Archive for the ‘Food History’ Category
Thursday, June 14th, 2012
Adriatic Figs bounded by Mission Figs
“The fool looks for figs in winter,” said the 2nd-century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.¬†But today, less than a week from the summer solstice, it’s not too soon to set our sights on figs.
California produces 98 percent of figs grown in the U.S., and the first California Mission Fig crop (which is harvested for fresh, rather than dried figs) matures in late June. A¬†second, longer fig season begins toward the end of summer and runs through the fall.¬†
A fascinating fruit
According to the Valley Fig Growers, a large cooperative in Fresno, California:
- Fig trees have no blossoms on their branches; instead, figs blossom inward (it’s the tiny blossom that forms¬†inside the fruit that produces the edible seeds)
- The dark purple figs known as ‘Mission’ figs are so named because¬†priests at Mission San Diego originally planted them in California in 1769
- Fig Newtons, which were introduced to the U.S. market in 1892, represent the nation’s first commercial fig product (In an April¬†New York Times¬†article reporting on the rebranding of ‘Fig Newtons’ as ‘Newtons,’ we learned that this cookie originated in a bakery in Cambridge, and was named for the city of Newton)
“Nothing beats a fresh fig!”
So asserts Jules’ Owner-Chef Anita Baglaneas, and she should know. Having grown up in a rural village on the Greek island of Samos in the eastern Aegean, Anita first-hand and early-on experienced the joys of plucking and eating figs fresh from the tree. “I knew at first touch if the fruit was ripe, because when it was, I barely had to touch the fig to make it drop into my hand!”
“Of course, here in New England,” Anita continued, “it’s not so easy to find properly ripened figs. Too often–even at upscale markets and in pricey restaurants–figs that are offered up as ‘fresh’ and ‘ripe’ turn out to be disappointingly tasteless and hard. At Jules Catering, though, we never serve a fig before its time!”
How do you distinguish ripe from unripe?” we wondered.
“I’ll show you,” Anita replied.
The ripe Mission Fig on the left will have some give, when you squeeze it (not so its unripe partner)
Ripe vs. unripe figs
“If you have no choice but to purchase figs in tightly sealed packages that prevent you from ‘copping a feel,'” Anita laughed, “well, then Buyer Beware! Figs don’t ripen off the tree, so to make sure that you get what you pay for, you really need to get in there and very gently squeeze.”
What’s the best way to eat a ripe fig?
“Where I grew up, the custom was to peel figs,” Anita continued. “But when figs are ripe and the skin is tender, it’s absolutely delicious and okay to simply wash figs, cut them in half, and jump right in.”
Anita points to figs that are ripe and ready to eat
When Anita subsequently ate the ripe fig (below, left), we asked for her verdict.
“Ambrosia!” she exclaimed.
On the left, "ambrosia"; on the right, "may be salvaged by baking"
What can we do if the figs we have purchased are less than perfectly ripe?
In response to our query, Anita on-the-spot improvised the following recipe, which she said will “maximize juiciness and concentrate flavors.”¬†
Baked Fig Recipe–Dessert
12 ripe (or, if necessary, not quite ripe) figs
Yield: Serves: 4
- Preheat oven to 400¬į.
- With a sharp paring knife, halve the figs from top to bottom.
- On a rack in a shallow baking dish place the figs, cut-side up.
- Bake the figs for about 20 minutes or until they puff up and look juicy.
- Divide the figs into four shallow dessert dishes, add a healthy dollop of whipped cream, sprinkle with hazelnuts, and serve.¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†
Advance preparation: Figs can be baked several hours ahead.
Baked Fig Variations
“Baked figs are extraordinarily adaptable,” Anita explained. In the above recipe, “Greek yogurt can be substituted for whipped cream, walnut halves or slivered almonds can be substituted for hazelnuts, and of course the number of figs can be tweaked to meet your needs.”¬†
“Baked figs can also serve as a savory side to meat or foie gras,”
she continued. “Or, place a baked halved fig on a crusty¬†crostini
¬†with a slice of prosciutto,
¬†drizzle with vinaigrette
Are figs good for us?¬†
In moderation, you can’t go wrong!
For a more up-to-date take on the health benefits of figs, we turned to the¬†Agricultural Marketing Resource Center,¬†which notes that:
- 8 ounces of figs provide 30 percent of recommended daily fiber
- Figs are sufficiently high in calcium to promote bone density (eating 1/2 cup of figs offers the same amount of calcium as drinking 1/2 cup of milk)
- Figs lower both insulin and triglyceride levels
In the classic¬†On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,¬†food scientist¬†Harold McGee writes:¬†“Figs are remarkable for containing very large amounts of phenolic compounds, some of them antioxidants,” and, “certain phenolic compounds appear capable of helping us fight cancer by preventing oxidative damage to DNA-damaging chemicals, and by inhibiting the growth of already cancerous cells.”¬†
Enough about figs! What about fig leaves?
Queen Victoria, 1882
Size matters. At the website for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum we were amused to learn about a 19+-inch fig leaf created circa 1854 for Queen Victoria:
“The story goes¬†that on her first encounter with the cast of [Michelangelo’s] ‘David‘ at the Museum, Queen Victoria was so shocked by the nudity that a proportionally accurate fig leaf was commissioned. It was then¬†kept in readiness¬†for any royal visits, when it was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks.”
This 19-inch fig leaf was attached to Michelangelo's 'David' in advance of royal visits
Ripe vs. Unripe Figs (5 photos): Liz Muir
Syrup of Figs: e-vint.com
Queen Victoria and Fig Leaf: Wikimedia Commons
Saturday, March 17th, 2012
1873: Liebig Meat Co. produced tinned corned beef
Why ‘corned’ beef? For thousands of years people have cured and preserved beef ¬†by covering it with salt the size of kernels of corn, and the name corned beef refers back to a time when the word ‘corn; was applied to anything granular.
The Irish traded for salt as far back as the Middle Ages, writes Mark Kurlanksy¬†in Salt–A World History, and their salted beef was the “meticulously boned and salted forerunner of what today is known as Irish corned beef.” Prized by Europeans because it did not spoil, corned beef from Ireland was also adopted as a food provision by the British navy, which meant it traveled far!
In Ireland,¬†corned beef¬†was a dish originally associated with Easter Sunday–at least for those sufficiently affluent to procure any sort of beef at all. ¬†Killed before winter, the beef would have been salted and then savored after the Lenten fast.¬†Author-Chef¬†Darina Allen, founder of the¬†Ballymaloe Cookery School¬†in¬†Shanagarry, County Cork, and proponent of¬†The Slow Food Movement, notes that¬†corned beef has long been associated with Cork City, which was “the provisioning port for boats before they crossed the Atlantic.” From the late 17th-century to early in the 19th, beef corning was Cork City’s primary industry.
Corned beef helps free King from Demon of Gluttony!
Corned beef in Ireland also has literary-mythical roots.¬†Aislinge Meic Con Glinne¬†(The Vision of MacConglinne) is a late 11th-century parody in which the hero, Anier MacConglinne,¬†wins the patronage of Cathal, King of Munster,¬†by reciting a fabulous food-laden vision that frees the king¬†from a demon of gluttony¬†that has been residing (tapeworm-like!) in his throat.¬†At least for the carnivores among us, corned beef spit-roasted on an open fire is described in mouth-watering detail:
Gluttony as depicted by Hieronymus Bosch
“And he called for juicy old bacon and tender corned-beef and full-fleshed wether, and honey in the comb and English salt on a beautiful polished dish of white silver, along with four perfectly straight white hazel spits to support the joints. The viands which he enumerated were procured for him, and he fixed unspeakable, huge pieces on the spits. Then, putting a linen apron about him below and placing a flat linen cap on the crown of his head, he lighted a…fire of ash-wood, without smoke, without fume, without sparks. He stuck a spit into each of the portions, and as quick was he about the spits and fire as a hind about her first fawn, or as a roe, or a swallow, or a bare spring wind in the flank of March. He rubbed the honey and the salt into one piece after another. And big as the pieces were that were before the fire, there dropped not to the ground out of these four pieces as much as would quench a spark of a candle; but what there was of relish in them went into their very centre.” [Excerpted from an In Parentheses¬†publication¬†translated by Kuno Meyer, ¬©¬†2001]
New York feast vs. Boston feast–Yet another rivalry?
Food maven and former¬†New York Daily News¬†restaurant critic¬†Arthur Schwartz¬†writes in his “opinionated history” of a cookbook,¬†New York City Food,¬†that Irish immigrants in the U.S. were not sufficiently well off to to treat themselves to what he identifies as the precursor to corned beef and cabbage–Irish bacon and greens–until the late 1800s.
“How bacon and greens evolved into Corned Beef and Cabbage is anybody’s guess,” Schwartz writes. “Some surmise that the Irish adopted the meat of their German, Jewish, or even German-Jewish neighbors, or WASP employers and turned it into a dish to help celebrate their Saint Patrick’s Day, an essentially New York City-Irish Holiday that is now part of all Irish-American culture.”
Saint Patrick’s Day essentially a¬†New York City¬†holiday? We’d like to hear you shout that out to commuters riding the Green-Line ‘T’ on March 17, Mr. Schwartz! We’d also like to remind you that¬†another common name for corned beef and cabbage is¬†“New England¬†Boiled Dinner”–with no mention of New York!
""Charlie" and "Charlene" of the M(B)TA kindly allowed us to snap this Green Line photo
Saint Patrick’s Day at Jules
Finding ourselves riding the Green Line on Saint Patrick’s Day this year, we were lucky enough to catch a leprechaun counting gold coins under our seat. “Okay, okay,” he grumbled, when we demanded that he magically grant us three wishes in exchange for his release. “What d’you want?”
Because were feeling a little peckish, “Corned Beef and Cabbage from Jules” was our knee-jerk reply. “And if you could throw in a frosted Shamrock Cookie, that would be great!” Alas, we forgot to wish for speedy delivery (which Jules readily supplies), so the leprechaun told us that we’d have to stop by Jules’ kitchen to make our wishes come true. And so we did, arriving–as if by magic–in the nick of time.
First, we checked in with Jules’ Executive Chef Albert Rosado, who has impressive corned-beef credentials. While cooking for Harry and Leona (a.k.a.¬†“The Queen of Mean”) Helmsley at the Helmsley Hotels in the 1980s, Albert would moonlight at¬†McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon¬†at¬†42nd Street and Second Avenue, not far from Times Square.
Executive Chef Albert Rosado
“This was the gathering place for the Grand Marshal and other bigwigs involved in¬†New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade,” Albert reminisced. “Some three- or four-thousand¬†people came in and out of McFadden’s around about St. Patrick’s Day, and over the course of ¬†three days we prepared something like five- to six-hundred pounds of corned beef, as well as many pounds of Irish stew.”
What about green beer? we wondered.
“We didn’t dye the beer ourselves,” Albert laughed, “but McFadden’s¬†did serve¬†green beer for St. Patrick’s Day. Purveyors supplied McFaddon’s with that.”
Longtime Jules Line Cook Jeff Ginyard¬†also¬†knows his corned beef. Because Jules brines its own beef brisket, Saint Patrick’s Day preparations must begin a full day in advance, he explained, adding that two muscles comprise a beef brisket. “We use the leaner ‘first cut’ for corned beef sandwiches. The fattier and more succulent ‘second cut’ is used for boiled dinners.”
We asked why the corned beef was cooking in its own pot, apart from the vegetables. “So the vegetables don’t get mushy we prepare them separately,” Jeff explained. “But we want them to pick up the corned-beef flavor, so we¬†remove some water from the pot where the brisket is cooking, and we boil the cabbage–and the other vegetables–in that. The corned beef stock, by the way, is flavored with mustard seed–and the brine is seasoned with peppercorns, bay leaves, and allspice.”
Corned beef + cabbage + shamrock cookie from Jules…
The leprechaun granted our wishes…our three dreams came true!
Jeff Ginyard with corned beef...
...red bliss potatoes, carrots, and turnips
This fresh cabbage ready for cooking is naturally green
Creative Commons: Liebig Tinned Corned Beef, detail from Bosch’s ‘Allegory of Gluttony and Lust’
EarthShare: Green Beer
Liz Muir: All other photos