Forum Holitorium

Month: May, 2012

The Cupboard That Wasn’t Really Bare

Whenever I go away for more than two nights, I try to use up what’s in the fridge. On Wednesday evening, I was to leave for a trip of over 4 days to Cologne. Since the milk would expire while I was away, a head of red cabbage was still lounging around in the veggie drawer after at least ten days, and the onions on the counter were sprouting, I got to work Wednesday afternoon, inadvertently preparing 2/3 of today’s lunch:

My first task was to whisk together a buckwheat crepe batter so it could rest for thirty minutes. Next, I chopped the red cabbage and readied it for fermentation. Then it was time to prepare an onion confit. Inspired by 3 different recipes that I had lying around, I came up with the following version.


Nearly 4 cups sliced onions

1 Tbs water

1/2 ts mixture of dried savory and thyme

1/2 ts salt

1 ts balsamic vinegar

1 Tbs white port wine or another wine

In a medium-sized pot, combine all ingredients and cook over medium-low heat for 30-45 minutes, stirring frequently.

That’s it. In retrospect, I could have let the onions darken and caramelize more, but I’m happy with the flavor. The confit actually looks a little bit like sauerkraut (see below right). I was pleased with how well the buckwheat crepes turned out because I always have issues when frying. There were even two left to take along on my journey as a snack.

I had hoped to sample regional specialties in Cologne, but my exposure to local foodways was limited to drinking Kölsch, the local ale, and eating thick white asparagus spears that had been boiled to death and put to rest in melted butter (the former a pleasant and the latter an unpleasant experience). Even my intent to tour a mustard mill dating back to 1810 was thwarted. Oh well, next time. It was still a good trip.

As you might expect, when you use up perishables before you leave, the cupboard appears to be awfully bare when you return. Yet there are often enough raw materials  to spin straw into gold. I scanned the pantry and found a bag of chickpea flour (the only food we had brought back from Friuli that hadn’t been opened yet) and whipped up some socca, a pancake made of chickpea flour. It requires a scant four ingredients: chickpea flour, olive oil, salt, and water.

I first experienced the bliss of eating piping hot socca at the Christmas market in Nice and most recently enjoyed it at the Tuscan seaside under its aliases cecina or calda, calda. It can also be encountered in the wild along the Ligurian coast under the name of farinata.


125 g / 1 heaping cup chickpea flour

1/2 ts salt

250 ml/ 2 cups warm water

3 Tbs olive oil

In a mixing bowl, mix the flour and salt, then add the warm water and whisk until thoroughly combined (no lumps). Add 1 Tbs oil. Let the batter rest at least 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 250°C / 480°F . Heat the rest of the oil in a 25 cm / 10″ cast-iron skillet for five minutes. Remove the skillet from the oven carefully. Pour the batter into the skillet and return to the oven. Bake 3-4 minutes, then turn on the grill or set the oven to just use top heat and bake for another 5-7 minutes. The socca should brown nicely, but pay attention that it doesn’t burn.

Serve hot with lots of ground black pepper.

I cut the socca into triangular slices using a pizza cutter and scarfed it down with a bit of the 6-day old red cabbage sauerkraut and the onion confit – yum! Readers, have you any stories to share of creative cooking with a nearly bare pantry, tales of successful experiments with what’s left in the fridge or on the counter?


A Mustard Primer

Yet another reason to thank the Romans: mustum ardens (hot must), better known as mustard, is along with wine one of their important contributions to the culinary landscape of Europe. The production of mustard is intertwined with that of wine. Grapes put the “must” in mustard; must is grape juice from the first pressing of grapes which has not started to ferment. The hotness comes from Brassica nigra, Brassica juncea, or Sinapis alba (black mustard, brown mustard, and white or yellow mustard, respectively). Though mustard grew wild in the Celtic and Germanic regions of Europe and provided foragers with leafy greens, the technique of grinding the seeds to make a spicy paste is the legacy of the builders of a line of fortifications separating the Roman Empire from the Germanic tribes. Stretching from the North Sea to the Black Sea along the Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers, this line curiously enough still delimits the spread of viticulture in Europe.

Despite growing up in the land of burgers and hot dogs, it wasn’t until I spent time in France that I became a fan of mustard. While staying with family in Lyon, I would always look forward to the salad dressing à la maison, a mustard vinaigrette of oil, vinegar, and Dijon mustard that was mixed up every few days in a regular bowl, the remnants of which took their place in the refrigerator along with the ubiquitous plate of cheese. Recently I decided to prepare mustard from scratch. Why buy glasses of prepared mustard when it is so easy to make it yourself?


2 Tbs mustard seeds (I used Sinapis alba, yellow or white mustard. Indigenous to southern Europe, this is the least hot of the varieties mentioned above.)

1 Tbs very cold water

2 Tbs white wine vinegar

Starting with 1/2 Tbs, grind the mustard seeds in a mortar with a pestle until all seeds have been crushed.  Do this a little bit at a time to reduce potential frustration, or find yourself a chemist who is used to this kind of work. You can see the mustard powder I ended up with below, a mixture of fine grains and husks.

Add 1 Tbs of cold water and stir to make a paste. Let the paste sit for ten minutes. This is the crucial step when the glucoside sinalbin reacts with myrosinase. Water is the catalyst and must be cold as heat damages the reaction. Don’t leave the spoon in the bowl – mustard is corrosive.

Add the vinegar and mix well. The vinegar sets the reaction in place. There’s no turning back now; the mustard will remain this hot.

Let the mustard sit one day to allow the bitterness to dissipate. Store in a container that will not corrode.

Keeps forever, but I’m sure it won’t last that long in your kitchen.

It looks quite innocent, but this mustard is very hot. I made a vinaigrette following a recipe with a ratio of 3 parts olive oil : 1 part mustard : 2 parts red wine vinegar, and it was too sour and strong since my mustard already has so much vinegar in it. Next time I plan on doing my normal 3 parts oil : 1 part vinegar ratio and using mustard in place of the vinegar.

Now it’s time for you to make the mustard! I’d love to hear how yours turn out. Meanwhile, the mustard seeds I planted on the balcony have sprouted, so there will be more mustard chronicles at a later date. No post next week because your humble mustard chronicler will be in a former Roman settlement on the Rhine.

Happy Birthday, Dear Kefir!

Just a little over a year ago, a certain special colony of yeast and bacteria came into my life.

It works its magic after being lowered into milk that has come to room temperature.

After being shaken to distribute the grains, the jar is placed in our cupboard. Depending on the weather and the colony’s mood (influenced by vacations in the coolness of the refrigerator), a fresh batch of kefir is ready to go in one to two days. It is done when it thickens to a creamlike consistency. The grains are removed before serving and can either be immediately used again or covered with a little milk and retired to the fridge until needed.

It has taken me nearly a year to warm up to kefir. The first few batches that TC made were too sour for my taste, so my interest waned. I remained comforted by the fact that he repeatedly drinks something quite healthy; there are much worse habits than sour milk products! Moved by the same spirit that led me to experiment with cabbage recently, I decided to give kefir another try. The buckwheat pancakes made with kefir instead of milk (ratio 1 part kefir : 1 part buckwheat flour : 1 part water) were a success. Perhaps TC has fine-tuned his technique, or our kefir is mellowing with age. The last few times I’ve sipped the results, they weren’t as sour as I remembered the first batches.

We acquired our kefir last year at the annual plant market that takes place the last weekend in April. As always, it is hard to restrain myself when I see all that green. Meet the newest additions to my balcony and garden:

From left to right, somehow: cherry tomato “Cherry Roma”, ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa), cherry tomato “Bombolino d’Inverno”, lettuce “Catalogna” (Latuca sativa var. crispa), pepper “Piccante Moretti”, chili pepper “Cayenne”, perennial kale (Brassica oleracea var. ramosa), Alpine strawberry “Rügen” (Fragaria vesca f. semperflorens), cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), sage. All but the cardoon have been transplanted, the majority finding a home on the balcony. Next step: transplanting patient peppers, rapidly spreading squash, and the aforementioned cardoon into the garden. But first, it has to stop raining!