Radio Interview

I was recently interviewed by the lovely folks at InPrint Radio. This is a station that features Midwest writers, not just to promote the writer’s work, but also to encourage other writers. InPrint Radio is operated by a Rockford, Illinois-based writers group, also called InPrint. I don’t actually live anywhere near Rockford, but sometimes encouraging other writers is worth a long drive.

Because this is an interview geared for writes, rather than for the book-buying public, we spend a lot more time talking about things that would help other writers, from guidelines about editing to newer options for publishing to rules for writing and even ways to stay motivated. Which is not to say we don’t talk about my work. Waltzing Australia, which is supported by my other blog, gets a bit of time, as does my next book, on the history of corn, which won’t be out for a few more months yet, and general comments on my life as a writer. But the intention is definitely to encourage and guide other writers. Hope you find something useful.

In Print Radio, Episode 42

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Beet Soup

Borsch? Borscht? Depends on who you’re talking to or what sources you check. Encyclopedia Britannica has borsch and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has borscht. Of course, both mention the other, along with other possible spellings. The problem arises from the fact that the word occurs in several Eastern European languages, plus it’s being transliterated from another alphabet, and there is rarely a perfect correlation between the sounds represented by characters in differing alphabets.

Webster’s does offer this little bit of info on the origin of the word: Yiddish borsht & Ukrainian & Russian borshch First Known Use: 1808

Some sources suggest that the Ukraine is where borsch was born, but I think most folks associate this beet soup with Russia. Russia is, indeed, among the cold places where beets are quite happy to grow, and borsch is probably Russia’s most widely known soup.

There are numerous variations of the soup throughout Russia. It may have a base of beef or chicken, or be completely vegetarian. Beets are about the only consistent ingredient, though cabbage appears in most versions, too. However, many recipes include a wider variety of vegetables. The modification that makes a borsch Moscow-style is the addition of ham or slab bacon. If you don’t want ham, leaving it out of the recipe below won’t make it inauthentic, it just won’t be Muscovite. This is a hearty, delicious soup with a slight sweet-sour taste. Enjoy.

Borsch Muskovskaia
(Moscow-style beet soup)

1 quart beef broth
2 quarts water
2–2.5 lb. beef brisket, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 bay leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1-1/2 lb. beets, peeled and cut into strips approximately 1/8 inch wide by 2 inches long
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
3 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1-2 parsnips, peeled and cut into strips
2 carrots, peeled and cut into strips
1/2 head white or green cabbage, cored and coarsely shredded
2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 lb. boiled ham, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 cup sour cream Continue reading

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Beet It

If you say that you like beets, you were likely raised in the U.S. This is not because beets are exceptionally popular in the U.S., but rather because Americans are the only people who call them beets. Everyone else calls them beetroots. So if you’re traveling overseas and see beetroot on the menu, you now know what to expect.

Beta vulgaris is a widespread vegetable with a variety of forms and functions. The familiar roundish, red-rooted variety is known as a table beet. It is raised primarily for its root, though the leaves are edible, especially when the plant is young. The delightful variety of beet grown for its leaves is commonly known as chard or Swiss chard. The sugar beet can be eaten, but is cultivated primarily for obtaining sugar. Finally, the mangel-wurzel, also called the forage beet or field beet, is grown as food for cattle.

Beets most probably originated in Italy, but spread to other parts of the Mediterranean region in prehistoric times, so it’s difficult to place their point of origin precisely. In the earliest days of the Roman Empire, only the leaves were consumed, though beetroots had been added to the Roman menu by the beginning of the Christian era. Beets spread unevenly, primarily moving north, where they throve in the cooler temperatures. Though Charlemagne knew of beets and wanted to see them grown in his domains, there was no real beet presence in France until their introduction (or reintroduction) during the Renaissance. Because beets tolerate fairly high degrees of salinity, they also became popular in countries near salt seas or, more especially, that were reclaiming land from the sea.

The rise of the sugar beet is easier to trace, because it occurred after sugar started to increase in importance. The process for extracting sugar from beets was developed by a German chemist in the mid-1700s. It was easier to extract sugar from cane, but cane only grew in tropical climates, and beets liked it cool. Even so, the beet sugar industry didn’t explode until Britain blockaded Napoleon’s France, cutting off access to imported sugar. Napoleon ordered that 70,000 acres be planted with sugar beets, and French financier Benjamin Delessert opened a processing plant, and soon France was independent of outside sugar sources.

Even now, about one third of the sugar in Europe is beet sugar. However, it is still the table beet that is the more familiar and widely grown beet variety, especially in colder or saltier regions.

Still, the most commonly encountered beet for most people is the table beet. They are beautiful when roasted, but also delighted when pickled, and even simply simmered they’re not bad. I frequently add canned matchstick-cut beets to coleslaw, as they brighten and add nutrition. Because beets are true nutrition powerhouses. They offer antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory, and current research is looking into possible anti-cancer advantages. However, as with all vegetables, don’t overdose. Virtually everything with benefits also has some side effects of taken to the extreme (as has been occurring in recent months with kale). And be advised — the red color in beets is “persistent” — that is, it doesn’t vanish when you digest it, so if you eat a lot of beets, you might think you’re bleeding to death when you go to the bathroom the next morning. You’re not. It’s just the beets.

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Barbecue to the Rescue


When I went to a big barbecue competition last summer here in Illinois, I was delighted to see that one of the big BBQ rigs at the event was decked out with an OBR banner. OBR stands for Operation Barbecue Relief, and I had only a few weeks before the event learned of this wonderful volunteer organization.

The big competitors in the top BBQ competitions have impressively large rigs that can cook a lot of food. However, not all the food they’re cooking is for competitions. When disaster strikes–forest fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, whatever — anywhere in the United States, many of these competitors jump into the trucks that haul their BBQ rigs and head to the trouble spot, ready to feed all those affected by the disaster, both victims and emergency personnel. That’s the sort of thing that makes me get teary-eyed — people seeing a problem and just going and doing what they can to help.

If you’re interested in learning more, here’s their website: — or “like” their Facebook page, for more up-to-the-minute reports

It’s hard for me to eat barbecue now without thinking of those folks who are willing to take it where it’s needed most.

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Kedgeree is a dish with a remarkably wide-ranging heritage. The concept and the word started out in India, where a dish called kichri combined rice with lentils and spices. The dish followed Arab trade routes early on, and is now an almost iconic dish in Egypt, where it’s called koshry. (If you’re interested, I posted a recipe for Egyptian koshry back in 2008.) There are various stories about when and where fish might have been added, but it was the British who added smoked fish and dropped the lentils. This is what became known as kedgeree.

Kedgeree is most commonly made with smoked haddock, also known as finnan haddie or finnan haddock (from the town in Scotland, Findon, most famous for preparing smoked haddock). However, I’ve seen versions that suggest substituting other smoked white fish. Smoked haddock is not always widely available in the U.S. (except perhaps in New England, where it became as important as it was in Scotland), so you may choose to experiment with substitutions. Be sure to pick something that has a fairly thick fillet and that is pretty heavily smoked.

The first time I had this dish, I was at the White Horse Pub, in Shere, England, though I was enjoying it more as a brunch than breakfast dish. (And I loved the charming town.)

There is nothing subtle about this dish. The flavors are all really big: smoked fish, onion, curry powder. The recipe calls for hot curry powder, but you can us mild if you prefer–or, if all you have is mild, you can boost the heat by adding red pepper flakes or a chopped fresh chile when you stir in the curry powder.

1 cup long grain rice
About 1 lb. smoked haddock fillets (thick)
5 Tbs. butter
1 large onion, chopped
3/4 tsp. hot curry powder
3 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
3 heaping Tbs. fresh parsley, chopped
1 Tbs. lemon juice.
Salt and pepper to taste Continue reading

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Sheilah Kaufman Cooks

My dad was great at finding interesting people and bringing them into our lives. At least a few decades ago, he met Sheilah Kaufman while on a business trip. He was working for a food company and Sheilah’s career also revolved around food. She was a cooking instructor and cookbook author. While Sheilah lived on the East Coast and we lived in the Midwest, travel, especially hers, brought us into fairly regular contact. She is closer to my age than to my dad’s, and we became friends over the years, drawn together by a mutual love of food history and cooking.

I always loved Sheilah’s idea of what she called “fearless, fussless cooking”–that is, recipes that didn’t take over your whole life, with lots of options for making things ahead, so one could enjoy one’s own parties. Granted, there are days I want a recipe to fill the entire day, or several days, but one can’t live like that, at least if one needs to earn a living.

From Sephardic cooking to general cookbooks to an entire book of recipes that use bread (titled, appropriately, Upper Crusts), Sheilah’s cookbooks covered a fairly wide range of specialties. It was fun to see the books as they came out, and I found a number of recipes in her books that have become favorites.

This last weekend, I connected with Sheilah again, this time at the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). We’re both members, but Sheilah’s connection is a little stronger: she’s one of the organization’s founders. Aside from being there to network, she was also carrying her newest cookbook, a handsome and impressive tome titled The Turkish Cookbook: Regional Recipes and Stories, which Sheilah co-authored with the wife of the Turkish ambassador. (Sheilah lives near Washington, D.C., so ambassadors are not so hard to come by.) If you want to try out a few recipes before buying, you’re in luck. Sheilah has a website that offers samples from this and other works. Check out Cooking With Sheilah. It’s a great resource–as is Sheilah herself.

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Ancient Grains

It has been several years since I worked with Maria Kijac on her highly acclaimed cookbook, The South American Table, but for the last eight months, we have been working together again, this time on a cookbook that focuses on the ancient grains of Latin America: quinoa, kañiwa, amaranth, and chia seeds. These “super grains” (which are really seeds, rather than true grains) offer many benefits, including a full complement of essential amino acids, which no cereal grain offers. Because quinoa is the most easily obtained of these grains, there are more recipes using quinoa, but because chia is the greatest powerhouse of the group, Maria has found plenty of recipes to feature this astonishing grain (which has more antioxidants than blueberries and more Omega 3 fatty acids than salmon). Because of their remarkable health and energy benefits, these grains were considered sacred among the ancient people of Latin America, from the Inca of the Andes Mountains region to the Aztecs of central Mexico.

I can’t share with you any of Maria’s recipes (or the joy of testing them while we worked together), but I can share a quinoa recipe I developed for an outing with friends a couple of years ago. It has a lot of big flavors, plus the high fiber and other nutritional benefits of quinoa.

The dried mushrooms I used were the Gourmet Mushroom Blend from Manitou Trading Co. The blend included morels, porcini, Brazilian caps, ivory portabellas, shiitakes, and oyster mushrooms.

I think you’ll like it.

Mushroom Quiona
5 to 6 ounces dried mushrooms
1/2 lb. slab bacon
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
2 cups quinoa
enough chicken broth to make up four cups liquid with the mushroom soaking liquid
salt and pepper to taste

Soak the mushrooms overnight in water to cover. (I poured hot water over the mushrooms, let it cool, and then put it in the fridge till the next day.)

Drain the mushrooms, reserving the liquid. Chop the mushrooms roughly and set aside.

Cut the bacon into lardons (blocks about 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch x thickness of slab of bacon). Fry in large pot until they begin getting crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Sauté the onions in the fat from the bacon. When onions are translucent, stir in the quinoa. (NOTE: Check the package of quinoa. Some is prewashed. If it isn’t prewashed, the instructions will instruct you to rinse the grain. You definitely want to rinse any unwashed quinoa. If you bought bulk and there are no instructions, taste a bit of the uncooked quinoa. If it tastes soapy, then rinse it thoroughly before cooking. Or, to be really safe, just go ahead and put it in a strainer and rinse it. Quinoa seeds produce a protective coating of saponins, which are bitter and will ruin the taste of the dish if the quinoa is not rinsed well.)

Stir the quinoa into the onion and fat, to coat the grains. Add the reserved mushroom soaking liquid and chicken broth, combined to make four cups liquid. Cook for twenty minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender. Stir in the bacon and chopped mushrooms. Season to taste. Enjoy.

(Note: if slab bacon is not readily available, get the thickest cut bacon you can find, and cut it into 1/2 inch pieces).

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