Articles in Tradition
It’s tomato canning time in Campania, southern Italy. This region more than any other relies on home-preserved plum tomatoes to stock the larder for the year. These are the tomatoes that will go into the daily plate of pasta al pomodoro, or onto pizzas and dozens of other regional favorites.
My neighbors in Nusco, the tiny medieval village in the province of Avellino where I spend part of the year, are a retired couple who share their house with one daughter. It’s just the three of them, so I was amazed when they told me that the next week Signora Antonietta was going to process 250 kilos of tomatoes (that’s one-quarter ton of fresh tomatoes). Each family has its own recipes for home-canned tomatoes, but the result is the same: enough bottles and jars of the precious “red gold” to prevent them ever having to buy tomatoes from a store.
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“The most important thing is to know where your tomatoes have been grown,” says Antonietta’s husband, Pietro. “We like to make sure ours are free of pesticides.” Nusco is only an hour’s drive from Puglia, where many of the tomatoes for the canning industry are grown, but there are reports of undocumented immigrants being exploited as pickers in near-slavery conditions. Pietro prefers to buy his from a local farmer.
San Marzano tomatoes
The most famous tomato of all is the fabled San Marzano, the Holy Grail of plum varieties. Legend has it that the first seeds of San Marzano came to Campania in 1770 as a gift to the Kingdom of Naples from the Kingdom of Peru. It was planted extensively in what is now the township of San Marzano, near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, mainland Europe’s largest active volcano. Millions of tons were harvested annually until the 1980s, when a blight struck the crop.
Campanian researchers are divided about whether that variety still exists. Some claim the original San Marzano was lost to the disease, while others maintain that a few seeds remained in the region’s refrigerated seed bank and were used to rebuild the gene pool. Whichever variety it now is, Pomodoro San Marzano has been granted DOP status (Protected Denomination of Origin) and can be certified only if grown within specified areas of Campania. It has been recognized as a keystone of the Mediterranean diet.
What’s so special about it? “The San Marzano has an elongated plum shape, firm flesh and very few seeds,” says Vincenzo Aita, a specialist in Campanian agriculture. “The skin is a deep bright red, and peels off easily. Most importantly, it has a rich, intense flavor, low acidity (but is high in nutrients), and is the best for canning and for making our Neapolitan tomato ragù — a sauce that needs to be simmered for at least 6 hours.”
The San Marzano is tricky to grow: It needs to be staked carefully and handpicked when ripe, which means passing through the fields six to eight times per season. So it’s more expensive than other plum tomatoes, but well worth the extra — if you can find it.
Signora Antonietta favors preserving her tomatoes unpeeled. She washes, then puts them in a vast pan over a gas burner in her garage, gently cooking them for about an hour until the pulp is soft. The tomatoes are then passed through a mill, where some of the skins are separated from the juice and pulp.
“Some people prefer to drain the tomato water before milling, but I like to keep all of the tomatoes’ goodness in the jar. After all, I can always cook it down if I need it thicker,” she says, as she stirs salt to taste into the tomato purée. The passata or salsa is bottled — in recycled jars and beer bottles with new caps — before being placed in an even bigger pan to be covered in water and boiled for 45 minutes to sterilize the preserves.
Stocking the larder
A few kilometers away, in Montella, Signora Rosa and her family are being even more ambitious. “We’re doing 450 kilos of tomatoes this year,” she says as she rallies her daughter, grandson and nephew to action. Here the tomatoes are worked using two different methods. Some whole tomatoes are held in boiling water for a minute or so before being peeled. They are then placed in the bottles with one fresh basil leaf before being closed and sterilized.
For her passata, Rosa washes the tomatoes before adding them to a large pan in which a few liters of water have been brought to a boil. She cooks them for about an hour before removing them from the pan using a slotted spoon to drain away some of the excess liquid. The tomatoes are then milled — using an old electric machine that was her mother’s, and that can process 300 kilos per hour — bottled and sterilized, unsalted, as above. Other families prefer to purée their tomatoes raw before sterilization, or cut the raw tomatoes into chunks and mix them into the salsa before the final boiling in the jar. It’s a personal choice and one that will be appreciated every day of the coming year.
Main photo: Signora Rosa, center, and her family work on the tomatoes in the garden. Credit: Carla Capalbo
In the Southwest, the green chile harvest is well underway. Throughout New Mexico and my home state of Colorado, locals are ransacking the roadside stands, where roasting drums rumble incessantly, and stacking their freezers with bag upon bag of the long, blackened pods. Soon and often, they’ll be chopped and added to omelets, burgers, quesadillas, breads and countless other dishes, and even used by home brewers in beer. But above all, they’ll be reserved for batches of, well, green chile.
Though you will sometimes see the word spelled “chili,” the strong preference for the Spanish term in these parts is only natural. A majority here take “chili” to mean the spicy beef stew (with or without beans) so beloved in Texas, while green “chile” refers not only to any number of unripened strains of Capsicum annuum but also to a concoction whose versatility partly explains its significance to Southwestern cuisine.
Green chile recipes come with many variations
Other than the peppers themselves, its list of ingredients is up for fierce debate. It may be vegetarian or contain pork, though if you ask three cooks which cut is best you’ll get four answers. And while garlic, salt and pepper are virtually non-negotiable, just about every other potential component has its champions and detractors, from onions, tomatoes, tomatillos and chicken broth to herbs and spices like cilantro and cumin.
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Green chile can be thin or thick; it functions as a filling, sauce and/or stew at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even if they’ve heard of it before (and many haven’t), newcomers to the Southwest are often startled by green chile’s ubiquity.
For that matter, many New Mexicans — who consider the stuff their birthright — balk at the notion that Coloradans have a century-old green-chile tradition of their own. (Case in point: the good-natured controversy that occurred between state officials after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock included green chile in his 2014 Super Bowl wager with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.) In their view, the Colorado version, based primarily on crops from Pueblo, could only be a pale imitation if not an outright theft of their richer heritage, centered on the famed Hatch pepper and extending to an appreciation for red chile — made with the dried pods — that Coloradans don’t especially share. (In New Mexico, when you order any dish “Christmas-style,” you’ll get it with both red and green chile.)
Michael Bartolo begs to differ with that assessment. According to the Colorado State University researcher, DNA testing has shown that “what’s grown in the Pueblo area is unique. It’s not really related to anything grown in New Mexico.” In fact, “its nearest relatives are from the Oaxaca region of Mexico.”
While the term “Hatch chile” is a catch-all for several varieties grown in and around the town of Hatch, N.M., “Pueblo chile” is basically synonymous with two types: the Mirasol, named for the way its root points toward the sun, and an adaptation called the Mosco, Bartolo’s own cultivar. As Bartolo explains, “Over 20 years ago, I collected some seeds from my uncle, Harry Mosco, and began making selections over about five years. I was looking to increase yield and produce a lot of big fruits with thick meat, making them more amenable to roasting.” He adds that Pueblo crops benefit from higher diurnal temperature shifts than their New Mexican counterparts, which aid in the development of sugars for fruitier flavor profiles. (And Bartolo has “new varieties in the pipeline as well,” including one called the Pueblo popper: “Imagine a large, roundish pepper that doesn’t have a huge amount of heat, to be used more for stuffing.”)
Truth be told, the likelihood that most people could taste the difference between chiles grown on either side of the state line is slim to none. So don’t worry: If roasting stands don’t exist where you live, you should still be able to find one cultivar or another that will suffice, including Anaheims (which were brought to California from New Mexico, though they tend to be milder than their Southwestern cousins).
Here is a basic recipe for green chile, one that emphasizes the flavor of the key ingredient itself. To that end, I personally prefer pork loin over fattier cuts. On this template, however, you can begin to build more complex variations as you please.
Cooking time varies, and can be up to 2.5 hours.
- 2 pounds pork loin
- 8 garlic cloves
- 2½ to 3 cups whole roasted green chiles
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 tablespoons flour, divided
- 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Place the pork loin in a good-sized pot and add water until it’s submerged by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a high simmer and cook 1 hour.
- While the pork is cooking, mince the garlic and set aside. Remove the roasted skins from the chiles. (You can wash them off, but you’ll lose essential oils in so doing, and they crumble away easily enough without rinsing.) Destem, deseed and chop the chiles crosswise; set aside.
- Once the pork is ready, set it aside to cool, reserving the cooking water. (Transfer it to a pitcher if possible.)
- In another large pot, heat the vegetable oil on a medium-low burner or flame and add the garlic. When it's golden brown, add 4 tablespoons flour and begin whisking constantly for a few minutes, until it’s a coppery color and smells nutty. It should be thickening as well; if not, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour a little at a time until it’s somewhat thick and bubbling.
- Continue to whisk vigorously as you add the reserved liquid to the pot in a thin stream. Next, add the chiles and the tomatoes. Then shred the cooled pork by hand and add it to the pot; finally, season with salt and pepper.
- Reduce the heat to low and position the lid to cover the pot loosely. Cook at least one hour, adjusting the seasoning to taste as you go.
Main photo: Green chile. Credit: Ruth Tobias
Standing in a busy Moroccan souk, a chicken seller holds up two squawking birds. Holding the brown one slightly higher, he repeats an increasingly familiar word: “beldi.” Beldi is a word in Arabic meaning “traditional” or “indigenous.” Unsurprisingly, the brown chicken’s beldi status bears a higher price tag — nearly triple that of the white one, which is roumi, or conventionally raised, rather than free range.
The appeal of traditional, locally grown food is well-known throughout the world. Within Morocco and abroad, beldi is being used to market quality boutique-style products to foreigners and Moroccans. Moroccan beldi include raib beldi, thin drinkable yogurt; zebda beldia, homemade or traditional Moroccan butter; and citron beldi, indigenous lemons used to make preserved lemons. In Morocco, McDonalds is jumping on the bandwagon with a specialty sandwich called the “P’tit Beldi” featuring spiced halal meat. Even U.S. grocer Whole Foods is now selling products such as “Beldi: A small, fruity olive from Morocco.”
Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Serenity Bolt is a writer and photographer currently based in Rabat, Morocco, where she works with Round Earth Media to edit and publish Reporting Morocco, a source for work by young journalists. In her spare time, Bolt also dabbles in web design, cooking and world travel.
Although such a surge of interest in artisanal goods can help preserve fragile traditions, it can also drive prices up and limit accessibility for locals. So, how does foreign interest in Moroccan food products affect what is valued — and available — in Morocco?
Concept of beldi
To answer that question one needs to understand that the concept of beldi has deep cultural roots in Morocco that go far beyond the use as a marketing tool to foreigners. Omar Magouri, a local shopper in Tangier, explains, “The word beldi can be applied to many things. A woman who wears traditional clothes and does things the old way is beldi. Things that are produced with care are beldi. The opposite of this is roumi, which can be anything non-traditional, imported or made in a factory.” Magouri explains that a person who eschews tradition can also be roumi.
Where food and cooking are close to the heart of every Moroccan, beldi refers to something more elusive than quality; rather, it connotes quality as a reflection of deep cultural pride.
This appreciation for time-honored, traditional methods of producing food and esoteric regional ingredients has made Morocco a place where the Slow Food movement is taking hold. Founded in 1986 by Italian activist Carlo Petrini, Slow Food promotes linking “the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”
Slow Food began its involvement with Morocco in 2001 through its international Presidia project, which provides assistance to producers of “threatened” products such as the Brazilian Baru nut, American raw-milk cheeses, Dehraduni basmati rice in India, Mananara vanilla from Madagascar and the Basque pig from France.
In Morocco, the Presidia’s projects have brought positive global attention to local food products and established a link between local food producers and chefs in high-end restaurants, such as Ch’hiwates du terroir in Rabat, the Chefs in Residence program at Restaurant Numero 7 in Fez and the Amal Center restaurant in Marrakesh. They are also involved in training and educational projects, many of which are aimed at women.
Slow Food movement
Sophie Duncan, a Fulbright researcher currently studying food in Morocco, works with the international Ark of Taste, a project of Slow Food that draws attention to, protects and catalouges traditional products around the world. So far, 15 Moroccan products have been nominated to the Ark, including cumin from Anif, a village in southeastern Morocco where cumin is prized for its quality and intense aroma; saffron from Taliouine, a mountain in the heart of Morocco’s famed saffron region; and salt from Zerradoun, a group of scattered houses in the foothills of the Rif mountains in northeastern Morocco where there are two historic salt pans.
Duncan says foreign interest in beldi products can have both positive and negative effects. “It’s wonderful that tourists and foreign customers can buy Moroccan products and support Moroccan producers, and in some sectors and areas this has become an important source of income. However, it can also definitely drive prices up and make products less available to locals. Argan oil and amlou (a paste made from toasted almonds, honey and argan oil) are two examples of products that are becoming very popular abroad and are now quite expensive.”
So far, according to Duncan, Morocco seems well-equipped to handle burgeoning foreign interest in traditional products without sacrificing authenticity. Interest in beldi products is being funneled into high-end restaurants and boutiques, while local markets offer beldi and roumi choices to shoppers of all denominations. Most small-scale producers have maintained a focus on local markets.
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She explains, “For the most part, producers continue to make these products not solely for a tourist/foreign market, but because they feel a connection to their history. I think the feeling that you are contributing to the preservation of a food product that is important to your own identity and your community’s history can be quite rewarding. The vast majority of Moroccans that I have talked to do seem to get far more excited about beldi products than about their roumi equivalents.”
They may be excited, but beldi products can put quite a dent in the average Moroccan’s wallet. Tangier chicken seller Hamm Cherkaoui explains that in the souk, or market, “You can get a white djaj roumi [conventionally raised chicken] for 40 dirhams (almost $5 USD). The djaj beldi (traditionally raised chicken) will cost 120 (about $14.25 USD).” But, with the beldi chicken, “the taste is much better,” Cherkaoui says.
What’s what in Morocco
Looking to go beyond olives the next time you find yourself in a Moroccan souk? Here are a few beldi suggestions from sellers in the bustling markets of Tangier.
Smen beldi is homemade clarified butter or zebda beldia that has been preserved with salt and herbs. Aged smen can be quite pungent because of the aging process.
Citron beldi or l’hamd beldi
These are varieties of lemon found throughout Morocco, such as the small doqq lemons (Citrus limonum Risso var. pusilla R) from the Taroudant region outside of Agadir and boussera lemons, or limonette de Marrakesh, often used in traditional recipes.
These organic eggs are small with white shells and bright orange yolks. Bayd beldi are considerably more flavorful and higher quality than the more common large brown roumi eggs (bayd).
Raib beldi is raw cow’s milk that has been coagulated with enzymes from dried wild artichokes. Raib beldi can be eaten plain or flavored with orange water or vanilla.
Khilia is dried beef or camel meat that has been preserved in fat that is a delicacy from Fez. It is eaten fried, often for breakfast with eggs.
