Articles in History

Clockwise from top, broccoli, potato and cabbage knishes. Credit: Tyler J. Kelley

Knishes are packed with more than flaky, potatoey deliciousness. “The knish is really stuffed with stories,” said Laura Silver, author of the new book, “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food.” Her many pilgrimages on behalf of the knish — “a pillow of filling tucked into a skin of dough” — took Silver from Poland to Israel. But the story really began with Mrs. Stahl’s of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the knish-maker her grandmother loved best. The shop’s demise in 2005 is what ignited Silver’s obsession to get inside this dense, satisfying “potato pie.”

One stop on her quest was the town of Knyszyn, Poland, home to Silver’s ancestors and some knish lore. There she heard the legend of a king who was traveling, tired and hungry, through a forest. He emerged in a hamlet where he was served a tasty dumpling called a knish. He liked it so much he named the place after it.

AUTHOR


Tyler Kelley. Credit: Erandi Carranza

Tyler J. Kelley, a writer based in New York City , reported this story in association with Round Earth Media. Photo credit: Erandi Carranza

Tracing knish history

The food’s precise origin is unknown, and Silver speculates broadly, but the earliest mention places it somewhere between a Polish poem from 1614 and a Polish town with a knish-related name dating to 1347 (Knyszyn landed on the map later, in 1569). In present-day Poland, Silver concluded, the knish has disappeared. She carried pictures of the storied pastry with her in lieu of a translator, but no one recognized it.

Silver also learned that knishes weren’t necessarily a Jewish food; in early references they are filled with meat and eaten on All Saints’ Day, November 1. In fact, the knish was “severely underrepresented” among the stuffed-dough options she found in Israel. Apparently when Europe’s Jewish families emigrated to the New World, the knish went with them. It flourished in the first half of the 20th century, when it was a popular street food in New York’s teeming immigrant neighborhoods.

Knish Nosh

Today Knish Nosh is one of only two New York City concerns dedicated solely to the savory pastry. The Queens location has a lived-in, no-nonsense feel that suits the humble knish well. Silver’s favorite is the kasha knish, $3.50, filled with buckwheat groats. Every Knish Nosh knish follows the traditional form: round, fist-shaped and dense, with a little bit of stuffing revealed on top. Strong mustard appears to be the requisite condiment everywhere except Minnesota, where mayonnaise and even ketchup are not unheard of.

Behind the counter at Knish Nosh is Anna Vasilescu, head chef. She is from Romania and didn’t grow up on knishes. Her father disliked potatoes, a central knish ingredient, because in the military that was all he ate, Vasilescu said. After the service, he never wanted to eat them again. Now his daughter is a dedicated potato purveyor. Nearly every customer who walks in knows Vasilescu, and half seem to get a knish on the house, with the instruction, “Just enjoy, sweetheart.”

 

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Knish Nosh opened in Queens, New York, in 1952. Credit: Tyler J. Kelley

Knish Nosh owner Haig Schneiderman said he’s gotten requests from Florida to have a knish shipped overnight for a loved one who is dying. “People get emotionally attached,” he said. Silver believes the knish “is poised for a full comeback,” and Schneiderman plans to be in the vanguard. He recently opened a Knish Nosh in Central Park, and more are in the works. He said he intends to make the knish “as strong as the bagel” and sees Knish Nosh becoming ubiquitous, “like Chipotle.”

The story within

Making and eating knishes is an essential part of Silver’s vision, and it’s pretty much impossible to read her book without getting hungry. She is not just relaying the history of an overlooked food, however; she wants to bring people together to talk, and to share. Conversation over knishes, she said, “is the crux of my book — I hope.”

“A knish that tastes good probably has a good story behind or within it,” she said. “The story isn’t always evident, but it’s akin to the fact that food made with love generally tastes better.” Silver almost always brings knishes to her speaking engagements. When a knish shipment failed to reach Banff, Alberta, Canada, where she was attending a conference, she simply gathered fellow attendees and made a batch from scratch.

“Every culture has its knish, a wrapped food or a food that evokes memories,” Silver said. “Dough-based foods tend to have that effect on people.” For someone from the American South it could be a biscuit, for a Midwesterner a piece of pie. In Silver’s mind, it’s any food “for which people will go to great lengths.”

If you are willing to go to great lengths to revive this tradition-laden food, Silver has supplied a recipe dear to her heart. She wrote that “Fannie Stahl’s granddaughters summoned recovered memories to bring this recipe to life.” You’ll have plenty of time for conversation and stories while making it. Making knishes, Silver said, “takes a special kind of commitment.”

Recipe: Mrs. Stahl’s Potato Knishes

Yield: Makes about 18 knishes

Ingredients

For the dough:

3¼ cups flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup vegetable oil

1 cup lukewarm water

Directions

1. Turn oven on low until dough is ready. Mix flour, sugar and salt. Add oil and water. Mix with a spoon until the dough pulls together, or use a food processor or stand mixer (with a dough hook). Turn out the dough on board and knead it, incorporating all pieces. Knead until dough is one piece, smooth and glossy. Turn off the oven. Oil the dough and place it in oiled, covered bowl. Place in oven until you are ready to use it. Let the dough rest at least 2 hours; the dough should barely rise, if at all. Keeping the dough overnight in the refrigerator is fine. Bring it back to room temperature before use.

Ingredients

For the potato filling:

6 pounds russet or new potatoes

1 cup oil

¼ cup salt, or to taste

1½ teaspoons pepper

8 cups thinly sliced raw onions

Directions:

1. Scrub potatoes and peel them, unless the new potatoes have very thin, unblemished skins. Boil potatoes for about 20 minutes until knife-tender, then drain. Mash with a potato masher. Add oil, salt and pepper to taste. Mix. Stir in the onion.

Assembling and baking

1. Use vegetable oil and flour as needed.

2. Preheat oven to 450 F.

3. Roll out about half the dough on a lightly floured counter or tabletop. Roll with handle-less rod-style rolling pin out from the center until dough is thin enough to see through, about 1 ⁄16-inch thick.

4. Oil top edge of dough with a pastry brush. Place a 2-inch-diameter line of filling about 2 inches from the top edge of the dough. Pick up top edge and drape over filling. Brush oil on dough in a 2-inch strip on the bottom edge of the filling. Pick up the dough with filling and roll again onto the oiled dough, compressing the filled dough as you turn it. Repeat until the dough covers the filling three to four times, being sure always to brush oil on the dough first. Use a knife to separate the filled potato knish log from the remaining dough. Cut off edges of filled dough. Cut the filled roll into pieces about 6 inches long and coil each piece like a snail. Tuck the remaining end into the bottom of the coil. Alternatively, place stuffed roll of dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet and slash with a knife crosswise every 2 inches. Leave an inch of space between each roll or coil of dough.

5. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until the knish skin is browned and knishes are cooked through. Start knishes on lowest rack of the oven and raise them to top rack after about 10 to 12 minutes. Let the knishes cool in pan. If you cooked the knishes in long rolls, cut them into individual pieces.

Knishes can be reheated in the oven or in a skillet on the stovetop.


Recipe from: Faith Kramer, “Mrs. Stahl’s Famous Knish Recipe Finally Found—in San Francisco,” j. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, September 27, 2012. Excerpted from Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food by Laura Silver, published by Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England (www.upne.com), May 6, 2014.

Tyler J. Kelley, a New York-based writer, reported this story in association with Round Earth Media. Kelley’s documentary “Following Seas” is due out in 2015.

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Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs. Credit Laura Kelley

Dr. Seuss’ Sam-I-Am would smile at the sight of these green eggs.

Century Eggs, or 1,000-Year Eggs, are classics in their own right, not a riff on a timeless children’s book. You won’t find them in Sam-I-Am’s house, box, car, tree or train, but these eggs appear in a rice porridge, or congee, that is enjoyed throughout Asia. The eggs in this congee are indeed green, or at least the yolks of homemade 1,000-Year Eggs are.  And the ham is represented by bits of diced pork suspended in the rice porridge.

Congee is perhaps the most commonly eaten food in the world. People across Asia enjoy rice porridge with a variety of condiments on nearly a daily basis. That’s possibly as many as 3.5 billion bowls of congee eaten daily. These porridges are often eaten for breakfast or for a late supper or snack, but are also considered the best food for people convalescing from an illness and are acceptable complementary foods for young infants in most cultures as well. Congee is another one of the ancient foods that are also considered good medicine.

Most often made from rice left over from the previous night’s dinner, congee is made by simply simmering rice in a liquid until it begins to lose its form. Some congees are drier — like prepared oatmeal — while others are more moist — like rice soup. When there is no leftover rice or it has been earmarked for a fried rice dish, congee can be made from uncooked rice. The raw rice is generally washed and soaked before cooking and requires more water and time to prepare. One way to reduce the time needed to cook congee from raw rice is to freeze the raw rice overnight. The freezing and thawing breaks down the rice, and it cooks quickly when compared to unfrozen raw rice. In high altitude or cold areas where rice is traditionally imported, congees are made from other grains or vegetables such as millet, wheat or corn.

Homemade 1,000-Year Eggs

The most wonderful thing about congees is the variety of ingredients used to flavor them, everything from fish paste or bean paste to bits of meat, fish, shrimp or other shellfish, and even snails. Vegetables, especially spring onions and preserved radish are commonly used, but I’ve also seen congees with bits of pickled tamarind and tea leaves in them. Flavors range from sour to spicy, savory and, although not too common, can even be mildly sweet.

Pine-patterned egg. Credit: Laura Kelley

Pine-patterned egg. Credit: Laura Kelley

The following congee dish features slices of my homemade 1,000-Year Eggs. Also called Century Eggs, pine-patterned eggs, or “pidan”  in Chinese, they are made by coating fresh, fertilized but uncooked eggs in a caustic mud casing of wood and charcoal ash, tea, salt, lime and rice chaff and burying the eggs in a soil-lined container outside. Then one lets them sit for three or four months exposed to the elements — longer in colder weather — before harvesting. Leaving fertilized eggs outside in the heat, one would expect them to rot. Instead something magical happens and the egg proteins are transformed by the chemicals in the caustic mud. The usually yellow yolk becomes a dark, forest green, and the clear or white yolk becomes amber to brown — all without cooking.

After the ingredients to make Century Eggs are mixed,  the NaOH (sodium hydroxide) is first adsorbed to the surface, and, owing to a change in the osmotic pressure, NaOH enters the egg through the pores and subsequently penetrates the semi-permeable membrane, coming into contact with the egg protein, causing it to become denaturized and hydrolyzed into polypeptides and finally into amino acids.

Nutritional benefits

The result is that 1,000-Year Eggs are much higher in protein and much lower in carbohydrates than unpreserved duck eggs. Other nutritional elements such as amino acids and fatty acids are about equal between the two egg forms, although the preserved egg generally has a bit less of everything in it.

To harvest the eggs, one just need clean them, crack the shells and eat — no cooking needed. If refrigeration is available, they can be stored for long periods. They are enjoyed in congees and soups across eastern Asia, in salads and noodles in Myanmar and Thailand, with tofu and sauce in a number of places, like Taiwan. One of my favorite ways to enjoy them is simply wrapped in pickled ginger as they do in Cantonese cuisine. The flavor of the egg is strong, sort of like a pungent cheese, but it is enjoyable.  In this congee, the 1,000-Year Eggs provide accent and interest to the savory rice porridge.

For a detailed recipe on how to produce 1,000-Year Eggs the traditional way, see the “Silk Road Gourmet” website. If making them the traditional way at home is more Century Egg than you can muster, you can find the eggs in most Asian markets. I enjoy the homemade variety because it is less salty and pungent and has far-gentler ammonia aroma than store-bought eggs.

For a middle ground, try the recipe below. Wherever you enjoy the Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs, whether it is in a house with a mouse or in a box with a fox, I hope you savor it as much as Sam-I-Am.

Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 cups, 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • ½ pound pork, minced
  • 5 to 6 spring onions
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 2½ to 3 cups short-grain rice, cooked
  • 4 to 5 cups liquid (water, broth, or stock, or a mixture)*
  • ½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
  • 2 to 3 Century Eggs, sliced into quarters or eighths
  • Suggested condiments: more minced spring-onion greens, soy sauce, black or red vinegar, sliced pickled ginger, and chili oil

Directions

  1. Heat the sesame oil in a large saucepan. When the oil starts to smoke, add the pork and stir rapidly until it becomes opaque and begins to become firm, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the whites of the spring onions, and the garlic, both minced, and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the liquid and stir until warmed to a boil. Add the cooked rice and return to a boil.
  2. Lower heat, and simmer covered until rice is fully saturated and begins to fall apart. Stir every 10 minutes or so to avoid burning. Cooking time will vary with the type of rice used and can range from 15 to 20 minutes for sweet rice to 45 to 50 minutes for haiga rice (whole grain, white rice, but hulled).
  3. When the congee is done, ladle it into individual bowls and garnish with some of the spring-onion greens and the sliced 1,000-Year Eggs. Place a selection of condiments on the table for your guests to choose from.

Notes

-- The type of cooking liquid can vary depending on how savory you want your congee. One of my favorite mixtures is 2 cups beef stock, 2 cups chicken stock and 1 cup water. The more stock added, the more off-white or tan-colored the congee will appear. Recommend using 4 cups of liquid for regular short-grain rice and 5 cups of liquid for hiaga or brown rice.

-- Cooking time will vary widely depending on the type of rice used. Cooking time here is estimated for short-grain haiga rice.

Main photo: Congee With Pork and 1,000-Year Eggs. Credit Laura Kelley

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Menu cards illustrated by Monica Rawlins for dinners at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

Anyone for delicious little frivolities with an aristocratic pedigree?

The peculiarly English habit of serving something savory as the final course in a meal — the place usually occupied by cheese — was still in fashion in the grander country houses of England until about half a century ago, when it dropped out of favor in domestic kitchens, although the custom didn’t entirely vanish in London’s gentlemen’s clubs and at formal civic occasions.

Savory bites originally intended to show off host’s good fortune

The savory — for those who’ve never been confronted by this small and salty bite on toast immediately after dessert — is a Victorian introduction to the British menu designed to show off the servants and the silver with as many courses as possible in the high old days of empire. Classics of the genre were roasted marrow bones; deviled herring roes; sweetbreads; chicken livers; smoked fish; salted anchovies pounded with butter; and prunes or oysters wrapped in bacon and flashed under the grill (devils and angels on horseback, respectively).

Savories, simple to prepare and good with the gentlemen’s port, suited the style of the relatively servantless 1920s. Agnes Jekyll, a columnist at the London Times, devotes an entire chapter to them in her book “Kitchen Essays” (London, 1922). Agnes’ sister-in-law Gertrude, known as Lady Jekyll, suggests puff-pastry boats as a more elegant vehicle than toast, as these can be prepared in advance and filled “with all manner of cargo such as eggs scrambled with cheese, or cold hard-boiled and chopped with a little gherkin and capers, sardines made into a purée beneath a thin veil of a soufflé mixture or a savoury custard, slightly browned in the oven; anchovies beaten with cream into a cold cayenne mousse, or coming chilled from the refrigerator with a thin sprinkle of cress.”

Place cards created by Monica Rawlins for meals at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

Place cards created by Monica Rawlins for meals at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

Agnes Jekyll’s readership at the time included my husband’s godmother, Monica Rawlins — born at the turn of the century — who acted as her father’s hostess at the family home, Syston Manor in Somerset, after the early death of her mother. Miss Rawlins’ delightful illustrated menus indicate six courses, concluding with the savory. As the youngest of three daughters and three sons (two killed in World War I), she was expected to remain unmarried at home — all very “Downton Abbey.” But she escaped to live a bohemian life as an artist in Wales, never married and left me, the widow of her godson, a glove box full of her menu cards and her annotated Edwardian-era cookbooks in the remote farmhouse that was hers for the rest of her life, and where I now live.

Savories are simple, delicious and too good to lose for lack of a menu opening. Serve them in much the same way as tapas or mezze, in combination and all on the table at the same time.

Choose four recipes to share between four people as the main course — no need for starters, though a green salad would not come amiss. Savories are also perfect for a summer lunch or a candlelit kitchen supper.

Queen Victoria’s Beef Marrow Toasts

Her Imperial Majesty’s chef, Charles Francatelli, confided to his readership that his royal employer, in spite of rumors concerning her health after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, was fortified with this little treat every day.

Serves 4

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

2 beef or veal marrow bones

4 slices of white bread

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot or spring onion

Juice of 1 lemon

Directions

1. Have the butcher break the bone open to allow you to get at the marrow. Remove the raw marrow and cut it into hazelnut-sized pieces.

2. When you’re ready to serve, poach the marrow pieces delicately in a little boiling salted water for one minute only, and then drain immediately.

3. Meanwhile, toast the bread and then cut it into squares.

4. Pile the marrow on the hot toast, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with the parsley, onion and a squeeze of lemon and serve without delay — marrow sets as it cools.

Lady Jekyll’s Mushroom Toasts

This was Miss Rawlins’ favorite savory, made with the big, flat field mushrooms that spring up overnight in the sheep pastures surrounding her house in the Welsh hills.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 ounces butter

8 large open-cap mushrooms

Salt to taste

8 tablespoons thick cream

1 teaspoon English mustard

White pepper to taste

Bread rounds for serving

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a frying pan and lay in the caps (save the stalks for a sauce or soup). Salt lightly and be patient while they lose their moisture and begin to fry. First they will sizzle, and then juices will run.

2. Meanwhile, combine the cream with the mustard and pepper and mix well.

3. Transfer the mushrooms carefully to a gratin dish when done. Finish each cap with a tablespoon of the cream seasoned with mustard and pepper.

4. Slip the dish under a grill or broiler until the cream bubbles.

5. Serve on bread toasted in the buttery juices left in the pan — get the pan good and hot so the bread is really crisp.

The Duchess of Windsor’s Doigts au Fromage (Fingers of Cheese)

The former Mrs. Simpson — hostess-with-the-mostest in postwar Paris — astonished her sophisticated guests with her English savories, an idea unknown in France. “A meal,” she said, “should always be witty and include a surprise.” Frozen cheese fingers supplies both.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Freeze Time: 2 to 3 hours

Total Time: start 2 to 3 hours ahead, 30 minutes prep and finish

Ingredients

1 medium-ripe camembert, crusts removed

1 heaped tablespoon curd cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ pint (½ cup) heavy cream, whipped stiff

Grated parmesan for dusting

Directions

1. Blend the camembert and curd cheese together by pushing them through a sieve or chop thoroughly in the food processor.

2. Season with salt and pepper and fold in the whipped cream.

3. Spread a layer the thickness of your thumb on a baking tray lined with cling film. Turn out the cheese mixture onto a hard, clean surface and cut into fingers.

4. Dust with finely grated parmesan and serve ice cold. This is perfect served with ripe strawberries dressed with a few drops of balsamic vinegar.

Main illustration: Menu cards illustrated by Monica Rawlins for dinners at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

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A raspberry trifle. Credit: Kathy Hunt

As a lifelong sweets lover, I think of summertime as the season where I cast aside my beloved rich, wintry desserts for light, fruity treats. One dish that always tops my list of summer offerings is the trifle. Composed of layers of liquor-doused sponge cake, fruit or preserves, custard and whipped cream, this heavenly British original is far from trivial.

Although it may sound unfamiliar to many Americans, this creamy creation has wowed Britain since the Middle Ages. Trifle first appeared in print in T. Dawson’s 1596 book “The Good Huswifes Jewell” and consisted of spiced, sweetened and boiled cream.

The trifle has grown more elaborate more tasty over time

During the 18th century, the trifle became much more elaborate. So did its presentation. In order for guests to see the ingredients, sponge cake or macaroons were placed into a clear glass bowl. They were then wetted with wine, brandy or sherry. Blanketed by custard, they were ultimately topped by the frothy milk and wine or fruit juice combo known as syllabub.

The city of Cambridge specialized in several trifles, one of which was known as “the duke’s custard.” Here, brandied Morello cherries were slipped between the sponge cake and custard. Cambridge also had “the dean’s cream,” which incorporated candied fruit, and “chapel trifle,” which substituted jam for the alcohol.

The addition of fruit turned the trifle into a sophisticated confection. No longer was it just a bowl of velvety custard, cream and dampened cake. Now diners encountered distinct textures and flavors. With this, the modern trifle was born.

Fruit added complexity and sweetness to the dessert. It also increased its exquisiteness. When viewed from the side, the contrasting bands of gold from the cookies, orange, violet or ruby from the fruit, blond custard and white cream were striking. It’s not surprising that 18th-century cookbook author Hannah Glasse said that, with burning candles placed around it, a fruit preserve-laced trifle made a beautiful centerpiece.

In Victorian England, trifle became the dessert to be served at festive occasions. It was a staple of the banquet table and served as a light alternative to another British classic, Christmas pudding.

Over the decades cooks have experimented with this lovely sweet, occasionally transforming it into something far less pleasing. I think specifically of the 1890s savory trifle. In it fried bread took the place of sponge cake, chunks of lobster replaced the fruit and mayonnaise stood in for the custard.

In recipes aimed at England’s working poor, early 20th-century British food lecturer Florence Petty tried to inject some whimsy and fun. To that end, she refashioned the trifle into a main dish made from leftovers. Dubbed “beef trifle,” her creation consisted of meat mixed with horseradish and breadcrumbs. Topped with layers of beaten eggs and gravy, Petty’s beef trifle was baked and served in a glass bowl as the evening entree.

Another less radical take was the Indian trifle, which included rice and cinnamon. Closer to the original are those recipes that replace the alcohol used for softening the sponge cake with coffee, coconut milk or liqueur.

Because of my nagging sweet tooth, I stick with tried-and-true dessert trifles, with a few tweaks, or course. Instead of the traditional sponge cake, I substitute Italian ladyfingers or amaretti cookies and pour Madeira or other sweet, white wine over them. If I’m serving this to children as well as adults, I use the fruit’s macerating liquid or orange juice in place of the alcohol.

As for the colorful, fruity layer, some cooks insist on using preserves rather than fruit. Not me. Although this dessert tastes magnificent with virtually any fruit, I like a mixture of macerated raspberries and blueberries, mangoes and kiwis, plums, apricots, strawberries or passion fruit. In the winter, canned peaches or pomegranate seeds are equally divine.

Regarding the final two tiers, custard and whipped cream made from scratch are musts. Neither takes long to prepare, yet both taste so much better than what you’ll get from a box or an aerosol can. To add a bit of zing, I sprinkle chopped pistachios, toasted almond slivers, citrus zest or pomegranate seeds over the whipped cream.

This summer cast aside the usual pies, cobblers and ice creams for British trifles. They never fail to please both visually and gastronomically.

Almond-Raspberry Trifle

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

You can make this in one large, clear glass bowl or small, individual glass bowls.

Ingredients

    For the fruit and cookies:
  • 12 ounces fresh raspberries
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cranberry juice
  • 12 to 14 ladyfinger or amaretti cookies
  • ½ cup white wine
  • For the custard:
  • 3 large eggs plus 2 egg yolks
  • ½ cup sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • For the whipped cream:
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • For the garnish:
  • 2 tablespoons sliced blanched almonds, toasted

Directions

  1. Toss the raspberries, sugar and cranberry juice together in a bowl and allow the ingredients to steep for 30 minutes or so.
  2. As the berries are macerating, make the custard. Place the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, almond and vanilla extracts and pinch of salt into a saucepan and, over medium heat, stir the ingredients until combined. Slowly pour in the milk and cornstarch, stirring continually. Keep cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick and the custard can coat the back of a spoon and it reaches a temperature of 180 F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and allow the custard to cool.
  3. In either a large glass bowl or smaller individual bowls, line up the ladyfingers until the bottom is covered. So that I can fit more cookies in the bowl, I like to place them on their sides rather than bottoms.
  4. Using a strainer, strain the berries, reserving their juices. You should end up with roughly ¼ cup of liquid. Add the wine to the juice and pour the mixture over the ladyfingers so that all are coated.
  5. At this point make the whipped cream. In a medium bowl beat together the cream, almond extract and sugar until stiff peaks form.
  6. To assemble the trifle, evenly spoon the raspberries over the ladyfingers. Pour the cooled custard over the berries. Spread the whipped cream over the custard and then top it with the toasted almonds. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Main photo: A raspberry trifle. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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Partners Caroline Shin and Glen Ishii of JiST, a breakfast and lunch spot in L.A.'s historic Little Tokyo neighborhood. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

There’s something home-away-from-home comfortable about having a good breakfast at a cafe that seems to truly belong in the neighborhood. If the restaurateurs have deep roots in the area’s past and give every sign that they’ll be part of its future, all the better.

And if that shared history of cafe and neighborhood includes three generations of chefs, Louis Armstrong, one of the U.S. government’s most egregious civil rights violations of the past century and a marinade that’s seven decades old, you have plenty of reasons to stick around.

JiST, a breakfast and lunch spot opened by partners Glen Ishii and Caroline Shin, is less than a year old but comes with roots set deep in one of Los Angeles’ most interesting historic areas: Little Tokyo. It’s an airy 65-seat restaurant with wood-block paneling and some of its tables in a courtyard facing the old Japanese Union Church where the East West Players perform. Its menu pays homage to classic Japanese cafe food but with a decided nod to modern sensibilities.

Neighborhood’s blended roots

The roots reach back to Ishii’s grandmother, Shigechiyo, who opened the Tokyo Cafe in the 1940s just a few blocks from their current location. At the beginning of that decade, Little Tokyo was home to about 30,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, notes Bill Watanabe, retired executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center’s Community Development Corp.

 

jistdish_pork-hash

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Chashu Pork Hash Skillet served with two perfect six-minute eggs. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Then came Pearl Harbor, followed by Executive Order 9066, a stain on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency: the forced internment of about 122,000 citizens of Japanese descent, including Shigechiyo. (Watanabe was born in the Manzanar internment camp.) In short order, Little Tokyo was emptied of the residents who gave the area its name. As vacuums are want to be filled, it was soon home to 70,000 mostly Southern blacks drawn to a California defense industry starving for workers.

The neighborhood took on a not-particularly-PC name: Bronzeville. And with the new residents came jazz clubs. Hotels, including one that once stood across from JiST’s location, were soon catering to the likes of Armstrong, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker and William “Count” Basie.

The war’s end brought a return of many original residents as the blacks moved on to South Central neighborhoods. Shigechiyo returned to her stove, followed into the business by Ishii’s parents (mother Tokiko still works in his cafe) and his uncle.

Ishii, who attended the neighborhood’s Maryknoll School and worked for his parents as a youth, didn’t start out in the business. He attended Cal Poly Pomona, did a one-year scholarship in Japan, studied hotel management, “discovered French cuisine,” he says, and got a job with downtown L.A.’s Omni Hotel. But when his uncle was ready to retire, he decided — with a decided push from Omni colleague Shin — to take a chance.

“He always wanted to open a breakfast-lunch business,” says Shin, and his uncle’s place “just had a feeling that it could be something special.”

JiST menu reflects tradition elevated

From the beginning, it was about family and food. The family is built into the name: J is for Shin’s mother, Joonhae. Tokiko lends her initial to the mix, and Ishii and Shin are sandwiched between, as offspring should be.

The menu reflects tradition elevated. There are various pancakes, all starting from a crème fraiche batter. French toast (“we always had French toast on weekends growing up,” says Shin) soaked in creme brûlée. And breakfast potatoes with two perfect six-minute eggs served with chashu pork, made with that marinade the family nursed through the decades. (It’s fed several times a week to keep it going, like a fine bread starter.)

The food draws three generations, with his family’s loyal clientele mixing with a younger crowd that is fast discovering Little Tokyo. The area still has well-established businesses: Anzen Hardware, a distinctly old-school purveyor of nuts and bolts, is not much wider that Shaquille O’Neal’s wing span. Fugetsu-do, operating since 1903, still sells the colorful Japanese rice cakes called mochi. And the old neon Far East Chop Suey sign hangs over 1st Avenue.

But the Far East is now the Far Bar, jammed with hipsters on weekends. And two blocks from JiST, the Avalon Corp. is building 280 units of housing, with two-bedroom rental units beginning at $2,900 a month, a pool, rooftop deck and “chill lounge” — all of which suggest that Little Tokyo’s future may lean toward young professionals working in nearby downtown.

The trick, says Watanabe, is to preserve the old amid the new, to “respect the history.”

The partners are focused on setting their own roots in the neighborhood — with an eye on expanding elsewhere in L.A. But for now, they’ll stick with serving breakfast and lunch — dished up, Shin says, before the day gets people down.

“No one comes in unhappy,” she says. Or, one suspects, leaves hungry.

Main photo: Partners Caroline Shin and Glen Ishii of JiST, a breakfast and lunch spot in L.A.’s historic Little Tokyo neighborhood. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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The first course of a shojin ryori meal, including goma-dofu, in Kyoto, Japan. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Today, we live in a world where many things have gone wrong with the diets of many people. These include inhumanely raised meat and poultry laden with antibiotics and hormones, and mass-made products laced with preservatives and artificial coloring and flavoring agents. Since these foods are cheap, convenient and readily available, people may consume too much of them, contributing to ever-increasing problems with obesity in the population. These are complex problems with no quick and easy solution, but there is a path that we can take to guide us toward a better way of preparing and consuming our daily food.

Shojin ryori: The backbone of Japanese food culture

Let us take a journey to search for the spirit of shojin ryori, the venerable Japanese vegetarian cuisine. The ideas behind this vegetarian cuisine were introduced to Japan by the famous monk Dogen, who traveled to China in the 13th century to study Zen Buddhism, then returned and founded several temples in Japan. Only monks at the temple followed the strictly vegetarian shojin ryori diet; the rest of the population depended on a diet of grains, fish, legumes, vegetables and fruit. However, the spirit of shojin ryori deeply penetrated the lives and dining styles of ordinary people and became the backbone of Japanese food culture — why we eat, how we eat and what we eat.

Dogen prohibited the monks at his temples from slaughtering animals for human consumption, in the belief that killing is an inhumane act that interferes with the training of the monks who meditate in order to attain enlightenment. Shojin means a process of continuous meditation; ryori means cuisine. Zen Buddhist monks meditate at the temple throughout the day — even the time for preparing and consuming meals is an important period of meditation. To the monks, meals are not for enjoyment or satisfying hunger, but for sustaining their health so they can continue to meditate.

At each meal, Zen monks recite five teachings. This is the essence of that recitation:

1. We offer great thanks to nature that has brought us food to this table. We offer great thanks to the people who made our meal possible at this table, especially thanks to the monk-cooks who devoted their labor and time to prepare the dishes and to the farmers who produced this bounty.

2. We reflect to ourselves before consuming a meal, “Do we deserve to receive this meal?”

3. We do not bring human desires, including greed, anger or other emotions, to the table.

4. Our meal is like medicine for us. Our humble, but balanced meal nourishes both our mental and physical health.

5. Mealtime is the extension of meditation time. As we eat we continue to train ourselves in order to become a better person.

Offering thanks to those who brought meals to our tables

When I was brought up — not at all in a monastery — these five teachings were a part of my family’s life, and the lives of everyone we knew. We Japanese had no choice as to what we were served at our table. Our mothers prepared meals using ingredients that were given to us by nature, each in its own season. We were taught to offer thanks to everyone who brought the meals to our table, including the forces of nature, the farmers, the truck drivers, the fishermen and the workers at food stores.

Our mothers utilized every part of the ingredients and instructed us not to waste food. Our foods were not necessarily cheap, but were always the highest quality that the household could afford. And the food was always safe to consume. Mothers repeated these five teachings at each mealtime to make sure that we were properly satisfied and nourished.

Unfortunately, today in Japan highly processed, chemically laden foods are as ubiquitous as in the U.S. But the teachings of the monks and the food practices of my youth remain as valid today as they ever have been.

By introducing and practicing in our lives the spirit of shojin ryori that I have described, we can change our attitude toward why we eat, how we eat and what we eat. Here are a few more valuable concepts to add to our practice to complete and complement the spirit of shojin ryori.

Japanese Zen Buddhist temple

The garden of a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Shojin ryori balances five colors, five flavors and five preparation techniques in order to create meals that nourish all of our five senses as well as our bodies and minds. The five colors are white, green, yellow, black and red. Think of employing as many of the five colors as you can for the vegetables in your meal. Using this idea, developed long before food chemists validated it scientifically, we can balance the nutrients in our meal.

The five flavors are sweet, salty, bitter, acid and spicy. These flavors should, whenever possible, come naturally from ingredients, and not by separately adding excess sugar, salt, acidity or spiciness to the prepared dishes.

The five preparation techniques are raw, simmered, grilled, deep-fried and steamed. The use of these cooking techniques produces different and pleasing textures and flavors in the meal. Deep-frying, which doesn’t have the best reputation these days, is a necessary technique, especially when we are cooking only vegetable dishes. It adds calories and nourishment in the prepared meal. And try to use all parts of the ingredients. They have, after all, given up their lives for the sake of nourishing us. If, for example, you are preparing a root vegetable, use both the leaves and root, including its skin.

A simple dessert with an appealing flavor

Now I want to share with you a delightful, delicious and nourishing dessert recipe, mineoka dofu. Mineoka dofu is derived from one of the most popular and ancient shojin ryori preparations called goma-dofu. Goma-dofu is prepared by cooking kelp stock and ground sesame paste along with kuzu, arrowroot starch. Monks at Zen temples spend more than two hours preparing this very simple dish, using the time to perform additional meditation. This mineoka dofu recipe, which can be prepared in much less than two hours, was created in the 18th century. Though the name has the word dofu, or tofu, in it, the dish does not contain tofu. This recipe uses milk (but not kelp stock), so the flavor will be very appealing to us. The recipe is from my book “The Sushi Experience.”

Mineoka Dofu

Serves 4

Ingredients

½ cup brown sugar plus ¼ cup granulated sugar, or ¼ cup light molasses instead of both sugars

2 tablespoons kuzu (arrowroot starch)

2 cups whole milk

¼ cup heavy cream

½ cup white sesame paste (available in Japanese stores, or substitute tahini, available in Middle Eastern stores)

2 cups small strawberries cut into halves

Directions

1. Make the molasses syrup first with the sugars and 1¼ cups water. If using light molasses, dilute with a little warm water if necessary.

2. Mix together in a bowl the kuzu, milk, cream and sesame paste and stir with a whisk. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a medium pot. Place the pot over medium heat and cook 2 to 3 minutes. At this point the mixture becomes sticky. Turn the heat to low and cook an additional 20 minutes.

3. Transfer the mixture into a mold and cool. Cover the mold with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Before serving, divide the mineoka dofu from the mold into dessert bowls. Pour the molasses syrup over the mineoka dofu and top with the strawberries.

There is a very good shojin ryori restaurant in New York City called Kajitsu. There you can experience real Zen temple vegetarian cooking. Such restaurants may be found in other large cities. Ask and be sure that they serve traditional shojin ryori, and not simply “vegetarian” dishes. If you call them and they don’t understand when you ask if they serve shojin ryori, try another place.

Main photo: The first course of a shojin ryori meal, including goma-dofu, in Kyoto, Japan. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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Pomegranate ripening on the tree. Credit: Laura Kelley

With Persephone’s return, comes the spring. But there’s a catch. Starving and unimpressed with Hades’ attempts to woo her, Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds while in the underworld. Those six seeds require her to return to the underworld during pomegranate season (roughly September through February in the Northern Hemisphere). Repeated year after year, Persephone’s place creates our annual seasonal cycle of death in the fall and winter and rebirth in the spring.

That is the ancient Greek myth that many of us learned as children, but nearly every culture in which pomegranates are traditionally enjoyed has incorporated them into their myths and symbols. Pomegranates have been used to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity, and even, as in Persephone’s case,  death and rebirth. Pomegranates have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence.

Pomegranate symbolism

The pomegranate’s many seeds have led to its use as a symbol for fertility and fecundity in a wide variety of cultures from ancient Persia to Japan. Newly married couples or married women trying to conceive often ate pomegranates or drank the fruit’s juice to increase the chances of a healthy birth. Some North African Berber women also use the seeds in divination rituals to predict the number of children they will bear in their lifetimes.

Parsi pomegranate with coins. Credit: Hemant Mehta for the UNESCO Parzor Project, Parzor Foundation (unescoparzor.com)

Parsi pomegranate with coins. Credit: Hemant Mehta for the UNESCO Parzor Project, Parzor Foundation (unescoparzor.com)

Pomegranates with coins inserted are also given as pre-nuptial gifts from the groom to the bride in the South Asian Parsi culture to symbolize fertility and prosperity in the marriage. Pomegranates prepared with coins are also used on the Zoroastrian Nowruz table for longevity and good health in the coming year.

Persian epic hero, Isfandyar was said to have enjoyed pomegranate juice before battle to make himself and his armies invincible. This practice was also followed by the Uzbek-born emperor Timur (Tamerlane) as he swept across central and western Asia in the 13th century. Today, a large stone vessel stands outside of Timur’s tomb in Samarkand to commemorate the practice.

The Quran also states that pomegranates grow in the garden of paradise, and some religious scholars believe that it was the pomegranate, not the apple, that was the fruit of temptation in Judeo-Christian scripture.

Origins and cultivation

Domesticated in ancient Mesopotamia by the third millennium B.C. (and possibly well before), pomegranates have also been recovered from later Bronze Age archaeological sites in Israel and Cyprus. The Egyptians had orchards full of pomegranate trees by the time of Hatshepsut’s rule (1479-1458 B.C.), and the Phoenicians were an important force in spreading the fruit across North Africa and into Southern Europe as their seaward empire grew toward  Carthage and beyond. It is just this connection that lies behind the pomegranate’s original Latin name, Punicum malum, or Punic apple.

Pomegranates made their way to China by the first few centuries of the Common Era, and from there onto Japan and Korea, where they are today widespread.

As the fruit has been traded and adopted, hundreds of cultivars have been created that vary in fruit and seed color, sweetness, acidity and astringency. The fruits themselves vary in color from a creamy off-white to yellow; to the familiar shades of pink and red; to a dark, almost-black purple. Seeds (sometimes called arils) also vary in color from crimson to a clearish-white color. Cultivars have also been bred to allow them to grow in extreme weather conditions, such as the pomegranates in China’s far western Xingjian province, which regularly endure drought and winter temperatures as low minus-40 F.

Pomegranate’s culinary uses

Throughout western Asia and the Caucasus, pomegranate juice and syrup are used extensively to bring sweet and sour flavors to meat and vegetables. Meats are marinated in the juice, or sauces are prepared to use at the grill or table. Additionally, pomegranate syrup is used in the preparation of mixed condiments, often using walnuts or roasted peppers and garlic to complement a wide variety of dishes. Some Iranians and Azeris also use pomegranates as the center of a savory soup. Pomegranate seeds are also used to stuff vegetables and fish, and the juice is used in place of vinegar to pickle vegetables, especially garlic and pearl onions.

Lamb in a pomegranate-cardamom sauce.  Credit: Laura Kelley

Lamb in a pomegranate-cardamom sauce. Credit: Laura Kelley

On the subcontinent and in parts of the Himalaya, pomegranate seeds are used as souring and flavoring agents in curries and chutneys. In central Asia, juice and syrup are used much as in western Asia and the Caucasus, but pomegranate seeds are also used in a wide variety of rice and millet pilafs. Mongolia and western China use pomegranate juice in lamb stews along with cinnamon, but sometimes add rice vinegar or asafetida to lend a more eastern Asian flavor to them.

Pomegranate seeds also are used in a variety of liquors throughout Asia. In the Caucasus, they are used in mixed fruit wines along with grapes or cherries, and in eastern Asia they are used to flavor local grain-based homebrews and other medicinal preparations.

I created this lamb recipe by adapting a traditional Persian fesenjān recipe originally used on fowl. Instead of roasting the meat, I braise and add butternut squash for a nearly perfect one-pot meal.

 

Main photo: Pomegranate ripening on the tree. Credit: Laura Kelley

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A dinner party in France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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

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

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

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

Green Thursday menu continues with the green theme

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

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

 

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Chervil. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Herb Salad With Eggs and Spring Herring

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

Serves 4

Ingredients

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

Small bunch parsley, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch chervil, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch sorrel, de-stalked and chopped

Small bunch chives, chopped

Small bunch dill, chopped

8 fresh herring fillets or rollmops

1 pound potatoes, scrubbed and thickly sliced

4 hard-boiled eggs

For the sauce:

1 crème fraîche, also called soured cream

2 tablespoons chopped dill

2 tablespoons chopped gherkin or pickled cucumber

Directions

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

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

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

4. Shell and chop the eggs.

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

Fromage Frais Aux Fines Herbes (Fresh Cheese With Herbs)

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

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1 pound fresh curd cheese (fromage frais or equivalant)

1 cup crème fraîche (soured cream)

2 garlic cloves or fresh green garlics, chopped

1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley

1 heaped tablespoon chopped chives

1 heaped tablespoon chopped chervil

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

For serving:

Baguette

Olives

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

Walnut oil

Salt

Directions

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

2. Fork in the rest of the ingredients.

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

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

Bavarian Chervil Soup

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

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

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

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

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

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 or 3 medium old potatoes, peeled and diced

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

Salt and pepper

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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