Articles in Tradition
In Belgium, beer is the beverage of choice, while mead, an ancient alcoholic drink, is virtually unknown. But a young Belgian beekeeper, Xavier Rennotte, has given mead a makeover with the recent launch of his own brand, Bee Wine.
With roots in historic recipes and “Beowulf,” the real magic behind Bee Wine’s freshly minted flavor comes from Rennotte’s collaboration with a Belgian scientist. Mead is nothing more than honey, water and yeast, although spices and fruit are sometimes added for flavor. It’s not wine, although it tastes like it.
When I first encountered Rennotte some years ago, he had just met Sonia Collin, an expert in brewing and honey at Louvain University. I asked him then why he had turned to science for help. He explained it was his godfather who had made the suggestion: “Learn from the beginning, the scientific way. The best way to understand something is to go deep inside it,” he had told Rennotte.
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By Diane Fresquez
But why mead? It turned out Rennotte was obsessed with recreating the flavor of his first boyhood taste of mead, known as hydromel (“honey water”) in French. In other words, he was using science to track down a fleeting, Proustian taste from his childhood in the Belgian countryside.
Rennotte’s story lies at the heart of a book I wrote to explore our mostly pleasurable relationship with flavor, and the science behind it. I caught up with him recently at a food festival in the Parc Royal in Brussels. A crowd was gathered in front of his Nectar & Co stand to sample his Bee Wine.
Many people were mystified — was it wine or not? He happily explained its origins, as he offered tastings. Most people were delighted with the flavor. “It makes a great aperitif, or can be used as an ingredient in a cocktail,” Rennotte said. He’s also a trained chef, and loves using it as a marinade for lamb or fish, or as a dessert ingredient. “It’s great in sabayon,” he noted.
People were also sampling about a dozen types of organic honey with different flavors, aromas, textures and colors that Rennotte imports from around Europe for his Bee Honey collection. They include lemon blossom, wild carrot, eucalyptus and coriander. My favorite is the sunflower honey — thick as molasses, butter yellow and delicious on Le Pain Quotidien sourdough bread. One of his best-sellers is a spreadable paste made of just honey and pureed hazelnut. It tastes like Nutella, but with no added sugar or oil.
Rennotte isn’t the only novice alcoholic beverage entrepreneur who has turned to science for help and inspiration. One of the recipes in my book is for sabayon made with Musa Lova, a banana liqueur produced by a Flemish restaurateur. The liqueur is made in collaboration with the director of the largest in vitro banana species collection in the world, at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Leuven University. Musa Lova, a rum-based liqueur that comes in varieties such coffee or local honey, is made with ordinary Cavendish bananas, without added flavoring. Bananas contain a huge number of flavor molecules, which vary slightly depending on the ripeness.
Science not only helps alcoholic beverage makers, the producers influence science too. During my research in Copenhagen, for example, I discovered that the pH scale, used in medicine, agriculture and food science, was developed at the Carlsberg brewing company’s laboratory in 1909.
Rennotte’s hydromel is made from organic orange blossom honey from the Mount Etna area of Sicily, organic German yeast and spring water. His meadery, south of Brussels, is a former slaughterhouse that he refurbished with solar panels and a system to reuse the water that cools the fermentation tanks.
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The first time I tasted Rennotte’s mead was at his wife’s bakery-patisserie Au Vatel in the European Quarter, where we met often to talk about his search for the perfect mead. The early sample I tasted, which he had poured straight from a plastic lab bottle into a wine glass, was clear, young but tasty. The honey-tinted final product I drank at the food festival was light and sweet with a complex flavor that, one customer noted, develops and changes slightly with every sip.
“I couldn’t have done it without science,” Rennotte said. “I learned how the yeast functions, the importance of the pH of the honey and the temperature of the water — I learned it all from Sonia.”
Rennotte is incredibly proud and happy with his hydromel. But did he manage to capture the flavor he remembered from childhood? “I’m still searching,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll be looking for it for the rest of my life.”
Crumble of Christmas Boudin Sausage With Mead Sauce
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes (plus chilling)
Yield: Serves 4
For the boudin mixture:
1/3 pound white boudin with pecans
1/4 pound black boudin with raisins
A “knob” of butter (roughly 2 tablespoons)
For the apple compote:
2 cooking apples
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
For the mead sauce:
2 cups veal stock
1 1/4 cups mead
Salt and pepper to taste
For the topping:
2 ounces Speculoos (classic Belgian spice cookies)
1. Prepare the compote the day before or in the morning, so that it can be well chilled before serving. Peel and cut the apples into chunks. Cook the apples in the water on high heat. After 5 minutes, mash the apples, drain off any excess water and add the sugar. Chill.
2. Before serving, remove the skin of the sausages and place the meat in a mixing bowl. Mash the sausage meat with a fork. Cook the sausage meat in the butter in a nonstick pan on high heat. Remove when the meat is browned and keep warm.
3. To create the mead sauce, combine the veal stock and the mead in a saucepan, simmer and reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. Prepare the Speculoos cookies by breaking them into small pieces.
5. When serving use 4 balloon-type wine glasses to layer the ingredients in the following order:
- 2 tablespoons warm sausage meat
- 1 tablespoon mead sauce
- 2 tablespoons cold compote
- 1 tablespoon crumbled Speculoos cookies
This is one of Xavier Rennotte’s favorite mead recipes, a starter or amuse-bouche based on boudin (blood sausage) from the southern, Francophone region of Belgium. During Christmastime in Wallonia, butcher shops’ windows are overflowing with boudin made with a variety of ingredients, such as raisins, apples, walnuts, leeks, pumpkin, truffles and Port. Each butcher competes to offer his or her clients a selection of sweet and savory boudin sausage.
Main photo: Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte
Di Carroll always knew she wanted to live in Italy. Brought up in Cheshire, North West England, she felt an overwhelming affinity toward all things Italian from an early age, studied Italian at university, and worked as a translator, interpreter and wine merchant. Carroll’s particular love of Piedmont dates from a holiday trip to Turkey she took with her brother while still in her teens: The siblings made friends with a Piedmontese family, who invited them to visit during their journey back to the U.K.
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From the start, Carroll says she was captivated with the Piedmont region in northern Italy. “I saw the hills and vines, castles and little villages, and immediately fell in love. We sat under the fig tree in our friend’s garden and they pointed out the ripe, black figs they would pick next morning for breakfast. It’s a memory I’ve always kept — and now I can do the same,” she says.
Carroll and her husband, Pete, moved to Italy 13 years ago. Their old farmhouse in the Basso Monferrato is remote, peaceful and off the “expat” track. It is not a tourist area, but it is within the official Barbera growing area and Pete cultivates a small vineyard for their own consumption.
Regional Piedmont cookbook
Carroll has slowly been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cooking skills. As we talked in her farmhouse kitchen in front of a wood-burning stove (“fabulous for roast chicken”), she was excited to show off a bottle of Gambadpernis (Partridge Leg), a lovely new DOC wine made by neighbor Bussi Piero.
“The production is tiny, there are only a few producers. Of course, they’ve been making wine ’round here for generations, although often they would just keep a lot of the grapes, dry them and eat them for Christmas,” she says.
[To earn DOC status (Denomination of Controlled Origin), a wine has to be made from grapes from a particular defined area and pass strict tests for standards in alcohol content, flavor, aroma, color and more. It ensures that the consumer is drinking an authentic wine, not a counterfeit or adulterated one.]
Di Carroll, who moved to Italy with her husband 13 years ago, fell in love with the Piedmont region as a teen. She has been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cookery skills. Credit: Clarissa Hyman
Carroll explained the concept of the congenial merenda sinoira, a gathering of a half-dozen people or more, where everyone gathers to talk and nibble around a farmhouse table laden with salami, ham and cheese, and a pezzo forte, a pasta piece de resistance — usually pasta with butter, sage and Parmesan.
“It’s a lovely ritual, which is why I decided to get a really large table, so when visitors come, that’s where we sit, not in armchairs and sofas,” she says.
Traditional Piedmont dishes
For Carroll, Piedmont is the perfect Italian region. “The continuity of food and life is important here. The Piedmontese have a unique style and outlook on life. They are courteous and respect your boundaries, welcoming and attentive, and they have a way of making you feel you matter.
“They are still very die-hard about eating their traditional dishes and particular about the quality of their ingredients. People still keep rabbits and hens for food,” she says. “In every family vineyard you will still find two or three mixed vines for the table. My butcher’s beef comes from two miles down the road, and he goes to see the animals before they are slaughtered to choose which one he wants. My main problem at first was that they don’t hang the meat here for any length of time. The butcher now matures it for three weeks for me, but I still can’t convince any of my Italian friends to do the same.
“Every house has a copy of The Silver Spoon, but there is still a great oral tradition of handing recipes down. As well as personal variations, many villages also have their own collective recipes, recipes that belong to the village. At the annual fiera (fair), when they open up the wine cellars, each one offers a traditional dish to go with the wine samples,” Carroll says.
Nonetheless, Carroll says she has brought a little bit of Britain to her corner of a foreign field. She is known locally for her occasional afternoon teas for female friends, complete with teapot (unheard of!) and fine bone china. As for her husband, he’s down at the local bar with the lads in the circulo, discussing everyone’s favorite subjects — politics. And football. And what’s for dinner that night.
La Bagna Càuda or Bagna Caoda (Hot dip)*
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
12 large cloves of garlic in their skins
12 salted anchovies
3 1/2 fluid ounces best-quality, fruity, aromatic olive oil
1 stick of unsalted butter
Black pepper, to taste
Chopped basil, to taste
1. Set the garlic to cook on a very low heat — between 175 F and 212 F, at the most — in the oven.
2. Meanwhile, melt the salted anchovies in the oil and butter, again on a very low heat, until they become a paste. If you do it on the stove, this part will take no more than 10 minutes.
3. When the garlic is soft and creamy, remove the skins, and mash them into the anchovy mixture. Season with black pepper and a little chopped basil, stir well.
* So called because it should always be served hot. This is usually served as a vegetable dip, with celery sticks, red bell pepper batons, roasted pumpkin pieces, endives, baked onions or raw fennel. Guests are given their bagna càuda in terra-cotta dishes over a tealight, which keeps it warm. It can also be served as a cold dressing on cooked bell peppers that have been cooked over a flame, skinned and arranged on a plate with the bagna càuda as a dressing.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1/2 stick of celery, diced
1/2 onion, chopped finely
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (Ligurian preferred because of the fragrance and balance it gives to the sauce)
3 anchovy fillets in olive oil, crushed in a mortar
2 ounces fresh red peppers, chopped fine
1/2 fresh chili pepper
7 ounces tomato passata
1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Red wine, to taste
Red wine vinegar, to taste
1. Gently fry the celery and onion in the oil.
2. When they start to turn light golden brown, stir in the anchovies, peppers, passata, sugar and black pepper. Add the wine and vinegar in small amounts and taste as you go; stirring spoon in one hand, tasting spoon in the other, until it you find a good sweet-sour-spicy balance of flavors that suit your palate.
3. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for a few minutes.
4. Serve as a condiment, rather than a covering sauce, with cold veal tongue.
Boiled veal tongue: Boil and simmer a fresh tongue in water with a bay leaf, large sprig of rosemary and an onion studded with a couple of cloves. The tongue is best made a day in advance.
Brasato al Barolo (Beef in Barolo)*
Prep time: 1 hour
Total time: 3 to 4 hours, plus overnight
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
4 ounces very thinly sliced lardo (or streaky bacon — not pancetta or lardons)
35 ounces pot roast beef, tied neatly with string
1 ounce unsalted butter
2 to 3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 to 3 sage leaves
Sprig of rosemary
2 large cloves of garlic
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 or 2 cloves (the spice, not clove of garlic)
A “whiff” of cinnamon (the spicing has to be delicate)
1 bottle of Barolo or Barbera
Hot beef stock (homemade, preferably)
For the soffritto:
2 onions, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stick, chopped
A pinch of ground nutmeg
1. Cut the lardo into slivers.
2. Make small incisions into the meat and insert a piece of lardo into each one.
3. Fry the beef in butter and oil in a large casserole so it browns evenly on all sides.
4. Add the herbs and garlic to the pan and season with salt and pepper.
5. Add the spices (clove and cinnamon), heat gently for about 20 minutes with the lid halfway on.
6. Remove the meat, and replace any juices that drain from it back in the casserole. Set the meat aside.
7. Add the soffritto to the casserole dish, stir well, taste and add a little more salt. Replace the meat.
8. Add the wine and bring gently to a boil in order to evaporate the alcohol (otherwise it will be bitter).
9. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for at least 3 hours. Test periodically for “doneness” — when the meat feels very tender, almost falling apart. (You can cook it in the oven, but in Italy it is mostly done on top of the stove).
10. Top with hot stock from time to time, if necessary.
11. When done, remove from the heat and allow the meat to cool in its juices.
12. Several hours before serving, take the meat out and carve into medium-thick slices.
13. Strain the cooking juices and thicken slightly with cornstarch if desired.
14. Reheat the meat, arrange on a silver platter (if you wish to make a fine impression) and pour the sauce over the meat.
Tips for this recipe
- This recipe needs Piedmont wine as it is most appropriate for the character of the dish, which is traditionally made in a deep, lidded casserole.
- One of the secrets of success is to add a pinch of salt now and then, rather than in one go. Keep tasting as you go, it’s important to get the right balance of flavors.
- The traditional accompaniment is potatoes mashed with olive oil and Parmesan, and carrot batons braised in oil and water, and sprinkled with fresh herbs such as sage, parsley and rosemary.
Il Bunet (or Bonet)
A chocolate and amaretti pudding favored throughout Piedmont.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 90 minutes
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
10 ounces amaretti biscuits
2 rounded tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder
17 fluid ounces whole milk
6 eggs, separated
The point of a knife blade of salt
2/3 cup white sugar
2 fluid ounces rum (optional, it was not used in days of yore)
1 cup sugar moistened with 2 tablespoons water for the caramel
One 2-pound rectangular loaf pan
1. Pulse the amaretti into a fine crumb in the food processor, mix in the cocoa powder, then add the milk.
2. Whip the egg whites into firm peaks with baking soda, taking care not to overbeat. Then whip the egg yolks and sugar into a velvety cream like zabaglione. Fold everything together carefully.
3. Make a caramel mixture by gently heating the sugar and 2 to 3 tablespoons water until the sugar dissolves; coat the bottom and sides of the loaf pan with the caramel mixture.
4. Pour the pudding mixture into the loaf pan and cook in a Bain Marie, or double-boiler bath, for 30 to 45 minutes at 350 F. When the pudding is firm to the touch and has pulled away from the sides of the pan, take it out of the oven, let it cool to room temperature before flipping over onto a serving platter and unmolding.
Often called La Langarola from the Piedmontese region of Le Langhe, which stretches south between Alba and Cuneo, and is where the renowned sweet round hazelnuts are cultivated.
Prep time: 1 hour
Total time: 2 hours
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
For the cake:
5 eggs, separated
The point of a knife blade of baking soda
3/4 cup light brown or granulated sugar
2 tablespoons rice or hazelnut oil (or a light sunflower oil)
2 1/2 cups finely chopped, skinned hazelnuts* or hazelnut flour if you can find it. (Processing the nuts in a food processor is acceptable, provided the result is a fairly fine crumble.)
Cinnamon or vanilla, if you prefer
The point of a knife blade of salt
Lined cake pan
Unsweetened cocoa powder, to dust baked cake
For the hazelnuts:
2 cups boiling water
3 cups baking soda
1 cup of hazelnuts
Bowl of very cold water
For the cake:
1. Whip the egg whites into peaks with baking soda; put to rest in the refrigerator.
2. Whip the eggs yolks and sugar into a firm mousse that resembles zabaglione, add the rice oil gently; fold in the finely chopped hazelnuts and a pinch of salt. (Many prefer the natural flavors of quality hazelnuts, but you can add a pinch of cinnamon or a little vanilla if you wish.)
3. Carefully fold the whipped egg whites and the egg and nut mixture together.
4. Pour the mix into a lined 9- to 9.5-inch-diameter cake pan, bake at 350 F for at least 45 minutes.
5. Halfway through cooking time, cover cake mix with grease-proof paper to avoid burning.
6. When cooked — a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean — remove from oven and allow to cool in the pan.
