ho-hummus: journeying beyond the chickpea

You’re probably familiar with hummus – the smashed chickpea spread/dip often served with pita bread or falafel or, if you’re my friends, tortilla chips. You can always rely on the comforting presence of a plastic container of hummus nestled between the bowls of salsa and guacamole at parties around here. And if you’ve had hummus, you’ve eaten tahini which is an essential ingredient in hummus. Tahini is a ground paste of sesame seeds and oil used in a lot of Middle Eastern cooking.

I’m totally down with hummus, of course, but I love the flavor of tahini, and it comes through more clearly when mixed into a thing known as “tahini sauce”. Tahini sauce includes a lot of the same ingredients as hummus but has nothing to do with chickpeas and is often thinner – really more of a “sauce” (as the name implies) than a “spread” or “dip”. It’s a mildly bitter, garlicky sauce that’s fantastic with lamb and falafel or drizzled over a pita loaded with fresh, crunchy veggies – cucumber, red bell pepper, sprouts, tomatoes, carrots, bitter leafy greens. The flavors of garlic and sesame really shine when they don’t have to compete with overbearing chickpeas demanding all the glory.

Tahini Sauce
Makes about 1 1/4 cups.
I love dipping carrots into this sauce. I think I’d love dipping just about anything into this sauce.

2 garlic cloves, minced and mashed to a paste with 1/2 tspn fine sea salt (or finely minced and pressed with a knife to vaguely release oils if mashing garlic to a paste is beyond your abilities the way it’s apparently beyond mine)
1/2 cup tahini, stirred well
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Stir all ingredients until well-combined. Serve at room temperature.


hot cross buns: it only sounds like they’re ticked-off

We were never one of those families that hunted for eggs out under the shrubbery on Easter morning.  Our Easter Bunny always hid our baskets somewhere inside the house.  Behind the long drapes in the living room or under the big chair with the scratchy plaid cushions or in back of the dining room hutch. The Easter Bunny took time on his long trek across the country to fill our baskets with plastic green grass into which he nestled jellybeans and Peeps and chocolate eggs and Cadbury Cream Eggs and those eggs with the chocolate-covered malt ball center and thin, pastel-colored candy coating and miniature stuffed animals such as Lamby the Lamb, for example, who still, as far as I know, lives in a box in my parents’ basement.

Like many American kids, we went to church on Easter morning wearing shoes with little buckles, and proudly hugging those brand-new stuffed animals to the busoms of our pretty pink and yellow Easter dresses with their bows and flowers.  As we got older, the Easter Bunny continued to drop by, but Lamby the Lamb and his ilk morphed into teen-appropriate lace-accented sleepwear and pastel-colored lingerie. (The Easter Bunny apparently shopped with some zeal at Victoria’s Secret when I was a teenager.)

We also never had one of those big green-bean-casserole-and-ham-centric dinners after the Easter service.  Our Easter Sunday food traditions were much simpler: green, blue, and pink-tinted egg salad sandwiches,  the creamy ears and tails and paws of the big chocolate bunnies sent by my grandparents, and cold glasses of milk.

During the pre-lingerie, Lamby the Lamb era-Easters which took place in the late 1970s and early ’80s, we did have one other Eastertime tradition.  As the holiday approached, my mother would bake hot cross buns – slightly sweet, yeasty rolls studded with raisins and decorated with thick crosses of white icing. She’d arrange several of the buns in baskets for my sister and me to give to our teachers.  It’s been many years since she’s made hot cross buns, so my memories of them have faded – or maybe just narrowed in the way old memories do to include only certain parts of the experience.  I remember, for example, the pleasure of licking off the icing crosses and the soft sweetness of biting into the raisins.  I remember leaving chunks of the bread itself uneaten, after the raisins and the icing were gone, because the bread is only mildly spiced with cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and/or cardamom, and it’s on the dry side – hot cross buns aren’t moist and dense.  They’re not cake-like.  They’re not very sweet and they go stale quickly. They have little in common with, for example, Cadbury Cream Eggs or chocolate bunnies.       

The origin of  bread marked with a cross pre-dates Christianity, although the “cross” on hot cross buns has come to symbolize the Crucifixion for modern Christians.  Ceremonial breads and cakes made with honey and spices were offered by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egytians to their gods.   The Egyptians marked theirs with the horns of an ox and gave them to the goddess of the moon.  In honor of Eostre, the  Anglo-Saxon goddess of light and spring, whose name is the origin of “Easter”, buns were marked with a cross meant to symbolize the four quarters of the moon and consumed during the spring festival. 

Today, hot cross buns are typically eaten during breakfast on Good Friday.  An English tradition persists of hanging one of the buns in the house and leaving it all year for good luck.   

I’d never made hot cross buns before.  My mother let the tradition slide as we got older, but I saw a recipe for them in a magazine she sent me recently and it sparked my memory.  The recipe I used isn’t my mom’s old recipe because she can’t remember where it is, but every recipe I found looked very similar to every other recipe, and the one I wound up using produced buns that are very similar to the ones I licked icing off of when I was a kid. 

Hot Cross Buns
(Makes 16)
Modified slightly from the recipe here.
This is a very sticky dough, so don’t despair if 1/2 a cup of flour doesn’t make you feel better.  I wouldn’t add more than that.  These buns also go stale quickly, so don’t make too many unless you’re going to eat them right away.  They can be eaten plain or toasted with butter.  Currants seem to be the more traditional addition to hot cross buns, according to many of the recipes I’ve come across, and many people add candied fruit or orange zest. My mom always just used plain old raisins, so I went with raisins.  You might want to add additional raisins, however, because 3/4 cup was, honestly, kind of sparse for my taste. And be sure to use plenty of icing. Remember, those are the best parts. 

1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast (about 2 1/2 teaspoons)
3/4 cup warm milk (between 100 and 110 degrees F)
3 1/4 to 3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated white sugar
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
4 Tbsp butter, softened
2 eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup raisins

For glaze:
1 egg
1 Tbsp milk

For icing:
2 teaspoon milk
about a half cup  of powdered sugar (or enough to make a thick icing – add more if needed)

Stir together 1/4 cup of warm milk and one teaspoon of sugar. Sprinkle yeast over the milk and let sit for 5-10 minutes until foamy.

In a large bowl, whisk together 3 cups of the flour (reserving additional flour), salt, spices, and 1/4 cup of sugar.

Make a well in the flour and add the yeast mixture, softened butter, eggs, and the remaining milk. With a wooden spoon, mix the ingredients until well-incorporated. The mixture should be shaggy and very sticky. Stir in the raisins.

Knead in additional flour, a tablespoon at a time, kneading to incorporate after each addition, until the dough is still tacky but no longer completely sticking to your fingers when you work with it. It will still be very sticky even after 1/2 cup, but do not add more than that.   Form a ball of dough in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit, covered, in a warm spot, for 2 hours or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Press down on the dough to gently deflate it. Roll the dough into a log shape and cut it into two halves. Place one half back in the bowl while you work with the other half. Cut or twist the half into eight segments. To do this, roll one half of the dough into a log, cut or twist it in half, then roll those pieces into logs, cut or twist them in half, and then repeat process until you have eight pieces.

Take the eight pieces and form them into rounded mounds, placing them 1 1/2 inches apart from each other on a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Work the remaining dough into 8 equal pieces and place them on a baking sheet, also covering loosely with plastic wrap. Let the dough sit in a warm place about 30-40 minutes or until the mounds have doubled in volume.

Whisk together one egg and a tablespoon of milk and brush egg wash over buns after they have risen.

Place pans in the middle rack of the oven and cook for 10-16 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool on the pan for a few minutes, then transfer the buns to a wire rack to cool completely before icing.

For the icing, whisk together milk and powdered sugar. Add more powdered sugar, if necessary, until the consistency is thick. Spoon icing into a plastic sandwich bag. Cut off a small bit of the corner of the bag and pipe an icing cross on each bun.

Read about Easter foods here.

fish chowder for the chronically landlocked

My people are from New England, and although all the genealogies have wandered off for the time being, family lore suggests that we’ve been there since the Mayflower first pulled up to Plymouth Rock and everyone clambered stiffly off the boat for the  mother of all potty breaks.  Meaning that we never left. And also that we have learned a thing or two about making chowder over the years. 

Clam chowder may be the gold standard of chowders in some circles, but I’m a fish chowder kinda gal myself.  Back in the day, prior to the 19th century, chowder wasn’t all about clams the way it seems to be now. It was more about who had caught what fish and how could we prepare it in new and thought-provoking ways.  The first known printed version of a fish chowder recipe was published by the Boston Evening Post in 1751 and is in poem form. The first known printed recipe for clam chowder wasn’t published until about a hundred years later in a cookbook called The American Frugal Housewife.

Sometime during the 18th century, French Canadian fishermen began wandering across the border, lugging along big pots called chaudieres in which they whipped up fish stews and soups.  From the name of the cooking implement – chaudiere – we get the word chowder which eventually came to refer to the dish itself – originally a thick mixture of the catch of the day and the salt pork, potatoes, onions, and crackers (nee hard ship’s biscuits) that could be pulled from ships’ stores and have been constant elements of chowders since day one.  These fishermen’s meals were cooked with a little water and no milk. The eventual addition of milk and cream into the mix made for the soupier, greasier chowders we’re familiar with today.

Speaking of the Mayflower, for more than eighty years my grandparents lived in a small Massachusetts town only a hop, skip, and a jump through damp wooded areas and cranberry bogs to Plymouth. When we visited, Nana would pick up fresh haddock from the market and serve us big bowls of milky fish chowder with potato chips and sandwiches of deli cheese and meat.  She made her chowder by memory and hasn’t made it in a few years, so I was only able to get the vaguest of recipes from her. My mother knew of my quest, however, and recently found a recipe in a little New England cookbook she has in her kitchen in Ohio. Nana used evaporated milk, she told me, but other than that it looked pretty similar. I’ve been wanting to give it a shot for awhile, but it’s not easy to come across a fish chowder sort of day in Tucson.

Finally, today when I woke, it was raining, cold, and Saturday all wrapped up into one perfect April morning. So I got out of bed and headed for the fish counter at Safeway.

A cold, rainy, fish chowder kind of day in the desert.

The chowder smelled amazing as it simmered, and sure enough, we  loved it. Raphael’s first bite reminded him inexplicably of the holidays, and he made a spur-of-the-moment decision that this will be our New Year’s Eve meal from now on. Lila’s first bite reminded her that there’s not nearly enough salt pork in her diet. My first bite reminded me of those family meals in my grandparents’ house in Massachusetts, when yellow lamplight spilled from the windows out of the house into the night and we squeezed around the table in Nana’s little wood-paneled dining room and spooned chunks of fresh fish from the hot milky broth and soaked it up with sandwiches and potato chips. The amount of salt pork in the dog’s diet may be non-negotiable, but I’m convinced that this chowder would be fine way to ring in the new year in the desert.

 New England Fish Chowder

This is a relatively thin, soupy chowder made by layering ingredients in a big pot. The layering of ingredients in older recipes prevented the salt pork from burning and possibly insured that the hard biscuits once layered into chowder would soften. I don’t know if the layering is strictly necessary in this version since the pork is removed from the pot before simmering and the biscuits long ago morphed into oyster crackers. I did it anyway and it came out well, so I won’t tell you not to. Since this is not my grandmother’s exact recipe, I took the liberty of combining a couple elements from different recipes I’ve found. The thyme, bay leaves, and butter are mine. If you live in Tucson, by the way, I found packages of sliced salt pork at Safeway over by the kielbasa.

1/4 lb salt pork, diced
2 lb fish fillets such as cod or haddock, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 med potatoes thinly sliced, about 1/3 inch thick
1 large onion thinly sliced
several sprigs of thyme, leaves removed from stems
three bay leaves
2 c water
1 Tblspn unsalted butter
2 c whole milk
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

Fry pork in a large pot until crisp.  Remove pork and leave drippings in pot.

Place half the fish in the pot with the drippings and cover with half of the potatoes and half of the onions.  Add bay leaves and thyme.  Repeat layers of fish, potatoes, and onions.  Add water, top with a tablespoon of butter, and bring to boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until potatoes are tender (I forgot to look at the clock – it might have taken 25 to 35 minutes).  Add milk, salt and pepper, and crispy pork bits.  Heat slowly until hot but do not boil.

a history of chowder

apolitical and relatively non-violent thoughts on coffee (or, How I Spent My Christmas Break That One Year)

In Guatemala – I’m not even kidding – people grow coffee in their backyards. I’m sure not all people do this, but I haven’t crept into too many Guatemalan backyards in my lifetime, so I can’t be definitive about it. The point is that if you live in Guatemala, you may have the potential to grow coffee in your backyard should you want to pursue it as an option. 

Coffee.  Yet another topic that has filled books and books.  In fact, I’m presently skimming along the chapter on coffee in just such a book.  This is a disturbingly heavy tome called A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat that you could use to kill a tarantula if this was the type of spider you typically found lurking around the bathtub at your place.  (Please note that I don’t actually condone killing any spiders, most especially tarantulas.  Trapping in Tupperware and releasing into the wild, yes.  Killing, no.)  It’s also apparently a 24-year-old classic that I only just discovered this past weekend while hanging around at an archaeology conference where, frankly, the bigger the book, the cooler you are.  Or something similar. 

The words sticking to my brain during the course of all this non-committal skimming so far include “violence”, “dangerous poison”, and “mud which is good for nothing but the very dregs of people”.  So we’ll certainly be revisiting the topic of coffee in future posts as it clearly has the potential to be a frightening and politically challenging subject. Today, however, I’ll try to be brief; tomorrow I’ll start reading and looking up the big words.

Back in January, we cracked the subject open with a thing about Cuban coffee.  Not long after discovering Cafe Cubano, I read Maggie’s description of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony in her travel blog GirlVentures.  And not too long after that, I remembered that I’d personally witnessed coffee berries growing in Raphael’s aunt’s yard in lovely Antigua, Guatemala, and taken a walk through a shady finca – or coffee plantation – not far from her house.  And finally, all this thinking and reading and remembering led me to the realization that we in fact have a jar of raw coffee beans in our kitchen cabinet given to us by one of Raphael’s brothers who recently bought a small finca in Guatemala.  Because you can do that in Guatemala.  Buy a finca.  Just like that.

We’ve Had This Jar for some time now.  Possibly for as long as a year.  Probably.  I don’t know how long raw coffee beans retain their integrity.  Do they lose their oils after a year?  I haven’t yet looked this up on Wikipedia and furthermore decided a couple of weeks ago that it didn’t matter.  Regardless of the viability of our coffee beans, I would attempt to roast them in the spirit of adventure and see where it took me.   Raphael’s brother had shown him how to roast coffee beans in the oven, but I didn’t go that route.  Having just read Maggie’s account of her experience, I decided to go the Ethiopian coffee ceremony route.  This method includes a metal plate, aromatic grasses, and some coals, as well as, I’m sure, other things such as, for example, not a charcoal grill purchased for  $7.00 from a thrift store back in 2001.  I, however, went with the charcoal grill which was readily available and skipped the grass, as grass is generally not as available in my desert backyard. 

Suffice to say, my first three attempts produced a metal griddle full of blackened and cracked coffee beans.  And I haven’t yet made the fourth attempt which will involve either cooler coals or a stove and I’m not sure which yet, but you will, of course, be involved.

In the meantime, let’s return to the part where we talk about how coffee grows in Raphael’s aunt’s backyard.  I’m not entirely sure why I’m so enamored of this idea that a person could grow coffee in their backyard in places other than Tucson.  After all, coffee plants have pretty red berries and glossy leaves, and it’s not uncommon to find them used as an ornamental shrubs in Central America. But I have an idea that it’s because I’m relatively easily stirred (emotionally speaking – no creamer jokes, please) by things I find unfamiliar, unexpected, and beautiful.

Antigua, Guatemala. Aurora’s house is not shown in this picture, but it’s not too far from here.

Plot Be Damned, here’s my story on the subject:  Raphael’s Tia Aurora – his aunt – lives in the Spanish Colonial city of Antigua, in a beautiful old house with a front façade of crumpled and age-darkened gold paint.  Her gold house is one bright block in a long row of connected rainbow-colored houses whose front doors all open right onto the cobblestone street. 

The last time we visited, it was Christmastime, and so a blue enamel bucket of tamales wrapped neatly in glossy, dark green packets of banana leaves sat on the kitchen floor and more cooked in a big black, leaf-lined pot in the yard over a pile of ashy coals.  Aurora is known for her tamales; Raphael’s mother makes special trips to her sister’s house from Guatemala City to pick up tamales for the holiday meals her family shares in those dark first hours of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. 

While Raphael and his aunt sat at the dining room table – in a three-walled dining room open on the fourth side to the elements – I wandered around the walled-in yard that stretches away from the house and overflowed at that time, even in the dry season, with verdant growth.  I examined the tamale-cooking system and passed through the long, narrow yard along a shadowed dirt path littered with pale dropped petals.  Sun-dappled ferns and tough fringed leaves as long as my legs, browned and fraying at the tips, extended from a tangle of growth into the space carved through the vegetation by the path. 

That yard burst with ruffled, exotic-looking plants, and I touched and smelled and photographed it all – the illuminated complexity of pink and coral roses tucked into bushes taller than me; slender-petaled orange bird-of-paradise flowers with spiky purple hearts nearly translucent in the light.  There were rubbery, yellow-tipped combs of brilliant red heliconia; thin, papery fuchsia bougainvillea; long scarlet clusters of wild poinsettias with imperfectly spaced, fluttering, knife-like petals.  When I returned to the porch, Raphael and his aunt told me the names of the things I didn’t recognize. 

At the back of the yard, Aurora had put in plants with clusters of firm, dusky red and green berries clinging to willowy branches.   Once I found out what they were – coffee plants, of course – it struck me like a quick, quiet little miracle how fortunate I was to be in place where color hangs off the trees all year long; where poinsettias – those holiday things that come packaged in foil-wrapped pots in the stores – grow wild and lanky; where houses are lavender and teal and orange and rose and old; where the dining room is open to the luxurious, drenching rain when it comes; and where someone can plant coffee trees in the yard just because they’re beautiful.

How to keep your own pot of coffee...plant.

saving the world one chutney at a time

Some of you are going to have immediate questions based on the title of this post, the most obvious one being: “I’ve always assumed chutney is just another word for salsa.  And what the hell is the deal with compote, anyway?”

Yes.  Well, that’s really more of a comment, isn’t it?   I can’t waste all day on you people and your comments so cleverly disguised as questions.  So let’s move on, shall we?

Once upon a time in India, someone somewhere developed chutney.  They called it chatni.  And it was good. 

Or maybe not so much, and so additional time and effort and resources had to be expended in order to make it good.  Everybody got to brainstorming and figured out, for example, that you could leave the condiment to cook under in the sun for days until the proper flavor had developed.  At that point, the wealthier folks began serving chatnis as condiments at weddings and other special occasions. (And by the time the wealthy people got their hands on it, it must have been good.  Wealthy people have taste, as has been proven time and time again by the likes of, say Paris Hilton.)

Skipping shamelessly over the politics here, eventually the British popped over to India, added sugar and preserving agents to the salty, peppery relishes they found there – these “chutneys” – and began shipping them over the Europe as luxury goods.  In the 1600s, European cookbooks began to include recipes for the condiments which were known as “mangoed” fruits and vegetables, even though European cooks substituted more accessible fruits like peaches and melons.  With the development of canning technologies, chutneys have since become affordable and can be commonly found in Indian and western households alike, if you’re the type to go through cabinets during parties.  Which I am not.  So take my word or leave it.  Go do your own research in other people’s cupboards. 

Mainly what I’ve learned through my research is that chutney has a much more complicated backstory than I could ever be expected to muster energy enough to untangle.  Same with that last sentence. Suffice to say, chutney has passed the test of time, unlike the mixes of things from the back of fridge that I come up with on those weekends between paychecks.

The magic of chutney is that you can make it with any fresh ingredients you have on hand, so that chutneys from different places reflect the flavors of those places. Mangoes, peaches, tomatoes, pineapples, tamarind, apricots, eggplants, onions, raisins.  Chop up or simmer down your fruits and vegetables; add an acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, and flavorings like garlic, ginger, sugar, coriander, peanuts, coconut, honey, mint, or chiles; and voila

In India, chutney refers to a condiment or relish that is served with nearly every meal.  Indian chutneys have historically been fresh, uncooked relishes made with seasonally available fruits, spices, and herbs. They were meant to be consumed right away, but they can also be pastes or dry powdered mixtures* that can be stored for months in the cabinet. But so far my practical experience is limited to the English-ified versions – those sweetly spicy, fragrant chutneys made by cooking fruit, sugar, and vinegar down into a sweet, chunky sauce that is less like a salsa and more like a particularly complex apple pie filling. 

The recipe below is for one of these types – a cinnamon-and-cayenne-scented chutney with dried apricots and plums plumped up alongside fresh ginger and tart apple that will pair with pretty much anything.  Grilled chicken, spicy sausage, roasted pork, cheese and crackers.  Anything blackened. Turkey sandwiches.  Hot dogs.  Marinated tofu.  Curried things.  I’m assuming bacon.  

I’d like to assuage everybody’s fears re the salsa/compote issue, but the following chutney is about the perfect way to spice up a cold winter day, particularly if your access to brandy is limited, and it’s clearly going to take me some time and way better resources than random folks on the internet to work out what’s what in the vast world of chutneys, salsas, and compotes.  So no more thinking.  We’ve really got to get on with the posting of the recipe.

I made the following chutney last weekend. I made one mistake: I cooked it at the last minute and served it hot. It was okay.  But let this chutney sit for a day or two in the fridge, and its complexity increases significantly. The spicy cinnamon flavor is enhanced by this time in the fridge, and the whole thing develops a wonderful, sticky, jammy consistency.

Chutney with Dried Apricots and Plums 

Altered slightly from the recipe found here .

Makes 2 cups

3/4 cup quartered pitted prunes
3/4 cup quartered dried apricots
1 large onion, chopped
1 large green apple, peeled and finely chopped
1 medium tomato, seeded and roughly chopped* (or 1/2 cup diced canned tomatoes)
Very scant 1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger (or 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup cider vinegar

1 Place prunes and apricots in saucepan; add 1 cup/250 mL water and bring to boil.
2 Remove from heat; cover and let stand for 30 minutes.
3 Stir in onion, apple, tomatoes, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, black and cayenne peppers, salt and vinegar; bring to simmer.
4 Cover and simmer on low, stirring occasionally, until thickened to jamlike consistency, about 2 hours.
5 Remove from heat.
*To peel tomatoes, prepare a bowl of ice water. Cut a shallow X into the bottom of each tomato, slicing only through the skin. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil and submerge tomatoes for approximately 20 to 30 seconds. Remove from boiling water with a slotted spoon and immediately plunge into ice water. Peel tomatoes with fingers starting from the X.

Postcript: I wonder if you could make a reasonable chutney using prickly pear fruit. You could call it Sonoran Spring chutney. Although in Tucson, I guess they really would just wind up calling it a salsa, vinegar be damned.  I think I’ve uncovered my next project.

* How to cook a dry bitter melon chutney.

if it’s worth doing, it may well be chutney

I have been writing a certain post since February 3.  Two weeks of writing and rewriting.  Adding and then deleting bits of text that after a few days seem so extraneous or inane as to be too embarassing to allow other people to know were originally floating around in my brain. 

That’s kind of how the birthing process went for this blog, too.  Weeks of agony.  At least two months of suffering.  How can I be interesting and funny when it comes to food?  Can anyone?  Really?  Should I just post recipes?  That’s safe.  Can I really write about food that has its origins in other countries?  What do I know about those things?  Can I even find Sweden on a map?!   Who do I think I am, anyway?! Should I scrap the whole idea?  What if I’m repeatedly wrong about everything?  EVERYTHING?!? 

The funny thing is, this post I’ve been trying to write is about chutney.  And, really, how complicated is chutney?  Not very, as you will shortly ascertain.  A friend recently pointed something out to me:  I don’t actually have to be an expert on chutney to write something about it.  If I’m wrong or ill-informed or wrong or inadvertently culturally insensitive or just plain wrong on every count, my hope is that someone who knows more about the subject than I do will offer some direction.  Also, my friend Charity points out, I can always revisit the topic, which I have always assumed I will do with many of these topics anyway.  The topic of chutney alone could be its own blog.  And probably is.  This thing my friend has pointed out is not just the case for posting what I consider to be a prematurely truncated discussion of chutney, but really something I should try to remember every day of my life.

Charity writes a very thoughtful and insightful blog, by the way, called Imperfect Happiness.  and I’m pleased to shamelessly plug it here.  She wrote something once in her blog that has stuck with me:  “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.” 

And, by god, doesn’t that make sense?  I’m postponing a post on chutney because I feel like I can’t possibly do it justice.  Chutney!  We’re not talking about my opinion on the protesting in Egypt here!  We’re not talking about World Peace!  Yet I feel strongly that chutney is worth thinking about and learning about and  making and eating and sharing.  Doesn’t that make a post on it worthwhile?  Maybe my historical facts will be inaccurate –  I wouldn’t cite me in any term papers at this point.  But if one person makes the recipe I intend to post and enjoys it and finds that it spices up a dreary winter day just a little, then doesn’t the horror of my inadvertently irresponsible historical inaccuracies somehow fade a little?  Just a little?   

The thing is, I’m still finding a direction for myself with this blog so you might as well be in on the journey with me.  I haven’t found my voice here yet. I haven’t worked out everything I want it to be, but nevertheless, I keep finding that I do want it to be.  I’m a student here, but then, from the beginning, I intended to be a student, not a teacher.  Or, rather, if I can be a teacher at times, I’ll take it, but it will be incidental. 

I guess if the only way to do it is to do it poorly, than I want to do it poorly. 

And I do, in fact, believe chutney could be an avenue to World Peace.  That’s why I’m doing this.

luv you!

NECCO (New England Confectionary Company) has been making candy for more than 160 years and first began printing on candies back in the 1860s. Everybody’s favorite little heart candies with their adorable and efficient expressions of love were first created in 1902. And NECCO wants our ideas because we’re brilliant! So, why don’t you do a little Valentine’s Day champagne-inspired brainstorming, and then A.) tell us your ideas in a comment because we hate to be left out of a loop, and B.) go to NECCO’s website to suggest new phrases for Valentine’s Day 2012!

dags för dunderglögg! (…more or less)

Many weeks ago, I promised you a recipe for Gothenburg, Sweden’s favorite glögg. Please don’t blame my friend for the lag; she sent the recipe to me long ago and then Christmas happened and then I must have fallen asleep for four weeks. Anyhow, technically it’s not Christmas anymore, but it’s still winter in most parts of the United States (or so I’ve heard tell), so I’ll go ahead and post the recipe. That way it’ll be handy next fall when it’s time to start the arduous process of dumping all the ingredients in a bucket and then twiddling your thumbs for six weeks.

My parents' backyard in Ohio last winter

The recipe comes to us from Karin who lives in Sweden (and is, conveniently, Swedish) via her local paper, the Gothenburg Post, which publishes it every October so everyone can have a batch of dunderglögg ready by the first Sunday of Advent which is apparently when all of Sweden hauls out the Christmas lights. It’s one of those recipes that I haven’t made but plan to try next year for the holidays, assuming I can get my hands on one of the main ingredients, svagdricka, in Tucson.

Svagdricka is a very low-alcohol, mildly sweet malt beverage popular around the holidays in Sweden. I’ve seen it called a beer, a near beer, a “primitive beer”, a soft drink, and a beer/soft drink. What many internexperts (“internet experts” aka “people who write sh** on the internet. Like me. I’m an internexpert”) agree on is that it’s something of an acquired taste. I’m not hopeful about finding it around here, but I’ll think harder about it in a few months when I become start to become desperate. According to the glögg man at the Gothenburg Post, there’s simply no replacement for svagdricka. I’ve found, however, suggestions for substitutions in cooking that may or may not work well while making the glögg below. You could try a low-alcohol, malty, not-too-hoppy beer or look for Malta, which is a sweet, non-alcoholic, carbonated malt beverage that originated in Germany and is popular today in the Caribbean, areas of Africa, and parts of Europe. Malta may be as hard to find as svagdricka, but you might try your local Latin market.

Once you get past the whole “finding svagdricka” problem and the conversion of the ingredients (which I have done for you – score!), the rest of the recipe looks like a snap. You just need a bucket and some patience.

(Translated from the Gothenburg Post)
Makes: several bottles

Note that you must begin this recipe at least three to six weeks in advance of when you want to drink it. Don’t feel you have to follow the measurements exactly – add what you think will taste best to you. “ …it’s fun to make, it smells nice, and I’ve never heard of it turning out badly, no matter what you put in there it always turns out good,” says our informant, Karin. “As a matter of fact I think I’m going to go heat up a cup of that stuff right now and see if it helps warm my feet up. It’s been snowing a lot lately and my apartment is kind of cold…”

5 liter svagdricka (1.5 gallons)
5 raw potatoes, sliced
50 gr baking yeast (about 2 ¾ Tablespoons)
1 bag of cloves (about 11 grams) (about 2 Tablespoons)
1 bag of cardamom seeds (20 grams) (scant 3 Tablespoons)
about 5 cm fresh ginger
1 cinnamon stick
2 boxes of raisins (about 500 grams) (3 1/3 cups)
2.5 kilograms sugar (10 to 10.5 cups)

Mix everything in a 10 liter (probably about a 3-gallon) bucket. Cover with plastic wrap, make tiny holes in the plastic, and let sit in room temperature for at least three weeks, preferably six. Pour onto clean bottles using a siphon. Be careful not to get any of the sediment in the bottom of the bucket into the bottles.

good neighbors & strong, strong coffee

The other day (way back in 2010), we stopped by our neighbors’ house to invite them to a little Christmas Eve gathering, and they invited us in for coffee. But not just any coffee. Rafael is from Mexico, and Milagros is from Cuba. She is a wonderfully exuberant person who hates to wait in lines and who loves to talk and who wants her coffee to yell back at her and maybe even cuss her out, just a little. So what they offered us was coffee Cuban-style – also know as Cafe Cubano – with plenty of sugar and enough caffeine to keep an unsuspecting American girl like me on a buzzy kind of sugar-high for upwards of hours.

Milagros has some definite opinions about the whole thing and might chastise me for calling it coffee actually, because Cafe Cubano has little in common with the stuff we brew every morning as an incentive to get out of bed (even though we brew it strong – by American standards). Our initial conversation on the subject began as she stood with her back to us at the kitchen counter doing something magical with a bag of Cafe La Llave, some sugar, and an espresso machine. It went something like this:

Milagros (waving her arms around): Americans don’t know anything about real coffee!

Raphael: Really?

Milagros (more arm-waving): NO! They don’t know how to make coffee and they don’t know how to drink coffee! Their coffee is weak! Weak! Like babies!

Jenny: I like strong coffee.

Milagros: HA! You don’t know what strong coffee is, American-woman-neighbor! In Cuba, we like our coffee strong! And we drink it all day! Lots of times a day! Twenty-eight times a day! And it doesn’t keep us up at night like Americans say it does! We drink it in our sleep! We drink it while we are dead!

Something like that. There were a lot of words and the conversation occurred partially in a frantically rapid Spanish which I don’t understand, and so that’s really just my own general impression of what was actually said. The most important thing that happened that afternoon was that, after a small flurry of activity and rapid-fire Spanish and arm-waving over there at the kitchen counter, Milagros appeared with a pretty demitasse cup on a tiny saucer for each of us. The good cups, brought out for Christmas with little handles you squeeze delicately between thumb and forefinger. And each cup was filled with a creamy brown liquid that tasted not only like strong coffee, but also like sugar and bitter chocolate.

And she went a step further. As we sipped this sweet, almost chocolatey coffee, she stepped into the back room and returned with a stovetop espresso maker. I keep one around in case my espresso maker doesn’t work, she told us. That’s how important espresso is to her – she keeps a back-up espresso maker just in case. I was impressed. And then she gave it to us. Take it, she said. Make good Cuban coffee wth it.

The following day, when they arrived for Christmas Eve cookies and drinks, Milagros handed us a small gift wrapped up and tied with a shiny ribbon. It turned out to be a set of two espresso cups. You can’t drink Cuban espresso from big mugs, she told us. That’s not how we do it in Cuba.

It’s pretty easy to make good espresso, turns out. You can get a stovetop espresso maker like ours for around $15. Choose a dark-roasted coffee and grind it very fine. Milagros uses a coffee called Cafe La Llave which is pretty popular with Cubans in America, but we use whatever we have lying around.

A stovetop espresso maker like ours is comprised of three parts: a lower reservoir to hold the water, an upper reservoir that collects the brewed espresso, and a basket that sits inside the lower reservoir and holds the ground coffee. Unscrew the upper and lower portions of the espresso pot and remove the basket. Pack your finely ground coffee into the basket, filling it almost to the top. We use a spoon to pack it well. We’re not fancy around here.

Fill the lower reservoir with cold water. There’s a small screw near the top of the reservoir on ours and on many of the ones I’ve seen; fill it just to the bottom of the screw. Place the packed basket into the lower reservoir and screw the top reservoir on. Place the pot on the stove and turn the heat to high.

While the water heats, put about 1 teaspoon of sugar in a demitasse cup. As the water begins to boil, it will push up through the coffee and spill over into the top reservoir of the pot. Once you’ve got a little coffee spilled into the top of the pot, pour just enough into the cup to moisten the sugar. Return the pot to the stove where the water will continue to boil. Stir the hot coffee and sugar to make a paste.

When most of the water has moved up through the coffee and into the upper portion of the pot, fill your cup, stirring as you pour to mix the sugar paste into the espresso. People who are good at this apparently achieve a frothy, cream-colored cap on their drink. I’m not that good at it yet, but I so come up with something similar to Milagros’ Cafe Cubano – a sweet, strong, chocolatey cup of espresso.

hard sauce: not too hard and not really that saucy

It’s not Christmas anymore, but I’ve still got a tree up and I’m still eating Christmas cookies, so I think we can still talk about gingerbread. Or more specifically, we can talk about hard sauce. Since I can remember, my mother has made a mild, cake-like gingerbread with rich, sweet hard sauce for dessert on Christmas Day. I’ve since learned to appreciate gingerbread on its own, but when I was a kid, I considered it little more than a convenient vehicle for the hard sauce.
Hard sauce is not quite a sauce and not quite an icing. It’s a dense, silky mixture of butter and sugar that is flavored lastly with alcohol – traditionally brandy or sherry – or, if you must, non-alcoholic extracts. Vanilla, whiskey, and rum are also common flavorings, and I’ve seen a number of recipes for gingerbread with lemon or orange-flavored hard sauces. I like brandy myself. Also, I like brandy in my hard sauce.

In England (and in my small family circle here in the U.S.) (and we can talk about my family’s origins later, but yes, we do enjoy a good Yorkshire pudding now and again), hard sauce is particularly associated with Christmastime, and is served cold, dolloped over hot puddings, gingerbread, or fruitcakes so that it melts over the dense cake. Think English plum pudding – yet another holiday tradition that involves people setting their food on fire. (Only five posts in, and I’m beginning to see some disturbing patterns here, people.)

The recipe my mom has used for years makes a soft sauce that stiffens only slightly in the fridge, probably because it calls for the inclusion of an egg, but traditional hard sauces are stiff and dense enough to pile up in a bowl and set down in the middle of the holiday table and even to press into molds. I’ve seen other recipes that call for eggs, egg whites, heavy cream, or half-and-half, but the four essential ingredients are butter, sugar, and a flavoring agent.

The following recipe is from a copy of The Fanny Farmer Cookbook that my mom has had probably for longer than she’s had me. She may or may not actually feel more loyalty towards this cookbook than she does towards me, in fact. And although I gravitate towards spicier, darker gingerbreads these days and I eat them outside on mild winter evenings in the desert, I make Fanny Famer’s recipe almost every year and it always reminds me of Christmases back home when we’re all stuffed from the roast beast and the peas and the Yorkshire pudding (see?!), and we’re tucked away inside a warm house settled into the wintry, ice-glazed Ohio fields. There are few experiences better than shutting your door against the cold, slicing a warm slab of gingerbread, daubing onto it a thick spoonful of chilled, pale gold sauce, and eating it as the sauce melts slowly over the hot cake.

Gingerbread with Hard Sauce
Make sauce ahead and cool in fridge so it will melt on gingerbread.

1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup molasses

1/2 cup butter
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 egg, well-beaten
for flavor: vanilla, sherry, or brandy

Butter an 8″ or 9″ square pan (or 12 muffins cups). Preheat oven to 325 degrees for the square pans (250 for muffins).

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, ginger, and salt.

Combine 1/4 cup butter and 1/2 cup boiling water. When butter melts, add molasses. Stir into butter mixture into flour mixture and beat until batter is smooth. Spread in prepared pan.

Bake 35 minutes (15 minutes for muffins).

Cream butter. Beat in gradually the confectioner’s sugar, beaten egg, and a few grains of salt. Set mixture over hot water and beat until light and smooth (about 7 minutes). Flavor with vanilla, sherry, or brandy.