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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagine of Chicken with Lemon and Olives

Adapted from Paula Wolfert

Serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve.

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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.

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While visiting Australia I had a chance to catch up with one of my favorite food history bloggers Janet Clarkson of “The Old Foodie”. We had a great visit, diving into her terrific collection of historical cookbooks, including her latest work: Menus from History: Historic Meals and Recipes for Every Day of the Year.

I thought it would be fun to cook a historic recipe together and she suggested choosing something from The English Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs, which was published in 1788. That year holds importance for both Australia and the State of New York, where I live. In Australia, it marks the arrival of the first European settlers at Botany Bay. In New York State, the legislature ratified the US constitution.

Sometimes historic cooking can be complicated and require lots of obscure ingredients. Luckily, we were able to find a recipe where we had almost everything on hand. Queensland, where Janet lives, is known for the superior quality of its seafood, so we decided to make something with prawns (that’s shrimp to us Americans). We headed out to Janet’s local farmers’ market and bought some right from the fisherman.

The prawns were fresh and toothsome, and the sauce is an intriguing mix of spicy horseradish and almost sweet mace and nutmeg. Over all we thought it was quite successful. It goes nicely with asparagus, which we had on the side, and you also might consider sprinkling some freshly chopped parsley or dill over the prawns for a nice green component.

Stewed Prawns

Adapted from From The English Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs (1788)

1 pound Prawns
1 cup wine
½ cup water
1 blade of mace
1 tablespoon horseradish (or more to taste)
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 slices toasted white sandwich bread cut in triangles

Peel the prawns except for the tails. Put the wine, water, mace, salt, and horseradish in a medium saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Add the prawns and cook covered until pink and cooked (about 5 minutes) be careful not to over cook them. Strain the prawns and reserve the cooking liquid, keeping it hot. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, then whisk in the flour and stir for 2-4 minutes or until the flour turns slightly blonde. Pour in the hot cooking liquid and continue whisking. Add the nutmeg and continue whisking until the sauce thickens. Reheat the prawns in the sauce, and serve garnished with the toast points.

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A Whirling Dervish / Photo by Flickr user flydime

It must have seemed like magic, a substance that not only granted boundless energy, but curbed hunger as well. It wasn’t the first drug of course, we’ve had opium, alcohol, and psychedelic mushrooms for a lot longer. But coffee was different. As Balzac wrote:

Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink — for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

The Oromo ethnic group of Ethiopia are thought to be among the first humans to consume coffee. However, they did so in a very different way than we do now. In nature, the coffee tree produces a reddish-purple fruit called a coffee cherry or berry. At its center is found a seed. Modern processing strips away the fruit and then ferments and roasts the remaining seed, which becomes the coffee beans you buy at your local shop.

The Oromo people simply ground the ripe cherries along with their seeds in a stone mortar and then combined the resulting paste with animal fat — perhaps butter as they were nomadic pastoralists — which they then rolled into balls for convenient transport. Fresh coffee cherries are full of caffeine, sugar, and fat, and are about 15% protein. Combined with animal fat, they really make the perfect portable energy food. This form of coffee consumption was observed as late as the 18th Century by British explorers who described billiard ball-sized morsels which were stored in leather bags and eaten for extra energy by warriors on raids. Study of the oral history of the Oromo people shows that this use of coffee is likely quite ancient. There is also evidence of other usage of coffee by the peoples of Northeastern Africa. Some cooked the ripe berries into a porridge, others made wine from the fruit and skin.

The earliest documented evidence of the use of coffee as a beverage is in 15th Century Yemen, just across the Red Sea from Africa. Practitioners of Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam, would grind up the fresh coffee cherries and boil them in water, drinking the brew to stay awake during their night dhikr or extended prayerful meditation. Sufi mystic, Shaikh ibn Isma’il Ba Alawi of Al-Shihr, said that coffee combined with prayer could lead practitioners to “the enjoyment which the people of God feel in beholding the hidden mysteries and attaining the wonderful disclosures and the great revelations.”

The Shadhiliyya order of Sufis was instrumental in spreading coffee throughout the Islamic world during the 13th through 15th Centuries. Their dervishes (whose whirling I imagine was fueled all the better by coffee) were lay people and and once they were introduced to this magical brew in a religious setting, they brought it into the secular community.

Once coffee was brought to the Arabian peninsula from Africa, two distinct beverages were made from it. The first, known as quishir was actually a tea made by steeping dried coffee cherries and their husks in boiling water. Coffee is still drunk this way in Northeastern Africa and Yemen today. The second preparation was called bounya which comes from the word bunn, Ethiopian for the “seed” or “bean” of the coffee tree. Bounya was a thick drink made from raw, crushed beans, the residue of which was consumed also, leaving nothing in the bottom of the cup.

There is an argument as to whether the roasting of beans began in Persia or Saudi Arabia; where ever it happened, it was the next step towards coffee as we know it today. In the 16th Century, Islamic coffee fanatics invented the ibrik, a small coffee pot in which they boiled their favorite brew. Finally, in the 18th Century, people began to infuse the roasted, ground beans the way we do today. However, in some parts of the world, like Turkey and Greece, boiling is still the preferred method of preparation.

Coffee Being Poured from an Ibrik / Photo by Flickr user hettie gm

Unless you know someone with a coffee tree, it is very difficult to get fresh, ripe coffee cherries in the US. If I ever get my hands on some, I’m going to try making coffee power bars by grinding them up and mixing them with butter. Happily, I did succeed in finding dried coffee cherries and their husks which can be made into quishir. The folks at Counter Culture Coffee sell a product called Cascara which is the dried fruit and husks of the coffee tree and is meant to be drunk as a tea. The word “cascara” is Spanish for “husk,” so named because the coffee that goes into it is grown in El Salvador where they don’t have a tradition of making tea out of dried coffee fruit.

Cascara or Dried Coffee Berries and Their Husks

The result is an interesting hybrid. It smells somewhat like coffee, but fruitier. It has the slight bitterness of coffee, but the body is more like tea, not as thick in the mouth as coffee. The initial flavor is similar to coffee but then there is a bloom of fruits: currents, raisins and surprisingly, a touch of lemon and orange, perhaps this is the coffee’s natural acidity? It is almost like a black tea that has been flavored with a fruit essence, the way Earl Grey is flavored with bergamot. However, the quishir is smoother with none of black tea’s harsh tannins. It definitely has more caffeine that black tea, I felt quite perky after drinking it, perhaps even able to last through an all-night prayer session.

To Make Ancient Coffee or Quishir

5 grams (about 1½ tablespoons) dried coffee cherries and husks
8 oz (½ cup) water at 190-200F

The coffee fruit and husks are more delicate than beans, so it is important that you not use fully boiling water. Allow the water to cool to 190-200F before pouring it over the coffee.

If you don’t mind lumpy bits in the bottom of your cup as you drink you can just put the quishir/cascara in your mug and then pour the hot water over it. Or if you prefer, put it in a measuring cup and when it’s done steeping, strain it into a mug. Steep for 5-7 minutes and serve. Try it alone first and then if you like, add some sugar to bring out the fruity flavors.

Sources:

Meehan, Peter. Pop Some Coffee Cherries. New York Times, November 11, 2009

Seidel, Kathleen. Serving The Guest: Food For Remembrance.

Weinberg, Bennett Alan, and Bonnie K. Bealer. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. New York: Routledge, 2001.

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14th C. Painting of the Knights Hospitaller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kwarezimal, Maltese Lenten Cookies

Adapted from Anne and Helen Caruana-Galizia

Makes 10-12 large cookies

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

Preheat oven to 325F

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I always think of preserved lemons as a North African ingredient, lending an exotic, mysterious flavor to Moroccan and Tunisian cuisines, among others. But recipes for “pickled lemon” can be found in several 18th and 19th Century American and British cookbooks and I was surprised to find them in a spring rabbit recipe in Patricia Wells’s classic At Home in Provence. I’ve also seen mention of a Cambodian chicken soup made with whole preserved lemons that sounds very intriguing.

Nowadays, of course, we can get lemons whenever we want, albeit shipped halfway around the world. In the past, once the season was gone, the only way to capture some of that sunny taste was to preserve them in salt and sometimes other spices. The salt intensifies their citrus flavor and mitigates much of the bitterness found in the pith of the fruit. Both the pulp and the rind are used in cooking.

The best part is, preserved lemons are stunningly easy to make. All you need are good lemons, salt, a jar, and some time. I really should have made my batch in winter when the citrus groves nearest me (Florida and California) are producing fruit at the peak of ripeness, but I guess late is better than not at all.

Since the peel is going to be eaten, it is important to choose officially certified organic lemons or confirm with the farmer that they have not been sprayed with pesticides. It is also important that they be unwaxed. Any kind of coarse salt will do. I was given a bag of the famous French Sel Gris de Guérande as a gift. This large-grained, gray salt has been collected from salt marshes in northeastern France since the 9th Century. I’ve had some really good Moroccan food in Paris, so using French salt for this project seemed just the thing.

This recipe is a bit like that old magic trick where you soak an egg in vinegar and then are able to squeeze it through the opening of a bottle that looks far to small for the purpose. I was very skeptical about fitting 4 lemons into a quart sized canning jar, but it works. In fact, depending upon the size of your lemons, you might cram 5 in there. Just be sure to start with the cut side facing down into the jar so the juice goes inside as you are squeezing them into place.

These will be ready to use in about a month. I’ll report back then on the chicken tagine with preserved lemons and green olives I’m planning.

Preserved Lemons

Adapted from Paula Wolfert

Makes 4 – 5 lemons

6 – 7 small, organic, unwaxed lemons
½ cup coarse sea salt or kosher salt

1 wide-mouthed quart jar with sealable lid(s)

Sterilize your jar and lid(s) by putting them in a 225F oven for 5 minutes

Scrub 4 (5 if they’re really small) of the lemons under running water with a stiff brush. Dry them well. Use a serrated knife to partially quarter the newly washed lemons. Start cutting at the top but do not cut all the way through, stop about ½ inch from the base. Pull the 4 pieces apart slightly, being careful to keep them connected at the base.

Sprinkle salt all over the insides of the quartered lemons and then push the pieces together to keep the salt from falling out. Put the salted lemons in a large bowl and gently toss them with the remaining salt.

Push each lemon into your sterilized jar, cut side facing into the jar. It may seem like they won’t fit but if you squeeze and push gently, giving the jar a quarter turn each time, eventually the lemons will compress and squeeze into the jar. Some of the juice will come out in the process, but that’s fine. After each lemon goes into the jar, sprinkle in some of the salt left in the tossing bowl. Before pushing the last lemon into the jar you may need to squash the others down a bit with a wooden spoon to make more room. Sprinkle the last of the salt on top.

Juice the remaining lemons until you have enough juice to completely cover the lemons in your jar, leaving about ½ inch of head space at the top.

Close the jar tightly and allow the lemons to ripen at room temperature for 30 days. Turn the jar upside down every other day to help distribute the salt and juice.

After 30 days the lemons are ready for use. For long term storage, cover with olive oil and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 year.

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Photo by Isobel Craig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Chicken Célestine

    adapted from Fernand Point

    Serves 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Rapeye

    Adapted from Cindy Renfrow and Anissa Helou

    Makes 12 6-inch half-moon shaped pies

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

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

    Preheat oven to 400F.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Vatakka Curry

    Adapted from Charmaine Solomon

    Serves 6

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

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

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

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