Articles in World

A platter of

Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.

For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.

Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.

While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:

  • Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
  • Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
  • Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
  • Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
  • Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.

Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.

Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck

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Not leaving town for a spring break vacation? No worries! We have soups from around the world that will help your families explore seven different cultures -- all from the comfort of your own kitchen. Credit: Copyright Carl Tremblay

It’s officially spring and many families will soon be traveling on spring break vacations. Not leaving town? No worries! We have soups from around the world that will help your family explore seven different cultures — all from your kitchen!

Soup has to sit on the stove for a while, so here is a fun activity to do with your family. This Soup Restaurant game is a great way for kids to stretch their imaginations, come up with new ideas, think about recipe writing, and maybe even try out their recipes.

Here’s how to play: Pretend you own a soup restaurant. Make a menu listing the different kinds of soups you have with a description of each soup. You can also make a section with different topping options. Draw pictures of the ingredients in each soup. Come up with fun names for your soups, the toppings, and, of course, the restaurant itself.

More from Zester Daily about kids and cooking:

» Can’t let go of summer? Tomato corn soup can help

» Kids eat smart? There’s a trick to family dinners

» Top chefs go to school

» Mother’s Day tip: Mama mia, please pass the pastina

Main photo: Not leaving town for a spring break vacation? No worries! We have soups from around the world that will help your families explore seven different cultures — all from the comfort of your own kitchen. Credit: Copyright Carl Tremblay

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A traditional Cheese Sunday meal of tartar sauce (from left), fried cheese and a dill sauce. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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

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.

Milking sheep in Slovakia. Credit: Copyright Elisabeth Luard

Milking sheep in Slovakia. Credit: Copyright Elisabeth Luard

“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.

A wine cellar in Svidnik, Slovakia. Credit: Copyright Elisabeth Luard

A wine cellar in Svidnik, Slovakia. Credit: Copyright Elisabeth Luard

Tartar Sauce

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.

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

Cheese Kievs

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.

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Ashkenazi Charoset for the Seder plate. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of BreakingMatzo.com

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

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.

Ashkenazi Charoset

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

1. Peel, core and finely chop or grate the apples.

2. Mix with the rest of the ingredients in a bowl.

Chinese Charoset

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

Heat ingredients in a saucepan until soft and smooth, about 5 minutes. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Moroccan Charoset

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

Piedmontese Charoset

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.

Ingredients

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

Directions

Finely grind the almonds in a food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend to a smooth paste.

Italian Charoset

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

Ingredients

3 apples, sweet or tart

2 pears

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

Directions

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.

Spanish Charoset

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

Ingredients

2 apples

2 pears

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

Directions

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

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Chef Antonio Marchello

Today chefs are superstars. Reality TV idols, prima donnas on various food channels, authors of best-selling books, online food gurus, guests of honor of important culinary events … you name it.

But what seem to be most exciting to the public are TV chefs battling against each other. Sure, such shows are entertaining, but what about chefs who can be maestros at their art and communicate without having to feed our thirst for “blood”?

Last summer, I traveled through Europe and I had the pleasure of meeting five chefs who do not need to cook in a boxing ring to be exciting. Each of them communicated in their own style. Meet them, and join the tour.

CChef Linas Samenas taking orders. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Chef Linas Samenas taking orders. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

The independent

Let’s start with Lithuania’s splendid capital: Vilnius. Chef Linas Samenas could not have chosen a better location to express his culinary inspiration than the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Uzupis, a new area cherished by artists and avant-garde people. It is a city within a city, with its own constitution — somewhat serious, often ironic — written on the walls of Paupio Street.

His tiny restaurant, the eponymous Linas Samenas, is open for lunch only, and its menu changes daily. Samenas is on top of everything: He grows all products in his farm, entertains you about his specialties, takes orders, cooks, coordinates assistants and serves the dish at your table with a glass of delicate berzu (birch water). I tried his delicious saltibarsciai, beet root soup with sour cream.

A great chef can run the show solo without being selfish and pretentious.

Chef Martins Ritins cooking the duck. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Showtime at Vincents: Chef Martins Ritins cooking the duck. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Beautiful Riga, Latvia

I went to Riga’s exclusive Vincents Restaurant, where I ordered a beef tartare as an appetizer. Chef Martins Ritins approached to my table, carrying a paper bag.

“I apologize,” Ritins said. “The beef tonight wasn’t recommendable. Fortunately, there is a fine deli close by, and I got some canned tartare. I hope you like it.”

Well, it was just a funny hoax: The can was actually made and labeled for Vincents and once I opened it, I found one of the freshest tartares I have ever eaten, topped with a quail egg.

After this opening number, the chef was ready for the drama. He brought out a metal squeezer, so similar to a Middle Ages torture machine. On the plate was a red wine-marinated and slowly roasted baby duck. A muscular assistant started the squeezing, with no mercy for the bird’s carcass. The duck was served in tender slices with the extracted natural juices copiously irrigating the meat.

The process, emulating the famous “canard au sang” of the prestigious and rather stuffy La Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris, here got a standing ovation from the audience.

A great chef can keep a sense of humor while running the show.

Chef Konstantin Filippou. Copyright Courtesy Konstantin Filippou

Chef Konstantin Filippou. Copyright Courtesy Konstantin Filippou

Vienna’s discovery

The imperial city surprised me with the discovery of Konstantin Filippou, a no-showman chef who leaves the fame to his creations.

There is choreography between waiters and assistants that somehow reminds me of a ballet. The dish delivery is like a religious ritual, from the kitchen to the waiter to the maître d’ who finally lays the plate on the table. Food presentation and ceramics are amazing. Art is in the plate, somehow referring to a Picasso or a Kandinsky.

The taste? Imagine minimalism meets adventure, in total freedom. Lamb tongue with chanterelles, artichokes and orange. Konstantin seems to be very reserved. He doesn’t like to be interviewed, and rarely gets out from the kitchen.

A chef can appear as a creative genius and remain humble.

Chef Pirmas Dublis. Copyright Courtesy 1Dublis

Chef Pirmas Dublis. Copyright Courtesy 1Dublis

On stage

Back to Vilnius. Dinner at 1Dublis.

This is a trendy restaurant where Chef Pirmas Dublis operates in the open kitchen that looks like a puppet theater where the assistants carefully finish the plates cooked in the adjacent kitchen. The ritual is captivating.

Dublis is supervising the action with a perfect harmony of movements and constantly checking the food preparation reflected in the mirror over the kitchen counter. He loves to join the table just seconds before the dish is served and explains the origins of ingredients and the technique he uses. With only 25 seats, intimacy and attention to details are highly valued. In my opinion the biggest hit was the fish stock, crayfish and brown butter.

A chef can offer a show and not be a show-off.

Chef Antonio Marchello’s spaghetti with Gubbio saffron, Sorrento lemon and pecorino cheese. Copyright 2015

Chef Antonio Marchello’s spaghetti with Gubbio saffron, Sorrento lemon and pecorino cheese. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Milan: Antonio, cameras with a mission

Meet the entertaining chef Antonio Marchello, former TV comedian, writer and excellent connoisseur of Italian cuisine, traditional and innovative.

Antonio hosts “Social Kitchen,” a one-hour online show that airs live on Tuesdays (vegan dishes only) and Wednesdays (anything else). Antonio goes online at 8 p.m. Italian time and prepares the dish interacting with fans and amateurs who follow him from home. At 9 p.m. the dish is ready. A quick selfie is sent to the Social Kitchen Facebook page with an invitation of “tutti a tavola!” (everybody eat now!) to enjoy the meal.

I visited him during the show and I tried the spaghetti with Gubbio saffron, pecorino cheese and a zest of Sorrento lemon. Simply divine.

“I love to learn and to teach,” says Antonio. “I hate those commercial cooking shows, but I found the way to compromise and still fulfill my inspiration.”

A chef can have a show online and prefer sharing over fighting.

Main photo: Chef Antonio Marchello. Credit: Copyright Rosanna Curi

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Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

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.

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.

Mail-order sources

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.

Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

“The world doesn’t want to know the truth about gluten,” graduate student Lisa Kissing Kucek joked last July under a tent at Cornell University’s research farm in Freeville, N.Y. Lightning cut the sky, and we, a group of farmers and bakers, dashed for our cars before she could tell us what she’d discovered.

Now we know. Her research, “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” was published recently in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Kissing Kucek and her colleagues reviewed more than 200 scientific research papers to see what is known about how different wheat varieties and our processing methods affect people’s sensitivity to wheat.

The conclusions of her literature review are cautious, far more so than the declarations made in such books as “Wheat Belly,” which considers modern wheat a chronic poison. Kissing Kucek was curious what wheat actually does in the human body and began by looking at gluten and the pathologies associated with it.

“We are missing a lot just by focusing on gluten,” she said. “So to see what actually is going on, I extended that to wheat.”

Her inquiry grew to cover a broad territory, including the problems caused by wheat, how those problems vary by wheat species and variety, and the role of processing methods. It considered everything from celiac disease, wheat allergy and nonceliac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), to fructose malabsorption and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The review pairs well with other Cornell research. The university and its research partners received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2011 to look at heritage wheat varieties. Field trials, lab analysis and baking trials are all part of this grant project, which ends in 2016.

Vintage wheat varieties have captured the imagination of a gluten-shy public, and the paper includes thorough descriptions of wheat kernels and wheat genetics. The material is dense, but Kissing Kucek explains it in an easy to follow video presentation.

Many people have trouble digesting fructose and certain carbohydrates, collectively known as FODMAPS. “These individuals experience bloating and gas when consuming large amounts dairy, high fructose corn syrup, stone fruits and wheat,” she said. “As many foods contain FODMAPS, if these individuals only remove wheat gluten from their diet, their symptoms will likely persist.”

Lynn Veenstra, also of Cornell, surveyed fructan research for the paper. Some of the findings she reviewed were featured in a recent Washington Post article about FODMAPS.

Illnesses like nonceliac wheat sensitivity, IBS and fructose malabsorption can be hard to diagnose. But most of the research points to multiple triggers beyond gluten proteins or other parts of wheat.

Little about gluten is straightforward

Contrary to popular or wishful thinking, old wheats don’t wear halos.

“There is no perfect wheat species that reduces all types of wheat sensitivity,” said Kissing Kucek. However, einkorn is promising because it contains fewer celiac reactive compounds than heritage and modern wheat varieties. Einkorn dates from the very early domestication of staple crops; emmer and spelt are also classified as ancient. Heritage or heirloom grains refer to older seed varieties developed before 1950. Modern grain varieties generally have shorter stalks, which allow the plants to receive heavy doses of fertilizer without falling down in the field.

Different wheat varieties vary widely in their reactivity for celiac and wheat allergy. But we don’t know the effect on wheat sensitivity for many of the old or new wheat varieties used in the United States. Europe is screening more varieties. Yet nothing is straightforward when interpreting natural systems.

Figuring out how gluten works in our bodies is tough. Figuring out how growing conditions or plant variety might affect a crop’s potential to harm us is also tough. Understanding the role processing methods play also needs more research, but there’s enough information to cause concern over a few things.

One item —vital wheat gluten — is common in the food supply, and has the potential to cause reactions. It’s used to bind multigrain breads. A cheap protein and a great emulsifier and binder, it’s also widely used in industrial food processing. Irradiated flour and other baking additives also are cited as worrisome.

However, the paper’s section on processing offers some hope, too. Grain sprouting for instance, could help some people digest the complex proteins that give some eaters grief. Longer fermentation also breaks down proteins that can cause some forms of wheat sensitivity.

Other research questions about wheat and gluten are still being charted. A recent Mother Jones story about research at The Bread Lab of Washington State University suggests that modern baking is a bigger culprit than modern wheat. The publication Eating Well also has a new story on gluten by Sam Fromartz called “Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.” Like his recent book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” the article nicely navigates the maze of fears about eating wheat and gluten.

Kissing Kucek’s “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” maps the research already done. Like any realistic map, the guide offers facts, not commandments of the “Here Be Dragons” sort. Answers might be found, the paper suggests, in turning to traditions.

This confirms what I’ve long suspected: That we need to unravel some of the processing developed over the last 150 years. In that time, we’ve adopted roller milling, which leaves behind most of the bran and germ. While I never fell out of love with wheat or gluten, I’ve grown enamored of the taste of fresh stone ground flour, and the concept of using all parts of the grain. Perhaps there is something that each lends the other, and to us, as we turn this plant into food. I think that the unity of stone milling is essential to healthy utilization of grains. Some professional bakers believe this too, and are working exclusively with fresh milled whole grain flours.

As people negotiate a friendly relationship with bread, I am hoping that my personal truth about gluten might gain scientific ground.

Main photo: Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

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A traditional Yemeni meal of lahuh and stew. Credit: iStockphoto / lenazap

Yemen is a remote and little-known country, closed to the outside world for centuries and still not very accessible. Not surprisingly, it has a distinctive cuisine.

A bit of cultural background

The Roman name for Yemen was Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia, partly because of its wealth: It stood athwart the main spice and incense routes. Another reason for the name was that Yemen is the only part of the Arabian Peninsula to get substantial rainfall. Located on the Indian Ocean, it’s exposed to the monsoon winds, and the Yemenis make the best use they can of the resulting precipitation. In some places, the hillsides are terraced, as in Southeast Asia. However, even this agricultural benefit is not enough to support the country’s population. For centuries, half of its adult men have worked abroad. (There are a number of Yemeni farmworkers in California’s Central Valley.)

Today, Yemen is the 37th poorest country in the world. It has potential tourist attractions, particularly in its impressive architecture — the Yemenis seem incapable of putting up a dull building, even when they use cinder block — but poverty and, recently, sectarian violence have kept it from drawing many visitors.

Although the country is best known to gourmets for producing coffee, most Yemenis can’t afford to drink it. Nearly all the beans are exported, and the locals instead drink a tea made from the husks, called gishr. It tastes like green coffee beans, I’m sorry to report — which is probably why it’s always flavored with spices — and contains no caffeine. For a caffeine-like kick, the Yemenis chew a local narcotic called qat (also pronounced gat or chat). It’s supposedly addictive, but I’ve chewed with wealthy Yemenis who could presumably afford the best and I found it about as stimulating as an espresso or two. I’ve concluded that people chew qat because it’s the principal social activity. (Women do it too, but in separate rooms.)

The fundamentals of Yemeni cuisine

After its spice and then coffee industries collapsed, Yemen was entirely isolated from the outside world for many years before 1963, when there was a revolution that devolved into the continuing period of instability. As a result, very little has been written about its cuisine, and all that most Westerners know about it comes from the cookery of the Yemenite Jews of Israel. Probably the best-known Yemeni food is a spice mixture/sauce whose name, s’hug, means “ground” in Arabic. There’s no canonical recipe; it can be made with just about any combination of ground, chopped or crushed flavorings. In the country’s capital, Sanaa (where they use the plural form of the word, sahawig), it’s usually chopped tomatoes, chiles and onions — essentially identical to Mexican salsa cruda.

Yemenis retain a medieval tradition of cooking in pots carved from soapstone; they prefer stone to metal because it doesn’t add any flavor to the food. Stoneware takes a while to heat up, much like cast iron (though it doesn’t have to be seasoned); it is also surprisingly sturdy, even amid leaping flames in restaurant kitchens.

Traditional dishes

The most common main dish is stew (marag), often including tomato and potato and usually flavored with fenugreek. The Yemenis are the world’s biggest consumers of fenugreek, mostly known to us from commercial curry powder and artificial maple syrup. They eat so much of this spice (which belongs to the legume family) that it contributes measurably to their protein intake. They prepare it by soaking the seeds in water for a couple of hours to soften them and leach out some of their bitterness, then whipping them to a froth with ground leeks. A dollop of this pale-green foam is often served on top of marag. The result is curious — imagine chili con carne garnished with bitter applesauce — so it takes some getting used to.

Because of the popularity of qat, Yemen is one of the few Middle Eastern countries with a tradition of sit-down restaurants. But these are far from fine-dining places — the customers are all in a hurry to get something in their stomachs before a chew, so the scene tends toward a roiling chaos of people calling out their orders (usually the only choices are beef marag or chicken maragand wolfing down the food.

In homes, you may find a wider range of dishes, such as duqqa, which is chopped meat and onions braised with parsley, or mkashshan, chicken stewed with browned green onions. Because of the country’s poverty, though, the diet is heavily based on grain, featuring lots of gruels and porridges and dishes containing bread.

Fortunately, bread is the cuisine’s strong suit. There’s an excellent flaky bread called mulawwah, which has a curved shape from the way it’s stuck on to the wall of the tandoor. For my taste, the finest Yemeni bread is lahuh (pronounced la-HOOH, with both h’s strongly articulated), a spongy, crepe-like product similar to Ethiopian injera but with an attractive crunchy quality of its own. As injera is preferably made with Ethiopia’s native grain t’ef, lahuh is made with Yemen’s indigenous white sorghum (dhura baida), which accounts for 80% of the country’s grain production. It resembles a cornstalk bearing popcorn balls instead of ears.

So there you go. If you find yourself in Yemen, try to get some mulawwah or lahuh with your marag. And if somebody offers you qat, say, “Oh, heck, why not? But only as long as you’re paying, partner.”

Main photo: A traditional Yemeni meal of lahuh and stew. Credit: Copyright  iStockphoto/ lenazap

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