Sunday, November 13, 2011

Margaret Wittenberg’s New Good Food

I recently received a copy of New Good Food by Margaret Wittenberg as a gift, a book that I have admired for some time now, thumbing through display copies when the chance presented itself. As she notes in the book’s introduction, the author is a vice president of Whole Foods Market, so it is not surprising that I discovered it at our local Whole Foods, or that the store carries many of the less common food items she discusses. She begins the book by describing herself as “an intuitive cook” who can visualize how different ingredients play together in terms of flavor, texture, and presentation. She goes on to say (on page ix):

“Although some of my knack is likely innate, much of it I developed through experience, by cooking, observing, listening, and reading.”

The intent of her book is clear: to share this information with others, focusing on a wide range of ingredients that may be very traditional, but not all in the same culture. In just under 300 pages, this book is organized into 13 un-numbered chapters, with the following titles:

• Fruits and Vegetables

• Grains

• Whole Grain and Specialty Flours

• Breads

• Pasta and Noodles

• Beans, Peas, and Lentils

• Nuts and Seeds

• Culinary Oils

• Meat, Poultry, and Eggs

• Dairy Products

• Seafood

• Essential Seasonings

• Sweeteners

Each chapter begins with some general discussion of the topic at hand (for example, the Grains chapter includes a discussion of how much whole grain to prepare: 1 cup of uncooked grain is said to typically feed 2 to 4 people) and most of the chapters conclude with an “Exploring” section that gives brief descriptions of a wide range of ingredient varieties. For example, the section on “Exploring Pasta and Noodles” covers both the familiar, like Italian-style dried pasta, and the more exotic, like pastas made from Jerusalem artichokes, quinoa, and spelt. These descriptions range from a couple of sentences to about half a page. One of the really intriguing short descriptions is that of lotus root soba, a Japanese noodle that is characterized as having “a delicious nutty flavor and aroma similar to that of freshly cooked lotus root.”

One of the most interesting chapters is the penultimate one on “Essential Seasonings,” whose title left me expecting a discussion of spices. While the chapter does begin with four pages on salt, this is not followed by discussions of other “standard” flavoring ingredients like pepper, nutmeg, or tarragon, but instead goes into reasonably detailed treatments of miso, tamari and shoyu, umeboshi plums, and a variety of sea vegetables, including Irish moss, kombu, and sea beans. Besides describing these unusual edibles, the book gives brief but useful cooking instructions. To cook sea lettuce, for example, the book notes that “it’s best to combine it with other ingredients to minimize its slightly bitter taste.” Some of what I regard as more standard “seasoning ingredients” are discussed in the book, but mostly in the earlier chapter on “Fruits and Vegetables,” which devotes about a page and a half to fresh herbs and about four and a half pages to peppers, including tables describing both fresh and dried peppers.

In general, I like this book a lot, in part because of the range of unusual new (to me) foods it describes, including everything from lotus root (which I have seen but haven’t yet had the opportunity to taste) to edible flowers (nasturtiums are described as “sweet, mustardlike”), from teff (a gluten-free whole grain with extremely small seeds) to Tongues of Fire (an Italian bean, said to be a good addition to pasta dishes and soups), from birch syrup (really, from birch trees) to broccoflower (a cross between broccoli and cauliflower; I’m familiar with this one from when I lived in Switzerland: it’s delicious). Just reading through the descriptions makes me hungry and most curious. For example, the umeboshi plums I mentioned above are “made from sour, unripe fruits of the ume tree, which is native to China.” The description (on page 231) goes on to say that these fruits are closer to apricots than to plums (pluots, anyone?) and that their preparation is fairly intricate: they are pickled in sea salt for about a month, dried in the sun, other ingredients are added (dark red shiso leaves), they continue to soak, then they are finally aged in barrels for about a year. In addition, the brine from the plums is sold as umeboshi vinegar to be used as a condiment. Somehow, I have to find these things and try them.

The one potential shortcoming of the book – and this isn’t really a fault of the book, but just part of the challenge of exploring new tastes – is that my favorite flavor pairing book, The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg doesn’t have anything to say about a lot of the intriguing ingredients in New Good Food. In some cases, there are enough “near matches” that this isn’t a problem: while The Flavor Bible doesn’t have an entry for “broccoflower,” it does list both “broccoli” and “cauliflower,” so it shouldn’t be too difficult to look for compatible ingredients common to both lists and try them (for example, cheese is highly recommended for both, especially cheddar, Parmesan or goat cheese, as are unsalted butter, garlic, and lemon juice). The more challenging cases are things like sea beans and umeboshi plums, although a careful reading of both books does come to the rescue here. Specifically, in her chapter on “Essential Seasonings,” one reason that Wittenberg includes so many unexpected (to me, at least) “non-spice” flavorings is that she begins the chapter with a discussion of umami. This “fifth flavor” – in addition to the “standard four” many of us learned in school: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter – is commonly associated with things like mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, and cured ham. To this list, Wittenberg adds “sea vegetables, soy sauce, and miso,” and her chapter emphasizes “umami flavoring ingredients.” This provides the needed link to The Flavor Bible, which has an entry on “umami” (page 355), listing everything from anchovies to walnuts, including some of my favorite flavors of all time: aged Gruyere, clams, Asian fish sauce, lobster, oysters, pork, potatoes, sardines, meat-based sauces, dry-aged, grilled steaks, and truffles. (Now, I have definitely got to find some umeboshi plums to try …).

Finally, it is important to note that, while the flavor pairings are less extensive than those given in The Flavor Bible, Wittenberg’s book does include recommended pairings in many of her descriptions. For example, in her description of the gluten-free grain Job’s Tears, Wittenberg recommends ginger, parsley, onions and chives as flavor enhancers. Similarly, it’s good to know that Jacob’s Cattle Beans make “the basis for a simple salad when combined with fresh herbs and a splash of olive oil.” Hmm,…how about rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), the fresh herb described on page 17 as having a “spicy taste and aroma similar to those of lemon and coriander”?

It is clear that this is going to be a fun manuscript to munch my way through.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Brazilian eggplant ratatouille

Recently, a local farm stand had Brazilian eggplants. These were a completely new discovery for me, so much so that I had absolutely no idea what they were when I first saw them. As the photograph below illustrates, they are a beautiful red vegetable, not much larger than an egg (at first, I thought they were some kind of pepper). Someone at the farm stand who was familiar with them told me that they were milder than regular eggplants, and they worked very well in ratatouille.

None of my hardcopy culinary references had anything to say about Brazilian eggplants, and a brief Internet search didn’t really turn up a lot, either, although one “near miss” actually worked out extremely well. This was the recipe for “eggplant and tomato salad” described in Rea Frey's blog Clean Convenient Cuisine.  Her January 14, 2011 post describes the Brazilian-themed Texas de Brazil restaurant chain that grew out of a restaurant in Brazil, formed a U.S. partnership in Dallas, and now has a number of other U.S. locations, including one in Chicago. The post gives a recipe that calls for one large regular eggplant, but we prepared a variation using five Brazilian eggplants instead. We also added some shallots and modified the spices slighlty, replacing the regular paprika in the original recipe with Szeged Hungarian hot paprika. I call the end result ratatouille here because it seems consistent with the definition of this classic French dish given in Sharon Tyler Herbst's Food Lover's Companion:

“A popular dish from the French region of Provence that combines eggplant, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, zucchini, garlic and herbs – all simmered in olive oil.”

She also notes that “the vegetables can vary according to the cook,” and this recipe does that, basically omitting the zucchini and bell peppers. The result was delicious and provided an excellent accompaniment to a three-egg omelet made with Irish bacon, sautéed baby bok choy, and grated Fontina cheese. We served it with a Smoking Loon Chardonnay and it made a fabulous dinner.


- 5 Brazilian eggplants (approximately one pound in total)

- 1 15 ounce can whole tomatoes

- 1 large shallot, chopped

- 4 garlic cloves, chopped

- 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped

- 1 tablespoon Hungarian hot paprika

- 1 tablespoon ground cumin

- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

- kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste


- Cut the Brazilian eggplants into cubes, about one inch, and let it rest in a colander for 30 minutes (this is a suggestion given in Rea Frey's post, from Evandro Caregnato, Culinary Director of Texas de Brazil, who notes that it improves the taste of the dish by eliminating some of the eggplant's bitter liquids).

- Heat the olive oil in a large pan and cook the shallots until they are translucent. Then add the garlic and cook until it is soft.

- Chop the whole tomatoes in large pieces and mix them, along with their liquid, into the pan with the shallots and garlic. Add the eggplant cubes, cilantro, Hungarian paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, ground black pepper and kosher salt.

- Cover and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, until the eggplant is soft, checking periodically and adding water if necessary to keep the vegetables from burning.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Discovering callaloo

Recently, callaloo appeared at our local Whole Foods Market: a leafy green, similar in appearance to Swiss chard, the name alone seemed reason enough to try it. So, we bought a bunch, washed it, removed the thick stalks, tore the leaves into small pieces, and sautéed them in olive oil and garlic. Instantly, they became my wife’s favorite green of all time, and I would have to agree that they were about the best greens I have ever tasted.

Wanting to know more about this newly discovered culinary treasure, I turned first to my two favorite sources of information about unusual edibles. According to Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover's Companion, The (Barron's Cooking Guide) 3rd Edition, the term callaloo refers to either “the large, edible green leaves of the taro root,” or to “a Caribbean soup made with callaloo greens,” along with a bunch of other ingredients. She also notes that callaloo greens are “popular in the Caribbean islands cooked as one would prepare turnip or collard greens.” In The Penguin Companion to Food, Alan Davidson suggests that the term callaloo applies to a wider range of greens, including in addition to taro, the leaves of various species of malanga, amaranth, and pokeweed, among others.

In The Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz gives five different recipes for the soup, with three different spellings depending on where it originates: three different recipes for Le Calalou from Gaudaloupe, Martinique, and Haiti; one for Callau from St. Lucia; and finally one for Callaloo from Trinidad. All of these recipes call for their namesake green, along with about ten or so other ingredients, and they all sound delicious to me. Unfortunately, the one other ingredient that all five of these recipes have in common is okra, which my wife absolutely detests. So, it is unlikely that we will be trying the soup any time in the near future.

Because callaloo isn’t commonly available, Ortiz recommends Swiss chard, fresh spinach, or Chinese spinach as possible substitutes. Of course, if callaloo is available, we can reverse her recommendations and substitute callaloo for these other greens. This is essentially what we did the first time we cooked it, finding the sautéed callaloo described at the beginning of this post an excellent accompaniment to grilled salmon. Also, although she doesn’t mention callaloo, Aliza Green has a chapter on “Greens for Cooking” in her book, Starting with Ingredients, where she offers the following points of advice. First, she notes that greens are typically fairly strongly flavored, motivating two common cooking techniques: first, slow cooking is popular both to tenderize them and to mellow out their flavor, and second, they are often paired with garlic, hot peppers, vinegar, or smoked meats that stand up well and balance out their flavor. With callaloo, we found that garlic, salt and pepper worked extremely well, but I am salivating over the thought of adding red pepper flakes and/or a nice smoky bacon. Aliza Green also notes that when cooking with greens – including spinach, which she covers in a whole separate chapter of her book – “a lot goes but a little way:” these greens tend to cook down a lot, so it is important to start with what may look like a much larger bunch than you need. In their book, The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg don’t mention callaloo, either, but they do devote the better part of two pages to greens, both in general and specific types like collard greens and turnip greens. Their highest recommendations for pairing go to garlic, olive oil, and various kinds of cheese (especially grated Asiago, Jack, or Parmesan), but they also give bacon and other smoked meats consistently high marks.

Finally, when it comes to pairing greens with wine, Dornenburg and Page’s other book, What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea - Even Water - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers consistently recommends in favor of white wines – especially Sauvignon Blanc – and against reds. Since they also recommend Sauvignon Blanc with garlic and seafood (especially poached or lightly grilled), that’s what we served the night we had our sautéed callaloo with grilled salmon.  It made for one of those meals that linger pleasantly on the tastebuds but, sadly, don't leave anything behind to munch on later.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Brunch in Brooklyn

Last weekend, my wife and I got a spur of the moment invitation from her daughter and son-in-law to join a group visiting one of her friends in Brooklyn. So, we drove over for brunch. It was a beautiful day and neither one of us had ever been there before, so it was kind of an adventure.

Brunch was at the Clover Club and it was well worth the excursion. Our friend from Brooklyn particularly recommended the potato cakes with truffle crème fraiche, and they were almost worth the drive by themselves. The Clover Club also featured a three bacon sampler, ideal for those who can't make up their mind or just want to try a bit of it all: the ensemble included maple, black pepper, and duck bacon.  I think my favorite was the black pepper bacon, but I would happily have any or all of them again.  My wife loves rhubarb and grows it in the back yard, so she got the ricotta pancakes with vanilla poached rhubarb and strawberry curd, which were as good as they sound. She also makes a really great lemon curd - our neighbor requests it regularly - but strawberry curd was an entirely new concept to me.  A quick check of the curd entry in Food Lover's Companion, The (Barron's Cooking Guide) 3rd Edition reveals the usual suspects - lemon, lime and orange curd - but no strawberry.  (This expansion of the known curd universe does get me thinking, though: I bet kumquat curd would be fabulous.)  I had the baked eggs with chorizo and manchego, which were also really delicious, but when the meals were delivered, I was accidentally given the baked eggs with truffles and leeks that one of the other members of our gathering had ordered. Good as mine was – and it was – I did find myself wishing I had ordered what was originally set in front of me: the truffle smell alone had me drooling all the way home afterwards, and it was enough for me to encourage my wife to put truffle salt on the French fries she made the following night to go with dinner. But probably the best dish of the day was the pork ‘n grits that one of the other members of our group ordered: it included cheddar grits, shallots, a sunnyside-up egg, and sourdough toast. All in all, it was a great day, described somewhat more eloquently by our friend Karen in her blog The Bikini Wax Chronicles (see the July 19th post).

After brunch, we went across the street to Stinky Bklyn, a really fabulous little store that features a beer-of-the-month club, sweets and sandwiches, a tremendous assortment of cheeses (including some great stinky ones, of course), sausages of various descriptions, and a lot of other things. Their on-line shopping guide includes 67 cheeses, ranging from abbaye de belloc, a French sheep’s milk cheese, to zamorano, a sheep’s milk cheese from Spain (to avert the risk of allowing two points to determine a line here, I should note that they also have cheeses made from cow’s milk or goat’s milk, along with some combination-based varieties like the Italian toma della rocca, made from all three).  The shopping guide also list somewhat more limited assortments of meats, chocolates, oils and vinegars, mustards, and pickles.  To help understand the similarities and differences between the vast array of cheeses that shops like Stinky Bklyn carry, their website provides a simple breakdown into five basic types. I won’t try to repeat the whole thing here, but I offer the following tidbits to give an idea of both their classification scheme and their entertaining writing style:

Type 1 – “uncomplicated little fellows,” these are fairly young, soft cheeses like Brie, triple creams, and Robiolas

Type 2 – aged longer (6 – 12 months), firmer cheeses like pecorino or manchego

Type 3 – “complex recipe cheeses,” usually at least 1 year old, includes both Gouda and Gruyere

Type 4 – “Stinky cheese! O the sublime washed rind.” This group includes things like Taleggio, and the description notes that “if it smells and has a bright orange crust, chances are you’ve got one of these guys”

Type 5 – blue cheeses like Roquefort and Stilton.

We loved roaming around in the Stinky Bklyn store and we could have easily spent hours there, rummaging among the goodies.  But we had limited time, so in the end we only brought back two culinary treasures. The first one was Red Meck, a raw cow’s milk cheese from Mecklenberg, NY, with the following description on its label: “Gouda or gruyere? Why not both?”, which would seem to put it squarely into the Type 3 class defined above. However you classify it, the stuff is delicious and I wish we had bought more. Our other find was biellese saucisson basque, a superb salami, sliced very thinly, that leaves a most pleasant burning sensation at the back of the throat after you eat a slice. It reminds me a bit of the hottest salami I have ever had, a great find at the indoor market in Tampere, Finland when I was living there.  It was imported from Italy, absolutely firey, and I have never been able to find it anywhere else.  The Stinky Bklyn salami that we did find is great on sandwiches or in omelets, and again, it is clear in retrospect that we didn’t bring back enough. Sadly, neither of these particular delicacies is listed on their website.

I guess it means we will have to arrange another brunch.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Balti spiced chicken with fennel and forbidden rice

Intrigued by the name and description, I recently bought a small jar of Balti Seasoning from Penzeys. According to Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food, the term “Balti” refers to both the native cuisine of Baltistan, a region in the far northeast of Pakistan, and a wok-style pan used extensively in the preparation of Balti cuisine. I bought a jar of the spice both because it was something new and different that I had never heard of before, and because it smelled delicious. A quick Internet search suggests that many people have been intrigued by the spice’s magnificent aroma, but – like me – didn’t really know what to do with it (see, for example, "Looking for recipes for Penzeys Balti Seasoning").  One intriguing entry is that from Grace (“Unhelpful bile spewer”), who says, in part:

“I LOVE Indian food, and my absolute favorite dish is Matter Paneer (Peas and Cheese). When I smelled the Balti seasoning at Penzey’s, it smelled just like this dish to me so I had to buy it.”

She goes on to say that she can’t find a recipe for the dish that uses Balti Seasoning, and that she would really like any recipe that uses the spice. Like Grace, I don’t have a recipe, but my wife and I recently made one up that we thought turned out very well, so I have included it at the end of this post.

The seasoning mix itself is described on the Penzeys website, which lists the 18 ingredients that make up the blend. Among other things, this mix includes garlic and fennel, cumin and coriander, cardamom and clove, cilantro, star anise, and charnushka. I’m afraid I wasn’t familiar with this last ingredient, either, but Penzeys also sells this separately, and their catalog entry has this to say about it:

“Tiny, black, smoky flavored seeds found atop Jewish rye bread in New York. Used in Armenia, Lebanon, Israel, and India. Also referred to as black caraway or kalonji, charnushka is used heavily in garam masala.”

Since the Balti Seasoning mix includes both garlic and fennel – and we really like both of these ingredients – it seemed natural to include them in the chicken dish. We made it in a crock pot since we were both busy that day, and that allowed the flavors to blend together quite nicely. We served it with “forbidden rice,” the Chinese black rice that we had seen many times, but had never actually tried – it was a spectacular choice. In Ruth Reichel’s Gourmet Today: More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen, she gives a recipe for “Black Rice with Scallions and Sweet Potatoes” (page 260), where she notes that, “The stunning color of this rice comes from the layers of black bran surrounding the white kernel.”

We also added one more “secret ingredient” to the dish: mushroom powder. This is something we were introduced to at the fabulous mushroom stand at the Saturday morning market in Oerlikon, Switzerland when we lived there.  You never knew what you would find there.  Our standard order was “ein hundert gramm gemischte” - about a quarter of a pound of assorted mushrooms - that might include every color of the rainbow and just about every strange shape you could think of.  One day, the mushroom guy introduced us to mushroom powder, which we came to love as a flavoring ingredient.  For a long time after we returned to the U.S., we couldn't find mushroom powder anywhere, until we took a culinary excursion to New York and discovered Kalustyan's.  They carry an amazing range of edibles, including mushroom powder, which is available on-line (just follow the links from their main page to “Mushrooms” and look down the list for “Mushroom Blend Powder”).   According to The Ultimate Mushroom Book A Complete Guide to Identifying, Picking and Using Mushrooms--A Photographic A-Z of Types and 100 Original Recipes, by Peter Jordan and Steven Wheeler, mushroom powder is made from finely ground dried mushrooms that can be used in soups, stews, and curries, but should be used sparingly.  We used a bit of it in the recipe below to bring out the flavor of the fresh mushrooms.  To serve, we paired the dish with a Pinot Grigio, which Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page recommend in their book, What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea - Even Water - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers with chicken (highly recommended), garlic, fennel, and tomatoes, all of which we had included in our recipe.


2 chicken breasts (i.e., 4 halves)

1 large fennel bulb

1 large leek

4 tomatoes, quartered

1 cup forbidden (black) rice

4 cups chicken stock (2 cups for the rice, 2 cups in the crockpot)

½ pound fresh baby bella mushrooms, sliced

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon Penzeys Balti Seasoning (¼ teaspoon to sauté chicken, ¼ teaspoon for the crockpot)

¼ teaspoon mushroom powder ( 1/8 teaspoon to sauté chicken, 1/8 teaspoon for the crockpot)

salt and pepper, to taste


1. Wash and pat dry the chicken breasts and sprinkle with salt, pepper, ¼ teaspoon Balti Seasoning, and 1/8 teaspoon mushroom powder.  Sauté 3 minutes per side.

2. Put the chicken breasts in the bottom of the crockpot.  Roughly chop the fennel, wash and chop the leek, and add to the crockpot, along with the mushrooms and the tomatoes.  Add 2 cups of chicken stock and the minced garlic.  Sprinkle with the remaining ¼ teaspoon Balti Seasoning and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon mushroom powder, cover the crockpot and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, stirring the ingredients once or twice near the end of the cooking time.

3. During the last 40 minutes of the cooking time, melt the butter in a sauce pan, add the rice and sauté for a few minutes. Add the remaining 2 cups of chicken stock, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Art of Internal Rhyme

Traditional poetic forms like the sonnet are defined in part by a rhyme scheme that specifies a required sequence of end rhymes. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is a 14-line poem in which the first 12 lines rhyme in alternating pairs and the last two lines rhyme with each other. Symbolically, we can write this rhyme scheme as:

abab cdcd efef gg

Of course, there is a great deal more to a sonnet than this rhyme scheme, but without question, the characteristic pattern of end rhymes is one of the features that makes the sonnet easy to identify. The subject of this post is the more complicated – and often, more subtle – notion of internal rhyme.

In its entry on the topic, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics notes that the terminology of internal rhyme is not standardized, so they describe two variations of each of two basic types. The first type involves a word at the end of a line, rhyming either with (a) one or more words in the same line, or (b) one or more words in another line, while the second type involves only internal words, again rhyming either with (a) other words on the same line, or (b) words in the middle of other lines. As this definition suggests, internal rhyme is an extremely flexible concept. In The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Lewis Turco discusses many different types of rhyme, and he uses the term cross rhyme to denote variation (b) of the first type of internal rhyme described above: the end of one line rhymes with a word in the middle of another line. He also uses the term interlaced rhyme to refer to variation (b) of the second type of internal rhyme defined above – i.e., words or syllables in the middle of one line rhyming with words or syllables in the middle of another line – and he uses the term linked rhyme to denote a rhyme between the end of one line and the beginning of the next, an idea illustrated below in connection with Dylan Thomas’ famous villanelle. For the purposes of discussion here, I will use the term “internal rhyme” to refer to any rhyme between an internal syllable or group of syllables, either with words or syllables at the end of the same line, or those in another line, most commonly at the end of that other line. Where I want to be explicit that the rhyme involves two different lines, I will use the term “cross rhyme.”

In his book, Lewis Turco discusses about a dozen different poetic forms that include internal rhymes as part of their definition, generally involving cross rhymes. Most of these forms are either Welsh or Irish, and many of the resulting rhyme schemes are rather complicated. One of the simpler examples is the awdl gywydd, consisting of four seven-syllable lines organized as follows:

1 – x x x x x x a

2 – x x (a) (a) (a) x b

3 – x x x x x x c

4 – x x (c) (c) (c) x b

Here, each letter denotes a syllable and those marked x can be anything we like, but those marked a, b, or c represent rhymes. Also, the letters in parentheses in the second and fourth line mean that one of these syllables must exhibit the indicated rhyme. Specifically, “a” in the above scheme denotes the end rhyme for the first line, which must be a cross rhyme with the third, fourth, or fifth syllable of the second line. Similarly, the final syllable of the third line must be a cross rhyme with the third, fourth, or fifth syllable of the fourth line. As a specific illustration, I have composed the following awdl gywydd:

The Bliss of Ignorance

Who would remember that day

when certainty fades, and youth

slips so suddenly from us,

a foretaste of dust’s black truth?

Here, day at the end of line 1 rhymes with fades, the fifth syllable of line 2, while youth at the end of line 2 rhymes with truth at the end of line 4, and us at the end of line 3 rhymes with dust’s, the fifth syllable of line 4.

Another poetic form that incorporates internal rhyme in its definition is the Persian ghazal. Ironically enough, this is a form that Turco does not include in his book, but it is included in Dede Wilson’s collection One Nightstand that I discussed in a previous post (a really fabulous little book that I recommend highly – published in 2001 by and still available from Main Street Rag). This form consists of any number of couplets, with the following requirements: first, both lines of the first couplet and the second line of all succeeding couplets must end with the same word or phrase, known as the radif, and second, preceding each radif is an internal rhyme called the qafia. The following example provides an illustration:

                                Rejection Letter No. 12,768

“Dear contributor,” it read, “your poems do not meet our current needs.”

I stared in disbelief: surely, my stuff exceeded any “current needs.”

Refusing to weep or gnash my teeth, I threw it on the pile with the other

letters alleging my failure to foresee a vast array of current needs.

Rereading their magazine later, I wondered why I had bothered:

based on what they accepted, I couldn’t believe what met their current needs.

A few days after that, when the sting had abated a bit,

I sent another group of doodles: surely these would meet and exceed all current needs.

Here, “current needs” represents the radif, repeated at the end of both lines of the first couplet and at the second line of each succeeding couplet, while the qafia is the internal rhyme between meet in the first line, exceeded in the second, foresee at the end of the second couplet, believe at the end of the third, and meet and exceed at the end of the fourth. A more detailed discussion of the ghazal with additional examples is given by Agha Shahid Ali in An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, edited by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes, which includes Ali’s chapter on the ghazal, together with discussions of an enormous range of other poetic topics, from sonnets and haiku to rap and fractals.

Standard advice given to poets, musicians, and other creative artists down through the centuries is to “study the masters.” As advice, this is difficult to argue with, but it does immediately raise a crucial question: who exactly are the masters we should be studying? The answer to this question can be the subject of considerable debate.

Some years ago, I attended a poetry workshop taught by a well-known contemporary poet. One of the other students asked a question and in the course of the discussion, mentioned Edgar Allen Poe. The instructor’s response was immediate and vehemently dismissive: “Poe?? He was a terrible poet!” While Poe may not be everyone’s cup of tea, if you are interested in internal rhyme, it is worth studying at least some of his poetry because he used the idea so extensively. This is clear from the opening line of “The Raven,” probably his most famous poem:

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,”

Poe’s use of rhyme is not subtle, either in his end-rhymes or in his internal rhymes, but it is precisely because his rhymes are not subtle that he represents a good place to begin in exploring the concept. In particular, the internal rhyme between “dreary” and “weary” is the most obvious illustration, but his repetition of the accented syllable “pon” in both “upon” and “pondered” may also be viewed as an internal rhyme. In addition, note that the effect of the alliteration in “weak and weary” is to further emphasize the internal rhyme in the line. The first two lines of the second stanza include both the internal rhyme between “remember” and “December” and a cross-rhyme with “ember” in the second line:

“Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.”

All in all, a careful reading of “The Raven” reveals a lot of internal rhyme, both within and between lines.

A more subtle master of internal rhyme was Dylan Thomas. His poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” is often cited as one of the best English-language villanelles ever written. What is perhaps less widely recognized is Thomas’ mastery of internal rhyme. For example, the opening stanza of his villanelle consists of the following three lines:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Note the internal rhymes between “age,” “rave,” and “day” in the second line, which extends to a cross-rhyme with “Rage, rage” at the beginning of the third line (a nice illustration of the notion of linked rhyme discussed by Lewis Turco). Similarly, note the very clear internal rhyme between “dying” and “light” in the third line, together with more subtle slant rhymes in the first line, between “do,” “go,” and “good.”

An even more subtle example of Thomas’ mastery of internal rhyme is his poem, “The Conversation of Prayer”, which begins with the following five lines:

The conversation of prayers about to be said

By the child going to bed and the man on the stairs

Who climbs to his dying love in her high room,

The one not caring to whom in his sleep he will move

And the other full of tears that she will be dead,

This poem is described by Harvey Gross and Robert McDowell in their book Sound and Form in Modern Poetry: Second Edition (Ann Arbor Paperbacks), who point out its scheme of interlocking cross-rhymes. Taking their lead, I have highlighted the words involved in these cross-rhymes: prayers in the middle of line 1 rhymes with stairs at the end of line 2 and forms a slant rhyme with tears at the middle of line 5; said at the end of line 1 rhymes with bed in the middle of line 2 and dead at the end of line 5; love in the middle of line 3 is a slant rhyme with move at the end of line 4; and room at the end of line 3 rhymes with whom in the middle of line 4. In fact, Thomas maintains this interlocking cross-rhyme scheme through all four stanzas of the poem.

One of the things I particularly like about internal rhyme is its extremely broad applicability. Not only is it inherent in the definition of intricate poetic forms like the awdl gywydd and the ghazal from very different cultures, but it can also be incorporated into other classical forms like the examples by Poe and Thomas discussed above, or even into free-verse poetry. Examples abound: as one, William Carlos Williams’ 1938 poem, “A Sort of a Song,” begins with the line, “Let the snake wait under,” which illustrates the subtlest of the four types of internal rhyme discussed in the Princeton Encyclopedia’s entry on the topic. In fact, internal rhyme can be very effectively used in prose poems, which aren’t even organized into lines. For example, in my post last year on Kate Lebo's chapbook, A Commonplace Book of Pie, I cited the following quote from her “Lemon Meringue” poem to illustrate how alliteration, assonance, and consonance can be used effectively in a prose poem:

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

Here, “hollowed” and “hallowed” form a slant rhyme strengthened by alliteration, followed fairly rapidly by the subsequent slant rhyme of “bistro” with “people,” strengthened by what may be regarded as a “slant alliteration” between “b” and “p”.

One of my favorite internal rhyme-based forms is the Welsh clogyrnach, described by Lewis Turco in The New Book of Forms. This type of poem can be defined in a couple of different ways: the simpler definition requires six lines with varying syllable counts (specifically, 8-8-5-5-3-3) and a specified arrangement of end rhymes. As Turco notes, an alternative version of this form combines the last two lines into a single six-syllable line, which I find more interesting because it is then based on cross rhymes, with the following scheme:

1 – x x x x x x x a

2 – x x x x x x x a

3 – x x x x b

4 – x x x x b

5 – x x b x x a

Like the quatern form discussed in Dede Wilson’s One Nightstand, I am particularly fond of the clogyrnach because I have actually been able to get one of them published. The following example appeared in 2007 in issue 21 of Ibbetson Street:


We walk in silence down the road

all together, but each alone.

Borne with muffled drums

and twenty-one guns,

day is done. He is home.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Yakitori chicken with fiddlehead ferns and ramps

A number of years ago, I had an opportunity to go to Japan, where I was introduced to the delights of yakitori chicken. It was one of my last nights there, and my host and I spent about three hours sitting in a small place munching on various chicken parts prepared yakitori style and drinking really delicious, crisp Japanese beer. Sometime after that, my wife and I stumbled on a yakitori chicken kit in a kitchen store in Cape May, New Jersey, so when the weather starts to get warm enough for outdoor grilling to be fun, our thoughts turn fairly soon to yakitori chicken (in moments of desperation, we have brushed the snow off and grilled in the depths of winter, but that’s a rather different experience).

One of the other directions our thoughts turn in spring is to what Earthy Delights Earthy Delights calls “the Grand Trio of Spring:” fiddlehead ferns, ramps, and morels. Our primary local purveyor of fresh spring delectables is Whole Foods Market, and they currently have two of these on offer: fiddlehead ferns and ramps. Since our recipe for yakitori chicken uses asparagus and spring onions, it was an obvious leap to combine two favorites, leading us to the recipe for yakitori chicken with fiddlehead ferns and ramps given at the end of this post. That is, since fiddlehead ferns are somewhat asparaguslike and ramps – or “baby leeks” or “wild leeks” as they are also sometimes called – are like a really strong spring onion, the substitutions are too intriguing not to try.

Besides chicken and our two vegetable substitutions, the primary ingredient in yakitori chicken is mirin, sometimes also called “rice wine,” although in The Penguin Companion to Food, Alan Davidson begs to differ:

“Mirin, sometimes incorrectly described as a `rice wine’, is a spirit-based liquid sweetener of Japan, used only for cooking and especially in marinades and glazes and simmered dishes.”

Davidson also notes that mirin was once difficult to obtain in western countries, leading some to propose a sweet sherry as a substitute, but he characterizes this suggestion with the parenthetical comment “not a good idea, better just to use a little sugar syrup.” Fortunately, mirin is now fairly readily available, both locally and on-line (Amazon’s Grocery and Gourmet Food department carries several different brands, including the Eden Foods Mirin Rice Cooking Wine ( 1x10.5 OZ) that I used in preparing the recipe given here).

I have looked through a number of yakitori recipes, both in cookbooks and from the Internet, and the ingredients that seem to appear in all of them are chicken, mirin, soy sauce, sugar, and spring onions. From there, things seem to diverge quite a bit. For example, the yakitori recipe included in Food of Asia (Journey for Food Lovers) calls for sake and kuzu starch rocks (a Japanese thickening agent), while the one given in The Complete Asian Cookbook doesn’t include either of these ingredients but does include crushed garlic and fresh ginger, as does the yakitori chicken recipe on page 31 of James Peterson's Cooking. When I had yakitori chicken in Japan, it was served on skewers, which is how both Peterson and The Food of Asia advocate preparing it, but The Complete Asian Cookbook serves it over rice, which is how we typically have it.

The original recipe that came with our yakitori grilling set uses chicken breasts, cut into 1 inch cubes, green onions, cut into 1 inch lengths, and asparagus, also cut into 1 inch lengths. In the recipe presented below, I have substituted ramps for the green onions (I cut them into somewhat smaller pieces because they are substantially stronger in flavor than green onions), and fiddlehead ferns for the asparagus (I don’t cut these up at all, beyond trimming off the ends as described in the recipe below). Our yakitori kit includes a grill pan which we use on our gas grill, but a workable alternative would be to prepare it in a wok.

My favorite food and beverage pairing book, What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea - Even Water - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers does not have an entry for yakitori chicken, but in their general entry on “Japanese cuisine,” the authors strongly recommend “beer, esp. Japanese and/or lager.” In addition to the fiddlehead ferns and ramps, our local Whole Foods Market also carries Hitachino Nest Beer Japanese Classic Ale, and that proved to go superbly well with the dish.

Finally, before giving the recipe, it is interesting to note that while neither of the Asian cookbooks mentioned above say anything about fiddlehead ferns, one of my other favorite Asian cookbooks, Culinaria Southeast Asia: A Journey Through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia (Cooking) gives a recipe for Anyang pakis, an Indonesian fiddlehead salad that pairs them with coconut, beansprouts, and shallots, together with a spice paste made from red chili peppers, ginger root, lemongrass, lime, sugar, and salt. It makes me wonder how that would be with ramps substituted for the shallots, but I digress. So now, for the recipe, which serves two:


- 1 chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces

- 1 small bunch of ramps, washed and trimmed and cut into ½ inch pieces

- ½ pound fiddlehead ferns, prepared as described below

- 1 ½ teaspoons peanut oil

- 1 ½ teaspoons sesame seeds

- ¼ cup soy sauce

- 1 tablespoon sugar

- 1 tablespoon mirin


1. Mix the peanut oil, sesame seeds, soy sauce, sugar, and mirin in a one quart sauce pan and bring to a boil. Cook until the liquid thickens (about 5 minutes) and let cool. Reserve a small amount of the sauce and marinate the chicken in the rest for at least an hour.

2. While the chicken is marinating, prepare the fiddlehead ferns as follows. First, wash thoroughly in a colander and trim away the ends. Blanch the ferns in boiling water for three minutes. Remove and immerse in ice water to stop the cooking. When cool, remove them and set aside.

3. Prepare enough rice for two people, starting it early enough that it is ready when the yakitori chicken is done.

4. Put the chicken in a grill pan on a medium-hot grill (or in a wok) and cook for two minutes. Add the ramps and fiddlehead ferns and continue to cook for about another 6 minutes. Then, brush with the reserved yakitori sauce and cook for one more minute.

5. Serve the yakitori chicken over rice, preferably with a nice Japanese beer.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sampling an unacquirable taste

A recent episode of Food Network’s Chopped featured the most challenging baskets of mandatory ingredients I have ever seen: the appetizer course had to include goat brains, the entre course had to feature fish heads, and the dessert basket included durian. Twice in the past, I have sampled durian – once in Thailand and once in Malaysia – in vain attempts to understand its considerable popular appeal in Asia. It is a large, spiky fruit – a single durian can weigh five pounds or more – with a notoriously horrible smell. It’s been called much worse, but the following characterization of the durian’s odor given in Culinaria Southeast Asia: A Journey Through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia (Cooking) is distressingly accurate:

“The stench of the durian has been described as a mixture of onion, strong cheese, rotten eggs, and rotting meat, all soaked in turpentine!”

In his book, Are You Really Going to Eat That?: Reflections of a Culinary Thrill Seeker, Rob Walsh describes his own attempt at eating durian. He was the guest of Thailand’s former deputy minister of finance, who was now in the business of raising a variety of durian called Golden Button, and Walsh’s hosts were encouraging him to eat up:

“Before me on a plate are several soft, yellow sacs of durian, the sweetest, creamiest fruit I have ever tasted. I have already eaten one of the soft, custardy segments, but the smell of rotten eggs is so overwhelming, I suppress a gag reaction as I take another bite of the second.”

Ultimately, the stench proves too much for Walsh, and he can’t finish the second section of durian.

In my own case, it wasn’t so much the smell I couldn’t get past – horrible as that was – but rather the bizarre flavor. Many accounts describe durian as “sweet and custardy” – just as Walsh does – but others have also noted the presence of additional flavor components that I really dislike in my custard. In Alan Davidson’s entry on durian in The Penguin Companion to Food, he quotes the following account of durian’s flavor, published in 1869 by Alfred Russel Wallace in his book Malay Archipelago :

“A rich butter-like custard highly flavored with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavor that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown-sherry, and other incongruities.”

It was these “other incongruities” that I couldn’t get past: I found the flavor to be dominated by two strong components, each one fine by itself but really unpalatable in combination: the promised rich, creamy custard flavor, plus an extremely strong onion flavor. Wrap the whole experience in an odor so bad that the durian is commonly banned from public transportation and hotel rooms in Asia despite its enormous popularity there, and you have one of the world’s truly acquired tastes.

I know: I’ve tried to acquire even a little bit of the taste twice, but have failed utterly both times.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ramps, morels, and the return of spring

Besides the promise of better weather, the three things I most look forward to with the coming of spring are ramps, morels, and fiddlehead ferns. This weekend, two of these three signs of spring – ramps and morels – both appeared at our local Whole Foods Market. Last year (May 6, 2010, "The Rise of the Lowly Ramp"), I did a post on ramps – also known as “wild leeks” – with a brief discussion of what they are like (think “very strong spring onion”), where to buy them (a good on-line source is Earthy Delights, which currently has both ramps and morels), and a brief discussion of ramp festivals. A quick Internet search on “ramp festivals” just now shows me that I am a bit late with my ramp post this year – sorry about that – because several of the large ramp festivals have already happened. But it’s not too late – the Richwooders website provides a lot of background information about ramps, along with a long list of ramp festivals, which continue from now through the second half of May.

Last year, I gave a recipe for scrambled eggs with ramps, ham, and gruyere, and my most recent post was about scrambled eggs with octopus, so it should be pretty clear that I really like scrambled eggs. It will come as no surprise, then, that I conclude this post with a recipe for scrambled eggs with ramps, morels, gruyere, and smoked salmon. The recipe features the same key ingredients – eggs, ramps, and smoked salmon – as the recipe for soft scrambled eggs with ramps and smoked salmon currently featured on the Earthy Delights website. The main differences are, first, that their recipe is for a French soft scrambled egg that is prepared using a double boiler, and second, that their recipe does not include either morels or gruyere. They do, however, strongly recommend accompanying their eggs with two tablespoons of steelhead or salmon caviar, something that sounds like it should also go great with the recipe given below, although I must admit I haven’t tried it.

In preparing the scrambled eggs described below, I only used one ramp because I didn’t want to overpower the other ingredients – these were small ramps and quite assertive in both flavor and odor – but I think I was too cautious, so the next time I make these eggs, I will increase the number of ramps to two, as I have suggested in the recipe below. As with the octopus omelet described last time, I served these eggs with a chunk of good bread and a nice white wine. (Specifically, an 80% chardonnay/20% torrontes blend from H.J. Fabre in Argentina.) Now, all I need is some fiddlehead ferns to go with it … maybe next week.

Scrambled eggs with ramps, morels, and smoked salmon


3 eggs

2 baby ramps, both the white and green parts, chopped into small pieces

1 to 2 oz. morels, cut into small pieces

2 oz. smoked salmon

¼ cup grated gruyere

1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Fresh ground pepper

Sea salt


Wash and chop the ramps, rinse and chop the morels, and shred the smoked salmon into small pieces, removing the skin if present. Lightly beat the eggs with the sea salt and black pepper.

Next, heat the olive oil until it becomes fragrant. Add the ramps and sauté for about one minute. Add the eggs and stir. When the eggs begin to solidify, add the smoked salmon and the morels and continue stirring until they are almost done. Finally, add the gruyere and stir until it melts.

Serve and savor.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Octopus omelets

A number of years ago, my wife and I spent about a week in Portugal, staying in Porto. One of my two favorite memories from the trip was the Lello and Irmao Bookshop, without question the most spectacular bookstore I have ever seen. According to the entry for it in our guidebook, the shop was founded in 1869, and, architecturally, I would characterize it as a small merchantile cathedral. My words can’t begin to do it justice, but there is a very nice description of this local landmark by Elena, whose photos take me right back inside.

My other favorite memory of Porto was a dinner of roast octopus that was so good I had to go back to the same restaurant the next night just to have the meal again. Both times, we ate outside, overlooking the Douro River, just beyond the Ponte Luiz I, a magnificent iron bridge designed by one of Eiffel’s collaborators. Not health food, exactly, the octopus was drowned in butter and absolutely delicious, especially with a white port aperitif and a Portuguese sausage cooked on a little clay grill at our table with flaming brandy (we bought one of the clay dishes so we could make it ourselves at home; it’s a real conversation piece at parties).

Since then, I have often wanted to try preparing octopus myself, but it has a somewhat challenging reputation. In his octopus entry in The Penguin Companion to Food, Alan Davidson notes that, except in the Mediterranean countries and the Orient, the consumption of octopus has been inhibited by several factors, including its “alarming or repugnant appearance,” and “perhaps also by the unresolved difficulty of deciding what its plural form should be (a difficulty which must have caused at least some people who would otherwise have bought two to ask for only one.)” Amusing – and amazing – as I find this suggestion, I must admit succumbing for a long time to one of the other reasons Davidson lists for avoiding octopus: “the need (notorious but in fact not always applicable) to tenderize the flesh before cooking.” Recently, our local Whole Foods Market featured baby octopus and the person at the seafood counter assured me that baby octopus was quite tender, in agreement with Davidson’s comments:

“A baby octopus needs no special preparation, but can simply be deep fried or cooked briefly in boiling water.”

The person who sold me four baby octopi (octopus? octopuses? Whatever.) suggested grilling them, which seems to be the most popular recommendation in the cookbooks I have that say anything at all about octopus. I took her advice and incorporated it into the octopus omelet recipe given below. (In fact, I was in too much of a hurry to make an actual omelet, so the dish is really more like “scrambled eggs with octopus and gruyere,” and while that doesn’t sound either as poetic or as appetizing as octopus omelete, the end result was delicious, if I do say so myself.  If you want to do it right – as I plan to the next time I make the dish – the scrambled omelette described starting on page 129 of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 has worked very well for omelets based on other, possibly less exotic, ingredients.)

As always, in preparing a dish that features an unusual ingredient (especially one where I have limited experience), I like to pair it with flavors that are known to go well with it. Unfortunately, this is somewhat challenging for octopus, because there don’t seem to be a lot of recommended octopus pairings. My favorite flavor pairing book, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s  The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs does have an entry on octopus, but it is shorter than many of their other entries, and there are no bold-faced or capitalized recommendations to indicate “great” or “classic” pairings. Still, the authors do recommend sea salt, which seems natural enough, black pepper, olive oil, and onions, all of which I decided to incorporate (they actually recommend red onions, but I used a cipollini onion instead because I really like them). The sea salt I used was Sale Mediterraneo, a delicious mixture of sea salt with spices that include rosemary, sage, oregano, bay leaves, thyme and garlic. (We came across a jar of this while perusing the variety of great goodies available at the Ferry Terminal Market in San Francisco during a visit there. A reasonable substitute would be a mixture of your favorite sea salt with an Italian seasoning mixture like Penzeys Tuscan Sunset.)

Octopus omelet, ingredients:

½ pound baby octopus (about 4 octopi)

½ cup aged Gruyere, grated

3 eggs

1 small cipollini onion

1 Tbsp olive oil

½ tsp black pepper

½ tsp Sale Mediterraneo or other sea salt/Italian herb mixture


First, grill the baby octopus over a medium-hot grill, turning once, about 5 minutes per side. Allow octopus to cool and cut into small pieces.

Next, sauté the onion in the olive oil until translucent. Add the octopus, black pepper, and sea salt and sauté briefly, mixing well.

Beat the eggs with a fork and add to the mixture, stirring occasionally until the eggs begin to solidify. Add the cheese and continue to cook until done.

Serve with a good bread and a nice white wine. I had it with a Pinot Grigio and that worked nicely, but next time, I plan to try it with an Albarino, which I have found goes extremely well with seafood. Also, even though it is a bit of extra work, I highly recommend grilling the baby octopus before putting it into the omelet: the octopus picks up a nice smoky flavor that really enhances the dish.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Discovering the joys of membrillo

I recently discovered the joys of Spanish membrillo, a sweet paste made from quince, sugar and lemon that I found in the cheese section of our local Whole Foods Market. Personally, I prefer to separate my savory courses from my sweet ones, but I recognize that this view is increasingly a minority one. My wife loves her membrillo with cheese, which is the classic pairing: Amazon sells a combination package of membrillo with manchego (see Favorite Goodies from the Noodle Doodler at the end of this blog). Having discovered it, the thing that surprises me is how little discussed membrillo seems to be: I have not been able to find it mentioned in my cheese books, and The Penguin Companion to Food – one of my favorite food dictionaries – only mentions it as part of an entry on quince preserves. Even worse, this mention is somewhat dismissive: “The coarser quince pastes, such as membrillo, are served in Spain with cheese.”

Coarser or not, I find the stuff delicious.

Consistent with its absence from the cheese books and food dictionaries, there is also no entry for membrillo in either of Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s terrific books, their flavor matching guide The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs or their drink pairing book What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea - Even Water - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers. Again referring to the entries on quince, however, some extremely useful suggestions emerge. First, the Flavor Bible’s entry on quince strongly recommends pairing with cheese – especially goat cheese, manchego, or ricotta – and here quince paste is mentioned as being particularly good. The highest honors are accorded to pairings of quince with apples and pears, and both lemon and sugar are also given high ratings (the other two ingredients listed on the label of the membrillo package sitting in front of me now). Other recommended flavor pairings include both cranberries and hazelnuts, recommendations that are consistent with one of my favorite ways of having membrillo: slathered thickly on Lesley Stowe Raincoast Crisps cranberry and hazelnut crackers (also available from Amazon: see Favorite Goodies from the Noodle Doodler).

The Flavor Bible also lists several drink recommendations for quince, including “liqueurs, nut,” “whiskey,” “wine: red, sweet,” and – a stronger recommendation – “wine, white: e.g., Riesling.” Interestingly, the entry on “quinces” in What to Drink with What You Eat is much shorter and it doesn’t include most of these pairings, although it does have a sub-entry on “paste (e.g., served with cheese),” where late harvest wine is recommended. Following their suggestion on nut liqueurs, I have found that membrillo goes exceptionally well with the Italian walnut liqueur Nocello, and, although I haven’t yet tried it, I am certain the same would be true of the hazelnut liqueur Frangelico. An even more interesting pairing is with St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, a Jamaican-inspired allspice liqueur (see the entry on the Haus Alpenz website for a description). As the label on the bottle notes, allspice is a berry whose flavor combines notes of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg, all three of which are recommended pairings with quince in The Flavor Bible. A small glass of this liqueur with a couple of cranberry and hazelnut crackers, each generously spread with membrillo, is an excellent way to end any day.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sunchoke Soup with Speck and Aji Peppers

Food Network’s Chopped presents competing chefs with baskets of challenging ingredients and gives them a short time to invent and prepare an appetizer, an entre, or a dessert that features these ingredients. Recent episodes have presented contestants with everything from goat brains to durian, the Southeast Asian fruit delicacy with such a strong smell that it is typically banned from hotel rooms or public transportation. (I have tried durian twice, and I can attest to both its terrible odor and its really strange flavor - it combines notes of a sweet, creamy custard with strong onion overtones.  Probably one of the world's ultimate “acquired tastes.”)  One of the less challenging but still quite interesting ingredients that featured recently was speck, which the Chopped judges described as similar to a smoked pancetta. My wife and I learned about speck when we lived in Switzerland, where we frequently used it instead of bacon. It is much less common in the U.S., but it is available: to prepare the recipe presented below, we used La Quceria Speck Americano, available at our local Whole Foods Market. Not as heavily smoked as the typical Italian speck, it was still quite good and worked well in the dish. Alternatively, other, more traditional brands can be purchased on-line, and they should work nicely, too (see Favorite Goodies from the Noodle Doodler for a couple of examples).

The sunchoke – or Jerusalem artichoke – is the root of a plant that belongs to the sunflower family. According to Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food, the name derives from girasole, the Italian word for the sunflower. The name “Jerusalem artichoke” was the combined result of mispronunciation of girasole with a note in 1603 by the explorer Samuel de Champlain who encountered it in Canada and described its taste as “like an artichoke.” Since the plant has no real connection with either Jerusalem or artichokes, marketing considerations subsequently led to the name “sunchoke.” Whatever you choose to call it, this root vegetable is available all year, but according to the entry for it in Judy Gorman's Vegetable Cookbook, the peak season is from October through April. Smaller and sweeter than potatoes, they pair especially well with black pepper, lemon juice, and sea salt, according to my favorite source of such information, The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, who also recommend pairing with bacon, cumin and potatoes. The recipe given below for sunchoke soup uses most of these ingredients, with some minor substitutions (e.g., lime juice instead of lemon juice). It is adapted from one in Judy Gorman’s book (“Jerusalem artichoke soup” on page 172), with speck substituted for baked ham, and fresh Peruvian aji peppers added to give it a bit of a kick.

I used the aji peppers because they were featured during a limited-duration “pepper event” at our local Whole Foods Market. According to Barbara Karoff’s South American Cooking: Foods and Feasts from the New World, the term “aji” refers generically to all Andean peppers, but in Peru, it refers to the mirasol pepper, which she describes as “fiery hot,” noting that – at least in 1989 when her book was published – these peppers are rarely available in the U.S. Tasting a slice of one raw, I found it similar to a raw jalapeno – slightly hotter, but nothing like the screaming heat of a habanero. Karoff recommends the hontaka as a reasonable substitute as they are often available in Latin or Asian markets, but jalapenos are probably an easier substitution. If you like hot food, the nice thing about this soup is that, like a really good wine, the balance of flavors changes during the course of each taste: here, you first taste the spinach, then the other ingredients come into play, and finally the heat from the chili kicks in at the end. We found that it went especially well with Olde Burnside Brewing Company’s Ten Penny Ale.

Sunchoke Soup with Speck and Aji Peppers


6 cups chicken broth
1 pound sunchokes, peeled and quartered
1 medium russet potato, peeled and quartered
1 3 oz. package speck, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
5 oz fresh baby spinach
3 fresh aji peppers (or substitute 1 large jalapeno)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup whipping cream


  1. Chop the peppers into thin rings. Combine the peppers, chicken broth, sunchokes, potatoes, and speck in a large saucepan. Cover and cook on low heat until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
  2. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and blend until smooth. Return to the saucepan and stir in the lime juice and cumin.
  3. Chiffonade the baby spinach, add to the saucepan long enough to wilt, about five minutes. Season with salt and pepper, stir in the cream, and heat gently about five minutes longer. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ukrainian Tractors, Strawberries, and Glue

Several years ago, in a bookstore in Finland, I came across Marina Lewycka’s novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which I devoured and absolutely loved. And it's clear that I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm: according to the information on the jacket of one of her later novels, it was translated into 30 languages, sold more than 750,000 copies, and was nominated for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction. The novel is basically the story of two long-feuding sisters who come together to deal with a family crisis precipitated by their aging father. The first paragraph of the novel sets the scene and gives a preliminary taste of Lewycka’s writing style:

“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

The central character, Nadezhda, learns about this by phone. Two pages into the phone call from her father, the following snatch of interior monologue summarizes her reaction succinctly:

“Did I hear that right? She sits on my father’s lap and he fondles her superior Botticellian breasts?”

Nadezhda is less than convinced by her father’s arguments that after he marries Valentina, the Botticellian love of his life, they will have wonderful evenings together, discussing art, literature and philosophy. (“He has already solicited her views on Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, by the way, and she agrees with him in all respects.”) Ultimately, Nadezhda is reunited by the Valentina crisis with her sister Vera, with whom she has not spoken since their mother’s funeral. Lewycka has a marvelous way with descriptive little exchanges that paint vivid pictures of her characters. For example, here is Nadezhda's memory of meeting her sister just after the funeral:

“… Vera looks me up and down critically.

‘Yes, the peasant look. I see.’

I am forty-seven years old and a university lecturer, but my sister’s voice reduces me instantly to a bogey-nosed four-year-old.

‘Nothing wrong with peasants. Mother was a peasant,’ four-year-old retorts.

‘Quite,’ says Big Sister. She lights a cigarette. The smoke curls upwards in elegant spirals.”

One of the things that Lewycka does especially well is to construct hilarious dialog involving fractured English by non-native speakers. Don’t get me wrong: from my own struggles with other languages, I am acutely aware how much better some of Lewycka’s fractured English dialogs are than most of my own attempts to communicate in anything other than English. To construct dialogs like she does, Lewycka has to have both an excellent command of English and an appreciation of how non-native speakers struggle to be understood. For example, after Nadezhda’s father marries Valentine, she wants an elegant car. He is only able to afford one that looks good in his new wife’s eyes but barely runs at all.  Naturally, it fails at an inopportune moment, leading to this exchange:

“Valentina turns on my father.

‘You no good man. You plenty-money meanie. Promise money. Money sit in bank. Promise car. Crap car.”

This style of writing is similar to skaz, defined by Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia as, “a term in Russian prosody designating the recreation by a narrator of indigenous oral speech in cadence, rhythm, and diction.” The entry goes on to list Nikolay Gogol, Aleksey Remizov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and Nikolay Leskov as masters of the technique. In the preface of his English translation of Zoshchenko’s delightful collection, The Galosh, Jeremy Hicks describes skaz as “the use of an unsophisticated but highly colourful language put into the mouths of characters who themselves typically tell the story.” That seems like a fairly accurate description of some of the funniest bits of dialog in Lewycka’s book. In fact, it reminds me of some of the dialog in the 2005 movie, Everything Is Illuminated, based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer. One of my favorite parts of the movie is the description of the “seeing-eye bitch Sammy Davis Junior, Junior,” the replacement for an earlier, departed dog named Sammy Davis Junior.  As is the case in Everything Is Illuminated, the humor in Lewycka's book provides an entertaining conduit for an extremely serious basic story: in Everything Is Illuminated, this story is about a young Jewish man's search for the woman who saved his grandfather from extermination in the Ukraine during World War II, while Lewycka's novel shows how the turmoils of war, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath can affect the lives of two siblings so differently that they effectively grow up in separate worlds.

Lewycka has other novels, which I look forward to reading. One – Strawberry Fields – was given to me as a gift, and I have just started it.  I haven’t read enough yet to have a clear picture of what this one is about, but I can already tell it is going to be another hilarious read encapsulating a serious, deeply thought-provking basic story. In the first chapter, one of the characters – a woman from Kiev named Irina – arrives in England, where she is met by Vulk:

“He was the type Mother would describe as a person of minimum culture, wearing a horrible black fake-leather jacket, like a comic-strip gangster – what a koshmar! – it creaked as he walked. All he needed was a gun.”

Immediately, Vulk relieves Irina of her passport and Seasonal Agriculture Worker papers, saying:

“I keep for you. Is many bed people in England. Can stealing from you.”

Vulk drives Irina to where she will be working, and she is hungry:

“He had some potato chips wrapped in a paper bundle on the passenger seat beside him, and every now and then he would plunge his left fist in, grab a handful of chips, and cram them into his mouth. Grab. Cram. Chomp. Grab. Cram. Chomp. Not very refined. The chips smelled fantastic, though.”

After I finish Strawberry Fields, I plan to read Lewycka’s 2010 novel, We are all made of glue, at least in part for the same reason I picked up A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian in the first place: with a title so intriguing, how could you not read it?