Friday, December 31, 2010

The Poisonous Mushroom Was Delicious

Like my wife, I first experienced mushrooms as little round, rubbery things that came in cans. Not surprisingly, neither one of us liked them very much, but she changed her mind about them after friends introduced her to the joys of hunting morels in the woods of Iowa. As I stumbled through childhood, I also came across mushrooms growing in the woods: appearing in all different shapes and sizes and colors, they were intriguing as hell, but you would never think of eating them. After all, mushrooms that you ate came in cans from the grocery store: they might taste bad and their horrible texture might make your skin crawl, but they wouldn’t really hurt you. The things that grew in the yard or in the woods or on trees were toadstools and they would kill you deader than a doornail. Everybody knew that.

As I grew up, mushrooms got a lot better, partly due to my maturing taste buds I suppose, but also because they began to appear in supermarkets un-canned. And they began to appear in different shapes and sizes, a little like what you would see in the woods, only not nearly as interesting. Or as colorful: no bright oranges with white polka dots or anything like that. Those were still toadstools, would still kill you deader than a doornail, and everybody still knew that.

Some years later, deeply immersed in adulthood and professional responsibilities, a Polish colleague invited me to dinner at his house. He was a charming host and he and his wife had prepared a delicious dinner that included sautéed mushrooms. I commented on how good everything was – especially the mushrooms – and his wife thanked me for the compliment but assured me that they came from the supermarket. It seems that my colleague had grown up collecting mushrooms in the woods of Poland and, like my wife and her morel-gathering friends, knew what he was doing. Nevertheless, at a previous dinner party, when the mushrooms had not come from the supermarket (he had collected them from the woods near his house), the evening ended abruptly when he happened to mention the fact. Everyone stopped eating and went home, not expecting to survive the night. Toadstools, after all.

Several years after that, my wife and I had the opportunity to live in Switzerland. For just over four years, we struggled continuously with learning enough German to get around, along with all of the other local bits of knowledge we needed on a daily basis. Things like money (“Wait, is this coin 10 Rappen or 50?”), metric units (my wife once stunned a clerk in a shop by asking for “ein hundert Kilogramm Kaese, bitte,” wanting 100 grams of cheese – about a quarter of a pound – but requesting just over 250 pounds instead), and even time (“It says the train leaves at 14:27. What time is that, really?”). Still, it was a fabulous experience that changed our lives forever.

While we lived in Switzerland, I worked in Zurich and our apartment was in Seebach, at the end of one of the tram lines. An intermediate stop between Seebach and Zurich was Oerlikon, which had a market every Saturday morning that became one of our favorite activities. Gradually, we learned what we liked – and what to ask for – in specialties ranging from mountain cheeses (“Bergkaese”) to sweet cider (“Sussmost”). One of the most interesting stands in the market was the one belonging to the mushroom guy, who had a wider variety of fresh mushrooms than either one of us had ever seen before. Good as they looked, though, we really didn’t know what to do with them, so for a long time we didn’t try any. Then one day the Oerlikon market came up in conversation with a friend, who mentioned that he particularly liked the mushroom guy. He would buy “ein hundert Gramm, gemischt” – about a quarter of a pound of assorted mushrooms – and use them to make an omelet. After that, we became regular customers.

Sometimes, the mushroom guy would have really unusual species that we would try on their own. Over time, we tried small puff-balls, hen-of-the-woods, and something more exotic that looked vaguely brain-like. (He drew us a labeled picture, which I still have: the German name was Krause Glucke, which actually sounds more appealing than its English designation, which is “cauliflower fungus.” As Mark Twain said of Wagner’s music, though, it was better than it sounded.) The most unusual mushroom we ever tried from his stand was one called a Riesenbovist, known in English as the giant puffball. A large white sphere, bigger than a basketball, he sold it in slices, each about an inch thick. We bought one, breaded and fried it, and shared it for dinner.

Our departure from Switzerland was something of an ordeal. My wife was scheduled to fly back to the U.S. on Swissair, our favorite airline, about a week before I was to go to Finland for a year as a visiting professor. We had always loved flying Swissair because they treated you so well, but shortly before her scheduled departure, Swissair plunged into a financial abyss that ended in their bankruptcy fairly soon afterwards. It began with an airport holding a Swissair plane for nonpayment of fees. Almost immediately, the airline grounded its fleet to prevent all of their planes from being seized. For a few days, nobody flew anywhere on Swissair. Eventually, flights resumed, but the schedule was highly erratic, with departures regularly cancelled at the last minute. We spent a week in limbo, staying with friends, until my wife was finally able to get on a plane to return to the U.S., the same day I left for Finland.

The day I left Finland to come home for Christmas, the temperature was ten degrees below zero and the sun made its dusky, twilight appearance about 10:30 in the morning and was completely gone again by 2:30 in the afternoon. The following June, my wife came to visit me and we had dinner with some Finnish friends we had known from Zurich. Walking around Helsinki afterwards, we were trying to guess the time: we were tired and it felt late, but it was still bright daylight. Our friends looked at the sky and guessed the time fairly accurately: it was a few minutes before midnight. In the morning, it was bright daylight again by 3:00.

The extreme seasonal variation in Finland seems to profoundly influence the foods that grow there. I have never seen root vegetables as large as those sold at the farm stands in Finland: carrots three feet long and about four inches in diameter at the top, and turnips half again that big. One of my favorite food discoveries from the far north was cloudberries, a small orange berry used to make desserts, jams, and a unique liqueur. In a way, cloudberries in Finland and other Nordic countries are like truffles in France and Italy: not everyone knows where to find them, and those who do, don’t say. One of the great ways to enjoy them is in cloudberry jam, which is frequently available in the U.S. at Ikea stores. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find the soft Finnish cheese that goes so well with cloudberry jam, making a spectacular breakfast, so I make a point of bringing that back with me whenever I return to Finland for a visit.

One of my other favorite things during my year in Finland was an indoor market with stands carrying everything from the spiciest Italian sausage I have ever tasted to smoked reindeer and moose steaks. Once I discovered the market, I would go every Saturday morning and adapt my meal plans for the week as I shopped. It was there that I had the ultimate mushroom experience. My favorite vegetable stand had a collection of large, strange-looking, gnarly things unlike any mushrooms I had ever seen before. Naturally, I had to try one, but the woman who ran the stand looked concerned and was reluctant to sell it to me. She insisted that I wait for one of the other women with better English, who explained to me that there was a special procedure for cooking this mushroom. It was delicious, she assured me, but first I must boil it in a full pot of water, dump all of the water out, boil it a second time in another full pot of water – clean water, she emphasized, not the water I had used before – dump that second pan of water out, rinse off the mushroom in cold water, and then cook it in whatever way I wanted. She repeated these instructions twice and insisted that I repeat them back to her before she would sell me the mushroom.

I followed her instructions when I prepared it for dinner that night, and it was indeed delicious. I didn’t discover until several years later, though, just what it was I had eaten. Growing up, I had seen pictures of morels, the deliciously wrinkly mushrooms my wife and her friends had gathered in the woods, and as an adult I had come to relish them as an occasional expensive treat. Also, I had heard that one of the good things about morels was that their appearance was so distinctive they were unlikely to be confused with other, poisonous mushrooms. In contrast, with more ordinary-looking white mushrooms, for example, you had to be much more careful since they could be confused with things like the Death Angel, so named for good reason. There is, however, a lethally toxic mushroom called the false morel (Gyromitra esculenta) that does look something like the morel. If you boil this mushroom twice, however, discarding the water and rinsing it, that process removes the poison and renders it safe to eat. The only place in the world where they sell them and people actually do eat them is Finland, where the seller is obligated to remind you about boiling them twice in fresh water before you put them in your mouth.

All I can think about now is what my parents and teachers drilled into my head growing up: don’t eat those things you find growing in the woods. They’re toadstools and they will kill you, deader than a doornail. Everybody knows that.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Better Than It Sounds

In what has to be one of the best “left-handed compliments” in history, Mark Twain once described Wagner’s music as “better than it sounds.” The dish I describe here – pasta with vodka sauce and smoked salmon – may fall into the same category. I lived in Finland for about a year and one of the hotel restaurants in Tampere served a dish very much like the one given below, and I thought it was delicious. But then, I also thought the poisonous mushroom I had there was delicious, too (more about that next time). When I suggested the smoked salmon vodka sauce to my wife, she thought it sounded awful, so I prepared it one night when she was out. Collecting the ingredients for it generated a lot of questioning looks, so it seems clear that the combination is not something everybody would think of. Personally, I thought it was great when I had it in Finland, and I think the following recipe is not a bad approximation of the Finnish version, if I do say so myself.


• ½ lb. smoked salmon, skin removed

• 1 largish cipollini onion, diced

• 4 cloves garlic, chopped

• 1 Tbs. capers

• 1 26 oz. jar of vodka pasta sauce

• 1 lb. fresh linguine


1. Saute onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until the onions are translucent.

2. Flake smoked salmon into small pieces and stir into the garlic and onion mixture. Add the capers and sauté long enough to heat through.

3. Add the vodka sauce, reduce heat, and simmer while preparing the pasta.

4. Bring salted water to a boil, add the pasta, and cook until done (al dente), about three minutes.

5. Serve pasta on a plate and top with the smoked salmon vodka sauce.

The first time I prepared this, I had it with a Rosenblum Cellars 2008 Viognier, recommended by my favorite local wine store. As an alternative, they also recommended serving it with a nice Scotch whiskey, consistent with the recommendation of “smoked fish” with Scotch given by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page in What to Drink with What You Eat. The second time I had the dish, I tried it with a 10 year old Wolfe’s Glen single grain Highland Scotch, and I must say it was very good. For me, though, good as it is, a little Scotch goes a long way, so on the whole I would have to say I prefer it with the wine.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pairing Violet: Withstanding M.F.K. Fisher's "Perfumed Assault of the Blossoms"

A few weeks ago, I came across Crème de Violette, an Austrian violet-flavored liqueur.  Intrigued, I just had to try it and, indeed, it tasted as interesting as it sounded.  The liquid has a beautiful violet color and the first sip is deliciously floral, quite distinctive and unique.  After about two more sips, however, the adjective “assertive” began springing to mind: interesting as the flavor is, it needs to be paired with something.  But what?

Unfortunately, my two favorite flavor pairing books are silent on the subject of violet: neither The Flavor Bible nor What to Drink with What You Eat, both by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, have anything to say about violet. They aren’t silent on floral flavors overall, just violets: they list lavender, rose, and zucchini blossoms, but no violet. One of my other favorite books, The Food Lover’s Companion, (3rd edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst), has the following to say: “violets, crystallized: see crystallized flowers.” That entry refers you to one on “candied fruit, candied flowers,” which notes that “candied flowers are generally reserved for decorating desserts.”

Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food has a bit more to say, but even here, the results are not promising: he has two entries for “violet,” the first (with a drawing) defines it as “the French name for a sort of edible sea creature which does not have a current English name, although it may sometimes be referred to as a `sea squirt’.” His second entry gives a brief discussion of the flower, noting that, “In candied form they make good decorations for cakes, trifles, etc.” He does refer to M.F.K. Fisher’s “E for Exquisite” entry in her book, An Alphabet for Gourmets, where she describes what she once felt was the most exquisite dish she had ever heard of as “a satiny white endive with large heavily scented Parma violets scattered through it.” She goes on to note that, “It is a misfortune perhaps that not many months ago the salad was set before me in a bowl.” The salad disappointed her on a number of levels, but one particular failing was that “the dressing was light to the point of being innocuous, and it was unable to stand up under the perfumed assault of the blossoms.” Indeed, that is the challenge: the violet flavor is so assertive that it is important it be paired with another flavor that is strong enough to withstand the “perfumed assault of the blossoms.”

Tom Stobart’s book, Herbs Spices and Flavorings, has a one-paragraph entry on violets that mentions their use in flavoring “creams, ices and liqueurs,” notes their use in crystallized flower decorations, and concludes by describing a salad that sounds similar to M.F.K. Fisher's, made with endive, celery, parsley, and olives. The one-page entry on “violets, sweet” in Carol Ann Rinzler’s Herbs, Spices, and Condiments also notes their use in salads and as candied flowers for decoration. Extensive rummaging through my collection of obscure cookbooks didn’t yield much more. Probably the most interesting find was in the chapter “Jellies, Marmalades, Preserves” from The Picayune Creole Cook Book (Dover Books, 2nd edition, 1971, reprint of the original 1901 edition), which gives a recipe for violet conserve, made from 2 ounces of freshly gathered violet petals and 1 ½ pounds of sugar.

After much thought, the one pairing that did come to mind was the result of my trying, many years ago, some of the concoctions described in the 1971 book Howard Johnson’s Presents Old Time Ice Cream Soda Fountain Recipes, Or, How to Make a Soda Fountain Pay, published naturally enough, by the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain. One of the recipes that turned out to be delicious was the “violet lime rickey,” based on violet extract and fresh limes. That memory led me to try Crème de Violette with a key-lime pie I bought at Whole Foods. Alternating bites of the pie with sips of the liqueur made a fabulous dessert, just the sort of experience I had hoped for when I bought the liqueur.

A quick Internet search turned up a couple of other possibilities. While I haven’t tried it yet, the following website gives what sounds like a marvelous recipe for “violet flavor panna cotta:”

The other idea was to pair my violet liqueur with chocolate, which I tried in two different ways. The first was to serve it with a really good chocolate ice cream from Four Seas on Cape Cod, in Centerville, Massachusetts. Their ice cream is rich and creamy, with plenty of flavor to withstand the “perfumed assault of the blossoms.” The second variation was based on a suggestion from one of the “chocolate and coffee people” at Whole Foods. I was looking over their assortment of flavored chocolate bars, struggling to select something with a flavor assertive enough to withstand but not so assertive as to cause serious warfare on my tastebuds, and my inner struggle was obvious enough that a woman stopped what she was doing to ask if I needed assistance. When I explained what I was after, she had two suggestions, both varieties of Taza Chocolate Mexicano: one supplemented with vanilla and the other with cinnamon. She thought the cinnamon version would probably stand up better to the violet and she was right: the vanilla version was good, but the hint of vanilla pretty well disappeared under the “assault of the blossoms.” The cinnamon, however, held its own marvelously: alternating bites of the chocolate with sips of the liqueur yielded a fabulous three-way combination of chocolate, cinnamon, and violet. With apologies to M.F.K. Fisher, I would have to rate this one truly “E for Exquisite.”

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Pleasures of Retsina

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Greek wine Retsina is something of an acquired taste. According to the discussion of it given in the Greece section of Culinaria: European Specialties, Volume 2, this wine is “by far the most popular” in Greece, accounting for more than 10 percent of the countries entire wine production. The defining characteristic of Retsina is the infusion of pine resin into the wine during fermentation, a practice that dates back to ancient times when wine amphoras were sealed with pitch to prevent spoilage. The resulting flavor is unmistakable, and according to the Retsina entry in The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine (Alexis Bespaloff revised edition, 1988), while “some consumers find its distinctive and pungent taste an excellent match with the rich, oil-based cuisine of Greece, others find its turpentinelike flavor too strange to enjoy.”

I have had both experiences. My first taste of Retsina was many years ago in Greece, and I did indeed find “its turpentinelike flavor too strange to enjoy,” moving instead to other local specialties like Ouzo, the potent anise-flavored Greek national liqueur. On the other hand, a few years ago, friends brought us back both Retsina and Ouzo from their trip to Greece, and my wife and I both found the Retsina to be very good. The pine resin flavor was definitely present, but it was not overpowering as it had been the first time I tasted it. Contrasting the experiences, it occurs to me that the situation is somewhat analogous to the oakiness of Chardonnays, which can range from completely absent in wines aged in stainless steel, to very oaky in wines like my favorite Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. My wife’s liking for strong, possibly strange flavors is rather less than mine – she prefers her Chardonnays less oaked, for example – but she also liked the Retsina our friends brought back, so I suspect they brought us one of its “less pined” versions. (It’s also possible, of course, that my first sample was a “Retsina plonk” while the bottle our friends brought us was the Retsina equivalent of a Grand Cru.)

According to the Food Lover’s Companion, Retsina is available in either white or rose versions, and “should be served very cold.” In their book, What to Drink with What You Eat, Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page include a short entry on Retsina, suggesting – not surprisingly – that it pairs well with Greek food, most especially with feta cheese, hummus, olives, spinach and spinach pie, and taramosalata, a creamy fish roe pate. I have never tasted either taramasalata or the rose version of Retsina, and since I have been unable to find any kind of Retsina locally, it may be some time before I have a chance to try the rose. On the other hand, Culinaria gives a recipe for taramosalata, so I may be able to try that somewhat sooner. The trouble there is that my wife is not keen on things with strongly fishy flavors, so she has somewhat less enthusiasm about trying the dish than I do. Still, the recipe is next to one for saganaki, a Greek fried cheese dish that we both love. If only we could find a nice bottle of rose Retsina …

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Honey-nut Lavender Sundaes

Ice cream sundaes make a great dessert on hot summer days: they’re cold, refreshing, easy to make, and everyone has their own favorite recipe. Recently, I discovered a fabulous product at one of our local specialty food stores that makes a great sundae. It is Omak Gida brand Honey Nut (balli cerez) from Turkey, and it contains bee pollen, coconut, honey, and a mixture of nuts (specifically, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, pinenuts, peanuts, and almonds). If you live in the Hartford, Connecticut, area, this is available at Tangier (668 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, CT 06119-1810), a great store that carries a lot of really interesting products. It is also available on-line from Café Anatolia: their listing for “Balli Cerez (Honey Nut)” includes photographs of the jar, with a detailed close-up that shows the intricate arrangement of sliced nuts, layered in rows, that first caught my attention (

Putting a spoonful or two over vanilla ice cream makes a really excellent sundae (I used Trader Joe’s Super Premium French Vanilla), but there are a couple of ways you can make it even better. The first is to sprinkle on a little bit of dried lavender, an herb that has been popular in Mediterranean cuisine for centuries. The idea of adding it to the honey nut sundae was inspired by a perusal of Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s The Flavor Bible, a favorite book I have raved about before. Their entry on lavender lists both ice cream and honey among the pairings in bold capital letters, a designation reserved for the best flavor matches. They also list almonds, pistachios, and walnuts as good matches, and under their entry on “nuts – in general” (page 234), they give the following quote from Jerry Traunfeld with The Herbfarm in Woodinville, Washington:

“Lavender works well with all sorts of nuts, including almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, and walnuts. The one nut it doesn’t work well with is chestnuts.”

An important caution is not to use too much: as Jill Norman notes in her book, Herbs and Spices (DK Publishing, 2002), “Lavender is very potent and must be used sparingly.” I sprinkled a few dried lavender flowers on our honey nut sundaes and the result was delicious. Norman notes that if you grind the flowers together with sugar, you get a stronger flavor since the process extracts the oil from the flowers, which is absorbed into the sugar.

We obtained our lavender flowers from a friend (thanks, designwrite), which is the way chef Paul Gayler recommends obtaining them – i.e., in the wild or from your garden – in his book Flavors (Kyle Books, 2005). He also notes that if you purchase lavender flowers at a market, they have sometimes been treated with pesticides or fragrance enhancers since lavender is a popular ingredient in custom-made soaps; if you are not sure whether this is the case or not, Gayler recommends washing the flowers thoroughly before use. Lavender packaged especially for culinary uses is available from a number of different sources, including Penzeys Spices ( and Amazon (search their Grocery & Gourmet Food Department with the keyword "lavender"). In fact, Amazon offers lavender in a variety of different forms: as 8 oz. packages of culinary lavender, as lavender syrup, lavender sugar sparkles, lavender honey, lavender extract, and various lavender teas.

The second variation on the honey nut sundae – with or without lavender – that can make it even better is to serve it with a nut-derived liqueur. One that goes especially well with a lavender honey-nut sundae is Faretti, described on the label as essentially a liquid biscotti whose “delicately layered taste … combines hints of nuts, citrus and fennel in a symphony of flavor.” That was the first accompaniment we tried, but the sundae went about equally well with Nocello walnut liqueur and the almond-based Amaretto di Saronno. Another good choice should be the hazelnut liqueur Frangelico, but we haven’t had a chance to try that combination yet. Finally, a really intriguing possibility is the pistachio liqueur Dumante, but our favorite supplier of spirits had just sold their last bottle when we went to inquire about it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Prose Poems and Mumbleberry Pies

This past Wednesday, my wife and I went to the reading and performance at the Hill-Stead Museum’s Sunken Garden Poetry and Music Festival in Farmington, Connecticut. It was a hot evening at the end of a hot day and the musical group CONCORA started things off with a collection of “summer music,” broadly interpreted: toward the end, they did an operatic rendition of Donna Summers’ Hot Stuff. It was fascinatingly different, reminding me of the time I heard Wooly Bully sung in Greek.

After the music, three featured poets read: the New York State Poet Laureate, Jean Valentine, and the first and second-place prize winners in the 2010 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize competition, Ginny Lowe Connors from West Hartford, Connecticut, and Kate Lebo from Seattle. Because it so directly relates to the theme of this blog – and because it is a delightful collection – this post is about Kate Lebo’s chapbook, A Commonplace Book of Pie. This short little book includes 10 prose poems about pie, a few relevant quotes (ranging from Jonathan Swift to Carl Sagan), four pie or piecrust recipes, and a small collection of questions and comments (e.g., “What is your favorite pie? Circle all that apply,” followed by 33 alphabetically ordered answers ranging from “apple” to “vanilla cream,” with some unusual entries in between, like avocado, Hoosier, and rhubarb custard). The author also maintains a food-related blog, Good Egg (, where she offers her thoughts on life, good cooking, and a lot more pie recipes (there’s even one for “mumbleberry pie”).

The fact that her chapbook consists entirely of prose poems invites a brief discussion of the form: what exactly is a prose poem? As the name implies, it is essentially a very “prosey” poetic form, but to give a more satisfactory answer I need to digress briefly on the larger question of what exactly a poem is. Many of us were introduced to poetry in terms of traditional verse forms like the sonnet, which had a fairly precise definition: a sonnet was a 14 line form, with a specified rhythm (e.g., iambic pentameter), and a specified rhyme scheme (e.g., the end of the first line rhymed with the end of the third line, etc.). Then, at some point, many of us encountered the more vaguely defined world of “free verse” poetry: lines no longer had to rhyme, neither the number of lines nor the number of syllables per line were fixed, and indeed, most of the “rules” we came to think of as defining poetry were relaxed to the point that it became much harder to know exactly what a poem was. (This has even happened with sonnets: in William Barnstone’s The Secret Reader – a collection of 501 sonnets – he includes many that adhere to the traditional rules, but also a number that violate some rules while retaining others. A particularly interesting example is “Talking with Ink,” consisting of 14 lines with a classical rhyme scheme, but each line has only two syllables; another unusual example is “Gospel of Desire,” which also has 14 lines and adheres to a classical rhyme scheme, but with a regularly varying number of syllables per line.) A key feature that distinguishes both free verse and formal poetry from prose is that poetry is organized by lines. In their entry on “poetry,” the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton University Press, 1993) notes:

“What most readers understand as ‘poetry’ was, up until 1850, set in lines which were metrical, and even the several forms of vers libre and free verse produced since 1850 have been built largely on one or another concept of the line.”

The key feature of the prose poem is the abandonment of lines, typically resulting in text organized into one or a few paragraphs. In their entry on the prose poem, the Princeton Encyclopedia observes that:

“Its principal characteristics are those that would insure unity even in brevity and poetic quality even without the line breaks of free verse: high patterning, rhythmic and figural repetition, sustained intensity, and compactness.”

The recent collection, No Boundaries, published by Tupelo Press in 2003, provides a nice illustration of the range of the prose poem’s structural and thematic possibilities. Edited by Ray Gonzales, the collection includes ten poems each from 24 contemporary American poets; among these contributors are Robert Bly and Russell Edson, both mentioned in the Princeton Encyclopedia’s entry on the prose poem, and Charles Simic, whose prose poem collection, The World Doesn’t End, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. Simic’s collection by itself provides an extremely illuminating and entertaining view of the possibilities inherent in the form, with examples ranging from a single sentence about “the Great God of Theory” to a short vignette about a grandfather’s wordless, jealous feud with Sigmund Freud over a pair of shoes in a store window. Probably my favorite one from the collection begins with the following sentence:

“Margaret was copying a recipe for ‘saints roasted with onions’ from an old cookbook.”

Each of Kate Lebo’s prose poems takes a specific type of pie for its title, and all meet the Princeton Encyclopedia’s “sustained intensity and compactness” criteria cited above: none is longer than two paragraphs, and each one presents a unique view of the selected pie and/or its fans, abounding with quirky tidbits and commentary. One of my favorites is the “Lemon Meringue” poem, which gives a highly dubious history of the pie involving nuns in Portland, Oregon and the boxer Muhammad Ali. Lebo also makes excellent use of traditional poetic aural devices like alliteration, assonance, and consonance, as in this sentence from “Pumpkin Pie:”

“It could be hollowed and hallowed and filled with soup and served in a bistro to people who do not smash pumpkins.”

Another great example, from “Apple Pie,” is the following sequence about apple seeds, “carried afar in the bellies of birds and bears and other four-legged, fruit-eating animals …”

All in all, A Commonplace Book of Pie is a very enjoyable little literary snack. The only problem is that it has left me craving a Hoosier pie. More about that later.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Why You Need Several Asian Cookbooks

I have been a big fan of Asian cooking for a long time, and a dish that my wife and I both like a lot is Pad Thai, described by Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover’s Companion as “Thailand’s most well-known noodle dish.” It came as an unpleasant surprise, then, to look through several Thai and Asian cookbooks that had a whole bunch of really great recipes, but no Pad Thai. The experience highlights one of two key reasons why it is important to have more than one Asian cookbook. The other reason has to do with finding unfamiliar ingredients.

The first reason it is important to have multiple cookbooks – for any cuisine you like, but especially for Asian cuisine – is that, as the Pad Thai example illustrates, your favorite cookbook for a particular cuisine may not have all of your favorite recipes from that cuisine. As a specific, non-Asian example, the movie “It’s Complicated” left us craving croque monsieur, which featured prominently in the story line. When we looked for a recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child, we were quite surprised not to find it there. Ultimately, we did find a very good recipe for croque monsieur in The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. Ironically, it turns out this book also has a Pad Thai recipe that we never thought to look for when we were craving it some weeks earlier. Because Asia is larger both geographically and culturally than European countries like France or Italy, the problem of finding all of your favorite Asian recipes is even more challenging than finding all of your favorite French or Italian recipes. Fortunately, there are some really excellent Asian cookbooks available, and I have listed three of them here, along with a fourth book to help with the ingredients problem.

My three current favorite Asian cookbooks – mostly acquired after the Pad Thai craving episode – are The Food of Asia (Murdoch Books, 2009), The Essential Asian Cookbook (Murdoch Books, 1997), and Culinaria Southeast Asia (Tandem Verlag, 2008). All three of these books are large format (roughly 8.5 by 11 inches), and lushly illustrated with color photographs of Asia, key ingredients, and the completed dishes. Also, each book covers the cuisines of a range of different Asian countries: Culinaria Southeast Asia focuses on Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, The Food of Asia concentrates on China, India, Japan, and Thailand, and The Essential Asian Cookbook covers all of these countries, along with The Philippines, Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, Pakistan, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Since Culinaria Southeast Asia does not discuss Thai cuisine, it is not surprising that Pad Thai does not appear there, but it is surprising that the dish does not appear in The Food of Asia, either, since that one does feature Thai cuisine. (That said, the “noodles and rice” section of the book is about 40 pages long and it includes a lot of fabulous dishes I had never heard of before, ranging from Thai “stir-fried noodles with holy basil” to “crossing-the-bridge noodles” from China.) Fortunately, there is an excellent Pad Thai recipe in The Essential Asian Cookbook, complete with a mouth-watering photograph of the finished product.

I mention the Pad Thai example, not as criticism of these excellent cookbooks, but to illustrate the nature of the problem: Asia is an enormous place with a long cultural history, so no single book, no matter how good, can hope to capture it all. The second reason you need more than one Asian cookbook is that having multiple sources can be an enormous help with the ingredients problem. In fact, this second problem has two important practical components: first, how to find an ingredient you don't have, and second, how to decide what to substitute if you just can’t find it anywhere. For example, since they both discuss Thai cuisine, both The Essential Asian Cookbook and The Food of Asia give brief descriptions of “holy basil.” In the glossary of The Essential Asian Cookbook, a main entry on “basil” begins by noting:

“Three varieties of basil are used in Asian cooking; all of which are very aromatic. If any are unavailable, substitute fresh sweet basil or fresh coriander in cooked dishes and fresh mint in salads.”

The entry then goes on to list the three types, including a color photograph of each, the name in Thai, and a brief description. The description of “purple or holy basil (bai kaphrao)” notes that it has “narrow, dark, purple-reddish tinged leaves with a pungent, clove-like taste.” The glossary entry in The Food of Asia is shorter, simply noting that “Holy basil is either red or green with slightly pointed, variegated leaves,” but it does refer to page 228 for more details; that description includes a color photograph, the Thai name “bai ka-phrao,” and the additional information that holy basil comes in both red and white varieties. This description accompanies a recipe for “chicken with crisp holy basil leaves,” described as “one of the most common dishes you will come across in Thailand.” In contrast, while The Essential Asian Cookbook gives the potentially very useful substitution information quoted above for holy basil – information I have not been able to find in The Food of Asia – it does not give a recipe for this “most common of Thai dishes.” So, if you want both Pad Thai and chicken with crisp holy basil leaves, you need both books. (The Joy of Cooking doesn’t list “holy basil” in the index).

Asian grocery stores – some of them quite good – are becoming more common, and this helps greatly with the problem of finding ingredients, but matching what you need with what is available can still be a problem. One factor that is both a complication and something of a simplification is the influence of Chinese culture on Asian cooking. This point is illustrated clearly by Culinaria Southeast Asia: although China is not one of the countries included, the book begins with a discussion of Chinese cooking in Singapore that features 32 color illustrations of different dim sum dishes, each with their anglicized Chinese names (e.g., “Zha nai huang bao: deep-fried dumplings filled with lotus paste, on a garnish of omelet and cucumber”). This is followed by a discussion of China teas (with photographs of nine different kinds, with the names in Chinese characters accompanying each photo) and then a discussion of traditional Chinese herbal medicines and more exotic treatments (dried sea horses, geckos, and monkey head fungi, anyone?), all as a lead-in to soups. In fact, throughout the Singapore section of the book, Chinese characters accompany almost all of the descriptions of dishes, ingredients, cooking utensils, and food art. The color photos of 16 exotic vegetables on pages 56 and 57 include brief descriptions in English, with the anglicized Chinese names and the name in Chinese characters. All of this can be extremely useful if you are looking for some unfamiliar ingredient in an Asian market: if your recipe calls for “bitter melon,” it may be useful to know that the Chinese name is something like either “foo gwa” or “ku gua.”

This last point is the reason that I also particularly like A Popular Guide to Chinese Vegetables, by Martha Dahlen and Karen Phillipps, which may be regarded as a book-length expansion of pages 56 and 57 from Culinaria Southeast Asia. Published by Crown Publishers in 1983, their little book (113 pages) appears to be out of print, but it is still available used through Amazon. Each entry includes a detailed color drawing to help you identify the vegetable, an anglicized Chinese name, and the corresponding Chinese characters, along with information on appearance and advice on selection and cooking. The book discusses about 70 vegetables, ranging from familiar types like lettuce and eggplant to more exotic species like “slippery vegetable” and “dracontomellum,” a little olive-like thing whose name is translated approximately as “man-in-the-moon fruit.” While the primary focus of this book is on identifying and selecting Chinese vegetables, it does include a few recipes with some of the descriptions. Two particularly interesting examples are those given in the “lotus root” entry: the one for “octo-pork soup" calls for “one small dried octopus, ½ pound of pork bones, and 6 to 10 inches of lotus root, well scrubbed.” The other recipe is for “braised pork and lotus,” and it calls for fermented red bean curd (naam yue), noting that if you don’t have any naam yue a possible substitute is equal parts dark and light soy sauce, “but the taste will be completely different.”

So far, I haven’t found the same advice in any of the other three cookbooks, highly as I reccomend them: that’s why you need a small collection.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is Hooptedoodle Saving Cookbooks?

(Note: this entry was originally posted on 6/17/2010, but it was invisible to some readers for reasons that I don't fully understand. Sorry about that.)

Mark Twain once famously said "the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," in response to persistent rumors that he was no longer with us. A recent article in the Hartford Courant, "The enduring cookbook," by Bill Daley takes a similar tone, noting that despite the presence of enormous volumes of free information from cooking Web sites, hard-copy cookbooks that you have to pay for remain extremely popular. As with Mark Twain, there have been persistent rumors of the impending death of print media for some time now in response to the growth of free stuff on the Internet. To explain the non-death of cookbooks, Daley quotes Bill LeBlond, editorial director of food and drink at Chronicle Books, who notes that cookbooks provide stories that you don't find from other sources.

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing makes a strong argument against "hooptedoodle" in his last rule: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Noting, however, that Steinbeck's novel Sweet Thursday included chapters with titles "Hooptedoodle 1" and "Hooptedoodle 2," Leonard concludes with the following confession:

"Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters?

Every word."

In the same spirit, it is just possible that this kind of "extraneous" material is exactly the sort of intellectual and emotional spice we need occasionally, in the midst of the necessary tablespoons of this and reductions of that on which cookbooks are founded. What follows, then, are a few of the Noodle Doodler's favorite cookbook hooptedoodles.

Bill Neal's Southern Cooking

I bought Bill Neal's cookbook the first time I visited his restaurant, Crook's Corner, in Cary, North Carolina. It was one of the more memorable meals of my life, both because it was the first time I had ever tasted shrimp and cheese grits and because it was the first time I had ever had dessert wine. Along with Crook's Corner Style Shrimp and Cheese Grits, the book includes recipes for a lot of other delectable edibles: everything from Dog Bread and Natchitoches Meat Pies to Tipsy Parson and Burgoo. But names like these demand explanation, and Neal's book positively brims with informative hooptedoodle that does not disappoint. Burgoo, for example, is a southern stew made from mutton with an assortment of regional vegetables, and along with the recipe, Neal includes a brief discussion of some of the regional rivalries it engenders
("And, a little to the west, in Arkansas, it's said - though Kentuckians disagree - they make a pretty good burgoo as well.")

Being Dead Is No Excuse, by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays

Between the title of this book and its equally provocative subtitle ("The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral"), it should be clear that hooptedoodle abounds here. What may be less obvious is that this is, in fact, a cookbook, replete with recipes for everything from Bourbon Boiled Custard and Aunt Hebe's Coconut Cake at the end of Chapter 1 ("Dying Tastefully in the Mississippi Delta") through Fried Walnuts and Methodist Party Potatoes in Chapter 2 ("The Methodist Ladies vs. the Episcopal Ladies") to Faux Dieter's Antipasto and Reincarnation Shrimp Dip in the last chapter ("The Restorative Cocktail"). I have tried several of the recipes in this book and some of them are delicious, but even if you never touch a tablespoon of anything described there, the outrageous hooptedoodle makes it a glorious read. The discussion of "The Crocheted-Bedpan- Award Chicken" in Chapter 5 ("Comfort Foods: There Is a Balm in Campbell's Soup") is, by itself, probably worth the price of the book.

Sugar Cookie Murder, by Joanne Fluke

Bill Neal's book is a classic example of a really good cookbook that adds a touch of historical and cultural hooptedoodle to pique your interest. Being Dead Is No Excuse is about equal parts cookbook and hooptedoodle, but with at least a slight majority emphasis on the food and recipes. Joanne Fluke's book is a mystery novel with a really surprising twist ending: after the 200 page novel ends, she includes about 160 pages of recipes, a baking conversion chart, and instructions for preparing Werner Herman's Catfish Bait, clearly labeled as "not for human consumption." All of these recipes are mentioned in the novel, which centers around the murder of somebody's glamorous new wife at a snowy Minnesota holiday party. Here, it could almost be argued that the recipes constitute the hooptedoodle, included to spice up the text. It must be admitted that these recipes are not in the same league with Bill Neal's, but if you're in the mood for Waldorf Salad Jell-O, Can Bread, or Barbecued Anything, some of them might just appeal.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Foraging through the food literature

I have always liked unusual literature - some (perhaps many) of my friends would prefer the term "obscure" here - but pondering the various genres of Poe's "quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore" can have its rewards. A culinary volume that I found at a used book sale some time ago is Egon Ronay's The Unforgettable Dishes of My Life (Sphere Books, London, 1989). As he notes in the preface to his book, Ronay grew up in Budapest in a family of restaurantuers and, over the years, published an amazing number of restaurant guides (an Amazon book search on "Egon Ronay" turns up 140 hits, many of them guides ranging from Egon Ronay's 2006 Guide to the Best Restaurants and Gastropubs in the UK, available used starting at 96 cents, to Egon Ronay's H.J. Heinz Guide, available used - with unknown binding - for $242.87).

From the outset, Ronay does not mince words: he notes in the preface that "these dishes are for enjoyment, not to pander to present-day health terrorists." The book consists of approximately 100 recipes, each of which is preceded by a brief personal history of the dish and some of the things Ronay associates with it. Not surprisingly, it is in these little summaries that Ronay's crustiness is most apparent, and often extremely entertaining. For example, on the page before his recipe for "The Original, Authentic Gulyas" (known outside of Hungary as "goulash"), begins with the following tirade:

"Never has a culinary term been so abused and degraded. Small wonder that the name of this soup (for that's exactly what it is, as many will be surprised to read) has acquired an almost pejorative meaning."

He goes on to emphasize that the paprika used in making the soup should be the sweet rather than the hot variety ("this is not a curry!"), and in discussing the meat, although he says "don't take my recipe as gospel," he continues by saying "other cuts of beef (it has to be beef) are acceptable". In the same vein, Ronay begins the commentary that precedes his "walnut beigl" recipe with the statement, "Let me hasten to warn you: this is not to be confused with America's bagel, which is not even a poor or modest relative." He goes on to emphasize the beigl's glorious role at the Christmas table ("strictly limited to family, never ever friends, however close"), following a meal of carp that was "unlike the fat and sickley British carp, lazy and dissipated in rivers or 'farmed' in lakes." In its persistent crankiness, Ronay's writing style is very much like that of M.F.K. Fisher, whom he praises in the preface of his book for her avoidance of the "single-minded concentration on the clinical, stereotyped, dry instructions of recipes, without a thought for their joyful purpose". For those unfamiliar with Fisher's crustiness, the following excerpt from "If this were my place" in A Stew or a Story (Shoemaker and Hoard, published in 2006) provides a representative sample:

"I think now, willy-nilly, of the most dismal restaurant in the American world, to my mind, the small-town coffee shop. I have been in hundreds of them, and I firmly believe that until their windows grow steamy and the waitress lets her hair fall vaguely out of place and the coffee machine sends off little pops of steam which the cafe manager frowns on because of Waste, they are just about the most horrid holes ever invented for such a decent ceremony as that of nourishing our poor tired puzzled bodies."

Whether you find Ronay's commentary entertaining or annoyingly curmudgeonly, his book is a fun read because of the eclectic range of its recipes, with everything from "Reveller's Soup" - made with sauerkraut, paprika ("sweet noble, not the hot variety"), bacon, chicken stock, frankfurters, and sour cream - to "Jellied Crayfish," "Sailor's Eels," and "Suckling Pig." As this partial list suggests, there are probably few palates adventurous enough to want to try all of these recipes, but the converse is also true: the person who couldn't find anything appealing among his recipes would have a finicky set of tastebuds indeed. In rummaging through the collection, I have found several I can't wait to try, but the one I want to try first belongs to a whole new culinary concept for me: dessert pasta. Ronay notes, in his discussion of a delicious-sounding "Ham Pasta" recipe (this one isn't a dessert pasta) that the Central European approach to pasta is quite different from that taken by the rest of the world. In particular, he says "unusual, too, is the sweet variety: you would miss a habit-forming experience if you didn't try them." Since he gives a recipe for "Walnut Noodles," I don't intend to miss out. The name alone almost makes it mandatory.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fried Veggies: Cymlings, Green Tomatoes and Tomatillos Fritos

A few years ago, my wife and I used to live a block away from a fabulous Cajun restaurant called Bayou. Sadly, it is gone now, but memories of their Sunday brunches remain, especially the fried green tomatoes with remoulade sauce they offered with their various Louisiana-inspired variations on eggs Benedict.

A recent food article in a newspaper featured tomatillos, sometimes known as “Chinese lantern plants” because of the papery covering that encloses the green bulbous fruit. Typically used in sauces like salsa verde, they have always reminded me of green tomatoes, which prompted the thought: why not fried tomatillos with remoulade sauce and eggs Benedict?

Several cookbooks offer recipes for fried green tomatoes, including Joanne Weir’s You Say Tomato (Broadway Books, New York, 1998), but the most interesting one I found was from Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking (University of North Carolina Press, 1985). This recipe was especially useful because he precedes it with a general discussion of frying vegetables, noting the range of different types that can be fried and giving specific advice for each, including green tomatoes. The thing that made this recipe particularly intriguing, though, was the one vegetable he gave the most detailed instructions for: fried cymlings. Fortunately, he defines cymlings, because I had never heard of them: they turn out to be a Southern U.S. vegetable also known as the petticoat squash, and Neal gives a parenthetical history of the name. Evidently, it first appeared in 1705 as a corruption of simnel, a Lenten currant cake that somewhat resembles the petticoat squash in appearance. I have never tasted a cymling, but it’s now at the head of my list of things to seek out on my next southern excursion.

Convinced that I had invented something completely new, I was all ready to adapt Bill Neal’s fried cymlings recipe to tomatillos. Before I actually did that, however, I decided I should check the Internet just to see if maybe one or two other people had thought of the idea before me. They had: a quick Google search turned up 287,000 hits, including one for Tomatillos Fritos from Recipe Zaar ( ). I ended up fixing that one, which I recommend: it soaks the tomatillos in milk and egg with hot sauce, and it uses a combination of cornmeal and flour for the breading. They went great with the remoulade sauce, the eggs Benedict, and the bloody Mary’s we served them with to round out the brunch. It wasn’t quite brunch at the Bayou, but it did bring back memories.

In the future, there are two variations I plan to try. The first is to go with my original idea of adapting Bill Neal’s fried cymlings recipe, in part because it is extremely simple (you coat them in cornmeal and fry them in bacon fat or peanut oil). The second variation is to replace the bloody Mary (delicious as that was) with one of the recommended wines from Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s book, What to Drink with What You Eat. They list five wine choices under their tomatillos entry, and their preferred one seems to be a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

When it comes to cymlings, though, it appears that I am on my own: Dornenburg and Page don’t have an entry for them.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Five Extremely Useful Food Books

This post lists and briefly describes the five food books I would want to have with me if I were stranded on a desert island without Internet access.

1. What to Drink with What You Eat, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page

The authors of this book – published by Bulfinch Press in 2006 and winning that year’s Georges Duboeuf Wine Book of the Year Award – are a husband and wife team who have also written at least six other food-related books, including the next one on this list. In What to Drink with What You Eat, they offer both general advice on wine, food, and wine-food pairings, and specific recommendations, from both directions: what wine goes well with a particular food, and what food goes well with a particular wine. Looking for the best wine to go with bacon? (Pinot Noir is highly recommended, especially New World wines like those from California or Oregon.) Cheese? (The list is 12 pages long, broken down by type: for example, the French white wine Vin Jaune from the Jura region is highly recommended with the French or Swiss cow’s milk cheese Vacherin Mont d’Or; for Monterray Jack, their highest recommendation goes to Zinfandel.) How about Philadelphia cheesesteak? (Suggestions include both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.) Conversely, if a family friend has given you a bottle of retsina as a souvenir of their recent trip to Greece (those who haven’t acquired the taste for this unique wine made with pine resin sometimes compare the flavor to turpentine, not always favorably), you might want to know that it pairs well with feta cheese, Greek olives, and spinach. Even more impressively, this book also gives advice on selecting and pairing other beverages, including tea, beer, coffee, bottled water, sake, single malt scotches, and shandys (beer mixed with lemonade). All in all, a fun read and extremely versatile: the first thing I would pack in that box of books not to be stranded without during the desert island experience (it might come in handy to know that coconut pairs well with Chardonnay, especially a buttery or oaky one).

2. The Flavor Bible, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page

By the same authors as What to Drink with What You Eat, this book (published by Little, Brown and Company, 2008) begins with advice from former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic on the secret to happiness: “For starters, learn how to cook.” Beautifully illustrated, the book begins by discussing the factors that influence taste (e.g., sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and the newest kid on the “basic flavors” block, umami or “savoriness,” much discussed these days on The Food Network), and those that influence our experience of food more generally (things like mouth feel, aroma, and appearance). The idea behind the book is to help the reader step beyond the strict recipe-based “cooking by the numbers” approach (although, with a well-executed, good recipe, the results of this approach can be spectacular) to the development of your own recipes, by choosing ingredients that go well together and avoiding those that clash badly. For example, they note that Kobe beef pairs well with both black truffles and yuzu juice (Don’t know what yuzu is? See either of the next two books on this list.); similarly, the pairing of basil with tarragon should be avoided. They even have entries on fiddlehead ferns (this fairly extensive list was extremely helpful in developing the fiddlehead fern recipe I posted earlier), ramps (again, an extremely useful list), and yuzu fruits (more about that below). Another definite “stranded on a desert island book” (besides a nice oaky Chardonnay, coconut pairs well with fish and curries).

3. Food Lover’s Companion, edited by Sharon Tyler Herbst.

I have the 3rd edition of this fabulous little book (published by Barons in 2001), but there is now a Deluxe Edition (copyright 2009) that I have not had the opportunity to thumb through. According to the newer book’s description, it was updated by Ron Herbst in honor of his late wife and the editor of the 3rd edition, Sharon Tyler Herbst. Based on what I have read about it, I am sure that the Deluxe Edition is at least as fabulous as my well-worn 3rd edition. This is exactly the book you need close at hand whenever you come across any unfamiliar culinary term: what is a yuzu fruit, anyway? (See page 684: it’s a sour Japanese citrus fruit.) What’s in green goddess dressing? (See page 282.) Why can’t you take a durian on Asian airlines? (It’s the “nauseating smell” – see page 208.) And what is a sea bean? (The entry on page 554 refers you to the one on “samphire” on page 540.) Clearly, this is another “desert island book” (The entry for coconuts starts on page 148.)

4. The Penguin Companion to Food, edited by Alan Davidson

If you think of The Food Lover’s Companion just described as a “dictionary of the edible,” this book – published by Penguin Books in 2002 and the winner of a James Beard Award – can be regarded as the corresponding encyclopedia. Larger, longer, and illustrated with occasional drawings, this book lists many – but not all – of the entries in The Food Lover’s Companion, with many others besides. For example, on a trip to Finland last year, friends introduced my wife and I to a jam made from sea buckthorn. Not listed in The Food Lover’s Companion, the entry on page 849 of The Penguin Companion to Food – between those for “sea bream” and “sea cucumber” – notes that the sea buckthorn is a small tree that grows near the sea in Britain, in the Alps, in Russia, and in China. The entry also notes that:

“Jane Grigson, writing in the Observer in 1988, found that with the addition of cream the berries would make an attractive pinkish-orange ice cream.”

(As far as I know, Baskin-Robbins doesn’t have that one yet.) On the other hand, there is no entry for “sea bean,” so you would have to know it as “samphire,” which is described starting on page 827. In fact, you would have to know it as “marsh samphire” (Salicornia europaea) as opposed to “rock samphire” (Crithimum maritimum). The Penguin Companion to Food describes marsh samphire as “more available but less prized” than rock samphire, which the Food Lover’s Companion describes as “available in the United States only through costly import.” If you can fit The Penguin Companion to Food in your luggage, it’s worth taking along on your desert island adventure (the coconut entry is three pages and includes a drawing, as does the yuzu entry).

5. Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Common Sense Guide, by Elizabeth Schneider (Harper and Row, 1986)

The first two pages of this book are filled with short but glowing reviews by a range of newspapers, magazines, and people, including Jacques Pepin, Alice Waters, and M.F.K. Fisher. Like the Food Lover’s Companion, a more recent variation of this book is now available than the one I have. Specifically, Schneider published Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference in 2001, which appears to drop the fruits in preference to a wider variety of vegetables; while I can’t vouch for it personally, Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables is so good that I am sure her newer book would also be well worth a place in your desert island luggage. While the 1986 book doesn’t list everything you might want to try – it doesn’t list yuzu, for example – it does list a lot of them, including fiddlehead ferns, ramps (see wild leeks), and sea beans (see glasswort). Each entry typically includes a detailed drawing of the fruit or vegetable, general advice on how to select and prepare it, and detailed recipes (more than 400 of them altogether). There is no entry for coconut, but this book is probably still worth having along on your desert island adventure: after all, you might want to vary your diet by including something like her salad of glasswort, oriental radish, and cucumber (page 208).

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Great American Condiment

A few years ago, shortly after one of my favorite local restaurants opened, a customer became totally unglued when she learned that ketchup was not available with the steak and pommes frites she had ordered for dinner. Unable to endure ketchuplessness, she melted down like a cranky two year-old, letting everyone in the dining room know that her meal had been ruined beyond redemption and predicting the restaurant’s imminent demise. Fortunately for the rest of us, she turned out to be wrong.

Several years before that, a friend of a friend went with his new wife to Norway to meet some of the in-laws. In honor of the occasion, they served lutefisk, a Scandinavian specialty made from dried cod, soaked for days in water with lye, and then cooked until translucent. It must be said that lutefisk is an acquired taste, like many national or regional specialties (“Comin’ to the muskrat festival again this year, Earl?”), and my friend’s friend horrified his new in-laws by dousing it with ketchup.

What exactly is this quintessentially American condiment that makes it necessary for so many of us to enjoy our food, either at home or abroad? According to the 3rd edition of Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover’s Companion – a great little book that describes everything from absinthe to zungenwurst – ketchup is “a spicy pickled-fish condiment popular in 17th century China.” It was apparently brought to the U.K. by British seamen, where it evolved considerably. One popular version was mushroom catsup, described in Joe’s Book of Mushroom Cookery, by Jack Czarnecki:

“Mushroom catsup originated in English cookery, where layers of fresh mushrooms were salted and skimmed over a period of three days to a week. During this time the salt would extract the liquid from the mushrooms, which would be strained and seasoned. The resulting liquid would be cooked down to a syrupy extract, sealed, and sold as a condiment for meats or for a simple addition to sauces. It is found only rarely today, since this salting method is expensive, not to mention the fact that the catsup is very salty.”

In fact, while it is not readily available on most supermarket shelves, it is possible to obtain mushroom ketchup through specialty food suppliers even here in the U.S (in fact, it appears that Amazon will soon have it available on-line: you can request an e-mail notification from them when it is available). I have a bottle of it sitting on my shelf, “prepared from an original recipe by G. Watkins, Estab. 1830.” The back of the bottle gives a glowing testimonial:

“This rich traditional cooking sauce was the secret of success of many Victorian Cooks with Steak and Kidney Pies and Puddings, Roast Meats, Sauces and Soups.”

Indeed, ketchup recipes can include almost anything. In his book, Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment, Andrew Smith includes recipes for 50 different ketchups from the 18th to the 20th century, with versions made from anchovies, beer, cranberries, cucumbers, elderberries, grapes, lemons, liver, lobster, oysters, peaches, peppers, plums, raspberries, squash, walnuts, and whortleberries. Like mushroom catsup, most of these varieties aren’t readily available on supermarket shelves today, either.

According to the FDA’s official definition, ketchup is made with tomatoes. Indeed, tomato ketchup is popular enough that in 1981, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed elevating its status from a condiment to a vegetable. Supposedly, this was to help school districts meet the costs of federally mandated lunch programs, but public outrage led them to abandon the idea. Interestingly, this attempt at reclassification mirrors an earlier, successful one: the tomato itself isn’t even a vegetable, botanically speaking (it’s actually a fruit), although it was classified as a vegetable for trade purposes by the U.S. Government in 1893. While Shakespeare may have argued that “a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet,” it is clear that he didn’t have a firm grasp of the economic or political implications of classification and nomenclature.

In the end, there is some evidence that ketchup may be on its way out as the national condiment. In his book, Are You Really Going to Eat That?, food writer Rob Walsh describes the following incident at a roadside eatery in Seabrook, Texas. A group of diners at a nearby table were incensed by the lack of ranch dressing for their onion rings. The waitress attempted to explain that the restaurant didn’t have any salad dressings because they didn’t serve any salads, but the diners were still miffed. As Walsh observed,

“Ranch dressing has nothing to do with salad in Texas. Several Texas chefs have told me they’ve been astonished by the rise in the requests for ranch dressing in the last ten years. It’s now used as a dip and a sauce more often than as a salad topping. (In West Texas, some restaurant patrons seem to regard it as a beverage.) I suspect it long ago surpassed ketchup and salsa as the number-one condiment in the state. For a major segment of the dining public, onion rings without ranch dressing are unthinkable – so are pizza, biscuits, and canned peaches.”

Walsh’s unhappy dining companions didn’t give up, repeating their request for ranch dressing until the waitress suggested they go buy a bottle at a convenience store.

Her suggestion gave me an idea. Motivated by the question of what sort of ketchup might be appropriate with steak and pommes frites, I conducted an Internet search. Among my finds was an article on a food fair in Paris that featured – along with chocolate foie gras and a kiwi liqueur – a thick blue ketchup made with black currants based on an 18th century recipe. The developers noted that it tastes somewhat like tomato ketchup because of the cinnamon and other spices they include. One customer thought it would go well with duck. I kept looking.
Ultimately, I found a suitable product sold by French Country Home ( ), a company specializing in “French products, French hand-crafted items, and gourmet foods from the south of France,” who offer “Authentic 16th Century Catsup:”

“Our artisanal producer has recreated a unique old-fashioned catsup based on a 16th century recipe and is similar to what you may find today in Cajun or north African kitchens. This authentic catsup (NOT ketchup!) is somewhat sweet and subtly spicy. It’s a delicious sauce on its own and also ideal as a base for barbecue and pasta sauces or meat or seafood marinades. Packaged in an old-fashioned 8.8 oz (250 ml) wax-sealed, corked bottle.”

While it is probably not available in most convenience stores (indeed, the website indicates that the company’s office is temporarily closed for renovations), it seems perfect for a French restaurant.

All that remains is the obvious question: “You want frites with that?”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Tale of Theology, Mystery, War Cakes, Prince Polo Biscuits and Spiced Peacock

Halldor Laxness was an Icelandic author, born in Reykjavik in 1902, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, wrote over 60 books in a range of genres, and died in 1998. Probably his best-known novel is Independent People, the tale of Bjartur of Summerhouses, a man whose rigid notions of independence have consequences about as grim as any in literature. For example, returning from a long journey in search of a lost sheep, he finds that his wife has died alone in childbirth, but – mainly thanks to his dog (“the warmth of her lousy body, hungry and emaciated”) – the child has survived. As he struggles to straighten out his wife’s corpse, he considers his situation:

"This put him in no mean quandary, the independent man, for experienced hands were needed, probably female hands, he himself dared not have anything to do with it. Must he then ask help of other people? The last thing that he had impressed upon his wife was not to ask help of other people – an independent man who resorts to other people for help gives himself over into the power of the arch-fiend; and now this same humiliation was to be pronounced on him; on Bjartur of Summerhouses; but he was determined to pay what was asked of him."

Very much lighter in tone is my favorite Laxness novel, Under the Glacier, published in 1968 and translated into English in 1972 by Magnus Magnusson. This hilarious novel is available from the Random House imprint Vintage International with a forward by Susan Sontag. I have always liked the magical realist style of novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Hundred Years of Solitude or John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War, and I would have to classify this novel in much the same vein. It is the story of an emissary selected by the Bishop of Iceland to investigate strange tales surrounding a rogue priest living near the Snaefells Glacier, the place chosen by Jules Verne for the beginning of his Journey to the Center of the Earth. The story is told in a mixture of first and third person, with the bishop’s emissary usually referring to himself either as “the undersigned” or as “Embi,” an abbreviation for “emissary of the bishop.” His assigned task is to investigate a number of questions important to the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, including whether rumors of the Glacier church’s being boarded up are true, why the pastor hasn’t drawn his salary in over 20 years, and why he hasn’t divorced his wife, “even though it’s a known fact that she has never shared bed nor board with him.” Further, Embi’s instructions are to simply report the facts: under no circumstances is he to attempt to understand or interpret what he observes.

On his arrival at the house of Jon Primus, the errant minister, Embi is ushered in by a woman who leaves him alone in the house with all of the doors open. Sitting there in the cold, he considers what he should do:

“He had been sent here only to look for facts. If he had to sit here without food all night, that was as good a fact for his report as any other. It’s about as unscientific as it would be dishonest to stop a scientific process in midstream on moral grounds – for instance, because one’s feet are frozen.”

Finally, at midnight, he smells coffee and the woman returns:

“The woman poured the visitor a cup of coffee and invited him to help himself, then took up position by the door with a stern expression on her face. The coffee had a mouldy taste, and truth to tell I was paralysed by the sight of these innumerable cakes arrayed around such awful coffee.”

Included in this array of cakes – which he estimated to number in the hundreds – were “three war-cakes, so called because they became fashionable during the war.” According to the historical comments given on the website, war cakes used “ingredients that were available to the average household during World War II.” The website gives a recipe, but the real “flavor” of the war cake is probably best captured by the recipe in M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, included in her collected volume, The Art of Eating. A note from the publisher indicates that “How to Cook a Wolf was first published in 1942, when wartime shortages were at their worst.” Fisher’s war cake recipe calls for ½ cup of shortening, but she notes that “bacon grease can be used, because of the spices which hide its taste.”

In summarizing the state of the church, Embi includes the following comments in his report:

“I also note pro tem that the church seems only moderately suited to attracting a congregation. Windows boarded with boxwood, the main door securely nailed shut.”

Later, Embi notes that there are no front steps so that entering the church would be difficult in any case (“Cannot see how members of the congregation can gain entry into God’s House if one excepts gymnasts in the prime of life.”)

The central theme of Under the Glacier is Embi’s journey of self-discovery, complicated both by his general youth and inexperience and by the surreal nature of the life he finds at Glacier. Central mysteries in the novel include rumors of a casket abandoned in the glacier, and the nature of the pastor’s wife, who is rumored to be dead. Theological debates about the necessity of saying something at a funeral are interwoven with discussions of reincarnation couched in terms of geophysics, “cosmobiological induction,” and “bioastrochemistry.” In addition, music is thrown into the mix, with Embi observing one of three itinerant mystics – called The Drop – as he seeks some central musical truth:

“The Drop sat kneeling and touched his lute with long pauses in between searching for the note that can only be sought far back in geophysics. It has been proved that there was a dry spell on earth once for 200 million years. Not a drop from the sky. No life possible. Yet the idea of water, which is the idea of life, continued to live in the deserts of the earth. Perhaps this lute-player had captured a note of the drop that went on falling in remote caverns of the Andes for 200 million years. Let us hope and pray that the music of the absolute is not just yet another variant of the Anglo-Saxon antimusic that blares out from the ghetto blasters of the world night and day.”

As this passage illustrates, Laxness’ novels include biting political commentary, here slipped into Embi’s descriptions with little warning. For example, in a follow-up of his initial encounter with the “innumerable cakes arrayed around such awful coffee,” the undersigned describes the next day’s offering:

“And though a detailed description of such a banquet does not directly concern this report, I cannot but emphasise the crucial change that has taken place since last night, in that a new sensation has now overthrown the war-cakes – foreign wafer-biscuits coated with melted chocolate. These are Prince Polo biscuits of the kind the undersigned was offered this morning at the parish clerk’s, specially manufactured in Poland for the Icelanders. Concerning this foodstuff I refer to Tumi Jonsen the parish clerk. In itself it is no small compliment to the morals of a nation to point out that when it had become wealthy and no longer knew how rich it was, it did not copy the example of other prosperous nations by eating many kinds of steaks and pates on weekdays and spiced peacock on Sundays, washed down with piment and claret; instead, Prince Polo biscuits were all that the nation indulged in as a sweetener after the centuries of black pudding and whale meat.”

Laxness’ commentary is particularly amusing in light of the fact that Prince Polo biscuits remain popular enough that an Icelandic commentator recently joked on the contemporary tourism website ( ) that “coke and Prince Polo is the national dish of Iceland.” Concerning “spiced peacock on Sundays,” Alan Davidson notes in The Penguin Companion to Food that peacock was once regarded as essential banquet fare (Cicero commented in the first century BC that it was “daring” to host a peacockless banquet), but despite its historical popularity, peacock seems to have been tough and not particularly good to eat. Instead, the bird’s continuing popularity for 1,600 years seems to have been due to presentation; Davidson notes:

“It is true that there were occasions when peacocks made a wonderful display on the table, feathers fully fanned out, bodies gilded with real gold leaf, flames spitting from their mouths, a sight that would impress anyone.”

Eventually, peacock appears to have been replaced by turkey as the banquet fowl of choice, rarely appearing on menus after the 17th century.

The ironic writing style evident in Under the Glacier is reminiscent of skaz, described by Jeremy Hicks in the introduction of his translation of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s The Galosh as, “the use of an unsophisticated but highly colorful language put into the mouths of characters who themselves typically tell the story.” The technique is clearly evident in the work of a number of Russian authors, including both Zoshchenko (who I will discuss in a later post) and the generally better-known Nikolay Gogol. Laxness’ technique is not exactly the same, but it comes close in some of Embi’s observations, such as the one quoted above about access to the church.

In her introduction to Magnusson’s translation of Under the Glacier, Susan Sontag notes that this novel is unlike any of Laxness’ others, offering it as the only novel she knows that encompasses all of the nine genres she lists, ranging from science fiction to philosophical novel to sexual turn-on. Overall, she offers the following summary:

“This is a novel of immense charm that flirts with being a spoof. It is a satire on religion, full of amusing New Age mumbo jumbo. It’s a book of ideas, like no other Laxness ever wrote.”

While I can’t claim Sontag’s literary breadth, I would have to add that Under the Glacier is a novel quite unlike any other I have ever read, by any author.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Rise of the Lowly Ramp

Every fall, the annual Punkin’ Chunkin’ festival takes place in Nassau, Delaware. A friend of mine once speculated that this event got its start as the result of a bunch of guys standing around saying things like, “Hold my beer and watch this.” Whatever its origins, the event is now attended by thousands, drawing participants from all over the U.S. The objective is to see how far you can throw a pumpkin, and the techniques used range from gigantic air cannon to medieval catapults and trebuchets (think of a three-story whirligig on giant wooden wheels, designed to chuck boulders over castle ramparts). The 2008 record was set by an air cannon that launched a pumpkin just over three quarters of a mile.

Every spring, ramp festivals take place, most commonly in West Virginia, but also in a number of other states, including Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The plant honored at these festivals – eaten, rather than thrown – is a pungent relative of onions, garlic and chives, growing in North American woodlands from Nova Scotia to Georgia and as far west as Iowa and Minnesota. Like Delaware’s Punkin’ Chunkin’ event, these festivals are pretty down-to-earth affairs, typically held in April or May during the peak of the ramp’s brief growing season. Once pretty much restricted to the cooking traditions of rural Appalachia, ramps have recently ascended to a place of culinary honor and are now actively sought by foodies from New York to San Francisco, bringing prices from $10 to $20 a pound. Like morels and fiddlehead ferns – both of which have about the same season as ramps – these formerly obscure “little stinkers” have also begun to appear on the menus of upscale restaurants. Last spring, my wife and I had an appetizer at a local restaurant consisting of ramps, morels, and fava beans served over fettuccine. It was fantastic.

The April, 2009 issue of Bon Appetit gives some general cooking advice for ramps, along with detailed recipes for ramp and buttermilk biscuits with cracked coriander, ramp and sausage risotto, scrambled eggs with morels, ramps and asparagus, and seared salmon with linguine and ramp pesto. The April, 2008 issue of the now tragically defunct Gourmet gives a recipe for ramp soup, while the April, 2000 issue tells how to prepare both roasted chicken with ramps and potatoes, and spaghetti with ramps, and the 1999 French Laundry Cookbook includes a recipe for fava bean agnolotti with curry emulsion that uses ramps. Also known as wild leeks, ramps are discussed in Elizabeth Schneider’s book, Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Common Sense Guide, where she offers the following advice: “Cook wild leeks in just about any way you would cultivated ones, but with discretion, as they are stronger.” She also notes that “although I am told that they are commonly consumed raw in ramp country, I would guess that their pungency would be too much for all but the most devoted.” In addition to these words of general advice, Schneider also gives recipes for wild leeks vinaigrette, shad stuffed with its roe and wild leeks, wild leek and seafood timbales with lime sabayon sauce, and a soup of wild leeks and potato with cheese toasts. Discovering ramps in our local Whole Foods grocery store last spring, my wife and I planned to try this last recipe for ourselves, but we made the unfortunate strategic mistake of not buying the ramps the day we saw them: by the time we checked the recipe and came back a few days later, they were all gone. This year, we were luckier: we grabbed the ramps as soon as we saw them and were able to try Schneider’s soup: it was delicious. We saved one ramp and I used it in the scrambled egg recipe at the end of this post.

Probably the best place to buy ramps is at a local farmer’s market or roadside produce stand, although they are sometimes available in grocery stores. As last year's Whole Foods experience emphasizes, however, it is important to grab them when you see them since their season is short and they have been “discovered” by a growing audience of those seeking new tastes. Ramps can also be ordered via the Internet (see, for example, Earthy Delights at ), but again, only during their short spring season.
Of course, to get the full ramp experience, there is no better way than to attend one of the local ramp festivals. One of the biggest is held in Cosby, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Begun in 1954 by the Cosby Ruritan Club of Cocke County, the ramp festival was undertaken as a publicity gimmick to increase tourism and it seems to have worked. The first year, the festival drew between 5,000 and 6,000 people, and the next year’s attendees included ex-President Harry Truman; in 1959, almost 30,000 people came, drawn in part by the presence of Tennessee Ernie Ford as a celebrity guest. The festival features lots of ramps, of course, along with country and bluegrass music, dancing, and a contest that selects and crowns a “Maid of the Ramps.” The Richwood Ramp Fest held in Richwood, West Virginia claims to be the oldest in the country, dating back to 1939. Their website ( ) features links to a lot of other websites, including those with places and dates for other ramp festivals and recipes from a vast array of sources (everything from cookbooks like Mom and Ramps Forever to Martha Stewart and Finally, a festival with one of the most unusual ranges of offerings is the Mason-Dixon Ramp Festival, held in Greene County, Pennsylvania, featuring ramp soup, ramp cheese, ramp kielbasa, and ramp wine.

These festivals have their European counterpart in the Calcotades held in the Catalan region of Northern Spain to celebrate calcots, a variety of scallion that is somewhat milder than an onion with an appearance something like a small leek. Their growing season is similar to that of ramps and they are traditionally roasted and served with grilled meats and a spicy dipping sauce. Like ramp festivals in the Southeastern U.S., these Calcotades are unique, local experiences.

Scrambled Eggs with Ramps, Ham, and Gruyere


1 large ramp
3 eggs
1 oz sliced ham
¼ cup grated Gruyere
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper

To prepare:

Rinse the ramp well, cut off the root, remove any wilted leaves, and chop into thin slices, including the bulb, stem, and leaves. Saute in olive oil with salt and pepper until soft.
Beat eggs and add to ramps, along with the ham, torn into small pieces. Stir mixture until almost done. Add Gruyere and continue stirring until cheese is melted and well blended. Serve immediately.

I served this dish with slices of a seeded wheat bread from my local Whole Foods that reminds me of the nut bread (nussbrot) I used to get in Switzerland. According to Dornenburg and Page (What to Drink with What You Eat, Bullfinch Press, New York, 2006), eggs and leeks (they don’t list ramps) go well with chardonnay, but their entry on eggs includes the warning, “avoid oak.” This was disappointing to me since my favorite chardonnay is Kendal Jackson’s, which my wine-friends regard as the standard for a “really oaky chardonnay.” Nevertheless, I went with Dornenburg and Page’s suggestion and paired the dish with a Hearldsburg Ranches Sonoma County “unoaked” 2007 chardonnay. Despite my personal affinity for oak, it proved to be an excellent choice.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Whisper of Nutmeg

I recently discovered a novel that seems to have been written especially for this blog: The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. The title refers to a cooking school that the central character, Lillian, conducts once a month, on Monday nights when her restaurant is closed. She and her school are the unifying elements that run through the novel, bringing together the lives of eight students. For the most part, these students are there in an effort to escape from, identify, or deal with troubling non-culinary issues in their lives. Each character - Lillian included - is given a chapter that essentially begins with them stewing in their own juices. As the novel progresses, they simmer and blend together, demonstrating that joys and sorrows - like spices - come in an infinite variety of flavors, no two alike.

While foods, culinary techniques, and vivid sensual descriptions are infused throughout the novel, recipes per se are not. For example, the following instructions are given for preparing stuffed turkey breast with rosemary, cranberries, and pancetta:
"Take ingredients on the prep table, chop as need be. Butterfly turkey and flavor inside and out. Make a package. Send it."
Antonia and Isabelle, the two students charged with preparing the dish decide "we can work with that," but they also decide that the dried cranberries they have been given "need something," so they soak them in sherry. The sherry proves highly effective in reviving both the dried cranberries and certain memories, but not necessarily good ones.

Very early in the novel, we learn that Lillian's father abandoned her and her mother when she was four years old. As a result, her mother "slid into books like a seal into water," leaving Lillian to learn, as early as she could, how to handle all forms of housework:
"But it was the cooking that occurred in her friends' homes that fascinated Lillian - the aromas that started calling to her just when she had to go home in the evening. Some smells were sharp, an olfactory clatter of heels across a hardwood floor. Others felt like the warmth in the air at the far end of summer."
As this passage illustrates, some of Bauermeister's sensory characterizations are superb, especially in her description of Lillian's childhood. Another example is young Lillian's description of avocado as, "wrinkled and grumpy on the outside, spring green within, creamy as ice cream when smashed into guacamole."

One of the things I particularly liked about The School of Essential Ingredients is its form. By giving each character a chapter presented from their own point of view, questions can be posed from one perspective, examined and debated in others, and finally answered in yet another. For example, early on the night of the first class, we see seven complete strangers through the eyes of Claire, a young mother wrestling with questions of just who she really is, beyond her roles as wife and mother. She scans the room forming initial impressions of the other seven, including "a beautiful woman with olive skin and eyes the color of melted chocolate" who turns out to be Antonia, while next to her, "almost hidden in the corner of the room, sat a man whose sadness seemed to have been pressed into his shirt." The general question Claire's initial scan of the room poses - "who are these people?" - is refined into more specific questions as we move through the novel, which are answered in turn, sometimes quite surprisingly.

In one of their last classes, Lillian and her students prepare fondue, and the following description of the results seems an apt metaphor for the book overall:
"Helen prepared a bite and placed the fork inside her mouth, the sharpness of the Gruyere and Emmenthaler mingling with the slight bite of the dry white wine and melting together into something softer, gentler, meeting up with the steady hand of bread supporting the whole confection. Hiding, almost hidden, so she had to take a second bite to be sure, was the playful kiss of cherry kirsch and a whisper of nutmeg."

Monday, April 19, 2010

Feasting on Fiddleheads

Today’s post is more culinary than literary, but the original inspiration was literary. About 20 years ago, I read a mystery novel set somewhere in New England (Vermont?) that introduced me to fiddlehead ferns. A springtime delicacy that featured more prominently than clues in the woods of the novel, they seemed deliciously unusual and hopelessly out of reach. I was amazed and delighted beyond words when they appeared – very briefly – at a local grocery store a short time later. Not sure how to prepare them – the novel hadn’t gone into great detail about that – I sautéed them with garlic in butter and they were every bit as delicious as the novel had made them sound.

The following Christmas, Nancy and John DeCherney, authors of The Fiddlehead Cookbook, appeared at a local book signing. They were more amazed than I had been that I was actually able to find fiddlehead ferns locally. Their book is based on recipes from The Fiddlehead Restaurant and Bakery in Juneau, Alaska, where the ferns are readily available during their brief season in April and May. When they signed my copy of their book, they wrote, “Think asparagus, read Fiddlehead,” advice that I have followed as often as possible since then.

Much has changed in the intervening years. For one thing, there were no blogs back then, and for another, fiddlehead ferns have now been “discovered” by foodies everywhere and are, while not exactly common, much less rare than they were in those days, appearing on restaurant menus and in some grocery stores and regional markets like the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Their season is extremely brief, however, so you have to grab them while you can, a fact that motivates this post: I found fiddleheads yesterday at my local Whole Foods, and Earthy Delights just sent me an e-mail announcement that the little green morsels are now available on-line from them.

Delicious as they are sautéed in garlic and butter, there is a lot more you can do with them, and I have included a recipe at the end of this post, based in part on the ingredients pairings listed in The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg. Their fiddlehead fern entry notes that fiddleheads should always be cooked, either blanched, boiled, sautéed or steamed. (I just tasted one raw and found the flavor to be unpleasantly grassy.) In addition, they recommend about 40 compatible ingredients, putting wild mushrooms at the top of their list. Other recommended pairings include bacon, basil, cipollini onions, Parmesan cheese, pasta, and sweet butter. Having an excellent local Italian specialty store nearby, my recipe uses their pancetta instead of bacon and a pound of their fresh fettuccine.

The authors of The Flavor Bible have also written What to Drink with What You Eat, giving recommended food pairings with wines and other beverages. Although they don’t list fiddlehead ferns, they do give an extensive list of beverage pairings for asparagus. Remembering the DeCherney’s advice, I selected Page and Dorenburg’s most highly recommended asparagus wine, a dry Sauvignon Blanc, especially one from New Zeland. This seems a particularly appropriate choice in view of what Alan Davidson says in his entry on ferns in The Penguin Companion to Food, that “New Zealand is sometimes called `the land of ferns’.” When I prepared the recipe below for dinner last night, I paired it with a 2009 Mud House Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, based on a recommendation from my favorite local wine store.

Finally, before I give the recipe, I will close with a question. In the 20 or so years since I read the mystery novel that first introduced me to the joys of the fiddlehead fern, I have most regrettably lost both the book and its identity: does anyone out there know what it might have been?

Fettuccine with Fiddlehead Ferns and Fresh Mushrooms


1 lb. fresh fettuccine 2 tbs. unsalted butter
½ lb. fiddlehead ferns 2 tbs. olive oil
3 cipollini onions 2 tbs. fresh basil, chopped
4 oz. pancetta ½ tsp. coarse sea salt
2 oz. fresh mushrooms ¼ tsp. fresh black pepper
2 cloves garlic Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh grated

To prepare:

Rinse fiddlehead ferns well, trim off bottom ends, and steam for 5 minutes. Rinse under cold water and set aside.

Cut pancetta into small cubes and brown in a skillet over medium heat. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to paper towels to drain.

Chop cipollini onions and garlic. Pour off all but 1 tbs. fat from the pancetta, add butter and olive oil, and sauté onions until translucent. Add garlic, fiddlehead ferns, and mushrooms and sauté two minutes. Add pancetta and keep warm over low heat until the pasta is done.

Cook fettuccine in a pot of salted water with a small amount of olive oil until al dente. Drain and put back into the pot. Toss with ingredients from skillet, basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Serve immediately.