Archive for the ‘Traditional Foodways’ Category

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.


Read Full Post »

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.

    Read Full Post »

    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.

    Read Full Post »

    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.

    Read Full Post »

    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.

    Read Full Post »

    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.

    Read Full Post »

    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.

    Read Full Post »

    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).

    Asian cuisine is a tremendous source of Lenten dishes. There are many fish-based and vegetarian delights to choose from. These recipes often contain no dairy, or what there is can easily be replaced with olive or other oils. Best of all, this food is flavorful and exotic so you don’t feel like you’re denying yourself. In fact if you save these dishes especially for Lent, it can feel like a celebration.

    Lately I have been infatuated with Fuchsia Dunlop’s magnificent Chinese cookbooks. Today’s recipe is a savory, spicy (but not too hot) fish dish from Sichuan province. It does require some specialty ingredients, but if you live near a chinatown this can be easily accomplished. There are also good mail order sources for much of what is needed (see recipe below for details).

    Facing-heaven chiles, waiting to go into the wok

    Don’t be intimidated by the bright red oil that drenches the fish. It’s purpose is to stimulate your senses with it’s deep color and spicy, almost floral fragrance, you are not expected to eat it. Take the fish out of of the oil with your chopsticks, leaving most of it behind on the plate, along with the whole spices which have also already done their job.

    If you haven’t eaten Sichuan food before, know that while it is spicy, it is not as fire engine-hot as you might expect. One of the most important ingredients is Sichuan pepper which is not at all spicy, but instead causes a physical sensation of numbness and tingling in the mouth. It is very sensuous and pleasant, and really makes this cuisine special.

    Fish with Chiles and Sichuan Pepper

    adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop

    Serves 2 as a main dish if served with a vegetable side dish and rice

    Notes on specialized ingredients:
    If you live in New York City, see my previous article about shopping for sichuan ingredients in Chinatown. There are also photos there of whole facing-heaven chiles and Sichuan pepper so you’ll know what to look for. Unfortunately, I have not found a good mail order source for the facing-heaven chiles so if you don’t live near a chinatown you may need to substitute. I have read that pequin chiles can be used, but the flavor is not the same. Beware, if you use the long skinny Thai chiles (also called bird’s eye chiles), they are much hotter than Sichuanese chiles so you should use less.

    I can highly recommend the Sichuan pepper available via mail order from Adriana’s Caravan, it is very fresh and flavorful. They also carry the chili bean paste, which they call Chili Bean (Toban Djan) Sauce. When shopping for this item try to get a version made with fava or broad beans instead of soy beans.

    1 pound filet of carp, sea bass, or other white-fleshed fish

    For the Marinade
    a 1-inch piece of fresh, unpeeled ginger, crushed
    1 scallion, both white and green parts cut into 3-4 pieces and crushed
    ½ teaspoon salt
    2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
    4 tablespoons cornstarch
    3 tablespoons cold water

    For the Base Flavorings
    6 dried Sichuanese chiles (facing-heaven chiles)
    1 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
    3 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
    5 scallions both the white and green parts, cut into 2-3 inch pieces and crushed
    3 tablespoons of peanut or corn oil
    1 tablespoon Sichuanese chili bean paste
    1/2 teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper

    For the Spicy Oil
    ¾ cup peanut or corn oil
    1½ tablespoons Sichuanese chili bean paste
    1-2 ounces dried Sichuanese chiles (facing-heaven chiles)
    2 teaspoons whole Sichuan pepper

    It is important to measure and chop all of your ingredients before beginning this dish. Once you start cooking it goes very quickly, so have everything prepped in small containers and ready to go.

    Marinate the fish: lay your fish fillet on a cutting board and cut it into ¼-½ inch thick slices by holding your knife almost parallel to the cutting board and making very shallow cuts. Put the slices in a small bowl and add the salt, wine or sherry, ginger, and scallion, and toss gently with your fingers. Let stand while preparing the rest of your ingredients.

    Snip all of your dried chiles in half with scissors and shake out as many seeds as possible. If you have sensitive skin you may want to wear gloves. In any case, wash your hands thoroughly with soap after handling the chiles and be careful about touching your eyes.

    Cook the base flavorings: heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a wok over a high flame. When it begins to smoke, turn the heat down and add the chile bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant. Add the ginger, garlic, scallions, dried chiles, and Sichuan pepper and continue to stir-fry until it is very fragrant and the scallions are tender. Keep an eye on the temperature, you want the oil sizzling but not so hot that it will burn the spices. Pour the contents of the wok into a deep serving bowl.

    Cook the fish: bring a medium saucepan full of water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, discard the ginger and scallion from the fish marinade. Mix the cornstarch and cold water to form a thin paste. pour the paste over the fish slices and toss gently with your fingers until all of the slices are well coated. When your water is boiling, drop all of your fish slices into the pot. DO NOT stir until the water has returned to a boil or the coating will come off. Allow the water to come back to a boil and cook the fish slices until they are just done and nicely flaky (about 5 minutes). Use a slotted spoon or skimmer to remove the fish slices from the pot and put them in the serving bowl on top of the base flavors.

    Make the spicy oil: Quickly heat ¾ cup of oil in the wok over a high flame until it begins to smoke. Turn down the heat a little and add the chili bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant. Add the remaining chiles and whole Sichuan pepper and stir-fry until they are crisp and fragrant, the longer you go, the spicier it gets. The oil should be sizzling but not so hot as to burn the spices. When it is ready, pour the hot oil and spices over the fish in the serving bowl and serve immediately while it is still bubbling.

    Read Full Post »

    Photo by Janne Hellsten

    I’ll admit it’s difficult to eat seasonally in the Northeastern US or Northern Europe in winter. You must cultivate a love for root vegetables and make the acquaintance of farmers with large green houses. But just imagine if your religion required you to give up most animal products during that same time. For Medieval Christians that’s exactly what was expected.

    Lent is a period during which Christians traditionally practice fasting and prayer, and give alms to the poor. The period begins on Ash Wednesday (which is today this year) and lasts for the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. I love learning about history through food, so a few years ago I did some reading about this tradition. It turns out that fasting in late-winter/early-spring is actually a pre-christian activity. If you think about the way the subsistence farming of that era worked it makes a lot of sense.

    Lent is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “lencten,” which means “spring,” and begins about one month before the Vernal Equinox. This is a time when even if you were forward-thinking like The Ant, you may be starting to run low on all of the provisions you dried, salted away and pickled during the abundance of harvest time. The English call this time “hungry gap,” the new crops aren’t growing yet; the ewes haven’t given birth; the cow, if you didn’t slaughter her for meat in the autumn, might be dry; the hens are laying much less frequently due to the weak winter sun; and the community still needs to eat.

    I would imagine that ancient religious and political leaders quickly realized that if they didn’t do something to help their people get through this thin time, they would have food riots on their hands. So, they encouraged sacrifice for the greater good of the community. If people ate fewer animal products at the end of winter, there would be enough to go around until the asparagus was up and the lambs were dropped.

    Nowadays of course, many of us (in the First World) don’t have to worry about not having enough food. On the one hand that’s wonderful because subsistence farming is back-breaking work, but on the other, our new abundance seems to have led to an epidemic of obesity in affluent countries. For the last few years I’ve been keeping the Medieval rules of Lent as a way of reminding myself that more is not always better.

    The original rules of Lent, which observant Christians had to comply with on pain of Mortal Sin, forbade the consumption of meat (including poultry), animal fats, milk, or eggs from Ash Wednesday to Easter except Sundays. Yes, you read that right, except Sundays. The Church considers Sundays feast days so fasting or abstinence is not allowed. Leaving out Sundays is also how you get the figure of 40 days, if they are included then it adds up to 46. The modern church has eased these rules encouraging instead voluntary fasting and abstinence which it defines as eating one full meal per day and omitting meat and poultry on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays.

    The first year we tried this in our house it was a little difficult to adjust. The ancients were wise to have it begin on a Wednesday, so you’ve only got four days to go before Sunday in that first week. After a while it becomes easier, it’s basically a vegan diet plus fish. Most cultures that are traditionally Christian have lenten recipes, if you look in Italian, Greek and Spanish cookbooks you’ll find things that either fit the rules or can be easily adapted. Most Asian cuisines are terrific too because they don’t use dairy. Some might see coconut milk as cheating, but boy is it tasty.

    On the upside, you always remember to celebrate Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday; you really appreciate the meat, eggs, cheese, and butter you get to have on Sundays; and you might even lose a little weight. In particular, I find Lent a welcome respite from the holiday season, which while it technically runs from about Thanksgiving to New Year’s seems to stretch ever further with rich roasts and braises to combat the winter weather. By the end of Lent I’m dreaming of asparagus and fresh spring flowers.

    For the next six weeks on Comestibles I’ll be featuring at least one lenten recipe per week. If you’d like an early start check out this very comprehensive list from blogger Peter Minakis. His recipes are geared towards the Greek Orthodox version of Lent which is very similar to the western Catholic Medieval tradition, except that fish is forbidden while shellfish is not. I’ll definitely be trying out some of these dishes this year.

    Read Full Post »

    No matter where you live or what you call it, the object of the last day before Lent is the same: eat as much of the soon-to-be-forbidden foods as you can before it’s too late. Lent, which begins this year on Wednesday, February 17th, is a 40 day season during which Christians traditionally fast, pray, and give alms to the poor. In the Medieval period, observant Christians were forbidden meat, milk, eggs and animal fats during Lent. The modern Catholic church has eased these rules, encouraging voluntary fasting and abstinence. This is defined as eating only one full meal per day (or two small ones which add up to less than one full meal), and the omission of meat and poultry on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), and all the Fridays in Lent. It has also become traditional for people to give up something they particularly enjoy for the 40 day period, although that is not an official church policy.

    As you might imagine, the Medieval rules led to lots of serious eating during the days leading up to Lent. Aside from having one last taste of your favorites, you needed to use up all the eggs, milk, and animal fats in the house. In the days before refrigeration, using up the meat was not as much of an issue because it was only acquired right before it was to be eaten, so most households didn’t have a lot lying around.

    In particular the very last day before Lent is a great excuse for wild parties; in Iceland they call it Sprengidagur which means Bursting Day; the French name for it is Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday; in Sweden it is Fettisdagen; in Estonia, Vastlapäev; in Spain, Martes de Carnaval; in the Czech Republic, Masopust, which means “goodbye to meat,” and in German, Faschingsdienstag. In English-speaking countries it is known as Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday, or simply Pancake Day. The word “shrove” comes from the archaic verb “to shrive” which means to obtain absolution for your sins. It was important to be shriven before the beginning of Lent as it is a season of penance.

    Even though the rules are no longer as stringent, this religious tradition has left us with some wonderful seasonal foods. Since their purpose was to use up all of the non-lenten ingredients in the house, they have some things in common. They are often fried and they are very rich, containing eggs, milk, butter, and if a creative cook can manage it, some meat thrown in for good measure.

    In Portugal they make Malasada which is a fried dough; the Polish enjoy their Paczki or jelly doughnuts; in Sweden you would be eating Semla, a pastry spiced with cardamom, filled with almond paste and whipped cream, and served in a bowl of hot milk; in Croatia, which was part of Venice for hundreds of years, they eat Fritule which are fritters enhanced with brandy and lemon zest; and the denizens of the Czech Republic say “farewell to meat” by holding large pork feasts during the time leading up to Lent.

    In English-speaking countries the traditional Shrove Tuesday meal is pancakes, they can be made either savory or sweet and are a great way to use up eggs, milk, butter and other fats. Traditionally in Britain they were served with a rich meat stew. In some places slices of sausages or other meat are mixed right into the pancake batter. Try out the recipe below and imagine, if you will, Medieval British cooks flipping their pancakes while keeping one ear cocked to hear the the ringing of the shriving bell or pancake bell which reminded them to use up all their fats and come to church to be shriven.


    Adapted from The Joy of Cooking

    Makes about 14 four inch pancakes

    1½ cups all purpose flour
    1 teaspoon salt
    3 tablespoons sugar
    1¾ teaspoons baking powder
    2 eggs, separated
    3 tablespoons melted butter
    1¼ cups milk, or buttermilk

    Stir together the dry ingredients with a fork. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks and the milk or buttermilk together, then stir in the melted butter.

    Pour the eggs and milk into the bowl with the dry ingredients and stir only enough to just wet all the dry ingredients, don’t beat too much; you want it to look lumpy. It should be thick but still pour fairly easily off a spoon. If it is too thick add a bit more milk or buttermilk and if it is too thin add more flour.

    Whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and then fold them lightly into the batter, taking care to deflate them as little as possible.

    If you cook the pancakes on a non-stick surface you won’t need any butter. If you use a regular pan then use just a little butter to keep them from sticking.

    Heat the pan over medium-high heat until water splutters when a few drops are sprinkled on it.

    Use a large spoon to transfer the batter to the pan. Don’t drop it from way up high, just let it pour from the tip of the spoon onto the pan, this will help control the pancake shape. Once you have formed the pancake let it cook for 2-3 minutes or until most, but not all, of the bubbles which form on the uncooked side have burst. Then flip the pancake and cook the other side for 1-2 minutes or until nicely browned.

    Break open your first pancake to see if the inside is cooked properly and adjust the heat under your pan accordingly, then continue making pancakes until all the batter is used up.

    To keep the pancakes warm before serving, keep them on a plate in a warm oven separated by clean kitchen towels. Without the towels between them they will steam each other and lose their nice texture. You can prepare a stack of folded kitchen towels in advance and put on pancake in each layer.

    Read Full Post »

    « Newer Posts - Older Posts »