African sun in a bowl

Here’s a “Ravenous” column of mine from a few years back:

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A funky wooden spoon made of aromatic wood sticks out of the utensil crock on my counter, too intense-smelling for stirring any old wimpy soup. I don’t know what kind of wood it is, but I got it years ago at an African store on Ninth Ave. in Manhattan and it still smells so pungent, so heady, so good, that I only use if for African or Brazilian stews, something with lots of garlic, dried smoked shrimp, chunks of exotic tubers and bright orange palm oil. But mostly I just take it out and smell it for the fun of it and wish I could go to Africa.

With a landmass four times the size of the United States, Africa is beyond our wildest imaginings in size alone, and thus impossible to sum up. Its name evokes scary thoughts mostly: safaris, savages, starving children, vicious wars, apartheid, all manner of strife and suffering. But when it comes to its resources (historically raped and plundered), its culture and music (roots of our own) and its food (also roots of our own, more than we realize), Africa is endlessly rich and alluring, irresistible to try to discover in whatever measure we can.

African spoon. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

African spoon. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

It’s not the only continent I haven’t yet set foot on, but probably the one I want to see the worst. Not that I could “see” it, in a visit, or a hundred. It’s so gigantic that I could study it for ten lifetimes and not begin to know it. So until that first and maybe only, too-short trip, I’ll just keep listening to its music, reading what I can, and of course eating Africa, which means not just cooking recipes for African, Caribbean and “soul food” dishes, and seeking out restaurants serving those foods, but realizing that when I eat a plate of fried chicken or beans and rice or a slice of sweet potato pie, that I’m eating something that began in Africa.

The food of Africa and the diaspora where Africans went and took their foodways with them is so vast and so varied it can’t be categorized, so I won’t try, but I’ll tell you about some of the more interesting and the most delicious dishes, the things that I’ve cooked or tasted and the things I hope to cook or taste someday.

Like the baobab tree that’s common throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa (all parts of it used for nourishment), you’ll find throughout much of the continent certain elements wherever you find African eaters and cooks: peanuts/groundnuts used for oil/snack/foundation of soup or stew with meat, smoked dried fish and small animals (check out that store on Ninth Ave.), grains like cornmeal, hominy, millet and teff, fruits like bananas, melons, coconuts and mangoes, squashes, greens, cabbages, eggplants, okra, an emphasis on vegetables more than meats with a staggering variety that includes all kinds of beans and huge starchy tubers with exotic textures unknown to us, some gelatinous and some stiff, sometimes boiled, sometimes dried and reconstituted.

Perhaps least exotic to us of Africa’s many cuisines are the Mediterranean dishes of Northern Africa, from countries like Morocco and Egypt, whose preserved lemons, olives and almonds seem not so strange. We love the hearty tagines and stews over fluffy, tiny specks of couscous, the zesty kebabs, the appetizers and dips that are similar to the familiar Greek food. There’s that sweet b’stilla that’s high on my to-make-some-day list, a chicken potpie with almonds and cinnamon wrapped in phyllo dough and dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

Graphic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Graphic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Moving southwest across the Sahara we get to the region from whence the ancestors of most African-Americans and African-Caribbean peoples came from, where fish is a big part of the diet, where hot peppers are relished and the palm tree is plundered for plenty of palm wine and palm oil. Here is Senegal, home of the tasty lemony, oniony Chicken Yassa and the national dish Thiebou Dienne, a festive many-ingredient rice and fish stew. My favorite (and basically only) TV show is No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel, and for last Monday’s show he was in Ghana, at a “chop bar” dipping balls of rice goo into a rich orange spicy tongue stew and later eating barracuda on the beach, washing it all down with lots of beer and palm wine.

South Africa has an interesting culinary history, too, with lots of occupation by lots of different peoples. You find dishes with an obvious Dutch influence and sambals and pickles and chutneys from the Malay influence. For a cooking demo this fall at the NYS Sheep and Wool Festival I made a bobotie, a killer South African pie of curried lamb (originally game) topped with a custardy crust.

I’ve cooked a lot of Ethiopian food, a cuisine I’m particularly fond of. I’ve learned you can sauté three pounds of chopped red onions in a pan with no fat, that spiced butter is sublime and that giant pancakes only need to be cooked on one side. I could write a book on it (and someday might) but suffice it to say that many Ethiopian dishes consist of lip-tingling stews called wat that you pick up with pieces of huge spongy pancakes and that if it weren’t for some frisky Ethiopian goats we might not be drinking coffee right now.

photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Visitors to the Caribbean who eat only on cruise ships or in all-inclusive resorts really cheat themselves by not eating local food, which is similar in many ways to the food of Africa and really wonderful, based on fresh seafood and local fruits and vegetables. In parts of South America as well, namely Surinam, Guyana, French Guiana and much of Brazil, the cuisine is descended from African food, too.

Cuban black beans and rice, Puerto Rican pigeon peas, Jamaican kidney beans, soups thickened with okra or callaloo greens, hot peppers spicing up vinegar, rum or peanut butter, cornmeal coo coo (a starch of Barbados), numerous fish stews, crispy fritters made with salt cod or bananas and Brazilian black bean belly-bustin’ feijoada are all Caribbean and South American flavors with that African influence.

And it doesn’t end at the border. Plantation slaves made their masters healthier by cooking them the vegetables they were used to eating themselves. Louisiana Creole dishes owe their heritage not only to Europeans but to involuntary African immigrants. I grew up eating Southern food, a tradition based on (to oversimplify a bit) a large variety of vegetables with bits of tasty pork scraps, a tradition founded in large part on the African influence, and I like to cook that way often. The tasty Hoppin’ John I cooked for New Year’s Day this year (for luck and prosperity) of rice and cowpeas (like tiny brown black eyed peas but nutty rather than mushy) has its origins in a mix of beans and rice that sustained slaves en route from Africa. Tonight I’m boiling kale and collards with smoked turkey wings, serving the succulent “pot likker” with cornbread for dipping, a nourishing southern dish with African roots, too.


My own precious piece of the continent. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Three years ago last Friday [now nine years ago–Ed.] at Newark Airport a beautiful Ethiopian toddler with big brown eyes and a white cotton costume embroidered with rich colors got off a plane holding hands with young woman who had brought him here. I picked him up and kissed his cheek and he became my son. Months earlier, when the wait for him had started, Africa and its endlessly fascinating culture and food had begun its journey into my heart, but now it’s assured that it won’t ever leave.

Other inspiration for this week’s column:

I have many books about Africa and its food but these are a few of my very favorites, highly recommended:

Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking by Jessica B. Harris (Atheneum, 1989)

The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent by Jessica B. Harris (Simon & Schuster, 1998)

African Cooking by Laurens van der Post, (plus its spiral bound recipe book, which is very hard to find) (Time Life, Foods of the World, 1970)

Wonders of the African World by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Knopf, 1999)

Also worthy of note is The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa (Wiley, 2006) by superstar chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit in New York City, who was born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden. In this book he makes African food hip.

And to listen to while you cook: Putumayo CDs: Congo to Cuba, African Odyssey and African Playground.

More brewed goodness

Last week I visited Keegan Ales in Kingston, NY, and had this to say in Almanac Weekly: Something’s Brewing.

Keegan Ales is now offering Sunday brunches from 1 to 4 p.m. with brisket and egg tacos, breakfast burritos, cornbread, grits, and more, in addition to their regular pub menu. Adding to the ambiance you can see works by brilliant artist Dumb Won, a.k.a. Paul Heath.

It’s ale good

Moules Witte

Moules Witte at Ommegang Brewery’s cafe in Cooperstown, NY: mussels steamed in spiced wheat beer with cream, truffle oil and shiitake mushrooms. Photo by Jennifer Brizzi

Lately, rich domestic craft brews studded with spice have spoiled my taste for the mass-market Canadian stuff I usually like. A pricey treat when bought in the Hudson Valley where I live (3-4 hours southeast), Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY, makes Belgian-style ales that are surprisingly affordable, not only at the brewery’s café but in town as well.

Recently I traveled to Cooperstown for the first time, a place perhaps best known for the Baseball Hall of Fame. I thought I should stop by, since I was there anyway, but as baseball is not my favorite sport (although I confess I have a soft spot for the Mets), I came up with excuses not to go ($20 a ticket, hungry cats waiting at home, that sort of thing).

Even without a visit to The Hall, I found Cooperstown a charming village set on a splendid lake, well worth the trip.

Brewery OmmegangA late afternoon arrival at the Ommegang Brewery (caveat: the website is graphically pleasing but hard to navigate), set amidst fields a few miles out of town, meant a lupper (or is it linner?) for hungry bellies. Too late for a tour, my friend and I settled for a feast on the sunny but bare-bones patio outside the brewery’s café, and soon went from starving to stuffed. And happily quenched as well, thanks to some Ommegang Abbey Ale, BPA (Belgian Pale Ale), and Three Philosophers.

The brewery, as one approaches.

“In most restaurants a $6 glass of wine is vinegar, but a $6 beer is world class,” say the Ommegangers on their website, and it’s true. The brewers seem to be continually at work on discovering all the delightfully different ways that quality beer can go with food or be cooked into it.

We started with sumptuous hand-cut frites, a la Belgique, in a tall cone, perfectly double-fried and irresistible. There is a choice of seven dips, some with beer added; we picked garlic aïoli and truffle-soy aïoli, both luscious.

But better still were Moules Witte, mussels swimming in a heady mix of Witte Ale (wheat, coriander, orange peel) with cream and shiitake tidbits. We also indulged in crab croquettes and finally a charcuterie platter that arrived last, when we were full, but was too delightful–in look and taste–to skip.


A custom charcuterie platter: (back to front) walnuts, dried apricots, honey on the comb, jambon de Paris, a luscious berry jam of unknown provenance, cornichons, prosciutto di Parma, craisins, hazelnuts, Tilsit, and crusty bread.
Photo by Jennifer Brizzi

Also on offer are salads, sandwiches, waffles, sweet and savory crepes, and best of all, affordable Ommegang on tap. My favorite is the Abbey Ale, Ommegang’s first:  dark ruby, rich, and fruity yet dry.

Ommegang Abbey Ale. Photo courtesy of Ommegang’s website

The BPA is a pale ale with citrus notes, nice but it just pales (pun intended) next to the Abbey.

Ommegang also makes Rare Vos, an amber ale I have yet to try, Hennepin, a gingery golden ale (okay), that wheat Witte, and Three Philosophers (another favorite: dark, strong, malty and cherry-tinged due to the addition of 2% Belgian kriek), plus limited edition ales. At the cafe many Belgian imports are available, too, as well as three-beer flights for the indecisive. I would have loved to save room for the ice cream made with Three Philosophers, but was, alas, too stuffed.

There’s always next time…. I can’t wait to go back.


Stay tuned for a report on Keegan Ales in Kingston, Ulster County, at this site after June 22, 2012.

Spring’s spears

This column originally ran in Ulster Publishing’s newspapers on June 2, 2005.


“Power, wealth and asparagus are the most powerful aphrodisiacs.”
–Zsa Zsa Gabor

Image: Tina Phillips / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Most of the year I don’t buy asparagus because it’s so good right now, harbinging spring’s turn to summer. At its best, asparagus on the tongue is like the color green on the eye, with a flavor like no other vegetable. Both fancy and farmy both, it goes with everything and can be cooked just about any old way, as long as the timing’s right. Asparagus isn’t so good undercooked and crunchy, nor is it when stringy and mushy from too long on the fire. But when cooked correctly it talks back to your mouth gently, with the slightest crispness, barely tender, sweet and perfect.

In Latin languages, nouns are male or female, and in Italian most vegetables are feminine, but il asparago is a masculine word. Whether for its mild urinary-tract-irritating qualities or its form, it has historically been considered an aphrodisiac. Nuns banned it from the tables of girls’ schools 200 years ago because of the potential effect of the firm stalks on the appetites of the young pupils.

I haven’t yet had asparagus every kind of way. And there are a lot of ways. Its sweet greenness pairs with many other flavors, and cooks nicely with many kinds of heat. I haven’t yet had fat white German asparagus swimming in custard and covered with crumbs. I haven’t had skinny curved wild asparagus served raw. I haven’t yet tried it cooked inside two zipable plastic bags and simmered in boiling water for three hours, suggested by a poster on eGullet.com and named by another one a “redneck sous-vide.”

I have never peeled its skin off with a paring knife before cooking it, nor tied it in kitchen string and steamed it upright in a tall narrow pot so that the tips merely steam while the stalks boil below, like I have read in too many cookbooks to count.

I have never had it with sauce maltaise, an orangey eggy hollandaise said to be perfect for it. I have never reserved the stalks for “another use” and served just the tips with brains or sweetbreads, as Child, Bertholle and Beck recommended in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1961).

I have never had purple asparagus.

I have never made guacamole out of it as Gourmet magazine recommended in its May 2003 issue. I’ve never made Asparagus in Ambush, whose name sounds much more promising than the actual dish: asparagus in custard in hollowed out rolls. I’ve never had asparagus coated in beer batter or panko and fried. I don’t think I have ever even made asparagus soup. But I would like to try all these things, because I love asparagus.

In season and freshly cooked it needs little gussying up to be scrumptious. Its classic partner is egg, in a quiche, frittata or timbale (molded custard), or mixed with or tucked into or topped with eggs hard-boiled, soft-cooked, scrambled or fried. Any manner of egg goes with asparagus. But it goes, too, with stronger partners like bacon, horseradish, mushrooms or goat cheese. And it pairs well with other vegetables that are in season at the same time, like ramps, morels or fresh fava beans.

Last week I found some fresh-picked asparagus at Gill Farm Stand in Hurley (Rt. 209 as it heads south out of Kingston) for $1.49 a pound [Ed: this was 2005], and was told it should keep popping up until around Father’s Day. I cooked some spears by James Beard’s favorite method, putting them in a shallow pan with salt and water to cover, topping with a lid and cooking them until they no longer smelled raw, a little knife went in with only the slightest resistance, and they passed the ultimate test: a sacrificial spear tasted just right. I made a little vinaigrette by stirring a dab of Dijon with a goodly splash of red wine vinegar and adding a little fresh chopped parsley and dill, snipped chives, extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper, which I poured over the cooked spears. When the asparagus is that good, this is easy and tasty whether you eat it still hot from cooking, room-temp-warm or cold out of the fridge.

What was left, about three-quarters of a pound, I made into an Italian frittata the next day—skip this part if you are already a frittata expert: I cut it into inch-long pieces and sautéed it, seasoned with salt and pepper, in olive oil until barely tender. Then I stirred six eggs with a splash of milk, a splash of Tabasco sauce, grated pecorino romano cheese, and more salt and pepper. Then I tossed the mixture with the asparagus, splashed some more oil in my 10-inch cast iron skillet, and on low heat, poured in the whole mess and cooked it, turning the pan now and then, until the edges were set but the middle still runny. Then I put it under the broiler for two minutes, until the top was golden brown. This is excellent hot for dinner with crusty bread and salad, or cold out of the fridge the next day in a sandwich made with more crusty bread, or just plain as a snack out of the plastic wrap you wrapped your leftovers in.

This week I bought some more asparagus, at twice the price, across the river at a farmers market where I also found ramps (wild leeks). I browned butter in a 12-inch cast iron skillet, along with olive oil, threw in the ramps which I had trimmed of their roots and soggy parts and chopped coarsely (I admit I was a wild leek virgin, not sure what to do with them). When they had cooked down and caramelized a bit I threw in diagonally sliced asparagus, cooking more and throwing in some chicken broth and lemon zest as I went along. This mixture once cooked I tossed with Barilla penne, a splash of milk and a fair amount of grated pecorino, and served it for lunch on the patio with a fine Chilean white wine brought by a guest. I don’t know if they have ramps in the Mediterranean but I felt like I was there. And it was a marriage of cousins—ramps are onions and asparagus is a member of the lily family, which includes onions, garlic and their ilk—but it was sublime.

I have some stalks left, so fresh that the violet-tinged buds at their tips are tight still, and I am torn about what I will do with them. I’m leaning toward a risotto, or maybe just steaming or roasting them and topping them with a sauce gribiche of hard-boiled egg yolks mashed up with oil and vinegar, adding salt and pepper, chopped gherkins, capers, fresh parsley, tarragon and chervil, the egg white slivered into fluff and tossed on top. This, too, I have never done with asparagus.
But it will have to be tomorrow, not the day after, because like corn, asparagus’ sweetness turns to starch fast. The fresher the better.

Should you eat asparagus with your fingers or your fork? Should you peel it? Should you pick fat or skinny spears? That’s up to you. But if not lust-provoking, it does provide vitamins A, C, E, calcium, phosphorous and potassium. And it doesn’t really make your pee smell—that’s a genetic component of your personal olfactory nerves that makes you perceive it—the rest of us don’t even notice.

Butter debauchery

This is from a “Ravenous” column published in 2006 by Ulster Publishing:

“Eat butter first, and eat it last, and live till a hundred years be past.”

–Old Dutch proverb

A bit of butter (this pic refuses to stand upright)

O wild, depraved and decadent butter, you are so creamy and so sinful. Years ago when the masses turned their backs on you for the sake of frugality, health and sensibility, I stayed staunchly by your side, keeping you constantly near, for purely hedonistic reasons. I just didn’t like the taste of margarine.

Now they’re saying that you’re not only tastier but better for us than margarine, that you’re a natural product free of trans-fats, preservatives, emulsifiers and stabilizers. Although there are still plenty of folks who prefer the new light trans-fat-free “spreads,” I’ll stick to my butter, thanks, until they pry my cold dead fingers off those yellow sticks.

When the topic of garlic comes up, I’ve always said it’s my second favorite food, the first being butter. Butter is not really a food, you may argue, but a fat, a flavoring, but I can think of so few things it doesn’t enhance that I think it’s one of the finest foods anywhere. Is there any compliment better than “buttery”? To call a food that isn’t butter “buttery” or a piece of fabric or music or anything “buttery” is high praise indeed.

Love for butter is as basic as the sweet tooth we’re born with. All babies love it. When I was a kid there was always a stick on our family dinner table and my baby sister Katy used to grab it when no one was looking and stick fistfuls into her mouth.

Maybe it’s my northern European heritage that makes me batty for butter. Traditionally the peoples of the warmer Mediterranean climes looked down upon their barbarian neighbors to the north for being butter eaters. The ancient Greeks and Romans used it as a poultice rather than a food and butter didn’t keep well in the heat anyway. In Italy and France the countries are divided for the most part between the rich dairy dishes of the upper regions and the olive-oil-based dishes of the south.

Recently in a Manhattan supermarket I found nearly a dozen imported specialty butters from various parts of Europe. Although the idea of a “fresh” butter traveling across the ocean and sitting on a shelf for an unknown period of time did not prompt me to fork over the substantial cash for any of them, I do have memories of incredibly sweet unsalted butter on breakfast rolls and croissants in pensioni, B & B’s and petits auberges in Europe, butters I’ll take over any ice cream any day, butters that to top with fresh tart-sweet fruit jam seemed almost overkill (but I did it anyway).

The reason that that European butter is so good is not necessarily because it’s unsalted, as I once thought, or that the cows are special, which I’m sure they are, or that they eat special European grasses, which I’m sure they do, but that European butter has a higher butterfat content than our commercial butter generally does. By law our American butter must be at least 80% butterfat and so is usually just barely over that. In Europe the percentage is more like 85 or 86. Also, for more flavor many European butters are cultured, tweaked for more flavor by churning the cream more slowly and for longer and sometimes adding cultures and/or lactic acid.

Butter is what’s good about so many things, from simple lusty garlic bread to snails steamy with shallots, garlic, parsley and brandy. What’s skate?, what’s brains?, without brown butter, a butter cooked until its milk solids turn a toasty nutty brown. Its cousin black butter is a very dark brown, not black. The paler milder beurre blanc (white butter) is an emulsion of butter with wine or vinegar, and bercy butter has shallot, white wine, bone marrow, parsley and lemon juice. Then there’s lemony Hollandaise. A popular French technique chefs love is to “mount” a sauce with butter by finishing it with a flourish of butter at the end to add gloss, body and flavor.

More simply, a pat of butter is the only way to scramble an egg, as far as I’m concerned.

And then there’s butter rum flavor and butter pecan ice cream. Butter in piecrust makes for best flavor but a less flaky crust than lard or shortening. It’s essential for the best cookies and cakes. There’s hot buttered popcorn that smells like the movies, whether you’re there or not, and homemade bread fresh from the oven slathered with butter. “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts,” said the late James Beard.

There are luscious compound butters spiked with herbs to dot on plain grilled meats or fish, or Indian butter chicken with ginger, garlic and spice. Niter kibbeh is an Ethiopian clarified spiced butter just as good on potatoes or rice as on the spicy exotic Ethiopian dishes that I love to cook. Smen is an aged Moroccan version.

Larousse Gastronomique suggests coating butter balls in breadcrumbs and deep-frying them to accompany poached fish. The equally decadent Italian-American Alfredo sauce is made merely of sick amounts of butter with cream and cheese. I’ll pass on that one. Recipes for mashed potatoes call for obscene amounts of butter, too, like two sticks to a pound of spuds or some such, a philosophy I don’t subscribe to, spiking mine with olive oil often, and using only a tablespoon or two of butter unless it’s a holiday.

I usually keep whipped salted butter in my fridge for toast, for easier spreading, plus sticks of unsalted butter for cooking, in order to control the salt content of my dishes, although it doesn’t keep as long as salted butter.

“Light” butter has water, gelatin or skin milk added. I don’t go there. Just use less. Ghee and clarified butters were invented in the absence of refrigeration to keep butter longer by removing the milk solids but they remove some flavor, too. They are great for sautéing, though, with their much higher smoking point.

There are the original butters before cow (butter happened thousands of years BC, the original made in goatskin pouches), like those of yaks, sheep, goats, mares, donkeys, camels, buffalos, water buffaloes, llamas and reindeer.

Unsalted butter can be stored in the freezer to keep better, but wherever it is it should be well wrapped to keep off flavors from getting in. Some swear by watery ceramic butter bells on the counter; some say they encourage mold. Some English people shell out 34 pounds for the ButterWizard, “the world’s first fully portable Temperature Controlled Butter Dish, which both heats and cools regardless of ambient temperature, ensuring your butter stays at the perfect temperature for spreading – anytime, anywhere.”

Although I often said in my foolish twenties that there was no such thing as too much sex or too much butter on a baked potato, I’ve since learned that a little bit (of butter, that is) can be just enough, disagreeing with butter-eating world record holder Donald Lerman who ate seven sticks in five minutes.

Naughty or nice, when it comes to the creamy spread for your December bagel be naughty and go for the butter. It’s holiday time, live extra large: buy a jewel for someone who deserves it, eat Krause’s chocolate ‘til you feel ill, eat three dozen escargots at Le Canard Enchainée or a fat tub of good butter from Ronnybrook. Whatever you do to be decadent, eat more butter.


I don’t think he needs the publicity, but I don’t get out much and this sumptuous bowl of baby cuttlefish in its own ink with ramps and chilis at Eataly in NYC just blew me away.

I’ve been a fan of Mario Batali since the early days of The Food Network, because he seems so real, and translates Italian food for us Americans in an informative and non-condescending way. But I’d never been to any of his restaurants, for lack of opportunity, until the other day when I wandered the aisles of the emporium/extravaganza of all things tasty and Italian that is Eataly (which he founded along with Oscar Farinetti, Joe Bastianich and Lidia Matticchio Bastianich).

In the seafood section I was very excited to see baby cuttlefish (seppioline), rare on American menus. It’s in the cephalopod family and sort of a cross in flavor and texture between squid and octopus. I adore cuttlefish and would be thrilled if it became easier to find in seafood markets and restaurants.
The beautiful midnight-black sauce of ink (cuttlefish ink was historically used as ink for writing, and the sepia in “sepia-toned” comes from seppia) enriched with the aromatic and savory ramps (wild spring onions) was absolutely sublime, best thing I’ve had in a long time. Heaven.


MoletesA Work in Progress

At a recent party I encountered a Mexican treat that I’d never heard of. It was described to me as a dough made of masa harina (fine cornmeal with lime) wrapped around chorizo (Mexican sausage), potatoes, and cheese, fried and topped with black bean puree, salsa and queso fresco. I put one on my plate, sat down and dug in. It was so good—an irresistible combination of flavors and textures—that I hopped up to get another one. But it was too late; they were gone.

So I decided to attempt my own. I found a bunch of recipes in magazines and online and set off.

I mixed 4 cups of Maseca with 1/3 cup flour, 1 tablespoon of baking powder and 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Then I warmed up about 3 cups of water with 2 tablespoons of lard (I bet shortening would be fine). I mixed the water into the flour mixture gradually until it made a dough that would hold its shape and not be too crumbly.

the dough ready to be filled

The masa harina dough ready to be filled.

Meanwhile I boiled two medium peeled and diced red potatoes (1/2 lb.) until they were tender, then browned 10 ounces of Mexican-style chorizo I made last week, similar to a recipe in Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico (Harper & Row, 1982). When it cooled I mixed in about 4 ounces of diced Monterey Jack cheese, and that was my filling.

Some masa dough went into my left hand, where I flattened it out as much as possible into an oval shape of about 2 x 3″. I put a tablespoon of filling in the middle then closed my fist around it,

dough with filling

Molotes dough holding the stuffing.

pressing to contain and seal the filling, then I shaped it into a torpedo, or football shape, about 3 x 1 1/2″. I thought how great these would be for a Superbowl party if I was throwing or attending one.

As I assembled the molotes I put them on a cookie sheet I’d sprayed, and then fried them in vegetable oil until they were golden, turning halfway through.

Once the molotes were drained on paper towels, I put them on a plate. On top went a drizzling of black bean puree that I’d made with dried beans from another of Kennedy’s recipes, frijoles de olla, then pureed with my immersion blender. Then I ladled on some My Brother Bobby’s Salsa and over that some fake crema I’d made with sour cream, lime juice and lime zest. Next was crumbled queso fresco and some fresh cilantro leaves. Radishes as a garnish would have been appropriate but I didn’t bother, this time.

Authentic, probably not. I think I have a lot to learn when it comes to molotes. They were fun and tasty, but there are a couple kinks to be worked out. There was too much dough in proportion to filling, so that technique needs to be refined. I need to contact the woman who made them for that party and ask her for her molote secrets. Once I get it perfect I’ll provide a real recipe in this space. Has anyone out there made molotes?

moletes with uncooked ones in background

The finished molotes. At the back of the pic you can see the uncooked ones next to the stove, ready to go into the oil.



Batty for bangers

bangers and mash

Clockwise from top left: Mash, mushy peas, and fresh bangers, topped with onion gravy and squirted with HP sauce

I had a fancy for bangers, had empty pockets, and pork trimmings were cheap, so I made some sausages the other day. It’s one of my favorite hobbies and a nice way to while away a windy winter’s day when one is feeling rather skint.

I love the creativity of sausage making, the mechanics of working with my gleaming cast iron meat grinder and yards of wrinkly hog casings, and especially the delicious results. This time I decided to make some Mexican chorizo for an upcoming molotes project (stay tuned), as well as some bangers, a classic sausage from the British Isles that’s laden with bread crumbs and sneered at by many sausage snobs. I love it anyway, remembering it fondly from a couple of trips to England when I was very young. I wouldn’t give up all other sausages for it, but it’s a lovely change of pace once in a while. I planned to eat it with some of its standard accompaniments, a pile of “mash,” as in “bangers and…”, some mushy peas, onion gravy and HP sauce. lovely bangers

I used this recipe for Oxford Sausages from about.com, substituting some very young ground venison that my ex, the hunter, gave me. The free-range meat is delicate, not gamey-tasting at all, and made a fine stand-in for the less humanely raised veal.  Not that it’s “humane” to kill wild animals, and I could never do it, but if one is to eat meat, that from animals who lived happily and free and ate a diet of wild foods rather than hormones and antibiotics, is a better choice, I think.

I used Pepperidge Farm Original White for the bready filler. Something called rusk, a type of dry biscuit, is used in commercial bangers, but Peggy of about.com said “white bread,” so that’s what I used.

I let the mixture steep in its own spice for a couple days, then made it into sausages, which I browned and poached while I boiled russets for my mash, heated canned mushy peas, and made an onion gravy by sauteing a bit of chopped onion in the drippings, adding flour, cooking and stirring, then adding a bit of chicken stock (beef would have been preferable but I had none handy), Kitchen Bouquet, and grainy Dijon. I added a pinch of salt and pepper and simmered until thick. The rich gravy, tangy HP, and even the pleasant green mushy peas (not mushy at all but firm and flavorful) were all perfect with the potatoes and savory sausages. It may have awoken my genetic memory of ancestry in the old country; it was that satisfying.

Bangers and Mash is a dish considered Irish as well as English, so perhaps in two months from today, when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, you may want to remember these bangers and try some of your own. Or don’t wait that long and make some now.

Sweet and red

I don’t roast peppers very often because they’re, well, pricey, and the process is a bit of a pain in the ass.

Cuddling Peppers

Bell Peppers

But today I found some on the bargain rack and did them up. Sweet and fleshy, they are delightful just laid across slices of fresh crusty bread.

Roasted Peppers

3 red bell peppers

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (here I used a fruity Greek one called Athena)

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste


If you have a gas stove you can just put them on the burner on a medium-high flame, or with an electric in a dry cast iron skillet big enough to hold them, again at medium high. Turn frequently with tongs until they are charred all over and place in a paper bag, close tightly and let sit 20-30 minutes.

Remove from bag and peel, reserving any juice if possible but discarding seeds, skin and charred bits. Tear into large strips or chunk and place in small non reactive bowl. Add remaining ingredients and toss well. Serve immediately or store in the fridge for up to a week or two.

Roasted Peppers

Roasted peppers marinating in EVOO, balsamic, s & p.



Octopus and shrimp salad

octopus and shrimp salad

Octopus and Shrimp Salad

Once a year, for a few fleeting moments, there are round blocks of frozen octopus in my grocer’s seafood case. Although it’s not cheap, I grab a couple so I can make something with the rare chewy delight, full of character and charm. Often I make a sauce for linguine, where the critter bathes in tomato sauce and red wine, but this marinated appy keeps a few days in the fridge. It’s a rich, tangy and piquant blend based on the multi-seafood salad I used to make for my Italian Christmas Eve feast.

Boiling time for the octopus is about an hour or more, depending on the size. This guy weighed about 3 1/4 lbs when raw and took an hour and a half of simmering with lots of water, a cork (I know, I know), some peppercorns, a bay leaf and a sprig of parsley.

When it was done, drained and cooled, I boiled a pound of medium shrimp for about three minutes, drained and cooled that, and added the two items to diced red pepper, diced celery, chopped parsley, an optional pinch of red pepper flakes, a generous-sized finely chopped shallot and a couple fat cloves of minced garlic. It also needed salt, freshly ground pepper, more extra virgin olive oil than would seem healthful, the juice of 1 and 1/2 lemons, and a generous glug of balsamic vinegar, not traditional but subtly flattering to both octopus and shrimp, I’ve discovered lately.

This luscious stuff can be eaten right away, but a day or two of steeping, with an occasional toss, makes it even better.






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