Articles in World

Armenian chef Grigori Karleni Antinyan, center, with culinary students at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

In Turkey, it’s börek; in Israel, burekas, flaky layers of phyllo dough stuffed most commonly with cheese, spinach or minced meat. And the savory pastry isn’t the only thing the two cuisines have in common.

“You find a vast use of fresh vegetables, greens, spinach, olive oil, light fresh cheese, goat’s milk, and black pepper [in both countries],” says Tel Aviv-based chef Ruthie Rousso. Like Turkey, she noted, “Israel gets most of its fish from the Mediterranean, and enjoys the [same] climate and the produce which comes with it.”

Turks and Israelis have few opportunities to revel in their shared gastronomic heritage, however. Political tensions between the two erstwhile allies have been running high over the past six years, with reconciliation attempts thus far unsuccessful.

Judge from Israel’s version of ‘Iron Chef’ sees connection

Chef Ruthie Rousso. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

Chef Ruthie Rousso. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

“Many Israelis wouldn’t dare go to Turkey these days. And I believe it’s [true] the other way around as well. What a loss,” says Rousso, who served as a judge on Israel’s version of the “Iron Chef” cooking show.

But Rousso and others believe culinary similarities might just be a way to bring people back together — not only from Turkey and Israel, but from other countries with strained relationships as well.

The Food for Diplomacy project, for which Rousso served as a guest chef in November, was initiated at Kadir Has University in Istanbul to test this theory.

“Turkey has so much in common with other countries in the region in terms of our history and culture, the food we make and the ingredients we use,” says project coordinator Eylem Yanardağoğlu. “We wanted to use food as a bridge, to create an atmosphere where even difficult issues can be discussed.”

Since the project’s initiation last fall, Kadir Has University has hosted chefs from Armenia, Israel, Syria and Ukraine, who cook with students from the school’s culinary institute and then prepare a meal of their country’s cuisine for a mixed group of diplomats, businesspeople, journalists, artists and other community members.

Through tensions, a focus on common themes — and tastes

Armenian chef Grigori Karleni Antinyan with Turkish culinary students. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

Armenian chef Grigori Karleni Antinyan with Turkish culinary students. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

The first event focused on the Republic of Armenia, a country with which Turkey has no formal diplomatic relations as a result of ongoing historical and political disputes. Award-winning Armenian chef Grigori K. Antinyan prepared traditional dishes ranging from putuk, a thick mutton-and-vegetable stew cooked in individual clay pots, to klondrak, a dessert of dried apricots stuffed with cracked wheat. A keynote speaker encouraged dialogue among the diners about how diplomatic challenges might be overcome.

“We’re not claiming we’ll be able to solve the Turkey-Armenia issue through food, but this type of cultural diplomacy can help us see the common themes we have with other countries rather than just the problems,” says Yanardağoğlu. She notes that active efforts are being made by NGOs and other universities in Turkey and Armenia to increase communication and interaction between the feuding countries’ peoples.

Chef Mohamad Nizar Bitar says he wanted to participate in Food for Diplomacy to raise awareness of Syria’s rich cultural heritage among people in Turkey, where more than 1.7 million Syrians have taken refuge from their country’s civil war. Bitar, who has established a successful chain of Syrian restaurants and bakeries in Istanbul, also wanted to cast a more positive light on the refugees whose ongoing presence is causing increasing tension in Turkey. Once Turkish people try Syrian food, he says, they particularly love falafel, hummus and fattoush, a flatbread salad.

Plating up diplomacy with Greece

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was an honored guest at Food for Diplomacy’s Greek dinner in Istanbul. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was an honored guest at Food for Diplomacy’s Greek dinner in Istanbul. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

The most recent Food for Diplomacy event, held April 14, focused on Greece, Turkey’s Mediterranean neighbor and frequent political rival. In the future, Yanardağoğlu hopes to send Turkish chefs to Armenia and Ukraine to continue the cultural and culinary exchange, and to create a booklet of regional recipes featured at the dinners.

Chef Rousso, who has traveled to countries from Ethiopia to Vietnam to cook and talk about Israeli food as part of what she calls her own “culinary ambassadoring,” says Turkey was her biggest challenge yet.

“The tension between the two countries made it an adventurous task,” she says. But her signature “Israeli-style” roast beef served with hot green chili oil, cherry tomato seeds, olive oil, coarse salt and tahini on the side was a hit with Kadir Has’ culinary students, and Yanardağoğlu says the dinner discussion was a success as well.

“I think everyone was a bit tense at the beginning of the [Israel] event, but as dinner went on, they started to relax and bring their guard down,” she says about the evening’s guests, who included members of the Israeli diplomatic mission and Istanbul’s dwindling Jewish community, as well as Turkish journalists and a former ambassador.

“Unfortunately there were no Turkish officials who participated in my event, but I had the chance to work with Turkish students and meet the local media, and I was so impressed,” says Rousso. “These kinds of meetings open people’s eyes on both sides; if we can agree about food, maybe we can agree about other matters as well.”

Main photo: Armenian chef Grigori Karleni Antinyan, center, with culinary students at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy

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A delicious cooked dinner is served to the guests every night at Shelter From the Storm. Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

It’s almost dinner time at Shelter From the Storm, an inspiring and unusual homeless shelter in Central London. Delicious smells of home-cooked food fill the large, open-plan living room where a string of round tables topped with brightly colored cloths is ready for service. At 6:30, the guests start to arrive, hurrying in from the chilly evening. Some help themselves to mugs of steaming tea or coffee; others take a quick shower before the food is served.

In the kitchen, a handful of young volunteers set out the cutlery and a stack of 50 plates needed for the meal. When the food is ready, the guests come to the counter for it before joining one of the communal tables. That’s Shelter From the Storm‘s most important rule: Here, everyone sits together to eat and share their experiences of the day. Those might be holding or looking for a job, sitting in a public library, or being out in the streets. The shelter operates from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.

“Homelessness is on the increase in London, though it’s hard to put a number to it,” says Sheila Scott, who co-founded and runs the live-in shelter that houses a maximum of 48 guests, many whom stay for more than a month.

Sheila Scott, who runs Shelter From the Storm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Sheila Scott runs Shelter From the Storm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“Unfortunately we turn away about 20 people every day that we just don’t have beds for. We try to help as many people as possible to find work, because without work it’s almost impossible to find housing. But some are just not able to and have lived here with us for several years.”

There are some happy outcomes, though. She proudly quotes a 40% success rate in finding work for shelter guests. (Finding lodgings is more difficult.)

Tonight’s menu is basmati rice with a fragrant chili — in meat and vegan versions — that’s been cooked by Andrew Hardwidge, a modern dancer better known for his avant-garde work with choreographer Tino Sehgal. He’s one of the regular volunteers who cook at this shelter. The volunteers are from all walks of life, and include professional chefs, financial workers and art students as well as former guests at the shelter. And the emphasis is on real food.

“You won’t find processed food or even soups here,” Scott says. “We’re nothing like the stereotypical soup kitchen. For us, food underpins a life in which people are members of a community, where they can feel safe to share and resolve their problems.”

Chili with meat and vegetables is served with rice for dinner. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chili with meat and vegetables is served with rice for dinner. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

In the beginning, they relied on handouts and supermarket food that otherwise would have been thrown away. Now most of the shelter’s food is either bought by them or given by loyal suppliers who understand their needs. “After all, you need fairly large quantities of each ingredient to feed 50 people at each meal,” she says. The chili started with crates of fresh red peppers, zucchini, eggplants and onions donated by a local greengrocer.

The shelter’s residents receive three meals a day, 365 days a year, for free. Breakfast is taken before 8 a.m., when the guests leave for the day; lunch is usually a sandwich provided by a London supplier; dinner is always a cooked meal, eaten at the shelter.

Shelter From the Storm is located in an unprepossessing industrial warehouse in the hinterland behind King’s Cross Station, in what was once a rough, no-go red-light district. Today the area is being gentrified, and new luxury apartment blocks are springing up within the maze of train tracks, canals and through roads.

“We were lucky to find somewhere so central, but soon this area will be financially out of our reach,” Scott says.

In the meantime, she spends her days fund-raising and providing the guests with free legal aid and counseling.

They come from all over the globe and all kinds of situations.

“We’re an independent charity, so we can accept people who are fleeing domestic abuse, ‘honor’ killings, trafficking and slavery as well as those who have fallen into homelessness through job loss, illness or substance abuse.”

Andrew Hardwidge cooks chili in the shelter kitchen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Andrew Hardwidge cooks chili in the shelter kitchen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The shelter began eight years ago as an emergency night center, and referrals for the 20 women’s and 24 men’s beds come from the police, Red Cross, social services and other agencies.

As for the food, it’s prepared with fresh produce and enough care to accommodate the guests’ diverse cultural, religious and health needs.

“We no longer use pork here, and always offer a vegetarian option,” says Olivia Fairweather who, with her partner Haydn Appleby, runs the Tuesday night cooking crew. “We’re attentive to people with diabetes and other food-related conditions that are often exacerbated by life on the streets. But we’re free to cook whatever we want, from lasagne, gumbo and moussaka to curries, fish pie and stews.”

Scott finds a deeper significance in the cooking process. “What matters is the symbolism of the fire that transforms the work of people chopping raw ingredients in the kitchen into nutritious food,” she says. “Feeding people well is integral to the healing process.”

The guests agree. “I never imagined how important it would be to me to eat a hot meal at a table again,” says a young man from the Basque part of Spain. “I was lost when I came here, a month ago, but with their care and support and great food I am beginning to find my way in the world again.”

Main photo: A delicious cooked dinner is served to the guests every night at Shelter From the Storm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

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A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

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.

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.

A Minoan storage pot

A Cretan storage pot (pithoi) can contain grain, pulses or olives. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

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

Ingredients

1 1/4 pounds beet greens

For serving

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or to taste

Coarse-grain sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Lemon wedges

Directions

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

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My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna - egg curry - as a picnic treat for Bengali's New Year. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

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

It’s only appropriate to go all out, food-wise, on naba barsha, as Bengalis call the holiday. Food in Bengali is synonymous with all events and happenings. But for festivals like the one for the new year, Bengalis go the whole nine yards on the dinner table.

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Spaghetti alla Bolognese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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.

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 Foodpublished 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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Main photo: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard's salpícon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Landry.

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.

The Author


Martha Landry is a social media intern for Round Earth Media. She is also a Travel Ambassador for GoOverseas and photo corps member. In the future, Landry hopes to be an environmental journalist.

Martha Landry is a social media intern for Round Earth Media in St. Paul, Minn. She is also a Travel Ambassador for GoOverseas and photo corps member. In the future, Landry hopes to be an environmental journalist.

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.

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

Ingredients

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

Sazón (Seasonings)

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

Directions

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.

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The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

China Ranch is a thriving oasis of boutique date palms that began with the whimsical planting of an ornamental garden nearly a century ago. To the casual traveler driving north from Baker to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in California, it is nearly invisible; you must look out for the signs for the Old Spanish Trail and follow it into a steep canyon, through bare, rough hills and exhausted talc and gypsum mines. There, watered by a creek running south to the Amargosa River, is the improbable sight of 1,500 fruit-bearing trees.

China Ranch 100 years ago

In 1920, Vonola Modine moved with her husband from nearby Shoshone to the property then also known as The Chinaman’s Ranch after an industrious, possibly mythical Chinese rancher called Ah Foo. She wanted some trees to line their new roadway and ordered seeds from the date industry burgeoning near Mecca in the Coachella Valley. They arrived in a wooden box by rail. She had never seen a date palm nor tasted a date nor heard the old adage that the fruits “like their feet in water and their heads in fire.”

The Modines wound up selling China Ranch shortly after the palms were planted. For the next 50 years, successive owners’ attempts to establish hog, sheep and alfalfa farms all failed — even as the original date palms flourished into magnificent trees. In the 1970s, Vonola’s relatives by marriage, the Brown family, repurchased the land — and in 1989, Brian Brown, her grandnephew, realized he had the “water and fire” to create the perfect conditions for a viable date farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, began focusing all their efforts on developing and expanding the garden.

China Ranch today

The original seeds sent to China Ranch were brought to California by agricultural pioneers bearing offshoots from Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Baluchistan, Morocco and Egypt. But date palms grown from seeds never replicate the parent plant, so the trees in the original grove yield hybrid dates that are unique in the market. Brown has continued to reproduce these happy accidents, including the dark, moist Black Beauty; the sweet Gourmet; and the soft, caramel-colored China Ranch Hybrid. The Browns also introduced new date palms and now have 15 varieties such as Dayri, Halawy, Bahri, Hayany and Khadrawy growing on 25 acres. Their crop is in sharp contrast to that of the huge commercial enterprises, which tend only to produce the Medjools and Deglet Noors that your grandmother served at Christmas.

Brown works eight days a week: It is hard physical labor, from trimming the crowns, and battling 4-inch thorns to clearing the offshoots and pollinating the female trees by hand. And help is scarce in the harsh Death Valley environment. There are no palmeros, as the skilled workers who have enabled date production in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century are called, here. Some dates are harvested in the khalal stage, just before they ripen, and others at ripeness; the entire harvest period extends from August to February. The work during these six months can be punishing; in late summer, the temperature can soar to 120 F and the black flies bite through your clothing.

The fruit of family labor

Then the picked fruit must be sorted. Perfect specimens are for eating, while the funky-looking ones are for cooking, eventually macerated to produce a date paste used by bakers, raw-food chefs and upscale Las Vegas restaurants that value local sourcing. And thanks to the wild success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, home cooks are in hot pursuit of ingredients such as date molasses too. Specialty-food agents come to China Ranch in search of unusual dates to supply stores all over California, while employees at the ranch store make converts of casual visitors with cool, thick date shakes and date-nut bread baked daily from Bonnie Brown’s secret recipe. Bonnie also runs an eclectic retail shop and an online mail-order operation that ships gift boxes of fresh dates all over the country.

The farm has an unexpected sideline as well. The Dayri palm, originally from Egypt, puts out long, straight, symmetrical fronds that make perfect lulavs, which are used in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. For the past seven years, rabbis have come from as far as New York to select and cut some 300 of these fronds. Despite their inconsistent harvest and light yield, Dayris will always be grown here.

Little did Vonola Modine know that her ornamental trees would be an inspiration to Brian Brown nearly 70 years after she planted them. She returned to China Ranch in 1991 to see the glorious mature palms that now line the path leading to the Browns’ great adobe home — and you should see them, too. The setting is bizarre, but the dates are sublime.

Main photo: The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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Otramanera's fresh sardine fillets dressed in a fruity papaya salsa augmented with a cilantro purée and crowned with edible flowers. Credit: Copyright Nicolas Gilman

Fine dining in Cuba might sound like an oxymoron. For decades, wisdom has been that restaurants on the impoverished island were mediocre at best, and that a good meal was hard to find. This was true as recently as a couple of years ago. But, even before the island nation’s relations with the United States thawed, the gastronomic scene had been changing, and chefs have made huge strides in offering a wider range of quality restaurant options.

The Cuban government, in the desperate years after the Soviet Union pulled its support from the island, sanctioned the private ownership of small restaurants called paladares, which means “palate.” Situated in homes, these humble kitchens, limited to a few tables, provided simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. The scarcity of all but the most simple meats, rice and beans, and a strict policy that forbade the offering of seafood kept them from competing with government-owned establishments.

In 2012, however, the state relaxed the rules and paladares have moved up to the next level. While simple mom-and-pop places abound, a new crop of elegant venues for creative chef cooking have begun to challenge the island’s reputation for culinary blandness.

One of the first in this vein was La Guarida, located in the apartment in which the renowned film “Fresa y Chocolate” was filmed. Several dining rooms, filled with kitchy knickknacks and movie memorabilia bustle with locals and foreigners. The menu, which includes a small wine list, strives for international creativity but doesn’t always hit all the marks. Still, La Guarida opened to doors to wider possibilities.

Then Le Chansonnier arrived. Set in a late 19th-century mansion in Vedado, it was restored by chef and owner Héctor Higuera Martínez (who has since moved on to Atalier). The dazzling décor was decidedly postmodern. The small, astutely chosen menu featured duck, lamb and fish, all of whose sources were nearby and local by necessity. Patrons included government bigwigs, foreign visitors, journalists and a handful of locals with enough disposable income to afford the relatively steep prices.

Others followed in rapid succession. The ultra cool El Cocinero is perched on the roof of an extinct factory that houses a complex of galleries and boutiques. Casa Pilar oozes sophistication.

Doña Eutimia specializes in artfully prepared traditional dishes, as does Mamá Inés and Nao. O’Reilly 304 does home-style cooking in a laid-back boho setting, ’60s rock creating a funky and fun ambience.

Otramanera steps up dining in Havana

Most recently, in August of 2014, Otramanera, perhaps presenting the best cooking to date, was inaugurated. It’s set in a sleek ’50s ranch-style house, its chef trained in Catalonia.

But all of the chefs interviewed pointed out the daily uphill battle they face trying to keep stock of the most basic ingredients, as well as deal with less than expertly trained staff.

While perhaps it’s early to proclaim the birth of the “Nueva Cocina Cubana,” it seems clear that the dining scene in Cuba is in the midst of a revolution of its own.

Main photo: Otramanera’s dishes, prepared by chef Dayron Ávila, include fresh sardine fillets dressed in a fruity papaya salsa augmented with a cilantro purée and crowned with edible flowers. Credit: Copyright Nicolas Gilman

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