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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh (and Fashionable) English Pea Soup

Adapted from Ina Garten

Serves 2

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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

If your house is anything like ours, you’ve got a pantry full of assorted bags, boxes and containers of oddball ingredients left over from your last few ambitious cooking projects. It’s a shame to let all that great stuff languish in the cabinet, so I look for recipes that use it up. Making your own granola is a great way to do this. It requires lots of nuts, seeds and dried fruits, and a little coconut and spices don’t go amiss either. Best of all, it reduces kitchen waste and is a lot cheaper than the fancy store bought stuff.

I’ve always thought granola a rather strange word. Scottish maybe? Grrrrrranola! Maybe not.

It’s actually American, very American. The history of Granola is inextricably bound up with an American vegetarian health movement which occurred in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It was also a time of religious revivals and the temperance movement. All of these things came together to create some of our first “health foods.”

You’ve heard of Graham crackers right? They were created by the Rev. Sylvester Graham, a conservative Presbyterian minister who believed that vegetarianism was a cure for many problems, including alcoholism and lust. To help with these things, in 1829, he created Graham flour, a form of whole wheat flour in which the three parts of the wheat kernel (endosperm, bran, and germ) are ground separately and then mixed back together again. At the time whole wheat flour was mainly eaten by the poor who couldn’t afford fancy white flour, so it was a bit shocking for Rev. Graham’s more well-to-do acolytes.

Along the same lines, a Dr. James Caleb Jackson who had experienced a miraculous recovery from life-long illness after taking a water cure, decided to open a hydrotherapy center in Dansville, NY. Along with lots of baths in stinky mineral water, he advocated a strict vegetarian diet. As part of that, in 1863, he invented a breakfast food for his patients called Granula (Latin for “small grain). It consisted of a mixture of Graham flour and water baked in to hard sheets and then broken in to pieces and baked again. Finally, it was ground up into small pieces. The resulting cereal was then soaked overnight in milk so the patients could chew it without breaking their teeth.

Meanwhile, at the Battle Creek Sanatarium in Battle Creek, MI, in about 1876, J.H. Kellogg (an enthusiast of Rev. Graham’s work) was also treating his patients to a strictly meat-free diet. He created a breakfast food made of wheat, oat and corn meal which was mixed with water and baked into hard crackers which were then ground into small pieces. He called it Granula too. When he tried to sell it, Dr. Jackson threatened to sue over the name, and so Kellogg changed it to Granola.

The closest cereal we have today to both Granula and the original Granola is Grape-Nuts, which was actually invented by a former patient of Dr. Kellogg, a Mr. C.W. Post.

Back to that kitchen cabinet overflowing with dried fruit and nuts. They do go off you know. The nut oils can go rancid and I have found that some dried fruits eventually shrivel up into little rocks that could be a danger to your dental work. If you’ve got two or three kinds of nuts, a couple of different dried fruits, and a box of “old fashioned” style oatmeal, you’ve got the makings of granola.

Homemade Granola

Adapted from Mark Bittman

Makes about 9 cups

5 cups rolled oats (old fashioned oatmeal, not quick cooking or instant)
3 cups mixed nuts and seeds (e.g., sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, sesame seeds, etc.)
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon or other spice of your choice (a mixture of cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg is nice.)
½ cup of honey
sea salt
1½ cups of mixed dried fruits, chopped (e.g. raisins, apricots, dates, mango, etc.)

Pre-heat you oven to 350F.

Mix the oats, nuts and seeds, coconut, cinnamon and honey together in a large bowl, then sprinkle with some sea salt and stir again. Be sure to mix it well so the honey coats all of the pieces.

Spread the mixture out evenly on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure even browning. Make it as dark and crunchy as you like, but be careful not to let it burn.

Take your pan out of the oven, sprinkle the dried fruits over it. Put the pan of granola on a cooling rack and allow it to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.

Store in an airtight container.

Le Déjeurner sur l'herbe by Manet

Prior to the 1860s a pic-nic (yes, that’s how they spelled it), was not the ant-filled, outdoor revelry many of us will enjoy this coming holiday weekend. The original meaning is closer to what we would call a potluck meal, with each guest expected to bring a dish; and it was held indoors. In 1802 The Times of London went so far as to describe the drawing of lots, by future pic-nic guests, which are then matched with a particular dish on a list created by the host(ess). The guest is then required to make the dish and “either take it with him in his carriage, or send by a servant.” I guess even back then they realized it was important to coordinate who was bringing what, for fear of ending up with 12 different versions of chicken salad.

As near as linguists can make out, the word “picnic” comes from the French piquenique which can be broken down into pique which is a form of the verb “to pick” and nique which some feel is a nonsense rhyming syllable and others (including the venerable Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française) say that it means “a thing of little or no value.” Since the French are very persnickety about their language, we also know that the Académie Française accepted the word “piquenique” as an official French word in 1740. The two most important aspects of the pic-nic or picnic are that it is casual, and often impromptu. The dishes are usually not fancy, thus perhaps being considered, in a sense, to be of little or no value.

Some 19th Century pic-nics required a little more of their guests than a pack of hot dogs from the supermarket. Often they were expected to provide the entertainment as well. The Pic-Nic Society, founded in London in 1801, was a sort of combination amateur theatre company and potluck supper club. Professional theatre managers were not pleased with this new society, as it took away some of their custom. It was also attacked in the conservative press as an example of upperclass decadence. Caricaturist James Gillray provided hilarious, satirical cartoons of overweight aristocrats attempting Shakespeare. Eventually, with the death of its founders, the London Pic-Nic Society became defunct in about 1850.

Not that much later, the meaning of the word “picnic” began to change, becoming associated chiefly with eating out of doors. I have not been able to find any reason for this shift. Perhaps, the event had gotten as casual as possible while still being held indoors with tables and chairs, and now, in a fit of modernity, the doors to the garden were thrown open? Feel free to discuss ideas about why the picnic came out of the dining room in the comments.

I’ll end with my favorite picnic recipe below, but first, remember to be careful if you go down to the woods today.

Photo by Lorraine Elliott

Fast and Elegant Picnic Loaf

Serves 4-6 depending on the size of your loaf

Below I list some of my favorite ingredients to put in a picnic loaf, but really it can be anything you like. It’s good to have some sort of sandwich spread or relish to keep things moist, and three or four other ingredients that go well together, very simple really. As always, the better the quality of your ingredients, the better the result will be.

1 round loaf of bread, sometimes called a boule or a cob
good quality mozzarella cheese
Pesto (homemade if you’ve got it)
Roasted red peppers
assorted sliced, and grilled or roasted vegetables like zucchini and eggplant
good quality prosciutto, thinly sliced
sun dried tomatoes

First you turn your loaf of bread into a container. To do this use a bread knife to cut a circle in the top of the loaf that is about 3-4 inches in diameter and goes down into the loaf about 2 inches. While cutting, hold your knife at an angle of less than 90 degrees to make a bevel around the edge of your circle. Carefully cut your 2-inch high “top” away from the loaf and set it aside.

Pull most of the white insides (also called the crumb) of the bread out through the hole you have just made (you can save these pieces of bread to make breadcrumbs. Be careful not to pull out too much bread, we need to have the crust and some crumb left to act as a container for our ingredients.

Use a spoon or a knife to spread a layer of pesto all over the inside of your new bread container.

Next layer all of the ingredients in any order that strikes your fancy, occasionally adding a layer of pesto to keep things moist.

When the loaf is full, put the bread top back on, wrap it well for transport and go spend the rest of your morning deciding what to wear to the picnic.

To serve, cut as you would a pie, so each person gets bread with layers of ingredients inside.

Don’t forget the wine!

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
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.

Borlotti Beans / photo by Flickr user The Ewan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Photo by Flickr user jeffreyw

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic French Vinaigrette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As usual, I’m sad to leave Australia. It’s such a huge country (as large as the continental US) with so much to offer. Even after multiple visits, I feel like I’ve barely seen any of it. Here’s a smattering of some of the fun things we’ve seen and done on this trip:

A large influx of Italian immigrants after World War II turned Australia from a tea drinking nation to a coffee loving one. Some of the best espresso in the world is served in its cafes and restaurants. Here are a few that we sampled, but truly you don’t have to look very hard for a good cup, the coffee at Sydney Airport is better than most of what you get in New York City.

A perfect latte from Mecca / photo by Flickr user bigiain

Mecca is in Sydney’s beautiful, Art Deco, Grace Hotel. This hard core coffee destination is only open Monday through Friday and closes at 4:30 PM sharp so don’t miss out.

Jasper's in Melbourne Style Themselves as Caffeine Dealers

Jasper’s is found on trendy Brunswick Street in the Fizroy area of Melbourne. Aside from magnificent coffee, they also sell beautiful accoutrements for the making and serving of coffee and tea.

Single Origin Coffee Roasters in Sydney / photo by Flickr user bigiain

If you’re looking for some tasty food along with your coffee, do check out Single Origin in Surry Hills. Living up to the name, all of their ingredients are single origin, including the eggs, which come from a local New South Wales farmer who delivers them himself to the café.

I always try to stop in at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney when I’m here. The exhibits are well curated and always interesting. This time around, the special exhibit is near and dear to my heart: “The 80s are Back!” Having grown up in the 1980s in the US, I was familiar with some of what was on display like the Rubik’s cube and one of Michael Jackson’s singular gloves, but there was much in the exhibit that was specific to Australia, like the fabulous dance parties hosted by the Recreational Arts Team or RAT. Definitely stop in for some pink and black polka dot memories if you’re in Sydney.

A Gigantic (working!) Rubik's Cube at the Powerhouse Museum / photo by Flickr user mecookie

When visiting Sydney we always ask my brother-in-law and his wife for restaurant advice, since they are both chefs. This year they reckoned that their new favorite is Bistro Ortolan in Leichhardt. It’s a lovely little boîte with wine colored walls and innovative, modern, French-style food created by Irish-born chef Paul McGrath.

Finally, I’ll leave you with the view from the verandah (isn’t it so much more exotic when spelled with an “h”?) of the cottage we stayed in while visiting the Hunter Valley wine region about two hours north of Sydney. At night we fell asleep to the sounds of cicadas and kookaburras.

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

Lovely fresh bonito waiting for your favourite recipe

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

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

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