, one that presumably a French cook/traveler admired and added to his/her own kitchen repertoire. There are many versions of this popular dish, but most are a pale imitation of the original Greek creation. Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find and, for a lightly spiced dish, prepare two hours ahead; for a more mellow taste and texture, leave overnight in the marinade.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 12 minutes

Total time: 17 minutes

Yield: 8 for a meze serving, 4 as a vegetable dish

Ingredients

4 cups small cauliflower florets

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons dried coriander seeds

1 cup dry white wine

3 bay leaves

1/2 tablespoon aromatic honey such as Hymettus

1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns

Coarse-grain sea salt to taste

For serving:

4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon lemon zest, in very thin strips, optional

Lemon wedges

Directions

1. Trim most of the stem from the florets and cut an “x” in the base of each with a small sharp knife. Blanch 1 minute in boiling water, drain, and set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the coriander seeds and florets in a single layer and stir with a wooden spoon to coat with the olive oil. Add the wine, bay leaves, honey, pepper and salt. Bring just to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until tender.

3. Transfer the contents of the pan to a nonreactive bowl and set aside until cool. Cover the bowl and shake it gently to redistribute the marinade.

4. To serve, taste the marinade. If more salt is needed, combine with the parsley. Transfer the cauliflower to a shallow serving bowl and pour over most of the marinade (strain it first, if you prefer). Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest and serve with the lemon wedges.

Main photo: Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

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Main photo: Black-Eyed Peas Salad. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

I used to think of black-eyed peas as a purely American food, much loved in the South. Despite the time I spent living in Austin, I’ve never made them the way Texans do, using ham hocks or salt pork for flavoring, and I’ve had more than one run-in with staunch traditionalists who have challenged — even berated — my vegetarian approach.

Even now that I’m not a strict vegetarian (albeit it’s the way I eat most of the time) I prefer black-eyed peas that have not been simmered with pork products. I love their earthy depth of flavor and I have never thought, “Gee, these would be really great if they just had some pork to flavor them.” They have plenty going for them on their own.

As I’ve researched the cuisines of the Mediterranean over the years, I have learned that these beans are an important staple in that part of the world, especially in Greece and North Africa. They are the backbone of some of my favorite Mediterranean dishes.

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa. According to cookbook author and Zester contributor Clifford A. Wright, they had arrived in the northern Mediterranean by about 300 B.C. and were cultivated by the Romans. The beans traveled to South America with the slave trade, but they came to North America via the Mediterranean. They are much loved in Greece, where they are stewed in abundant olive oil, often with greens, or used in lighter salads or bean dishes and seasoned with wild fennel, mint, dill and parsley.

In Tunisia, a country with a rich repertoire of vegetable stews or tagines where you are not likely to see pork with beans (because of Muslim dietary rules), black-eyed peas are simmered with abundant spices, vegetables like greens and fennel, and lots of fresh herbs — cilantro, parsley, mint. The spicy bean tagines are ladled over couscous. These dishes are complex, with an array of seasonings — harissa, caraway and coriander seeds, cumin and garlic.

But my favorite black-eyed peas are the ones that I make year after year. I cook the beans with onion, garlic and bay leaf, then toss them while warm with a cumin-infused vinaigrette, chopped bell peppers, and lots of cilantro. The balance of flavors is perfect. It’s a traditional good-luck dish on New Year’s Day, but it never fails to leave me feeling optimistic about the future — no matter the time of year.

Black-Eyed Peas Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette

You can serve this salad warm or chilled. I often make the beans several days ahead, marinate them in the vinaigrette, and add the chopped pepper and cilantro after I reheat the beans in the vinaigrette.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish

Ingredients

For the beans:

1 medium onion, cut in half

1 pound black-eyed peas, washed and picked over

2 quarts water

2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced

1 bay leaf

Salt to taste

For the dressing and salad:

1/4 cup red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

1 garlic clove, minced

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 teaspoons lightly toasted cumin, ground

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup broth from the beans

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large red bell pepper, diced

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Combine the onion, black-eyed peas and the water in a soup pot or Dutch oven and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any foam from the surface of the water. Add the garlic, bay leaf and salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons). Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Taste and add more salt if desired. Cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until the beans are tender but not falling apart. Remove from the heat. Remove onion halves and bay leaf. Carefully drain the beans through a colander or strainer set over a bowl and transfer to a large salad bowl. Measure out 1/2 cup of the bean broth.

2. In a pyrex measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, and mustard. Whisk in the bean broth, then the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir the dressing into the warm beans. Stir in the red pepper and cilantro, and serve, or allow to cool and serve at room temperature.

Greek Black-Eyed Peas With Wild Fennel

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish

Ingredients

1 pound black-eyed peas

1/4 cup olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups wild fennel leaves, chopped

1 15-ounce can tomatoes, drained and pureed in a food processor

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Additional chopped fennel for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Wash and pick over the beans. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and fennel leaves and cook, stirring, for a minute, until the garlic is fragrant and the fennel beginning to wilt. Stir in the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the black-eyed peas and enough water to cover by an inch, and stir together. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 30 minutes.

2. Add salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons) and freshly ground pepper, and continue to simmer until the beans are tender, another 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve warm or hot, garnished with additional chopped wild fennel if desired.

Couscous With Black-Eyed Peas and Chard

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours

Total time: up to 2 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

Chard stalks, diced

4 large garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted and ground

1 teaspoon caraway seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 cups black-eyed peas, rinsed

2 tablespoons harissa (or more to taste; substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper if harissa is unavailable), plus additional for serving

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Salt, preferably kosher salt, to taste

1 to 1 1/2 pounds Swiss chard, stemmed, washed thoroughly in 2 changes of water, and coarsely chopped

1 large bunch parsley or cilantro (or a combination), stemmed, washed and chopped

2 cups couscous, reconstituted and steamed until fluffy and hot

Directions

1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy casserole or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt, the chard stalks, garlic and ground spices, and stir together for about a minute, until the garlic is fragrant. Add the black-eyed peas and 3 quarts water, and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add the harissa or cayenne, the tomato paste and salt to taste, cover and simmer another 15 to 30 minutes, until the beans are tender and fragrant. Strain off 1/2 cup of the liquid and set aside to add to the couscous when you reconstitute it.

2. Stir in the chard a handful at a time, allowing each handful to cook down a bit before adding the next. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes, until the chard is tender and fragrant. Stir in the parsley and/or cilantro and simmer another few minutes. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt, garlic or harissa as desired.

3. Reconstitute and warm the couscous while the black-eyed peas are cooking. Shortly before serving, transfer to a wide serving bowl, such as a pasta bowl, or directly to wide soup plates. Spoon on the black-eyed peas and greens with plenty of broth, and serve, passing additional harissa at the table.

Main photo: Black-Eyed Peas Salad. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Potato gratin stuffed with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Winter is about the only time of year that the description “rib-sticking” actually sounds appealing. We burn more calories in the winter as we are shoveling more snow, or, here in Southern California, as we complain about how it’s freezing when the temperature drops to 60 F. Winter is when our stew or roast recipes come out and when we love to cook with bacon, cheese, and cream. Let’s not forget that there are great winter vegetables and the way to cook them is not the way we want to do in the summer.

I love winter vegetables, including all the root vegetables as well as leafy greens like Swiss chard, spinach, collard, kale, and many others. One dish I make often is inspired by the cooking of the Savoy in France. It is a potato gratin, but my twist is to form it into a kind of potato pie that is stuffed with rainbow Swiss chard. Rainbow Swiss chard is simply a bunch of multicolored Swiss chard stems bunch together for sale by the purveyor. You’re not using the stems in this recipe so you won’t actually see a lot of color other than green in the finished dish.

You’ll want to use baking potatoes, like russets, rather than boiling potatoes like Yukon gold, because you’ll want the potatoes to disintegrate slightly to form a kind of “crust.” This is a rich dish, so if you’re making it to accompany something I suggest something simple, like roast chicken or pan-seared chicken breast or even just a salad.

Potato Gratin Stuffed With Swiss Chard

This is a perfect winter vegetables dish made with thin slices of potato that form the bottom of a kind of pie filled with Swiss chard cooked with bacon and salt pork and then covered with another layer of sliced potatoes before being baked.

Potato gratin stuffed with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Potato gratin stuffed with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Yield: 6 side-dish servings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: About 1 1/4 hours

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours

Ingredients

1 1/2 pound Swiss chard, leaves only, save stems for another purpose

1 ounce slab bacon, chopped

1/2 ounce salt pork, chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Salt to taste

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

One 1-pound baking potato, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch thick slices

2 ounces Gruyère, comte, or vacherin cheese, sliced

1/2 cup heavy cream

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the Swiss chard leaves until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain well and chop. Set aside in a bowl.

2. Preheat to oven to 350 F.

3. In a large cast iron skillet, cook the bacon and salt pork over medium-low heat until beginning to get crispy, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until it is sizzling then remove all to the bowl with the Swiss chard and season with salt.

4. Add 2 tablespoons butter to the skillet and, once it melts, arrange half of the sliced potatoes, slightly overlapped in a spiral covering the entire bottom of the skillet. Salt lightly. Spoon the Swiss chard mixture on top of the potatoes, spreading it around to cover all the potatoes. Salt lightly. Arrange the remaining potatoes in an overlapped spiral covering the Swiss chard completely. Salt lightly. Arrange the cheese on top of the potatoes, dot with the remaining butter and pour the cream over everything.

5. Move the pan to the oven and bake until golden brown and bubbling, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool 5 minutes then cut into wedges for serving.

Main photo: Potato Gratin Stuffed With Swiss Chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: It doesn’t get any respect. It gets a bad rap. Cabbage never gets mentioned as one of the hip vegetables like kale. It’s not a super-vegetable like broccoli rabe. It’s not an adorable vegetable like baby Brussels sprouts. It’s not a “cool” vegetable. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned. I mean, they make sauerkraut from it.

All those cooler vegetables just mentioned, though, owe their existence to cabbage. The big green head we associate with cabbage today was not always what cabbage was. Today there are hundreds of varieties of cabbage that have developed from the progenitor cabbage, called the wild cabbage, including the many forms of cabbage and further horticultural developments such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoliflower, broccoli rabe and kohlrabi.

Botanists divide the cabbage into five groups. It is the head cabbage, green, red, crinkly-leafed or Savoy cabbage, that I’m speaking of. But there are some 400 varieties of head cabbage.

The cabbage is probably native to the Mediterranean, but in Roman times the head cabbage we think of as cabbage today did not exist. The Romans had only leafy cabbage, probably kale. There are some obscure references by Roman naturalists Pliny and Columella to what has been taken by some to be head cabbage. These descriptions refer to heads of the plant being a foot in diameter, but it is not at all clear whether this refers to a compact headed cabbage that we know today or is simply an expression referring to the above ground portion of the plant.

The wealthy citizens of Rome, in the period after Cato the Elder (mid-second century BC), thought of cabbage as poor people’s food as we know from the description in Juvenal’s satire when he described the difference between the food that the patron ate, namely olives to garnish an excellent fish, and the food of the client, who finds cabbage in his “nauseous dish.”

It seems that the head cabbage we know today was developed in Germany in the 12th century. Soon it would be the single most common plant in the medieval garden.

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

It’s not a popular vegetable today, but it is a vegetable that does draw the curious cook. The most obviously intriguing thing to do with cabbage is to separate the leaves and then stuff them by rolling them up. There are many great preparations for cabbage from sauerkraut, to kimchi, to coleslaw, and every culture has a recipe for stuffed cabbage. Here are two recipes for cabbage lovers from cabbage-loving Slovenia and Croatia, next door to Italy.

Braised Cabbage

Cabbage is a very popular vegetable in the Balkans, served raw, in the form of sauerkraut and cooked in a variety of ways. In the northern part of the former Yugoslavia, today’s Slovenia and parts of Croatia, cabbage may be cooked with sour cream or tossed with noodles and smoked bacon. In Bosnia or Montenegro, it might be cooked with tomatoes. This recipe from Slovenia is typically served as a bed for a roast duckling.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water

1 cup dry white wine

One 2-pound green cabbage, cored and sliced as thin as vermicelli

15 peppercorns

8 juniper berries, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the bay leaves and cook until they begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and very carefully add the tomato paste and wine, which will spurt and splatter rather dramatically.

2. Continue cooking for a minute then add the cabbage, peppercorns, juniper berries and thyme. Mix so the cabbage is covered with sauce.

3. Add the lemon juice and continue to braise over medium heat until the cabbage softens, 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the cabbage is completely soft, about 45 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

These cabbage rolls are a winter specialty known as arambašici in their home of Sinj, a town near the Dinaric Alps on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Traditionally, this casserole of stuffed cabbage leaves is made from a whole head of cabbage that has been prepared as sauerkraut. Each sauerkraut leaf, or as in this recipe cabbage leaf, is stuffed with beef, pork and bacon, and flavored with lemon zest, onion, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Each roll-up is separated from the other with pieces of pršut (Croatian prosciutto) and smoked tongue.

Arambašici can be made with fresh cabbage leaves or grape leaves, too. My recipe uses fresh cabbage, which is the easiest to find and is what a cook from Sinj would use in the summer. Many cooks also like to make the casserole in the evening and then reheat it the next day, and you should consider doing that as it is delicious.

The casserole cooks a long time so the meats are very tender and the cabbage leaves become silky. The smoked bacon, smoked pork, smoked tongue and prosciutto can all be picked up at the deli counter of most supermarkets.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 4 hours

Yield: 20 to 26 rolls, or about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 large green cabbage (about 2 3/4 pounds), central core removed

1 1/4 pounds boneless beef neck meat or beef chuck, finely chopped

5 ounces smoked bacon (preferably) or lean slab bacon, finely chopped

2 ounces beef fat (suet), finely chopped

6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or neck meat, finely chopped

2 large onions, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Grated zest from 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or beef fat for greasing

One 4-inch-long beef marrow bone (optional)

1 ounce smoked pork (any cut), finely chopped

2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced into strips

2 ounces smoked tongue (optional), thinly sliced into strips

1 cup water and more as needed

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 300 F.

2. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt and plunge the whole cabbage in and cook until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the beef, bacon, suet and pork. Add the onions, garlic, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well with your hands.

4. Arrange a cabbage leaf in front of you with the stem end closest to you. Place 2, 3 or 4 tablespoons (depending on the size of the leaf) of filling on the end closest to you, then roll away once, fold in the sides and continue rolling away until you get a nice, neat package.

5. Continue with the remaining cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls side by side, seam side down, in a lightly greased 13- x 9- x 2-inch casserole (you may need to use two casseroles), making sure you leave some room for the beef marrow bone. Sprinkle the chopped smoked pork over the cabbage rolls.

6. Place the prosciutto and smoked tongue slices (if using) between the cabbage rolls. Pour the water over the cabbage rolls and cover with aluminum foil. (The casserole can be refrigerated at this point to bake later.)

7. Bake until the cabbage rolls are very soft, slightly blackened on top and bubbling vigorously, about 4 hours.

8. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature and serve as an appetizer the next day.

Main photo: Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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