Sun, Sea & Olives: If you’ve spent this apparently endless winter as I have, in the icy-cold, snow-raddled Northeastern U.S., you are by now, like me, longing for a bit of sunshine, a sprinkle of warm weather, a hint that spring is just around the next bend. But with yet another big snowstorm predicted to hit by midweek, I’m still counting on trustworthy brassicas to liven my table until the first asparagus starts to sprout.
And trustworthy those brassicas, aka cruciferous vegetables, are. (Why cruciferous? Before the flower opens, the four closed petals form a little cross atop the bud.) By any name, his big family covers an ample range of members, including, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, turnips, wasabi and even radishes. All, without exception, are huge nutritional powerhouses, sources of important phytochemicals (plant-based, naturally occurring chemicals), especially of various carotenoid and sulfur-containing compounds that may be important cancer fighters. This is nutrition-speak for saying, yes, they are very, very good for you! You can taste it in their characteristic spicy pungency.
They are also, when properly prepared, incredibly delicious — though you wouldn’t think so from generations of picky eaters, including at least one president of the United States, who have turned up their noses, and rightly so, at the sulfurous aromas of overcooked broccoli and cabbage, evocative of nothing so much as boardinghouse (or boarding school) kitchens.
Brassica vegetables perfectly suited to Mediterranean cooking
But believe me, it takes no great cooking skills to bring these vegetables to their full glory. In fact, several family members (like radishes) benefit from little or no cooking at all. And Brussels sprouts, shaved on the blade of a mandolin (or, to save your fingers, in a food processor), can be tossed with a very simple dressing made from olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of lemon zest, a little spoonful of mustard and a big spoonful of Greek yogurt all mixed together then poured over the sprouts. Leave them to tenderize in the dressing for half an hour before serving, and, if you want a more substantial salad, mix in a chopped hard-boiled egg or two.
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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Brussels sprouts aren’t actually well known in the Mediterranean, but they should be because they grow well in the cold but not bitter winters that characterize much of the region. Even if not particularly identified with the Mediterranean, they still benefit from a Med treatment in the kitchen: oven-roasting, for instance. Stir halved sprouts with a chopped clove of garlic, maybe a little chopped onion, some slivers of thick-sliced pancetta or country ham, a couple of glugs of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper, then spread them in a baking dish and set them in a hot oven (400 F) for about 20 minutes, stirring them up a couple of times, until the sprouts are crisp and brown on top and tender but not falling apart.
My all-time favorite member of this vast family, however, is totally Mediterranean, so much so that it was unknown in the United States except to Italian-American gardeners until just a few decades ago. That’s the vegetable known here as broccoli rabe or broccoli raab or rapini — all names that betray its origin in Italian market gardens, where it has long been a winter staple And my favorite way of cooking this delight goes back a long time to when I lived in Rome in the late 1970s and a tiny restaurant in the tiny Piazza Montevecchio offered orecchiette alla barese. Orecchiette are a famous Pugliese pasta — shaped like little ears, which is what orecchiette means. In the town of Bari, Italy, it’s traditionally served with this stupendous steamed broccoli rabe, the whole thing dressed with a mini-sauce of garlic, anchovies and crushed dried chili peppers steeped in hot olive oil.
I’ve made this dish for years — to me it’s the absolute quintessence of the Mediterranean eating, pasta, garlic and good oil with a terrific pungent green, totally vegetarian except for the anchovies (and if you leave them out, you’ll have to add more salt), totally healthful, quick and easy and loved by almost everyone who samples it.
When I made this for Sunday supper, I didn’t happen to have any orecchiette on hand, so I used the whole-wheat pennucce, which look like short, lightly ridged penne, from Benedetto Cavaglieri. That pasta-maker’s wares are available from Williams-Sonoma and a few other online providers. You could also use farfalle, conchiglie or fusilli.
Orecchiette alla Barese
Makes 4 servings
2 bunches broccoli rabe (aka rapini), weighing 1 pound each
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 anchovy fillets, chopped, or cut to your size preference
1 small dried hot red chili, crumbled, or hot red pepper flakes to taste
1 pound orecchiette or similar pasta
1. Clean the broccoli rabe, discarding any wilted or yellowing leaves along with the tough part of the stems. Chop the broccoli rabe in pieces about 1 inch long. Rinse thoroughly and set aside.
2. In a large pasta kettle, bring about 4 cups of water to a rolling boil and add a generous spoonful of salt.
3. While the water is coming to a boil, start the garlic-anchovy sauce by adding the chopped garlic to the olive oil in a small saucepan. Cook over gentle heat just until the garlic bits are soft.
4. Stir in the anchovy pieces and use a fork to crush and mash them into the hot oil.
5. Add the chili pepper and stir. If the pasta is not yet ready, remove from the heat — but heat it again just to the sizzling point before pouring it over the pasta (see below).
6. Tip the pasta into the rapidly boiling water, stir with a long-handled spoon, and cover the pot. As soon as the water boils again, remove the lid and cook — orecchiette will take 12 to 15 minutes to become al dente.
7. Halfway through the cooking time, add the broccoli rabe to the pasta and stir to mix well. Continue cooking until the pasta is done — the broccoli rabe should cook just 5 to 6 minutes, so if you’re using something other than orecchiette, time it according to the package directions.
8. Have ready a warm serving bowl. Heat the olive oil sauce to sizzling if it has been removed from heat.
9. When the pasta is done, but still a bit al dente, drain the pasta and greens and turn them immediately into the warmed serving bowl. Stir to distribute the greens throughout the pasta, then dribble the hot garlic-anchovy-chili oil over the top. Toss again, adding a little more olive oil if you wish, then add a generous amount of ground pepper. Serve immediately.
(Note: Grated cheese is not appropriate with this pasta.)
Top photo: Pasta (pennucce) with broccoli rabe and garlic-anchovy-chili sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Thanksgiving dinner in my family is not the time for experimentation. We have old favorites whose recipes we pull out because, after all, we make and eat this food only once a year. Turkey may be the star of the show, but side dishes, including Brussels sprouts, deserve some spotlight treatment too with preparations that go beyond everyday recipes.
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Two of my children were born in Boston and grew up in Cambridge, Mass., where we lived for 15 years, so we still lean toward traditional New England Thanksgiving food even though we’ve all moved to Southern California. On Thanksgiving Day nary a jalapeño would appear on our table but rather maple syrup, cranberries and bread stuffing. We’re very “pilgrim” in our approach. Although Thanksgiving dinner is not codified, there is general agreement as to what will be on the table.
Many families make the turkey the centerpiece of the whole experience, and it should be. But this is no time to relegate the side dishes to the sideline. If you put as much care, consideration and love into those side dishes Thanksgiving dinner truly becomes memorable.
A real winner of a green vegetable dish is our hash of Brussels sprouts with maple-glazed bacon and hazelnuts.
Making new Brussels Sprouts fans
A New England Thanksgiving menu — the only truly proper one, I believe — has some prescribed dishes besides turkey, pumpkin and cranberry, and one of them is Brussels sprouts.
I like Brussels sprouts but many people don’t care for them. For people who don’t like them, this may be the ideal preparation because the final dish is hardly recognizable as Brussels sprouts. This is a terrific recipe and everyone at our Thanksgiving dinner always takes big servings.
This dish can be made Thanksgiving morning and left in the skillet to be reheated for 2 minutes on high when it is time to serve. Be careful not to overcook the Brussels sprouts.
Brussels Sprouts Hash With Bacon and Hazelnuts
Oil for sautéing
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half lengthwise
Coarse sea salt
8 thick-cut rashers maple-cured bacon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup crushed or chopped blanched hazelnuts
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Preheat a cast iron skillet or griddle over medium heat for 10 minutes. Pour enough oil into the skillet or griddle to cover the cooking surface with slightly more than a film of oil.
2. Place the Brussels sprouts in the skillet, cut side down, and cook until blackened in spots and golden brown. Turn the vegetables with tongs and cook until the convex side is also browned, 5 to 8 minutes in all. Sprinkle with sea salt and set aside. By the time you place the last cut Brussels sprout down you will probably need to begin turning the first. Chop the cooked Brussels sprouts coarsely.
2. Lay the strips of bacon down in the skillet or griddle and cook until browned and crispy, about 10 minutes. Remove the bacon and cool, then break it into ½-inch pieces.
3. In a large sauté pan or flameproof casserole, melt the butter over medium-high heat and cook the hazelnuts, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Return the chopped Brussels sprouts, bacon and cooked hazelnuts to the pan and season with pepper and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes.
5. Serve or reheat when Thanksgiving dinner is ready. (If reheating, do not cook for more than 2 minutes.)
Top photo: Brussels sprouts for hash. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Susan Feniger, one of Los Angeles’ best-known restaurateurs, is always planning her next food trip, as soon as she comes home. Feniger’s restaurant Street, which opened in 2009, is inspired by the global street-food scene, but her explorations are as much about experiencing the lives people lead as they are about finding travel-inspired recipes.
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Talking about a trip to the Turkish countryside, her eyes brightened as she described going with a friend to meet a farmer he knew. A walk into the fields up from the river led them to a house made of sticks with a cow in front. Inside, the kitchen had a fire pit in the middle of the room.
Sitting on the floor for their meal, Feniger watched with pleasure as the farmer’s wife first made tahini by grinding sesame seeds and then baked the tahini into the bread for their midday meal. The bread was delicious as was the experience.
In her kitchen at Street, Feniger demonstrated one of the popular dishes on the menu, an easy-to-make dish with lots of flavor: Brussels sprouts flavored with goat cheese, apples and hazelnuts, topped with an Italian version of a picada without nuts.
When Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, her longtime cookbook collaborator and fellow chef, were doing research for the dishes they would serve at their second restaurant, Border Grill, they traveled extensively in Mexico. She quickly discovered that the food she loved was the food cooked by street vendors and in people’s home.
As she explained, When you go into people’s homes “they’re so happy you’re there eating their food. People took us into their homes because they wanted us to taste their food. You didn’t get that if you go to restaurants. When you are on the street and you are in a culture that doesn’t usually see [outsiders], they really like that [you are willing to try their food].”
Travel-inspired recipes from around the world
To Feniger, eating the food prepared by people for their everyday lives is how you see the heart of a country. Over the years she has traveled around the world, pursuing her love of culture and eating.
“When I travel, if I don’t see a historical site, I’m OK. The much more rewarding experiences are the ones with people in their kitchens. My memories when I travel are ones with people, not with the monuments.”
On a 14-day trip, crisscrossing India from Delhi to Mumbai to Goa to Kerala (her favorite), Feniger ate on the street or in people’s homes every day. … When she was in Shanghai she was taken by a local on a food tour that began at 4 a.m. so she could watch a man make savory fresh soy milk sticky rice doughnuts cooked in a wok. By 8 a.m., he had finished his breakfast service so he cleaned up and left, allowing a shoe repairman to take over the stall.
Let the ingredients lead you
The menu at Street cherry-picks taste treats she ate during her travels over several decades.
Recently, Feniger revamped the Street menu and gently moved in the direction of vegetarianism, not for policy reasons but because the street food she loves tends to feature produce over animal products.
Hence, the Brussels sprouts dish. Her picada is Italian and illustrates Feniger’s belief that keeping it simple is best. Take a run at flavor, she suggests, letting the ingredients lead you and everyone will be happy.
Brussels Sprouts with Goat Cheese, Apples and Hazelnuts
Cooked quickly, the Brussels sprouts should be crunchy so the dish tastes fresh and inviting. The contrast of savory Brussels sprouts, sweet apples and tart-creamy goat cheese, together with accents of the picada make the dish delicious on its own or as a side dish with a protein such as sautéed tofu, fried chicken, grilled steak or baked salmon.
For the sauté:
½ cup raw hazelnuts
1½ tablespoons olive oil
6 cups whole Brussels sprouts, shaved thinly on a mandolin or with a knife
2 medium sized Granny Smith apples, cored and cut into a small dice
Juice of 1 lemon
6 ounces soft goat cheese, broken into small pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the picada:
⅛ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced raw garlic
2 cups bread crumbs
Salt to taste
zest of 3 lemons
1 bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped
For the sauté:
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Spread the hazelnuts out on a cookie sheet and toast them for 5 to 10 minutes until they are roasted and slightly browned.
3. Remove from heat and pour onto a clean dish towel.
4. Fold the dish towel over the toasted hazelnuts and roll lightly to remove the skins. Discard the skins.
5. Place the hazelnuts on a cutting board and chop into small pieces, or alternately pulse in a food processor for a brief period of time. Set aside.
6. In a large sauté pan, heat the oil on medium-high heat.
7. Add the Brussels sprouts, apples and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the Brussels sprouts are slightly browned on the edges.
8. Add the hazelnuts, lemon juice and goat cheese.
9. Toss together and turn off heat.
For the picada:
10. In a large sauté pan heat the oil, but do not let it smoke.
11. Add the garlic and stir quickly to release its flavors, but do not brown.
12. As the garlic starts to color, add the bread crumbs and salt to taste.
13. Stir well to combine and toast in the oil (about 5 minutes).
14. When the bread crumbs are browned, remove from heat and place in a mixing bowl.
15. Add the lemon zest and the parsley while the bread is still slightly warm.
16. Toss and then spread out on a cookie sheet to cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container before using.
17. Sprinkle on top of the Brussels sprouts before serving.
Top photo: Susan Feniger in her kitchen at Street, demonstrating making Brussels sprouts with goat cheese, apples and hazelnuts. Credit: David Latt
The days of cabbage boiled to death and what I would call a dark, spicy and not very pleasant brown smell all over the house are over. For years, cabbage has been cooked in so many new ways, and it’s been served raw and been part of different food movements, such as the raw and vegan diets. But I sometimes wonder whether households in general have started using cabbage in their weekly repertoire of meals.
I still meet a lot of people who have never eaten raw kale or a quick sauté of Brussels sprouts with the sprouts still crunchy and having a green color. And I know of people who find it a challenge to buy a big head of red cabbage and carry it home to the kitchen counter, getting inspired to use it in four different meals in the upcoming week.
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Cabbage should be an important part of everyday cooking for three obvious reasons: it’s tasty, it’s healthy and it’s cheap. That ticks all the boxes for your everyday meal. If you live in the Northern hemisphere, as I do most of the time, cabbage is a better choice than salad leaves in wintertime because salad leaves taste of nothing in the winter. When I was growing up, we did not get green salad in the winter until somebody presented iceberg, which became the thing of the 1980s. Instead, we had boiled cabbage in various ways, but luckily raw cabbage in salads started to enter cooking through the vegetarian hippie movement in the 1970s.
When I cook I appreciate all cabbage, but my favorite right now is curly kale, which seems to be an ingredient in most of the things I cook. For years, I think, only my grandmother’s generation ate kale — kale boiled to death and then added to a sweet, white, vinegary sauce that did not seem very appealing. It was a favorite winter meal in the country. I talked about kale for years with other chefs. Everybody said, “You can’t use it for anything really,” and for years I was thinking about ways to use kale before I started cooking with it and using it raw in various dishes.
Versatile cabbage can be used in many recipes
You can choose from several different kinds of cabbage. There’s Brussels sprouts, which — apart from pan-fried with spices — are great raw and chopped finely to be served in a salad with apples and walnuts; or cooked al dente with chili flakes and feta; or made into purée served with steamed white fish; or boiled light and added to a mash.
Another cheaper cabbage is white cabbage, used for the famous old-fashioned dish called Brown Cabbage, where you brown the white cabbage in sugar and cook it slowly with slices of pork belly together with a lot of spices for hours until it is brown and very soft. It is a dish cooked mostly in the country and by older generations, and it is still very popular in Germany. Cooking it once a year seems sufficient, if you ask me. Instead I prefer pan-fried big leafs of white cabbage in butter and sprinkled with a bit of nutmeg. That is a more modern way to eat cabbage.
But white cabbage is also great to use in salads, as a substitute for salad leaves. It can also be used in Asian-style cabbage dolmers: lots of shredded root vegetables with ginger, chili and chopped cashew nuts rolled in big, boiled white cabbage leaves and pan-fried in oil. In the summertime the pointed cabbage can be used the same way; it has a gentler and a bit nuttier flavor. In Denmark you can now get a red pointed cabbage, which you cut into long wedges and pan-fry in butter — it’s delicious.
Red cabbage is great boiled with sugar, vinegar and lots of spices, and it is a favorite for Christmas in Scandinavia. It can alternatively be sautéed with chili in a pan for 10 minutes and then drizzled with lime and sprinkled with chopped fresh coriander. The difference between the cabbage cooked for a long time and a quick stir-fry, apart from the texture, is the taste: The bitterness of red cabbage disappears when cooked for quite a while.
My last cabbage is savoy cabbage, which is used a lot in France. It works very well with Asian flavors. If eaten raw, it has to be really finely chopped and is great with grapes and a strong Dijon mustard dressing. In Scandinavia, the classic way is to eat it with fish.
Cooking with cabbage has endless possibilities and can become part of any world cuisine or mix of flavors. Just buy a big head of cabbage and cut it into pieces, What you don’t use you can save in the fridge and use day to day in your cooking.
This salad is great for lunch or with lamb, chicken or vegetarian pie.
Red Cabbage and Kale Salad With a Ginger Dressing
For the salad:
½ pound red cabbage
¼ pound curly kale
¼ cup cashew nuts
For the dressing:
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or other oil with neutral taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Finely chop the red cabbage and kale and in a bowl.
2. Roast the cashew nuts on a dry frying pan until light brown, and let cool. After nuts cool, chop and add to the mixed cabbage.
3. Mix all the ingredients for the dressing. Just before serving, mix the dressing with the cabbage salad, season with salt and pepper and serve right away.
Top photo: Red cabbage and kale salad. Credit: Trine Hahnemann
Recently, I was at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, getting some last images for my new book, “Vegetable Literacy.” Although the late summer days were hot, it was chilly at 6 in the morning. Dew wet our feet and hems while gloves and socks, unthinkable until that moment, were very much desired. But the display garden at dawn mitigated any discomfort, especially the beds of Brassica vegetables — kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages — which had the whole summer to grow and were now displaying their enormous leaves.
There’s always that moment when a garden starts to sigh and sink and say, in so many plant expressions, “Enough. We’re done.” It looks so exhausted that you can’t imagine there’s much left to harvest. Probably all our gardens are looking this way about now. Yet if you dig around you often discover there are still a few more tomatoes yet to ripen, the Jerusalem artichokes are coming on strong, and tiny cabbages are starting to emerge on the stems of the Brussels sprouts. The garden is far from finished, despite the strain it shows from a summer of growth, and what’s really looking big and strong, albeit somewhat tired, are cabbages and collards and those other big Brassicas.
The cabbages were especially impressive. They always are because they take up so much more room than their harvested heads would lead you to imagine. The enormous old grandmother-grandfather leaves that had been there since the start of the plants’ growth showed their scars. Though weathered, punctured by hail and nibbled upon by insects, they were still gathering sunlight and feeding the edible head. They’re hard-working plants. My respect for them, already considerable, grew even more.
The broccoli’s larger heads had long been picked, but smaller sprouts were ready for the taking — had this not been a demonstration garden, that is. The kales seemed energized by the cooler days and looked as if they were ready to sprint along for the next several months. Nothing looks as if it would be better for you to eat than kale — it is just so robust. If it were a person, I might add tightly wound.
Collards? Also huge. Brussels sprouts? What an architectural plant with the branches jutting out from the stalk leaving a window that you can peer in and see the sprouts starting to take shape.
Garden color arrives with vibrant hues of Brassica vegetables
But among all this vigor what really stood out was the extraordinary range of garden color these plants exhibited. We think of cabbages of red and green, but the leaves themselves are more of a dusky plum or a muted grayish blue-green. Pull away the leaf that just covers a head of red cabbage and beneath it is shiny purple, nothing like the smoky purple outer leaves. The broccoli and the Tuscan kale leaves are a surprising shade of blue-green-gray that escapes you until you see them en masse, not just in a bunch. The stems of the Brussels sprout leaves radiate a suggestion of violet, while the little sprouts are that calm slate green of the leaves. Taken together, the effect of all these shades and hues is breathtaking and utterly surprising. What we think of as green is actually a wide range of hues that embraces purple on the one side, green-blacks on the other, with shades of slate, blue-green, gray-green and every other shade in between. It’s another good reason for having a garden, or for visiting one like that at Heritage Farm. The goodness of plants is nothing if not layered — taste, nourishment and beauty all at once.
(Heritage Farm is the headquarters for the Seed Savers Exchange. Visiting hours and events are posted on its website at www.seedsavers.org.)
Top photo: A Mammoth Red Rock cabbage at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. Credit: Deborah Madison
With all the heaviness on the holiday table, now’s the time to try Brussels sprouts in a light new way: raw and shaved into a fluffy cloud.
Brussels sprouts may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of holiday fare, but they have had an honored place in Britain for centuries, alongside the roast goose or game. Perhaps it was the British tendency to cook vegetables to death that have given Brussels sprouts a raw deal. The solution, naturally, is to eat them raw.
Once they’re shaved whisper-thin, simply toss with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Or get more festive by mixing and matching with toasted nuts (pecans, walnuts or hazelnuts), fruit (dried cranberries, fresh apples or pomegranate), and cheese (shaved Parmesan, cheddar, or even fresh ricotta for a creamy, slaw-like salad).
First, make sure you have the freshest sprouts possible. Ideally look for vegetables grown in cold weather that were recently harvested. Like other members of the vast crucifer family that also includes kale, cabbage, broccoli, etc, Brussels sprouts are very hardy and able to survive even hard freezes. They do this by producing more sugars, which serve as a cellular anti-freeze, and also increase the sweetness of the sprouts.
If you can get a freshly harvested whole stalk, with the sprouts still attached, all the better. At a local farmers market you may see these Dr. Seuss-like plants that are 3 to 4 feet tall, with the elegant, miniature cabbages spiraling up the stalk. Sprouts will keep well this way, and you can break the buds off the stalk as needed.
Brussels sprouts, like all of the cabbage family, are high in vitamin C, fiber and folate. They also have been shown to have beneficial effects in preventing certain types of cancer. But the best reason to eat them is that they taste terrific. Even former sprouts-phobes may not even recognize what they are eating when you serve them these salads.
Brussels Sprouts Salad, Plain or Fancy
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
salt (more or less, depending on the saltiness of your cheese)
- Shave the Brussels sprouts as thinly as possible using a mandolin, sharp slicing blade of a food processor, or a very sharp knife.
- Put into a large bowl and toss gently with the olive oil, lemon juice and salt.
- Add the nuts and cheese (if desired). Toss.
- Shave more cheese on top as a garnish, and serve.
Buttery Brussels Sprouts Salad With Apples, Walnuts and Maple Syrup
2 medium apples, cut into small cubes or chunks
¼ cup maple syrup
Sea salt and pepper to taste
½ cup walnuts (or other nut of your choice)
¼ pound aged cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes
- Cut up the apples and toss with 1 teaspoon lemon juice in a large bowl.
- Shred the sprouts and add to the bowl. Add salt, pepper and remaining lemon juice.
- Stir maple syrup into the melted butter. Drizzle over sprouts and apples and toss well. Add toasted walnuts and cheddar chunks.
- Toss and serve.
Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.
Photo: Raw Brussels sprouts. Credit: Terra Brockman
I happen to be a cilantro hater and was delighted to discover that Julia Child shared my aversion and told an interviewer that whenever it appeared on her plate she would throw it on the floor. I know, I know. Lovers of this herb cannot seem to get enough of it and even rave about its health benefits, but the fact remains that some of us experience its flavor as what we imagine a rancid dishrag would taste like. Scientific investigations now establish that because of varying chemical reactions, some people experience cilantro differently from most, and I am happy to have this justification, for what food lover wants to be thought of as a picky eater? Jeffrey Steingarten makes this point when he describes his obligation as a food critic to overcome culinary antipathies for the sake of his art, and set off to eat Greek food and Indian desserts without holding his nose. The subjects of food cravings and especially aversions intrigue me because such quirks offer intimate glimpses into the food habits of others or, as James Beard put it, their “delights and prejudices.”
Beard, for instance, was revolted by milk — even as a child — and couldn’t bear the sight of anyone drinking it along with a good meal. (This sentiment is echoed by restaurant consultant Clark Wolf who told me that he loathes steamed milk of any kind and that although he loves coffee, lattes and cappuccinos make him queasy.) Although Beard took a stand against badly-cooked anything, he singled out French fries because they are so ubiquitous. He complained, “The notion that these bits of potato — when limp, greasy, without flavor or texture and barely warm — should be served with every dish in the world is odious beyond belief.” And as if their omnipresence were not bad enough, Beard was horrified that people drench fries with cold catsup. He also railed against what is done to meatballs in the name of Italian cuisine, and saw those “little balls of chopped meat mixed with various inappropriate additives and then cooked in some vague sauce for minutes or hours” as the ultimate in culinary nightmares.
Brussels sprouts, source of all evil
Probably, the food that takes the worst rap of all is Brussels sprouts, perhaps because some pretty good writers have taken colorful shots at them. Calvin Trillin, during a trip to Barbados, which had been under British rule for three centuries, stared glumly at the Brussels sprouts mounded on a hotel buffet table. “The English have a lot to answer for,” he said. He wonders why colonial people didn’t rebel against them unless … “Maybe in those old newsreel clips that show hordes of chanting demonstrators rushing through the streets in the days before independence, what they are actually chanting is not ‘British go home!’ or ‘Down with the Raj!’ but ‘No more Brussels sprouts!'” Likewise, British writer, Ford Madox Ford, who lived in Provence, happily pointed out that it is a land where Brussels sprouts will not grow. He went so far as to say that this very Britishy vegetable was the source of all evil, speculating that it was Eve who ate the first one, thus consummating the primary curse of humanity. I suspect the much-maligned Brussels sprouts have themselves been victimized by a long history of being overcooked.
British cooking as a whole would take an even bigger beating from Elizabeth David who had lived out World War II in Mediterranean countries and India where she became infatuated with the fresh ingredients and deep flavors of those regions. Upon her return to postwar England, she stayed in a hotel and described the food there as “produced with a kind of bleak triumph, which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity and humanity’s needs.”
America’s M.F.K. Fisher was also adept at expressing her culinary peeves, commenting in particular at the unwelcome prospect of being served hors d’oeuvres: “Hell! I loathed hors d’oeuvres! I conjured disgusting visions of square plates of oily fish, of soggy vegetables glued together with cheap mayonnaise, of rank radishes and tasteless butter.” In the same vein, Fisher denounced dips, her first concern being that men don’t like them, and going on to say they are messy and that “the idea of all kinds of wafers and chips and vegetables and plastic skewers dabbling in a common bowl, and often breaking off in it, was repugnant.” She ends her diatribe by naming names: “Bean-Bacon Chip-Dip. Blue Cheese Chili Fluff and Pink Devil Dip-n-Dunk.”
Cilantro haters, unite
Finally, Barbara Kafka, who always can be counted on to speak her mind, vented her irritations and prejudices in her aptly named book, “The Opinionated Palate.” She loves simple dishes using the best ingredients such as fettuccine with only butter or olive oil, salt, black pepper and cheese, but cautions us to use a proper piece of aged Parmesan for grating and never those odious red-and-green containers of already grated cheese from the supermarket. But my favorite Kafka peeve is her loathing for pasta salad. Making exceptions for Chinese cold noodles and cold Japanese udon which she enjoys like the rest of us, she condemns those all-American “slimy, cooked, pseudo-Italian pastas dished up with bits of end of vegetables and ham or shrimp swimming in oily vinaigrettes or mayonnaise.”
I too loathe pasta salads and so was pleased to share this prejudice with Barbara Kafka. No doubt the appeal of shared negative opinions is that they confirm and reinforce our own complaints. It may come as no surprise, therefore, that cilantro-haters have gone one step further and formed online communities that allow members to vent their grievances in concert. Perhaps the same impulse to organize around common complaints explains the present state of party politics in America. Tea, anyone?
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.
Photo: Cilantro. Credit: Barbara Sauder
Third in a series on growing what you cook
and cooking what you grow.
I once took cooking classes with a French cook who insisted that Brassica family vegetables should always be blanched before using in any recipe to allow the unpleasant sulfurous odor released during the initial cooking to escape. She discouraged steaming because she felt the stinky steam would have no escape from a lidded pot; at the very least, she said, you should lift the lid briefly once the vegetables began to cook.
There’s some scientific truth to many of the cooking maxims I’ve learned from French cooks, though I’m not so sure the steaming lid part of the equation has any foundation. What I do now understand is that blanching cruciferous vegetables releases some of their sulfurous compounds and does help them dissipate. That’s blanching, not boiling. if you cook these vegetables too long, the compounds will increase; the vegetables become mushy, dull and unappealing; and your house will smell like my Russian grandmother’s apartment.
So when I am making dishes with kales, collards, cabbages, cauliflowers and Brussels sprouts, I start by plunging them into a large pot of salted boiling water. You need an abundance of water to dissipate the compounds, and it helps to fill a bowl with ice water before you add the vegetables to the pot so that you can quickly “shock” them to stop the cooking process. Broccoli is less sulfurous than cabbages; I usually steam it, but never for more than 5 minutes. If I do blanch broccoli – which I’ll do when I’m making pasta, since I’ve already got a big pot of water at a boil — I won’t leave it in the water for more than 3 minutes, or the delicate flowers will turn to mush.
Chopping similarly can release sulfurous compounds, as can soaking in cold water after chopping, which will cause many of the chemicals to leach out. This might explain why the Portuguese cut cabbage or kale into such fine filaments for their national soup, caldo verde. I always thought it was because it made the soup so pretty, but it also affects the flavor.
Portuguese Green Soup
When I think of the ultimate greens dish, I think of caldo verde. Go to any market in that beautiful country, and you’ll find women reducing Galician cabbage into fine filaments on shredding wheels designed specifically for the task. Galician cabbage is an emerald green Brassica with flat, tender leaves. The color is the bright green of turnip greens, which can be substituted. You can also use collards or kale, but be sure to remove the tough stems and to cut the filaments very thin so they cook properly. If the greens are tough, some Portuguese cooks will blanch them first. Caldo verde would not be caldo verde without the final addition of chourico, the Portuguese version of Spanish chorizo, which can be substituted. If you can’t find either of these, use mild Italian sausage or kielbasa.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot and add the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 3 to 5 minutes, and add the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Stir in the potatoes and water. Bring to a boil, add salt, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes, until the potatoes are falling apart.
- While that simmers, prepare the greens and the sausage. Stack 6 to 8 leaves, roll them up tightly and slice crosswise into very thin filaments. Sauté the sliced sausage gently over medium-low heat in a medium skillet for 8 to 10 minutes, until the fat runs out. Discard the fat.
- Mash the potatoes in the pot with a potato masher or a hand blender. Stir in the sausage and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the greens and simmer uncovered for 5 to 10 minutes (depending on the type of green and how tender it is), until the greens turn bright green and tender.
- Taste, adjust salt, and add pepper. Stir in the remaining olive oil and serve, with crusty bread.
Note: You can blanch the greens before adding to the soup in salted boiling water for a minute or two if they’re very tough.
Pan-cooked Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Dill
This is a classic preparation. If you don’t like Brussels sprouts, it’s probably because you’ve always had them overcooked. The sherry vinegar adds nice flavor; it will dull the color of the sprouts.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil while you trim the bottoms off the Brussels sprouts. Fill a bowl with ice water. When the water comes to a boil, salt generously and add the Brussels sprouts. Boil 2 minutes, transfer to the ice water, then drain. Quarter the sprouts or slice them ¼- inch thick, and set aside.
- Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and add the bacon. Cook the bacon until it is chewy in the middle and crisp on the edges. Remove from the pan and transfer to a double thickness of paper towel. Cut crosswise into ⅛- inch thick slivers. Set aside. Drain most of the fat from the skillet.
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat in the same skillet in which you cooked the bacon and add the Brussels sprouts. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring or shaking in the pan, for 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and cook until the vinegar has evaporated and been absorbed by the sprouts and the sprouts are tender, another 5 minutes. Stir in the bacon and the dill and continue to cook, stirring, for another minute or two. Taste, adjust seasonings, and serve.
Clifford A. Wright’s Brussels Sprouts
There’s another fantastic way to cook Brussels sprouts that I learned from cook and author Clifford A. Wright, and it doesn’t require blanching. You simply heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, cut the sprouts in half and put them cut-side down in the hot oil. Cook them until golden brown, turn them over and cook them on the other side until cooked through. The seared flavor of the Brussels sprouts is addictive (Who knew you could ever use the words “addictive” and “Brussels sprouts” in the same sentence?).
Mashed Potatoes with Kale (Colcannon)
Colcannon is one of the great signature dishes of Ireland. The most common version pairs cabbage with potatoes, but the dish is also made with kale. Curly kale would be used in Ireland; I like to make it with cavolo nero.
Serves 6 to 8
- Cover the potatoes with water in a saucepan, add about 1/2 teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover partially and cook until tender all the way through when pierced with a knife, about 30 to 45 minutes. Drain off the water, return the potatoes to the pan, cover tightly and let steam over very low heat for another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and mash with a potato masher or a fork, through a food mill or in a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, while still hot.
- While the potatoes are cooking, bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil and fill a bowl with ice water. If using cabbage, quarter and core, then cut the quarters crosswise into thin strips. If using kale, tear the leaves from the ribs and clean well in two changes of water. Add the cabbage or kale to the salted boiling water and boil for 4 to 6 minutes, until the leaves are tender but still bright green. Transfer to the ice water, allow to cool for a couple of minutes, then drain and squeeze out excess water. Chop fine (you can use a food processor for this).
- Towards the end of the potato cooking time, combine the milk and the scallions in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let steep for a few minutes. Stir the chopped cabbage or kale into the hot mashed potatoes and beat in the milk. The mixture should be fluffy (you can do this in an electric mixer fitted with the paddle). Add salt to taste and freshly ground pepper. Transfer to a hot serving dish, make a depression in the center and place the butter in the center to melt, then stir and serve at once. Alternatively, keep warm in a double boiler: set the bowl in a saucepan filled one third of the way with water. Make sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Bring the water to a simmer. Stir the potato and kale mixture from time to time.
Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks, including “Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes From the World’s Healthiest Cuisine,” “Mediterranean Light,” “Provencal Light” and “Entertaining Light.”
Photos by Martha Rose Shulman