Ari's Five Foods

5 Foods for the week of February 9, 2010

As is becoming the norm, I’m way overdue to get these out. Thanks for your patience and support (both personally and professionally), thanks for reading, thanks for doing all the amazing things that you do everyday to make all this that is the ZCoB go as great as it goes. It’s just my own sense of things but I feel like the energy around our parts is really, actually probably higher that it’s ever been. And that while—as is pretty much always the case—some parts of “us” are having better times and others are working through more challenging ones—the energy, the positive attitude, the spirit of generosity, the level of cooperation and the quality of the food and drink are better than ever. Which is pretty cool thing to be able to say 28 years down the road.

There’s a lot of great stuff going—Roadhouse beef, baguettes, new Wowza candy bars, new packaging at Mail Order (Mo’s working on some really great, cloth from old bread baking, not inexpensive, but I think lovely carry-bags to sell—ask him about them if you’re interested in getting in on the project!) … plus pot pies at the Deli, new coffee brewing methods, ZingTrain’s debut of the new, half day, Service Express training sessions, etc., etc.

In terms of compliments and how much good food, good service, good energy appeal to all ends of the world’s spectrum, I’ll tell you that on the same day I heard rave reviews about the entire ZCoB first from half a dozen highly experienced, business focused upper level executives from the Giant Eagle supermarket chain (based in Pennsylvania) and from the guys from Band of Heathens, here from Austin for the Folk Festival. Let me just say that these two groups are not likely to be seen hanging out together too often and probably have fairly different tastes in many things in life. But there they were – the execs stylish black overcoats in the am, the heathens in black jeans and leather jackets later that same evening—telling me how much they loved the whole experience. Pretty cool I’d say.

Seriously, thanks for doing all you do. It’s pretty darned amazing to be a part of it!


1. Txakoli Vinegar from the Basque Country

It’s all relative. I was feeling frustrated the other day about how long it took to get this vinegar here—it’s been two and a half years since I happened on it when I was visiting the Basque country. I’d gone to Asturias and the Basque Country in northern Spain with Randolph Hodgson (from Neal’s Yard Dairy), Daphne Zepos (cheese expert, importer of the really great Comte we get and co-instructor at ZingTrain’s two-day Cheese Mastery Course coming up in June (see for details), Molly Stevens (author of the James Beard award winning “Braising” and other great books and articles) and Monika Linton (owner of Brindisa in London, the UK’s premier importer of Spanish and Portuguese specialty foods and owner of the really great Brindisa tapas bar). We’d made the trip to visit a bunch of folks we knew (Ortiz for tuna and anchovies, some great restaurants, makers of half a dozen different Basque cheeses, the producers of piquillo peppers, Abbaye de Quielles olive oil) and to get to visit with each other—I’ve known the five of them (having met each in a different way) for nearly twenty years. It really was a great trip from pretty much every angle. Food, friendship, scenery, learning … . all were exceptional.

Anyways, if I remember the story right we were down to the last day of the trip when we went in to a specialty shop that Randolph knew about. Don Serapio was the name. In honesty I think the driving force in the moment was just to get a decent coffee—the food in Spain is truly pretty fantastic and the wine and hot chocolate are excellent, but the coffee … . not so great. Anyways, as I’m wont to do in these situations I started browsing the shelves in the shop to see what I might see—some people like to hike in the woods, I like to walk the aisles in food stores. So while we were waiting for the coffees to come out, I kind of wandered around looking at the products. Many brands I already knew, a few I didn’t. I’m almost always up for buying a few things to try, but of course the practical issue of space and weight in the luggage do limit my purchasing. There were a lot of nice looking oils but we had a fair few of those so I left them alone. One thing caught my eye enough to make me decide to buy it. It was a vinegar with a nice looking label and a name that I knew nothing about. All it said was “Orduna” and then “Ardao – Ozpina, La Antiqua Txakolina, Orduna, Espana ren 48/40576.” It was light in color, maybe similar to that of a cider vinegar. I really had no clue what it was but it looked good and I’m always up for a bit of a gamble. So I bought a bottle and carried it home.

When I got back to Ann Arbor and tasted it …it caught my attention right off. Seriously, it was pretty darned terrific. As you know I don’t say that sort of stuff lightly. But this was really very, very good. Light, lovely, lingering. Not really sweet at all … .kind of ethereal but in a refreshing way that I really liked. Gave it to a few other folks around here to try—Gauri and Grace come to mind—and they too gave it a big thumbs up. So we started the work to get some over to sell. That’s usually a lot more challenging than I want it to be … But in this case it proved more … shall we say … challenging than usual. I’ll save you all the gory importative details here. Let’s just say …. it wasn’t exactly one click buying on line. Hard as it is to believe, the people who make it seem not to even have a website. If they do, I haven’t been able to find it in nearly three years. We did finally get their email address after about a dozen phone calls. From there it was probably a good 30—that’s right, thirty—months of emailing, more calling, waiting for FDA forms to be properly filled out, shipping to be arranged (ultimately through a very helpful exporter of Basque products), and a lot o patience on the part of Bill Wallo and others who do this sort of work at the Deli.

