WHAT? Sweet seashells. These delicate, scallop-shaped cookies have a history that long predates Proust's memory stimulant. Culinaria France recounts what sounds like a legend to us, that the cookies first became popular back in the 18th-century, when the Duke of Lorraine, a consummate party host, found himself short a pastry chef while entertaining one night. With no time to spare, the Duke was forced to turn to his chambermaid Madeleine to create sweets for his guests. She whipped up her grandmother's airy, bite-sized cakes and, thus, the madeleine was born. Chances are her grandmother, if she existed, came from Commercy, the town whose bakers have been known for centuries throughout France for their delicate, hump-back madeleines. The batter is a simple mixture of eggs, sugar, and flour; it is a molded pan that gives madeleines their distinct appearance. When fresh from the oven, the cakey cookies have a moist and light interior and crisp outer layer that make them the perfect accompaniment to hot drinks. Daniel Boulud turned tiny, warm madeleines into a petits fours trend, and many other chefs have been known to exercise their creative license to devise savory and sweet renditions of this classic French favorite. This month at the Beard house you'll have a chance to sample both when chef Stephan Boissel of Core One Nine One prepares his parmesan version and renowned caterer Susan Mason brings her traditional variation in miniature.
WHAT? When it pours, it reigns. Although France’s fleur de sel is the sybaritic salt of choice in America these days, England’s Maldon sea salt has begun to make its move. It’s hardly news, considering there’s evidence of salt harvesting in the Maldon District of Essex, England, dating from 500 b.c. The district is located along the North Sea and bordered by the Crouch and Blackwater rivers. The Maldon Crystal Salt Company, established in 1882, is the sole purveyor of the flaky, pyramid-shaped sodium chloride crystals that are formed when North Sea water is evaporated in open kettles. Though the debate continues about whether crystal shape or trace elements are the most important factors in the perceived taste of salt, the unique feel and flavor of Maldon salt on the tongue cannot be denied.
WHAT? Simple syrup. The long process of boiling the sap from maple trees to make syrup is continued to produce a number of derivative products, the driest of which is maple sugar. (Between syrup and sugar on the scale of reduction fall maple honey and maple cream or butter.) Maple sugar is sold in either brick form or as granules, and is primarily used in candy making. Carrie Davis, who penned The Naturally Sweet Baker (Macmillan), suggests baking with maple sugar as a less refined alternative to white sugar. Davis also notes that if you run out of maple syrup, you can always add water to the sugar to make a delicious substitute.
WHAT? Sovereign nut. Prized around the world, Marcona almonds are round, flat, and tan, and the trees on which they grow require tender, loving care. Marconas, which come from Spain, are typically eaten peeled, fried in olive oil, and salted. Spanish cuisine may have more uses for almonds than any other cuisine in the world. Although we once read that almonds "exert a relaxing effect and enhance intellectual activity," we suspect the real reason the Spanish eat so many of them is simpler—taste these. It's no wonder they have been called the "queen of almonds."
WHAT? Hunger killer. According to laverdad.es, until the current economic and social crisis in Argentina, the South American country had the world’s highest consumption per capita of meat. Surprising for a country where cattle and sheep didn’t even appear until 1580. That’s when Basque Juan de Garay founded Buenos Aires and brought with him the country’s first 500 head of cattle. The livestock quickly dispersed and thrived in the Pampas. One hundred years later, there were one million. The matambre (from Spanish mata: kills and hambre: hunger) was born in those early days, killing first the gauchos’ (cowboys’) hunger, and later that of all Argentines. Matambre is a cut obtained from the thin layer of muscle underneath the skin in the flanks and ribs of cattle. In the old days, it was cooked directly over the ashes of an improvised bonfire. Nowadays, matambre can be grilled, stuffed, roasted, skewered, stewed in water, or boiled in milk. Unfortunately, Argentina’s current economic problems cannot be solved by beef alone.
WHAT? The toast of the town. The beloved Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba could practically fill a cookbook with the culinary creations that she inspired. There is Peach Melba, Melba Sauce, Melba Garniture (tomatoes stuffed with chicken, truffles, and mushrooms that are bound with velouté), and, of course, Melba Toast. Auguste Escoffier, legendary chef of The Savoy, created both Peach Melba and Melba Toast. The story goes that the thinly sliced, crisp toast was served to Dame Melba on a day that she was indisposed. (Another source says its creation had more to do with the Rubenesque singer's never-ending struggle to lose weight.) According to John Mariani's Dictionary of American Food and Drink, Melba Toast was first mass-produced by the Devon Bakery in New York City.
WHAT? Jam-cestor. Derived from the Latin word melimelum, or "honey apple," the Spanish word membrillo (in Portuguese, marmelada) refers both to fresh and preserved quince, a celebrated fruit that was stored in honey during classical times. According to The Oxford Companion to Food, the thick sweet paste of cooked quince and sugar is the likely ancestor of jam and marmalade. Quince, a large, lumpy, bitter, green fruit that is inedible when raw, is transformed from ugly duckling into swan with the addition of sugar and a little heat, becoming an aromatic, delicious pink jam. In his book The Basque Kitchen, Gerald Hirigoyen describes the transformation of quince into membrillo as "magical," praising the quince, beloved in the French Pays Basque as well as along the Iberian peninsula, for its "delicate, floral, almost citrusy flavor." The paste is often served as a counterpoint to the salty flavors of Manchego cheese and Serrano and Presunto ham.
WHAT? Soiled sprouts. These tiny shoots of vegetables, greens, and herbs aren't filthy, but they are grown in dirt instead of water. Most sprouts (alfalfa, bean, radish) are grown hydroponically. By contrast, microgreens are germinated in sterilized soil and harvested after one or two leaves shoot up through the ground, when the plant is only three or four inches high. According to Bob Jones, farm manager of The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio, some microgreens (arugula, dill, and sorrel, for example) have a more intense flavor than the full-grown plant. The Chef's Garden grows more than 60 varieties, ranging from the exotic-sounding bull's blood beet, orach magenta, and burgundy amaranth, to the more familiar broccoli, kale, and corn. A typical salad mix of microgreens may contain upwards of 20 different varieties.
WHAT? Candy from Mars. Frank C. Mars created the original Milky Way candy bar, a combination of chocolate nougat and caramel coated with milk chocolate, in 1923. James Trager’s Food Chronology suggests that Mars was inspired by his own astronomical moniker to name the candy after our galaxy. According to Forrest Mars, Frank’s son, it was he who inspired his father to create the famous sweet when he suggested that the elder Mars make a candy bar that tasted like a malted milk shake. In 1932 Forrest went to England and created a slightly sweeter version of the Milky Way and named it the Mars Bar (not to be confused with the nut-filled Mars Bar that was sold in the U.S. until it was discontinued in 2002 and replaced by Snickers with Almonds). A Milky Way bar does exist internationally; however, it doesn’t contain caramel, making it closer to what is known stateside as a Three Musketeers.
WHAT? Mild-mannered squash. Although it has an exotic name and a slew of aliases—including chayote, christophene, custard marrow, chouchoute, vegetable pear, and mango squash—mirliton is actually a very tame fruit. Native to Mexico and Central America, mirliton was a favorite of the Mayans and Aztecs. Now it’s one of the most celebrated fruits in the southern United States, particularly in Louisiana, where the subtropical squash even has its very own festival. Beneath its pale green exterior is firm, crisp, white flesh that has the texture of a water chestnut and a delicate taste that resembles zucchini. It can be prepared any way that befits a summer squash, but is often seen stuffed with seafood, meat, or cheese.
WHAT? Rice by the pound. In its homeland of Japan, this glutinous rice (mochi gome in Japanese) is used primarily to make confections, to make a special rice dish used for celebrations (sekihan), or to make mochi, a soft, gooey rice cake that is served around the New Year. Ordinarily, the Japanese cook rice by boiling; mochi rice, however, is steamed. To make mochi rice cakes, the hot rice is pounded over and over with a wooden palletsweaty workuntil it is pulverized. The resultant sticky dough is shaped into cakes, used both for shrine offerings and to eat. Mochi, which has an extensible texture like taffy but more so, is considered auspicious, for the word also means "to have," and thus connotes prosperity for the new year. Our favorite treat is mochi ice cream balls, in which a ball of ice cream is wrapped with mochi dough so you can hold it in your hands while you eat it.
WHAT? A flightless bird. You won't find this Asian "duck" hanging in the windows of Chinatown restaurants. That's because it isn't duck at all. The best mock duck–the kind that will certainly be served at the Beard House – is made from fresh, organic wheat gluten (aka seitan). Gluten is protein, and for this product the protein is folded and pressed to create a chewy, meaty substance that is then glazed and treated as a meat-free alternative to duck in Buddhist and other vegetarian dishes. Although you can find recipes for mock duck that call for pork or other meat products, they are not the true mock dock – if there can be such a thing. Commercially prepared mock duck is available in cans in Asian grocery stores. It is rolled, pressed, and glazed to resemble duck – the top layer is even dimpled to look like skin – but it pales in comparison to the fresh product. Don't confuse mock duck, the dish, with Mock Duck, the impromptu jazz/rock band formed in a Vancouver café in 1968, either.
WHAT? Well-dressed dessert. Literally, “Moor in a shirt,” this classic sweet from Salzburg is a rich chocolate-nut pudding/cake that is “baked” by steaming over water. Its name is a reminder that the Turks once fought over this part of the world. The “Moor” presumably refers to the dark chocolate color, the “shirt” to the whipping cream (schlag) that always accompanies the cake.
WHAT? Papa's punch. This classic Cuban cocktail was a favorite of Hemingway, who used to enjoy more than his share of them in Havana at the legendary restaurant and lounge La Bodeguita del Medio. A refreshing concoction of rum, fresh mint, sugar, lemon juice, and water (sometimes carbonated), the mojito has been popping up recently on specialty cocktail menus across the country. La Bodeguita, which opened in 1942, was a favorite watering hole of other literati and Hollywood celebrities, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Neruda, Brigitte Bardot, Nat King Cole, Salvador Allende, and Errol Flynn. The drink probably owes its staying power in part to this glamorous audience. The recent trend of Latin American-inspired restaurants might also have something to do with it.
WHAT? The ancient Cuisinart. The Mexican word for a heavy, three-legged mortar, the molcajete is never without its trusty counterpart, the tejolete [teh-hoh-LEH-teh], the Mexican pestle. The pair are made from basalt, or lava rock, and are used to grind tomatoes, tomatillos, and spices into thickly textured, tasty purées. Molcajetes are usually 8 inches in diameter, 5 inches high, and hold one quart of sauce. The most effective ones are not too porous.
WHAT? The count’s revenge? The origins of this rich sandwich of ham, chicken or turkey, and Swiss cheese that is either dipped in egg and fried in butter or made with already dipped and fried French toast are not clear. A staple of diners across the country, where it is sometimes served with jelly or maple syrup for dipping, the sandwich is thought to be related to the club sandwich, or maybe the Reuben (Jewish delicatessens sometimes substitute corned beef and sauerkraut for the traditional fillings). Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, author of The Gourmet Guide to Europe (1903), suggests a Spanish ancestor, a sandwich from Seville for which "a slice of ham is put between two slices of bread and dipped in sherry, [then] in egg and fried." In truth the sandwich was probably the fruit of a creative line-cook’s imagination, or maybe just an accident. One thing that mystifies is the name. There is nothing in Dumas’s masterpiece to suggest why a sandwich would be named for the vengeful count, save for the ultimate revenge taken on the eater’s cholesterol levels.
WHAT? A crustacean from down under. Perhaps the same linguistic phenomenon that gave Louisianans the mudbug moniker for crawfish gave Australians the term "Bay Bug" for this saltwater shellfish that looks like a cross between a miniature clawless lobster and a horseshoe crab. The bug is a native of Moreton Bay, off the eastern coast of Australia near Brisbane. It has a sweet, succulent flesh that adapts well to a variety of cooking styles. Chef John Howie, who first saw a reference to bay bugs in a book and had his fish purveyor track them down, contemplated using a different name on his menu at Seattle's Palisade restaurant, but for authenticity's sake decided against it. The bugs have become one of his most popular seafood dishes.
WHAT? Pungent preserves. No, mostarda is not the Italian word for mustard. Though the words sound similar, this sweet-and-spicy condiment is only distantly related to the hot dog's favorite sidekick. To make mostarda, fruit is preserved in sugary syrup and given a slight kick with the addition of mustard seeds or powder. According to food writer Elizabeth David, this jam-like spread is a descendant of "the honey, mustard, oil, and vinegar condiments of the Romans, who also preserved roots such as turnips in this mixture." Cherries, figs, pears, and apricots are the most common ingredients in mostarda, but different variations include candied melon, pumpkin, or oranges. The piquant fruit accompaniment is enjoyed with boiled white meats or cheeses throughout Northern Italy. The most famous and popular variation is from Cremona, a small town in Lombardy, and includes pears, quince, peaches, cherries, and mandarins.