This thick syrup, made from a particular variety of grapes in the mountainous Chefchaouen region, is extremely difficult to find. The juice, which is concentrated in terra-cotta pots, is eaten as a sweet honey substitute in addition to use as a traditional medicine for colds and stomachaches.
Main photo: Bayd beldi and bayd roumi sit side by side. White bayd beldi are smaller than their brown counterparts, and considerably more expensive. Credit: Serenity Bolt
Ever heard of Gorgollasa? Prensal, perhaps? Try Callet? Or maybe Manto Negro? Welcome to the distinctive native grapes of Mallorca, the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands, which basks out in the Mediterranean some ways south of Barcelona.
Wine-growing started here with the Romans and continued at a steady pace until the end of the 19th century, when the vine-destroying phylloxera louse laid waste to Europe’s vineyards. Viticulture on Mallorca succumbed too and lay stunned, licking its wounds, for the better part of half a century. In the 1970s, when Spain embarked on its dismaying sellout to mass tourism, the island’s vineyards flickered back to life. Mass tourism requires — along with oceans of beer — mass-produced wines. Mallorca’s wineries obeyed the dictates of the market, confining themselves (with a few notable exceptions) to producing undistinguished plonk.
Mallorca transforms to tourist destination rich in wine culture
Hordes of northern Europeans continue to land on the beaches by the millions each summer, for sure. But in the past 20 years, an alternative touristic offering has developed, aimed at a different kind of traveler. In the once seedy, down-at-the-heels streets of Palma, the island’s capital, exquisite patrician palacios have evolved from dilapidated family homes to chic town hotels. Inland, deliciously well-appointed casas rurales (country hotels) have sprung up amidst the silvery olive groves and almond and apricot orchards. Hikers and bikers relish the challenges of the mountains of the Serra de Tramuntana, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. And as upmarket tourism has taken root, so too has the demand for better-quality wines, most of them grown in the foothills of the Tramuntana range, with peaks that rear up like jagged vertebrae from southwest to northeast.
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If you are up for a vinous adventure and enjoy straying off the usual well-worn paths to taste the fruits of unusual local grapes, you’re going to love exploring Mallorcan wines.
The island has about 40 working bodegas (wineries) today. Here are a half-dozen whose wines grabbed my attention on a recent visit. Check Wine Searcher for suppliers near you, or contact locally based Cellers Artesans d’Europa (firstname.lastname@example.org), which ships worldwide.
Bodegas Ribas in Consell is the oldest winery on Mallorca, established in 1711 and still owned and run by members of the Ribas family. The 13th generation is represented by brother-and-sister team Xavier and Araceli, whose wine studies took them first to Priorat, Spain (Catalunya), followed by New Zealand, California, France and Argentina. The family is famous for championing indigenous vine varieties, including the almost extinct Gorgollasa, and the 40-hectare (99-acre) vineyard boasts some impressively gnarled old Prensal and Manto Negro root stocks. Their fresh, mouth-filling, no-barrique blanc (white), made from Prensal plus a little Viognier, slips down as a treat at the beach with a plate of grilled sardines, while red Sió partners the lightly pigmented Manto Negro grape with Syrah and Merlot, bolstered by a discreet hint of oak.
Close by in Santa Maria del Camí is Macià Batle, one of the largest bodegas, with about 100 hectares (250 acres). It was founded in 1856 and has seen impressive modernization and investment in the past five years. If I lived on the island, my go-to white would be the entry-level blanc de blanc, a golden, aromatic, crunchy combo of Prensal, Chardonnay and a little Moscatel. Their wide range of reds (sporting lurid labels, including one designed by artists Gilbert and George) successfully combine Manto Negro with international varieties like Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot in varying proportions.
Vinyes Mortitx is situated on the dramatic, winding road up to Pollensa in a tiny, sheltered valley, which was formerly planted with kiwis and avocados. In 2002, these were uprooted in favor of 15 hectares (37 acres) of vines, both island and mainland varieties. Flaires, a pretty, blush-pink, low-alcohol rosé from Monastrell, Merlot and Cabernet, makes a fine summer aperitif. Come fall, look out for Rodal Pla, a robust but discreetly oaked Syrah/Cabernet/Merlot blend.
Tiny Son Prim (8.5 hectares, 21 acres), owned and run by the Llabrés family and situated between Inca and Sencelles, gets my vote for some of the island’s most original, keenly priced, Mediterranean-inflected wines. The bodega majors on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot, with a little input from Manto Negro. Of their wines (they do both single varietals and blends), I particularly favored the Merlots: firstly a fragrant, gently blushing white and then an alluring, curvaceous, characterful red.
Mesquida Mora is a new winery set up by Barbara Mesquida, one of the few female wine makers on the island. She recently struck out on her own with 20 hectares (50 acres) of local and international varieties, which she farms biodynamically with minimal intervention in the vineyard and little or no sulfur added in the cellar. Look for Acrollam (Mallorca, spelt backwards), a deep golden mouthful of Prensal with Chardonnay, or Trispol, a dense ruby-red combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and the rare, rustic Callet.
