Articles in Soapbox w/recipe

Holiday Pork Tenderloin. Credit: Barbara Haber

I am thinking about having an ecumenical holiday party this year to bring together friends of varying religious and ethnic persuasions and am enjoying the challenge of coming up with an inclusive menu that will honor my guests. I have been giving this party a lot of thought and decided to limit my scope to foods that represent Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the main holidays celebrated this time of year. Otherwise, if I try to include dishes representing the backgrounds of each of my guests, I will get into a tizzy trying to bring in dishes that reflect everyone’s nationality and/or religious belief. Besides, I have no idea what Ethical Culturists eat.

For Christmas

First, I will be thinking through Christmas dishes because that celebration dominates American culture this time of year, so much so that it is hard to believe that the holiday as we now know it has evolved only since the 19th century. Before that, our Puritan forefathers frowned upon its observance because they saw it as pagan. When Christmas finally came into its own, it became a holiday associated with children — gifts, good food and good cheer heavily influenced by Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Those influences make clear why the holiday is so child-centered, what with hanging up stockings and leaving cookies for Santa Claus, and singing about reindeer.

As for the food I will serve, I want to avoid menu clichés such as the usual Christmas turkey or ham and will aim for other dishes gussied up to look festive. If I am feeling flush, I may go for beef tenderloins and will be extra cautious to not overcook this expensive meat. But if my guest list is large, I may cook the less costly pork tenderloins and will surround the platter with roasted apples and red potatoes and a sprinkling of sage leaves that may still be available from my garden. And this reminds me of a blunder I almost made. I recently bought a Jerusalem cherry plant because I was attracted to its shapely leaves and big red berries. I had just about decided I would decorate my holiday platters with cuttings from the plant when I discovered that the berries are poisonous, a member of the deadly nightshade family. So let us not get carried away by putting unfamiliar vegetation on food platters.

For Hanukkah

Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that generally coincides with Christmas, is a less important observance than Passover, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But Hanukkah’s proximity to the Christian holiday has led to its growing prominence, and it too has become a child-centered event with the daily lighting of candles and the distribution of gifts. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the ancient temple of Jerusalem when its menorah miraculously burned for eight days and nights despite only a bit of oil being available. This explains why food fried in oil symbolizes the event, with potato latkes and jelly doughnuts the best known of the dishes. I have learned that I can make trays of latkes in advance, so I will prepare an assortment that will include not just those made with potatoes, but some with salmon and zucchini, and a dessert one with apples, all fried in advance, then heated in the oven just before serving.

For Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, based on several African harvest festivals, is a seven-day holiday that was established in the United States in 1966 as a tribute to African-American culture. Fruits, nuts and vegetables play a major role in this celebration so they should be featured in dishes served. My appetizers will include toasted almonds, and I will serve a roasted chicken surrounded by such vegetables as carrots, sweet potatoes and onions. For dessert, I will have sautéed bananas with a rum raisin sauce served warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Not for Festivus

Thinking about the origins of these holidays has put me in mind of Festivus, dubbed “the holiday for the rest of us,” an invented celebration made famous in an episode of “Seinfeld.” The preferred dishes are some kind of meatloaf and spaghetti with red sauce, created I suspect because they include low-budget ingredients. This spoof involves the ritual “Airing of Grievances” that takes place immediately after the Festivus dinner when each of the assembled guests lashes out at the others to complain about affronts they have experienced all year. Festivus makes fun of consumerism and the often-manufactured good cheer that dominates the culture for all of December.

The music and mood

While it is amusing to think about such a grouchy holiday, I have decided not to include it in my party since I prefer a more positive approach to my celebration. I will, however, insist that gifts are not exchanged and the music I play will be limited to classical guitar, a bit of Bach, some Gershwin and the rapturous trumpet-playing of Miles Davis.

Holiday Pork Tenderloin

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 60 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

1 teaspoon dried thyme

3 garlic cloves finely chopped

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

2 pork tenderloins with a combined weight of 3 to 4 pounds

6 or 8 small red potatoes cut in half

3 large red apples cut into quarters

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup water

Springs of fresh sage for garnish

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

2. In small dish combine thyme, garlic, oil, salt and pepper to form a paste.

3. Tie the two tenderloins together, place on rack in roasting pan and rub with the garlic and thyme paste. Roast 30 minutes.

4. Reduce oven to 350 F and surround pork with potatoes and apples. Roast for about 35 minutes longer or until meat thermometer registers 145 F. Remove potatoes and apples to a plate. Let pork stand for 15 minutes, and temperature will continue to rise 5 to 10 degrees.

5. Meanwhile, take away rack from roasting pan. Stir flour into drippings and cook at medium heat for 1 minute, stirring. Add wine, heat to boiling and keep on loosening brown bits from pan. Add broth and water and boil 1 minute. Pour into gravy boat.

6. Place pork on serving platter with potatoes and apples arranged around it. Garnish with sprigs of sage or whatever other fresh herbs are available.

Main photo: Roasted pork tenderloin with red potatoes, apples and sage. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Frying latkes for Hanukkah. Credit: iStock/Lisafx

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.

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.

Getting ready to make latkes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Getting ready to make latkes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Deconstructing the latke

Variety

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.

Soaking

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.

Onion

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.

Making latkes for Hanukkah. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Making latkes for Hanukkah. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Straining

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.

Proportions

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.

Binding

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.

Other ingredients

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.

Size

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.

Fried latkes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Fried latkes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Oil

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?

Temperature

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

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?

Conclusion

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

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Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is a specialty of teen cook Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans. Credit: Dreamstime

“It must be so easy for you!”

That’s what I hear from fellow moms several times a week. They’re talking about one of the biggest bugaboos of the working parent: the home-cooked family dinner. Because I’m a professionally trained chef, they think I’m immune to that end-of-the-day hustle to think up a new meal and get it on the table.

In many ways, it’s true. My professional training is a boon, but just as often I, too, am stumped after a long day working to figure out what my family might eat with minimal fuss or complaint.

The dinnertime crunch is a very real issue for many working parents. So much so that in September, Slate published an article reviewing the findings of a pair of sociologists who determined the home-cooked meal is a source of stress and angst for families — particularly for moms.

They came to this conclusion after studying 150 moms for 250 hours, focusing on 12 families in particular. In the end, they concluded home-cooked meals were under-appreciated and caused stress, especially for low-income moms who can’t afford fresh produce and have poor kitchen setups. Even those who could afford better were stymied by the ingratitude of their families.

In short, the study concluded the home-cooked meal as an idealized goal is nothing short of tyranny — particularly for the mothers who attempt to produce it.

A spate of responses to the Slate article came swiftly. The New York Times quickly published replies, as did a variety of culinary luminaries. The commentary ranged from disbelief to admonishment that cooking shouldn’t be — isn’t — so hard.

Family dinner should be a family effort

But I have a different take on the issue. I won’t quibble that cooking can be hard after a long and tiring day — especially when lack of skill or resources make it difficult to even begin thinking about what’s for dinner.

When you work full time, it’s hard enough to want to make your own meal, much less come home and prepare food for other people. I spoke with one mom recently who said she had the “luxury” of a caregiver to help with her young children after school while she was still at work. The best helper she could find could barely cook, and the best cook was hardly a caregiver. The end result was that she came home after a long day and began preparing a meal for her already-starving school-age youngsters.

And she counted herself among the lucky ones because she could afford the help.

So what’s the solution to the tyranny of home cooking for working parents?

Don’t do it.

That’s right, I said it: Don’t do it. Don’t make it only your responsibility to pick the food, decide on the meal and then cook it, because right under your very noses you may have the best kitchen helpers you could find — and they won’t charge you a cent.

They’re your kids.

Now, I’m not suggesting pressing your youngsters into child labor or giving them full responsibility for making the meals at home. What I am suggesting is giving them credit for being able to pick out good food and having the willingness to prepare it.

I heard this loud and clear in the three years I worked on “FutureChefs: Recipes From Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World (Rodale, 2014).” Over and over again I heard from parents who weren’t cooks themselves, who struggled in the kitchen, but had kids who had a passion for cooking born from living in our food-obsessed world.

One young man, Tyler Trainer, not only began cooking for his family but started a small catering business when he was in his early teens — much to his parents shock. “We don’t know where he got it from,” his mom told me.

This was true whether or not the kids were from affluent families. Among many great examples is Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans, who is from what she calls a “low-income” family. She got involved with cooking watching her father use what he had in the kitchen to create great meals. As a middle-school student, she joined an activist group that engaged young people in the future of New Orleans — particularly school food and food justice issues.

Working with kids such as Arieanna and the other 100 or so kids in the book, I realized that often the “tyranny” of the scratch meal is one self-imposed by parents, especially those with older kids who are willing and able to help.

Of course, in the end, every parent and every family has to figure out what works for them. Time and money constraints are not to be taken lightly. But programs exist to teach kids to cook and make great choices and even help families buy fresh produce at limited cost, although they continue to be an overlooked resource in winning the battle for home-cooked meals.

In my opinion, these programs are the forward flank of an American movement back to the home kitchen — a movement based on strength, knowledge, pride and joy.

Is there a FutureChef hiding in your house?

Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette

Yield: 6 servings

This recipe first appeared in on “FutureChefs: Recipes From Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World” and was created by Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans.

Arieanna teaches cooking classes at Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, or “The Rethinkers,” a program created in 2006 to help low-income kids be part of the discussion about how to rebuild the city’s schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The program focuses on everything from school safety to building architecture to school food reform and has been able to overhaul school lunch programs to be healthier and fresher using a school lunch report card, which assesses the quality of school food.

“I started out as a middle-schooler at the program and now I’m teaching other kids,” said Arieanna, 17. She said learning about and becoming an advocate for food justice is one of the most important aspects of her education with the program. Last year, the teen cooked with Taste of the NFL in New Orleans, a nonprofit that creates “parties” around National Football League events, with proceeds going to fight hunger in the community.

Arieanna said her greatest influence is her father, who works as a chef in New Orleans’ French Quarter. “I live in a low-income family and we don’t always have as many things to work with,” she said. “I’ve watched my father always make us something good to eat, even if he didn’t have regular ingredients. It’s taught me to be creative with what I have.”

Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is her unique take on a classic New Orleans shrimp pasta salad. She uses crab boil to give the shrimp an intense flavor. Because local and seasonal eating is an important part of how she has come to rethink food, she uses Gulf shrimp for this recipe.

Ingredients

For the vinaigrette:

2 cloves minced garlic

2 teaspoons minced shallots

2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons coarse-grain mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta:

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 pound pasta of your choice

For the shrimp:

1 pound large Gulf shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 tablespoon crab boil seasoning (such as Old Bay)

For the garnish:

1 large tomato, diced

6 fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade, for garnish (optional; see note below for directions)

Directions

1. Make the vinaigrette by whisking all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside.

2. In a large pot, bring 4 cups of water to a boil over medium heat. Add the salt and olive oil. Add the pasta and cook to al dente according to package directions. (The time will vary depending on the type of pasta you choose.) Drain and transfer to a large, deep platter or pasta bowl.

3. Meanwhile, cook the shrimp by placing them in a medium saucepan with just enough water to cover them. Stir in the crab boil seasoning and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook until the shrimp turn pink, 3 to 4 minutes.

4. Drain the shrimp and add to the pasta.

5. Add the vinaigrette to the pasta and shrimp and toss well. Add the diced tomato, toss again and garnish with basil leaves, if desired.

Note: To make a chiffonade, stack the leaves of fleshy herbs (such as basil) or other greens on top of one another and then tightly roll them into a small cylinder. Using a sharp knife, cut the cylinder crosswise into narrow slices. When the slices are unfurled, you will have thin slivers of herbs or greens.

Main image: Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is a specialty of teen cook Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans. Credit: Dreamstime

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The ubiquitous chicken tikka masala can be delicious. But why stop there? Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Chicken tikka masala — a fairly delectable concoction of tomatoes, cream, fenugreek and grilled, boneless chicken — has become the poster child of stereotypical Indian food, leading most of us knowledgeable in Indian cuisine extremely hesitant to associate with it.

When done right, it can be a palate-pleasing dish. I mean, who can argue with smoky chicken morsels smothered in a mildly spiced tomato cream sauce? All things considered, it’s a fairly good introduction to the world of Indian cuisine before moving on to bigger and better things.

But this is where the problem lies. The love for chicken tikka masala does not leave much room for taking that next step. On the contrary, it seems to be gathering more fans and converts in its wake. A few cohorts that aid in its cause are the saag paneer (Indian cheese morsels in a creamed spinach sauce) and the leavened, butter-slathered naan bread. They woo the spice-averse with cream and butter and the novelty of a tandoori oven.

 Lights … camera … stereotype

A recently released food movie, “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” takes us from the bustling markets of Mumbai to farm markets in rural France and on a journey of reinventing Indian food in chic Paris — all in an hour and a half. However, before moving on to molecular gastronomy, the movie’s central character, Hassan Kadam, wows us with his fare in his family restaurant, Maison Mumbai, with dishes such as saag paneer and butter chicken, essentially enough hackneyed restaurant fare to make any true-blue Indian foodie shudder.

Departing from the author’s original fairly adventurous food renderings, the movie makers introduce the viewer to Hassan’s talents by talking tandoori, showing stunning pictures of saag paneer before moving onto other essentials and brave and bold fusion.

This creates the same frustration that leads most Indian food professionals to shy away from the chicken tikka masala, as the dish has stymied the broadening of the essential Indian repertoire.

Certainly, we have come a long way. There is a lot of exploration in Indian cuisine. Yet few restaurants leave this staple off their menus. They call it different names and sometimes add nuances to it that might add a layer of sophistication or a somewhat varied touch, but it is there — in some shape or form.

Even sandwich chains have moved on to include tikka sandwiches or wraps in their repertoire as a nod to the cuisine of India.

Is chicken tikka masala even originally from India?

Chicken tikka masala also suffers from heritage issues. It is difficult to bond, I mean, truly bond, with a dish that supposedly was invented in a curry house in London. It is hard to wax poetic about it like it was something conjured up in your grandmother’s kitchen.

If you are a fan of this brightly hued, rich-tasting curry, it is not my intent to offend you. Instead, it is to move you along to the other aspects and dimensions of your Indian restaurant menu. Yes, you can be adventurous, too. Explore, and you might surprise yourself with a new favorite or maybe a few. Imagine the possibilities.

If you like it spicy, a chicken chettinad from Southern India might please with its notes of garlic and black pepper. A simple chicken curry with ginger and tomatoes could tantalize the taste buds, without any unnecessary cream. And, of course, a kerala coconut and curry leaf chicken curry might also satisfy the indulgent palate with gentle citrus notes from the curry leaves.

The objective here is to taste the complete bouquet of flavors that good Indian cooking offers, rather than a muted version that is further masked with too much cream.

I offer you as a peace offering a nuanced cauliflower dish, which is creamy and richly flavored with ground poppy seeds and cashews. No cream here. This recipe for cauliflower rezala is a vegetarian adaptation of the Mughlai style of cooking found in Eastern India. This variant combines traditional Mughlai ingredients, such as yogurt and dried fruits, with core Bengali ingredients, such as the poppy seeds used in this dish. A mutton or chicken rezala is fairly rich. I first lightened the original with chicken in theBengali Five Spice Chronicles” and have adapted this for the cauliflower and kept it relatively simple. If you can find pale cheddar cauliflower, it should result in a pretty rendition.

Cauliflower

Cauliflower Rezala provides the creaminess without the cream. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

 

Cauliflower Rezala – Cauliflower in a Cashew, Yogurt and Poppy Seed Sauce

Prep Time: 4 hours (mainly to marinate the cauliflower)

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

For the marinade:

3/4 cup Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

1 medium-sized cauliflower, cut into medium-sized pieces

For the cashew cream paste:

1/2 cup cashews

1/2 cup poppy seeds soaked in warm water for 2 hours or longer

Water for blending

For the base:

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon caraway seeds (know as shazeera)

1 medium-sized onion, grated on the large holes of a box grater

2 to 3 bay leaves

4 to 6 green cardamoms, bruised

3/4 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon clarified butter (ghee)

To finish:

1 tablespoon rosewater (optional)

Slivered almonds and or pistachios

Directions

1. Beat the yogurt with the salt and marinate the cauliflower pieces in the mixture for at least 3 hours.

2. Grind the cashews and poppy seeds into a smooth paste and set aside. You need to start with the poppy seeds, without too much water, just enough to create a paste, and then add the cashews with 1/3 cup water.

3. Heat the oil and add the caraway seeds. When they sizzle, add the onion.

4. Cook the onion for at least 7 minutes until it begins to turn pale golden.

5. Add the bay leaves, cardamoms, cayenne pepper and then the cauliflower. Cook on medium heat until well mixed. Cover and cook for 7 minutes.

6. Remove the cover and stir well. Add the poppy seed and cashew paste and mix well.

7. Stir in the clarified butter and cook on low heat for another 3 minutes. Note: The gravy should be thick and soft, and the cauliflower tender but not mushy.

8. Sprinkle with the rosewater, if using, and garnish with slivered almonds or pistachios.

Main photo: The ubiquitous chicken tikka masala can be delicious. But why stop there? Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

In Belgium, beer is the beverage of choice, while mead, an ancient alcoholic drink, is virtually unknown. But a young Belgian beekeeper, Xavier Rennotte, has given mead a makeover with the recent launch of his own brand, Bee Wine.

With roots in historic recipes and “Beowulf,” the real magic behind Bee Wine’s freshly minted flavor comes from Rennotte’s collaboration with a Belgian scientist. Mead is nothing more than honey, water and yeast, although spices and fruit are sometimes added for flavor. It’s not wine, although it tastes like it.

When I first encountered Rennotte some years ago, he had just met Sonia Collin, an expert in brewing and honey at Louvain University. I asked him then why he had turned to science for help. He explained it was his godfather who had made the suggestion: “Learn from the beginning, the scientific way. The best way to understand something is to go deep inside it,” he had told Rennotte.


But why mead? It turned out Rennotte was obsessed with recreating the flavor of his first boyhood taste of mead, known as hydromel (“honey water”) in French. In other words, he was using science to track down a fleeting, Proustian taste from his childhood in the Belgian countryside.

Rennotte’s story lies at the heart of a book I wrote to explore our mostly pleasurable relationship with flavor, and the science behind it. I caught up with him recently at a food festival in the Parc Royal in Brussels. A crowd was gathered in front of his Nectar & Co stand to sample his Bee Wine.

Many people were mystified — was it wine or not? He happily explained its origins, as he offered tastings. Most people were delighted with the flavor. “It makes a great aperitif, or can be used as an ingredient in a cocktail,” Rennotte said. He’s also a trained chef, and loves using it as a marinade for lamb or fish, or as a dessert ingredient. “It’s great in sabayon,” he noted.

People were also sampling about a dozen types of organic honey with different flavors, aromas, textures and colors that Rennotte imports from around Europe for his Bee Honey collection. They include lemon blossom, wild carrot, eucalyptus and coriander. My favorite is the sunflower honey — thick as molasses, butter yellow and delicious on Le Pain Quotidien sourdough bread. One of his best-sellers is a spreadable paste made of just honey and pureed hazelnut. It tastes like Nutella, but with no added sugar or oil.

Rennotte isn’t the only novice alcoholic beverage entrepreneur who has turned to science for help and inspiration. One of the recipes in my book is for sabayon made with Musa Lova, a banana liqueur produced by a Flemish restaurateur. The liqueur is made in collaboration with the director of the largest in vitro banana species collection in the world, at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Leuven University. Musa Lova, a rum-based liqueur that comes in varieties such coffee or local honey, is made with ordinary Cavendish bananas, without added flavoring. Bananas contain a huge number of flavor molecules, which vary slightly depending on the ripeness.

Author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

“A Taste of Molecules” author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

Science not only helps alcoholic beverage makers, the producers influence science too. During my research in Copenhagen, for example, I discovered that the pH scale, used in medicine, agriculture and food science, was developed at the Carlsberg brewing company’s laboratory in 1909.

Rennotte’s hydromel is made from organic orange blossom honey from the Mount Etna area of Sicily, organic German yeast and spring water. His meadery, south of Brussels, is a former slaughterhouse that he refurbished with solar panels and a system to reuse the water that cools the fermentation tanks.


The first time I tasted Rennotte’s mead was at his wife’s bakery-patisserie Au Vatel in the European Quarter, where we met often to talk about his search for the perfect mead. The early sample I tasted, which he had poured straight from a plastic lab bottle into a wine glass, was clear, young but tasty. The honey-tinted final product I drank at the food festival was light and sweet with a complex flavor that, one customer noted, develops and changes slightly with every sip.

“I couldn’t have done it without science,” Rennotte said. “I learned how the yeast functions, the importance of the pH of the honey and the temperature of the water — I learned it all from Sonia.”

Rennotte is incredibly proud and happy with his hydromel. But did he manage to capture the flavor he remembered from childhood? “I’m still searching,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll be looking for it for the rest of my life.”

Crumble of Christmas Boudin Sausage With Mead Sauce

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes (plus chilling)

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

For the boudin mixture:

1/3 pound white boudin with pecans

1/4 pound black boudin with raisins

A “knob” of butter (roughly 2 tablespoons)

For the apple compote:

2 cooking apples

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

For the mead sauce:

2 cups veal stock

1 1/4 cups mead

Salt and pepper to taste

For the topping:

2 ounces Speculoos (classic Belgian spice cookies)

Directions

1. Prepare the compote the day before or in the morning, so that it can be well chilled before serving. Peel and cut the apples into chunks. Cook the apples in the water on high heat. After 5 minutes, mash the apples, drain off any excess water and add the sugar. Chill.

2. Before serving, remove the skin of the sausages and place the meat in a mixing bowl. Mash the sausage meat with a fork. Cook the sausage meat in the butter in a nonstick pan on high heat. Remove when the meat is browned and keep warm.

3. To create the mead sauce, combine the veal stock and the mead in a saucepan, simmer and reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.

4. Prepare the Speculoos cookies by breaking them into small pieces.

5. When serving use 4 balloon-type wine glasses to layer the ingredients in the following order:

  • 2 tablespoons warm sausage meat
  • 1 tablespoon mead sauce
  • 2 tablespoons cold compote
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled Speculoos cookies

Notes
This is one of Xavier Rennotte’s favorite mead recipes, a starter or amuse-bouche based on boudin (blood sausage) from the southern, Francophone region of Belgium. During Christmastime in Wallonia, butcher shops’ windows are overflowing with boudin made with a variety of ingredients, such as raisins, apples, walnuts, leeks, pumpkin, truffles and Port. Each butcher competes to offer his or her clients a selection of sweet and savory boudin sausage.

Main photo: Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the  launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

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In this risotto, the radicchio's bitterness balances the sweetness of the pumpkin (or squash). Credit: Aya Brackett

One of the reasons I enjoy writing books is that with each one I discover new facts, research and ideas. My latest book “Bitter” opened my eyes to the complexity of taste.

It began when my friends in the food world sent me suggestions as to what to include in my book. Coffee, chicories and beer were already on my list. But sorrel and rhubarb — weren’t they sour? Why did these food experts taste them differently than I?

We all think of basic tastes, such as bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and savory (also called umami). I knew fat belonged on that list and it has recently been added. But did you ever wonder why there were only six basic tastes? Surely taste is much more nuanced than that.


In the ancient world, scholars believed there were up to eight tastes and, by the 18th century, 11 basic tastes were proposed. So exactly how do we determine taste? Like most people, I thought the information from our taste buds on our tongue combined with our sense of smell to make a flavor. We’ve all experienced the lack of flavor in our food when we have a head cold. We do taste this way, but it is only part of the story.

Taste buds are not confined to our tongues. They are located all through our body, in our throat — down a shot of extra virgin olive oil and you’ll find those, in our lungs, stomach, intestines and, for some of us, in our testicles. So taste is not simply reliant on our tongue and nose; all our senses play a role.

Consider touch. Our fingers, lips, teeth, mouth; they all connect to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. It is responsible for the ice cream headache. Called the somatosensory system, these sensors help us taste by detecting temperature, texture, fattiness, pungency and tannins. The brain uses this information to create flavor. Interestingly many chefs have above average trigeminal nerve responses.

What we hear also affects how we taste. While extraneous sound distracts us and reduces the taste of our food, the noise inside our head increases it and the pleasure of eating. Crunchy, crisp foods are appealing because of the noise they make. Would you like a potato chip if it didn’t make a crunching sound? When we eat and drink, the tone of the background music and the instrument playing it can distort our sense of taste. A Campari and soda drunk while a brass band plays low-pitched music will be more bitter than if consumed while bright, high-pitched piece of music is played on a piano.

The most surprising fact I uncovered was the power of sight. It is often said we eat with our eyes, but I’d never comprehended the dominant role sight plays in what we taste. It is so forceful that it can distort and even override the information we receive from our other senses. As more than half of our brain is devoted to processing visual information, it must take shortcuts to handle all this data quickly.

Author Jennifer McLagan says taste is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Credit: Aya Brackett

Author Jennifer McLagan says taste is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Credit: Aya Brackett

With food our brain uses color to create flavor expectations, and the color of a food can confuse us and mask its real taste. British chef  Heston Blumenthal’s two-toned orange and beetroot jelly demonstrates this power of color to determine taste. Not until diners close their eyes do they realize that the orange jelly they are eating is made with orange beets and the dark red jelly is flavored with blood oranges. Eating with our eyes takes on a whole new meaning when we realize we cannot trust them.


Along with the sensory clues our brain employs to generate flavor, a number of other things influence its decisions. Our genes make some of us more sensitive to certain tastes. What our mother ate when she was pregnant shapes our likes and dislikes, our upbringing and our peers decide what we eat and don’t eat. Anything we have heard, or read about the food will prejudice us too. Even the shape of our plate, what it’s made from, and the cutlery we use —  all subtly affect how we taste. We all have the same anatomy yet every time we eat, numerous forces come into play, placing each of us in our own individual taste world.

Taste, I discovered is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Flavor is produced by our brain, which is swayed by a myriad of cultural, environmental, experiential and genetic factors that can be as important as our senses in discerning flavor. Many of them we are barely aware of and are only beginning to understand and study. Next time you eat, pay close attention and think very carefully about what is influencing the flavor of the food on your plate.

Radicchio and Pumpkin Risotto

Prep time: 10 minute
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 1⁄2 cups (625 milliliters) of chicken stock, preferably homemade

¼ cup (2 ounces) (60 grams) unsalted butter

1 shallot, finely chopped

6 ounces (170 grams) pumpkin, cut into 1⁄2-inch (1 centimeter) dice, about 1¼ cups

Sea salt

5 1/4 ounces (150 grams) radicchio leaves, rinsed and trimmed

1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) (100 grams) risotto rice (Vialone nano, Arborio, or Carnaroli)

2 tablespoons white wine or dry vermouth

Freshly ground black pepper

Parmesan cheese

Directions
1. Pour the stock into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat so the stock barely simmers.

2. In another saucepan, melt half the butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until translucent. Add the diced pumpkin and stir to coat the pieces with the butter. Season with salt, and cook until the pumpkin starts to soften slightly at the edges, about 5 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, cut the radicchio leaves in half lengthwise, then crosswise into ¼-inch (6-mm) strips. You should have about 4 cups.

4. Add the rice to the pan, stirring to warm the grains and coat them in butter. Stir in the radicchio and continue stirring until it wilts and changes color. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring until it evaporates; season with black pepper. Now add a ladleful of hot stock and keep stirring the simmering rice constantly until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Continue adding the stock, one ladleful at a time, when the previous liquid is almost completely absorbed.

5. After 20 to 25 minutes, the pumpkin should be cooked and the rice should be creamy and cooked but still slightly al dente. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let sit for 2 minutes. Check the seasoning, stir in the remaining half of the butter, and serve in warm bowls. Grate Parmesan over the top.

Notes
I love the winey hue that radicchio gives the rice in this dish, and the way its bitterness balances the pumpkin’s sweetness. Now I know that using the word pumpkin reveals my birthplace, but I just can’t get my head around “squash.” However, so I don’t confuse you, use a firm, dry pumpkin (or squash) such as Hubbard or kabocha, which has a mild chestnut flavor.
I prefer to make risotto in small batches. This will stretch to serve four as a starter, depending on the rest of your meal; you can also double the recipe. Do use homemade stock, as it will make all the difference to the final result. You could also use a well-flavored vegetable stock to make this dish vegetarian. You’ll probably only need 2 cups (500 ml) of
the stock, but it will depend on your rice, so it is better to have a little extra just in case.

Caramelizing the sprouts in oil eases their bitterness, as does the addition of the starchy chickpeas. Credit: Aya Brackett

Rony’s Brussels Sprouts and Chickpeas

Prep time: 1 hour advance prep (unless using canned chickpeas, then 10 minutes)

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

 

Ingredients
1 cup (6 1/4 ounces)  (180 g) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover

Sea salt

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

1 shallot, finely chopped

3/4 cup (175 milliliters) chicken stock, preferably homemade

17 1/2 ounces (500 grams) Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 tablespoons dry sherry

Directions
1. Drain the chickpeas and place in a saucepan. Cover them with cold water by 2 inches (5 cm) and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until cooked. This can take from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on the age of the peas, so you need to keep an eye on them. Check them at 30 minutes. When they are cooked, remove from the heat, uncover, stir in 1 teaspoon of salt, and leave to cool for 30 minutes. Drain the cooked peas and spread them out on a baking sheet lined with a towel to dry.

2. Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a large heavy frying pan with a lid, and place over medium heat. When hot, add the shallot and cook until soft. Add the chickpeas, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until lightly browned. Add ¼ cup (60 milliliters) of the chicken stock and bring to a boil, stirring to deglaze the pan by scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Tip the contents of the pan into a bowl.

3. Wipe out the pan and then add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Place over high heat, and when hot add the brussels sprouts. Try and get as many of the sprouts cut side down as you can; this will depend on the size of your pan. Cook the sprouts until dark brown on one side, then add the remaining chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, lower the heat, cover, and cook until the brussels sprouts are tender but still crisp.

4. Add the chickpeas, shallots, and any liquid and cook until warmed through. Check the seasoning and pour in the sherry. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Notes
My friend Rony loves food and is a good cook. When I visited him in New York he made brussels sprouts for dinner. It was before my conversion and I was not that keen to try them, but being well brought up I did. They were delicious. Caramelizing the sprouts in the oil eases their bitterness, as does the addition of the starchy chickpeas. There are two keys to this recipe: Cook your own chickpeas — they are superior to the canned ones — and cook the brussels sprouts in a very hot pan — as Rony said, “They should dance around in the pan.”

Main photo: In this risotto, the radicchio’s bitterness balances the sweetness of the pumpkin (or squash if you’re not from Australia). Credit: Aya Brackett

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With a bit of tahini sauce and pomegranate molasses, even kids love the author's Brussels Sprouts With Panko. Credit: Peter Cassidy

When I first opened the doors to my restaurant Tanoreen 15 years ago, I had a clear intention: offer my diners a peek into the Middle Eastern cuisine I knew beyond falafel and hummus. I also wanted to share a rich, nuanced culinary world that — contrary to popular belief — was more slow food than fast food.

At that time, hummus was not served at cocktail parties with carrot sticks, people didn’t know what tahini was or how to use it. Freekah (smoked wheat) was not proclaimed a “super food” and za’atar and sumac were not the trendiest spices in the land. But to me, these foods were things we consumed and used daily. They were part of the tradition of food in the Middle East that was then unknown in America. I am quite pleased that the Mediterranean diet has become so popular. It’s healthy, fresh and in my opinion, delectable.

But let’s be honest. Most of the popular Middle Eastern dishes that have worked their way through the food chain were, until recently, “fast food” such as supermarket shish kabob carts and hummus party trays. Middle Eastern food is about much more than dips and sandwiches. The spice mixes and the use of fresh vegetables, lean meats, grains and olive oil are all cornerstones.

Our meals, when I was growing up and with my own children, were and remain an active meditation. It’s not “on the go” but rather celebrating slow-cooked food, togetherness, conversation and phones off!

Unlike baking, cooking is not formulaic, even though recipes can feel that way sometimes. I always say two people can make the same recipe, and it will taste completely different. There is a soulfulness in this kind of cooking.

It’s an inner, almost empathetic connection to the people you’re cooking for. The focus is on what really tastes good, and not just on your tongue. It’s also in the emotions and memories triggered as your guests eat the meal you’ve prepared.

Chef and author Rawia Bishara: A great meal is a conduit to togetherness. Credit: Peter Cassidy

Chef and author Rawia Bishara: A great meal is a conduit to togetherness. Credit: Peter Cassidy

Similarly my cookbook, “Olives, Lemons & Za’atar,” comes from that same premise. I want to celebrate the variety of recipes, which are not at all difficult, along with the traditions and memories that come with Middle Eastern food.

Memories of such meals stand like flag posts throughout my life: the first meal I cooked for my husband (stuffed artichoke hearts), our traditional Christmas dinner (roast leg of lamb), my daughter’s favorite breakfast food as a child (potatoes and eggs) and traditional wedding mezzes.

I learned all this from my mother, a schoolteacher and home cook. Technically speaking, she was a genius chef. But her real strength as a cook lay in her ability to make meals that were an extension of her love for her family and guests — of which there were many! Her meals created an environment of warmth, safety, comfort and a total blast for the senses. It was hypnotic, with all your synapses triggered simultaneously.

A snapshot of a favorite meal: a warm winter stew of slow-braised cauliflower and fragrant spiced lamb, served alongside warm rice pilaf and toasted vermicelli noodles, fresh tomato salad with shaved radish and herbs from her garden. There were heaping plates of olives, warm fresh Arabic bread, long thin hot peppers to crunch on. And small plates of hummus and labne, served before the meal but later banished to the outer corners of a table almost wiped clean. Two parents, five children and almost always a guest or two — because if you cook for seven, you are cooking for 10.

Ghada, as we called it, was a refuge. The biggest meal of the day, served in the late afternoon, with dinner usually later and much lighter.

In today’s world, we may seem more connected, but really we’re more disconnected than ever. People click away on their smartphones on the train, walking down the street, at the gym and, yes, at the dinner table.

As a chef, I try to create a cozy bubble-like environment in my restaurant, just as I did in my own home as a mother and wife. Middle Eastern food creates that mood, using dishes that invite connection. A great meal is a conduit to togetherness.

Brussels Sprouts With Panko

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

Corn oil for frying

4 pounds Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed, cut in half

1 cup Thick Tahini Sauce (see recipe below)

1 cup lowfat plain yogurt

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon finely chopped garlic

1 cup panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)

Pinch sea salt

Directions

1. Pour ¼ to ½ inch corn oil in a large skillet and place over a high heat until hot. To test the temperature, slip half a Brussels sprout into the pan; if it makes a popping sound, the oil is hot enough.

2. Working in batches, fry the Brussels sprouts, turning occasionally, until they are browned all over, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sprouts to a paper towel–lined plate to drain.

3. Meanwhile, whisk together the Thick Tahini Sauce, yogurt and pomegranate molasses in a medium bowl. Set aside.

4. In a small skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high until hot. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.

5. Add the panko and stir constantly until the crumbs are golden brown, about 2 minutes.

6. Stir in the salt and remove the bread crumbs from the heat. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to cool.

7. Place the Brussels sprouts in a serving dish, drizzle with the sauce and top with the panko crumbs. Serve immediately.

Notes

Brussels sprouts were not part of the Palestinian kitchen when I was growing up. I discovered them here in the States and very eagerly tried to push them on my children. To that end, I did what any good mother would do — I pumped up their flavor by adding a little tahini sauce and sweet pomegranate molasses. It worked!

In fact these Brussels sprouts were so delicious that they made it onto the original Tanoreen menu and I’ve never taken them off.

Thick Tahini Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 2½ cups

Ingredients

1½ cups tahini (sesame paste)

3 to 4 cloves garlic, crushed

Juice of 5 lemons or to taste (about 1 cup)

1 teaspoon sea salt

Chopped parsley for garnish

Directions

1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the tahini, garlic, lemon juice and salt and process on low speed for 2 minutes or until thoroughly incorporated.
2. Turn the speed to high and blend until the tahini mixture begins to whiten.
3. Gradually add up to ½ cup water until the mixture reaches the desired consistency.
4. Transfer the sauce to a serving bowl and garnish with the parsley. Leftover tahini sauce can be stored, tightly covered in the refrigerator, for up to 2 weeks.

Notes

Tahini sauce is ubiquitous in Middle Eastern kitchens. It is the condiment. There is hardly a dish that isn’t enhanced by it. At Tanoreen, I mix it into salad dressings and drizzle it into cauliflower casseroles. My daughter? She dips French fries into it! Learn to make this and you will have a simple, delicious, versatile sauce to add to your repertoire.

Main photo: With a bit of tahini sauce and pomegranate molasses, even kids love the author’s Brussels Sprouts With Panko. Credit: Peter Cassidy

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The ackee fruit's nutty taste combines with sharp salt cod to create Jamaica’s national dish. Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from

We all know the cliché that opposites attract and, in what could be called a fruitful marriage of opposites, two vastly different ingredients from opposite sides of the world are perfectly paired in Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and salt fish.

Ackee and salt fish is not just the national dish  —  it’s the favorite breakfast of every Jamaican across the globe. What makes this dish original and surprising is how well two distinct ingredients combine to create a dish that’s complex and simple, subtle and bold and, ultimately, delicious. The delicate nutty taste and soft texture of the fruit ackee tempers the sharp, saltiness and firm dry texture of salt fish.

With the addition of our standard “Jamaican seasonings”  — Scotch bonnet pepper, garlic, thyme, green peppers, onions and scallion, and served with a side of avocado, fried ripe plantain, steamed calalloo and “Johnny Cakes” or fried dumplings –  this extraordinary dish is a feast for the palate and a breakfast you won’t soon forget.

Although the pairing of ackee and salt fish makes for a beautiful union, some unions are not meant to be monogamous. As well as ackee and salt fish work together, we also love to cook them separately, pairing them with unexpected ingredients and flavors. For instance, ackee loves bacon, gets along very well with curry, has great synergy with Parmesan and has a seamless connection with coconut. Salt fish, while less gregarious, complements yam, parties well with lime and forms a perfect bond with cilantro and flour dumplings of any kind.

From West Africa to Jamaica on a slave ship

Ackee, for the uninitiated, is a savory fruit with a thick red skin that forms a sealed pod when unripe. Once ripened, the skin opens to reveal a beautiful petal-like shape containing three or four yellow pegs topped with a single black seed. Native to West Africa, the fruit originally came to Jamaica on a slave ship — it is believed that many slaves would carry the ackee seed as a talisman for good luck.

Unfortunately, ackee has a bit of a bad rap as the bad boy of Caribbean cuisine because it can potentially be poisonous if incorrectly prepared. For many years, like another famous Jamaican export, its importation to the United States was banned. Be assured, however, that it is perfectly safe to eat, although Jamaica seems to be one of the few countries in the world that dared to try to figure out how to do so — leaving us as the only island in the Caribbean where it’s part of the daily diet.

To render ackee safe for consumption, the skin must be open before picking. The pegs, once removed from the pod, are then prepared by removing the seed and a red ‘thread’ embedded in the flesh of the peg. (This is the poisonous part.) The fruit is then boiled in salted water.

Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, right, collaborated on their cookbook.

Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, right, collaborated on their cookbook. Credit: Courtesy of SKaan Media / 2 Sisters and a Meal

Outside of Jamaica, ackee is readily available in cans and can be found at online groceries and mainstream supermarkets throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Freshly cooked ackee is creamy and buttery with a mild nutty taste that’s neutral enough to absorb the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with. When raw it has a waxy texture but canned ackee, which is already cooked, has a more mushy consistency. In any of its forms, ackee is a great ingredient to have fun with in the kitchen as it can be prepared in many interesting and unexpected ways. For instance — ackee tacos?

Salt cod preparation takes time

Salt cod, known as salt fish in the islands, is cod that has been preserved by drying after salting. It is a staple in the cuisine of almost all Caribbean islands and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Salt cod was a part of the Triangular Trade that developed between Europe, Africa and the Americas, tying its history to that of sugar, slavery and rum in the islands.

High-quality North American cod was always sold in Europe. But traders also sold a lower-end product of poorly cured salt fish called “West India cure” to plantation owners in the Caribbean. The West Indian planters had no desire to dedicate any land to the production of food for their slaves and instead relied on imported salt cod as a cheap form of nourishment.

In exchange, European traders received sugar, molasses, rum, cotton, tobacco and salt, which they took back to North America and Europe. Trade in salt cod from Nova Scotia was so high that, in 1832, the Bank of Nova Scotia opened in Halifax to facilitate the thriving trans-Atlantic trade. By 1889 the Bank of Nova Scotia had become the first bank to expand outside of the United States or United Kingdom when it opened a branch in Kingston, Jamaica, to support the lucrative trading of rum, sugar and fish.

To prepare salt fish it must be soaked in fresh water for at least an hour; it is then boiled till the flesh of the fish flakes easily. If still too salty, it is boiled some more, drained, scraped of its skin, flaked with your hands and, only then, does the laborious task of picking out the bones begin. Although deboned and de-skinned cod is certainly available in many markets, in the Caribbean we still like to do it the old way — because it’s so much more fun.

In honor of this beloved Jamaican breakfast dish, we share two breakfast/brunch recipes, that celebrate each ingredient on its own. We encourage you to expand your breakfast horizons and give these a try — any time day or night.

Ackee and Bacon Quiche

Prep Time: 35 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings, 1 (8-inch) quiche

Ackee and Bacon Quiche

Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from "Caribbean Potluck," permission by Kyle Books

In this dish we combine a traditional quiche custard with pure Jamaican love by adding our national fruit (and popular breakfast item) ackee and crispy bacon. Throw in tons of flavor with the Scotch bonnet, scallion, tomato, garlic, thyme and Parmesan cheese, and you have a winning brunch. If you don’t have coconut milk on hand, use 1½ cups heavy cream instead of the cows and coconut milk mixture.

Ingredients

    For the quiche crust and custard:
  • ½ pound (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 pound all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling pinch of sea salt
  • Up to ¼ cup ice water
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ½ cup canned coconut milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • Dash of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Sea salt
  • For the Ackee and bacon filling:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
  • ½ Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), seeded and minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (8-ounce) package bacon, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons sliced scallion
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme, chopped
  • ¼ cup finely chopped tomato
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped bell pepper
  • 1 (18-ounce) can ackee
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. To make the quiche crust, combine the butter, flour and salt in a bowl with your hands until crumbly. Add just enough ice water to form a dough and knead until it comes together. Form into a ball, then, on a floured surface, roll the dough into a round about 14 inches in diameter. Transfer to an 8-inch quiche pan and press the dough gently into the bottom and sides. Weigh down the dough with raw rice on a piece of waxed paper and prebake for 20 minutes. Set on wire rack to cool until ready to fill.
  3. Meanwhile, to make the custard, in a medium bowl combine the milk, coconut milk, eggs, mustard and nutmeg and whisk together thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to bake.
  4. To make the filling, heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Toss in the onion, Scotch bonnet and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the bacon and sauté for about 5 minutes. Spoon off the excess fat and stir in the scallion, thyme, tomato and bell pepper; cook another 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Add the ackee,season with salt and pepper, and mix in the Parmesan. Let cool.
  5. To assemble the quiche, place the ackee and bacon filling in the pastry shell and smooth the top. Pour the custard over the filling, distributing it evenly with a fork. Return the quiches to the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until the custard has set. Cool slightly before serving.

Trini-Style Salt Fish and ‘Bake’

Prep Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Trini-Style Salt Fish and "Bake."© 2014 by Ellen Silverman from "Caribbean Potluck," permission by Kyle Books

Trini-Style Salt Fish and “Bake.” Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from “Caribbean Potluck,” permission by Kyle Books

All our islands cook salt fish (salt cod) in one way another for breakfast, lunch and even dinner. As our childhood years were spent in Trinidad we favor this Trini version known as “buljol.” Salt fish is often served alongside some kind of fried dumpling, some fluffy and large others smaller and more dense. In Jamaica we serve salt fish with Johnny Cakes, small round fried dumplings. Other countries such as Trinidad and Guyana call them bake. Here we pair this traditional Trini saltfish with our version of a bake — a hybrid recipe inspired by the bakes served in Trinidad, Guyana and Belize. If you have any left over, these little breads can be great topped with cheddar cheese and Guava jam or even just butter and jam.

Ingredients

For Trini-style salt fish (Buljol):
2 cups salt fish, boiled, picked and cleaned
½ cup chopped tomato
¼ cup chopped onion
1 Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), minced without seeds

Olive oil

1/4 cup cilantro

Salt and black pepper

For our version of bake:
2 cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup water
¼ cup milk + 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon
2 cups vegetable oil

Directions

1. Combine salt fish with tomato, onion and the Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet) in a small bowl. Heat olive oil in a small pan. When very hot, pour it over the salt fish mixture. Add cilantro and season with salt and black pepper as required. Allow to rest at room temperature for about one hour.

2. Sieve together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Rub butter into flour until combined. Gradually add water and milk and mix well with hands until a dough or mass is formed. Knead for about five minutes until smooth.

3. Roll the dough into pieces the size of golf balls (should get about eight pieces of dough), and allow them to rest for about half an hour. Roll it out with a rolling pin or bottle to a 4-inch disk and slice a line in the middle so that it will cook more quickly. Fry in oil, turning over once. When it floats, it is ready.

4. Drain and serve with salt fish. These are also great paired with cheddar cheese and guava jam, or even just butter and jam.

Main photo: The ackee fruit’s nutty taste combines with sharp salt cod to create Jamaica’s national dish. Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from “Caribbean Potluck,” courtesy Kyle Books

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