Articles in Cuisine
When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.
Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.
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Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.
The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.
Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains
In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.
At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.
Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.
Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen
Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.
In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.
Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.
Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins
Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.
As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.
This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.
1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped
1 cup cracked green olives
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.
3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.
4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.
5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.
6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.
7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.
8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.
9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.
10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.
11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.
12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.
- Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
- Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
- For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
- Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
- Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
- Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.
Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt
We’ve all heard the warnings that travelers should avoid street food. But doing so means missing the real food culture — the simple, fresh delicacies prepared for locals. With a little common sense, it’s easy to leave your fear of the unknown (or of getting sick) behind and reap one of the greatest rewards of travel.
Moroccan culture buzzes in the ancient medina of Fez al-Bali, the world’s largest car-free area, where Gail Leonard, a British ex-pat, offers street food tasting tours through her company, Plan-It Fez.
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For more than three hours, she introduces travelers to the likes of snail soup and cow’s tongue while donkeys trundle along the medina’s narrow, medieval streets, adding their own steady rhythm to the tintinnabulation of men banging copper pots into shape, playing children and the conversational din of the souks, or markets.
Tourists who avoid the food on these cobbled, labyrinthine streets are not only forgoing a culinary experience, but also something intangible, Leonard said. “Vendors are thrilled that you want to taste what they’ve produced. Anyone that doesn’t want to do that misses out on many levels of experience that aren’t just about taste buds.”
Dinner in Morocco is served around 9 or 10 p.m., so street carts are essential to tide Moroccans over between meals. Street food also suits economy-minded travelers. “We were just out of money, so we bought some sandwiches from a cart,” said Bostonian Paige Stockman, 24, gesturing with a thick piece of fresh khubz (bread) stuffed with smoky, slightly charred chicken skewers from a vendor in the Achabine area — prime territory for Leonard’s food tours.
Street food made by lovely hands
Some Moroccans do avoid street food, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Faical Lebbar, owner of Barcelona Café in Fez, abhors the idea of eating standing up. “My father taught me, you eat, you need to sit.” Comparing his restaurant to street food, he added, “The food is the same. It just costs more.”
The higher price may buy the closed doors of a restaurant kitchen, but not necessarily a more skilled chef. And there’s pleasure in connecting directly with the person making your food.
“When food is made by lovely hands, it doesn’t matter whether you got it in the street or in a restaurant — its value is determined by something deeper than price,” said Amine Mansouri, 25, a local who has lived all his life surrounded by the daily rhythms of the Fez medina. The hand that takes your 5 dirhams reaches through time and tradition, inviting you to taste the food that sustains a culture.
What if you can’t afford a tour but want to sample the world of street food? Leonard offers a few recommendations:
1. Look for the busiest carts because they have the most turnover.
2. Be confident. Don’t hesitate to leave and go to another vendor if the food doesn’t look fresh.
3. Make sure the food is piping hot — learn the word for “hot” in the local language so you can ask for a longer cooking time.
4. Ask for a taste to see if you like the food. Vendors will just be excited you’re trying it.
5. Don’t be afraid to say “no thanks.” If you feel awkward, learn some “get out” phrases in the local language, such as, “I’ll come back later.”
6. Eat with your hands, or use bread. You can even bring your own cutlery and cup. Always carry a bottle of hand sanitizer.
If you do run into digestive trouble, Leonard advises cumin. “That’s what Moroccans will do for an upset stomach,” she said. “It has anti-parasitical properties. Just take a spoonful, knock it back with water, and your stomach’s sorted.”
When in Fez, widely considered to be Morocco’s culinary capital, head to the Achabine and try these Leonard-tested delicacies: tehal, camel spleen stuffed with camel meat, olives and preserved lemons (baked like a gigantic sausage, then sliced and fried); makkouda, spicy potato cakes mashed with cumin and other spices and then delicately fried; and cow’s tongue steamed to a brisket-like tenderness.
A must-have is ghoulal, or snail soup. An infusion of more than 15 spices gives the broth a kick that complements its almost earthy, mushroomy flavor. Just look for the beaconing clouds of steam. You’ll soon find ghoulal in a huge silvery pot, boiling away atop a wooden cart manned in the medina by the soup-maker himself.
Just make sure to ask for it extra hot — “skhoun bzef!”
This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which is mentoring the next generation of global correspondents while producing untold stories for top tier media around the world.
Top photo: With more than 9,000 small, cobbled streets, the Fez medina is a labyrinth. As dusk falls, shoppers grab a few last-minute items near Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate. Credit: Serenity Bolt
One of the most beautiful cities in Sicily is Syracuse, which has a history extending to the ancient Greeks. There is a method of cooking in Syracuse, especially applied to Sicilian fish, but other foods as well, that makes for beguiling dishes.
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Stemperata is a Syracusean method of cooking that means something like “melting sauce” or “tempering sauce.”
The idea behind “melting sauce” is to meld a number of aromatic ingredients together by cooking slowly until the sauce or food is infused with flavor. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of vinegar that evaporates, or “melts,” into the sauce and it is the vinegar that gives the dish its distinctive flavor. Whenever you see a dish described as stemperata, you know it is a dish from Syracuse.
The concept of stemperata finds its roots in medieval cooking. According to the prevailing theory of dietetics at the time, prepared food had properties that would match the temperament of the person eating it.
In the mood for Sicilian fish
Certain foods were ideal for particular conditions or temperaments. The nature of foods could be changed by tempering the food with additions such as sauces or spicing.
In medieval Italian cookbooks one runs across the term temperare, which takes on a greater meaning than “to temper.” It implies that one corrects the food so it will conform to a dietetic humoral notion. So the Italian stemperare has the sense of taking something away, and in this recipe it is the vinegar that “is taken away” through evaporation to moderate the taste of the sauce.
This Sicilian fish dish is called pesce spada alla “stemperata” and it is typically made with swordfish, but two whole red snapper work well. The recipe, though, is written for swordfish.
Pesce Spade alla ‘Stemperata’
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ celery stalk, finely chopped
1½ tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped if large
10 large green olives, pitted and chopped
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
⅓ cup water
1½ pounds swordfish steaks, cut into ½-inch-thick slices
All-purpose flour for dredging
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1. In a large sauté pan or earthenware casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring frequently, the onion and celery until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. (If using earthenware and if it is not flameproof, or if you don’t know, you will need to use a heat diffuser. Earthenware heats up slower but retains its heat longer than non-earthenware casseroles. When using earthenware, food may cook slower at first and then cook very quickly while retaining its heat, so adjust accordingly). Reduce the heat to medium, add the capers, olives and tomatoes, and stir. Pour in the water, stir again, and cook until denser, 10 minutes.
2. Dredge the swordfish slices in the flour, tapping off any excess flour. Set aside.
3. Arrange the swordfish slices in the pan or casserole on top of the sauce, spooning some sauce on top of the swordfish. Drizzle the vinegar over the fish, cover, and cook over medium heat until the vinegar is evaporated, 5 to 6 minutes. Serve hot.
Top photo: Pesce spade alla “stemperata” made with red snapper. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Rosquillas are an explosion of Mesoamerica in your mouth that starts in a remote mountain village in Nicaragua. I am visiting my daughter, Gabriella, in the campo, studying Spanish while decompressing from life in America; leaving behind computer, cellphone and running water, and breathing sweet mountain air.
El Lagartillo is a sparse farming settlement on a steep hilltop with a view all the way to Honduras from its rocky summit. Here, in my bed in a house at the edge of the forest, I am awakened at daybreak by the din of a thousand birds. My host, Amparo, says they are singing from happiness.
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A century of struggle
For five centuries, many foreigners have been lured by this sizzling land of volcanoes and cloud forests. From the conquistadores to William Walker, the American adventurer who installed himself as president in 1856, to the U.S. Marines in the early 20th century, Nicaragua has endured conquest, occupation, oppression and brutality.
After the Marines, people endured the Somoza regime until the Sandinista revolution, when campesinos were awarded the land for which they had fought. Twenty-six families banded together to form a farming cooperative in El Lagartillo until CIA-sponsored contras decimated the village in Ronald Reagan’s secret war. The survivors were determined to rebuild, and the village has been reborn.
“Little by little, we began to find our way again,” writes Tina Pérez, whose husband and young polio-stricken daughter were among those killed. “One day…I saw [my daughter] Maria Zunilda … I said … ‘You look so beautiful. How can you be here, you are dead?’… She said …’I am fine except that we work so hard … We work for the revolution, Mommy.” At this village’s heart is a shrine. A plaque under the tree where Maria Zunilda died is inscribed: “1985/For peace against all aggression/ The heroes of Lagartillo live at the plough, which works the earth to the song of the birds and the sound of the militia men’s guns.”
