Category Archives: History

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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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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Pozole Rojo

Pozole Rojo is a dish I encountered during my travels in Mexico. It is warming and flavorful, ideal for cold weather and for sharing with friends. However, the reason I developed the recipe below is that it seemed like an appropriate culinary bridge between my book on corn (Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland) and the complement that came out in October 2018 (Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest). Corn and pork define agriculture in the American Midwest, but they also come close to defining the cuisine of Mexico. In fact, it has been said (though it is clearly an oversimplification) that Mexican food is Aztec food plus pigs.

The word pozole comes from the Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs) pozolli, which means “hominy.” The rojo in the name (Spanish for “red”) both underscores the combined Indian/European influences in the dish and hints at other variations that exist–because not all pozole uses the red chiles found in this dish. (As is true of every dish of any antiquity, there are as many versions as there are people making it, and sometimes even more.)

Hominy is corn that has undergone nixtamalization–that is, it has been processed with lye or lime in a traditional way discovered long ago by the indigenous people of Mezoamerica. Nixtamal is the Nahutal word that refers to the product of the process. It is a process that makes the corn both more nutritious (makes niacin and lysine more bio-available) and able to be stored longer than untreated corn.

Pozole is a delicious, filling soup that, while other ingredients can and will vary, always includes hominy and pork. Traditionally made for large groups, an entire pig’s head is often included in the recipe. I wanted a version that would feed a more modest number of people, and this version makes roughly 6 servings. However, I also wanted the flavor and texture added by the bones and collagen found in the head, so I added a pound of meaty neck bones. It turned out splendidly. Hope you like it as well as I do.

Pozole Rojo

2 lb. stewing pork
1 lb. pork neck bones
10 cups water
2 tsp. salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 onions, roughly chopped
3 15-oz. cans white hominy, drained and rinsed
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
3 dried ancho chiles
3 dried guajillo chiles
1 clove of garlic, whole
Salt and pepper to taste

Garnishes
tostadas or tortilla chips
2 limes, quartered
1 onion finely sliced
cabbage or iceberg lettuce, shredded
sliced radishes

Place the pork, bones, 2 tsp salt, minced garlic, chopped onion, and hominy in a large pot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Skim scum as it forms. Once scum is skimmed, add black pepper. (You lose a lot of the pepper if you add it before skimming.) When water is at a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until the meat is close to falling off the bone, about 1-1/2 hours.

Remove seeds and stems from the dried chiles and discard. Place the chiles in a bowl. After the first hour of simmering the pork, remove enough liquid to just cover the chiles (about one ladleful). Let chiles soak for 30 minutes. Then place chiles, soaking broth, and the final clove of garlic in a blender and puree until smooth.

Remove the soup from the heat and remove the pork to a platter to cool. When cool enough to handle, shred the stewing pork and remove all meat from the neck bones. Return meat to pot, stir in chile paste, and return pot to the heat, and simmer for another hour, until the meat is meltingly tender. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with a selection of the suggested garnishes/accompaniments. (Not all need to be included to still be authentic.) Enjoy.

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New Book—Special Price

I have a new book out. It’s titled Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest, and it covers the history of the 12,000-year association of pigs and humans. Early reviews are saying very nice things about it, such as “engaging,” “illuminating,” and “refreshingly thorough and fair.” I’d probably add, “tasty”–because these quirky animals are, and have been for a long time, the most common meat in most of the world.

Like my previous book, Midwest Maize, this book takes from through history up to the present day, offering insights into both how pigs are raised and how they wind up on our plates, as well as looking at some of the problems associated with raising pigs. Also like Midwest Maize, there are recipes–tasty ones that are iconic in the region that raises more pigs than anywhere else: the American Midwest.

So if you like food history and are interested in pigs, you’re in luck. For the next year, the publisher (Rowman & Littlefield) is offering “Friends and Family” a substantial discount off the cover price. More substantial, in fact, than the author’s discount. And since I consider anyone who visits this blog to be a friend, I’m offering the discount to you.

Order directly through Rowman & Littlefield at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538110744 for a 30% discount on Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs. Use promotion code RLFANDF30 at checkout for 30% off – this promotion is valid until December 31, 2019. This offer cannot be combined with any other promo or discount offers.

978-1-5381-1074-4 • Hardback $36.00 list price (sale price $25.20)
Available October 2018

978-1-5381-1074-4
Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs
after discount: $25.20

Discount applies to this ISBN only

• Shipping and handling: U.S.: $5 first book, $1 each additional book | Canada: $6 first book, $1 each additional book, plus applicable Canadian sales tax | International orders: $10.50 first book, $6.50 each additional book
FIVE CONVENIENT WAYS TO ORDER:
• Online: https://Rowman.com
•Call toll-free: 1-800-462-6420
•Email: orders@rowman.com.
• Fax toll-free: 1-800-338-4550
• Mail to: Rowman & Littlefield, 15200 NBN Way,
PO Box 191
Blue Ridge Summit, PA 17214-0191
All orders from individuals must be prepaid / Prices are subject to change without notice/ Please make checks payable to Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group
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Zupa Grochówka (Polish Pea Soup with Celeriac)

This recipe is for a soup that is a national favorite in Poland. A Polish friend told me it was a soup her mother had always made, but she had grown up thinking of it simply as a soup mom made, rather than a specifically Polish dish. She was delighted when she learned that it was actually not just part of her family but also a reflection of her heritage.

As with most venerable recipes, there are myriad variations. About the only things all seem to have in common are split yellow peas (the groch in grochówka), celeriac, and some sort of smoked pork product (ham, slab bacon, salt pork, Polish sausage, or some combination of these). Most versions also include onion or leek and garlic. Some versions have carrots, some have potatoes, some have both, some have barley instead of potatoes, and some include parsnips. In other words, you have some leeway to customize this, based on what you have on hand. It is a thick, hearty, warming soup that freezes well. With the traditional accompaniments of rye bread and butter, it makes a good meal. Enjoy.

Zupa Grochówka
Polish Yellow Pea Soup

1-pound bag yellow split peas
12 oz. very meaty salt pork
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz. celeriac (about 1/2 a large knob), cubed
1 bay leaf
8 cups water
2 large red potatoes, cubed
1 tsp. dried marjoram
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cover the split peas with water and leave them to soak overnight. If you forget to set them out, cover with hot water and allow them to soak for at least a couple of hours. When ready to make soup, drain and rinse the peas.

In a large stockpot, fry the salt pork until it is beginning to brown and has given up a good bit of fat. Add the onions and garlic, and cook gently for five minutes. Add the celeriac, and cook for an additional five minutes, or until the onions just begin to take on a bit of color.

Add the peas and bay leaf to the vegetables in the pot. Add eight cups water, and bring to the boil. Skim any foam that rises to the surface. Reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes. Add the potatoes, marjoram, and black pepper to taste, and simmer for an additional 20 minutes, or until the potato is soft and peas have pretty much dissolved. Toward the end, stir frequently, to avoid scorching the soup. If the simmer has been too vigorous, and the soup appears to be turning into a solid, add a bit more water. Taste for seasoning, adding pepper as needed (with salt pork, it’s unlikely you’ll need to add salt). Serves 6.

Alternatives: Just in case you can’t find really meaty salt pork, or would like other options, there are some alternate approaches to preparing this dish. You could use two or three strips of regular bacon to render fat for sautéing the veggies, and then save the bacon strips to crumble over the soup before serving. Without the salt pork in the water, you’ll need to use either a meaty ham bone or, if you have no such bone, 8 cups of ham-flavored broth. (They do actually produce ham bouillon powder.) Add the bone to the water before you start boiling, or use the ham broth instead of water. That will flavor your broth, but to add some meat to the finished product, add a generous cup of ham cut into bite-size pieces, or you could slice and brown a pound of kielbasa. Add this when you add the potatoes. No matter which variation you pick, it will still be authentic!

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Celery and Celeriac

When we speak of celery in the United States, we are generally thinking of those thick, juicy, crisp-but-stringy stalks with a flourish of leaves on the top. While that’s the most common form of celery here, it is not the only variety.

Chinese celery, also known as smallage, par-cel, and cutting celery, is closer in form to wild celery. It has skinny, hollow stalks, a much stronger flavor, and is almost never eaten raw, but is rather used to add flavor to cooked dishes. The Italians differentiate between cooking celery and eating celery, the eating variety being the one we know best, and the cooking variety actually just being the skinny, strong-flavored wild celery.

Then there is the homely but wonderful variety known as celeriac. Celeriac is not grown for its stalks, but rather for its large, gnarly, brown, turnip-like root. You may see it identified as celery root, which is not inaccurate, but it is not the root of the kind of celery you’re seeing on crudité platters.

Celery is a marshland plant that appears to have originated in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It was cultivated and spreading long ago, and appeared in everything from India’s Ayurvedic medicine to Egyptian tombs.

Sacred in ancient Greece, it was worn by winners of the Nemean Games. When Homer wrote of it, he called it selinon, which appears to be the early source of the word celery, though our word came into English (as did so many words, thanks to the Norman Conquest) by way of France, where it was and is celeri.

The ancient Romans used it to decorate tombs and wove it into wreaths that were supposed to ward off hangovers. But they also ate it. While the Romans did develop cultivated celery (though, like modern Italians, they still used the wild for cooking), the techniques for cultivation seem to have vanished with the collapse of the empire. It was not until the Middle Ages that celery was again being cultivated, this time in France. However, celeriac was not developed until the Renaissance.

Popular in Eastern and Southern Europe, celeriac/celery root is not a commonly used vegetable in the US (though it is increasing in popularity). It can be a bit pricey at a regular grocery store, but it’s usually a good bit cheaper if you buy it at an ethnic store that features Eastern European foods, because the demand is greater, as is the turnover.

I think celeriac deserves to be popular. Boiled and puréed, it offers a gentle, silken, subtly celery-flavored, low-carb alternative to mashed potatoes. In soups, it contributes the flavor of celery without the strings, and with a lovely mouth-feel that is more velvety than cooked celery. I love it. And if you want a lovely recipe to try it in, come back in a few days, as my next post will be a recipe for a delightful soup from Poland.

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Alternating Currants, or When is a Currant a Grape

I love the Townsend’s YouTube channel, as it offers so much insight into where our food traditions originated and how much of what we eat now is anchored in history. In this video, Jon Townsend talks about the difference between Zante currants and Ribes currants and how unlike the two are.

The Ribes currants can be black or red. In the video, Jon mentions that raising black currants was banned in the U.S., and since he didn’t mention why, I figured I’d check that out, and it’s because they carry a disease that threatened to wipe out America’s pine trees. As noted in the video, a few states have lifted the ban, but black currants are still rare. So the Zante currants and red Ribes currants will likely be the only currants you’ll find, though the Zante currants will probably be more readily available. Also, the Zante currants will be found in the grocery store along with raisins, while the red currants, if your store carries them, will likely be fresh or already turned into jam.

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Fact Checking–a Sterling Idea

In a book I’m reading, I had just encountered with considerable delight a statement that the word “sterling” came from “Easterlings,” a name often given to the upstanding merchants of the Hanseatic League. I was ready to write that up as a Fun Fact, but years of working in publishing made me feel odd about publishing anything without checking another source. Hmm. Webster’s Dictionary said the word probably came from the Old English steorling, from steorra, or star. Okay, so the dictionary says “probably.” Time for a third source.

So on to Britannica. It said “One theory” is that it comes from the silver coins made by the Germanic Easterlings–so referring to their silver rather than their sterling characters. Then it adds “A more plausible derivation” is the steorling mentioned by Webster’s, meaning “coin with a star.”

So, in other words, there is no absolutely certain explanation–the word arose a thousand years ago, and it’s hard to track precisely all influences and language changes going back that far.

One thing I did discover while looking into this, however, is why British money was originally divided up the way it was–and why it was (and is) called a pound. In Anglo-Saxon times, one pound of silver would be coined into 240 pennies. These pennies were 925 parts silver to 75 parts copper (and one still sees 925 stamped on sterling silver). Each silver coin bore a star, and so it was called a steorling, or “coin with a star.” But that means that, at one time, a pound sterling in Britain really was a pound of sterling.

And what does this have to do with food, you might be wondering. Well, the Hanseatic League made their wealth and gained their power from controlling the salt trade for a couple of centuries–back when salt was the only reliable way to preserve food for most people. So almost no story is more than a step or two away from food.

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Surprising Onion Rings

I think most of us would think fried onion rings were a fairly modern taste treat. That’s probably because the modern, commercial deep-fat fryer is a fairly recent invention, and it is unlikely most people would have had ready access to deep-fried foods before it came along. But as is so often the case in the world of food, many dishes we enjoy today have been enjoyed for a long time. A good example of this is the fried onion rings in this video, which come from an 1801 cookbook. Today, if a chef added Parmesan cheese to a batter for onion rings, it would be hailed as a remarkable innovation, but here that addition was made in a recipe that is more than 200 years old. These look really good.

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