Articles in Vegetables
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.
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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.
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.
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
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
8 juniper berries, lightly crushed
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
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
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
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
Celeriac looks like Hannibal Lecter’s lunch. A pale and ghostly cerebellum with tangled dreadlocks, it is never going to win any beauty prizes. Prepossessing, it is not. Little wonder many shoppers give it a wide berth as it singularly fails to bear any resemblance to its slender green cousin and has the sort of looks only a mother vegetable could love.
Yet celery and celeriac are essentially the same plant, both descendants of wild celery. Plant breeding and cultivation from the 17th century onward, however, took them in different directions. Celery was destined to be sought after for its crisp, sweet stalks; celeriac for the large swollen base half-buried in the ground like a forgotten cannonball.
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Over the centuries, horticulturalists succeeded in turning a tiny root into a gnarled ball of intense but delicate celery flavor and fragrance. Despite these excellent qualities, celeriac has never really hit the big time. Still overlooked by many shoppers, it is an omission to our vegetable repertoire that is gradually being rectified.
The many ways to use celeriac
Never ones to shirk a kitchen challenge, however, the French became skilled at hacking their way through the knotted roots and convoluted rhino-thick exterior in order not to waste large chunks of good flesh. However, user-friendly varieties have come onto the market in recent years that are larger and smoother and much easier to peel.
If eating it part-cooked or blanched in a salad (raw celeriac is underwhelming), try adding celery salt to the vinaigrette or give the basic dressing of mayonnaise, cream and mustard a bit more zip with capers and/or gherkins.
A touch of orange zest can add some warmth to a velvety soup of celeriac and leek or fennel. Or, you could scatter with toasted hazelnuts or add a dollop of parsley-walnut pesto for interesting contrast. Think of celeriac as you would potatoes: serve deep-fried celeriac chips with mustard or garlic mayonnaise; roast chunks along with a joint of beef, pork or lamb; or boil or steam and mash them with plenty of butter for a purée.
Modern vegetarian cooks have welcomed the ability of celeriac to soak up flavors, which makes it excellent to roast in the oven; use in gratins or as a filling for pies and tarts; and mix with mushrooms (especially ceps), nuts, tomatoes or cheese. Dauphinoise made with celeriac and potato makes a wonderful combination, or try celeriac rosti for a change. It also carries well the pungency of fresh spices such as ginger, chili, coriander and black pepper.
The paler it is the fresher celeriac will be, but the thick knobbly skin will keep the interior smelling pleasingly of aniseed for quite a long time until used. At its best between September and April, celeriac should be saved from the compost heap. It may be a knob-head, but it deserves better.
- If you can’t use the celeriac once cut, drop the pieces into acidulated water to stop discoloration. Browning doesn’t affect the taste, but the color can look rather unappetizing.
- To store, refrigerate in an unsealed plastic bag. It will keep for several weeks.
- To cut celeriac safely, slice about a half-inch (1 centimeter) off the top and bottom with a sharp knife. Roll onto a flat edge and either cut off the skin (as you would a pineapple) or use a potato peeler. Expect to discard about a quarter of the celeriac by the time you have done this.
Celeriac and Celery Soup
Add a little orange zest or a handful of toasted hazelnuts for extra interest, if desired.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 60 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
4 tablespoon butter
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 leek, thinly sliced (don’t include the dark green part or it will spoil the look of the marble-white soup)
About 1 pound peeled and chopped celeriac
About 1 pound sliced celery (reserve a few leaves)
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 dollop of heavy cream
Chopped parsley (optional)
1. Heat the butter in a saucepan and add the onion and leek. Cook gently for 10 minutes, then add the celeriac, celery and a little salt.
2. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes but don’t let the mixture brown. Add the stock, bring to a boil and simmer until the vegetables are tender (about 15 minutes).
3. Purée the soup, then reheat gently. Add the cream and season with salt and white pepper to taste. Adorn with a few reserved celery leaves and/or parsley.
Celeriac Remoulade (French Slaw)
Adjust the proportions of the dressing to your own taste; some like a piquant taste, others prefer just a hint of mustard.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 medium celeriac
Juice of 1 lemon
3 to 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon heavy cream or crème frâiche
1 to 2 tablespoons capers (optional)
Salt and black pepper
1. Peel the celeriac; either grate to a medium size or cut into matchsticks. Plunge into a pan of boiling water, then drain and cool.
2. Mix the rest of the ingredients in a serving bowls. Season to taste and mix in the celeriac.
Celeriac and Potato Gratin
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Total time: 2 hours
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup whole milk
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Salt and black pepper
About 15 ounces peeled potatoes, cut into thin slices
About 15 ounces peeled celeriac, cut into thin slices about the same size as the potatoes
2 to 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1. Put the cream, milk and garlic in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
2. Arrange the potatoes and celeriac in overlapping layers in a gratin dish. Cover it with the cream mixture, tipping the dish to get an even distribution.
