Articles in History

Jamaica Quesadillas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

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.

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

Ingredients

4 cups Jamaica Tea, unsweetened (see recipe above)

1 cup white sugar

Pinch sea salt or kosher salt

Directions

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

Jamaica Quesadillas

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 quesadillas

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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A crate of frozen grapes harvested for ice wine. Credit: Sue Style

“To make ice wine, you need a thick skin,” Dave Gimbel says with a ghost of a smile.

Gimbel, who is representing Vineland Estates at Canada’s annual Niagara Icewine Festival, is not talking about the resilience required of any winemaker willing to embark on this demanding and highly risky enterprise — though that certainly helps. Instead, he is referring to the grape variety best equipped to withstand the intense cold needed to make this singular, highly concentrated, intensely sweet wine.

Producing ice wine a risky endeavor

Vidal, a hybrid vine bred specially for icy conditions, is ideal, Gimbel explains. Thanks to their thick skins, the grapes borne by this hardy variety can survive intact on the vine right through to January or February, when midwinter temperatures in the Niagara vineyards dip to the regulation minus 8 degrees C (17.6 degrees F) for several consecutive days and nights. The risks — which include anything from rot to hungry birds — are outweighed by the potential rewards; ice wine is a premium product that sells at a premium price.

The practice of producing naturally sweet wine from frozen grapes originated in Germany and Austria, where it is known as Eiswein. Nowadays, perhaps due to the changing climate, both countries struggle to muster low enough winter temperatures for a reliable harvest. Canadian winemakers, on the other hand, can count every year on the kind of freezing conditions needed to make ice wine, and the country has long since overtaken Germany and Austria as the world’s most significant producer.

As with any wine, the story starts in the vineyards. The pickers (or mechanical harvesters) swing into action beneath floodlights in the dead of night, when temperatures are at their lowest, picking the grapes and speeding them to the waiting presses out in the yard. Throughout the night, tiny quantities of juice are painstakingly squeezed from the whole berries, and the intensely aromatic juice is then left to ferment gently through to spring.

Vidal grapes on the vine. Credit: Sue Style

Vidal grapes on the vine. Credit: Sue Style

At Inniskillin winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, some grapes are still hanging on the vine when I visit in January, which enables me to experience harvesting firsthand. With numbed fingers, I pluck bunches of frostbitten fruit from beneath the nets — essential protection against flocks of winter-starved starlings — and drop them one by one into shallow crates. For the wine to be made, explains Debi Pratt, Inniskillin’s honorary ice wine ambassador, the outside temperature must hold steady at minus 8 C (better still, minus 10 C) for several days so the grapes are frozen solid, like little pinkish marbles.

Over the course of my three-day visit for the festival, I sip golden nectars made by several different Niagara wineries and from a whole range of grapes — the thick-skinned Vidal, of course, but also Riesling, the classic German and Austrian Eiswein grape, and even some made from Gewurztraminer. Truly exciting and distinctive are the ruby-red versions made with Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. Some ice wines sparkle, but most are still; all are delectable.

The idea that both winemakers and chefs are keen to counter is that ice wine is strictly for dessert. There’s much talk of “the texture of the wine” (the mouthfeel is indeed remarkable and satisfying), its complex array of aromas and flavors and its intense natural sweetness balanced by rapier-sharp acidity, which equips it for most food challenges.

Bottles of ice wine from Inniskillin. Credit: Sue Style

Bottles of ice wine from Inniskillin. Credit: Sue Style

My first “aha!” moment comes at Inniskillin with the pairing of oysters Rockefeller and sparkling Vidal. “Those tiny bubbles lift the wine and delude you into thinking there’s less sweetness — perfect for oysters,” explains Bruce Nicholson, Inniskillin’s senior winemaker. Outside the winery, by a roaring fire, in-house chef Tim MacKiddie has prepared maple-glazed duck breast and portobello mushrooms on the barbecue smoker, wonderful with a lick of Cabernet Franc.

At Jackson-Triggs Winery I sample empanada-sized wraps of chicken in mole topped with tiny dice of crunchy rhubarb, another great match with Cabernet Franc, while over at Pilliteri Estates Winery they partner a pork belly taco and avocado salsa with Riesling. Trius Winery’s take on the sweet-spicy theme is beef chili with Vidal, whereas Kacaba Vineyards & Winery offers a singular taste of Gewurztraminer with toasted panini filled with brie, shredded apple and pear. Another rarity is Vineland Estates Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon, which they partner with cassoulet of braised short ribs with a blob of ice-wine-infused crème fraiche.

The final surprising — and deliciously democratic — combination consists of s’mores toasted on the embers of the roaring fire outside the winery, paired with Inniskillin’s rare, sparkling Cabernet Franc ice wine. The only combo I draw the line at — though the opportunity does, fleetingly, present itself at a lively street festival where food trucks stand shoulder to shoulder with wine stands — is ice wine with Canada’s now infamous poutine, those rubbery cheese curds that squeak beneath your teeth, doused with brown gravy and served with fries. That would surely be heresy, requiring a very thick skin.


To find ice wine suppliers, consult www.winesearcher.com or the LCBO website.

Zester Daily contributor Sue Style attended the Niagara Icewine Festival as a guest of Ontario Tourism.

Main photo: A crate of frozen grapes harvested for ice wine. Credit: Sue Style

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Peanuts closely resemble the Bambara groundnut , a vital ingredient in many West African dishes. Credit: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Africa. What a complicated and enormous continent it is, comprising more than 50 countries, all different, all with their own culinary specialties.

In this, the first in a series of articles about the foods of Africa, I hope to encourage you to go on voyage of exploration, discovering the food of a fascinating part of the world. We begin with the peanut or groundnut, a vital ingredient in many West Africa dishes.

My own exploration with African food came during my work in Morocco with the Peace Corps as a trainer in maternal and infant health and nutrition. And in Burkina Faso, where I once managed the U.S. embassy’s commissary, I also was a consultant and trainer for the culinary staff of the American Club.

Now, I’m researching the culinary legacies of European colonialism for a book due out in 2016 — including the impact of the African Diaspora on modern Europe and elsewhere. And so I find myself in the kitchen, tasting flavors of the places I’m reading about. It stimulates me to share all that with you in a series of articles about ingredients commonly used in Africa.

EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME


 This is the first 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.  

Future articles will feature cassava, black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.

 

You don’t need a plane ticket. Just a basic pantry, a few pots and your kitchen.

West Africa, where we’ll begin, is a special place when it comes to food. It’s a region where street markets bloom anywhere the fickle climate will support them. Perhaps here, more than any other place on Earth, seasonality dictates what food appears on the plate, a natural and uncontrived model of the concept of local foods.

Cooks here create vibrant, savory meals with an often limited repertoire of ingredients. Many West African dishes and techniques can still be savored in the cooking of the American South, Brazil and the Caribbean: places where Africans endured the pain of slavery.

Walk into the central market in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso or stroll down a busy street in Dakar in Senegal, and you see how people make do, creating a vibrant cuisine from what is available. The aromas make your mouth water, and your eyes cannot get enough of the pulsating scene, as market women set out their small mounds of produce on the ground, covered with scraps of colorful cloth.

Vegetables also poke out of the tops of baskets, like so many baby birds peering cautiously from their nest. Meat sits on counter tops, the various cuts nothing at all like the standard fare found in Western butcher shops and supermarkets. You might be puzzled by some of the spices and herbs, yes. But overall, the cuisine of West Africa is highly accessible to the Western cook.

Take, for example, the following recipe for meat cooked in a peanut sauce with fresh spinach.

Resembling a native African bean known as the Bambara groundnut, the American peanut ironically rose to esteem under humble circumstances. African slaves stored Bambara groundnut stew recipes in their minds and likely dreamed of bubbling stew pots as they crossed the tossing Atlantic, confined in the holds of slave ships. Imagine their joy in finding the peanut, which reminded them of home.

At the same time, but a world away, the Portuguese introduced the peanut to West Africa and Asia. Africans invented peanut brittle and kulikuli (or fried peanut balls).

With just a few basic ingredients from your West African pantry, cooking becomes the next best thing to hopping on a flight to Senegal or the Ivory Coast.

Be sure to invite a friend to join you for the meal, for as an African proverb goes, “One who eats alone cannot discuss the taste of the food with others.”

Meat in Peanut Sauce With Spinach

Prep time: 25 to 30 minutes

Cook time: 2½ hours

Total time: 3 hours

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

You may use beef, goat or lamb, if you prefer. And if you really like mutton, that, too.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons peanut oil

2 pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat, rinsed, cut into 2-inch chunks, and patted dry

1 1/2 large yellow onions, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled, sliced, and lightly crushed with the side of a cleaver or large knife

1 piece of fresh ginger the size of a large walnut, peeled and lightly crushed with the side of a cleaver or large knife

1 small hot green pepper, seeded and minced, or more to taste

8 large plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon salt or, to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or, to taste

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or, to taste

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

2 cups water

1 cup natural peanut butter

16 ounces fresh spinach leaves (or frozen, in a pinch)

Fresh cilantro leaves and roasted peanuts, chopped, for garnish

Directions

1. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.

2. Place salted meat chunks in pot and cook until well; flip pieces over and brown the other sides. Remove meat from pan and set aside on a large plate.

3. Add onions to the pan and fry until slightly translucent and golden in color; toss in the garlic, ginger and hot green pepper. Cook for another minute or so, until garlic turns slightly golden.

4. Stir in tomatoes and cook for about 3 minutes. Mash tomatoes with a potato masher or other implement.

5. Mix in the salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, curry powder and thyme leaves. Stir well. Pour in 2 cups of water.

6. Add the meat, making sure to cover pieces with the liquid. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes.

7. Using some of the broth from the pot, thin the peanut butter and stir well. Add half of the peanut butter mixture to the stew. (Reserve the other half of the mixture for the spinach.) Cook, covered, until meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add more water if stew looks too thick.

8. While the meat cooks, rinse the spinach, and immediately add it to a large skillet over high heat. Stirring constantly, cook the spinach until all the leaves wilt. Remove from heat instantly and drain the spinach in a colander with cold water. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess water from the spinach and set aside.

9. Just before the meat is done, place the spinach in a heavy-bottomed pot, gently stir in the reserved peanut sauce, and warm the mixture over medium-low heat, uncovered, making sure that the mixture stays moist. Add a few tablespoons of water if mixture gets too dry.

10. Ladle sauce over white rice, placing pieces of meat on the side. Garnish the meat and the rice with chopped cilantro leaves and peanuts. Spoon the spinach near the meat. Or, serve the meat and sauce with cornmeal mush or fufu (pounded yam or plantains).

11. Pass Fiery West African Tomato Condiment (recipe below) around the table and dribble some on the meat, if desired.

Fiery West-African Tomato Condiment

Fiery West African condiment. Credit: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Fiery West African condiment. Credit: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 2½ to 3 cups

Ingredients

3 tablespoons peanut oil

5 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

2 to 3 red habanero peppers, seeded, and finely chopped (leave seeds in for an even hotter taste)

8 large plum tomatoes, cut into quarters

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions

1. Heat oil over medium-high heat in heavy-bottomed skillet.

2. Add garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds, or until garlic turns slightly golden in color. Add peppers and fry for another 30 seconds, stirring constantly.

3. Slip tomatoes carefully into the oil to avoid splattering; sprinkle with salt and pepper.

4. Cook for 2 minutes and then lower the heat. Simmer, uncovered, until oil separates from the tomatoes.

5. Store in a covered container for up to a week. Use as a condiment with any African main dish.

Main photo: Peanuts closely resemble the Bambara groundnut, a vital ingredient in many West African dishes. Credit: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

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Orange lion jelly

It may be hard to believe in the post-Jell-O era, but for hundreds of years, major set piece architectural and display jellies, as the British call gelatin desserts, formed a vital component of great dinners, state banquets and formal occasions. They were often molded into castles, palaces, elaborate geometrical forms and plants or animals. They fell out of fashion for most of the last century and the skills required to make them were lost. But now big jellied desserts are back — sometimes with a twist and occasionally with a bang.

Over the past 20 years, the revival has been led by food historians and chefs such as Ivan Day and Peter Brears, who make spectacular jellies using original Victorian and Georgian molds. Day and Brears frequently appear on mainstream media outlets. Day offers historic cookery courses at his headquarters in Cumbria, northwest England, while Brears has written a book on the subject (“Jellies and Their Moulds,” Prospect Books), organized the U.K.’s first Jelly Festival at Petworth House in 1995 and often produces the food for historic television programs and revivals.

Ivan trained the founders of the architectural jelly firm Bompas & Parr, who have gone on to produce jellies for all sorts of feasts and social occasions, including spectacular luminous glow-in-the-dark varieties and even exploding jellies.

Many foodies with a love of design have followed where they led. For example Hugo Francis, a student at London’s prestigious U.K. Saint Martin’s College of Art, makes all forms of wonderful jellies (seen below), as well as elaborate table decorations made by molding sugar paste, for his friends.

Assorted jellies for the Christmas table. Credit: Hugo Francis

Assorted jellies for the Christmas table. Credit: Hugo Francis

There’s no denying that such artworks need a bit of effort, some design and manual skills (unmolding can be tricky) and of course the right equipment, but the results are worth it. To make an architectural or spectacular jelly of course you need a mold. Molds can be made of a huge variety of materials and modern technology has increased the options. 3D printing means the costs of a one-off design are much lower than with factory production. Many plastics make cheap and effective molds although they need a very thin coating of tasteless oil to ensure proper release of the jelly. However, nothing will ever beat the ability of a copper mold to translate fine detail to the end result.

In the 18th century many jelly molds were made of glass or ceramics such as Wedgwood’s stoneware and gave a finely detailed impression. By the mid-19th century, jellies had become big news for the middle classes. Elaborate copper molds could be mass produced affordibly using hydraulic presses developed during the Industrial Revolution. Looking at 19th-century advertisements even the most elaborate of these appeared to cost less than 1 pound sterling, or perhaps an equivalent of 100 pounds or U.S. $150 in today’s money. You can compare that to the investment a serious cook would make in a particularly good Japanese steel knife today.

Gelatin you could rely on

At the same time, factory-made dried gelatin, more consistently reliable than the traditional kind made from boiled cow parts, became commercially available. All manner of complex shapes and structures of jelly became easier to make: castles, palaces, ziggurats and almost anything within the physical properties of the jelly and the human imagination could be created. If anyone is lucky enough to possess such wonderful copper molds today they can still be used. One thing is absolutely essential: Copper is poisonous and has therefore traditionally been coated with tin to prevent it coming into contact with foodstuffs. The tinning must be complete and in good condition if the mold is to be used.

Some Victorian copper molds for particularly elaborate jellies came in two parts with the inner part precisely located away from the outer segment using a system of pins and clamps. The outside section would be filled first with a clear jelly, sometimes in consecutive layers of different colours, that was then chilled to set. By pouring hot water into the inner section the jelly would, with careful timing, melt just enough to allow it to be withdrawn. The inside could then be filled with a usually opaque blancmange (in the 18th century this was called “flummery” but made in a roughly similar way) or a selection of suitably colored fruits in a light jelly. These fruits stiffened the entire structure and meant that quite a light setting and non-cloying outer jelly mix could be used without the edifice collapsing.

These fancy jellies have wonderful properties. The jelly itself is tasteless and colorless but is ideal for taking up colors, flavors and textures from the other recipe ingredients. Because of the way light passes through and bounces off multilayer jellies, it can be bent as if by a prism so the most regular patterns take on a kaleidoscopic, almost psychedelic effect, particularly when seen by flickering candle or gaslight. Flavors and textures are slowly released in the mouth as each spoonful gets savored by the participants in a jelly feast. And perhaps best of all, jellies wobble, often subtly, to the delight of the guests!

Main photo: Orange lion jelly. Credit: Hugo Francis

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Olive oil and vegetables are among the building blocks of what is thought of as the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Credit: iStock

It’s not what most people think of when they envision the famously light, healthy “Mediterranean diet.” But hearty dishes like smoked game meats; the mélange of cabbage, fish, eggs, cheese, olive oil, pepper, garlic and sweet wine dubbed monokythron (literally, “one-pot”); and the fermented fish sauce garum were once common fare in the region whose traditional dietary patterns are now seen by many as a global model for better eating.

Evidence that the Mediterranean diet as we now know it was not predominant in the region during the long Byzantine era (roughly the years 330 to 1453) has been gathered by Dr. Ilias Anagnostakis from the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens. His findings have sparked controversy in his home country, he says.

Anagnostakis believes that previous assumptions about historical diets in the region are erroneous because they were largely based on what was eaten in monasteries, which kept meticulous records of the food produced on-site. The diet of Byzantine monks consisted largely of grains, pulses, vegetables and wine, with a high level of honey production — possibly as a source of beeswax for making candles, or of substitute calories to make up for a lack of meat and dairy. Either way, “it was not indicative of the Byzantine diet as a whole,” says Anagnostakis, noting that “religious calendars imposed some kind of dietary restriction [on monks] almost half of the days of the year.”

Olive oil, the cornerstone of today’s Mediterranean diet, was “something initially available mainly to the wealthy class, and it was used more for lighting, grooming and hygiene; large-scale production for food came later,” says Anagnostakis, whose research was presented recently at a lecture hosted by the Consulate General of Greece in Istanbul, Turkey. He says that archeological evidence from Byzantine sites shows that “game hunting and fish-eating were more common than previously believed — smoked and preserved meats were a very important part of the diet.”

While the Mediterranean diet as we now know it may be a bit newer than previously believed, a similar culinary philosophy emanating from the same region long predates the Byzantines, whose empire rose in the eastern Mediterranean in the 4th century.

The Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived some 700 years earlier, “put forth a holistic medical approach of nutrition, diet and exercise that was a forerunner of today’s ‘lifestyle medicine,’ ” Dr. Angelos Sikalidis, an assistant professor of nutrition at Yeni Yüzyıl University in Istanbul, said at the same lecture event.

Another classical figure, the ancient Greek poet and philosopher Archestratus, can be thought of as the “father of gastronomy,” according to Sikalidis, who has been researching past and present dietary habits and nutrition in the Aegean region along with his Yeni Yüzyıl colleague Dr. Aleksandra Kristo. Way back in 350 BCE or thereabouts, Archestratus wrote of the importance of “raw foods of good quality, combined harmoniously, with lighter sauces and moderate spices that don’t interfere with the foods’ natural flavors,” Sikalidis says. “He also praised fish and noted the importance of season and location in deciding what to eat.”

A diet born of necessity

Such principles, of course, didn’t necessarily reflect the actual diet of the general populace, which largely ate what was available to them — from the fermented fish and preserved meat of the Byzantine era to the legumes, grains, olive oil, vegetables and fruits deemed so heart-healthy by outside researchers in the 20th century.

“This diet came out of necessity rather than choice,” Sikalidis says, noting the irony that as people from other countries started “discovering” it, Greeks and Turks themselves started to rely on a less healthy and less plant-based diet, following global trends.

As a result, he says, “heart diseases and cancer are now major causes of death in the Aegean region.” Greece also has the highest percentage of overweight children among Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries, according to data released by that group last year.

One major driver of this change was Greece’s joining of the European Union in 1981. This brought the country under Europe’s common agriculture policy and led to the abandonment of healthy, but unsubsidized crops like legumes, nuts and citrus fruits, according to Pavlos Georgiadis, the Greece coordinator of the Slow Food Youth Network. But the country’s ongoing economic crisis has lately been planting the seeds for a reversal as a new generation once again tries to make a living from the land. In his video-blog series “Farming on Crisis,” Georgiadis profiled young farmers, many of them urban transplants, who are creating job opportunities for themselves while helping revive diverse, low-impact agriculture. His own family’s business, Calypso, grows an ancient olive variety unknown outside its northeastern Greece region.

Sikalidis is among those who see hope in such developments. “There have been good efforts recently to preserve or revive old agricultural practices; preserving food traditions is a way to protect our health, and vice versa,” he says. “Consumers can be a powerful force in choosing between these older and newer ways of eating.”

Main photo: Olive oil and vegetables are among the building blocks of what is thought of as the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Credit: iStock

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Baby babka bites are a new twist on fruit-filled babka -- perfect for brunch, breakfast or lunch. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen

Tu B’Shvat, Jewish Arbor Day, is a patch of green in the chilly winter ennui. This year, the holiday falls on Feb. 3, and is a celebration of the gifts of trees — and if you consider Kabbalistic interpretations, ever-renewing life.

One of the four renewal or “new years” of the Jewish tradition, Tu B’Shvat (literally “the 15th day of the month of Shvat”) marks the date from which biblical agricultural tithing, both for the priestly classes as well as to the needy, was traditionally tallied. Giving is still integral to the holiday and in 20th-century America that took on new meaning. Families added money to their pushke, the pale blue metal charity box, earmarked for planting trees in Israel.

But the holiday’s roots run deeper than collecting money to plant trees. For centuries, Tu B’Shvat’s renewal is personal as well as environmental: The fruits are symbolic for reaching higher levels on the tree of knowledge.

The traditional food is fruit

When I taught Hebrew school, I told my youngest charges that the holiday is the birthday for trees and taught them “Oh, Beautiful” instead of liturgical songs. I brought in dried fruits, the most traditional Ashkenazi treat.

A few tentatively tasted the dried tart apricots, peaches, and apples. They couldn’t have been less happy looking at a prune, no matter how many times I explained that it was a just plum. My own children were a bit more open to the fruits, but then again, they’ve always eaten from my kitchen.

Later, after a tour in culinary school, I taught adults and teens, and I upped the ante, handing out chocolate-dipped glaceed fruits, fruit gel treats — and baby babka bites studded with modern dried fruits like strawberries and tart cherries, and bursting with cardamom, cinnamon and anise.

It was an unmitigated success, and I now make baby babka bites for the holiday every year.

Deeper meanings of fruits

Many Jewish holidays foods have distinct symbolic value. The Kabbalists imbued fruit with deeper meanings on Tu B’shvat that remain today.

The expulsions of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the end of the 15th century disbursed a large, vibrant, intellectual community. This was long before the orthodox, conservative or reform movements and even Hassidism with its mystical elements, had taken root. The expelled Iberian Jews carried their Middle Age mysticism with them as they settled around the globe, but particularly in Sefad (Tsaft) in Ottoman Palestine/Israel, which became the seat of the movement.

That mysticism, or Kabbalistic thought, is the study of the infinite and the finite (or mortal). It delves beyond apparent meanings, past simple allegories and rules and searches for secret hidden connections, and is often diagrammed as the tree of knowledge, with branches to climb to reach spiritual higher orders.

The tree and its fruits are the overarching metaphor used to elucidate the nexus of the spiritual and physical worlds. It is not surprising then that the 16th century’s leading Kabbalistic sage, teacher and mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, sought greater meaning than simply enjoying fruits for Tu B’Shvat. To celebrate the holiday, a Seder service was created that focuses on renewal and personal growth, and assigned symbolic value to fruits.

Tu B’shvat Seders and other modern celebrations

Today, it is common to see Kabbala-inspired Tu B’Shvat seders held as a women’s Seder, often vegan or vegetarian – where notions of fertility, renewal and life cycles are discussed in depth. For those who do not participate in a formal seder, this holiday is an opportunity to focus on the environmental component of the day and renew their pledge for composting and planting. Jewish Food scholar Joan Nathan takes the opportunity to teach children about sustainability and food traditions on Tu B’Shvat.

Judaism, in practice and theology, has always been affected by the world around it. What I do has evolved too. Although highly specific cooked food traditions for Tu B’Shvat are rare ­ — there is no matzo ball or cheese blintzes — fruit is always on the table, Seder or not.

I do what I do every day on Tu B’shvat — I cook, write and teach. But I also donate to shelters and food banks as my green-tinged celebration. The benefit of the celebrations is spiritual nourishment. That is the gift I receive. And I give back, just like the song I taught, from “tree to shining tree.”

Main photo: Baby babka bites are a new twist on fruit-filled babka — perfect for brunch, breakfast or lunch. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen

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Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: It doesn’t get any respect. It gets a bad rap. Cabbage never gets mentioned as one of the hip vegetables like kale. It’s not a super-vegetable like broccoli rabe. It’s not an adorable vegetable like baby Brussels sprouts. It’s not a “cool” vegetable. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned. I mean, they make sauerkraut from it.

All those cooler vegetables just mentioned, though, owe their existence to cabbage. The big green head we associate with cabbage today was not always what cabbage was. Today there are hundreds of varieties of cabbage that have developed from the progenitor cabbage, called the wild cabbage, including the many forms of cabbage and further horticultural developments such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoliflower, broccoli rabe and kohlrabi.

Botanists divide the cabbage into five groups. It is the head cabbage, green, red, crinkly-leafed or Savoy cabbage, that I’m speaking of. But there are some 400 varieties of head cabbage.

The cabbage is probably native to the Mediterranean, but in Roman times the head cabbage we think of as cabbage today did not exist. The Romans had only leafy cabbage, probably kale. There are some obscure references by Roman naturalists Pliny and Columella to what has been taken by some to be head cabbage. These descriptions refer to heads of the plant being a foot in diameter, but it is not at all clear whether this refers to a compact headed cabbage that we know today or is simply an expression referring to the above ground portion of the plant.

The wealthy citizens of Rome, in the period after Cato the Elder (mid-second century BC), thought of cabbage as poor people’s food as we know from the description in Juvenal’s satire when he described the difference between the food that the patron ate, namely olives to garnish an excellent fish, and the food of the client, who finds cabbage in his “nauseous dish.”

It seems that the head cabbage we know today was developed in Germany in the 12th century. Soon it would be the single most common plant in the medieval garden.

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

It’s not a popular vegetable today, but it is a vegetable that does draw the curious cook. The most obviously intriguing thing to do with cabbage is to separate the leaves and then stuff them by rolling them up. There are many great preparations for cabbage from sauerkraut, to kimchi, to coleslaw, and every culture has a recipe for stuffed cabbage. Here are two recipes for cabbage lovers from cabbage-loving Slovenia and Croatia, next door to Italy.

Braised Cabbage

Cabbage is a very popular vegetable in the Balkans, served raw, in the form of sauerkraut and cooked in a variety of ways. In the northern part of the former Yugoslavia, today’s Slovenia and parts of Croatia, cabbage may be cooked with sour cream or tossed with noodles and smoked bacon. In Bosnia or Montenegro, it might be cooked with tomatoes. This recipe from Slovenia is typically served as a bed for a roast duckling.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water

1 cup dry white wine

One 2-pound green cabbage, cored and sliced as thin as vermicelli

15 peppercorns

8 juniper berries, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the bay leaves and cook until they begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and very carefully add the tomato paste and wine, which will spurt and splatter rather dramatically.

2. Continue cooking for a minute then add the cabbage, peppercorns, juniper berries and thyme. Mix so the cabbage is covered with sauce.

3. Add the lemon juice and continue to braise over medium heat until the cabbage softens, 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the cabbage is completely soft, about 45 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

These cabbage rolls are a winter specialty known as arambašici in their home of Sinj, a town near the Dinaric Alps on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Traditionally, this casserole of stuffed cabbage leaves is made from a whole head of cabbage that has been prepared as sauerkraut. Each sauerkraut leaf, or as in this recipe cabbage leaf, is stuffed with beef, pork and bacon, and flavored with lemon zest, onion, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Each roll-up is separated from the other with pieces of pršut (Croatian prosciutto) and smoked tongue.

Arambašici can be made with fresh cabbage leaves or grape leaves, too. My recipe uses fresh cabbage, which is the easiest to find and is what a cook from Sinj would use in the summer. Many cooks also like to make the casserole in the evening and then reheat it the next day, and you should consider doing that as it is delicious.

The casserole cooks a long time so the meats are very tender and the cabbage leaves become silky. The smoked bacon, smoked pork, smoked tongue and prosciutto can all be picked up at the deli counter of most supermarkets.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 4 hours

Yield: 20 to 26 rolls, or about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 large green cabbage (about 2 3/4 pounds), central core removed

1 1/4 pounds boneless beef neck meat or beef chuck, finely chopped

5 ounces smoked bacon (preferably) or lean slab bacon, finely chopped

2 ounces beef fat (suet), finely chopped

6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or neck meat, finely chopped

2 large onions, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Grated zest from 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or beef fat for greasing

One 4-inch-long beef marrow bone (optional)

1 ounce smoked pork (any cut), finely chopped

2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced into strips

2 ounces smoked tongue (optional), thinly sliced into strips

1 cup water and more as needed

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 300 F.

2. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt and plunge the whole cabbage in and cook until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the beef, bacon, suet and pork. Add the onions, garlic, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well with your hands.

4. Arrange a cabbage leaf in front of you with the stem end closest to you. Place 2, 3 or 4 tablespoons (depending on the size of the leaf) of filling on the end closest to you, then roll away once, fold in the sides and continue rolling away until you get a nice, neat package.

5. Continue with the remaining cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls side by side, seam side down, in a lightly greased 13- x 9- x 2-inch casserole (you may need to use two casseroles), making sure you leave some room for the beef marrow bone. Sprinkle the chopped smoked pork over the cabbage rolls.

6. Place the prosciutto and smoked tongue slices (if using) between the cabbage rolls. Pour the water over the cabbage rolls and cover with aluminum foil. (The casserole can be refrigerated at this point to bake later.)

7. Bake until the cabbage rolls are very soft, slightly blackened on top and bubbling vigorously, about 4 hours.

8. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature and serve as an appetizer the next day.

Main photo: Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Buñuelos. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Buñuelos, classic Mexican Christmas sweets, are time-honored snacks with roots in Catalan, Spain. Most of the world’s Spanish-speaking countries follow Spain’s lead and make buñuelos with yeast dough formed into small balls to deep-fry — think doughnut holes. Long ago, Mexico made fast use of its iconic bread, the tortilla, and morphed the balls into flat, non-yeasty wheat tortillas deep-fried (similar to Navajo frybread) and covered in sticky piloncillo (raw brown sugar) syrup or tossed in cinnamon sugar.

My favorite place in Mexico to eat buñuelos is definitely Oaxaca at Christmastime. The Spanish colonial city’s festive holiday food celebration begins in mid-December and lasts into February. Since the 16th century, things have kicked off  precisely on Dec. 16 with posadas (literally, “inns”), when children and adults re-enact part-religious, part-secular rituals while parading as Mary and Joseph looking for an inn to spend the night.

The group pleads, through traditional songs, to enter homes of friends. Once a door finally opens, piñatas burst, candies fly and mugs of hot chocolate are passed.

Let your nose lead you to buñuelos

Up next, Dec. 18 is the day of Oaxaca’s patron saint, La Virgin de la Soledad. On this day, everyone rejoices with church Masses and processions followed by devouring crisp bueñelos.

Follow their lead when you get that first whiff of fried sweet dough coming from a temporary stand at the north side of the cathedral and head straight there to absorb the spirit of fascinating buñuelo folklore. You’ll have to hunt for the end of the line and try to wait patiently to place your order. At long last, you will be handed — on a sad, seriously chipped plate — a puffy fried flour tortilla about a foot across. The tortilla will have wavy edges and be topped with a scattering of sugar crystals dyed red from cochineal (an edible, crimson scale insect that lives on nopales cactus, and yes, you most definitely want it!) and a spoonful of anise-flavored piloncillo syrup (yes to this, too).

In contrast to the dish, the buñuelo will be as ethereal and crackling-crisp as cellophane and so delicate that brittle pieces will fly as you take each sweet bite. It’s as fun to eat as cotton candy. You’ll finish it off in seconds and be left staring at the sad, empty dish.

You can follow your fellow revelers’ guide and, like a Frisbee, fling the damaged plate hard against the side of the massive green quarry stone edifice while making a wish. The dish will shatter, and the wish will count.

Dec. 23 features Oaxaca’s famous Night of the Radishes Festival, begun in 1897 and the only folk art event of its kind in the world. Craftspeople from local organizations carve sculptures from huge red radishes the size of Japan’s white daikon and proudly display their creations at booths on the zócalo (town square) next to the cathedral.

The experience is mind-boggling. Join the massive crowds and line up to slowly snake your way along raised viewing platforms encircling the square; try not to miss a thing as attentive volunteers constantly coddle and mist miniature nativity scenes, elaborate church replicas and funky cartoon figures to keep them from drying out. Notice how the entrants are primped and judged like beauty-pageant contestants, and the winners get to flaunt boasting rights.

On Dec. 24, Christmas Eve brings the last posada party with piñatas, tamales and hot chocolate, but Christmas Day is quietly spent with family and an enormous turkey drenched in luscious mole.

After a late night Mass on Dec. 31, another special mole dinner awaits, followed by 12 good-luck grapes to eat in rapid succession, a grape for each stroke of midnight.

The Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6 continues the holiday season into the new year with a rosca de reyes (Epiphany cake), a ring of sweet yeast dough flamboyantly decorated with icing and colored sugar with the surprise of a tiny clay baby Jesus (or these days a plastic doll about an inch long) inside. According to tradition, whoever gets the figurine in his/her slice is expected to host the upcoming Candlemas Feast on Feb. 2, faithfully 40 days after Christmas. This last of Mexico’s holiday fiesta days is your final chance to fling used buñuelo plates at the cathedral and signals it’s time to take down the tree.

Buñuelos With Syrup and Red Sugar. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Buñuelos With Syrup and Red Sugar. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Buñuelos With Syrup and Red Sugar

Prep time: 3 hours

Cook time: 1 hour

Total time: 4 hours

Yield: 16 to 20 servings

Ingredients

For the buñuelos:

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

4 tablespoons melted butter or freshly rendered lard

1/2 cup whole milk

2 eggs

Vegetable oil for frying (about 3 cups)

For the syrup and red sugar:

3 cups water

12 ounces crushed piloncillo or dark brown sugar

1 (4-inch) canela stick (Mexican or true Ceylon cinnamon)

1 tablespoon anise seeds

1/2 cup cochineal sugar, or red decorating sugar found in supermarkets and cake-decorating shops

Directions

For the buñuelos:

1. In a mixer with a hook or paddle attachment, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt.

2. With the mixer off, pour in the butter and milk and break the eggs directly on top. Slowly raising the speed, beat the dough until it is smooth and shiny, about 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Form into a ball in the mixer bowl. Lightly cover the dough with a tea towel and let the dough rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.

4. Divide the dough into 16 to 20 balls the size of a golf ball. Place each on a baking sheet as it is formed. Cover the balls lightly with a dampened tea towel to keep them moist.

5. Pick up a ball and flatten it with a rolling pin or your palms to make a disk about 5 inches across. Place it back under the dampened towel with the balls. Continue with the others.

6. Cover a table with a clean tablecloth to dry the buñuelos.

7. Pick up the first disk you made and, starting in the center, gently stretch it out to make a large, almost transparent disk 12 inches across, pulling along the edge. Lay it on the tablecloth to dry, about 30 minutes. Continue with the others. When they are finished, turn each over and allow the other side to dry another 30 minutes, or until the tortillas feel completely dry.

8. Place a wire rack over a baking sheet for draining.

9. Pour the oil into a skillet to about 1 inch deep. Heat the oil to 375 F over medium-hot heat. Carefully slide a buñuelo into the hot oil and press it down gently with a fork. The oil will bubble and the buñuelo will blister, and the bottom side will turn golden in less than a minute. Turn over and fry the other side for less than a minute. With tongs, remove it from the oil, hold vertically and let it drain back into the pot a few seconds. Place it on the wire rack to drain well and then on a flattened brown paper bag.

10. Fry and drain the remaining buñuelos. When cool, stack on a festive plate.

For the syrup and red sugar:

1. Pour the water into a saucepan. Add the piloncillo, canela stick and anise seeds.

2. Boil 10 minutes to make a light syrup. Boil longer to reduce and thicken if desired. Strain to remove the anise seeds.

3. Generously scatter red sugar on a buñuelo for serving. Top with a few tablespoons sugar syrup.

Note: As an alternative to syrup, mix 1/2 cup white sugar with 1 tablespoon ground canela. Toss canela sugar over the buñuelos while they are warm. You can make buñuelos up to two days ahead if kept dry. Reheat in a preheated oven at 325 F for 5 minutes.

Main image: Buñuelos. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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