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Posts Tagged ‘Food History’

Photo by Erik Forsberg

Just a quick note from the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. As this year’s theme was Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods, I got to try lots of unusual preparations from around the world, the most striking of which was Swedish surströmming.

Food science maven Harold McGee spoke about it in his Plenary presentation titled “A Chemical Introduction to Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods.” Surströmming is made from herring that is caught in the spring, the heads are chopped off, but the guts are left in. The fish are then packed in a barrel with salt which is put in the sun for several months. It is then re-packed into unsterilized cans and aged for six months to a year. Fermentation continues in the cans and sometimes they bulge.

To those of us (including me) whose mothers taught us never to buy a bulging can from the supermarket, this all sounded rather terrifying. However, it is important to note there are many types of bacteria, some of which are helpful to us humans allowing us to make cheeses, pickles, sauerkraut, and other cherished foods . In many fermentation processes, the “good” bacteria create an acidic environment where “bad” bacteria (like botulism) cannot survive. A Japanese laboratory analyzed some of the cans used for making surströmming and found and important (non-harmful) bacteria on their surfaces which contributes to the fermentation process. In other words, if the cans had been sterilized, the process may not have worked properly.

In concluding his presentation on the science of fermentation, Mr. McGee quoted Alan Davidson, one of the founders of the Oxford Symposium, who had actually gone to Sweden to observe the opening of the surströmming barrels and the transfer of the partially fermented fish into cans:

As the smell billowed upwards, birds began to drop dead from the sky.

During Saturday’s tea break we all got a chance to try some of this pungent concoction served with pieces of soft Swedish tunnbröd. The can was opened outdoors due to the odiferous nature of this traditional food. Considering that they only opened one small can and you could smell it about half a block away, I’d say this was a good decision.

When I ventured outside to see what was going on, I was struck by a very strong earthy, loamy odor which reminded me of durian. Surprisingly, it did not smell fishy. I got up my courage and tried some. The flavor was not fishy either, it was very ammoniated like a cheese that has been allowed to ripen too long. One of my fellow tasters commented that if there was such a thing as fish cheese, it would taste like surströmming.

I don’t know that I’ll be rushing out to buy some, but it was not nearly has bad as I thought it would be. In another part of his presentation, Harold McGee told us that scientists have recently discovered that the brain can differentiate between smells that enter only through the nose and those that go from the mouth to the nose. The brain treats these differently, so sometimes something that smells revolting can taste pretty good.

Perhaps the moral of the story is that your parents were right to say that you should at least try everything.

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Fermented Salted Eggs in Hong Kong / Photo by Flickr user Tracy Hunter

The highlight of my food history year is coming up this weekend. I’ll be attending the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in the UK. This annual gathering of food historians includes both professionals and enthusiastic amateurs and focuses on a specific theme. This year we’ll be exploring cured, fermented, and smoked foods. These are some of the most ancient techniques for preserving food and are used all over the world. Some of the papers to be given at the symposium include: “Sausages of the Classical World” by historian Joan Alcock, “Rotten vegetable stalks, stinking beancurd and other Shaoxing delicacies” by Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop, and “Smoke and Mirrors? Montreal smoked meat and the creation of a tradition” by Alan Nash who specializes in the geography of food.

Aside from all of this intellectual stimulation, as you might expect, there is lots of good food. On Friday evening we will be treated to a Feast of Cockaigne by chef Jeremy Lee of the Blueprint Cafe in London. For this menu, Mr. Lee imagines the kinds of food which might be served in the mythical land of Cockaigne where no one has to work very hard, and luxurious food is just an arms-length away (think Big Rock Candy Mountain).

Saturday’s lunch is a Sichuan meal brought to us by the chefs at London’s Barshu Restaurant where the aforementioned Fuchsia Dunlop is a consultant. Having cooked several dishes from her superb cookbooks, I’m really looking forward to this one.

On Saturday night Pádraic Óg Gallagher of Gallagher’s Boxty House in Dublin will ply us with traditional Irish foods using first class artisanal ingredients.

Finally, our lunch on Sunday will be particularly historic as the ingredients will reach us by sailing ship! A Dutch company has decided to go back to the old ways and is providing sustainable transport using sail power to ship goods around the world. The Brigantine “Tres Hombres” is one of their ships and it will be used to send traditional Norwegian foods to the symposium, which will then be transformed into a buffet for us by Ove and Svein Fossa from the Norwegian branch of the Slow Food Movement.

After the symposium, I’ll be spending a little time in Oxford, trying out some local Real Ale and poking about in libraries. Then it’s off to London for some research on another project. I’ll be posting short notes from the road when I have Internet access, and I’ll do a more detailed round up of the Oxford Symposium when I get home.

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Pound cake is the workhorse of the tea cart, able to withstand drowning in fruit syrups and whipped cream, or it can be easily tarted up with a citrus glaze. It’s the perfect thing to toss in the oven when you find out the new vicar is coming to tea in a couple of hours.

Back in the mists of time, the closest most people had to a cookbook was a kitchen notebook in which they would keep track of things they had made in the past, in order to be able to make them again. But of course, that assumes the person in question could read and write, which most people couldn’t until the industrial revolution made paper and books affordable. Before there were cookbooks, recipes were passed on orally from mother to daughter or auntie to niece. Pound cake is a perennial favorite because the recipe is so easy to remember. Even if you’re not the kind of person who likes to cook without a recipe (sort of like tightrope walking without a net), you can manage this one.

It’s called pound cake because it uses one pound each of the four main ingredients, butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. It originated in northern Europe where ingredients for cooking were (and still are) measured by weight. The French have a similar cake called quatre quarts or Tôt-fait which means “four quarters” or “soon made.” The “four quarters” refers to the 250 grams of each ingredient which adds up to one kilo.

Being an old recipe, this pound cake contains no chemical leaveners, relying only on eggs to help it rise. Consequently, you must cream your butter and sugar very well, and beat in the eggs one at a time. This is still a pretty dense cake, but all that beating will help prevent you from ending up with a doorstop. If you’re not convinced about using a scale to measure your ingredients, read this article from the Los Angeles Times by one of my favorite food writers, Michael Ruhlman.

Pound cake is plain but quite rich, and easily dressed up with a bit of stewed rhubarb, homemade preserves, or for something really special, soak it in a bit of Grand Marnier and drizzle some chocolate sauce over it. Next time you need to impress someone with last minute baked goods, don’t reach for a cookbook, just grab the kitchen scale and get to work.

Pound Cake

Adapted from Fannie Merritt Farmer

This makes a rather large cake. If you like, halve the recipe and bake it in a 9 x 5 x 3 inch loaf pan.

1 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 pound sugar
1 pound eggs by weight without their shells (9-10 large eggs), room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 pound all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt

Pre-heat oven to 325 F.

Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.

In a mixing bowl use a fork to stir the flour and salt together.

Put the butter in a large mixing bowl and use either a stand mixer or a portable hand mixer to beat the butter starting at a low speed and slowly increasing to a higher speed. Stop when the butter is the consistency of mayonnaise (about 30 seconds with a stand mixer or 1 minute with a portable hand mixer).

Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the sugar and beat for 2 minutes at medium with a stand mixer or 3 minutes at medium with a portable hand mixer. The mixture will be soft and whitish, but still granular looking.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each one. Stir in the vanilla.

While beating at medium speed gradually add the mixture of flour and salt, scraping down the bowl as necessary. Continue to beat until the batter is smooth and homogenous. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and even out the top with a rubber spatula.

Bake in the center of the oven for 1 – 1¼ hours, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Put the cake pan on a wire cooling rack and allow it to cool for about 5 minutes. Then remove the cake from the pan and allow to cool on the rack completely before serving.

Variations: Add the grated zest of one lemon, or 4 ounces of raisins soaked in rum, or ¼ teaspoon of ground mace.

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Photo by Wikipedia user Grcampbell

In the past, I have expressed my withering disdain for single-use kitchen gadgets like garlic presses, shrimp de-veiners, and pineapple slicers. Today I’m adding another one to the list, the Raclette Machine. I’m bowled over that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for an appliance that makes a dish created by Swiss livestock herders who had nothing but a campfire, some cheese and a chunk of bread. I guess the idea is that doing the cooking at the table preserves the fantasy that we’re all sitting in front of a fireplace in our Swiss chalet? Come on.

My love of history leads me to do my best to make dishes the way they were (or are) traditionally made by the people who first thought them up. Consequently, I think I’ll take some Raclette along on my next camping trip. Meanwhile, I’ll enumerate below several ways it can be made easily at home without fancy, expensive equipment

Raclette is the name of the finished dish and the name of the cheese which is the main ingredient. The semi-firm cheese is partially melted in front of a fire and then scraped (“racler” means “to scrape” in French) onto a plate filled with freshly boiled new potatoes, cornichons, pickled pearl onions, and crusty bread. Other popular accompaniments include thinly sliced cured meat such as the Swiss air-dried beef called Bündnerfleisch. To drink there is usually beer, tea or kirsch, although a nice dry Swiss white wine won’t go amiss either.

But before we start cooking let’s talk about the most important component of this dish, the cheese. There are lots of cheeses out there labeled “Raclette” and they are certainly not equal. If you have access to a good cheesemonger who will discuss the cheeses and allow you to taste samples before cutting a piece the size you desire, go have a chat with them about Raclette. If you’re stuck buying pre-cut cheese from the case in an anonymous supermarket, learn to read labels. Good Raclette is a raw milk (au lait cru), semi-firm, cow’s milk cheese made in Switzerland or France and aged for three to six months.

The Swiss Canton of Valais is particularly known for the high quality of its Raclette. So much so that the Swiss Department of Agriculture registered “Raclette du Valais” as an AOC (controlled designation of origin) product. If you have a chance to look at the whole or half rounds of the cheese, you might see the name of the village where it was made imprinted on them. Names to look for include Bagnes, Conches, Gomser, or Orsières. Raclette made in other parts of Switzerland might be labeled “Raclette Suisse.” These are not necessarily bad, but beware of industrially produced cheese made from pasteurized milk, it won’t be as good.

Because Switzerland is not in the European Union, the AOC status for Raclette only applies within its own borders. That means that anyone from outside the country may make a cheese and call it Raclette. For example they have been making Raclette in the eastern part of France which borders on Switzerland (Savoie and Franche-Comté) for a very long time. It is done in a slightly different style which makes it softer and milder than its Swiss cousin. I’ve also had very nice Raclette from Puy de Dôme in the Auvergne region of France. Try a few and see which you like best.

This gooey comfort food does cry out for a chilly autumn night in front of the fire with friends, but new potatoes are in the farmers’ markets of the Northeast right now, so I couldn’t resist making it in Summer. I used a milder French Raclette which was warm and cuddly, sliding like a lava flow over my plate of potatoes and pickles.

Raclette with a Fireplace or Oven

Adapted from James Peterson

This is a fun dish to serve to a large group. Everyone can take turns heating up the cheese and scraping it onto their plates.

Serves 6-8 people

1½ – 2 pounds Raclette cheese in a half-round or wedge shape.
3 pounds new potatoes
sea salt or fine Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 jar good quality French cornichons
1 jar of pickled pearl onions
2 good quality French baguettes

Method for a fireplace or campfire (see below for several other methods including using the oven):

Build a good fire. Use a butter knife to scrape the brown rind from the cheese. If it is too thick, cut it off with a sharp knife. Put the cheese on an oven proof plate or a stone. Put the plate or stone right next to the fire with the cut face of the cheese (not the part where the rind was) facing the heat.

Scrub the potatoes and put them in a sauce pan with salted water which covers them by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer them for 15-25 minutes, or until tender (time will vary with potato size). Drain the potatoes, allow them to cool a bit, and remove their peels. Keep the potatoes warm by putting them near the fire or in a 200 F. oven.

When the potatoes are ready and the cut face of the Raclette is soft and gooey, put a few potatoes on a serving plate, carefully pick up the cheese (use oven mitts if necessary) and use a spatula or the back of a knife to scrape along the cut face, pushing melted cheese onto the serving plate. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve with crusty bread, cornichons, and pickled onions.

Put the cheese back in front of the fire so it will be soft for the next round. Any leftover cheese can be wrapped and chilled to be used another time.

Method for Oven:

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Scrub the potatoes and put them in a sauce pan of salted water which covers them by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer them for 15-25 minutes, or until tender (time will vary with potato size). Drain the potatoes, allow them to cool a bit and remove their peels.

Use a butter knife to scrape the brown rind off of the cheese. If it is too thick, use a sharp knife to cut it off. Slice the Raclette into ¾-inch thick slices.

Place the potatoes in a baking dish and arrange the sliced Raclette on top of them. Bake until the cheese is totally melted and covering the potatoes (about 10-15 minutes). Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon some potatoes and cheese onto serving plates and serve with crusty bread, cornichons, and pickled onions.

Other alternative methods:

As above, for either of these methods you first must scrape or cut the rind from the cheese. Then prepare your potatoes.

If you have a gas stove, you can remove the grate and put your cheese on a fireproof plate or stone with the cut face as close to the flame as you can. I tried this, and it works pretty well. Make sure it is good and hot before you start scraping because it cools rather quickly.

I haven’t tried this last suggestion but I think it would work. If you decide to give it a shot let me know how it turned out in the comments. Put nonstick pan over high heat on your stove top and put the cut face of the cheese facing down in the pan. When the cut face becomes soft and gooey, carefully remove the cheese from the pan (using gloves if necessary) and use a spatula or the back of a knife to scrape it over your serving dishes as above. Repeat as necessary when guests request further helpings of cheese.

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

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

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

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

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

Chimichurri Sauce

Adapted from Asado Argentina

Makes about 1½ cups

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Flickr user ka_tate

You know those recipes you hear about and then tuck away in your mental “must try that” file? Today I’m pulling one out from way back in 2003. At that time I was an avid reader of Julie Powell’s groundbreaking blog, the Julie/Julia Project, in which she cooked all 536 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. Food blogs in those days didn’t have photos (really!), so It was like an old fashioned radio serial — think Flash Gordon — with readers tuning in every day (there was no RSS either) to see what (mis)adventures had befallen our cook-heroine during last night’s dinner preparations.

One of the dishes from the project which always stuck in my mind was Baked Cucumbers with Cream (Concombres a la Crème). The idea of hot cucumbers sounded really odd to me, but Julie gave them a rave review. In fact, her post on the subject is a fine example of her bold style which was sadly lacking in the recent movie-version of events. Here’s a sample:

Cucumbers baked with cream, I got to tell you, are fucking fantastic.  This baking of cucumbers has changed my life, I shall never be the same.  I’ll be one of those moms who puts disgusting looking shit in their kids’ lunchboxes so everyone thinks their freaky little monsters.  But I’ll have baked cucumbers to sustain me.

For all this time I remembered how amazed she was, and I finally got around to trying this recipe. It’s good. I don’t know that I’ll go with “life changing,” but it’s certainly unexpected. The cucumbers are sweet and slightly nutty and all the cream and butter makes for a rich treat. It’s sort of like a warm Tzatziki sauce. It would make a smashing side dish for lamb chops.

Baked Cucumbers with Cream

Adapted from Julia Child

Serves 4

6 cucumbers (each about 8 inches long)
2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
1½ teaspoons salt and more for seasoning
⅛ teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
⅓ cup fresh dill, roughly chopped
4 scallions, minced (white and light green parts only)
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and more for seasoning
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley

Peel the cucumbers, slice them in half lengthwise, and use a small spoon to scoop out the seeds. Next cut the cucumber halves into strips about ⅜ inch wide and cut each strip into 2-inch pieces. Toss the cucumber pieces with the vinegar, 1½ teaspoons of salt and the sugar and allow them to stand for a minimum of 30 minutes. This draws a lot of the water out of the cucumbers, making them easier to cook.

Drain the cucumber pieces in a strainer and pat them dry with a paper towel.

Preheat your oven to 375 F.

Put the cucumber pieces in a baking dish with the melted butter, dill, scallions and ⅛ teaspoon of the black pepper, toss to coat. Bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour, stirring 2-3 times during the baking. They will not brown very much at all. When they are done take them out of the oven and keep them warm while you make the sauce.

In a small saucepan, boil the cream until it is reduced to ½ cup. Season to taste with salt and pepper and pour it over the hot baked cucumbers, stirring gently to coat them. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.

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

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

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

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

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

“Kosher” Dill Pickles

Adapted from Arthur Schwartz

Makes one 1-quart jar of whole pickles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pickling Spice

Adapted from Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

Makes about ¼ cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh (and Fashionable) English Pea Soup

Adapted from Ina Garten

Serves 2

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

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

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

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

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

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“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.

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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!

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