3. Cover with foil and bake for about an hour or until the vegetables are tender. Tip: While the dish is baking, use a spatula to press the vegetables into the cream once or twice so they don’t dry out.
4. Remove the foil, sprinkle with the Parmesan and bake for another 10 minutes until the top is nicely browned.
Main photo: Celeriac is a knobby, bulbous root vegetable. Credit: Clarissa Hyman
Do you have menu monotony? Are you cooking the same recipes over and over again for the holidays?
There is relief from this stubborn winter malady. I’m not suggesting that you toss all your family favorites, but I am proposing that you add variety to the menu and, in the processes, treat yourself and your guests to some new flavors.
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To add changes to the menu without adding stress don’t take on the whole job alone — have friends and family bring side dishes or desserts. “A good old-fashioned potluck is great for the holidays, too. It is a simple way to add variety to your usual menu, share some of work and try out new recipes,” recommends Rick Bayless, winner of the James Beard outstanding restaurant award for his Chicago-based Mexican restaurant Frontera Grill. Assigning dishes, and even providing the recipe, assures that the meal will be balanced with a cohesive mix of foods, and you won’t end up with three platters of the same string bean recipe.
For a wonderfully unusual side dish with a south-of-the-border flare that goes with any menu, add Bayless’ colorful and crunchy, Mexico-inspired Christmas Eve Salad. This salad of jicama, beets, oranges and peanuts “provides the perfect visual accent for the holiday table, echoing the colors of holiday poinsettias,” Bayless says. The salad is topped with chopped peanuts and sprinkled with Mexican colored candies for a festive and whimsical finish. You can serve slivers of sugarcane, available in Spanish and Mexican grocery stores, along with the salad. “You and your guests will really enjoy chewing on fresh sugarcane, it has a delightfully fresh sweetness,” Bayless says.
Rick Bayless’ Christmas Eve Salad (Ensalada de Noche Buena)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
4 large beets, boiled and cut into small sticks
3 seedless oranges
5 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium (about 1 pound) jicama, peeled and cut into small sticks
10 romaine lettuce leaves, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices
2/3 cup roasted, salted peanuts
1 3- to 4-inch section of sugar cane, peeled and cut lengthwise into slivers, for garnish, optional
1 tablespoon colored candy cake decorations (grajeas in Mexico), for garnish
1. Place the beet sticks into a large bowl.
2. Using a zester or vegetable peeler, cut the zest (colored rind) from 1 of the oranges and finely mince it. Mix the minced zest with the lime juice, orange juice, salt, sugar and olive oil in with the beets and let stand 1 hour.
3. Cut away the rind and all white pith on the oranges. Cut between each white membrane and remove the segments. Reserve.
4. To serve, add the jicama and most of the orange segments (reserving a few for garnish) to the beet mixture. Lay the lettuce on a serving platter. Scoop the beet mixture into the center, then sprinkle with the peanuts and reserved orange segments. Garnish with the sugar cane, if using, and candies. Serve.
‘Instant’ Rum Baba Panettone
Another great shortcut is to buy something ready made, but unusual. For an Italian finish to the meal, consider ready-made panettone, imported from Italy. Tall and dome-shaped, panettone is a soft, sweet yeast cake with a fruity aroma of raisins and candied oranges. It’s the quintessential Italian Christmas dessert, usually served plain, accompanied by a glass of Asti Spumante.
Or you can dress it up a little by drenching it in rum syrup, making a virtually instant baba cake. Available in standard 1- and 2-pound sizes, panettone also comes in adorable, single-sized portions, which work especially well with this recipe:
From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 8 to 12 servings
3 cups granulated sugar
1/4 to 1/2 cup dark rum
8 slices of panettone, or 8 small individual-sized panettone
Fresh or frozen berries, optional
1. Add the sugar to 1 1/2 cups water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the rum to taste. Allow to cool to room temperature.
2. Arrange the panettone on a serving platter. An hour before serving, slowly pour the rum syrup over the panettone until all the liquid is absorbed.
3. Serve topped with confectioners’ sugar and accompanied by berries, if you like.
Pandoro Christmas Tree Cake
Another unusual ready-made dessert is pandoro, the tall Christmas tree shaped Italian cake that’s available in most supermarkets and Italian gourmet shops starting in late fall. Pandoro has a delicious eggy, brioche-like soft center, with a lovely vanilla-butter aroma. In Italy, pandoro is often served cut in horizontal slices that are restacked to look like a Christmas tree. It even comes boxed with a packet of confectioners sugar to sprinkle on top.
You can spread the pandoro with anything creamy like ice cream, whipped cream, icing, pastry cream or even zabaglione. And just like a gingerbread house, you can decorate it with anything festive including tiny candies, sprinkles or crushed candy canes.
In this recipe, pandoro cake is taken to yet another level: each layer is spread with mascarpone custard and decorated with mint leaves and candied cherries.
From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Yield: 10 servings
1/4 cup plus 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sweet liqueur, such as Cointreau or rum
2 large egg yolks
14 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 cup heavy cream
1 pandoro cake, about 1 pound
Decorations, such as candied cherries, fresh mint leaves, silver confetti
1. In a saucepan, combine 1/4 cup water with 1/4 cup of the sugar and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in 1/4 cup of the Cointreu or rum. Reserve.
2. In a standing mixer combine the yolks and the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and beat for 5 minutes until light yellow and fluffy. Beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons Cointreau or rum, and fold in the mascarpone.
3. In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream until peaks form. Fold the mascarpone cream into the whipped cream.
4. Carefully, so as not to break the points, slice the pandoro horizontally into 6 slices. Brush the outsides of the slices, the golden colored baked section, with the reserved Cointreau syrup.
5. Place the largest pandoro slice onto a serving platter and spread with some of the mascarpone mixture.
6. Cover with the next largest slice, angling it so that the points of the star tips don’t line up. Spread with some of the mascarpone mixture and repeat with the remaining layers, finishing with a dollop of mascarpone on top.
7. Decorate the points with candied cherries and mint leaves or candies. Sprinkle the entire cake with confectioners’ sugar.
Main photo: Rick Bayless’ colorful and crunchy, Mexico-inspired Christmas Eve Salad features jicama, beets, orange and peanuts. Credit: FronteraFiesta.com.
Latkes, doughnuts and fritters — in Jewish homes, everyone’s frying this month, much as we have been for the last 2,000 years or so. Frankly, you’ve got to love a religion that actually encourages you to eat deep-fried foods — especially with sour cream!
All Jewish festivals have a culinary dimension, and Hanukkah (which this year begins at sundown Dec. 16) is no exception. In fact, it’s at the very heart of the event, although it’s the oil that is the important thing. In other words, the frying rather than the fried. Jewish traditions encompass both the sweet and savory, but the Ashkenazi latke is arguably in pole position in the Hanukkah festival food repertoire.
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Let me be clear. I am talking dirty. I am not dealing here with “latkes-lite,” baked in the oven rather than fried in the pan. To my mind, the former has lost sight of its meaning and origin in the story of the Maccabees and the miracle of the menorah in the temple. It’s also lost a lot of its taste.
Back in the day, in the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe, the run-up to Hanukkah was also the time for fattening poultry — “Hanukkah is coming and the geese are getting fat” — as the old Hyman family saying went. Cooking oil was hard to obtain, and the main source of kosher solid fat for meat cookery came from chickens, ducks and geese. Schmaltz is still a delicious substitute in which to fry your latkes instead of oil, although the health police would say it’s like choosing between a heart attack and, er, a heart attack.
Potatoes, an essential latke ingredient
It should also be remembered that potatoes — that other essential component of the latke — didn’t arrive in Europe until the 16th century, and were not widely cultivated throughout Russia, Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine until the early to mid-19th century. Once they became a staple, however, Hanukkah in the shtetls was never the same. Potatoes and goose fat were an obvious combination to create a pancake that was quickly fried — and just as quickly consumed. Indeed, the potato latke was probably directly responsible for generations of generous Jewish hips.
Quantity is all very well. Indeed, it is a hallowed Jewish tradition, but we’ve become a little more discriminating since potato first met oil. The designer latke is everywhere. Theoretically, and indeed gastronomically, there is nothing wrong in this. As the essence of the festival is in the oil and the frying, latkes can be made with any vegetable from beetroot to zucchini. However, for traditionalists, the potato will always be at the heart of things. Speaking personally, a latke without the potato is like fancy without the schmancy.
Making latkes is a serious business, responsible for blood, sweat and tears in probably equal proportions. In order to be prepared for the ordeal ahead, I offer this simple (hah!) guide. Study, take Prozac and GO FRY.
Deconstructing the latke
You have to have the right potato. They should be floury not waxy.
Peeling or skin on?
This is where the trouble starts. Some leave the skin on, unless the potatoes are particularly coarse. Most insist peeled are best.
There are two routes to go: whole-soak or shredded-soak.
With the first, you peel and soak the whole potatoes in cold water for between 30 minutes and 24 hours.
With the second, you grate the potatoes and soak in cold water for at least half an hour, rinsing in a few changes of clean, cold water. Some use lightly salted water for soaking.
Most authorities agree that if you are not going to soak, grating should be done only about 15 minutes before cooking or the potatoes will turn brown.
Grating vs. shredding
In other words, short, stubby bits vs. long, thin bits. Or fine grate vs. coarse grate.
If you go for a fine grate, you have to make sure it does not become a gluey pulp.
One technique is to coarsely shred the potato and onion (we’ll come to the latter, shortly) in a processor, then pulse briefly before adding the eggs (we’ll come to those later as well).
Hand grater vs. processor
In many homes, men were traditionally given the job of grating, while the women hovered over the frying pan — but gender role appropriation aside, the big question is, do you grate by hand or with a food processor.
Some swear that only grating by hand gives the right chunky texture; they also swear a lot when the blood from their knuckles flavors the latke mix.
If using a processor, the issue is the grating disc vs. pulsing. It depends whether you want a crunchy latke or one with a smoother consistency.
One writer uses the medium shredding blade and lays the potatoes horizontally in the feed tube to maximize the length of the strands.
Another of my acquaintances uses the processor to separately grate the potato and onion. She then combines half the potato in the processor with the onion, egg, bindings and seasoning and whirls to combine. She then mixes in the rest of the shredded potatoes.
To use or not to use, that is the question. This is a subject that can be cited as grounds for divorce.
Some onion users grate it together with the potato, others separately. Some say the onion juice helps the potatoes to stop turning brown.
Some do not grate the onion but cut it into small chunks.
Some finely chop the onion by hand.
Some alternately grate some of the onions on the large holes of the grater and some of the potatoes on the smallest holes.
Some of us start to cry.
We are now getting into advanced territory.
Once the potatoes and onion are ready, then everyone agrees they must be strained but should they be strained separately or together? Does it matter?
And what do you strain them in?
One writer places the potatoes in a colander, sprinkles them with salt, adds a layer of paper towels and tops with a heavy object.
Another lines a bowl with cheesecloth rather than using a colander. She holds this briefly under running water and squeezes it again thoroughly to remove excess moisture.
Many wring the grated potatoes and onions in a tea towel.
One poor soul cuts both the potatoes and onions into small dice, which she then grinds and drains. After adding eggs, seasoning and flour, she then drains again.
A subsection to this stage concerns the starch from the drained potato. You can collect the starch by straining the potato over a bowl, then pour off the liquid, leaving behind the potato starch/sediment. Do you use it or not?
Some swear by it. Others say it makes the latke go soggy. The Vilna Gaon does not pronounce on the issue.
Good cooking, as everyone knows, is about balance, which is always difficult in high heels.
Everyone has their own secret formula although one pound of potatoes to one large onion to two large beaten eggs works pretty well. One daring soul has been known to add an extra egg yolk.
This does not mean tying yourself to the kitchen table. It is a serious issue. One must debate the different merits of matzo meal vs. flour or a half-and-half mixture of both. Plain vs. self-rising flour? And if so, how much?
One authority makes his batter firm enough to scoop up with his hands, so he can pat it into a pancake leaving a few straggly strands along the edge. For others, this is simply too solid a mix.
A minority caucus votes for potato flour: This has the merit of making the latkes more compact, firmer and easier to handle but, honestly, they are just not as lovely to eat.
Salt and pepper seems straightforward but my mother always insisted on white pepper, and who am I to disagree?
Lemon juice, sugar and caraway seeds have also made an appearance in the kitchens of those who should know better.
Now we’re really getting to the heavy stuff (perhaps that’s not the right word).
How large should a latke be? One or two tablespoon size? Do you flatten with the back of the spoon or a spatula?
Should they be thin or thick, what should be the surface to interior ratio, what about the crispy/creamy ratio?
Generally, the flatter they are, the crispier they will be — although if that’s how you like them, you probably live with someone who prefers thicker ones with a soft interior.
It should be olive oil, although not necessarily your best extra virgin. Many people, however, use vegetable oil.
More complicated is the question of whether to deep or shallow fry. If the latter, how deep should the oil be in the pan? Half an inch? Or should the oil just “film” the bottom? Should you use a nonstick pan? Are you losing the will to live?
This is crucial. If the temperature of the oil is not hot enough, the latkes go very greasy and stodgy. If the oil is too hot, then the outside burns before the inside is cooked.
Good hints: Preheat the empty pan before adding the oil; bring the raw mixture to room temperature before cooking; listen for the sizzle when the latkes hit the pan; don’t crowd the pan, or they become soggy.
Freezing is possible, although purists insist they do lose a little je ne sais quoi. Frozen latkes should be fried from frozen or reheated in a hot oven on a wire rack to allow the hot air to circulate around the entire surface.
The X factor or the returnability factor
Ancient animosities aside, as all latkologists know, the test of a good latke is the returnability factor — are they so good you would return for more?
One batch is never enough. It takes several attempts to get it right — and apart from anything else, you have to keep testing the batch to see if it is up to standard.
But, at the end of the day, how can you ever judge a latke? It’s not just a question of shape, color, texture and taste but of emotional resonance, psychic energy, Jungian dreams and tribal loyalties. Not to mention hunger. Perhaps it’s simply a small miracle — which is why we’re frying now.
Main photo: Frying latkes for Hanukkah. Credit: iStock/Lisafx
There are basically three approaches to devising a Thanksgiving menu.
In the first, the foods are typical of New England where the first thanksgiving was celebrated some 250 years before it became a national holiday with a capital “T” in the mid-19th century.
In the second, families follow local and regional traditions. Or, if they are first- and second- generation immigrant families without a familiarity of traditional American Thanksgiving foods, they add avocado salad, curry or lasagna to the menu.
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In the third, which no one I know uses other than the historically re-created village denizens of Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, cooks attempt the authentic 1621 menu.
The hardest part of the last approach is that no actual menu exists. We are left with just some cursory description from two sources supplemented with comparative studies of what we know American Indians and Englishmen ate in the 17th century.
At the center of the 1621 table was probably roast venison and a variety of water fowl. There were no mashed potatoes, no cranberry sauce and no pumpkin pies, although there were probably dried cranberries and pumpkins in some form. There was probably maize in the form of bread, griddle cakes or porridge.
Pilgrims’ harvest celebration
We know this from the two and only surviving documents from the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. The sources are the English leader Edward Winslow’s “A Letter Sent From New England,” “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” and Gov. William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.”
Winslow wrote to a friend that the governor (Bradford) had sent “four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” The hunters brought back enough food to feed the colony for a week along with “their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.” Bradford adds that “besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys” venison and Indian corn.
As far as all the other food the colonists and Wampoanoag ate, culinary historians only have educated guesses based on a number of secondary sources including archeological remains such as pollen samples. The Wampanoag ate wildfowl, deer, eels, lobster, clams, mussels, smoked fish, and forest foods such as chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts, and they grew flint corn, the multicolored Indian corn suitable only for being ground into flour and never eaten off the cob. They also had pumpkin and squashes, sunchokes and water lily. We can surmise that those foods were on the table. The Indians had taught the colonists how to plant native crops, which they did in March of 1620, but the things grown are only known from a later time, namely turnips, carrots, onions, and garlic.
In 1621, the sweet potato and the white potato had not yet arrived in New England, so they were not found on the Pilgrims’ harvest table that autumn. Later Plymouth writings mention eagle and crane begin eaten.
Winslow, in his letter to a friend, describes the foods available in Plymouth in 1621. “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels … at our doors.”
He went on to describe plentiful strawberries, gooseberries and many varieties of plums. “These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favorably with us,” Winslow wrote
“Our Indian corn,” wrote Winslow, “even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meal as rice.” In other words, traditional English dishes of porridge, pancakes and bread were adapted for native corn.
In September and October, a variety of dried and fresh vegetables were available. The produce from Pilgrim gardens is likely to have included what were then called herbs: parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Dried beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as local cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts.
One dish that very well might have been on that harvest table of the fall of 1621 is “stewed pompion,” as it was called by the 17th-century English. One of the earliest written recipes from New England is found in a book by the English traveler John Josselyn who first went to New England in 1638 and whose book “Two Voyages to New England” was published in 1674. He called it a “standing dish,” suggesting that it was an everyday dish. The adapted recipe you can make is based on his original description where he says “it will look like bak’d Apples.”
Stewed Pompions (Stewed Pumpkins)
4 cups cooked (boiled, steamed or baked) pumpkin flesh, roughly mashed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 or 2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
In a saucepan over medium heat, stir and heat all the ingredients together. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve hot.
Main photo: Pumpkins for Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Hirko/iStock
Parsnips used to get a lot more love in the United States.
When this pale taproot — native to Eurasia — made its way to the New World in the early 1600s, the inherently sweet but peppery parsnip was a commonplace carbohydrate. It sustained English settlers both as a daily, wintertime starch and as a special occasion sweetener. In “Roots,” cookbook author Diane Morgan, explains that Native Americans picked up this new crop and ran with it as a staple root vegetable for quite a while. But then parsnips got pushed aside by the prolific potato and the burgeoning sugar trade. They were further slandered by wandering seeds that made parsnips more of an invasive weed (the leaves of which oozed a sap that causes a nasty rash) than a useful crop, and botanists discovered the scary similarities between wild parsnips and their deadly cousin, poison hemlock.
Centuries later, things are looking up for the lowly parsnip. Cultivated parsnips — the three main varietals, the All American, Hollow Crown Improved and Harris Model, are all pretty similar in taste — are now being celebrated by chefs in the more northern climes of the United States. Parsnips are particularly highlighted this time of year because chefs know these roots get sweet like candy after they sit in the ground after a few hard frosts. The cold forces the parsnips to metabolize some of their starch reserves into sugar.
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Once Greg Sessler has had to scrape the frost off his car’s windshield several mornings in a row, the chef of Cava Tapas and Wine Bar in Portsmouth, N.H., knows it’s time to call one of his farmers, Chuck Cox of Tuckaway Farm in Lee, for sweet parsnips.
Bred for flavor
“The difference between a parsnip picked before a cold snap and one picked after is pretty amazing,” said Sessler, who makes a parsnip and vanilla soup with which he pairs crispy, fried lobster.
Chef Brendan Vessey of The Joinery, a farm-to-table place that offers a Southern flare to its fare but is located in Newmarket, N.H., makes a distinction between the straight and crooked parsnips that come into his kitchen. He knows the gnarly ones have been bred for flavor and not uniformity.
“You’ve got to work back from what comes in the door,” Vessey said. With the more uniformly sized parsnips, Vessey makes a confit in which he very slowly cooks the roots in oil or tallow, garlic and fresh herbs. The more gnarly ones get scrubbed, gently scrapped clean of the peel with a knife and roasted in all their twisted glory.
Parsnips can also easily be celebrated at home. Although the USDA does not track parsnip production or consumption on the national level as it does with its orange cousin, the carrot, anecdotal evidence shows that home cooks have increasingly better access to parsnips. They are popping up in farmers market stalls at a steadier clip and becoming more prolific in community-supported agriculture winter shares.
If you happen to find yourself in possession of more parsnips than you know what to do with, here are 10 ways to get them out of the market bag or CSA box and onto the table for dinner.
- Surprise guests expecting potato chips with spicy parsnip crisps.
- Grate parsnips for latkes, fritters or pakoras.
- Use parsnips in any puréed soup that could benefit from their sweet, earthy flavor that has hints of both parsley and nutmeg. Straight roasted parsnip and leek soup is a classic, but you can easily mix that up with additions of curry or ginger.
- Add parsnips to a pot of potatoes destined to be mashed.
- Purée parsnips as you would celery root or cauliflower to have a surprisingly sweet, snowy white pillow for braised winter meats.
- Add parsnips to long-simmering beef or vegetarian stews.
- Replace half of the carrots in your favorite maple glazed carrot recipe with similarly sized parsnips for a fun, visual side dish.
- Sauté parsnips in tangy goat’s milk butter, as author Morgan suggests, which plays off the sweetness of the root for an easy but out-of-the-ordinary application.
- Swap the carrots in your favorite muffin or cake for parsnips.
- Roast parsnips in a hot oven to bring out the sweetness even further and spice them up with trendy ingredients such as harissa and preserved lemons (recipe below).
Roasted Parsnips With Harissa, Preserved Lemons and Tangy Yogurt Drizzle
I became acquainted with parsnips while living in England and eating many a Sunday pub lunch after wet, rainy walks in the countryside. I’ve adapted this recipe, which I originally found in a grocery store advertisement, to fall more in line with the ingredients I can find easily now in my home state of Maine.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 to 30 minutes
Total time: 40 to 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
2 pounds small parsnips, scrubbed well and halved lengthwise
2 tablespoons harissa
1 tablespoon honey
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces plain yogurt
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Skin of 1 preserved lemon, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped celery leaves
1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add parsnips, bring back to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Drain parsnips, lay them out flat on a clean towel and pat dry. Toss parsnips in a bowl with harissa, honey and 1/2 teaspoon salt until they are well coated.
3. Slather olive oil all over a baking sheet and place it into the oven for 5 minutes. When the oil is hot, add parsnips to the sheet and spread them out in a single layer. Roast until the parsnips are crispy and golden, about 25 to 30 minutes.
4. As the parsnips roast, mix yogurt and garlic. Let mixture sit for 10 minutes and then season with salt to taste.
5. When parsnips are roasted, scatter chopped preserved lemon and parsley or celery leaves over the top. Serve warm or room temperature with a drizzle of yogurt sauce.
Main photo: Roasted parsnips with harissa, preserved lemons and tangy yogurt drizzle. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige
Heritage has many meanings, encompassing not only our cultural and ancestral connections, but also the breeds of livestock our forefathers raised. Carole Soule is that rare individual whose life intersects both. Carole is a 13th-generation Mayflower descendent whose family heritage is deeply tied to its origins and she is a farmer who raises heritage breed cattle as well.
Carole’s lineage began with George Soule, an indentured servant who survived the journey to Plymouth and became one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. Carole notes the Soule genetics must be strong because there are about 30,000 Soules who trace their roots back to George. That is one prolific progeny.
Carole’s grandparents’ dining room table was the center of all the family holidays, especially Thanksgiving. The table took up the entire room, and one needed to skirt around the edge to get to the other side. To have a personal connection to the very first Thanksgiving was not lost on Carole or the Soule family. It was worn like a badge of honor. They are proud to share that they are connected to the origins of our country.
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As a child, Carole recalls piling into her family’s tiny Renault , all three siblings squished in the back seat for the three-hour drive from Bedford, Mass., to Hillsdale, N.Y., where her grandparents, Ida and Charles Soule, lived. At Thanksgiving, the table was always piled high with food, but the dishes Carole remembers most are her grandmother’s homemade cranberry sauce and creamed onions. The cranberry sauce is simply equal amounts of cranberries and sugar with a little cornstarch. It is cooked until the cranberries are soft, then the dish is cooled.
The creamed onions, though, are Carole’s favorite. They are rich and thick, and all kinds of yummy.
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes
Cook time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour, 30 minutes
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
3 pounds fresh pearl onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup beef broth
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 cups milk
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons apple cider
1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Peel onions and trim both ends.
3. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to the onions.
4. Layer onions in pan large enough to fit in one layer.
5. Place in oven; roast for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and brown in spots.
6. Remove the pan from the oven, add broth.
7. Roast for 10 minutes more.
For the cream sauce:
1. Melt butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil in large saucepan.
2. Add flour and whisk until the mixture bubbles and is free of lumps.
3. Add milk, bay leaf, thyme, pepper and salt.
4. Boil, whisking often. Thicken to consistency of thick gravy. Remove from heat. Discard the bay leaf.
5. Add the roasted onions and any broth from the pan to the cream sauce. Stir in apple cider.
6. Serve warm
Old-fashioned farm, cattle
It was those same car trips across the state of Massachusetts that began Carole’s love affair with cows. Across from her grandparents’ house was a pasture full of beautiful doe-eyed cows. Carole would visit with the “girls” whenever she could.
Fast-forward a few decades and Carole and her husband bought an 1850s farm called the Miles Smith Farm in New Hampshire. Her dream and vision was to go back to the old-fashioned way of raising animals She knew it would begin with an easy-to-raise heritage breed — the Scottish Highland. There would be no antibiotics, no corn. Just grass.
The Scottish Highland breed is hearty. The breed’s shaggy coat helps protect them from the elements, which means they don’t need a layer of fat to keep warm and, instead, produce lean beef that is low in cholesterol.
Carole’s herd is grass-fed, even in winter. She leaves many of her grass fields uncut for winter grazing. The cows paw through the snow to find their food. The breed is adaptable to a wide range of conditions and are equipped to forage and to live without shelter. Feeding on grass rather than hay also saves money, from the cost of fossil fuels to plant and harvest the hay to the cost of the seed. It is a perfect “circle of life,” too — while the cows are grazing, they are also fertilizing the field. Most hayfields are generally commercially fertilized, which costs more money.
Carole has found a win-win solution in this method. Plus, this heritage breed is well-suited to her state. The mountainous parts of New England are perfect places for these cattle because they can easily maneuver around the rocky outcroppings and graze on the hillsides, which are difficult to mow and cultivate.
Each year, the Miles Smith Farm slaughters 120 cows. They sell the meat through several channels: meat community supported agriculture (CSA) programs; wholesale customers including schools, regional hospitals and restaurants; and direct to consumers through their on-site, solar-powered store.
Carole has just received a USDA grant to work with a heritage pork farmer to create and sell a beef-pork mix. Carole shares that her new venture’s tagline is: “A burger that squeals with flavor.” She is again tapping into an old-fashioned tradition: Many people used to blend pork into their lean beef to create juiciness and flavor.
The Soule heritage is alive and well in Carole, in both namesake and familial traditions. Just as George Soule was drawn to a life in the New World, Carole has been drawn to a life on the land, an old-fashioned breed and traditional farming methods. Perhaps there is more to the Soule heritage than we will ever know. One thing is for sure, Carole is grateful for her heritage and her heritage cattle.
Main photo: Miles Smith Farm owners Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, with Missy, a Scottish Highland breed cow. Credit: Miles Smith Farm
It has taken me some analysis of classic side dishes — especially the vegetarian ones — to realize why we tend to get so overwhelmed by Thanksgiving meal planning. We have over-complicated our vegetable dishes.
A green bean casserole or even a sweet potato gratin with marshmallows can be fussier than we realize. The heavy ingredients end up competing with the real taste and appearance of the vegetable.
The summer months, with their ever-flowing bounty of produce from my garden, have taught me to keep it simple, flavorful and fresh. This is also my mantra when I plan my Thanksgiving table.
I have wasted no time in playing around with the harvest table to give it my own personal stamp. This is an interactive process with my children, who like that our Thanksgiving table meshes the traditional with elements of Indian cooking, giving the holiday an Indian-American touch.
Spice up simple side dishes with not-so-simple flavors
My Thanksgiving table gets a nice touch of Indian flavor from all the fragrant spices and herbs at my disposal. I have also worked at simplifying dishes to create an assortment of sides that get done without much fuss — but with that nice boost of flavor.
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Whole fragrant spices, such as fennel or cinnamon, tart citrus flavors, and herbs such as sage and cilantro are easy and healthy. They add loads of flavor and pizzazz to that side dish without much effort.
The purpose of the side on the Thanksgiving table is to showcase the bounty of the year — or at least, of the harvest season — and add some flair and color. I try to do that with dishes that don’t take loads of extra time. That can mean a side of serrano-spiked macaroni and cheese, kale livened up with caramelized onions and cumin, roasted beets with a fresh sprinkle of lime and black salt, and variations of sweet potatoes and winter squashes.
Winter squashes and sweet potatoes are not uncommon to Indian (especially Bengali) harvest celebrations, so I feel right at home with them. They also have been created with the perfect color coding for Thanksgiving, when orange, red and golden hues dominate. Those colors balance out the greens on the table, and they are good for you.
The cooking technique that I often favor for Thanksgiving sides is to roast the vegetables, which works very well for the squashes and roots that abound in markets this time of year. You can pop in the vegetables right alongside the turkey. An added plus: Those vegetables can be prepped and assembled ahead of time and then cooked, just in time for dinner.
Simple sides make for a happy cook
Cooking can be enjoyed best when the cook does not get too worn out or overwhelmed in the process.
I am sharing two of my favorite harvest recipes with you here. Both feature minimal prep time and mostly unattended cooking time. Both can be made ahead of time — and reheated to serve on Thanksgiving Day.
The butternut squash recipe uses sage leaves that are still growing or available in abundance in East Coast gardens — including mine — along with a nice bouquet of flavors from panch phoron or the Bengali Five Spice Blend.
The second dish features acorn squash stuffed with finely crumbled tofu, spinach, collard greens, pecans and some coconut milk. It also can be the perfect main dish for someone who is adhering to a vegan or gluten-free diet. I love to make this sometimes with mini-squashes so that everyone can have a personal squash. A dish that does double duty as a centerpiece and meal all at once!
Whole Spice Roasted Butternut Squash With Sage
(Recipe from my cookbook “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors.”)
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)
Yield: Serves 6
1 large butternut squash (about 2 pounds)
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon Bengali Five Spice Blend (panch phoron)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ginger paste
Salt to taste (optional, I really do not think that this dish needs it)
1 tablespoon salted butter
15 fresh sage leaves
1. Heat the oven to 375 F.
2. Peel the squash, remove the seeds and cut the squash into 2-inch chunks.
3. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the Five Spice Blend and when it crackles, mix in the black pepper and ginger paste and mix well. Add the squash and stir well to coat.
4. Place the seasoned squash on a greased baking sheet.
5. Roast the squash in the oven for about 35 minutes. It should be soft and beginning to get flecks of golden brown at spots. Taste to check if it needs any salt.
6. Heat the butter in a small skillet on low heat for about 2 to 3 minutes until it melts and gradually acquires a shade of pale gold. Add the sage leaves and cook until they turn dark and almost crisp.
7. Pour over the squash and mix lightly.
8. Serve on a flat plate to showcase the spices and sage.
Rainbow Stuffed Acorn Squash
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes (mostly unattended)
Yield: Serves 4 to 6
4 small acorn squash or other winter squash (use evenly shaped, colorful squash)
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium-sized onion, diced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
3 cups of chopped spinach
1 cup (about 12 ounces) crumbled tofu
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon cumin coriander powder
1/2 cup chopped pecans
Salt to taste
1/2 cup coconut milk
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 juicy lime)
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
1. Heat the oven to 350 F.
2. Place the squashes in a single layer and bake for 15 minutes. Cool.
3. While the squash is cooking, heat the oil and add in the onion and cook until soft. Add in the ginger and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add in the spinach; cook until just wilted. Add the tofu and mix well.
4. Stir in the garam masala and the cumin-coriander powder with the pecans, salt and coconut milk and mix well. Bring to a simmer.
5. Carefully cut the tops from the squashes using a crisscross motion to follow the grooves of the squash and remove the top.
6. Remove the seeds and scoop out the flesh, leaving the shell intact.
7. Add the flesh to the spinach tofu mixture and mix and mash. Add in the lime juice and cilantro and some of the pomegranate seeds. Turn off the heat.
8. Stuff the prepared filling into the squash shells.
9. This can be served right away or set aside and then heated for 10 minutes in a hot oven before serving.
Main photo: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya