Archive for the ‘recipes’ Category

14th C. Painting of the Knights Hospitaller

This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

The idea of making a sweet pastry during lent is pretty daunting; no butter or eggs are allowed. At first, I thought of olive oil cake, but that has eggs in it. One of the best parts of Lent is how it challenges you to be creative in your cooking. I knew that over the past 2000-odd years there must be a cook out there somewhere who came up with a decent dessert that kept to the rules. I found several. In the Republic of Malta, they make a traditional cookie during lent called a Kwarezimal. The word is derived for the Latin term for the season of Lent, Quadragesima. In parts of Italy there are Lenten cookies called Quaresimali, however, they contain egg whites. I wonder which crafty baker got her local priest to agree to that one?

Having never tried Maltese cuisine, I decided to make the Kwarezimal. If you’re interested in learning more about the Italian Quaresimali, Faith Willinger wrote a nice piece about them for The Atlantic.

Malta has a fascinating history, very much connected with the medieval military-religious order called the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, which began in the Holy Land in the 12th Century where the brother knights would care for and provide military escort to Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. They soon became very powerful with direct political and monetary support from the Pope and priories spread across most of the countries in Europe.

After suffering a great defeat at Rhodes by the Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent, the order was reduced to moving from priory to priory in Europe with no real home. In 1530 King Charles I of Spain gave the islands which now make up the Republic of Malta (along with the North African port of Tripoli, now in Libya) to the order in perpetuity. In exchange the Knights paid an annual fee of one Maltese Falcon which was sent on November first each year to the King’s representative, the Viceroy of Sicily. Yes, that is where Dashiell Hammett got the idea.

Now known colloquially as the Knights of Malta, the order spent the 16th and 17th Centuries ridding the high seas of Barbary pirates and conveniently keeping any booty they captured. The islands of Malta were taken by Napoleon in 1798, and many of the knights dispersed throughout the world. A number settled in Russia where they built a priory and tried to rebuild the order. They limped along in these reduced circumstances until the mid 19th Century when Pope Leo XII created a new Grand Master for the order and encouraged him to return to the original humanitarian hospital work upon which the order was founded over 700 years earlier. The order has recently returned to Malta where it signed an agreement with the government and holds a 99 year lease on the Fort of St. Angelo, which had been the Knights’ primary military fortification beginning in the 16th Century.

These Kwarezimal cookies take advantage of the mediterranean climate in Malta, containing a lot of citrus in the form of orange, lemon and tangerine zest and an exotic ingredient: orange flower water. Orange flower water is an extract made from the distillation of bitter orange blossoms. It is a common ingredient in Arab cuisine and was probably introduced to Malta when it was under Muslim rule from 870 to 1091. You should be able to find it in a middle eastern grocery. If you can’t get any you could try using orange extract instead, but it is likely to be sweeter since it is not made from bitter oranges. Another option is to go in a completely different direction and use vanilla extract which would combine nicely with the citrus zest.

Kwarezimal remind me of middle eastern sweets, covered in sticky honey and filled with nuts, they’re like a citrusy baklava. The slightly bitter flavor of the orange flower water is tempered perfectly by the honey and all that chopped citrus rind is like a burst of sunshine in your mouth that lasts a long time. They would go really well with a nice little glass of Sauternes or a similar dessert wine.

Kwarezimal, Maltese Lenten Cookies

Adapted from Anne and Helen Caruana-Galizia

Makes 10-12 large cookies

½ pound blanched almonds (about 1½ cups)
1½ cups flour
1¼ cups sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 lemon
1 orange
1 tangerine
1 teaspoon of orange flower water or vanilla extract
⅓ cup floral honey (orange blossom is nice)

Preheat oven to 325F

Spread the almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven until they are golden brown and fragrant (15-20 minutes.)

Take the almonds out and allow them to cool. Increase the temperature of your oven to 375F.

Peel all of the rind from the three citrus fruits using a vegetable peeler. Try to only peel off the colored part of the skin and not the white pith that lies beneath. If you notice some pith on your pieces, use a serrated knife to scrape it off. Chop the citrus peel as finely as possible.

When the almonds are cool enough to handle, set aside enough to decorate your cookies, you’ll need about 24 or so. Grind the remaining almonds coarsely in a food processor. Mix the ground almonds with the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and the chopped citrus peel. Add the orange flower water or vanilla extract and 2-3 tablespoons of water. Mix in the liquids and see if it comes together as a dough. Depending on the weather you may need more water. Carefully add it only a tablespoon at a time, stopping when the dough comes together in a ball.

Form the dough into oval shapes about 6 inches long, 2 inches wide, and ½ inch thick. Place them on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake at 375F for 20-25 minutes. Be careful not to leave them in too long or they will become very hard when they cool.

While they are baking, heat the honey in a saucepan over low heat to thin it out. When the cookies come out of the oven allow them to cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then transfer them to a cooling rack. Use a pastry brush to coat the top of each cookie with honey and then stick some whole toasted almonds on top. Pistachios work well in this capacity as well, or use both.


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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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Photo by Isobel Craig

We’ve all heard the phrase “He’s no spring chicken,” meaning someone isn’t as young as he used to be. So we know what a “spring chicken” isn’t, but what is it?

Being a lover of old cookbooks, I recently decided to make Chicken Célestine, a late 19th Century recipe also served by the great chef Fernand Point at his restaurant La Pyramide near Lyon which opened in the 1920s. Chicken Célestine (after translation into English) calls for “spring chicken.” However, the French title uses the word “poulet” which, according to books of the time, describes what was then known in the US as a “broiler,” a young chicken, 2-3 months old and weighing 1½-2½ pounds. The reason it’s important to use such a young chicken in this dish is, the cooking method. It is braised for only about 15 minutes and so needs to be small and very tender to cook so fast.

When I went out to purchase a chicken of the required size and youth, I quickly discovered that the smallest whole chickens available at any number of supermarkets and gourmet shops in my area weighed at least 3 or 4 pounds. Even the venerable D’Artagnan, source of exotic meat and game birds for food lovers everywhere, doesn’t have any chickens under 2¾ pounds.

Scratching my head, I hit the books to find out what this recipe was really asking for and if I could get it. A little research in some old cookbooks, Larousse Gastronomique, and Julia Child’s famous “To Roast a Chicken” episode of The French Chef, shows that the term “spring chicken” is a British usage which means a young chicken that weighs 1½-2 pounds and is 2-3 months old. That sounds just like our “poulet” or “broiler.” According to Julia Child’s sublimely entertaining chicken episode, the USDA classifications for chicken in the early 1960s (when she made the show) were as follows:

  • Broiler: 2-3 months old, 1½-2½ pounds
  • Fryer: 3-5 months old, 2½-3½ pounds
  • Roaster: 5½-9 months old, 4-7 pounds
  • Capon: 7-10 months old, 8 pounds
  • Stewing foul: up to 12 months old
  • Old Hen: older than 12 months (and good only for soup)
  • Due to changes in the poultry industry, the USDA has changed these classifications. The invention of battery farms, the use of antibiotics, and selective breeding all mean that chickens grow a lot faster than they used to. So as you might expect, they are slaughtered younger than they were in Julia’s time. You can read the current USDA poultry classifications here.

    One thing puzzles me, the USDA has combined the first two categories, creating something they call a “broiler-fryer” which is under 13 weeks old. No weight range is given, but this bird is supposed to have a very flexible breast bone which indicates youth. Epicurious’s excellent “Food Dictionary” entry on chicken says that broiler-fryers can weigh up to 3½ pounds. From what I saw on my shopping trip, it seems there aren’t very many true broiler-fryers out there and if you’re looking for and old fashioned “broiler” as defined by the old rules, good luck with that.

    Fortunately, for us historic recipe geeks, there are other options. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child mentions another category of chicken, namely the “squab chicken” or “baby broiler.” This is a very, very young chicken at 2 months old and weighing in at ¾ – 1 pound. She writes that this is equivalent to the French “poussin” which is available through our friends at D’Artagnan. Another possibility for cooks who want a young (and thus very juicy and tender) bird is the Rock Cornish hen, also called a Cornish game hen. They fall right between the “squab chicken” or “poussin” and the “spring chicken” or “broiler” of old at 4-6 weeks in age and a weight of up to 2½ pounds. The Rock Cornish is a hybrid breed created in the 1950s by cross breeding Cornish roosters, and White Plymouth Rock hens. Alphonsine Davalis Makowsky, a French-American chicken farmer, is credited with the creation of this hybrid which was immediately seized by fine restaurants all over the US as a way to serve a whole bird as a single serving of tender, succulent meat.

    I am still left with the question, “Why are there no old style “broilers” available anymore?” Is it the growth of portion sizes in the US? Have home cooks lost the knowledge of the different sizes/ages of chicken and their proper uses? Do the meat companies (Tyson, I’m looking at you) want to make more money and so don’t bother selling small birds, instead using them for chicken parts or processed chicken products? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

    For my Chicken Célestine I chose to use 2 poussin which together weigh about the same as a “spring chicken” or old fashioned “broiler,” I also thought they would fare best with the cooking method. It’s a very simple dish using only mushrooms, a little tomato, garlic and a zesty pinch of red pepper in a white wine sauce, to bring out the delicate, sweet taste of the spring chicken. Served with rice and a bouquet of daffodils on the table it just might transport you.

    Chicken Célestine

    adapted from Fernand Point

    Serves 2

    4 tablespoons butter
    2 poussins (see above) weighing a total of about 2 pounds, cut into 4 pieces each
    ½ pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
    2 small ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
    6 tablespoons Congac
    1 cup dry white wine
    ½ cup homemade chicken stock or low sodium canned chicken stock
    sea salt
    freshly ground pepper
    1 pinch red pepper flakes
    1 clove garlic, minced
    4 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

    Melt the butter in a large deep saute pan. Stir the butter until it turns a nut-brown color. Add the chicken pieces to the pan and cook them over medium-high heat, turning so they brown evenly.

    When the chicken is browned, add the mushrooms, and tomato, stir to combine and cook for 5 minutes. Next add the Cognac, wine, and chicken stock, and red pepper flakes. Then season well with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

    Adjust the heat so the wine sauce is simmering, cover the pan and cook for 15 minutes or until the chicken reads at least 160F on a thermometer placed in the thigh.

    Remove the chicken to a hot platter and cover it with aluminum foil so it can rest while you make the sauce.

    Skim the fat from the top of the sauce or use a fat separator. Sprinkle ½ the chopped parsley into the sauce along with the minced garlic. Reduce the sauce until it coats a spoon. Taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary. Spoon it over the chicken, sprinkle on the rest of the parsley, and serve with rice.

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    This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

    My series of Lenten recipes wouldn’t be complete without an actual Medieval Lenten recipe. This one comes from a Medieval cookbook called Potage Dyvers (Diverse Dishes) which was written between 1430 and 1440. It is found in the Harleian collection of manuscripts in the British Library.

    The original is in Middle English, but thankfully back in 1888, the Early English Text Society of Oxford University published a translation, which is now in the public domain. Like most early recipes, it is more an aide-mémoire for a cook who already knows how to make the dish, than a real recipe, providing only a list of ingredients with no amounts, and precious few instructions. Trying to turn recipes like that into something useful for a modern home cook can be challenging and fun, involving lots of trial and error. In this case, I used a redaction done by Cindy Renfrow in her book Take a Thousand Eggs or More, a large collection of 15th Century recipes.

    The middle English word “rapeye” (pronounced RAP-ee) means a sauce of dried fruits, boiled in wine and spiced. It comes from the old French word “rapé.” It was commonly served with either meat or fish. In this case the rapeye is mixed with fish and used as a filling for pies. Regarding the pastry, the original manuscript says, “Take Dow, & make þer-of a brode þin cake.” or “Take Dough, & make thereof a broad thin cake,” with no indication of what kind of dough. Since this is a Lenten dish, no animal fats could be used to make the dough. Most likely the cook was expected to make a simple dough of flour, salt and hot water, which makes for a pastry with about the same consistency as a rock. It is thought that diners would simply break open the pie and only eat the inside, leaving the tooth-breaking crust behind. I decided to cheat a little and make a dough using olive oil, not a common ingredient in northern Europe in the 15th Century, but which would make the pies more fully edible. It turns out that Lebanese cuisine has quite a few olive oil based pastries, so I borrowed one from the inimitable Anissa Helou.

    Rapeye requires one unusual ingredient, powdered galangal. You should be able to find it in a shop carrying Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Indian ingredients. I got mine at Kalustyan’s in New York, which does sell by mail order. Galangal looks a lot like ginger, but it tastes sort of mustard-y and sweet at the same time. It is often found in the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

    If you’ve never tried Medieval food, you might be surprised at some of the flavors. Most of the recipes we have came from great houses whose wealth meant that they could afford exotic spices like galangal which had to come from Indonesia or China. In the same way that rich people nowadays might show off by serving caviar or foie gras, Medieval Lords and Ladies had their cooks dump the whole spice box into the pot. Many spices that we now associate with sweet dishes like nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon were used freely in main courses containing meat or fish. Our fish pies are no exception. The dried fruit makes them quite sweet and the spices used make them taste more like pumpkin pie than fish pie to the modern palate. In fact, I could barely taste the mild fish at all. Who knows, maybe that was the idea, considering how much fish had to be eaten during Lent maybe our Medieval cooks were trying to disguise it. After all, there are no rules against having sweets during Lent.


    Adapted from Cindy Renfrow and Anissa Helou

    Makes 12 6-inch half-moon shaped pies

    For the Filling:
    1 pound haddock fillet or other mild white fish
    1 teaspoon galangal powder
    ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
    6 black peppercorns, crushed
    ½ cup dry white wine
    2 ounces seedless raisins
    4 ounces dried figs, cut into 2-3 pieces each

    For the Pastry:
    2 cups flour
    ½ teaspoon salt
    4 tablespoons olive oil
    ⅔ cup water
    more olive oil for brushing

    Preheat oven to 400F.

    Make the pie filling by simmering the dried fruits in a small saucepan with the wine until they are tender, or about 10 minutes. Remove the fruits from the pan and reserve the simmering liquid. Blend the cooked fruits into a paste using a food processor or blender. If you find the paste too sticky add a little of the simmering liquid and blend further. Put the fruit paste in a medium sized mixing bowl. Next cut the fish fillet into large pieces and blend it to a paste in a food processor or blender. Mix the fish with the fruit paste, add the glangal powder, ground cloves, and crushed peppercorns, and stir thoroughly to combine.

    Make the pastry for the pies as follows: Whisk the salt and flour together in a bowl, make a well in the center and pour the olive oil into it. Use your fingers to work the oil into the flour until it is evenly distributed. The result will look like pebbles or breadcrumbs. Add the water a little at a time, stirring, until the dough comes together in a ball. Depending on the weather you may not need all of the water, or if the dough is too crumbly you can carefully add a little more (1 teaspoon at a time). Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest for 10 minutes.

    Turn the dough out onto a clean, unfloured surface. Knead the dough until it is smooth (about 5 minutes). Divide the dough evenly into 12 pieces, roll each into a ball. Cover the balls with a damp kitchen towel.

    On an unfloured work surface roll each ball into a 6-inch circle. You may need the tiniest dusting of flour on your rolling pin to keep the dough from sticking, but don’t use much.

    Fill one half of each circle of dough with the pie filling. Fold the empty half over the filling to form a half-moon. Seal the seams by pinching the dough together about every ½ inch. Use a pastry brush to paint each pie with olive oil, this will aid in the browning process. Pierce each pie 2 or 3 times with a fork to help vent steam during baking.

    Bake on a parchment lined baking sheet for about 30 minutes or until light golden brown. The pies may leak some liquid as they bake, the parchment will help make cleanup easier.

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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
    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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    This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

    In Sinhalese, the words “Sri Lanka” mean “Resplendent Island.” Well, it certainly has resplendent food, much of which is perfect for Lent. A tropical island nation off the south coast of India, Sri Lanka has the poetic nickname of “the pearl in the ear of India.” A common ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine is coconut milk, which while it sticks to the letter of the Medieval rules for Lent, does seem to defy their spirit with its luxurious richness. I’m sure there were lots of pious Medieval European monks who would have loved to have had it as an option. Over half of the inhabitants of Sri Lanka are Buddhist and, another 15% or so are Hindu, resulting in many vegetarians, and being an island there is an abundance of fish dishes. A Lenten food paradise really.

    Vatakka curry is an intriguing blend of sweetness and earth. The Maldive fish (more on that ingredient in a moment) is packed with umami and rumbles quietly at the bottom while the squash and spices capture your attention, sunny and bright.

    Sri Lankan cuisine does require some specialized ingredients. I was able to find all of them at Kalustyan’s here in New York, which carries a mind-blowing number of things from around the world which they sell via mail order. You could also try your local international food shops, in particular ones which have Indian and Japanese ingredients.

    You’ll need curry leaves, which come from the curry tree (Murraya koenigii) and have nothing at all to do with curry powder. The name comes from the Tamil word “kahri,” which means “gravy” or “sauce” which of course might contain curry leaves. The leaves are very aromatic and unlike bay leaves, they may be left in the dish and eaten. Fresh curry leaves are best, but can be hard to find, some stores also sell them frozen. If you can only find dried ones then add more as drying reduces their flavor.

    Maldive fish or umbalakada is a dried fish product made in the Maldives, a chain of atolls sprinkled in the Indian Ocean about 435 miles from Sri Lanka. It is made from fish such as skipjack tuna which is boiled, smoked and dried. When finished it looks like a piece of driftwood and keeps very well without refrigeration. You might find it in powdered form in a store which sells Indian ingredients. As a substitute you can use Japanese katsuobushi (also called Bonito) which is essentially the same as Maldive fish and can be easier to find. Katsuobushi is sold in flakes and looks like cedar wood shavings. To use in this recipe grind it up into a powder using a mortar and pestle.

    Coconut milk is fairly widely available in supermarkets these days. It is important to note that there are two kinds, thick and thin. Thick coconut milk comes from the first pressing, is thicker and has more fat. The second pressing yields thin coconut milk, and is sometimes labeled as “light.” This dish uses mostly the thin type, with a little bit of thick added at the end almost like butter finishing a French sauce.

    The only thing that gave me a little trouble with this recipe was not knowing what kind of “fresh green chiles” to use. The easiest kind for me to get are Jalapeños, so that’s what I used, however, they’re not really very hot. Sri Lankan cooking has a reputation for being among the hottest in the world, so I’m guessing that I should have used something else. I confess to adding a little Sriracha sauce to this dish to perk it up when I had it for lunch the next day. If any readers have suggestions of a proper fresh green chile I could use that would be available in the US, please leave a comment.

    Vatakka Curry

    Adapted from Charmaine Solomon

    Serves 6

    1 butternut squash (about 1 pound)
    1 small onion, finely chopped
    2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
    3 fresh green chiles, seeded and chopped
    2 tablespoons vegetable oil
    8-10 curry leaves, fresh or frozen
    ½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
    ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
    2 teaspoons ground Maldive fish or Katsuobushi (Bonito)
    1½ cups “light” or second pressing coconut milk
    1 teaspoon salt
    ½ cup “thick” or first pressing coconut milk
    1 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds

    Put your curry leaves and fenugreek seeds in a dry saute pan and toast them while shaking or stirring until they become fragrant and the leaves begin to crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove them from the heat and set aside.

    Peel the squash, cut it in half and remove the seeds and pulp. Cut the squash into a large dice, at least 1 inch, if you make it too small it may fall apart too much during the cooking. Put the squash in a medium saucepan with the onion, garlic, chiles, curry leaves, fenugreek, turmeric, Maldive fish or Bonito, light coconut milk, and salt. Stir gently to combine and cook over medium low heat at a bare simmer until the squash is tender, about 20-30 minutes. Grind the mustard seeds into a powder using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder and mix them with the thick coconut milk. Stir the thick coconut milk and mustard seed combination into the pot and cook for 5 more minutes. Serve with rice.

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    Littleneck clams chilling out

    This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

    When searching for Lenten recipes it seems natural to explore the traditional foods of countries with a long Christian tradition. One of the first that comes to mind is Italy, which is particularly useful because the cooking fat of choice in most of its regions is olive oil rather than butter, which meshes very easily with the strictures of Lent. The coastal areas of Italy are a rich source of seafood and shellfish recipes which often do not need to be changed at all. Today’s dish has the added joy of combining clams from the Adriatic sea with peas, giving us a little taste of spring before it fully arrives.

    Clams spawn from April until October. Besides the fact that it is not sustainable to eat an animal during its breeding season, shellfish doesn’t taste as good during spawning. So the best time to eat them is from November through March. Depending on when Easter falls (it is calculated using lunisolar cycles and so changes each year) clams are tasty throughout most of Lent.

    I prefer to cook as seasonally as I can. Using things only when they are at their peak increases our appreciation of them. For example, every year I look forward to tomato season, that brief time of juicy abundance when all I need to make an amazing meal is a little sea salt and olive oil, and maybe some bread and good mozzarella di bufala. However, I do make a few exceptions, one of which is frozen peas. They are flash frozen at the moment of harvest and so in a sort of time shifted way, they are in season when you pull them out of the freezer. Especially at the clinging end of winter I find peas particularly uplifting, giving me just a hint of the green I long for. The chopped parsley in this dish is also key. Be sure to buy very flavorful, dark green, flat leaf, Italian parsley. I was surprised at how the flavor reminded me of the baby lettuces we’ll soon be seeing in the market.

    This soup is both briny and green, like a fresh sea breeze blowing through a fresh meadow, a much needed tonic at the end of winter.

    Don’t be intimidated by cooking shellfish at home. Really, it’s not as hard as you think. Here are some important things to remember:

    1. The clams must be fresh. They will keep for 1 day in the refrigerator, but really you should cook them the same day you buy them. If you need to store them, fill a baking dish with ice, put the clams on the ice, cover the dish with a clean wet kitchen towel, and place the dish in the refrigerator. Check the dish towel occasionally to be sure it is still wet. Do not seal clams in plastic, they are alive and need to breathe.

    3. Inspect your clams carefully before cooking. They should all be firmly closed, or they should close up when you tap the shell. If a clam stays open, discard it.

    4. Before cooking, scrub the outside of each clam well with a stiff brush under running water. Next, soak your clams in a bowl of water for about an hour. As they “breathe” they expel any sand that may be inside them. When finished soaking, remove the clams from the bowl carefully so as not to disturb any sand which will have fallen to the bottom of the bowl. Finally, rinse the clams one more time in fresh water, scrubbing once more with the stiff brush. Now they are ready for the pot.

    Clam and Pea Soup

    Adapted from Marcella Hazan

    Serves 6

    3 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed and soaked (see above)
    3 pounds frozen peas, thawed
    1/3 cup olive oil
    1 small onion, chopped
    3 cloves garlic, chopped
    4 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
    2/3 cup canned plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
    freshly ground black pepper
    Crostini (optional, see recipe below)

    Put your scrubbed and soaked clams in a large enough pot for them to be layered no more than 2 or 3 deep. Add 1/2 cup of water, cover and place the pot over high heat. About every 30 seconds, pick up the whole pot, and shake it while holding the cover on. If the pot is too heavy for you to do this easily, you may instead quickly take off the lid and stir the clams with a spoon, but replace the lid as soon as possible to keep too much steam from escaping. The goal is the move the clams around as they are cooking so they are all exposed to the heat evenly. After 3-5 minutes some of the clams will begin to open. Use tongs to remove the clams as soon as they open and place them in a bowl. Continue shaking or stirring every 30 seconds until all of the clams are open. In the unlikely event that you have a clam or two that doesn’t open even after a total cooking time of 10 minutes, discard them. They are most likely full of mud and sand, and you wouldn’t want to eat them.

    When all of the clams have been removed from the pot, turn off the heat and tightly cover the pot.

    Once the cooked clams are cool enough to handle easily, remove the meat from the shells and chop each clam into 3-4 pieces. Place the clam meat in a bowl and pour any liquid that has accumulated in the bowl where the clams were cooling back into the pot.

    Line a fine mesh strainer with paper towel and pour the clam cooking liquid through it into a bowl, removing any sand and grit. Pour just enough of the strained liquid over the chopped clam meat to keep it moist and reserve any remaining clam cooking liquid for later use.

    Add the olive oil to a large deep saute pan and place it over medium heat. Saute the onion until it is translucent, add the garlic and cook until it turns golden brown. Add the half of the chopped parsley (2 tablespoons), and the tomatoes with their juice. Season with a large pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of fresh black pepper. Turn the heat down, and simmer partially covered for 10 minutes to combine the flavors.

    If you are serving the soup with crostini (see recipe below), this is a convenient time to make them, while the soup simmers a bit.

    Add the thawed frozen peas, any reserved clam liquid and if necessary, enough water to cover the peas by about 1 inch. Cover the pot and cook for 1-2 minutes at a gentle simmer. Don’t over cook the peas, you don’t want them mushy. Taste the soup and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.

    Add the cut up clam meat and its juices. Cook just enough to warm the meat through, barley a minute or so. Be careful not to overcook here, as the clams will be come tough very quickly.

    Ladle the soup into bowls, add crostini, if using, and sprinkle with the rest of the chopped parsley.


    Adapted from Marcella Hazan

    Serves 6

    6 slices of good white bread
    olive oil

    These should be made as close to serving time as possible. They will keep at room temperature for a couple of hours but no more than that.

    Cut the crusts from your bread and cut it into 1/2-inch squares.

    Put enough olive oil in a medium skillet to come 1/2 inch up the side of the pan. Put the skillet over medium-high heat and heat the oil until it is hot enough to make the pieces of bread sizzle (test by putting just one piece in, if it’s not time, remove it and wait a little longer).

    Once the oil is hot enough, put in as many bread squares as you can without crowding the pan and turn the heat down to medium. Scoot the bread pieces around the pan with a spoon and turn them over in the oil so both sides brown evenly. Cook them until they are a light golden brown, then remove them with a slotted spoon to a plate with paper towels to absorb any excess oil. Store at room temperature until serving time.

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    Photo by Sandor Weisz

    “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.

    Did you know there are 31(!) ingredients in the plain breadcrumbs sold at the grocery store? Really, have a look next time you’re shopping.

    There is no reason to ever buy breadcrumbs. Have you ever thrown away the heel of a loaf of bread because it’s too small to make a sandwich or because you just don’t like the heel? Or, have you forgotten you have some bread in the house, only to discover a week later that it has gone completely stale? Have you ever bought some really cheap, nasty, industrial, squishy bread because the only store open was the corner bodega and you were desperate, but now that you’ve eaten two slices you regret it? In all of these situations you might end up throwing the bread away, what else can you do? Make breadcrumbs!

    I will confess that the Panko or Japanese-style breadcrumbs sold in stores these days are very nice. They only have 5 ingredients, are perfectly uniform and super crunchy, and I feel like a celebrity chef when I use them. But when I think about how they came to be so perfect, I get visions of factories in my head. My big reasons for making my own breadcrumbs (besides the fact that I’m a geek) are to prevent food waste, cut down on the number of containers I have to send to the landfill and keep unnecessary and possibly unhealthy ingredients out of my food. It seems ridiculous to pay a company to pulverize bread and toast it in a factory somewhere and then ship it to a store so I can buy it when I can make the same thing in about half an hour at home.

    There are two types of breadcrumbs fresh (sometimes called moist), and dry. The dry ones are crunchy and are mainly used in recipes as a coating or topping. Fresh breadcrumbs are also made from stale bread but they are not toasted so they remain softer. Fresh breadcrumbs are used for stuffing or as a filler to bulk out meat preparations and sauces. You may not get the same even browning from homemade dry crumbs as you do from the store bought kind, but I think that makes dishes look more homemade. The commercial crumbs often have some dried milk or egg in them, if you want to experiment you could try adding some powdered milk. I imagine the milk proteins would help the browning.

    Breadcrumbs Fresh or Dry

    Approximately 4 slices of bread makes 1 cup of breadcrumbs

    Any kind of stale bread, dry but not rock hard, and certainly not moldy.

    If your bread isn’t stale, put the slices in a 350F oven for 5 minutes or so to dry it out, but don’t let it brown.

    Tear your bread into 1 inch pieces and process in a food processor or blender until you have the size breadcrumbs you wish. If you don’t have a food processor you can grate the bread on a box grater or put the dry bread in a bag and crush it with a rolling pin.

    These are fresh or moist bread crumbs. They can be stored in the freezer in a zip top bag until you need them.

    If you want to make dry bread crumbs preheat your oven to 350F and spread your fresh breadcrumbs in a single layer on a sheet pan. Bake them in the oven for 10 minutes. Then stir the crumbs to ensure even crisping and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes. You don’t want to brown the crumbs very much since you’ll likely be using them as a coating or topping where they will be cooked further. Just dry them out until they are crisp and crunchy.

    Store in a zip top bag in the freezer until needed.

    Variations: If you want to duplicate the “Italian style” breadcrumbs sold in stores, mix in some salt and dried herbs such as basil, and oregano.

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    This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

    I had no idea the Greeks ate pasta. According to Vefa Alexiadou, Greece’s version of Irma Rombauer, pasta has been a staple in some regions of that ancient land for centuries. Her cookbook, Vefa’s Kitchen, is packed full of fascinating tidbits like that, including lots of information about the different regions of Greece and their cultural history. As you might expect in a country with a tradition of Orthodox Christianity, there are many Lenten recipes. Some of them, like today’s, even identify themselves as such in their titles.

    Sticking to the Medieval rules of Lent can be a challenge. One of the biggest things I notice every year is the drop in the amount of protein I’m eating. The brain needs protein to function well and during the first few days of Lent I often find myself a little distracted and unable to concentrate. As a former vegetarian, I know I don’t need meat and other animal products to get all the protein I need, I just have to think a little differently about what to eat. Lenten Spaghetti with Tahini is the perfect solution to this problem. The sauce is based on tahini, a roasted sesame paste common in middle eastern food, and the protein content is augmented further with a sprinkling of ground walnuts and toasted sesame seeds.

    This dish is surprisingly light with bright, almost summery flavors provided by the mint, along with an unusual medieval zing from the allspice and cinnamon. I was skeptical about the olives, but they bring just the right amount of salt and earthiness. Eating this had me dreaming of warm weather and outdoor cafes. A ray of sunshine in the darkness of Lent

    Lenten Spaghetti with Tahini

    Adapted from Vefa Alexiadou

    Serves 4

    4 tablespoons tahini
    1 medium onion
    15 oz. canned chopped tomatoes
    1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
    1 tablespoon tomato paste
    8 whole allspice berries
    1 bay leaf
    1 good pinch of ground cinnamon
    4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
    1/2 teaspoon sea salt
    freshly ground black pepper
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 pound spaghetti
    3/4 cup ground walnuts
    4 tablespoons sesame seeds
    10 Kalamata olives, pitted

    Peel the onion and grate it either in a food processor or with a hand grater. Put the grated onion in a medium saucepan with the tahini and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until the onion is soft. Add the tomatoes, vinegar, tomato paste, allspice berries, bay leaf, cinnamon, mint, sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper.

    Simmer the sauce, uncovered for about 15 minutes to combine the flavors. The consistency should be that of a light meat sauce. If it seems too thick, feel free to add a bit of water.

    As the sauce simmers, put a large pot of salted water on to boil, adding the 2 tablespoons of olive oil to it to keep the pasta from sticking. Lightly toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet by stirring or shaking constantly over a medium-high heat until they begin to brown. Be careful, they can burn very easily.

    Cook the pasta to your taste using the package directions. Taste the sauce and season further with salt and pepper if necessary. When the pasta is cooked, drain it and toss with the sauce in a large bowl. Sprinkle the individual servings of pasta with the ground walnuts and toasted sesame seeds, and garnish with Kalamata olives.

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    Photo by Javier Lastras

    It was a brave woman, who decided to taste the strangely thickened stuff that appeared in her milk container one day. I wonder how our early ancestors figured out the difference between “spoiled” milk that was safe and even good for you, like yogurt, and the kind that can kill you? Sounds like a dangerous game to me.

    Yogurt seems to have originated in Central Asia at least 4,500 years ago. No one knows how it was created the first time, but it was most likely an accident. With no refrigeration, milk was something that had to be consumed as soon as it was drawn from its animal source. This was true even during the cooler seasons of the year because with no pasteurization, milk is a prime medium for the growth of undesirable bacteria that can kill. However, some of the bacteria floating around can have a good effect when they colonize our food. Think about the wild yeast beers made in Belgium, or those fabulous French cheeses. Along with yogurt, these foods were likely discovered by accident when wild bacteria came to call. The creation of yogurt and cheeses allowed us to preserve milk for a little longer, a real boon to ancient nutrition, not to mention, tasty.

    Humans are supremely adaptable, and after a while we figured out how to ensure the good kind of “spoiled” milk every time we tried to make it. Lucky for us, we don’t have to do this through trial and error they way our ancestors did, we’ve got science! Yogurt is milk that has been cultured with two (and sometimes more) bacteria, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. When they colonize milk they convert the milk sugars into lactic acid lowering the pH of the milk. Most “bad” bacteria cannot grow in an acid (low pH) environment, so these little guys are protecting us by preventing nasty things from growing. Another benefit provided by our little friends, is that breaking down the milk sugars makes yogurt very easily digestible, even by people who are lactose intolerant. In fact, this is one of many reasons to make yogurt at home. Often commercial brands of yogurt contain added milk solids as a thickener which may not be tolerated if you have trouble digesting lactose. If you make yogurt at home, you can avoid this.

    Yogurt making consists of four steps: scald your milk and then allow it to cool to 115F; add your yogurt starter; incubate your yogurt; and then refrigerate. Originally, the milk was probably scalded to kill the bad bacteria; these days we have pasteurization for that. However, you’ll notice that most yogurt recipes still have you heat the milk first. Why? The scalding process starts to unfold the milk proteins and when they refold during fermentation they form tighter bonds, resulting in a thicker, firmer finished product and less whey separation. You can make yogurt without heating your milk and in fact, proponents of raw milk do just that when they make raw milk yogurt.

    In an attempt to simulate the original yogurt made in Central Asia eons ago, I used a very simple recipe containing just whole milk and a starter, nothing else. You can use any kind of milk you like and if you want a quick way to ensure very thick yogurt you can add powdered milk, which is essentially milk solids. As a starter, I used a few tablespoons of a commercial brand of whole milk yogurt that does not have any thickeners or stabilizers in it. Not all commercial yogurt is created equal, so read the label. You want to make sure your starter has active cultures in it. If it doesn’t say “contains active (or live) cultures” on the label then they’re not in there. You can also buy dried yogurt starter from a cheese making supply company.

    Once you start making your own yogurt, you can do what our ancestors did and use a bit of your last batch to make the next one, just like with sourdough bread. If you choose to use the self-perpetuating method, the easiest way to ensure an uncontaminated starter is to make two containers of yogurt each time. One large one for the yogurt you will be eating and one small one (about 4 oz.) to create the starter for your next batch. That way the starter jar stays closed and uncontaminated until you use it to make your next batch.

    Once you’ve blended the starter with the warm milk, pour the milk mixture into a sealable storage container and put it in a warm place to incubate. Ideally, the temperature needs to be around 110-115F (43-46C). But beware, you do not want the temperature to climb above 120F (48C), this will kill off our friendly little bugs. I have found success by putting my quart mason jar of yogurt in a cold gas oven with the interior light bulb left on. Other methods I have heard about include using a heating pad inside a container big enough to hold your yogurt jar, or a small enclosed space with a clip light and a 100 watt bulb. Experiment until you find a good incubation place in your home for yogurt.

    How long to incubate is up to you, the longer you go, the thicker and tangier it gets. For medium thickness and flavor, try 6 hours of incubation. I like my yogurt thick so I leave it for 12-15 hours. When it has finished incubating to your satisfaction, put it in the refrigerator over night to stop the fermentation process and set the texture. If you like a super-thick Greek-style yogurt, you can strain the finished product through several layers of cheese cloth.

    Homemade Yogurt

    1 quart whole milk of the best quality, organic preferred
    3-4 tablespoons whole milk plain yogurt with live active cultures, room temperature
    1 quart sized container with a sealable lid
    1 digital probe thermometer

    Sterilize your jar and lid in a 225F (107C) oven for 5 minutes and then remove them and allow them to cool.

    Over a medium-low burner, heat the milk to 180F (82C) and then take it off the heat and allow the temperature to drop to 115F (46C).

    Mix the whole milk plain yogurt into the cooled milk. Be sure to whisk thoroughly; you want those friendly bacteria to be evenly mixed into the milk.

    Pour the milk mixture into your sterilized 1 quart jar, leaving an inch or so of room at the top. Close tightly and place it in your cold oven with the lightbulb turned on inside or some other suitably warm place in your home (see above for suggestions). For mild flavor and medium thickness incubate for 6 hours, if you like your yogurt thicker and tangier you can leave it for 12-15 hours

    When incubation is complete, move the yogurt to the refrigerator and chill for 24 hours. Serve plain or with fresh fruit and/or honey.

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