ABOUTLITERARYCULINARYCONTACTBLOG
   

 

Huffington Post Meatless Monday
Meatless Monday: Ful for Love
A Lesson in a Bowl of Rice

Culinate
Madhur Jaffrey: The accidental cook
Mark Bittman: The minimalist
Mark Kurlansky: The food sociologist
A Tokyo Thanksgiving

Miami Herald Edgy Veggie
Passion, purity set `Crackerman's' flat breads apart
Filmmaker gets lesson in `Meatless'
Handmade Matzoh

ARCHIVE


 

Meatless Monday: Ful for Love
Huffington Post

Ful for LoveFalling in love is a little like a political uprising. It means allowing change to enter your life, seeing possibility where none existed before. In both cases, it's about hope. Today, Valentine's Day, the celebration of love, comes at a pivotal moment for Egypt. It's a different Valentine's Day, calling for a different means of edible arousal. Today calls for ful.

Ful, or fava beans, is the national dish of Egypt. Granted, when it comes to food that lubes the libido, a bowl of beans lacks the Valentine's Day panache chocolate has. And someone should come up with a better name than ful, which sounds offputting and is sometimes spelled, lamentably, f-o-u-l.

Spell it any way you like, but ful is not upmarket. It's "everyman's breakfast, the shopkeeper's lunch and the poor man's dinner," as the Arabic saying goes. And it's worth noting Egypt's national dish is not lamb, but a legume. Ful truly is eaten at every time of the day, and at a time when Egypt is experiencing food shortages, skyrocketing food prices and many people's salaries are on hold, it can feed the masses and fuel an uprising. A bowl of ful offers a lot of protein and fiber for just a few piastres.

Sometimes ful is stewed and mashed and pretty much left alone, enjoyed as a dip or salad. Sometimes it's cooked with tomatoes, lemon, garlic, a few quick-cooking red lentils for color and thickening, and cumin, the wonderful warming spices of Egyptain which case it's more of a stew. The end result, called ful mudammas, is not chili. It is less spicy, more soulful and entirely elemental.

You can top it with any number of garnishes, from tahini to poached eggs, or just with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of salt, but it is not to tarted up. You'd be missing the point. This is the people's food. Another Arabic saying -- "Beans have satisfied even pharoahs."

If there is anything unsatisfying about favas, it is this -- the beans have a tough outer carapace that needs to be peeled before eating. To make matters worse, some people have an extreme allergic reaction to fava skins, called favism.

Available in Middle Eastern markets and many natural food stores, dried favas come in small, medium and large, but the Egyptians wisely use only the small tender ones for making ful. The bigger the bean, the tougher the skin and the greater the peeling effort. Small favas, which the Egyptians call ful hammam, or bath beans, are not only quicker to cook, they're easier to peel.

Whatever size favas you use, the best bet is to parboil www.recipetips.com/glossary-term/t--33643/parboil.asp the beans, peel them, then finish cooking until beans are tender I am sorry to tell this can take as long as 12 hours. The final cooking, however, takes only minutes.

Ful is also sold in cans, if you want to spare yourself some time and labor. That said, peeling a pound of favas with your beloved is a worthy endeavor. While your hands are busy, your lips are free. You can kiss, converse, enjoy each other the way we so seldom seem to have time for.

Think, too, about the very act of peeling. In terms of a fava bean, peeling is about reaching the point of tenderness. Peeling the clothes off your valentine is all that, and wonderfully erotic, besides. In terms of a nation on the cusp of change, peeling means a casting off of an old regime. In all cases, it is a revelation of self.

I've yet to see the box of chocolates that can do all that. Happy Valentine's Day.

Ful Mudammas
Serve with toasted pita.

3 cups small fava beans, cooked until tender and drained (cooked from 1/2 pound dry beans or use 2 15-ounce cans ful, rinsed and drained)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup dried red lentils
1-1/2 cups vegetable broth, water or reserved liquid from cooked favas
2 teaspoon cumin
2 tomatoes, chopped (or 1 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes, drained)
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup chopped parsley
olive oil and sea salt for finishing
plus optional garnishes, including:
tahini
fried or hard-boiled eggs
additional chopped parsley and tomatoes
chopped scallions

Pour cooked ful into a medium saucepan and heat over medium-high heat. Add chopped garlic, red lentils, broth or reserved liquid, cumin and chopped tomatoes.

Reduce heat to medium and stir occasionally, until everything starts to come together and the red lentils become tender, about 12 minutes.

Stir and smoosh until you get the consistency you like. Some people like it totally creamy, others more on the beany side. Squeeze in lemon juice and stir in parsley.

Add a drizzle of olive oil, but to eat like an Egyptian, allow each person to salt his own ful.

Recipe doubles easily and covered and refrigerated, keeps up to a week. Serves 4.

return to top

 

A Lesson in a Bowl of Rice
Huffington Post

Bowl of RiceA moment can wash away your world. It is a lesson we have had to learn over and over again lately, from New Orleans to Thailand to Haiti to China and now Japan. Maybe you think these extreme shifts have nothing to do with global climate change, that the world was going to have a shivering fit anyway. Maybe you think these things have nothing to do with you. But they do. Were all connected in ways we cant see, from the tectonic plates to dinner plates.

We are all, of course, focused on the crisis in Japan. I used to live there -- in the heart of Tokyo, in Minato-Ku. This was after college, my first real shot at independence. I didnt always get it right, what with being a gaijin (foreigner) and all. Fortunately, I had people looking out for me, strangers who went out of their way to be kind to me. And thinking back, I realize the connection almost always had to do with food. In Japan, I came to understand food is a gift. Whether its the stylized mochi (rice and bean paste confections) arrayed like jewels in the sweet shop windows or a simple bowl of rice, it is presented as the precious thing it is.

Theres no such thing as cheap food in Japan. Its not mass-produced. Everything is grown with care, and the price, often breath-taking, reflects it. So you cant take it for granted. You dont supersize, you savor. The same is true of the people. Their bursts of warmth are sudden, brief and inexplicable in a culture of formality. I learned to enjoy them in the moment, in their season, so to speak.

There was the kimono-clad proprietress of my corner market, where I shopped every day (had to-- tiny kitchen, tiny fridge). She took pride in introducing me to produce Id never seen back home, including what she painstakingly called mushrooms that grow on trees -- enoki -- sweet, tiny, white. And because they were the only kind I could afford, shed keep them aside for me.

There was my friend, Ando-san, who even invited me into her home -- very rare for the polite, formal Japanese. It was right around this time, on March 3, Hina Matsuri -- Girls Day or Dolls Day. Traditionally, this was a day to pray for your daughters, wishing them happiness and health and to keep them safe from evil. That day, I became her daughter, too. She dressed me in a kimono and served tea and papaya (not native, but then again, neither was I). Having seen the fruit wrapped in tissue at the corner market, I had a wrenching sense of how much shed spent for it. So it was an honor to share it with her, scooping up each soft slice of sunshine.

There was the OG (office girl in Japanese slang), who helped me out one afternoon in Hiroshima. I explained I was meeting someone for dinner later and asked how to get to the restaurant. She was immaculate, wearing the typical office uniform of a suit, stockings, pumps (not too high) and white gloves. I never knew how the girls kept their gloves so clean. She stopped and drew me an elaborate map (life before Google Maps). I thanked her, bowing, and went on my way, certain of my destination. But maybe she wasnt. That evening, walking to the restaurant, a motor scooter zipped past, then doubled back and stopped in front of me. It was my OG friend from before, now in leather gear and helmet and with a boyfriend in tow. She just wanted to make sure Id found my way. She presented me with an orange -- fragrant, bright, perfect, pricy -- for no reason at all other than to show extraordinary kindness to a stranger whose ass shed already bailed out. I thanked her again, we bowed again, and she and her boyfriend roared off into the night.

I dont know her name, dont know how she is, yet I worry for her, for Ando-san, my corner market lady, feel a connection to them and to so many of the people there. I dont know how many prayers it takes to keep anyone safe these days. The very things youd think can rely on -- caring, prayer, food -- dont always work. And yet we reach out to each other anyway. We learn to savor what we can. I dont think that can ever be washed away.

Yasai Donburi
In Japan, a donburi basically means something served over rice -- usually eggs. Ive enriched it by adding vegetables. Its easy, popular, its Japanese comfort food. I wish all the people in Japan gaman -- endurance.

1 cup rice -- white is traditionally Japanese, brown is whole grain and healthier
1 cup vegetable broth
1/4 cup sake or sherry
1 tablespoon white miso paste
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil (optional)
2 carrots, chopped
2 cups broccoli (about half a head), broken into florets
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
4 scallions, chopped
2 to 3 eggs

Bring 2 cups of water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add rice. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until rice is tender and has absorbed liquid -- about 15 minutes for white rice, 30 for brown.

Remove from heat but keep covered and warm.

Bring broth to boil in a medium saucepan. Add sake or sherry, miso, soy sauce and optional sesame oil. Stir until smooth. Add broccoli, carrots, ginger and garlic and cook for 2 minutes, or until vegetables start to soften. Add scallions and mushrooms and continue cooking.

Whisk eggs together in a small bowl. Gently pour over bubbling broth and vegetables.

Cover and cook about 2 to 3 minutes, or until eggs are just set. You dont have to mess with them at all, the heat does the work.

Divide rice into two bowls. Gently spoon vegetables, eggs and sauce on top.

Serves 2.

return to top

 

Madhur Jaffrey: The accidental cook
Culinate, March 1, 2011

If you've never set foot in India but you know chutney from chapati, you probably have Madhur Jaffrey to thank. When America barely knew what curry was, the Delhi-born Jaffrey encouraged us to explore the subcontinent's cuisine with her seminal 1973 An Invitation to Indian Cooking.

Since then, she's written nearly 30 more cookbooks, including At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. Named one of last year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, the book combines the traditional regional flavors of India with modern, streamlined techniques. Not bad for a girl who started out as an actress knowing "absolutely nothing" about cooking, Indian or otherwise.

Jaffrey always knew good food, though. The tasteless gray grub she encountered in London while studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art had nothing in common with the childhood dishes she described in her 2006 spice-scented memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees.

Desperate, she wrote to her mother, begging for recipes, and in her 20s, she learned to prepare the foods she loved from home. In between performing on stage, for television, and in films including a number of Merchant Ivory productions she became, as she puts it, an accidental cook.

Though "open to every kind of cuisine" and an unabashed fan of pasteurized milk and iceberg lettuce, Jaffrey always returns to the food of her homeland, as with her recently published 100 Essential Curries, part of the My Kitchen Table series.

In At Home with Madhur Jaffrey, you write about culinary overlap how Indian, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, and Persian cuisines draw from and riff on each other.
They're all related in some wonderful way. There's an undercurrent of techniques coming from abroad that weave their way into different countries. When you talk about authentic cuisines, everybody's influenced by everyone.

An Indian is particularly ready to absorb and understand foreign cuisines foreign to India, that is. First of all, we were a British colony, the French ruled us, the Portuguese ruled us we know a lot about European cuisine to begin with.

Indian cuisine has hundreds of spices, hundreds of methods of seasoning. There's almost no technique or seasoning we don't know.

But America is a blend of cultures and cuisines, too. Do we qualify as having an authentic national cuisine?
India has a cuisine that goes back thousands and thousands of years. America has developed in 300 years that's such a short time. There are odds and ends a hamburger, a hot dog is considered American. It takes much longer for a cuisine to be a cuisine of the nation. You have to wait a bit.

How have you seen American food culture change since you first published An Invitation to Indian Cooking?
The American palate has changed so much. The capacity to eat hot food was very limited when I came to this country. There have been great changes in the amount of heat that the American palate has now come to love. The spices and seasonings have become more and more and more, the sauces are getting hotter and hotter and hotter Mexican salsas, hot sauces from southeast Asia, Indian hot sauces. They say there's no returning when you come to eat hot food.

We're much more open to regional foods. We travel a lot, whether it's Japan or Indonesia or Italy or France, and we know much more. Every food writer should travel. There's so much to learn in every country. You can't learn it from books, really.

What about food and geography do some dishes work better in Mumbai than in Manhattan?
Every time I'm in Japan, I buy a whole lot of teas and I bring them back. I'm so excited it's the setting, everything about it allures you. In Manhattan, it's not the same thing, and I find I don't often drink them in the same way. The atmosphere is different and they sit around.

Do you think cooking is an innate talent, or is it something that can be taught?
My husband and I always discuss this. He says you can learn. I say you can learn to a degree. Some people can improvise more on their own, some people less. To cook well, a palate is essential.

My husband's a musician. He hears music, and he retains it. He can play it in his head anytime, and compare and contrast. I can do that with food. Anything I've eaten that's impressed me is in my head. I can use it for comparison, for contrast, to build up a whole wall of knowledge.

It's the same with any sense, any part of you that's developed, even a mathematical sense I have zilch, but I know people who so love numbers, it becomes part of their life, they see things in terms of numbers, are able to solve problems with numbers very easily. I think it's the same with tasting. Once you have that ability, you hardly know you have it, but you retain it.

What do you advise the palate-challenged? Or someone starting out the way you did, not knowing anything about cooking?
I knew absolutely nothing. I want to encourage people to cook.

The most important thing with Indian food is: Don't be frightened. Get only the spices for that recipe, the ones you need, so you're not overwhelmed. I like to taste as I go. I like other people to, so they know how to do it. See what you're aiming for at each stage. If you like that dish, then make it again. Make it a few times. When you've mastered it, make another. Don't try to do a whole big thing of 10 Indian dishes. I think that's the way to go.

Having learned to cook from your mother's letters, how do you go about collecting recipes?
My mother was an extraordinary case. My mother cooked the food I ate. I pretty much knew the taste of it. I could fix the recipe from her three-line explanation. I knew what I was aiming for.

It's a tricky business, writing good recipes. Marcella [Hazan]'s always work, Julia Child's recipes work. Very few people like that give you the details you need. People can't always write recipes as fully as I want them. People leave out things. You know how high is the heat? What kind of pan do you use? A wider pan? A taller pan? I get a sense of all that when I'm watching it being made.

When I go collect recipes, I insist people cook them for me, that I watch them cook. It's important to see the technique and the amounts. I want to trust what I see. I know I will write the recipe; I trust myself to do it and no one else. I test them again and again. It's important I convey a complete sense of the recipe.

You've done award-winning cooking shows for television, but you keep coming back to writing cookbooks. What does a cookbook do that a food show doesn't?
It gives details and background that you can't always do on television. It gives a depth to the recipe, it gives a reference to the recipe, its place in culture and history. The context is very important. Not because it's foreign cuisine; I'd want the same about a Southern recipe. I like to know the author's relationship to the recipe.

A collection like The Fannie Farmer Cookbook tells you how to cook roast beef, how to roast lamb, but it's a collection without any point of view. A book is more interesting to me if I get the author's take on the recipes.

What does acting have in common with cooking?
Cooking is a kind of performance. You aim for a kind of perfection I do, always. You want to do it right, make an impression, you want it to be distinguished, in a way. I cook for myself as carefully as I do for my family or my husband. It is like a little performance for a very small audience.

return to top

 

Mark Bittman: The minimalist
Culinate, October 18, 2010

"It's simple." This has been Mark Bittman's mantra since he began as a food writer in 1980. A self-taught cook rather than a professionally trained chef, Bittman demystifies cooking in his New York Times column, The Minimalist; in his easy, accessible blog; and in his cookbooks, including his much-lauded 1998 opus How to Cook Everything and its 2008 companion, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

While venturing into vegetarian cuisine, Bittman began seeing the connection between America's massive meat consumption and the toll it takes on the environment and on our health. In the last few years, he ate jamn in Spain with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow, but he also gave a galvanizing TED talk entitled "What's wrong with what we eat?"

In Food Matters, Bittman took up the rallying cry of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and added recipes focusing on produce, whole grains, and legumes. His new book, The Food Matters Cookbook, goes even further, offering 500 recipes that have the Bittman stamp of being healthy, easy, and unbelievably good. They also contain less meat "much, much, much less."

You started writing about food when much of the discussion was how exotic and stylish the food was. Now it's all about how you source your food. How have you seen American food culture change since you began?
Back then, you'd go into a restaurant and the waiter would say, "We have green-lipped mussels from New Zealand," and that was a great thing the farther away it came from, the more exotic it was, the better. You go into a restaurant now and the guy says, "We have green-lipped mussels from New Zealand," and it pisses me off.

In New York, for example, you go into an Italian restaurant and ask about the mozzarella and the waiter says, "We made it this morning." You go to Toronto, which is not that far away, and you go into an Italian restaurant and they say, "We just flew it in from Italy." It's only five years ago that was the norm for most of the country. Mozzarella di bufala now people can make it themselves.

You talk about the locavore movement it's easier to eat local stuff. People are making stuff, growing stuff. That's going to be the real mark of prosperity real food grown or made within a couple of miles or within a drive, with pride and skill.

How has your own approach to food and food writing changed since you began?
Until 2004, it was just growth and learning. I traveled a lot, explored other cuisines for 25 or 30 years, learning, learning, learning. I had no interest in anything other than the simplest stuff, other than cooking with Jean-Georges Vongerichten. In a way, he's a great simple chef.

Food Matters was the biggest change in my life. Now I have some kind of philosophy: We should all be eating more like vegans less meat, more plants. It's the simplest thing in the world. You don't need to know anything about health, phytonutrients, selenium, fat, salt it's all bullshit. The important thing is, you eat more plants and eat less of everything else. That's what it all boils down to.

As a full-time vegan to a self-described "less-meatatarian" guy, I've got to ask: Is America ready for a meatless or less meat diet?
"Less-meatatarian" no one likes that term. But I can guarantee I got 600 people in Philadelphia on Monday and 600 people in New York and nobody asking about Mario and Gywneth Paltrow. Now they're saying, "How much of a crisis is this?" "What's the matter with our food?" It's a transformation, a younger, more aware audience. Not that older people aren't more aware, too. Well, maybe they're not.

I'm a funny guy, I'm a nice guy, but some of what I'm talking about is depressing. The key to survival is a plant-based diet. I don't mean we have to be vegan, but we're 90 percent nonvegan now. Begin by being semi-vegan.

What did you grow up eating?
My mother had a 1950s routine: meat every night. Hamburger, chops, steak, chicken. My sister says we had spaghetti and meatballs. Maybe. We'd have a potato, canned or frozen vegetables. And I ate street food. I lived in New York.

So how do you develop someone's palate to appreciate a meal without meat?
I guess the answer is like anything else: you practice. We all appreciate meals without meat all the time; it's not that challenging. There's a great deal of things that don't have meat, like pasta with tomato sauce. No one gripes about that not having meat. Vegetable soup doesn't have meat. Rice and beans doesn't have meat. It's just a question of not seeing that kind of food as deprivation. It's normal.

How about changes to your own palate?
When I wrote How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, I learned about more things and more options. Something about my sweet tooth has been minimized. I like savory food. What I like about it is salt. If I wake up vaguely not hungry, I'll happily have a bowl of oatmeal with a little maple syrup. But this morning, I woke up hungry, and I had oatmeal with some soy sauce and mirin and a tiny bit of vinegar. I want that savory/salty thing that's like bacon. I'm not saying I'm sitting here missing it, I'm not saying I'll never eat a plate of bacon it's the chew, it's the crunch. But it's a lot about the saltiness, and if you like salt, you use salt.

I could go into the whole government salt-restriction thing.
You don't want to go there. But if you did, most of our salt comes from eating too much processed food. If you don't eat processed food, you're probably not overdoing it. I don't think it's that much of an issue.

What's the difference between creating a recipe and writing it?
I can cook, I know how to cook, but I'm very lazy. I do things very quickly and sloppily and it works fine. I've had a lot of practice over 30 years and many thousands of recipes. It may not be artful, it may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff, but it's still writing, and it's gotta be clear, concise, and smart. You have to start with a good recipe but make it so other people can understand it. I do pride myself on doing that.

When you think of cooking, what sensory element first comes to mind? Smell, texture, taste, looks, sound?
It's visual. Taste is the payoff. I want it to taste good, but it starts visually, looking at stuff and thinking how it's going to work. That's basically how I cook I make sure I have a ton of stuff in the house. Sometimes I plan, but often I don't. It's like having a palette. You think how you're going to put it all together. I don't pay much attention to presentation. Real food is naturally beautiful. I think food looks good.

We seem to live at a disconnect. There's a whole food-porn industry celebrity chefs, the Food Network but most of my friends don't cook. So how does that sit with you, personally and culturally?
I think it sucks.

I used to make fun of my mother, but she put in the hours in the kitchen every night. A lot of people don't.

The celebrity-chef thing is not about getting people to cook, it's about getting people to watch television and spend money in restaurants. They and I have nothing in common.

You eat much better if you cook. You are taking control over what you're eating. The only way to do that is to buy the ingredients and eat them raw or cook them. If you're letting other people cook your food, you are not in control.

What's the one dish everyone ought to be able to make?
Rice and beans. Beans and rice. Whatever. It's the most important dish in the world. You can tell people if they start complaining about protein, "Shut up, it has protein." It's unbelievable. It's vegan or not. There's 20 kinds of beans, hundreds of grains, it just doesn't stop. Cassoulet, franks and beans, all these sorts of meat dishes are beans and rice, anyway. It's one of the fundamental dishes of Western cuisine.

Or do a stir-fry. Do one stir-fry, and you can make 10 different ones. Then a salad there's nothing to learn there.

Those three things, you could eat fine for the rest of your life. What's the problem?

return to top

 

Mark Kurlansky: The food sociologist
Culinate, February 1, 2011

Oysters, fish, crme brle, and coffee might say dinner to you, but to award-winning author Mark Kurlansky, they're each a lens into who we are.

In his nonfiction books, including Cod, Salt, and The Big Oyster, Kurlansky has shown how foods have shaped global culture, economy, labor, and trade. In his new book, Edible Stories, Kurlansky presents 16 linked short stories, all focused on food and our visceral relationship to it. A marriage hinges on crme brle, soda and espresso fuel revolutions, and soup hastens love and topples politicians.

In addition to working occasional gigs as a commercial fisherman, a cook, and a pastry chef, Kurlansky is the author of 14 other books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, as well as an upcoming graphic novel for young readers about sustainable seafood.

How did you come to see food as a cultural touchstone?
I have a metaphorical mind; I always see things as other things. Things are only interesting to me if they stand for something more. Certainly food would not be interesting to me just as food. I always look for a good story.

Were you always thus? I can just imagine you at six and your mother giving you a hot dog and you remarking on its social implications.
As a kid, I was always eating everything grasshoppers, anything I could find.

I'm wondering where the connection between food and stories happened for you in the kitchen growing up? At the table?
Mealtime was all about conversation. It's where stories were told. And where politics was argued. I represented the radical left side of my family before it was fashionable in the 1950s. You know the ban-the-bomb movement? When I was a small child, I used to harass my parents about that.

So the political and the edible got linked for you as a kid. Should food writers and chefs have a sense of social responsibility?
I think everybody should. Whatever you do, you should ask yourself what is the social-responsibility component to this. Wouldn't it be nice if insurance executives felt that way?

One thing I very much like about the food world is that people do tend to have a sense of social responsibility. Except that whole movement does not make food that working people can afford.
I was in New York at the farmers' market, talking to this woman who produces beautiful arugula. It's unbelievably expensive. This is, to me, the great flaw in all of these great new movements. Having more organic, more local, better products, better simpler food, all this is great, but they can't figure out how to do it affordably.

What else will the Mark Kurlansky of the next century say about how we eat now?
As Bill Clinton would say, it all depends on what you mean by "we." There's something going on this country that's very odd. Cultures with a more natural relationship to food, like the French and the Italians, certainly find our interest in the fashionableness of food odd. Edible Stories in a lot of ways is about this about people who talk too much about food, the whole notion of food celebrities.

I think a lot of what's going on in food fashion makes no sense at all. There's a lot of food that is just put together, that's sort of, "Look what I've done." For example, the food that's made on the Food Channel nobody eats like that, nobody wants to eat like that. It doesn't have any kind of cultural or historical base. I think it's a passing fad.

Culturally, food has become completely internationalized. One of the reasons I write about food is because it reflects history and society and what's going on. I spend a lot of time in Basque country; it has a great food tradition. Basque dishes, like the beans of Tolosa, came about because of 17th-century trade with Central America. Foods like that last because they came about through a historical process. But a lot of the famous new Basque chefs, their food is odd and curious, foods that could be from anywhere with no cultural underpinnings. So in the long view of history, it won't have any importance.

As someone adept at both fiction and nonfiction, what do each offer you as a writer?
What nonfiction lets me do is go to a source to get my story, and go back to sources if the story isn't working out. What fiction lets me do is imagine my way in and out of things, although it's almost always based on something true.

I really did research the history of Orangina. It's absolutely true. It was in Algeria, moved to France after the war, and it had this right-wing association. I was interviewed by somebody who said, "I remember that struggle in Bordeaux."

I completely made that up. One of the rewards of writing fiction is when you make things up and convince people they're true.

In Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue [Kurlansky's 2005 novel], this guy has this affair with a pastry maker, and I can't tell you how many people, including people who know me well, asked me if I had an affair with a pastry maker. I didn't, but their asking makes me think I did something right.

Have you eaten all the foods you mention in Edible Stories?
I've never eaten a tofurky.

And can live a long and happy life even so.
I am a great fan of Belons.

What about the eyeball soup?
Most of my ideas come from real-life experience. Then I have trouble remembering what I made up and what really happened. I do know I met a woman who was living in a trailer in Anchorage, the last native speaker of a language called Eyak. She was lonely and couldn't speak to anyone except anthropologists. I don't know if I completely made the soup up or not.

How have all your food books, fiction or otherwise, affected how you live and eat?
I end up eating a lot of the food I write about more so after the book comes out. It comes up in the promotional stuff. I do have food events coming up with the new book, so we'll see what happens. I ate a lot of horrible stuff after the cod book came out.

I did end up using a lot more salt after the salt book. I started using salt in ways I hadn't before. I've gotten stuck on salting salads. The word for salad in Latin is salted, but it's a misrepresentation they didn't sprinkle salt on it, they used a brine dressing. But I like salad just with good olive oil and a fairly crunchy large crystal.

What about the WPA foods you researched for The Food of a Younger Land? Did you get to eat those?
Not a lot, but some. WBUR public radio in Boston did a very interesting thing. They have a national show called "On Point" and they brought in a Boston chef to cook a bunch of recipes from the book, and we sat around and ate them on the air. It was a great thing to do. Conversation really gets better when you're all eating. Always serve food when you're doing interviews you have much better conversations.

What do you like to make when you're in the kitchen?
I'm the one who cooks. I do a lot of things fish and vegetables, meat and vegetables. I don't eat much starch because I'm perfectly capable of getting fat without it.

I have a 10-year-old daughter. When you have a child in the house, that has a lot to do with what you cook. She's an interesting eater in a lot of ways. She really loves sauces. If you make a nice sauce, then she's happy. It's a style of cooking I used to do years ago, but I'm back to it now. Fish she's not that wild about except fresh grilled sardines, her absolute favorite food.

Oh, and once a week, she gets to spin a globe and I make something that comes from that place. That's made for some very interesting meals. She keeps landing on Kazakhstan.

How do you source your ingredients?
I buy produce from the local farmers' markets when they have it. That's the catch in this whole locavore thing. You see a lot of canned food in Food of a Younger Land. There's not a lot of fresh food between November and March.

I buy my meat from a butcher, fish from a fish market. I enjoy these markets and know all the people there and we talk baseball. Sometimes I go to Whole Foods very convenient for me.

I can't plan out my food for a week. I shop every day. I wouldn't understand how to do it any other way.

In New York City, where I live, as in Paris and a lot of big cities, people just cook less and less and get everything delivered. What I'm mystified by is Fresh Direct people ordering over the Internet. How can you buy food without seeing it?

return to top

 

A Tokyo Thanksgiving
Turning to tradition in a faraway place

Culinate, November 15, 2010

To honor surviving their first year in a new land, the Pilgrims wanted to celebrate with a special feast. I felt the same way after my first year in Tokyo. I hadn't done too badly as a new bride in a new culture. My husband and I were clearly gaijin foreigners. I couldn't read hiragana or katakana Japanese characters but I could navigate my way around the city by foot and by subway. I could chat with the woman who ran the noodle shop downstairs from our apartment if the conversation didn't go too far.

But then November came, and I found myself yearning for a big American Thanksgiving.

I missed making cornbread dressing with my mother. I missed setting what a friend called the bowling-alley table, because it was long long enough to fit our boisterous mess of family and friends, my father carving the turkey with the electric knife-cum-chainsaw, the three cranberry sauces so everyone got their favorite, the divvying-up of leftovers, all of it.

I decided my husband and I would have our own Tokyo Thanksgiving, and in a rapture, invited our friends. At some point, the reality sunk in. I did not know how to roast a turkey. As a vegan, it never seemed important. But suddenly, it was. I placed a long-distance call to the expert my mother.

I still have the letter she sent me, on yellowing airmail stationery, the one that begins, "Dear Ellen, About turkeys!" What follows are instructions so thorough, from thawing to basting, that Mark Bittman would approve. It also captures my mother at her most whimsical: "I am sending you a Woman's Day magazine from 1982 (See! If you save things, they come in handy.)" And her most endearing: "Oh, I will miss you so much on Thanksgiving. It will be the first one you've missed ever. I know yours will be great and in the end, it's the spirit that counts."

Bolstered, I set off to find a turkey. This turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. Western ways and Western foods are not prevalent in Tokyo, so I had to try several sources before meeting success. I paid a fortune, then schlepped the big frozen bowling ball of a bird several blocks before getting on the subway with it.

Thanksgiving morning, I freed the thawed turkey from its wrap, and it was . . . odd. It had no wings. It had no legs. Vegan I may be, but I know what a turkey looks like. This was a big pale thing that unfolded into a sort of slab. I ran downstairs in a panic and consulted the noodle-shop lady. She studied the item and she looked at the label, printed in katakana. It was turkey, all right, she assured me. Turkey breast eight pounds of breast, from the biggest atomic turkey in the world.

Well, what could I do? I roasted it. My husband mashed potatoes, his specialty. I made the dressing, green beans, fresh cranberry sauce (only one kind there were only half a dozen of us and I prayed our guests weren't as particular as my own family), and pumpkin pie with whipped cream.

That evening, we gathered around our dining-room table, which, though it seated all of us, seemed too small. We ate and drank and laughed, and it was a treat. It was not home, but it was close considering we were 7,500 miles away.

I'm back home now, and looking forward to hosting Thanksgiving. I outsource the turkey to my mother. She is, after all, the expert. That leaves me to make all the vegetabley extras that were always my favorite part of the holiday.

Thanksgiving is less traditional with me in the kitchen. I try different things as the mood strikes me. But my mother and I still make the cornbread dressing together. And if I put new twists on family favorites, I hold dear to the Thanksgiving spirit.

It is about bringing everyone together, preferably at a long, bowling-alley table. It is about remembering all we have, about celebrating with the foods of the season. As my mother wrote, it's also about "good smells from the kitchen. And I always say a silent thanks at that time of year for all our blessings. I suppose I feel about Thanksgiving the way most people feel about Christmas. It has to be done in a very traditional way with all the trimmings to suit me (even three kinds of cranberry sauce)."

return to top

 

Passion, purity set `Crackerman's' flat breads apart
The Edgy Vegy, August 8, 2010

Crackerman breads and crackers are made with organic wheat, organic seeds, organic olive oil and a certain fervor. The fervor comes from Crackerman -- Stefan Uch -- himself.

"Taste this." He dips a piece of bread in his hummus and hands it to a passerby at the Coconut Grove Farmers Market. "Organic, no additives, all pure ingredients. When you taste food like that, it's beautiful."

"Stefan is driven by food,'' says his wife, Theresa Murray. "It's what he thinks about, talks about, it's what he does, it's what he is.''

"Bread is among the oldest foodstuffs there is,'' Crackerman says. "There is definitely a mythical if not mystical dimension to bread.''

Available at South Florida farmers markets and specialty shops and served at Escopazzo restaurant on South Beach, Crackerman bread and crackers inspire a fervor of their own.

"I am a huge fan of Stefan and his bread," says Jan Northrop of Eat Well granola.

The two men met selling their products at adjoining kiosks at the Parkland Farmers Market.

"It was easy to like him -- then I tasted his bread,'' says Northrop. "I love his crackers, don't get me wrong, but I am a big fan of good breads, and his German five-grain really takes the gold medal."

Uch (pronounced "ooch," but "nobody ever calls me by my last name") had cheffed in Michelin star kitchens and for the likes of the Dalai Lama and James Brown. He gave up the glam life to make small-batch, organic breads and crackers.

It started as a fluke -- and as an act of love for his wife, who can't tolerate yeast.

"Theresa was happy with the crackers, but I wanted some bread, possibly a whole grain German one," Uch says.

Perhaps what he really wanted was a taste of home. Uch was born and raised in the Bavarian city of Bamberg, and met Murray in Frankfurt.

"She was a private chef to the consulate general of U.S. and had to leave,v he says. "They were looking for a successor and I was a candidate."

He didn't take the job; he ran off with Murray instead. They married soon after and moved to Miami, where Murray works as a private chef.

If Uch, 46, has the instinct for baking, his wife has the instinct for romance and business. She knew he was the one after just two weeks. In the same way, she knew almost immediately that Crackerman crackers were a sure thing.

"He was making the crackers for me and I was sharing them with people at work -- they plowed through them as fast as they could," Murray says. "They're unique and weirdly addictive."

"Theresa called me `The Crackerman' after the first batches were manufactured," says Uch. "Later on she suggested the company be called Crackerman Crackers.v

Tentative about launching, Uch began selling Crackerman products at farmers markets. His dense, chewy, seed-studded bread and sheets of thin, crisp, golden (and yeastless) flatbread are delicious, and one bite tells you they're lovingly handmade.

"I know if I give my product to people, they get the best product I could make."

He leases space at a commercial kitchen in North Miami. "It's a windowless warehouse with walk-in oven and walk-in freezer, big mixers, kneading machines." And no air conditioning.

When he's not there, Crackerman sells his wares at farmers markets, makes deliveries around town and preps for baking days by weighing ingredients, soaking seeds and chasing down supplies.

"Sourcing may be the biggest part of work," Uch says.

"The flour is very hard to get. I was very fortunate to have found a flour mill in Montana -- Fort Benton Mills. Small, family-owned, right in the middle of the best area for wheat in the United States. They stone-grind the flour, there's no bleach or potassium bromide.

"The seeds comes from a wholesaler in New York. We ship seeds down by the pallet, spices from an organic co-op -- organic, high-quality, no additives."

Man could probably live by Crackerman bread alone, but even Uch wouldn't want that. He also sells organic dips and spreads, including white bean and rosemary, a classic hummus and a chili sauce ignited by bird's eye peppers. Its name: My Wife Says "Hell No" Chili Sauce.

``I'm always a doubter,'' says Murray, ``I'm always like, `Nobody's going to buy that.' The chili sauce? He sells a ton of it.''

Like all Crackerman products, it's made without preservatives but with plenty of passion, particularly for local and organic food.

"I almost feel like I'm on a mission to bring organic, wholesome, good foods to people,'' says Uch. "Good food doesn't have to have preservatives or cheap ingredients. Then you talk about local -- what can I do? There's no wheat grown here.''

Being German, Crackerman is prone to angst. Murray, originally from Alabama, is less tortured. Their respective personalities play out in the kitchen.

"I cook by skills I've been taught. I enjoy it, but it's not the passion for me that it is for Stefan," Murray says. "When he's here by himself he'd cook himself a three-course meal, I'd make myself a bowl of cereal. He's a phenomenal chef."

Uch cooks the way he bakes -- with intensity. But while his baking is, to be German about it, gemtlich, or cozy and friendly, his culinary style is more formal and elaborate.

"I miss the foams and gelatins and airs. I miss not being able to cook [professionally] sometimes," he says. "But bread -- you will never stop learning such a simple thing. I'm very happy with what I'm doing."

"He's a one-man show," says Murray. "Baking, advertising, sales, procurement, all of it and he's still able to stand at that market stand for eight hours and say, `Hi, wanna talk about crackers?' "

"You eat bread together, there's a social component -- it's a uniting thing," Crackerman explains. "Even if you completely disagree on everything else, you can agree about bread."

return to top

 

Filmmaker gets lesson in `Meatless'
The Edgy Vegy, October 21, 2010

October is Vegetarian Awareness Month, and when I mention this to my omnivore friends, they smile and say, "That's nice, dear.'' Then they go eat a burger.

So it made a welcome change to share a meatless meal with Shane Close, former burger-loving surfer dude, now documentary filmmaker of Meatless: The Movie.

Prior to Meatless, Close would grill steaks or burgers three days a week. "We'd have meat every day, sometimes several times a day.''

He went meatless on July 12, and began documenting a 90-day vegetarian experiment that ended Oct. 9, blogging about it at meatlessthemovie.com . We crossed paths on Day 78.

Close and his wife, Amber, had made a point of eating well since their daughter, Sophia, was born two years ago, but that meant grass-fed beef, organic chicken -- and a food bill that almost equaled their mortgage.

The idea to go meatless came on a dare from his wife. The idea to document it came from Close, a film school graduate who heads Big Angry Pixel, a Coral Gables media design firm. He's putting his money where his meatless is, funding the project himself, on "a shoestring and a prayer.''

He leaped into the project committed, but deliberately under-researched -- your basic sink or swim. "I didn't know anything about vegetarians, other than they eat fruits and vegetables.''

One thing he did discover, thanks to a blood test -- he has high cholesterol.

"My parents were farmers,'' said Close, a Kentucky native who lives in Coconut Grove. "We've got a long history of very large family members and lots of heart disease.''

Halfway through filming, a cousin died of a heart attack at 33.

"My father's already had a heart attack. This is something I definitely want to ward off.''

Close, 39, flashed a picture of his wife and daughter. "I have lots to live for.''

He gave up meat cold turkey, so to speak, but eased into the change. He was vegetarian, embracing dairy and eggs, the first three weeks, went vegan (plant-based, no dairy, no eggs) the next two, then moved to raw-food vegan.

The lacto-ovo phase was easy -- Close loves his cheese and ice cream. The raw vegan phase, he admits, was "a challenge.'' Soy ice cream, though, got a big thumbs up.

Going meatless "was an adjustment. Now it's a little easier. When I go to the store, I know what to look for. The more you do it, the easier it gets. I totally expected to miss meat. I haven't.''

Close the filmmaker is a little disappointed it wasn't more of a struggle, but as the member of the household who does most of the cooking and food shopping, he was relieved -- and, when we met, 11 pounds lighter.

Will meat wind up back on the grill? Close said he didn't think so, not for him, not for Sophia. "She's a natural vegetarian. She loves eggs and ketchup and cheese. When you try to feed her meat, she turns up her nose and says, `No Daddy, I don't want that.' She prefers pastas, grains, fruits and vegetables. She loves broccoli.''

Meatless, slated for release in early next year, covers reasons people choose to give up meat, whether it's health, environmental concerns, animal rights or a moral issue, but Close isn't interested in preaching to the meatless choir. The documentary includes vegans and plant-based activists but also ranchers and farmers, like his own Kentucky family. And that's the kind of audience he wants to reach. "I'm hoping for the average Joe from middle America, like my cousin who just died.''

Close wants them to know going meatless "isn't so bad. Being a little more conscious about what you're eating and the impact it has might make you make different decisions in the future. It's about education.''

You can't ask for a better message for Vegetarian Awareness Month. And I couldn't have asked for a better lunch date.

return to top

 

Handmade Matzoh: A home-baking quest leads to a lesson for Passover
The Miami Herald, April 14, 2011

Handmade MatzohAt Passover, you can morph bland matzoh into matzoh balls, matzoh kugel, matzoh brei and, if you want to get fancy, chocolate-dipped matzoh.

Take away the eggs, butter, salt and chocolate, though, and you still have matzoh unleavened bread, sometimes known as the bread of faith, sometimes as the bread of affliction. Call it what you will, there's only so much you can do with it.

But what if you bake your own? It's a vital connection to our Jewish forebears, has to taste better than your basic boxed matzoh, and, with only flour, water, salt and perhaps a little oil, it's pretty basic. It couldn't be too time-consuming the Jews fleeing Egypt 3,300 years ago had to bake the original matzoh double-quick before blowing town.

How hard could it be?

Famous last words.

I start with a recipe from How To Cook Everything guru Mark Bittman. He got the idea after trying "Lubavitcher matzoh from Brooklyn. It was very good."

The Lubavitchers, a Hasidic branch of Orthodox Jews, do things old school.

Complicating matters, though, is the 18-minute rule. To avoid any chance of the dough fermenting and rising, rabbinic law dictates that the whole process, from water hitting flour to bread emerging from oven, may take no more time than walking a Roman mile clocked at 18 minutes.

I measure out my flour and ready my rolling pin. At the bell, I set off in a matzoh-making mania. I add more water and less oil than Bittman calls for, and the result crispy, toasty, matzoh-flat and oblong does not taste like cardboard. Olive oil makes it delicious, and with a food processor (so much for old school), it's doable in 17 minutes, 37 seconds.

Eureka! It's possible.

It is not, however, Passover-worthy. My kitchen is not kosherized all surfaces and utensils steamed, super-heated or wiped down with boiling water. And I have committed a few other matzoh misdemeanors along the way.

Like the flour issue. I use unbleached, all-purpose wheat flour. Wheat, along with barley, spelt, rye and oats, has a gift for leavening. This quality makes it desirable for baking the rest of the year, but chametz off-limits at Passover.

Millet, though, was big in Egypt centuries ago and some food historians believe ground millet was used for that first-ever batch of matzoh.

I give it a try. It mixes into a creamy batter and bakes into a beautiful golden cracker, all within the allotted time. But when it comes to taste, it's truly the bread of affliction, brittle and sour.

Quinoa flour matzoh? Coconut flour matzoh? I doubt they're what the ancient Jews had in mind (or at hand). I ply Bittman with questions about timing and flour types.

"That's a religious thing," he said. "I'm secular. None of that stuff really matters to me."

Secular man, secular matzoh. But what if you want to do the real matzoh deal?

I turn to Rabbi Yossi Gansburg of Broward's Chabad Coconut Creek, who hails from Brooklyn. His family might have helped make the very matzoh Bittman tasted and loved.

"A lot of families participate in the baking of the matzoh," he says. "Even though it's a commercial company, every family has a certain day when they go and help out."

So rabbi, I say, how do I do it?

He sighs. "This I cannot advise."

It's not a flour issue. After all, commercial Passover matzoh is made with wheat flour, and, as Gansburg says, "Now you have people who are gluten intolerant, and there's a spelt matzoh, you can get matzoh from any of the grains."

The issue is the timing, and the likelihood of creating chametz. In addition, "The trick is obviously to get an oven that's very, very hot. It's difficult to do in a home oven," he says.

"Matzoh you bake prior to the holiday; you don't bake the matzoh on the holiday itself."

Too bad. Home-baked matzoh tastes best straight out of the oven.

Gansburg, who's been with the congregation for 18 years, knows of what he speaks. He does matzoh-baking workshops for congregations and Hebrew schools throughout South Florida. He brings a portable pizza oven. "We warm up the oven 40 minutes before we do it."

Yet even with a properly heated oven and a rabbi on the premises, the matzoh the kids make isn't suitable for Passover. After every batch is baked, Gansburg says, the entire kitchen and everything in it must be scrubbed "to clean out all the leaven that's left from the past 18 minutes. That's very difficult to do on a regular basis. If it takes you more than 18 minutes, you've created a batch of chametz. That's why most people don't bake their own matzoh, they buy it."

Commercial matzoh is machine-made. The kind Rabbi Gansburg and his family used to make is handmade shmurah "watched" matzoh. It's baked under strict rabbinical supervision in a kosherized kitchen using special water, special flour and an oven maintained at a blistering heat. It sells for about $21 a pound, as opposed to commercial matzoh, which averages $4 a pound.

Sensing I'm becoming downhearted, Gansburg explains the metaphor of unleavened bread.

"Bread represents someone's ego inflated," he says.

Each year, we should come to Passover with humility. Not puffed up like bread, but flat, low, humble like matzoh.

Certainly trying to make it yourself can be a humbling experience.

"We believe very strongly in the spiritualism when we're eating this matzoh," says Gansberg. "In Kabbala" the mystic aspect of Judaism "we call it the bread of faith. It's psychological whatever challenges you have, if you have the faith and the belief it will work out, then it works out."

Even making your own matzoh?

"I don't recommend it," he says. "I recommend doing it before the holiday and enjoying it before the holiday."

And at Passover?

"Buy the best brand of matzoh."

Gansberg's tip for making the most of your commercial matzoh: "Warm it up in the oven a little bit. That makes it better."

And there's always Bittman's remedy.

"It's vastly improved with butter and salt," he says. "Or chocolate."

return to top