Articles in Cuisine
Jamaica, spelled like the Caribbean island but pronounced ha-MY-ka, a flower in the hibiscus family, makes one of Mexico’s most beloved and refreshing drinks, agua de jamaica. The ruby-red, tart, sweet yet often mouth-puckering refresher can be spotted in huge glass jars in almost every traditional market across the country.
By contrast, at high-end restaurants — from the southern state of Oaxaca’s Casa Oaxaca through Mexico City’s Pujol to the country’s northwest corner at Tijuana’s Mission 19 — trendy mixologists serve jamaica cocktails shaken or stirred. These pros know the sexy red color sparkles in Mexican Cosmopolitans (non-aged, clear tequila and jamaica vs. vodka and cranberry) when a customer desires to sip from a chic martini glass.
You can buy dried jamaica flowers, Hibiscus sabdariffa, in bulk at Mexican markets or in cellophane-wrapped packs hanging from hooks near dried chiles. Always be sure the jamaica is from Mexico and not from China; the cheaper Chinese product (the catch!) has insipid flavor and weak color. And don’t confuse this hibiscus with the huge-flowered plants called hibiscus blossoming in all their glory in tropical and subtropical back yards.
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You can brew jamaica as tea, then strain and discard the flowers. It is rarely served as hot tea in warm climates except as a calming cure for urinary tract infections. Think of jamaica and its curative powers as Mexico’s answer to cranberry juice. Both extremely tart, the brilliant crimson liquids must be sweetened to be easily drinkable, and science has confirmed metabolites in their juice prevent E. coli from sticking to other bacteria, limiting its ability to grow and multiply. In most cases, minor infections are improved in a day after downing four cups of either drink, hot or cold.
In Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca‘s rug weaving center, Zapotec chef Abigail Mendoza of Tlamanalli restaurant brews agua de jamaica strong and sweetens it with panela, cones of deep brown unrefined sugar called piloncillo in most other regions of Mexico. She makes it in and serves it from a bulbous pitcher with narrow top. Mendoza whips up the drink using a molinillo (a hard-carved wooden foaming too) until the top is covered with copious bubbly foam. The foam is an important part of any traditional drink in this part of Mexico because people feel the drink’s spirit is in the foam and without bubbles the drink has no life, or is at best past its prime.
Besides hot tea and agua de jamaica, highly flavored jamaica simple syrup is a joy to have on hand for various uses, especially cocktails; its sweet-sour flavor is similar to pomegranate molasses and some balsamic vinegars. Try the sophisticated flavor over strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream. In the past few years, jamaica salad dressings have popped up in restaurants everywhere and are delicious yet simple to make. Modern-style restaurant bar menus offer quesadillas (folded corn tortillas with melted cheese inside) de jamaica, although many in Mexico City have no cheese — odd, but trés cool bar snacks with the hipster low-fat crowd. High-end gourmet shops sell elaborate candied jamaica flowers to decorate fine desserts. On the other hand, a longtime childhood favorite is the traditional, beloved jamaica frozen ice pop found at street corner push carts. (Hear the bell?)
Jamaica Tea (Agua de Jamaica)
This tea can be served hot or cold.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: About 4 cups
4 cups water, plus more for diluting
1 cup dried jamaica flowers (Mexican, not Chinese)
Ice, if desired
1 cup sugar (white, brown or agave syrup), or more to taste
1. Stir the jamaica into the water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 20 minutes.
2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a container. Add water to dilute to your liking.
3. Heat to serve hot or chill with ice to serve cold. Stir in sweetener to taste, or add sweetener separately to each cup or glass. The tea will keep for three days refrigerated.
Jamaica Simple Syrup
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: About 1 cup
4 cups Jamaica Tea, unsweetened (see recipe above)
1 cup white sugar
Pinch sea salt or kosher salt
1. Boil the unsweetened jamaica tea until it is reduced by half, about 20 to 25 minutes.
2. Add the sugar and a pinch of salt and boil until it is reduced by half again, to 1 cup, about 20 minutes more.
3. Remove from the heat and cool until the strong bubbles die down. Carefully pour the hot, thick syrup into an airtight glass jar. The syrup will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Jamaica Salad Dressing
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: About 1/2 cup
3 1/2 tablespoons Jamaica Simple Syrup (see recipe above)
1/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
6 grinds black peppercorns
1 small clove garlic, smashed and finely chopped
2 tablespoons Mexican lime (aka Key) juice
1/3 cup quality extra virgin olive oil
10 jamaica flowers, finely chopped
1. Measure Jamaica Simple Syrup into a small bowl. Whisk in the salt, pepper, garlic and lime juice.
2. Slowly pour in the oil, whisking until fully blended.
3. Whisk in the chopped flowers. Pour as much as desired over chilled salad greens of your choice and toss.
Note: This dressing is a real treat on a salad with queso fresco, feta or goat cheese scattered on top.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 8 quesadillas
2 cups water
1/2 cup coarsely chopped jamaica flowers
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sugar or agave syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed and finely chopped (You can keep the seeds for spice.)
8 corn tortillas, about 8 inches in diameter
2 cups shredded melting cheese, such as quesillo de Oaxaca, mozzarella or Jack
1. Stir the jamaica into a saucepan of water and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 10 minutes.
2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing to extract all liquid into a container, saving the flowers. Reserve the tea for another purpose.
3. Heat the oil in a small skillet. Add the flowers, sweetener, salt and chopped chile. Sauté over medium-low heat until sticky, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
4. Put the tortillas on a preheated, medium-hot ungreased griddle. Spoon some of the jamaica mixture to one side of each tortilla and then pile with cheese, keeping it away from the edges. Fold the empty tortilla half over the half with jamaica. Press with a spatula. When the bottoms of the tortillas crisp a bit, flip them over to crisp the other sides and melt the cheese.
5. Remove to a cutting board and cut into wedges.
Main photo: Jamaica Quesadillas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky
Virtually everyone who has been to Italy has been to Rome, but not everyone who has been to Rome has had Roman cuisine. Most of the famous foods of Rome, such as pizza, fettuccine alfredo or spaghetti carbonara, either were invented for tourists or came from elsewhere.
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The Romans eat in a way that is nearly hidden from the tourist. Their meals are heavy on offal and first-course pasta dishes.
Italian cookbook author Anna Gosetti della Salda boldly declared “la cucina romana doesn’t exist,” but I’m not sure I agree. She goes on to explain that it can’t be said to exist because “no Roman ever created those masterpieces of culinary art that are the pride of almost all other regional cuisines of Italy. Despite this the fact remains incontestable that you eat well in Rome and the food is good and almost everywhere.”
Paolo Monelli, who was one of Italy’s most distinguished journalists, was also honest in his appraisal of the cuisine of Rome, declaring it “the most plebeian that exists in the peninsula; flavorful, of course, aggressive, multicolored, but rural, created by the taste of goat-herders, of cowboys, buffalo herders, and the incivility of the recipes from the ghetto.”
The most succinct summation of la cucina romana, although insipid, was that of food writer Ada Boni who said that “la cucina romana è una cucina semplice, sana, nutrient e saporita” (Roman cuisine is a cuisine that is simple, healthy, nutritious and flavorful). A dish of pasta and offal would be an example.
‘Fifth’ quarter of the cow
Pride of place of a dish that strikes to the soul of Roman cuisine is rigatoni co’ la pajata, a unique recipe made from the small intestine of the suckling calf. In Romanesco dialect, rigatoni co’ la pajata (or pagliata) can be translated as rigatoni with chitterlings. It is probably the most unique dish of Rome utilizing a component of the quinto quarto, the “fifth” quarter of the cow (that is, the head, tail and offal). It is without doubt a dish derived from cucina povera, the cuisine of the poor.
It is made from cow or calf chitterlings, that is, the duodenum, the small or first part of the intestine where the enzymatic breakdown of food occurs. Roman gourmets call for beef believing that beef is more flavorful than veal.
However, unique to the dish is the fact that although the intestine is washed and thoroughly cleaned, the chyme is not removed so when it is cooked there is a rich, creamy and slightly sour taste mixed with the tomatoes of the sauce. The chyme is the semiliquid mass of partially digested food that passes from the stomach through the pyloric sphincter into the duodenum of the cow. The process of cleaning the duodendum is quite laborious because one does not want to lose the chyme, but that is the job of the butcher and the cook merely has to prepare the dish.
For four to six people you need 4 pounds of chitterlings. In the United States you will probably have to use pork chitterlings and those from Louis Foods are ideal. Lardo is cured pork fatback (not lard, which is called strutto in Italian) and can be found in better supermarkets such as Whole Foods and in Italian markets. Some domestic American companies are also making lardo.
Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni with Chitterlings)
Prep time: About 10 minutes
Cooking time: 3 3/4 hours
Total time: About 4 hours
Yield: 6 servings
One 5-pound package cleaned pork chitterlings, cut into 4-inch pieces
1 tablespoon pork lard or olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
1 celery stalk, chopped
1/4 pound lardo, prosciutto fat or pancetta, or a mixture of the three, chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups dry white wine, separated
One 28-ounce can tomato purée
Bouquet garni, tied with kitchen twine, consisting of 10 sprigs parsley and 1 sprig rosemary
2 1/2 cups water
1 pound rigatoni
1/4 pound Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano cheese, freshly grated
1. Place the pork chitterlings in a stockpot, cover with water, bring to a boil over high heat and boil for 1 hour. Drain; once cool, cut into pieces half the size and set aside until needed.
2. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the lard over medium heat, then cook, stirring, the onion, celery, lardo and garlic until soft, about 6 minutes. Add the chitterlings, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until sticking to the bottom and turning light golden, about 6 minutes. Add 1 cup wine. Once the wine evaporates, add the tomato purée, bouquet garni, clove and water. When the liquid starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring and moistening with the remaining white wine until tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The sauce should be dense though, so continue cooking if necessary.
3. 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 the pasta to a large serving platter and spoon the chitterlings and sauce over it; serve with the cheese.
Main photo: Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni With Chitterlings). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Although cauliflowers are sold in our supermarkets all year round, this beautiful member of the wild cabbage family (Brassica oleracea) is at its bright and healthy best in early spring. Cauliflowers harvested at that time have had the benefit of a longer growing season (about 80 days, instead of 50 days for their summer-grown counterparts), allowing their valuable nutrients more time to develop.
The cauliflower, whose name derives from the Latin caulis (stem) and floris (flower) is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers. The edible part of the plant, the head of tender stems and flower buds, is known as a curd. Similarly to broccoli and calabrese (close relatives), the cauliflower stores nutrients for the developing flowers at the base of the buds, so a fresh, crisp curd is packed full of vitamins and minerals. Its Latin botanical name, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis (meaning cluster, or grapelike), is an apt description of this remarkably clever vegetable, which grows with a protective layer of leaves curled around its head.
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Hats off to the French, though, for giving cauliflower (chou-fleur, or cabbage-flower,) a prettier, and horticulturally more correct name, than the rather pedestrian Anglo-Saxon “flower on a stalk.”
There is disagreement over the origin of the cauliflower. Some say it was developed by 11th century Arab gardeners, or by Romans a thousand years earlier. But the wild cabbage grew throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean and, with its tendency to produce “freaks,” prototypes of the cauliflower probably originated spontaneously in different places. Curious gardeners have since, through seed selection, improved nature’s work and we are now reaping the benefits.
Medieval Italian kitchens and, later, those of Louis XIV of France, served stylish and elegant cauliflower dishes. Catherine de Medici is said to have appreciated the lovely vegetable, and to have introduced it to France to help alleviate arthritis. But its earlier French name, chou de Chypre, suggests it arrived from Cyprus and Cypriots are, understandably, happy to claim its origin. For the past 200 years, the cauliflower has been a popular winter vegetable in northern Europe, but without its former prestige in serious kitchens. Until now.
With cauliflowers piled high in our markets, this inexpensive and highly nutritious brassica is at last losing its humble status and taking its rightful place on our tables. A reputation for being bland and soggy is the fault of the cook, not of the cauliflower. Its very gentleness is the perfect foil to many fine flavors, and it takes only a few minutes to cook.
“Organic” and “local” have real meaning when selecting cauliflowers: snails, aphids and caterpillars love them, so pesticides are often used and, once harvested, their nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly. Most cauliflowers are attractively creamy-white, but we also have wonderfully colorful varieties. Buy cauliflowers that smell and look fresh, with deep-green, outer leaves and tight heads; avoid brown-spotted white ones, or dull-looking purple, yellow or green heads. Size doesn’t affect flavor, but age does: older cauliflowers taste and smell stronger.
Richer in vitamins and minerals than any other brassica, cauliflowers are an excellent source of vitamin C, folic acid and potassium; a very good source of niacin, copper, manganese and vitamins A, K, B5 and B6; and a good source for protein, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamins B2 and B3. Raw, they are even better.
Cauliflower cooks quickly: Keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. After this time, cauliflower loses 20% to 30% of its phytochemicals; after 10 minutes, 40% disappear. Where possible, cook in ways that don’t commit nutricide – in soups and stews, grilled or baked. In its wonderful ability to host spicy flavors, some of the best preparations for cauliflower can be found in the kitchens of the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean. With winter soon drawing to an end, it’s time to enjoy the vegetable that has spent the past three months developing the nutrients we need to take us into a healthy spring.
Simple Greek ways to serve
- Serve raw or lightly-steamed small florets with a dip of mashed anchovy, capers, herbs, and olive oil or with hummus, small radishes and young wild green leaves.
- Mix thinly sliced cauliflower florets and fine-julienned carrots with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, lightly chopped flat-leaf parsley, and Greek oregano (rigani ).
- Dip small florets in a light garbanzo-flour batter and gently fry the fritters in olive oil; serve with olive oil and lemon juice mayonnaise, olives, and lemon wedges.
Cauliflower à la Greque
À la Greque (French for “in the Greek style”) describes a method of cooking, one that presumably a French cook/traveler admired and added to his/her own kitchen repertoire. There are many versions of this popular dish, but most are a pale imitation of the original Greek creation. Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find and, for a lightly spiced dish, prepare two hours ahead; for a more mellow taste and texture, leave overnight in the marinade.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 12 minutes
Total time: 17 minutes
Yield: 8 for a meze serving, 4 as a vegetable dish
4 cups small cauliflower florets
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons dried coriander seeds
1 cup dry white wine
3 bay leaves
1/2 tablespoon aromatic honey such as Hymettus
1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns
Coarse-grain sea salt to taste
4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon lemon zest, in very thin strips, optional
1. Trim most of the stem from the florets and cut an “x” in the base of each with a small sharp knife. Blanch 1 minute in boiling water, drain, and set aside.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the coriander seeds and florets in a single layer and stir with a wooden spoon to coat with the olive oil. Add the wine, bay leaves, honey, pepper and salt. Bring just to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until tender.
3. Transfer the contents of the pan to a nonreactive bowl and set aside until cool. Cover the bowl and shake it gently to redistribute the marinade.
4. To serve, taste the marinade. If more salt is needed, combine with the parsley. Transfer the cauliflower to a shallow serving bowl and pour over most of the marinade (strain it first, if you prefer). Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest and serve with the lemon wedges.
Main photo: Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron
I used to think of black-eyed peas as a purely American food, much loved in the South. Despite the time I spent living in Austin, I’ve never made them the way Texans do, using ham hocks or salt pork for flavoring, and I’ve had more than one run-in with staunch traditionalists who have challenged — even berated — my vegetarian approach.
Even now that I’m not a strict vegetarian (albeit it’s the way I eat most of the time) I prefer black-eyed peas that have not been simmered with pork products. I love their earthy depth of flavor and I have never thought, “Gee, these would be really great if they just had some pork to flavor them.” They have plenty going for them on their own.
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As I’ve researched the cuisines of the Mediterranean over the years, I have learned that these beans are an important staple in that part of the world, especially in Greece and North Africa. They are the backbone of some of my favorite Mediterranean dishes.
Black-eyed peas are native to Africa. According to cookbook author and Zester contributor Clifford A. Wright, they had arrived in the northern Mediterranean by about 300 B.C. and were cultivated by the Romans. The beans traveled to South America with the slave trade, but they came to North America via the Mediterranean. They are much loved in Greece, where they are stewed in abundant olive oil, often with greens, or used in lighter salads or bean dishes and seasoned with wild fennel, mint, dill and parsley.
In Tunisia, a country with a rich repertoire of vegetable stews or tagines where you are not likely to see pork with beans (because of Muslim dietary rules), black-eyed peas are simmered with abundant spices, vegetables like greens and fennel, and lots of fresh herbs — cilantro, parsley, mint. The spicy bean tagines are ladled over couscous. These dishes are complex, with an array of seasonings — harissa, caraway and coriander seeds, cumin and garlic.
But my favorite black-eyed peas are the ones that I make year after year. I cook the beans with onion, garlic and bay leaf, then toss them while warm with a cumin-infused vinaigrette, chopped bell peppers, and lots of cilantro. The balance of flavors is perfect. It’s a traditional good-luck dish on New Year’s Day, but it never fails to leave me feeling optimistic about the future — no matter the time of year.
Black-Eyed Peas Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette
You can serve this salad warm or chilled. I often make the beans several days ahead, marinate them in the vinaigrette, and add the chopped pepper and cilantro after I reheat the beans in the vinaigrette.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish
For the beans:
1 medium onion, cut in half
1 pound black-eyed peas, washed and picked over
2 quarts water
2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
Salt to taste
For the dressing and salad:
1/4 cup red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 teaspoons lightly toasted cumin, ground
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup broth from the beans
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1. Combine the onion, black-eyed peas and the water in a soup pot or Dutch oven and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any foam from the surface of the water. Add the garlic, bay leaf and salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons). Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Taste and add more salt if desired. Cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until the beans are tender but not falling apart. Remove from the heat. Remove onion halves and bay leaf. Carefully drain the beans through a colander or strainer set over a bowl and transfer to a large salad bowl. Measure out 1/2 cup of the bean broth.
2. In a pyrex measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, and mustard. Whisk in the bean broth, then the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir the dressing into the warm beans. Stir in the red pepper and cilantro, and serve, or allow to cool and serve at room temperature.
Greek Black-Eyed Peas With Wild Fennel
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish
1 pound black-eyed peas
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups wild fennel leaves, chopped
1 15-ounce can tomatoes, drained and pureed in a food processor
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Additional chopped fennel for garnish (optional)
1. Wash and pick over the beans. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and fennel leaves and cook, stirring, for a minute, until the garlic is fragrant and the fennel beginning to wilt. Stir in the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the black-eyed peas and enough water to cover by an inch, and stir together. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 30 minutes.
2. Add salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons) and freshly ground pepper, and continue to simmer until the beans are tender, another 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve warm or hot, garnished with additional chopped wild fennel if desired.
Couscous With Black-Eyed Peas and Chard
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours
Total time: up to 2 hours
Yield: 6 servings
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
Chard stalks, diced
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted and ground
1 teaspoon caraway seeds, lightly toasted and ground
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
2 cups black-eyed peas, rinsed
2 tablespoons harissa (or more to taste; substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper if harissa is unavailable), plus additional for serving
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt, preferably kosher salt, to taste
1 to 1 1/2 pounds Swiss chard, stemmed, washed thoroughly in 2 changes of water, and coarsely chopped
1 large bunch parsley or cilantro (or a combination), stemmed, washed and chopped
2 cups couscous, reconstituted and steamed until fluffy and hot
1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy casserole or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt, the chard stalks, garlic and ground spices, and stir together for about a minute, until the garlic is fragrant. Add the black-eyed peas and 3 quarts water, and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add the harissa or cayenne, the tomato paste and salt to taste, cover and simmer another 15 to 30 minutes, until the beans are tender and fragrant. Strain off 1/2 cup of the liquid and set aside to add to the couscous when you reconstitute it.
2. Stir in the chard a handful at a time, allowing each handful to cook down a bit before adding the next. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes, until the chard is tender and fragrant. Stir in the parsley and/or cilantro and simmer another few minutes. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt, garlic or harissa as desired.
3. Reconstitute and warm the couscous while the black-eyed peas are cooking. Shortly before serving, transfer to a wide serving bowl, such as a pasta bowl, or directly to wide soup plates. Spoon on the black-eyed peas and greens with plenty of broth, and serve, passing additional harissa at the table.
Main photo: Black-Eyed Peas Salad. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman
Burgers grilled over an open flame in Moscow. A five-course meal cooked in a Williamsburg loft. Vietnamese spring rolls served in a Helsinki train station. A Belgian waffle bar set up in Berlin. These are just a few of the concepts behind hundreds of restaurants scheduled to pop up on Feb. 15, for one day only, as part of what organizers call the “world’s biggest food carnival.”
The now-global event sprouted in Helsinki, where a group of friends, frustrated with the red tape required to establish a restaurant, launched a social-media campaign to get people in Finland to join them in creating temporary eateries for a single day. That first Restaurant Day in May 2011 included 45 restaurants. The most recent, in November 2014, encompassed 1,698 in 35 countries (mostly in Western Europe).
“There was such huge media interest in the first event, we knew we were onto something big, and the international potential became apparent very fast,” says Restaurant Day co-founder Timo Santala, who leads a team of volunteers that promotes and supports local restaurant hosts through a “Restaurant Day Ambassadors” network, a mobile app, and a website in 17 languages.
Kathryn Sharaput, a pastry chef in Montreal, learned about Restaurant Day on Facebook, and first participated last summer, serving up homemade ceviche in a local park.
“I really enjoyed actually getting to talk to the people I was cooking for – trading stories about food, travel and recipes,” Sharaput says, adding that the event also helps bridge the “disconnect between people and their food — where it comes from, how it’s made and who’s making it.”
Restaurant Day, held four times a year, is part of a larger trend toward eating experiences that are more innovative, intimate, ephemeral — or all three. Food trucks ply the streets of many major cities, while small supper clubs hosted by chefs are an increasingly common phenomenon. Websites like EatWith and MealTango connect food-lovers with people who want to cook and host meals in their homes.
But Santala says Restaurant Day’s spontaneity, public nature and amateur spirit set it apart. To join in, all hosts need to do is add a short listing to the global map for the next event and prepare some kind of food or drink to sell or give away. Utilizing public spaces is encouraged, and unlike Sharaput, most participants are not culinary professionals.
“Restaurant Day puts the spotlight on ordinary people: Boy Scouts, school classes, grandmothers, anyone who wants to create new experiences around food for other people,” Santala says. “That’s what makes it exciting; it’s a way of democratizing the food business.”
For many hosts, it’s also a way of creating community, whether by supporting local businesses, raising money for charity, advocating for a cause or introducing their neighbors to the tastes of their home country.
One host in Prague who goes by the alias “Psychologie chuti” (Psychology of flavor) decided to sell her Parisian-style macarons – in 15 nontraditional flavors ranging from mulled wine to jasmine – inside a favorite local café. “I always notice almost no one else goes there, which makes me sad,” she says. “So I tried to let other people know about it by setting up shop there and it was awesome!”
For Marte Munkeli, the leader of the Norwegian Vegan Society, Restaurant Day is “a great opportunity to promote veganism in a fun, non-preachy way.” The group has served vegan sandwiches, soups and cakes at previous events and plans to cook meat-free “chili sin carne” in February.
Sasikala Anbarasan, a biotech researcher in Espoo, Finland, says Restaurant Day offers a way for her to show Finns that “Indian food doesn’t just mean chicken tikka masala and naan.” She donates a share of the profits she makes from cooking a “typical Tamil menu” — including South Indian specialties such as idli, a savory cake made from black beans and rice, or sambar, a tamarind-flavored vegetable stew — to an organization that helps orphaned children in that region.
Korea-born SuJin Jung says she finds a cultural element lacking in the Korean restaurants of her adopted home city of Montreal. So when she and her friends decided to make bibimbap for Restaurant Day last November, she says they “didn’t just serve the food, but tried our best to explain the culture behind this dish” – a rice bowl with various toppings, all of which have traditional symbolic meanings.
Living abroad for the past 13 years, Rashmi Ahuja has likewise been disappointed by most Indian food she’s found in other countries. “I was looking for something that reminded me of my mother’s food, something that satisfies your soul,” she says. Ahuja started teaching herself to cook some of the dishes she remembered from home, sharing them first with friends and family, and then hosting her first Restaurant Day in November 2012 in Helsinki, a year after moving there. She has now participated six times, making Mumbai street food, Indian-Finnish fusion and other recipes based on a specific region or ingredients.
Sharing a passion for food culture with the locals
“It’s a way for people like me who are passionate about their food culture to share it with local people,” she says. “The food that we eat gives an insight into our personalities and how we were brought up and tells a lot about us and our cultures.”
For the next Restaurant Day, Ahuja plans to make daal roti (lentils with flat bread), an Indian staple. Around the world, hundreds of other food lovers are also thinking about what culinary experiences they might like to share with their neighbors.
“Even though the basic concept stays the same, the individuals who participate decide what Restaurant Day looks like, so each time it’s completely different,” says Santala. “It’s all about just digging in and enjoying what comes along.”
Main photo: Setting up snack plates in Helsinki. Credit: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day
Some ancient grains get all the press. Quinoa, freekeh, and spelt are the darlings of the food world these days, especially in the United States — and rightfully so, since they were ignored for millennia. But one ancient grain seems to lag behind: barley. Plain ol’ barley never makes a Top 10 list. It needs a spunky dance partner and great choreography to be seen. Mushrooms have often been its companion for comfort food — think of all the savory mushroom-barley soups. But wild mushrooms, exotic and even more flavorful than the cultivated variety while still just as earthy as barley, may serve as the most perfect partner of all.
During the chill of January, foraging for comfort food is often a search for simple, earthy foods — like barley and mushrooms. But these foods can also be rich and elegant, intriguing and satisfying, old and new. Sometimes all it takes is one little change to make a comfort-food dish special.
Barley and mushrooms, ancient foods
Barley is no newbie to the food scene. There is no way to overstate its importance in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant (present-day Iraq and the Middle East). Wild barley was an integral part of the human diet, so much so that it became a domesticated crop. It was the basis for a key everyday comestible that is still popular today: beer.
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In Europe by the Middle Ages, barley was the flour of poor man’s bread and the filler in Scotch broth. It was — and remains — a common food for livestock. Notwithstanding the changes in the world around it, domesticated barley is, in essence, a simple whole grain with plenty of nutrients. And it has countless culinary benefits.
There is a good reason why barley’s long time partner is the mushroom.
An ancient, originally wild food, mushrooms are fungi, and are incredibly healthy — high in B and D vitamins, selenium, copper, potassium and antioxidants that appear to protect DNA at the cellular level. Some of these benefits can be found in common button mushrooms and their close cousins, baby bellas, criminis and portabellos. But mushrooms are more than that. They are a natural flavor enhancer. All mushrooms contain glutamic acid, a version of the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Wild mushrooms, or those that were once wild and are now cultivated (called “exotic” by growers), burst with all of these benefits. No wonder wild ones have been popular across Europe, Asia, the United States and India for centuries. Each variety of wild mushroom has its individual charms. The one I used for this mushroom-barley risotto is the chanterelle.
Chanterelles, a sexy and mellifluous a name for fungus if there ever was one, evokes images of five-star French chefs cooking up lavish, sophisticated and warming dishes. To many a chef and connoisseur, chanterelles — golden and floral, earthy and fragrant — are in the same pantheon as morels and truffles. Chanterelles have even been considered male aphrodisiacs, with the 11th-century Normans in Britain serving them at wedding feasts to the grooms. Widely found in both Europe and the United States, fresh in season and dried year-round, the lightly peppery, softly fruity chanterelle is an ideal candidate to gussy up the Plain Jane barley.
The wine that links all the flavors
The element that can put it all together? A wine born from the same soil as those wild mushrooms. Barley risotto style is now a restaurant mainstay. But when the mushrooms in the risotto are the prized chanterelle and the wine is Willamette Valley — what you have is dinner alchemy.
Willamette Valley, Oregon, where chanterelles have long grown wild and are now cultivated, is a well-regarded region for producing fine grapes and even finer wines. The Pinot Noir grapes grown in the Willamette Valley are characterized by robust notes of black raspberry and bogs, of vanilla and cloves. The old cooking adage “if it grows together it goes together” is certainly true with Pacific golden chanterelles and Willamette Pinot Noir. Pairing these two is not for the faint of wallet. But the cost of the barley balances that out a bit.
And that wine — ooh — that wine is the essential link tying, literally binding, the mushrooms to the barley. All together, chanterelles and barley become something genuinely soul satisfying. The flavors and textures support and encourage each other, revealing the best they can offer. Perhaps that is what a plate-mate, a bowl-mate and soulmate should always be.
Barley Risotto With Fresh Chanterelles and Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
This special-occasion dish is impressive to serve and even better to eat. It showcases a classic Italian cooking technique applied to humble pearl barley and highlights the quality and unique flavors of fresh wild chanterelle mushrooms. The result is extravagantly delicious and memorable, worth every penny and every stir.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 50 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings as a meal, 6 as a starter
2½ cups low-sodium mushroom broth
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 large shallots, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
Leaves of 6 sprigs fresh thyme, minced (about 2 teaspoons, see Kitchen Tips)
1 cup pearl barley
2 cups Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (see Kitchen Tips)
1 pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms, sliced, cut into bite-size pieces
1 large fresh bay leaf
½ teaspoon kosher salt (see Kitchen Tips)
1 (7-ounce) package fresh baby kale, thinly sliced
½ cup freshly grated Gruyère cheese
¾ cup sour cream or crème fraiche
1 teaspoon truffle salt (see Kitchen Tips)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, bring the mushroom broth to a simmer.
2. Meanwhile, in a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the butter and heat until it melts. Add the shallots and thyme, stir to coat, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 to 3 minutes, until the shallots are translucent and the edges are just beginning to brown. Add the barley and cook, stirring to coat, for 2 minutes.
3. Increase the heat to high, add the wine, and cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until it has been fully absorbed into the barley. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the mushrooms and bay leaf, and stir well.
4. Add 1/2 cup of the warm mushroom broth and cook, stirring for 4 to 5 minutes, until the liquid is almost absorbed. Add the salt and stir. Continue adding the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and cook, stirring continuously but gently for 2 to 3 minutes, until it is nearly absorbed into the barley. Repeat until all the mushroom broth is used.
5. Cook for about 30 minutes more, until the barley is al dente. Add the kale, stir well, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the leaves are completely soft. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the Gruyère cheese and sour cream. Remove from the heat, remove the bay leaf, sprinkle with the truffle salt and pepper, and stir well. Spoon into wide, shallow bowls and serve immediately.
1. To remove the leaves from a sprig of fresh thyme, hold the sprig (or a few) at the top with one hand, and with the other hand, grasp the stem with your thumb and forefinger and gently slide your fingers down the stem. The leaves will be pushed against the direction they grow in, and will come off easily.
2. For more information about Pinot Noir grapes and wines: http://www.pinot-noir-wines.com/
3. If you don’t have low-sodium mushroom broth, you can omit this extra salt.
4. Salt to which very small pieces of dried truffle have been added is called truffle salt. It is used to add richer flavor.
Main photo: Barley, Chanterelle Mushroom and Pinot Noir Risotto — elegant, simple, delicious. Credit: ©TheWeiserKitchen
This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.
You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.
To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.
In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.
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So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.
First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)
Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.
An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’
To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.
All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.
When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.
But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.
A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.
Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way
Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.
I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.
In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.
Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.
That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.
Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh
Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling
Yield: 12 servings
For the cheesecake:
Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish
1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)
3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon saffron strands
1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)
6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)
For optional garnishes:
1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.
3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.
4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.
5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.
6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.
7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.
8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.
9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.
Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya
Mexico loves sopa de fideo, or noodle soup. One, sopa aguada de fideo, which translates to “wet” noodle soup, is like the good, old chicken noodle soup we know and love. A second soup, sopa seca de fideo, or “dry” noodle soup, involves first browning the noodles in hot oil before they soften when absorbing flavorful liquids; it’s a spaghetti-like dish, but it’s called sopa, making it confusing at best. Finally, there’s leftover sopa seca de fideo, made by flattening the leftover noodles in a hot skillet to morph them into a crisp fideo pancake masterpiece.
Pasta or rice made by browning the starch before adding liquid is a pilaf, called sopa seca in Mexico. During their conquests, Arabs and Turks introduced pilafs to Spain, possibly with what is widely known today as Armenian pilaf — a Middle Eastern combination of rice and pasta. Spain, in turn, brought the technique to Mexico along with the European custom of starting meals with soup and then a pasta or rice before the main course.
Cooks have known for ages that noodles take on an additional dimension of toasty, meaty nuttiness when they are sautéed in oil before they finish cooking and softening in broth. “Dry” noodles eventually drink in all the liquid, and their soft texture becomes a perfect spaghetti-like plate of pasta for Monday-to-Friday family meals ideal for children.
Make noodle soup your own with flavor variations
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Some delicious flavor variations on sopa seca de fideos include adding a minced chile chipotle en adobo with a tablespoon of the adobo sauce for smoky-spice flavor; adding thinly sliced rings of fried mild ancho chile for taste and texture; substituting four tomatillos for the two tomatoes for a green sauce; and topping it with an avocado cut into cubes and Mexican crema (or sour cream) for luxurious richness. Fresh vegetables such as finely shredded cabbage, squash blossoms and quelites (wild greens similar to spinach) are all wonderful, as well as everyday leftovers.
Another easy home-style dish you can make from sopa seca de fideo is the ever-popular toasted, golden brown fideo pancake made from a bowl of leftover “dry” noodles. As soon as oil starts spitting in a hot skillet, you can dump in the cooked pasta and flatten the mound with a spatula, making a sort of pancake. Soon the bottom will be browned, and you can flip it over and crisp the other side. A fideo pancake can be made with whatever amount of leftover sopa seca de fideo you have on hand, from a cup to a quart depending on the size of your skillet.
In Mexico, pasta nests are the popular choice for noodle sopa, either wet or dry. In the U.S., the Italian brand DiCecco offers the thinnest angel-hair nests readily available. Other nests are thicker, like spaghetti. I prefer Italian or American pasta because most Mexican brands tend to get soggy fast and then become downright mushy. Use what you can get and whatever style suits your palate.
Sopa Aguada de Fideo (Wet Soup)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 servings
2 quarts water (To save time, you can use 2 quarts low-sodium, organic chicken broth and skip to Step 3)
1 4-pound chicken, cut into pieces, including the neck and back
1 white onion, peeled and cut in quarters vertically through the stem and root ends
2 carrots, cut in half
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, cut in half and seeded for a mildly spicy broth
1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
8 whole black peppercorns
4 ounces dried, thin pasta such as whole nests or vermicelli broken in half
Sea salt or kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 Mexican (a.k.a. Key) lime, if desired
2 ounces dry noodles
1. Put the chicken in a large, deep pot with 2 quarts water, onion, carrots, chile, salt and peppercorns. Be sure the chicken is covered with water; if it’s not, add more. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 45 minutes, uncovered, skimming off fat that floats to the surface, until the chicken is cooked.
2. Remove the chicken and cool. Strain the broth into a clean pot and cool. Save the carrots for the soup, discard the other vegetables. Refrigerate the broth and when cold remove any congealed fat that forms on top.
3. Put aside 2 cups broth if you plan to make sopa seca de fideo. Bring the broth to a boil with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and the lime juice if you’d like. (Hint: The flavor makes the soup!)
4. Break the noodles into the boiling broth and boil until they are cooked through. Toss in some shredded chicken and reserve the rest for other uses. Cook a minute or two to heat the chicken before serving.
Sopa Seca de Fideo (Dry Soup)
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: 2 to 4 servings
2 cups chicken broth, divided
1/2 cup white onion, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded (for less spice) and roughly chopped
2 red-ripe plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 ounces pasta nests, or thin spaghetti broken in half to fit into the bottom of the pot
1/4 cup cilantro or flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup queso fresco, queso añejo or parmesan cheese
Note: Cooked vegetables and meats (leftovers are great!) or another spicy chile are tasty additions to sopa seca.
1. Pour 1/2 cup of the broth into a blender jar with the onion, garlic, chile and tomatoes. Blend until smooth. Pour in another cup of broth and blend again.
2. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet. Brown the broken-up pasta nests (or spaghetti broken in half or other small pasta shapes) in the oil over low-medium heat until they turn a deep, golden brown, about 5 minutes.
3. Pour the blender ingredients over the toasted pasta (It will sizzle!), scraping the pasta from the pan to prevent sticking, and cook 3 minutes. If desired, add 1/2 cup to 1 cup shredded chicken, leftover vegetables or meats.
4. Pour in the remaining 1/2 cup broth with the cilantro, salt and pepper into the bubbling mixture and stir. Cover the skillet, turn down the heat to low and cook 5 to 6 minutes (3 minutes for angel hair) until the pasta is cooked through.
5. To serve, spoon the sopa seca onto plates or into bowls and scatter with cheese. Refrigerate the leftovers and save for a fideo pancake.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size and thickness of pancake
Total time: 15 to 30 minutes
Yield: The pancake or pancakes can serve as many as desired, depending on how much leftover sopa seca de fideo is available to use.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Leftover sopa seca de fideo
1/4 cup shredded fast-melting quesillo de Oaxaca, Jack or mozzarella cheese, if desired
1. As soon as the oil starts spitting in a non-stick skillet, dump in leftover cold sopa seca de fideos and spread the mound into a flat pancake with a spatula. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat. In about 10 minutes, the bottom will be brown and crisp.
2. Flip the pancake to brown the other side by sliding a wide spatula under it, loosening any pasta that sticks, and flip it over. If the pancake is large and fills the pan, put a large plate face down over the skillet, hold the skillet by its handle and flip it and the plate over and the pancake will be on the plate. Put the skillet back on the stove and slide the pancake into the remaining oil to brown the other side and heat through. If desired, scatter shredded cheese on top and brown under a broiler until bubbling hot before serving.
Main photo: Sopa Aguada de Fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky