Articles in History
In mid-April, the people of Bengal — a region straddling Bangladesh and parts of India, including my hometown in West Bengal — celebrate the Bengali New Year.
Bengalis of all religious persuasions celebrate this secular holiday with music, song and, of course, plenty of good food. So today I share with you food. Lots of it. Twenty-six Bengali dishes, to be precise
People also buy new clothes and other new items with the belief that something done at the beginning of the year repeats itself year-round. Bengali traders crack open fresh new account books called the haal khata on this day.
A new year ahead, with taxes behind us
Ironically, the Bengali New Year, which falls during a season when the U.S. tax deadline looms, originated in the Mughal Empire, when it marked a fresh beginning after the collection of taxes.
So, celebrate the end of tax season with me by delving into this regional cuisine.
Bengal, with its west monsoon climate and proximity to rivers, offers a diet rich in fish, greens, rice and vegetables. Its seasonings are distinct and prominent with the use of mustard, poppy seeds, ginger and a Bengali Five Spice Blend consisting of mustard, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and fennel. This seasoning is called panch phoron: panch means five and phoron means tempering.
The Bengali meal ranges from light to heavy courses, with a sweet and sour chutney to cleanse the palate before dessert.
This slideshow offers an insight into some of the most traditional dishes on the Bengali table.
Starting the new year with a family recipe that travels well
The fact that the holiday lands midweek this year puts a wrinkle on food celebrations.
This year, however I’ve resurrected a well-seasoned egg dish that my grandmother used to call her “picnic dimer dalna” or picnic egg curry.
Our “picnics” consisted usually of multilayered lunch boxes, filled with puffy fried breads known as luchi and drier curries like alur dom. In our family’s case, it included these eggs, since my grandmother felt that we should get our protein as growing children.
This dish travels very well, and actually improves as leftovers. My children now love this as a special breakfast treat and it can be enjoyed with toasted bread almost as much as the luchi, which can be difficult to pull off on a school-day morning. The eggs, however, can be made the night before.
This particular recipe is also known as Kosha Dimer Dalna. The word kosha in Bengali refers to slow-cooked and refers to the slow-cooked onions in the dish.
This year, if you feel that you just might need an excuse for a new beginning and an opportunity to revisit your New Year’s resolutions, join the Bengalis in celebrating our Bengali New Year.
Kosha Dimer Dalna (Egg Curry with Clingy Caramelized Onion Sauce)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 45 to 50 minutes
Total time: 65 to 70 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
4 tablespoons oil
3 medium-sized onions, sliced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 to 3 cardamoms
2 medium-sized tomatoes
1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper, or to taste
8 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
Chopped cilantro to garnish
1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and add in the sliced onions. Cook the onions on low heat, until they gradually wilt, soften and turn golden brown. This process will take about 30 to 35 minutes, but should not be rushed.
2. Add in the ginger and stir well.
3. Add in the cardamoms, tomatoes and red cayenne pepper. Cook for about five minutes until the mixture thickens and the tomatoes begin to soften.
4. In the meantime, make slits on the sides of the eggs and rub them with the salt and the turmeric.
5. Mix the eggs into the tomato mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, until the eggs are well-coated with the onion base.
6. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.
Main photo: My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna or egg curry as a picnic treat for us when I was growing up in Kolkata in India’s West Bengal province. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya
The Sunday before Easter is the little-known holiday Cheese Sunday, a day of traditions that survived in a Ukrainian community marooned in Slovakia by the stroke of the politician’s pen following the end of World War II.
In Eastern Europe, hidden away in the Soviet sphere behind the Iron Curtain, half a century of state-imposed communism in the workplace failed to obliterate regional differences at home — in spite of efforts to standardize culinary habits by limiting official food supplies to factory canteens.
The miracle was that when the Iron Curtain was finally rolled away, people had not forgotten the dishes appropriate to festivals such as Easter, the most important feast day of the Orthodox Church calendar. And if the recipes themselves had vanished, there were minority populations on the wrong side of the border — any border — who had been left to continue their traditional ways of life throughout the communist years as long as they didn’t pop their heads over the political parapet and give the authorities any trouble.
Ukrainian community continues Cheese Sunday traditions
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Among these inadvertent repositories of national habit were the Ruthenes of Ladomirova, a farming community of Ukrainians marooned in a far corner of Slovakia along the foothills of the High Tatras, a mountainous region noted for wolves and bears. A hard-working, self-sufficient farming community, the Ruthenes, at the time of my visit in 1991 — shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain — continued to live more or less as they always had, stocking their own store cupboards and selling the surplus on the unofficial market in Svidnik, the only town of note in the region.
Svidnik was dull as ditch water by day but merry enough on a Saturday evening, when the wine cellar under the railway arch served as a gathering point for the town’s youth, Ruthenes among them. There they could enjoy loud pop music, flirting, dancing, slightly fizzy white wine and fast food — a slab of sheep-milk cheese fried in a crisp jacket of breadcrumbs served with a dollop of creamy sauce speckled with dill.
“This is what is called chicken Kiev but is made with cheese and is eaten with sauce tartar,” explained Katrina, my self-appointed translator, a Slovak-speaking Hungarian anthropology graduate studying the Ruthene lifestyle but keen to practice her English — or possibly a political operative keeping an eye on the crazy foreigner attempting to communicate with a sketchbook and paint box.
The following day, the last Sunday before Easter, all was revealed when Mama Anna, the matriarch and memory keeper of the Ruthene community in Ladomirova, prepared the same dish — cheese Kiev with tartar sauce — as the traditional recipes for Cheese Sunday.
The proper cheese for the dish, Mama Anna explained, is dried-out sheep’s milk kashkaval from the previous spring, which must be eaten up to fulfill the obligation to empty the cupboard before Good Friday. The sauce, a savory custard made with the first rich milkings from the household cow and eggs from hens just come back into lay, delivers a message of good things to come.
Whatever its place of origin — or even the thoughts expressed through good food set on the table to welcome strangers — the combination works. Celebrate your own Cheese Sunday with the traditions of the Ruthenes of Ladomirova and raise a glass at this festival of renewal to the hope that peace may come to a divided people who don’t deserve what they get.
Mama Anna advises that some people like to add chopped dill and other flavorings such as chives and pickled cucumber and onion, but she herself prefers it to taste of itself, the goodness of spring.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: Makes about 3/4 pint, enough for 4 to 6 servings.
3 egg yolks
1/4 pint (1/2 cup) soured cream
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon mild mustard
A squeeze of lemon juice or white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons seed or vegetable oil
1 wineglass white wine
2 tablespoons sweet, thick cream
1. Whisk up the yolks, soured cream, sugar, salt, mustard and lemon juice or vinegar in a small pan, and cook the mixture over a gentle heat (or in bowl over boiling water), stirring all the time, until it begins to thicken like a custard.
2. Leaving it over the heat, whisk in the oil as if for a mayonnaise, then whisk in the wine and sweet cream.
3. Remove from the heat as soon the steam no longer smells of alcohol. Let cool a little and serve warm
In the lambing season, the ewes are brought down from the hill and milked three or four times a day by hand so the newborns are not deprived of their share. Last year’s cheese, by now too hard to eat uncooked, melts to a creamy softness in its crisp jacket of breadcrumbs. Any mature hard cheese will do, though it’s easier to coat if you slice it ahead and leave it in a warm kitchen for a few hours for the surface to dry and firm.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 2 servings as an entrée or 4 as a starter plate.
About 8 ounces dried-out cheese
2 to 3 tablespoons strong, plain flour
1 tablespoon paprika
1 large egg
2 to 3 tablespoons milk
4 to 5 heaped tablespoons breadcrumbs (fresh or dried)
Oil for deep-frying
1. Slice the cheese into 4 thick fingers or triangles.
2. Mix the paprika and flour on a shallow plate. Fork up the egg with the milk on another plate. Spread the breadcrumbs on a third.
3. Dust the cheese slices through the flour, dip in the egg-and-milk mixture, making sure all sides are well-coated, and then press firmly into the breadcrumbs.
4. Heat the oil in a heavy pan till a faint blue haze rises — the temperature should be high enough to seal the coating immediately, so test with a cube of bread (it should form little bubbles round the edges and brown quickly).
5. Slip the cheese pieces into the pan, spooning hot oil over the top so the heat reaches all sides. Fry till crisp and brown.
6. Remove to kitchen paper with a draining spoon.
7. Serve piping hot with the tartar sauce for dipping.
Main image: A traditional Cheese Sunday meal of tartar sauce (from left), fried cheese and a dill sauce. Credit: Copyright Elisabeth Luard
Of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, Passover serves as the cornerstone. Family and friends come together at home for a meal disguised as a religious service. It is the time for the annual retelling of the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
The Haggadah, the ancient book that tells the story of Passover, was artfully written as a history with an emphasis on passing on the traditions and the faith of the holiday from one generation to another through rituals and endless glasses of wine. No fools, these early rabbis. They understood that the best way to make sure the symbols endured was to make them edible. (Passover this year begins April 3.)
Boston venture capitalist Andy Goldfarb is a passionate believer in the magic of Passover, and he’s an ardent cook. Goldfarb grew up celebrating Passover with his great-grandfather, Max Fish, in Baltimore. The Passover tradition goes back far in Goldfarb’s family. He recently found a family photo of his great-great-grandfather celebrating Passover Seder in 1930 in Dynow, Poland, showing the direct linkage of 150 years of Goldfarb family members celebrating the Passover Seder.
Passover is a year-round project for the Goldfarb family, beginning with the Etrog marmalade his daughter Jemma makes during the Sukkot Harvest festival in fall and continuing right up to the night of the Seder in spring.
Goldfarb became convinced he could help other Jewish families make Passover as “magical and memorable” for their families as it is for his. He developed the website Breaking Matzo as a kind of resource guide for the Jewish community. He believes that by making the holiday meaningful and fun for all generations, it increases the likelihood of families continuing the Passover tradition generations into the future.
Charoset a traditional symbol of the Seder plate
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At the center of any Passover table is the Seder plate, which is a very specific platter of edible symbols: a roasted lamb shank bone; a roasted or hard-boiled egg; a fresh green herb like parsley; a bitter herb like horseradish; and a bowl of salt water for dipping the herbs in symbolic tears of the slaves. The final element is the charoset, typically a sweet concoction of dried fruits, chopped nuts and wine. Charoset is the only element that requires a recipe, and each family has its own. During the Seder, charoset is eaten on a piece of matzo, and its gritty texture represents the mortar, or cement, the Israelites used to make the bricks for Pharaoh’s pyramids.
Goldfarb has been lucky enough to celebrate Passover with Jewish families around the world. He has been able to learn how each community of Jews, no matter where history and fortune has taken them, adapts Passover by creating a local version of charoset for the Seder table. If there is anything that speaks to the resilience of the Jewish people, it may be the following recipes for charoset, also available on the Breaking Matzo site.
Most American Jews are Ashkenazi, meaning they immigrated to the United States after centuries in Central, Western and Eastern Europe. The Ashkenazi preparation of charoset is considered the “typical,” or classic, charoset recipe, using ingredients that were available in the Eastern European kitchen. Only the proportions vary from recipe to recipe.
Yield: Makes about 4 cups
2 medium-sized tart apples
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar or honey or to taste
2 teaspoons sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz
1. Peel, core and finely chop or grate the apples.
2. Mix with the rest of the ingredients in a bowl.
For several years, Andy Goldfarb lived and worked in Japan. He also traveled in China and studied the Fugo plan, a Japanese program to save Jews from the Nazis by settling them in Shanghai during World War II. Goldfarb found a connection with the wandering Jews of China, who still celebrate the Passover story with this delicious and savory charoset.
Common ingredients in Chinese cuisine that are highlighted in this version of charoset are soy sauce, pine nuts and honey. In contrast with the other regional sweet charoset recipes, this version is slightly savory.
Yield: Makes about 6 cups
1/2 pound of dates, finely chopped
4 apples, finely chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts
3 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons honey
Juice of one orange
Heat ingredients in a saucepan until soft and smooth, about 5 minutes. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Andy Goldfarb discovered that Egyptian Jewish tradition is that the paste of the charoset represents the color of the Nile silt used to make the mortar for the bricks to build the pyramids. A mixture of dates and raisins gives the right approximation.
He became fascinated with other Middle Eastern and North African charoset variations, recipes that use all kinds of dried fruit and even one with bananas. In Algeria, he found a blend of dates and dried figs with cinnamon, nutmeg and sweet red wine. In Iraq, date syrup is mixed with plenty of chopped walnuts. A recipe from Surinam includes dried apples, pears, apricots, prunes, raisins, grated coconut, ground almonds, walnuts and cherry jam. The following are adaptations of traditional Sephardi classics. Proportions vary from one family to another, and the texture can be coarse or smooth, thick or thin.
Yield: Makes about 3 cups
1 pound dates, pitted and chopped (about 3 cups)
1 1/2 cups sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1. Put the dates in a pan with the wine, cinnamon and cloves and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it is a soft paste (about 5 minutes). Pulse in a food processor if you want a smoother texture.
2. Let it cool and stir in the walnuts.
Variation: A Libyan version is flavored with ground ginger, nutmeg and cloves, 1/4 teaspoon of each spice.
The Jews of Italy’s Piedmont region live surrounded on three sides by the Alps, where nut trees dot the scenery. This recipe makes use of the local harvest of chestnuts and almonds and counters the nuts’ richness with the powdery smoothness of egg yolks and a sharp hit of citrus.
Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 cups.
1 1/2 cup cooked chestnuts
2/3 cup blanched almonds
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
Zest of 1 orange
Juice of 1 orange
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz, or an Italian sweet wine
Finely grind the almonds in a food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend to a smooth paste.
Unsurprisingly, every region of Italy has its own version of charoset. The charoset of Padua has prunes, raisins, dates, walnuts, apples and chestnuts. In Milan, they make it with apples, pears, dates, almonds, bananas and orange juice. This recipe is a basic one, but you can be sure every Italian home has its own “classic” charoset recipe, so feel free to play with variations on the theme.
Yield: Makes about 7 cups
3 apples, sweet or tart
3/4 cup yellow raisins or sultanas
1 cup prunes, pitted and finely chopped
1 1/3 cups dates, pitted and chopped
2 cups sweet red kosher wine, such as Manischewitz
1/3 cup pine nuts
2/3 cup almonds, finely chopped
1/2 cup sugar or honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1. Peel and core the apples and pear, cut them into small pieces.
2. Put all the ingredients into a pan together and cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the fruits are very soft, adding a little water if it becomes too dry.
Variations: Other possible additions include chopped lemon or candied orange peel, walnuts, pistachios, dried figs, orange or lemon juice, ginger, nutmeg and cloves.
For hundreds of years, southern Spain was the site of a great Jewish Renaissance, where Jews and Muslims lived peacefully together, fostering a cultural flowering that earned the region the title “Ornament of the World.” Ultimately, the Jews were forced from Spain, but the splendor of the enduring Sephardi tradition lives on in this charoset recipe.
Yield: Makes about 4 cups
1/2 cup Spanish almonds (blanched Marcona if possible)
1/2 cup hazelnuts
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup pistachios
1/2 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup chopped figs
1/2 cup yellow raisins
1/2 cup dry red wine, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Peel, core and finely chop the apples and pears and place in a large bowl.
2. In a food processor, pulse all the nuts, making sure not to overgrind.
3. Add the chopped dates, figs, and raisins and ¼ cup wine to the food processor bowl. Pulse again briefly, or mix by hand.
4. Add the mixture to the bowl of grated fruit and stir to combine.
5. Blend in the ginger and cinnamon and add as much of the remaining wine to make a smooth paste.
Main photo: Ashkenazi Charoset for the Seder plate. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of BreakingMatzo.com
Soda bread is serious stuff. The Irish Heritage Society near me is having a contest, and people can enter in three categories: traditional white, traditional wheaten, and family bread non-specific. The first two can only contain flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk; ingredients that would have been available in Ireland when the bread was developed. The third, family bread non-specific, can have anything in it, and might include currants, caraway seeds, eggs and other enrichments.
The sweet quick bread common here is decidedly American and reflects the fact that the average Irish cupboard lacked or had limited quantities of sugar and butter. The traditional Irish soda bread is emblematic of other limits, like the way that flour works in bread dough, and how wheat grows.
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The moist climate of Ireland is suited to growing soft or pastry wheat, which is better for making pastries and quick breads rather than yeasted or naturally leavened breads. Arid summers, like those in the American wheat belts, grow hard or bread wheats, which have enough gluten to develop the structure that builds tall loaves of bread.
All wheats have gluten, which is a type of protein. The amount and quality of gluten varies in hard and soft wheats. Gliadin and glutenin are two components of gluten, and each wheat style has different proportions of both. That’s why flours made from different grains work differently. Hard wheats have more glutenin, and soft wheats have more gliadin, which is sometimes described as having sliding properties. If you cook whole grains, hard wheats really are harder to the tooth.
Soft wheats work great for quick breads and things that climb with the aid of chemical leavening. Soda bread, especially if made with purist rules, is a great demonstration of chemical leavening at work. Buttermilk plus baking soda creates an acid-base reaction, and carbon dioxide bubbles throughout the dough; the heat of the oven traps the gases, and voila, there is bread.
In praise of baking powder
Baking powder is another type of chemical leavening; liquid activates its acid-base reaction. These products of the 19th century simplified baking. Before the birthday of baking powder — around 1865, depending on whom you salute as its inventor — people had to use natural yeasts to make baked goods rise. Old cookbooks have lots of instructions for ways to charm leavening out of thin air, or from potato peelings and even milk.
Sourdough baking is all the rage, but I am in awe of baking powder. This shelf stable stuff makes my whole wheat pancakes climb sky high. It is a little angel in my pantry, helping flour soar. I am loyal to a single brand, Rumford. It’s double-acting baking powder, which means it rises once when liquid hits the dry ingredients, and again in the heat of the oven, or on the griddle.
I am also loyal to fresh milled whole-grain flour. I love the way it tastes, sweet and hardy, and the way the food sits in my brain. Stone milling is a process that keeps all the parts of a grain kernel, the bran, germ and endosperm, together. Roller milling is how most flour is made, and the process separates all of these parts, combining parts of them at the end as the mill sees fit. The germ is generally removed because it spoils easily.
Luckily, stone milling operations are popping up all over the country as people revive small-scale grain production. The one near me, Farmer Ground Flour, mills a type of soft white wheat that makes great quick breads.
I have no family recipe for soda bread, but I’ve made a beautiful mutt loaf that highlights my kitchen affinities.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 cups stoneground white whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons yogurt
1/2 cup milk
1. Combine dry ingredients with a whisk.
2. Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes.
3. With a pastry blender or your fingers, incorporate butter into the flour mixture. The result does not have to be smooth — some pea-sized pieces are OK, even good.
4. Whisk together egg, yogurt and milk. Using a fork, blend until everything is just barely incorporated.
5. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead very lightly, just about five times.
6. Pat into a round about 8 inches across and transfer to a buttered cookie sheet. Score into six pieces.
7. Let dough rest 10 minutes while preheating oven to 400 F.
8. Bake for 25 minutes, until golden brown at the edges.
Main image: Soda bread. Credit: Copyright Ellie Markovitch
Think St. Patrick’s Day is all about chugging green beer and minty shakes and sporting avocado-colored sweaters, emerald top hats and Kiss Me, I’m Irish or Erin Go Bragh T-shirts? Think again.
In Ireland, where St. Patrick lived and died, the day stands for far more than carousing in garish clothing. It is a day of cultural and religious significance with nary a dyed beer or milkshake in sight.
As an insatiable traveler married to an Irish-American and fellow redhead, I’ve experienced my share of St. Patrick’s Days in Ireland. Whether I’m in a major city such as Dublin or rural village in County Clare, I never miss a parade. Although New York City receives credit for holding the first St. Patrick’s Day parade, way back in the 18th century, Ireland wholeheartedly embraces this festive event.
St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland a family affair
Depending upon the locale, I’ve watched processions of marching bands, costumed dancers and professionally made balloons as well as festooned farm tractors, hand-painted banners and homemade floats. No matter where I am, one thing remains constant: the large number of families in attendance, cheering on the participants.
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Along with seeing parades, visiting fairs and listening to live music, families in Ireland go to church services on St. Patrick’s Day. The patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick served as the country’s bishop during the fifth century and is credited with helping convert the Irish to Christianity. On the Emerald Isle, the date of his death, March 17, is a religious and public holiday.
In his teachings St. Patrick used the shamrock to represent Christianity’s Holy Trinity. Today, as a symbol of their belief, the devout continue to pin these three-leaf clovers to their clothing. So much for my silly childhood belief that shamrocks went together with leprechauns the way that rainbows came with pots of gold or chips accompanied fish.
Food likewise plays a prominent role on St. Patrick’s Day. In the past, pubs remained closed on this holy day. With the public houses shuttered, family and friends would gather in homes to share simple, wholesome meals.
Then as now, potatoes starred in a variety of dishes, including the pancake known as boxty. They remain the primary ingredient in the mash of cabbage or kale and potatoes called colcannon and mash of scallions and potatoes called champ.
Potatoes also feature in meaty cottage and shepherd’s pies, boiled bacon and cabbage, Irish stew and, a personal favorite, potato soup.
For me, nothing says wholesome, Irish cooking like a bowl of hot, savory potato soup. It’s the perfect warmup for a brisk and damp March day spent outdoors at a parade or fete.
In a country surrounded by water, it comes as no surprise that seafood appears on holiday menus. Although outsiders tend to reduce Ireland’s fish specialties to breaded and deep-fried cod or haddock served with chips and peas, Irish cooks serve far more than this greasy — albeit tasty — mainstay. Cockle soup, seafood chowder, smoked haddock potpie, steamed mussels and cod cakes are among the country’s wondrous seafood dishes.
Contrary to the American custom of drinking green-colored ales on St. Patrick’s Day, in Ireland people usually reach for dark, smoky stouts. Originally just a stronger version of a porter, stout has become a category of its own for many beer connoisseurs. With its creamy texture, full-bodied flavor and rich mouthfeel, it leaves consumers fully satisfied. Drink of pint of hearty stout and you’ll feel as though you’ve consumed your St. Patrick’s Day meal in one glass.
Probably no stout is more renowned or available globally than Guinness. Yet, Ireland does have other stout brands, including the Cork-based Murphy’s and Beamish, both of which have been acquired by the Dutch beer company Heineken.
This St. Patrick’s Day, skip the green clothing, tinted drinks and boozy benders. Instead, celebrate the authentic Irish way — with good food, family and fun.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
7 ounces leeks, washed and sliced
1 pound, 10 ounces russet potatoes, washed, peeled and chopped
7 cups chicken stock
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
1. In a large stockpot melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leeks and sauté until softened and translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, stir to combine and cook for another 1 minute.
2. Pour in the chicken stock, raise the temperature to medium-high and bring the soup to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 25 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and leeks are translucent.
3. Turn off the heat. Add salt and ground black pepper to taste.
4. Using either an immersion or traditional blender, puree the soup until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed. Serve hot.
Main photo: Although they may seem as whimsical as leprechauns, shamrocks hold special religious significance in Ireland. The three-leaf clovers symbolize the holy trinity as taught by the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick. Credit: Copyright Sean Dippold
Why did a handful of British chefs invade the 2015 St. Moritz Gourmet Festival? It’s a nod to the very British pioneers who more than a century ago visited in winter and made the Swiss mountain town a popular cold-season tourist spot.
In September 1864, Johannes Badrutt, a hotelier in St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps, staged a neat publicity stunt. At the time, people on holiday — about 75% of them British — ventured to the Alps only during the summer months. In a bold initiative to change the established pattern and persuade them of the beauty of the mountains in winter, Badrutt made a promise to his departing British summer guests: If they returned in December and stayed until Easter, their stay in St. Mortiz would be free of charge, provided the winter experience matched their summer memories.
Toward the end of 1864, a handful of hardy British guests, motivated by the now-famous bet, set off on the long journey from London by horse and carriage across the English Channel and through France to Switzerland. From Chur in Switzerland’s Graubünden, the carriages got progressively smaller and more uncomfortable as the guests traveled ever higher, finally reaching St. Moritz via the winding Julierpass. Piled high on long sledges towed behind the carriages was everything they needed for their two- or three-month stay.
In the spring of 1865 the delighted caravan of guests returned to England, suntanned and singing the praises of St. Moritz in winter. Winter tourism in the Alps was launched.
In recognition of Badrutt’s initiative, and of the key part Brits played in developing winter tourism in the Engadine valley of southern Switzerland, this year’s St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, held annually at the end of January, took on British colors. Just how much the British food scene has changed in the past 20 years — not to mention since that winter of 1864 when the first British guests stayed in St. Moritz — became apparent over the course of the festival, during which a team of nine of Britain’s leading chefs returned in the footsteps of those first British winter tourists. Their job was to showcase the best of what the British have to offer in a series of spectacular dinners, kitchen parties and gala events.
Food festivals are two a penny nowadays. What set this one apart was not just the quality of the cooking but also the surprise element. “Plenty of people still think that British food is just fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding,” said Jean-Jacques Bauer, assistant manager at the Hotel Kulm, where the whole story began and where the final gala dinner took place, with all nine chefs in attendance. “But, as we saw at this year’s festival, it offers so much more than this.” During the week, he said, “the chefs took us on a culinary journey and opened our eyes to the outstanding quality of contemporary British food.”
Chefs highlight multicultural influences in British cuisine
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The crack team of chefs was selected first and foremost because each is at the top of their game — most have Michelin stars. Some work in London, others out in the country. More importantly, the festival organizers had understood well what distinguishes the best modern British food: not just superb local ingredients and specialties used with skill and flair, but also the many international and multicultural influences at work, both contemporary and from the country’s colonial past. “Great Britain is a melting pot,” Bauer said. “And so, too, is its food … which has brought together tastes from all over the world within just one country. This is British cuisine today.”
Each chef was assigned to one of St. Moritz’s five-star hotels, where they worked in tandem with the home team, preparing menus with their own personal stamp. Yorkshire-born Jason Atherton boasts a stableful of trendsetting London restaurants (Pollen Street Social, Social Eating House) with outposts in Asia, and further operations about to open in Dubai, Sydney and New York. Guests at the Schweizerhof were treated to what he describes as “real food based on British traditions,” along the lines of Cornish sea bass with a kombu glaze and braised ox cheeks sourced from the estates of the Duke of Buccleuch.
Angela Hartnett, whose home kitchen is Murano in London’s Mayfair, brought a British-Italian perspective to diners at the Carlton with her brand of seasonal, pared down cucina Italiana, which included a virginal buttermilk panna cotta with grapes and candied oranges. Across the lake at the Waldhaus in Sils-Maria, Nathan Outlaw managed to bring a breath of sea air from St. Enodoc in deepest Cornwall all the way up to the Swiss mountains with his seafood-rich menu, including succulent turbot with lobster sauce and seaweed.
And while all the chefs at this year’s festival are currently working in the U.K., not all were born there, yet another reflection of the international flavor of British food today. Take French native Claude Bosi, for example, who found his way to London from his home town of Lyon, France, via Ludlow in Shropshire and now officiates at the double-starred Hibiscus in Mayfair. At Badrutt’s Palace his highly creative and personalized version of French cuisine included a dramatic dish of venison with quince and Sharon fruit, while Atul Kochhar, born in India, educated in Britain and now a star chef with several London restaurants to his name (plus one in Dublin and another in Madrid), dazzled palates at the Kulm with slivers of duck breast cured with Indian spices (“my charcuterie, Indian-style”), a fragrant fish curry and a delicate dessert based on yogurt and dulce de leche.
“People used to poke fun at Britain on the culinary front,” said Atherton, adding ruefully, “If there’d been an Olympics for food, we’d have been at the bottom!”
But a week in the mountains of St. Moritz was enough to show that British chefs are now right up there at the summit.
Main photo: Guest and resident chefs at the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival 2015. Credit: Andy Mettler
Cassava, to me, is the Sleeping Beauty of the African kitchen.
The first time I ate cassava, I was on a leaky porch in Paraguay in a torrential rain. The cook plunked down before me a painted enamel platter, stacked high with what looked like chunks of potatoes. She placed a small bottle filled with vinegar and tiny green hot peppers next to my plate. Before cutting into a tough piece of beef, I upended the bottle over the meat. I forked a couple of potatoes onto my plate, too.
Only they weren’t potatoes. The white tuber was cassava, which originated in central Brazil. Known scientifically as Manihot esculenta and other common names such as manioc or yuca, it later spread to Africa’s Congo Basin by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
It wasn’t love at that first chewy bite. But when I saw cassava afterward, I made sure it ended up on my plate or in my shopping bag. Potatoes don’t grow well in the tropics, where I lived at the time. So cassava began to take potatoes’ place in my kitchen. I learned to love cassava because of its texture and propensity to soak up other flavors.
A staple of the African diet
In the years I lived in Africa, I came to know cassava especially well. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, cassava provides a whopping 37% of daily caloric intake. It is popular throughout Africa and the third most widely eaten starchy food in the world, after wheat and rice.
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According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “the most important traditional culinary preparations of cassava in Africa are:
- boiled or roasted roots (akin to potatoes),
- fufu (cassava flour stirred with boiled water over low heat to create a stiff dough like polenta),
- eba (called gari in Nigeria, is similar to toasted bread crumbs, then soaked in hot water to produce a thick paste),
- and, chikwangue (steamed, fermented pulp wrapped in leaves, not unlike tamales).”
Cassava grows underground and is easier to cultivate than corn, requiring far less labor. Resistant to drought and most insects and diseases, it is highly sustainable. It also cannot easily be burned and destroyed in war situations.
This scraggly-looking plant also can take climatic abuse, growing well in poor soil and during droughts. The long, brown roots stay fresh in the ground, sometimes for up to two years. But once harvested, cassava rots fast, in spite of its bark-like peel. That’s the reason for the wax you see on most cassava sold in Western markets.
A tip for finding the freshest cassava
Sometimes “fresh” cassava in supermarkets tends to be old, with black lines running through it, especially under and around the peel. I constantly poke and prod cassava that’s for sale. My hope is to find roots bearing small wounds inflicted by some savvy shopper: one who has broken off the pointed tips of the waxed roots to peer into the whiteness, seeking — and rejecting — the telltale black lines.
Having chosen pristine cassava for your meal, what happens next?
First, peel the cassava with a sharp knife. A vegetable peeler does not work as well. Remove the thin, white membrane surrounding the cassava under the bark-like peel. Cut the roots into equal lengths. Boil in salted water until tender enough so a knife slips in easily.
EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME
This is the second in a series exploring the food of the African continent, with a focus on individual ingredients and traditional recipes to bring the African pantry to your home.
The first article featured the peanut.
Future articles will feature black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.
Cassava can be quite fibrous, with a tough, stringy core that must be removed. Generally this core is not a problem, because as cassava cooks, it splits apart and the core can easily be removed. If you’d rather not hassle with peeling and boiling, seek a market specializing in Asian and other international foods. In the freezer section, you will likely find frozen cassava, ready to cook. You might also find cassava in cans there, too.
Now that you’ve got your peeled cassava on the kitchen counter, you’re probably wondering about the best way to cook it.
Skilled cooks in Africa developed a number of methods — grating, pounding and drying cassava into flour — to make its rather bland flavor pop in the mouth. Such techniques have resulted in commercial products that take a lot of the burden off of the cook. Tapioca pudding is made from dried cassava, available in nearly any grocery store.
Cassava flour can be used for making fufu, too. Gari adds texture to soups and other dishes. It can also be used in place of panko, a real boon to those on a gluten-free diet.
But if you opt to start from scratch, add large chunks of cassava to a meaty stew instead of potatoes. Try eating boiled cassava drenched with a spicy peanut sauce. Or simply fry it in the same way you might do with potatoes for French fries. Served a fiery pepper sauce, fried cassava offers a fresh taste of Africa.
Give cassava a try. I guarantee you will fall in love with it, too.
Cassava “French Fries”
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes, depending upon the number of roots
Cook time: 25 to 40 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes to 1 hour
Yield: Serves two
4 10- to 12-inch-long cassava roots
1 tablespoon salt
Vegetable oil for frying
1. With a sharp knife, remove the pointed tips and peel the cassava, making sure to remove the thin membrane just under the bark-like peel.
2. Cut the cassava into 4- to 6-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise and then cut those into French fry-size sticks.
3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stove top. Add about 1 tablespoon of salt and the cassava. Reduce heat to a fast simmer, and cook the cassava until quite tender, usually about 20 to 30 minutes. Check doneness by poking a piece with a knife.
4. When done, drain the cassava and let cool slightly. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, heat oil to a depth of 1/4 inch over medium-high heat. Add the drained cassava and cook until cassava is a light golden brown.
5. Remove cassava from the oil, drain on paper towels, arrange on serving plates, and place a few tablespoons of the pepper sauce (recipe below) on each plate. Serve immediately.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups
10 habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers, orange or red, seeded and roughly chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
4 Roma tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Salt to taste
1 cup vegetable oil, divided
1. Place all the ingredients, except for 1/2 cup of the oil, in a blender or food processor. Purée.
2. In a heavy skillet, heat the remaining 1/2 cup of oil over medium-high heat. Being cautious to avoid splattering oil, add the sauce and reduce the heat immediately to medium-low. Cook the sauce for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning.
3. Remove from heat, and let the sauce cool.
4. Store in a clean glass jar in your refrigerator, where it will be good for about a week. Be sure the sauce is always topped with a thin layer of oil. This helps to keep it safe and fresh.
Main photo: London’s large Ghanaian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Copyright Cynthia Bertelsen
Jamaica, spelled like the Caribbean island but pronounced ha-MY-ka, a flower in the hibiscus family, makes one of Mexico’s most beloved and refreshing drinks, agua de jamaica. The ruby-red, tart, sweet yet often mouth-puckering refresher can be spotted in huge glass jars in almost every traditional market across the country.
By contrast, at high-end restaurants — from the southern state of Oaxaca’s Casa Oaxaca through Mexico City’s Pujol to the country’s northwest corner at Tijuana’s Mission 19 — trendy mixologists serve jamaica cocktails shaken or stirred. These pros know the sexy red color sparkles in Mexican Cosmopolitans (non-aged, clear tequila and jamaica vs. vodka and cranberry) when a customer desires to sip from a chic martini glass.
You can buy dried jamaica flowers, Hibiscus sabdariffa, in bulk at Mexican markets or in cellophane-wrapped packs hanging from hooks near dried chiles. Always be sure the jamaica is from Mexico and not from China; the cheaper Chinese product (the catch!) has insipid flavor and weak color. And don’t confuse this hibiscus with the huge-flowered plants called hibiscus blossoming in all their glory in tropical and subtropical back yards.
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You can brew jamaica as tea, then strain and discard the flowers. It is rarely served as hot tea in warm climates except as a calming cure for urinary tract infections. Think of jamaica and its curative powers as Mexico’s answer to cranberry juice. Both extremely tart, the brilliant crimson liquids must be sweetened to be easily drinkable, and science has confirmed metabolites in their juice prevent E. coli from sticking to other bacteria, limiting its ability to grow and multiply. In most cases, minor infections are improved in a day after downing four cups of either drink, hot or cold.
In Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca‘s rug weaving center, Zapotec chef Abigail Mendoza of Tlamanalli restaurant brews agua de jamaica strong and sweetens it with panela, cones of deep brown unrefined sugar called piloncillo in most other regions of Mexico. She makes it in and serves it from a bulbous pitcher with narrow top. Mendoza whips up the drink using a molinillo (a hard-carved wooden foaming too) until the top is covered with copious bubbly foam. The foam is an important part of any traditional drink in this part of Mexico because people feel the drink’s spirit is in the foam and without bubbles the drink has no life, or is at best past its prime.
Besides hot tea and agua de jamaica, highly flavored jamaica simple syrup is a joy to have on hand for various uses, especially cocktails; its sweet-sour flavor is similar to pomegranate molasses and some balsamic vinegars. Try the sophisticated flavor over strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream. In the past few years, jamaica salad dressings have popped up in restaurants everywhere and are delicious yet simple to make. Modern-style restaurant bar menus offer quesadillas (folded corn tortillas with melted cheese inside) de jamaica, although many in Mexico City have no cheese — odd, but trés cool bar snacks with the hipster low-fat crowd. High-end gourmet shops sell elaborate candied jamaica flowers to decorate fine desserts. On the other hand, a longtime childhood favorite is the traditional, beloved jamaica frozen ice pop found at street corner push carts. (Hear the bell?)
Jamaica Tea (Agua de Jamaica)
This tea can be served hot or cold.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: About 4 cups
4 cups water, plus more for diluting
1 cup dried jamaica flowers (Mexican, not Chinese)
Ice, if desired
1 cup sugar (white, brown or agave syrup), or more to taste
1. Stir the jamaica into the water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 20 minutes.
2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a container. Add water to dilute to your liking.
3. Heat to serve hot or chill with ice to serve cold. Stir in sweetener to taste, or add sweetener separately to each cup or glass. The tea will keep for three days refrigerated.
Jamaica Simple Syrup
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: About 1 cup
4 cups Jamaica Tea, unsweetened (see recipe above)
1 cup white sugar
Pinch sea salt or kosher salt
1. Boil the unsweetened jamaica tea until it is reduced by half, about 20 to 25 minutes.
2. Add the sugar and a pinch of salt and boil until it is reduced by half again, to 1 cup, about 20 minutes more.
3. Remove from the heat and cool until the strong bubbles die down. Carefully pour the hot, thick syrup into an airtight glass jar. The syrup will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Jamaica Salad Dressing
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: About 1/2 cup
3 1/2 tablespoons Jamaica Simple Syrup (see recipe above)
1/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
6 grinds black peppercorns
1 small clove garlic, smashed and finely chopped
2 tablespoons Mexican lime (aka Key) juice
1/3 cup quality extra virgin olive oil
10 jamaica flowers, finely chopped
1. Measure Jamaica Simple Syrup into a small bowl. Whisk in the salt, pepper, garlic and lime juice.
2. Slowly pour in the oil, whisking until fully blended.
3. Whisk in the chopped flowers. Pour as much as desired over chilled salad greens of your choice and toss.
Note: This dressing is a real treat on a salad with queso fresco, feta or goat cheese scattered on top.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 8 quesadillas
2 cups water
1/2 cup coarsely chopped jamaica flowers
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sugar or agave syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed and finely chopped (You can keep the seeds for spice.)
8 corn tortillas, about 8 inches in diameter
2 cups shredded melting cheese, such as quesillo de Oaxaca, mozzarella or Jack
1. Stir the jamaica into a saucepan of water and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 10 minutes.
2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing to extract all liquid into a container, saving the flowers. Reserve the tea for another purpose.
3. Heat the oil in a small skillet. Add the flowers, sweetener, salt and chopped chile. Sauté over medium-low heat until sticky, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
4. Put the tortillas on a preheated, medium-hot ungreased griddle. Spoon some of the jamaica mixture to one side of each tortilla and then pile with cheese, keeping it away from the edges. Fold the empty tortilla half over the half with jamaica. Press with a spatula. When the bottoms of the tortillas crisp a bit, flip them over to crisp the other sides and melt the cheese.
5. Remove to a cutting board and cut into wedges.
Main photo: Jamaica Quesadillas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky