Wheat Around the World–and Through Time

If you visit my Midwest Maize blog, you’ll discover that I have written a book on places one can travel to learn about and even relive the history of the Midwest. But an interest in history, even in agricultural history, is far from limited to the heartland. I loved this video about how different countries around the globe preserve the past in living-history venues and historic farms, recreating centuries of techniques and tools for producing food—in the case of this specific project, of wheat. It’s a lovely video that underscores how much has changed in recent years. Enjoy.

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Florentine Steak

When lemon pepper seasoning first appeared in U.S. markets, I had a good idea what might have inspired it. Thanks to dad’s job with the airlines, I’d gotten to Italy quite young (first trip, age 15). Dad always did a huge amount of research before trips, so we knew—in addition to history, art and language—what foods to eat and where to find them (kind of sounds like I take after my dad). One specialty that dad particularly wanted to try, and which we managed to enjoy in a few different restaurants during our ten days in Florence, was bistecca alla fiorentina—Florentine steak

As I often found in Italy back then, a lot of dishes were finished at the table—and as one who loves ritual and process, that always delighted me. Even the simple whisking of oil and vinegar dressing directly over the salad delighted me.

Florentine steak was part of just such a ritual. A thin steak was salted and cooked over charcoal quickly at high heat, with the result being meat that had flavorful char on the outside but still had a pink interior. In some restaurants and trattorias, the grill was visible from the dining area. The steak moved swiftly from fire to plate to table, where the waiter would squeeze fresh lemon juice over its surface and then grind over it an abundance of fresh, black pepper. It was wonderful.

I think the taste of charcoal is indispensable to the success of this dish. But if you have a charcoal grill and a thin (about ½ an inch) steak, you might want to try this. Salt applied to the steak before cooking is the only seasoning other than the lemon and pepper – but the lemon should be actual lemon, not bottled lemon juice (and I use bottled juice often, just not here) and freshly ground black pepper.

And if you visit Italy, while Florence remains famous for steaks, know that many upscale places now target tourists rather than locals, and the steaks are often very thick. Not a bad thing, by any means, but a different experience. But it’s simple enough to not have to wait for that trip abroad. Buon appetito.

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Hungarian Sour Cherry Soup

As noted in the previous post, sour cherries are most commonly cooked and usually sweetened. That is the case in pies and jams, but it is also true of meggyleves, a wonderful sour cherry soup from Hungary.

While this soup is enjoyed through the summer months, because sour cherries are the earliest of the spring fruits, this soup is often associated with spring festivals and, among Hungary’s Jewish community, is a favorite for Shavuot. This soup has a wonderful, sweet-tart flavor. Served cold, it makes a refreshing first course on a warm day. Enjoy.

Meggyleves

Hungarian Sour Cherry Soup

6 cups water

zest of 1/2 lemon

1 stick cinnamon

1 lb. sour cherries, pitted (see note)

3/4 cup sugar

3 Tsp. flour

1 cup sour cream

1/2 tsp. salt

Put water, lemon zest, and cinnamon stick in a large pot and bring to the boil. Add cherries and sugar, stir, and simmer for 10–20 minutes, or until cherries are tender. Remove cinnamon stick. In a separate bowl, combine flour, salt, and sour cream, and beat until smooth. Ladle about a cup of the hot cherry liquid into the sour cream mixture, and stir vigorously to combine. Then pour the sour cream mixture into the soup pot and stir well to combine with cherry soup. Simmer for an additional 5 or 6 minutes, until the soup begins to thicken. Cover the soup. Let it cool for a while before putting it in the refrigerator, then chill, still covered, until chilled through. (Soup will discover a “skin” if you don’t cover the pot.) Serve cold. Serves 6–8.

Notes: While the ideal is to use fresh sour cherries, these are not always available. Frozen is the second choice, and canned is your third option (even though some recipes state “never use canned”). If you don’t have a handy purveyor of sour cherries (and they are by no means ubiquitous), you may have no other choice than canned — and that’s okay. Just make sure you’re getting sour or tart cherries and that the ingredients list reads “cherries, water.” Don’t get anything with sugar, flavoring, other fruit, or syrup, and don’t get sweet cherries. When you drain the canned cherries, save the liquid from the can and use it as part of the water you’re using for the soup—gives you a little flavor boost. You might want to use a few more cherries, too, if you’re not using fresh, and especially if you’re using canned.

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Cherry, Cherry

Taken at face value, Prunus might be assumed to have something to do with prunes. However, in actuality, all stone fruits are members of the Prunus genus.Of course, plums (and future prunes) are members of the genus, but Prunus avium and Prunus cerasus happen to be cherries.

Cherries are unusual among foods in having their point of origin described as an entire hemisphere—the northern one. Since prehistoric times, cherries have grown across Europe, Asia, and North America. It seems that most of the cultivated species came from western Asia and eastern Europe, but there were varieties everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, waiting to be crossbred. Unusual among domesticated plant foods with long histories, the wild precursors of cultivated cherries have not been lost, and in fact have not been abandoned. Wild cherries still enjoy wide popularity.

While the use of wild cherries stretches back through prehistory, the cultivation of cherries is believed to date to about 300 b.c. Our word cherry comes from the Turkish town of Cerasus, seen unchanged in the name of one species of cherry. This reflects the western Asian origin of cherry cultivation—and Turkey is, in fact, still one of the planet’s top producers of cherries. Like several other words (for example, pease and eaves, likely to soon be joined by kudos), the nearest linguistic ancestor of the English word—cherise—sounded too much like it was plural, and in time was “singularized” to cherry.

The Roman Empire being what it was—an absorber of all it liked from wherever it went—it is probably not too surprising that Italy became a major cherry grower during the time of the Empire. Pliny attributes the introduction of cherries in the Empire to the Roman general Lucullus, famous both as a warrior and a gastronome. However, it seems likely that Lucullus probably simply introduced a new species of cultivated cherry when he returned from fighting in Asia Minor. The only uncertainty in that introduction (was Lucullus the first or not) lies in the fact that, while we know that there were cherries being cultivated in Italy by the time of Lucullus (who lived from 117 or 118 b.c. to around 56 b.c.), we also know that cultivation was a relatively new thing in the Mediterranean at this point, as the Greeks wrote only of wild cherries, which they didn’t particularly like. So it could be that what Lucullus introduced was the cultivated cherry.

Cherries favor temperate regions. While they don’t like it too frigid, they won’t bloom at all without a cold winter. And for some species of cherry, it’s all about blooming. Almost none of the ornamental species favored in Asia, and most particularly Japan, bear fruit, or if they do bear fruit, it is inedible. They are grown entirely for their beautiful flowers. It is from among these purely decorative Japanese species that Washington, D. C. got its famous blossoming cherries (and, unfortunately, it was from this same gift from Japan’s government that the Oriental fruit moth was introduced into the U.S.).

While there are many species of cherry, there are two main species that are grown for their fruit: sweet cherries (Prunus avium) and sour cherries (Prunus cerasus). In addition to there being two species that are commonly cultivated, there are also many varieties. Among sweet cherries, the Bing cherry is the most popular variety in the U.S., though the yellow-red Rainier cherry has been gaining traction in the marketplace in recent years. (But if you want to search, there are still many more sweet cherries to try—or to grow, if you have the space and the climate.)

In addition, there are cherries known as dukes, which are crosses between sweet and sour cherries. (The Germans call dukes Bastardkirschen.) Sweet cherries are heart-shaped, range in color from purplish black to red to golden, and include all the common eating cherries.

Sour cherries are smaller, softer, and more spherical than sweet cherries. They are also known as tart cherries, cooking cherries, and pie cherries. About 75 percent of all sour cherries are grown in Michigan.

While some people do enjoy eating sour cherries fresh, most people agree that they benefit from cooking, usually with sugar. But they are wonderfully flavorful in a wide range of applications—and if you’re eating any pastry with cherries, it will most certainly be sour cherries that you’re enjoying.

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Chakchouka

In most fields of study, one finds that a standard has been established or recognized, something against which other things are measured. In the world of food, when it comes to judging and classifying substances as complete and assimilable, the standard is the egg. It possesses all the amino acids needed for growth, and is rated as having the highest biological value of all common foods (96 on a scale of 100). A hen’s egg also supplies all the essential vitamins except vitamin C, and most of the essential minerals in sufficient amounts to affect metabolism. Consume two eggs, and you have met half of your daily requirement for proteins and vitamins. Toss in a piece of fruit and some whole-grain bread, and you pretty much have a perfect meal.

Of course, eggs are by no means limited to breakfast. Most cultures have numerous recipes that employ these dandy little nutrient bundles. In the egg recipe below, tomatoes and peppers offer that bit of vitamin C that completes the nutritional profile of an egg meal. This recipe is actually old enough to predate some of North Africa’s current political boundaries. It is indigenous to a region called the Maghreb (or Magrib). This Arabic word means the West, and refers to the region of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Once known to the ancients as “Africa Minor,” and long including Moorish holdings in Spain, the Maghreb now comprises essentially the Atlas Massif and coastal plain of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Chakchouka

4 large onions, sliced
3 Tbs. olive oil
3 large sweet green pepper, cut in strips
4 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 Tbs. vinegar
1-1/2 tsp. salt
6 eggs

Sauté onions in oil in a large frying pan until golden brown. Add pepper strips and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomato, spices, vinegar, and salt and blend well with onions and pepper. Simmer until the vegetables are quite soft, about 30 minutes.

Make six indentations (the back of a ladle may make this easier) in the vegetables. Carefully break an egg into each indentation. Cover the frying pan and cook over low heat until eggs are well set, about 10 minutes. Serves 6.

Notes: When I cook this for myself, I just break one or two eggs in a corner of the simmering vegetable base. Then I refrigerate the rest of the veggies and simply reheat a portion of them when I’m hungry, adding the eggs as veggies begin to bubble.

In the Maghreb, this might be served with spicy sausage on the side, and bread or rice would certainly be a reasonable accompaniment.

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Seasons Flashback

Roughly a decade ago, I posted about Seasons of My Heart, the lovely cooking school I went to during my second trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. It was a remarkable experience.

I still get emails from Susana Trilling, who runs the school, mostly encouraging me to return, but the most recent one included the update that there is now a YouTube channel for the school. Just a few videos so far, but this one was a fun trip down memory lane, as it shows the energy and great food of one of her classes, something my still images couldn’t quite convey.

Of course, if you’re interested in more details (because I did SO much more than what is shown in this video), you can visit my original post. Because, if you like good food, and enjoy a bit of history thrown in, this is an excellent destination.

https://worldsfare.wordpress.com/2010/03/06/seasons-of-my-heart/

Buen provecho.

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Porotos Granados

When people talk about food from the Americas, the ones that come up in conversation most often are chocolate, tomatoes, chilies, corn, and potatoes. Maybe avocadoes. But I don’t remember ever hearing anyone mention beans. (They might get mentioned when people speak of the “three sisters”–corn, squash, and beans–but they don’t usually get mentioned on their own.) Perhaps it is because they are so foundational, it’s hard to imagine a world without them. But the beans known as common beans, or haricot beans, are indigenous to the Americas. Everything from dainty French haricots verts to kidney beans or pinto beans in your chili are members of the family. The Etla Valley in Mexico is named for its black beans. The great northern bean was developed in North Dakota. All of them common beans.

The cranberry bean, a variety of borlotti bean, is an heirloom bean that appears to have arisen in the Andes, possibly Colombia, though these beans had spread across the Americas early on and are now grown worldwide. They have a creamy texture and nutty flavor–and they are great in this dish.

Porotos granados, a dish from Chile, is of Indian origin, porotos being the word the indigenous people used for cranberry beans. The recipe contains the New World staples of beans, corn and squash, and is perfect fare for late summer (when corn is ripening) through autumn.

Following the recipe for porotos is a recipe for pebre. Every country has its at least one special sauce, from remoulade to chimichurri, and for Chile, it’s pebre. Traditionally, pebre is used on only two things—any meat and porotos granados. If you don’t want to bother, the porotos is great without pebre. It is also great with pebre. I eat porotos both ways, with and without, and like pebre well enough that, if there is any left over, I use it with corn chips, in lieu of salsa.

Porotos Granados
16 oz. (approx. 2 cups) dried cranberry beans
2 onions, coarsely chopped
4 Tbs. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. paprika
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, deribbed and chopped (optional)
1 14-1/2 oz. can (approx. 1-1/2 cups) diced tomatoes
1 tsp. basil
1-1/2 tsp. oregano
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
3 cups winter squash (about 1-1/2 lb.), peeled and cut
into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup corn kernels (canned or frozen/thawed)

Rinse the beans, then place in large pot with 10-12 cups cold water. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat and allow the beans to soak for 1 hour. Drain the beans, return to pot and add 7 cups fresh water. Bring the beans to a boil again, reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour.

Sauté the onion in the oil until it is soft. Add the garlic, paprika, jalapeño pepper, tomato, basil, oregano, salt, and pepper and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is the consistency of a thick purée (about 15 minutes).

When the beans have cooked for 1 hour (they should be beginning to get tender), add the tomato purée and the squash and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are completely tender and the squash is mushy (about 25-30 minutes). Stir in the corn and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Serve hot, with pebre on the side. Serves 8.

Pebre
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. red or white wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, deribbed and chopped
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper, or to taste (optional)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt

Combine the oil, vinegar and water in a bowl and beat them together with a fork or whisk. Stir in all other ingredients. Let the sauce sit at room temperature for 2-3 hours, to blend and mature the flavors. Serve with porotos granados, with meat, with anything else you can think of to serve it with. Yum.

(Note: when chopping up something flat and thin, like cilantro leaves, a pair of scissors often works more quickly and more efficiently than a knife.)

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Ibiharage

Continuing the idea from the last post that less expensive but still tasty dishes are particularly appreciated at present, here is another recipe from the first year of the previously mentioned column, along with a bit of background on the ingredients — because I’m a food historian and can’t help myself.

As far back as ancient Mesopotamia, onions were considered to be virtually a panacea. Well, they weren’t too far from being right — onions are antibiotic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, contain a powerful antioxidant (quercetin) which also acts as a sedative, and can lower your cholesterol. (Unfortunately, for some people, they can also aggravate heartburn or cause gas.) The greatest benefit is to be gained from raw onions, but even cooked onions have most of these beneficial properties to some degree.

Onions probably got into Central Africa by way of Egypt. As early as 3000 B.C., Egyptian traders were bartering seeds, tools, agricultural knowledge and domesticated animals with tribes in Eritrea and Somalia, in exchange for frankincense and myrrh.

Africa would have to wait another 4,500 years for the hot red peppers and white beans used in this recipe. All chilies/hot peppers come from the New World, but almost everyone else in the world enthusiastically embraced the “violent fruit,” as Columbus called it, once it was introduced by early traders. White beans (most commonly navy beans or great northern beans in this recipe) are also indigenous to the Americas–along with all the other members of the family known as common or haricot beans (so kidney beans, pintos, black turtle beans, and even green beans).

So African cuisine combines ingredients that stretch back for millennia with those that have been available for a mere 500 years. This recipe for fried beans is from Burundi, in Central Africa, and I think it’s about the easiest thing you can do with beans and still produce a dish that is really delicious.

Ibiharage
2 cups dry white beans
boiling water
1 tsp. chicken or vegetable bouillon
1/2 cup cooking oil
3 large onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
dried hot red pepper to taste (at least 1/4 tsp. crushed)

Wash and sort the beans. Put beans in large saucepan and cover with 4-6 cups boiling water. Boil 2 minutes, then remove from heat and let soak 1 hour or more. Return beans to stove. (As always, if beans cause you intestinal distress, you can drain and rinse beans after they soak, which will reduce “side effects” of bean consumption. Then replace soaking water with fresh.) Add bouillon to water, and simmer beans until tender, about 1-1/2 hours.

Heat oil in a 12-inch saucepan. Add onions and garlic to hot oil and cook until onions are transparent and soft. Drain cooked beans and add to onions; cook for 5 minutes. Add salt and hot pepper to taste. Mix well. Serves 8-10 as a side dish, 6-8 as a main course.

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Kansiyé

Twenty-four years ago, I began writing a column that focused on recipes that were, on the whole, fairly inexpensive and generally interesting. The column lasted for almost thirteen years. A few of the recipes from back then have been updated and included on this blog, but I thought that, as we hunker down and “shelter in place” during the coronavirus scare, it might be a good time to trot out a few more of those recipes–because we hear daily that people are short on funds but long on free time, and that cooking is one of the things folks are doing more of.

Kansiyé is a dish from Guinea, West Africa. This is the first recipe I published back in 1996. After the “real” recipe, I’ve also included my vegetarian version of the dish–not because I’m a vegetarian but because I’m a writer, and going cheap has at times been a necessity. Worth noting, aside from being my first recipe in the column, it is the recipe that received the most positive feedback from people who made it, and for whom it became part of the regular rotation. So I think there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this.

Kansiyé

1 pound beef or lamb, cut in 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons oil
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1/8 tsp. thyme
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1 whole clove, ground
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
2 cups water
3 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
cooked rice

Brown meat in oil in 10-inch frying pan. Add onion, salt, pepper, thyme, garlic, parsley and clove. Combine tomato sauce and 1 cup water, add to meat mixture and stir well. Dilute peanut butter in remaining cup of water and add to mixture. Cook over medium heat for 1 hour, or until meat is tender. Serve hot over the cooked rice. Serves 4.

Variation: To make this recipe vegetarian, just substitute lentils for the meat. Eight to 10 ounces of lentils (dry) replace 1 pound of meat. Soak the lentils for an hour or so before using them in the recipe, and watch the stew while it’s cooking, adding water if the lentils soak up too much of the sauce. You can add a little bouillon or miso to the stew, if you feel you need to boost the beef flavor, but I find that the meaty taste of the lentils alone is enough.

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Happy Chinese New Year

For those who use the lunar calendar, today is the first day of a new year. Buddhist tradition in some Asian countries includes a type of annual zodiac that identifies years by 12 different animals, and this is now the Year of the Rat.

I just received an email from a food-related site I follow (Gastro Obscura) relating that a common treat for celebrating the New Year is a stick of candy-coated hawthorn berries–large berries that look like crab apples, the article related. This caught my eye because I first read about these treats, which the article identified as a tanghulu, when I was a child. My mom had given me one of her favorite volumes from childhood, a book titled Little Pear, about a young boy growing up in China. The book had spelled the word tanghooler, but that could simply reflect a difference in the region where the story was set. (For example, the accent in Beijing adds an “r” to the end of a lot of words–kind of like a Boston accent). Anyway, Little Pear loved tanghoolers.

Several years ago, I posted about one of my trips to China, and in that post I mentioned having been very excited to see someone near the outdoor food market in Wuhan selling this treat. Because the hawthorn berries look like crab apples, that was what I’d always assumed they were. And perhaps because of the heavy, bright red candy coating, I couldn’t really confirm that the round fruit lined up on that stick weren’t crab apples. But either way, I was very pleased to have come across this treat from my childhood reading.

It wasn’t Chinese New Year when I was in Wuhan, so I’m guessing it’s a treat that can appear any time there is something to celebrate. But it pleased me then to see (and taste) the tanghoolers, and it pleased me today to encounter them in the Gastro Obscura article. Always a fun surprise to see threads that connect different parts of one’s life. Anyway, here again is the image I posted years ago of the man selling tanghoolers in the market in Wuhan.

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