What I learned in the interim was that my mysterious, marvelous Basque vinegar was made from a white wine called Txakoli. It’s hardly like I discovered the wine—it’s just that I’m not the world’s wine expert, and on top of that Txakoli, especially a few years ago, was apparently almost never seen outside the Basque country. And before this particular product, it was never really sold as vinegar. Like vinegars in most producing regions I’m sure people ate it—every wine makers has wine that unintentionally turns to vinegar. But to actively make vinegar is something that old time wine makers would likely think crazy. Famous as it is today, sherry vinegar for instance was never actively sold in shops until the 1930s.

Coming back to the Basque Country … if you don’t already know it, the name of the wine is pronounced “CHA-koh-lee.” It’s made mostly from the indigenous Basque grape variety Hondarribi Zuri. As you would intuit from what I said about the flavor of the vinegar, the wine is fresh, light, a bit honeyed maybe without being overly sweet. When you get the Txakoli in its vinified state it’s slightly sparkling. It’s a fresh wine for every day drinking, not one of those fancy, big flavors that are made for long aging. Txakoli is typically served in short, flat -bottomed glasses and is consumed in large quantities in the tapas bars in the Basque Country. It’s very good—if you’re in the mood to try some, it could well be available around here, but I know that 3 Cups in Chapel Hill will shi p you some very good ones that they get through Txakoli’s top fan in the US, wine importer, Andre Tamers. Anyways, 3 Cups has . .. 3 types of excellent Txakoli for sale.

Interestingly while Txakoli has long been the everyday wine in the Basque country it was originally really the wine of the region’s kings and rich folks. Credit for it having become available and popular amongst everyday people apparently goes to one Juan Sebastian Elcano. Neither wine maker, soccer star, nor scientist, he was, I guess, the first guy (we know of) to go all the way around the world. He left Spain as the navigator on a westward expedition in the year 1519 and came back—one of a only a few survivors of the original crew—in 1522. His return was celebrated with toasts of Txakoli and ever since the wine has been popular with Basques of all classes and ages ever since. So . .. . while I was feeling frustrated with how long it took us to get this stuff here… in comparison with Sr. Sebastian’s sailing extravaganza, we actually moved fairly quickly. Of course, he did go all the way around the world, and all we did was get the vinegar across the Atlantic. Thank god we didn’t have to go take it through Taiwan and go the long way or it might have been 2012 before I could tell you about it!!

Of course while Sr. Sebastian had to navigate the world, we had to work our way around the FDA. Speaking of which, the funny (or not so funny actually) thing is that I’m pretty sure that a lot of the holdup in getting the vinegar here was about getting the proper American labeling done. Now, nothing against a good bit of legal protection for consumers and all but … the label on this vinegar will tell you … almost, literally nothing. It reads like a box score after someone pitched a no hitter. If you flip the bottle around and away from the beautiful blue and yellow label on the front, you will learn that the vinegar has 33 single tablespoon servings in it (in case you were worried), and from there there’s nothing but a bunch of what baseball folks call “goose eggs:” 0 calories, 0 calories from fat, 0 fat, 0 sodium, 0 carbs, 0 sugars, and 0 proteins.

While I’m hardly an expert on wine matters, word has it that Txakoli is suddenly the star of the wine world in the States. Since we don’t sell un-American wines (US-only at the Roadhouse), it’s apropos that we would be, even if accidentally, on top of the trend by having this really good Txakoli vinegar in house. SF wine writer, Derrick Schneider said not long ago that, “There’s no sign the (country’s) crush (on Txakoli) is fading. If anything, it’s hard to find enough to go around; (Andre) Tamers imports about 5,000 cases annually. Txakoli is typically made by small growers. Little leaves the country, and the pressing problem here is that, as Luis Moya, owner of importer Vinos Unico puts it, ‘There’s no way of mass-producing the wine.’”

Back in the Basque Country though Txakoli is kind of just everyday stuff. “It’s just a local wine,’” Andre Tamers told me. “It’s like sweet tea in the South,” he said (which means next to nothing to most of us Notherners, but he lives in North Carolina where sweet (iced) tea is the every day beverage of choice.) “It’s just what they drink,” he went on. “Txakoli just means “the little wine,” like what they made at home.” Apparently Txakoli’s made a big comeback of late. “The government got involved like 20 years ago,” Andre added. “People who were doing masters degrees in agronomy were given the project for how to revive it, in part to support the identity of the autonomous (Basque) region. Part of Rioja is Basque, so the region was always dominated by a different wine. But the locals always drink Txakoli. We bring it in because we think it’s lovely. There’s a huge following now. It’s sort of a hot commodity in the upper echelon in wine geekdom.”

Anyways, long story short, this is really a great tasting vinegar. It’s the work of a man by the name of Emilio Lunegas, who set to work on it nearly ten years ago. He is, first, and foremost, a txakolinero, which is both an excellent word, and, as you might have guessed, the term for one who makes Txakolina. Very devoted to his region and to making great wine, he was motivated to make vinegar, in part, by his frustration with the EU’s limit on Txakoli sales—more wine can be produced than is allowed to be sold. So he decided to develop a great Basque vinegar out of a great traditional Basque wine. He works with top quality Txakoli made primarily with the above-mentioned Hondarribi Zuri white grapes, as well as a bit from its cousin, the black Hondarribi Beltza (usually used for the limited amounts of red txakoli). Hondarribi literally, means, “sand ford,” and is the name of town up the coast, near the French border, and then uses the traditional natural conversion (as do pretty much all the vinegar makers we buy from but very few others in the world). Sr. Luengas and his colleagues make only about 1200 liters of the vinegar a year so I guess it makes sense that they’re not exactly yet racing around the world (following in Sr. Sebastian Elcano’s now nearly five hundred year old wake) to sell it.

