Nowruz

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about observing New Year’s Day in January or February or September, but you have to admit that it does seem eminently logical to herald the inauguration of a new year on the first day of spring, doesn’t it?

And that’s exactly what Nowruz is about: literally “new day” in Farsi, it’s celebrated in Iran and the Persian diaspora on the vernal equinox, around March 20. There is a multitude of holiday conventions practiced for Nowruz, some of which harmonize with universal rites of spring including “shaking the house”, a preparatory spring cleaning, and painting eggs in festive colors (sound familiar?) and of course a cavalcade of traditional foods.

Pictured here is my homemade fesenjan, a splendid dish often earmarked for special occasions. Fesenjan is a koresh, a thick stew, sometimes made with chicken, sometimes with duck like this one; the other two essential ingredients are walnuts and pomegranates in some form – my version uses pomegranate molasses although I’ve seen pomegranate juice pressed into service as well. It’s served here with saffron rice in a supporting but essential role. (And that’s my grandmother’s serving dish if you’re curious.)

But fesenjan is distinctly Persian and other cultures commemorate the holiday with very different foods. Stay tuned for more….
 
 

Sfingi for St. Joseph’s Day

It seems like every world cuisine has its own version of fried dough – Zeppole are Italy’s contender. You’ve probably seen them at street festivals or perhaps you were fortunate enough to have grown up watching your nonna make them as she confidentially disclosed her signature special ingredient, amore, which of course elevated hers above all others. They’re usually dusted with a sprinkle of powdered sugar but on occasion are dressed with a shot of pastry cream.

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These first cousins are sfingi (pronounced SFEEN-jee), Sicily’s answer to Neapolitan zeppole, although the two are not mutually exclusive. Sfingi are fried cream puffs filled with cannoli cream and can be found in Italian-American bakeries in celebration of Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19, honoring the husband of the Virgin Mary. (BTW, I’ve seen recipes that call for baking them, but….No.) This pair, chocolate on the left, bursting with ricotta-based, cinnamon-inflected, sweet cannoli cream shot through with mini chocolate bits, came from Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St in Brooklyn.

The inside scoop:

Crunchy crispitude.


Puffy and floofy.
 
 

Holi Mubarak!

(Originally published on Holi in 2019.)

The Equal Opportunity Celebrant strikes again, eating my way through Holi today, the Hindu festival of spring and colors celebrated predominantly in India and Nepal. Prowling around the Indian neighborhood in Jackson Heights yesterday in search of traditional Holi treats, I enjoyed watching children choosing packets of powder in every color of the rainbow to sparge at anything in their path, thus producing a glorious festive mess. The holiday recounts the heartwarming legend of Krishna coloring his face for Radha, his love, and heralds the arrival of spring.

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Jalebi are one of the most widely available Indian mithai (you can read about my addiction to them here); they’re made from chickpea or wheat flour batter, usually orange but occasionally yellow (no difference in flavor, just a color preference) which is drizzled into hot oil in coil shapes. The resulting deep fried confections look like pretzels; they’re crispy when they come out of the oil, then they’re soaked in super sweet syrup so you get the best of both worlds. For Holi, however, jalebi get the royal treatment; this one is about 7 inches in diameter and generously adorned with edible silver foil, sliced almonds and pistachios. Because this sticky jumbo jalebi (jalumbi? jalembo?) is larger and thicker than the standard issue version, it provides more crunch and holds more syrup in each bite so it’s even more over the top, if such a thing is possible.


This is gujiya (you might see gujia), a classic Holi sweet, half-moon shaped and similar to a deep-fried samosa. Crunchy outside and soft within, it’s filled with sweetened khoa (milk solids), ground nuts, grated coconut, whole fruits and nuts (raisins and cashews in this one), cumin seeds, and a bit of suji (semolina) for texture.

These Holi day treats came from Maharaja Sweets, 73-10 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, Queens.

Holi Mubarak! Have a blessed Holi!
 
 

St. Patrick’s Day

I checked into Wikipedia before I started writing this to see what gaps in my knowledge of Irish cuisine might exist: the extensive article boasted almost 9,000 words and explored the cuisine beginning with its roots in the prehistoric Mesolithic Period (8000–4000 BC)! So for the sake of our mutual sanity, we’re going to stick with Irish food that I actually know and love.

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Some dishes are quintessentially Irish like colcannon (potatoes and cabbage), bacon and cabbage (which begat corned beef and cabbage), Irish stew (traditionally mutton and potatoes), boxty (a potato pancake), coddle (sausage, bacon, and potatoes), black pudding and white pudding (sausages), shepherd’s pie, and more.

But in honor of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, here is a favorite that does not include meat, potatoes or cabbage: Irish soda bread. Baking soda activated by buttermilk takes the place of yeast as a leavening agent in this delicacy; that accounts for its delicate, crumbly texture and puts it somewhere along the bread <-> cake continuum.


I purchased this sweet raisin-studded beauty from Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St in Brooklyn, and it was truly outstanding. It’s served here with Irish cheddar cheese, radicchio marmalade (a change up from the traditional coarse cut orange) and whipped butter.

Excellent, as always.
 
 

Purim 2022

The Jewish holiday Purim begins this year (it’s 5782 according to the Jewish calendar) on Wednesday evening, March 16, and ends on the following Thursday evening. Although the photos in this post were originally published a year ago, some things never change. Tradition!

The story of Purim memorializes the time in ancient Jewish history when Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus of Persia, had been plotting to exterminate all the Jews in the empire. His plan was thwarted by Mordecai and Queen Esther, his adopted daughter, and the deliverance is one of joyful celebration, steeped in traditional ceremonies and festivities. Among the many icons of the holiday, one of the most renowned is the hamantasch, literally “Haman’s pocket”.

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Hamantaschen are delicious triangular baked pastries conventionally filled with thick prune jam (lekvar) or ground poppy seeds (muhn), but these days creative cookery presents some serious competition. Happily, the always mind-blowing Breads Bakery with four locations in Manhattan, covers the entire spectrum. On this plate, there’s sweet poppy seed, halva, chocolate, and apple along with a pair of savory challengers, purple haze and pizza. The former, covered in sesame and nigella seeds, holds sauerkraut – a little sweetish and worth a bite even if you don’t care for sauerkraut. The latter is filled with a blend of tomato paste, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, basil, garlic, and olive oil and tastes exactly like what you’d expect with that set of ingredients; try warming this one up. Fusion food for sure. This year’s specialties are apple, apricot, poppy, chocolate, and pizza with walnut pesto.


Sometimes a change of focus helps to make a point – or six.
 
 

Sanguinaccio Dolce

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An equal opportunity celebrant, I’m always keen to learn about traditional foods that are associated with religious holidays. Lent, the forty day period that begins today with Ash Wednesday and ends just before Easter Sunday, is celebrated in southern Italy with an unusual delicacy called Sanguinaccio Dolce, a sweet (“dolce”) dessert pudding made with pig’s blood (“sangue”) although some bakeries around these parts opt for beef blood. (For the faint of heart <groan> bloodless versions can be found.)

Now don’t go running off: if you follow me you know that I wrote a piece for Edible Queens suggesting that durian pizza is the gateway drug for durian, the much maligned tropical fruit. I propose that sanguinaccio dolce fulfills the same role for food crafted with blood as an ingredient. Numerous cultures are at home with it – blood rice cakes in China, blood pancakes in Sweden, dinuguan in the Philippines, as well as sausages in Great Britain and Ireland, morcilla in Spanish speaking countries worldwide, boudin in France, and so many more in Northern and Eastern Europe. Pretty much everywhere actually. And you also know that I only recommend truly tasty food; I have never been one to embrace the sensationalism of “Look what gross thing I just ate!” No. This is genuinely delicious.

An expertly crafted version tastes like a rich, dense, dark chocolate pudding that carries notes of cinnamon and bits of candied orange peel, pine nuts and sliced almonds. There is no hint of minerally blood flavor. It’s often served with savoiardi, crisp ladyfingers, but a spoon will suffice. The pasticciotto sports a tender shortbread crust with a kiss of lemon and is filled with sanguinaccio. These two examples came from Morrone Pastry Shop at 2349 Arthur Ave in the Bronx last year but it can be found at other hardcore Italian bakeries as well.

If, like me, you appreciate the concept of snout-to-tail cooking and decry food waste, you should look into this. But if you just want to sample the richest, most delicious Italian dark chocolate pudding you’ve ever tasted, you need to give this a chance. Unless of course you just don’t like chocolate pudding at all, in which case move along, nothing to eat here.

#bloodydelicious (couldn’t resist 😉)
 
 

C’est Mardi Gras!

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C’est Mardi Gras! Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Ou en anglais, it’s Fat Tuesday! Let the good times roll!) The “fat” descriptor signals the last chance to consume indulgent, rich, high-calorie foods before the spartan Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday. Needless to say, New Orleans pulls out all the stops for its annual celebration with a virtual parade of Creole and Cajun culinary delights on display.

This is homemade Jambalaya, a rice dish that typically features spicy andouille sausage along with other meats or seafood. I’ve used chicken as the supporting player here, but in the past I’ve made it more traditionally with shrimp – that was back when you didn’t have to take out a mortgage to buy it. The Creole version contains tomatoes, the Cajun style that I’ve prepared here does not, but both incorporate a significant measure of spice. I start with a base of diced onions, celery, and bell peppers known as “the trinity” in Cajun cooking; it’s akin to mirepoix in French cuisine which consists of onions, celery, and carrots, or sofrito in other cultures where ingredients vary by geography – but whatever the provenance, it’s all about that base.


On the side, I made another popular Louisiana specialty, maque choux, a mélange of fresh corn, bell peppers, onions, celery, and tomatoes cooked up in bacon fat with more Cajun spices and a little cream at the end to ensure the proper degree of decadence.

Tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday post will feature a Lenten delicacy (sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?) that’s bloody delicious! Stay tuned….
 
 

It’s National Khachapuri Day in Georgia!

(That’s Georgia, the former USSR country, not Georgia, the US state of course!)

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Khachapuri is a traditional Georgian bread filled with cheese and unequivocally one of the country’s greatest culinary hits; the name leaves no doubt as to the nature of the dish: khacha means cheese curds, puri means bread. As a matter of fact, it’s so universally beloved that the Gastronomic Association of Georgia created National Khachapuri Day, celebrated every February 27, to honor the dish as a symbol of the country’s gastronomic culture and to promote culinary tourism in Georgia.

Two of my favorites among at least a dozen types of khachapuri that I’ve encountered are adjaruli and megruli.


This is adjaruli, filled with tangy, salty sulguni cheese and imeruli, a fresh crumbly cheese which when melted together combine to make stretchy, cheesy nirvana; recipes vary, but it’s always delicious. It’s shaped like a kayak, the center of which is filled with the cheese mixture; a raw egg and a chunk of butter are added just as it’s removed from the oven. Stir the mixture: the egg cooks and combines with the butter and hot, melted cheese. Break off pieces of the bread and dip them into the cheese mixture. Now picture hot bread with melted buttery cheese that you eat with your hands, fresh out of the oven – what’s not to like?


Megruli is a little more self-contained: cheese bread filled with cheese and then topped with more cheese and baked. Did I mention cheese? Think Georgian stuffed pizza.

If you’ve never sampled these magnificent delicacies, you should definitely join one of my food tours through Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach area, also known as Little Odessa, where we’ll taste at least one kind of khachapuri – maybe even achma, a kind of decadent, buttery, cheesy, lasagna-like (but sans tomato sauce), Georgian comfort food. Tempted? Click on Ethnojunkets at the top of any page on my website for more information; now that the COVID-19 crisis appears to be waning and seasonal temperatures are waxing, my tours will be starting up soon. Hope to see you then!

 
 

Open Heart Sugary – or, the Anatomy of a Valentine Cookie

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These are Red Currant Raspberry Linzer Cookies, first cousins of Austria’s Linzer Tart – traditionally, I do stars for Christmas and hearts for Valentine’s Day. This particular batch began months earlier with the acquisition of red currants and raspberries when they were in season followed by a little time spent prepping and cooking them up. It’s a lot easier than you’d expect and the filling keeps for quite a while in the fridge while you’re procrastinating doing the fussy part. If you’re not a fanatic, however, I can recommend Hero Red Currant Premium Fruit Spread; I’ve had pretty good luck with it – it just needs a bit of finessing via the addition of some red raspberry jam to achieve the degree of sweetness you’re after plus some straining.


The dough calls for flour, sugar, and butter, of course, plus finely ground blanched almonds, almond extract, and lemon zest. Start by baking equal numbers of fronts and backs.

Occasionally a front or back will fracture which then perforce spells doom for its perfectly intact intended mate, but sadly, I’ve never found an effective way to repair a broken heart. Sometimes, you just have to eat your losses. This is an example of how culinary art reflects life. But hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.


Look closely at the finished cookies in the first photo and you’ll see that the powdered sugar blankets only the outer section of the heart while the inner red lifeblood of this classic treat shines through unobstructed. Now, examine the above photo and follow along to see how I do it:

Bottom rows:
Starting with solid backs, use a plastic squeeze bottle to add preserves around the perimeter but not in the center. (Neatness doesn’t count.) Match tops to bottoms.

Top rows:
Let it snow, let it snow, etc. Note the unfilled but sugary centers. Next, squirt a blob of preserves into the cutout thereby hiding the powdered sugar.

Now, here’s the painstakingly obsessive step (why do I do these things?): then and only then, for each cookie, carefully use a toothpick to smooth out any less than perfect curves of the inner heart, et voilà! Your cookies will look like those in the first photo. Maybe better. (Why can’t they make Photoshop for food?)
 
 
When the cookies are complete and have been packed away, your workspace will look like this one, post-sugaring and pre-cleanup, an exercise in negative space.

And the beat goes on.
 
 

Chinese New Year 4720 (2022)

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)The two-week long Chinese celebration of the Lunar New Year begins today – it’s 4720, the Year of the Tiger. The Tiger is known for his strength, bravery, and particularly his ability to purge evil – and if ever we needed that specific set of superpowers, it’s now.

But even COVID can’t stop us from embracing all of the traditions that make this holiday so extraordinary. One that I particularly enjoy is the way in which wordplay and homophones factor into the selection of traditional foods specially prepared to mark the occasion. For example, at festive gatherings a whole fish will be served, because the word for fish (yu) is a homophone for surpluses.

So since I could definitely use some surpluses right now, I’ve made a whole steamed fish stuffed with ginger and scallions and bedecked with even more julienned fresh ginger, scallions, chives, and cilantro for the centerpiece. Accompanying the star of the show were snow peas and black mushrooms in black bean sauce, and char siu fried rice (homemade char siu, to be sure).

Now, if you read me, you know that of course there’s a backstory that involves the preparation of this feast, and I’m going to save the near miss details for a future post. But there is a Lunar New Year story I would like to share with you now, one I wrote a few zodiac signs ago, a mystery involving a particular nian gao (the traditional sweet rice cake and a homophone for high year) that resonates to this day. It’s all in my very short story, “The Case of the Uncrackable Case!”

新年快乐! Xīnnián kuàilè!
恭喜发财! Gong hei fat choy!