Articles in History
At one time, if I wanted a handful of airy, pearl-sugar-encrusted chouquettes, I’d have to either scrimp and save for a trip to France or break down and make these sweets myself.
For centuries these petite, round pastries have been a mainstay of French bakeries and patisseries. Like clockwork, each day bakers tumble a dozen or so soft chouquettes into small paper bags and, handing over the baked goods, send hungry but happy customers on their way. Simple yet satisfying, chouquettes have long served as an afternoon snack or a means of tiding over famished French diners until dinnertime.
In recent months I started to notice this beloved treat appearing in bakeries and shops in my New York City neighborhood. Piled high on trays inside glass cases or displayed in wicker baskets, as they are in France, chouquettes have begun to insinuate their way into international markets and hearts.
Like many newcomers to the chouquette, I originally mistook it for a French take on the American doughnut hole. Because the two were comparable in size and shape, I assumed they would also have a similar taste. One bite of the chouquette’s soft, mildly sweet and eggy dough and its crunchy sugar topping, and all comparisons to that greasy, occasionally gooey confection ended.
Chouquettes born during the Renaissance
Unlike doughnuts, which are a relatively modern creation, chouquettes date back to Renaissance France. Historians point to the 16th century and a chef, a man known as Panterelli, whom Catherine de Medici had brought with her to France, as the inventor of the first chouquette.
Panterelli had crafted an unusual dough that consisted of flour, water, eggs and butter. Although it lacked such leavening agents as yeast, baking powder or baking soda, the dough still rose in a hot oven. This resulted from its high moisture content, which, when heated, produced steam that, in turn, caused the pastry to swell. Note that his dough, or pâte, is not to be confused with puff pastry, which contains layers of buttery dough and, as a result, has a flaky texture.
In the 18th century, French bakers began shaping this pâte into tiny buns that, after baking, resembled little cabbages. The French word for “cabbage” is choux. Pair that with Panterelli’s pâte and you have the classic dough for chouquettes and assortment of other desserts, pâte a choux.
During the 19th century, the renowned Parisian chef Marie-Antoine Carême tweaked this recipe yet again. It is his take on pâte a choux that I enjoy today in my neighborhood chouquettes.
While I appreciate the convenience of walking a few blocks to fetch a bag of fresh chouquettes, I continue to bake my own, too. Quick and simple to make, they always dazzle my friends and family. Then again, who wouldn’t be impressed by a platter of homemade, pearl-sugar-studded French pastries?
A different kind of dough
Pâte a choux is the rare dough that is cooked before being baked. To make a batch of chouquettes, I first melt butter in a saucepan with water, sugar and salt. To this I add flour. I then stir the ingredients together until a soft, malleable dough forms. The eggs are the final addition to the saucepan and make the dough wet and a bit sticky. This moisture is what gives chouquettes their light consistency.
After being spooned onto parchment paper and decorated with pearl sugar, the chouquettes are baked until puffy and golden brown. If, after being removed from the oven, the pint-sized treats collapse, I just put them back in the hot oven for a few more minutes.
Because chouquettes are hollow inside, they can be filled with an array of ingredients, such as custard, chocolate or jam. I, however, am a purist and prefer to leave them as they are. I love them most when they’ve been adorned with those chunky, white sugar crystals and, if I’m feeling really adventurous, a smidgen of ground cinnamon.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Bake time: 20 to 25 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: 3 dozen
For the dough:
1 cup water
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
For the topping:
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon water
2/3 cup pearl sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
Place the water, sugar, salt and butter in a small saucepan and heat over medium. Stir the ingredients together until the butter has melted.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flour. Mix until a soft, malleable dough has formed.
Add the eggs one at a time, stirring briskly with each addition until the eggs are completely incorporated. When finished, the dough will be sticky.
Using a tablespoon or a small disher that holds roughly 1 tablespoon, scoop out and place equal portions of dough on the parchment-lined baking sheets. Leave about 1 inch between each chouquette.
In a small bowl whisk together the egg yolk and water. In another small bowl mix the pearl sugar with the ground cinnamon.
Brush the tops of the chouquettes with egg wash, then sprinkle cinnamon sugar over top of each.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the chouquettes are puffed up, golden brown and dry in appearance. Remove them from the oven and cool for 1 to 2 minutes before serving.
Note: When stored in an airtight container, chouquettes will keep for up to three days. However, they are best when consumed on the day they’re baked.
Main image: Cinnamon chouquettes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt
Yunnan may not be on most Western foodies’ radars, but for those in the know, it’s one of the most exciting food spots in the world.
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The province, which sits in a mountainous area that borders Tibet, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and the Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou and Sichuan, is the most biodiverse region in all of Asia. It’s also the most culturally diverse part of China.
For a quick tour of the region’s specialties, all you have to do is get to Kunming. The city is a lovely stop on any trip to China — it’s famous for its mild weather, its flowering trees and its laid-back way of life. A few meals in the city will give you a taste of all the best that Yunnan has to offer.
Here are seven particularly fascinating (and delicious) dishes to try when you get there:
Rice noodles are one of Kunming’s most popular foods — but you won’t find them in fancy restaurants. They are served at little hole-in-the-walls and streetside stands. The most popular are shaguo mixian, or “sandpot rice noodles.” These noodles are put into individually sized glazed clay bowls with stumpy handles, topped with broth, ground pork, pickled mustard greens and dried ground chile, and cooked on a high stove. The dish is often eaten right from the pot. Try them at the unnamed noodle spot on Jieshao Alley, just off Qingnian Road.
Yunnan produces 400 tons of mushrooms every year, and foragers crisscross the mountains looking for matsutakes, porcinis and summer truffles to sell to exporters. The most prized specimens end up in restaurants and stores in Japan, Korea and the United States, but much of the bounty is eaten right in Yunnan. Every restaurant in Kunming offers a few mushroom dishes, but the best way to try the local fungi is to head to one of the city’s mushroom hotpot restaurants. On Guanxing Lu, near Baohai Park, there are three to choose from in just two blocks: Laozihao Wild Mushroom Restaurant, Junshuyuan Wild Mushroom Restaurant, and Wild Mushroom Emperor.
China is not known as a good place to eat cheese. But cheese has a long history in Yunnan. Different minority groups around the province have long eaten grilled, stir-fried, and toasted cheeses. The most delicious version is grilled rubing, a type of firm cow’s milk cheese. You can find it at Lao Fangzi, where it is grilled with thin slices of local ham, and at 1910 La Gare du Sud, where it is served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into.
Han Chinese also shunned raw foods, but many raw dishes can be found in Yunnan. One of the most surprising and delicious dishes in Kunming is a simple salad of feathery chrysanthemum greens dressed simply with bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and some thinly sliced chiles. It can be found at any restaurant specializing in Yunnan specialties (including Lao Fangzi and 1910 La Gare du Sud).
Yunnan’s most famous minority cuisine comes from the Dai people who live along the province’s borders with Laos and Burma. The Dai are part of the same ethnic group that populated Laos and Thailand, and their food is reminiscent of those cuisines, with lots of fresh chiles, herbs and chile-based spice pastes. Perhaps the most representative Dai dish is “ghost chicken,” a bright combination of silky black-foot chicken, fresh chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. To try it — and other Dai specialties like pineapple sticky rice and vegetables grilled in banana leaves — head to Yinjiang Dai Restaurant, which has three branches in central Kunming.
If you’re looking for quick snack — or just an entirely new and delightful eating experience — try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” These “noodles” are actually a jello-like dish that is made like tofu but uses ground chickpeas instead of soybeans. The slick, cool jello is cut into cubes or sliced into thick “noodles,” and dressed with vinegar, soy sauce, ground dried chiles and fresh herbs. Sometimes it’s even topped with chopped nuts and a slice of freshly made tofu. The dish can be found all over the city, including at food stalls in Cui Hu Park.
Yiliang roast duck
Since the Qing Dynasty, the small town of Yiliang, just 90 minutes outside of Kunming, has been producing remarkably delicious roast duck. The recipe is based on Beijing’s famous method for roasting ducks until their skin is crisp and their meat is moist. But this version uses a local breed of ducks and roasts them over longs twists of pine needles, which gives the meat an exceptional flavor. If you’re heading out to the Stone Forest, a famous tourist spot, make sure to take the time to stop at Xue Cheng Restaurant.
Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand
In Cape Town, South Africa, Easter is all about chocolate eggs, hot cross buns and pickled fish, a local turmeric-hued, sweet and sour favorite, flavored with spices from the Cape of Good Hope’s Malay culinary heritage.
Although pickled fish is closely associated with Easter, the sweet and sour curried dish has little to do with the Christian holiday. Naturally preserved with vinegar, it’s a make-ahead dish that can span South Africa’s four-day Easter weekend, when no matter what your religion is, socializing and relaxing still reign supreme.
In South Africa, pickled fish is most closely linked with the Cape, where it’s on hand in many households as casual food for drop-in visitors and picnicking. Its spicy roots lie in the Cape’s Muslim population, whose ancestors were brought by the Dutch as slaves from the East Indies: from India, Indonesia and Malaya. As author and Cape Malay caterer Cass Abrahams says: “The slaves knew all about spices; and fish is also a big part of Cape culture.”
An Easter staple
In cuisines across the globe, pickling fish was a common and necessary practice before the advent of refrigeration, and each preparation reflected its cuisine’s unique set of ingredients. There are differing opinions about its South African genesis. The earliest written reference that cookbook author Jane-Ann Hobbs has seen comes from Lady Anne Barnard, the Cape’s “First Lady” in the late 1700s, who after visiting a local farm in 1798 wrote that she was served “fish of the nature of cod, pickled with Turmarick.”
While today it’s a much-loved national dish that is available even in upmarket supermarkets, pickled fish is generally homemade and an Easter staple, both for Muslims and Christians. Easter falls at a time of year when fish is both readily available and in great demand, with many Catholics eschewing meat during Lent.
The golden color of curried pickled fish is everywhere at the 150-year-strong Easter weekend gathering at Faure outside the city, where the annual Sheik Yusuf Kramat Festival takes place. Hundreds converge for the long weekend to camp, socialize and visit the shrine to the sheik, credited with establishing Islam in South Africa. While some cooking is done on site, most campers bring covered glass dishes of pickled fish. “We eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with bread thick with butter, rice or rotis,” says Cape Town resident and cook Zainap Masoet, who starts setting up camp at Faure for her extended family five days before the Easter weekend.
One method, many ingredients
As for its preparation, there’s little disagreement about the method, which involves browning fish seasoned with salt and pepper, then cooking onions with spices, before adding vinegar and a little sugar. The mixture is poured over the cooked fish and the dish is refrigerated for two days before eaten. Once pickled, it will last for days outside the refrigerator, say local cooks.
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On the other hand, there is definite banter about the ingredients. In her recipe, Abrahams uses snoek, a meaty and somewhat bony local fish, as does Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, whose aunt taught her how to make the dish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit, for the flavors to develop,” she says.
However, Cape Town tour guide Shireen Narkedien, who regularly takes visitors around the Bo-Kaap, the Cape’s historic Malay Quarter, says the traditional fish is yellowtail, which is what most older people still use. Narkedien only uses bay leaf, turmeric and curry powder and says that the onion should be cooked through and “not too oniony,” while Abrahams uses additional spices as well as garlic, and says the onions should still have some crunch.
The appeal of pickled fish lies as much in the generosity of spirit behind preparing a dish for unexpected visitors as much as it does in its sweet and sour spicy taste. “When I was a child, my mother used to always tell me: ‘You cook for the person who is coming,'” said Narkedien, who describes a time when doors were always open. “When I asked her who that was, she’d say, ‘I don’t know, but it will be someone.'”
Recipe adapted from “Cass Abrahams Cooks Cape Malay.” Used with permission of author.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 ¼ pounds snoek, firm-fleshed white fish or mahi mahi, cut into portions
2 large onions, sliced
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup vinegar
½ cup water
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon masala
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 bay leaves
4 cloves of whole allspice
¼ teaspoon peppercorns
Sugar to taste
1. Salt fish and fry in vegetable oil until cooked. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside in a separate bowl; retain oil.
2. Place the rest of the ingredients except sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn down heat and simmer until onions are transparent but haven’t lost their crunch.
3. Add sugar to taste and stir to dissolve. Pour warm sauce and oil over fish, making sure that each portion of fish is covered. Allow to cool and refrigerate.
4. Serve with fresh bread and butter.
Main photo: Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, with a dish of pickled fish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit for the flavors to develop,” she says. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone
Italian celebrations always involve food, and Easter is no different. The yeast bread cake, Colomba di Pasqua, shaped like a dove (colomba), is often at the table, but these days it is getting a modern twist.
Soft and fragrant, colomba is a generous cake with butter and eggs, filled with raisins and candied orange peel. Topping it off is an almond icing that is applied before baking, creating a sweet, crisp crust. Traditional colombas are baked in dove-shaped paper molds. The bread dough starts as a sponge that must rest overnight.
An offer of peace
The birth of the colomba dates back to 572, when King Alboin, after three years of siege, captured the town of Pavia in northern Italy on Easter Eve. Evading the guards, an old baker was able to reach the king and offer a dove-shaped bread. “Alboin,” he said, “I offer this symbol, as a tribute to peace, on Easter day.” The sweet scent and the convincing message persuaded the king to give a promise of peace. That’s the legend.
The dove we know today has a more recent origin and, I should say, a more prosaic version of the history. In the early 1930s the Milanese company Motta specialized in panettone, a cake produced only for Christmas. Unhappy to have their machinery unused for many months, Motta decided to package a similar product for the Easter holidays. The shape of the sweet dove, which represents peace, was a choice dictated not only by the symbolism but also to welcome the arrival of the spring.
New flavors, traditions
The new cake was (and still is) a huge success. It is typically soft, fragrant outside and moist inside, naturally leavened for a whole night, then filled with a mixture of flour, sugar, eggs and candied orange.
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Since its birth, the colomba was enriched by many variations and a variety of icings and fillings. I personally love the decadent Colomba al Cioccolato (coated and filled with dark chocolate) created by Loison, a bakery established in 1938 that adopted a process that lasts over three days in an effort to preserve the quality of the ingredients. The result is spongy, porous bread often combined with unexpected fillings, such as a delicious lemon cream, or a mix of nuts and peaches or small cubes of candied Ciaculli mandarin, protected by Slow Food.
Beyond the basic cake
Fraccaro Spumadoro makes other favorites of mine, including Colomba alle Bollicine Trevigiane, a treat stuffed with a cream made with Treviso sparkling white wine and elegantly topped with granulated sugar. Then there is Colomba al Pistacchio — the scent of its top-quality pistachios combined with a tasty white chocolate decorating glaze.
The colomba not only brings a message of peace but also a political statement at times, as in the case of the artisanal Colomba Arcobaleno (Rainbow Dove) made with Sicilian Avola almonds, Calabria cedro (a type of lemon), and kneaded with Vernaccia Mormoraia, a traditional white wine from San Gimignano, Tuscany. It has been created by the Italian sommelier Diana Zerilli, who supports gay rights in Italy.
Main photo: The classic Colomba di Pasqua by Loison. This dove-shaped cake is a wonderful addition to an Easter brunch or dinner. Credit: Copyright 2016 Cesare Zucca
Perhaps one of the most bizarre Easter traditions in Italy is a cheese-tossing contest called ruzzolone, which is popular in central Italy. A fun place to witness this sort of edible discus event is in the Umbrian hill town of Panicale, near Perugia.
A huge 10-pound wheel of hard aged pecorino cheese is hurled along a course in the center of town. Two teams, with four players each, compete to get the cheese around the course using the fewest number of throws. The players wrap a long cloth sling with a wooden handle around the cheese to help hurl it down the curving streets, across moats, and around spectators and vehicles. The winning team gets to keep the cheese. If the cheese breaks during the race, everyone shares it.
An ancient Italian tradition
The origins of this unusual contest are uncertain, but frescos have been found dating to Etruscan times that depict smiling shepherds rolling rounds of cheese down slopes, seemingly just for the fun of it.
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The game was well established by the Middle Ages, and over the years various laws were set in place: In 1598 a mayor from an Emilia-Romagna town placed betting limits to the current restriction of wagering no more than the value of the cheese being tossed, and in 1761, in response to complaints of the rowdiness of the game, a governor of that region limited the game to the period between Carnival and Easter.
Nowadays it’s back to a year-round game, as gradually over time, many towns replaced the cheese with a solid wooden wheel, allowing play even in summer, when the heat would have made the cheese too soft to toss.
If you visit Panicale on Easter Monday to witness this lively sport, be sure to stay until a winner is declared. You can then enjoy a free picnic lunch of local cheese and bread sandwiches offered in the town square. For dessert, enjoy pieces of chocolate from the gigantic 4-foot Easter egg that decorates the piazza.
Easter Pasta Pie
To create your own Easter Monday cheesy celebration, make pasta pie (crostata di tagliolini), a lovely make-ahead picnic dish traditionally eaten in Italy on Pasquetta, “Little Easter,” the day after Easter. Thin egg noodles are layered with cheese, ham and mushrooms with tiny peas scattered between the layers to add a green burst of flavor. It’s baked in the oven until beautifully golden, sliced like pie, and eaten at room temperature.
From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan
Prep time: 30 minutes
Bake time: 25 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
1 small onion, minced
2 ounces pancetta or prosciutto, minced
8 ounces baby peas
Salt and black pepper
3/4 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
7 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan
About 1/4 cup toasted bread crumbs
1 cup chicken or beef stock
1 pound tagliolini, thin egg noodles, preferably Felicetti brand
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk, warmed
About 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 pound burrata or mozzarella cheese, diced
8 ounces thinly sliced ham, cut into strips
1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a small frying pan over medium high heat. Cook the onion and pancetta until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the peas and a few tablespoons of water, and cook until the peas are tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, set aside in a bowl.
2. In the same pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over high heat. Cook the mushrooms and garlic a minute or two, until tender. Season with salt and pepper, set aside.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter an 8- to 9-inch nonstick spring-form pan and dust with bread crumbs.
4. In a small pot, simmer the stock until reduced by half.
5. In another small pot, make the béchamel. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat, stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until smooth. Add the warm milk, and bring to a boil, stirring until thick, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
6. Cook the pasta in salted, boiling water 3 minutes less than package directions. Drain and toss with the reduced stock.
7. Layer the bottom of the prepared baking pan with 1/3 of the pasta, pressed into a level layer. Dot with 1/3 of the béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of grated Parmesan, scatter on all the pea mixture, then scatter over 1/3 of the diced cheese. Spread out a second level layer of pasta, dot with 1/3 of the béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of Parmesan, and scatter on all the mushrooms and ham and remaining 2/3 of the diced cheese. Top with the remaining pasta and any unabsorbed remaining stock, pressing down to compact the layers. Dot with the remaining béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 tablespoons of Parmesan and 2 to 3 tablespoons of bread crumbs, and dot with 2 to 3 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter.
8. Bake for about 25 minutes until set and golden. Let rest to room temperature before slicing.
Main photo: A contestant prepares a cheese wheel for Panicale’s Easter Monday competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan
Havana is back in the news. For more than half a century, Cuba has been off limits to Americans. With the reopening of the American Embassy in August 2015, tourists are flocking to Havana. The city is bustling with new restaurants, hotels, clubs, bars and paladars, the uniquely Cuban restaurant created in a family’s home.
The paladar movement began after the Soviet Union stopped subsidizing Cuba in what is called the “Special Period,” when the economy suffered greatly. The government experimented with private enterprise and allowed a few private citizens to turn their homes into restaurants.
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In 1999, we ate at La Guarida, a paladar on the third floor of a dilapidated building with an auto repair shop on the bottom floor. Walking up the curved staircase, we passed tiny apartments, their doors open to allow for the circulation of air.
Made famous as the location for the classic Cuban film, “Strawberries and Chocolate” (“Fresa y chocolate”), La Guarida was a restaurant created inside a small apartment. Customers ate in what had been the living room. Another room had also been cleared of its furniture to make way for a dozen small tables and chairs. Plates of chicken with rice and vegetables were served, and I remember we were charged for bread. All in all, the food was good but not special except that by 1999-Havana-standards, the quality was very good.
Fast forward to 2015 and a return to La Guarida found the restaurant in the same peeling, dilapidated building. Cars were still parked inside the building on the ground floor and the restaurant was still reached by climbing up the broad staircase to the third floor.
But La Guarida no longer looked like a family’s apartment. The restaurant now takes up the entire floor with a large kitchen, sleek modern bathrooms and large, expansive rooms decorated with crystal chandeliers and quality paintings. Sitting in any of the dining rooms or the small bar, you could imagine you were in London or New York. The menu no longer has home-cooked favorites such as chicken with rice and vegetables. La Guarida’s fine-dining cuisine would be easily found in Paris or Berlin with prices to match.
Like La Guarida, many paladars no longer look like private homes. Paladar Vistamar is in an upscale neighborhood of 1950s modernist houses. Located on the second floor, the restaurant occupies what was once the living room and terrace. The dining areas are framed by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall on the ocean-facing side of the building. Eat outside on the covered terrace and you will have the best view of the ocean and the pool below.
When we had lunch on a sunny, clear day, the ocean still churned from a storm that had passed over the island the night before. Waves crashed against a concrete retaining wall and swept across the pool.
Pork, chicken and rabbit were on the menu, but given the proximity to the ocean, we chose seafood. A red snapper ceviche was fresh and bright. A green salad with freshly cooked shrimp and lobster was beautifully presented, although foreigners were advised to avoid eating leafy greens because of problems with the quality of the water. On the advice of the waitress, we ordered sides of the delicious, soupy black beans and steamed rice or as they are called here Moors and Christians (“moros y cristianos”). To finish the meal, a light flan with fresh fruit was served as dessert along with cups of Cuban espresso.
For Americans, a stay in Havana always involves conversations about the current state of relations between the two countries and what will happen when the embargo ends.
Walking around the tourist areas of Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), you might be tempted to believe that Cuba has returned to a capitalist culture. That would be a mistake. Havana is a city living in two worlds. In the tourist sections of the city, capitalist-socialism is very much in evidence. Wide boulevards have been recently paved. Hotels are being constructed within sight of José Martí Square in Old Havana.
The other Havana is a few blocks from the neighborhoods visited by foreigners. On those streets, the pavement is potholed and the buildings are in a state of decay. Of course there are beautiful suburbs outside of the Old City and Central Havana. But most of Havana suffers from the effects of poverty and the consequences of the embargo.
Part of a larger complex, El Cocinero is next door to one of Havana’s cultural sensations, Fábrica de Cubano Arte, known locally as F.A.C. or Fábrica. An artist collective originally subsidized by the Cuban government, Fábrica is the ultimate hyphenate. Café, art gallery, screening room, lecture space, dance hall and bar, the expansive former peanut oil factory has dozens of rooms that are filled every night by hundreds of young Cubans. When you visit El Cocinero and after you have eaten and enjoyed one of their delicious, light-as-air piña coladas, definitely follow the music to Fábrica where you can dance until 3:00 a.m.
Since the “Special Period,” paladars have blossomed into a subculture and have transformed the Havana culinary scene. Now the paladar is an iconic feature of the new Havana as much as the 1950s American cars that are everywhere in the city. As you make a shortlist of paladars you must visit on your trip to Havana, Ivan Chef Justo deserves to be at the top of your list along with La Guarida. The handiwork of two chefs who used to cook for Fidel Castro, Ivan Chef Justo is a soulfully curated vision of a traditional paladar. Family photographs line the walls along with portraits of 1950s Hollywood celebrities. Relying on small private farms for their ingredients, Ivan Chef Justo, like many paladars, is pursuing a farm-to-table program long popular in the United States but new in Cuba.
When we ate at Ivan Chef Justo, we were part of a large party. We were served family style with large platters filling the center of the table. Lobster stew with carrots, mashed yucca, Moors and Christians, roast chicken and, my favorite, roast pork with crispy lacquered skin, were eaten with relish.
During our week-long stay in Havana, we ate most of our meals in paladars. Talking with other travelers, we heard about their favorite paladars and we told them about ours. If you have friends traveling to Cuba, ask them which paladars they enjoyed and check La Habana online (www.lahabana.com). Because the more popular paladars are booked months in advance, email the hotel concierge to request reservations so you don’t miss out. And bring a lot of American dollars to exchange for the local currency called C.U.C.s (“cukes”) because, as of this writing, American and European credit cards are not accepted inside Cuba.
Paladars of Havana:
- El Cocinero Paladar (Calle 26, Vedado, between Calle 11 and 13, +53 7 832 2355)
- Fábrica de Cubano Arte (Calle 26, between Calles 11 and 13, Equina 11, Vedado, +53 7 838-2260)
- Ivan Chef Justo (Aguacate 9, Esquina Chacon, close to the Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana, +53 7 863-9697 and +53 5 343-8540)
- La Guarida (Concordia. No. 418, between Gervasio and Escobar, +53 7 8669047)
- Paladar Vistamar (Avenida 1, 2206, between Calles 22 and 24, Miramar, +53 7 203 8328)
- Rio Mar (Aveneda 3rd and Final # 11, La Puntilla, Miramar, +53 7 209 4838)
Main photo: Red snapper ceviche at Paladar Vistamar. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
South Africa’s potjie — the country’s iconic three-legged cast iron pot and culinary workhorse — is a centuries-old piece of cooking equipment experiencing a contemporary revival now in its fourth decade.
In recent years, the potjie has almost taken on the power of a magic cauldron in South African society: It’s the place in which a hearty one-pot meal (called potjiekos) is cooked over an outdoor fire and over which people of all backgrounds enjoy being together outdoors. Yet while potjiekos is today a beloved ritual that even inspires contemporary chefs, for generations it was significantly overlooked.
Iron pots a tradition
Outdoor cooking was a tradition in South Africa before colonial times, with the country’s indigenous people cooking in clay pots over open fires. According to author and potjie expert Dine van Zyl, “The Dutch settlers brought iron pots to South Africa from Europe, where they had been hung from hooks over fireplaces. These Afrikaners hung the pots from their wagons when they trekked … the potjie was their whole kitchen. When they camped, they’d make a fire and cook whatever they had; some salted meat and maybe some dried apricots. They’d also use what was available … seafood if near the coast, or game if they were in the interior.”
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Everything changed with the advent of the stove, about 100 years ago. “People could easily cook in their kitchens and no longer needed potjies. The pot was used only nostalgically, on hunting, fishing or camping trips, or it sat on a front stoep (veranda), planted with a geranium.”
Then, in the ’80s, Van Zyl had an aha moment. While living on a farm without electricity, she was forced to turn to a potjie pot over an indoor fireplace. One night, friends joined her and they made a potjie outside. “I looked at my friends singing, dancing and cooking under the stars and I realized that potjiekos gives South Africans exactly what they want and need. It’s much more than cooking,” she said. “If you want to only cook, you do it on the stove.”
Van Zyl wrote the first book on potjiekos in 1983, which led to a popular revival that hasn’t stopped. “One wonderful thing about potjies is that they got men cooking. For the first time ever, men and women sat around the fire together, cutting up the meat and the vegetables.”
A potjie is traditionally made with tough cuts of meat, often lamb or beef neck or shin, or oxtail. The meat is seared first in the hot pot, then onions and spices, followed by a small amount of liquid are added. Then the layering up begins: first the hard vegetables like carrots and potatoes, then those requiring less cooking time, like green beans and cabbage — all vegetables that have been collectively cut up around the fire. The lid goes on and the pot simmers and steams unstirred for several hours, while everybody socializes.
As for the no-stirring rule, Van Zyl says it’s a tradition based on sensible cooking. “While the different components should all be perfectly cooked, which is why it’s layered, it’s nonsense that it must look like a cassata,” she said. “While you don’t mix it, toward the end you can ‘pull it through’ — place your spoon at the bottom of the pot and gently lift some of the meat and gravy to the top. Otherwise it becomes a mess when people start digging.”
Tradition gets a modern twist
Now, the tradition is fueling one of South Africa’s hottest chefs. In his mid-30s, Bertus Basson is chef patron of acclaimed Overture Restaurant in the Cape Winelands. His tasting menus are sophisticated and distinctly modern South African, rooted in local flavors and sensibility. While Overture and a second restaurant, Bertus Basson at Spice Route, are indoor kitchens, Basson’s creativity is stoked by outdoor fire and smoke. He often hits the road with outdoor pop-ups, and he is a regular judge on The Ultimate Braai Master, a grueling 60-day outdoor cooking reality TV show going into its fifth season.
Which is why it’s not surprising that potjie will soon be on Basson’s menu. When an easy dining annex to Overture is completed, it will feature open pit cooking with an installation of potjie pots. Basson is also hitting the festival circuit with a mobile spit fitted with potjie hooks.
“I grew up with potjies. My favorite was my father’s lamb shin pot braised in a little Worcestershire sauce and beer,” Basson said. He is quick to point out that when talking potjies, the layering method is the traditional Afrikaner way; it’s only one way to use a potjie pot. “South Africans of all backgrounds are cooking with potjie pots, whether Afrikaans, black African, or other, and what they cook and how they cook it differs. In addition, there are three-legged pots and also flat-bottomed pots, which are used for baking — my mom makes a kick-ass apple tart in hers. Potjies have survived generations. In fact, it’s traditional to pass on the pots, which just get better with age.”
In a country with a history of division, shared traditions are important. “Chefs have a responsibility to help South Africans celebrate our food and what we are, which can ultimately break down barriers,” said Basson.
Main photo: A traditional potjie is made with tough cuts of meat, then layered with hard vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone
“Where are the vineyards?” I wondered aloud on a recent visit to Madeira, the small volcanic island belonging to Portugal, perched out in the Atlantic, about 400 miles off the coast of Morocco.
Wine has been the principal product of the island for more than 400 years. Its fame is such that you might reasonably expect on arrival to be greeted with wave upon wave of vitis vinifera, rather as you do when traveling through France’s Champagne region. On the contrary, what you mostly see planted on poios, centuries-old terraces stacked steeply up from the island’s coastal fringe, are verdant banana palms, their floppy green leaves rattled by the frequent winds that gust in off the Atlantic.
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I did eventually spot some vines. The holdings are tiny and widely scattered, hanging on for dear life and threatened both by the bananas and the newly built houses and apartments that increasingly encroach on the available space. Trained in the traditional manner over wooden pergolas, the vines often have a crop of potatoes, cabbages, zucchini and beans planted at their feet to make full use of the scarce — and exceedingly fertile — ground.
Despite the near invisibility of its vineyards, Madeira’s wine remains one of the world’s leading fortified wines. Once highly fashionable and sought after, it was reputed to be George Washington’s favored tipple and was served at his presidential inauguration. The term “fortified” means the wine is bolstered by adding grape spirit, which raises its alcohol content (typically to 19% in the case of Madeira, as opposed to the usual 12% to 14% range for table wines), as well as giving it a longer life. Port, that other celebrated Portuguese fortified wine, gets a shot of grape spirit too, but there the similarity ends, because the grape varieties involved and — above all — the process employed in making Madeira differ in significant ways from those used in Port production.
A happy accident
The wine starts out life in the usual way, with the grapes picked in late summer, then crushed and fermented, and grape spirit added to arrest fermentation — so far, so familiar. From here, things start to get interesting. During its long journey to maturity, Madeira is exposed to the unlikely twin enemies of heat and air, to emerge not only unspoiled but with extraordinary added layers of flavor and complexity. As Richard Mayson puts it in his recently published book “Madeira: the Islands and Their Wines,” “Heat and air, both the sworn enemies of most wines and winemakers, conspire to turn madeira into one of the most enthralling of the world’s wines, as well as one of its most resilient.”
The discovery that wine could be heated and come to no harm — and even improved by it — was a happy accident. The island has always been strategically important for trans-Atlantic shipping, and over the centuries, countless vessels have paused here to restock with provisions before the long sea journey from Europe across the Atlantic to the Americas and beyond. Provisions always included casks of wine, which by the nature of things were exposed on board to great heat. When the ships berthed and the wine was found to be perfectly good — even better than when it departed — the shippers set about reproducing the same conditions in their cellars back home, placing the huge, wooden wine casks on the upper floors of their wineries to bask in the summer heat.
Worth the expense
Nowadays, a faster (and cheaper) way to reproduce this step is to heat the wine artificially in large containers called estufas, but the finest Madeiras are still aged in wooden casks, heated only by the island’s year-round sunshine. This process, called the canteiro method, is lengthier and more gentle and gives the wines their characteristic, slightly caramelized, faintly smoky aromas with exotic hints of honey and dried fruits.
A premium bottle of Madeira is always expensive, because of the time and skill needed to nurse it to perfection. One consolation — and a considerable selling point — is that once the wines have survived the rigors of heating and oxidation, they are good to go for up to 100 years. Blandy’s, one of the top Madeira producers based in the capital, Funchal, still has a barrel of 1920 wine stored in its cellar, awaiting its moment.
Once bottled, Madeira can be opened and sampled, the cork replaced and the bottle stored upright in a dark place for weeks or months without the contents coming to any harm. “If ever there was a wine to take away with you to a desert island,” comments Mayson, “this is it.”
Today, the chief market for Madeira is France, followed by the island of Madeira itself. Portugal, surprisingly, consumes little Madeira, but the UK remains a big fan, with Japan, Germany and the U.S. not far behind. Check www.winesearcher.com for your nearest supplier.
Main photo: A tasting of Blandy’s Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style