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Archive for the ‘Traditional Foodways’ Category

It has happened to all of us. You buy a bunch of parsley so you can chop up about a tablespoon of it to use for garnish, and the rest languishes forgotten in the fridge, where it eventually turns to sludge. Well, dear reader, it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. The gauchos of Argentina have come galloping to the rescue with a savory sauce that will fill your kitchen with the aroma of wild green places: Chimichurri.

As usual around here, I went looking into the history of this traditional Argentine condiment and found some surprising things. Food historians do think it originated with Argentine cowboys. By 1580 when Buenos Aires became a permanent settlement, there were already vast herds of wild horses roaming the endless prairies of Argentina. The Spanish settlers brought cattle (a breed which would eventually contribute to the development of the Texas Longhorn) and the beef-centered cuisine of Argentina began. The gauchos lived as nomads, roaming the wild land, slaughtering feral cattle, cooking the meat in the open, and eating it with their trusty facónes. Due to this minimalist existence, when these men wanted a sauce for that hunk of steer roasting over an open fire, it isn’t likely they had garden-fresh parsley on hand. The original Chimichurri sauce probably consisted of dried parsley and oregano, along with garlic, vinegar, oil, and salt and pepper. It may have been more akin to English mint sauce (which is also vinegar-based), than the fancy, fresh Chimichurris of today.

And how about the name? There is a folk etymology that attributes the sauce to an English or Irish soldier named Jimmy who joined in the fight for Argentine independence. His sauce was Jimmy’s curry, which was difficult for the Argentineans to pronounce and so it became Chimichurri. A more intriguing possibility is suggested in Steven Raichlen’s new book Planet Barbecue!. There is a word in the Basque language, “tximitxurri,” which can be interpreted to mean, “a mixture of several things in no particular order.” There is a Basque presence in Argentina, and they are well known as expert animal herders. I’m putting my money on tximitxurri, besides, I think every language needs a word for “a mixture of several things in no particular order,” don’t you?

Alright, so let’s pull out the kitchen-equivalent of our facónes (gauchos didn’t have food processors), and get to work. Even though I love the idea of trying to reproduce the ur-Chimichurri, I did have fresh parsley to use up so we’ll go with a fresh version. The other thing I discovered in my research is that there are about as many recipes for Chimichurri as there are cattle in Argentina, and many of them don’t just contain parsley, some are even red instead of green. This one is adapted from the first rate web site Asado Argentina, whose webmaster is an American living in Argentina with a mission to bring a love for Argentine cuisine to the world.

There is no real cooking involved in making this sauce, yet it made my kitchen smell wild and exotic. In the end it is a summery, kaleidoscope of flavors, that lingers on the palate, and only gets better with age in the refrigerator. Chimichurri sauce is traditionally served with barbecued meats, primarily offal and sausages, but really, it goes with everything.

Chimichurri Sauce

Adapted from Asado Argentina

Makes about 1½ cups

Contrary to popular belief, the bay leaves used in cooking are not poisonous. We remove them from food because they are very stiff and could easily scratch the throat if swallowed. Here we crumble the leaves into very small pieces before adding them to the sauce, which makes them easier to swallow and allows the flavor of the herb to permeate the sauce.

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ a red bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon paprika
4 bay leaves, crumbled into very small pieces
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt or Kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pinch dried red pepper flakes (or to taste)
¼ cup water
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil

Put all of the ingredients except for the water, vinegar and oil together in a large bowl and toss well to combine. Let stand for at least 30 minutes.

In a small saucepan bring the water and vinegar to a boil and pour it over the ingredients in the bowl and toss. This blanches the onions and garlic, creating a more mellow flavor. Let stand for at least 30 minutes.

Lastly, add the olive oil and stir. The sauce is ready to serve, but it benefits from a day or two in the fridge, so do consider making it in advance.

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Next month I’ll be attending the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in the UK. Each year, this conference on food, its culture, and its history focuses on a different theme; this year it’s Cured, Fermented, and Smoked Foods.

Living in a New York City apartment, the temperature and humidity of which is difficult to control at the best of times, it will be a while before my fantasy of making my own Prosciutto is realized. Smoking can be a bit easier. I have a friend who makes tea smoked duck, and homemade smoked sausages using a large wok with a rack and a lid. However, there is that pesky smoke detector to contend with. On the fermenting side, the only thing I’ve tried is homemade yogurt. In preparation for my upcoming trip to Oxford, I thought it high time I explored another aspect of this intriguing method of food preservation.

If I were living about 3000 years ago on the Indian subcontinent, I don’t know that I would have come up with the idea of soaking cucumbers in salty water and spices in order to preserve them, but our Indian friends certainly knew what they were doing. In many English speaking countries the word “pickle” by default means a pickled cucumber, even though we humans have been pickling lots of other fruits, vegetables, and meat for thousands of years. Cucumbers are believed to have arisen in India. From there they spread to Ancient Greece, and the Romans took them all over the empire.

It just so happens that my local farmers’ market currently has piles of Kirby cucumbers of just the right size for making pickles. As a New Yorker, I couldn’t resist trying to make Kosher dills. Technically, since my kitchen is not Kosher, the pickles aren’t either, but the name refers to a particular style of pickle found in New York Jewish delicatessens that is known for containing plenty of garlic.

I was surprised at how easy these are to make. They don’t take nearly as long as some other fermented foods (sauerkraut, for example). The pickling spice I used contains some red pepper flakes which produced a pleasant spicy kick along with all that lovely dill and garlic. Plan ahead and make a couple of jars to bring along to that lucky friend’s house who has a grill.

“Kosher” Dill Pickles

Adapted from Arthur Schwartz

Makes one 1-quart jar of whole pickles

1 quart-sized canning jar with lids
2 quarts water
3 tablespoons kosher salt
10-12 small Kirby cucumbers, scrubbed
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled and lightly crushed
2 teaspoons picking spice (see below for recipe)
2 whole bay leaves
4-6 fronds of fresh dill, washed
cheesecloth
1 rubber band

Sterilize your canning jar by baking it in a 225 F oven for 5 minutes.

In a medium saucepan heat the salt and water until the salt is dissolved. Turn off the heat.

Cut both ends off of each cucumber. The blossom end contains an enzyme which can cause pickles to go mushy, it can be difficult to tell which end that is, so just cut a little off of both ends.

Pack the cucumbers into the jar vertically, as tightly as you can. Distribute the garlic, spices, bay leaves, and dill around and between the cucumbers as you are packing. A clean chopstick can be helpful for pushing the dill and garlic into small spaces. If you quarter each cucumber lengthwise you will be able to pack more into your jar. If you do it that way, buy more cucumbers than listed above, so they will be packed tightly.

When the jar is packed ladle the warm brine into it. Fill the jar so that the tops of the cucumbers are completely covered with brine. You probably won’t use all of the brine, but it’s better to have too much than not enough. Cover the top of the jar with a piece of cheesecloth and secure it with the rubber band.

Put the jar in a cool dark place for 3-6 days to allow the pickles to ferment. After 3 days taste them and see if they are to your liking. If you chose to quarter your cucumbers they will be finished sooner. A longer fermentation time makes for a more sour pickle. When they taste the way you like, remove the cheese cloth, put the lids on the jar and refrigerate your pickles.

Pickling Spice

Adapted from Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

Makes about ¼ cup

1½ teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1½ teaspoons mustard seeds
1½ teaspoons coriander seeds
1½ hot red pepper flakes
1½ whole allspice berries
½ teaspoon ground mace
½ small cinnamon stick, crushed
1½ teaspoons whole cloves
½ teaspoon ground ginger

Put the peppercorns, mustard seeds, and coriander seeds in a small dry skillet. Toast them over medium heat until fragrant, stirring constantly. Transfer the toasted spices to a mortar and pestle and crush them slightly.

Combine the toasted, crushed spices with the rest of the ingredients, mix well. Store in an airtight, opaque container.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeweled Rice

Adapted from Margaret Shaida

Serves 4 to 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liquid Saffron

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

20-30 strands of saffron
sugar
tepid water

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

Persian Spice Mixture

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

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

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

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Oh, to be in the souk bargaining with an olive merchant, while chickens destined for the pot scurry around your feet. I’ve never been to Morocco, but if the mysterious flavors of its cuisine are any indication, I must visit. One of the classic combinations is a tagine of chicken with lemon and olives.

A tagine is a North African clay cooking vessel, with a tall conical cover that looks a bit like a sorcerer’s hat. The shape of the top encourages condensation, keeping the food inside moist as it cooks. Tagine is also what you call the dish that is cooked in said vessel, usually a slow braise of meat, poultry or fish with fruits, vegetables and exotic spices.

Tagines cooking over charcoal fires / photo by Flickr user John Mather

Essentially, a tagine is a stew, and so is Morocco. Separated from Europe only by the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, it has long been one of the great crossroads of the world. Many peoples have come and gone over thousands of years, each leaving an influence on the culture and the food.

The first inhabitants were the indigenous North Africans, the Berbers, or as they call themselves, the Imazighen. As early as the 6th Century, BCE, Phoenician traders established colonies in what is now Morocco. The next group to add their spice to the pot were the Romans. In fact, several famous Romans are known to have been Berbers, including the author Apuleius and the great church father Saint Augustine. In the 7th Century, CE, the Arabs conquered what is now Morocco, introducing Islam to the local Berber population. Over the next 800 years there was much influence, culinary and otherwise, from the Iberian peninsula whence many Muslims and Jews fled as the European Christians slowly re-took area from the Arabs. The Portuguese had an additional brief influence in Morocco during the early 16th Century as they spread their wings to explore the globe.

In the late 19th Century, France and Spain turned their eyes to Morocco’s weak government, expressing concern about instability in this geographically strategic area. These countries were also very interested in expanding their colonial powers and Morocco was a known source of wealth. By 1912, most of Morocco was declared a French Protectorate with a smaller Spanish Protectorate in the northern part of the country. This remained in place until 1956 when Morocco gained its independence.

For a dish with so many strong flavors this version of chicken with lemon and olives (called Djej Emshemel in Morocco) is surprisingly subtle and well balanced. The preserved lemons (do cut them up and eat them, peel and all) are like a burst of perfume in the mouth, and the mashed chicken liver in the sauce anchors the whole dish with a rich bass note. This one is definitely going on the dinner party list. While the total cooking time is on the order of two and a half hours, most of that is not active time in the kitchen, leaving you with plenty of time to set the table and put the flowers in a vase.

In a traditional Moroccan meal you might begin with some refreshing salads, perhaps an eggplant puree with cumin and paprika, and maybe a Spanish-influenced mixture of tomatoes and roasted green peppers with preserved lemon. Outside of Morocco, tagines are often served with couscous, but according to Moroccan food expert Paula Wolfert, the couscous, which has been steamed over, and eventually combined with, a lamb broth including meat and vegetables, is traditionally served at the end of the meal. The most appropriate thing to serve with the tagine is flat, round, moroccan bread which is fairly easy to make at home. If you have access to a middle eastern bakery, Turkish bread is fairly similar, or in a pinch, nice fresh pita bread will do for soaking up the rich, lemony sauce.

Tagine of Chicken with Lemon and Olives

Adapted from Paula Wolfert

Serves 4

If you don’t have a tagine (the pot), you can still make a tagine (the food). A heavy dutch oven with a cover works very well. You can find preserved lemons in specialty food shops, and they are also very easy to make yourself.

1 chicken and its liver
3 cloves garlic, peeled
kosher salt and sea salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
⅛ teaspoon ground cumin
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup vegetable oil or peanut oil
1¼ cups grated onion, drained
⅛ teaspoon pulverized saffron
¼ cup mixture of chopped fresh cilantro and parsley
¾ cup ripe Moroccan olives in citrus juice or Royal-Victoria or Kalamata olives
1 preserved lemon
1-2 fresh lemons

The day before serving, cut the chicken into 4 pieces, wash the pieces in salted water, and drain. Use a mortar and pestle to make a paste using 2 of your cloves of garlic and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Rub the chicken pieces with the paste, then rinse the paste off under cool running water until the garlic smell is gone. Drain. This is a traditional Moroccan way of preparing poultry for cooking which is said to remove bitter flavors and bring out the taste of the chicken.

Make a marinade by mixing together the following: the remaining clove of garlic, thinly sliced, ½ teaspoon of sea salt, the ginger, paprika, cumin, black pepper, and vegetable or peanut oil. Coat the chicken and the chicken liver in the marinade, cover and chill for 24 hours.

Put the chicken, its liver, and the marinade in a heavy dutch oven. Gently pulverize your saffron threads in a mortar and pestle. When you have ⅛ of a teaspoon, pour a little water in the mortar and let it stand a moment. Add ¼ cup of the grated onion to the dutch oven along with the saffron water, cilantro and parsley, and 1½ cups of water. Bring it to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer and cover. Turn the pieces of chicken frequently in the liquid while simmering for 30 minutes.

While the chicken is simmering, pit the olives if necessary and rinse and drain them.

When the chicken has finished simmering, remove the chicken liver from the casserole and mash it finely. Return the liver to the pot along with the rest of the grated onions. Check the level of the braising liquid and add some water if it doesn’t come halfway up the chicken pieces. Partially cover the pot and simmer until the chicken is very tender and the meat is falling from the bone, about an hour and a half.

When the chicken is done, rinse the preserved lemon and quarter it. Add the preserved lemon and the olives to the pot and cook for about 10 minutes, uncovered, to combine the flavors.

Remove the chicken pieces, olives, and preserved lemon to a serving platter, cover to keep warm.

Turn the heat up and reduce the sauce to about ¾ cup. Add the juice of 1 fresh lemon to the sauce. Taste it and adjust the seasoning with salt and/or more fresh lemon juice if necessary.

Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve.

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A 19th Century German Cottage in Hahndorf, South Australia

Traveling in Australia one expects Vegemite, or a burger “with the lot” which includes, depending upon whom you ask, pickled beets, a fried egg, and a slice of fresh pineapple. But a lunch of homemade mettwurst and sauerkraut, washed down with rich German beer, and finishing off with a nice slice of apple struesel? That’s exactly what you’ll find if you visit Hahndorf in the state of South Australia

Most people have heard that the nation of Australia began as a British penal colony when the First Fleet bearing some some 750 convicts landed at Botany Bay in 1788. While the first settlers in the colonies which would become the Australian states of New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, and Victoria were primarily convicts, South Australia was founded in 1834 as a colony of free settlers. As might be expected, most of these settlers immigrated from England, Ireland, and Scotland. However, there were a significant number who came from Germany.

In the 1830s the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III forced the union of the Calvinist and Lutheran churches and any community which continued the old Lutheran practices found its pastor jailed and its land confiscated. In 1838 a group of 54 families fled this persecution by embarking on the ship Zebra and sailing for South Australia. They negotiated for the use of 240 acres of uncleared bush land about 16 miles outside of the city of Adelaide and founded the town of Hahndorf, which was named for Dirk Meinhertz Hahn, captain of the Zebra.

Hahndorf is the oldest non-British, European settlement in Australia. Other communities with German roots include: Grunthal founded in 1841, Lobethal founded in 1842, and Bethany, also founded in 1842. In addition to introducing some tasty German cuisine to the local, primarily English colonists, the German settlers in South Australia were quite influential in Australia’s burgeoning wine industry. They planted the first vines in the of the now famed Barossa Valley wine region where some of the world’s best Shiraz grapes are now grown.

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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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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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