Any of our vinegar loving regulars will be pretty much guaranteed to at least want to try it and pretty likely still to buy some. Anyone who likes the Pofi wine vinegar from Lazio, Banyuls from France, the Cava vinegar from Catalunya is pretty sure to love it. it’s very nice on simple salads of most any sort. Very good with seafood. Try it on toast with good Basque anchovies and a bit of good Arbequina olive oil. (For the anchovies I’ll re-recommend the — from the Ortiz family. A good deal of their best fish come off the docks in the little port of Getaria, which is where Sr. Sebastian Elcano finally came home to the Basque Country after this three year round the world voyage). In fact since both Arbequina oil and the Orduna Txakoli vinegar both have a subtle bit of appliness in their flavor the two would pair very well together.

2. 2009 New Crop Olive Oil from Pasolivo

One good thing about winter coming is that it means that there’s new crop olive oil starting to arrive in house. I’m late getting these out so the oil has actually been here for about six weeks but never the less it’s really good, and still really fresh. We’ve got a couple new oils in right now, and the one from Pasolivo is on my mind. Since more and more people are familiar with what the Italians call Olio Nuovo, it’s less of a secret than it was say five or six years ago when we first started to bring it in. But secret or not it’s still really darned delicious. It’s definitely one little piece of brightness in what can seem an awfully cold and grey time of the year. If you aren’t going somewhere warm, at least grab a bottle of this stuff and use that to celebrate a bit of something sunny.

Two major points to make here I guess. One is about olio nuovo in general—if you haven’t had it before (the name just means “new oil” in Italian. And BTW, it’s NOT “nuevo” which is Spanish, but rather “nuovo.” Remember too that oil in Spain is “aceite.”) There’s a vitality and freshness to it that dissipates as the oil matures—at this young age, it’s bigger, bolder, greener, more peppery. I love it that way, but take note that not everyone likes this liveliness as much as I do. Many folks prefer to let their oil mellow for a few months so that the flavors are softer and a touch gentler. Many of our other suppliers won’t even let us have their new oil until spring when it’s had nearly six months to soften up. For people like me who do like it, it’s really a big culinary thing. Like getting fresh asparagus in the spring, there’s not a lot of middle ground on this: if you like it you really like it and you use it at every opportunity while you have the chance.

The other big point is about Pasolivo in particular, both the oil and the people who make it. A lot of you may know the story but in case you don’t … I tasted Pasolivo oil for the first time at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco back in 2002. The oil comes from Joeli Yaguda at Willow Creek Olive Ranch, near Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast, about half way up Hwy 101 en route from LA to SF. Not that it has the slightest impact on the oil but the Ranch was actually originally owned by a guy named King Vidor, who I actually knew little about until a few years ago when I discovered that he’d made some pretty famous films back in the 20s and 30s. Of particular interest to me are “War and Peace” (being a Russian history major and all) and then a film that was called “Our Daily Bread.” The latter was made in 1934 and is about an urban couple that goes out to the countryside, takes over a farm and rebuilds it into a socialist community. Having spent that last six months rereading all the old anarchist history stuff to get ready for the next book—“Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part One; A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business”—I’ve got a fair few of those stories in my head, including that of the Sunrise community, which was a 1930s anarchist settlement up by Flint.

Anyways, back to the West Coast …. here’s what the NY Times said in 1934 when “Our Daily Bread” came out:

“In richness of conception alone, Mr. Vidor’s attempt to dramatize the history of a subsistence farm for hungry and desperate men from the cities of America would deserve the attention and encouragement of intelligent film-goers. But “Our Daily Bread” is much more than an idea. Standing in the first rank of American film directors, Mr. Vidor has brought the full power of a fine technique and imagination to his theme. “Our Daily Bread” dips into profound and basic problems of our everyday life for its drama, and it emerges as a social document of amazing vitality and emotional impact.”

For what it’s worth, the early 1930s were not a great time for California olives or oil, nor of course the economy either. Back in 1919 there’d been a big olive-caused outbreak of botulism and both fruit and oil had gotten a pretty bad rap. Sales not shockingly suffered a lot. Things did pick up in the late 1930s when the Spanish Civil War led to a shortage of oil there and the demand for California oil rose some. But after the war production fell off again, and stayed kind of second rate until the big and ever more successful move to exceptionally high quality oils that started about fifteen years ago. Pasolivo is most definitely at the top of the current quality list.

Anyways, what caught my attention back in ’02 was the quality of the oil, and the oil has gotten better and better with each passing year. But over the years it’s gone well beyond just the oil—we’ve built up the sort of deeply rooted, really good relationship with Joeli and everyone at Pasolivo just as we have with other great suppliers like Neal’s Yard Dairy, Anson Mills, Tantre Farms, Calder Dairy, etc. We’ve been working closely for many years now—Joeli’s been here for ZingTrain seminars, I’ve been there to visit, they sell “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating” and “Guide to Better Bacon” at their farm shop, Joeli’s actually in the Guide to Better Bacon book more than once, and getting the new oil here for the holidays has now become an annual event here in the ZCoB.

Backing up just a bit, the first olives were planted on the farm in1997, the first oil pressed the first oil in 2000 have steadily built up their orchard to its current stand of 9,000 trees on about 45 acres. The oil is made from a series of Tuscan varietals—Frantoio, Pendolino, Moraiolo, Lucca and Leccino. All the olives are picked by hand and, because Pasolivo has its own (continuous process—Josh went to Italy to train on how to use it) press on the property, the olives are crushed within hours of being picked. In the few years in which it’s been on the market Pasolivo oil has proven itself a winner on all levels, winning gold medals all over the place. You can check their website to get the list—it’s pretty impressive, a tribute to the quality of the oil. Of course, what counts most to me is the flavor, not the fancy kudos.

This year Grace from the Deli went out to Paso Robles to participate in the harvest. Here are a few of her notes:

“Harvest started Friday November 28th and was expected to end about a week later. Last year they had 3 weeks of harvest & record amounts of yield. In this area they get frosts at night and they need to pick the olives fairly green or they won’t get the harvest in. (My note—this is much like Tuscany, from the whence the varietals in the oil originate.) They pick every olive off the tree. If you leave one it turns into what they call a “mummy.” It stays on the tree & ends up all shriveled by the next years harvest & is a breeding ground for the dreaded olive flies.

They grow several varieties—all of the olives for the Pasolivo oil are from a specific area of the ranch. The fruit is picked by hand, by “milking” the branches, removing every olive that you can. They have ladders with only one balancing leg that they can use to extend through the tree to reach the high branches. As each picker’s olive tub fills up they dump it into a plastic carrier & when that is filled they use a tractor with a fork attachment to bring the bins in to the mill. The olives are dumped into the washer, where the leaves are sucked off, the olives are sorted, ad then rinsed and warmed (rinsed using warm water) in order to get them to a temperature to extract more oil. From there the olives are put into a hammer mill where the whole olive is crushed, then it’s moved to the stirring area that works the mash. From there the paste is moved to the centrifuge where it is separated. The centrifuge moves the heaviest bits to the outside, so the seeds, then the meat of the olive, then the water, with the oil left in the middle. From there the oil is moved to a machine that does a final separation. It’s a machine just like one used for separating cream from milk.

Here’s a couple thoughts from Joeli to add to Grace’s good words: “This year the fruit ripened later than usual, and we were a full week past our normal harvest start date. Waiting was the right thing to do though, as the oil is far more balanced than if we’d picked it much greener. We were all tasting the nuovo thinking, ‘Wow, it’s not as aggressive as it can be.’ It tastes mature and earthy but not quite as raw as last year.”

The big thing to me is of course the oil itself and it’s been excellent. Its color is a really beautiful deep emerald green. The aroma is enormous, with that definite fresh cut grass thing that you get with these oils. Personally I’m big on simple uses—toast some Farm Bread or Paesano, pour on a bunch of the oil and sprinkle a bit of sea salt and eat as is. Or the same sort of thing—with maybe some chopped fresh garlic or a little arugula—on Martelli spaghetti. If you’re in the mood for meat pour it onto a just cooked steak; the classic dish of Florence is the La Fiorentina is a big T bone steak grilled rare then dressed with a big green oil like this one and a bit of sea salt.

Although the Pasolivo nuovo isn’t inexpensive, remember that the oil is the point on any of these dishes so if you can make the mental leap past the price, the point is to pour the oil on liberally. If you’re making bruschetta you’re supposed to see oil on the plate as well as the bread, the better to be soaking it up with a bit of extra bread (warm Paesano is great!). Anyways, have a little and brighten up a brrr cold day!

3. Marvelous Mandelbread

I don’t think mandelbread made it to any big name magazine’s top ten foods for 2010 list. It’s probably not on Oprah’s list, Craig’s list or … But I think I’m going to put it on mine. Not just any mandelbread but the one from the Bakehouse. Because just like your average … anything, most mandelbread I’ve had in the world isn’t really all that wonderful, definitely not anything I’d actively take home, let alone write (home), about. But, while granted I’m biased, I really think that the ones from the Bakehouse are pretty amazing. They’re not new, they’re not on the Bon Appetit top ten list, and they’re probably not particularly big in the blogosphere. I just think they’re really damned good.

Because they aren’t really probably anything of note to the fancy part of the food world it’s really easy to forget about mandelbread. I know I do. The last time I wrote these up in Five Foods I think it was like three years ago. What got me thinking about them then was a conversation with Maggie (Bayless, from Zingtrain) I was talking with Maggie while we were in New Hampshire teaching the ZingTrain “Fun, Flavorful Finance” seminar for the Hanover Coop management team when for some reason the Mandelbread came up. She told me that she thought it was the single best pastry we make at the Bakehouse. Which reminded me to go retaste it and to reappreciate it. Which I did, so much I so that I wrote it up the following week.

Three years, later Maggie gets again gets credit for making me think mandelbread. This time she was telling me how she was serving them after dinner to accompany some Vin Santo (the traditional and I think terrific dessert wine of Tuscany). While the wine is typically served with Italian biscotti, as Maggie said, she was skipping right to Mandelbread because they’re just so much better than any biscotti you’re going find around here. I agree. All of which is a long way to say that if you haven’t had the mandelbread of late, this would be a good time to give ‘em a try.

Of course, if you track Maggie’s background you’ll discover that she’s hardly someone who would be likely to be a big mandelbread eater. She grew up in Wilmington, Ohio which is about an hour east of Columbus and hardly a big center of Eastern European Jewish immigration. That she comes at them with the passion of a convert makes sense. Because ours were probably the first ones she really had, it’s akin to people whose first taste of grits are the Anson Mills ones we have the Roadhouse or Deli—they’re not clued in to the more typical, only slightly-above-tasteless ones that are typically served in your average diner. While I didn’t grow up with grits I definitely did have a childhood where mandelbread was readily available. The thing is that it wasn’t all that remarkable, so I really paid it little attention until we started making ours back ten or fifteen years ago. .

Still, mandelbread are very much out of my grandparents’ generation. Which has been on my mind a lot of late because I’ve been reading a lot about Emma Goldman and the late 19th/early 20th century anarchists, a great many of them were Jewish and of Eastern European origin, and, I’m sure big mandelbread eaters. It’s a bit culturally mind boggling for me to conceive of radical thinkers (women’s rights, free love, opposed to all government, atheists all) like Emma coming out of the same basic era of Russian Jewish immigrants as my grandparents to whom the anarchists must have been anathema. While politically and religiously they were pretty much at total opposite ends of the spectrum, culinarily they had a lot in common. Emma Goldman was apparently a very good cook, and had a high appreciation for all those foods my grandmother grew up on, and later cooked for us—latkes , blintzes, chopped liver and … I’m going to very safely suppose, mandelbread.

Seriously, mandelbread was probably to that generation what chocolate chip cookies are to American kids of say maybe the sixties … .so common as to be almost unremarkable, yet so much a part of the culture and the everyday cooking as to be extremely comforting, grounding, … a bit of stability in a world which feels ever more chaotic (which by the way, the world seems to have felt to folks a hundred years ago as it does now too).

Jumping forward to the 1980s, back when we started the Deli, I think most every cafe in the country was selling those really dry, sort of tasteless biscotti out of big glass jars. While they were never really considered interchangeable—one wouldn’t expect an Italian to walk in and order and espresso and a mandelbread, and my grandmother probably never knowingly ate a biscotti (or drank an espresso) in her life.

In all seriousness, when you eat these … or when I eat these I should more properly say, I think they’re nigh on a perfect piece of pastry. Well, I guess they’re not really pastry. A perfect cookie. These mandrel bread are actually better (I think) than anything my grandmother made because we use butter. She always baked with margarine because we kept kosher and butter in the baked goods really limited when you could serve them (never after a meat meal, which was most evenings) … but hey, let’s face it, butter tastes way better than margarine. And these do taste really, really, really good.

Although they’re not on anyone’s hot trends list they are nigh a perfect Zingerman’s food. As per the above, these were everyday fare from the Eastern European Jewish community a century (and more) ago. They come out of the sweets tradition which, alien though it feels to most modern day Americans, had no chocolate. If you didn’t already know, “Mandel” means almonds in Yiddish, and these are loaded—not laced, but literally loaded—with toasted almonds. Almonds for that part of the world were a step up and a bit of a special item. (The same sort of “bread” is also made with walnuts and called kamishbrot.)

Like everything else from the Bakehouse, the ingredients list is pretty impressive—sweet butter, fresh eggs, lots of fresh orange and lemon zest, and scented with real vanilla. You can smell the citrus as soon as you break one open. No short cuts taken here—these are mandelbread made the old fashioned way: long “loaves” are baked once, then sliced and re-baked cut side down, then flipped over and re-baked again. This thrice-baked technique combined with the great ingredients leaves them literally at least three times as flavorful as any mandelbread I’ve ever had (and about thirty five times more than most of those bland overly sweet biscotti). They’re very full flavored, and I think they fit every part of our definition of that—full flavored, balanced and with a really great long finish. The vanilla hits me first actually but then the other flavors come up really nicely—almonds, a bit of the citrus in the background, not at all too sweet. Sort of crunchy but not in the dry, powdery way that a lot of biscotti can be. Very clean finish, so much so that seriously one bite is enough to get me through an afternoon. Great with tea which is how my grandmother and Emma Goldman would both likely have been enjoying them. Some people dip them in the tea but I like the crunch of them in contrast to the warmth of the tea. Anyways … as the winter wears on and budgets are tight and the days are short and all that not glamorous stuff, I think a bag of mandelbread—or even a single lone piece—really can brighten your day in a good old fashioned Eastern European way. And I guess, now that I think about it, they knew a lot about getting through the winter back in Russia.

4. Zdir – Tunisian Tomato Soup

Unless you’re Tunisian or have spent much time with Tunisian food, you’ve probably never heard of Zdir. But it’s one more of the many really great dishes I tasted and learned to cook last winter when I went to Tunis to visit Majid Mahjoub and the Moulins Mahjoub. As you all already know, the trip has definitely influenced my eating; we’ve been bringing in and selling ever growing numbers of their products (just got samples of three new ones all excellent—details to come)

Anyways, on to the Zdir …. . given the current lower than low temperatures, this is sort of the perfect time to be making a great soup like this one. The quickest way I think I’m going to get this one across is that it … I guess it could be to Tunisians sort of what really good homemade cream of tomato soup is here. Except in this case, it’s Tunisian so … it’s not just tomatoes. And oh yeah, for the dairy free amongst you, there’s no cream. There’s also no meat. It does use semolina so if you have a wheat allergy this one’s out (though, that said, you certainly sub in rice flour and it would be great anyways). The main thing is, it’s not hard to make, and, I think, it’s very delicious.

Anyways, Zdir . .. . grows ever dearer to me the more I make it. Whether you’re up for soup for dinner or soup for soup’s sake … it’s worth making. Not hard either. As if pretty much everything I say/write about food, the quality of the dish is going to depend a lot on the quality of what you put in it. Fortunately here we have the benefit of working with Majid Mahjoub’s marvelous stuff so … . if you stick to that, you’re covered for sure. There are a lot of ingredients so it sounds a bit more complicated than it really is. Basically it’s tomato soup with a mess of Tunisian things in it, and a bit of semolina flour mixed in at the end.

Basically … it goes like this . .. .

Put a few dried red chiles into a bit of warm water to soak. I used Guajillos, but New Mexico red chiles would be good too.

Put an ounce or so of olive oil in a soup pot and put the burner on low. The obvious oil of choice would be the Mahjoub’s. Add some of the Mahjoubs sun-dried garlic (which is pretty amazing. If you’re a garlic lover and haven’t tried this stuff yet . .. do it!). Also add some crushed fresh garlic. The flavors are different so you’ll want both. You can increase or decrease the garlic to your taste—in Tunisia they use about a teaspoon of each. Heat it gently in the oil.

Before the garlic really cooks much, add a few spoonfuls of the Mahjoub’s sun-dried harissa and also of the regular “sweet” harissa. Again, adjust the amount as you like depending on your heat preferences. Add about a quarter cup of tomato puree and a couple of spoonfuls of tomato paste if you like. Add a touch of water so you can mix it into a bit of a smooth soft paste. Turn up the heat a bit and simmer for about five minutes.

Add about a quart of water. Chop the soaked dried chiles and add those too. Add a teaspoon or two to taste of ground caraway and of ground, dried coriander (not fresh coriander leaf). (Actually the recipe calls for tabil, which is a slightly mysterious Tunisian spice blend the dominant component of which is the coriander. I hope that we’ll have tabil from the Mahjoubs some time in the next year.) Blend the whole thing well, then bring it back to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for say fifteen minutes.

Cut up one of the Mahjoub’s preserved lemons into smallish pieces and put it in a small bowl along with a spoonful of capers. If you have a bit of pickled vegetables or chiles you can add some of those too. (The chiles that are in the Mahjoub preserved lemon jar work well for sure). Add a bit of water and soak for a few minutes. Drain it off and add them to the soup.

Simmer the soup for another five minutes or so. I like to add a bit of the liquid from the preserved lemon jar too. Pit and chop the mat of about a dozen olives. I used the Meski olives we get from the Mahjoubs, which are very meaty and very good.

Dice up four of the Mahjoubs sun dried tomatoes and add those too.

Taste the soup for flavor and texture. If it’s too thick for you, you can add a bit more water. It’s going to get thicker in a minute … . gradually stir in four ounces or so of ground semolina. (I got a bit from the Bakehouse since we use it for the Sicilian sesame semolina bread.) Stir well so that the semolina is blended in. Basically it will thicken the soup and lighten it slightly in color but you’d actually likely never guess it was in there if I weren’t already telling you. Lastly add a bit of dried chopped mint, mix and serve. (Majid insists that dried is better than fresh for the zdir.) Again, you can adjust heat (with more harissa) and the thickness (with water) as you like.

When I serve the Zdir, I like to run a ring of olive oil around the top of the soup in the bowl. Aside from the fact that it tastes good if you do it in a circle it looks like the Mahjoub’s logo. Also you can top it with a bit of additional chopped sun dried tomato, or preserved lemon to make it look pretty.

Like all soups of this sort, I think the Zdir is actually better on the “second day” after it’s been cooled and then reheated. Like I said, Zdir has all the comfort of tomato soup, But whereas American cream of tomato soup is sort of comforting in its straightforward, homey flavors, Zdir is complex, spicy, aromatic, a touch of sourness from the preserved lemon and … a touch of exoticism from the caraway (the frequent use of which in Tunisia surprised me) and the coriander. The olives, lemon rind and capers actually make for a rather meaty texture to it all, yet, like so many of these Tunisian dishes it’s meatless. And with all that olive oil in it ….it’s good for you. A little toasted semolina bread and a salad on the side will make for a great meal any time this winter. I’ll do more homework (along with Amos, Kristie and Sarah Mays) when we go to the Mahjoubs to visit soon.

5. The Positive Power of Pot Likker

If you’ve been at the Roadhouse in the last few weeks you might have noticed that pot likker has been appearing more and more often (right up there actually with all the great work around local, dry aged, beef—definitely check that out too). Alex, Kieron and crew have been poaching fish in pot likker, which has been delicious and it’s also served as the base of a couple of very good stews and soups. This week it’s been going out with cornbread. Last night, I sipped a cup at home to start my dinner and … damn it’s good. So I’ll just say here that although hardly anyone knows about it up here, I think pot likker is going be big. Seriously, pot likker could be the pimento cheese of the next few years at the Roadhouse. You’ll see the poached fish, see it served with cornbread, and probably start to see customers buying it by the quart to take home. As Sarah O’Kelly, co-owner of the Glass Onion restaurant in Charleston, said, “It’s nectar of the gods, the most fortification you will ever find at the bottom of a bowl.”

For those like me who didn’t grow with it and don’t it, potlikker is the “broth” in the pot from the cooking of the greens. While most everyone in the South generally seems to like greens, there’s no question that they play a particularly big role in African American cooking there and then anywhere where southern blacks moved out to the rest of this country. Having learned a bit about the historical role of greens in the Southern kitchen I realized that the tendency to pour off the potlikker and strain out the greens that can sill happen sometimes out at the Roadhouse is really just an innocent recreation of what used to go on in the plantation kitchens two hundred years ago; white masters wanted the cooked greens, but they ignored the liquid in the pot, i.e., the pot likker.

By contrast, the slave cooks—who were understandably always working to provide food for their families, and who understood the high nutrient value of pot likker—happily drained it off the greens and used the broth to feed their own folks. Today it’s worth having a bit of the pot likker just because it tastes so good. But I think it’s also worth raising a shot glass of it as a respectful toast to the slave cooks who did the unglamorous work to develop the roots of African American eating that the rest of us get to enjoy today. You can order one at the Roadhouse—a quarter for a shot. Personally I’d order a whole cup as a soup to start my meal. It’s warming, a bit peppery and spicy, kind of rich from the bacon and ham hocks that are cooked with the greens, and actually really good for you because of all the flavor and nutrients from greens that were cooked in there.

Like pimento cheese pot likker is rarely mentioned in old Southern cookbooks. Even greens are rarely mentioned in the old books. Why? Usually the frequency with which recipes are found in books is inversely related to the frequency to which the dish is actually made—greens [and pimento cheese, which btw gets a mention on the (sadly suicidal) late, Vic Chesnutt’s new album, “After the Cut”) were things everyone made. Seriously, I looked through a dozen old southern books and found no recipe. That doesn’t mean none exist, just that the first ten or twelve old books I pulled off the shelf didn’t have one. Greens do get a mention in Mary Randolph’s now classic 19th century “The Virginia Housewife” (“… better boiled with bacon” she reports. I agree.)

The first place I found pot likker was Marion Flexner’s 1941, “Dixie Dishes,” which has a recipe for “Greens and Pot Likker,” of which tells us that, “The liquor left (in the pot) is termed ‘Pot Likker’—pretty clearly this doesn’t seem like it was written for anyone who actually ate greens a lot … A reality reflected on the front inside flap of the book, which begins, “Never before have the famous recipes of the South been available in such an attractive form—simplified for the modern kitchen and gaily illustrated with true Dixie Land flavor.” And, the cover continues, the book is, “ … very definite about the various ingredients which must be mixed to make some family heirloom recipes, long in disuse because of Mammy’s vague directions.” Wow—it sounds like race-based culinary conspiracy had been causing some big screw-ups in the kitchen. Clearly, this was a volume written for people who didn’t grow up sipping pot likker and that didn’t need a recipe to cook a mess of greens, but rather folks from other areas of the country, or maybe southerners who’d lost the link to old family recipes.

Of course being from the north and Jewish this is all way out of my background. In contrast to my own ignorance on the issue, John T. Edge (head of the Southern Foodways Alliance and one of the best food writers around) did his entire grad school thesis on the subject of “Potlikker and Cornpone.” The first thing that caught my attention in John T.’s work was what must be old news to every southern history major but was totally new to me. Embarrassing in all my many years of studying food and history both, I’d never heard of the great “Potlikker and Cornpone Debate” of 1931. Google it up and you can learn more. Although formal old school non-food oriented historians seem to downplay the importance of the debate, John T. did it up right (I think), going far beyond the surface level stuff, and looking deeper into the cultural issues at play. Rather than rewrite the whole thing I think I’ll just pull a couple key bits from John T’s work:

“The Potlikker and Cornpone Debate pitted Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, against Huey Long, U.S. senator-elect from Louisiana. The traditionalist Harris argued that Southerners crumble cornpone into potlikker. The insurgent Long countered that he preferred to dunk. What began as lighthearted aside to the hard news of the day quickly became one of the primary news stories of February and March of 1931.”

And …

The Potlikker and Cornpone Debate of 1931 began when Julian Harris, an editor of the Atlanta Constitution, verbally assailed Huey Long, governor of Louisiana and United States senator-elect, over the question of whether cornbread should be dunked or crumbled into potlikker. The debate quickly escalated, and, for approximately twenty-three days, between February 13 and March 8, 1931, engaged most of the South and much of the nation. Extensive newspaper accounts and correspondence from the time illuminate the primary themes of gender, race, class and regional chauvinism that inform this debate.

Long story short: Julian Harris position on crumbling held true to the views of the long standing southern establishment. Huey Long, from the backwoods of northern Louisiana and very much the populist, dunked, and he stuck to his dunking guns to prove his populist point. In her classic, “Cross Creek Cookery,” (interestingly written in 1942, a year after Marion Flexner’s “Dixie Kitchen” collards come up as well. “Cornbread,” she said, “is always served with collard greens and it is etiquette to dunk the cornbread in the pot liquor.” She goes to say that “Collard greens and cornbread are a mark of the plain people, and Southern politicians make appoint of their passion for them in their campaign speeches.” I guess that tells something about her origin.

(In case you thought long drawn out politics were a new development, one point Long used potikker as the subject of an all night filibuster. Franklin Roosevelt later jokingly suggested the issue be sent to platform committee for the 1932 Democratic Convention. (Hmm … maybe increased potlikker as a preventative health measure in modern day politics . .. . )

Of course, as John T. wrote, there was a lot more to this than just how to handle a piece of cornbread.

Potlikker is more than the sum of the juices at the bottom of a pot of greens. It may be one of the more plebeian of Southern culinary creations, but never let it be said that potlikker is without import. Enshrined early in the pantheon of Southern folk belief, potlikker was prescribed by doctors and conjurers alike for ailments as varied as the croup and colic, rabies and fatigue. Though claims of its curative qualities may be farfetched, potlikker is indeed packed with nutrients, for, during the cooking process, vitamins and minerals leech out of the greens, leaving the collards, turnips, or mustards comparatively bereft of nutrients while the vitamins A, B, and C as well as potassium suffuse the potlikker.

For me, this translates (not sure rightly or wrongly so) with potlikker lining up to be akin to chicken soup in Jewish culture; the basis for a billion and one metaphors about life, folk cures, and shared family cooking. Greens are a really big deal—there’s a Collard Festival held in Ayden, North Carolina. There are poems, essays, papers, conferences … pretty much any sort of debate, discussion or homage you can think of seems to have been paid to greens over the centuries. And by the way, following that metaphor, in the Foxfire Cookery Book there’s a mountain tradition to cook cornmeal dumplings in the pot likker, which I just realized translates into the Appalachian version of chicken soup and matzo balls.

As for the spelling, I’ll make do with quoting Sell Miller, who while Lieutenant Governor of Georgia in 1982, the year we opened the Delicatessen (and when I’d personally never heard a word about pot likker), wrote in The New York Times, “Only a culinarly-illieratate damnyankee (one word) who can’t tell the difference between beans and greens would call the liquid left in the pot after cooking greens “pot liquor” (two words) instead of “potlikker” (one word) … “ . That said, Bill Ferris, editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and author of a mess of other great books on food, culture and the blues, told me that either potlikker as one word or two was acceptable, but it’s definitely NOT “liquor.”

Speaking of the Encyclopedia, in the entry on “Collard Greens” Alex Albright wrote about, “… the pleasant, loving connection of grandma’s iron pot and steaming pot likker, …” and quotes a 1907 article in the Charlotte Observer which said, “The North Carolinian who is not familiar with pot likker has suffered in his early education and needs to go back and begin it again.” Speaking of childhood, because my Jewish roots still subconsciously relate this all to chicken soup I actually really like pot likker on its own as a broth. With all that long cooking and the good pork in there … it’s really darned great. Seriously I think I could eat a bowl of it most every day when the weather is like this. If you work at the RH a shot of pot likker actually a pretty good extra mile sample to send out (along with all the stories in this here five foods) to guests because it’s really good, most won’t have had it, it’s a good story and it’s cost is relatively low. If you don’t work at the RH, ask for a taste next time you’re in. Or do what I’ve been doing and buy a quart to take home. In its simplest form you can just heat it up and eat it one cup at a time. It’s a excellent soup at dinner or an afternoon pick me up that tastes great and that’s good for you. I’ve also tried cooking pasta (both straight and stuffed) and that was great too.

BTW, as Sarah O’Kelly said, “You better have some good cornbread to sop it up too.” While you certainly don’t have to have cornbread, it definitely is good—crumbled, dunked or whatever you want into it. Alex has been steadily perfecting the cornbread at the Roadhouse for many years now—it’s from James Beard’s friend Jean Owens, and it’s getting made with Anson Mills cornmeal and buttermilk, and it’s very good. Alternatively there’s the very good, more northern in its slightly sweeter nature, cornbread we’re doing at the Bakehouse. You can buy that one by the loaf pan every day at the (newly remodeled!) Bakeshop.

Taking again from John T’s work, “In his autobiographical work, Black Boy, author Richard Wright wrote:

I lived on what I did not eat. Perhaps the sunshine, the fresh air, and the pot liquor from greens kept me going. Of an evening I would sit in my room reading, and suddenly I would become aware of smelling meat frying in a neighbor’s kitchen and would wonder what it was like to eat as much meat as one wanted.”

You can of course make pot likker at home too. Just cook your collards (or mustards or … ) a long time with lots of bacon til they’re very tender. Eat the greens and save the pot likker. Do a shot and toast the fact that we’re fortunate to have the chance to bring culinary history alive every day here in what we do! Here’s to a great 2010 to come!

5 Other Things to Know

1. The new Wowza bars from the Candy Manufactory are out. Raspberry. Chocolate. Wonderful. Early reviews have been extremely positive. Congrats to everyone in the ZCoB on the amazing numbers for the January Zzang bar promo – over 4000 bars sold if I read that right! (Which is some massive increase over last year’s numbers!)

2. Definitely check out all the new meat at the Roadhouse. You totally can taste the difference. There’s a very good interview with Alex on the current Roadhouse wrap, and Kieron wrote a very nice note about it this past weekend. These guys have been working long and hard on this one; it’s already making a big difference. More meat and more info to come!

3. The new natural process Sumatra coffee is really darned excellent I think. Try it out. If you’re out the Cof. Co. ask for it in an espresso shot. Worth going across town for I’d say.

4. One month to go on the Deli’s annual pot pie promo. As always, really good comfort food for cold nights all ready to heat up and eat. By ‘em up cuz they freeze well.

5. Check out the whole array of chocolate gelati the Creamery has crafted for Valentine’s Day.