Archive for the ‘Whole Grains’ Category

How’s that spelt?

Spelt Breadsticks

Spelt Breadsticks

My Mom is obsessed with a cinnamon roll.

This is not to be confused with the icky, sticky, cinnamon buns sold in malls. This is more from the old-fashioned breakfast roll school: barely sweet, a little crusty, and fun to pull apart. My use of the word “obsessed” is not a joke; she must have this roll with one of her meals every day. Such a story about someone my Mom’s age—and we won’t deal in the banalities of specific numbers here—brings to mind what they say about the one hundred-plus year old folks in small Siberian villages who smoke two packs of cigarettes a day: hey they lived this long, they must be doing something right.

If my tone registers with you as being a tad judgmental, it has more to do with what gets paired with the cinnamon roll than the choice of the roll itself. (The cinnamon roll comes from only one specific bakery near where Mom lives.)

Who am I to judge? For if I am to be truthful, I must admit that the little gourmet here is just as apt to do the same thing.

My Mom and I have similar food habits. Although she’s much guiltier of this than me, we can both plead guilty to being able to eat the same thing every day for months. Alas, these obsessions don’t have a happy ending. I can lunch on the same salad or sandwich daily until one day, unannounced, my appetite declares that it simply will not tolerate a repeat performance. While hardly a tragedy, I have been known in these situations to stand on a corner looking this way and that, desperately clueless about what I should have for lunch. (It usually takes a few days of interim foraging before I settle on my newest lazy lunch choice obsession.)

I say it all the time: you can put the most miserable slop in front of me, but if there’s something good in the bread basket I won’t complain. If one man’s feast is truly another man’s famine, then it would seem futile to plan a meal in the hopes of keeping everyone happy.

So, what about – like my Mom’s current bread obsession—designing the whole meal around the bread? Sure, there are sandwiches, but even with sandwiches the calculation is usually filling first, bread second. I think this may be a way to keep everyone happy. Of course, it has to be good bread.

I’ve been down the “bread as utensil” road before, and it can be a bumpy ride, indeed. It works with miraculous Indian breads like chapatti and naan, but then I could make an entire meal of just those. The bumpy ride was a meal from another part of the world where I was left bereft of satisfaction. This failed because neither the bread nor the food being scooped by the bread were satisfactory.

What if we used the bread like a combination utensil, sandwich loaf, and fondue dipper? Prosciutto with melon is a good example of this concept; antipasto, main course, and dessert, all in one slender snack. The problem here is that the melon is a bit slippery. Bread is rarely—if ever—slippery. Clearly the better choice.

People often wrap grissini, the skinny, crunchy breadsticks, with a ghostly shaving of prosciutto. This is promising. You can also make a great dipping dessert with grissini—like the Poky sticks from Japan. But grissini lack the oomph required that could make them meal worthy.

That’s why I’m nominating the hearty-but-deceptively-light Spelt breadsticks for the gig. I had never baked with spelt before. It brings the whole grain flavor and nuttiness to the bread without the weight and grit of whole wheat flour.

Many people used to think that spelt flour was suitable for those folks on gluten-free diets, but this is not true. It does have its benefits though, like the lightness I just mentioned.

The breadsticks themselves are generously proportioned, not unlike a small loaf of bread. Serve these standing like soldiers in drinking glasses surrounded by assorted antipasti ingredients, and perhaps some flavored olive oil for dipping. A nice warm weather meal, yes?

Please don’t mention to my Mom that I compared her to the one hundred-plus year old folks in small Siberian villages who smoke two packs of cigarettes a day.

She doesn’t smoke.


Here’s the Spelt Breadstick recipe.


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Breakfast on the run...

Breakfast on the run...

The brisk fall morning sight of children on their way to school makes me happy. No, it is not the prospect of learning or expanding one’s horizons that cheers me; it is the bald fact that I do not have to go to school anymore. I didn’t hate school, but I didn’t love it either.

Nah. Scratch that. I hated school.

I feel guilty admitting it, for I have a great respect for education. I’d probably be a better—or at least more attentive– student now than I was when I was a kid. I have a friend, a woman of “a certain age” who just got her Master’s Degree. She confided the same thing to me, including the fact that she was now a better student. My unscientific conclusion has always been that you can break school kids into the same basic categories as adults:

Category 1: the workaholic. My high school was loaded with them, including one annoying, “straight A” soul who would refuse to look at her tests as they were handed back with the big red grade on top. When the bell rang she would frantically exit to the hall, then perform ritual leaps of joy in celebration of her A+, like it was a big, freakin’ surprise. It’s several hundred years later and, yes, I’m still bitter and annoyed. (She now works for the I.R.S.)

Category 2: the rest of us. The “…For Dummies” series of instructional guides always manage to catch our eye. I don’t want to say that I was a bad student, but I recently flunked a vision test. Honestly, I can’t study a menu without breaking into flop sweat. (Ohhhh, I‘ve got a million of ‘em…)

I know that there are many of you out there who feel at home in this category.

The interesting thing is that being in one category as a kid doesn’t guarantee that you’ll end up in the same category as an adult. The workplace is littered with formerly indifferent students who now consistently take the later train home because they have “… just a little bit more to do.” I wish I’d been a better student, but as an adult part of me rejoices that I will never be labeled a workaholic. There’s so much other stuff to do…

Like you, I had a ten mile commute to school through forty inches of snow in one hundred degree heat. Uphill. Both ways. I would forestall my departure by eating a healthy breakfast. Our cook would have my pancakes, eggs, and bacon ready just the way I liked them, and I would…okay clearly I’ve gone off the rails here. I wrote the word “forestall” and everything went blurry.

The truth is I have only vague memories of eating breakfast when I was a kid. I know I did, but beyond the concept of a bowl of cereal the specifics are hazy. Wheaties? Cheerios? Cap’n Crunch? I’m really not sure. There may have been an experiment with instant Cream of Wheat, but that was short lived. We had a breakfast nook, but I think we used it to eat dinner and to watch my Dad’s 8mm home movies. Harrumph: a whole section of my life haphazardly executed.

Now I am much more deliberate about my breakfast choices. Will I get hungry too soon before lunch? Will it make me fat(ter)? Can I work and eat it at the same time? I look around and watch what others are eating for breakfast and notice with a great amount of apprehension that folks seem to be looking for one vital element in their breakfast: a kick start. Lordy, when did Coca Cola become the breakfast of champions?

No kick start for yours truly; if I wanted that I’d pay someone to slap me across the face a few times. (Don’t even try it.) Slow and steady is more my style. It works for me and I find that most mornings I am fully awake by 1 PM.

Still, I find my busy schedule sometimes doesn’t allow me to linger over breakfast. The question is: short of gruel-like instant oatmeal, what is a supercharged healthy breakfast that I can eat on the run? A chum swears by toast with a swipe or two of peanut butter. I need a bit more entertainment than that in the morning. I have devised my “best in show” breakfast on the run.

I almost resent the health benefits of oatmeal; Quaker oatmeal is practically advertised as an alternative to Lipitor. But I can put my crankiness aside long enough to include it as part of my breakfast. Thumbing through my beloved old copy of The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne I found a recipe for “Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread.” Oatmeal bread has always been a favorite of mine. Usually only mildly sweet, yet slightly dense, this recipe has a delicate crumb and a toasty crust.

Yes, I understand that the thought of baking bread gives most people pause. But if you are in possession of a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer bread making requires very little work and very little expertise. Yes the entire process takes several hours from bag of flour to loaf of bread, but most of that time you can do other things.

I also substituted almond butter for the peanut butter my chum uses. This was a choice dictated only by taste, and I also topped the almond butter with slices of green apple. The combination is almost pastry-like, but you can feel smug in the knowledge that the entire affair is very healthy. You can use any kind of apple you prefer, but I use green apple in the morning on the advice of a friend who is a singer. Green apples have an astringent quality that can help clear your throat of impurities.

That’s good news as a clear throat can help me maintain my phlegmatic demeanor through the rest of the day.


Click here for the recipe for Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread.


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My Revolution

Eight Grain Hamburger Rolls

Ready for the backyard...if I had one.

I don’t like to write about politics in this venue. A friend of mine—much wiser than I—is fond of saying, “If you want to send a message call Western Union.” He’s usually talking about plays, TV shows, or movies that are used as vehicles to put forth a political or moral argument. I tend to agree when it is done poorly. But if you succeed in entertaining me, then I say, go ahead and preach.

It can be easy to dismiss these messages. Personal zealotry can be just as repellant as it can be appealing. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I had never given Jamie Oliver, the young British chef and restaurateur much thought. Fact is I’ve never given most celebrity chefs much thought. Do I think they are talented? Absolutely. Do I care? Nyet. I am most assuredly not a restaurant foodie; unlike most New Yorkers I prefer to eat at home. (I could have titled this posting, “Never Been To Nobu”.)

Yet there I am, in front of my TV each week watching “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” Didactic? Yup. Preachy? Affirmative. And totally my cup of tea because I am totally in step with the message being tooted.

The show, an extension of a program he started in the UK, follows Oliver’s “man vs. the machine” quest to improve the eating habits of America’s children, starting with the food they eat in their schools’ cafeterias. Last season concentrated on a couple of schools in Huntington, West Virginia; this season he has picked a bigger rock to roll up hill: Los Angeles.

In an age when TV executives seem unable to provide anything better than endless competition shows (“America’s Next [Fill In The Blank]”), freak shows (“Hoarders” which I think of whenever too much time has elapsed between apartment cleanings—so, often), and cotton candy (anything Kardashianic), one has to wonder how “Food Revolution” ever made it to network television. No one gets voted off. No one throws a glass of wine at anyone. No one is designing a line of jeans.

The closest the show has ever gotten to the voyeuristic realm of reality television was last week’s brief glimpses of Oliver’s family in the kitchen of their rented LA home which showed his baby daughter mesmerized by turning the faucet on and off with her feet. (I thought it was sweet, cute, and very funny. And yes, I am a sap.)

The answers are likely a combination of the show’s Executive Producer, that twenty-first century show-biz virago, Ryan Seacrest, the family-friendly Disney owned ABC, and the fact that the British version of the show was a hit.

What amazes me is the fact that the changes he wants to make are considered a revolution. Last year in West Virginia he noted that the only milk choices were Chocolate or Strawberry – both contain the equivalent of 3 to 4 teaspoons of sugar. He fought to get regular milk in the cafeterias—and lost.

When I was a kid (lo those many years ago) the schools served us a little half pint of regular milk each day. Ice cold. It was delicious—and I’ve never been a big milk drinker. Every once in a while there were kids who added a spoonful of Nestlé’s Quik, but for the most part they were the exception, not the rule.

I ride the subway and notice with increasing alarm the increasing size of our youngsters. When I was a kid if you were overweight you were ostracized because most kids were skinny until they hit their teens. Is overweight the new normal? Are we raising a “Big Gulp” generation? When did a tanker-sized cup of soda become the normal serving?

There are as many theories of what has caused the so-called “epidemic” of childhood obesity as there are people. I’m not claiming to know the answer, but I’m convinced that people have been overwhelmed by information: everything is bad for you, therefore, what’s the difference? Order whatever you want—sauce on the side.

Where, you ask, does a man who writes about baking and sugary treats get off attacking sugar? A valid question. The idea isn’t to make cake disappear. The idea is to eat good cake, made from quality ingredients, and as part of a healthy diet. It’s a treat not dinner.

In Los Angeles this season, Oliver isn’t trying to make burgers disappear. He is helping a guy who owns a typical LA drive-through burger joint change the quality of the ingredients he uses—ranch-fed beef, good sauces, and whole grain rolls. The trick is to make sure that the guy who owns the drive through continues to have a thriving business even though the ingredients may cost more. (He seems to have succeeded.)

Listen, I don’t know Jamie Oliver. I don’t know what compelled him to adopt this cause. But I sure do admire the work he has done. I admire the work Alice Waters has done with her Edible Schoolyard program where she has set up school gardens. The students raise the vegetables which are then used in their lunches. Maybe if kids get closer to understanding where their food comes from they’ll make better choices? (Question mark intentional.)

I thought it would be fun to recreate the Revolution Burger at home, at least in concept. The organic farm-raised beef was the easy part—Fairway Market here in New York took care of that. My responsibility was to create a hamburger roll that would make Jamie proud. Seven grains? Feh! I used eight!

A really good burger sitting on a rock hard roll is no one’s friend, so I knew I needed to make a roll that had some squish and richness. I “appropriated” an idea from America’s Test Kitchen: use cooked eight grain cereal in the dough. This is brilliant because uncooked whole grains can be too hard to digest while making the roll too dry to enjoy. Further, I cooked the cereal in milk which added richness to the dough. (Bread made with milk also tends to have a toastier crust.) A touch of honey brought out the sweet fragrance of the grains.

The result has the heft of whole grain and the squish and sweetness of plain ol’ hamburger rolls.

If you know Jamie, pass this along and ask him if he approves.


Click here for my recipe for “Eight Grain Hamburger Rolls


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Peppers stuffed with kasha, farro, toasted pine nuts, and currants

Peppers stuffed with kasha, farro, toasted pine nuts, and currants

The question I get asked the most is, “Do you have any recipes for vegans?” As it happens, I do take requests. So, drop a lil’ something into the brandy snifter on top of my piano (yes that is a five dollar bill in there…) and I’ll see if I can’t remember the verse to “Melancholy Baby.”

I am not a vegan. No judgment on my part, I just like a little more freedom in my choices. But I find that creating entire meals that conform to a vegan lifestyle is a fun and interesting challenge. There’s a little innocent hocus-pocus—like the use of a good butter substitute—and a little switcheroo here or there—like using silken tofu as a great imposter for several dairy products.

Mostly though, I think that celebrating the great colors and flavors of vegetables is a great way to feed vegans while supplementing the menus of us non-vegans. The Tomato Tart recipe I published last summer is a good example. While the filling calls for custard made of goat cheese, eggs, and milk, a vegan could easily use silken tofu, and goose the flavor with nutmeg, salt, pepper, and some caramelized onions.

The real key to a vegan diet is the combinations of foods that create a “complete” protein. I’ll avoid too much science here: let’s just say that there are three key combinations of foods that allow vegans to get protein that is equivalent to meat or eggs. Combine a legume (like beans) with nuts (like walnuts) or with seeds (like flax seeds) or with a whole grain (like cracked wheat), and you have a complete protein. The easiest version of this is whole wheat pita with hummus. It doesn’t get much easier—or more portable—than that.

Here’s my problem: how much hummus can you eat?

Indian food can often save the day: I could make a meal out of dal (lentils) and naan (flat bread) any day. But that is the extent of my Indian cooking skills; I am, at best, an inexperienced Indian cook.

So for this week’s vegan home cooking project, I’m stealing from…me. Last year I wrote about buckwheat a/k/a kasha as a good source of protein, and even mentioned combining it with farro (a type of wheat) as a cold salad. It’s time to blow the dust off this old library book.

During this cold, snowy January, thinking about making a cold salad seemed like wearing shorts to shovel the snow. I’m craving something warm and hearty. What could I add to the buckwheat and farro to make the meal stick to my vegan ribs?

I’m not especially worried about other ingredients completing the protein profile even though I have two whole grains. (Buckwheat isn’t actually a grain, it’s an herb, and has a fairly complete protein profile on its own.) I decided to focus on texture, color, and a bit of flavor. My first stop was a look in my refrigerator. My holiday cooking ended just a few weeks ago, but I do still have some ingredients left over that could be called into service.

Crystalized ginger? Uhhhh, no. But I did find some pine nuts and dried currants. I toasted the pine nuts to give them a bit of color and to warm up the flavor. The currants are tiny and add little polka-dots to the mixture. You might think they’d be too sweet, but currants are so tiny that the sweetness they add is subtle. I finished the whole mixture with some roughly chopped parsley for color.

While I was at the market buying the parsley (no, that wasn’t left over from the holidays) I noticed some really beautiful orange bell peppers. These will serve as an edible bowl. Because the meal is so hearty two of these stuffed peppers will make a main course, one is a great side dish.

The great thing about combining grains, seeds and nuts is that you really are creating a meal that can be eaten anytime of the day. Without the bell peppers my combination can even be eaten for breakfast.

Anybody mind if I sneak an egg onto the plate?


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Roamin’ Holiday



The diary would start something like this: “Summer, day 2 / 102 days to go.” My summer travelogue diary would record my grand tour of the world’s “must-see” places, and all the amazing sights seen, sounds heard, and foods eaten along the way.

But the big reveal here is that I have neither the wanderlust nor the time that such a grand tour would require. Oh, there’s also a small detail — money — that I forgot to mention. Ho hum.

Well, that’s okay: I need neither time nor money to paint the globe red. In fact, I can pack a whirlwind summer tour into one hot, sticky, (and air conditioned) summer night. All I need is the right food, and a DVD or two. Full disclosure: none of these movies was made after 1960; Europe may have changed a touch since then.

We’ll start in the hot desert, Marrakech to be specific. Marrakech? “Mmmm, sounds like a drink,” to steal a quote from our first film. James Stewart and Doris Day are travelling with their young son in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” The desert heat wafting up from the North African sand in this Alfred Hitchcock-directed thriller will make you parched and thirsty, so be sure to have a tall, cool drink nearby – this may be a good chance to crack open an icy bottle of Rosé for those so inclined. If, like me, you find your thirst is quenched by something a bit tamer, then join me for a pitcher of iced Red Zinger tea. Red Zinger is slightly sweet, so use a light hand with the sugar, and a heavy hand with the ice. By the way, Doris Day sings “Que Sera” in this flick, and watch for the scene where Day and Stewart try to eat Tagine with their hands.

Next we’re off to historic Rome for a “Roman Holiday” with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. What I have always loved about this film is that it is a lot like a travelogue featuring two movie stars, and – oh yeah—there’s a sweet love story too. If you’ve ever wondered what the big deal was about Audrey Hepburn, this movie will show you. Watch for the scene where she dances with her barber, and he pauses to adjust her bangs: a moment that does nothing to advance the plot, but does everything to advance the charm of the characters. All of this running around sunny Rome will make you hungry for a bit of pasta. I’m craving Orecchiette with Roasted Red Pepper Pesto.

Be careful of too many carbs though, because we’re hitting the beach next; You’ll want to look good in your bathing suit, right? We’re hanging on the French Riviera with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in “To Catch A Thief.” Possibly the most glamorous movie ever made (c’mon, Cary Grant + Grace Kelly + the French Riviera=glamour) this may also be the most humorous of Hitchcock’s films. I don’t know why, but the aforementioned carb warning aside, this movie always makes me crave ice cream. A dab of gelato anyone? While you are eating the gelato, be sure to watch for the scene where Kelly plants a big kiss on Grant – and listen for the wobbly muted trumpet that underscores the kiss. It’s a hint of the frothy romance to follow, and is Hitchcock’s way of saying, “Don’t take this too seriously, folks.”

All of this makes me think of a conversation I had recently with an associate who just returned from the Southern Italian region of Cinque Terre. A busy executive, she spent an afternoon at her favorite area restaurant making pasta with an elderly Italian woman. The elderly Italian woman has been making the pasta there for countless years, and was laughing, having fun, and full of life. All of this reminded my associate that there’s a whole lot more out there than just the world of business. Cooking a good meal will do that for you.

I have never been to Cinque Terre, but I know the rich, green Ligurian Olive Oil that is pressed there. What I have never had is a local favorite snack called Farinata. Farinata is a flatbread made from chickpea flour, and baked in a well seasoned cast iron skillet in a roaring hot oven. It’s easy to make, casual to serve, and –I think—one of the great undiscovered bar foods. Mixed nuts with your cocktail? No thanks. A wedge or two of this savory, deceptively rich flatbread will make that extra dry martini go down cold and clean on a hot summer night. This is one of those great amalgamations of textures, a toasty crust, a crunchy edge, and a soft interior that will draw comparisons to potato pancakes. Very satisfying.

I don’t have a cast iron skillet, and my apartment-sized oven doesn’t get as hot as a real wood-fired brick oven, but my Farinata came out just fine. Keep this easy treat in mind this summer if you want to serve “a little somethin’” with pre-Barbecue drinks.

Cary Grant would approve.

Happy Summer!


Click here for the recipe for Farinata.


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“M” is for the Many Moms Who’ll Read This

Cornmeal Waffles

Cornmeal Waffles

My Junk Mail Box has been inundated of late by offers of roses for Mom on Mother’s Day. Yes, I read the stuff that lands in my Junk Mail box. Even worse, I like some of the junk mail I get, although I admit that I’ve never consciously purchased anything from one of those offers. I think it appeals to the same “hunter / gatherer” instinct that causes me to spend way too much time trawling the aisles of the supermarket hunting new things. Don’t come with me to Zabar’s unless you have a bit of free time on your hands.

Anyway: the roses. My Mother likes roses, but whenever she has been given daisies she always claims those as her favorite. I distinctly remember her buying bunches of daisies for herself every now and then.

She’s not the only Mom who has expressed this preference: I have a friend (a Mom of an eight month old and a three and a half year old (!)) who agrees with my Mom.

So why all the fuss about roses? Note to 1-800-Flowers: some of these women want daisies.

The other classic gift for Mom is breakfast in bed. I’m afraid my Mom has never gone in for this either, but don’t let that throw you: breakfast is her favorite meal. She would just prefer to have it served on a beachfront terrace in some pampering resort. My kitchen is small. I can do breakfast. I can’t do beachfront resorts.

That’s okay.  As the man says on TV, “Make it work.” The breakfast foods my Mom likes are corn muffins and waffles. Why not combine the two? Cornmeal waffles anyone?

As I saw it, there were two roads I could take to get to my goal: Muffin Avenue or Waffle Boulevard. I thought that the ideal would be to serve Mom the waffle equivalent of a crunchy muffin top. Sounds like a good idea, yes?  I mixed a very basic corn muffin recipe and fired up my trusty waffle iron. The result was best described as pointless. I ended up with a waffle that just wasn’t the right consistency, and a muffin top that had some crunch but lacked the springy mattress of crumbs that always lies under the crunch of a muffin top. Most disappointing was that the direct heat of the waffle iron was too intense for the cornmeal, lending it a flavor that wasn’t burnt, just sort of over-toasted.

Better to let a waffle be a waffle. My dream waffle (dream waffle???) has a happy blend of flavors and textures: a little sweet, a little grainy, with its fluffy insides held in check by a lightly crisp jacket. Good waffles pair expertly with more than just scrambled eggs and bacon. Throw a couple of waffles on a plate and place a few slices of turkey with a touch of gravy and you’ll never look at an open face Turkey Sandwich the same way again. (Chicken and Waffles? Molto bene!)

I’m getting ahead of myself: first I have to make the waffles. I didn’t want to go through the fuss of yeast waffles; this was definitely a make and bake exercise. The burning question (well, hopefully NOT burning) was: how much cornmeal should I add to my waffle recipe to give it a lingering hint of corn muffin while still remaining a waffle? Too much cornmeal would prevent the waffles from puffing up in the iron, too little and why bother?

My favorite plain waffle recipe (from The Baker’s Manual by Jospeh Amendola and Nicole Rees) seemed like a good starting point. It makes a thin, eggy batter that I assumed would hold up to my addition of cornmeal like a good soldier. The recipe calls for ¾ cup of cake flour. I swapped that out for ½ cup of yellow cornmeal. This, along with the addition of a bit of extra sugar and stingy amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg was ideal.

The result was a moist waffle with an almost malty sweetness. The next time I’ll feel free to add perhaps another tablespoon or two of cornmeal, but it really isn’t necessary. These are waffles that are definitely waffles, but there is that faint undercurrent of muffin, and that’s all I need. A dusting of confectioner’s sugar, and a sliced strawberry or two were all I needed to be happy, and I’m sure Mom will be too. (If your Mom likes Maple Syrup, serve her the real thing. It’s a special day, right?)

In the meantime, Happy Mother’s Day to Dori, Alexandra, Leslie, Betsy, Cindy, Rosemarie, Sylvie, Barbara, Nancy, and all the other moms who have made our lives so happy.  (And oh yeah: my Mom too!)


Click here for the recipe for Cornmeal Waffles.


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Not Our Gang



When I was a kid, we always joked that you could tell the best Chinese restaurant in town by how many of “us” ate there.

Indeed, there were nights at Dave Wong’s China Sails that there were enough of “us” munching on Moo Goo Gai Pan to exceed the number needed for a temple quorum ten times over.

Am I teetering on the brink of the politically incorrect?

Yes, “we” love our own food too – although for the most part we save it for special occasions like Jewish holidays.  But truth be told, much of it originated as peasant food, was usually made with fairly unhealthy ingredients, and lacked…shall we say, complexity of flavors. I think that is why “we” became such rabid fans of other folks’ food.

This discussion will likely bring some stern words of disagreement my way, but to paraphrase an old borscht-belt joke, look around: Do you see one Jewish restaurant?

Yes, there are millions of delis, but nowadays those are only nominally Jewish, and as much as I love Hot Pastrami you’ll have a hard time convincing me of its merits as healthy food.

My Grandmother had a very old, very grand looking brass samovar which used to fascinate me because it was engraved with Russian words and images of the Czar. She never served anything from the samovar, but she did show me how they used to keep the borscht hot by loading a tube inside with hot coals. In her house the samovar was the only thing – besides her – that came from the “old country.” She didn’t speak with an accent, but the samovar did.

Like most immigrants of her era, she embraced all things American – she and my grandfather even spent their honeymoon in Washington, D.C.

As time brings “us” further and further away from our Eastern European roots, the definition of Jewish food becomes more watered-down than my Grandmother’s chicken soup. Pure Jewish food, when you can find it, doesn’t resemble the stuff served to me as a kid. I can’t remember the last time I had a Knish of the type they used to serve when I was a kid: tiny, crusty, and filled with mystery. (Unfortunately the mystery was about the filling, as in, “What the heck is this stuff?” That didn’t stop me from inhaling them.)

I’ve had a few requests for a Noodle Pudding recipe, but I have found that cooking Noodle Pudding (a/k/a Kugel) generally entails choices that are no more troublesome than asking, “Raisins? No raisins? Raisins in half the pan?”

Again, not very complex, and probably shouldn’t be. It is home cooking – comfort food – and needs to hew closely to an ideal well formed in peoples’ minds. When Passover rolls around I’ll probably fiddle around with Noodle Kugel, but if I stray too far afield from people’s expectations I’ll have to name it something else. Our assimilated tastes cause us to change these recipes to fit our surroundings, not unlike the way a little girl born in a rural Russian village was changed and became my city-dwelling-American-as-apple-pie Grandmother.

It’s January. It’s cold. As I wrote recently, this is my time of year to detox and deblobify. I am determined to do this as painlessly as possible, and that’s why healthy food, well cooked, is essential. I have been snooping around for healthy things to eat that will give me the fuel to stay warm during this cold winter. Hopefully it will also take my mind off the cookies and the bars of chocolate that are screaming for me to rescue them from the evil clutches of the grocery store.

So it was that I cracked open a box of kasha – cracked buckwheat– that has been sitting on my shelf so long that I forgot how it got there. This is what made me think about my Grandmother and Jewish food in general, but it was actually my Mom who used to serve Kasha Varnishkes, or cracked buckwheat mixed with bow tie noodles. The Kasha Varnishkes of my youth was that magically delicious blend of salty and greasy, hallmarks of really good soul food.

But the basic ingredient, buckwheat, is so healthy that I figured it was worth a try to see if I could recreate the flavor I remember while keeping it on my list of virtuous foods for my January cleanse. Happily, kasha is relatively obscure, so I am free to do whatever I want to it without going against anyone’s preconceived notions.

I used the Kasha Pilaf recipe on the box and added a dose of sautéed garlic then merely substituted olive oil for butter and low sodium chicken stock for water. Making Kasha Varnishkes was as simple as throwing cooked bow ties into the kasha. Because I am trying to be “good” just a few bowties were all I needed.

But what struck me was the texture and flavor of the kasha itself. Due to the mix of the kasha’s toasty graininess and my use of chicken stock, it had a gratifyingly meaty flavor. I immediately imagined it mixed with a liberal quantity of lightly toasted pine nuts and a sprinkling of currants as a really delicious filling for Stuffed Peppers. How about a cold salad of farro and kasha? I may even try to make those little Knishes of my youth with a kasha stuffing. Too bad I’ll have to save the knishes for later in the year when I’m not being as virtuous.

The bonus is that buckwheat is being touted in nutrition circles for bringing more than just a pretty face to the party. It is high in protein and fiber, it is gluten-free, and there are theories out there that it may even lower cholesterol and reinforce capillary walls.

Now I really feel virtuous!


Click here for the recipe for Kasha.


Saveur CoverThe kind folks at Saveur Magazine found my August 31st, 2009 posting about Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas and asked me to distill it for inclusion in their readers’ 2010 Top 100 list. You’ll find it in the Jan / Feb 2010 issue of the magazine, now on newsstands everywhere. Take a look and let me know what you think!


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