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Posts Tagged ‘recipes’

Farmers' Market Celery, top; Supermarket Celery, bottom

Until I started shopping regularly at my farmers’ market I was never a big fan of celery. Sure, it’s important as an aromatic vegetable to build a flavor base for soups or sauces, but on it’s own I always found it pretty insipid; pale and watery in both appearance and flavor. All that changed when I bought my first farmers’ market celery. I had a little trouble finding it at first because it looked completely different! Instead of the almost white stuff you get in the supermarket, this was a deep dark green and smelled delicious. I actually felt like just pulling off a stalk and eating it right there. When I got home, I did try some, and from that day on, I was a converted celery lover. The farmers’ market celery takes you on a flavor journey with each bite. It starts with a bright, wet sweetness, moving into a deep satisfying earthy green taste and then finishing with a little cleansing bitterness. The stalks are narrower than supermarket celery and it is a little stringier, but if that’s a problem, you can peel it a bit with a vegetable peeler.

In addition to handling all of the usual celery duties, this celery makes the best cream of celery soup I’ve ever had, try Julia Child’s recipe, it’s a little fussy but you won’t be disappointed. I was inspired to seek out more recipes starring celery and in my research I found a bunch of braised celery recipes. In the past, I had always wondered why anyone would braise celery, I could only imagine that it would become completely flavorless. But with my new best friend, farmers’ market celery, braising made a lot more sense.

So how did this happen? Obviously, if people were braising celery in the past, then it can’t have always been so wimpy tasting as the stuff we get in the grocery store. Celery leaves were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (d. 1323, BCE), so it has a long history with humans. The word in English comes originally from the Ancient Greek selinon which actually means parsley. This makes sense because celery and parsley are botanically related. In ancient times, celery was mainly used as a medicine, and some believed it to be an aphrodisiac. As with many plants taken up for cultivation by humans, we started out with the wild variety of celery, also known as smallage. It was quite bitter which may account for its primary use in medicine. I guess they’ve always thought medicine should be hard to swallow.

In the 16th Century French and Italian gardeners began to grow it, and cooks used it as an herb to flavor dishes. By the 17th and 18th Centuries growers had created a slightly less bitter version through selective breeding, but it wasn’t really until the 19th Century that celery came into its own as a vegetable. Gardeners continued to breed for a sweeter varietal, but more importantly, they discovered that if soil was banked around the base of the plant as it grew, it would “blanch.” Covering up the plants caused them to form much less chlorophyll and so they were a much lighter green and they tasted sweeter.

We’re not sure exactly when celery came to America, but in 1856 a Scottish immigrant named Taylor, brought celery to Kalamazoo, Michigan. At first, it wasn’t too popular, but then a Dutchman named Cornelius De Bruin, began growing it in the rich bottom lands of the Kalamazoo river. He is also said to have made some improvements through breeding to the original variety that Taylor had brought from England. Whatever Mr. De Bruin did, it worked, celery took off and after that Kalamazoo was known as Celery City.

I recently tried to contact the farm from which I buy my super-green, delicious celery, to ask what variety they are growing and if they bank their plants, but I haven’t heard back yet. I suspect their celery is not banked, otherwise it wouldn’t be so green. Have our palates changed since the 19th Century when celery was considered too bitter and had to be made pale and sweet in order to be tolerable? We certainly eat more “bitter greens” like arugula, endive and broccoli rabe, than we did say, 20 years ago. If you think celery is boring, I urge you to find some of the strong dark green stuff and try it out. Below is a fairly simple braised celery recipe from Italian food maven, Marcella Hazen. It reminds me of concentrated bites of cream of celery soup, but with pancetta and Parmesan cheese — far from boring.

Braised and Grantinéed Celery Stalks with Parmesan Cheese

Adapted from Marcella Hazen

Serves 6

2 bunches fresh celery (use the good dark green stuff)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup chopped pancetta or prosciutto
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium store bought stock
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat your oven to 400 F.

Separate the stalks from the base of the celery and cut off the leafy tops. If you like, save the leaves and use them as you would parsley.

If you find the celery too stringy, use a vegetable peeler to peel the outside layer. Cut the stalks into pieces about 3 inches long.

In a saucepan bring 2-3 quarts of water to a boil, add the celery and allow the water to return to a boil, after one minute of boiling, remove the celery and set it aside to drain.

In a large skillet or saute pan, saute the onion in the butter until it becomes translucent, add the chopped pancetta or prosciutto. Cook for about 1 minute. Add the celery, a good pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the chicken broth, and bring to a slow simmer. Cover the pan and simmer until the celery begins to become tender but is still a little firm when pierced, about 15 to 20 minutes. Uncover the pan, turn the heat up, bringing the liquid to a boil. Cook in this manner until all of the liquid has evaporated.

Use tongs to gently move the celery to a baking dish, then spoon the onion and meat mixture over the top of the celery. Finally, sprinkle on the grated Parmesan. Bake it in the upper part of your oven until the cheese melts and turns a little brown and crusty. Remove from the oven, let stand for 3-5 minutes and then serve.

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Aside from the cute accent, being married to an Australian has other advantages. We get to celebrate extra holidays, which of course involve food. January 26th is Australia Day, commemorating the arrival of the so called First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. It marks the founding of the penal colony of New South Wales and the first European occupation of the continent of Australia.

One of the foods that is revered as being uniquely Australian is the lamington, a square of yellow or sponge cake covered in chocolate icing and rolled in dried coconut. Holding a similar place in the hearts of Australians as the brownie does for Americans, lamingtons are often served on Australia Day, but can also be found in bakeries and cafes year round. In particular they are the undisputed star of what we would call the bake sale, but which in Australia is simply known as the lamington drive. Any time money needs to be raised for a good cause, scores of people form assembly lines of cake baking, chocolate dipping and coconut rolling. Or they buy commercially made lamingtons at the store (no worries mate, we won’t tell).

It is thought that lamingtons are named for Charles Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington, who was Governor of the colony of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. Supposedly, the governor arrived with guests at his summer home Harlaxton House in Toowoomba, which being in a somewhat mountainous area of southern Queensland is much cooler than the tropical north. His chef, Armand Gallad, was taken by surprise and had only day-old sponge cake to serve for tea. Improvising, he dipped the cake in some chocolate icing and rolled it in dried coconut. While nowadays coconuts grow all over Queensland, they were not as ubiquitous in the 19th Century and dried coconut was not a common ingredient in colonial cuisine. Needless to say, the newly invented tea cakes were a big hit with the governor’s guests who immediately asked for the recipe.

Australians are not known for wearing their patriotism on their sleeves, but they do enjoy Australia Day — any excuse for a barbeque; remember, January is summer time down there. Before we get to the lamington recipe, have a look at this ad for Meat and Livestock Australia made by former Australian Rules Football star Sam Kekovich with his rather opinionated take on what should be served on Australia Day:

Lamingtons

Makes 10-12 two-inch squares

You can use any yellow cake or sponge cake for this, but since it is a 19th Century recipe I decided to use a génoise which is an egg-leavened cake that was frequently used to make petits fours and other fancy tea cakes.

Génoise Cake adapted from Julia Child

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
⅔ cup flour, sifted
3 large eggs
½ cup sugar
1½teaspoons vanilla extract
1 pinch salt

Preheat oven to 350F

Prepare an 8 inch round cake pan as follows: put a piece of waxed paper, cut to fit, in the bottom of the pan, then butter it well. Finally, flour the pan, knocking out any excess when finished.

Melt the butter and set it aside to cool.

Beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt with a portable mixer or a stand mixer for about 10 minutes or until they are very thick and pale colored. When you lift the beaters out of the bowl a ribbon of batter should fall from them and lie distinctly on the surface in the bowl before sinking back in. This is what is known as the “ribbon stage” in baking.

Sprinkle about 1/4 of your sifted flour onto the batter and then quickly but gently fold the flour into it until it is almost incorporated. Do your best not to deflate the batter. Add 1/2 of the remaining flour and fold it in. Next, fold in about 1/3 of the cooled melted butter and then continue alternating between flour and butter until everything is incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and give it a shake to even it out. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the top is spongy when pressed and the cake has just started to pull away from the edges of the pan.

Let it cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then turn it out on a cooling rack. If the cake doesn’t come out of the pan right away leave it upside down on the rack for a few minutes and it should drop out. Peel off the waxed paper if it has stuck to the cake. When the cake has fully cooled (in about 11/2 hours) wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate over night.

Chocolate and Coconut Coating

Be sure to check the label on your package of coconut. Much of the stuff sold in supermarket has added sugar, which makes it too sweet.

4 cups (about 1 pound) confectioner’s sugar
⅓ cup cocoa powder
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup milk
2 cups dried, unsweetened coconut

Remove your génoise cake from the refrigerator and cut it into 2-inch pieces.

In a double boiler, or a heat-proof bowl set over a pot of simmering water (don’t let the water touch the bottom of the bowl), combine the confectioner’s sugar, cocoa powder, butter and milk. Stir together until it becomes a smooth liquid that is easily pourable. Remove the icing from the stove, but leave the water simmering as you will probably need it again during the process.

Pierce each piece of génoise cake with a fork and dunk it in the chocolate icing until it is completely covered. It helps to use a spoon in the other hand to scoop icing over the cake. Hold the piece of cake over the bowl and allow any excess icing to drip off, then place the cake on a plate of dried coconut and quickly roll it to cover all sides. Finally, put the finished lamington on a rack to set.

As you go, you’ll find that the chocolate icing will thicken as it cools, making it difficult to dip the pieces of cake. Bring the bowl or pot back to the stove, set it over the simmering water and stir to regain a pourable consistency. You may have to do this several times during the icing process. If, towards the end, it is still too thick even after reheating, add a little milk to thin it out.

Continue until all of your lamingtons are iced and rolled in coconut. Once they have set they will keep for several days if stored in an air tight container.

Variation: After the lamingtons are set you can split them with a knife and fill the center with strawberry jam.

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On a recent Sunday evening our house fell under the shadow of a looming work week. A cocktail was needed to lift our spirits. Besides, we had recently purchased some new (to us) cocktail glasses at the Salvation Army (a great source for cheap, nice glasses, by the way) and needed to christen them.

We had rye in the house but no sweet vermouth, so Manhattans were out. We did have dry vermouth however, and in lieu of a Maraschino cherry there was Maraschino liqueur. Since were were improvising, we reached for the Fee Bros. Orange Bitters instead of Angostura, stirred it all up and gave it a try.

Due to liberal use of the bitters it was very orange-y and that, combined with the toasty rye was just the thing for a freezing winter night. As we sat sipping away the blues we wondered what to call it. It wasn’t a Manhattan but it was an almost Manhattan, so of course it should be called a Marble Hill.

For those of you who don’t live in New York City, and those of you who do, but aren’t as obsessed with weird tidbits of history as I am, here’s the story of Marble Hill. It’s a neighborhood that used to be geographically located at the very northern tip of the island of Manhattan. As you may know, the river (well really at that point it’s a tidal estuary) to the west of Manhattan is the Hudson, and the tidal strait (no, it’s not really a river) to the east of the island is called the East River. Connecting the Hudson and East Rivers and going around the top of the island is another tidal strait called the Harlem River. In the late 19th Century it was decided that a ship canal needed to be created to allow larger ships to be able to navigate easily from the Harlem River to the Hudson River. The canal, known as the Harlem River Ship Canal, was dug through one of the narrowest parts of Manhattan, just south of the neighborhood of Marble Hill. After it’s completion in 1895 Marble Hill was an island surrounded on three sides by the original path of the river and to the south by the new ship canal. In 1914 the part of the Harlem River that flowed north of Marble Hill was filled in, connecting the neighborhood to the mainland and making it geographically part of the borough of the Bronx.

Over the years there have been many arguments as to whether Marble Hill should be considered part of Manhattan or the Bronx. A particularly weird episode occurred in 1939 when the Bronx Borough President at the time, James J. Lyons, planted a Bronx County flag in Marble Hill and demanded that the residents declare their allegiance to the Bronx. He even went so far as to call Marble Hill “the Bronx Sudetenland,” a reference to Hitler’s 1938 annexation of Czechoslovakia! The residents of Marble Hill smartly gave him a raspberry (I won’t call it a Bronx cheer) and sent a petition to New York’s Governor to remain a part of Manhattan.

It took a while but in 1984 the New York State Legislature passed a law declaring Marble Hill a part of Manhattan. Unfortunately, residents must put up with a ZIP code beginning in 104 instead of the coveted Manhattan 100 and in 1992 their area code was changed to from 212 to 718 along with the Bronx. However, to avoid confusion they are listed in both the Manhattan and Bronx phone directories.

Next time you want to win a bar bet, ask your opponent to name the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan.

Marble Hill

It turns out there is already a cocktail named for Marble Hill which contains gin, Dubonnet and orange juice. But I say if there can be multiple Corpse Revivers then there can be multiple Marble Hills too, so here’s ours.

Makes one 4 ounce cocktail

2 1/2 ounces rye
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
3/4 ounce Maraschino liqueur
3 healthy dashes of orange bitters
a twist of orange

Combine liquid ingredients with ice and stir to chill. Strain into proper 4.5 ounce cocktail glasses and garnish with a twist of orange.

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Cookbook authors only started giving precise measurements and cooking times a little over a century ago, so figuring out older recipes can be a real challenge. One of the earliest cookbooks we have is De re coquinaria or On the Subject of Cooking. Some of the recipes in it are attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius who lived in the 1st Century CE and was famed as a gourmet. The book is sometimes also simply referred to as Apicius.

Not being a Latin scholar, I am indebted to the archaeologist-cook Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa who has given us A Taste of Ancient Rome (translated by Anna Herklotz). In this detailed and entertaining book, Ms. Giacosa, gives us everything we need in order to attempt some of Apicius’s ancient recipes in the modern kitchen. Here is Ms. Herklotz’s English translation Apicius’s original recipe for Duck with Turnips:

“Crane or duck with turnips: Wash, truss and boil in a pan with water, salt, and dill until half cooked. Cook the turnips so that they lose their bitterness. Remove the duck from the pan, wash again, and place in a pot with oil and garum and a bouquet of leeks and coriander. Over this put a turnip that has been well washed and cut into very small pieces, and cook. When it has cooked somewhat, add defructum for color. Prepare this sauce: pepper, cumin, coriander, and silphium root, moistened with vinegar and cooking broth. Pour over the duck and boil. When it boils, thicken with starch and add over the [remaining] turnips, Sprinkle with pepper and serve.”

Aren’t you glad they don’t write recipes that way anymore? Ms. Giacosa redacts the recipe, adjusting it to modern expectations by giving some measurements for the ingredients and leaving out the boiling of the duck, instead going straight to roasting it in a pot. The resulting recipe is actually very similar to a classic French dish called Caneton Poêlé aux Navet or Casserole-roasted Duckling with Turnips. I decided to put the two together and make a sort of Caneton Poêlé aux Navet á l’Apicius by using the French method with the ancient Roman flavors.

You may have noticed a few unfamiliar ingredients in the original recipe, namely: garum, defrutum, and silphium. Garum is perhaps the most ubiquitous ingredient in ancient Roman cooking. It is a fermented fish sauce they used to put on just about everything. The best garum came from what is now Spain and Portugal, regions still known for their fish cookery, and Roman nobles would pay a pretty denarius for it. Someday I would like to attempt making my own garum, but considering it requires layering fish innards with salt in a clay pot and leaving it out in the sun for three months, I think it will have to wait. There was a reason the garum factory was always located on the outskirts of town. Luckily, fish sauce is still beloved by Thai and Vietnamese chefs, among others, so for this recipe I used the Thai fish sauce called nuoc mam which is widely available at stores selling asian ingredients or even in the asian section of your supermarket.

Defrutum is a sweet syrup made by boiling grape must (what is left after the grapes have been crushed to make wine) and reducing it to about half its original volume. This ancient ingredient has survived in two different products still made in Italy, saba, and vincotto. They are essentially the same as defrutum but have been aged in oak barrels (which the Romans did not use). Sometimes vincotto is mixed with vinegar or fruit flavors so read the label carefully when shopping to make sure you get the plain version. I found some vincotto in a gourmet shop, I have also seen both vincotto and saba for sale online.

Our final mystery ingredient is truly a mystery. Silphium (also called laser by the Romans) was coveted by the wealthy as an exotic ingredient, and was so expensive that only the tiniest amounts were used. It is a resin from a plant that is now extinct. It is thought to be from the genus Ferula. It grew only in a small area near the ancient Greek settlement of Cyrene in what is now eastern Libya. The reason for its extinction is unknown, some speculate that it was farmed intensely until the soil was depleted, others think animals were grazed on it to improve the flavor of their meat, leading to overgrazing and extinction. Supposedly the last stalk of silphium was given to the emperor Nero (37 CE – 68 CE) as a gift.

Once there was no more silphium to be had, the Romans took to using another plant instead which they called laser parthicum. We think that laser parthicum is asafoetida, a plant in the same genus as silphium. Asafoetida is still used today in cooking in the Middle East and Asia. In particular it is used by Jainists as a replacement for garlic and onions which their religion forbids them to eat. Asafoetida is available at stores which sell Indian spices. Beware, it is extremely pungent, keep it in a well-sealed container if you don’t want your entire kitchen smelling like, well, armpit. Don’t be alarmed, when you cook with it, the smell changes into something like very savory caramelized onions. It lends a tangy almost citrusy flavor to the finished dish, which combined with the earthy cumin and coriander makes it taste very middle eastern. Nowadays we think of Rome as a great western city, but before tomatoes, pasta and many other foods became part of its cuisine, Roman food was very much influenced by the lands it conquered in the mysterious east.

Duck with Turnips á l’Apicius

Adapted from Apicius and Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa with a little help from Juila Child

Serves 4

1 large duck (about 5 pounds)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Thai fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1 small leek
1 bunch fresh cilantro
2 pounds fresh turnips
2 tablespoons vincotto or saba

Sauce:
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
½ teaspoon asafoetida
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons flour
1 – 1½ cups duck or chicken stock

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Wash the duck and pat it thoroughly dry inside and out.

Truss the duck by tucking the ends of the wings underneath the bird and tying the legs together with kitchen twine. If the wing-tips have been cut off, tie another piece of twine around the middle of the duck to secure the wings to its sides. Use a sharp knife or skewer to prick holes in the duck skin around the thighs, back and lower part of the breast. This helps render the fat out while cooking.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a dutch oven. Over medium-low heat, brown the duck carefully in the olive oil turning it so all sides are nicely brown (about 20 minutes).

Remove the duck from the dutch oven and pour off the oil. Put 1 teaspoon of Thai fish sauce in the dutch oven along with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Return the duck to the pot and add a bouquet garni consisting of the leek trimmed of its roots and dark green leaves and the bunch of cilantro tied together with kitchen twine. Peel and cut 1 turnip into a small 1/2 inch dice and sprinkle it over the duck. Cover pot and put it in the center of your oven for 15 minutes.

While the duck is cooking, prepare the rest of the turnips. Peel the turnips and cut them in a larger 1 inch dice. Cook them in salted boiling water for about 5 minutes. Drain the turnips and set them aside.

When your duck has cooked for 15 minutes, add the partially cooked turnips to the dutch oven, arranging them around the duck. Using a pastry brush, paint the duck with 2 tablespoons of vincotto or saba. Return the duck to the oven for about another 35 minutes or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 F and the juices run clear. Baste the turnips occasionally with the pan juices during this last phase of cooking.

When the duck is cooked, remove the it and turnips from the pot and put them on a hot serving platter. Cover with tented aluminum foil and allow the duck to rest (and finish cooking) while you prepare the sauce.

Pour the juices from the dutch oven through a fine mesh strainer and into a liquid measuring cup. Let it stand for a minute to allow the fat to rise to the surface. Use a spoon to remove as much fat as you can, or use a fat separator if you have one. Once the juices are defatted, see how much you have. Add duck or chicken stock until you have a total of 2 cups. Pour your 2 cups of stock and cooking juices into a small saucepan and bring it to a simmer over medium heat.

In a medium saucepan heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over low heat. When the oil is hot, use a whisk to blend in 3 tablespoons of flour. Continue whisking until the flour begins to turn a light brown. Remove the pot from the heat and immediately pour the hot stock and cooking juices into the flour and oil mixture and continue whisking until completely blended and the sauce begins to thicken. Put the pot back over a medium-low heat and add the cumin, coriander, asafoetida and balsamic vinegar, whisking to combine. Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook for a few minutes, partially covered to combine the flavors. Season to taste with salt freshly ground black pepper and serve on the side with the duck and turnips.

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Hummus is immensely popular in Israel, where it is widely acknowledged to be of Arab origin. Ask anyone where to find the best hummus in Jerusalem and they’ll send you to the Arab Quarter. You might think this would be a problem for Arab-Israeli relations, but actually, as noted in a recent article in The Economist, the only thing Israeli and Arab negotiators could agree on in Shepherdstown, West Virginia ten years ago, was the fact that the American hummus was ghastly. Who knows, maybe the Israelis and Arabs will agree to share Jerusalem, so everyone can continue to get their daily chickpea fix. It brings new meaning to the idea of whirled peas.

Having everyone sit down to a meal may sound like a simplistic way to solve such complex international issues, but Senator George J. Mitchell, President Obama’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, had quite a bit of success with just that tactic in the Northern Ireland peace negotiations. He hosted a dinner during which the negotiators were forbidden the topic of politics and were encouraged to discuss more personal things such as family and hobbies. A few days after that dinner, the first glimmers of mutual understanding were seen among the parties, leading eventually to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. If he tries it again, I would advise Senator Mitchell to get the best hummus money can buy. Or better yet, have the negotiators contribute their own family recipes.

As with many traditional dishes, we don’t know the origin of hummus. The word comes to us through Turkish, from the Arabic. As is often the case with food words, it simply means what it is, “chickpeas.” The full Arabic name of the dish is hummus-bi-tahina (chickpeas with tahina, or sesame paste). If you’ve only ever bought it in the grocery store or made it with canned chickpeas, you may think of hummus as heavy and pasty. The real dish is nothing like that, when freshly made, with good ingredients, it is light and fluffy, with bright lemon and earthy garlic bringing out the flavor of the staid chickpea.

Hummus
adapted from Mediterranean Street Food by Anissa Helou

Makes about 2 cups

1/2 cup dried chickpeas, soaked in water for 4 hours or overnight
1/3 cup tahini
2 cloves garlic, peeled
salt
4 tablespoons lemon juice or to taste
paprika
fruity olive oil
olives (optional)

Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Put them in a saucepan and enough water to cover them by about an inch. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Simmer the chickpeas partially covered for about 45 minutes or until very tender.

Drain the chickpeas and reserve the cooking water. Place the chickpeas in a food processor with the tahini and garlic. Process into a smooth puree. Check the consistency, it should be creamy, if it’s too thick add a couple of tablespoons of the chickpea cooking water to thin it out.

Add salt to taste, processing to blend it in.

Add the lemon juice a little at a time, processing to blend, until it tastes the way you like. At this point you may need to add more salt to balance the lemon juice. I find that I go back and forth between the two until it tastes just right.

Serve in a shallow bowl or on a small platter. Make a slight depression in the center of the hummus, sprinkle the paprika on top and pour some nice fruity olive oil into the depression. Garnish with olives if you like.

Serve with pita bread and vegetables for dipping.

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Photo by Flickr user Shabbir Siraj

I remember the first time I had chai in an Indian restaurant. I was transported to an imaginary spice market, sitting in the shade, watching the crowds flow by, while a merchant tried to convince me that his turmeric was worth the extra money. Good chai is exotic, creamy, sweet, spicy and invigorating, all at the same time.

A certain overpriced coffee purveyor, which shall remain nameless (with a green and white logo) serves a concoction they blithely call “chai.” It comes from a liquid concentrate which is then mixed with steamed milk. When I’ve tried it, all I could taste was the sweetener (I’ll give them credit, it is sugar and not corn syrup) and very little tea or spices. In a quest to duplicate that first chai experience, I decided to make some for myself. It turns out to be incredibly simple and I will most likely never buy chai from a coffee bar again.

First, a little history. The word “chai” simply means tea in Hindi, Punjabi, and actually, many other languages around the world. Tea has grown in India since prehistoric times, in particular in the region of Assam. But until much more recently that you might think, tea in India was seen as an herbal medicine, not an everyday beverage.

India was part of the British Empire from 1858-1947. At the time, the British were prodigious drinkers of tea, consuming about one pound of tea leaves per person, per year. The majority (90%) of that tea was coming from China, expensively imported by the East India Company. As soon as they came into power in India, the British began to cultivate tea plantations there, in order to have more direct control over the source of their favorite beverage. They also grew tea in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka). By 1900 50% of the tea drunk in Britain came from India and 33% from Ceylon.

What does this have to do with chai in India? Once tea became big business in India the usual trade organizations grew up around it. Specifically of interest in this story is the Indian Tea Association, founded in 1881. Beginning in the early 20th Century, the Indian Tea Association began a campaign promoting tea to Indians. The organization encouraged employers to give their workers tea breaks, and it supported chai wallahs (tea sellers) at strategic locations such as railway stations. Initially, the tea sold by the chai wallahs was the same as you would find in Britain, black tea with a little milk and sugar. The Indian Tea Association did not approve of any deviation from this model. Over time, independent chai wallahs started popping up and they put a local spin on this new beverage by adding Indian spices and boiling all the ingredients together, including the tea. Besides inventing a new drink, this was a way for the chai wallahs to save money and buy fewer tea leaves. When tea leaves are boiled, the end product is strong and bitter, but this is tempered by the addition of spices and boiling in a mixture of milk and water. To distinguish this new, exciting drink from the British version, Indians began to call it masala chai which means “spiced tea.”

Before we look at the recipe, take a moment to watch this lovely short film by Nick Higgins of a holy man brewing masala chai over a twig fire in New Delhi.

Masala Chai

Makes 2 small cups

There are just about as many recipes for masala chai as there are people in India, so feel free to experiment with different spices, amounts of milk and sugar, and cooking time until you get something you like. Other popular spices include star anise, fennel, mint leaves, liquorice, and saffron. One tip: don’t skimp on the sugar, it brings out the flavors and counteracts the bitterness of the tea.

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
2 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole black peppercorns
2 cardamon pods
1 tablespoon of black tea (I like to use Assam)
1 1/4 cups water
1/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons brown sugar (turbinado or demerara are nice)

Lightly crush all of the spices. Put the tea, spices and water in a pot and bring to a rolling boil. Turn the heat down and let it simmer for about 3 minutes. Add the milk and sugar and stir.

Bring the mixture to a boil again. As soon as the milk begins to foam up the sides of the pot, remove it from the heat and strain through a fine mesh strainer into a pot from which you will serve it.

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During an uncharacteristic flurry of New Year’s cleaning, I found myself weeding the bookshelves; always a difficult prospect, but especially when it comes to the cookbook section. Well, it turns out my hoarding instincts sometimes pay off. Growing up in Australia, my husband was given a British cookbook called Poor Cook: Fabulous Food for Next to Nothing by Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran. I love quirky old cookbooks and so would never get rid of it. On a lark, I looked to see if it was still in print. It isn’t. However, used copies are going for over $100 on Amazon!

Originally published in 1971, Poor Cook is remarkably prescient when it comes to discussing the intrusion of convenience foods on the home kitchen. In the introduction, authors Campbell and Conran write that, “pre-packed foods have been expensively prepared by other people, however cheaply they may have been bought in their original state, and are lavishly packaged and advertised. And if the people who enjoy feeding their families continue to carry their shopping baskets steadfastly past the supermarket door, in search of the odder cheap ingredients, then the shops will go on selling them, but if nobody asks for things like belly of pork and breast of lamb they will soon disappear for ever.”

Sound familiar?

They also heap praise upon their local butchers, thanking them in the acknowledgements and reminding readers that they should, “always be extra nice and good-tempered in the butcher’s shop; it really is worth being good friends with the man who sells you your meat. He will advise you which piece of the animal would be most suitable, if you tell him what you want the meat for. He is also more likely to be prepared to do tedious work in the way of boning, mincing and cutting a joint just so, if he is your friend and sees that you care, and if you make a point of going into the shop when it is not particularly busy.” And here I thought rock star butchers were a phenomenon of the 21st Century.

For all it’s similarities to the modern day, the book also shows the difference between the cookbook publishing industry then and now. Along with wholesome, simple recipes for dishes like Chicken Broth with Butter Dumplings, and Brisket in Beer, the book has an entire chapter titled “Pâtés, Terrines, Pies and Brawns” which includes some challenging dishes such as Galantine of Breast of Veal, and Brawn (aka headcheese), which modern readers are only used to seeing in specialty books like Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie. Campbell and Conran admit that things like terrines and raised pork pie “are all quite considerable tests of cooking ability,” but they warmly encourage the reader, saying, “don’t be surprised if the first one you make looks a bit strange; it gets better with practice, and it is a lovely thing to be able to produce at a picnic.” I much prefer this to today’s 30-minute wonder books.

As in many parts of the world in the late 60s and early 70s, food prices in Britain were climbing. Campbell and Conran wrote this book to help people get back to traditional cooking with cheap, simple ingredients. With foreclosures and unemployment at record highs, that’s something we could use a little of right here in 2010. Throughout the year I will cook some recipes from Poor Cook to see if they are as affordable now as they were back then; and more importantly are they tasty? Meanwhile, when you get around to your Spring, or Summer or whenever cleaning be sure to check those shelves for hidden, out-of-print gems.

I couldn’t resist starting with the terribly English sounding Toad in the Hole. We have no solid evidence for the origin of the name. The earliest usage is 18th Century and there is an English pub game with the same name, but that’s about all we know. The dish is essentially sausages in a Yorkshire Pudding-type batter; not exactly diet food, but great eating in this cold weather we’ve been having. The batter poofs up around the sausages into a light eggy cloud with crispy edges. The version in Poor Cook also includes bacon which I haven’t seen before, but who am I to argue? As long as you don’t buy fancy gourmet sausages and bacon, you can serve four people for about $10. Add a salad and a side of Boston Baked Beans, and you’ve got a cheap and cheerful winter dinner.

Toad in the Hole

adapted from Poor Cook by Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran

Serves 4

4 large sausages
4 slices bacon
4 oz. all purpose flour (about a cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 generous cup milk
2-3 tablespoons lard or canola oil

For the batter, use a fork to blend the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and break the eggs into it. Gradually add the milk while mixing with a portable mixer or a wooden spoon until all of the flour is absorbed into the batter, there will still be some milk left. Add the rest of the milk and then beat for 2-3 minutes with a portable mixer or 5-10 minutes with a spoon. Cover the batter and let stand in a cool place for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 475F.

In a skillet, fry the bacon for 2-3 minutes and remove to a plate. Add the sausages to the skillet and cook until they are nicely done. Put the lard or canola oil into an 8 x 8 inch baking dish and place it in the oven for 5 minutes to get it nice and hot. When the lard is melted and hot or the oil is hot, put the bacon in the bottom of the baking dish and the sausages on top, lying parallel to each other and return the dish to the oven for about 5 minutes. Have your batter ready, take the baking dish out of the oven, pour the batter over the meats and return the dish to the oven. Bake for 5 minutes at 475F and then lower the temperature to 425F and bake for 35-40 minutes. The batter will puff up around the sausages and turn a rich golden brown.

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When icy drafts seep through the old windows in our apartment I start thinking about slow cooking. Any dish that requires me to have the oven on for most of the day is a bonus at this time of year, and it also fills the place with tempting aromas. Happily, we have lots of country ham left over from our Yankee Southern Christmas so I thought I would try combining it with it’s classic partner, beans. As mentioned previously, my Mom is from New England, so of course the first thing that popped into my head was Boston Baked Beans.

If you’ve only had “baked beans” from a can, you don’t know what you’re missing. The real thing is totally different, richly infused with the flavor of pork and the earthy tang of Blackstrap molasses. Being a history nerd, I have a facsimile of the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer which was published in 1896. I figured that would be the best place to go for an authentic recipe. Her recipe uses salt pork but my left over country ham makes a good substitute.

In the process of making this dish I learned a lot about molasses and food science. For a deep complex flavor that is not too sweet, be sure to use real Blackstrap molasses in your Boston Baked Beans. When sugar cane juice is boiled to extract sugar crystals, molasses is left behind. There are three grades of molasses, first molasses, also known as mild or Barbados is produced by the first boil; dark or second molasses comes after the second boil, and finally, Blackstrap molasses from the third boil. Each boiling session creates a more complex and less sweet product. Blackstrap molasses also has the advantage of being very high in some important nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. It is often sold as a health supplement, so if you can’t find it in your grocery store, try a health food store.

You’ll notice in the recipe that you cook the beans on the stovetop first, and then put them in the oven for a long slow bake. Here’s where I got a lesson in food science from the great Harold McGee. In his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, he explains that beans like an alkaline environment for cooking. Once they are exposed to an acid they will not become any more tender, no matter how long they are cooked. Our ancestors may not have had chemistry degrees, but they figured out that if you add molasses to the beans before you put them in the oven, you can leave them there for six hours and they don’t turn to mush. That’s because molasses is an acid and so it helps the beans keep their shape and texture, but they must be fully cooked first.

The origin of Boston Baked Beans is somewhat cloudy. We know that Native Americans in the area cooked beans with maple syrup and bear fat, so it isn’t too much of a stretch to see how that might become molasses and pork fat. This dish was also perfect for the Puritan household where no cooking (or even lighting of the fire) was allowed on Sundays. So Goodwife Smythe would bury the bean pot in the coals of the fire on Saturday night and by the next day the beans were done and could be eaten without breaking any religious tenets. Serve with hearty brown bread for a flavorful, yet healthy antidote to the excesses of the holiday season.

Boston Baked Beans
Adapted from Fannie Merritt Farmer

The traditional bean pot has a lid and its body bulges out slightly in the middle. I used an oven-safe soup tureen. If you don’t have something like that, use a casserole dish and cover it with aluminum foil for most of the baking.

Makes about 4 cups of beans

1/2 pound of dried navy beans (about 2 cups)
1/4 pound of salt pork or country ham
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons molasses
4 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar (I like to use Turbinado or Demerara)

Soak the dried beans in water to cover for 4 hours or overnight, then drain and rinse.

Put the beans in a medium saucepan and add enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Slowly heat the water until the beans come to a bare simmer with just a couple of bubbles breaking the surface. If you boil them too hard, their skins will split. Simmer the beans half covered until they are tender, about 30-45 minutes. It is important not to overcook them, so check for doneness every 15 minutes beginning at the 30 minute mark.

Preheat oven to 250F.

When the beans are cooked drain them. Cut a thin slice from the salt pork or ham and put it in the bottom of your bean pot. Pour the drained beans in and then bury the remaining salt pork or ham in the beans with just the rind of the salt pork or fat side of the ham showing.

Mix the salt, molasses and brown sugar with one cup of boiling water and stir until dissolved. Pour this mixture over the beans. If needed add more boiling water to just cover the beans.

Put the lid on the bean pot or cover your casserole with aluminum foil and bake it in the oven for 6-8 hours, uncovering for the last hour to allow the pork to brown. Check the beans occasionally and add water if needed. When done there will be a little liquid left to form a tasty sauce, but most of it will boil away.

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The other day I was in my local grocery store, reading labels like the food geek I am, when I wandered past the apple sauce shelf. I was shocked to discover that most of the jars contained not only apples, water, and some ascorbic acid (to keep the sauce from turning brown), but they also had High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) in them. Each brand seemed to have one version that was unsweetened, usually labeled “natural” or “original.” But if you wanted chunky apple sauce or apple sauce with cinnamon, then you had no choice but to also accept HFCS. There were a couple of organic brands which did not have ascorbic acid in them (maybe organic lemon juice is expensive?). They also had sweetened and non-sweetened versions but used sugar instead of HFCS. Does anyone make organic HFCS? There’s an ironic food product for you.

Why would anyone put sweetener in apple sauce? I mean sure, if you’re using older apples that have been in storage all winter then they might need a bit of a boost, but come on, apples are one of the sweetest foods in existence. Heck, a lot of “hippy” products are sweetened with apple juice instead of sugar. Oh, and even worse, the small 4 ounce cups of apple sauce meant to go in kids’ lunch boxes were all sweetened. I’m sure someone makes a “natural” lunch box apple sauce, but my store didn’t have any that day.

When I got home from the grocery store, I was standing in the kitchen shaking my head over America’s apparent addiction to sugar, when I saw a bowl of apples on the counter. About half an hour later, I filled most of a quart-sized jar with homemade pink apple sauce spiced with star anise, cardamom, and cloves, no sweeteners here thanks. I used 6 apples and I wound up with about 3 cups of sauce. Apple sauce is one of the easiest things to make yourself and it’s fun to experiment with wild spice combinations, I think next time I’ll try some fresh ginger.

Normally, I’m not a big kitchen gadget lover. I live in a small New York City apartment and gadgets must earn the right to live in my kitchen by proving they are truly useful at multiple tasks. One of the few gadgets granted this honor is my food mill. In summer I use it for making jams and jellies, it helps a lot in making really smooth cold soups like vichyssoise, and it’s really good for making apple sauce. If you have a food mill there is no need to core and/or peel your apples, just chop them into eight pieces each and that’s it. Once the apple sauce is cooked, you let it cool and then run it through the food mill which purees the cooked apples and removes the skin, seeds and spices. Leaving the skin on the apples makes the sauce turn pink, which I think is particularly attractive. I also think the skin and seeds impart more flavor to the final sauce.

Apple sauce is a great staple to have around the house. I love stirring it into oatmeal in the morning, it’s a great side dish with pork, and you can use it for a quick dessert like apple sauce cake.

Homemade Apple Sauce

Makes about 3 cups

6-8 apples, any variety you like
water
2 star anise pods
2 cardamom pods
4 whole cloves

Cut your apples into 8 pieces each and put them in a sauce pan with just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan which will keep them from sticking. If you do not have a food mill peel and core your apples before putting them in the pan.

Add the spices. Cover and cook over low heat for about 15-20 minutes or until the apples are very soft. Take the pot off the heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Pour the cooked apples into the food mill. Discard any water than strains through the food mill, then puree your sauce. If you don’t have a food mill, remove the spices from the cooled apples and mash them with a potato masher. If the sauce is too watery, pour it through a fine mesh strainer. Store, covered, in the refrigerator.

Variations:

Use more than one apple variety for more complexity and depth of flavor.

Try any spice combinations that sound interesting to you. Here are some suggestions: cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, fresh ginger, cloves, star anise, and cardamom. Whole spices are always better if you have them; for nutmeg, grate it into the pot.

If your apples are old, you might add a tablespoon or 2 of sugar. Old apples also benefit from 2 tablespoons of butter for extra smoothness. Stir the butter into the finished sauce while it is still warm.

For an adult apple sauce, use brandy or Calvados (French apple brandy) instead of water.

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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.

Everybody panic! It’s the great pumpkin shortage of 2009! I, for one, am deeply suspicious that Nestlé/Libby is making it all up to increase sales. I can report that my local grocery stores have plenty of canned pumpkin on the shelves as I write (the Sunday before Thanksgiving) and my mother, who is providing pie — which is of course the best in the universe — for our gathering, has not called to tell me that she will have to make apple instead this year. We had terrible rain during the growing season here in the northeast, and yet, yesterday at the Farmers’ Market, they had lovely pie pumpkins for sale at $1/pound. How are pumpkin supplies in your area?

If you can’t find pumpkin canned or fresh, I would recommend substituting sweet potato or butternut squash, I’ve heard that it’s difficult to tell the difference once the sugar, spices, eggs and cream are added.

When a friend of mine recently gave me a sugar pumpkin from her garden, I got excited because I’ve been wanting to try making pie from fresh pumpkin for years and the best type to use is the sugar pumpkin (sometimes called pie pumpkin). If you try this at home, don’t use a Halloween Jack ‘O Lantern type pumpkin. They are not sweet enough and they’re also quite a bit more fibrous.

I think we can safely say that it will take longer to make a pumpkin pie this way since opening a can only takes about 30 seconds and roasting a pumpkin takes about an hour and a half. However, as with home baked bread, the active time required is a lot shorter than you might think: about 23 minutes. I timed it thus (I have colored the active parts green, for the rest you can be out of the kitchen):

Chop in half and clean out the pumpkin: 15 min.
Bake pumpkin: 90 min.
Cool pumpkin: 15 min.
Scoop flesh out of pumpkin: 5 min.
Puree pumpkin flesh in food processor: 3 min.

So we’ve established that while yes, technically it is slower than opening a can, it’s not as horribly time consuming as you might think. But does the pie taste better? I did not go so far as to make two pies side by side for comparison (I’ll have enough weight to lose after the holidays as it is, okay?), but going on the memory of the many pies I have eaten which were made with canned pumpkin, I can say that I really didn’t detect any particular difference in flavor. It was delicious! However, I found it very satisfying to make a pie the way my great-grandmother would have, and I didn’t have to add another can to the recycling bin.

One thing I did notice is that after roasting, when I pureed the pumpkin it was a very bright orange, not that dull brownish color you find in canned pumpkin. I’m no nutritionist, but I’m guessing there was a lot more beta carotene and other “good for you” compounds in the fresh pumpkin.

So get thee to a Farmers’ Market and buy some sugar pumpkins. The one I used made the perfect amount of puree for pie (you need about 2 cups of puree for a 9 inch pie). I didn’t measure it but it looked to be about an average size based on what I’ve seen for sale. Ask your farmer, I’m sure she can tell you which size to get. Or better yet, buy two and make pumpkin muffins, or pumpkin bread with the extra. The puree also freezes very well, so don’t worry if you have too much.

Fresh Pumpkin Puree

Makes about 2 cups of pumpkin puree

1 medium sized sugar pumpkin (also called a pie pumpkin)

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cut the pumpkin in half lengthwise and remove the stem. Scoop out the “guts,” saving the seeds if you wish for roasting later. Place the pumpkin halves on a lightly oiled baking sheet, cut side up, and bake until the pumpkin begins to collapse in on itself and the flesh is tender (about 90 minutes).

Allow the pumpkin to stand until it is cool enough to handle easily (about 15 minutes). Then scoop the flesh out of the skin and puree in a food processor until smooth. If your puree seems a little watery (mine wasn’t at all, but pumpkins can vary), line a strainer with cheese cloth and set it over a bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it to drain overnight in the fridge. The final puree will keep in the refrigerator for 2-3 days and freezes very well.

If you need a pie recipe, try this one from Simply Recipes, it turned out very well and I especially liked the addition of cardamom to the spice mixture.

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