Articles in Soapbox w/recipe
I was born in Harlem, a child of Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants. I witnessed what the women in my family could do with food.
Rarely is our history taught through the lens of food. Yet, it was over the hearth and in kitchens large and small that they impacted our nation’s culture and created economic, political and social independence through ingenious culinary skills.
That is why I honor African-American women cooks for Women’s History Month this March.
More from Zester Daily
The women in my family created and passed down masterful meals from ancient, unwritten recipes. They built communities and paved my way with proceeds from selling sweet potato pies, fried chicken dinners and roti lunches: a Trinidad flatbread cooked on a griddle and wrapped around curried vegetables or meats. My mom made these popular rotis and sold them in box lunches to employees at the hospital where she worked.
Whether they were free or formerly enslaved, the women I descended from cooked their way to freedom and wealth in America.
In their honor, I have chosen to feature two vintage recipes from two of the oldest cookbooks written by African-American women.
Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Mrs. Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Both women wrote their books at the behest of friends, fans and patrons.
Mrs. Russell, a free woman from Tennessee and an owner of a local bakery, was known for her pastries. Most of her recipes are European-inspired. Her cookbook also includes remedies and full-course meals. It was published after she moved to Paw Paw, Michigan.
Mrs. Fisher, a formerly enslaved person, won cooking medals for a wide range of dishes, including preserves and condiments in California. She moved out West from Alabama after the Civil War.
Below are their original recipes and my interpretation.
Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies
Jumbles were cake-like cookies popular from the 1700s. Mrs. Russell’s recipe was exceedingly spare on details, like all of her recipes:
“One lb. flour, 3/4 lb. sugar, one half lb. butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and caraway, to your taste.”
The popular vintage cookies have been adapted through the ages — even by modern food bloggers. I personally sampled a reimagined version of a Jumbles recipe at a culinary event that Anne Hampton Northup was said to have made when she cooked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Northrup was a chef and the wife of Solomon Northup, whose life was depicted in the Oscar-winning picture “12 Years a Slave”.
Here is a more detailed recipe so you can make Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies, using her ingredients. Since she suggested using mace, rosewater and caraway to taste, feel free to alter the suggested amounts of those ingredients:
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: About 4 dozen cookies
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspons mace
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
8 ounces salted butter (2 sticks, at room temperature)
5 eggs (small- or medium-sized)
4 tablespoons rosewater
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, mace and caraway seeds.
3. In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter together.
4. With an electric mixer on low speed, beat in eggs to the butter and sugar mixture.
5. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.
6. Add the rosewater and mix until combined.
7. Using a tablespoon measure, spoon tablespoon-full size drops of the batter on your baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.
8. Bake for about 10 minutes, just until the edges turn golden.
9. Cool the cookies for two minutes on wire racks. Serve, and store the remainder quickly in a sealed container or bag.
Mrs. Abby Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy
This old recipe holds up very well today. Many of Mrs. Fisher’s recipes called for huge amounts of each ingredient:
“To five gallons of berries add one gallon of the best brandy; put on the fire in a porcelain kettle and let it just come to a boil, then take it off the fire and make a syrup of granulated sugar; ten pounds of sugar to one quart of water. Let the syrup cook till thick as honey, skimming off the foam while boiling; then pour it upon the brandy and berries and let it stand for eight weeks; then put in a bottle or demijohn. This blackberry brandy took a diploma at the state Fair of 1879. Let the berries, brandy and syrup stand in a stone jar or brandy keg for eight weeks when you take it off the fire.”
I was so inspired by Mrs. Fisher’s recipe that I made my own version — which is now in the middle of the eight-week fermentation process. I used the same ingredients, but reduced the amounts, and poured them into a glass jug instead of a brandy keg. And I used cognac, because Mrs. Fisher’s recipe called for the “best brandy.”
We’ll have our own taste test — at my next family reunion.
Main photo: Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook was long believed to be the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s 1866 book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis
Part of what makes eating together so pleasurable, in any language or culture, is the conversation. But when London-based photographer Chris Terry was in Niger photographing an ordinary family enjoying a spaghetti dinner, he was surprised that no one spoke.
“It’s a great privilege to have food to eat,” explained the grandmother, the head of the household. “It’s not the moment to chat and say silly things.”
The spaghetti had been paid for with vouchers from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). Under the program, Terry had been invited into the family’s home to document what has become the photo exhibit, “The Family Meal: What Brings Us Together.”
