Category Archives: Geography

Garlic and Almond Soup with Grapes

When I visited Spain, I found that garlic is a mainstay of Spanish cooking, and is often used with great abandon. I was surprised and delighted to find a variety of garlic soups and garlic sauces. Ajo Blanco is a cold soup–particularly welcome in warm weather–that combines garlic and almonds. The recipe comes from Málaga, in southern Spain. Málaga was founded by the Phoenicians in the 12th century BC, was controlled at various times by the Romans and Visigoths, and was among the first cities to fall to the Moors in 711 AD, when they began their invasion of Spain. Almonds remain one of the main exports from the port of Málaga, and remain an important part of the local cuisine.

A couple of notes about this recipe. I love garlic, and usually look for the fattest cloves I can find, or add more than a recipe requires. However, in this recipe, since the garlic is not cooked, it’s pretty potent, even with three average cloves, so don’t get carried away. Traditionally, this would be made using a mortar and pestle, but a food processor or blender makes the process significantly easier.

And finally, some really good news. Almonds have been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and may cut the risk of lung cancer, even if you smoke. Throw in the garlic and olive oil that this recipe contains, and this delightful and unusual recipe is almost frighteningly good for you. Enjoy.

Ajo Blanco con Uvas
(Garlic and Almond Soup with Grapes)

5 oz. blanched almonds
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp. salt
4 Tbs. olive oil
3 Tbs. red wine vinegar
3 cups ice water
3 dozen seedless green grapes

Place the almonds and garlic in a food processor and process until they are finely chopped. (Do not over-process, or the oil will separate out of the almonds. Stop while almonds look like crumbs, and not peanut butter.) Add the bread crumbs, salt, and 1 cup of water, and process until mixture is a fine paste. With the food processor running, add the oil in a thin stream. Next, gradually add the vinegar and as much of the remaining ice water as your food processor can comfortably accommodate. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in any remaining ice water.

Adjust salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or (even better) overnight. Peel grapes (not absolutely required, but they float more easily if peeled). Float the grapes in the soup just before serving, or serve soup and float grapes in the individual bowls. Alternatively to using grapes, you could substitute 1 cup of chopped apple. Serves 4–6.

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Almonds

Though Prunus amygdalus is, as its name hints, a close relative of plums, as well as peaches, you’ll never eat this tree’s fruit. For this drupe (the technical name for fruit with stones, such as plums and cherries), life is the pits. Literally. The fruit of this native of southwestern Asia becomes leathery as it matures, and splits open when ripe, exposing the world’s most popular nut, the almond.

Actually, there are two types of almond—sweet and bitter. The bitter almond is used primarily for flavoring, but it is the sweet almond that we eat. The sweet almond, which is almost as famous for its beautiful white flowers as for its nuts, closely resembles the related peach.

The almond probably started in Asia Minor, but it was on the move so early that it is hard to be precise about where its roots truly lie. It is believed that almonds, along with dates, were among the earliest cultivated foods. Almonds have been found on the island of Crete, at the Neolithic level under the palace of Knossos and in Bronze Age storerooms at Hagia Triada. The almond was written of by the Babylonians, Anatolians (who used it largely for oil), and Hittites, and, along with the pistachio, is one of only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.

The Greeks were the first to grow almonds in Europe. The Greek scholar, Theophrastus, mentions in his history of plants, written about 300 BC, that almond trees were the only trees in Greece that produced blossoms before leaves. The Romans, who referred to almonds as “the Greek nut,” brought almonds to Italy around 200 BC The Romans used almonds primarily in the form of sweets, but also used ground almonds to thicken and flavor sauces. Actually, ground almonds have never lost their popularity as a thickener. Continue reading

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Philadelphia Spice Event

For any of my readers who are in the Philadelphia area, I’ll be speaking on April 16, 2015, at an event put on by the Geographical Society of Philadelphia: The Life of Spice.

Here’s the description from the Geographical Society website:

The Chemical Heritage Foundation, The Monell Chemical Senses Center and the Geographical Society are presenting this very spicy event!

Food Historian, Cynthia Clampitt will present the travelogue of spices… where they are grown and how they travel the world.

Monell Scientist Gary Beauchamp will illuminate the science behind spices. Marianne Gillette of McCormick Spice Company will describe the delicious roles of spices in cuisine.

After the presentations, enjoy a reception to taste and smell spices. Feastivities is preparing a delicious menu infused with the tastes and smells of ginger, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, turmeric and more. Scientists will demonstrate the science behind the spice and effects on your senses.

A night to SPICE up your life…see, smell, and taste them! Take home a flavorful gift bag. For $75 enjoy general admission to the presentation and reception. For $100, enjoy reserved seating and recognition in the program.

You can find out more about the event, and buy tickets if you’re interested in attending, at the Geographical Society website: http://www.geographicalsociety.org/the-world-of-spices/

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Nutmeg and Mace

The ancient world was rife with mythic twins: Apollo and Artemis, Romulus and Remus, Castor and Pollux. But there is another pair of twins that, while eluding the ancients, once seemed almost as mythic as these legendary pairs—twins that engendered centuries of argosies and adventures. The fragrant, flowering evergreen tree known as Myristica fragrans is the mother of these twins. When the fleshy, peach-like fruit of this tree is mature, it splits open, revealing a brown nut surrounded by a bright red web. The web, or aril, is separated from the seed, and both are dried. The aril, which turns somewhat brownish as it dries, is the spice known as mace, while the dark, hard nut is nutmeg.

Nutmeg and mace were being traded in Asia long before Europeans knew these spices existed. A few scholars maintain that the ancient world did know of nutmeg, but there is little evidence— and the strongest evidence against knowledge of the spice is that the major recorders of life in the ancient world did not mention it, and they mentioned everything about food and spice. It might have been given as a gift to some ruler or other, probably in North Africa, given the fact that most trade with Asia was handled by Arab spice merchants who traded all across North Africa, but it didn’t get to Greece or Rome. However, it had reached Constantinople by the 9th century, as it was recorded that St. Theodore the Studite allowed monks to use nutmeg on their pease porridge on meat-free days.

Nutmeg probably didn’t reach Europe until the Middle Ages, making it the last of what were then known as the “noble spices” to be introduced. The first reliable report of nutmeg being used in Europe is from 1190, when the streets of Rome were scented (or, more accurately, fumigated) with spices, including “India nuts,” as nutmeg is sometimes called. It seems likely that, as with other spices, it was Arab traders who carried nutmegs to the Middle East and Italians who carried them throughout Europe.

The Portuguese had located the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, by 1511, sighting (or perhaps just smelling) cloves growing in the northern islands. However, no Europeans saw nutmegs growing until 1521, when Magellan’s expedition (minus Magellan by this point, as he’d been killed in the Philippines) reached the Banda Islands, in the southern Moluccas. The Banda Islands were the only place in the world where nutmeg and mace grew. (The northern Moluccas were the only place in the world where cloves grew, which, though they had reached Europe earlier than nutmegs, were still something Magellan and company were looking for.) Continue reading

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Cloves

Cloves-4-B
How far would you go to prove a point? For Ferdinand Magellan, the answer to that question was “all the way around the world,” and the point he was trying to prove is when east becomes west.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI had set a Line of Demarcation one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. The line stretched from the Arctic pole to the Antarctic pole, cutting through Greenland and separating Brazil from the rest of South America. According to the pope’s decree, everything to the west of that line belonged to Spain, while everything to the east belonged to Portugal–European countries excluded, of course. This seemed like a good way to make peace between the long-time rival countries. It gave Africa and India to Portugal, along with a bit of land (basically, Brazil) in the New World, and Spain got the rest of the New World.

Well, that worked pretty well until 1511, when Portuguese sailors ventured beyond India, making it all the way to Indonesia and the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. Sure, India had ginger, black pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon, but the Spice Islands had nutmeg and cloves, and no one else did. This meant that Portugal now had a lock on the spice trade. It was not long before the question was raised in Spain of just how far east Portugal could go before it was straying into Spain’s territory. Surely, the Line of Demarcation separating the two country’s claims must continue on the far side of the globe. Maybe Spain could claim the Moluccas. Continue reading

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Sorghum

If you asked people to name the most important grains in the world, most would readily identify corn, wheat, and rice. However, at least in the U.S., people might not think to mention sorghum, and yet sorghum is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world–and the third most important in the U.S.

Sorghum has the great advantage of growing in hot, arid places that are not friendly to other grain crops. For millions of people in Asia and Africa who live in such climates, grain sorghum is a staple food. In these regions, sorghum, along with equally resilient millet, are often the only grains available. It is most commonly ground and made into porridge or breads.

However, not all sorghum is the same. While some sorghum is grown for its grain, sweet sorghum is, like sugarcane, grown primarily for the sweet syrup that can be obtained by crushing its juicy stalks. Sweet sorghum also has grain, but the grains are smaller.

It appears that sorghum was first domesticated in western Africa, in the savannah just south of the Sahara, about 7,000 years ago. Trade and migration took it eastward, and by about 2000 B.C., it spanned the continent. Africa is still a leading grower and consumer of sorghum. There is some debate as to whether the sorghum that appeared later in India and China was introduced or was independently domesticated. However, there is much evidence that India and Africa were trading early on, so introduction is a distinct possibility.

Grain sorghum is also known as milo, and it is grown extensively in areas that are hot and dry, including large swaths of the Great Plains in the U.S. Most grain sorghum in the U.S. is used to feed livestock, though some is used to produce ethanol—and because it’s gluten free, it is also gaining some market share as a cooking grain and flour, as well as for brewing gluten-free beer.
gfd_shiloh_sorghum
Sorghum is not quite as nutritious as corn, but it can be grown where water is limited. The U.S. is now actually the top grower of sorghum in the world, slightly ahead of Nigeria and India, which are tied for second place. (If you’re interested in how widespread sorghum cultivation is, here’s a map that shows where it’s grown: Sorghum Map and Stats) http://archive.gramene.org/species/sorghum/sorghum_maps_and_stats.html

Sweet sorghum is still grown across the American South, where sorghum syrup was once a nearly ubiquitous sweetener. By the mid-1800s, most towns in the south-central region had mills for processing sweet sorghum. Sorghum boils were once as common in the South as “maple syrup boils” were in New England.
oberholtzers-sorghum-molasses
While sorghum syrup was displaced in the early 1900s, when granulated sugar became widely available, it is still being produced. If one lives in the North, sorghum syrup is most likely to be found at specialty shops or places that carry natural sweeteners, such as Whole Foods. It can also be found online. Like molasses, sorghum offers better nutrition than white sugar. Also like molasses, it is less sweet and has a distinctive flavor. Sorghum syrup is slightly less thick than molasses, however. Because of its greater nutritional density, it can spoil. While an unopened tin or jar can last for a considerable time on a shelf, once the container is opened, the sorghum syrup (and molasses, as well) should be refrigerated, and should probably be consumed within a couple of months of being opened.

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Stagecoach Stopovers

I have been reminded during recent travels that the convenience of super highways and speedy travel are relatively recent occurrences. Only 150 years ago–a mere blip in the history of human travel–stagecoaches were considered a very modern means of transportation. They crossed the United States, from east to west and north to south, connecting cities and towns and outposts. However, places to clean up, dine, and spend the night were necessary, because transit took days and weeks.

On my trip to California and again on a more recent trip to Michigan, I relived a sliver of this history, stopping at two splendid examples of these stagecoach stopovers–one considerably more rustic than the other, but both remarkable — and both still serving food.

In California, it takes a fair bit of driving on a winding, mountain road to reach Cold Spring Tavern. Built in the 1860s, this is actually a complex of buildings that stood on what was, until 1963, the the only route over the mountains into Santa Barbara. (Hard enough to do in a car; can’t imagine doing it in a stage coach.) Today, while the buildings are still rustic, the menu is very upscale and quite pricey for dinner. I opted for lunch and enjoyed my buffalo burger immensely.

Cold Spring Tavern

Cold Spring Tavern

Cold Spring Complex

Cold Spring Complex

A much different experience was visiting the Stagecoach Inn, in historic Marshall, Michigan. This handsome Greek revival building is impressive even amid an entire main street of impressive, 19th century buildings. Constructed in 1838 and made an inn in 1846, it is the oldest continuously operating inn between Chicago and Detroit. Amusingly, while the rustic Cold Spring Tavern offers an extremely upscale menu, the externally elegant Stagecoach Inn offers simple, though very tasty, bar food. A hand-formed burger and wonderfully crisp sweet potato fries made a good lunch during a break in a long drive.

Stagecoach Inn, Marshall, MI

Stagecoach Inn, Marshall, MI

Come on in.

Come on in.

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Ojai Olive Oil

olives
I posted a while back on olive history and have previously offered a couple of recipes that include olives. (Just type “olives” into the search bar at right, if you’re interested.) They are tremendously important fruit, especially among Mediterranean cultures. News of their health benefits has given olives and olive oil a great boost in the last decade or so in the United States. Countries with the right, Mediterranean-type weather, including Australia and South Africa, are now growing olives and producing excellent olive oils. Happily, the Mediterranean climate of parts of California have made that state a wonderful producer of olives and olive oils, as well.

While I loved the book store mentioned in the last post, it wasn’t my reason for visiting Ojai. The Ojai Valley has a great climate for olives (as well as oranges and avocados), and it was the region’s fruit-growing, especially of olives, that had brought me to town. The Ojai Olive Oil Company not only produces world-class, award-winning oils, it also offers free tours twice a week, and that was where I headed the day after I first arrived in Ojai. This operation is sustainable, organic, and family owned. It’s also remarkably beautiful, if a little hard to find. (If you go, be sure to follow the directions on their website, as a GPS can lead you to the wrong side of the sprawling ranch.)

Ojai Olive Oil has olive trees from several of the major olive oil regions of Mediterranean Europe, including France, Spain, and Italy. Apparently, both the soil and climate are ideal for the olives, and the trees show their gratitude by producing abundant olives, all hand picked.

In addition to being shown around the orchards, we also got to see the crushing equipment and then, best part, got to taste about a dozen different olive oils. Wow. We were told that the intense, complex, fruity, peppery flavor of course reflected the health and quality of the trees and the care of the process, but also demonstrated the difference freshness can make. Any olive oil shipped from Europe, unless you had it air freighted yourself, will likely be many months old by the time it reaches the grocery store shelf. It will still be good, but it probably won’t be great. For great olive oil, you not only want to buy good quality but also as fresh as possible. I had always wondered why olive oil I had in places around the Mediterranean always tasted so much better than oils I had at home, and now I knew why.

(The stuff on the grocery store shelf is fine for pan frying, by the way, or using in a marinade, but if you’re going to be dipping bread or drizzling it on a salad, that’s when you want the really good stuff.)

Because of the freshness factor, a California olive oil may offer your best opportunity to taste how good this oil can be. Of course, I can offer from experience a definite thumbs up for the oils from Ojai Olive Oil, but it is not the only good olive oil company in the U.S. But you owe it to yourself to try to find something really fresh and brilliant, so you know why olive oil is so revered in so many places. But if you are interested in seeing what the Ojai operation offers, here’s their website: Ojai Olive Oil Company. Enjoy.
Oils-Organic-Award

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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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Papas Arequipeña

When Spanish conquistadors reached Peru, they found an incredible wealth of new foods. The potato, in particular, impressed them. Spanish soldier, poet, and, later, secular priest Juan de Castellanos, who traveled in South America in the mid-1500s, in comparing the potato to some of the rougher food he had encountered as he explored, declared that it was “a dainty dish even for Spaniards.” The potato’s potential as a means of feeding the masses was immediately recognized, and speculators were soon flooding into Peru, buying potatoes from the Andean natives, then reselling them (at a large profit) to mineworkers back home.

Since the potato is indigenous to Peru, it is not surprising that it still figures largely in the local cuisine. This recipe originates in the city of Arequipa, in southern Peru. It combines Inca traditions (potatoes, peanuts, chilies) with colonial introductions (milk, cheese, eggs and olives). It is delicious, filling, and easy to make. In more aristocratic Peruvian homes, this might be presented before the main course, but for most people, it’s a meal in itself.

Papas Arequipeña
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
1/2 cup evaporated milk
salt and pepper to taste
2 to 3 serrano or jalapeño chilies, seeded
1/2 cup grated Münster cheese
3 to 4 scallions (depending on thickness), including some green
2 lb. small boiling potatoes
4 to 6 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1/2 cup ripe olives
parsley or cilantro, to garnish

In a blender or food processor, combine the peanuts, evaporated milk, salt and pepper, chilies, cheese, and onions. Purée until the mixture is about the consistency of heavy mayonnaise.

Scrub the potatoes, cut them into quarters and boil until tender. Drain them, then return to pot. Pour the sauce over the potatoes, add the chopped egg, and mix together. Mound it all onto a platter. Arrange olives around potatoes, decorate with sliced egg, if desired, and garnish with parsley or cilantro. Serves 6.

Notes: I think regular roasted peanuts are better in this recipe than dry-roasted peanuts. (They are also more authentic.) Dry-roasted peanuts have lots of additional seasonings that alter the taste of the dish. You may like the difference, but you might want to try it with regular roasted peanuts first.

When you make this the first time, wait to add salt. The peanuts and cheese are both salty, and you may not need any additional.

I prefer to use small, red, “new” potatoes; they are higher in protein, so they don’t crumble when you use them in a recipe like this. If you use really tiny potatoes, you can just cut them in half. The idea is to have each chunk be about one or two bites.

As for the eggs, use 4 if this is a side dish and 6 if it’s a main course. If you want to present the dish at the table, then slice one egg, rather than chopping it, and use it as a decoration on top of the potatoes.

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