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The diet world is a very crowded place, and advice is constantly changing. But, very slowly, we’re coming to realize what the physicians of Greek antiquity well understood — that “food” is far more than something we put in our mouths and swallow. In fact, the ancient diet of the Cretans is once again gaining favor.
What is the Cretan diet?
A eureka moment early in our own societies’ attempts to understand the relationship between food and health took place 70 years ago. In wealthy America, heart disease was on the rise. A U.S. researcher, Ancel Keys, discovered that in war-torn Europe, especially in poverty-stricken Crete, heart disease was relatively rare. He concluded that it was because of the Cretans’ diet and way of life. The timing of his study has since been criticized (the Orthodox Church observes many fasts and, in the 1940s, these were strictly adhered to), but the general good health of the people was there for all to see.
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I first visited Crete just 20 years after Keys. I was there as a student volunteer on an archaeological dig. It took me more than a day to reach the dig (there was, then, less than 40 miles of tarmac road on the entire island). It was a two-hour walk to the nearest village, and this Crete wasn’t much different from the island Keys experienced. In the weeks I spent there, I felt much healthier than I had at home in London. I knew that the reason for this was the food, and the sharing of our tables with friends and strangers. In short, it was because of the Cretan diet.
Sorting fact from fiction isn’t easy
In the intervening years, a great deal has been written about the benefits and dishes of various diets, especially the Mediterranean diet. The subject of food attracts huge research grants and promotional fees from commercial companies. Unsurprisingly, the core finding in that original research on Crete — the link between local foods, food production, enjoyment of food and good health — has disappeared under a pile of lab-inspired markers and recipes.
Today, some of us can buy Cretan olive oils and cheeses in our stores. These give us the good flavors of the island and the advantage of being able to consume cheeses made with milk from animals that have roamed free over herb-covered hills, but it isn’t the whole story. We can follow the Cretan diet (from the Greek, diaita, meaning “way of life”) to our advantage wherever we are by enjoying a large diversity of foods that are grown or gathered locally, that are at the peak of their seasonal (nutritional) best and that excite us with their different flavors and textures. This holds true for fish and meat, too. They both have seasons, based on the breeding habits of the animals and fish, and their ability to feed well.
Thus, what are now the two most serious Orthodox fasts — Lent (March, lamb-breeding season) and August (when it’s hot and the land is parched) — have their roots in a way of life that was followed long before Christianity. This attitude to true sustainability (which ensures future life) exists on Crete even when food is plentiful, and some of the most appreciated island foods are what we generally consider to be “lesser” fish and meats – octopus and other seafood, tiny fish, snails, offal and small game.
What the Cretan diet can do for you
But we’re not Cretans, so why should we want to follow their diet? There’s one particular reasons why I like to: It means I can rely on my own judgment as to whether something is “good for me,” as I can always check the 4,000 years of food wisdom that has passed down from those smart, early inhabitants of Crete, the Minoans. Following a few simple tenets, and stocking your pantry with some quality ingredients, you, too, can create for yourself the Cretan diet.
Use olive oil like a Cretan
Until a generation ago, Cretans consumed around five times more olive oil than other Greeks, and Greeks consumed per capita the most olive oil in the world. To an islander, all olive oil is extra virgin, and only consumed in the year of its production. There’s plenty of evidence now that olive oil (extra virgin and fresh) is a “super food,” so much of the Cretans’ good health can be traced to its copious use in island kitchens. For those of us without an olive tree, it’s not quite so simple. Extra virgin olive oil is not only expensive, it’s rare for the current season’s product to reach our stores. So we lose out on what is its greatest value for us. One solution is to build a relationship with a producer and buy direct.
Love those green leaves, the wilder the better
A neighbor of mine on Crete was able to identify more than 60 wild greens and herbs. She knew exactly where and when to find certain species, and how they were best served. She was well known locally for her remarkable skill, but every Cretan cook could — and many still can — identify a dozen or so wild greens. Wild greens contain more, and a greater variety of, nutrients than garden- or commercially grown greens. Many of the best garden greens, as far as nutrients and flavor, end up on the compost heap — beet, turnip and radish greens. Farmers markets are now a good source of these greens and others, and many of us enjoy foraging in the countryside, wherever we are. Turned into salads or side dishes, Cretan-style, with plenty of olive oil, they make very good eating.
Look for sheep-milk and goat-milk cheeses
Not only do Cretans have an admirable capacity for consuming olive oil, they are also among the world’s largest consumers of cheese. But their cheeses are different from many available in our stores. Made with milk (mostly sheep, some goat) from animals that eat a melange of wild herbs and greens, and graze outside year-round, they possess nutrients that are missing from cheeses made with highly processed factory-farmed milk. If you can’t buy Cretan cheeses, seek out cheeses made with milk from pasture-raised cows or goats.
Measure herbs with your hand, not with a spoon
Measuring spoons are unknown in traditional Cretan kitchens. Your hand is the perfect measure for herbs and spices. You see what you are adding to a dish and, with dried herbs and spices, the heat of your palm releases their wonderful aromas, in the process delighting you, the cook.
Sweeten the natural way
Honey is another “super food” that Crete has in abundance. With only a few days a year without sunshine and much pesticide-free land, bees have a good life on the island. Honey is more than sugar-sweetener — it has nutritional and medicinal qualities, too. But only when the bees have a healthy environment. A good substitute is local honey from bees that have enjoyed pesticide-free pollen.
Give your gut a helping hand
Yogurt made from the milk of animals that have grazed on herbs or grass and the necessary “friendly bacteria” is a very different food from the commercial yogurts that have a shelf life of weeks. Its bacteria are alive and ready to do their good work, keeping your gut in good order. These bacteria are even more valuable to us now, with so much of our foods being highly processed.
Cretan yogurt, made from sheep/goat milk, is thick, creamy and utterly delicious but, at the moment, travels only as far as Athens. It’s easy to make your own at home; for the best results, use full-fat organic milk. Other ways, Cretan-style, to keep your gut healthy is to include naturally fermented (wine) vinegar, pickles, fish and cured olives in your culinary repertoire.
Drink like a Cretan, too
Existing right at the heart of the ancient “wine world,” it’s no wonder wine is as much part of a Cretan’s diet as olive oil. Like olive oil, wine to a Cretan is a drink made that year from grapes nearby (village wine) and consumed with gusto. Appreciated as it is, village wine takes getting used to, so it’s good news that, today, some of the island’s wineries are winning medals on the world stage. Well-made, modern Cretan wines are particularly interesting when made with the island’s unique, and sometimes ancient, grape varietals. On Cretan tables, wine and food are inseparable. Wine is a digestif, and a way of welcoming all to the table — there’s always plenty of it on Cretan tables.
Staples for the ‘Cretan shelf’ of your pantry
- Olive oil: extra virgin
- Olives: brine-cured, young and green, salt-cured, plump and fleshy, sweet and tiny
- Capers and caper leaves, salt-packed
- Red wine vinegar
- Sea salt, fine and coarse
- Spices: allspice, ground; cinnamon, sticks and ground; coriander seeds, whole and ground; cumin, whole and ground; black peppercorns; sumac, ground; nutmeg; cloves; vanilla
- Dried herbs: rigani (Greek oregano), marjoram, rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves
- Dried fruit: currants, small dark raisins, large plump sultanas, figs, prunes
- Honey: Cretan mountain sage, orange blossom, Hymettus
- Nuts: whole unblanched almonds, walnuts in the shell, pine nuts, unsalted pistachio nuts, hazelnuts (filberts)
- Seeds: melon, pumpkin, sesame
- Dried pulses: garbanzo beans (chickpeas), white beans (great northerns, cannellini), green lentils, brown lentils, yellow split peas, butter (large lima) beans, black-eyed peas
- Preserved lemons
- Preserved fish: salted anchovies, sardines packed in olive oil or brine, tuna packed in olive oil, oil-cured bonito (lakertha), sun-dried or smoked mackerel or octopus, smoked eel
- Preserved grape leaves
From your refrigerator or freezer
- Cheeses: graviera, aged kephalotyri, manouri, myzithra, brine-stored feta
- Yogurt: sheep milk, good-quality cow’s milk
- Fresh or frozen filo sheets: you can store fresh filo for up to 2 days, frozen filo for up to 4 weeks
In your herb garden
- Flat-leaf parsley, cilantro (fresh coriander), thyme, rosemary, bay laurel, marjoram
- Fennel, dill, mint (many varieties, including “garden,” small-leaf), small-leaf basil, sage, lovage, savory, chives
- Rose- and lemon-scented geranium leaves
Beet Greens With Latholemono
Beet greens are only one of a huge variety of wild or garden greens Cretans bring to the table. You can substitute turnip greens, radish tops, amaranth greens, water spinach, ruby chard or mustard greens (charlock) for the beet greens, and use a sauce of olive oil and red wine vinegar in place of the lemon juice.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the green
Total time: 7 to 10 minutes
Yield: 6 for a meze serving, 4 as a side dish
1 1/4 pounds beet greens
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
Coarse-grain sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
1. Rinse the greens in several changes of cold water. Remove any tough stalks from the greens and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces.
2. Steam the greens. Or place them in a non-reactive saucepan, add 4 tablespoons boiling water, and cook, stirring once or twice with a fork, for 1 to 2 minutes. Take care not to overcook. Drain well in a colander, pressing the greens against the sides with a wooden spoon.
3. To serve, transfer the greens to a platter and lightly fork them to lift and separate the leaves. Add the olive oil and sprinkle with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature, with lemon wedges.
Note: Prepare turnip greens and radish tops the same way as beet greens and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Break off the tender sprigs of leaves from water spinach and mustard greens and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Amaranth greens and young ruby chard take only 1 to 2 minutes to cook. Take care not to overcook.
Main photo: A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron
In mid-April, the people of Bengal — a region straddling Bangladesh and parts of India, including my hometown in West Bengal — celebrate the Bengali New Year.
Bengalis of all religious persuasions celebrate this secular holiday with music, song and, of course, plenty of good food. So today I share with you food. Lots of it. Twenty-six Bengali dishes, to be precise
People also buy new clothes and other new items with the belief that something done at the beginning of the year repeats itself year-round. Bengali traders crack open fresh new account books called the haal khata on this day.
A new year ahead, with taxes behind us
Ironically, the Bengali New Year, which falls during a season when the U.S. tax deadline looms, originated in the Mughal Empire, when it marked a fresh beginning after the collection of taxes.
So, celebrate the end of tax season with me by delving into this regional cuisine.
Bengal, with its west monsoon climate and proximity to rivers, offers a diet rich in fish, greens, rice and vegetables. Its seasonings are distinct and prominent with the use of mustard, poppy seeds, ginger and a Bengali Five Spice Blend consisting of mustard, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and fennel. This seasoning is called panch phoron: panch means five and phoron means tempering.
The Bengali meal ranges from light to heavy courses, with a sweet and sour chutney to cleanse the palate before dessert.
This slideshow offers an insight into some of the most traditional dishes on the Bengali table.
Starting the new year with a family recipe that travels well
The fact that the holiday lands midweek this year puts a wrinkle on food celebrations.
This year, however I’ve resurrected a well-seasoned egg dish that my grandmother used to call her “picnic dimer dalna” or picnic egg curry.
Our “picnics” consisted usually of multilayered lunch boxes, filled with puffy fried breads known as luchi and drier curries like alur dom. In our family’s case, it included these eggs, since my grandmother felt that we should get our protein as growing children.
This dish travels very well, and actually improves as leftovers. My children now love this as a special breakfast treat and it can be enjoyed with toasted bread almost as much as the luchi, which can be difficult to pull off on a school-day morning. The eggs, however, can be made the night before.
This particular recipe is also known as Kosha Dimer Dalna. The word kosha in Bengali refers to slow-cooked and refers to the slow-cooked onions in the dish.
This year, if you feel that you just might need an excuse for a new beginning and an opportunity to revisit your New Year’s resolutions, join the Bengalis in celebrating our Bengali New Year.
Kosha Dimer Dalna (Egg Curry with Clingy Caramelized Onion Sauce)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 45 to 50 minutes
Total time: 65 to 70 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
4 tablespoons oil
3 medium-sized onions, sliced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 to 3 cardamoms
2 medium-sized tomatoes
1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper, or to taste
8 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
Chopped cilantro to garnish
1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and add in the sliced onions. Cook the onions on low heat, until they gradually wilt, soften and turn golden brown. This process will take about 30 to 35 minutes, but should not be rushed.
2. Add in the ginger and stir well.
3. Add in the cardamoms, tomatoes and red cayenne pepper. Cook for about five minutes until the mixture thickens and the tomatoes begin to soften.
4. In the meantime, make slits on the sides of the eggs and rub them with the salt and the turmeric.
5. Mix the eggs into the tomato mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, until the eggs are well-coated with the onion base.
6. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.
Main photo: My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna or egg curry as a picnic treat for us when I was growing up in Kolkata in India’s West Bengal province. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya
It’s not easy to capture an entire country’s cuisine in one cookbook — especially when the author lives 3,000 miles away. So when Amalia Moreno-Damgaard began writing her cookbook about Guatemalan cuisine, she knew she would have to make compromises. The challenge was finding substitutes that wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the cuisine.
Peppers can be used instead of chilies. It’s fine to use store-bought chicken broth instead of making your own with chicken bones. To make a meal healthier, oils can be substituted for lard — a trick Moreno-Damgaard learned from her grandmother many years ago in Guatemala City.
But don’t even think of using anything other than a corn tortilla. “The tortilla is king,” Moreno-Damgaard declares.
It’s that kind of homegrown knowledge that fills Moreno-Damgaard’s cookbook, “Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen — Gourmet Cuisine with a Cultural Flair,” which was published in 2012. The 420-page cookbook not only provides readers with an array of Guatemalan recipes, it also introduces them to the culture of the country, exploring street foods, breakfast dishes and holiday specialties.
The cuisine highlights Latin American culture, Moreno-Damgaard says, a culture she wants to celebrate. Too often, she says, it’s the stories of violence and corruption that make the headlines.
“Someone needed to go out there and say wonderful things about Guatemala,” Moreno-Damgaard says. She believes she can convey the many positive attributes of her home country by exposing Americans to authentic Guatemalan cuisine beyond the typical rice-and-bean dish.
To gather material for the book, Moreno-Damgaard traveled back and forth from her home in Minneapolis to Guatemala City, where she was born and raised.
“Guatemalan food is a combination of native cuisine and Spanish cuisine, which is the story of Latin America,” she says. And that mixture is a result of four distinctly different regions of Guatemala, each with its own distinct food.
The southern shores offer the freshest seafood; the east produces unique fruits and vegetables; the northern mountains still celebrate Mayan cooking and traditions, and the west coast is home to the Garifuna people — descendants of Africans and indigenous Arawak people from the Caribbean — who bring their own cooking style to the region, including lots of chowders and rice dishes with coconut and plantain flavors.
The woman behind the book
In 1981, Moreno-Damgaard, then just 19, left her home to visit her brother in the United States. She ended up staying, getting her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fontbonne University in St. Louis, and her master’s degree in international business and culture from Saint Louis University. After college, she built a successful career in international banking, holding a variety of senior-level positions.
Since 2001, she has lived with her husband, Kenn Damgaard, in the Minneapolis area.
Sixteen years ago, when their son, Jens, was born, she decided to give up her banking career to spend more time at home. Moreno-Damgaard says she couldn’t imagine missing her son’s first steps or first words. But with quite a bit of free time on her hands, she concentrated on cooking, making it more than a hobby.
Moreno-Damgaard enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Minneapolis/St. Paul in Mendota, Minn., for her professional culinary arts degree in classic French cuisine.
Then she plunged into a professional career, starting out as a cooking teacher — something she continues to do today. She gives cooking demonstrations at culinary events and benefits, as well as private lessons.
“Teaching keeps me on my toes, because I continue to learn,” Moreno-Damgaard says. “You never stop learning, even about an area you specialize in.”
Nora Tycast recently attended one of Moreno-Damgaard’s cooking classes in Minneapolis. Tycast’s three daughters — all adopted from Guatemala — joined her.
The family has attended many of Moreno-Damgaard’s events, Tycast says, because it gives her daughters a chance to learn and identify with their native culture.
“It’s nice for the girls to see a professional chef, and it’s nice (for them) to see someone who looks like them,” Tycast says. “It’s good to have someone (from Guatemala) up in front of them and being an example.”
In additional to teaching classes, Moreno-Damgaard runs her own business and serves on the board of directors for Common Hope, the Latino Economic Development Center, Women Entrepreneurs of Minnesota and Le Cordon Bleu Alumni Association.
Latin American cuisine
When Moreno-Damgaard moved to the Twin Cities, she says it was hard to find Latin American cuisine or interest in diverse foods. She says she missed the tastes and textures she had grown up with.
“When … we first came to Minnesota, we really struggled to find a Latin American restaurant,” she says. “Even a good Mexican restaurant was hard to find.”
Today, Moreno-Damgaard sees more of an appreciation of international cuisine because the Internet has opened up access to different parts of the world, including Guatemala. She said the wealth of information on the Web about different cultures has sparked an interest in foreign countries and cuisines, and the influx of immigrants to the Twin Cities has exposed the local population to Latin American food.
She says she has more to tell people about Latin America, so she’s writing a second cookbook about Guatemala. She plans to detail more specific aspects of the cuisine as well as provide a more in-depth look at the culture. In recent trips to Guatemala, Moreno-Damgaard spent time with chefs — both professional and hobbyists — to gather local knowledge. She also spent time exploring rural Guatemala to more clearly define its regions.
Because of the influences from Spain, the Caribbean and the Mayans, Guatemalan food is “the deepest, the most diverse, and the most delicious” in Latin America, Moreno-Damgaard says. She says the flavors, ingredients and history are the most varied in the region. She is excited to be sharing the cuisine with those who relate to her passion for healthy and flavorful food.
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Pepián Negro (Spicy Chicken and Pork Vegetable Stew)
Pepián negro (black pepián) is from Guatemala department, which includes Guatemala City, in the south-central part of the country. It takes its name from the blackened tortillas used in the sauce. There are also red and yellow pepián with varying ingredients, made with turkey, chicken, beef or pork, in Quetzaltenango, Suchitepequez and other regions. All varieties have some ingredients in common, such as pan-roasted seeds, peppers, cinnamon and tomatoes, but they may have different finishing touches. Pepián can be made with any kind of protein. Serve it with Arroz Guatemalteco (Guatemalan vegetable rice) and Tamalitos de Queso (fresh cheese mini tamales in banana leaves), which provide a nice break between spicy bites.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces
1/2 pound pork butt or shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken stock
1 small, whole yellow onion, peeled and t-scored*
1/2 cup unchopped cilantro, include stems and leaves
1 cup quartered Roma tomatoes (about 2 large tomatoes)
1/2 cup husked, quartered tomatillos (3 to 4 large tomatillos)
1 small yellow onion, cut into thick slices
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 guaque (guajillo) chile, seeded
1 zambo (mulato) chile, seeded
Para Espesar (Thickeners)
Choose one of the following:
2 corn tortillas blackened in toaster oven to medium brown, soaked in hot stock for 10 minutes;
or 2 tablespoons instant corn masa flour, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown;
or 2 tablespoons white rice, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown, then soaked in cold water 10 minutes
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted sesame seeds
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup small cubes of potatoes, cooked al dente
1/2 cup fresh green beans cut into 1-inch pieces, cooked al dente
1/2 cup carrots sliced on the diagonal, cooked al dente
1/2 cup güisquil (chayote squash) cut into 1-inch cubes, cooked al dente
1 cup loosely packed, finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Cilantro leaves, finely chopped, as garnish
1. In a medium pot, cook the chicken and pork in the stock with the yellow onion and cilantro over low heat until the chicken and pork are done, about 30 to 45 minutes. Remove and reserve the onion and the cilantro. Set aside the pot of chicken, pork and stock.
2. Heat a skillet for 2 minutes over medium heat and add the tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic. Adjust the heat to medium-low and pan roast the vegetables until they are charred all over and mushy, about 8 minutes.
3. Separately, pan roast the chilies over medium-low heat for about 3 minutes. Keep a close eye on the chilies, as they burn easily. Then soak the roasted chilies in 1 cup of very hot water for 10 minutes.
4. Combine the roasted vegetables, the reserved onion and cilantro, the soaked chilies, half the soaking water, and 3/4 cup of the hot stock in a blender. Add the thickener of your choice and purée to a fine consistency. The purée should look smooth and velvety.
5. Heat the oil in a medium skillet. Add the purée and seasonings. Add the cup of finely chopped cilantro. Cook for about 3 minutes. Add the sauce to the pot of chicken, pork and stock. Add the al dente vegetables and stir. Simmer covered to blend the flavors, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be medium thin — about the consistency of steak sauce. If the sauce is too thin, cook the stew a bit longer to thicken it. If the sauce is too thick, add more stock or water. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.
6. Serve the stew garnished with chopped cilantro leaves.
* Note: To t-score an onion, make a 1/2-inch-deep, cross-shaped cut at the narrowest end of the onion. The onion remains whole.
Main photo: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard’s salpícon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Landry.
When searching for the best spaghetti alla Bolognese, the first thing to be said is that by tradition it is made with tagliatelle, a pasta pretty much like fettuccine, and not with spaghetti, although it is quite commonly made with spaghetti.
Tagliatelle con Ragù alla Bolognese, as it is properly called, is one of those dishes that appears on many international menus and often made in an inferior way. Tagliatelle, tagliolini, pappardelle, tortellini and lasagna are some of the pastas made from sfoglia, as they are known in Bologna, that is, the “leaves” of pasta dough made from the finest white flour and eggs.
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Legend has it that the tagliatelle shape — strips of pasta about a half-inch wide — was invented in 1487 by Maestro Zafirano, a cook from the village of Bentivoglio, on the occasion of the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to the Duke of Ferrara. The cook was said to be inspired by the beautiful blond hair of the bride.
Despite the appeal of this apocryphal story, history tells us that tagliatelle was invented earlier. Pictorial representations of tagliatelle exist from before this date in the illustrations accompanying the various 14th- and 15th-century Latin translations of an 11th-century Arabic medical treatise, the Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa (Maintenance of health) written by Ibn Buṭlān, a physician in Baghdad, and translated into Latin as Tacuinum sanitati (or Tacuuinum Sanitatis). In the Compendium de naturis et proprietatibus alimentorum, a list of local Emilian nomenclature for foods compiled in 1338 by Barnaba de Ritinis da Reggio di Modena, the entry for something called fermentini indicates that it is cut into strips like tagliatelle and boiled.
My recipe is one of the richest enhancements of the classic ragù from Bologna, which was once much simpler. Two of my children lived in Bologna while they attended the University of Bologna and they have ideas about how to properly make the dish. The meats need to be lean, otherwise there will be too much fat in the sauce. The meat can be ground in a food processor using short bursts or pulses, resulting in a finely chopped effect. The Accademia Italiana della Cucina, the preeminent organization dedicated to protecting Italy’s culinary patrimony, attempted to codify ragù alla Bolognese which, as one can imagine, engendered a good deal of controversy. To codify such a sauce is surely a Sisyphean task because cuisine is not an immutable artifact of culture but a living, changing embodiment of numerous families in a society. It’s also exceedingly difficult to separate the cooking over time of different classes to a point where one could say “this is the true one.”
A study of Renaissance cookbooks does not provide a clear antecedent of the contemporary ragout. Books from that period include ragù-like dishes, but with seasonings that still hold onto the Arab-inspired medieval spicing of rose water, saffron, cinnamon, ginger and sugar. It should also be remembered that the influence of the French may have had a greater role than the Bolognese are willing to admit since the word ragù derives from the French ragoût and Emilia-Romagna was not only Francophile but inundated with French culture over time.
The seriousness with which the Bolognese considered ragù alla Bolognese is wonderfully captured and illustrated in the 14 pages devoted to ragù in Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s “The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food” published in 1992.
Here is my recipe, recreated from the advice of Bolognese, from memory and from my many tastings.
Spaghetti alla Bolognese
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 2 1/2 hours
Total time: 3 hours, 10 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
1 ounce prosciutto, finely chopped
1 ounce mortadella, finely chopped
3 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in tepid water to cover for 15 minutes, drained, rinsed and finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves
1/4 pound lean beef sirloin, finely chopped (not ground)
1/4 pound lean pork tenderloin, finely chopped (not ground)
1/4 pound lean veal sirloin, finely chopped (not ground)
2 chicken livers, membranes removed and finely chopped
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup tomato sauce
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup beef broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/4 pounds tagliatelle, fettuccine or spaghetti
1. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium-heat and cook, stirring occasionally, the pancetta, prosciutto and mortadella until the pancetta is soft and a bit rendered, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley and cook, stirring as needed, until the vegetables have softened and turned color, about 10 minutes. Add the beef, pork, veal, and chicken livers and cook, stirring, until browned, about 10 minutes.
2. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Once the wine has evaporated, reduce the heat to low add the tomato sauce diluted with a little water and the beef broth. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cover and simmer for 2 hours. Add the cream and cook another 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer to a serving platter. Ladle the ragù on top and serve immediately. (The ragù can be frozen for up to 6 months).
Note: A simpler method is to cook the onion with the celery and carrot in the oil and butter, adding the ground beef, but not the other meats, the wine, salt and pepper, nutmeg and 1 1/2 cups of tomato sauce. Follow the recipe above, eliminating all the ingredients except those called for in this note.
Main photo: Spaghetti alla Bolognese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
The Sunday before Easter is the little-known holiday Cheese Sunday, a day of traditions that survived in a Ukrainian community marooned in Slovakia by the stroke of the politician’s pen following the end of World War II.
In Eastern Europe, hidden away in the Soviet sphere behind the Iron Curtain, half a century of state-imposed communism in the workplace failed to obliterate regional differences at home — in spite of efforts to standardize culinary habits by limiting official food supplies to factory canteens.
The miracle was that when the Iron Curtain was finally rolled away, people had not forgotten the dishes appropriate to festivals such as Easter, the most important feast day of the Orthodox Church calendar. And if the recipes themselves had vanished, there were minority populations on the wrong side of the border — any border — who had been left to continue their traditional ways of life throughout the communist years as long as they didn’t pop their heads over the political parapet and give the authorities any trouble.
Ukrainian community continues Cheese Sunday traditions
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Among these inadvertent repositories of national habit were the Ruthenes of Ladomirova, a farming community of Ukrainians marooned in a far corner of Slovakia along the foothills of the High Tatras, a mountainous region noted for wolves and bears. A hard-working, self-sufficient farming community, the Ruthenes, at the time of my visit in 1991 — shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain — continued to live more or less as they always had, stocking their own store cupboards and selling the surplus on the unofficial market in Svidnik, the only town of note in the region.
Svidnik was dull as ditch water by day but merry enough on a Saturday evening, when the wine cellar under the railway arch served as a gathering point for the town’s youth, Ruthenes among them. There they could enjoy loud pop music, flirting, dancing, slightly fizzy white wine and fast food — a slab of sheep-milk cheese fried in a crisp jacket of breadcrumbs served with a dollop of creamy sauce speckled with dill.
“This is what is called chicken Kiev but is made with cheese and is eaten with sauce tartar,” explained Katrina, my self-appointed translator, a Slovak-speaking Hungarian anthropology graduate studying the Ruthene lifestyle but keen to practice her English — or possibly a political operative keeping an eye on the crazy foreigner attempting to communicate with a sketchbook and paint box.
The following day, the last Sunday before Easter, all was revealed when Mama Anna, the matriarch and memory keeper of the Ruthene community in Ladomirova, prepared the same dish — cheese Kiev with tartar sauce — as the traditional recipes for Cheese Sunday.
The proper cheese for the dish, Mama Anna explained, is dried-out sheep’s milk kashkaval from the previous spring, which must be eaten up to fulfill the obligation to empty the cupboard before Good Friday. The sauce, a savory custard made with the first rich milkings from the household cow and eggs from hens just come back into lay, delivers a message of good things to come.
Whatever its place of origin — or even the thoughts expressed through good food set on the table to welcome strangers — the combination works. Celebrate your own Cheese Sunday with the traditions of the Ruthenes of Ladomirova and raise a glass at this festival of renewal to the hope that peace may come to a divided people who don’t deserve what they get.
Mama Anna advises that some people like to add chopped dill and other flavorings such as chives and pickled cucumber and onion, but she herself prefers it to taste of itself, the goodness of spring.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: Makes about 3/4 pint, enough for 4 to 6 servings.
3 egg yolks
1/4 pint (1/2 cup) soured cream
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon mild mustard
A squeeze of lemon juice or white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons seed or vegetable oil
1 wineglass white wine
2 tablespoons sweet, thick cream
1. Whisk up the yolks, soured cream, sugar, salt, mustard and lemon juice or vinegar in a small pan, and cook the mixture over a gentle heat (or in bowl over boiling water), stirring all the time, until it begins to thicken like a custard.
2. Leaving it over the heat, whisk in the oil as if for a mayonnaise, then whisk in the wine and sweet cream.
3. Remove from the heat as soon the steam no longer smells of alcohol. Let cool a little and serve warm
In the lambing season, the ewes are brought down from the hill and milked three or four times a day by hand so the newborns are not deprived of their share. Last year’s cheese, by now too hard to eat uncooked, melts to a creamy softness in its crisp jacket of breadcrumbs. Any mature hard cheese will do, though it’s easier to coat if you slice it ahead and leave it in a warm kitchen for a few hours for the surface to dry and firm.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 2 servings as an entrée or 4 as a starter plate.
About 8 ounces dried-out cheese
2 to 3 tablespoons strong, plain flour
1 tablespoon paprika
1 large egg
2 to 3 tablespoons milk
4 to 5 heaped tablespoons breadcrumbs (fresh or dried)
Oil for deep-frying
1. Slice the cheese into 4 thick fingers or triangles.
2. Mix the paprika and flour on a shallow plate. Fork up the egg with the milk on another plate. Spread the breadcrumbs on a third.
3. Dust the cheese slices through the flour, dip in the egg-and-milk mixture, making sure all sides are well-coated, and then press firmly into the breadcrumbs.
4. Heat the oil in a heavy pan till a faint blue haze rises — the temperature should be high enough to seal the coating immediately, so test with a cube of bread (it should form little bubbles round the edges and brown quickly).
5. Slip the cheese pieces into the pan, spooning hot oil over the top so the heat reaches all sides. Fry till crisp and brown.
6. Remove to kitchen paper with a draining spoon.
7. Serve piping hot with the tartar sauce for dipping.
Main image: A traditional Cheese Sunday meal of tartar sauce (from left), fried cheese and a dill sauce. Credit: Copyright Elisabeth Luard
Of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, Passover serves as the cornerstone. Family and friends come together at home for a meal disguised as a religious service. It is the time for the annual retelling of the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
The Haggadah, the ancient book that tells the story of Passover, was artfully written as a history with an emphasis on passing on the traditions and the faith of the holiday from one generation to another through rituals and endless glasses of wine. No fools, these early rabbis. They understood that the best way to make sure the symbols endured was to make them edible. (Passover this year begins April 3.)
Boston venture capitalist Andy Goldfarb is a passionate believer in the magic of Passover, and he’s an ardent cook. Goldfarb grew up celebrating Passover with his great-grandfather, Max Fish, in Baltimore. The Passover tradition goes back far in Goldfarb’s family. He recently found a family photo of his great-great-grandfather celebrating Passover Seder in 1930 in Dynow, Poland, showing the direct linkage of 150 years of Goldfarb family members celebrating the Passover Seder.
Passover is a year-round project for the Goldfarb family, beginning with the Etrog marmalade his daughter Jemma makes during the Sukkot Harvest festival in fall and continuing right up to the night of the Seder in spring.
Goldfarb became convinced he could help other Jewish families make Passover as “magical and memorable” for their families as it is for his. He developed the website Breaking Matzo as a kind of resource guide for the Jewish community. He believes that by making the holiday meaningful and fun for all generations, it increases the likelihood of families continuing the Passover tradition generations into the future.
Charoset a traditional symbol of the Seder plate
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At the center of any Passover table is the Seder plate, which is a very specific platter of edible symbols: a roasted lamb shank bone; a roasted or hard-boiled egg; a fresh green herb like parsley; a bitter herb like horseradish; and a bowl of salt water for dipping the herbs in symbolic tears of the slaves. The final element is the charoset, typically a sweet concoction of dried fruits, chopped nuts and wine. Charoset is the only element that requires a recipe, and each family has its own. During the Seder, charoset is eaten on a piece of matzo, and its gritty texture represents the mortar, or cement, the Israelites used to make the bricks for Pharaoh’s pyramids.
Goldfarb has been lucky enough to celebrate Passover with Jewish families around the world. He has been able to learn how each community of Jews, no matter where history and fortune has taken them, adapts Passover by creating a local version of charoset for the Seder table. If there is anything that speaks to the resilience of the Jewish people, it may be the following recipes for charoset, also available on the Breaking Matzo site.
Most American Jews are Ashkenazi, meaning they immigrated to the United States after centuries in Central, Western and Eastern Europe. The Ashkenazi preparation of charoset is considered the “typical,” or classic, charoset recipe, using ingredients that were available in the Eastern European kitchen. Only the proportions vary from recipe to recipe.
Yield: Makes about 4 cups
2 medium-sized tart apples
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar or honey or to taste
2 teaspoons sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz
1. Peel, core and finely chop or grate the apples.
2. Mix with the rest of the ingredients in a bowl.
For several years, Andy Goldfarb lived and worked in Japan. He also traveled in China and studied the Fugo plan, a Japanese program to save Jews from the Nazis by settling them in Shanghai during World War II. Goldfarb found a connection with the wandering Jews of China, who still celebrate the Passover story with this delicious and savory charoset.
Common ingredients in Chinese cuisine that are highlighted in this version of charoset are soy sauce, pine nuts and honey. In contrast with the other regional sweet charoset recipes, this version is slightly savory.
Yield: Makes about 6 cups
1/2 pound of dates, finely chopped
4 apples, finely chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts
3 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons honey
Juice of one orange
Heat ingredients in a saucepan until soft and smooth, about 5 minutes. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Andy Goldfarb discovered that Egyptian Jewish tradition is that the paste of the charoset represents the color of the Nile silt used to make the mortar for the bricks to build the pyramids. A mixture of dates and raisins gives the right approximation.
He became fascinated with other Middle Eastern and North African charoset variations, recipes that use all kinds of dried fruit and even one with bananas. In Algeria, he found a blend of dates and dried figs with cinnamon, nutmeg and sweet red wine. In Iraq, date syrup is mixed with plenty of chopped walnuts. A recipe from Surinam includes dried apples, pears, apricots, prunes, raisins, grated coconut, ground almonds, walnuts and cherry jam. The following are adaptations of traditional Sephardi classics. Proportions vary from one family to another, and the texture can be coarse or smooth, thick or thin.
Yield: Makes about 3 cups
1 pound dates, pitted and chopped (about 3 cups)
1 1/2 cups sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1. Put the dates in a pan with the wine, cinnamon and cloves and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it is a soft paste (about 5 minutes). Pulse in a food processor if you want a smoother texture.
2. Let it cool and stir in the walnuts.
Variation: A Libyan version is flavored with ground ginger, nutmeg and cloves, 1/4 teaspoon of each spice.
The Jews of Italy’s Piedmont region live surrounded on three sides by the Alps, where nut trees dot the scenery. This recipe makes use of the local harvest of chestnuts and almonds and counters the nuts’ richness with the powdery smoothness of egg yolks and a sharp hit of citrus.
Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 cups.
1 1/2 cup cooked chestnuts
2/3 cup blanched almonds
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
Zest of 1 orange
Juice of 1 orange
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz, or an Italian sweet wine
Finely grind the almonds in a food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend to a smooth paste.
Unsurprisingly, every region of Italy has its own version of charoset. The charoset of Padua has prunes, raisins, dates, walnuts, apples and chestnuts. In Milan, they make it with apples, pears, dates, almonds, bananas and orange juice. This recipe is a basic one, but you can be sure every Italian home has its own “classic” charoset recipe, so feel free to play with variations on the theme.
Yield: Makes about 7 cups
3 apples, sweet or tart
3/4 cup yellow raisins or sultanas
1 cup prunes, pitted and finely chopped
1 1/3 cups dates, pitted and chopped
2 cups sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz
1/3 cup pine nuts
2/3 cup almonds, finely chopped
1/2 cup sugar or honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1. Peel and core the apples and pear, cut them into small pieces.
2. Put all the ingredients into a pan together and cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the fruits are very soft, adding a little water if it becomes too dry.
Variations: Other possible additions include chopped lemon or candied orange peel, walnuts, pistachios, dried figs, orange or lemon juice, ginger, nutmeg and cloves.
For hundreds of years, southern Spain was the site of a great Jewish Renaissance, where Jews and Muslims lived peacefully together, fostering a cultural flowering that earned the region the title “Ornament of the World.” Ultimately, the Jews were forced from Spain, but the splendor of the enduring Sephardi tradition lives on in this charoset recipe.
Yield: Makes about 4 cups
1/2 cup Spanish almonds (blanched Marcona if possible)
1/2 cup hazelnuts
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup pistachios
1/2 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup chopped figs
1/2 cup yellow raisins
1/2 cup dry red wine, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Peel, core and finely chop the apples and pears and place in a large bowl.
2. In a food processor, pulse all the nuts, making sure not to overgrind.
3. Add the chopped dates, figs, and raisins and ¼ cup wine to the food processor bowl. Pulse again briefly, or mix by hand.
4. Add the mixture to the bowl of grated fruit and stir to combine.
5. Blend in the ginger and cinnamon and add as much of the remaining wine to make a smooth paste.
Main photo: Ashkenazi Charoset for the Seder plate. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of BreakingMatzo.com
The jalapeño vs. the serrano: What exactly is the difference between the two most popular fresh chiles in the U.S. and Mexico?
Both are vibrant emerald green, with the larger jalapeño looking like a serrano on steroids. Jalapeños tend to be beefier, while serranos are more slender. Both have a torpedo shape that tapers to a point and curved green stems and smooth skins with no soft spots or wrinkles.
Bigger not always better when it comes to chiles
And as with almost all chiles, the rule of thumb applies: the larger the chile, the milder it is. In this case, the larger jalapeño is milder than the spicier serrano. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Sometimes bigger is just, well, bigger.
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Jalapeños and serranos belong to the common Capsicum annuum family of peppers and can easily be found year round in most supermarket produce sections thanks to domestic and imported crops. Jalapeños (named after the city of Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, sometimes spelled Xalapeños after the local spelling of Xalapa) measure about 4 inches long and an inch wide at the stem end. Serranos (translates to “from the mountains” because they were first grown in the high-elevation mountains of Puebla, east of Mexico City) measure about 3 inches long and a half-inch wide at the stem end.
Their flavors are similar, and I find an excellent way to appreciate any subtle differences is to taste them when they turn bright red. That’s when they are at their peak of ripeness and when their spice intensity drops and they become slightly mellow, almost sweet. I always look for red-ripe chiles in late summer at farmers markets.
Make salsas to compare jalapeños and serranos
A favorite way to understand their differences is to make two simple table salsas (see recipes below). Choose either green or red for both chiles, and remove the seeds from both to control the unadorned (no onion, cilantro, etc.) heat.
When choosing between the two for a recipe, decide whether you’re looking for a lot of green flavor or more spice with less vegetable taste. For example, when I whirl up fresh fruit table salsas I choose serrano because I want the specific fruit flavor to be front and center but with plenty of backup chile heat. I choose green jalapeños for tomatillo salsas where a spicy chile with plenty of green bean vegetable flavor adds to the green sauce. Of course, they can be used interchangeably; add less serrano or more jalapeño and you’re all set.
After jalapeños and serranos ripen and turn red, they are dried and sometimes smoked. For size comparison, there are about 8 dried jalapeños per ounce or 11 dried serranos per ounce. A good rule of thumb is 10 pounds of fresh chiles weigh 1 pound when dried. The dried form of each chile has a different name: a dried, red jalapeño is a jalapeño seco and a dried, red serrano is simply called a chile seco.
Fiery hot, the small, 1½-inch chile seco has a slight citrus flavor and is usually found ground (sometimes called tipico and balin) and added to cooked sauces for heat.
A dried and smoked red jalapeño is a chile chipotle. Other dried and smoked chipotles are called morita and meco. The morita is a dark red, almost black, shiny, smoky, leathery chile that can vary in length from an inch to 4 inches. Many smaller moritas are canned in adobo (a chile-tomato sauce) and called chiles chipotles en adobo. The easy-to-use chiles are readily available in 7- to 8-ounce cans. After removing a few for a recipe, you can freeze the rest. The usually larger meco is smoked at least twice as long and turns medium brown with the look of an old, fuzzy brown tobacco leaf. Aficionados relish its spicy, super-smoky qualities.
The prized red-ripe, fresh jalapeño called huachinango (the same name as the famous Gulf red snapper fish because its stripes simulate the fish scale pattern) comes from central Mexico, mostly around Puebla and Veracruz. Usually found during the hottest summer months, it is easy to identify the coveted, 4- to 5-inch beauty, which has thin white lines running vertically on its skin. When dried and smoked, the thick-skinned delicacy becomes an extra-large, expensive chipotle meco grande with a subtle chocolate aroma.
Melissas.com: Melissa’s sells fresh and dried chiles. 5325 Soto St., Vernon, CA 90058. (800) 588-0151. Hours: 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays
Spices.com: Spices Inc. is a mail-order company that sells dried chiles. (888) 762-8642
Simple Green Chile Table Salsa Taste Test
If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing these salsas. Choose either all green or all red chiles for both jalapeños and serranos.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: Makes 1/3 cup of each salsa.
2 ounces (1 or 2) fresh jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
2 ounces (3 or 4) fresh serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
Corn chips or warmed corn tortillas
1. Put the jalapeño chiles in a blender jar. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into a serving bowl.
2. Rinse the blender jar.
3. Put the serrano chiles in the blender. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into another serving bowl.
4. Taste with corn chips or warm corn tortillas.
Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa
If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing this salsa.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: Makes about 2 cups.
1 very ripe Mexican papaya, about 12 inches long and 6 inches in diameter
2 Mexican (aka Key) limes, juiced (about 3 tablespoons)
1 medium (3 inches) white onion, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
2 serrano chiles
1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1. Cut the papaya in half vertically. Scoop out the black seeds from one of the halves. Peel it and chop it, measuring out 3 cups chopped fruit. Put it into a blender or processor. (Wrap the remaining fruit in plastic and save for another use, such as smoothies or slices with a squirt of lime.)
2. Pour the lime juice on the papaya. Blend 5 seconds.
3. Add the onion, sugar and salt and whirl again 5 seconds. Pour the slightly chunky mixture into a serving bowl.
4. Stem and mince one of the 2 chiles and stir it (with seeds) into the papaya along with the cilantro. Taste. If you want a spicier salsa, stir in more of the remaining minced chile. Adjust salt or lime juice if necessary.
Notes: Don’t process the salmon-colored papaya, green chiles and cilantro together all at once or they will turn into an off-putting brownish mash (although the taste will still be great).
Save the papaya’s black seeds. Rinse and then dry them on a baking sheet in a low oven (200 F) for about an hour. Cool completely. The spicy seeds can be ground like peppercorns.
Main photo: Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright Nancy Zaslavsky
Here’s a vegetarian idea — carrots with tahini. Think hummus, only with the mild sweetness (and vitamin A) of carrots.
The Middle East has an ancient tradition of meatless dishes. As the 13th-century cookbook “The Description of Familiar Foods” shows, Christians in the Arab world approached Lenten cuisine differently than did the Europeans, replacing red meat not with fish (since the eastern Mediterranean is relatively fish-poor) nor with almonds (which probably didn’t have the same luxury appeal as they had for, say, the French, since one might have an almond tree of one’s own in the backyard). Instead, they mimicked the richness of meat by stewing vegetables long and slow with oil. This tradition survives in Turkey as a class of dishes called yağlı yemekler, and it eventually entered French cuisine under the name légumes à la grecque.
Some of the fast-day recipes in “The Description” use sesame oil rather than olive oil, and this gave me the idea of replacing the meat with sesame paste, better known as tahini. You want heft and meatiness? Tahini can handle that, as any hummus eater knows. (But as any hummus cook knows, tahini separates easily and must be thoroughly stirred up before use.)
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Here are two versions of my idea. The first is modern in style; in effect, it’s hummus made with carrots instead of chickpeas. It’s bright and savory and has a charming salmon color. The other gets its exotic, intoxicating sweet-sour flavor from honey, vinegar and sweet spices. It’s based on the medieval dish sikbâj, which was always flavored with vinegar and saffron, whatever other ingredients it might contain. In the late Middle Ages it traveled to Europe, where it evolved in two directions: aspic (which requires the use of meat, of course) and the Spanish preparation of cooked vegetables dressed with vinegar known as escabeche. Both words, aspic and escabeche, come from sikbâj, by the way. (Take my word for it.)
It’s clear that tahini existed in the Middle Ages, because cookbooks of the time call for it in a number of recipes — but none contain carrots. I can’t say that either of the following dishes has ever actually been made in the Middle East, but that has not stopped me from giving them plausible Arabic names.
Carrots With Tahini (Jazar bi-Tahini)
Prep time: 4 to 5 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
2 tablespoons oil
1 pound carrots
2 cups water
1/2 cup tahini (stir before measuring)
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1. Peel the onion and slice half of it crosswise as thinly as possible (reserve the remaining half onion for another use).
2. Pour the oil into a frying pan and heat for 2 minutes or so over high heat. Add the onion slices and fry for 10 minutes, stirring often to separate the rings and prevent uneven browning. Reduce the heat to medium and stir continuously until golden brown, about 5 minutes more. Transfer the onions to a paper towel to drain. Pick out any excessively browned bits.
3. Peel and trim the carrots and chop roughly. Bring the water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the carrots and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, transfer to a food processor and purée, about 40 seconds.
4. Add the tahini, lemon juice, salt and cumin to the carrots. Process until smooth, 20 to 30 seconds. Adjust the seasonings to taste. To serve, garnish with the browned onions.
Carrot-Tahini Escabeche (Sikbâj Muzawwar)
Prep time: 4 to 5 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
2 tablespoons oil
1 pound carrots
2 cups water
10 threads saffron
1/2 cup vinegar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 cup tahini (stir before measuring)
2 to 3 sprigs mint leaves
1. Peel and chop the onion. Pour the oil into a frying pan and heat for 2 minutes over high heat. Add the onion and fry until golden, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring often. Transfer the onion to a paper towel to drain.
2. Peel and trim the carrots, then cut into chunks about 1/3-inch long.
3. Pour the water into a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the carrots and cook until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain the water and transfer the carrots to a bowl.
4. In a separate bowl, crush the saffron to powder with the back of a spoon and dissolve it in the vinegar, then add the honey, cinnamon and coriander. Add the tahini and thoroughly stir everything together. Adjust the vinegar, honey, spices and salt to taste.
5. Mix the carrots and fried onion with the tahini-saffron sauce. To serve, garnish with mint leaves.
Main photo: Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright 2015 Charles Perry