Articles in Tradition
It’s almost Green Thursday — otherwise known as Clean Thursday, the day before Good Friday and three days before Easter Sunday, which this year falls on April 17.
No time to waste. Get out the mop and bucket, dust the furniture, air the blankets, beat the carpet, wash the windows, scrub the larder, polish the pots and pans, bleach the kitchen table, shine the slate, sweep the chimney, black the grate, whitewash the stoop.
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All this must be done before sundown on Green Thursday to ensure happiness and prosperity in the year to come — a more than adequate reward for cleaning behind the fridge.
Green Thursday menu continues with the green theme
And if these chores are not on your list of things to do on Green Thursday, you’d be run out of town with a flea in your ear if you lived in, say, Eastern Europe or rural Germany or in one of the isolated farmhouses of France’s Massif Centrale — or indeed anywhere where people still sweep their own doorsteps, plant their own potatoes and maintain a modicum of self-sufficiency. A lesson to us all in these straightened times.
As for the food, well, no one has much time for cooking when they’re cleaning and scrubbing all day. Traditional Green Thursday menus vary from region to region, though the general rule is a generous helping of blood-cleansing spring herbs, preferably gathered from the wild, served either in soup or a salad.
Herb Salad With Eggs and Spring Herring
Green Thursday is traditionally celebrated in Germany by those who have access to the fishing ports with the last of the spring herrings — known as groene, or green herrings, for the sheen on their silvery flanks. When the boats come in, the catch is freshly filleted by the quayside and eaten raw with diced onion or carried home and lightly salted for additional shelf life. Rollmops — brine-pickled herring-fillets — are an acceptable inland substitute.
Large bunch young spinach leaves, de-stalked, rinsed and shredded
Small bunch parsley, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch chervil, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch sorrel, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch chives, chopped
Small bunch dill, chopped
8 fresh herring fillets or rollmops
1 pound potatoes, scrubbed and thickly sliced
4 hard-boiled eggs
For the sauce:
1 crème fraîche, also called soured cream
2 tablespoons chopped dill
2 tablespoons chopped gherkin or pickled cucumber
1. Combine the shredded spinach with the chopped herbs in a bowl.
2. Drain the herrings if roll-mopped, or salt lightly if fresh.
3. Boil the sliced potatoes in plenty of salted water till tender, about 12 to 15 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.
4. Shell and chop the eggs.
5. Fold the soured cream with the chopped dill and pickle. Serve each component separately for people to help themselves. Accompany with black bread, sweet white butter and the last of the winter’s pickled cucumbers.
Fromage Frais Aux Fines Herbes (Fresh Cheese With Herbs)
Fresh white cheese beaten with cream and herbs is proper on Green Thursday in the uplands of France, where la cueillette, the gathering of wild greens from the countryside, is the inalienable right of every man, woman and child whether they own the land or not.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound fresh curd cheese (fromage frais or equivalant)
1 cup crème fraîche (soured cream)
2 garlic cloves or fresh green garlics, chopped
1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley
1 heaped tablespoon chopped chives
1 heaped tablespoon chopped chervil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Salad leaves (dandelion, corn salad, bittercress or sorrel, for example)
1. Mix the fresh cheese with the cream in a bowl and beat till smooth.
2. Fork in the rest of the ingredients.
3. Drop the mixture into a glass cloth or square of washed-out cotton sheet, tie the edges corner to corner like a pocket hankie and hang on a hook or suspend on a wooden spoon over a basin to catch drippings. Leave to drain overnight in a cool place — the longer it’s left to drain the firmer it will be.
4. Serve chilled with plenty of warm baguette, a dish of olives and a salad of wild-gathered leaves dressed with walnut oil and salt (no need for vinegar if sorrel is present).
Bavarian Chervil Soup
Bavaria’s Krautelsuppe is a fresh green soup thickened with the last potatoes from storage — an interior spring clean to match the scrubbing and house painting of Green Thursday. Similar water-based soups are eaten throughout Lent in Germany and Eastern Europe as far as Hungary and Ukraine. Measure the herbs by filling a cup and lightly pressing the contents. Each cupful should weigh roughly 3 ounces.
Serves 4 to 6
1½ cups soft-leaf herbs (tarragon, parsley, dill), chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chervil leaves, de-salted, de-stalked and chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 or 3 medium old potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups picked-over salad greens (dandelion, corn salad, watercress, chicory), shredded
Salt and pepper
1. Pick over and wash the herbs and strip out any woody stems.
2. Melt the butter in a roomy pan and fry the onion gently till transparent. Add the chervil leaves, stir over the heat for 2 to 3 minutes till they collapse.
3. Add the diced potato and 4 cups cold water, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat. Salt lightly.
4. Simmer for 20 minutes till the potato is perfectly soft.
5. Add the herbs and salad greens. Reheat and allow to bubble up to collapse the greens.
6. Mash the soup to thicken it a little. Taste and add more salt if necessary and a vigorous turn of the peppermill.
7. Serve with buttered slices of rye bread and radishes.
Main illustration: A dinner party in France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
The Ayurvedic lifestyle works for me. The practice combines a vegetarian diet and herbal tonics with massages, meditation and yoga.
On my recent trip to India, I visited my favorite retreat, Ayurvedagram Heritage Wellness Center. Although the retreat recommends a seven-day stay for the Panchakarma detox treatment, I could spare only five days. At the end of my stay I felt relaxed and refreshed and dropped four pounds while enjoying delicious South Indian food.
This is my fifth visit to this holistic retreat, which is a 90-minute drive to the outskirts of Bangalore in South India. Leaving the city’s chaos, pollution and dusty roads behind, the retreat includes a tropical garden lush with coconut and papaya trees, a flower-filled garden bursting with colorful marigolds and hibiscus, fragrant medicinal shrubs and potted tulsi plants. Sparrow tweets and a koyal’s serenade fill the cool air. Resident geese and mallard ducks waddle around, while baby lizards leap around the lotus-filled pond.
The 15-acre Ayurvedagram property is operated by the Katra Group, based in Kerala, India. The retreat’s 26 cottages, designed in 19th-century Kerala design, are spread around a spacious garden adorned with various stone deities and brass lamps. The facility includes a gym, a library and an amphitheater.
The intricately carved reception building, once the Queen’s Palace from the Aranamula Royal Family, was transported here from Kerala and restored to its original state. All the cottages, crafted in teak or rosewood, are historical ancestral homes from Kerala that were transported and restored to their original grandeur.
Ayurveda regimens planned to suit an individual’s needs
Ayurvedagram is a healing retreat for specific ailments such as arthritis, obesity, diabetes and spinal and joint disorders. But I am here for its signature Panchakarma, a detox and rejuvenation program. The daily regimen includes two massage treatments, three sessions of yoga, meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques) and a delicious sathvic (vegetarian) South Indian cuisine that includes a range of six colors in every meal.
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Ayurveda, the science or knowledge of life, is an ancient Indian practice that aims for attaining ideal physical, mental and spiritual health through herbal tonics, medicinal massage therapies, yoga, meditation and a balanced diet.
According to Ayurveda, the human body is made of five elements — air, water, fire, earth and ether. These elements wake up a person’s energy, or dosha. There are three doshas (body types) — Vata, Pitta and Kapha — each with a certain function in our bodies. A body can be a combination of one, two or all three doshas.
An initial consultation with one of the three resident doctors at Ayurvedagram establishes the visitor’s dosha, and a food and therapy program is planned accordingly. A typical Ayurvedic food preparation uses turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, cumin, fennel, coriander and herbs such as tulsi, mint and cilantro.
Ghee (clarified butter) is essential in cooking because it’s the only natural product that is able to permeate all cells, Dr. Man Mohan explained. “It can break blood-brain barrier and it assists in delivery of food nutrients in targeted areas.”
Some of the produce used by chef Nagaraj and his team comes from the retreat’s patch of organic garden. The menu is predominantly South Indian, starting with the traditional breakfast of dosa (rice and lentil crepe), idli (steamed rice buns) served with coconut and mint chutney and sambhar (lentils with vegetables).
Lunch consists of two types of lentils, three different vegetable curries, rice and chapati.
Dinner offers a similar menu with different vegetable dishes. A typical poriyal dish (using assorted vegetables), chutneys, sambhar and rasam (a lentil broth) accompany both lunch and dinner. And there’s always plenty of fresh fruit and warm cumin-scented water with all three meals.
On my departure, Dr. Nibhan John gave me a tour of the medicinal garden. Leaves, roots, flowers and bark from 60 some trees and shrubs are used in various healing decoctions, powders and pastes. Orange blossoms from the large Asoka tree are used for gynecological disorders. External preparations from the Rasna are utilized for arthritic inflammation. Oil from the leaves of Vitpala Wrightia Tinctoria is good for psoriasis, while an external application of hibiscus flowers and leaves mashed in water helps hair growth.
Some commonly used herbs and spices have healing properties also. Cilantro (as a green chutney) is a good appetizer, and cinnamon mixed in warm milk or water assists in lactation for nursing mothers. Tulsi leaves (Indian basil) immersed in steam inhalers relieve sinus congestion, and turmeric not only has antiseptic properties but is also used to heal cuts and bruises and dental problems and treat asthma.
Garlic as an antioxidant helps lower blood pressure, and ginger is a soothing remedy for digestive disorders. Cloves are generously used in Indian cooking, and its oil, a rich source of anesthetic and antiseptic agents, is used by dentists as an oral anesthetic.
A morning session with Nagaraj enriched me with a handful of recipes. Here are a couple of them.
Carrot and Cabbage Poriyal (Ayurvedagram recipe)
Channa dal and urud dal, shredded dry coconut, curry leaves and ghee can be found at all Indian markets.
Serves 4 to 6
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or ghee)
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
½ teaspoon channa dal
½ teaspoon urud dal
3 to 4 whole dry red chilies
2-inch piece of ginger, chopped finely
1 medium onion, chopped finely
6 to 8 fresh curry leaves
1 cup dry coconut, shredded
Half a head of medium cabbage, shredded
3 carrots, shredded
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup water
Cilantro leaves (for garnish)
1. Heat oil in a wok-style pan and add mustard seeds, channa dal, urud dal and red chilies. This is called tempering, or tadka, and should take a couple of minutes to get the ingredients sizzling and toasty. Mustard seeds tend to pop, so make sure you keep a lid on the wok.
2. Add ginger, onion and curry leaves; stir well for 2 to 3 minutes.
3. Add grated coconut and lastly the shredded cabbage and carrots and salt and pepper to taste.
4. Stir the mixture well and add ¼ cup water. Lower the heat. Cover the wok and let the vegetables cook for about 10 minutes till tender.
5. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve as a side vegetable dish or as a salad at room temperature.
Ayurvedagram Herbal Tea
Aids in alleviating cough and chest congestion
5 leaves of lemon grass
6 to 8 tulsi leaves or basil leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
5 to 6 green cardamom seeds, crushed
¼ teaspoon dry ginger
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
4¼ cups water
1. Boil all ingredients in water for 5 minutes with the lid closed.
2. Strain and serve hot.
Top photo: A lunch plate consisting of rice, green bean poriyal and chapati; in the bowls are sambhar and two types of vegetable curries. Also, to drink, there’s lassi and cumin water. Credit: Mira Honeycutt
Forty days and 40 nights of vegetarian eating are underway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Don’t cry for us, Argentina; there’s no hardship here, as local Catholics look forward to meatless specialties known as comida cuaresmeña (Lenten foods) reserved for the spring. From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday before Easter, cherished recipes are culled from handwritten family notebooks to feed legions of hungry pageant participants.
Pre-dawn firecrackers and skyrockets set off by priests in church yards get everyone up to take part in processions during Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter. The events are widely regarded as some of Mexico’s most elaborate, starring thousands of emotional believers dressed in costume without a single paid actor in sight.
Good Friday is the culmination of weeks of nonstop pageantry with long, unbearably slow and tortuous dragging of crosses through cobblestoned streets to the dispirited beat of a single drum. As they perspire in the hot afternoon sun, solemn men and women in dark dress with purple sashes brace heavy saint statues on their shoulders, but press forward. Children through seniors represent angels and ancient mourners, and wave after wave of their faithful parishioners trod onward in the depths of despair. Parade watchers are stacked along the route in hushed silence. Devotion runs deep and true.
Gorditas among the Lenten offerings
Marching like this brings on a mean hunger. Besides a gazillion bean dishes, most regional Lenten répertoires are rounded out by cheese-stuffed fat tortillas lovingly called gorditas, “or little fat ones”; pipiánes, protein-rich pumpkin-seed sauces poured over vegetables; patties made with countless nonmeat combinations; and soups galore. And then we have Gorditas de Piloncillo. Certainly not your typical gordita, and about as well known today as hardtack, its beginning is centuries old — with a bit of delightful religiosity thanks to the Spanish-Mexican addiction to tradition.
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Generations of local women have sold them outside the San Juan de Dios church (a half block from the market) from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays only during Lent. Today at least a dozen ladies in embroidered aprons from surrounding neighborhoods sit, all lined up curbside, each pan-frying sublimely sweet, crisp tortilla turnovers. It’s hard to choose whom to buy from, but I look for sellers with smiling faces taking pesos with one hand and cooking with the other, or better yet, with an assistant handling cash. Another tip: Stay clear when the church school recess bell rings — chaos reigns as screaming kids stampede to be first in line.
For years I thought teeny, wooden tortilla presses I saw in Mexican markets were toys. Man oh man am I surprised as I watch grown women gently press out children’s tea-party-sized, 3-inch tortillas! Remedios Martinez, sitting under her signature shade umbrella, grabs a tiny ball of masa (corn dough) flavored with canela (Mexican cinnamon), anise seeds and ground chile — she likes guajillo but says others use cascabel — and then presses it into a thin tortilla. She drops a teaspoon of crumbled piloncillo (raw brown sugar) in the center, folds it over and slides it into shimmering-hot vegetable oil to crisp and brown.
Not at all like the more usual regional offering — round, stuffed gorditas — these delicate mini tacos are really different. The spoonful of sugar dramatically transforms into a crunchy glaze as the gordita cools and hardens with an interior as brittle as a candied apple. God can definitely be found biting into a Gordita de Piloncillo.
Gorditas de Piloncillo (Sweet, Crisp Turnovers)
Remedios Martinez miraculously cranks out 800 Gorditas de Piloncillo each day from her street-side, oilcloth-covered folding card table and mesquite wood-fired brazier; they remain crunchy for about four hours and then lose their glamour.
Makes about 30
2 cups masa harina
3 tablespoons ground canela (Mexican cinnamon)
2 tablespoons anise seeds
3 tablespoons ground or flaked dried guajillo or cascabel chile
½ pound grated piloncillo (raw brown sugar available in cones), or dark brown sugar
1. Using a stand mixer, mix the masa harina, canela, anise seeds and chile with about 2 cups warm water to get a soft dough.
2. Pull off rounded tablespoons of dough and form into small balls about the size of Ping-Pong balls. Place on a baking sheet and cover with a damp tea towel to keep the balls moist until the dough runs out.
3. Using a freezer baggie, cut 2 squares of the thick plastic slightly larger than the diameter of the press and place one on the bottom part of a tortilla press. Center a masa ball on the plastic. Cover the masa with the other square of plastic. Lower the top of the press and gently push on the handle. Open the press, turn the tortilla (with plastic) 180 degrees, and push again to make a small, 3-inch round. Open the press. The tortilla will have plastic stuck on the top and bottom. Peel away the top plastic, then gently flip the tortilla over into your other hand and carefully peel that plastic away. Put 1 teaspoon piloncillo in the center, fold over and press the edges together. Lay on a tray. Repeat with a few others.
4. Pour vegetable oil ¼-inch deep into a wide skillet and heat to rippling hot 360 F to 370 F. Test the heat by dropping a small piece of dough into the oil. It should sizzle and turn deep golden within 10 seconds.
5. Slide three or four gorditas at a time into the hot oil. Turn until brown, less than 1 minute. Remove to an opened-up paper bag to drain and crisp.
6. Repeat in batches of three or four with the remaining dough.
Top photo: Gorditas de Piloncillo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
I just made the pie of my dreams. The Ligurians might call it torta pasqualina, Easter tart, a savory spring pastry usually filled with spinach, chard or borage. Theirs is enveloped in 20 layers of a delicate, lean dough stretched with olive oil into paper-thin sheets — 10 on the bottom, 10 on top. Mine is encased in a flaky tent of buttery American pie crust. The filling? It too commemorates spring, but it contains none of the traditional vegetables. No timid spinach here, no sweet, fading chard. My pie is a renegade. Unlike the Italian original, it is filled with the big, bold flavors of rapini, or broccoli rabe as it is called in the United States.
RAPINI, BY ANY NAME
What it's called around the globe:
Bitter broccoli: America
Broccoletti (broccoli-like): Rome
Broccoletti di rapa (broccoli-like turnip greens): Rome/Lazio
Broccoli raab: America
Broccoli rabe: America
Cime di rapa (“turnip tops”): Italy
Cima di rapa (“turnip top”): Italy
Friggiarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania
Friarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania
Friarielli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania
Frigitelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Rome/Lazio
Rape (shortened from cime di rape): Italy
Rapi (colloquial): Umbria
Rapini, rapini: southern Italy, America
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Rapini was relatively unknown in the northern regions of Italy, or in America until recent years. Arguably the tastiest of all greens that descend from the wild plants that have carpeted southern Italy since primordial times, rapini mingled with onion, garlic, tangy pecorino, smoky bacon and just enough egg to hold it all together under a flaky crust is a new take on an ancient pie.
I developed the recipe as part of my promotional relationship with the California rapini growers D’Arrigo Brothers, which owns the Andy Boy broccoli rabe brand. Most of the market rapini, which has been grown in the United States since the early 1970s, comes from the D’Arrigo growers in California, a farming family that put down their Sicilian roots in rich Salinas soil in 1924.
They were the first to recover the heirloom seed on the mountain slopes of their native Sicily. (There, the vegetable is known as “rappini” with a double “p.”) They also were the first to adapt the plant (Brassica rapa ruvo, cime di rapa in Italian, literally, “turnip tops”) to the California climate.
If you are one of those eaters who has tried rapini but found it too bitter to enjoy, you will discover its sweet side if you cook it the Italian way. The trick is to first boil rapini in plenty of salted water. After draining, and while it is still somewhat wet, coddle the rapini in a sauté pan with warm, high-quality olive oil infused with fresh garlic.
We all know that boiling vegetables in salted water transforms their flavor. This is especially true in the case of rapini, or broccoli rabe, which goes from bitter to pleasantly pungent after brief boiling. I asked food science expert and best-selling author Harold McGee for the scientific explanation. McGee is the author of several books on the chemistry and history of food. He also writes a column for The New York Times.
“Boiling leaches out some flavor components, and some salt will get into the tissues and suppress the sensation of bitterness. This is well documented but not yet understood,” McGee said. “The impression of sweetness may also have to do with the boiling damaging the cell walls and making the cell fluids, sugars included, more accessible to the taste buds.”
Besides the cooking method, consider the season. Vegetables always taste best when they are grown and eaten according to nature’s rhythms, and rapini is no exception.
“At the end of April,” said Gabriela D’Arrigo, a third-generation member of the clan, “those greens are at their peak season, and sweeter than any other time of year.”
Serves 6 to 8
This is my emigrant version of Italy’s torta pasqualina, also called scarpazzone. “Scarpa,” shoe, refers to the frugal peasant practice of including the stalk along with the leaves in the filling mixture. I do the same here, using the entirety of two rapini bunches, stems and tops alike (they really shrink after boiling). In the traditional spinach or chard version, pancetta pairs irresistibly with those mild, garlicky greens, but I prefer smoky bacon as a counterpoint to the pungent rapini in my newfound filling.
For the crust:
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, well chilled or frozen
6 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, well chilled or frozen
1 large egg
1 tablespoon lemon juice or unflavored vinegar
5 to 7 tablespoons ice water, just as needed
For the filling:
2 bunches rapini (“broccoli rabe”)
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 slices bacon, chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon fine dried bread crumbs
½ cup freshly grated medium-aged pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna or cacio Toscano
½ teaspoon salt
freshly milled black pepper to taste
For the egg glaze:
1 egg yolk, beaten well with pinch of salt
Directions for the pie pastry
1. Combine the flour and salt and pulse a few times in a food processor to blend.
2. Add the cold butter and vegetable shortening and pulse only until the fat is cut into bits the size of peas.
3. Through the processor’s feed tube, add the egg and lemon juice or vinegar, pulse once or twice, then add the ice water one tablespoon at a time, pulsing once or twice between additions, only until dough begins to show some clumps. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the inside walls of the vessel. Do not form a dough ball on the blade.
4. Turn dough out onto a piece of wax paper (if it looks sandy and dry, sprinkle on a tiny bit more water) and use your hands to bring it together into a ball. It should hold the form of your fingers when squeezed. Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or for up to 5 days until you are ready to make the filling.
Note: If butter and vegetable shortening were frozen, dough can be rolled without prior chilling.
Directions for the filling
1. Wash the rapini in cold water, drain.
2. Detach and separate the stems from the tops of the vegetable. Set the tops and the leaves aside. Using a small, sharp knife, peel any especially tough skin from the thicker lower stalks, much like you would peel the tough skin from the bottom of asparagus stalks.
3. Fill a large pot with plenty of water to cover all the greens and bring to a rolling boil. Add the kosher salt and the peeled stems, cover partially, and boil over high heat for 7 minutes. Now add the florets and leaves and cook them together with the stems for 3 minutes more. Drain the greens and allow them to cool. With your hands, squeeze out as much water as you can. Chop them finely and set aside.
4. Warm a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and cook the bacon until it begins to color, about 7 minutes. Drain off excess fat, stir in the butter and add the onion to the pan. Adjust the heat to medium-low and sauté until the onion is transparent, another 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and continue to sauté gently for about another 3 minutes until it softens and the onions are lightly colored, but do not brown the mixture. Stir in the rapini mixture, turning it over with the bacon and onion mixture to combine. Set aside to cool.
5. In an ample bowl, beat the eggs lightly and mix in the bread crumbs, grated cheese, salt and pepper. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the cooled rapini mixture, blending well.
6. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Select a 10-inch tart pan or pie tin. Butter it lightly. Divide the chilled dough into two portions, one slightly larger than the other. To use, roll out the larger ball of dough on a lightly floured, wide sheet of parchment or waxed paper using a floured rolling pin. Form an 11-inch round. Drape it around the pin and transfer it to the pie pan. Press it gently onto the bottom and sides.
7. Spoon in the filling.
8. Roll out the second ball of dough in the same manner into a slightly smaller circle. Lay it over the filling. Crimp the edges together to seal and trim off any excess to form an even edge. Cut a slash in the top to allow steam to escape. If there are any dough scraps, gather them up, re-roll them, and cut out leaves or rosettes. Decorate the top of the pie with the cutouts, pressing them gently onto the crust.
9. Brush the crust with the beaten egg and bake in the preheated oven until golden, about 1 hour, 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer it to a rack to cool for about 10 minutes. Serve hot or warm, cut into wedges.
Note: This pie keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat it in an oven preheated to 350 F until warm throughout, 20 to 30 minutes.
Top photo: A slice of rapini pie. Credit: Nathan Hoyt
In the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, western Romania, where transhumance — the movement of animals between winter and summer pastures — is still practiced, shepherds will now be settling their animals in the high meadows after a trek that could have lasted five weeks or more. Late autumn last year, these shepherds left with their flocks to walk hundreds of kilometers east, to the Danube floodplains, or northwest, to the lowland plains near Hungary. Now they’re back in their summer home.
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A lack of historical records makes it impossible to establish a precise time that long-distance transhumance began in the Carpathians but, since the region’s shepherd communities date to the pre-Roman Dacians, it is likely that this form of year-round grazing has been practiced since then. They are part of a tradition that stretches throughout the Balkans to northern and central Greece and Albania; their movements between these countries were only curtailed by World War I, when new country borders were created and passports were needed to cross them.
Timing the spring trek
One income source for the shepherds is the lamb they can provide for Easter tables. Romanians consider a 10-kilogram (22-pound) lamb the perfect size for this, so the animal needs to be eight to 10 weeks old. The shepherds time their trek to arrive in the Carpathian uplands for lambing to take place there around early March, depending on when the Orthodox Easter falls that year. Flocks comprise sheep belonging to a number of villagers, and each sheep is marked, to distinguish it from a neighbor’s.
This biannual journey enriches the landscapes the animals cross by fertilizing the soils in the migratory corridors with sheep dung and encourages a remarkably rich biodiversity by transporting fruits and seeds on the wool. It has also, over the centuries, led to extensive cultural exchanges as the shepherds traveled long distances in search of grazing, and many contemporary traditions — in food, literature and song — have their roots in this practice.
Both landscapes and traditions are now in danger of disappearing. Land that has been an open route for the shepherds for centuries is becoming privately owned, motorists don’t take kindly to a flock of hundreds of sheep crossing the road in front of them, and many flocks are now transported in trucks.
A mobile dairy
During the trek, the ewes’ milk is made into cas and urda, two fresh cheeses similar in texture, respectively, to ricotta and Greek mizythra, and cascaval, a semi-hard cheese that’s kept for up to three months. Later in the summer, when the milk has a higher fat content, it’s turned into a feta-like cheese called telemea. The curds are salted, wrapped into cheesecloth orbs, and hung for 24 hours before they are placed on slatted wooden shelves to settle into heavy discs of mountain cheese. The nutrient-rich whey is given to the pigs and sheepdogs. Some of the cheeses are allocated to the sheep owners, the remainder sold at local markets.
Over the centuries, the shepherds have perfected the art of turning fresh milk into products that can be kept longer than a few hours. As well as cheeses, they make smantana, similar to soured cream or thick yogurt, which is the perfect accompaniment to another easily transportable food that has come to be known as the national dish of Romania, mamaliga.
Mamaliga, a thick porridge made from maize flour (cornmeal), is similar to the polenta of northern Italy and other parts of the Balkans. Served in a huge variety of ways, it’s not unusual to find mamaliga on Romanian tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As cornmeal is easy to store, transport and cook, it is the perfect staple food for a long trek. The shepherds make mamaliga in large cauldrons suspended over an open fire and are particularly fond of it with small game and sarmale (stuffed fresh or slightly fermented cabbage leaves). Often, though, it’s eaten alone, with smantana or cheese, or wrapped around fresh, white cheese to make a grapefruit-size ball (or “bear”), which is wrapped in foil and baked in charcoal.
The best mamaliga is made from coarse, stone-ground cornmeal that retains some of the hull and germ of the grain, producing a thick, yellow-gold porridge with a slightly crunchy texture. For Romanian cooks, the making of mamaliga involves many rituals, some of which touch on the semi-mystical in the same way as bread-baking and grape-stomping do, and they use a special saucepan (ceaun) for the process. Modern cooks, however, frequently use a commercial coarse cornmeal that considerably cuts the preparation time. Both types of cornmeal are suitable for making these fitters, a popular to way to serve mamaliga at home.
Mamaliga Fritters With Mushroom Sauce
For a true taste of Transylvania, use a mixture of sunflower oil and butter to fry the fritters, though olive oil gives a fine, if Mediterranean-flavored result, too. Serve with braised rabbit or chicken, with any manner of vegetables, or with mushrooms in sour cream.
Serves 3 to 4
For the mamaliga:
½ cup whole milk
1 cup water
¾ teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1 scant cup coarse cornmeal (maize flour), preferably organic
3 tablespoons organic sunflower oil
2 tablespoons butter
For the mushroom sauce:
1 tablespoon butter
6 ounces wild, field or button mushrooms, wiped clean, trimmed and thinly sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons sour cream, to taste
3 tablespoons lightly chopped fresh dill
Watercress sprigs or other green leaves
Small pickled peppers
1. Combine the milk and water in a heavy saucepan, add the salt, and bring to barely a boil
2. Pour in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly in a clockwise direction with a wooden spoon. Over a low heat, simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the mixture is thick enough to just support the spoon standing upright. Set aside uncovered for 10 minutes
(If you are using a commercial cornmeal, follow the directions for a thick mixture.)
3. To make the mushroom sauce, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small, heavy saucepan set over low heat. Add the mushrooms, cover the pan, and simmer 6-8 minutes (button mushrooms) to up to 15 minutes (field or wild mushrooms), until soft. Strain the mushrooms over a bowl and set both mushrooms and liquor aside.
4. Turn out the cornmeal (mamaliga) onto a wooden board and spread into a 1-inch-thick layer with a spatula or palette knife. Smooth the surface and neaten the edges. Cut into 2×3-inch rectangles, or any shape you prefer (but keep manageable in size, otherwise they will break up later). Use the palette knife to loosen each one from the board
5. Set a frying pan over low-medium heat and add the sunflower oil and 2 tablespoons butter. When hot but not smoking, fry the fritters until golden brown on both sides, turning once.
6. Meanwhile, check the mushroom cooking liquor. If there is more than 4 tablespoons, reduce in a heavy pan set over medium heat. Lower the heat, add the mushrooms and stir in the sour cream. Heat to hot but not boiling (or the cream will curdle and spoil the appearance of the dish). Gently stir in the dill and add salt and pepper (the sauce should be highly seasoned)
7. Transfer the fritters to a warm platter and surround with watercress, pickles, and the mushroom sauce.
Top photo: A shepherd in the mountains near Sigishoara, Transylvania. Credit: Cordell Barron
Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the movable Christian feast of Easter that this year falls on April 13, marks the allotted date of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem through streets strewn with palm fronds, a moment of optimism in the run-up to the gloom of Good Friday.
Thereafter, devout households use palm fronds to decorate streets, balconies and churches to commemorate the unfolding events of Easter week. Splendidly robed Greek Orthodox monks on the island of Patmos, Greece, re-enact the Last Supper beneath arches of palm fronds with a meal of bread and wine.
Elsewhere, as the Christian message spread, congregations in non-palm-tree regions (anyone without a Mediterranean coastline) adapted an older tradition, that of bringing budded greenery indoors to celebrate the return of spring. Willow wands and young growths of hazel and birch — though never hawthorn, which was considered to bring misfortune — were brought indoors and set to unfurl their leaves by the fireside. In Germany, branches of evergreens — holly or yew — were draped with pretzels and apples, a reminder of divine responsibility to restore fertility to fields and woods.
Today, chickpeas are a sign of thanks in Provence
In France, particularly Provence, a similar sentiment was expressed by hanging candied fruits and sugar cookies wrapped in brightly colored paper on branches of olive and bay. In the regional capital, Marseilles, the proper food for Palm Sunday is chickpeas, pois chiches, the result, as legend has it, of the arrival during the Great Famine — and there were many such throughout the Middle Ages — of a shipload of chickpeas from Egypt, much to the relief of the starving citizens who thereafter commemorated the occasion with chickpea soup.
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Since then, by way of giving thanks, chickpea soup is traditionally eaten on Palm Sunday both in Marseilles and the surrounding countryside. This I learned when taking time out from family duties in the 1990s to complete my second novel in a borrowed chateau in the region — huge and drafty and heated by a kitchen range with an insatiable appetite for firewood collected from the forest.
Lambesc was the nearest market town, and Saturday was market day. At the end of a morning’s bargaining, it was usual for exhausted stall holders and customers to queue up for exotic dishes prepared with considerable showmanship by a member of Marseilles’ multiethnic community. Most popular were Moroccan couscous, Spanish paella sold by the scoop and Vietnamese nem, neat little finger-length rolls of shredded vegetables enclosed in a rice pancake, much like Chinese spring rolls, and deep-fried to order.
There was, too, a local specialité du jour offered by the traiteur — a purveyor of ready-prepared dishes, cheese and charcuterie — from a table outside his shop fronting the market square. As soon as I took my place in the queue, the day’s recipe was discussed and embellished by the rest of the queue for the benefit of l’ecrivaine, the writer, myself. In Provence, everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they value their painters and poets and respect the need for a visiting writer to eat good food.
The traiteur’s menu changed with the season and, when appropriate, featured dishes traditional to festivals of the Roman Catholic Church. Meatless dishes were on offer throughout Lent, though prohibitions on enriching them with olive oil or even the odd lardons of bacon were disregarded. Tomorrow being Palm Sunday, I was assured as I joined the traiteur’s Saturday queue, the proper food was soupe aux pois chiches, a thick chickpea soup to be finished, when reheated at home, with the last of the winter’s cheese.
“Bon appetit, madame,” said the traiteur as he ladled out a generous portion. “And don’t forget the cheese.”
Soupe de pois chiche au fromage (Chickpea soup with cheese)
A meatless soup is proper during the last week of Lent, a somber time in the run-up to Easter, though the inclusion of eggs and cheese is a concession to the lighter mood of Palm Sunday, when people traditionally went to the graveyard to decorate ancestors’ final resting places with flowers.
Serves 4 as a main dish
1 pound (500 grams) chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water
2 mature carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, washed and chopped
1 sprig of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
1 or 2 bay leaves
¼ cup olive oil
A dozen peppercorns, crushed
Salt to taste
2 eggs forked with 4 tablespoons grated cheese
1. Drain the chickpeas.
2. Bring 4 pints of water to a boil. Add the chickpeas and the rest of the ingredients except the salt.
3. Bring the pot back to a boil. Lid tightly and leave to cook at a rolling simmer for about 2 hours.
4. Add the salt to the soup when the chickpeas are soft.
5. Pour a ladle full of the hot broth into the egg-and-cheese mixture. Off the heat, whisk the mixture into the soup. Do not reboil or the eggs will curdle and your lovely velvety thickening will vanish.
6. Serve with bread, more grated cheese and a salad of lovely spring leaves — young dandelion, lamb’s lettuce, sorrel, chicory — dressed quite plainly with lemon juice, a slick of good oil and salt.
Top illustration: Lunch in Provence, France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
While the days of bakers standing on street corners, shouting out the familiar “hot cross buns; hot cross buns. One a penny, two a penny … ” rhyme, died long ago, bakeries still fill their display cases with these small, spiced yeast buns. Seeing them glistening in a storefront window is a sure sign that the Lenten and spring seasons have arrived.
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Although most of us associate hot cross buns with Easter, these pastries have been around since pre-Christian times. Archeological evidence indicates that ancient Egyptians made little yeast rolls to give as an offering to the goddess of the moon. For ancient Greeks and Romans, these cakes served as tribute to the goddess of light. The Saxons created tiny, round breads for the goddess of spring. They also receive credit for adding the cross to the design. To them, the cross signified the four seasons.
By the Middle Ages, much of Europe had adopted the custom of baking spiced, raisin- or currant-filled buns for spring festivals and other special events. However, in England, an unusual 16th-century law reduced their prevalence by decreeing that bakeries could only sell “cross buns” for funerals and on Good Friday and Christmas.
Hot cross buns on Good Friday
Over the years, Good Friday became the official day for procuring them. Because they usually went directly from the oven to the customer, historians presume that is why they became known as “hot cross buns.”
Since 1935, La Delice Pastry Shop in New York City has produced and sold hot cross buns for the Lenten season. “We make and put them on display one day before Ash Wednesday so that people can see and get excited about them,” says the in-house baker who goes only by George and who has worked at La Delice since 1976.
Flavored with vanilla, diced candied fruit and raisins, the tender rolls call to mind miniature panettones. Unlike the Italian holiday bread, La Delice’s buns are brushed with a light glaze and then adorned with powdered sugar icing crosses.
These are the buns I remember from my childhood. With their velvety dough and sweet, chewy fruit, these buns always came from a local bakery. When asked why we didn’t bake our own, my mother would claim we were keeping alive a family tradition; even my great-grandmother, who was born in the 1860s, purchased her hot cross buns.
It turns out that my great-grandmother had a good reason for relying upon someone else for her spring baked goods. Prior to the 20th century, scant few recipes for hot cross buns appeared in cookbooks. It seems that almost everyone dropped by a neighborhood bakery to procure a hot cross bun.
What is (or isn’t) magic about these buns?
Other folklore exists for these treats. At one time people believed that, when hung in the kitchen, the buns would bring good luck and thwart house fires. If packed by sailors for voyages, they prevented shipwrecks. When thrust into a mound of corn, they safeguarded against mice and rats.
The magical properties didn’t begin and end with protection. Take a handful of hot cross bun crumbs, mix them with water and supposedly you had a cure-all in a cup. End up with more buns than you can consume? Dry them out in a warm oven and you can keep and eat them all year.
While I can’t attest to any of these tales, I do know that hot cross buns are best consumed on the day they’re made. If you buck tradition and bake your own, you can freeze the un-frosted extras.
Should you need to make them a day in advance, hold off on icing the buns until right before serving. Before decorating, warm the buns in the oven until softened. The same rule applies for frozen buns.
If you want a little diversity with your buns, you can replace the frosting with strips of pastry dough or candied fruit peel. You can also flavor the dough with grated citrus zest, allspice, cinnamon, cloves and/or nutmeg. Some bakers leave out the candied fruit and only feature currants, raisins or other dried fruit. Others leave out the dried fruit and use only candied fruit. The choice is yours.
Hot Cross Buns
Makes 1½ dozen buns
1 package dry active yeast
3 tablespoons warm water
½ cup milk, warmed
½ cup warm water
1 teaspoon salt, plus extra for egg wash
¼ cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, divided
2 cups bread flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice
⅓ cup mixture of chopped dried cranberries, cherries and apricots
Grated zest of ½ orange
Canola oil or grapeseed oil
½ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons milk
1. Combine the yeast and 3 tablespoons water in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a regular mixing bowl and allow the yeast to dissolve, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the milk, water, salt, sugar, butter, sugar and 1 egg and whisk to combine.
3. Slowly add the bread flour followed by the all-purpose flour and spices, stirring or beating on low until the flour is incorporated. The resulting dough should be moist but not sticky.
4. Using either your hands or the mixer’s dough hook, knead until the dough is smooth and pliable, about 10 minutes.
5. Add the dried fruit and zest and knead again until incorporated.
6. Grease a large bowl with canola or grapeseed oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap, place the bowl in a warm spot and allow it to rise for 90 minutes.
7. Grease two baking sheets and set aside.
8. After the dough has risen, separate it into 18 equal-sized pieces. Roll these into small balls and place them on the greased baking sheets, keeping them 2 inches apart. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the dough balls to rise for an hour.
9. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
10. In a small bowl, whisk the remaining egg together with 1 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt.
11. Using a sharp knife, slash a cross into the top of each ball. Brush the tops of the balls with the egg wash. Bake until the tops are golden in color and the bottoms sound hollow when tapped, 12 to 15 minutes.
12. As the buns cool slightly on the baking sheets, whisk together the confectioner’s sugar and milk. Using an icing knife or teaspoon, fill in the cross on the top of each bun with the icing. Serve warm.
Top photo: Hot cross buns. Credit: Kathy Hunt
All countries have food clichés — that is, dishes everybody thinks about when they talk about a country. Scandinavia is no exception. One of Scandinavia’s food clichés is meatballs. Why are Swedish meatballs so famous? And why the Swedish ones and not some, or all, of the other kinds of meatballs eaten throughout Scandinavia? Is it because Ikea serves small, round meatballs in light brown gravy with lingonsylt (lingonberry jam) in all its megastores around the world?
Stereotypes in food are as boring as they are in people. The Scandinavian food culture is diverse and seasonal and has much more to offer than meatballs. And when it comes to meatballs, there’s a lot more to it than just Swedish meatballs. Ikea is properly the best-known Scandinavian brand with a global reach, except maybe for ABBA. The Ikea food store and its restaurants both sell and serve Swedish meatballs produced by a Swedish food company. They are promoted in all Ikea catalogs and on its website.
Is that the only explanation for the celebrity of Swedish meatballs? Or is it because of the large number of Swedes who immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century. Clearly, they brought the recipe to America. Did the famous Swedish Chef in “The Muppets” ever do meatballs? Did well-known Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson?
Meatballs part of food culture in Scandinavia
It is difficult to answer all these questions. Instead, I will try to highlight some of the other Scandinavian meatballs and give a few other recipes that can outsmart the Swedish meatball.
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In Scandinavia, minced meat is a big part of everyday meals. I would estimate it is eaten once or twice a week in many households. There are different regional recipes and traditions, from kjøtbullar, frikadeller and krebinetter to a variety of meatballs in sauce with vegetables.
Danish meatballs (frikadeller) are made from equal shares of minced pork and minced veal combined with a mixture called fars, which consists of finely chopped onion, eggs, flour, milk, salt and pepper and maybe a little bit of spices like nutmeg or juniper. Frikadeller are not round like a ball, but have an oval shape. They are pan-fried in butter and served according to tradition with boiled vegetables and potatoes and often no gravy. If there is gravy, it can be just melted butter from the pan, and it is always served on the side.
In my own recipe for frikadeller, I use freshly chopped thyme. My grandmother taught me to use sparkling water instead of milk, which makes the meatballs lighter. The best way to serve them in winter is with baked root vegetables and parsley pesto. In the summer, they can be served with summer cabbage pan-fried in butter with a bit of chili flakes and small new potatoes. Another classic meal is to serve frikadeller cold the next day on rye bread with pickled beetroots.
Frikadeller can also be made with 100% fish, often mixed with fresh herbs such as dill or tarragon. This is also a very traditional dish.
Recipes for vegetarian frikadeller became trendy in the 1970s with all the micro-macro food and the vegetarian movement. Instead of meat, the meatballs can be made with beetroot, split peas, carrots, leftover boiled vegetables — the combinations are endless. It’s a great way to make use of the lonely vegetables left in the back of the fridge.
Then there are all the different meatballs in sauce or gravy, again with equal shares of pork and veal and similar to frikadeller but boiled instead of pan-fried.
A classic Danish recipe is meatballs with celeriac and white gravy made with lots of nutmeg: Boil the meatballs in salted water and bay leaves. When done, use some of the stock to make a white sauce based on a roux and add leeks and big chunks of celeriac. Let the sauce simmer until the celeriac is soft, then add in the meatballs again. Both fresh thyme and tarragon go well with these meatballs. I like to serve them with boiled spelt or rye grains.
Another classic, and actually one of the most popular dishes in Danish households, is meatballs made with curry powder based on a recipe from about 1935. The spice mixture is from England, but the idea of the meatballs and gravy is Danish. The classic recipe has no vegetables, just meatballs and gravy served with rice.
This recipe is a bit more up-to-date and has lots of vegetables and ginger.
Meatballs in Curry Sauce
Serves 8, or a family of 4 for two days
For the meatballs:
1 pound minced pork
1 pound minced veal
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup milk or sparkling water
½ cup plain wheat flour
2 tablespoons curry powder
5 teaspoons flaky salt
Freshly ground pepper
Water for boiling
2 bay leaves
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
4 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 tablespoons plain wheat flour
1 cup double cream
2 leeks, sliced
4 carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 apples, cored and sliced
Salt and pepper
1. Combine the minced meats, onion and garlic in a bowl. Add the milk, flour, curry powder, 2 teaspoons of the salt and some freshly ground pepper and mix together.
2. Add the eggs and mix again for about 5 minutes so that the mixture is as light and fluffy as possible.
3. Heat 8 to 10 cups water in a pot. Add the bay leaves and the remaining salt to the water and bring to the boil. Meanwhile, use your hands to shape half the meat mixture into little balls about three-quarters of an inch (2 centimeters) wide.
4. Plop the meatballs in the water and let them simmer for 20 minutes.
5. Remove the meatballs from the water with a skimmer and place on a tray.
6. Shape and cook the other half of the meat mixture and then cook the same way.
7. Set all the meatballs aside until the sauce is done, reserving 3 to 4 cups of the cooking liquid.
8. In another pot, melt the butter. Add the onions, garlic, ginger and curry powder and cook for a couple of minutes.
9. Add the flour and stir well.
10. Add ½ cup of the meatball cooking liquid and stir until smooth. Pour in more of the cooking liquid as necessary until you have smooth gravy, and bring to a simmer.
11. Add the cream and return to the boil. Reduce the heat, add the meatballs, leeks and carrots and simmer for 5 minutes.
12. Add the apples and continue cooking for 3 minutes.
13. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with rice.
Top photo: Meatballs in Curry Sauce. Credit: Lars Ranek