Articles in Recipes
It’s the end of a long, wet and unusually cool summer in the Virginia mountains. And, to my joy, the water-logged soil yields more than the mildew spreading like talcum powder across my prolific yellow summer squash (Cucurbita pepo), also called crookneck squash.
About an hour before dinner, I pick half a dozen of the young, fresh squash — all no longer than 6 inches. Tiny hairlike spines on the broad leaves of the plant prick my fingers as I grab the first squash I see.
Mother Nature is ingenious in ensuring that species propagate by developing defense mechanisms such as strong odors or prickly thorns. With summer squash, the leaves’ spines are a good indication of freshness, which is useful when choosing produce at the supermarket. Also, this variety’s thin, fragile neck makes it somewhat difficult to ship commercially, so summer squash available at groceries have been bred to have shorter, wider “crooks” than the variety I grow in my garden.
Botanists believe squash, like the ones growing in my garden, originated in Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Food historians credit Christopher Columbus, who voyaged to the New World in 1492, with helping to spread squash to the Old World by returning with squash seeds. Images of various New World squashes started to appear in Italian paintings around 1515.
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Today, almost every cuisine in the world features squash — members of the gourd (Cucurbitaceae) family — in one form or another, be it the thicker-skinned varieties like pumpkin or the thinner-skinned varieties of zucchini or opo squash.
Summer squash a Southern staple
Yellow summer squash holds a special place in the repertoire of many Southern cooks in America. There’s the popular Stewed Squash and the old standby, Pickled Squash.
But another beloved Southern dish captured my fancy years ago: Squash Casserole, a gratin-like dish. Some cooks call it Baked Squash or Squash Pudding. Most recipes include a topping made from a sleeve of crushed buttery Ritz crackers, a quick answer to the problem of not having buttery bread crumbs on hand.
A favorite side dish at Southern family reunions and other celebrations, Squash Casserole comes in about as many shapes as there are cooks who make it.
Mary Randolph, linked to the Virginia gentry as a relative of Thomas Jefferson, wrote “The Virginia Housewife” (1824), considered the first cookbook of the American South by many culinary historians. Her cookbook influenced others, such as “The Kentucky Housewife” and “The Carolina Housewife.” And, just like Randolph, I usually like to keep things simple when it comes to summer squash. Translation: I never have Ritz Crackers, or bread crumbs for that matter, on hand.
Squash dish, made simple
In one of her two recipes for squash, Winter Squash, Randolph advocates boiling it and topping it with butter, simple enough treatments. I grew up eating yellow squash boiled with big chunks of bacon thrown in, a somewhat similar recipe.
For my dinner, I cut the squashes into small cubes, salt them, leave them in a colander for about 30 minutes to drain, and then rinse off the salt and dry the cubes. After heating a small amount of olive oil at high heat in my cast-iron skillet, I cook the pieces of squash until the cut edges brown. A twist of black pepper and a dash of smoked paprika and this side dish stands up well to most main courses, meat-based or vegetarian.
In the chill of late summer nights, I long for the filling heft of a casserole. Randolph’s other squash recipe, Squash or Cimlin — cimlin or “cymling” is an old-fashioned word for pattypan squash. Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife” gives the following recipe, a somewhat close relative to modern Squash Casserole:
Gather young squashes, peel, and cut them in two; take out the seeds, and boil them till tender; out them into a colander, drain off the water, and rub them with a wooden spoon through the colander; then put them into a stew-pan, with a cupful of cream, a small piece of butter, some pepper, and salt, stew them, stirring very frequently until dry. This is the most delicate way of preparing squashes.
One interesting note: Randolph makes no mention of bacon fat in this recipe.
Bacon and squash, a tasty combination
One thing to remember about traditional Southern cooking is that pork, and pork fat, plays a starring role. History and circumstances dictate much of tradition when it comes to food habits. The American South is no different from France that way. Pigs fared better than cattle in the warm and humid Southern climate, fending for themselves in the forests. Pork could also be preserved better when salted and smoked as ham and bacon.
The following recipe incorporates a number of cooking techniques mentioned in “The Virginia Housewife” yet honors modern tastes and preparation methods. What remains constant is the delicate taste of the squash.
And the tang of bacon.
- Butter or shortening for greasing
- 5 to 6 cups yellow summer squash, cut into ½-inch slices
- 4 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or light olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely minced
- 3 tablespoons green bell pepper, finely minced
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
- 1 cup grated Jack cheese
- ¾ cup sour cream
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 1-quart, oven-proof baking dish with butter or shortening.
- Place the sliced squash in a medium saucepan; add water to cover. Add about ½ tablespoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Bring squash to a boil; cook for 10 minutes until just barely tender to the poke of a sharp knife. Drain squash until almost all the water is out.
- Put the bacon into a cast-iron skillet with the 2 tablespoons of oil. Fry until bacon is crisp. Remove bacon from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Pour out all but 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil from the skillet; sauté the onion and green pepper until lightly caramelized; add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from the skillet and mix with the bacon. Set aside.
- Add the onion mixture, cheese and sour cream to the hot squash; sprinkle in more salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with a flexible spatula. Scrape squash mixture into prepared baking dish and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes and then turn off heat. Serve immediately.
You may substitute zucchini for the yellow squash. Or you can combine the two if you wish.
Main photo: Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen
Of all the foods I get defensive about, clam chowder is high on the list. There are certain preparations that are so iconic, established and regionally rooted that I think it’s nonsense to say “oh, there are many interpretations.”
In fact, I believe the parameters of what constitutes a proper clam chowder are quite narrow. This is one instance one can be downright dogmatic and say, “No, there is only one proper clam chowder.”
Granted, there are variations of clam chowder made from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island, and those are acceptable because these places are really the home of clam chowder even if the word itself comes from the French chaudière, a cauldron used by the fishermen of Brittany to cook up a fish chowder.
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In John R. Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms” published in 1848, a chowder is described as a dish from New England made of fresh fish, especially cod, or clams, and stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit, with the addition at times of cider or Champagne.
First written mention of clams in chowder
There is no record of a clam, as opposed to fish, chowder before the mid-19th century, although the first written mention of clams in chowder is from 1829 in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Frugal Housewife.”
The dividing line between places that make chowder with milk and places that make chowder with tomatoes seems to be in southwestern Connecticut. Beginning there and heading south, cooks use tomatoes, and from Cape Cod to the north, they use milk. The no-man’s land of this debate seems to be Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut where a clear broth is used.
A clam chowder isn’t worth writing about unless you extol a particular clam chowder, as did fellow Zester writer Lynne Curry, who also wrote about chowder. I wouldn’t be a chowderhead if I didn’t complain about her use of canned clams. I can’t abide that. I began to feel strongly about this when I moved to California and encountered the gloppy white mud they called clam chowder and thought “guys, stick to fish tacos, you don’t know chowder from chile.”
Cape Cod chowder is the best
This recipe is a Cape Cod clam chowder and I believe the best clam chowder in the world is made on Cape Cod.
Just as a proper chili con carne never has beans or tomatoes in it, for me a true clam chowder should never contain flour, or cream, certainly never fish broth (might as well call it fish soup), and, God forbid, a tomato.
A true clam chowder is very simple, but rarely gotten right. Adding flour and cream, popular with restaurant chefs, turns the elixir into an unappetizing and gummy muck. Cream is also a no-no, but sometimes permissible (see below). A clam is a delicate creature and gets easily lost with too much starchy thickening, acidic vegetables, herbs, seasoning, or bacon as opposed to salt pork flavor.
A true clam chowder is made with, and only with, live quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria Linn.) with their liquor, and never with canned clams. A quahog is nothing but a large cherrystone clam, which is nothing but a large littleneck clam.
Clam chowder also requires diced lean salt pork. Bacon is not appropriate because it’s too smoky. I don’t buy the speculation that the smokiness resembles the original.
Raw milk first used in clam chowder
The chowder also requires onion, potatoes, butter, salt, pepper and if you can manage it, raw fresh creamery milk. In the early 20th century, Cape Codders could regularly get raw milk for making their chowder, which had a creamier taste than today’s pasteurized and homogenized milk. Therefore it’s permissible to mix whole milk with half-and-half or a little heavy cream.
Clam chowder can also have a little celery and a little sprinkle of thyme, but that’s it. It’s always served hot, but not piping hot, and with common crackers.
Cape Cod cooks like to “age” their chowders by cooking them the day before or letting them sit for some hours before serving, that’s why you find many early recipes saying that you move the kettle to the back of the stove. Doctoring your chowder once it’s finished with parsley or chives is a restaurant innovation to give the chowder “color.” Just remember that the color of chowder is white.
One last warning: Be very careful with milk or it will curdle. For real Cape Cod authenticity, serve in Styrofoam cups.
- 20 pounds quahogs or large cherrystones, washed very well
- 2 quarts water
- 2 pounds boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and diced
- ½ pound lean salt pork, diced
- 1 large yellow onion (about 14 ounces), finely chopped
- Salt, if necessary
- Freshly ground white pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 cups half-and-half
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Common or oyster crackers for garnish
- Place the clams in a 20- to 22-quart stockpot filled with about an inch of water. Cover, turn the heat to high, and steam the quahogs until they all open, removing them when possible as they open, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard any clams that remain very firmly shut. Remove the clams from their shells once they are cool enough to handle and discard the shells but save all the liquid. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth into a smaller stew pot. Chop the clams. You should have about 5 cups of chopped clams. You can do this in a food processor in pulses.
- Add all the collected clam juice to the water in which you steamed the clams. If you have less than 2 quarts of liquid in the stockpot add enough water to the collected juices to make up the difference, although you will probably have more than 2 quarts.
- Bring the reserved clam liquor to a boil then cook the potatoes until three-quarters cooked and nearly tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the reserved chopped clams and cook at a boil for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and let the chowder sit. If scum forms, skim it off at once.
- Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, cook, stirring the salt pork over medium-low heat until nearly crispy, about 15 minutes. Remove the salt pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally to deglaze the skillet, until golden and very soft, about 30 minutes. Add the salt pork and onion mixture to the potatoes and stir. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary and the pepper and thyme. Turn the heat off and when the pot is cool enough, place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
- Remove the chowder and reheat over low heat. Once it is hot, add the milk, half-and-half and cream. Cover and heat the chowder until it is about 140 F, making sure it doesn’t even bubble, otherwise the milk will curdle. Stir in the butter, remove the stew pot from the burner, but leave on the stove, covered, to stay warm for 1 hour or more and serve with common or oyster crackers.
Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
You say you want a striking way to serve barbecued chicken? Here’s one that will stick in your guests’ minds. It looks like a miniature rack of ribs, perhaps crossed with a bizarre pre-Cambrian life form.
But it has the classical flavor of browned chicken infused with the sweetness and poetic perfume of onion and a subtle hint of cinnamon. “Winner, winner, chicken barbecue” (or however Guy Fieri’s saying goes).
Its proper name is kırma tavuk kebabı, which means “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish. It’s one of the subtle and inventive dishes that graced the tables of Istanbul big shots back in the days when the Ottoman Empire was still a vast and wealthy affair. It was recorded in 1839 in a cookbook called Malja’ al-Tabbakhin (“The Refuge of Cooks”) that was later plagiarized with great enthusiasm by Turkish and Arab cookbook writers down to the early 20th century.
The recipe was first translated into English after “some of England’s fairest ladies and grandest gentlemen” were impressed by the Turkish dishes served aboard the yacht of the visiting viceroy of Egypt in 1862. Two years later, a certain Turabi Effendi published a collection of recipes swiped from Malja’ al-Tabbakhin and given the on-the-nose title “Turkish Cookery Book.”
The distinctive technique of this dish is to cut the chicken into strips, leaving the pieces attached at one end. This structure helps the marinade flavors penetrate the meat while keeping it in a relatively compact shape for convenience on the grill. It also makes the meat cook a little quicker and more evenly.
Turabi Effendi’s recipe calls for deboning entire chickens, but I suggest taking the easy way out by using boneless chicken breast, which lends itself very well to this technique. Turabi says to baste the meat with butter when it starts to brown, but I don’t recommend this because of the risk of flare-ups. If you want more butter flavor, basting the meat after you take it from the grill works perfectly and will certainly win the approval of your local fire marshal.
- 4 boneless chicken half-breasts, about 1¾ pounds total
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for serving
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon or a pinch more
- 1 large onion
- 2 ounces (¼ stick) butter, melted
- Using a sharp knife, cut the meat crosswise into 9 or 10 strips ¼ to 1/3 inch wide. But make sure your cuts reach no farther than ¼ inch from the far edge of the meat so that the “fingers” remain attached. Mix the salt, pepper and cinnamon and rub into the meat all over.
- Purée the onion in a food processor and strain the onion juice from the solids in a fine sieve (leave the windows open for this operation because of the onion fumes). Mix the meat with the onion juice, cover with plastic wrap or place in a sealable plastic bag and let marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.
- Pat the meat dry with paper towels and thread it onto skewers down the uncut edge (if your skewer is too broad for the uncut section, you can thread it through the bases of the “fingers” as well). Baste the surface of the meat and between the “fingers” with melted butter. This will keep the meat from sticking to the grill and to itself; you don’t want so much butter that there are flare-ups.
- Grill over a moderate fire, turning often, until the meat stiffens and turns golden brown, about 20 minutes.
- Remove from skewers and brush with more melted butter if you want. Sprinkle with salt to taste.
Fine accompaniments for this would be a scoop of tart yogurt and a simple green salad.
Main photo: Cut into strips, kırma tavuk kebabı — “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish — enables marinades to penetrate the meat. Credit: Charles Perry
With her latest book, “Baking Chez Moi,” acclaimed author Dorie Greenspan has fait mouche (hit the bull’s-eye) again. In this luscious culinary tome, Greenspan manages to break through the mystique of French baking techniques with ease and humor. She is, quite simply, the perfect guide for any baker who wants to explore everything from approachable variations on haute pâtisserie to those classic weekend cakes called gâteaux de voyages.
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
"Baking Chez Moi"
By Dorie Greenspan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
Of late, I’ve been poring over countless cookbooks for research. It’s made clear to me how important the author’s voice is in translating subject matter, recipes and technique. Greenspan’s uncomplicated, personable style makes me want to study her cookbooks cover to cover, with notebook in hand and an occasional smile. After all, how many cookbook authors will attribute a recipe’s success to “the magic of that vixen: chocolate”?
Reading “Baking Chez Moi” is like spending time with a best friend who happens to know just about everything there is to know about French baking, and whom to ask when she doesn’t. Even better, she’s a whiz at translating it into something that readers can conquer, not fear. It’s a skill that is never handier than when trying to attempt trickier French desserts like colorful macarons or her riff on Pierre Herme’s sumptuous Carrément Chocolat.
Anyone who has attempted advanced baking knows that it is an art of precision. Following directions to the letter is normally recommended. Yet while Greenspan encourages the exactitude of using metric weights and measures, she also allows for some interpretation, and in many cases promotes it.
Affectionately nicknamed “Miss One More Minute,” the author suggests that recipe timing is meant to be a well-defined guide but not absolute — especially when oven calibrations are never the same. Through her own tales of hits and misses, she gives the reader permission to play, including inventive sidebar suggestions she titles “Bonne Idées” (good ideas).
But what I like best about Greenspan’s approach with “Baking Chez Moi” is her active style of cross-pollination between recipes throughout the book. She moves from recipe to recipe just long enough to unearth the special character of each, then whisks along to find clever ways to employ it elsewhere, inviting the reader to jump right in and join her. And I took that invitation — after a first read, my copy was left with 17 sticky notes tagging the recipes I intend to try first.
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From "Baking Chez Moi"
"This recipe was given to me by Joëlle Caussade, whose husband, Gilles, owns a lively Paris bistro, Le Petit Vendôme, where Joëlle makes the mini cannelés that are served with coffee.
"A word on timing: The batter needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours, so plan ahead.
"Serving: Cannelés are traditionally served alongside coffee or tea and often turn up on trays of mignardises, the small sweets that are after-dessert desserts.
"Storing: The batter needs to be refrigerated for at least 12 hours, but it can hold there for up to 3 days. As for the baked cannelés, they’re perfect the day they are made and still good, but firmer and chewier, the day after. Keep the cannelés in a dry place at room temperature. Lightly cover them if you like."
- 2 cups (480 ml) whole milk
- 1¼ cups (250 grams) sugar
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce; 28 grams) unsalted butter
- 1 cup (136 grams) all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 large egg yolk
- 2½ tablespoons dark rum
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Melted unsalted butter, for the molds
- At least 1 day before making the cannelés: Bring the milk, ¾ cup of the sugar and the butter to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring occasionally to make sure the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool until the mixture reaches 140 F. (If you don’t have a thermometer, cool the milk for 10 to 15 minutes; it should still feel hot to the touch.)
- While the milk is cooling, put the flour and the remaining ½ cup sugar into a strainer and sift them onto a piece of parchment or wax paper. Keep the strainer at hand.
- Working with a whisk, beat the eggs and yolk together in a large bowl until blended. Whisking without stopping, start adding the hot milk, just a little at first; then, when you’ve got about a quarter of the milk blended into the eggs, whisk in the remainder in a steady stream. Add the flour mixture all at once and whisk—don’t be afraid to be energetic—until the batter is homogeneous. You might have a few lumps here and there, but you can ignore them.
- Strain the batter into a large bowl or, better yet, a pitcher or a large measuring cup with a spout; discard any lumps in the strainer. Whisk in the rum and vanilla, cover the container tightly and refrigerate the batter for at least 12 hours. (The batter can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)
- Lightly brush the cannelé molds with melted butter and put the pan in the freezer. The pan needs to be frozen only for 30 minutes, but if you put it into the freezer right after you make the batter, you won’t have to wait for it on baking day.
- When you’re ready to bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 450 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Put a cooling rack on the sheet and put the frozen cannelé molds on the rack.
- Remove the batter from the fridge. It will have settled and formed layers, so give it a good whisking to bring it back together, then rap the container against the counter to debubble it a bit. Fill the cannelé molds about three-quarters full.
- Bake the cannelés for 30 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 400 F and bake for another 30 minutes or so. Cannelés are supposed to get very dark—black really—but if you’re concerned that yours are darkening too fast or too much, place a piece of parchment or foil over the molds. When properly baked, the bottoms will be dark and the sides of the little pastries will be a deep brown—think mahogany. (I spear a cannelé with a bamboo skewer and pull it out of its mold to inspect it.) While the cannelés bake, they may puff above the tops of the molds, like popovers or soufflés, and then, as they continue baking, or when they’re pulled from the oven, they’ll settle down. Pull the whole setup from the oven and put it on a cooling rack.
- Let the cannelés rest in their molds for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack. (Resting gives the tender pastries a chance to firm so they’ll hold their shape when unmolded.) Be careful: Even though you’ve waited 10 minutes, because of the caramelized sugar and melted butter, cannelés are hotter than most other pastries. Let the cannelés cool until they are only slightly warm or at room temperature.
Main photo: Dorie Greenspan. Credit: Alan Richardson
I look forward to Rosh Hashana every year. It should be because it is the beginning of another new year, shimmering with possibilities. Or because each year I give myself permission to buy a new, stylish go-to-temple outfit. It’s also fall, the best, most exhilarating season in my New England home.
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Religiously, Rosh Hashana (which this year begins at sundown Sept. 24) is the time to wipe away the troubles of last year and pledge to begin anew with resolutions for improvement in personal relationships and goals. Officially, Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the new year of the Jewish calendar, and always a season for coming together joyfully. It’s honey and apples, friends and family.
But if I am honest, my love of the holiday has nothing to do with any of this. Rosh Hashana is tzimmes season. Oozing with meat juices and richness, beef tzimmes may be the least politically correct dish in my repertoire from a nutritional standpoint. And I love it — umami heaven! It is full of rich, meaty flavor and thick with chunks of carrots, sweet potatoes, onions and prunes. It’s a production that requires planning but not that much skill.
Beef tzimmes is a major production for a major holiday. I love making this dish. People look forward to it every year, and as a result it transforms me into an iconic Jewish cook. It’s also not that hard to pull off, but it does take time. It’s very important to make the entire dish a day before serving so you can refrigerate and skim the fat. You’ll need a large, heavy roasting pan such as a turkey roaster. I make it in a huge Le Creuset pot, but any large, covered Dutch oven or roasting pan will do.
- 6 short ribs (ask the butcher for the right cuts for this and the following meat)
- 4 pounds beef flanken or brisket (not too lean)
- Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
- 5 pounds carrots, peeled and cut in big chunks
- 6 to 8 onions, quartered
- 2 cups honey
- 2 cups dark brown sugar, plus more to sprinkle on top during cooking
- A stick (or two) of cinnamon
- Beef stock or water
- 6 to 8 peeled sweet potatoes (or more to your preference)
- 2 cups pitted prunes
- 2 tablespoons matzo meal for thickening the sauce
- Preheat the oven to 400 F and then roast the short ribs for an hour in the oven.
- Meanwhile, braise the flanken in a large sauté pan on the stove top.
- Place the bones in the bottom of a roasting pan and layer on top the chunks of flanken.
- Sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper to taste. (You can also adjust it before serving, after all flavors have come together.)
- Add the carrots, onions, honey, brown sugar, cinnamon and enough beef stock or water to cover the meat.
- Cook covered for three hours in a 350 F oven, turning the meat chunks occasionally.
- Add the sweet potatoes and prunes to the pan, adding more stock if necessary. Cook another 45 minutes, until the meat is soft.
- Strain off the liquid and reduce it on the stove top, then thicken it with matzo meal. Return it to the pan. The liquid should be about ¾ of the way up the pan.
- Sprinkle with brown sugar to caramelize on top.
- Return to the oven and cook uncovered for one hour. To degrease the meat, refrigerate for a few hours or overnight, and then remove fat. The dish is best served the day after cooking. The leftovers freeze beautifully.
Main photo: Beef tzimmes. Credit: Louisa Kasdon
We all know the cliché that opposites attract and, in what could be called a fruitful marriage of opposites, two vastly different ingredients from opposite sides of the world are perfectly paired in Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and salt fish.
Ackee and salt fish is not just the national dish — it’s the favorite breakfast of every Jamaican across the globe. What makes this dish original and surprising is how well two distinct ingredients combine to create a dish that’s complex and simple, subtle and bold and, ultimately, delicious. The delicate nutty taste and soft texture of the fruit ackee tempers the sharp, saltiness and firm dry texture of salt fish.
With the addition of our standard “Jamaican seasonings” — Scotch bonnet pepper, garlic, thyme, green peppers, onions and scallion, and served with a side of avocado, fried ripe plantain, steamed calalloo and “Johnny Cakes” or fried dumplings – this extraordinary dish is a feast for the palate and a breakfast you won’t soon forget.
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Although the pairing of ackee and salt fish makes for a beautiful union, some unions are not meant to be monogamous. As well as ackee and salt fish work together, we also love to cook them separately, pairing them with unexpected ingredients and flavors. For instance, ackee loves bacon, gets along very well with curry, has great synergy with Parmesan and has a seamless connection with coconut. Salt fish, while less gregarious, complements yam, parties well with lime and forms a perfect bond with cilantro and flour dumplings of any kind.
From West Africa to Jamaica on a slave ship
Ackee, for the uninitiated, is a savory fruit with a thick red skin that forms a sealed pod when unripe. Once ripened, the skin opens to reveal a beautiful petal-like shape containing three or four yellow pegs topped with a single black seed. Native to West Africa, the fruit originally came to Jamaica on a slave ship — it is believed that many slaves would carry the ackee seed as a talisman for good luck.
Unfortunately, ackee has a bit of a bad rap as the bad boy of Caribbean cuisine because it can potentially be poisonous if incorrectly prepared. For many years, like another famous Jamaican export, its importation to the United States was banned. Be assured, however, that it is perfectly safe to eat, although Jamaica seems to be one of the few countries in the world that dared to try to figure out how to do so — leaving us as the only island in the Caribbean where it’s part of the daily diet.
To render ackee safe for consumption, the skin must be open before picking. The pegs, once removed from the pod, are then prepared by removing the seed and a red ‘thread’ embedded in the flesh of the peg. (This is the poisonous part.) The fruit is then boiled in salted water.
Outside of Jamaica, ackee is readily available in cans and can be found at online groceries and mainstream supermarkets throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Freshly cooked ackee is creamy and buttery with a mild nutty taste that’s neutral enough to absorb the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with. When raw it has a waxy texture but canned ackee, which is already cooked, has a more mushy consistency. In any of its forms, ackee is a great ingredient to have fun with in the kitchen as it can be prepared in many interesting and unexpected ways. For instance — ackee tacos?
Salt cod preparation takes time
Salt cod, known as salt fish in the islands, is cod that has been preserved by drying after salting. It is a staple in the cuisine of almost all Caribbean islands and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Salt cod was a part of the Triangular Trade that developed between Europe, Africa and the Americas, tying its history to that of sugar, slavery and rum in the islands.
High-quality North American cod was always sold in Europe. But traders also sold a lower-end product of poorly cured salt fish called “West India cure” to plantation owners in the Caribbean. The West Indian planters had no desire to dedicate any land to the production of food for their slaves and instead relied on imported salt cod as a cheap form of nourishment.
In exchange, European traders received sugar, molasses, rum, cotton, tobacco and salt, which they took back to North America and Europe. Trade in salt cod from Nova Scotia was so high that, in 1832, the Bank of Nova Scotia opened in Halifax to facilitate the thriving trans-Atlantic trade. By 1889 the Bank of Nova Scotia had become the first bank to expand outside of the United States or United Kingdom when it opened a branch in Kingston, Jamaica, to support the lucrative trading of rum, sugar and fish.
To prepare salt fish it must be soaked in fresh water for at least an hour; it is then boiled till the flesh of the fish flakes easily. If still too salty, it is boiled some more, drained, scraped of its skin, flaked with your hands and, only then, does the laborious task of picking out the bones begin. Although deboned and de-skinned cod is certainly available in many markets, in the Caribbean we still like to do it the old way — because it’s so much more fun.
In honor of this beloved Jamaican breakfast dish, we share two breakfast/brunch recipes, that celebrate each ingredient on its own. We encourage you to expand your breakfast horizons and give these a try — any time day or night.
Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from "Caribbean Potluck," permission by Kyle Books
In this dish we combine a traditional quiche custard with pure Jamaican love by adding our national fruit (and popular breakfast item) ackee and crispy bacon. Throw in tons of flavor with the Scotch bonnet, scallion, tomato, garlic, thyme and Parmesan cheese, and you have a winning brunch. If you don’t have coconut milk on hand, use 1½ cups heavy cream instead of the cows and coconut milk mixture.
- ½ pound (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into pieces
- 1 pound all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling pinch of sea salt
- Up to ¼ cup ice water
- 1 cup whole milk
- ½ cup canned coconut milk
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- Dash of freshly grated nutmeg
- Sea salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
- ½ Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), seeded and minced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 (8-ounce) package bacon, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons sliced scallion
- 1 bunch fresh thyme, chopped
- ¼ cup finely chopped tomato
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped bell pepper
- 1 (18-ounce) can ackee
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- To make the quiche crust, combine the butter, flour and salt in a bowl with your hands until crumbly. Add just enough ice water to form a dough and knead until it comes together. Form into a ball, then, on a floured surface, roll the dough into a round about 14 inches in diameter. Transfer to an 8-inch quiche pan and press the dough gently into the bottom and sides. Weigh down the dough with raw rice on a piece of waxed paper and prebake for 20 minutes. Set on wire rack to cool until ready to fill.
- Meanwhile, to make the custard, in a medium bowl combine the milk, coconut milk, eggs, mustard and nutmeg and whisk together thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to bake.
- To make the filling, heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Toss in the onion, Scotch bonnet and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the bacon and sauté for about 5 minutes. Spoon off the excess fat and stir in the scallion, thyme, tomato and bell pepper; cook another 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Add the ackee,season with salt and pepper, and mix in the Parmesan. Let cool.
- To assemble the quiche, place the ackee and bacon filling in the pastry shell and smooth the top. Pour the custard over the filling, distributing it evenly with a fork. Return the quiches to the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until the custard has set. Cool slightly before serving.
Trini-Style Salt Fish and ‘Bake’
Prep Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
All our islands cook salt fish (salt cod) in one way another for breakfast, lunch and even dinner. As our childhood years were spent in Trinidad we favor this Trini version known as “buljol.” Salt fish is often served alongside some kind of fried dumpling, some fluffy and large others smaller and more dense. In Jamaica we serve salt fish with Johnny Cakes, small round fried dumplings. Other countries such as Trinidad and Guyana call them bake. Here we pair this traditional Trini saltfish with our version of a bake — a hybrid recipe inspired by the bakes served in Trinidad, Guyana and Belize. If you have any left over, these little breads can be great topped with cheddar cheese and Guava jam or even just butter and jam.
For Trini-style salt fish (Buljol):
2 cups salt fish, boiled, picked and cleaned
½ cup chopped tomato
¼ cup chopped onion
1 Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), minced without seeds
1/4 cup cilantro
Salt and black pepper
For our version of bake:
2 cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup water
¼ cup milk + 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon
2 cups vegetable oil
1. Combine salt fish with tomato, onion and the Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet) in a small bowl. Heat olive oil in a small pan. When very hot, pour it over the salt fish mixture. Add cilantro and season with salt and black pepper as required. Allow to rest at room temperature for about one hour.
2. Sieve together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Rub butter into flour until combined. Gradually add water and milk and mix well with hands until a dough or mass is formed. Knead for about five minutes until smooth.
3. Roll the dough into pieces the size of golf balls (should get about eight pieces of dough), and allow them to rest for about half an hour. Roll it out with a rolling pin or bottle to a 4-inch disk and slice a line in the middle so that it will cook more quickly. Fry in oil, turning over once. When it floats, it is ready.
4. Drain and serve with salt fish. These are also great paired with cheddar cheese and guava jam, or even just butter and jam.
Main photo: The ackee fruit’s nutty taste combines with sharp salt cod to create Jamaica’s national dish. Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from “Caribbean Potluck,” courtesy Kyle Books
Thousands of years ago, pioneers among the central Malayo-Polynesian-speaking populations are believed to have traveled across the Indian Ocean and brought plantains, water yams and taro to India. Now, they have become central to the vegetarian cuisine in the Kerala region of southwest India.
Plantains are a variety of bananas from the plant Musa paradisiaca, which have thicker skins than regular bananas. Plantains are also sometimes called cooking bananas. Even when ripe, they are not very sweet, and they are not eaten raw.
The plantain rules at Kerala’s most important festival, Thiruvonam (or Onam for short), celebrated in late August or early September (depending on the lunar calendar) by Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike. The big event at Onam is the sadya (feast), which is served on fresh, green banana leaves around noon. Although rice is the centerpiece of the feast, several dishes both sweet and savory are prepared with plantains, each with its own taste and texture.
In every cuisine, there are certain dishes that make the menu more complete and more festive. They may not have the status of a course in and of themselves, but without them, the meal would lose some of its festive appeal. Two signature dishes of Onam Sadya are the deep-fried, salty and crispy golden yellow plantain chips and their sweet counterpart, sarkkara upperi, thick slices deep-fried and drenched in jaggery syrup. No matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious. Locally called upperi, but better known as banana chips, it is the favorite snack of Kerala and provides the crispy crunch to traditional feasts.
And then there is kaya mezukkupuratti, cubed green plantains cooked with salt and turmeric and then pan-fried over low heat in coconut oil until they fully absorb the flavor of the curry leaves and oil. It’s a dish that’s as unfussy and simple as you can imagine.
Plantains useful in curries
There are two types of curries made with just plantains for the Onam feast. They are also found in the signature mixed vegetable dish aviyal. One of the curries, varutha erisseri, is made by cooking chunks of green plantain in a sauce of golden brown toasted coconut. It has a complexity and aroma peculiarly and delightfully its own. The word “curry” often evokes a sense of tropical spiciness. Kerala’s cuisine is known for its variety of spicy curries, but there are also some mildly sweet, tropical fruit curries that are cooked in a mellow coconut and yogurt sauce.
The fruit curry kaalan is made by cooking ripe plantain slices in a thick coconut and yogurt sauce sweetened with jaggery and garnished with mustard and fenugreek seeds and fresh curry leaves.
Steamed ripe plantains are another must at the Onam feast. And, finally, rounding out the menu is a delicately smooth and creamy pudding — pazza pradhaman — made with homemade plantain jam cooked in coconut milk sweetened with jaggery and garnished with crushed cardamom and toasted coconut pieces.
Though not necessarily a part of the Onam feast, other plantain treats can be found in Kerala: sun-dried ripe plantains and banana fritters made with thin ripe plantain slices dipped in a mildly sweet batter and deep-fried.
Making deep-fried chips at home is not a difficult task. Thanks to food processors, slicing is a breeze. It is important to use oil that can be heated to high temperatures. The oil must be well heated before adding the sliced plantains for frying or otherwise, oil seeps in and will make them soggy. Hot oil sears the surface to a firm crispiness. For serving at feasts, they are generally quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into thin triangular slices. To serve as a snack, they are cut as full rounds or as half rounds. But no matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious.
- 6 firm green plantains
- 6 cups vegetable oil
- ½ cup concentrated saltwater (*see directions below)
- Peel off the thick green skins from the plantains, and wash them to remove any dark stain from the outside. Pat them dry with paper towels.
- When making the smaller, triangular chips, halve the plantain lengthwise, and cut each piece lengthwise again. Then cut each piece crosswise into thin slices. For the round chips, cut the whole plantain crosswise into thin rounds. A food processor comes in handy for cutting them into thin rounds. Fit the processor with the 2mm blade and slowly feed the peeled plantains through the top. This blade cuts the plantains evenly.
- Heat the oil in a heavy wok or deep-frying pan to 365 F.
- When the oil is hot, spread the plantain pieces evenly in the oil and deep-fry until they are golden and crisp, about 5 minutes.
- Add a teaspoon of concentrated saltwater to the oil, and cover the pan with a splatter screen. The water will really splatter and make a lot of noise.
- In a minute or so, when the water has stopped sputtering, remove the cover. By now, all the water should have evaporated, and the crispy fries will be golden and evenly salted.
- Drain well, and store in airtight containers. The best way to drain deep-fried plantains is to use a cake cooling rack placed over a cookie tray. The excess oil will drip through the cooling rack and fall onto the cookie tray.
- *Add one tablespoon of salt to a half-cup of water, and stir well. If there is no salt sediment at the bottom, add more salt, and stir until there is some salt residue left at the bottom and the water is saturated with salt.
Main photo: Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
The rise and fall of fettuccine Alfredo is a story of a simple dish taken from its home and embellished with flourishes before sliding into culinary familiarity, dullness and bastardization.
Although it has its roots in Roman cuisine, it is nothing but a restaurant dish in Italy and America. Fettuccine Alfredo became a classic of Italian-American cooking, but today is often served as third-rate tourist food in the Little Italy emporiums catering to them in America’s cities.
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This wasn’t always true. In the 1940s and 1950s, fettuccine Alfredo was a signature dish of continental-style French-service restaurants where waiters, with a flourish, would prepare the dish tableside in a chafing dish.
The classic story of its origins is that the dish was invented in a Roman trattoria on the Via della Scrofa near the Tiber River by Alfredo di Lelio, who opened his restaurant in the early part of the 20th century. He invented the dish for his wife, it is said, after she gave birth and lost her appetite.
The dish became famous to Americans after Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s in 1927 and raved about his preparation called fettuccine Alfredo. It was in America that cream started entering the recipe and that fettuccine Alfredo began its descent to a thick, heavy, glop of pasta. The original, although meant to be rich, was also light and silky because all that was used was butter and Parmesan cheese: cream and eggs were never meant to be used.
Interestingly, Italians do not refer to this dish as fettuccine Alfredo — or when they do they’re well aware of the American connection — but rather fettuccine al triplo burro, fettuccine with triple the amount of butter, the name of the original dish. Even more interestingly, two great cookbooks on Roman cuisine Ada Boni’s “La Cucina Romana” and Livia Jannattoni’s “La Cucina Romana e del Lazio” do not mention fettuccine Alfredo, indicating that it never was part of Roman cooking but is culinary fantasy.
The dish should be made with fresh fettuccine, but dried works just fine as well. The quality of the butter and cheese in fettuccine Alfredo are paramount. I recommend the Parmigiano-Reggiano butter made from the same cow’s milk the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from and which you must also use.
- 1 pound fresh fettuccine
- ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- ½ pound (about 4 cups) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
- Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing saving ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water.
- Meanwhile, cut the butter into thin pats or flakes and transfer half of them to a warmed large oval silver platter where you will do the final tossing. Place the cooked pasta over the butter, sprinkle the cheese on top. Toss, sprinkling some reserved pasta water. Add the remaining butter and toss, adding the pasta water to make the pasta look creamy. You will be tossing for 2 minutes. Sprinkle on the black pepper if desired. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright