Articles in History

Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

In Belgium, beer is the beverage of choice, while mead, an ancient alcoholic drink, is virtually unknown. But a young Belgian beekeeper, Xavier Rennotte, has given mead a makeover with the recent launch of his own brand, Bee Wine.

With roots in historic recipes and “Beowulf,” the real magic behind Bee Wine’s freshly minted flavor comes from Rennotte’s collaboration with a Belgian scientist. Mead is nothing more than honey, water and yeast, although spices and fruit are sometimes added for flavor. It’s not wine, although it tastes like it.

When I first encountered Rennotte some years ago, he had just met Sonia Collin, an expert in brewing and honey at Louvain University. I asked him then why he had turned to science for help. He explained it was his godfather who had made the suggestion: “Learn from the beginning, the scientific way. The best way to understand something is to go deep inside it,” he had told Rennotte.


But why mead? It turned out Rennotte was obsessed with recreating the flavor of his first boyhood taste of mead, known as hydromel (“honey water”) in French. In other words, he was using science to track down a fleeting, Proustian taste from his childhood in the Belgian countryside.

Rennotte’s story lies at the heart of a book I wrote to explore our mostly pleasurable relationship with flavor, and the science behind it. I caught up with him recently at a food festival in the Parc Royal in Brussels. A crowd was gathered in front of his Nectar & Co stand to sample his Bee Wine.

Many people were mystified — was it wine or not? He happily explained its origins, as he offered tastings. Most people were delighted with the flavor. “It makes a great aperitif, or can be used as an ingredient in a cocktail,” Rennotte said. He’s also a trained chef, and loves using it as a marinade for lamb or fish, or as a dessert ingredient. “It’s great in sabayon,” he noted.

People were also sampling about a dozen types of organic honey with different flavors, aromas, textures and colors that Rennotte imports from around Europe for his Bee Honey collection. They include lemon blossom, wild carrot, eucalyptus and coriander. My favorite is the sunflower honey — thick as molasses, butter yellow and delicious on Le Pain Quotidien sourdough bread. One of his best-sellers is a spreadable paste made of just honey and pureed hazelnut. It tastes like Nutella, but with no added sugar or oil.

Rennotte isn’t the only novice alcoholic beverage entrepreneur who has turned to science for help and inspiration. One of the recipes in my book is for sabayon made with Musa Lova, a banana liqueur produced by a Flemish restaurateur. The liqueur is made in collaboration with the director of the largest in vitro banana species collection in the world, at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Leuven University. Musa Lova, a rum-based liqueur that comes in varieties such coffee or local honey, is made with ordinary Cavendish bananas, without added flavoring. Bananas contain a huge number of flavor molecules, which vary slightly depending on the ripeness.

Author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

“A Taste of Molecules” author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

Science not only helps alcoholic beverage makers, the producers influence science too. During my research in Copenhagen, for example, I discovered that the pH scale, used in medicine, agriculture and food science, was developed at the Carlsberg brewing company’s laboratory in 1909.

Rennotte’s hydromel is made from organic orange blossom honey from the Mount Etna area of Sicily, organic German yeast and spring water. His meadery, south of Brussels, is a former slaughterhouse that he refurbished with solar panels and a system to reuse the water that cools the fermentation tanks.


The first time I tasted Rennotte’s mead was at his wife’s bakery-patisserie Au Vatel in the European Quarter, where we met often to talk about his search for the perfect mead. The early sample I tasted, which he had poured straight from a plastic lab bottle into a wine glass, was clear, young but tasty. The honey-tinted final product I drank at the food festival was light and sweet with a complex flavor that, one customer noted, develops and changes slightly with every sip.

“I couldn’t have done it without science,” Rennotte said. “I learned how the yeast functions, the importance of the pH of the honey and the temperature of the water — I learned it all from Sonia.”

Rennotte is incredibly proud and happy with his hydromel. But did he manage to capture the flavor he remembered from childhood? “I’m still searching,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll be looking for it for the rest of my life.”

Crumble of Christmas Boudin Sausage With Mead Sauce

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes (plus chilling)

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

For the boudin mixture:

1/3 pound white boudin with pecans

1/4 pound black boudin with raisins

A “knob” of butter (roughly 2 tablespoons)

For the apple compote:

2 cooking apples

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

For the mead sauce:

2 cups veal stock

1 1/4 cups mead

Salt and pepper to taste

For the topping:

2 ounces Speculoos (classic Belgian spice cookies)

Directions

1. Prepare the compote the day before or in the morning, so that it can be well chilled before serving. Peel and cut the apples into chunks. Cook the apples in the water on high heat. After 5 minutes, mash the apples, drain off any excess water and add the sugar. Chill.

2. Before serving, remove the skin of the sausages and place the meat in a mixing bowl. Mash the sausage meat with a fork. Cook the sausage meat in the butter in a nonstick pan on high heat. Remove when the meat is browned and keep warm.

3. To create the mead sauce, combine the veal stock and the mead in a saucepan, simmer and reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.

4. Prepare the Speculoos cookies by breaking them into small pieces.

5. When serving use 4 balloon-type wine glasses to layer the ingredients in the following order:

  • 2 tablespoons warm sausage meat
  • 1 tablespoon mead sauce
  • 2 tablespoons cold compote
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled Speculoos cookies

Notes
This is one of Xavier Rennotte’s favorite mead recipes, a starter or amuse-bouche based on boudin (blood sausage) from the southern, Francophone region of Belgium. During Christmastime in Wallonia, butcher shops’ windows are overflowing with boudin made with a variety of ingredients, such as raisins, apples, walnuts, leeks, pumpkin, truffles and Port. Each butcher competes to offer his or her clients a selection of sweet and savory boudin sausage.

Main photo: Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the  launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

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An Indonesion delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch

One major takeaway from Terra Madre 2014 was that that despite the unique culture and traditions that exist within indigenous communities across the world, we are all united by an undeniable web of interconnectedness.

Over and over again during the five-day event, you could see people bridging gaps and forging relationships over the ties that bind us, namely food and how it shapes communities and cultures.

Turin, Italy, was the site in late October of Slow Food’s Terra Madre, a biennial, global event. With a focus on indigenous communities and farmers, some 158 global food communities gathered to exchange ideas on sustainable agriculture, fishing and breeding with the goal of preserving taste and biodiversity.

It was powerful to witness this discovery of interconnectedness that exists despite the distances that separate various indigenous communities. Norman Chibememe, a farmer from Zimbabwe, said that before coming to Terra Madre he thought he was alone in the challenges he regularly encounters at home. “I’ve learned from my new friends from half way around the world that they, too, are working with the same challenges. I am going home with some new ideas of how to change things in my community,” Chibememe said.

Terra Madre unites people from across the globe

During workshops in the Indigenous Terra Madre salon and conversations at country stalls, people from indigenous communities engaged with each other and the public through a vibrant exchange of stories about the problems they face in their respective countries. A French couple I spoke with came to Terra Madre specifically to speak with delegates from African countries confronting security or health challenges. Unable to travel themselves to all the countries affected, Terra Madre gave them the opportunity to get an insider’s view on how food issues are affected by such conditions.

Participants were also surprised to discover non-food cultural similarities despite living on different continents. A Moroccan woman who produces argan oil stopped two young Sami women who had just arrived from their home in the Arctic to share her astonishment how certain elements of their traditional dresses were like those of the Amazigh people, also known as Berbers, of North Africa. From the color of their clothes to the threading used to the geometric patterns on their ankle coverings being identical to those used in making traditional Amazigh rugs, the similarities were striking.

This was the fifth visit to Terra Madre for Susana Martinez, a yacón farmer from Argentina who is proud to share her knowledge of this crisp, sweet-tasting tuber, also called a Peruvian ground apple, with those outside of Argentina. A farmer from Venezuela whose community has virtually lost all knowledge of how to work with yacón met Martinez and invited her to his region to teach younger farmers how to grow and process the plant. Shea Belahi, a farmer from Illinois who is looking for new crops to grow on her farm and is intrigued about the properties of yacón — it has low sugar levels, making it suitable for diabetics — discussed the growing conditions needed for yacon with Martinez. As she walked away, Martinez said these interactions are the magic of Terra Madre. They “help me in knowing that someone else cares about what I do,” she said.

The wealth of knowledge and the challenges faced by indigenous communities and global farmers, such as climate change, land-grabbing and resource management, were at the forefront of the five-day event and provided visitors the opportunity to gain new perspectives on issues concerning indigenous people around the world.

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The Northeast Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) booth serves as a part of the Indian Slow Food Delegation. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Phrang Roy, director of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, or NESFAS, discussed the need for a more inclusive approach that treats the custodians of traditional knowledge and modern-day researchers as equal and diverse knowledge holders. He said more than 350 million indigenous people populate the globe — a greater number than the population of Europe — and they form “a community of people connected to the land, with their own systems of connecting to nature. Basically, they are all agronomists.”

He announced that NESFAS, in partnership with Slow Food and the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, would be hosting the second Indigenous Terra Madre 2015 next fall in Megahalaya in northeast India, a region on the border of Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Under the theme of “The Future We Want: Indigenous Perspectives, Indigenous Activities,” the event plans to bring together representatives from more than 300 indigenous communities to showcase indigenous knowledge of local food systems and preserve biodiversity within their regions and discuss how to bring their knowledge and vision of food production into modern times.

The infectious energy, friendships and networks developed by the indigenous people and farmers at Terra Madre 2014 demonstrate there is an appetite for change growing among these communities and a global momentum to safeguard their wealth of diverse flavors and cultural knowledge to create a better world.

Main photo: An Indonesian delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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In this risotto, the radicchio's bitterness balances the sweetness of the pumpkin (or squash). Credit: Aya Brackett

One of the reasons I enjoy writing books is that with each one I discover new facts, research and ideas. My latest book “Bitter” opened my eyes to the complexity of taste.

It began when my friends in the food world sent me suggestions as to what to include in my book. Coffee, chicories and beer were already on my list. But sorrel and rhubarb — weren’t they sour? Why did these food experts taste them differently than I?

We all think of basic tastes, such as bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and savory (also called umami). I knew fat belonged on that list and it has recently been added. But did you ever wonder why there were only six basic tastes? Surely taste is much more nuanced than that.


In the ancient world, scholars believed there were up to eight tastes and, by the 18th century, 11 basic tastes were proposed. So exactly how do we determine taste? Like most people, I thought the information from our taste buds on our tongue combined with our sense of smell to make a flavor. We’ve all experienced the lack of flavor in our food when we have a head cold. We do taste this way, but it is only part of the story.

Taste buds are not confined to our tongues. They are located all through our body, in our throat — down a shot of extra virgin olive oil and you’ll find those, in our lungs, stomach, intestines and, for some of us, in our testicles. So taste is not simply reliant on our tongue and nose; all our senses play a role.

Consider touch. Our fingers, lips, teeth, mouth; they all connect to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. It is responsible for the ice cream headache. Called the somatosensory system, these sensors help us taste by detecting temperature, texture, fattiness, pungency and tannins. The brain uses this information to create flavor. Interestingly many chefs have above average trigeminal nerve responses.

What we hear also affects how we taste. While extraneous sound distracts us and reduces the taste of our food, the noise inside our head increases it and the pleasure of eating. Crunchy, crisp foods are appealing because of the noise they make. Would you like a potato chip if it didn’t make a crunching sound? When we eat and drink, the tone of the background music and the instrument playing it can distort our sense of taste. A Campari and soda drunk while a brass band plays low-pitched music will be more bitter than if consumed while bright, high-pitched piece of music is played on a piano.

The most surprising fact I uncovered was the power of sight. It is often said we eat with our eyes, but I’d never comprehended the dominant role sight plays in what we taste. It is so forceful that it can distort and even override the information we receive from our other senses. As more than half of our brain is devoted to processing visual information, it must take shortcuts to handle all this data quickly.

Author Jennifer McLagan says taste is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Credit: Aya Brackett

Author Jennifer McLagan says taste is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Credit: Aya Brackett

With food our brain uses color to create flavor expectations, and the color of a food can confuse us and mask its real taste. British chef  Heston Blumenthal’s two-toned orange and beetroot jelly demonstrates this power of color to determine taste. Not until diners close their eyes do they realize that the orange jelly they are eating is made with orange beets and the dark red jelly is flavored with blood oranges. Eating with our eyes takes on a whole new meaning when we realize we cannot trust them.


Along with the sensory clues our brain employs to generate flavor, a number of other things influence its decisions. Our genes make some of us more sensitive to certain tastes. What our mother ate when she was pregnant shapes our likes and dislikes, our upbringing and our peers decide what we eat and don’t eat. Anything we have heard, or read about the food will prejudice us too. Even the shape of our plate, what it’s made from, and the cutlery we use —  all subtly affect how we taste. We all have the same anatomy yet every time we eat, numerous forces come into play, placing each of us in our own individual taste world.

Taste, I discovered is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Flavor is produced by our brain, which is swayed by a myriad of cultural, environmental, experiential and genetic factors that can be as important as our senses in discerning flavor. Many of them we are barely aware of and are only beginning to understand and study. Next time you eat, pay close attention and think very carefully about what is influencing the flavor of the food on your plate.

Radicchio and Pumpkin Risotto

Prep time: 10 minute
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 1⁄2 cups (625 milliliters) of chicken stock, preferably homemade

¼ cup (2 ounces) (60 grams) unsalted butter

1 shallot, finely chopped

6 ounces (170 grams) pumpkin, cut into 1⁄2-inch (1 centimeter) dice, about 1¼ cups

Sea salt

5 1/4 ounces (150 grams) radicchio leaves, rinsed and trimmed

1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) (100 grams) risotto rice (Vialone nano, Arborio, or Carnaroli)

2 tablespoons white wine or dry vermouth

Freshly ground black pepper

Parmesan cheese

Directions
1. Pour the stock into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat so the stock barely simmers.

2. In another saucepan, melt half the butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until translucent. Add the diced pumpkin and stir to coat the pieces with the butter. Season with salt, and cook until the pumpkin starts to soften slightly at the edges, about 5 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, cut the radicchio leaves in half lengthwise, then crosswise into ¼-inch (6-mm) strips. You should have about 4 cups.

4. Add the rice to the pan, stirring to warm the grains and coat them in butter. Stir in the radicchio and continue stirring until it wilts and changes color. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring until it evaporates; season with black pepper. Now add a ladleful of hot stock and keep stirring the simmering rice constantly until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Continue adding the stock, one ladleful at a time, when the previous liquid is almost completely absorbed.

5. After 20 to 25 minutes, the pumpkin should be cooked and the rice should be creamy and cooked but still slightly al dente. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let sit for 2 minutes. Check the seasoning, stir in the remaining half of the butter, and serve in warm bowls. Grate Parmesan over the top.

Notes
I love the winey hue that radicchio gives the rice in this dish, and the way its bitterness balances the pumpkin’s sweetness. Now I know that using the word pumpkin reveals my birthplace, but I just can’t get my head around “squash.” However, so I don’t confuse you, use a firm, dry pumpkin (or squash) such as Hubbard or kabocha, which has a mild chestnut flavor.
I prefer to make risotto in small batches. This will stretch to serve four as a starter, depending on the rest of your meal; you can also double the recipe. Do use homemade stock, as it will make all the difference to the final result. You could also use a well-flavored vegetable stock to make this dish vegetarian. You’ll probably only need 2 cups (500 ml) of
the stock, but it will depend on your rice, so it is better to have a little extra just in case.

Caramelizing the sprouts in oil eases their bitterness, as does the addition of the starchy chickpeas. Credit: Aya Brackett

Rony’s Brussels Sprouts and Chickpeas

Prep time: 1 hour advance prep (unless using canned chickpeas, then 10 minutes)

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

 

Ingredients
1 cup (6 1/4 ounces)  (180 g) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover

Sea salt

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

1 shallot, finely chopped

3/4 cup (175 milliliters) chicken stock, preferably homemade

17 1/2 ounces (500 grams) Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 tablespoons dry sherry

Directions
1. Drain the chickpeas and place in a saucepan. Cover them with cold water by 2 inches (5 cm) and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until cooked. This can take from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on the age of the peas, so you need to keep an eye on them. Check them at 30 minutes. When they are cooked, remove from the heat, uncover, stir in 1 teaspoon of salt, and leave to cool for 30 minutes. Drain the cooked peas and spread them out on a baking sheet lined with a towel to dry.

2. Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a large heavy frying pan with a lid, and place over medium heat. When hot, add the shallot and cook until soft. Add the chickpeas, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until lightly browned. Add ¼ cup (60 milliliters) of the chicken stock and bring to a boil, stirring to deglaze the pan by scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Tip the contents of the pan into a bowl.

3. Wipe out the pan and then add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Place over high heat, and when hot add the brussels sprouts. Try and get as many of the sprouts cut side down as you can; this will depend on the size of your pan. Cook the sprouts until dark brown on one side, then add the remaining chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, lower the heat, cover, and cook until the brussels sprouts are tender but still crisp.

4. Add the chickpeas, shallots, and any liquid and cook until warmed through. Check the seasoning and pour in the sherry. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Notes
My friend Rony loves food and is a good cook. When I visited him in New York he made brussels sprouts for dinner. It was before my conversion and I was not that keen to try them, but being well brought up I did. They were delicious. Caramelizing the sprouts in the oil eases their bitterness, as does the addition of the starchy chickpeas. There are two keys to this recipe: Cook your own chickpeas — they are superior to the canned ones — and cook the brussels sprouts in a very hot pan — as Rony said, “They should dance around in the pan.”

Main photo: In this risotto, the radicchio’s bitterness balances the sweetness of the pumpkin (or squash if you’re not from Australia). Credit: Aya Brackett

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Qara bi’l-tahina (pumpkin purée with sesame seed paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

In the Middle East food is shared and one place it is shared is on the meze table. Meze are small samplings of prepared dishes that make a meal. They are not appetizers, nor tapas, nor hors d’oeuvres but are actually more philosophically related to the Scandinavian smorgasbord.

Food is shared in another way. The food of the Levant, meaning the food eaten between the Turkish-Syrian border all the way to Egypt, is the same food eaten by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. One can’t really say there is Muslim food, Christian food and Jewish food, but there are certain foods that are typical for those communities centered around holidays such as Ramadan, Christmas, and Yom Kippur, for example, but the foods are not unique to those cultures because everyone eats them.

One very typical, almost obligatory, meze dish is hummus. Hummus means chickpea and does not mean dip. The proper name of the preparation called hummus is hummus bi’l-tahina, chickpeas with sesame seed paste.

One delightful variation of this dip is made with pumpkin, all the more appropriate this time of year when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. All the more so if we reflect on how much we can be thankful for especially at a time when the Middle East seems to be disintegrating into a frenzy of blood-letting. At a time when all religious communities, be they Jewish, Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi, Alawite, or Kurdish Muslim, are threatened in the Middle East and the stories from those lands are nothing but sadness, it behooves us to remember the rich contribution and integral role played by all these people who once –it is hard believe given the modern headlines — lived together. If there is one thing they all shared it was surely food.

And a dip is a food that is shared. Please don’t call it pumpkin hummus. It’s called qara bi’l-tahina and that means pumpkin with sesame seed paste.

This will be one of many dishes on the menu of a series of communal dinners arranged by Clockshop, a nonprofit arts and culture organization based in Los Angeles. The event will take place over three weekends in November, beginning Nov. 8 to celebrate what they call the Arab-Jewish diaspora. The meals will feature the culinary traditions, music and culture of this diaspora. If you live in the Los Angeles area you can check them out by RSVP.

Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste)

Yield:  6 servings
Prep time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Ingredients

5 pounds pumpkin flesh, cubed

1/2 cup tahina

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed in a mortar with 2 teaspoons salt until mushy

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

Seeds from 1/2 a pomegranate

Directions

1. Place the pumpkin slices in a saucepan and cover with water. Turn the heat on and bring to a gentle boil and cook until soft, about 40 minutes. Drain well and pass through a food mill. Return the pumpkin to the saucepan and cook over a medium-high heat until all the liquid is nearly evaporated, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and run until creamy. Transfer to a mixing bowl

2. Stir the tahina paste into the pumpkin and mix well. Stir in the garlic mixture and lemon juice. Mix well and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish the pumpkin mixture with parsley, some olive oil, and cumin. Decorate the outside edges of the platter with the pomegranate seeds and serve with Arab flatbread to scoop up the dip.

Main photo: Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Smiling sugar skulls are a mainstay of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations on Nov. 1 and 2.

Many cultures around the world honor departed ancestors with holidays each year. Some feature altars. Some burn incense. But feasting is the common thread that runs through many of the celebrations.

The dead are part of that — with food offerings left in their honor.

In Mexico’s two-day Day of the Dead celebration — el Día de los Muertos — Nov. 1 celebrates the lives of departed infants and children. Nov. 2 honors those who died as adults. On both days, families provide the favorite food and drink of the departed.

In China, families set out plates of food during for their ancestors at the Hungry Ghost Festival. An empty place at the dinner table is sometimes left for an ancestor to join in the feast.

The Hungry Ghost Festival, which is thousands of years old, is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Chinese families place ancestral artifacts on a table, burn incense and display photographs of the dead.

Remembering the dead with food, flowers and festive décor

Mexico’s tradition also features colorful altars to honor ancestors.

MexicanSugarSkull.com offers this detail on the offerings — ofrendas — that families set out on their Day of the Dead altars:

“They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil and bright red cock’s combs), mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.

 

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death -- with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death — with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is believed to trace its origins to pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

Not just a Mexican holiday anymore

Today, Day of the Dead has grown in popularity far behind the borders of Mexico and Latin America. The traditional observance from central and southern Mexico can now be seen in Día de los Muertos imagery and art around the world.

You can purchase just about anything you need for your own Day of the Dead celebration. From sugar skull molds to authentic Mexican Día de los Muertos folk art pieces, which are sometimes used as an altar decoration by celebrants.  The happy skeletons are shown doing many different things, from cooking to selling wares at the market. There are even skeleton mariachi bands. Families will purchase the colorful skeletons that depict activities their departed family member enjoyed in life.

Creating Mexican calaveras - the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations - is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters get as much joy out of decorating the skulls as their parents do.

Creating Mexican calaveras – the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations – is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters enjoy decorating the skulls as much as their parents do. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Making sugar skull decorations is very simple, using only three ingredients and a mold. The fun part is decorating them. I recruited my 7-year-old daughter and her friend to decorate the skulls. The kit came months ago, and my daughter had been bugging me since the day it arrived to make them. Not only was it a fun activity, it gave me a chance to talk about honoring our ancestors and remembering them in a fun — not sad — way.

I encourage families to make the skulls together, even decorating the skulls to resemble the deceased in their families and extended families.

Día de los Muertos Sugar Skulls

Prep time: 10 minutes

Drying time: 8 hours

Yield: 5 medium skulls

Ingredients

For the sugar skulls:

3 cups granulated sugar

3 teaspoons meringue powder

3 teaspoons water

For the royal icing:

1 pound powdered sugar

⅓ cup water

¼ cup meringue powder

Gel paste food coloring, assorted colors

Directions

For the sugar skulls:

1. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and meringue powder.

2. Sprinkle the water over the sugar mixture.

3. Using clean hands, knead the mixture until all the sugar is moistened and it feels like wet sand. Make sure there are no lumps.

4. Pack the mix firmly into the sugar skull mold.

5. Carefully invert the mold onto a baking sheet or piece of cardboard.

6. Gently tap the mold to release the sugar skull from the mold.

7. Let the skulls dry for at least 8 hours to overnight.

8. Decorate the skulls with royal icing.

For the royal icing:

1. In a stand mixer, beat the icing until it makes stiff peaks.

2. Divide the icing and use paste food coloring to make assorted colors.

3. Using a piping bag, decorate the skulls as desired.

Main photo: Mexican sugar skulls for Day of the Dead celebrations. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee 

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Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts. Credit: Kathy Hunt

At times, just thinking about Halloween causes my stomach to lurch. No, it’s not the creepy costumes, scary movies and pervasive pranks that make me queasy with fright. Rather, it’s the mounds of sickeningly sweet, artificially flavored, mass-produced candies that show up in my house every Halloween season that give me tummy aches.

For as long as I can remember, Oct. 31 has meant collecting and eating gobs of individually wrapped, store-bought candy. Yet, there was a time when Halloween served reverent roles and featured much tastier and more nutritious foods than candy corn and peanut butter cups.

Halloween descends from harvest festivals, fall celebrations

During ancient times, Celtic tribes in what are now Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom held annual three-day harvest festivals known as Samhain. Beginning at dusk on Oct. 31, these feasts marked the end of summer and the temporary abundance of foods, such as apples, potatoes, turnips, cabbage and grains.

Along with celebrating the season’s bounty, the Celts used this time to remember and communicate with their ancestors. They believed that on Oct. 31 the doors to the afterlife opened, and on that night the living could interact with the dead.

Although by the 7th century the pagan Celts had converted to Christianity, many of their autumnal customs remained. On Hallow’s Eve or All Hallow’s Eve, which fell one day before the Catholic Church’s All Souls’ Day, Europeans remembered their dead by placing lighted candles on loved ones’ graves and in hollowed out beets, potatoes and turnips. The forerunner to the modern-day jack-o’-lantern, the “neep lantern” was said to symbolize a soul trapped in purgatory. They were placed in the windows of homes to welcome departed relations and friends.

Apples starred in harvest celebrations

Harvest fetes still took place in the Middle Ages. Apples remained a star of these occasions and were made into tarts, pies, breads, dumplings, puddings and cakes.

So plentiful was this fruit that people set out apples for the dead and used them to tell fortunes. If you saw two seeds in your apple, you’d soon marry. Three seeds indicated future wealth.

Potatoes were equally important to Hallow’s Eve meals. In Ireland and Scotland, colcannon — mashed potatoes, onions and cabbage — was such a popular Oct. 31 dish that the date became known as “Colcannon Night.”

On Colcannon Night, cooks hid small favors inside bowls of colcannon as well as in champ, potatoes mashed together with leeks and buttermilk. Supposedly, guests’ fates were determined by the tokens they found. If you received a dried pea in your serving of mashed potatoes, you’d have prosperity. Dig out a coin and you’d achieve great wealth. Unearth a thimble and you’d be destined for spinsterhood.

Nuts also acted as prognosticators. Before going to bed on Hallow’s Eve, people would mash together walnuts, hazelnuts, nutmeg, butter and sugar and consume the concoction in the hopes of having prophetic dreams. Earlier in the evening, they roasted walnuts or chestnuts over an open fire to determine the nature of future relationships. If the toasted nuts tasted bitter, they’d end up in an unhappy marriage. If the nuts seemed sweet, they’d have a pleasant spouse.

In addition to telling fortunes, food played a major part in the medieval act of “souling.” On Hallow’s Eve, the poor would travel from house to house, offering to pray for the souls of the dead. In return they requested soul cakes, small, spiced buns studded with currants and other dried fruit. Every household seemed to possess an endless supply of soul cakes. It sounds a bit like trick-or-treating, minus the sugary confections and pranks.

Irish, Scots brought Halloween to America

Although this holiday has a long, rich history in the United Kingdom, it didn’t permeate American culture until the mid-19th century. It was then that famines in Ireland drove millions of Irish immigrants to the United States. Wherever the Irish and, to some extent, the Scots went, Halloween, as it came to be called, went with them.

In America, Halloween took on new customs and flavors. Large, plump, orange gourds replaced turnips and other root vegetables in those hand-carved lanterns for the dead. At parties, apples took the form of entertainment, as in bobbing for apples, and in drinks, such as apple cider and juice. Guests no longer pulled tokens from bowls of mashed potatoes. Instead they pulled strands of boiled sugar and butter to make taffy.

By the end of World War II, Americans had largely abandoned plain apples, nuts and homemade Halloween treats for commercially produced candy. The sugar-corn syrup-wax combination known as candy corn became all the rage. So, too, did individually wrapped sweets. Unquestionably, the passion for store-bought goods continues to this day.

Rather than defy current customs, I’ll continue to stock up on bags of chocolate bars and gummy worms. However, I do plan on giving my belly a break and keeping my own stash of historic Halloween treats. At the top of my cache will be spiced nuts. Hearkening back to the tradition of eating walnuts and hazelnuts with nutmeg, sugar and butter, I created the following Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts.

Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 3½ cups

Ingredients

1½ cups walnuts

1¼ cups hazelnuts

¾ cup pecans

1½ tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

⅛ teaspoon allspice

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Spread the nuts over a large baking sheet and bake, tossing once or twice, for 10 minutes or until golden in color.

3. As the nuts are toasting, melt the butter. Place it along with the cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and allspice in a large bowl and stir to combine.

4. Once the nuts have toasted, add them to the bowl and stir until all the nuts are coated with the spice mixture. Cool to room temperature and serve.

Main photo: Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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Macun

Macuncu are lollipop crafters, twirlers of stretchy, sweet, colorful syrups that are pooled in a deeply wedged tin that rests atop a folding tray. Their storefront is the street. Their shingle is a signature pull of glistening fruit and herb-stained syrups. It takes maybe 90 seconds for a macuncu to make a macun — a lollipop of Ottoman origin that dates back half a millennium.

I connected with that tradition last summer when I met Banu Özden of Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi, the Culinary Arts Center of Istanbul. At the time, I was curating a collection of international food craft tools. Özden was presenting an extraordinary visual archive of vessels and tools used by Istanbul’s street vendors over the past 200 years. I was thoroughly taken by the design ingenuity and material variety of the vendors. It seemed right to launch a series on food craft tools with this gem from the storied city that straddles two continents.

A SLICE OF LIFE


A series on international food craft tools

Next: Cane pressing tools, a profile of an American sugarcane mill

“It’s not taffy, it’s sticky stuff,” says Elchin Orer, an Eskişehir-raised, Washington, D.C.-based artist and interior designer, correcting my shorthand for macun. “It’s more of a heavy syrup that stays on the stick while you lick it. Kids love it. The vendors used to set up outside of school and we’d get one stick for 5 cents.”

Turkish yarn purveyor and master knitter Aylin Bener of İzmir agreed. She recalled the macuncus being as much a part of the school day as classroom instructors. “When school let out, he was there. Same vendor, same place, at the same time, every day. You don’t ask questions, you just expect him to be there to give you sweets!” To talk with Turks of a certain generation about macun is to understand the fleeting transaction as a total sensory experience. Buying macun and watching it crafted from a pinwheel of glistening sugar was as much fun as eating it.

A macuncu’s actions are like a conductor’s — rhythmic and knowing. With a syrup pull, called macun mablağı, in one hand and a wooden lollipop stick in another, macuncus lift, dollop, spin, pull, dip and repeat until their customer has the macun of their choice. No clunky globs, just elegant lines of jewel-toned syrups forming a corkscrew of up to five distinct tastes. Perhaps a crimson swirl made from cornelian cherry juice rests under a limey emerald twist — both topped with a glossy ivory spiral that’s heady with cinnamon or rose.

The ingredients for macun are quite simple: caster sugar, water, cream of tartar, citric acid and “the aromas” — which are usually spices or fruit essences. And, when needed, food coloring — often still naturally derived, though some vendors use synthetic colorants. The sugar, water, cream of tartar and citric acid are stirred together over a low heat until the sugar melts and the mixture begins to bubble. The heat is then turned off and an aroma and a natural coloring are added and mixed thoroughly. The whole sticky batch is then poured into one of the five sections of the macun tray. This process is repeated by the macuncu until his tray, his macun tepsisi, is filled with the flavors he wants to offer.

The tools of the itinerant macuncu are equally as simple: a tray, a holder, syrup pulls and candy sticks. The trays, called macun tepsisi, are large metal rounds several inches deep. As Özden explained, macun trays always have six sections: five that are triangular and form the syrup compartments and one small center bowl that cradles a lemon half. Originally they were produced by Ottoman coppersmiths who finished them in a customary tin dip (tinned copper).

Nowadays, given the rise in food service regulations, the glut of factory-prepared sweets and the decline of macuncus, Özden said that the macun tepsisi are almost always stainless steel, produced to code by just a handful of stainless-steel kitchen-supply manufacturers.

The syrup dipsticks — the macuncu’s conductor batons are called macun mablağı and they range from pantry butter knife to intricate wood-handled stainless-steel skewers depending on the location, means and style of the macuncu. Finally, before a freshly swirled macun is handed over to a customer, it is passed over a juicy lemon half at the center of the tray both for the tart flourish and to tighten the syrupy swirls.

Macuncu. Credit: Banu Özden, Turkish Cultural Foundation Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi

Macuncu. Credit: Banu Özden, Turkish Cultural Foundation Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi

The history of macun

While it is nostalgically recollected as an after-school treat (and now a touristic event), macun’s origins are medicinal. Much like an amaro or an herbal electuary, the original, “supreme” macun candy, mesir macunu, was a vehicle for a potent blend of curative digestive herbs, with the sugar acting as a preservative. A true elixir, it was a remedy for all that ailed one.

According to history, legend and Ottoman pharmacopeia, Hafsa Sultan, the mother of Suleiman the Magnificent was afflicted with a mysterious illness, incurable by court physicians, masseurs, cooks, the clergy. … Finally, a local pharmacist created mesir macunu, a special mix of herbs macerated in a sugary paste. The ambrosial medicine cured Hafsa Sultan.

Both the Queen Mother and Suleiman became evangelists of mesir macunu, and they began a tradition that continues today (the 474th Annual Manisa Mesir Festival took place in the spring of 2014) of preparing enough mesir macunu for their subjects’ well-being. Recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the festival involves a bevy of chefs replicating (by the ton) the ancient recipe of 41 spices and herbs. Once mixed, the mesir macunu is cut and wrapped by a designated team of women who then pass the candies along to imams that bless the candy before it is tossed to crowds from the Sultan Mosque’s minaret and domes.

Certainly, the street-side version, made with flourish and attention to craft, is as good for the daily spirit.

Main photo: Macun. Credit: Wikimedia / Nosferatü

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A bowl of chicken pho. Credit: Cameron Stauch

“Can we have phở for dinner?” my son asked as he arrived home from school. A loud sneeze followed by a few sniffles and a wipe of his nose with his shirt’s sleeve confirmed cold season’s arrival in his class.

Chicken noodle soup was our go-to comfort meal when a family member was sick, but now, living in Hanoi, the easy access to phở gà, Vietnam’s own chicken-and-rice-noodle soup, has replaced that.

Cold season has provided another opportunity to taste my way through the stalls that dot Hanoi, the birthplace of phở, and gather information on what makes the best phở gà, pronounced “feu gah.” Emerging out of a time of hardship when cooks began to use chicken because of a beef shortage during World War II, the recipe continues to evolve, integrating modern influences.

Phở bò, beef rice noodle soup, may be more well known, but the devoted fans of phở gà I spoke with believe the chicken version has more subtle flavors that shouldn’t be masked by the addition of spices, as in the beef version. Preparing a delicious bowl of phở gà requires patience and the right ingredients. A vendor who has been making phở gà for 24 years summed it up best: “We are all using the same ingredients, but the real skill is the technique you use and knowing how the broth should taste when it is ready.”

Vendors have loyal followings that span generations. While sampling one of my bowls of phở gà, I struck up a conversation with my dining neighbor, a 38-year-old office worker, who told me he’s been coming to the vendor since he was a little boy. Whenever he returns to Hanoi from a work trip, his first meal is from his favorite phở vendor. Similarly, an elderly woman at another stall recalled when the cook started working with his parents. She said she believes the minerals and proteins in phở gà bring good health. Finishing her bowl, she mentioned that she tries “to eat here three or four days a week. Cook Hai’s phở gà gives me energy to do my daily activities and continues to keep me healthy.”

What makes the best phở gà? Here’s a look at the key elements that contribute to making a superlative bowl.

The chicken

The cooks with the most devoted followers and busiest stalls insist that free-range chickens produce chewy meat and the best-flavored broth. Since 1978, the proprietor of Anh Hai Phở Gà has been filling bowls of his delicious broth in the Truc Bach district. It is becoming harder for him to find a consistent, reliable source of free-range chickens. He’s noticed a dip in business the last few years and believes his customers taste the difference when he has had to substitute with inferior poultry.

The broth

Cooks and diners all agree the clarity and taste of the broth is what sets apart a superior bowl of phở from an average one. A clear broth with great depth of flavor is most desired. Hanoian cooks prefer not to add rock sugar as their southern counterparts do. Interestingly, the majority of cooks quietly indicated that they use some pork leg bones in the broth because they believe it produces a naturally sweeter-tasting broth. It also adds additional gelatin to the broth, allowing the flavors to linger on the lips longer. This recent change in vendors’ large-batch recipes may also be connected to the bird flu epidemic in 2005. Chicken continues to cost more, and the use of pork bones helps keep prices low for customers.

The garnish

Unlike in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where phở sellers like to add bean sprouts and offer a plate of herbs as a garnish, northern cooks and eaters prefer simple garnishes of briefly blanched whites of scallions with a generous sprinkling of the thinly sliced scallion greens and coriander. You may occasionally come across a vendor with some thinly sliced Thai basil in the mix. During the last decade, some vendors started to add a good pinch of thinly sliced lime leaf to bring a pleasant citrusy fragrance and flavor to the dish.

Whether you choose to prepare a Hanoi version of phở gà or garnish it as your favorite nearby Vietnamese restaurant does, be sure to select a free-range chicken and take care in preparing the broth. Not matter what, it will be good for your health and soul.

Hanoi Chicken Noodle Soup (Phở gà)

The key to making a clear chicken broth is not to boil the chicken and bones. Instead, cook the broth at a very gentle simmer. Depending on the size of the chicken, this recipe may leave you with some extra cooked chicken. I use it to make a couple of sandwiches or salads for lunch. Similarly, if you are cooking for a couple or a family of four, freeze any leftover stock (and any leftover chicken) in either 2-cup or 4-cup portions. It will save you much time when you feel the need for a quick, reinvigorating bowl of Hanoi chicken noodle soup. All you’ll need to do is rehydrate some noodles and quickly assemble the garnish.

Prep time: 25 minutes, much of it done during cooking

Cook time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

3½ to 4 pounds whole skin-on chicken

3½ quarts water

2 teaspoons salt

8 Asian shallots or 3 French shallots

2-inch piece of ginger, skin on

1 14-ounce package of banh pho noodles (also called rice sticks)

1 tablespoon fish sauce

8 scallions

¼ cup fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves, roughly chopped

2 kaffir lime leaves, rib removed and thinly sliced

1 lime, cut into 6 wedges

2 Thai red chilis, thinly sliced

Directions

1. Cut the tips of the wings and whole legs off the chicken and place, along with the body, in a 5½ quart pot. Add the water and salt and bring to a simmer over a medium-high heat. After about 15 minutes scum will start to rise to the surface. Use a ladle to carefully skim off the scum for the next five minutes. When the water begins to simmer, turn the heat down to low. Skim off any remaining scum and discard. Partially cover the pot and gently simmer for another 25 minutes.

2. While the chicken simmers, put a small wire grilling rack on top of a gas burner. Place the shallots and ginger on the rack and turn the burner on medium high to char the shallot and ginger skins. Use tongs to rotate the shallots and ginger until all of the outside is charred (about 4 to 5 minutes for shallots; 5 to 7 minutes for ginger).

3. Alternatively, turn the broiler of the oven on and place the shallots and ginger on a baking sheet. Put the baking sheet on the level closest to the top heating element. Cook for 5 minutes or until the shallot and ginger skins are charred. Turn the shallots and ginger over and cook for another 5 minutes or until the rest of them are charred.

4. Set aside the charred shallots and ginger on a plate to cool for a few minutes.

5. Use your hands to rub off the skins of the shallots and a paring knife to scrape off the skin from the ginger. Briefly rinse the shallots and ginger under running water to remove any remaining black bits. Cut the ginger in half lengthwise and set aside with the shallots.

6. Turn off the burner for the broth. Uncover and remove the chicken legs and body and place in a large bowl to cool for 15 minutes or until you can easily handle with your hands. Pull off the skin from the breasts and legs and discard. Remove the meat from each side of the breastbone in two whole pieces and set aside. Remove the meat from the legs in large chunks and set aside with the breast meat.

7. Put the carcass, bones, shallots and ginger into the broth. Bring the broth back to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Reduce to low and cook for 30 minutes.

8. Place the rice noodles in a large bowl and cover by 1 inch with hot water. Allow the noodles to hydrate and soften for 20 minutes. Drain in a colander.

9. Fill a medium-sized pot with water and bring to a simmer over high heat.

10. Remove the bones, shallots and ginger and discard. Strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer into another pot. Stir in the fish sauce and keep warm over low heat.

11. Cut the white/light green parts of the scallions into 2-inch pieces. Set aside.

12. Thinly slice the green part of the scallion and mix with the coriander in a small bowl and set aside.

13. Cut the chicken into thin slices and set aside.

14. When the water begins to simmer, add the white parts of the scallion, cook for 10 seconds and remove using a slotted spoon or Chinese wire spider. Set aside.

15. Place the noodles in the water and cook for 15 seconds. Drain the noodles and immediately divide equally into six large soup bowls. Place some slices of chicken and a few pieces of the blanched scallion on top of the noodles. Garnish with a generous pinch of scallion greens and coriander. Place a pinch of sliced lime leaf in the center of the bowl.

16. Pour two cups of broth over the chicken and noodles and serve with the lime wedges and chili slices.

Note: Many Vietnamese cooks and eaters prefer to leave the skin on the sliced chicken.

Main photo: A bowl of chicken pho. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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