Pongal

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Pongal, the holiday, is a four day long harvest festival occurring around mid-January (on the 14th this year) that is observed primarily in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu but like most spiritual anniversaries can’t really be confined to a specific geographical area, diasporas being what they are. One of the most important holidays celebrated by the Tamil community, it is characterized by social gatherings, time-honored rituals, prayers for health, happiness, and prosperity, and, of course, traditional foods. Bidding farewell to the winter solstice and marking the beginning of the sun god’s annual ascent in the zodiac, each day of the holiday features its own set of conventions. It is the second and principal day on which pongal, the dish, is prepared.

The word pongal means to boil or spill over and the seasonal milk plus newly harvested rice preparation does indeed overflow as it cooks, symbolizing the abundant harvest for which participants exuberantly give thanks. The dish manifests in two varieties: sweet (chakkara or sakkarai pongal) which calls for jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) along with raisins, cashews, and spices like cardamom, and savory (ven or khara pongal) which emphasizes an array of more potent spices and herbs.

A multitude of recipes is extant, of course, some saturated with copious ghee (usually the savory variants), some shot through with coconut (usually the sweet), but most of the recipes I’ve found call for the addition of moong dal (mung bean or green gram) to keep company with the rice, similar to North Indian dal khichdi. For today’s culinary adventure, I decided to prepare the savory version.

After toasting the dal, I cooked it together with rice in equal parts (again, recipes vary, often with more rice than dal) using more water than customary to achieve the proper cohesive consistency; they’re prepared sans seasoning – all of the distinctive ingredients are folded in afterwards.

One of the essentials of many world cuisines involves dry toasting spices to bring out their essence. In addition to employing that technique, Indian cuisine takes it one step further by making a tadka, tempering whole herbs and spices in oil to bloom their flavors beyond dry roasting and to flavor the oil as well; it’s the foundation of many Indian dishes and one I frequently use. In this case, ghee provided the lipid component (make sure it’s high quality and fresh) and my “distinctive ingredients” were cashew nuts, cumin seeds, cracked Tellicherry peppercorns for their citrusy notes, curry leaves, grated fresh ginger, green chilies, a pinch of hing (aka asafoetida) and turmeric.

Simply fold the tadka into the prepared rice and dal mixture, cook for another minute or two, et voilà. The texture of the dish should be a little like risotto, think porridge rather than discrete grains like biryani – after all, it’s comfort food; some recipes even call for mashing the rice a bit. It’s often served with coconut chutney (see photo) and sambar.

I confess to consuming it with greedy gusto since this particular combination of cashews, herbs and spices really resonates for me; of course, now I’m craving the sweet version too. Next time!
 
 
Happy Pongal!
 
 

From Russia, With Plov

Originally published in 2013, but still fun.
 
KutyaChristmas day had come and gone, but not so its delicious spirit. It’s not a religious thing with me; it’s more of a celebration of the spectacular panorama of international holiday foods that surrounds us this time of year. The problem is, the season just doesn’t last long enough despite my best efforts to prolong it. One year, I valiantly managed to extend the holiday right though Valentine’s Day, ignoring the fact that the festive red and green department store window displays now sported only red trim, wondering where the chipmunks were hibernating when I boarded the elevators, and upon returning home, trying to fathom how the branches of even my artificial tree were becoming brown and sere.

I know I’m not entirely alone in this, even though my behavior may be a bit extreme. Ask almost anyone about their favorite holiday foods and they’ll go misty and begin to wax rhapsodic about childhood memories of treasured treats that their grandmother used to prepare. In every corner of the world, there are traditional Christmas dinner favorites: festively bedecked meats and generations-old recipes for vegetables and pasta, all manner of fish and fowl, not to mention countless renditions of roast pork and baked ham in all its porcine splendor – that singular, universal, culinary triumph of domestic chefs around the globe, translated into a hundred languages and embraced by as many cultures as uniquely and definitively their own.

And then there are the international desserts: panettone, stollen, bûche de Noël, plum pudding, cookies, pastries, cakes, and candies of every stripe – the list is endless. Recently, a Swedish friend excitedly told me about risgrynsgröt. Her eyes practically lit up as she described the Christmas rice pudding served with thick, sweet fruit sauce (she said grape, I’ve read raspberry and red currant, but I can’t help but think lingonberry would nail it) that she so cherished.

In any event, in an attempt to maintain the culinary holiday momentum, I decided to venture into Brooklyn’s Little Odessa in Brighton Beach to see what Russian goodies I could find. Christmas hadn’t yet arrived there, so I was just in time for the festivities.

(Russians celebrate Christmas? Indeed they do, every January 7th. The Russian Orthodox Church still uses the old Julian calendar, therefore its Christmas celebration falls thirteen days behind that of the West. A little history: In the 17th century, Peter the Great brought Christmas to Russia, but after the revolution in 1917, religion was outlawed. Not about to give up their joyous tradition, Russians continued to decorate their trees in secret, until finally in 1935 the Soviet government gave in and sanctioned the practice – but as part of a New Year celebration! Call it what you will, Russians happily trimmed their “New Year Trees” until 1992, when it was again permissible to celebrate Christmas openly and Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter, Snow Maiden, could freely distribute presents to delighted children all across Russia.)

So off I went to Brighton Beach Avenue in search of holiday fare. There are two ways to spot Russian markets in that part of Brooklyn. The first is by their prominent signage touting “International Food” on the awning. Not “Russian Food”, not “Eastern European Food”, not “Ukrainian Food” or the like. Nope. Always “International Food”, as if hiding in plain sight. The second way, of course, is that everything is written in Russian with almost no English to be found. Russian is easy to identify as it is written using the Cyrillic alphabet. Essentially, when you look at Russian printing, you think that if only you had a mirror to hold up to it, you could probably read it.

Now, being a dedicated ethnojunkie, I dabble in a bunch of languages, “dabble” being the operative – and even then, rather generously applied – word. But I dabble mostly in food words in those languages. That means that I have vocabularies rich in nouns with precious few verbs to indicate what I want to do with them. For example, I can point to some stuffed dumpling temptation and say, “Что это? Мясо? Сыр?” (“What’s this? Meat? Cheese?”) Invariably, of course, that begets a rapid fire description of the tidbit in Russian which is my cue to gesture that I’d like one of each, please, and hightail it out of the store before any further inquisitions are levied upon me. I have just enough of a language to get into trouble, but not enough to get out of it.

Wandering into the prepared food department of one store, I spied a pint-sized plastic container of an unfamiliar grayish, soupy substance. Naturally, I was compelled to inquire.

“Что это?” I tried.

“Кутя,” came the response.

“Koot-YAH?” I echoed back.

“Да,” she nodded in the affirmative.

At this point, I realized that my reach had far exceeded my grasp. My Russian is as broken as a set of nesting matryoshka dolls missing two bodies and a head. Futilely, I retreated to English.

“What’s in it?”

The patient, smiling woman behind the counter tore off a piece of butcher paper and wrote out “пшеница” for me. I read the letters slowly trying to pronounce the word. “Pshenitsa?” I asked. Detecting my curiosity, an even more helpful staffer went out of her way to grab a bag of wheat berries so she could point to the English word “wheat” to help me understand.

Needless to say, I bought a pint of the stuff and quickly took it home to do a little research and a lot of tasting. I learned that kutya is one of the most important dishes in Russian Christmas eve’s family feast. Best described as a porridge, it’s made from wheat berries, poppy seeds, honey, and customarily includes chopped walnuts and raisins. The wheat berries symbolize immortality and hope, the honey and poppy seeds represent happiness, tranquility, and success. It is eaten from a single shared bowl to connote unity, and a ceremonial blessing of the home often takes place. There’s a tradition among some families that involves flinging a spoonful of kutya up to the ceiling. Legend has it that if it sticks, this year’s honey harvest will be bountiful. (Kids, don’t try this at home!)

Most of the markets along Brighton Beach Avenue have their own recipe for kutya, each a little different from the last and all delicious, but never really straying from the main ingredients. The four that I’ve tried (ahem!) can be characterized as having a gruel-like, soupy texture, not as integrated as oatmeal, but almost thick enough to eat with a fork. They’re sweet from the honey and raisins, crunchy from the wheat berries and nuts, and distinctive and delectable from the poppy seeds. Kutya can be eaten warm or cold and is now one of my must-haves for the holiday season.

Personally, I think it makes a righteous breakfast. That is, when I’m not devouring the last of the panettone!

С Новым Годом!

 
 

Rumpumpumpom – A Christmas Cocktail

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Okay, I freely admit it. As a countermeasure against COVID stress and concomitant dumbfounding national politics, I started listening to Christmas music earlier this year. Much earlier. Like when it was still light out at 8pm.

It seemed that every day brought some new, depressing wrinkle to the headlines, and in order to survive, many folks went on a quest to find something, anything, that would provide some meaning, a dependable sense of personal stability. For me, at least, there was comfort to be gleaned from hearing the cozy, ageless tunes of a generally happier time that, unlike the news, required no rapt attention, songs that just droned their continual backdrop of falalalalas, hohohos, and parumpumpumpoms.

Now, the essence of an earworm is repetition. Rumpumpumpom. Taken out of context, what does rumpumpumpom even mean? From its relentless, nagging reiteration, I kept sensing that the word itself was on a quest to find its own meaning – that sense induced, to be sure, because it was five o’clock Somewhere – another prophylactic conceit that has gained popularity during these times – and my appreciation for that pastime led me to conclude that the rumpumpumpom conundrum would be solved if only it had a proper definition.

And now it does.

Behold the Rumpumpumpom, my custom Christmas cocktail.

Start with a base of RUM mixed with Hood PUMpkin eggnog, in proportions to taste and proximity to the aforementioned hour of the day. Float a glug of POMegranate juice into the mixture and drag a toothpick (or similar) through it to create a festive holiday design (admittedly not my strong suit). Garnish with PUMpkin seeds. Et voilà: Rumpumpumpom with a raison d’être.

Much to my surprise, it actually worked. Rum and nog are a classic couple and the tangy tartness of the pomegranate juice cut the sweetness of the pumpkin eggnog. By the time I had finished tinkering, it was eight o’clock Somewhere and by then I was easily entertained by the red juice and green seeds accidentally providing unintended Christmassy accents. Time for some photos and a few final taste tests.

And now…it is midnight Somewhere. The quest has been fulfilled, the music has run its course, the room is silent and serene.
 
 
And Somewhere, Someone with more artistic talent and a steadier hand could no doubt squiggle a Paloma Picasso-esque Christmas tree to float atop this libation, perhaps even trimmed with a solitary pomegranate ruby at its apex — and we would toast the holiday together.
 
 
A boy can dream.
 
 
 
 

Panettone! Pannetone! Pannettone!

Originally published in 2017, this post has been updated for 2019 and 2020.

One of these things is not like the others, or so the song goes. In this case, the outlier is the first Panettone, the only orthographically correct version of the subject of this post. To tell the truth, the two imposters share the spotlight only by way of capitulation to less-than-forgiving search engines (and not as a sly reference to the 90s R&B/soul group) because it is my mission to ensure that everyone falls in love with this gift to the culinary arts as deeply, passionately, and yes, obsessively as I have.

You’re all familiar with panettone, right? That Italian (Milanese, specifically) sweet, fruity, fluffy cake that’s usually consumed for the holidays (Christmas, specifically) but can be enjoyed year-round by ardent aficionados (me, specifically).

Fanciful spellings aside, you’ll find panettone in most markets around Christmastime and in Italian specialty shops year round (fortunately for us). A little digging uproots an extended family tree including pandoro, pandolce, panforte, panpepato, and pangiallo. The last four differ radically from the subject of our discourse so for the sake of completeness, let’s dispatch them straightaway:

• Pandolce, “sweet bread”, hails from Genoa, and unlike gossamer panettone is dense and somewhat crumbly like a cookie.
• Panforte, “strong bread”, is neither breadlike nor cakey; it’s more of a dense, chewy fruit paste, spicy and sweet. I sometimes serve it as an accompaniment to a cheese plate.
• Panpepato, “peppered bread”, is a subset of panforte, gingery, nutty, and covered with chocolate.
• Pangiallo, “yellow bread”, is Rome’s challenger. Sometimes saffron infused, often laden with chocolate and always dense with dried fruit, I know this one only by repute.

Now that we’ve dispelled any confusion regarding the distant cugini, we can focus on the object of our affection. Our goal is to determine which style and brand you like the best. We’ll start with style; the two you’re most likely to encounter are panettone, the pride of Milan and pandoro, Verona’s answer to it.

The story of how panettone gets its name is the stuff of which legend is made but I frankly don’t find any of the fables particularly convincing. One tale recounts that in 15th century Milan, a delicious bread was crafted that incorporated yeast, an ingredient so dear in that era that it earned the moniker “pane di tono”, literally “luxury cake” – feasible, except that every Italian dictionary I own or found on the interwebs fails to suggest “luxury” as a definition for tono. But I suppose Italian was different back then.

Another more linguistically stringent contender avers that since pane means bread or cake, adding the diminutive suffix -etto turns it into a small loaf cake and then appending the augmentative suffix -one renders it large, thus describing a “large small loaf cake”. Really? But I suppose whimsy was different back then.

Yet another narrative tells of the Duke of Milan’s cook who having prepared an otherwise sumptuous repast disastrously burned the dessert. Fortunately, the young kitchen apprentice, Toni, proposed that they serve the sweet cake he had made for his own breakfast. Delighted, the Duke requested the name of the delicious cake, the cook replied “il pane di Toni”, and the rest is history. I don’t know about you, but if I had concocted so splendid a treat for my breakfast, none would have been kicking around the kitchen come dinnertime – not to mention the fact that the preparation of panettone is a time consuming, arduous process and not something one hastily throws together for breakfast like a bagel with a schmear. But I suppose panettone was different back then.

Less about folklore and more about traditional religious ritual, the people of Milan save a piece of their Christmas panettone, have it blessed and eat it on February 3, the morning after Candlemas which for them heralds the end of the Christmas season. Known as the Feast of San Biagio, it celebrates the saga of St. Blaise as he saved the life of a boy who was choking on a fish bone by feeding him bread in order to dislodge the bone. Eating panettone for breakfast that day therefore pays homage to the “protector of the throat”, patron saint of throats and noses, and ensures that his followers will be safeguarded against colds and sore throats in the upcoming year. Who needs a flu shot when you have such a delicious excuse to enjoy more panettone?

Enough history; what’s it like? The shape is that of a domed, squat cylinder, about 5–6 inches high, 8–9 inches in diameter, typically baked in a pan lined with a ring of corrugated, often brown, paper. Based on a sweet risen dough, it’s airy, eggy, buttery, moist and so light that it practically floats; it pulls apart almost like cotton candy although you’ll want to slice it with a serrated knife. The classic version is stippled with candied citron and raisins and often sports an almond or hazelnut glaze.

Many other less traditional but still delicious flavors abound including pistachio, sour cherry, mixed berry, pineapple, peach, apricot, pear, bits of chocolate, moscato wine, limoncello, zuppa inglese, tiramisu, crema pasticcera (custard), and combinations thereof including varieties without candied fruit.

I’ve seen numerous recipes with recommendations for what to do with leftover panettone. “Leftover panettone” is an oxymoron and bears no further discussion here. I will admit, albeit grudgingly, that you can freeze it, but only if it’s wrapped extremely well.

Like so many cultural dichotomies such as Coke vs Pepsi, the Beatles vs the Stones, the Addams Family vs the Munsters, and Mary Ann vs Ginger, there are those who champion Verona’s pandoro (“golden bread”) over Milan’s panettone. The texture of pandoro is a little denser than that of panettone but not as dense as pound cake. Also sweet and buttery, touched with vanilla, they are customarily devoid of candied fruit or decadent chocolate and creamy fillings; on occasion, you might detect a delicate whisper of other flavorings like anisette or lemon zest. Picture a two-dimensional eight-pointed star, extruded upwards conically into three dimensions and taller than a panettone; it is often presented with nothing more than a sprinkling of powdered sugar to resemble the snow-covered Alps in winter. If you insist on inventing more complex dishes using “leftover” Italian Christmas breads and cakes, the more modest pandoro lends itself better than panettone to the addition of crème fraîche, mascarpone, whipped cream, custard and fresh fruits, or the likes of Nutella – since panettone is, after all, perfection straight out of its wrapper (in my not so humble opinion, of course 😉).

Now on to brand. Like everything in the food world, it should always be about what you like personally and individually, not about what somebody tells you you should like. Each brand has its own flavor and texture, let alone unique varieties. Over the years I’ve eaten my way through mountains (think Alps) of these treats and I’ve found what I consider to be the very best: Albertengo brand Panettone Tradizionale Glassato (traditional glazed) – but they’re almost impossible to find in New York. So I wrote to the nice folks at Albertengo in Italy in buoyant English and foundering Italian and they turned me on to the one place in the city that stocks the stuff: Nicola’s Specialty Foods. The photo at the top of the page shows this morning’s breakfast: Albertengo Tradizionale Glassato – la colazione dei campioni!

I consider myself fortunate to be a regular attendee at the Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food Show every year here in New York City. Featuring thousands of new products from the US and internationally, they’re considered North America’s hottest place to catch the latest in specialty foods. Needless to report, at the 2017 show, I spent a good deal of discerning time in Italy’s pavilion checking out the panettoni both for flavor and to determine where retail outlets will be. After all, when I find a winner, you need to know how to score some!

 
Update:

Nicola’s has gone the way of all estimable suppliers of specialty wares, so to feed my habit, I needed to find a new dealer (as it were). Having exhausted the search at local (and not-so-local) brick and mortar purveyors of panettoni for my favorite brand and style, I had no choice but to turn to the interwebs. Sure, there were plenty of panettoni to be found, but sadly, not the one I was jonesing for. A few sites did list it accompanied by the legend, “Currently unavailable. We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.” Not very helpful. Crestfallen, I did sample other contenders, but none measured up to my vision of perfection.

Not long after, a pair of social media friends, hardcore foodies who appreciate the good stuff, contacted me. They had been visiting Montreal and returned bearing an enormous 22-pound panettone made by Loison Pasticceri, a company headquartered in Italy, family-owned for three generations and passionate specialists in panettoni, pandori, and the like. Aware of my addiction, they invited me to their home to partake of this mammoth masterpiece.


Not to put too fine a point on “mammoth”, but that’s a shiny quarter down there.

One taste and I was hooked. That day, two delightful things happened: I finally met this charming couple IRL and I found new love in Loison. Fortunately, Loison’s products were easy to purchase on the web. Too easy, perhaps. Although I prudently ordered them sequentially, all told, I probably bought more than I should have.

The first shipment was the Classico, tasting very much like the Albertengo version in the photo at the top of this post. Sweet and fluffy with an unadorned crown, laden with raisins and candied orange and citron, it was terrific.


The second was Mandorlato (almond), similar to the Classico but with the addition of an almond glaze topping, generously bedecked with whole almonds and sweet, crunchy pearl sugar bits not unlike the Easter Colomba di Pasqua I posted about here.


The third to arrive at my table was the Regal Cioccolato, shot through with bits of chocolate and channels of chocolate cream. Superbly chocolatey and happily in perfect balance with the cake.


The fourth was NeroSale: Cioccolato e Caramello Salato (chocolate and salted caramel). Now, I tend to be a purist about certain foods, so I reckoned that this wasn’t the one that would take the cake, but it may have been the best of the four (all of which were excellent) – and certainly the most outrageous.

The fifth is what I’m going to plead if you ask me if I really bought four panettoni this year.

It’s 2020. What can I say?
 
 

Happy Diwali (2020)

(Originally posted in October, 2019. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope – and prices may vary.)

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The 2019 Collection

Dear Friends,

I can no longer keep this to myself. I am an addict, hooked on mithai. What’s that? You don’t know about mithai? Mithai are Indian sweets and since Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, is upon us, I can think of no better time than now to tell you my tale. So gather round your diyas and check out my post “Indian Sweets 101: Meeting Mithai” right here on ethnojunkie.com!
 
 
दिवाली मुबारक
Happy Diwali!
 
 

Dia de los Muertos

(Originally posted on October 31, 2019. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope – and prices may vary.)

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You’ve heard it before: “Oh, Día de los Muertos is Mexican Halloween, right?”

Wrong. Día de los Muertos is decidedly not Mexican Halloween any more than Chanukah is Jewish Christmas and if any unenlightened soul tries to tell you that, please disabuse them of that fallacious notion inmediatamente!

The Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead, is celebrated from October 31 through November 2 – and “celebrated” is the proper word: families congregate to memorialize loved ones who have passed away, but it is seen as a time when the departed temporarily revivify and join in the revelry rather than as a sorrowful occasion. Additionally, these days Día de Muertos, as it is also known, serves as a paean to the indigenous people with whom it originated in pre-Hispanic times.

So I headed out to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to get myself into the Día de los Muertos spirit. Sequin-eyed, neon icing-coiffed calaveras (sugar skulls) are relatively easy to find in the neighborhood; this one came from Panadería La Espiga Real, 5717 5th Avenue. Although spirits don’t eat, this one seemed particularly interested in the pan de muerto I picked up at La Flor de Izucar, 4021 5th Avenue.

This bread of the dead is customarily embossed with bone shapes, sometimes crossbones, sometimes in a circle, and other traditional embellishments such as skulls and a single teardrop. It’s a barely sweet, simple bun (like so many Mexican panes dulces), light and airy with a tight crumb, and topped with sesame seeds or sugar (like this one) with hints of cinnamon, anise, and orange flower water.


Above: A view of the inner sanctum.
 
 

Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 2020

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A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a spectacular assemblage of mooncakes (月餅, yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated this year (the Year of the Rat) on October 1. Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Chinatown’s Fay Da Bakery.

To learn more about the holiday and these delicious treats, please check out my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified post detailing their similarities and differences in an attempt to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.
中秋节快乐!
 
 

Ramadan 2020

Instagram Post 5/20-22/2020

 
Three posts from last year’s celebration of Ramadan which concludes this year on May 23.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

This is sellou (سلّو, aka sfouf or zmita), a unique unbaked Moroccan sweet made from toasted flour and ground almonds, sesame seeds, sugar or honey, cinnamon, and anise; as you’d expect, recipes vary from family to family. At Nablus Sweets, 6812 5th Ave, Brooklyn, I spotted a huge brown mountain of it and purchased a small knoll, broken here into two little hillocks. It’s soft in texture, somewhere along the cookie<–>brownie continuum but drier, crumbly but crunchy from nuts. Simply break off a chunk and enjoy, perhaps with a cup of tea.

If your knowledge of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean sweets is informed primarily by honey drenched baklava and kanafeh, give this one a try (available particularly around Ramadan); I highly recommend it.


Little Egypt Restaurant, 66-28 Fresh Pond Road, Ridgewood, featured a special dessert coinciding with Mother’s Day last year: Om Ali (you might see umm ali), أم على. The phrase translates as “Ali’s mother” and of course, fables abound as to its name. Essentially Egypt’s answer to bread pudding (only better if you ask me), it’s made with phyllo dough, milk (and occasionally, richer dairy considerations) and sugar, sometimes elevated with raisins, nuts, and cinnamon. There are legions of recipes for this traditional Ramadan treat; that day, our delightful version came with sour cream and ground nuts on the side for garnish, ad libitum.


On a visit last year to Tashkent Market at 713 Brighton Beach Ave in Brooklyn, I picked up some nishallo (aka nisholda), an exceedingly sweet dessert that’s native to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and prepared exclusively during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Made primarily from sugar, whipped egg whites, and water, it’s a dead-on ringer for Marshmallow Fluff (as you’d expect from the ingredients) if perhaps a bit classier because of a touch of star anise and/or licorice root. It makes its appearance as part of iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast. Frequently used as a dip for the flatbread naan, it’s particularly appropriate after 17 hours of abstention from eating because its high sugar content jumpstarts the metabolism.

Ramadan Mubarak!
 
 

Cooking in the Time of COVID – Cinco de Mayo

Instagram Post 5/5/2020

 
👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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Oh no! It’s Cinco de Mayo (I was sure it was still April) AND I haven’t given up trying to cook with whatever is on hand rather than running off to the supermarket for fresh supplies. I hadn’t counted on a double challenge, but there was still some Oaxacan mole in the freezer, I could shred the leftover chicken, and since sheltering in place began, flour tortillas are always within reach. Quesadillas it shall be.

Veggies 🤔. Using what’s here, esquites, the Mexican street food favorite, would be a good candidate: grilled corn with garlic, jalapeños, scallions, cilantro, crema (or mayonnaise) and lime juice topped with crumbled cotija cheese (or something akin to it 😉) and tajín.

This is actually going to be good! Would it be cheating if I just run across the street to the convenience store to grab a bag of corn chips? They’d be picture perfect alongside the quesadilla. That’s not the same order of magnitude as a supermarket expedition, right? I succumbed to the whim (not to mention a pint of Ben & Jerry’s), and placed the chips on the kitchen counter next to the lime, both slated for garnish duty.

Enthusiastic about what promised to be an Instaworthy photo, I carried the plate into the living room and set it in front of the one window in my apartment that gets any decent natural light. Rotating it and the camera (and myself), I snapped a bunch of pics and finally managed to snag one that was reasonably well lit. I rewarded myself with a couple of bites of the quesadilla and a forkful of esquites and brought it back to the kitchen where the forgotten chips and lime were still patiently waiting to be pressed into service, too late, alas, for plating.
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And here they are, still on the counter, presented as proof that since it’s on the Internet, it happened.

Sometimes I just can’t catch a break.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

La Colomba di Pasqua

Instagram Post 4/14/2020

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Two notable celebrations of the season, Easter and Passover, are concomitant this year. It’s no coincidence that the Italian word for Easter (pasqua) and the Hebrew word for Passover (pesach) are closely related, although culinarily the holidays couldn’t be more disparate. During this time of year, Jewish families are expunging their homes of even the most minuscule crumb of anything leavened, and Italians are baking Easter breads like they’re going out of style.

Italy’s traditional seasonal bread is La Colomba di Pasqua (“The Easter Dove”), and it is essentially Lombardy’s Eastertime answer to Milan’s Christmastime panettone. These deliciously sweet, cakey breads, in some ways Italy’s gift to coffeecake but so much better, are fundamentally the same except for two significant distinctions: the colomba is baked in the shape of the iconic dove that symbolizes both the resurrection and peace, and the recipes diverge with the colomba’s dense topping of almonds and crunchy pearl sugar glaze. Traditionally, a colomba lacks raisins, favoring only candied orange or citron peel, but as with panettone, fanciful flavors (including some with raisins) proliferate.

The first photo shows a colomba in all its avian splendor. Frankly, I think it’s a leap of faith to discern a dove in there, but if you can detect one, you may have just performed your own miracle.


Hard pressed to see the dove? Fret not, for this photo has the cake turned upside down so the columbine form is somewhat more evident.


And a version that features bits of chocolate and dried peaches within and crunchy crushed amaretto cookies atop.

Just wondering: There’s no debate that American kids bite the ears off their chocolate Easter bunnies first. Do you suppose that Italian children start with the head, tail, or wings of the colomba?