At Bodegas Can Majoral in Algaida, brothers Biel and Andreu started as hobby winemakers in 1979, gradually increasing their holding to its current tally of 17 hectares (42 acres) and converting to organics along the way. They combine an acute sense of terroir with an unshakeable belief in the indigenous Mallorcan varieties and their potential to produce quality wines. The tongue-twisting Butibalausí comes in white and red versions, the former a sprightly, easy-drinking drop made from low-acid Prensal boosted by Chardonnay and Parellada, one of the grapes traditionally used for cava. If you rejoice in the resurrection of threatened indigenous rarities, try to track down a bottle of their Gorgollasa, a distinctive, highly aromatic red wine which they produce in tiny quantities from just 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of their vineyards.
Main photo: Colorful labels from Macia Batle. Credit: Sue Style
If you ask me what would I choose as my last meal, I wouldn’t be able to give you just one. I have too many favorites. Doubtless, however, is that the soothing staying power of my mother’s wholesome rice porridge is among the most memorable.
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In the Malaysian language, the common definition of rice porridge within the Malay community is Bubur Lambuk (pronounced boo-boor lahm-bok), which has various ingredients and spices such as cumin, fennel, garlic, onions, dried prawns and lots of coconut milk as well as black pepper. A bowl of this is undoubtedly flavorful but can be overwhelmingly flavored with spices.
My mother’s rice porridge, though, has a comforting effect. According to her, it was a staple for her growing up in our hometown in Penang, Malaysia, and it has become the one thing I look forward during Eid, which marks the end of fasting during Ramadan each year. In many parts of Malaysia, hearty rice porridge is a staple during the breaking of one’s fast. Mosques and suraus (smaller prayer halls) usually prepare cauldrons of rice porridge to distribute to people. Although it is mostly meant for the poor and destitute, everyone is welcome to take home a packet or two.
My mother, Nisha Ibrahim, who turned 70 in January, recalled that in her youth, “At 5:30 in the evenings during Ramadan, we would flock to the mosque to get some porridge with our tiffin carriers, but over the years I have used my own recipe, which doesn’t require a lot spices. I use simple ingredients, which create a balanced flavor.”
When my mother was a child, people didn’t use any plastic containers when they got their porridge stash at the mosque. “We would take those aluminum mugs with the lids so the food would stay warm when we brought it home.”
It is now more than a month past Ramadan, which will start June 18 in 2015, but the echoes of my mother’s dish remain. The added oomph in her recipe comes from the generous portions of fresh garlic and ginger. Both provide a calming effect on the stomach. In the past, whenever I thought of rice porridge, I not only thought of breaking fast but also associated it with nursing a flu to feel better. Now I feel it’s a great meal for any day of the week.
Make sure you don’t use Basmati rice, because the starch content is relatively low. Instead, go for low-grade rice, as the high-starch content will break down the rice easily.
- 1 cup uncooked rice
- 8 cups filtered water
- 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
- 1 pandan (screw pine) leaves, one leaf tied into a knot
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, coarsely chopped
- 3.5 ounces (100 grams) minced beef or chicken
- 3.5 ounces (100 grams) diced carrots
- ¼ cup coconut milk
- 3 tablespoons cilantro leaves, chopped
- Wash the rice in a big sieve. Do this three or four times, swishing the rice until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.
- Put the rice in a big pot and add 8 cups of filtered water. Bring to a slow boil. Be sure not to let it burn.
- Add the vegetable oil, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds and pandan leaves and stir until contents are well mixed.
- Add the garlic and ginger and stir for a minute.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low and monitor the grains until it resembles a thick, creamy porridge. This should take about 5 minutes.
- Add the minced meat and carrots and heat until the meat is cooked and the carrots are soft.
- When the porridge is fragrant, add the coconut milk and cilantro leaves. Leave to cook over low heat for 10 minutes while stirring occasionally.
- Using a ladle, stir contents and scrape the pot to make sure nothing sticks before serving.
Tip: You can use fried shallots or fried dried anchovies (both available at Asian grocers) as garnish and to make the porridge tastier.
Main photo: A bowl of Malaysian rice porridge. Credit: Aida Ahmad
If a glass of ouzo and a chewy chunk of octopus is what comes to mind at the cocktail hour, you need a boat with a sail and a following wind to carry you round the Dodecanese, a string of volcanic islands that belong to Greece but are rather closer to Turkey.
Gastronomic delights on the little island of Lipso — if you’re not a yachtie, as many of the visitors are, you can get there on the thrice-weekly ferry out of Samos — are goat’s cheese and cephalopods, mostly octopus, or octopodi. Lipso’s cheese can best be appreciated in the form of pies, tiropita, available hot from the wood oven at Taki’s bakery on the harbor front of the island’s friendly little capital, Lipsi. Meanwhlie, the night’s catch of octopodi are visible throughout the day dangling suckered tentacles like reddish bunting from the awning of Nico’s ouzerie by the quay where the fishermen land their catch. Octopus, for the tender-hearted, are voracious carnivores whose favorite supper, also on the menu at Nico’s, is pipe fish, an eel-like creature no longer than your hand with a pointed snout and a luminous blue-green spine.