Terry photographed families receiving WFP assistance as they made and ate meals in five countries — Chad, Niger, Myanmar, Jordan and Ecuador — where hunger has become entrenched because of disasters and conflicts largely forgotten by the rest of the world. Chad and Niger have suffered the worst drought in 50 years; Myanmar families have been uprooted because of ethnic conflict; and Syrian and Colombian refugees have fled into Jordan and Ecuador, respectively, to escape violence in their own countries.
The exhibit opened in November at Gare du Midi in Brussels, Belgium, and has since appeared at airports in Madrid and Lisbon and at the Symposium on the History of Food at the University of Amsterdam. Now at Dublin’s airport and online, it also highlights five family recipes, including Pollo Sudado (Sweaty Chicken) from Ecuador. Future shows are scheduled for the Milan Expo 2015 in May-November; the Sustainable Food Summit in Amsterdam June 4-5; and Strokestown’s Irish National Famine Museum in June-August. You also can check the exhibit schedule.
Evin Joyce of WFP’s Brussels office came up with the Family Meal idea 18 months ago to promote the group’s message with positive, personal images from around the globe. Eating together is a ritual we all have in common, he explained. Gathering, preparing, cooking and sharing food, as a family, are activities humans have done for millennia.
Transporting food by plane, train, truck, barge and yak
Every year food from the WFP travels through often rough, hostile terrains to reach more than 90 million beneficiaries in 75 countries, via plane, train, truck, river barge, camel and yak. The idea of the family meal is especially poignant this past year. For the first time, the WFP faced five high-level crises simultaneously: South Sudan, Central African Republic, the Syria and Iraq conflicts, and West Africa’s Ebola outbreak.
During the exhibit’s appearance at the European Parliament in late February, WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said that the Family Meal photos “give a face to those we serve.”
The photos also give us a peek into the lives and meal traditions of families struggling in ways many of us cannot image. But to my surprise, many of the images made me feel, not pity, but delight — even a bit of envy, because we who do not suffer from hunger sometimes claim we are “too busy” for family meals.
The photos capture the intimacy and joy of eating together, no matter how desperate the circumstances. Food not only nourishes us; sharing it lifts our spirits. The homemade dishes shown are colorful and inviting, made with staples such as rice and sorghum flour, and enlivened with the flavors, textures and colors of achiote powder, yucca and pomegranate seeds. The food was often prepared over open fires, in family or communal kitchens. Families ate together, indoors and out, seated on cushions on the floor, on the ground or at tables crowded with relatives.
The winners of a recent Family Meal photo competition, judged by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and photographer Terry, were also announced during the launch at the Parliament. In one photo, a family in the Philippines shares a meal by candlelight because of power outages that still occur after a devastating typhoon in 2012. As Terry commented, the image “draws the viewer in, emphasizing the human need to gather around light, and company, when sharing a meal.”
Guests at the Parliament launch were offered samples of the five featured recipes. We commented on all the spicy and varied flavors as we guessed at the ingredients. I was particularly delighted with the texture of the yucca root in the “Sweaty Chicken” dish. The yucca flower is the official “state flower” of my home state of New Mexico, but I had never tasted yucca root before.
For Syrian refugee Abu Sayid, who lives with his family in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, preparing and eating traditional recipes with his family keeps alive his memories of home. During Terry’s photo shoot, he helped his wife prepare two staple Syrian dishes: kubbeh (bulgur wheat balls stuffed with mincemeat and onions) and shishbarak dumplings (thin dough with mincemeat filling cooked in a yogurt stew).
“WFP vouchers allow us to get any food we need from stores around here [the refugee camp],” Abu Sayid said in a WFP interview as he sealed a kubbeh ball and his wife started frying the first batch of dumplings. “In Syria, we like to laugh and joke during a meal. It makes the food more enjoyable.”
In Myanmar, the WFP’s Joyce asked one family why they eat together? “It gives us a sense of unity,” one of them replied. Food is our priority, another woman told him. “As long as we housewives have a bag of rice, the rest can sort itself out.”
Joyce also noticed that women put a lot of effort into preparing and flavoring meals, no matter how basic the ingredients. And like mothers everywhere, they sometimes had to remind their children, “Eat your vegetables.”
Pollo Sudado (Sweaty Chicken) from Ecuador
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 to 30 minutes
Total time: 40 to 45 minutes
Yield: About 8
1 whole chicken
3 cloves of garlic
1 big tomato
Coriander, salt and pepper
1 tablespoon of achiote powder (annatto)
1. Rinse the whole chicken and chop it into pieces, taking off the legs, breast and wings.
2. Chop the onions and garlic and fry them with oil over a high flame in a large pan.
3. Add the tomato and let it simmer a bit.
4. Add the chicken and then lower the flame.
5. Add the coriander, salt, pepper and achiote powder.
6. Add a little water, cover the pot and leave it to simmer for 20 minutes.
Pollo Sudado should be served with rice and yucca, which should be peeled, chopped and boiled with salt for 20 minutes. ¡Buen Provecho!
Main photo: Together with his father, siblings and cousins, this refugee in Ecuador gets a taste of his Colombian home thanks to his aunt’s cooking. Credit: Chris Terry
Along a neon strip of Hollywood Boulevard, sandwiched between the Cabo Cantina and a male strip joint called the Hollywood Men, the Musso & Frank Grill does not catch your eye until you step inside. The room is packed with wooden booths, red leather banquettes and white tablecloths. The original wallpaper, a restful art deco mural of woodland and pastures, has faded to gentle browns and beige.
Take Imported Sardines for instance. I haven’t tasted one of those luscious, melting, silvery canned fish, soaked in olive oil, for at least 30 years. They were one of the few edible items at my boarding school. Not everyone liked them, so with luck I would get my neighbor’s portion too. Corned Beef and Cabbage, Musso & Frank’s Tuesday special, was another school regular — made without much beef and a lot of rather stinky cabbage. Musso & Frank’s is far, far better.
I’m also happy to say that Musso & Frank remains a destination for the celebrities who live in the mansions just down the road. Perhaps next visit we’ll ask for the Marilyn Monroe or the Charlie Chaplin table, the one at the front where we could observe the antics of the passersby. Perhaps they were an inspiration for Chaplin’s classic mimes? Meanwhile, our waiter bounds up to the table. “You’re sitting in the Mickey Rooney seat,” he says. “Did you know?”
He is wearing a traditional tailored short jacket in bright red with black lapels, and to my delight, the kitchen uniform is equally traditional, all white of course, with cloth buttons to withstand laundry bleach. The sous chefs sport puffy, Escoffier-style toques, becomingly collapsed to one side, with white pillboxes for the commis, the least-trained members of the team. The chef himself is easily distinguished across the kitchen by his towering starched toque, not a hint of collapse there.
A glance at the menu shows why the kitchen staff is so large. Well more than a hundred dishes are on offer at lunch and dinner. Some, of course, are prepared ahead such as French onion soup and macaroni au gratin, but the vast majority are cooked to order. Boneless garlic chicken has the caution “Please allow 20 minutes.”
Vegetables come separately and you choose your own, be it broccoli with Hollandaise, French fried onion rings, or garlic toast (Why has that almost disappeared — it is so good!). At least a couple of gems such as shrimp Louie date back to the late 1800s. Chicken à la king, that staple of the 1960s fundraising circuit, was mentioned in the New York Times in 1893.
Timeless for a reason
Like Mozart, there’s a reason why these dishes are timeless — they are quite simply the best. Caesar salad was very probably on Musso & Frank’s original menu in 1919. Julia Child remembered eating it when she was a little girl in the early 1920s. Mind you, there can be ulterior reasons for their survival. When I once mentioned lobster thermidor to a French-trained chef, he smiled mischievously. “That’s a dish for Mondays, after the weekend closure. The seafood leftovers go in there so the Cognac and mustard sauce can mask the stale taste.”
No stale food here though; the sautéed scallops, lump crab cakes and grilled meats are spanking fresh. Fried oysters, baked escargots, grilled lamb kidneys, calf’s liver with onions, smoked tongue sandwiches like those my mother made to fortify me on the miserable journeys back to boarding school. All these bring a distant look to my eyes. Half-forgotten flavors, long-treasured treats. When all is said and done, eating well is the best reward!
I haven’t had deep, dark sautéed mushrooms since I lived in Paris in the 1960s. Musso & Frank’s version is “secret.” Nothing is secret in the kitchen, so here’s my version. These mushrooms are delicious with polenta, brown rice, or your favorite steak.
Prep time: 3 minutes
Cook time: 6 to 9 minutes
Total time: 9 to 12 minutes
Yield: Makes 2 servings
1/2 pound white button mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 cup Madeira
1/2 cup consommé or veal stock
Squeeze of lemon juice
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese
Ground black pepper
1. Trim mushroom stems level with the caps and cut them in quarters.
2. Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the garlic and fry until fragrant, about 1 minute.
3. Add the mushrooms and sauté, stirring often, until tender and liquid from the mushrooms has evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Add the Madeira and simmer until reduced by half, 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Add the consommé and reduce also by half, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
6. Sprinkle the mushrooms with the lemon juice and Parmesan with a little pepper and continue simmering until they are glazed, about 1 minute.
7. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve.
Main image: Musso & Frank’s lobster thermidor: A classic done right. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry
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.
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
More from Zester Daily:
» Celebrating Christmas and Chanukah: Best of both seasons
» Aunt Norma's sour cream coffee cake for the holidays
» Swiss rosti a crispy potato pancake fit for any meal
» Easy, healthy potatoes from containers
» Potatoes you've never heard of but should be mashing
Let me be clear. I am talking dirty. I am not dealing here with “latkes-lite,” baked in the oven rather than fried in the pan. To my mind, the former has lost sight of its meaning and origin in the story of the Maccabees and the miracle of the menorah in the temple. It’s also lost a lot of its taste.
Back in the day, in the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe, the run-up to Hanukkah was also the time for fattening poultry — “Hanukkah is coming and the geese are getting fat” — as the old Hyman family saying went. Cooking oil was hard to obtain, and the main source of kosher solid fat for meat cookery came from chickens, ducks and geese. Schmaltz is still a delicious substitute in which to fry your latkes instead of oil, although the health police would say it’s like choosing between a heart attack and, er, a heart attack.
Potatoes, an essential latke ingredient
It should also be remembered that potatoes — that other essential component of the latke — didn’t arrive in Europe until the 16th century, and were not widely cultivated throughout Russia, Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine until the early to mid-19th century. Once they became a staple, however, Hanukkah in the shtetls was never the same. Potatoes and goose fat were an obvious combination to create a pancake that was quickly fried — and just as quickly consumed. Indeed, the potato latke was probably directly responsible for generations of generous Jewish hips.
Quantity is all very well. Indeed, it is a hallowed Jewish tradition, but we’ve become a little more discriminating since potato first met oil. The designer latke is everywhere. Theoretically, and indeed gastronomically, there is nothing wrong in this. As the essence of the festival is in the oil and the frying, latkes can be made with any vegetable from beetroot to zucchini. However, for traditionalists, the potato will always be at the heart of things. Speaking personally, a latke without the potato is like fancy without the schmancy.
Making latkes is a serious business, responsible for blood, sweat and tears in probably equal proportions. In order to be prepared for the ordeal ahead, I offer this simple (hah!) guide. Study, take Prozac and GO FRY.
Deconstructing the latke
You have to have the right potato. They should be floury not waxy.
Peeling or skin on?
This is where the trouble starts. Some leave the skin on, unless the potatoes are particularly coarse. Most insist peeled are best.
There are two routes to go: whole-soak or shredded-soak.
With the first, you peel and soak the whole potatoes in cold water for between 30 minutes and 24 hours.
With the second, you grate the potatoes and soak in cold water for at least half an hour, rinsing in a few changes of clean, cold water. Some use lightly salted water for soaking.
Most authorities agree that if you are not going to soak, grating should be done only about 15 minutes before cooking or the potatoes will turn brown.
Grating vs. shredding
In other words, short, stubby bits vs. long, thin bits. Or fine grate vs. coarse grate.
If you go for a fine grate, you have to make sure it does not become a gluey pulp.
One technique is to coarsely shred the potato and onion (we’ll come to the latter, shortly) in a processor, then pulse briefly before adding the eggs (we’ll come to those later as well).
Hand grater vs. processor
In many homes, men were traditionally given the job of grating, while the women hovered over the frying pan — but gender role appropriation aside, the big question is, do you grate by hand or with a food processor.
Some swear that only grating by hand gives the right chunky texture; they also swear a lot when the blood from their knuckles flavors the latke mix.
If using a processor, the issue is the grating disc vs. pulsing. It depends whether you want a crunchy latke or one with a smoother consistency.
One writer uses the medium shredding blade and lays the potatoes horizontally in the feed tube to maximize the length of the strands.
Another of my acquaintances uses the processor to separately grate the potato and onion. She then combines half the potato in the processor with the onion, egg, bindings and seasoning and whirls to combine. She then mixes in the rest of the shredded potatoes.
To use or not to use, that is the question. This is a subject that can be cited as grounds for divorce.
Some onion users grate it together with the potato, others separately. Some say the onion juice helps the potatoes to stop turning brown.
Some do not grate the onion but cut it into small chunks.
Some finely chop the onion by hand.
Some alternately grate some of the onions on the large holes of the grater and some of the potatoes on the smallest holes.
Some of us start to cry.
We are now getting into advanced territory.
Once the potatoes and onion are ready, then everyone agrees they must be strained but should they be strained separately or together? Does it matter?
And what do you strain them in?
One writer places the potatoes in a colander, sprinkles them with salt, adds a layer of paper towels and tops with a heavy object.
Another lines a bowl with cheesecloth rather than using a colander. She holds this briefly under running water and squeezes it again thoroughly to remove excess moisture.
Many wring the grated potatoes and onions in a tea towel.
One poor soul cuts both the potatoes and onions into small dice, which she then grinds and drains. After adding eggs, seasoning and flour, she then drains again.
A subsection to this stage concerns the starch from the drained potato. You can collect the starch by straining the potato over a bowl, then pour off the liquid, leaving behind the potato starch/sediment. Do you use it or not?
Some swear by it. Others say it makes the latke go soggy. The Vilna Gaon does not pronounce on the issue.
Good cooking, as everyone knows, is about balance, which is always difficult in high heels.
Everyone has their own secret formula although one pound of potatoes to one large onion to two large beaten eggs works pretty well. One daring soul has been known to add an extra egg yolk.
This does not mean tying yourself to the kitchen table. It is a serious issue. One must debate the different merits of matzo meal vs. flour or a half-and-half mixture of both. Plain vs. self-rising flour? And if so, how much?
One authority makes his batter firm enough to scoop up with his hands, so he can pat it into a pancake leaving a few straggly strands along the edge. For others, this is simply too solid a mix.
A minority caucus votes for potato flour: This has the merit of making the latkes more compact, firmer and easier to handle but, honestly, they are just not as lovely to eat.
Salt and pepper seems straightforward but my mother always insisted on white pepper, and who am I to disagree?
Lemon juice, sugar and caraway seeds have also made an appearance in the kitchens of those who should know better.
Now we’re really getting to the heavy stuff (perhaps that’s not the right word).
How large should a latke be? One or two tablespoon size? Do you flatten with the back of the spoon or a spatula?
Should they be thin or thick, what should be the surface to interior ratio, what about the crispy/creamy ratio?
Generally, the flatter they are, the crispier they will be — although if that’s how you like them, you probably live with someone who prefers thicker ones with a soft interior.
It should be olive oil, although not necessarily your best extra virgin. Many people, however, use vegetable oil.
More complicated is the question of whether to deep or shallow fry. If the latter, how deep should the oil be in the pan? Half an inch? Or should the oil just “film” the bottom? Should you use a nonstick pan? Are you losing the will to live?
This is crucial. If the temperature of the oil is not hot enough, the latkes go very greasy and stodgy. If the oil is too hot, then the outside burns before the inside is cooked.
Good hints: Preheat the empty pan before adding the oil; bring the raw mixture to room temperature before cooking; listen for the sizzle when the latkes hit the pan; don’t crowd the pan, or they become soggy.
Freezing is possible, although purists insist they do lose a little je ne sais quoi. Frozen latkes should be fried from frozen or reheated in a hot oven on a wire rack to allow the hot air to circulate around the entire surface.
The X factor or the returnability factor
Ancient animosities aside, as all latkologists know, the test of a good latke is the returnability factor — are they so good you would return for more?
One batch is never enough. It takes several attempts to get it right — and apart from anything else, you have to keep testing the batch to see if it is up to standard.
But, at the end of the day, how can you ever judge a latke? It’s not just a question of shape, color, texture and taste but of emotional resonance, psychic energy, Jungian dreams and tribal loyalties. Not to mention hunger. Perhaps it’s simply a small miracle — which is why we’re frying now.
Main photo: Frying latkes for Hanukkah. Credit: iStock/Lisafx
“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.
More from Zester Daily:
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.
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)
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
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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 the “Bengali 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 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
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)
1 tablespoon rosewater (optional)
Slivered almonds and or pistachios
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
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.
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
By Diane Fresquez
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.
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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
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)
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
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