Articles in History

A dinner party in France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

It’s almost Green Thursday — otherwise known as Clean Thursday, the day before Good Friday and three days before Easter Sunday, which this year falls on April 17.

No time to waste. Get out the mop and bucket, dust the furniture, air the blankets, beat the carpet, wash the windows, scrub the larder, polish the pots and pans, bleach the kitchen table, shine the slate, sweep the chimney, black the grate, whitewash the stoop.

And when all is shiny and bright, head for the great outdoors and cut yourself a bunch of budding willow or birch or hazel or whatever shows signs of life in the undergrowth and bring it indoors to unfurl its leaves in the warmest room in the house.

All this must be done before sundown on Green Thursday to ensure happiness and prosperity in the year to come — a more than adequate reward for cleaning behind the fridge.

Green Thursday menu continues with the green theme

And if these chores are not on your list of things to do on Green Thursday, you’d be run out of town with a flea in your ear if you lived in, say, Eastern Europe or rural Germany or in one of the isolated farmhouses of France’s Massif Centrale — or indeed anywhere where people still sweep their own doorsteps, plant their own potatoes and maintain a modicum of self-sufficiency. A lesson to us all in these straightened times.

As for the food, well, no one has much time for cooking when they’re cleaning and scrubbing all day. Traditional Green Thursday menus vary from region to region, though the general rule is a generous helping of blood-cleansing spring herbs, preferably gathered from the wild, served either in soup or a salad.

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Chervil. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Herb Salad With Eggs and Spring Herring

Green Thursday is traditionally celebrated in Germany by those who have access to the fishing ports with the last of the spring herrings — known as groene, or green herrings, for the sheen on their silvery flanks. When the boats come in, the catch is freshly filleted by the quayside and eaten raw with diced onion or carried home and lightly salted for additional shelf life. Rollmops — brine-pickled herring-fillets — are an acceptable inland substitute.

Serves 4

Ingredients

Large bunch young spinach leaves, de-stalked, rinsed and shredded

Small bunch parsley, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch chervil, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch sorrel, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch chives, chopped

Small bunch dill, chopped

8 fresh herring fillets or rollmops

1 pound potatoes, scrubbed and thickly sliced

4 hard-boiled eggs

For the sauce:

1 crème fraîche, also called soured cream

2 tablespoons chopped dill

2 tablespoons chopped gherkin or pickled cucumber

Directions

1. Combine the shredded spinach with the chopped herbs in a bowl.

2. Drain the herrings if roll-mopped, or salt lightly if fresh.

3. Boil the sliced potatoes in plenty of salted water till tender, about 12 to 15 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.

4. Shell and chop the eggs.

5. Fold the soured cream with the chopped dill and pickle. Serve each component separately for people to help themselves. Accompany with black bread, sweet white butter and the last of the winter’s pickled cucumbers.

Fromage Frais Aux Fines Herbes (Fresh Cheese With Herbs)

Fresh white cheese beaten with cream and herbs is proper on Green Thursday in the uplands of France, where la cueillette, the gathering of wild greens from the countryside, is the inalienable right of every man, woman and child whether they own the land or not.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1 pound fresh curd cheese (fromage frais or equivalant)

1 cup crème fraîche (soured cream)

2 garlic cloves or fresh green garlics, chopped

1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley

1 heaped tablespoon chopped chives

1 heaped tablespoon chopped chervil

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

For serving:

Baguette

Olives

Salad leaves (dandelion, corn salad, bittercress or sorrel, for example)

Walnut oil

Salt

Directions

1. Mix the fresh cheese with the cream in a bowl and beat till smooth.

2. Fork in the rest of the ingredients.

3. Drop the mixture into a glass cloth or square of washed-out cotton sheet, tie the edges corner to corner like a pocket hankie and hang on a hook or suspend on a wooden spoon over a basin to catch drippings. Leave to drain overnight in a cool place — the longer it’s left to drain the firmer it will be.

4. Serve chilled with plenty of warm baguette, a dish of olives and a salad of wild-gathered leaves dressed with walnut oil and salt (no need for vinegar if sorrel is present).

Bavarian Chervil Soup

Bavaria’s Krautelsuppe is a fresh green soup thickened with the last potatoes from storage — an interior spring clean to match the scrubbing and house painting of Green Thursday. Similar water-based soups are eaten throughout Lent in Germany and Eastern Europe as far as Hungary and Ukraine. Measure the herbs by filling a cup and lightly pressing the contents. Each cupful should weigh roughly 3 ounces.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1½ cups soft-leaf herbs (tarragon, parsley, dill), chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups chervil leaves, de-salted, de-stalked and chopped

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 or 3 medium old potatoes, peeled and diced

2 cups picked-over salad greens (dandelion, corn salad, watercress, chicory), shredded

Salt and pepper

Directions

1. Pick over and wash the herbs and strip out any woody stems.

2. Melt the butter in a roomy pan and fry the onion gently till transparent. Add the chervil leaves, stir over the heat for 2 to 3 minutes till they collapse.

3. Add the diced potato and 4 cups cold water, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat. Salt lightly.

4. Simmer for 20 minutes till the potato is perfectly soft.

5. Add the herbs and salad greens. Reheat and allow to bubble up to collapse the greens.

6. Mash the soup to thicken it a little. Taste and add more salt if necessary and a vigorous turn of the peppermill.

7. Serve with buttered slices of rye bread and radishes.

Main illustration: A dinner party in France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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A lunch plate consisting of rice, green bean poriyal and chapati; in the bowls are sambhar and two types of vegetable curries. To drink, lassi and cumin water. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

The Ayurvedic lifestyle works for me. The practice combines a vegetarian diet and herbal tonics with massages, meditation and yoga.

On my recent trip to India, I visited my favorite retreat, Ayurvedagram Heritage Wellness Center. Although the retreat recommends a seven-day stay for the Panchakarma detox treatment, I could spare only five days. At the end of my stay I felt relaxed and refreshed and dropped four pounds while enjoying delicious South Indian food.

This is my fifth visit to this holistic retreat, which is a 90-minute drive to the outskirts of Bangalore in South India. Leaving the city’s chaos, pollution and dusty roads behind, the retreat includes a tropical garden lush with coconut and papaya trees, a flower-filled garden bursting with colorful marigolds and hibiscus, fragrant medicinal shrubs and potted tulsi plants. Sparrow tweets and a koyal’s serenade fill the cool air. Resident geese and mallard ducks waddle around, while baby lizards leap around the lotus-filled pond.

The 15-acre Ayurvedagram property is operated by the Katra Group, based in Kerala, India. The retreat’s 26 cottages, designed in 19th-century Kerala design, are spread around a spacious garden adorned with various stone deities and brass lamps. The facility includes a gym, a library and an amphitheater.

The intricately carved reception building, once the Queen’s Palace from the Aranamula Royal Family, was transported here from Kerala and restored to its original state. All the cottages, crafted in teak or rosewood, are historical ancestral homes from Kerala that were transported and restored to their original grandeur.

Ayurveda regimens planned to suit an individual’s needs

Ayurvedagram is a healing retreat for specific ailments such as arthritis, obesity, diabetes and spinal and joint disorders. But I am here for its signature Panchakarma, a detox and rejuvenation program. The daily regimen includes two massage treatments, three sessions of yoga, meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques) and a delicious sathvic (vegetarian) South Indian cuisine that includes a range of six colors in every meal.

Ayurveda, the science or knowledge of life, is an ancient Indian practice that aims for attaining ideal physical, mental and spiritual health through herbal tonics, medicinal massage therapies, yoga, meditation and a balanced diet.

According to Ayurveda, the human body is made of five elements — air, water, fire, earth and ether. These elements wake up a person’s energy, or dosha. There are three doshas (body types) — Vata, Pitta and Kapha — each with a certain function in our bodies. A body can be a combination of one, two or all three doshas.

An initial consultation with one of the three resident doctors at Ayurvedagram establishes the visitor’s dosha, and a food and therapy program is planned accordingly. A typical Ayurvedic food preparation uses turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, cumin, fennel, coriander and herbs such as tulsi, mint and cilantro.

Ghee (clarified butter) is essential in cooking because it’s the only natural product that is able to permeate all cells, Dr. Man Mohan explained. “It can break blood-brain barrier and it assists in delivery of food nutrients in targeted areas.”

Some of the produce used by chef Nagaraj and his team comes from the retreat’s patch of organic garden. The menu is predominantly South Indian, starting with the traditional breakfast of dosa (rice and lentil crepe), idli (steamed rice buns) served with coconut and mint chutney and sambhar (lentils with vegetables).

Lunch consists of two types of lentils, three different vegetable curries, rice and chapati.

Dinner offers a similar menu with different vegetable dishes. A typical poriyal dish (using assorted vegetables), chutneys, sambhar and rasam (a lentil broth) accompany both lunch and dinner. And there’s always plenty of fresh fruit and warm cumin-scented water with all three meals.

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Chef Nagaraj cooking cabbage and carrot poriyal. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

On my departure, Dr. Nibhan John gave me a tour of the medicinal garden. Leaves, roots, flowers and bark from 60 some trees and shrubs are used in various healing decoctions, powders and pastes. Orange blossoms from the large Asoka tree are used for gynecological disorders. External preparations from the Rasna are utilized for arthritic inflammation. Oil from the leaves of Vitpala Wrightia Tinctoria is good for psoriasis, while an external application of hibiscus flowers and leaves mashed in water helps hair growth.

Some commonly used herbs and spices have healing properties also. Cilantro (as a green chutney) is a good appetizer, and cinnamon mixed in warm milk or water assists in lactation for nursing mothers. Tulsi leaves (Indian basil) immersed in steam inhalers relieve sinus congestion, and turmeric not only has antiseptic properties but is also used to heal cuts and bruises and dental problems and treat asthma.

Garlic as an antioxidant helps lower blood pressure, and ginger is a soothing remedy for digestive disorders. Cloves are generously used in Indian cooking, and its oil, a rich source of anesthetic and antiseptic agents, is used by dentists as an oral anesthetic.

A morning session with Nagaraj enriched me with a handful of recipes. Here are a couple of them.

Carrot and Cabbage Poriyal (Ayurvedagram recipe)

Channa dal and urud dal, shredded dry coconut, curry leaves and ghee can be found at all Indian markets.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or ghee)

½ teaspoon black mustard seeds

½ teaspoon channa dal

½ teaspoon urud dal

3 to 4 whole dry red chilies

2-inch piece of ginger, chopped finely

1 medium onion, chopped finely

6 to 8 fresh curry leaves

1 cup dry coconut, shredded

Half a head of medium cabbage, shredded

3 carrots, shredded

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup water

Cilantro leaves (for garnish)

Directions

1. Heat oil in a wok-style pan and add mustard seeds, channa dal, urud dal and red chilies. This is called tempering, or tadka, and should take a couple of minutes to get the ingredients sizzling and toasty. Mustard seeds tend to pop, so make sure you keep a lid on the wok.

2. Add ginger, onion and curry leaves; stir well for 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Add grated coconut and lastly the shredded cabbage and carrots and salt and pepper to taste.

4. Stir the mixture well and add ¼ cup water. Lower the heat. Cover the wok and let the vegetables cook for about 10 minutes till tender.

5. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve as a side vegetable dish or as a salad at room temperature.

Ayurvedagram Herbal Tea

Aids in alleviating cough and chest congestion

Serve 4

Ingredients

5 leaves of lemon grass

6 to 8 tulsi leaves or basil leaves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

5 to 6 green cardamom seeds, crushed

¼ teaspoon dry ginger

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

4¼ cups water

Directions

1. Boil all ingredients in water for 5 minutes with the lid closed.

2. Strain and serve hot.

Top photo: A lunch plate consisting of rice, green bean poriyal and chapati; in the bowls are sambhar and two types of vegetable curries. Also, to drink, there’s lassi and cumin water. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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A shepherd in the mountains near Sigishoara, Transylvania. Credit: Cordell Barron

In the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, western Romania, where transhumance — the movement of animals between winter and summer pastures — is still practiced, shepherds will now be settling their animals in the high meadows after a trek that could have lasted five weeks or more. Late autumn last year, these shepherds left with their flocks to walk hundreds of kilometers east, to the Danube floodplains, or northwest, to the lowland plains near Hungary. Now they’re back in their summer home.

A lack of historical records makes it impossible to establish a precise time that long-distance transhumance began in the Carpathians but, since the region’s shepherd communities date to the pre-Roman Dacians, it is likely that this form of year-round grazing has been practiced since then. They are part of a tradition that stretches throughout the Balkans to northern and central Greece and Albania; their movements between these countries were only curtailed by World War I, when new country borders were created and passports were needed to cross them.

Timing the spring trek

One income source for the shepherds is the lamb they can provide for Easter tables. Romanians consider a 10-kilogram (22-pound) lamb the perfect size for this, so the animal needs to be eight to 10 weeks old. The shepherds time their trek to arrive in the Carpathian uplands for lambing to take place there around early March, depending on when the Orthodox Easter falls that year. Flocks comprise sheep belonging to a number of villagers, and each sheep is marked, to distinguish it from a neighbor’s.

This biannual journey enriches the landscapes the animals cross by fertilizing the soils in the migratory corridors with sheep dung and encourages a remarkably rich biodiversity by transporting fruits and seeds on the wool. It has also, over the centuries, led to extensive cultural exchanges as the shepherds traveled long distances in search of grazing, and many contemporary traditions — in food, literature and song — have their roots in this practice.

Both landscapes and traditions are now in danger of disappearing. Land that has been an open route for the shepherds for centuries is becoming privately owned, motorists don’t take kindly to a flock of hundreds of sheep crossing the road in front of them, and many flocks are now transported in trucks.

A mobile dairy

Mamaliga fritters with mushroom sauce and pickled peppers. Credit: Rosemary Barron

Mamaliga fritters with mushroom sauce and pickled peppers. Credit: Rosemary Barron

During the trek, the ewes’ milk is made into cas and urda, two fresh cheeses similar in texture, respectively, to ricotta and Greek mizythra, and cascaval, a semi-hard cheese that’s kept for up to three months. Later in the summer, when the milk has a higher fat content, it’s turned into a feta-like cheese called telemea. The curds are salted, wrapped into cheesecloth orbs, and hung for 24 hours before they are placed on slatted wooden shelves to settle into heavy discs of mountain cheese. The nutrient-rich whey is given to the pigs and sheepdogs. Some of the cheeses are allocated to the sheep owners, the remainder sold at local markets.

Over the centuries, the shepherds have perfected the art of turning fresh milk into products that can be kept longer than a few hours. As well as cheeses, they make smantana, similar to soured cream or thick yogurt, which is the perfect accompaniment to another easily transportable food that has come to be known as the national dish of Romania, mamaliga.

Understanding Mamaliga

Mamaliga, a thick porridge made from maize flour (cornmeal), is similar to the polenta of northern Italy and other parts of the Balkans. Served in a huge variety of ways, it’s not unusual to find mamaliga on Romanian tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As cornmeal is easy to store, transport and cook, it is the perfect staple food for a long trek. The shepherds make mamaliga in large cauldrons suspended over an open fire and are particularly fond of it with small game and sarmale (stuffed fresh or slightly fermented cabbage leaves). Often, though, it’s eaten alone, with smantana or cheese, or wrapped around fresh, white cheese to make a grapefruit-size ball (or “bear”), which is wrapped in foil and baked in charcoal.

The best mamaliga is made from coarse, stone-ground cornmeal that retains some of the hull and germ of the grain, producing a thick, yellow-gold porridge with a slightly crunchy texture. For Romanian cooks, the making of mamaliga involves many rituals, some of which touch on the semi-mystical in the same way as bread-baking and grape-stomping do, and they use a special saucepan (ceaun) for the process. Modern cooks, however, frequently use a commercial coarse cornmeal that considerably cuts the preparation time. Both types of cornmeal are suitable for making these fitters, a popular to way to serve mamaliga at home.

Mamaliga Fritters With Mushroom Sauce

For a true taste of Transylvania, use a mixture of sunflower oil and butter to fry the fritters, though olive oil gives a fine, if Mediterranean-flavored result, too. Serve with braised rabbit or chicken, with any manner of vegetables, or with mushrooms in sour cream.

Serves 3 to 4

For the mamaliga:

½ cup whole milk

1 cup water

¾ teaspoon fine-grain sea salt

1 scant cup coarse cornmeal (maize flour), preferably organic

3 tablespoons organic sunflower oil

2 tablespoons butter

For the mushroom sauce:

1 tablespoon butter

6 ounces wild, field or button mushrooms, wiped clean, trimmed and thinly sliced

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons sour cream, to taste

3 tablespoons lightly chopped fresh dill

For serving:

Watercress sprigs or other green leaves

Small pickled peppers

Directions

1. Combine the milk and water in a heavy saucepan, add the salt, and bring to barely a boil

2. Pour in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly in a clockwise direction with a wooden spoon. Over a low heat, simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the mixture is thick enough to just support the spoon standing upright. Set aside uncovered for 10 minutes

(If you are using a commercial cornmeal, follow the directions for a thick mixture.)

3. To make the mushroom sauce, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small, heavy saucepan set over low heat. Add the mushrooms, cover the pan, and simmer 6-8 minutes (button mushrooms) to up to 15 minutes (field or wild mushrooms), until soft. Strain the mushrooms over a bowl and set both mushrooms and liquor aside.

4. Turn out the cornmeal (mamaliga) onto a wooden board and spread into a 1-inch-thick layer with a spatula or palette knife. Smooth the surface and neaten the edges. Cut into 2×3-inch rectangles, or any shape you prefer (but keep manageable in size, otherwise they will break up later). Use the palette knife to loosen each one from the board

5. Set a frying pan over low-medium heat and add the sunflower oil and 2 tablespoons butter. When hot but not smoking, fry the fritters until golden brown on both sides, turning once.

6. Meanwhile, check the mushroom cooking liquor. If there is more than 4 tablespoons, reduce in a heavy pan set over medium heat. Lower the heat, add the mushrooms and stir in the sour cream. Heat to hot but not boiling (or the cream will curdle and spoil the appearance of the dish). Gently stir in the dill and add salt and pepper (the sauce should be highly seasoned)

7. Transfer the fritters to a warm platter and surround with watercress, pickles, and the mushroom sauce.

Top photo: A shepherd in the mountains near Sigishoara, Transylvania. Credit: Cordell Barron

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An illustration of lunch in Provence, France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the movable Christian feast of Easter that this year falls on April 13, marks the allotted date of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem through streets strewn with palm fronds, a moment of optimism in the run-up to the gloom of Good Friday.

Thereafter, devout households use palm fronds to decorate streets, balconies and churches to commemorate the unfolding events of Easter week. Splendidly robed Greek Orthodox monks on the island of Patmos, Greece, re-enact the Last Supper beneath arches of palm fronds with a meal of bread and wine.

Elsewhere, as the Christian message spread, congregations in non-palm-tree regions (anyone without a Mediterranean coastline) adapted an older tradition, that of bringing budded greenery indoors to celebrate the return of spring. Willow wands and young growths of hazel and birch — though never hawthorn, which was considered to bring misfortune — were brought indoors and set to unfurl their leaves by the fireside. In Germany, branches of evergreens — holly or yew — were draped with pretzels and apples, a reminder of divine responsibility to restore fertility to fields and woods.

Today, chickpeas are a sign of thanks in Provence

In France, particularly Provence, a similar sentiment was expressed by hanging candied fruits and sugar cookies wrapped in brightly colored paper on branches of olive and bay. In the regional capital, Marseilles, the proper food for Palm Sunday is chickpeas, pois chiches, the result, as legend has it, of the arrival during the Great Famine — and there were many such throughout the Middle Ages — of a shipload of chickpeas from Egypt, much to the relief of the starving citizens who thereafter commemorated the occasion with chickpea soup.

Since then, by way of giving thanks, chickpea soup is traditionally eaten on Palm Sunday both in Marseilles and the surrounding countryside. This I learned when taking time out from family duties in the 1990s to complete my second novel in a borrowed chateau in the region — huge and drafty and heated by a kitchen range with an insatiable appetite for firewood collected from the forest.

Lambesc was the nearest market town, and Saturday was market day. At the end of a morning’s bargaining, it was usual for exhausted stall holders and customers to queue up for exotic dishes prepared with considerable showmanship by a member of Marseilles’ multiethnic community. Most popular were Moroccan couscous, Spanish paella sold by the scoop and Vietnamese nem,  neat little finger-length rolls of shredded vegetables enclosed in a rice pancake, much like Chinese spring rolls, and deep-fried to order.

There was, too, a local specialité du jour offered by the traiteur — a purveyor of ready-prepared dishes, cheese and charcuterie — from a table outside his shop fronting the market square. As soon as I took my place in the queue, the day’s recipe was discussed and embellished by the rest of the queue for the benefit of l’ecrivaine, the writer, myself. In Provence, everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they value their painters and poets and respect the need for a visiting writer to eat good food.

A re-creation of the Last Supper by Greek monks on the island of Patmos, Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

A re-creation of the Last Supper by Greek monks on the island of Patmos, Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

The traiteur’s menu changed with the season and, when appropriate, featured dishes traditional to festivals of the Roman Catholic Church. Meatless dishes were on offer throughout Lent, though prohibitions on enriching them with olive oil or even the odd lardons of bacon were disregarded. Tomorrow being Palm Sunday, I was assured as I joined the traiteur’s Saturday queue, the proper food was soupe aux pois chiches, a thick chickpea soup to be finished, when reheated at home, with the last of the winter’s cheese.

“Bon appetit, madame,” said the traiteur as he ladled out a generous portion. “And don’t forget the cheese.”

Soupe de pois chiche au fromage (Chickpea soup with cheese)

A meatless soup is proper during the last week of Lent, a somber time in the run-up to Easter, though the inclusion of eggs and cheese is a concession to the lighter mood of Palm Sunday, when people traditionally went to the graveyard to decorate ancestors’ final resting places with flowers. 

Serves 4 as a main dish

Ingredients

1 pound (500 grams) chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water

2 mature carrots, diced

2 sticks celery, washed and chopped

1 sprig of thyme

1 sprig of rosemary

1 or 2 bay leaves

¼ cup olive oil

A dozen peppercorns, crushed

Salt to taste

For finishing:

2 eggs forked with 4 tablespoons grated cheese

Directions

1. Drain the chickpeas.

2. Bring 4 pints of water to a boil. Add the chickpeas and the rest of the ingredients except the salt.

3. Bring the pot back to a boil. Lid tightly and leave to cook at a rolling simmer for about 2 hours.

4. Add the salt to the soup when the chickpeas are soft.

5. Pour a ladle full of the hot broth into the egg-and-cheese mixture. Off the heat, whisk the mixture into the soup. Do not reboil or the eggs will curdle and your lovely velvety thickening will vanish.

6. Serve with bread, more grated cheese and a salad of lovely spring leaves — young dandelion, lamb’s lettuce, sorrel, chicory — dressed quite plainly with lemon juice, a slick of good oil and salt.

Top illustration: Lunch in Provence, France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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Potato Kebabs (Kartof Kababï). Credit: Charles Perry

They like their shish kebab in the Caucasus. The Azerbaijanis even make a potato version. It’s not really that exotic — just a fancier way of making roasted potatoes, really — but it is delicious, looks cool and might help vegetarians feel less like wallflowers at the barbecue.

The idea is simple. String small potatoes on skewers and grill until nicely browned. To serve, sprinkle with salt, red pepper, green onions and melted butter. It’s the sort of thing that is quite convenient to do when you’re barbecuing something else.

Probably the Azerbaijanis’ inspiration was the older Middle Eastern tradition of grilling chunks of eggplant on a skewer. They adapted the dish to the potato after it arrived from the New World. And they did the same with another New World import, the tomato.

Tomato kebab is a little less exotic though, at least if you were around for the Greek food craze that swept the country in the 1960s. Back then souvlaki just wasn’t souvlaki unless you inserted cherry tomatoes between your chunks of wine-marinated beef. Pomidor kababï is the same idea except that it does without the meat.

Interestingly, according to the photo I’ve seen, the tomatoes are pierced through the sides, rather than from the stem end. The recipe recommended small, juicy, fully ripe tomatoes, apparently of some size between cherry and Roma, which I imagine are best if you can get them.

Both these ideas come from “Azärbayjan Kulinariyasï,” a polyglot coffee-table cookbook published in Azeri, Russian and English.

Yes, there is an English translation but you can’t necessarily go by it. Take the recipe for gabirga-kabab, which reads, “Cut into equal pieces fat mutton brisket. These pieces string on a spit with flesh on one side and roast over charcoals. Dress with coiled onions, shredded herbs and pomegranate grains, when serving.”

From studying the Azeri and Russian texts and the photos, you can figure out that “coiled onions” are onion rings, “shredded herbs” are cilantro and “pomegranate grains” can be narsharab, a sweet-sour molasses made from boiled-down pomegranate juice, like the Lebanese dibs rumman but rather more tart.

As for this potato kebab recipe, the book calls for 16 “middle-sized potatoes left whole” but the photo shows oblong new potatoes cut in half. It sounds as if you can use just about any smallish spuds so long as they aren’t so thick that they will take too long to cook.

By the way, if you’re thinking about grilling tomatoes this way, you had better use the Middle Eastern skewers with a flat blade shape. On old-fashioned round skewers, the tomatoes will tend to slip, making it hard to turn the skewer over. They will cook in about 20 minutes.

Potato Kebabs (Kartof Kababï)

Serves 2

Ingredients

6 small potatoes

2 ounces (½ stick) butter, melted

Salt and ground red pepper to taste

1 bunch green onions, roots and ½ of green part trimmed

Directions

1. Cut and skewer the potatoes. Remove the eyes.

2. Start your barbecue. If using charcoal, burn until the briquettes are covered with gray ash.

3. Brush the potatoes very lightly with melted butter and grill, turning over from time to time to check doneness. When the potatoes can easily be pierced with a fork (taking care not to break them) and are browned on  both sides, about 45 minutes, remove and serve, sprinkled with salt and pepper and garnished with green onions with the rest of the melted butter on the side.

Top photo: Potato Kebabs (Kartof Kababï). Credit: Charles Perry

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Poor Knights is a variation on Pain Perdu. Credit: Sharon Hunt

I have always had a soft spot for lost things. As a child I brought home lost creatures — cats that were eventually found by their owners, baby birds that were nursed until they were ready to fly and, once, a turtle I found in my garden but had to return to the nearby lake when he bit my sister’s finger.

With food, my soft spot has always been lost desserts, dishes that have fallen out of fashion but were a regular part of the dinners at my grandmother’s house. Gooseberry Fool, Bavarian Cream and the Queen of Puddings were rotated through the Sundays along with other offerings that could be depended upon to strike that perfect end note to a meal.

One lost dessert that she made in spring and summer, when she was focused more on cleaning and getting her gardens back in shape than on baking, was Pain Perdu, or Lost Bread. Like her, I make it when the weather turns warm because I spend less time baking but still like to have something sweet at the end of a Sunday dinner. Pain Perdu is also a great way to rescue stale bread that might otherwise be thrown out and transform it into a rich and delicious treat.

Pain Perdu a dessert with many variations, names

Although it is known as Pain Perdu in places such as France, New Orleans and Canada’s Newfoundland, where I was born, this dish has had many names over the centuries.

In England, it was called Gilded Sippets (small pieces of bread sprinkled with rose water that had been colored by saffron), Eggy Bread and also Poor Knights of Windsor (topped with jam and named for the military order King Edward III created in the 14th century).

As it turns out, Poor Knights was a popular name in many countries. Sweden, Denmark and Norway all called it this, while in Finland it was Poor Knights when eaten plain but Rich Knights when sprinkled with powdered sugar or garnished with whipped cream.

In Germany, the name “Poor Knights” may have come about through the tradition of the gentry always serving dessert at their tables. Although all knights were part of the gentry, not all were wealthy, and those who weren’t served a dessert of stale bread that had been dipped in eggs and fried. Sometimes it was served with jam, while other times it was made with wine instead of milk and known as a Drunken Virgin.

In the Czech Republic, Lost Bread became Bread in a Little Coat, in Switzerland it was a Rascal’s Slice and in Spain it was Torrijas, often made during the Lenten season and garnished with cinnamon or honey.

A version of Lost Bread is contained in a collection of fourth century Latin recipes attributed to Roman gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius, who lived in the first century. This recipe, known simply as Another Sweet Dish, uses milk instead of eggs to revive the bread before cooking.

Whatever its name, reclaiming stale bread was important in medieval Europe because cooks were not always sure of their food supply and couldn’t afford to waste anything. After being soaked in milk and eggs, the bread was cooked on a griddle, as it still is today.

This was not just a food for the poor, though, as recipes of the time called for expensive ingredients — white bread (with the crusts removed), spices and almond milk, hardly items found in the pantries of the poor. Also, medieval cookbooks, in which such recipes were found, were of no use to the poor, as only the noble, wealthy and religious classes could read. For the upper classes, those golden slices were served with game meats or exotic birds, such as peacocks.

Today, most of us would forgo such accompaniments and serve this dish as an inexpensive dessert or eat it at breakfast (as French toast), often using white bread, which we have reclaimed from the rich.

My grandmother, who made her own bread, soaked thick slices in egg yolks and cream (leaving aside the egg whites to create a richer coating). When the bread was fried, she served it with heavy cream and preserves from her cold cellar. Sometimes, she substituted pound cake for the bread, but whatever the choice, it was always delicious.

Although this dish has a number of variations, it does not require a lot of ingredients beyond bread, eggs and milk or cream. The garnishes allow you to have fun; whipped cream and strawberry preserves or fresh peaches and powdered sugar are great spring and summertime dessert choices; maple syrup or a brown butter sauce elevate French toast for breakfast; for lunch, you can’t go wrong with a Monte Cristo sandwich (ham and cheese between two slices of bread that are then soaked in the egg and milk mixture and fried).

However and whenever you eat Lost Bread, you are in for a treat that would make the Poor Knights feel like kings.

Pain Perdu (My Grandmother’s Recipe)

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 egg yolks

2 tablespoons white granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon orange zest

½ cup whole milk (or substitute 10% table cream for more richness)

4 slices stale white bread, thickly sliced

Butter for frying

Strawberry or raspberry preserves

Heavy or whipped cream (optional)

Directions

1. Beat egg yolks in a shallow dish.

2. Add sugar, vanilla, orange zest and milk (or cream); beat well.

3. Soak each slice of bread well in the egg mixture.

4. Melt butter in a large frying pan and fry the bread until golden on each side, about 2 to 3 minutes.

5. Cut bread into triangles; place two triangles on each plate.

6. Top with a spoonful of preserves and, if you wish, heavy or whipped cream.

Top photo: Poor Knights is a variation on Pain Perdu. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Lamb and rhubarb stew. Credit: Kristin Nicholas

The first rumblings of spring have reached the Central Atlantic. The green tips of daffodils and jonquils are pushing through the still firm soil, and in some sunny spots, snowdrops and crocus are already starting to bloom. This means that the early crops of rhubarb should be out by month’s end. Fluorescent pink stems topped with deep green, chard-like leaves will soon fill the market shelves, so it seems a good time to tell some of the Silk Road history of this amazing plant.

Genetic analysis of plant diversity tells us that rhubarb’s origins are probably on the Tibetan Plateau, but that it spread early into northwestern China and to some of the bordering areas of Central Asia and Mongolia.

The Chinese were the first to document the use rhubarb — as a medicine. The first mention of rhubarb use is in “The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica,” which is part of a Chinese oral tradition that probably reaches back to the second century B.C. In this work, rhubarb is used to treat malaria, people who have delirious speech with fever, and constipation, among many other maladies.

Trade to the West for medicinal purposes started early. In Greco-Roman culture, rhubarb was used as a general purgative, and was considered useful in combating many diseases. The Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides wrote in his first-century work, “De Materia Medica,” that rhubarb came from, “beyond the Bosporus,” in Turkey while the later Roman writer, Ammianus Marcellinus believed it to come from the “lands of the northern Caucasus near the Volga River inhabited by the Amazons” (Scythians).

Rhubarb’s long road

The reason for this confusion about the origin of rhubarb is because of the patchwork nature of trade on the Silk Road. Only rarely were shipments carried long distances by a single merchant or carrier. Most of the time, goods traded hands many times as they traversed the Old World.

As rhubarb’s reputation as a cure-all spread across continents, so the price of the root rose precipitously, until the finest quality rhubarb was more expensive than cinnamon or saffron.

It is difficult to find European references for rhubarb beyond Byzantium, but medicinal use of the stems and roots is noted by 10th-century “Arab” physicians Yahya ibn Sarafyun (Serapion the Elder) of Syria and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) of Uzbekistan.

These writers use rhubarb as a purgative, but also use it for many urinary tract diseases, and to increase the flow of semen. Interestingly, Marco Polo identified it growing in the 13th century in the mountains of Qinghai and Gansu provinces in northwestern China. So, like many other sources of knowledge that disappeared or were held close in monasteries in Europe’s Dark Ages, Levantine and Muslim scholars may have kept the study and use of medicinal rhubarb current for their times.

By the early 15th century, the vibrant trade of rhubarb from China to Uzbekistan and on to Persia on the Silk Road is documented by the Castilian ambassador to Timur’s court in Samarkand, Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo. The 16th-century Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens gives one of the first scientific descriptions of the modern age for rhubarb in his “Cruydeboeck” (“Herbal”) in 1554.

 Sweet and savory dishes with rhubarb

In the West, it is generally regarded that the first completely culinary uses of rhubarb (not as a medicinal tonic or potion) began in the late 18th and early 19th century. The earliest recipe I could find was in the 1807 edition of Maria Eliza Rundell’s “A New System of Domestic Cookery.” In the 1824 volume, Rundell has two seemingly delicious recipes for rhubarb tarts, both of which call for copious amounts of cane sugar.

That history aside, I would like to share a Silk Road recipe for rhubarb that probably predates Rundell’s by several centuries if not more. It is a traditional dish in northern Iran, near Mashad, but is also enjoyed in Turkmenistan and other parts of Central Asia where merchants helped naturalize rhubarb during the course of its transport on the Silk Road.

The recipe is for a lamb and rhubarb stew that uses rhubarb as a souring agent to complement the earthy lamb, much as sour plums or sour cherries are used in other recipes. I think that the recipe might be Central Asian in origin, because like many other Central Asian dishes, it also relies on herbs rather than spices for much of its flavor. It’s a great example of the foods that came flooding west from the various Persian conquests of the territories to its north and east, possibly during the Seljuk Dynasty.

Since rhubarb is being rediscovered as a vegetable, it is often available beyond its traditional short season, which allows this recipe to be made almost any time of the year. But with spring on the way, now is the time to make this dish to celebrate the seasonal rebirth that this time brings.

Lamb and Rhubarb Stew

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 tablespoons light sesame or peanut oil

¾ pound lamb cut into cubes

1 large onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents

3 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced

4 hot, dried, red chili peppers

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup water

1 cup beef or chicken stock (or a mixture of both)

1 to 2 teaspoons nutmeg, grated

¼ cup fresh mint, chopped (more to taste)

1 medium bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

1½ tablespoons sugar (more to taste)

3 cups fresh rhubarb, cleaned and cut into 1-inch slices (peeled if desired)

Directions

1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan and when hot, sear lamb cubes over high heat until golden brown around the edges, stirring constantly. When meat is done, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Lower heat to medium and add the onions, sautéing until they start to soften and color. Then add garlic, chili peppers, salt and pepper and stir until the garlic starts to swell and color. When garlic is done, add water and beef or chicken stock and cook to heat. When hot, add lamb back into the pot, add 1 teaspoon of the grated nutmeg to the stew. Cover and cook over medium-low or low for 1 hour, stirring occasionally, until lamb becomes tender.

3. When lamb is nearly done, add the chopped mint and stir well. Then add the cilantro and sugar and stir in as well. Cook for another 3 to 5 minutes and then add the rhubarb and cook another 3 to 5 minutes or until the rhubarb softens, but is still firm (not soggy). Remove from heat, grate the remainder of the nutmeg in and serve. This dish works best served with barley, but one can use millet or rice as well.

In addition to delicious desserts and savory stews, rhubarb is once again being used as medicine. It has joined the growing list of, “superfoods” because it is packed with vitamins C and K, is high in fiber, and contains calcium. Rhubarb extract is also being investigated as a chemotherapy agent to stop the spread of some cancers and to trigger cell death (apoptosis) in some tumors; as a cholinesterase inhibitor to help treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia disorders; as an antimicrobial drug; and as an antioxidant. The ancients knew that rhubarb was good for you, they just didn’t know why.

Top photo: Lamb and rhubarb stew. Credit: Kristin Nicholas

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The Persian cookies nan-e berenji (rice flour cookies) and nan-e nokhodchi (chickpea flour cookies) are traditionally included in the Persian New Year celebration Nowruz. Credit: Jean Paul Vellotti

For most of the United States it’s been a long, hard winter. And for those of us living in the Northeast, these past few months have felt like being an unwilling crew member on the Shackleton expedition, pounded by snow and locked in by ice and subzero temperatures.

The bitter winter has made it more important than ever to give spring a rousing good welcome. Through blizzard after blizzard, I’ve come to understand how ancient people shivering their way through the long dark months rejoiced with the coming of spring, celebrating its arrival with feasts, music and dance.

Certainly, all spring festivals — Easter and Passover among them — are rich with tradition, but Nowruz, the Persian New Year (on March 20 most years) with its lush tapestry of color, ceremonial table and profusion of food, can be particularly exuberant.

Among the must-have foods on the Persian New Year table are ash reshteh, a vegetarian noodle soup meant to offer longevity, and a plethora of sweets and cookies.

In traditional homes, the cookies and sweets are made by hand — think of this in the vein of holiday cookie baking in America. Today, they can be store bought and share the table with Western cakes and French delicacies, but during Nowruz in Iran, bakeries dedicate staff to making the two most notable cookies in the holiday repertoire: nan-e berenji (rice flour cookies) and nan-e nokhodchi (chickpea flour cookies).

From cookies to main courses, Persian cuisine is elegantly nuanced and seasonally based, following a principle called garme o sarde (hot and cold). The foods of the New Year are symbolic to the time of year and the ethos of the holiday, promoting ancient notions of prosperity and long life.

Sprouts with ancient roots

The Persian New Year falls each year exactly at the spring equinox and is among the longest continually celebrated spring-welcoming rituals.

Long before modern Iran and the sociopolitical climate of tension between it and the West, the ancient empire was influenced by Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion that invested the natural world with the powers of the deity. Zoroastrianism is tied to the seasons, the worship of fire and water as purifying symbols and a profound sense of ethics governing the way man must interact with nature.

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The crumbly flour mixture for Persian New Year cookies. Credit: Jean Paul Vellotti

Nowruz — which translates to “new day” — is the most important of the Zoroastrian holidays symbolizing the rebirth of the land after winter, which effectively started a new year. Today, Zoroastrianism is practiced in few parts of the world, least of all its founding nation of Iran, but it still remains an important national holiday there — one so beloved that the freedom to celebrate it was one of the few open acts of defiance undertaken by Iranians after the 1979 revolution.

Noelle Newell, an interior designer in Easton, Conn., remembers two very different types of Nowruz celebrations. First, celebrated as the 9-year-old daughter of a Persian father and American mother, she was asked to present a Nowruz bouquet to the Iranian ambassador to the United States at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. It was 1973. Six years later, she says, to be Iranian was to be persona non grata.

Today, Nowruz continues to be widely celebrated in Iran as a national holiday; in 2010, the United Nations formalized the International Day of Nowruz. Parades and other celebrations commemorate the holiday in New York, Los Angeles and other American cities with sizable Iranian populations.

Because Nowruz has essentially become a nonreligious observance and instead simply a joyous welcome to the warming vernal sun, everyone can enjoy the delights of this two-week-long merrymaking.

The Table of the Seven S’s for Nowruz

Those celebrating Nowruz begin the holiday by cleaning their homes thoroughly — think of it as spring cleaning on steroids. Next, a ceremonial table called Sofreh Haft Sin, or Table of Seven S’s, is set up in the home.

Seven items beginning with the letter “sin” — “s” in Farsi — that symbolize the cycle of life and wishes for the next year are placed on the table. They include sabzeh (sprouts symbolizing new life); samanu (a sweet wheat-germ pudding); sir (garlic, representing medicine); sib (apple, representing beauty); senjed (jujubes, which symbolize love); sumac (sumac berry powder, symbolizing the color of the newly risen sun); and serkeh (vinegar, which symbolizes longevity).

There can also be sekkeh, or coins for wealth; the spring flower sonbol (hyacinth); a mirror to reflect back or “double” the wishes on the table; a book of poems from Persian poets Rumi or Hafez; and a goldfish in a bowl to symbolize new life.

The table stays in place for 13 days, at which time the all-important sprouts are carried out of the house, usually as a centerpiece at an elaborate picnic. After the picnic, the sprouts are flung into running water, symbolizing carrying away your troubles as they go.

Jumping over fire, feasting the night away

After the house is clean and the table is set, there are two exciting things about Nowruz. The first occurs the Wednesday before the holiday (March 19 this year), when folks light small fires and take running leaps over them, chanting in Farsi, “Take from me my pallor, give to me your warmth.”

The second and arguably most anticipated is the food. After the initial New Year countdown to the exact time the earth tilts on its axis toward the sun, a huge dinner is served featuring ash reshteh, the vegetarian noodle soup, the long noodles of which symbolize long life; fish with herbed rice; and plate after plate of sweets. The meal is followed by the distribution of envelopes filled with brand-new dollar bills or other money to children of the house.

Of all these traditions, it’s the cookies that seem closest to the Iranian heart. Although widely available commercially today even in the United States, once upon a time they were a rare delicacy.

The complexity of these Persian cookies lies not in the ingredient list but in the texture of the dough and the resulting cookie. Because they are wheat free and more delicate in texture than Western confections, they can easily fall apart. But once mastered, they can become part of any holiday table — particularly for gluten-free eaters.

Persian Rice Cookies (nan-e berenji)

Gluten-free rice flour cookies are incredibly light, crumbly and aromatic with the scent and delicate floral notes of rosewater.

Makes 30 to 40 cookies

Ingredients

1 cup canola oil, softened vegetable shortening or melted ghee (clarified butter)*

1½ cups powdered sugar

2 eggs, separated

¼ cup rosewater

3¼ cups rice flour*

½ cup poppy seeds

Directions

1. Combine the oil, shortening or ghee with the sugar and egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer and mix on low until all the ingredients come together, about 30 seconds.

2. Add the rosewater. Increase speed to medium high and mix until the mixture is light and creamy, about 4 to 5 minutes.

3.  Add the rice flour in three batches, mixing on low after each addition until just combined. Scrape down the bowl as necessary before each addition of flour.

4. In a separate bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, whip the egg whites on medium high until they form stiff peaks, about 5 to 6 minutes.

5. Fold in the egg whites using a rubber spatula until totally combined. The dough should be smooth and supple like clay, but not sticky.

6. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.

7.  Preheat the oven to 300 F.

8. Pinch off gumball sized pieces of chilled dough and roll into an even ball. Gently flatten the ball with your forefinger and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat until all the dough is used up, placing the cookies 2 inches apart on all sides.

9. Using the edge of a spoon or sharp knife, press a light design into the cookies and sprinkle with poppy seeds.

10. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cookies are firm and light colored. Do not let the cookies brown; they should remain very white.

11. Allow the cookies to cool completely before moving them to a platter or a sealed container. The cookies are extremely crumbly, so take care when moving them. Serve with hot tea. Nan-e berenji will keep up to 1 week in a sealed container.

Persian Chickpea Cookies (nan-e nokhodchi)

Like its gluten-free cousin, these wheat-free cookies are great for those with a gluten intolerance or allergies. They can be made dairy free by using oil instead of butter.  The end result is a fine, extremely soft cookie that melts in the mouth to be washed down with a cup of hot tea.

Makes 30 to 40 cookies

Ingredients

1½ cup powdered sugar

2 teaspoons cardamom

¼ teaspoon fine salt

1 cup canola oil, softened vegetable shortening or melted ghee (clarified butter)*

2 teaspoons rosewater

4 cups chickpea flour, or more as needed*

5 tablespoons ground pistachios for garnish

Directions

1. In a large bowl, combine the powdered sugar, cardamom and salt and whisk together well. Set aside.

2. Combine the oil, shortening or ghee with the rosewater in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer. Mix well.

3. Add the sugar mixture to the butter and rosewater mixture and mix together on low until all the ingredients come together, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium high and mix until the mixture is light and creamy, about 4 to 5 minutes.

4. Add the chickpea flour in three parts, mixing on low until each addition is well combined. The final mixture should be supple but not sticky. Add more chickpea flour as needed to achieve this consistency.

5. Wrap the finished dough in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.

6. Preheat the oven to 300 F.

7.  Roll out the dough into a rectangle about a half-inch thick, and use a small cloverleaf or flower-shaped cutter to cut out the cookies. The cutter should be roughly 1 to 1½ inches wide to yield about 30 to 40 cookies.

8. Sprinkle the top of each cookie lightly with the ground pistachio.

9. Bake for 20 minutes or until the cookies are firm and light colored. Do not let the cookies brown.

10. Allow the cookies to cool completely before moving them to a platter or a container container that can be well sealed. The cookies are extremely crumbly, so take care when moving them. Serve with hot tea. Nan-e nokhodchi will keep up to 1 week in a sealed container.

*Available in Indian or Middle Eastern markets

Top photo: The Persian cookies nan-e berenji (rice flour cookies) and nan-e nokhodchi (chickpea flour cookies) are traditionally included in Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

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