7. To serve, dust with a little unsweetened cocoa powder, and offer to your guests with a glass of Moscato Naturale.
For the hazelnuts:
1. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan.
2. Let water continue to boil, add the baking soda to the water, which will foam.
3. Add the nuts to the boiling mixture and allow to boil for about 3 minutes. The water will turn black.
4. Have a bowl of very cold water handy. Place a nut in the cold water and try to rub off the skin. If it doesn’t come off easily, let the nuts continue to boil for a few minutes longer.
5. Continue to test one nut at a time. When the skin comes off easily, add the rest of the nuts to the cold water and start to peel.
6. Dry the nuts in a warm, but not hot, oven so as not to toast them or dry out the oils.
Main photo: Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman
Autumn in New York brings back memories — and the comfort food — of my monsoon childhood. A perfect evening for me is a walk in the rain or snow, finished off with a hot bowl of freshly made khichuri.
The bubbly one-dish meal is as comforting to me as hot mac and cheese to my children.
I grew up eating khichuri in the coconut palm and banana leaf-dotted landscape of eastern India. I fondly refer to it as the Bengali risotto, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables.
When soup weather arrives, before I turn on the stockpot, I reach for the jars of colorful lentils. If you have not heard of or tasted khichuri, do not be surprised. Like most other classic Indian cooking, the true specialties are still the domain of the home cook. They are dishes that grace the everyday tables, beyond the boundaries of commercialization. Not party fare. But dishes to be savored with the family.
Food fit for the goddesses
For all its humble trappings, this dish is the complete balanced dish that is deemed to be the perfect offering for Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, and Durga, the multi-armed goddess who battles evil. The Hindu gods and goddesses demand a proper meal as a part of their prayer sequence and appropriate ayurvedic fare.
It is usually light and simple vegetarian fare. A mélange of rice and lentils replete with vegetables, finished with hot seasoned clarified butter, fits the bill.
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The khichuri’s simple list of ingredients, however, should not suggest that this dish has no protocol. At the heart of Indian regional cuisine rests fastidious, yet practical, rules that remain the domain of the home cook. So khichuri is as nuanced as any other traditional Bengali offerings, which tend to be simple, wholesome and specific in their making.
The general concept of the dish is rice and lentils, with vegetables such as cauliflower, potatoes and peas. The two preferred lentils are yellow split lentils (moong dal) — or orange split lentils, also known as red split lentils (masoor dal or mushoor dal in Bengali). The final spice or flavor infusion for this dish rests in the finish or the tempering, and while the yellow split lentils use fragrant spices, the red lentils tend to be designated for a finish of crisp caramelized onions.
There is also a preferred proportion of two parts lentils to one part rice, with the rice usually being either parboiled or the delicate kala jeera variety that is native to the Bengali region. I tend to stay away from the fancier basmati rice when making khichuri, but you are welcome to use it, if that is what you have in your pantry.
An adaptable dish — in the way it is cooked and served
In spite of it being a traditionally slow cooked dish over the stove, it can be adapted — with some planning — for the pressure cooker and is also a perfect natural for the slow-cooker aficionado.
Despite being deemed a complete meal, there are accompaniments, varied in textures and tastes, but usually something crisp and fried. These crisp accompaniments range from the well-fried seasonal fish to assorted chickpea flour-coated fritters. Our favorite varieties at home are eggplant or a red onion fritter called piyanjee. The fritter offers a crisp foil to the soft gooey consistency of the khichuri, offering a balance of indulgence and texture. Another popular accompaniment is a spicy omelet known as masala omelet.
My personal favorite khichuri is the red lentil version, which is simpler than the others and more forgiving to variation. With fresh peas scarce in the winter, I usually add some frozen peas, and I love to use a sweeter, softer onion such as the Vidalia to add a greater touch of sweetness to this rustic dish.
Bengali Red Lentil Risotto (Khichuri)
(Recipe adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)
1 cup dried red split lentils (masoor dal)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 cup short-grained rice (such as Arborio or kala jeera)
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 medium-sized tomato, finely chopped
1 medium-sized potato, peeled and cubed
1/2 small cauliflower head, cut into small florets
3 to 4 green chilies, slit halfway lengthwise
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup frozen peas
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons ghee (clarified butter)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 to 2 bay leaves
1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan put the red lentils and about 4 cups water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
2. Add the turmeric and simmer for about 10 minutes. The lentils should be partially cooked but not mushy at this point.
3. Add the rice, 3 more cups water, ginger, ground cumin and coriander, tomato, potato, cauliflower, green chilies, sugar and salt. Simmer for about 25 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally. The rice and lentil mixture should be a porridge-like consistency (add more water if too thick). The texture is important. You do not want the rice to completely lose its integrity, however it should be softer than a regular well-made bowl of rice. Add in the greens peas and stir well.
4. While this is cooking, heat the oil in a wok or skillet and add the onion and cook on medium heat until soft and pale golden. It is important to cook the onions low and slow to let them caramelize.
5. Stir the onions into the rice and lentil mixture and cook for about 2 minutes.
6. Turn off the heat and stir in the cilantro.
7. Heat the ghee in a small skillet and add the cumin seeds and the bay leaves. Cook for about 40 seconds until the cumin seeds darken and turn fragrant.
8. Pour the spice mixture over the rice and lentils.
9. Stir lightly and serve the mixture hot.
Main photo: Khichuri, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables, is the perfect Indian comfort food to accompany the arrival of cold weather. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya
Mehregan, a Persian version of Thanksgiving, is an ancient Iranian holiday that celebrates the fall season and harvest. In New York City, Cafe Nadery in Greenwich Village kicked off its first Mehregan celebration recently with a literary and culinary arts festival. Highlights included storytelling, a pomegranate-peeling contest, readings, music and delicious food. The themes were memory and food.
“Our goal was to encourage audience participation. I was thrilled that so many people shared their childhood memories of comfort foods. Whether these special meals were Iranian or American, they were emblematic of the complexities of cross-cultural upbringings,” said event creator Yvette Perez, a mixed-heritage Iranian and lead singer of the Farsi funk group Mitra Sumara, which closed out the evening’s events.
“The festival was intended to broaden people’s understanding of Iranian-American culture and experience through a fun and eclectic event. We brought a lot of Persian flavor together and the people just kept coming. It was standing room only. We wanted to play up Mehregan, which is usually a softer holiday, compared to our Persian New Year and winter solstice festivities,” Perez said.
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Persian food memories
“I recall endless barbecue summers at Riverside Park, as kabab sizzled on a portable grill, the centerpiece of my father’s family gatherings,” said Leila Darabi, a journalist who participated in Nooshe Jan, the storytelling part of the program.
Guests eagerly shared food memories as a microphone was passed around the cafe.
“Lubia Polo! My mother pulled this dish out of her hat after many years of not cooking it. I was just floored,” said Mona Kayhan of the Persian Arts Festival, a co-producer of the event. “And my grandmother’s kabab! Grandmother lived in a Chicago suburb and no matter how sub-zero it was, she would bundle up and fire up her grill in the snow to cook kabab.”
Nahzi Nikki, one of the 21 co-owners of the cafe, told festival-goers that “when I die, I want to make sure you serve salad olivieh at my memorial. It’s a combination chicken, egg and potato salad that is delicious.”
Pomegranates, a traditional food during Mehregan, were also celebrated with a competition to see who could peel one the quickest — and cleanest — way.
As soon as the timer was set, red juicy seeds flew around as the excited crowd clapped and chanted to a rhythmic beat. The winning time was 3 minutes, 56 seconds.
At the end of the contest, judge Saeed Pourkay of Taste of Persia restaurant demonstrated his pomegranate expertise in less than 2 minutes: squeeze, turn, squeeze, turn the pomegranate to soften the insides; with a short sharp knife, cut a round circle around the top to pull off the stub; make four slits at the top; grab hold tight and pull apart into four pieces. Using the back of the knife, knock and tap, tap, tap. All the red, juicy seeds fell out like magic!
Ash-E Reshteh (Persian Bean Soup)
(Yvette Perez’s family recipe)
Prep time: 15 minutes (or 24 hours, if soaking uncooked beans)
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
½ cup garbanzo beans
½ cup kidney beans
½ cup lentils
1 large bunch fresh, chopped parsley
3 large green onions or scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
6 cups of water
1 pound chopped fresh spinach
1/2 pound Persian Reshteh noodles or linguini
2 large sliced onions
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon dried mint
1 cup Persian whey, kashk or plain yogurt
1. Soak, cook each bean type separately until tender and set aside. Rinsed canned organic beans can be substituted.
2. Combine parsley, scallions, turmeric, salt and pepper, and 6 cups water in a large pot. Bring to boil and then simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Add spinach, cook for 10 minutes. Break the noodles into 2-inch pieces and add to the rest of the mixture.
4. Let simmer until noodles are cooked (5 to 10 minutes).
5. Caramelize onions in butter in a separate pan (10 minutes). Stir in the dried mint until fragrant.
6. Add cooked beans to rest of soup mix, let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Keep on warm heat. Stir occasionally.
To serve, place soup in a large serving bowl and decorate the top with some of the fried onions and mint mixture. This makes six to eight smaller servings. Drizzle some yogurt or kashk on the top of each serving. Save extra on the side and add per taste.
Main photo: Juicy pomegranates are a mainstay of the Mehregan celebrations. Credit: Jane Feldman
One major takeaway from Terra Madre 2014 was that that despite the unique culture and traditions that exist within indigenous communities across the world, we are all united by an undeniable web of interconnectedness.
Over and over again during the five-day event, you could see people bridging gaps and forging relationships over the ties that bind us, namely food and how it shapes communities and cultures.
Turin, Italy, was the site in late October of Slow Food’s Terra Madre, a biennial, global event. With a focus on indigenous communities and farmers, some 158 global food communities gathered to exchange ideas on sustainable agriculture, fishing and breeding with the goal of preserving taste and biodiversity.
It was powerful to witness this discovery of interconnectedness that exists despite the distances that separate various indigenous communities. Norman Chibememe, a farmer from Zimbabwe, said that before coming to Terra Madre he thought he was alone in the challenges he regularly encounters at home. “I’ve learned from my new friends from half way around the world that they, too, are working with the same challenges. I am going home with some new ideas of how to change things in my community,” Chibememe said.
Terra Madre unites people from across the globe
During workshops in the Indigenous Terra Madre salon and conversations at country stalls, people from indigenous communities engaged with each other and the public through a vibrant exchange of stories about the problems they face in their respective countries. A French couple I spoke with came to Terra Madre specifically to speak with delegates from African countries confronting security or health challenges. Unable to travel themselves to all the countries affected, Terra Madre gave them the opportunity to get an insider’s view on how food issues are affected by such conditions.
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Participants were also surprised to discover non-food cultural similarities despite living on different continents. A Moroccan woman who produces argan oil stopped two young Sami women who had just arrived from their home in the Arctic to share her astonishment how certain elements of their traditional dresses were like those of the Amazigh people, also known as Berbers, of North Africa. From the color of their clothes to the threading used to the geometric patterns on their ankle coverings being identical to those used in making traditional Amazigh rugs, the similarities were striking.
This was the fifth visit to Terra Madre for Susana Martinez, a yacón farmer from Argentina who is proud to share her knowledge of this crisp, sweet-tasting tuber, also called a Peruvian ground apple, with those outside of Argentina. A farmer from Venezuela whose community has virtually lost all knowledge of how to work with yacón met Martinez and invited her to his region to teach younger farmers how to grow and process the plant. Shea Belahi, a farmer from Illinois who is looking for new crops to grow on her farm and is intrigued about the properties of yacón — it has low sugar levels, making it suitable for diabetics — discussed the growing conditions needed for yacon with Martinez. As she walked away, Martinez said these interactions are the magic of Terra Madre. They “help me in knowing that someone else cares about what I do,” she said.
The wealth of knowledge and the challenges faced by indigenous communities and global farmers, such as climate change, land-grabbing and resource management, were at the forefront of the five-day event and provided visitors the opportunity to gain new perspectives on issues concerning indigenous people around the world.
Phrang Roy, director of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, or NESFAS, discussed the need for a more inclusive approach that treats the custodians of traditional knowledge and modern-day researchers as equal and diverse knowledge holders. He said more than 350 million indigenous people populate the globe — a greater number than the population of Europe — and they form “a community of people connected to the land, with their own systems of connecting to nature. Basically, they are all agronomists.”
He announced that NESFAS, in partnership with Slow Food and the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, would be hosting the second Indigenous Terra Madre 2015 next fall in Megahalaya in northeast India, a region on the border of Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Under the theme of “The Future We Want: Indigenous Perspectives, Indigenous Activities,” the event plans to bring together representatives from more than 300 indigenous communities to showcase indigenous knowledge of local food systems and preserve biodiversity within their regions and discuss how to bring their knowledge and vision of food production into modern times.
The infectious energy, friendships and networks developed by the indigenous people and farmers at Terra Madre 2014 demonstrate there is an appetite for change growing among these communities and a global momentum to safeguard their wealth of diverse flavors and cultural knowledge to create a better world.
Main photo: An Indonesian delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch
Chiles en nogada would be my desert-island dish. Or the one I’d ask the executioner to lay out for my last meal. What is it? Quite simply one of the triumphs of Mexican cuisine, consisting of dark green, roasted and peeled poblano chilies filled with a spicy, crunchy, salty-sweet mix of meat, fruit and nuts, bathed in a cool creamy sauce of shelled, peeled walnuts and scattered with a final flourish of pink pomegranate seeds. It’s a dish reserved for autumn — in Mexico, it’s traditionally served on Independence Day, which falls in mid-September.
Why reserved for fall? Because you need walnuts that have recently been catapulted from their green casings and plopped fresh to the ground — one of the most evocative sounds of the season. Only with fresh walnuts (also known as “green walnuts”) can you peel away the papery skin encasing the nut, which, if left intact, would spoil both the look and taste of the sauce.
Hard work worth the result
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It’s a supremely tedious chore that only a madwoman would embark on alone (or maybe at all, unless she was uncompromisingly crazy about chiles en nogada and full of nostalgic memories of eating this iconic dish). It’s a good idea to enlist the help of anyone who happens to be passing by — it’s tedious, yes, but companionable. (I taught the dish once in a workshop, when the students’ many hands made light work of the peeling.)
The end result is a supremely serendipitous combination of flavors, a symphony in red, white and green (which, not by chance, are the colors of the Mexican flag, the dish having been created for Independence Day) and an appealing balance of warm and cold.
Some cooks dip the stuffed chilies in batter and then fry them before coating with the walnut sauce. I think this is gilding the lily and prefer to simply coat the warm poblanos with the cool sauce.
Chiles en Nogada
Prep time: 1 hour (or less, if you can find plenty of helpers to peel the walnuts)
Cook time: About 20 minutes
Total time: About 1½ hours
Yield: 8 servings
For the chiles:
8 canned chiles poblanos (from 2 large cans, 15 ounces [430 grams] drained weight, or 8 fresh poblanos, roasted and peeled)
1 tablespoon oil
2 pounds (1 kilogram) mixed ground pork and beef
Salt to taste
2 onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 fresh green chilies (jalapeños or similar), de-seeded and finely chopped
One 10-ounce (400 grams) can peeled tomatoes
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½-inch (1-centimeter) piece of cinnamon stick
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
3 tablespoons raisins or sultanas
3 tablespoons blanched almonds, roughly chopped
1 pear, peeled, cored and chopped
1 apple, cored and chopped
For the sauce:
24 fresh walnuts
1 thick slice white bread, crusts removed, cut in cubes
6 ounces (175 grams) crème fraiche
5 ounces (125 grams) cream cheese
A little milk
1. Rub or rinse off any stray bits of skin from the chilies and remove any seeds.
2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the minced meat with a pinch of salt, tossing and turning till it loses its raw color and starts to brown.
3. Scrape it into a dish and in the same pan (adding a little more oil if needed) fry the onion, garlic and fresh chilies without allowing them to brown. Add the chopped tomatoes and a little salt.
4. Bang the spices about a bit in a mortar and pestle or under the blade of a large knife till roughly crushed and add them to the pan with the raisins or sultanas, chopped almonds, pear and apple.
5. Return the meat to the pan, season with salt to taste and simmer for about 10 minutes to combine all the flavors and to reduce somewhat.
6. Fill the poblanos with the meat mixture and lay them in an ovenproof dish with the opening downwards, so the filling doesn’t spill out. Refrigerate if not serving immediately.
7. For the sauce, shell the walnuts and put them in a bowl, then cover with boiling water. Fish them out one by one and remove the light brown papery membrane as best you can, using the point of a sharp knife to help you.
8. Put the nuts in a food processor with the bread and blend or process to a breadcrumb-like texture. Add the crème fraiche and cream cheese and blend till completely smooth — don’t overdo it or it may curdle. Add enough milk to give a coating consistency and season with salt.
9. About 30 minutes before serving, heat the oven to 350 F (180 C) and bake the chilies for about 20 minutes or until nicely warmed through.
10. To serve, spoon cold sauce over the warm chilies, scatter with pomegranate seeds and garnish with parsley.
Main photo: Chiles en nogada. Credit: Sue Style
In the Middle East food is shared and one place it is shared is on the meze table. Meze are small samplings of prepared dishes that make a meal. They are not appetizers, nor tapas, nor hors d’oeuvres but are actually more philosophically related to the Scandinavian smorgasbord.
Food is shared in another way. The food of the Levant, meaning the food eaten between the Turkish-Syrian border all the way to Egypt, is the same food eaten by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. One can’t really say there is Muslim food, Christian food and Jewish food, but there are certain foods that are typical for those communities centered around holidays such as Ramadan, Christmas, and Yom Kippur, for example, but the foods are not unique to those cultures because everyone eats them.
One very typical, almost obligatory, meze dish is hummus. Hummus means chickpea and does not mean dip. The proper name of the preparation called hummus is hummus bi’l-tahina, chickpeas with sesame seed paste.
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One delightful variation of this dip is made with pumpkin, all the more appropriate this time of year when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. All the more so if we reflect on how much we can be thankful for especially at a time when the Middle East seems to be disintegrating into a frenzy of blood-letting. At a time when all religious communities, be they Jewish, Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi, Alawite, or Kurdish Muslim, are threatened in the Middle East and the stories from those lands are nothing but sadness, it behooves us to remember the rich contribution and integral role played by all these people who once –it is hard believe given the modern headlines — lived together. If there is one thing they all shared it was surely food.
And a dip is a food that is shared. Please don’t call it pumpkin hummus. It’s called qara bi’l-tahina and that means pumpkin with sesame seed paste.
This will be one of many dishes on the menu of a series of communal dinners arranged by Clockshop, a nonprofit arts and culture organization based in Los Angeles. The event will take place over three weekends in November, beginning Nov. 8 to celebrate what they call the Arab-Jewish diaspora. The meals will feature the culinary traditions, music and culture of this diaspora. If you live in the Los Angeles area you can check them out by RSVP.
Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste)
Yield: 6 servings
Prep time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
5 pounds pumpkin flesh, cubed
1/2 cup tahina
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed in a mortar with 2 teaspoons salt until mushy
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds
Seeds from 1/2 a pomegranate
1. Place the pumpkin slices in a saucepan and cover with water. Turn the heat on and bring to a gentle boil and cook until soft, about 40 minutes. Drain well and pass through a food mill. Return the pumpkin to the saucepan and cook over a medium-high heat until all the liquid is nearly evaporated, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and run until creamy. Transfer to a mixing bowl
2. Stir the tahina paste into the pumpkin and mix well. Stir in the garlic mixture and lemon juice. Mix well and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish the pumpkin mixture with parsley, some olive oil, and cumin. Decorate the outside edges of the platter with the pomegranate seeds and serve with Arab flatbread to scoop up the dip.
Main photo: Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Hideo Ono, a lean 65-year-old with deep crow’s feet around his eyes and a farmer’s tan, has been growing rice in the village of Tajima, Niigata, in the northwestern part of Japan for 20 years. The region is known for growing the best rice because of its distinct four seasons and good water that filters down from the surrounding snow-capped mountains.
Despite being a late comer to his career as a farmer, Ono is the founder of Joint Farm, a co-op that grows one of the most sought-after premium-grade heirloom short-grain rice varieties, known as Koshihikari rice. The varietal is sold under several labels, including Gensenmai and Mugenmai. Compared to the insect-resistant, higher-yielding, modern strain of the Koshihikari BL varietal most Niigata farmers are cultivating these days, Ono prefers the heirloom Koshihikari because of its distinct flavor and fragrance.
Koshihikari rice is sold in milled and unmilled styles, but if Ono had his way, everyone would eat brown rice, the unmilled variety. In fact, when Ono is not in the fields working, you will find him on the road, doing brown rice cooking demonstrations and tasting events all over the country and overseas.
Brown rice the better choice for good health
Why is he so passionate about spreading the gospel of brown rice? Ono advocates brown rice instead of white rice because of its many health benefits. Brown rice is known to lower the risk of developing diabetes, and it’s high in fiber, which promotes cardiovascular health. It is also a good source of minerals that support bone health, and its oil has been known to lower cholesterol. Finally, it can also help prevent weight gain.
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Ono attributes his well-being to eating a diet full of brown rice, but he said he was not always so healthy.
On a recent visit to Ono’s rice farm, he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and showed me a faded photo of him taken with a sumo wrestler nearly 20 years ago. “Can you guess which one is me?” Ono asked. At first glance, I could not tell because both men were heavy. Ono pointed to the man on the right and said, laughing, “That’s me. I am fatter than the sumo wrestler.”
In a flashback to his days as a furniture salesman in the 1980s, Ono said that in his 40s he suffered from obesity and high blood pressure. Warned by his doctor that he was a walking time bomb, he knew he would die early if he kept up his excessive drinking and poor eating habits. That’s when Ono decided to restore his health through a diet centered on vegetables and brown rice. At the same time he took up farming, a much more physical job. He went to apprentice with a local farmer and never looked back.
While pursuing his new lifestyle, Ono met Atsuko. They got married and moved to Tagami, where they started their rice farm.
Ono and the farmers in the Joint Farm co-op grow rice sustainably and organically; they make fertilizer pellets from naturally recycled rice bran; coffee grinds; tea leaves; minerals; and okara, which are soybean curds that occur as a byproduct of tofu. He is against using animal manure in farming because the feed given to fertilizer-producing animals can contain a number of chemicals which, if used, would inevitably pass through to the rice.
“The fertility of soil and quality of fertilizer together play important roles with regards to the quality of the rice,” Ono said.
One of the highlights of the visit was the farm-to-table suppers at Ono’s farmhouse. His friend, chef Fumihiko Ono (no relation) from the Yagi Culinary Institute, joined us from Tokyo for what turned into a two-day feast. It began with a trip to the market to buy local fish to make sushi.
Tagami is about 45 minutes inland from the Sea of Japan, which is known for its abundance of seafood. We bought a whole young Isaki (baby yellowtail), Hachime (a local fish that looks like a small snapper) and a wiggly leg of an octopus with the biggest suction cups I have ever seen.
Back at Ono’s farm, Chef Ono cleaned the fish and prepared sashimi while the rest of us harvested tomatoes, eggplant, okra and cucumbers from the farm. We also enjoyed regional delicacies the Onos had prepared in advance, but the unique part of the sushi supper was the rice.
We made it using short-grain brown rice, which would be considered heresy to most Japanese people, who are accustomed to eating short-grain white rice with sushi.
To make the sushi rice, the brown rice was seasoned with vinegar and salt, but no sugar. Chef Ono arranged the sashimi for the temaki-zushi (sushi hand rolls). The vegetables were washed in cool well water and left whole for us to bite into.
The diners all made their own hand rolls, starting with a stack of nori seaweed. The fillings along with soy sauce, wasabi paste and pickled ginger were passed around so everyone could create their own sushi rolls.
The brown rice sushi tasted nutty and sweet and paired very well with the seafood, vegetables and sake. We spent two days feasting, visiting a nearby egg farmer, a soy sauce artisan and Ono’s majestic rice fields.
When it was time to leave, Ono said, “Come back to Tajima during harvest time,” filling his face with a wrinkly smile. The distinct flavor and texture of the brown rice lingers. I appreciate what it takes to make such exquisiteness.
Brown Rice Hand Rolls
For the best results, follow the rice-to-water ratio recommended by the rice manufacturer. Pickled ginger and plum vinegar are sold at Asian grocery stores. Plum vinegar is a byproduct of making pickled plums. The vinegar is salty, so no salt is needed to season the sushi rice.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: Makes 4 servings
For the brown rice:
2 cups short-grain brown sushi rice
1 strip of konbu seaweed, about 3 inches long
3½ cups water
4 tablespoons plum vinegar, or add more to taste
For making and serving the sushi:
12 sheets nori seaweed, toasted and cut in half lengthwise
4 tablespoons wasabi paste
Soy sauce (Japanese-style koikuchi shoyu)
Pickled ginger (optional)
2 Persian or Japanese cucumbers, cut into sticks ¼ inch by 4 inches
2 ripe avocados, peeled, seeded and cut into eighths
1 pound albacore tuna, cut into slices ¼ inch by 4 inches
4 kiwis, peeled and sliced
8 ounces salmon roe
8 medium shrimp, cooked and peeled
½ pound smoked salmon, thinly sliced and cut into strips
2 bunch of sprouts (daikon, scallions, kale or any sprouts you like)
½ cup roasted sesame seeds
1 bunch green scallions, julienned about 2 inches long
To make the brown rice and sushi fillings:
1. Combine rice, konbu seaweed and water in a heavy pot and let stand overnight.
2. Bring rice to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to a low simmer and cook 45 minutes. (No peeking.) Remove from heat, without peeking, and let it continue to steam for 10 minutes.
3. Season the cooked brown rice with plum vinegar, then transfer it to a large bowl. Prepare the rice as close to serving time as possible.
4. To arrange the sushi platter, slice up as many fillings as you like to make a colorful presentation. Store in the refrigerator until just before serving, and then prepare the sushi rolls as close to serving time as possible.
To assemble temaki-zushi:
1. Each roll is made of half a toasted nori seaweed sheet. If smaller rolls are preferred, cut the seaweed sheets in quarters. The roll should contain about 2 tablespoons of sushi brown rice, or enough to grasp with one hand.
2. With a spoon or chopsticks, scoop up the rice and lay it onto the sheet of nori. Spread with hands chopsticks or a spoon.
3. Dab the nori with a little wasabi paste, then lay 2 to 3 fillings on top of the bed of rice.
4. Wrap the seaweed sheet and its contents into a roll.
5. Dip it in soy sauce and eat. Freshen your palate with a few bites of pickled ginger.
Main photo: Brown rice can serve as the base for delicious sushi rolls. Credit: Sonoko Sakai