Articles in Tradition
I couldn’t help myself. I licked the meaty, fiery juices from my hand, not wanting to waste them on a napkin. I made eye contact with the woman behind the counter and eagerly raised my index finger, motioning for her to make me one more. I had tasted Vietnam’s most delicious bánh mì sandwich, and I didn’t want this moment to end.
Before moving to Vietnam, I had tasted a handful of bánh mì sandwiches prepared at Vietnamese-owned restaurants. Honestly, none thrilled me enough to prompt a return visit when hit with a craving for a satisfying sandwich. This disappointment continued even upon my relocation to Hanoi. The sandwiches were fine, but by and large they lacked personality and barely filled my hunger. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, has served me a couple of satisfying bánh mì, one from Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, stuffed with assorted Vietnamese charcuterie, pickled carrots and daikon, chilies and fresh herbs, and the other a remarkable vegan version that could stand up to any meat-filled baguette. Yet none, until that finger-licking moment, had reached the point where I would get on a plane with eager anticipation to hold this 7-inch flavor bomb in my hands.
The south-central coastal town of Hoi An is most commonly known as a beloved tourist destination where vacationers soak up the history and architecture of this once-prosperous trading port, but I know it as the Vietnamese town with the best bánh mì vendors.
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A recent trip back to Hoi An reinforced this belief, and I have the sandwich-juice-stained shirts from my bánh mì tasting tour to prove it. Happily gorging and investigating these sandwiches, I discovered that the best vendors, Bánh Mì Lành, Madam Khánh and Bánh Mì Phương Hoi An, make most of their ingredients in-house, as opposed to the majority of vendors, who rely on ready-made condiments.
For the best of the best: Bánh Mì Phương, the sister of the above-mentioned brother-run Bánh Mì Phương Hoi An, is the vendor who sets the bar in preparing Vietnam’s best bánh mì. Knowing that it may be a while before you get to wrap your lips around one of these layered gems, I thought it best to break down and share what sets this bánh mì apart from all the rest — with the knowledge that you may want to try and re-create it in your own kitchen.
Bánh mì bread
The French colonialists brought their love for bread and pastries with them to Vietnam. Vietnamese bakers played around with the recipes, ultimately creating a lighter, fluffier thin-crust baguette — making it a perfect vehicle for flavor delivery. A typical French baguette won’t suffice because the crumb is denser and the crust is thicker, forcing your jaws to work and chew your way through the sandwich. This may be one of the rare times you even consider buying one of those fluffy grocery-store-baked baguettes.
Phương gently warms her baguettes in a wooden box by the heat of slowly burning coal embers. You can replicate this in your home kitchen by warming the baguettes in a 200 F oven as you prepare the fillings.
Homemade super sauces
Phương forgoes bland ready-made mayo and takes the time to make a rich, creamy and eggy homemade mayonnaise. Mortar and pestle are used to pound tương ớt , a fresh, long red chile sauce. Instead of using basic light soy sauce or Maggi seasoning sauce, she has concocted her own nước siêu, or super sauce. This is one of those recipes Phương definitely will not share. However, from deduction I have concocted my own version. Heat ½ cup water, ¼ cup light soy sauce and ¼ cup sugar and mix until the sugar is dissolved. Then add a shallot and a quarter of a tomato, both roughly chopped, along with a finely chopped red chile and green onion and then sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of toasted sesame seeds. It may be worth playing around to find a ratio of ingredients pleasing to your taste and keep it stored in a small jar in the fridge so it is easily at hand.
Meats and pâté
Her most popular sandwich, bánh mì deluxe, consists of three types of pork: thin slices of roast pork loin, ham and cha lua, a pork sausage loaf. She also prepares a pork liver pâté that is wrapped in caul fat and sautés some ground pork, which is stored in its fatty juices for added flavor.
Vegetables and herb salad
All the bánh mì stalls use a fresh, vibrant-tasting herb mixture consisting of sprout-sized coriander, mint, rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) and green onions. Lightly pickled julienned carrots and daikon and thinly sliced cucumber lengths are also ubiquitous refreshing additions.
Layering of flavors
Phương and her staff don’t just haphazardly stuff the fillings into the sliced baguette; rather, they methodically assemble each bánh mì in identical fashion. First, 1 tablespoon of homemade mayonnaise is spread along the inside of the bread, followed by 1 tablespoon of pâté along the bottom. Two teaspoons of Phương’s super sauce are drizzled along the crumb of the bread. Then, ⅓ of a cup of herb mixture, sliced cucumber and a few pieces of pickled daikon and carrot make a nest to support the three sliced meats. A tablespoon of the warm ground pork mixture is spooned over the top, then finished off with a touch of fresh chili sauce, if desired, and another couple teaspoons of Phương’s super sauce. I believe it is this specific layering that produces the addictive harmony of flavors that brings her such a loyal following.
Note: For those planning a visit, Bánh Mì Mi Phương has moved because of construction at the main market, and she intends to remain permanently at this new location: at 2B Pham Châu Tring St. in Hoi An.
Main photo: Bánh mì from Bánh Mì Phương. Credit: Cameron Stauch
Finding a hot, steaming bowl of bakso in Indonesia is as easy as finding a slice of pizza in New York City.
During my recent trip to the Indonesian cities of Jakarta, the nation’s capital; Bandung, the capital of West Java; and Yogyakarta, a city in Java, street stalls on every corner were selling this signature soupy meatball dish.
I was tempted to try some bakso (pronounced BAH-so) at one of those hole-in-the-wall shacks, but was advised against doing so for fear of getting food poisoning. It is like being in India; you stay away from the street food unless a native gives you the green light, but even then you contemplate if it is a good idea.
Bakso an Indonesian comfort food
When you are in a new city, it is always good to know a local to show you the good places to eat. Fortunately for me, I stayed in touch with a friend from college, and he took me to a swanky food court at the Grand Indonesia Mall to have some bakso.
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“Bakso is what we usually have at home because back in the day, the bakso seller goes around to the neighborhoods with the cart,” explained my friend Dwi Addin Wibowo, who hails from Medan, the capital of North Sumatra in Indonesia. “The ones before are nothing like what we have now. It was much simpler and cheaper.” According to Dwi, people eat bakso because of its comfort-food quality; it is like a solace to make your problems go away.
Basic bakso consists of meatballs, glass noodles and yellow noodles with spring onions and shallots, but the backbone of the soup that determines whether it is good is the broth.
“The bones/carcass of the beef is boiled for hours to get the rich flavor. It is everyone’s comfort food where you go out and buy it rather than cook it at home because it is so readily available,” he said.
Aside from the broth, the tastiness of the accompanying chilli sambal (spicy paste) is also important. One of two types of sambal usually comes with bakso; one is made from unripe green papaya and the other from fresh chillies. The latter is very hot. Some people enjoy bakso because of the addictive sambal.
“From what I have heard, bakso was actually a Chinese street food sold by Chinese vendors during the Colonial era. Of course, back then, they used pork, but now a majority of Muslim Indonesians sell the halal version, which is made from beef,” Dwi said. (Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country and the fourth most populous nation in the world).
The evolving price of bakso
So how much is a bowl of bakso? “I’m from Medan, and I have tried one there that has huge portions of tasty beef and the broth is very tasty. In 2003, it cost about 10,000 Rupiahs (87 cents U.S.) per bowl, but now it is 15,000 to 20,000 Rupiahs ($1.30 to $1.75 U.S.) per bowl.”
At high-end malls like the one we visited, a bowl is 35,000 Rupiahs ($3 U.S.).
Of course, the taste of bakso is tremendously different if you eat it at the roadside stalls. Some street stalls sell good bakso, and a local would be able to tell you where to go. “The street versions are monosodium glutamate (MSG) and preservatives-laden and not good for you. This is where most of our people consume it because of the burst of energy shots from the MSG. It is like how a cup of tea for the British solves all problems.”
I call it a sinful dish because all the MSG makes it bad for you if consumed too often, but it is so delicious. The one I had at the mall was savory and tasty to the last drop.
Tea a perfect complement
Ideally, a bowl of bakso is washed down with sweetened tea (in Indonesian, it is called “teh botol”) because the combination of the savory soup and the sweet tea is what makes the meal complete.
There are different versions of bakso, too, depending on from where in Indonesia it comes. “In Sumatra, they use more spring onions and the broth is thick, whereas in Java, they put in cabbage, bok choy and bean sprouts and the broth is watery,” Dwi said.
If you happen to be on the road in Indonesia and come across a sign reading “Bakso Setan” that is decorated with a chili logo, it literally means “Devil’s Bakso — for chili lovers.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Main photo: A bowl of bakso is readily available in most parts of Indonesia. Credit: Aida Ahmad
Sometimes traditional and inventive are mutually exclusive concepts in classic global cuisine, but one Texas chef has found a way to translate traditional Oaxacan food with both concepts in mind.
Chef Iliana de la Vega has created a menu beyond familiar Mexican specialties with innovative dishes at her Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo.
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How about chili-rich, velvety smooth Oaxacan moles? Or tacos dorados — tortillas stuffed with potatoes or chicken and served with avocado-green salsa with a hint of jalapeño peppers, cream and queso fresco? Or chile relleno with smoky chile pasilla oaxaqueño stuffed with plantains and light queso panela cheese in a black bean and avocado leaf sauce?
Although steeped in tradition, De la Vega’s cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the traditional and the innovative. She creates this balance with flavors drawn from the many rich traditions of Mexican cooking. Although De la Vega grew up in Mexico City, her family hailed from Oaxaca and she learned the regional cuisine from her mother, her aunt and other relatives in Oaxaca during her visits.
The real Oaxacan food
She and her husband, architect Ernesto Torrealba, moved to Oaxaca in 1994 and opened El Naranjo in a colonial-era house in 1997.
What she served there was the food she grew up eating at home, traditional Oaxacan fare. Although initially her interpretation of traditional cooking was not well received by the locals, it gained international recognition after being featured in various publications including the New York Times, Bon Appetit and the Chicago Tribune. A handwritten note from the famous chef Rick Bayless — “this is the real food of Oaxaca” — hung in the entryway of the restaurant.
Unfortunately the political unrest and violence in Oaxaca resulted in the closure of El Naranjo in 2006. But Oaxaca’s loss was Texas’ gain. The couple soon immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin.
She accepted a position at the Center for Foods of The Americas at the Culinary Institute of America. While teaching at the CIA she commuted to San Antonio and her evenings and weekends were spent re-creating a new El Naranjo, initially as an Oaxacan cuisine food truck. The El Naranjo food truck was a huge success and was the only food truck included in the Texas Monthly’s list of 50 best Mexican restaurants.
A new start for El Naranjo
In May 2012, after five years, she stepped down from her position at the CIA, and began dedicating her time fully to the new restaurant in the middle of Rainey Street in downtown Austin. Amid converted houses serving as restaurants and bars, El Naranjo stands apart. The modest bungalow’s pale facade conceals the attractive space inside featuring a bar area, two dining rooms and a patio.
Though many people like Mexican food, most diners haven’t experienced much of that cuisine’s diverse or varied offerings, De la Vega said.
“The public is just beginning to see the top of the iceberg,” she said. ”Mexican food has so much more to offer. … It is growing and people are exploring ‘new’ ingredients, recipes and acquiring more knowledge of the fundamentals of traditional cuisine.”
Velvety smooth moles
She bakes bread and makes tortillas fresh every day. Velvety smooth moles, the signature dish of Oaxacan cuisine, are also prepared in house and are vegetable-based. At least three varieties are always on the menu with a different mole featured every week.
De la Vega’s freshly made salsas are in a class by themselves; fiery hot salsa macha is my favorite. The incredible flan and Mille-feuille of dulce de leche pair with a cup of cafe de olla to make the perfect dessert course. And the chef offers a wonderful selection for vegetarians, an added bonus that you rarely see in Mexican restaurants.
De la Vega and her husband are even considering expanding their business.
“We would love to expand or create different concepts,” she said. “That is an option that we are considering.”
Main photo: Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.
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.
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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.
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.
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
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
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
Salad leaves (dandelion, corn salad, bittercress or sorrel, for example)
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
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
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
The Ayurvedic lifestyle works for me. The practice combines a vegetarian diet and herbal tonics with massages, meditation and yoga.
On my recent trip to India, I visited my favorite retreat, Ayurvedagram Heritage Wellness Center. Although the retreat recommends a seven-day stay for the Panchakarma detox treatment, I could spare only five days. At the end of my stay I felt relaxed and refreshed and dropped four pounds while enjoying delicious South Indian food.
This is my fifth visit to this holistic retreat, which is a 90-minute drive to the outskirts of Bangalore in South India. Leaving the city’s chaos, pollution and dusty roads behind, the retreat includes a tropical garden lush with coconut and papaya trees, a flower-filled garden bursting with colorful marigolds and hibiscus, fragrant medicinal shrubs and potted tulsi plants. Sparrow tweets and a koyal’s serenade fill the cool air. Resident geese and mallard ducks waddle around, while baby lizards leap around the lotus-filled pond.
The 15-acre Ayurvedagram property is operated by the Katra Group, based in Kerala, India. The retreat’s 26 cottages, designed in 19th-century Kerala design, are spread around a spacious garden adorned with various stone deities and brass lamps. The facility includes a gym, a library and an amphitheater.
The intricately carved reception building, once the Queen’s Palace from the Aranamula Royal Family, was transported here from Kerala and restored to its original state. All the cottages, crafted in teak or rosewood, are historical ancestral homes from Kerala that were transported and restored to their original grandeur.
Ayurveda regimens planned to suit an individual’s needs
Ayurvedagram is a healing retreat for specific ailments such as arthritis, obesity, diabetes and spinal and joint disorders. But I am here for its signature Panchakarma, a detox and rejuvenation program. The daily regimen includes two massage treatments, three sessions of yoga, meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques) and a delicious sathvic (vegetarian) South Indian cuisine that includes a range of six colors in every meal.
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Ayurveda, the science or knowledge of life, is an ancient Indian practice that aims for attaining ideal physical, mental and spiritual health through herbal tonics, medicinal massage therapies, yoga, meditation and a balanced diet.
According to Ayurveda, the human body is made of five elements — air, water, fire, earth and ether. These elements wake up a person’s energy, or dosha. There are three doshas (body types) — Vata, Pitta and Kapha — each with a certain function in our bodies. A body can be a combination of one, two or all three doshas.
An initial consultation with one of the three resident doctors at Ayurvedagram establishes the visitor’s dosha, and a food and therapy program is planned accordingly. A typical Ayurvedic food preparation uses turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, cumin, fennel, coriander and herbs such as tulsi, mint and cilantro.
Ghee (clarified butter) is essential in cooking because it’s the only natural product that is able to permeate all cells, Dr. Man Mohan explained. “It can break blood-brain barrier and it assists in delivery of food nutrients in targeted areas.”
Some of the produce used by chef Nagaraj and his team comes from the retreat’s patch of organic garden. The menu is predominantly South Indian, starting with the traditional breakfast of dosa (rice and lentil crepe), idli (steamed rice buns) served with coconut and mint chutney and sambhar (lentils with vegetables).
Lunch consists of two types of lentils, three different vegetable curries, rice and chapati.
Dinner offers a similar menu with different vegetable dishes. A typical poriyal dish (using assorted vegetables), chutneys, sambhar and rasam (a lentil broth) accompany both lunch and dinner. And there’s always plenty of fresh fruit and warm cumin-scented water with all three meals.
On my departure, Dr. Nibhan John gave me a tour of the medicinal garden. Leaves, roots, flowers and bark from 60 some trees and shrubs are used in various healing decoctions, powders and pastes. Orange blossoms from the large Asoka tree are used for gynecological disorders. External preparations from the Rasna are utilized for arthritic inflammation. Oil from the leaves of Vitpala Wrightia Tinctoria is good for psoriasis, while an external application of hibiscus flowers and leaves mashed in water helps hair growth.
Some commonly used herbs and spices have healing properties also. Cilantro (as a green chutney) is a good appetizer, and cinnamon mixed in warm milk or water assists in lactation for nursing mothers. Tulsi leaves (Indian basil) immersed in steam inhalers relieve sinus congestion, and turmeric not only has antiseptic properties but is also used to heal cuts and bruises and dental problems and treat asthma.
Garlic as an antioxidant helps lower blood pressure, and ginger is a soothing remedy for digestive disorders. Cloves are generously used in Indian cooking, and its oil, a rich source of anesthetic and antiseptic agents, is used by dentists as an oral anesthetic.
A morning session with Nagaraj enriched me with a handful of recipes. Here are a couple of them.
Carrot and Cabbage Poriyal (Ayurvedagram recipe)
Channa dal and urud dal, shredded dry coconut, curry leaves and ghee can be found at all Indian markets.
Serves 4 to 6
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or ghee)
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
½ teaspoon channa dal
½ teaspoon urud dal
3 to 4 whole dry red chilies
2-inch piece of ginger, chopped finely
1 medium onion, chopped finely
6 to 8 fresh curry leaves
1 cup dry coconut, shredded
Half a head of medium cabbage, shredded
3 carrots, shredded
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup water
Cilantro leaves (for garnish)
1. Heat oil in a wok-style pan and add mustard seeds, channa dal, urud dal and red chilies. This is called tempering, or tadka, and should take a couple of minutes to get the ingredients sizzling and toasty. Mustard seeds tend to pop, so make sure you keep a lid on the wok.
2. Add ginger, onion and curry leaves; stir well for 2 to 3 minutes.
3. Add grated coconut and lastly the shredded cabbage and carrots and salt and pepper to taste.
4. Stir the mixture well and add ¼ cup water. Lower the heat. Cover the wok and let the vegetables cook for about 10 minutes till tender.
5. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve as a side vegetable dish or as a salad at room temperature.
Ayurvedagram Herbal Tea
Aids in alleviating cough and chest congestion
5 leaves of lemon grass
6 to 8 tulsi leaves or basil leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
5 to 6 green cardamom seeds, crushed
¼ teaspoon dry ginger
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
4¼ cups water
1. Boil all ingredients in water for 5 minutes with the lid closed.
2. Strain and serve hot.
Top photo: A lunch plate consisting of rice, green bean poriyal and chapati; in the bowls are sambhar and two types of vegetable curries. Also, to drink, there’s lassi and cumin water. Credit: Mira Honeycutt
Forty days and 40 nights of vegetarian eating are underway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Don’t cry for us, Argentina; there’s no hardship here, as local Catholics look forward to meatless specialties known as comida cuaresmeña (Lenten foods) reserved for the spring. From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday before Easter, cherished recipes are culled from handwritten family notebooks to feed legions of hungry pageant participants.
Pre-dawn firecrackers and skyrockets set off by priests in church yards get everyone up to take part in processions during Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter. The events are widely regarded as some of Mexico’s most elaborate, starring thousands of emotional believers dressed in costume without a single paid actor in sight.
Good Friday is the culmination of weeks of nonstop pageantry with long, unbearably slow and tortuous dragging of crosses through cobblestoned streets to the dispirited beat of a single drum. As they perspire in the hot afternoon sun, solemn men and women in dark dress with purple sashes brace heavy saint statues on their shoulders, but press forward. Children through seniors represent angels and ancient mourners, and wave after wave of their faithful parishioners trod onward in the depths of despair. Parade watchers are stacked along the route in hushed silence. Devotion runs deep and true.
Gorditas among the Lenten offerings
Marching like this brings on a mean hunger. Besides a gazillion bean dishes, most regional Lenten répertoires are rounded out by cheese-stuffed fat tortillas lovingly called gorditas, “or little fat ones”; pipiánes, protein-rich pumpkin-seed sauces poured over vegetables; patties made with countless nonmeat combinations; and soups galore. And then we have Gorditas de Piloncillo. Certainly not your typical gordita, and about as well known today as hardtack, its beginning is centuries old — with a bit of delightful religiosity thanks to the Spanish-Mexican addiction to tradition.
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Generations of local women have sold them outside the San Juan de Dios church (a half block from the market) from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays only during Lent. Today at least a dozen ladies in embroidered aprons from surrounding neighborhoods sit, all lined up curbside, each pan-frying sublimely sweet, crisp tortilla turnovers. It’s hard to choose whom to buy from, but I look for sellers with smiling faces taking pesos with one hand and cooking with the other, or better yet, with an assistant handling cash. Another tip: Stay clear when the church school recess bell rings — chaos reigns as screaming kids stampede to be first in line.
For years I thought teeny, wooden tortilla presses I saw in Mexican markets were toys. Man oh man am I surprised as I watch grown women gently press out children’s tea-party-sized, 3-inch tortillas! Remedios Martinez, sitting under her signature shade umbrella, grabs a tiny ball of masa (corn dough) flavored with canela (Mexican cinnamon), anise seeds and ground chile — she likes guajillo but says others use cascabel — and then presses it into a thin tortilla. She drops a teaspoon of crumbled piloncillo (raw brown sugar) in the center, folds it over and slides it into shimmering-hot vegetable oil to crisp and brown.
Not at all like the more usual regional offering — round, stuffed gorditas — these delicate mini tacos are really different. The spoonful of sugar dramatically transforms into a crunchy glaze as the gordita cools and hardens with an interior as brittle as a candied apple. God can definitely be found biting into a Gordita de Piloncillo.
Gorditas de Piloncillo (Sweet, Crisp Turnovers)
Remedios Martinez miraculously cranks out 800 Gorditas de Piloncillo each day from her street-side, oilcloth-covered folding card table and mesquite wood-fired brazier; they remain crunchy for about four hours and then lose their glamour.
Makes about 30
2 cups masa harina
3 tablespoons ground canela (Mexican cinnamon)
2 tablespoons anise seeds
3 tablespoons ground or flaked dried guajillo or cascabel chile
½ pound grated piloncillo (raw brown sugar available in cones), or dark brown sugar
1. Using a stand mixer, mix the masa harina, canela, anise seeds and chile with about 2 cups warm water to get a soft dough.
2. Pull off rounded tablespoons of dough and form into small balls about the size of Ping-Pong balls. Place on a baking sheet and cover with a damp tea towel to keep the balls moist until the dough runs out.
3. Using a freezer baggie, cut 2 squares of the thick plastic slightly larger than the diameter of the press and place one on the bottom part of a tortilla press. Center a masa ball on the plastic. Cover the masa with the other square of plastic. Lower the top of the press and gently push on the handle. Open the press, turn the tortilla (with plastic) 180 degrees, and push again to make a small, 3-inch round. Open the press. The tortilla will have plastic stuck on the top and bottom. Peel away the top plastic, then gently flip the tortilla over into your other hand and carefully peel that plastic away. Put 1 teaspoon piloncillo in the center, fold over and press the edges together. Lay on a tray. Repeat with a few others.
4. Pour vegetable oil ¼-inch deep into a wide skillet and heat to rippling hot 360 F to 370 F. Test the heat by dropping a small piece of dough into the oil. It should sizzle and turn deep golden within 10 seconds.
5. Slide three or four gorditas at a time into the hot oil. Turn until brown, less than 1 minute. Remove to an opened-up paper bag to drain and crisp.
6. Repeat in batches of three or four with the remaining dough.
Top photo: Gorditas de Piloncillo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
I just made the pie of my dreams. The Ligurians might call it torta pasqualina, Easter tart, a savory spring pastry usually filled with spinach, chard or borage. Theirs is enveloped in 20 layers of a delicate, lean dough stretched with olive oil into paper-thin sheets — 10 on the bottom, 10 on top. Mine is encased in a flaky tent of buttery American pie crust. The filling? It too commemorates spring, but it contains none of the traditional vegetables. No timid spinach here, no sweet, fading chard. My pie is a renegade. Unlike the Italian original, it is filled with the big, bold flavors of rapini, or broccoli rabe as it is called in the United States.
RAPINI, BY ANY NAME
What it's called around the globe:
Bitter broccoli: America
Broccoletti (broccoli-like): Rome
Broccoletti di rapa (broccoli-like turnip greens): Rome/Lazio
Broccoli raab: America
Broccoli rabe: America
Cime di rapa (“turnip tops”): Italy
Cima di rapa (“turnip top”): Italy
Friggiarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania
Friarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania
Friarielli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania
Frigitelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Rome/Lazio
Rape (shortened from cime di rape): Italy
Rapi (colloquial): Umbria
Rapini, rapini: southern Italy, America
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Rapini was relatively unknown in the northern regions of Italy, or in America until recent years. Arguably the tastiest of all greens that descend from the wild plants that have carpeted southern Italy since primordial times, rapini mingled with onion, garlic, tangy pecorino, smoky bacon and just enough egg to hold it all together under a flaky crust is a new take on an ancient pie.
I developed the recipe as part of my promotional relationship with the California rapini growers D’Arrigo Brothers, which owns the Andy Boy broccoli rabe brand. Most of the market rapini, which has been grown in the United States since the early 1970s, comes from the D’Arrigo growers in California, a farming family that put down their Sicilian roots in rich Salinas soil in 1924.
They were the first to recover the heirloom seed on the mountain slopes of their native Sicily. (There, the vegetable is known as “rappini” with a double “p.”) They also were the first to adapt the plant (Brassica rapa ruvo, cime di rapa in Italian, literally, “turnip tops”) to the California climate.
If you are one of those eaters who has tried rapini but found it too bitter to enjoy, you will discover its sweet side if you cook it the Italian way. The trick is to first boil rapini in plenty of salted water. After draining, and while it is still somewhat wet, coddle the rapini in a sauté pan with warm, high-quality olive oil infused with fresh garlic.
We all know that boiling vegetables in salted water transforms their flavor. This is especially true in the case of rapini, or broccoli rabe, which goes from bitter to pleasantly pungent after brief boiling. I asked food science expert and best-selling author Harold McGee for the scientific explanation. McGee is the author of several books on the chemistry and history of food. He also writes a column for The New York Times.
“Boiling leaches out some flavor components, and some salt will get into the tissues and suppress the sensation of bitterness. This is well documented but not yet understood,” McGee said. “The impression of sweetness may also have to do with the boiling damaging the cell walls and making the cell fluids, sugars included, more accessible to the taste buds.”
Besides the cooking method, consider the season. Vegetables always taste best when they are grown and eaten according to nature’s rhythms, and rapini is no exception.
“At the end of April,” said Gabriela D’Arrigo, a third-generation member of the clan, “those greens are at their peak season, and sweeter than any other time of year.”
Serves 6 to 8
This is my emigrant version of Italy’s torta pasqualina, also called scarpazzone. “Scarpa,” shoe, refers to the frugal peasant practice of including the stalk along with the leaves in the filling mixture. I do the same here, using the entirety of two rapini bunches, stems and tops alike (they really shrink after boiling). In the traditional spinach or chard version, pancetta pairs irresistibly with those mild, garlicky greens, but I prefer smoky bacon as a counterpoint to the pungent rapini in my newfound filling.
For the crust:
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, well chilled or frozen
6 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, well chilled or frozen
1 large egg
1 tablespoon lemon juice or unflavored vinegar
5 to 7 tablespoons ice water, just as needed
For the filling:
2 bunches rapini (“broccoli rabe”)
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 slices bacon, chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon fine dried bread crumbs
½ cup freshly grated medium-aged pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna or cacio Toscano
½ teaspoon salt
freshly milled black pepper to taste
For the egg glaze:
1 egg yolk, beaten well with pinch of salt
Directions for the pie pastry
1. Combine the flour and salt and pulse a few times in a food processor to blend.
2. Add the cold butter and vegetable shortening and pulse only until the fat is cut into bits the size of peas.
3. Through the processor’s feed tube, add the egg and lemon juice or vinegar, pulse once or twice, then add the ice water one tablespoon at a time, pulsing once or twice between additions, only until dough begins to show some clumps. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the inside walls of the vessel. Do not form a dough ball on the blade.
4. Turn dough out onto a piece of wax paper (if it looks sandy and dry, sprinkle on a tiny bit more water) and use your hands to bring it together into a ball. It should hold the form of your fingers when squeezed. Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or for up to 5 days until you are ready to make the filling.
Note: If butter and vegetable shortening were frozen, dough can be rolled without prior chilling.
Directions for the filling
1. Wash the rapini in cold water, drain.
2. Detach and separate the stems from the tops of the vegetable. Set the tops and the leaves aside. Using a small, sharp knife, peel any especially tough skin from the thicker lower stalks, much like you would peel the tough skin from the bottom of asparagus stalks.
3. Fill a large pot with plenty of water to cover all the greens and bring to a rolling boil. Add the kosher salt and the peeled stems, cover partially, and boil over high heat for 7 minutes. Now add the florets and leaves and cook them together with the stems for 3 minutes more. Drain the greens and allow them to cool. With your hands, squeeze out as much water as you can. Chop them finely and set aside.
4. Warm a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and cook the bacon until it begins to color, about 7 minutes. Drain off excess fat, stir in the butter and add the onion to the pan. Adjust the heat to medium-low and sauté until the onion is transparent, another 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and continue to sauté gently for about another 3 minutes until it softens and the onions are lightly colored, but do not brown the mixture. Stir in the rapini mixture, turning it over with the bacon and onion mixture to combine. Set aside to cool.
5. In an ample bowl, beat the eggs lightly and mix in the bread crumbs, grated cheese, salt and pepper. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the cooled rapini mixture, blending well.
6. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Select a 10-inch tart pan or pie tin. Butter it lightly. Divide the chilled dough into two portions, one slightly larger than the other. To use, roll out the larger ball of dough on a lightly floured, wide sheet of parchment or waxed paper using a floured rolling pin. Form an 11-inch round. Drape it around the pin and transfer it to the pie pan. Press it gently onto the bottom and sides.
7. Spoon in the filling.
8. Roll out the second ball of dough in the same manner into a slightly smaller circle. Lay it over the filling. Crimp the edges together to seal and trim off any excess to form an even edge. Cut a slash in the top to allow steam to escape. If there are any dough scraps, gather them up, re-roll them, and cut out leaves or rosettes. Decorate the top of the pie with the cutouts, pressing them gently onto the crust.
9. Brush the crust with the beaten egg and bake in the preheated oven until golden, about 1 hour, 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer it to a rack to cool for about 10 minutes. Serve hot or warm, cut into wedges.
Note: This pie keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat it in an oven preheated to 350 F until warm throughout, 20 to 30 minutes.
Top photo: A slice of rapini pie. Credit: Nathan Hoyt
In the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, western Romania, where transhumance — the movement of animals between winter and summer pastures — is still practiced, shepherds will now be settling their animals in the high meadows after a trek that could have lasted five weeks or more. Late autumn last year, these shepherds left with their flocks to walk hundreds of kilometers east, to the Danube floodplains, or northwest, to the lowland plains near Hungary. Now they’re back in their summer home.
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A lack of historical records makes it impossible to establish a precise time that long-distance transhumance began in the Carpathians but, since the region’s shepherd communities date to the pre-Roman Dacians, it is likely that this form of year-round grazing has been practiced since then. They are part of a tradition that stretches throughout the Balkans to northern and central Greece and Albania; their movements between these countries were only curtailed by World War I, when new country borders were created and passports were needed to cross them.
Timing the spring trek
One income source for the shepherds is the lamb they can provide for Easter tables. Romanians consider a 10-kilogram (22-pound) lamb the perfect size for this, so the animal needs to be eight to 10 weeks old. The shepherds time their trek to arrive in the Carpathian uplands for lambing to take place there around early March, depending on when the Orthodox Easter falls that year. Flocks comprise sheep belonging to a number of villagers, and each sheep is marked, to distinguish it from a neighbor’s.
This biannual journey enriches the landscapes the animals cross by fertilizing the soils in the migratory corridors with sheep dung and encourages a remarkably rich biodiversity by transporting fruits and seeds on the wool. It has also, over the centuries, led to extensive cultural exchanges as the shepherds traveled long distances in search of grazing, and many contemporary traditions — in food, literature and song — have their roots in this practice.
Both landscapes and traditions are now in danger of disappearing. Land that has been an open route for the shepherds for centuries is becoming privately owned, motorists don’t take kindly to a flock of hundreds of sheep crossing the road in front of them, and many flocks are now transported in trucks.
A mobile dairy
During the trek, the ewes’ milk is made into cas and urda, two fresh cheeses similar in texture, respectively, to ricotta and Greek mizythra, and cascaval, a semi-hard cheese that’s kept for up to three months. Later in the summer, when the milk has a higher fat content, it’s turned into a feta-like cheese called telemea. The curds are salted, wrapped into cheesecloth orbs, and hung for 24 hours before they are placed on slatted wooden shelves to settle into heavy discs of mountain cheese. The nutrient-rich whey is given to the pigs and sheepdogs. Some of the cheeses are allocated to the sheep owners, the remainder sold at local markets.
Over the centuries, the shepherds have perfected the art of turning fresh milk into products that can be kept longer than a few hours. As well as cheeses, they make smantana, similar to soured cream or thick yogurt, which is the perfect accompaniment to another easily transportable food that has come to be known as the national dish of Romania, mamaliga.
Mamaliga, a thick porridge made from maize flour (cornmeal), is similar to the polenta of northern Italy and other parts of the Balkans. Served in a huge variety of ways, it’s not unusual to find mamaliga on Romanian tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As cornmeal is easy to store, transport and cook, it is the perfect staple food for a long trek. The shepherds make mamaliga in large cauldrons suspended over an open fire and are particularly fond of it with small game and sarmale (stuffed fresh or slightly fermented cabbage leaves). Often, though, it’s eaten alone, with smantana or cheese, or wrapped around fresh, white cheese to make a grapefruit-size ball (or “bear”), which is wrapped in foil and baked in charcoal.
The best mamaliga is made from coarse, stone-ground cornmeal that retains some of the hull and germ of the grain, producing a thick, yellow-gold porridge with a slightly crunchy texture. For Romanian cooks, the making of mamaliga involves many rituals, some of which touch on the semi-mystical in the same way as bread-baking and grape-stomping do, and they use a special saucepan (ceaun) for the process. Modern cooks, however, frequently use a commercial coarse cornmeal that considerably cuts the preparation time. Both types of cornmeal are suitable for making these fitters, a popular to way to serve mamaliga at home.
Mamaliga Fritters With Mushroom Sauce
For a true taste of Transylvania, use a mixture of sunflower oil and butter to fry the fritters, though olive oil gives a fine, if Mediterranean-flavored result, too. Serve with braised rabbit or chicken, with any manner of vegetables, or with mushrooms in sour cream.
Serves 3 to 4
For the mamaliga:
½ cup whole milk
1 cup water
¾ teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1 scant cup coarse cornmeal (maize flour), preferably organic
3 tablespoons organic sunflower oil
2 tablespoons butter
For the mushroom sauce:
1 tablespoon butter
6 ounces wild, field or button mushrooms, wiped clean, trimmed and thinly sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons sour cream, to taste
3 tablespoons lightly chopped fresh dill
Watercress sprigs or other green leaves
Small pickled peppers
1. Combine the milk and water in a heavy saucepan, add the salt, and bring to barely a boil
2. Pour in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly in a clockwise direction with a wooden spoon. Over a low heat, simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the mixture is thick enough to just support the spoon standing upright. Set aside uncovered for 10 minutes
(If you are using a commercial cornmeal, follow the directions for a thick mixture.)
3. To make the mushroom sauce, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small, heavy saucepan set over low heat. Add the mushrooms, cover the pan, and simmer 6-8 minutes (button mushrooms) to up to 15 minutes (field or wild mushrooms), until soft. Strain the mushrooms over a bowl and set both mushrooms and liquor aside.
4. Turn out the cornmeal (mamaliga) onto a wooden board and spread into a 1-inch-thick layer with a spatula or palette knife. Smooth the surface and neaten the edges. Cut into 2×3-inch rectangles, or any shape you prefer (but keep manageable in size, otherwise they will break up later). Use the palette knife to loosen each one from the board
5. Set a frying pan over low-medium heat and add the sunflower oil and 2 tablespoons butter. When hot but not smoking, fry the fritters until golden brown on both sides, turning once.
6. Meanwhile, check the mushroom cooking liquor. If there is more than 4 tablespoons, reduce in a heavy pan set over medium heat. Lower the heat, add the mushrooms and stir in the sour cream. Heat to hot but not boiling (or the cream will curdle and spoil the appearance of the dish). Gently stir in the dill and add salt and pepper (the sauce should be highly seasoned)
7. Transfer the fritters to a warm platter and surround with watercress, pickles, and the mushroom sauce.
Top photo: A shepherd in the mountains near Sigishoara, Transylvania. Credit: Cordell Barron