Posted by Hava Volterra
I recently read a comment from cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi saying that he considers cauliflower an under-appreciated vegetable, and is focused on finding more ways to use it. I find that statement enlightening, and completely agree. Here’s why:
When assembling a meal, we often want to add a neutral side dish that serves as a counterpoint to the main, highly flavorful dish. That’s the primary purpose of rice in Chinese and Indian cuisine, of potatoes in French and American cuisine, of couscous in Moroccan cuisine, of bulgur wheat in Syrian cuisine, and of bread and its variants throughout much of the world. These basics go well with almost any dish. Often, however, I find myself searching for variants on these staples that are lighter, lower in calories, and yet are nutrient dense, natural and truly tasty.
Of all the vegetables in the Mediterranean palette, cauliflower fits that role best. In fact one of the most popular side dishes at our kitchen is our cauliflower puree. We make it in the same way you’d make mashed potatoes (blended with a little milk and butter), but instead of potatoes we use cauliflower. Many people have told me they find it even better than regular mashed potatoes, and of course it’s much lighter. And it has that same great characteristic of rice, and mashed potatoes, and bread. It’s the perfect companion to almost any main dish.
Similarly, cauliflower gratin is delicious, and yet much lighter than its potato equivalent. Want to indulge? Dip your cauliflower in egg and breadcrumbs and saute it – you’ll might find you like it even more than French fries. My father once explained to me what he considered unique about bread: You never get tired of it, it’s easy to eat often, and in large quantities. The same can be said about rice, about potatoes, and couscous, and as it turns out, about cauliflower. Cauliflower is also surprisingly nutrient rich. A cup of cauliflower (and we use much more than that in a serving of our cauliflower puree) has almost 100% of our daily requirement of vitamin C (!), and high levels of B vitamins as well as numerous other vitamins and minerals.
So next time you see a cauliflower, consider that you can do with it practically anything you could do with potatoes or rice, with at least as much taste, less calories, less carbohydrates, and an abundance of nutrients.
11.26.13 at 2:44 pm | Sweet fritters, referred to in Hebrew as. . .
10.9.13 at 3:52 pm | Salt is the most important spice in the kitchen,. . .
6.21.13 at 6:27 pm | If you're looking for an alternative to potatoes,. . .
5.30.13 at 10:29 am | I get my recipes from many sources, but my most. . .
5.9.13 at 6:43 am | Many health benefits are being attributed to the. . .
4.26.13 at 11:15 am | My father, who grew up in Ancona, a small Italian. . .
11.26.13 at 2:44 pm | Sweet fritters, referred to in Hebrew as. . . (7)
5.9.13 at 6:43 am | Many health benefits are being attributed to the. . . (3)
5.30.13 at 10:29 am | I get my recipes from many sources, but my most. . . (3)
May 30, 2013 | 10:29 am
Posted by Hava Volterra
My Favorite Cookbooks
I get my recipes from many sources - my mother, family, friends, the internet. But my most consistent and most reliable source of recipes is a small set of cookbooks I’ve collected over the years, and that I consider to be the best in class for their types of cuisine. I bought the first two over 30 years ago, when I was visiting London as a 16 year old. At that time the selection of cookbooks in Israel was limited, so London’s bookstores offered me a remarkable opportunity. I’ve added many more over the years, but here are my favorites:
A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden: I bought my first copy of this book during that visit to London when I was 16. The book had been written 10 years earlier, and it was already considered a classic, the book that introduced Middle Eastern cooking to the West. Claudia Roden grew up in a Jewish family in Cairo, and the book draws a lot on the dishes of her youth, but includes recipes from as far as Turkey, Greece, Morocco and Tunisia. Almost every cuisine of the region is well represented in it. She has since written an updated version, called The New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking, but my favorite is still my dog eared copy of the 1967 edition. With the wonders of Amazon you can still find used copies of the out-of-print first version, or get them both.
French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David, the 1970 edition: Another book I bought on that trip to England, and in this case I still have my original copy. Elizabeth David is largely credited with introducing continental cuisine to England – the Julia Child of the U.K. - and in this small paperback book you can find all the basics of regional French home cooking, from Paris and Brittany down to Nice. It’s my go-to book whenever there’s a classic French dish I want to cook.
Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking – by Marcella Hazan: This book consolidates Marcella Hazan’s two landmark books – The Classic Italian Cook Book and More Classic Italian Cooking. Considered the premier documenter of Italian cuisine, Marcella Hazan is very methodical and didactic in her descriptions, and I find this book to be excellent not only for its recipes, but for its superb descriptions of the basic techniques of Italian cooking.
The Classic Cuisine of the Jews of Italy – by Edda Servi Machlin: Italian Jewish cooking may seem like a small niche, but in fact Italian Jews, because of their affinity for travel and their broad family, social, and business connections, were great innovators of Italian cooking, and their cuisine held great variety. Add to that Edda Machlin’s extraordinary culinary skills and meticulously detailed recipes, and you have a book where virtually every recipe is a winner. Here too there are two versions. I prefer the 1981 original, but the newer 2005 version, titled Classic Italian Jewish Cooking, is good as well.
Vegetables by Alice Waters: If there’s one restaurant I’d like to be able to emulate, it’s Chez Panisse. I’ve been there only a few times, but each time I’ve been amazed by the quality of the ingredients and the precision and pristine execution of the cooking. Alice Waters has published several cookbooks. This one is my go-to book when casting about for different ways to cook our abundance of local vegetables.
Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi – I feel a special closeness to this book. First of all because I, like Ottolenghi and Tamimi, was born in Jerusalem. Second, because Yotam Ottolenghi’s father, Michael, like my own father, emmigrated to Israel from Italy, part of a small and to me, endearing, community. But even without that connection, I admire their extraordinary ability to punch up the flavors of classic dishes, and the exceptional quality and precision they bring to their recipes. While I still find myself making changes – some of their dishes are overly flavored to my taste – this book, and Ottolenghi's other two books, Plenty, and Ottolenghi, are the source of many of my best recipes.
There are a few other books I occasionally draw upon. While they don’t have the consistent and exceptional quality of the ones above, I still have found some of my favorite recipes in them:
Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck - Syrian cooking from the city of Aleppo.
The Sultan’s Kitchen by Oczan Ozan - Turkish cooking.
Stella’s Sephardic Table by Stella Levi – Jewish cooking from the island of Rhodes.
May 9, 2013 | 6:43 am
Posted by Hava Volterra
As someone that grew up in the Middle East, and counts herself as somewhat of an expert on Mediterranean cuisine, I’m at once thrilled, bemused, and cynical at the sudden popularity of the Mediterranean diet in health circles, and find it necessary to weigh in on the basic definition of Mediterranean food or a Mediterranean diet.
Here’s a definition from this week’s NYTimes article attributing brain benefits to the Mediterranean diet: "Rich in fish, poultry, vegetables and fruit, with minimal dairy foods and meat."
And here is a fuller definition, that came out when the first study showing the benefits of the diet came out earlier this year:
“The mainstays of the diet consisted of at least three servings a day of fruits and at least two servings of vegetables. Participants were to eat fish at least three times a week and legumes, which include beans, peas and lentils, at least three times a week. They were to eat white meat instead of red, and, for those accustomed to drinking, to have at least seven glasses of wine a week with meals. In addition, one group assigned to the diet was given extra-virgin olive oil each week and was instructed to use at least 4 four tablespoons a day. The other group got a combination of walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts and was instructed to eat about an ounce of the mix each day."
Ok, so here’s what I think of all this. First of all, to me, the hallmark of the Mediterranean diet is eating a lot of vegetables and fruits. I find that from childhood, people around the Mediterranean regard good vegetables as an everyday treat. Good tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers are relished. The start of the orange season, the first appearance of clementines, the first stone fruit, are all reasons for excitement.
The Mediterranean diet is not lowfat, but it is low in animal fat. The oil of choice, when available and affordable, is olive oil. In parts where it’s more difficult to find, other types of oil would be used. But animal fat is rarely the choice for a couple of reasons. One is that milk and milk products are less plentiful. And second, the animals themselves, when used for meat, are not of the type that yield much fat.
It's hot around the Mediterranean, so drinking milk straight up, as is common in northern European countries, is almost never done, it wouldn't keep very well. Which perhaps explains the propensity of Mediterraneans to be lactose intolerant as adults. But yogurt, and various light cheeses made from yogurt or from sheep's milk - Pecorino, Caciocavallo, Labneh - are eaten regularly although in moderation. Once fermented, cheese and yogurt can be kept much longer than raw milk, and there's that added advantage that the lactose in them has been broken down by fermentation.
Which brings me to a part of the definition that I object to. The idea that the Mediterranean diet focuses on white meat (i.e., chicken), over beef. No! Depending on where you travel around the Mediterranean, beef, lamb, or pork would be the meat of choice, not chicken. Around most of the Mediterranean, eating chicken was rare. For more affluent Italian households, chicken was reserved for Sunday dinner. And as my father once told me, the farmers around his hometown of Ancona used to say that if someone ate a chicken it was for one of two reasons. Either the person was sick, or the chicken was sick.
The reason for the confusion is most likely because traditional Mediterranean diets consist of only small amounts of meat. I found a wonderfully phrased explanation in Yotam Ottolenghi’s beautiful cookbook, Jerusalem. In it he says: “In a place where cooking whole cuts of meat was, for most of its history, considered a mad extravagance, meatballs, kebabs, and stuffed vegetables were a sensible alternative.” So in fact, while dark meat is usually the meat of choice, its quantities in the diet are relatively small. The idea of the 16oz steak is unheard of. And if you ate a piece of chicken, it would be the thigh, or the leg (those are considered the best) or a little piece of breast, but a quarter chicken would be considered exorbitant.
For many around the Mediterranean, this also means that everyday food often did not include meat. That’s the motivating element for such delicious street food as Falafel (made of chickpeas, and essentially vegan), hummus, babaganoush, tahini, mejadara (a lentil and rice dish). And all of these are served with generous helpings of salads and cooked vegetables.
And what about fish? In reality, fish was eaten mostly if you lived right by a port. Otherwise it was expensive and not readily available. Certainly it wasn’t eaten in the quantities suggested by the modern “Mediterranean diet”.
So what do I consider to be typical of the Mediterranean diet? An abundance and variety of vegetables and fruits. The use of oil instead of animal fat, with a specific love of olive oil. The embrace of legumes and seeds – chickpeas, lentils, sesame seeds. The love of nuts – almonds, walnuts, pinenuts – although these are used mostly for special occasions, they were expensive. The use of whole grains – spelt, bulgur wheat, barley. A moderate consumption of light cheeses and yogurt. And the complex and yet sparing use of meat – often ground up, mixed with vegetables and legumes, and prepared in delectable ways. All of this makes my mouth water.
April 26, 2013 | 11:15 am
Posted by Hava Volterra
My father, who grew up in Ancona, a small Italian port town about 200 miles south of Venice, once told about his first encounter with “other” types of oil:
When he was about 6 years old he went with his mother to a grocery store, and there, on the store window, was a large sign saying: “We Sell Corn Oil”.
“What”, my father asked her, “is corn oil?”
“Some people are so poor”, his mother explained, “that they cannot afford olive oil, so they use corn oil.”
That, he told me, was the first time he understood the true meaning of poverty.
My father of course told me this story with humor and a good dose of irony. As a child he might have been struck by that intense level of poverty. As an adult, he knew better. In fact, when I was growing up Israel (and for a few years in the United States), we used corn oil almost exclusively. Olive oil was either impossible to find or prohibitively expensive. My father told me this story when I was in my teens, and olive oil had slowly started being introduced into mainstream Israeli diets. But even then it was very expensive and used only sparingly, just a few drops in salad dressings. No one thought to use it in cooking. Yet his mother, known in her family as the ultimate expert in deep frying, had used no other oil.
All this is by way of saying that I have a special attachment to olive oil, and will always tend towards my grandmother’s philosophy – when in doubt, use olive oil.
There’s plenty that’s been written about olive oils, and I hesitate to repeat it, but here are a few points:
1. Yes, good, extra virgin olive oil (i.e., cold pressed and relatively unfiltered) is like good wine. There are different flavors, it can be more intense, more fruity, more bitter… Selecting it is largely a matter of taste, and in my opinion the best way to taste it is to pour a few drops on a plate and mop it up with a piece of bread. But, as with wine, you’ll reserve your best olive oil for raw use – salad dressings, garnishes, a finishing touch on cooked dishes… The requirements when it’s used as a cooking oil are different and not quite as stringent.
2. Adding a bit of good olive oil at the end of the cooking process (for example, on rice, or a ratatouille), is much better than putting it all in to cook. In fact, consider sprinkling a bit of flavorful, extra virgin, olive oil on almost any dish just before serving it. The aroma is magnificent.
3. When cooking at high temperatures (i.e., high heat saute, or frying), use a “light” olive oil. Light means that it’s been filtered, so its olive flavor is very mild. The filtering is important because the elements that give olive oil its strong and wonderful flavor unfortunately burn when you heat it. However, when filtered, olive oil has a relatively high smoking temperature, and as my grandmother knew, is entirely appropriate even for deep frying.
4. And what about health benefits? I’m always hesitant to take health claims too seriously, but if we’re to believe current thought on the subject, olive oil has two major benefits. First, extra virgin olive oil, by virtue of the complex olive elements in it, contains a multitude of antioxidants that are beneficial in much the same way as the antioxidants in red wine. Second, even filtered (i.e., “light”) olive oil, even though it doesn’t have those elements, has a higher proportion of monounsaturated fats (good) than any of the commonly used cooking oils. It has 3 times as much as corn oil, a bit more than canola oil, and more than 10 times as much as that new star, coconut oil.
But in the bottom line, why do I use olive oil? Because it still feels like a luxury to me, it feels like the only right way to cook, and because when I use a good olive oil, I have in inner sense that all is well with the world.