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Archive for the ‘Ingredients’ Category

What was the latest fashion at court of Versailles in 1696? Why English peas of course, hadn’t you heard?

The ladies of Versailles knew a good thing when they tasted it. In the late 17th Century fresh, green English peas were all the rage. It may seem odd to us, since today peas are seen as quite a pedestrian vegetable. Thanks to Mr. Birdseye we can get them all year round. But until about 400 years ago, the only peas in existence were much larger, starchy, field peas which were usually dried and then used to make pease porridge (split pea soup). This is the way peas had been eaten for thousands of years.

Imagine the stir caused by small, sweet, green peas that were meant to be eaten fresh. This new variety was developed by English gardeners, and soon became the object of singular desire at Versailles. The courtiers paid astronomical prices for the delicate, verdant, pleasure that is the English pea.

Madame de Maintenon (King Louis XIV’s second wife) wrote that, “Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal Table, and well supped too, returning to their own homes, at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness. ”

English peas (sometimes called garden peas or green peas) are only in the market for a short time here in the northeast, so run out and get some while you have the chance. When shopping for English peas, look for pods that are plump but not too fat. The really swollen ones will have larger peas in them which won’t taste as sweet. Please don’t buy pre-shelled peas, they start to loose their sweetness as soon as they come out of the pod. For that same reason, don’t open them up until right before they’re going in the pot. You’ll need a lot of peas, and I mean A LOT. One pound of unshelled peas will yield about a cup of the little suckers, so make sure you get enough.

Shelling takes time, but once you get the hang of it, it can be quite meditative and relaxing. A few tips: Pour yourself a nice cold drink, a Campari and Soda is a classic summer cocktail, just the thing to rouse the appetite. Put on some good music, if you don’t already know about Radio Paradise, give them a try. Finally, use a nice deep bowl, so when you run your thumb down the inside of the pod to loosen the peas, they don’t go bouncing all over the floor. Oh, and if you’re feeling frugal, save the empty pods and use them as an ingredient in homemade vegetable stock.

This soup makes for a refreshing supper on a hot summer night. The mint (a classic pairing with English peas) gives a heftier green undertone to the light, sweet peas and the crème Fraîche enriches the soup without overwhelming the delicate flavors.

Fresh (and Fashionable) English Pea Soup

Adapted from Ina Garten

Serves 2

1 small onion, chopped
1 leek, chopped (white and light green parts only)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 cups shelled fresh English peas (about 3 lbs. unshelled)
3 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium commercial stock
⅓ cup chopped fresh mint, plus a bit more for garnish
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons crème fraîche

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and cook the leek and onion over medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes, until soft.

Add the chicken stock to the pot, turn up the heat and bring it to a boil. Add the peas and cook for only 3-5 minutes, Do not overcook them, they should be a bright green and still pop in your mouth when you taste them.

When the peas are done, remove the pan from the heat and add the chopped mint, and salt and ground pepper to taste.

Puree the soup with a hand blender, or in batches using a countertop blender or food processor. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche in the center of each bowl and a sprinkling of the remaining chopped mint on top.

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The current popularity of gluten-free foods has prompted the creation of many wheat-free versions of traditional baked goods, including Scottish shortbread. It turns out that this actually isn’t an innovation at all. Historically shortbread was a food of the poor in Scotland and was made with oat flour, which is (usually) gluten-free.

While looking for old recipes, for this tea-time staple, I came across several 19th Century Scottish recipes which called for a mixture of wheat flour and rice flour. I thought this was very strange as rice is a food that would have been fairly new to 19th Century Scotland and we know that shortbread has existed since at least the 16th century. I also saw some reference to replacing some of the flour with cornstarch as a secret way to make a more crumbly shortbread. Both of these methods are lowering the gluten content of the flour which results in a tender, crumbly pastry.

Linguists aren’t quite sure why such pastry is called “short.” One theory compares the shortbread to bricks made with a mixture of mud and straw and then baked in the sun. If you cut the pieces of straw too short, the bricks will be fragile and crumble. Perhaps the chefs of the time thought the consistency of shortcrust or shortbread was similar to those crumbly bricks, hence the name.

I can’t prove it, but it seems like all of these “modern” variations using rice and cornstarch are just trying to regain the original texture which was provided by oat flour. The earliest written recipe we have for shortbread is from a 16th Century cookbook written by and for the nobility. At that time, oat flour was associated with the poor and so it is doubtful it would have been found in the author’s kitchen. Instead, his recipe uses wheat flour and we’ve been trying to get back that crumbly texture ever since.

These turned out rich, butter, not too sweet, and with a nutty undertone from the oat flour. Perfect with a cup of tea and also not bad stuck into a bowl of ice cream.

Oat Shortbread

Makes about 18 shortbread fingers

Oat flour is easily available in health food stores, or you can make your own by running some rolled oats through a blender or food processor. Please note that if you are gluten sensitive, some commercial oat flour is processed in factories where wheat is present, so be sure check the label and make sure it is truly gluten-free.

Also, an important note about substituting different kinds of flours: measure by weight, not volume. For example, oat flour weighs less than all-purpose flour, if you use the same amount of all-purpose by volume you’ll end up with cement.

12 oz. oat flour (about 3½ cups)
8 oz. unsalted butter, softened (2 sticks)
4 oz. sugar (about ½ cup)
good pinch of sea salt

Pre-heat oven to 325F.

Use a portable hand mixer, or a stand mixer with the paddle attachment to cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Stir together the oat flour and salt and add them to the butter and sugar. Use a spatula to gently fold the ingredients together until they form a lumpy, dry dough with pieces the size of pebbles.

Press the dough into a well-buttered 8 x 8 inch square pan. Bake for about 55-60 minutes, or until just barely brown. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes before using a butter knife to cut the shortbread into fingers (I ended up with about 18 of them). If you would like to decoratively prick the tops of the fingers with a fork, you can do that now as well. Put the pan on a cooling rack and allow it to cool completely before removing the pieces of shortbread. They can be stored in an air tight container for about a week.

Shortbread is wonderful for variations, you can add chopped nuts, or caraway seeds, or chopped candied fruit. An exotic version could contain chopped dried rose petals, chopped pistachios and a dash of rose water.

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Borlotti Beans / photo by Flickr user The Ewan

“Is Slow Food Really Slow?” is a series here on Comestibles in which we explore the hypothesis that some of the processes many modern home cooks have declared too time consuming are a lot easier than the admen would have us believe.

Unless you’ve come up with a way of folding time and space in the kitchen, it does take longer to cook with dried beans than canned ones. However, the flavor and texture is vastly superior, and there are some things you can do to make it go a little faster.

I know I sound like your mother, but plan ahead. If you make a big batch of beans on the weekend when you have more time, you can store them in the refrigerator (7-10 days) or freezer (2-3 months), with or without their cooking liquid, to use later in soups, salads, purees, etc. To prevent them from growing mushy in the fridge or freezer, mix in a little lemon juice or vinegar, the acidic quality of which will help them retain their structural integrity.

Another important consideration is the age of your beans. Often the dried beans found in the grocery store are 2-3 years old. The older the beans, the more slowly they absorb water, which makes everything take longer. Older beans can also have a flat, cardboard-y flavor. Unfortunately, there aren’t any use-by dates on packages of dried beans, but there are ways to find fresher beans, which will cook faster.

It helps to buy from a store that has good turnover in their bean section. Look for ethnic markets where beans figure prominently in the cuisine (e.g., Central or South America, or the Caribbean). Another option is to buy from a local bean farmer. You’ll pay a little more (about the same price as canned) but they’ll be very fresh with complex earthy flavors and a firm creaminess you won’t find in the grocery store. At the New York City farmers’ markets there are several good options. Cayuga Pure Organics from Brooktondale, NY sells organic beans for $4/lb. on Wednesdays at Union Square and Saturdays at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, and Maxwell’s Farm of Changewater, NJ whose beans are priced at $3/lb., can be found at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on Mondays and Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn on Saturdays.

Once you have good, fresh beans, you do need to soak them, but not necessarily “overnight” as most recipes direct. According to food science maven, Harold McGee, soaking beans for more than four hours doesn’t gain you anything. See, we’ve cut some time out already!

Next, be sure to use enough water. Beans should be cooked in three times their volume of salted water; adjust the heat so they are simmering and not boiling hard, and partially cover the pot. Depending on the type of bean, they can take anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour to cook. To avoid over cooking, taste them every 15 minutes or so during the cooking process. They are done when they are tender, but not mushy, with a creamy interior.

Finally, if you’ve made the classic mistake of not reading the recipe all the way through, discovered that you were supposed to have soaked the beans, and your dinner party guests are arriving in 3 hours, here’s a trick to shorten the process. Put the dried beans in three times their volume of water and bring them to a boil, boil for 2-3 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave the pot to stand, covered, for 1 hour. Drain and rinse the beans and cook as usual. They will cook in about the same amount of time, and you didn’t have to soak for 4 hours. This method also has the advantage of removing some of the chemical compounds which cause digestive issues with beans for some people.

Yes, cans are easier and faster, but using fresh, dried beans from a local farmer, reduces kitchen waste, supports your local food economy, and just plain tastes better.

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Photo by Flickr user jeffreyw

“Is Slow Food Really Slow?” is a series here on Comestibles in which we explore the hypothesis that some of the processes many modern home cooks have declared too time consuming are a lot easier than the admen would have us believe.

I challenge you to find a bottle of commercial salad dressing that is not full of sweeteners and preservatives. Even if you look for the simplest ones, that call themselves “vinaigrette,” they’ll be full of sugar and who knows what else. Oh and may the gods help you if you start looking at “low fat” salad dressings.

Making a simple vinaigrette at home takes almost no time at all and I guarantee that it will be an order of magnitude tastier than anything you can find in the supermarket. Why? Because you get to choose the ingredients instead of leaving that to some food scientist in a plant in New Jersey.

Most commercial salad dressings use very low quality canola or soybean oils. There is nothing inherently wrong with using canola or soybean oil, but they are very neutral. If you want a super lightly flavored dressing, by all means use canola oil, but I encourage you to branch out. There are myriad choices when it comes to rich flavorful oils that will make a truly satisfying dressing. Of course there’s olive oil, but what about walnut oil, avocado oil, pumpkin seed oil, or better yet, warm bacon fat?

For the acid component the world of vinegar is wide, you can use sherry vinegar, champagne vinegar, balsamic vinegar, a fruit or herb flavored vinegar, or forget the vinegar all together and use lemon juice instead.

Make a large-ish batch (maybe one or two cups) of your very own house vinaigrette and store it in a recycled commercial dressing bottle in the fridge. Oh, and vinaigrette is not just for salads. Steamed asparagus drizzled with a perfectly balanced, lemony vinaigrette, is a little piece of heaven.

Classic French Vinaigrette

Makes about 1 cup
If you want to make a different amount use a ratio of 3 parts oil to one part vinegar and adjust the other ingredients accordingly.

2 oz. vinegar
1 good pinch of sea salt
½ a small shallot, finely chopped
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
6 oz. oil

Put the vinegar in medium sized bowl so you’ll have plenty of room for whisking later. Add salt and whisk to dissolve it, then add the chopped shallot and let it stand for 15 minutes to combine the flavors.

Next whisk in the mustard. Put your oil in a measuring cup or other container that is easy to pour from. It is very important that you add the oil in a very thin stream while whisking rapidly at the same time. It can seem tedious to pour in the oil so slowly, but this is what causes the vinaigrette to emulsify so it will not separate. If your bowl is moving around on the counter, put a kitchen towel under it to keep it still. When all the oil is incorporated, taste the vinaigrette and adjust the seasoning with salt if necessary.

Wash your salad greens and dry them very well (vinaigrette sticks better to dry leaves). Put the greens and other ingredients in a large bowl with plenty of room for tossing. Put on just a little vinaigrette, maybe 1/4 cup for a large salad, you can always add more, but it’s pretty much impossible to take it out if you add too much. Toss your salad vigorously and serve. The leaves should be shiny with dressing, not dripping with it. If you would like freshly ground black pepper, add it now and toss again, that way it sticks to the vinaigrette-coated leaves.

You can store your left over vinaigrette in the refrigerator. It may solidify, but if you take it out about 15 minutes before serving, it will liquify. If it separates a bit, just shake it up before adding to your salad.

Variations: For a lighter dressing you can leave out the mustard, or substitute a bit of fruit preserves if you want a fruit flavored dressing, raspberry goes really well with arugula. In summer I like replacing the vinegar with lemon juice for a sunnier flavor that goes particularly well with avocados. You can also add chopped fresh herbs after you’ve whisked in the oil. Experiment, create new and wonderful dressings for your salads.

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As proudly announced in its national anthem, Australia is “girt by sea.” That makes for bountiful fresh seafood, ranging from oysters, to coral trout, to pricey greenlip abalone. One of the best places to sample this briny harvest is the Sydney Fish Market, the largest in the southern hemisphere. Unlike the “New” Fulton Fish Market in New York City, which is hidden away in the Bronx, you can reach the Sydney Fish Market easily via public transport. Best of all, it’s not just a big room with piles of gorgeous fish being watched over by rather tough looking seamen who drive a hard bargain. At the Sydney Fish Market there are multiple restaurants; a wine shop, so you can BYOB; a bakery; and even public toilets. All in all, very civilized.

Lovely fresh bonito waiting for your favourite recipe

After having a look at some of this bright eyed, fresh fish, you might be inspired to learn more about what to do with it. That’s where the Sydney Seafood School comes in. The school began in 1989 as a way to teach Sydneysiders how to cook some of the more unusual catch that was for sale such as, octopus, abalone, and sea snails, which otherwise would have been sold off as bait. Nowadays, Australian home cooks are a lot more adventurous, but they still come to classes in order to hob nob with some of the famous chefs who teach at the school such as Mark Jensen of The Red Lantern and Christine Mansfield from Universal

I arrived on a cloudy morning, with no real intention of eating anything, but one look at the crowds of people sitting at tables digging into sashimi, Thai-style chili crab, and exotic abalone, and I knew I had to at least have a little nibble of something.

Cocktail Abalone with Sichuan pepper and two pieces of Salt and Pepper Squid

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One of the most exciting parts for me about my recent visit with Janet Clarkson in Brisbane was our trip to the local farmers’ market. Brisbane, being in the southern part of the state of Queensland, is sub-tropical, but much of the rest of the state lies squarely in the tropics which means, exotic fruits at the farmers’ market! In Brooklyn, there is no way we will ever see some of these things offered for sale by our local farmers, so it was lots of fun to browse.

This strange looking specimen is Monstera Deliciosa also known as “fruit salad plant.” To eat, you gently remove the scaly looking skin and eat the white pulp beneath. It tastes like a combination of pineapples and bananas, sort of tutti frutti.

The pineapples I had in Brisbane were incredibly fresh, with a subtle vanilla undertone. There were many different varieties available at the farmers’ market. I wish I could have tried them all.

Here are some luscious, purply, fresh figs, just waiting to be eaten.

Passion fruit grows like a weed in much of Australia, even further south in Sydney where it is not nearly as warm as Brisbane. My Australian husband misses having it around, so when I saw some in a green grocer’s shop in Brooklyn I bought a few as a surprise. They cost me $3 each. In Brisbane, Janet bought a whole bag for the same price.

Finally, a nod to Australia’s British heritage.

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Photo by Wikipedia user tristanb - used under CC license

When visiting Australia it is impossible not to encounter Vegemite, that mysterious black goop which many Aussies spread on their toast every morning and hold in a special place in their hearts. As a recent commercial attests, “Australian made….internationally misunderstood.”

I can report that while it looks like sludge left over from a secret experiment gone wrong, when eaten properly it is quite tasty. Vegemite is a concentrated yeast extract. I know, that really doesn’t make it sound any more appetizing, but it’s true. It’s made from the yeast that remains after the beer brewing process. Since Australians are unlikely to stop drinking beer any time soon, that means it’s quite sustainable and a good re-use of something that would otherwise be thrown away.

Vegemite is also one of the richest sources of B vitamins in the world. Oh yes, we’re piling up those exciting reasons to try out yeast spread on your toast aren’t we? Well, here’s something that should tantalize food lovers everywhere. Vegemite has a very high concentration of glutamic acid. So what, you say? Glutamic acid is what we taste when we experience umami or the “fifth taste” after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Umami’s prized, savory flavor is found naturally in many foods including Roquefort cheese, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, grape juice, tomatoes, human milk, and beef. Vegemite nearly tops the list however, with over 1400 mg of glutamate per 100 grams; it is literally yummy.

As is customary around here, let’s have a brief look at the history of Australia’s favorite sandwich spread. Vegemite was invented in 1922 by, Dr. Cyril P. Callister, a chemist at the Fred Walker Company. The name was chosen in a nation-wide contest which was judged by Mr. Walker’s daughter Sheila. The winner, whose name has been lost in the mists of time, received a prize of ₤50 (about $2600 US today). The new product debuted 1923.

It was not a hit.

The next chapter in the history of Vegemite gives some insight into the Australian sense of humor. In 1928, after lackluster sales, Mr. Walker tried renaming the product Parwill. Australians were familiar with a similar yeast extract made in the UK called Marmite, so Walker created the tag line, “If Marmite . . . then Parwill” (try saying it with an Aussie accent). Whenever I groan at one of my Australian husband’s pun-filled jokes, he reminds me that it just might be genetic. Walker first tried selling Parwill in the state of Queensland as a test. It did about as well as you might expect . . . terribly. So the name was changed back.

In the end, Vegemite’s reputation was rescued by science. Just before WWII, the British Medical Association gave Vegemite its official endorsement as a product to be recommended by doctors to their patients as a source of B vitamins. During the war there was actually a shortage because the Australian military was buying every jar they could get their hands on to boost the nutrition of their soldiers. As often happens, when people can’t get something, they want it more, and the fact that it was helping their soldiers fight the good fight was great free marketing.

After the war Vegemite solidified its position on the brekkie table of the nation as it was fed to all the new members of the baby boom generation to ensure their good health:

How to Eat Vegemite Like an Australian

This is a case where less really is more. I think the reason so many non-Australians have tried Vegemite and hated it, is because, as they say on the Internet “You’re Doin’ It Wrong!” Follow these instructions and if you still don’t like it, well then you’re just a weirdo because it’s really good:

  • Toast some simple white sandwich bread
  • Spread the hot toast with a good amount of soft, unsalted butter and allow it to melt nicely.
  • Dip the tip of a clean knife into a jar of Vegemite and make a squiggle of it across your buttered toast. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, put more than this amount of Vegemite on your toast the first time you try it. Later, you may want to experiment with more, but start with just a tiny bit.

Some Australians enjoy horrifying visitors to their country by telling them they should just eat Vegemite from the jar with a spoon. For shame! Don’t believe anything they say about drop bears either.

Once you’ve mastered the art of eating it on toast with butter you might consider some of the other myriad uses Vegemite has been put to over the years including:

  • It’s a great addition to sauces and soups to give that savory umami taste.
  • Some pregnant women swear by it as a cure for morning sickness. Oh, and it contains a ridiculous amount of folic acid which is essential for women of child bearing age.
  • Mix with water and use as a marinate for chicken.
  • Add a little to your meatballs or meatloaf.
  • Vegemite is supposedly a great hangover cure (the Aussies should know!) and hey, the vitamins certainly won’t hurt.

Finally, no discussion of Vegemite is complete without the song that piqued listeners’ curiosity about it around the world:

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Cafe Volpini, Paris, 1889

If you find yourself among the gentlemen in their frock coats and wide cravats in a Parisian café in the 1880s during the hours just before dinner, and are wondering what to order, the word you’re looking for is vermouth. Between the hours of 5 and 7 all the best people crowded these fashionable watering holes for a pre-dinner tonic to whet the appetite. The most popular was vermouth, served plain over ice, or mixed with something sweet like curaçao, cassis or gomme, a simple syrup made with water, a very high percentage of sugar, and gum arabic to prevent the sugar from crystalizing.

How did vermouth fall from being the being the apertif of the beautiful people to a thing they now brag about avoiding? The first mention in print of the Vermouth Cocktail is in 1869 where it is defined as chilled vermouth with a dash each of bitters and maraschino liqueur, and a twist of lemon. Apart from Prohibition, during which it was difficult to get, vermouth was used in many cocktails until the mid-20th Century when the fad of the “dry martini” began. This was accompanied by much silliness about how much (or really how little) vermouth to add, including games like waving the bottle over your glass, or having a friend leave the room during the mixing and then return to whisper the word “vermouth” just before taking the first sip.

Martinis are not meant to be that dry. In this stupendous article on the subject, Jason Wilson speaks with cocktail expert Robert Hess who points out that “those mid-20th Century luminaries who championed a nearly vermouth-free martini, such as Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill and Humphrey Bogart, were borderline, if not full-blown alcoholics.” If you want a glass of gin, order one, but if you want a martini, Wilson encourages the restoration of a pre-war version which contains at least 4 parts vermouth to one part gin, or a pre-Prohibition recipe that is 50-50 gin and vermouth.

Yuck, you say? Ah well, perhaps that is because it is likely the only vermouth you have tasted has been of low quality to begin with and then has oxidized because it’s been open too long and stored improperly.

Vermouth is white wine that has been infused with a mixture of botanicals and fortified by the addition of a neutral alcohol like un-aged brandy or grain alcohol. The fact that it is fortified leads many people to believe that it is shelf-stable, that is simply not true. For a better vermouth experience, buy a high quality product such as one of the offerings from Boissiere, Noilly Prat, or Vya, and always buy from a source with high turnover. Vermouth should be used within 6-8 months of bottling or it begins to go off. Once opened, it should be stored in the refrigerator and away from light. Even when stored properly, it oxidizes like any other wine, so it is advisable to finish the bottle within a month after opening. Unfortunately, this means you should almost never order vermouth (or a cocktail containing it) in a random bar where the bottle is just sitting out and has been open for who knows how long. Find a cocktail establishment where they care about these things, or make it yourself at home.

Its refreshing character makes vermouth a perfect after work tipple accompanied by a handful of salty nuts. Let’s join the beautiful people of 1890s Paris and bring back this delectable treat.

Vermouth Cocktail

Makes 1 cocktail

1½ ounces dry vermouth
½ ounce maraschino liqueur
½ freshly squeezed lemon juice
a dash orange bitters
1 twist of lemon for garnish

Add all ingredients except the twist of lemon to a cocktail shaker, shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the twist of lemon and serve in a 3½ ounce glass.

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A Whirling Dervish / Photo by Flickr user flydime

It must have seemed like magic, a substance that not only granted boundless energy, but curbed hunger as well. It wasn’t the first drug of course, we’ve had opium, alcohol, and psychedelic mushrooms for a lot longer. But coffee was different. As Balzac wrote:

Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink — for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

The Oromo ethnic group of Ethiopia are thought to be among the first humans to consume coffee. However, they did so in a very different way than we do now. In nature, the coffee tree produces a reddish-purple fruit called a coffee cherry or berry. At its center is found a seed. Modern processing strips away the fruit and then ferments and roasts the remaining seed, which becomes the coffee beans you buy at your local shop.

The Oromo people simply ground the ripe cherries along with their seeds in a stone mortar and then combined the resulting paste with animal fat — perhaps butter as they were nomadic pastoralists — which they then rolled into balls for convenient transport. Fresh coffee cherries are full of caffeine, sugar, and fat, and are about 15% protein. Combined with animal fat, they really make the perfect portable energy food. This form of coffee consumption was observed as late as the 18th Century by British explorers who described billiard ball-sized morsels which were stored in leather bags and eaten for extra energy by warriors on raids. Study of the oral history of the Oromo people shows that this use of coffee is likely quite ancient. There is also evidence of other usage of coffee by the peoples of Northeastern Africa. Some cooked the ripe berries into a porridge, others made wine from the fruit and skin.

The earliest documented evidence of the use of coffee as a beverage is in 15th Century Yemen, just across the Red Sea from Africa. Practitioners of Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam, would grind up the fresh coffee cherries and boil them in water, drinking the brew to stay awake during their night dhikr or extended prayerful meditation. Sufi mystic, Shaikh ibn Isma’il Ba Alawi of Al-Shihr, said that coffee combined with prayer could lead practitioners to “the enjoyment which the people of God feel in beholding the hidden mysteries and attaining the wonderful disclosures and the great revelations.”

The Shadhiliyya order of Sufis was instrumental in spreading coffee throughout the Islamic world during the 13th through 15th Centuries. Their dervishes (whose whirling I imagine was fueled all the better by coffee) were lay people and and once they were introduced to this magical brew in a religious setting, they brought it into the secular community.

Once coffee was brought to the Arabian peninsula from Africa, two distinct beverages were made from it. The first, known as quishir was actually a tea made by steeping dried coffee cherries and their husks in boiling water. Coffee is still drunk this way in Northeastern Africa and Yemen today. The second preparation was called bounya which comes from the word bunn, Ethiopian for the “seed” or “bean” of the coffee tree. Bounya was a thick drink made from raw, crushed beans, the residue of which was consumed also, leaving nothing in the bottom of the cup.

There is an argument as to whether the roasting of beans began in Persia or Saudi Arabia; where ever it happened, it was the next step towards coffee as we know it today. In the 16th Century, Islamic coffee fanatics invented the ibrik, a small coffee pot in which they boiled their favorite brew. Finally, in the 18th Century, people began to infuse the roasted, ground beans the way we do today. However, in some parts of the world, like Turkey and Greece, boiling is still the preferred method of preparation.

Coffee Being Poured from an Ibrik / Photo by Flickr user hettie gm

Unless you know someone with a coffee tree, it is very difficult to get fresh, ripe coffee cherries in the US. If I ever get my hands on some, I’m going to try making coffee power bars by grinding them up and mixing them with butter. Happily, I did succeed in finding dried coffee cherries and their husks which can be made into quishir. The folks at Counter Culture Coffee sell a product called Cascara which is the dried fruit and husks of the coffee tree and is meant to be drunk as a tea. The word “cascara” is Spanish for “husk,” so named because the coffee that goes into it is grown in El Salvador where they don’t have a tradition of making tea out of dried coffee fruit.

Cascara or Dried Coffee Berries and Their Husks

The result is an interesting hybrid. It smells somewhat like coffee, but fruitier. It has the slight bitterness of coffee, but the body is more like tea, not as thick in the mouth as coffee. The initial flavor is similar to coffee but then there is a bloom of fruits: currents, raisins and surprisingly, a touch of lemon and orange, perhaps this is the coffee’s natural acidity? It is almost like a black tea that has been flavored with a fruit essence, the way Earl Grey is flavored with bergamot. However, the quishir is smoother with none of black tea’s harsh tannins. It definitely has more caffeine that black tea, I felt quite perky after drinking it, perhaps even able to last through an all-night prayer session.

To Make Ancient Coffee or Quishir

5 grams (about 1½ tablespoons) dried coffee cherries and husks
8 oz (½ cup) water at 190-200F

The coffee fruit and husks are more delicate than beans, so it is important that you not use fully boiling water. Allow the water to cool to 190-200F before pouring it over the coffee.

If you don’t mind lumpy bits in the bottom of your cup as you drink you can just put the quishir/cascara in your mug and then pour the hot water over it. Or if you prefer, put it in a measuring cup and when it’s done steeping, strain it into a mug. Steep for 5-7 minutes and serve. Try it alone first and then if you like, add some sugar to bring out the fruity flavors.

Sources:

Meehan, Peter. Pop Some Coffee Cherries. New York Times, November 11, 2009

Seidel, Kathleen. Serving The Guest: Food For Remembrance.

Weinberg, Bennett Alan, and Bonnie K. Bealer. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. New York: Routledge, 2001.

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I always think of preserved lemons as a North African ingredient, lending an exotic, mysterious flavor to Moroccan and Tunisian cuisines, among others. But recipes for “pickled lemon” can be found in several 18th and 19th Century American and British cookbooks and I was surprised to find them in a spring rabbit recipe in Patricia Wells’s classic At Home in Provence. I’ve also seen mention of a Cambodian chicken soup made with whole preserved lemons that sounds very intriguing.

Nowadays, of course, we can get lemons whenever we want, albeit shipped halfway around the world. In the past, once the season was gone, the only way to capture some of that sunny taste was to preserve them in salt and sometimes other spices. The salt intensifies their citrus flavor and mitigates much of the bitterness found in the pith of the fruit. Both the pulp and the rind are used in cooking.

The best part is, preserved lemons are stunningly easy to make. All you need are good lemons, salt, a jar, and some time. I really should have made my batch in winter when the citrus groves nearest me (Florida and California) are producing fruit at the peak of ripeness, but I guess late is better than not at all.

Since the peel is going to be eaten, it is important to choose officially certified organic lemons or confirm with the farmer that they have not been sprayed with pesticides. It is also important that they be unwaxed. Any kind of coarse salt will do. I was given a bag of the famous French Sel Gris de Guérande as a gift. This large-grained, gray salt has been collected from salt marshes in northeastern France since the 9th Century. I’ve had some really good Moroccan food in Paris, so using French salt for this project seemed just the thing.

This recipe is a bit like that old magic trick where you soak an egg in vinegar and then are able to squeeze it through the opening of a bottle that looks far to small for the purpose. I was very skeptical about fitting 4 lemons into a quart sized canning jar, but it works. In fact, depending upon the size of your lemons, you might cram 5 in there. Just be sure to start with the cut side facing down into the jar so the juice goes inside as you are squeezing them into place.

These will be ready to use in about a month. I’ll report back then on the chicken tagine with preserved lemons and green olives I’m planning.

Preserved Lemons

Adapted from Paula Wolfert

Makes 4 – 5 lemons

6 – 7 small, organic, unwaxed lemons
½ cup coarse sea salt or kosher salt

1 wide-mouthed quart jar with sealable lid(s)

Sterilize your jar and lid(s) by putting them in a 225F oven for 5 minutes

Scrub 4 (5 if they’re really small) of the lemons under running water with a stiff brush. Dry them well. Use a serrated knife to partially quarter the newly washed lemons. Start cutting at the top but do not cut all the way through, stop about ½ inch from the base. Pull the 4 pieces apart slightly, being careful to keep them connected at the base.

Sprinkle salt all over the insides of the quartered lemons and then push the pieces together to keep the salt from falling out. Put the salted lemons in a large bowl and gently toss them with the remaining salt.

Push each lemon into your sterilized jar, cut side facing into the jar. It may seem like they won’t fit but if you squeeze and push gently, giving the jar a quarter turn each time, eventually the lemons will compress and squeeze into the jar. Some of the juice will come out in the process, but that’s fine. After each lemon goes into the jar, sprinkle in some of the salt left in the tossing bowl. Before pushing the last lemon into the jar you may need to squash the others down a bit with a wooden spoon to make more room. Sprinkle the last of the salt on top.

Juice the remaining lemons until you have enough juice to completely cover the lemons in your jar, leaving about ½ inch of head space at the top.

Close the jar tightly and allow the lemons to ripen at room temperature for 30 days. Turn the jar upside down every other day to help distribute the salt and juice.

After 30 days the lemons are ready for use. For long term storage, cover with olive oil and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 year.

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