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As you might expect, there is more than one way to cook an octopus. There’s octopus simmered with tomato and onion; octopus salad; octopus frittered or fried; octopus preserved under olive oil with vinegar to eat with fat slices of just-cooked yellow potato; octopus cooked with big white beans; octopus stewed with red wine and the peppery oregano that grows wild on Greek hillsides. But the simplest and most delicious is octopodi cooked to order on the grill at Nico’s after the place opens for business at sundown, in the company, say, of a Greek family and friends celebrating a christening or wedding or just having a good time in spite of what’s happening with the European Union in Brussels and the government in Athens.
Octopodi as served at Nico’s is not for the squeamish. Which of course you’re not, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You will already have observed the evening’s menu dehydrating in the morning sunshine when you took your breakfast at Taki’s — open 24-7 because of the yachties — where your order might be Greek coffee (medium sweet), freshly squeezed orange juice and Lipsi’s speciality pita, a puffy open-topped tart filled with grated cheese set with egg. The bakery’s activities, you will observe from the video playing on the countertop, have been blessed by the Orthodox priest from the white-washed tourquoise-domed basilica on the hill where christenings and weddings take place, providing good business for the ouzerie and sharpening appetites for octopodi.
At sunset, when you take your place on one of the blue-painted chairs at a yellow Formica-topped table at Nico’s, your order is taken by a blue-eyed, bearded man with a profile straight off a Greek vase who slings one of the draped octopodi over white-hot charcoal and watches patiently till it sizzles and singes. Then he chops it into bite-sized pieces, drops them on a plate and plunks it down in front of you with a quartered lemon, a jug of ouzo and as many glasses as you have friends — of which you will have plenty if, like me, you’re recording the scene with sketchbook and paints. If your friends are happy and the ouzo flows freely, dancing will follow.
And no, I can’t provide a recipe for grilled octopodi with lemon and ouzo as prepared at Nico’s because preparing octopus is men’s business — so what do I know? You’ll just have to go there and order it yourself. What I can deliver, however, is instructions for octopodi ladolemono, octopus with oil and lemon as prepared by Lazarus, chef patron of the taverna of the same name on Ulysses’s island of Ithaca on the Italian side of the Greek mainland. It may not be the same, but it’s a start.
Octopus salad with oil and lemon
“As a woman,” explained Lazarus. “Octopus is not your business. But as a foreigner in need of instruction, I shall tell you. First, you must capture your octopodi. For a skilled spear fisherman such as myself, this is not difficult. Now comes the work. You must pick the creature up without fear and throw it 40 times against a rock. Less times are needed if it’s small, more if it’s large. First the flesh is hard, but slowly it softens. Now you must rinse it in seawater so that it foams. Unless you do this, it will never soften. You’ll know when it’s ready because the tentacles will curl. You must not take off the skin, as so many ignorant people do. The skin turns red when you cook it, and this is what tells you the octopodi is fresh and good. No Greek would eat an octopus which is skinned and white. To prepare it for a salad, put in a pan and cook it gently with a ladleful of sea water until it’s perfectly tender — allow 20 to 40 minutes. Drain it and slice it carefully into pieces — all of it is good. Dress it with the oil pressed from the fruit of your own olives, and squeeze on it the juice from the lemons from the tree in your own garden. Now you must shake over it a little of the oregano which you have gathered wild in the hills. Now all is ready. Set out the glasses with the ouzo and fetch water from the well, since you will also need to quench your thirst. Now you may call your friends, as many as are suitable for the size of your octopus. If you have too many friends, provide more bread and plenty of olives.”
Main illustration: The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
After several days in Japan, every foreign traveler notices that the Japanese love kare-raisu or curry rice as much as they do sushi and ramen. This dish of an aromatic but not very spicy curry sauce served with rice and protein can be found throughout the country, from the largest cities to the smallest remote mountain villages. There are entire restaurants specializing in kare-raisu, small family-run operations and large restaurant chains. The strange story of how this distinctive dish came to be a Japanese favorite starts with the British, their navy, and a Japanese physician’s observations on malnutrition.
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After Japan emerged from centuries of isolation with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese government decided to model its newly developing navy after all aspects of the British navy, including the training of its officers and sailors. Around the same time, Japanese doctor Kanehiro Takaki, who had studied at an English medical school, was appointed as a navy physician. Takaki’s mission was to conquer the mysterious disease beriberi, which was very common among Japanese naval officers and seamen.
During his stay in England, Takaki did not see many cases of beriberi in the British navy. And he noted that the British sailors’ protein-rich diet that also included wheat bread — foods rich in vitamin B, which we now know is required to prevent beriberi — was very different from Japanese sailors’ simple diet of fish, vegetables and rice. He concluded that malnutrition was the cause of the beriberi epidemic and that the addition of such proteins to the diet could solve the beriberi problem in the Japanese navy. Takaki returned to Japan and worked to persuade the navy that it should adopt a Western diet containing protein for the sailors. Nutritious, filling and easy to make in a single pot, kare-raisu was perfect for the navy kitchen and was soon adopted by all branches of the navy. It became the custom in the navy to serve kare-raisu at the end of each week.
Also in that period, great changes were occurring on the Japanese culinary scene. The ban on meat eating that had been imposed on the commoner population was finally lifted. New ingredients such as butter and milk were introduced to the Japanese kitchen. The Emperor himself promoted Western-style meals, with the hope of building a stronger and taller Japanese population. Under these conditions, new Western-style dishes, collectively called yoshoku, were born, and some of these new creations were adopted by the navy kitchen. Kare-raisu, directly inspired by the curry-spiced stew dish served in the British navy, was one. This is how curry rice came to Japan from India by way of the British navy.
Here is an early kare-raisu recipe published in 1906 from the “Kaigun Kappo Jutsu Sankosho” or Navy Cooking Technique Reference Cookbook.
1. Cut meat, carrots, onions and potato into cubes.
2. Heat beef fat in a stock pot and cook flour.
3. Add curry powder, stock, meat and vegetables, and cook over low heat.
4. Add salt to taste.
5. Serve the curry sauce over steamed rice with pickled vegetables.
It is not at all different from the recipe in general use today.
In Tokyo, kare-raisu was first served to the public at high-class, white-tablecloth restaurants. Diners often dressed in Western attire and, wanting to be seen as modern, ate their curry with knives, forks and spoons, not the usual chopsticks. It is recorded that in 1877, Tokyo Fugetsu-do, a Western-style restaurant, served kare-raisu and its price was 8 sen (8 cents).
A few decades later, a different style curry was born in Tokyo. This new curry dish came directly from India by a rather serendipitous route. Ras Bihari Bose, an Indian activist, fled to Japan in 1915 when his plan with colleagues to overthrow the British Raj failed. But Japan was part of an Anglo-Japan Alliance, and Bose was not safe. Luckily, he fell under the protection of Aizo Soma, a businessman known for his benevolent activities. Soma owned and operated Nakamuraya, a store in Tokyo that produced newly introduced bread products along with the traditional Japanese sweets. Bose tasted Japanese kare-raisu while he was in hiding under Soma’s protection, but criticized it as “not at all authentic.” He proceeded to help Soma develop a more authentic Indian curry recipe. The result, Indo-kare, was introduced to Soma’s customers in 1927 at his new café-restaurant, which still exists.
Today kare-raisu and Indo-kare share the same popularity in Japan. My favorite kare-raisu is, of course, my mother’s curry. Her version is in between the European and Indian styles of curry. Beautifully caramelized onion with commercially prepared S&B Curry Powder and some flour in oil was cooked with carrot, potato, apple in chicken stock for more than four hours. As the sauce cooks, she checks the flavor several times and adds seasonings such as salt, sugar and shoyu (soy sauce). I followed my mother each step, tasted it as the curry cooked down and learned the very best flavor, texture and color in the prepared dishes. The end result was a velvety, brown, lightly thickened, aromatic sauce. Below is my recent kare-raisu recipe, inspired my shrimp curry recipe in my book “The Japanese Kitchen.”
- ¼ cup canola oil
- Half medium white onion, chopped in food processor
- 1 tablespoon ginger, chopped fine in food processor
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped fine in food processor
- 2 tablespoons Japanese S&B curry powder or Madras curry powder
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- About 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
- 2½ cups chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 to 3 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 to 2 teaspoons Tamari soy sauce
- Sea salt
- About ¼ cup apricot jam
- About 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 2 chicken thighs and legs, skin attached, cut into 6 to 7 pieces
- Half lemon
- Cooked rice (short-, medium- or long-grain rice)
- Cook the onion in heated oil until it is lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Add the ginger and garlic and cook 1 minute more.
- Add the curry powder, turmeric and flour and cook until it is smooth. Add 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add an additional 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add the remaining ½ cup of the stock and stir with a whisk. Add the tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, tamari, sea salt, apricot jam and light brown sugar.
- Cook the curry sauce about 1½ hours -- longer is better. When the sauce is cooked halfway, squeeze the lemon half into the curry sauce and throw the used lemon into the sauce.
- Heat a little oil in the skillet and brown the chicken pieces on both sides.
- Transfer the chicken pieces to the curry pot. Cook the chicken in the sauce for 20 to 30 minutes over very low heat, covered.
- Serve the curry over hot, cooked rice.
Main photo: Tonkatsu kare, or pork cutlet with curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo
Consuming whole grains is making us healthier eaters. Take rice, which since ancient times has been one of the most popular grains eaten around the world, particularly in Asia.
Many Japanese people, including myself, are making the switch from white rice to brown rice, opting for unmilled or partially milled. Brown has become the new white — for its purity, if you will.
The brown part, the bran and the germ of the grain, contains all the good stuff — protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Besides its nutritional value, brown rice is better than white rice because it keeps you full for a long time and it takes longer to digest compared with white rice. This is because white rice is mainly starch, which turns into sugar when it goes into your digestive system. In fact, Japanese people are dieting on brown rice to lose weight and detox.
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It helps to know how to cook brown rice to ensure optimum flavor and texture — nutty, sticky, aromatic and sweet. What I look for in my brown rice is good moisture and stickiness, but not mushiness. I also want my rice to be flavorful in its natural state and tasty even at room temperature.
What is the best way to achieve this perfect balance for rice? Japanese people will give you a variety of answers, but many cooks are still searching for the best method. After all, we have been spoiled eating white rice.
You need to know that it takes a little longer to cook brown rice because it has another layer of skin. The idea is to soften it. Basically, all it takes to cook brown rice is water and a little salt. I don’t use any oil or butter when cooking rice as Western cooks do, but that’s optional. The main question is the vessel in which the brown rice is cooked. You are looking at about an hour to cook rice from prepping to done, no matter what you use. Here are several options to consider.
I love cooking brown rice with a pressure cooker. Many brown rice aficionados swear by it. The rice comes out nutty, sticky, sweet and shiny — all the qualities I am looking for.
Cooking it in a pressure cooker does not require soaking, and it doesn’t take too much water to cook the rice. You’ll want a ratio of about 1-to-1.5 rice-to-water. While cooking, you’ll have to keep an eye on the pressure cooker while the pressure is building and you must handle the pressure cooker with care, so you don’t burn yourself. These tasks may be challenging for some cooks. Also, each pressure cooker works slightly differently, so you need to follow your manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
Using a pressure cooker is faster than other methods as well, about five minutes to prep the rice and 35 minutes to cook it, including the steaming.
Donabe clay pot
The donabe — a Japanese clay pot — has been used in Japan to cook rice and other dishes since ancient times. Sitting around the wood-burning stove waiting for the rice to cook in the donabe was one of my favorite childhood pastimes with my grandmother.
The grains love the even heat of the clay pot — the individual grains literally stand up when rice is cooked in a donabe. The donabe method is easier than you may think, but I know of two American friends who broke their donabes before they even cooked a grain of rice in them. A donabe needs to be seasoned properly, similar to using a tagine.
The donabe method for cooking rice is straightforward: The rice is soaked overnight in the pot with the measured water. The water-to-rice ratio is about 1-to-2. The rice is cooked to a boil over medium high heat for 30 to 35 minutes. The lid must be closed, and no peeking is allowed during cooking. Then, the heat is turned off and the rice rests for another 30 to 40 minutes. Still, no peeking until the timer goes off.
This method will give you a nutty, aromatic rice with good texture. Cooking brown rice in a donabe pot is a slow process, but the method is pleasing to the eye and palate. A good source for donabe pots is Toiro Kitchen.
Electric rice cooker — the no-brainer method
Rice cookers were invented in the 1950s in Japan. They had a life-changing effect on Japanese cooks like my mother and grandmother because they allowed them to walk away from the pot.
The rice cooks rather perfectly each time, so long as you allow it to soak beforehand and hit the water-to-rice ratio right. In a rice cooker, it can range between 1-to-1 and 1-to-1.2. The rule of thumb is to allow at least 20 minutes for soaking.
In recent years, rice cooker companies have come up with more advanced devices that look and think like robots. Some rice cookers come with a cast iron or clay inner cooker — ultra-modern technology enveloping old-fashioned equipment. They come with timers and various cooking settings for everything from porridge to sushi rice to brown rice. Some can even be used to bake bread. Costs can range from $150 to $800.
My Tiger rice cooker comes with a load of fancy features, but I use only the buttons for basic rice and brown rice. It’s a reliable machine. I should explore the other buttons. You can also buy rice cookers made in China that cost less than $30 but still cook a decent bowl of rice. You can find them at Target and Costco, among other retailers.
Stove or oven method
The simplest way to cook brown rice is on the stove top or in the oven. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Le Creuset and Lodge make Dutch oven pots with a lid that you can place in the oven.
Baked brown rice comes out slightly moister and stickier than the stove top method. Here are the recipes for both, if you want to see which you prefer. Just like all the other rice recipes, no peeking is allowed while steaming the rice.
Stove Top Brown Rice
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 55 minutes
Total Time: 60 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice
2¾ cups of water
¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
1. Combine rice, water and salt in a heavy pot and bring to a boil.
2. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook for 45 minutes.
3. Remove from heat with the lid on and let stand for 10 minutes to allow for further steaming.
4. Fluff with a rice paddle or fork. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls (this portion makes 4 onigiris) and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.
Baked Brown Rice
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 55 minutes
Total Time: 60 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
2½ cups water
1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice
¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
1. Bring water to a boil and preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the brown rice in an 8-inch square dish or a 7½-inch-by-2¾-inch Le Creuset pan baking dish.
2. Pour boiling water over the rice, cover tightly with aluminum foil and put it in the oven to bake for 45 minutes. Do not peek.
3. Remove from oven, toss the rice with a fork or rice paddle, put the cover back on and let the rice stand for 10 minutes.
4. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.
Main photo: Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai