Articles in Vegetables

Finnish chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. Credit: Martin Thompson

Finns treasure their solitary excursions into the endless woods and forests that fringe the 187,888 lakes and 179,584 islands of their hauntingly beautiful countryside. Throughout the summer and autumn, they prefer to keep their meditations on the beauty of the natural world to themselves: They rarely go in large groups, privacy is valued, and the social code generally prohibits more than a brief nod to anyone they meet. And, of course, they sensibly like to keep their prized foraging spots to themselves.

Although Finns have always collected berries and mushrooms, other types of plant-hunting have become nearly forgotten skills. Foraging was associated with war-time hardship (dandelion roots, for example, were used as a substitute for coffee) and rejected in favor of status-symbol, shop-bought food. However, Helsinki-based chef  Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. And it’s not just a way of finding food for free, but of celebrating healthy produce and enlightening minds.

As Tallberg says, “Once you understand where ingredients come from, you see their beauty and learn to respect their qualities with the minimum of processing.”

Catching the foraging bug

Tallberg got the foraging bug about 10 years ago when working in London. One day the legendary Kentish forager Miles Irving walked into the kitchen with a box of wild seakale.

“I was just knocked out when I tried it,” Tallberg recalled, “and when I came back to Finland, I realized I was living in a big green supermarket. The Everyman’s Rights Code allows anyone to pick anywhere except someone’s back garden or protected species.”

Tallberg does not consider wild plants as substitutes for cultivated vegetables and herbs, but as important ingredients in their own right, both in terms of taste and their nutritional qualities.

Taking advantage of one of Finland’s long summer days, Tallberg and I went foraging on a tiny island that lies within Helsinki’s city limits. We were surrounded by a surprisingly wide variety of edible plants: mild, strong, crunchy, coarse, fragrant, bulky, delicate. Less than an hour later, he served me the best salad I have ever eaten. And the cheapest.

Highlighting wild herbs and plants

The use of wild herbs and plants has become a hallmark of many modern restaurants in Finland and elsewhere — Noma in Copenhagen led the way with its version of the new Nordic Cuisine. But Tallberg wants to introduce (or re-introduce) wild plants to the home cook.

As we explored the thickets of greenery, Tallberg gave me a lesson in plant-hunting. The patches of wild strawberries, with tiny, twinkling fruit, were easy to spot and Tallberg showed me how to string them on a blade of grass to transport them safely home. Carpets of exquisite purple and yellow heartsease (Viola tricolor) were delicately perfumed with vanilla. And Japanese rose bushes (Rosa rugosa) were in bloom, their petals shocking pink against the dark green leaves.

After that, plant identification became trickier. Tallberg is adamant you should not eat or even pick any plant you cannot recognize with absolute certainty. If in doubt, leave it out, he advises.

“Start with the ones (plants) you already know to get you going,” he advised as he presented me with a bunch of sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella), which he describes as a smaller, more elegant version of common sorrel. “Many people think it’s a noxious weed, but it’s lovely with fish and shellfish or green asparagus.”

“When you find a new plant, stop and go back some 10 meters and walk towards the plants again. This way you will be able to make observations about some essential feature, such as color, height, leaf shape, scent and so on.”

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Mushroom forager's bag at Mikkeli Market, Finland. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Unless you go out with an experienced forager, it helps immensely to consult a book, such as Tallberg’sWild Herb Cookbook,” or take a course about native plants at a local community college. Websites, such as NatureGate, are also helpful. But, as Tallberg says, “Be sensible: don’t go harvesting herbs or plants along highways, on areas sprayed with herbicides, or near factories. Also avoid foraging near golf courses or other areas where herbicides or other pesticides may have been used. Consider sustainability and don’t tear out all the roots. The tools you need are the same as used in gathering mushrooms: a basket and a small knife, although I also include scissors in my basic tool kit. If you’re picking nettles, wear gloves.”

Able to identify culinary plants

As he gathered samples of chickweed,  fat hen and sweet cicely, Tallberg said he could identify more than 80 varieties of culinary plants but was still learning.

“I get so excited when I’m out foraging — I imagine how lovely the violets will be with fish or how polypody (Polypodium) is a natural flavor enhancer for game or how I’m going to use pine needles like rosemary or deep-fry nettle leaves or lichen and flavor them with juniper salt. … And then I remember I’m still in Helsinki — it’s crazy! Foraging has given me a new angle on life, not just gastronomy,” he said.

Tallberg has built a business supplying wild ingredients to other chefs, has written several books on the subject and acts as a national consultant and Finnish food ambassador. He was awarded the prestigious Finland Prize for his work with food, nature and conservation.

As we meandered, Tallbert was a companionable and enthusiastic soundtrack, “There are many different types of dandelion. … Oh, look, there’s some orpine. They’ve got juicy, succulent leaves and tops, and you can use them like a salad leaf or toss into a jus. … Ooh, just found some Polypodium vulgare, that’s quite liquorish and good for fish and game. … A bit later in the year, this is where I’ll find bilberries, rowanberries, wild raspberries … Wild yarrow will bring herbal tones to a salad. … I use maple leaves, when they’re young and shiny, like vine leaves. … Chickweed are like pea shoots but milder and more mellow and add volume to a salad.”

Back at his flat, he explained the building blocks of wild salad making: “You’re looking for acidity, aroma and sweetness.”

To the haunting music of Aino Vena, we drank refreshing Nordic Koivu, birch sap water, as Tallberg made a vinaigrette with a splash of sea buckthorn juice. The salad was vivid and intense. I could feel myself getting healthier as I ate. Together with an omelette, local goat’s cheese and yogurt with wild strawberries, violets and bee pollen, it was the real taste of Finland.

Pork Chops With Fat Hen and Mustard*

Ingredients

  • Yield: 4 servings
  • Four 7-ounce pork chops (use first-class pork for this dish)
  • 2 handfuls of fat hen
  • 2 tablespoons strong mustard
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • Olive oil
  • Freshly ground sea salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Season the pork chops with sea salt and pepper, brush with oil and fry on a hot cast-iron pan until just cooked.
  2. Cook the fat hen in water flavored with honey and salt for a couple of minutes, drain, toss with a drop of olive oil and serve with mustard.
  3. * This goes well with Carrots With Sweet Cicely

Carrots With Sweet Cicely

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

14 ounces small carrots

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons honey (brown sugar or treacle will do, too)

2½ cups water

half a handful of sweet cicely, finely chopped

2 ounces butter

Directions

1. Peel the carrots (unless you are using new season ones that have a thin peel containing plenty of flavor).

2. Place all the ingredients in a pot (apart from the sweet cicely), covering the carrots with water. Cook until almost all of the water has evaporated and a shiny butter glaze remains. Add the sweet cicely.

 

Steamed Fillet of Salmon With Ox-Eye Daisy Shoots

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 (4-ounce) pieces of salmon, boned

1 cucumber, sliced lengthways

4 tablespoons salad dressing*

Freshly ground sea salt and pepper

Directions

1. Season the salmon pieces with sea salt and pepper, steam them for about 3 minutes and leave to stand in room temperature for about 10 minutes, after which they will be ready.

2. Peel the cucumber, spoon out the seeds and cut the cucumber lengthwise into thin slices (with a cheese slicer or mandolin cutter).

3. Toss the shoots and cucumber in the salad dressing, season with sea salt and pepper and serve with the salmon at room temperature.

 

* Salad dressing

Ingredients

2 generous cups of cold-pressed olive oil

1¼ cup vegetable oil

¾ cup white wine vinegar

1½ tablespoon dried tarragon

4 medium-size garlic cloves, sliced

4 to 5 ounces Dijon-type mustard

Juice of half a lemon

Directions

1. Mix the ingredients in a jug blender or with a hand blender, and strain them by pressing through a strainer with a small ladle to ensure all aromas are captured.

Recipes are from: “Wild Herb Cookbook” by Sami Tallberg (2012), available in both Finnish- and English-language editions.

Main photo: Finnish chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. Credit: Martin Thompson

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Iced Zucchini Soup With Crème Fraiche and Herbs. Credit: Sue Style

Iced soups are perfect for sweltering summer days, lip-smacking good and super refreshing — think salad in a glass or bowl. Best of all, most don’t need cooking. Here are five recipes, three of them pillar-box red and the other two the palest of greens.

Chilled soups cover the color spectrum

The three reds include a couple of gazpachos, both of them slight variations on the classic tomato-pepper-onion-garlic-olive combo. One brings watermelon to the mix, to provide a sweet counterpoint to the tomatoes’ acidity; the other adds strawberries. The third is salmorejo, gazpacho’s first cousin. It’s a typical supper dish in Cordoba, Spain, where summer temperatures routinely soar into the hundreds. There’s a distinct family likeness with gazpacho, but salmorejo has no cucumber, onions or peppers, and the result is thicker, smoother and sinfully creamy (but without cream).

For the two green soups, one has a European feel to it, featuring lightly cooked zucchini with loads of tender herbs. The other looks to Asia for its inspiration, in a smooth emulsion of cucumber, green chili, coconut milk, cilantro and avocado.

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Gazpacho with strawberries. Credit: Sue Style

Gazpacho With Strawberries

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 0 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes, plus several hours to chill the soup

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

½ pound (500 grams) tomatoes

½ pound (500 grams) strawberries

1 small red pepper

½ green pepper

½ a cucumber

1 clove garlic, mashed

⅓ to ⅔ cup (100 to 150 milliliters) olive oil

Splash of sherry vinegar

Salt and white pepper to taste

Mint sprigs

Instructions

1. Quarter tomatoes and remove cores. Roughly chop tomatoes and put in a large, deep bowl (or blender/food processor).

2. Remove stalks from strawberries, rinse well and add to the bowl/blender.

3. Remove seeds and cores from both kinds of pepper and chop the flesh roughly. Peel the cucumber, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. Chop flesh roughly.

4. Add chopped peppers and cucumber to the bowl/blender along with the crushed garlic.

5. Blend till very smooth, then add the oil in a steady stream till gazpacho is smooth and somewhat lighter in color.

6. Season with salt, pepper and 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar.

7. Chill the gazpacho.

8. To serve, spoon into glasses and garnish with mint sprigs.

Gazpacho With Watermelon

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 0 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes, plus several hours to chill the soup

Yield: 4 to 6 servings, makes about 6 cups (1.5 liters)

Ingredients

2 pounds (1 kilogram) tomatoes

1 red pepper

1 cucumber

1 medium red onion

1 pound (500 grams) watermelon, preferably seedless, weighed after skinning

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

½ cup (125 milliliters) olive oil, plus a little more to drizzle on top for serving

Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 3 Romaine lettuce leaves, finely shredded, for garnish

Instructions

1. Remove cores from tomatoes and discard. Cut flesh in quarters and put in a large bowl (if using a hand-held blender for the soup) or in a blender or food processor.

2. Remove stalk and seeds from red pepper, set aside a chunk for the garnish (enough for about 2 tablespoons, finely chopped) and roughly chop the rest. Add to bowl/blender.

3. Peel cucumber, set aside a 1-inch (3-centimeter) chunk for the garnish and roughly chop the rest and add to bowl/blender.

4. Chop the onion finely, set aside about 1 tablespoon for the garnish and add the rest to bowl/blender.

5. Set aside a chunk of watermelon (enough for 2 tablespoons, finely chopped) for the garnish, chop the rest roughly and add to bowl/blender.

6. Add sherry vinegar and blend the soup till really smooth. If you want and can be bothered, push it through a strainer to remove any wayward pips, but this is a counsel of perfection and the soup will be fine without straining.

7. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

8. With the blender motor still running, add the olive oil in a steady trickle, continuing to blend till well mixed and emulsified.

9. Chill the soup well.

10. Put the finely chopped garnishes (including shredded lettuce) in ramekins, keeping each kind separate.

11. To serve, pour gazpacho into bowls or glasses, drizzle a thread of olive oil on top of each serving and hand around the different garnishes for everyone to sprinkle on as the mood takes them.

Salmorejo (Iced Tomato and Bread Soup from Córdoba, Spain)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 0 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes, plus several hours to chill the soup

Yield: Makes enough for 6 soup bowls or 10 to 12 small glasses

Ingredients

4 ounces (100 grams) day-old bread, trimmed of crusts (weighed after crusts have been removed)

1¾ pounds (750 grams) tomatoes (4 to 5 medium)

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped

4 tablespoons sherry vinegar or wine vinegar

½ cup olive oil

Salt to taste, about 1 teaspoon

2 hen eggs or 12 quail eggs

2 to 3 slices cured ham (ibérico, serrano, prosciutto etc.)

Instructions

1. Cut the bread in chunks, put in a bowl and pour on just enough cold water to cover. Leave to soften.

2. Quarter the tomatoes and put them in a blender with the crushed garlic and chopped apple (or place in a large bowl and use a hand-held blender).

3. Add the vinegar and blend till smooth.

4. Tip the soaked bread into a colander, press or squeeze out all excess water, add to the blender and blend once more.

5. With the motor still running, dribble in the oil in a steady stream — the salmorejo will thicken and turn from rosy pink to the color of an Andalusian sunset.

6. Season with salt to taste and blend again.

7. Chill the salmorejo for several hours.

8. For the garnish, bring a saucepan of water to a boil, drop in the eggs and boil (10 minutes for hen’s eggs, 3 minutes for quail’s eggs).

9. Drain eggs, refresh in cold water and peel.

10. Chop the hen’s eggs fairly finely; cut quails’ eggs in half. Cut the ham in fine strips.

11. Serve salmorejo in small bowls or glasses, and scatter strips of ham and chopped/halved eggs on top.

Iced Zucchini Soup With Crème Fraiche and Herbs

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes, plus several hours to chill the soup

Yield: Makes 6 cups (1.5 liters) or 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2 medium zucchini, about 1½ pounds (750 grams)

Salt

A generous handful of tender fresh herbs (try flat-leaf parsley, mint, chives and tarragon)

3 cups (750 milliliters) chicken stock, preferably home-made

A scant cup (200 milliliters) crème fraiche, plus a little more for the garnish

Instructions

1. Top and tail the zucchini, slice fairly thinly and steam or cook in boiling water with a pinch of salt for 6 to 8 minutes or until barely tender. Alternatively, put trimmed, sliced zucchini in a microwave-safe dish, add half a cup of water and a pinch of salt, cover with microwave-safe clingfilm and microwave on maximum power (900 watts) for 6 to 8 minutes.

2. Trim the herbs, reserve a few sprigs for garnish and chop the rest roughly.

3. Drain the zucchini, tip into a blender, add the roughly chopped herbs and blend till smooth.

4. Add the stock and crème fraiche and blend again. You may need to do this in two batches, or blend the soup in a large bowl using a hand-held (stalk) blender.

5. Check the seasoning, adding more salt if necessary.

6. Chill the soup thoroughly.

7. To serve, float a blob of crème fraiche on top and garnish with the reserved herb sprigs.

Iced Cucumber Soup With Avocado and Cilantro

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 0 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes, plus 30 minutes to salt the cucumber and several hours to chill the soup

Yield: Makes 4 cups (1 liter)

Ingredients

2 large cucumbers, about 2 pounds (1 kilogram) total

1 teaspoon salt

Optional: 1 fresh green chili (jalapeño or similar), or a pinch of cayenne or Espelette pepper

1 avocado

14 ounces (400 milliliters) coconut milk

5 ounces (150 milliliters) Greek yogurt

Plenty of chopped cilantro plus a few sprigs for the garnish

Juice of 1 lime

Instructions

1. Peel the cucumbers and cut in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds with a teaspoon and chop flesh into small chunks. Place in a colander, sprinkle with salt and leave in the sink to drain for about 30 minutes.

2. Cut the chili in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut the chili in very fine strips, then chop finely.

3. Cut the avocado in half, remove the pit and peel and chop the flesh roughly.

4. Rinse the cucumbers in cold water and shake dry.

5. Put the cucumbers, chopped chili (or cayenne/Espelette pepper), avocado, coconut milk, yogurt, cilantro and lime juice in a blender and blend till smooth. Be careful not to overdo this or the soup may curdle.

6. Check the seasoning and add more salt if needed.

7. Chill the soup well.

8. Float an ice cube on top and add sprigs of cilantro to serve.

Main photo: Iced Zucchini Soup With Crème Fraiche and Herbs. Credit: Sue Style

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Grill fire ready for a four-course dinner. Credit: iStock/Keith Tsuji

Grilling takes effort. Lots of coal goes into building the fire; you wait for the coals to get hot; and the food cooks in about 15 minutes, if you’re having steaks, burgers, vegetables or hot dogs. And that’s it. The fire continues  burning, wasting away, while you eat. How about getting full use out of all those hot coals that are burning away for hours?

Here’s a game plan for a multi-course grill party that will be perfect for a summer weekend gathering that keeps different foods grilling for hours. Given the amount of food, you’ll probably want to have at least eight people joining you.

The courses you will serve are an appetizer, a first course, a main course, and a dessert. However, you can just keep throwing food onto the grill as you like, especially vegetables, because they can be chopped up later for a grilled salad.

Remember that the idea here is to get full use of your charcoal fire and not merely to cook quickly, although some foods will.

The summer night’s grill party menu and recipes.

When you build your fire, do so with a bit more coals than usual and with all the coals piled to one side of the firebox so that the other side will be cooler once the fire is going. Do not start cooking until all the coals are white with ash. All recipes assume the grill fire is ready to go.

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Grilled breaded swordfish. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Grilled Breaded Swordfish

Prep Time: 12 minutes

Cook Time: 8 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as an appetizer

Note: Total time does not include time for the fire to be prepared.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons freshly grated caciocavallo or pecorino cheese
  • 1¼ pounds swordfish, cubed
  • All-purpose flour for dredging
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Directions

  1. Mix the bread crumbs, oregano, salt, pepper, and cheese in a bowl.
  2. Dredge the swordfish in the flour and pat off any excess. Dip in the egg on both sides and then dredge again in the bread crumb mixture, coating both sides. Place on double skewers without touching each other.
  3. Drizzle the top of the swordfish with olive oil. Place the oiled side down on the grill and cook 4 minutes. Flip to the other side and grill another 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

Grilled Vegetables and Bruschetta

You should be able to get everything onto a 22-inch diameter Weber kettle grill. Cook in batches otherwise. The vegetables are eaten at room temperature after the main meat dish is cooked.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Note: Total time does not include time for the fire to be prepared.

Ingredients

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 large eggplants, peeled and cut lengthwise into ⅜ -inch-thick slices

4 medium zucchini, cut lengthwise into ⅜ -inch thick slices

4 bell peppers (various colors)

4 large portobello mushrooms

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Fresh basil leaves, to taste, whole, snipped, or chopped

Fresh or dried oregano to taste

8 (½-inch thick) slices Italian or French country bread (about ¾ pound)

Directions

1. Mix the garlic and olive oil in a bowl. Brush all the vegetables with olive oil. Place on the grill directly over the fire and cook until they are charred a bit. They can be set aside individually or mixed or chopped and mixed. Season with salt, pepper, and basil or oregano.

2. Brush the bread slices with the olive oil and grill until lightly toasted. Arrange all the vegetables attractively on a platter and serve.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin With Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary

Prep Time: 2 hours, including marinating

Cook Time: 25 to 30 minutes

Total Time: 2.5 hours

Yield: 8 servings

Note: Total time does not include time for the fire to be prepared.

Ingredients

4 pounds pork tenderloin (about 4 tenderloins in all)

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley

Directions

1. Place the pork tenderloins in a glass or ceramic baking dish and pour the olive oil and balsamic vinegar over them. Sprinkle with the garlic, onions, rosemary and black pepper and marinate in the refrigerator for 2 hours, turning several times.

2. Place the tenderloins on the grill (6 inches from the heat source for charcoal fires) and cook, uncovered, until golden brown, without turning or moving them, about 15 minutes. If your grilling grate is closer to the fire than 6 inches, grill the meat for less time or grill with indirect heat. Turn once and grill until the other side is golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle the parsley to coat a serving platter and arrange the grilled pork tenderloins on top and serve.

Grilled Bananas With Peach Schnapps and Cinnamon

Prep time: 0 minutes

Cook Time: About 12 minutes

Total Time: About 12 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Note: Total time does not include time for the fire to be prepared.

Ingredients

4 bananas, with their peels

4 tablespoons peach schnapps

Confectioner’s sugar for sprinkling

Ground cinnamon for sprinkling

Directions

1. Put the un-peeled bananas on the grill 1 to 2 inches from the source of the heat until they blacken on both sides.

2. Remove from the grill, slice the bananas open lengthwise, leaving them in their peels, and sprinkle a tablespoon of peach schnapps, a shake of powdered sugar and cinnamon on each and serve.

Main photo: Grill fire ready for a four-course dinner. Credit: iStock/Keith Tsuji

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Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad. Credit: Sasha Martin

No American picnic is really complete without a bean salad. Black beans, green beans or kidney beans, often blended with garbanzos and onions in a light vinaigrette, make for the dreams of many a midsummer picnic. These salads complement roast meats like nothing else and are light, quick and healthy additions to any meal.

Roast meats in the form of kebabs and chops rule menus across western, central and southern Asia. With these kebabs come rice, bread or naan, and usually a light vegetable or bean salad. My favorite of these salads comes from Pakistan and uses garbanzo and northern white beans in a sweet-and-sour vinaigrette of grape-seed oil and white vinegar seasoned with a bit of sugar, black pepper and chilies. Other ingredients include onions, tomatoes, red bell peppers and cilantro. Variations on this theme can be found on stops along the Silk Road with a different combination of beans or lemon juice in place of white vinegar.

Pakistan had an important place on the Silk Road connecting the overland routes with the maritime sea routes. An often-used north-south route running the length of the country connected the Southern Silk Road at Kashgar, China, with Pakistan’s port in Karachi. From Karachi goods could be shipped southeast to Goa, west to ports in Persia or Arabia, up the Red Sea to Egypt, or down the coast of eastern Africa. The road between Kashgar and Karachi is still there today, at least as far as Islamabad, in the form of the Karakoram Highway.

Karakoram Highway. Credit: Laura Kelley

Karakoram Highway. Credit: Laura Kelley

The earliest parts of the Silk Road also ran through northernmost Pakistan and connected the jade mines in western China to the lapis mines in northeastern Afghanistan. Trade in those minerals across the Badakhshan corridor began more than 4,000 years ago. So, from the second millennium B.C., the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, goods from across the region were flowing through Pakistan along with people, cultures and ideas. To this end, the city of Taxila, just west of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, was the site of one of the world’s earliest “universities” where, since the sixth century B.C., learned men traveling the Silk Road came to study.

The Silk Road and Pakistani food

In addition to their ideas, the people traveling the Silk Road also brought their food cultures. Modern Pakistani cuisine is a unique blend of influences from India, western and central Asia, Arabia and the Levant states of the Middle East. The foods from Pakistan’s Sindh and Punjab provinces are most closely related to Indian food, and the curries and other dishes can be quite spicy. Dishes from Pakistan’s two western provinces have commonalities with cuisines of Afghanistan and central Asia. Given the historical importance of the port at Karachi, there are also a few Southeast Asian and Pacific influences, evident in a big way in the use of coconut products, and lime instead of lemon, especially in the south.

The Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad is probably of Arab or Levantine origin given the number of similar salads from those regions. Those salads, however, usually use lemon juice as a souring agent and often contain kidney beans or broad beans, either alone or in combination with other beans. The use of vinegar instead of citrus for souring is probably a Central Asian influence, although it is difficult to be certain.

Chickpeas have been part of the human diet since Ancient Mesopotamian times and believed to have originated in Syria or southeastern Turkey based on the number of wild related species known from these areas. They are rich in protein, carbohydrates and soluble fiber as well as potassium, phosphorus and calcium.

A great deal of the salad’s special flavor comes from grape-seed oil in the dressing. This oil, often extracted after processing for winemaking, is light and sweet and brings the flavor of the grape arbor. A very high flashpoint makes it great for braising and cooking because it’s so difficult to scorch. It also is high in polyunsaturated fats, with 1 tablespoon accounting for 19% of the U.S. recommended daily requirement of vitamin E. It is available in most Persian and Mediterranean markets as well as many large grocery chains. Don’t substitute it, unless there are no options. The added flavor is worth going out of your way to make the purchase.

This salad is moderately spicy when made, but it mellows a lot after marinating. I like to prepare it in the morning, or by noon, and let it rest in the refrigerator for two to three hours. It’s best chilled, but not too cold, so consider taking it out of the fridge and letting it sit at room temperature before serving.  I have never met anyone who doesn’t like this salad, especially when it complements steak, chops or other grilled meats.

Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Total time includes at least 2 hours to allow flavors to blend.

Ingredients

  • 1 (15-ounce) can northern white beans or butter beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 1 large onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium red pepper, cored and minced
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 green chili peppers, minced
  • ⅓ cup white vinegar
  • ⅓ cup of grape-seed oil
  • 1 to 1½ tablespoons sugar
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 medium bunch fresh coriander leaves, minced

Directions

  1. Combine beans, chickpeas, onion, red pepper, tomato and chili peppers into a large bowl. Then whisk together vinegar, oil, sugar, salt and pepper and when well blended, pour over the bean mixture. Mix well.
  2. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Just before serving, fold in fresh chopped cilantro leaves and stir gently.

Main photo: Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad. Credit: Sasha Martin

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Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman

I am not a licorice-lover — far from it — but I have become fanatic about the anise-scented fennel.

The first hint came when I had it slow-braised with a roast and reduced to a mild, sweet, and meltingly delicious vegetable with just the barest hint of anise. The next step was roasting it with Parmesan cheese, which only a fool would turn down. My conversion experience came when I was presented with thinly sliced raw fennel, served in a bowl of lemony ice water, after a meal in Sorrento, Italy.

As a confirmed fennel fanatic and evangelist, my tip for first-timers or skeptics is to try fennel that has been mellowed out through cooking. Chances are you will soon find the sweet, delicately nuanced aroma and flavor of raw fennel also enticing.

Five reasons to love fennel

  1. It’s versatile. You can’t really go wrong with fennel, whether you cook it or eat it raw. And all three parts — the base, stalks and feathery leaves  — are edible. The bulb is the part most commonly used, cooked with meat, braised on its own, or used in salads or on sandwiches. The stalks can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as you would herbs such as parsley, dill, or tarragon.
  2. Easy to prepare and enjoy raw. You can slice fennel thinly, and mix with a vinaigrette on its own, or toss with a green salad or potato salad. It’s fast, simple, and delicious.
  3. Easy to cook. For those who don’t like the anise scent and flavor of fennel, try cutting the bulbs into large chunks, and roast them under a chicken or other meat or fish. And no one I know can resist fennel lightly sautéed in wine, cooked in cream, or roasted in the oven with Parmesan.
  4. Low calories and high nutrition. One cup of sliced fennel has only 27 calories, but large amounts of vitamin C, folate and potassium.
  5. Its phytochemicals promote health and may fight cancer.  Fennel contains many health-promoting phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemical compounds such as the antioxidants rutin and quercitin, and other kaempferol glycosides that also give fennel strong antioxidant activity. But perhaps the most interesting phytonutrient in fennel is anethole — the primary component of its volatile oil, which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has reduced inflammation and helped prevent cancer. One study showed that anethole stopped breast cancer cells from growing. Researchers have also proposed a biological mechanism that may explain these anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects by showing how anethole is involved in the shutting down of an intercellular signaling system, thus stopping tumor growth.

Of course, the main reason to love fennel is that it is delicious. One of the simplest ways to cook it is this recipe from Jane Grigson’s “Vegetable Book.” Grigson also turns out to be a fennel fanatic, and notes: “My favorite fennel dish, the best one of all by far. The simple additions of butter and Parmesan — no other cheese will do — show off  the fennel flavor perfectly. The point to watch, when the dish is in the oven, is the browning of the cheese. Do not let it go beyond a rich golden-brown.”

Fennel Baked With Parmesan Cheese

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings as a side dish

Ingredients

6 heads fennel, trimmed, quartered

2 tablespoons butter

freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons (or more) grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions

1. Cook the fennel in salted water until it is just barely tender.

2. Drain it well and arrange in a generously buttered gratin dish.

3. Be generous, too, with the pepper mill.

4. Sprinkle on the cheese.

5. Put into the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown and the fennel is bubbling vigorously in buttery juices.

Fennel Salad

You can make this salad as simple or as fancy as you like. Adding sweet dates and salty capers or olives make it exotic, but when you have fresh fennel all you really need is a light vinaigrette.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 0 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, by hand or with a mandoline

Black olives, capers, dates (about 2 tablespoons each, or to taste), optional

Juice of one lemon

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

1. Rinse the fennel and slice very thinly. Also slice the dates and olives, if you’re adding them.

2. Toss the fennel with the dates, olives and capers.

3. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together with a pinch of salt and pepper.

4. Dress the salad and toss to coat well.

Main photo:  Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman

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A tatin of new potatoes. Credit: Kerrin Rousset

New potatoes are the summer cook’s best friend. Firm and waxy with a wonderful sweet flavor and gossamer-thin skins, there’s no need to peel them — in fact it would be criminal to do so, for loads of flavor and much of the goodness lurks just under the skin.

All they need is a good scrub and — voilà — they’re good to go. Drop them into a pan of judiciously salted water, bring to a boil, cook till tender and serve with fresh butter and snipped mint leaves.

Plenty of ways to enjoy new potatoes

Boiling is not the only way to go with new potatoes. Because they keep their figure when cooked, they respond well to roasting or baking. For real drama and a winning dish that never fails to draw gasps from guests, try a “tatin” of new potatoes baked under a salty, herby crust. The whole thing is inverted for serving, like a tarte tatin, to reveal the spuds in all their golden glory. Or cut them almost in half, slide a bay leaf into the cut, drizzle with olive oil and roast till golden.

And remember that new potatoes come in many colors; any potato that is harvested early, be it white, gold, russet, red or purple, qualifies as new. A dish of purple potatoes mixed with brilliant green sugar snap peas and anointed with a little melted butter makes an arresting summer statement.

spuds

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New potatoes with bay leaves. Credit: Sue Style

“Tatin” of New Potatoes With an Herby Salt Crust

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 1 to 1¼ hours

Total time: About 1½ hours

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

18 to 24 medium-sized new potatoes

14 ounces (400 grams) flour

14 ounces (400 grams) kosher salt

1 tablespoon dried herbes de Provence or thyme

2 egg whites

A scant cup (about 200 milliliters) warm water

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 425 F (220 degrees C). Scrub the potatoes, but do not peel them.

2. Mix together the flour, salt and herbs in a large bowl.

3. Make a well in the center of the flour mix and add egg whites.

4. Add the water, gradually draw in the flour and salt from the sides and mix together till it forms a stiff dough.

5. Knead on a floured surface till smooth — if too sticky to your hands, add sprinkles of flour. If too dry, splash on a little more water and work it in.

6. Cut a piece of baking parchment to fit the bottom of a 12-inch (30-centimeter) cake pan.

7. Arrange the potatoes close together in the pan to form a flower shape and drizzle with olive oil.

8. Roll out the crust thickly on a floured board to the same diameter as the pan.

9. Lay it on top of the potatoes, tucking it inside the pan edge so there’s no overhang and the potatoes are snugly encased beneath the dough.

10. Bake the potatoes for 1 to 1¼ hours or until the crust is golden brown and hard and you can hear sizzling noises from the potatoes.

11. Leave the pan in the turned off oven till ready to serve.

12. Invert a large plate over the pan and carefully turn the tatin out onto the plate. The crust will form a base and the potatoes will be uppermost.

13. To serve, spear potatoes with a fork and lift them off the crust. Discard the crust, which is impossibly salty.

Roasted New Potatoes With Bay Leaves and Olive Oil

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

24 medium-sized new potatoes

24 bay leaves

A drizzle of olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 400 F (200 degrees C). Scrub the potatoes well, but do not peel.

2. Make a deep, lengthwise cut in each potato without going right through and slide a bay leaf inside each one.

3. Brush a little olive oil in the bottom of a baking tin or ovenproof dish just large enough to take all the potatoes in one layer.

4. Arrange the potatoes tightly together in the dish with the bay leaves uppermost, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with more olive oil.

5. Bake the potatoes for about an hour or until golden and fragrant.

Purple Potatoes and Sugar Snap Peas With Herbs

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20-25 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Serves 2 to 3

Ingredients

1 pound (450 grams) small purple potatoes

7 ounces (200 grams) sugar snap peas

1 teaspoon salt

1 ounce (25 grams) sweet butter

A handful of fresh herbs, roughly chopped (try mint, chives and flat-leaf parsley)

Directions

1. Scrub the potatoes well, but do not peel.

2. Trim the sugar snap peas.

3. Put the potatoes in a saucepan with water to cover and the salt.

4. Bring to a boil and boil for 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender when pierced with the point of a sharp knife.

5. Add the sugar snap peas and boil for 2-3 minutes more or until barely tender and still beautifully green.

6. Drain the vegetables, melt the butter in the pan, return the vegetables to the pan and roll them around in the butter till sizzling.

7. Tip the vegetables into a dish and sprinkle with chopped herbs.

Main photo: A tatin of new potatoes. Credit: Kerrin Rousset

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Chef Drago's diet-friendly spelt panzanella salad. Credit: David Latt

Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.

A contributor to the Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.

Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.

Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes,  basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.

A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.

Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.

Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.

Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.

Diet-Friendly Spelt Panzanella Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as a salad portion, 2 servings as an entrée.

To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons spelt
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
  • 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
  • ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
  • 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Pinch of salt to taste
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Directions

  1. Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
  2. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
  3. Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
  4. Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
  5. Add the cooked spelt berries.
  6. Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
  7. Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
  8. Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
  9. Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.

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Nuka-zuke pickled vegetables

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

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

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

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

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

Vegetables in nuka-miso.

Vegetables in nuka-miso. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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

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

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

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

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

Nuka-Zuke Pickling Base

Ingredients

2 pounds rice bran

6 ounce sea salt

About 6 cups filtered water or mineral water

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

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

1 cup dried soybeans

½ cup mustard powder

One small cabbage

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

Directions

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

Nuka-Zuke Pickles

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

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

Ingredients

Vegetables

Sea salt

Nuka-miso

Directions

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

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

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