The stone is surrounded by six bamboo cabañas that comprise Hijos del Maiz Spanish School. Its mission is to “support dreams in the community … exchanging with other … cultures in a dynamic transformation toward social justice.” During the day, it is a village of women. They sweep, scrub, cook, make cheese, soak and hull maiz. Their children play in the road, skittering away when an occasional horse and rider passes by or a pickup rumbles through, scaring up billows of dust. Chickens peck and scratch everywhere. Scarlet bougainvillea are lit with electric blue hummingbirds.
The families have a school and a library administered by a survivor in a wheelchair. A miller grinds hominy into masa, and Lisbet, my teacher, runs a cafe, offering freshly squeezed juice from the fruits of her trees.
Corn masa cookies
At dawn, Amparo fires up an adobe oven upon which to cook tortillas. I follow her to the mill with a pail of lime-slaked maiz that was boiled the day before, to be ground into masa, the dough that is made into staple breadstuffs.
“Si no hay tortillas, no hay comida,” she says. “If there are no tortillas, there’s no food.”
Juan Cerros, a campesino from nearby Las Lajas, pulls up on his mule with a sack of the maiz slung over the saddle. Electricity reached El Lagartillo a year ago and the powered machine here grinds corn much faster than he can do it by hand. Amparo explains that he makes rosquillas, the magical cookies, to sell.
It is not until my last evening in El Lagartillo that I finally taste them. When the relentless sun begins to wane, I wander into Francisca’s house. She is in the courtyard, flanked by other women who mix fresh masa with sugar, leavening, and shortening.
They pinch off pieces of the dough and shape them into flowers. Francisca piles shaved loaf sugar in their centers before baking them in a concrete oven in the back yard. The women work in silence.
The next morning, we set out on the dusty road for the long journey back to Managua. As we bump along in the back seat of a truck, Gabriella pulls out a bag filled with rosquillas that Francisca has sent along for the trip.
I take a bite and close my eyes. It hits me with a taste like no other that makes you think of the sacred food of the ancients, the life blood of empires. It is sweet and pleasantly sour like only masa can be. Far away now from the tiny village, I bake these cookies in communion with the wise and gentle people of El Largartillo who treasure the fields and the forests.
Rosquillas (Nicaraguan Corn Masa Cookies)
Makes about 20 cookies
In my own kitchen, I make the rosquillas even if I cannot get fresh ground masa. Instead, I use masa harina, masa flour which is available in Hispanic markets. Unlike an American sugar cookie, the use of masa harina rather than wheat flour results in a crispy but tender cookie with a pleasantly gritty texture not unlike that of Scottish shortbread.
Note that Bob’s Red Mill brand masa harina, while organic, doesn’t taste like the original or have the same fine texture, so you won’t be able to make authentic-tasting rosquillas with it.
The simple cookie has two characteristic shapes. The first, like those of Francisca’s in the photo, is circular and fairly flat, pressed with fingers to resemble a flower. Francisca heaped a bit of loaf sugar, which has a rich, molasses-like flavor, in the center to resemble the disc of a daisy.
The alternative shape is a loop, formed by rolling out little balls of the dough into thin ropes and pinching the two ends together, like an oval-shaped pretzel. Because rosquilla dough is crumbly in nature, the loops can be a bit more challenging to form, but persevere, it’s doable. Historic recipes for rosquillas prescribe lard. Francisca used a butter-like shortening. I use butter.
The water that is called for in this recipe replaces the natural moisture in fresh masa dough.
As for the topping, there is no substitute for the artisanal brown loaf sugar described that is sold in Hispanic markets. If you cannot find it, leave off decorating with sugar. The cookies are delicious with or without it.
For the cookies:
1 stick (8 tablespoons or ¼ pound) unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 cups instant corn masa, also called masa harina
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup water at room temperature
For the topping:
1 cup brown loaf sugar, shaved or coarsely grated
1. Preheat an oven to 350 F.
2. In the vessel of an electric food mixer or in a large mixing bowl, cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Add the granulated sugar in a slow, steady stream, continuing to beat until the mixture is well blended and creamy.
3. Whisk together the masa harina, baking powder, and salt.
4. To the creamed butter, add the water, alternating with blended dry ingredients. Beat the mixture with the paddle attachment of the electric food mixer, or by hand with a wooden spoon until a uniform dough is formed.
5. Line two baking sheets with bakers parchment. Scoop up a rounded tablespoon of dough and form it into a ball. Repeat this process and arrange 12 balls of dough on each of the parchment-lined pan, leaving at least an inch between each.
For the flower shape, press the bottom of a glass onto each ball to flatten to about ¼-inch, or flatten each by hand. The edges will appear to crack, but the cookie will stay intact and the rustic texture will just decorate the edges.
Use your fingers to make indentations first in the center, and then around the perimeter, sculpting a daisy shape. The idea is not only to give the cookie a decorative shape, but to thin out the disks for even baking from their perimeter through to their centers, making the cookies lighter and crunchier than if they were simply flattened.
6. If decorating with loaf sugar, after forming the flower shape, spoon about a small mound onto the center of each round.
For the loop shape, roll a similar-sized ball of dough into as thin a rope as you can manage, wetting your fingers lightly as you work to prevent the dough sticking to your fingers, if necessary. Pinch the two ends together to form an oval. The easiest method is to roll out each rope directly on the parchment-lined baking sheet, then pinch the ends together. This avoids the unnecessary step of lifting the loop from board to baking sheet and breaking it in the process.
7. Slide the rosquillas onto the middle rack of the oven and bake until cooked through and lightly browned on the bottom and around the edges, 20-25 minutes.
8. Transfer them at once to wire racks to cool completely. Store over night or for up to two weeks in air-tight containers, chilled.
Top photo: Corn masa cookies (rosquillas). Credit: Nathan Hoyt
by: L. John Harris
in: Parisian Culture
La Vie en Rose: So you want to hang out in Parisian cafés and cultivate the artful, virtually mythic, lifestyle portrayed in films, novels and the media? Bienvenue (welcome)! But indulging in the pleasures of a café lifestyle can be tricky business, fraught with linguistic, social and gastronomic pitfalls. A basic knowledge of what I call Café French™ will give you the simple linguistic and stylistic tools (vocabulary, gestures, fashion tips, etc.) necessary to make the Parisian café your own. With my unique learning system — Café French™ — you can avoid the petty humiliations and disappointments many Americans report after visits to Paris.
La Vie en Rose
First in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
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The French café as institution
Our first lesson begins, naturally, with the French café itself, a centuries-old social and gastronomic institution that derives its name from the Arabic word for coffee, qahwa, via the Turkish kahve. The oldest surviving café in Paris, Le Procope, dates to the 17th century. Although still functioning in all its romanticized glory as a magnet for artistic types and modern versions of my favorite café character, the 19th-century flâneur, the French café is, like so many French institutions today, in crisis. Crisis (crise in French, pronounced “kreez”) will be the underlying theme of Café French™ Lesson One.
Adam Gopnik, perhaps our most exuberantly articulate Francophile (and an “ex” Parisian expat), has dubbed the French café the “highest embodiment” of French “commonplace civilization.” The café is, he seems to be saying, so embedded in quotidian French life that for the French it simply is. Well, that’s all well and good for the French, but for Americans it’s not so simple.
While the Parisian café itself is arguably, echoing Gopnik, the highest embodiment of the French café, the numbers are sadly dwindling — from as many as 45,000 cafés in the 1880s to something like 7,000 today. Nevertheless, Americans continue to flock to the venerable survivors such as Le Select, Café de Flore, Les Philosophes, Les Deux Magots, La Rotonde and Le Procope.
Crise de foie
It would be an exaggeration to say that abusing the Parisian café can kill you. But for the uninitiated and unwitting it may not be far from the truth. Think about it: All the glorious French consumables associated with the café are either high in alcohol (wine, absinthe); caffeine (coffee, tea); butter fat (croissants and triple-crème cheeses) and sugar (pastries and tarts); or animal fat and salt (charcuterie, foie gras). This is French gastronomic heaven translated into a nutritional version of Russian roulette!
Let’s focus for a moment on foie gras (pronounced “fe-wah grah”), that quintessential Gallic delicacy popular in cafés that means, literally, “fattened liver.” It is made from the livers of force-fed ducks (canard) and geese (oie, pronounced oy, like the Yiddish oy vey). Eighty-five percent of the calories in foie gras are from fat. As delicious as it is, woe to those who overindulge in foie gras!
Usually found at cafés in the form of a spreadable mixture, pâté — pâté de foie gras de canard (or, d’oie) — it is served with slices of toasted bread and, commonly, with small pickles called cornichons. More expensive and richer still is foie gras served whole, either cooked or not – foie gras entier (the “entire” liver).
Like the Parisian café, foie gras is also in crisis. The controversial process of manufacturing foie gras — force-feeding corn to ducks and geese to fatten their livers — gavage (“ga-vage“) — is being challenged, particularly in the United States where animal welfare activists have virtually shut down this age-old technique. But even in France there is growing concern about the animal welfare dimension of the foie gras industry.
Just as stuffing feed into a duck or goose can expand their livers to the bursting point, the same is true for café-goers who gorge on those very same livers. Excessive foie gras consumption can unleash what the French call a crise de foie, literally a “crisis of the liver” (see top illustration). From mild symptoms of dyspepsia (indigestion) to acute bilious conditions, such liver maladies (les maladies du foie) can be serious, even fatal.
Crise de foi
It’s curious, if not confusing, that the French word foie is phonetically identical to the French word for faith — foi. A crise de foi — crisis of faith — is usually associated with a religious crisis, perhaps the belief that God is dead. However, in French existentialisme, the 20th-century philosophical school most identified with the celebrated café Les Deux Magots regular, Jean-Paul Sartre, one’s crise de foi can be totally secular in nature — the feeling that life is meaningless and absurd. This condition can lead to extreme acts of political, artistic and psychological violence, even suicide (in French, suicide, pronounced “Su-e-seed”).
One more fois
One more “fe-wah” to consider: the word for time — fois — as in “for a second time” or “the next time.” So, for example, if your first attempt at suicide fails, you can try for a second time — une deuxième fois. Or, if you are hospitalized for a crise de foie, you might be more modest when eating pâté de foie gras the next time — la prochaine fois.
But not to fear — Café French™ is here! Master the appropriate French vocabulary applied to the social, aesthetic and gastronomic codes embedded in French café culture and you can avoid the potential perils of the French café: rude waiters, snubs from locals, fashion missteps, indigestion and depression.
In my experience over the last several years, spending months at a time (mois à la fois) in Paris studying the art of the café, I have never experienced a crise — existential, gastroenterological or otherwise — only that bittersweet feeling of contentment (le contentement) tinged with nostalgia (la nostalgie) the French describe as la vie en rose — “life in the pink.”
la crise n.f crisis
le foie n.m liver
la foi n.f faith
une fois n.f time
le temps n.m time
un café n.m café
le café n.m coffee
un suicide n.m suicide
le gavage n.m gavage
deux/ième num. two/second
entier adj. entire, whole
existential adj. existential
un flâneur n.m urban observer
la nostalgie n.f nostalgia, longing
Top illustration credit: L. John Harris
Early February in France means it is time to get your pans ready. The winter days are finally getting a little longer and sunnier and la chandeleur (derived from chandelle, “candle” in French) is at hand, which means crêpes are in the air.
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The French tradition, combining pagan and Christian origins, has been going on for centuries, but it seems to be losing momentum. Everyone still knows about it, but fewer and fewer seem to indulge in the annual crêpes orgy.
As in other parts of the world, home cooking is on the decline while TV food shows are getting more popular. Bakeries now sell ready-made crêpes for a quick fix at nearly $2 a pop. “Ridicule,” said my mother over the phone the other day. And Maman, as often, is probably right. Crêpes are a fun, easy to do homemade affair.
The church, crêpes and a sweet tradition
What are we celebrating, besides a humble form of sweet gluttony? In the Catholic Church, chandeleur marks the presentation of the child Jesus, his first entry into the temple, as well as the day of the Virgin Mary’s purification. I fail to see how thin pancakes came in the picture, except for the resemblance one could see between them and the halo depicted over the heads of holy figures in religious paintings since the 4th century or so.
The pagan origin of the chandeleur links more directly to the round disks of cooked dough the form and shape of the sun which, come February, becomes more and more present as days get longer at a faster pace. It’s not spring yet, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it is still cold enough in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere to stand in front a stove flipping pancakes without having to turn the air conditioning on.
This is also the period of the year when winter wheat was being sowed. Crêpes were a way to celebrate the flour to come by using the one at hand. Interestingly enough, a Comité de la Chandeleur was founded and funded by a major French flour producer in 1997, reminding the population of the godly tradition with ads and billboards. The committee no longer exists. It is now in our hands to make the tradition survive.
A simple crêpes recipe for indulgence
Like every person brought up in France in the last century, I have my good share of childhood crêpe memories: pleasure and pain mixed in a batter of family recollections. While my father and brother were expert at eating the end result, my mother and I were excited by the making process.
We didn’t bother with a recipe and that in itself shows the tradition was still vivid, culturally ingrained. We just knew what to put in the dough: flour, eggs, milk, as well as water, cider or beer, a little fat (oil or melted butter), a little sugar, a touch of booze, traditionally dark rum, and a dash of salt. The trick was to avoid any lumps by using first a wooden spoon and then a whisk.
After letting the batter rest for an hour or so, came the time to show more developed skills. For years, we didn’t have a non-stick pan. We dipped a halved potato in oil to grease the thin metallic pan we used for about everything. With time, I’ve favored using a piece of paper towel folded in fourths and dunked in oil rather than a spud, leaving me to wonder how common paper towels were in Paris in the 1960s. The first crêpe always stuck, no matter what.
At age 7, there was my culinary confirmation that you can’t always get things right the first time in life. The ugly torn crêpe was eaten nonetheless, giving the chance to adjust the recipe-free batter with a little more liquid, salt or sugar if necessary.
If the crêpe didn’t have enough elasticity an egg was added and then, we were good to go. A super-hot pan is essential to achieve one of the essential criteria of a noble French crêpe, thinness, or finesse. Held as a rising sun, the crêpe was supposed to let light go through it, if not the image of my smiling mother behind the lump-free delicacy. A ladle was poured in the super-hot greased pan and then, with a swift movement of the wrist, the batter was to cover the whole pan in a thin coating.
Mastering crêpe-making technique
Chandeleur folklore says that if you manage to flip the crêpe in the air while holding a gold coin in your left hand, good fortune will come your way. I’ve personally never seen this done, perhaps because our entourage didn’t carry gold around so often. We just weren’t keen on the tossing-in-the-air show, partially because our crêpes needed some help with our bare fingers to be lifted off the pan.
When the edge started to get brown, we lifted one side with a small knife, then pinched the crêpe with both hands and flip it as fast as possible to avoid blisters in the process. I was always fascinated by the fact that the A-side of our edible records had a beautiful, uniform golden hue, whereas the B-side looked so different with its erratic brown spots.
We kept piling the crêpes on top of each other on a plate set atop a pot of simmering water so that we could enjoy our crêpes warm en famille. Brother and father were called to come and the filling game began with a variety of jams and spreads. For me, butter and sugar were the only fixings I needed to make me forget my reddened fingers, as crêpes were washed down with Normand cider, mindless of the few degrees of alcohol that helped make the pain go away and the party feel special.
Makes about 12 crêpes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons water (or beer or cider)
1 tablespoon melted butter (or neutral oil)
1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac (optional)
Oil and paper towel to oil pan
1. Sift the flour with sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water, melted butter and rum or cognac.
2. Let rest for 1 hour or more.
3. Heat pan greased with oiled paper towel. Add ¼ cup of batter or so and tilt the pan in a circular manner to spread the batter as fast as possible. When edges begin to brown, flip over with your hands or in the air and cook the other side 30 seconds.
4. Place cooked crêpe on a plate and repeat, repeat, repeat!
Tips and variations:
- To avoid any lumps and go faster, mix batter in a blender adding dry ingredients into the wet ones.
- For savory crêpes, eliminate sugar and alcohol from batter and add a dash more salt.
- To keep crêpes warm, place them on a plate sitting atop a saucepan with simmering water.
- Typically, French crêpes are rolled or folded in four.
- You can also layer the crêpes one on top of each other smeared with one or several toppings until you obtain a form of cake that you can then slice in wedges.
- Crepes can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.
Top photo: Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer
Although not specifically promoted by the National Restaurant Association as a top food craze this year, umami is generating a lot of buzz on the street as a trend to expect more of in 2014. In part, these expectations are due to the continued expansion of the Umami Burger restaurant chain, but it is also because the umami content of produce and prepared foods and snacks is increasingly a selling point in the mass-consumer market. In short, we are becoming more umami aware, and consciously seeking out savory foods rich in umami.
Sort of like a sixth sense, umami is the fifth taste that represents savoriness. Like me, you may remember learning about the four tastes we inherited from the ancient Greeks: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. I vividly recall mapping these tastes on different areas of the tongue with a cotton swab in elementary school. A combination of modern science and culinary explorations into how we taste food, however, has turned this notion on its head and added umami to our pantheon of tastes.
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Umami is carried in a number of molecules, but most notably in glutamic acid. Many foods are rich in glutamic acid, including ripe tomatoes, some mushrooms, asparagus, seafood, seaweed, kelp, soy sauce and some cheeses. Tasteless on its own, it is only when glutamic acid is broken down into L-glutamate by cooking, fermentation or other processes such as ripening in the sun that it offers up its savory taste.
Discovered in 1866 by German chemist Karl Heinrich Ritthausen, glutamic acid was later identified in evaporated kombu (kelp) broth in 1908 by Japanese researcher Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University. When he tasted the crystals in the evaporated broth, Ikeda found that they had an undeniable savory flavor that he detected in many foods. He named this “pleasant savory taste,” umami or うま味 from a combination of umai (うまい) “delicious” and mi (味) “taste” in Japanese.
Around the same time that Ikeda was investigating the science of taste, renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier was developing recipes rich in umami flavor using his intuition and culinary skill to explore the sensory qualities of food. One of the secrets to his deft use of umami was the importance of stock (particularly veal stock). He deglazed seared roasts with it, made soups with it, and used gelled stock in a wide variety of other dishes to add savory flavor to them.
What Escoffier didn’t realize was that his use of stock to add umami to French dishes was similar to the use of dashi in Japanese cooking. Dashi is a stock made from umami-rich fish (anchovies or sardines) or fish flakes (bonito) often in combination with different kinds of kelp and a small amount of sake. The best dashi is made by allowing ingredients to soak overnight before straining to extract and concentrate the glutamic acid in the stock.
So, many classic French recipes are ready sources of umami, as are a wide variety of Japanese dishes. Where else can you find umami-rich combinations? Well, dishes made with tomatoes and cheeses are like umami bombs that are enjoyed all over the world. In the Mediterranean, the most familiar sources are Italian dishes made with marinara sauce and Parmesan cheese. In Asia, the Tibetans enjoy the combination in their tomato-laden lamb or beef curries that use the blue cheese churu, and in the cheese-filled momo dumplings accented with a spicy tomato sauce dip.
Elsewhere along the Silk Road, salads mixing tomatoes and cheeses abound from western Asia through the Himalayas and into western China. One of my favorites is from Turkmenistan that uses cider vinegar and a little salt to accent the tomatoes and cheese flavored with cilantro. Another is one from Bhutan that uses the crackle of Szechuan peppercorns to blend pungent yak’s milk cheese with tart tree tomatoes. Both salads are loaded with glutamic acid and have high umami factors.
Other Silk Road dishes that have umami appeal are Persian omelets, called kukus, which are enjoyed all around western Asia. Turnovers stuffed with lamb and cheese with herbs, often called samosas, are enjoyed from western Asia to western China and are a great source of umami. I had the samosas pictured here at the bazaar in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last year. Along with a salad of tomatoes and cheese, and a small kebab, it was a perfect lunch and in a way, indescribably savory and delicious.
Top photo: Uzbek lamb and cheese samosas loaded with umami. Credit: Laura Kelley
|The Glutamic Acid Content of Umami-Rich Foods|
|Food||Glutamic Acid mg/100g|
|Cheese (Parmesan, blue, feta)||8,208; 5,179; 2,421|
|Nuts (blanched almonds, roasted pistachios)||5,337; 3,970|
|Lamb (cubed for stew, braised)||4,889|
|Beef (chuck roast, braised)||4,518|
|Chicken (diced, stewed)||4,340|
|Mackerel (Atlantic, cooked)||3,559|
|Shitake mushrooms (dried, cooked)||2,579; 353|
|Oyster mushrooms (raw)||632|
|Soy sauce (tamari, shoyu)||2,411; 1,479|
|Soybeans (natto, miso, silken tofu)||3,337; 1,915; 1,176|
|Egg (whole, cooked)||1,409|
|Seaweed (laver, wakame)||547, 199|
|Coconut milk (canned)||462|
|Potatoes (baked with skin)||419|
|Ripe tomatoes (cooked)||393|
|Chili peppers (red, raw)||264|
|Data from USDA SR-21|
Of all the people who would have exulted — and permitted themselves a wry smile — at the recent rehabilitation of butter, Julia Child would surely have been the first.
Child was my hero. I was living in the wrong part of the world when her television series aired, so I missed all those apocryphal episodes featuring chickens crashing to the kitchen floor to be scooped up, restored to the serving plate and served up with a flourish. But I learned to cook with her at my side, not on the screen but through the pages of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (both volumes). When my first book “A Taste of Alsace” was published, I took my courage in both hands and sent her a copy.
A month or two later, in January 1991, I received a most charming letter thanking me for the book – I still treasure it. “How wonderful,” she wrote, “that you have recipes for good hearty food like choucroute, snail ravioli etc. with all of those wonderful ingredients of the old cuisine. We hardly see that kind of cooking in this country any more (sic) because people are so terrified of food and fat.”
Butter makes everything better
Child was famously unafraid of food — or fat. Butter is the warp and woof of all her books, a golden thread that runs through them from start to finish. Here she is on “Enrichments for White Sauces”: “Fresh butter stirred into a sauce just before serving is the simplest of the enrichments. It smooths out the sauce, gives it a slight liaison, and imparts that certain French taste which seems to be present in no other type of cooking.”
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How could her pastry crusts — five parts flour to four parts butter — be anything other than “tender, crunchy and buttery”? Sauces don’t skimp on this glorious fat either, whether roux-based and further enriched, of the hollandaise family or whisked vigorously and with abandon into a reduction of shallots, white wine and vinegar for a classic beurre blanc. Even her crêpe batter has 4 tablespoons of melted butter blended in, to give the richest, tenderest, lightest crêpes imaginable.
When she gives a recipe for hamburgers (while cheerfully anticipating the shocked reaction of her audience on finding a hamburger recipe in a French cookbook), she first softens onions in a goodly quantity of butter, adds a little more to the ground meat for tenderness and moisture, and finally recommends serving the burgers with butters flavored variously with parsley, herbs, mustard, shallots or garlic.
Vegetables almost invariably get the treatment, whether it’s buttered artichoke hearts (to be filled with poached eggs and/or béarnaise sauce), asparagus with hollandaise or plain buttered French beans, “which go with almost anything,” but which are so good in their own right she suggests offering them as a separate course. One of my favorite potato recipes is her Gratin Savoyard, where meat stock replaces the customary milk or cream of the Gratin Dauphinois (plus an extra dollop of butter).
And when did anyone last see or hear of butter cream, that wondrously rich, smooth-as-silk filling or icing based on egg yolks, sugar butter and flavorings, which fell out of fashion alongside things like Baked Alaska and Black Forest Gateau?
I have a special place in my heart (and kitchen) for Child’s Pouding Alsacien, a homely Alsatian dessert which I suspect draws on a recipe known here in its home country as Bettelmann (“beggar man”). Child’s version consists of apples tossed in butter, mixed with plum jam and rum, topped with whipped butter, sugar and eggs with some breadcrumbs mixed in and baked till golden. I like to think she would rejoice to see this buttery, golden pudding rejoin the ranks of permitted foods.
Pouding Alsacien (Gratin of sautéed apples)
This dish, which should be served cold, is inspired by a similar recipe from Julia Child.
Serves 6 to 8
2½ pounds (seven or eight) well-flavored eating apples
4½ ounces (125 grams) butter
4 tablespoons plum jam, pushed through a sieve
2 tablespoons rum (I use an Alsatian eau-de-vie de quetsche or plum liqueur.)
3 ounces (75 grams) sugar
3 egg yolks
2 teaspoons flour
A pinch of cinnamon
2 ounces (50 grams) fresh breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons milk (optional)
3 egg whites
A pinch of salt
2 teaspoons of sugar
Icing sugar in a shaker
1. Quarter, peel and core the apples and cut in thick slices.
2. Heat half the butter till sizzling in a large frying pan, toss in the apples and fry over lively heat till lightly browned, tossing the pan from time to time so they brown evenly — they should be tender but still hold their shape (This is why you need to use eating, not cooking apples, which may disintegrate into a fluff.)
3. Tip the apples into an ovenproof dish or pan about 9 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep (23 centimeters by 5 centimeters).
4. Melt the sieved plum jam in a small pan and stir in the rum or eau-de-vie.
5. Mix the jam mixture into the cooked apples and smooth the top.
6. Heat the oven to 325 F (170 C).
7. Using a hand-held mixer, cream together the remaining butter and sugar till light and fluffy.
8. Beat in the egg yolks, then the flour and cinnamon, and finally the breadcrumbs. (If the mixture is very stiff, you may need to stir in a couple of tablespoons of milk.)
9. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks are formed, then beat in the sugar and continue beating till stiff.
10. Fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture and spread it evenly over the apples.
11. Bake in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes or until the top is nicely risen and lightly colored.
12. Dredge with icing sugar and return the gratin to the oven for a further 15 to 20 minutes until the top is golden brown.
13. Allow to cool on a rack, then refrigerate for 24 hours.
Top photo: Pouding alsacien with crème fraîche. Credit: Sue Style