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Archive for the ‘Festival Cooking’ Category

Wild chestnut trees have flourished in southern Europe since the ancient Greeks brought them from Asia Minor and the Romans spread them throughout their empire. For thousands of years poor subsistence farmers in that part of the world extended their crops with wild foods like chestnuts. In addition to roasting or boiling them, chestnuts were dried and then ground into a flour which was mixed with wheat flour to help it go further. Before maize (corn) became a common crop in Europe in the 16th Century, Italian polenta was made with chestnut flour. When famine threatened, it was often chestnuts and other foraged foods which stood between the people and starvation.

There are many traditional foods in Italy and Corsica made with chestnut flour including a flat bread known as necci, and chestnut flour fritters called fritelli. In the late 1940s an anthropologist interviewed some elderly people in Corsica who said they had never eaten wheat bread, only bread made from chestnut flour. The villages in mountainous Corsica are isolated and at that time there was little trade with the mainland. Corsicans also call the chestnut tree arbre à pain or “the bread tree.”

I’ve made chestnut soup in the past and of course eaten roasted chestnuts while listening to Mel Torme, but to get in touch with the medieval food traditions of southern Europe I chose to make a Tuscan chestnut flour cake called castagnaccio. Many of the ingredients are forageable, it’s really easy to make, and as an extra bonus it is both vegan and gluten free.

Castagnaccio is very rich so you only need a small piece, especially after all that turkey. It has a deep, earthy flavor, punctuated by the sweet raisins and a slight bitterness from the rosemary. The cake’s consistency, and the fact that it is not overly sweet, reminded me of Asian desserts made with red bean paste.

I, for one, am grateful to be using the lowly chestnut to celebrate abundance at Thanksgiving, rather than as a stop-gap to prevent famine.

Castagnaccio

Vin Santo is an Italian dessert wine, if you can’t get it, use a dry sherry instead.

Chestnut flour can be found in Italian specialty stores where it may be labeled farina di castagne. You can also order it from Amazon.com

⅓ cup Vin Santo or dry Sherry
1½ ounces raisins
10 ounces chestnut flour
1½ ounces sugar
a large pinch of salt
1½ – 2 cups water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 generous teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 ounce pine nuts

Put the raisins in a small dish and pour the Vinsanto or sherry over them. Leave them to soak for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 400F.

Grease an 8-inch round cake pan with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

Mix the chestnut flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl. Gradually whisk in water until a batter with the consistency of pancake batter is formed. It should be pourable, but not too thin.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, it should be about 1 inch thick. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over the top of the cake. Bake for 15 minutes.

Remove the cake from the oven. Drain the raisins and squeeze as much liquid out of them as you can, then sprinkle the raisins over the top of the cake. Also sprinkle the chopped rosemary and the pine nuts over the top of the cake.

Return the cake to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, or until it is a dark brown color and the top is cracked like parched earth. The cake does not rise as chestnut flour contains no gluten.

Allow the cake to cool completely before turning it out onto a plate. Serve with a glass of Vin Santo or dry Sherry.

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The Ninnion Tablet (circa 370, BCE) depicting the Eleusinian Mysteries / photo by Wikipedia user Marsyas

I first ran across barley water when reading a novel set in early 19th Century Britain, where it was prescribed as a drink for the ill and infirm. It turns out to be a lot older than that. For almost 2000 years barley water was the sacred drink of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient Greek religious harvest celebration.

The people of Eleusis worshiped Demeter, a grain goddess. The myth connected with the Mysteries is as follows: One day Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, was gathering wild flowers in a meadow when she was kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld. Demeter searched high and low for her daughter but to no avail. Finally, several gods of Olympus took pity on her and told her where to find Persephone, telling her that it was all part of a plan set in motion by Zeus. In her anger and grief, Demeter stopped all the plants from growing, causing a famine on the earth. Even the gods were hungry due to a lack of sacrifices. Finally, Zeus and Hades struck a deal so that Persephone might be returned to the world above. But Hades tricked her into eating some food before she left the underworld, some pomegranate seeds. This created a mystical connection between them which meant that Persephone must spend one third of every year in the underworld with Hades — the winter.

The Mysteries at Eleusis were celebrated over the course of nine days in late September. We only have a patchy idea what the rituals actually were since participants were warned not to reveal them on pain of death. However, we do know that it was a sought-after experience. Many famous people of the day were initiates including Aeschylus, Sophocles, Herodotus, Aristophanes, and Plutarch. The piecemeal writings we do have about people’s experiences at Eleusis contain descriptions of a positive, life-changing event including sacred visions of paradise and apparitions of the gods.

We know that participants would make several processions back and forth between Athens and Eleusis which were about 13½ miles apart and there was fasting involved, along with the ritual sacrifice of young pigs. The initiates would break their fast by drinking a beverage called the kykeon. What may be a recipe for this drink has survived in a 7th Century, BCE poem called “Hymn to Demeter”. According to the hymn the kykeon consists of barley, water, and a type of mint. The barley is said to represent Persephone because every year it dies and spends winter in the underworld, only to return with the spring.

The fact that the ritual was essentially kept secret for almost 2000 years is a testament to how powerful the experience must have been. This has lead some modern scholars to hypothesize that the kykeon contained a hallucinogenic substance. Research is still being done and papers are still being written; suffice it to say that the Eleusinian Mysteries remain a mystery.

Even if you’re not interested in joining the cult of Demeter, barley water is a pleasant, thirst quencher which supposedly contains lots of healthy nutrients, although I was unable to find any analysis in my research. Inspired by the recent heat wave we’ve had in New York, I decided to try it out. I made two different versions, the first is in a more ancient style, containing only barley, water, mint and some honey. The second has added citrus juices, turning it into a sort of orangeade. A similar orange barley water is sill served to the athletes at Wimbledon every summer.

Barley Water With Mint

Makes about 1 quart

When you shop for barley you’ll most likely see “pearled barley,” but you might also find “hulled barley,” or “hull-less barley.” Hulled or hull-less barley is a whole grain still containing the germ. I used hulled barley for this ancient version of the drink because the pearling of grains didn’t begin until about the 16th Century.

Do save the cooked barley for another use, it makes a nice breakfast re-heated with some milk and honey, or you can use it in a soup or salad.

1 cup hulled barley (see above for types of barley)
8 cups water
1 bunch fresh mint
honey

Put the leaves from the bunch of mint in a bowl.

Bring the barley and water to a boil in a medium saucepan on the stove and then turn it down to a bare simmer and let it cook half covered for about thirty minutes or until the barley is cooked.

Strain the barley water into a large bowl. Reserve the cooked barley for another use. Bruise the mint leaves by mashing them with wooden spoon or a cocktail muddler. This will bring out the flavorful mint oil. Put the bruised mint leaves in the hot barley water, pushing them under as best you can and allow it to steep for about five minutes. Taste it and if you want it mintier let the leaves steep longer.

Strain the barley water into a pitcher, add honey to taste, stirring until it dissolves completely. Then chill in the refrigerator for several hours until completely cold. Serve over ice, with a sprig of mint to garnish.

Orange Barley Water

Adapted from Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

Makes about 1 quart

Here I used pearled barley which is more commonly found in shops, but feel free to use hulled or hull-less barley if that’s what you’ve got.

Since you’ll be using the peel of some of the fruits try to buy oranges and lemons that have not been sprayed with pesticides.

You can use white sugar if you like, but Demarara gives a little extra complexity.

Do save the cooked barley for another use, it makes a nice breakfast re-heated with some milk and honey, or you can use it in a soup or salad.

1 cup pearled barley (see above for types of barley)
8 cups water
6 oranges
2 lemons
Demarara sugar

Bring the barley and water to boil in a medium saucepan and then turn it down and let it simmer, half covered, for about a half hour or until the barley is cooked.

As the barley cooks use a vegetable peeler to peel just the colored part of the rind from three of the oranges and one of the lemons. Try not to peel the white pith which is bitter. If you find some strips of rind have pith on them, you can scrape it off with a knife. Next, juice all of the fruit.

When the barley is finished cooking, strain the barley water into a pitcher. Add the citrus rinds and the fruit juice to the pitcher and stir. Taste the barley water to see if it needs any sugar. Depending on how sweet your oranges are, it may not. Add Demarara sugar to taste and stir with a long spoon until it is completely dissolved. Chill the pitcher in the refrigerator for several hours until it is completely cold. Serve over ice accompanied by a slice of orange.

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Today is Comestibles’ first anniversary, so what better corner of food history to explore than that of the birthday cake.

People have been celebrating holidays with special baked goods for thousands of years, but the white fluffy birthday cake with sweet icing we associate with every child’s party is a fairly modern invention. It could not exist without two important technologies that came out of the industrial revolution, grain mills equipped with porcelain or metal rollers, and baking powder.

Before the invention of roller mills (about 1870) flour was made using grind stones resulting in flour that contained some of the bran and all of the germ of the wheat. To get white flour the miller then had to sift or boult the flour through a succession of cloths of differing weaves which filtered out the bran and the germ. The oil that comes out of the germ during milling stayed in the flour giving it a gray-ish yellow color. The presence of that oil shortened the shelf-life of white flour to about six months after which it would go rancid. All of these limitations meant that white flour was expensive and used only by the wealthy or for special occasions.

When flour is ground using rollers, the grain passes through two rollers moving at different speeds the slower one holds it and the faster one strips it. Scraping off the germ before grinding meant that no germ or germ oil got into the flour. And so was created the first truly white flour, ground solely from the endosperm of the wheat. It was a snowy white and due to the lack of wheat germ and wheat germ oil, it had double the shelf life of the old style “white” flour. The new technology made it much less expensive and the longer shelf-life meant that it could be shipped all over the country. Everyone could have white flour.

The other invention important to those towering, sugar-laden birthday treats is baking powder. It was Initially created in England in 1843. The first American manufacturers were Evan Norton Horsford and George F. Wilson who founded the Rumford Chemical Works in Providence, Rhode Island in 1857. Before chemical leavening, cakes had to be raised with the power of eggs alone, which requires a lot of elbow grease with a whisk (remember, no stand mixers in the 19th Century), and speed to get it into the oven before it begins to collapse. It took an expert baker with lots of skill to make a fluffy, high angel food cake. Baking powder changes all of this, anyone could just add some to their recipe and poof, a cake as light as a cloud.

According to the incredibly useful Food Time Line, the first recipe printed in an American cookbook that was specifically referred to as a “birthday cake” was in Jennie June’s American Cookery Book by Jane Cunningham Croly, published in 1870. To celebrate Comestibles’ first anniversary I decided to try making it, or I should say them, as the recipe is for cakes plural, in individual servings.

The most intriguing aspect of this recipe is the topping. It calls for colored caraway seeds. Candied caraway seeds (also called comfits) have been an after-dinner treat since at least the Medieval period, caraway being thought of as good for the digestion. It is also common to see candied fennel and cumin used in the same manner. It is quite easy to use natural food colorings to make comfits in a variety of cheerful colors. Perhaps these are the ancestor of the rainbow sprinkles which adorn our ice cream cones.

I was not able to find anyone selling candied caraway seeds, but I came close. Kalustyan’s in New York, had candied anise in their baking section, although sadly it was not brightly colored, just pure white. They also had candied fennel seeds in pink, white and yellow which are often served at the end of a meal in Indian restaurants. Finally, I also brought home some green mukhwas which are another Indian mouth freshener in bright red and green. There was no ingredient list on the package, but common ingredients for mukhwas include fennel seeds, anise seeds, coconut, and sesame seeds. They are sometimes also flavored with essential oils like peppermint. As you can see in the photo above, I tried various combinations of toppings on the cakes.

I also found a recipe for caraway comfits which I would love to try. I’ll post more about it here when I do.

These cakes are more like scones than what we might think of today as a birthday cake, but still good to eat. They are quite rich with butter and the currants combine nicely with the slightly savory “sprinkles,” giving a flavor similar to a spice cake.

Birthday Cakes

Adapted from Jane Cunningham Croly

Makes 8 scone-sized cakes

¾ cup dried currants
1 pound flour
4 ounces sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, chilled (1 stick)
1 large egg
about 1 cup milk
⅓ cup candied caraway seeds, or candied fennel, or sprinkles

Preheat oven to 425F.

Soak the dried currants in warm water for 10-15 minutes as you prepare the rest of the recipe.

Use a fork to stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter into smaller pieces, and work it into the dry ingredients using a pastry cutter, two knives, or your fingers until the resulting mix resembles breadcrumbs or peas.

Add the egg and stir with a fork.

Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time until the dough just comes together. When you pick up a handful it should stick together and not be too crumbly. Be careful not to add too much milk, you don’t want the dough to be wet. You may use a little more or less than 1 cup of milk depending on the humidity on the day you make the cakes.

Drain the currents and add them to the dough mixing throughly with your hands to distribute them evenly.

Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and place them on an ungreased baking sheet. Sprinkle the candied caraway seeds or other toping on each one, pressing it into the dough slightly to help it stick.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the tops are light brown.

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Left: Boiled Topside Corned Beef, Right: Roasted Loin of Fermanagh Bacon

This is the second post in a two-part round-up of this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery which took place from July 9-11, 2010 at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. This year’s theme was Cured, Fermented, and Smoked Foods. You can find Part I here.

Saturday night’s dinner celebrated the rich cornucopia that is the modern cuisine of Ireland and was cooked for us by Padraic Og Gallagher of Gallagher’s Boxty House in Dublin. Before we ate we were shown a lovely video in which the chef (and his brother the videographer) traveled around Ireland and introduced us to some of the artisanal producers of the ingredients which made up the meal we were about to taste. Here’s the extensive menu, with links to producers where possible:

Cold Starters

Wrights of Howth Organic Smoked Salmon, drizzled with Connemara Peated Single Malt Whiskey
Sally Barnes’ Smoked Mackerel
Ummera Smoked Silver Eel
Fingal Ferguson’s Venison Salami and Irish Chroizo
McCarthy’s of Kanturk Guinness & Cider Spiced Beef
McGeough’s Air-dried Lamb

all served with Treacle & Soda bread, Horseradish cream & Ballymaloe Relish

Warm Starter

Gallaghers Boxty House Boxty Potato Dumplings in a Crozier Blue Cheese Cream Sauce.

It's not an Irish feast without New Potatoes.

Main Course

Roasted Loin of Fermanagh Bacon
Boiled Topside Corned Beef both from Kettyle Irish Foods
Kishes of New Potatoes from the gardens of Lissadell House

served with Cuinneog Irish Butter, Sauteed York Cabbage, Champ Potato, Parsley Sauce, and a Cider & Wholegrain Mustard Sauce.

To Finish

A selection of Irish Cheese with Ditty’s Home Bakery Traditional Oatcake Biscuits and Foods of Athenry Porter Cake.

Cashel Blue Cheese
Knockdrinna Goat’s Cheese
Gubbeen Cheese
Coolea Cheese

All of this abundance was accompanied by the following beverages:

White Bordeaux – Pessac Leognan – l’Abelle de Fieuzal, 2003
Red Bordeaux – Château Bahans Haut-Brion 1999
Red Bordeaux – Clarendelle Rouge 2004, Clarence Dillon

Porterhouse Oyster Stout
Porterhouse Red Ale

and finally the pièce de resistance:

Irish Coffee made with Kilbeggan Finest Irish Whiskey.

Proper Irish Coffee, with fresh cream poured over the back of a spoon

If you think that was a banquet (and it was!) wait until you hear what we had for lunch on Sunday for the final meal of the symposium. Several members of different Slow Food Convivia in Norway conspired to bring us a traditional (and sustainable!) Norwegian Lunchbord. The ingredients arrived via sailing ship from Bergen via Cardiff and were then prepared, under the direction of Pål Drønen and Margareth Tislevoll.

The groaning boards of our Norwegian Lunch

If you wanted to demonstrate to someone the meaning of the phrase “groaning boards” when referring to a great feast, this lunch would do the job. There were long tables full of carefully labeled delicacies, some rarely found outside of Norway. It was impossible to try everything, but what I sampled was amazing. It really demonstrated to us that the scandinavians are the kings of cured, fermented and smoked foods, getting the most out of their short growing season. I think a trip to Norway is in my future. Here’s the menu, with producers where possible:

Cold Fish Dishes

Sølvisild, sullsid, and hardrøykt sild – silver herring, gold herring, and hard cured herring from Jnardar AS, Leinøy, Norway.

Kryddersild – marinated herring from H.J. Kyvik AS, Haugesund, Norway

Rakørret – fermented trout from Skarvheimen Fjellfisk, Ål, Norway

Røkelaks “Lærdalslaks” – smoked salmon from Sognefjord Gourmet, Årdal, Norway.

Røykt gjeddepølse, varmrøykt gjedde, and raket gjeddekaviar – smoked sausage of pike, hot smoked pike, and fermented caviar of pike Esox lucus
Gravet sik, varmrøykt sik, and raket sikrogn – cured whitefish, hot smoked whitefish, and fermented caviar of whitefish Coregonus lavaretus
all from Villfisken AS, Hallingby, Norway.

Hot Fish Dishes

Klipfisk – salt cod from Olga Godø,Godøy, Norway

Tørrfisk – stockfish from Lofotskrei, Ballstad, Norway.

Rødsei – red saithe or old salted saith Pollachius virens from Seløy fisk, Herøy, Norway.

Cured Leg of Lamb

Cold Meats

Speket viltpølse – cured game sausage from reindeer, red deer, and lard from Li gardstun, Aurland, Norway.

Speket Geitepølse – cured goat sausage from Sturle Ryum, Gudmedalen Fellsfjøs, Aurland, Norway.

Fenalår, and speket lammepølse – cured leg of lamb, and lamb sausage from Ekta Skåramat, Granvin, Norway.

Spekeskinke – cured ham from Ekta Skåramat, Granvin, Norway.

Hot Meat Dishes

Saltet og røykt lammebog – salted and smoked shoulder of lamb from Holo gard, Flåm, Norway.

Røykt lammepølse – smoked lamb sausage from Ekta Skåramat, Granvin, Norway.

Norwegian Cheeses

Norwegian Cheeses and Dairy Products (all made from unpasteurised milk)

Pultost – a crumbly sour-milk cheese from Helen Dave, Vesterhaugen Gårdsysteri, Våler, Norway and Tore Skarpnord, Høgda Gardsmeieri, Brumunddal, Norway.

Gamalost – a cooked sour-milk cheese from Maria Ballhaus, Sogn Jord-og Hagebruksskule, Aurland, Norway.

Jærost – semi-hard cows’ milk cheese (10 months old) from Voll ysteri, Voll, Norway.

Kvit Undredalsost – semi-hard goats milk cheese (3-6 months old, and 2 years old)
Undredal Stølsysteri, Undredal, Norway.

Brimost – brown goats’ milk why cheese (fresh) from Rallarrosa Stølsysteri, Flåm, Norway.

Tjukkmjølk – “thick milk,” organic cultured milk from Rørosmeieriet, Røros, Norway.

Rømme and smør – organic sour cream, and butter from Rørosmeieriet, Røros, Norway.

Flat Breads

Lefser – soft flat bread from Leveld lefsebakeri, Ål, Norway.

Flatbrød – crisp flat bread from Veitastrond flatbrødbakeri, Veitastrond, Norway. and Gardsbutikken, Øystese, Norway.

Desserts

Molter – cloudberries Rubus chamaemorus

Hermetiske moreller and “Mallard” plommer – preserved sweet cherries and “Mallard” plums from Nøring ANS, Øystese, Norway.

Hermetiske epler and pærer – preserved apples and pears from Syse gard, Ulvik, Norway.

Sirupstynnkake – syrup wafers from Brynhild Levang, Rendalen, Norway.

Ale and Aquavite

Nøgna Ø India Pale Ale and Nøgna Ø Imperial Brown Ale from Nøgna Ø, Grimstad, Norway.

Lysholm Linie aquavit from Arcus, Oslo, Norway.

Next year, the theme at the Oxford Symposium will be “Celebrations.” After this, I can’t imagine what they will come up with.

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A Selection of Irish Cheeses

This is the first of a two-part round-up of this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery which took place from July 9-11, 2010 at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.

The weather was unseasonably warm and I was glad the College Bar — why don’t American colleges have official bars? It’s so civilized — opened at 6PM on Friday evening providing a refreshing Gin and Tonic. Not long after, our first meal began with a glass of German Sekt and some Prosciutto di Parma in the garden as Chef Raymond Blanc announced the winners of this year’s Young Chef’s Grant who got to help prepare Friday evening’s dinner along side Chef Jeremy Lee of London’s Blue Print Cafe. Congratulations to winners Max Barber, Elaine Mahon and Daniel Penn.

Baked, Salted, Middle White Pork

To kick off the weekend Mr. Lee conceived a Feast of Cockaigne, the imaginary land of Medieval legend, where there is always plenty of food and drink and no one has to work very hard.

In keeping with the theme most of the courses contained foods which had been preserved. Here’s the menu:

Salt cod, vegetables, and aioli

Baked salted Middle White Pork from Huntsham Court Farm, Herefordshire, UK
with abraised green beans with a green sauce.

Almond meringue with berries and whipped cream, sometimes also called Eaton Mess.

The meal was accompanied by the following Spanish red wines:
Ribera del Duero Crianza 2006
Ribera del Duero Reserva 2005

On Saturday afternoon after fascinating plenary talks by food scientist Harold McGee and anthropologist Sidney Mintz and some papers about ancient Roman fish sauce. I was ready for lunch.

Bang Bang Chicken

Lucky for me, it was provided by renowned Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop and the chefs from London’s Barshu Restaurant where she is a menu consultant.

The Chinese are known for their prodigious use of fermentation (thousand year eggs anyone?) and lunch did not disappoint:

First Course

Bang Bang Chicken
Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs
Spicy Cucumber Salad
Refreshing Green Soybeans.

Second Course

Gong Bao Chicken with Peanuts
Bear’s Paw Beancurd
Choy Sam with Fragrant Oil
Steamed Rice

The wine was a 2008 Riesling Trocken “Kraut wine,” weingut tesch from the Nahe wine region in Germany.

And so it was back to the intellectually stimulating portion of the program. During the afternoon I attended presentations about a fermented bread from Transylvania which is purposely cooked in such a hot oven that the outside layer turns to charcoal; the history of eastern European Jewish pickled foods in Canada; and Ken Albala’s inspiring talk on the “Missing Terroir Factor in Historic Cookery.” His new book is right at the top of my to-buy list.

Part Two of this summary of Oxford 2010 will go up next week. See you then.

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I find there is no better way to get to know a culture than by cooking some of its festival food. When I saw a recipe in Margaret Shaida’s absorbing historical cookbook, The Legendary Cuisine of Persia, for a special rice dish, traditionally served at weddings in Persia, I couldn’t resist. Not only does it describe a way of cooking rice I was completely unfamiliar with, but one of the ingredients is dried rose petals.

The ancient land of Persia has influenced cuisines all over the world for the last 3000 years. Many dishes that we might think of as Arab, Indian, or even European originally came from Persia. For example the candy that we call “Turkish Delight,” is rAhat loqum in Farsi which, liberally translated, means “goes down easily,” which it certainly does!

Lemons, saffron, pomegranates, and pistachios were first brought to the west when the armies of Alexander the Great returned from their conquest of Persia in the 4th Century, BCE.

After the death of Alexander, the Persians reasserted their dominance and created an Empire which would last almost 1000 years, including Baghdad, eastern Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan and the eastern half of what is now Turkey. This vast empire lay at the crossroads of the east, forming a bridge between the classical Roman and Greek world and the mysterious exotic lands of India and China.

The Arabs conquered Persia in the late 7th Century, CE. Many historians remark that while Islam was eventually accepted by many Persians, causing a sharp decline in the indigenous religion of Zoroastrianism, the Persians largely kept many other aspects of their culture, including their food, intact. In fact, their Arab conquerors were so pleased with what they found on the tables of Isfahan and Ctesiphon (modern Baghdad), they proceeded to take many ingredients and dishes along with them as they swept into power in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.

Later, knights returning from the the crusades in the 12th and 13th Centuries brought stories and examples of aromatic ingredients they had sampled in the east, many of which had been absorbed into Arab cuisine from the Persians. Once tasted, these exotic (and expensive) flavors were craved by the European aristocracy, and thus began the search for route to the east where they might obtain these treasures for less. Who knows, America might never have been discovered if it weren’t for the European love of these exotic spices.

The Moghul emperors of India were actually the descendants of Muslim Mongols who had galloped down from the Steppes and conquered almost all of Persia in the 14th Century, and then stayed and became Persian in culture, language and food. The influence of Persian cuisine can be felt in several regions of India to this day.

I won’t lie, this recipe is fussy, you can imagine an entire family of mothers, daughters, sisters and aunties, in the kitchen taking care of all the details involved. But that’s exactly what festival food is all about, bringing everyone together for a celebration.

Ms. Shaida recommends serving Jeweled Rice with a some very simple chicken. I steam/sauteed some chicken breasts with salt, pepper and onions and a little liquid saffron (see below), but any simply flavored chicken will do, the rice is very complex and needs an almost silent partner.

The visual impact of Jeweled Rice is really worth all of the fuss, the ingredients are cut to be symmetrical and complimentary in color and shape. It does taste sweet, but it’s not too much, with the barberries providing a tart contrast. And what a display of wealth; just imagine the cost of the cinnamon, sugar and saffron for a Persian family of the past.

This very special dish is like precious jewels spilled onto a silken pillow, with glowing red barberries playing the part of rubies, pistachio emeralds, and finally a sprinkling of crushed rock candy diamonds, all accompanied by the scent of saffron, orange peel, and rose petals, conveying wishes of a rich, sweet life to the newly married couple.

Jeweled Rice

Adapted from Margaret Shaida

Serves 4 to 6

The unfamiliar ingredients such as the barberries (zereshk in Farsi) can be found at shops specializing in Indian ingredients. Kalustyan’s in New York, sells them via mail order.

1 pound good quality basmati rice
coarse sea salt, or kosher salt

4 teaspoons liquid saffron (see below for recipe)
1 pound carrots
granulated sugar
3 small oranges
2 tablespoons unroasted, unsalted pistachios
2 tablespoons blanched almonds
2 tablespoons dried currants
2 tablespoons dried barberries
1 teaspoon Persian spice mixture (see below for recipe)

vegetable or peanut oil
¼ cup clarified butter or ghee, melted
2 tablespoons of crystalized sugar, aka rock candy

Wash the rice in 2-3 changes of cool water and drain. Put a cup of fresh water in a bowl, along with 2 tablespoons of coarse sea salt or kosher salt and stir until the salt is mostly dissolved. Pour the washed rice into the bowl and add more water until the water is about 1 inch above the level of the rice. Allow the rice to soak for 3 to 6 hours.

Peel the carrots and cut them into julienne strips about 1½ inches long and ¼ inch wide. Put a little oil in a saute pan and fry the carrot strips over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in a tablespoon of granulated sugar, two teaspoons of liquid saffron, and 2-3 tablespoons of water. Cover and cook for 4-5 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced. The carrot strips will turn a darker shade of reddish-orange from the saffron.

Use a vegetable peeler to peel the oranges, be careful to only take the orange part of the peel and not the bitter, white pith. Cut the peel into julienne strips as you did the carrots. Put the orange peel strips into a small saucepan and cover with cool water. Bring to a boil and then strain. Do this twice more, to get rid of any bitter flavor in the peels.

Blanch the pistachios in boiling water and squeeze them out of their skins. Then soak in cool water along with the blanched almonds for about ½ hour to soften them. When soft, cut the nuts into slivers. Take 1 teaspoon of the almond slivers and toast them in a dry saute pan until browned (be careful not to burn them, they will brown quickly). Put the browned almonds in a separate bowl along with 1 teaspoon each of blanched almond slivers and pistachio slivers. This will be used to garnish the rice at the end. We’ll be adding a few other things to this “garnish dish” as we go.

Put ⅓ cup water in a small saucepan with 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar, heat on low, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the remaining nuts and orange peel to the sugar syrup and stir. Bring to a boil and cook for 30 seconds. Strain the nuts and peel and reserve the syrup.

Soak the dried currants in warm water for 10 minutes and strain. Add 1 teaspoon of them to the garnish dish.

Pick over the barberries, to remove any extraneous vegetable matter, then fry them gently in just a little bit of oil for a couple of mintues, until they turn bright red. Be careful not to overcook them, as they burn easily.

After your rice has soaked for at least 3 hours, drain it.

In a 3-quart saucepan bring 2 quarts of water with 2 tablespoons of coarse sea salt or kosher salt to a boil. Pour the washed rice into the boiling water. Bring it back to a boil and cook for 2-3 minutes. At 2 minutes taste the rice, if it is done it should be soft on the outside but quite firm in the center. When it is done strain the rice and rinse it with tepid water.

Rinse out the 3-quart saucepan, return it to the heat and add ½ cup of vegetable or peanut oil and 2-3 tablespoons of water. When the pan is sizzling, sprinkle one layer of rice onto the bottom of the pan. It is important to sprinkle the rice as it separates the individual grains which helps in the steaming process. If it is too hot to handle, use a serving spoon to shake the rice into the pan.

Next sprinkle a layer of the carrots, orange peel, nuts, currants and spice mixture on top of the rice in the pot. Next sprinkle another layer of rice and then another layer of carrots, orange peel, nuts, currants and spice mixture. Continue in this manner, making layers, creating a conical shape in the pot, finishing with a layer of rice.

At this point, pour the reserved sugar syrup over the rice along with the remaining liquid saffron.

Use the handle of a wooden spoon to poke 2 or 3 holes in the rice, all the way to the bottom of the pot. Wrap the cover of your pot in a kitchen towel and place it on the pot. Cook on high heat for 2-3 minutes and then lift the lid slightly to see if it is steaming. You want to see a large amount of steam coming up, if not, cover and cook for another couple of minutes. Once you have lots of steam turn the heat down to low and cook for 30 minutes covered with the cloth-wrapped lid.

After 30 minutes, the rice is done, however, if you have other things to prepare, it can be left over low heat for up to an additional hour without causing any harm.

When you are ready to serve it, fill your sink with a couple of inches of cold water and put the covered hot pot of rice in it for about 2 minutes. This will cause a final burst of steam and help to loosen the rice at the bottom of the pot.

Gently toss the rice in the pot to mix the layers, don’t scrape too far down in the pot, leaving the browned rice at the bottom intact, this will be served separately.

To serve, sprinkle the rice onto a platter, creating a pleasing mound. Garnish the rice by sprinkling over all the items in the garnish dish, plus the barberries. Pour the melted clarified butter over the rice. Finally, crush the rock candy into “diamonds” and sprinkle over the rice.

Go back to the pot once more and use a spatula to pry the crunchy, browned rice disk from the bottom and serve it on a separate plate, don’t worry if it breaks into pieces. In Persian homes, this is considered a delicacy, fought over by everyone, and sometimes it doesn’t even make it from the kitchen to the table.

Serve with a some very simply flavored chicken breasts, leaving the rice to be the star of the show.

Liquid Saffron

The best saffron in the world is grown in Iran and costs about $175/ounce. But an ounce is a lot, since a little goes a long way. Less expensive saffron is available from Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Italy, so shop around.

20-30 strands of saffron
sugar
tepid water

Make sure your saffron threads are quite dry, if not put them in a warm (not hot or they will burn!) oven for 2-3 minutes to dry them out. Put the saffron in a mortar with a small pinch of sugar, and use the pestle to pulverize them into a fine powder. Add 4-5 teaspoons of tepid water and let stand. Within 15-20 minutes the liquid will turn a dark orange color and is ready to use.

Persian Spice Mixture

Removing the seeds from cardamom pods can be tedious. Shops like Kalustyan’s, which sell Indian ingredients, will often have unground cardamom seeds, which is a lot easier. They are also a good source for the dried rose petals, which might be shelved with the teas.

¼ cup unroasted, unsalted pistachio nuts
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons cardamom seed
3 tablespoons dried rose petals
10 threads of saffron

If you have a spice grinder, put all of the ingredients in it and grind them coarsely. Otherwise, pulverize the pistachios in a food processor, roughly crush the cardamom seed, rose petals and saffron together in a mortar and pestle and then mix them together with the cinnamon and ground pistachios.

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One of my favorite pieces of food writing is the 12th Century Irish wonder tale, Aisling Meic Con Glinne (The Vision of Mac Con Glinne), in which Mac Con Glinne exorcises a demon of gluttony that has possessed his king. He tempts the demon to come out by telling the story of a fantastical vision he had in which he travels to a magical place where everything is made of food. Here’s a small part to whet your appetite:

The fort we reached was beautiful, 

With works of custards thick,

Beyond the loch. 

New butter was the bridge in front, 

The rubble dyke was wheaten white,

Bacon the palisade.

Stately, pleasantly it sat,

A compact house and strong.

Then I went in: 
The door of it was dry meat,

The threshold was bare bread, 
cheese-curds the sides.

Smooth pillars of old cheese,

And sappy bacon props

Alternate ranged;

Fine beams of mellow cream,
White rafters – real curds,
Kept up the house.

In my yearly quest to avoid green-dyed foods on St. Patrick’s Day, I dove into Darina Allen’s lovingly researched collection of Irish recipes called Irish Traditional Cooking . Ms. Allen, who is also the founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, realized that an entire generation of Irish people who had grown up in the countryside, without electricity (it didn’t reach some rural places until the 1970s), cooking real traditional Irish food, was dying off. She made it her mission to collect as many recipes as she could, directly from the hands of the people who cooked them, before it was too late. She wrote to regional newspapers asking people to help save their traditional foodways.

The response was tremendous, she was contacted by people of all walks of life from farmers to inhabitants of the great houses of the Anglo-Irish gentry. She then travelled all across the country to meet these cooks and learn the recipes directly from them, in their kitchens. The book is filled with stories told by eighty and ninety-year-old men and women about the prized foods of their childhoods.

Pork has been a traditional food in Ireland for a very long time. It is mentioned frequently in the old Irish tales which began in a pre-Christian oral tradition and were eventually written down by medieval monks. The great epic the Táin Bó Cúalnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) starts with the Scél Mucci Mic Dathó or the Story of Mac Dathó’s Pig, in which warriors of two opposing kings hold a contest to see who will be given the honor of carving the pig at a feast. Traditionally, in ancient Ireland this was decided through single combat. You can read an English translation of the story here

Thankfully, we don’t have to resort to such violence when carving the roast these days, but it does make for a rousing story. In honor of Mac Dathó’s Pig, I chose Darina Allen’s mother’s recipe for Pot Roasted Pork Steaks to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It uses the delectable pork tenderloin to make a juicy roast, stuffed with potatoes, onions and herbs, and drizzled with a rich glossy pan sauce.

Pot Roasted Pork Steaks

Adapted from Darina Allen

Serves 4

1 onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons softened butter
1 pound potatoes, boiled in their skins
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 pork tenderloins (total of about 2 lbs.)
2-3 tablespoons lard or more softened butter
½ cup dry white wine or better yet, some Irish lager-style beer
2 cups homemade chicken stock or low-sodium canned chicken stock
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour

Pre-heat oven to 350F.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in saucepan, add the chopped onion, stir to coat it with butter and sweat it, covered over low heat for 8-10 minutes. While that’s going, peel and mash the potatoes, then add the cooked onion, chopped parsley and thyme, and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. This is the stuffing.

Do not trim any fat from the tenderloins, we need every bit we can get. Split each tenderloin down one side and open it out flat like a book. Season both sides of each one with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Spread the stuffing evenly on top of one of the opened out tenderloins about ½ inch thick and about ½ inch from the edges of the meat. If you have leftover stuffing, consider forming it into cakes and frying them in butter, which I have done in the photo above. Place the second opened out tenderloin on top of the first making a sort of sandwich.

Next you need to truss the meat so the two pieces will stay together, this also helps it cook more evenly by pulling it into a bit more compact shape. Use kitchen twine to make a series of loops around the two pieces of meat. Here’s a video from Epicurious which shows how to do it.

Once the meat is trussed, smear the lard or softened butter all over the outside of it. Heat a heavy dutch oven over medium-high heat and then place the meat in it and brown it carefully on all sides. This is the only browning it will get, so make sure it looks the way you would like for serving.

Cut a piece of waxed paper so that it will fit inside your dutch oven and place it over the roast, cover the pot and put in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 155-160 F. Baste occasionally, while it is cooking. When the meat is finished, remove it from the pot, and cover it with aluminum foil allowing it to rest and finish cooking as you make the sauce.

Heat the chicken stock in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until it is steaming but not boiling. Put the dutch oven you cooked your meat in over medium heat and pour the white wine or beer into it. Use a spatula to scrape up the brown bits stuck to the pan. Let it bubble until the wine is reduced by about half. Next add 2 tablespoons of butter and allow it to melt. Add the 3 tablespoons of flour and whisk continuously while cooking the flour for 2-3 minutes. Pour the hot chicken stock into the dutch oven and whisk continuously until the sauce thickens. Adjust the seasoning of the sauce with salt and freshly ground pepper, pour it into a gravy boat and serve with the pork.

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