My first experience with a pesto-style dish was in my Greek grandmother’s house. Yia Yia prepared every family member’s favorite dish and my father’s was skordalia, the traditional Greek garlic sauce. As a child in Crete, where almonds are plentiful and full of flavor, her mother taught her the art of the dish; she learned to prepare the skordalia by pounding garlic, almonds and olive oil with a mortar and pestle. We always knew when we walked into her home that she had prepared the skordalia because of the heavy garlic smell in the air. It seemed to stay in our mouths for days and even crept out of our pores as garlic-tinged sweat. Over the years, my dad was the only one adventurous enough to indulge, which he would do on a Friday so he could return to work on Monday with minimal effect.
The Italian word pesto is often used to describe a combination of ground garlic, basil and pine nuts, although the preparation method of grinding ingredients into a paste is universal and cross-cultural. Ever since man discovered how to grind and pound food products with stone and wood, this method has been employed in traditional cuisines around the world to create sauces, condiments, bases and pastes which enhance flavor profiles. Every culture put their stamp on the method with the common denominator being a mortar and pestle or grinding stone and it is a superb way to add a savory and flavorful edge to a dish without frying or grilling.
A Sicilian version is pesto rosso which substitutes almonds for pine nuts and adds tomatoes with less basil. In Mediterranean France, a cold sauce made from garlic, basil and olive oil is the base for the much-acclaimed pistou soup in Provence.
In India, I watched cooks deftly handle a flat grindstone with a rectangular pestle to create intensely flavored mint chutneys, robust masala pastes and pesto-like fillings for a variety of breads and savories. The grinding stones would absorb the right amount of moisture and unique flavors would be developed by the grinding action. I was so enamored by the amazing quality of these preparations that I carried two of these heavy stones home on a flight.
Central and South American cuisines have a long history of grinding spices, pastes and mole bases using a metate or mealing stone. Chimichurri sauce is one of the well known sauces to use this method. One can imagine my pesto recipe being made on a metate grindstone in an adobe kitchen a hundred years ago. Nutty toasted pepitas with crushed garlic, freshly squeezed lime juice, brightly flavored cilantro and smokey fire-roasted poblano chiles provocatively meld together to create an explosion of flavor in any dish that it is served with. I particularly like it as a foil to corn dishes and often pair it with Quinoa-Corn Arepas and Chocolate Cherry Salsa from my cookbook Vegetarian Traditions. The bright flavor of the pesto is the perfect companion to the natural sweetness of the corn and deep, dark anti-oxidant-rich salsa.
Today, I often make pesto with a food processor, which is a compromise for the sake of modern efficiency. However, if you have a metate, or mortar & pestle and a little extra time, I encourage you to use it–not just for the earthly connection and romance of hand-working one’s food, but also for the flavor.
This easy-to-prepare recipe works well in sandwiches, as a mezzes-style dip, a quesadilla filling or a layer in a tortilla casserole.
Pepita & Fire Roasted Poblano Pesto
1/2 cup pepitas, toasted
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 poblano chile, fire roasted, stemmed and seeded
In a food processor, grind pepitas to a meal, add all pesto ingredients and pulse to a coarse consistency. Store in an air-tight container and keep refrigerated.
The first thing I did after picking up my rental vehicle was load 1200 pounds of books from the shipping terminal into the car. Good thing the Chevrolet Traverse had substantial shock-absorbers! It was hot and humid and after that workout, I was eager to get to the hotel.
Friday: A meeting with Dr. Michael Dangovian of the Wellness Training Institute kicked off the day. We discussed my participation at Saturday’s celebration of the first anniversary of his institute. We see this event as the first step in a Food as Medicine program.
Later that day, I made my way to Stephan Brink’s Health Oasis in Royal Oak to teach the art of spicing, namely, how to make masala.
The class was a benefit for the local chapter of Women For Women, a group which helps women deal with health and social crisis situations. It was held outdoors in a courtyard; the balmy Michigan evening added to the intimacy and culinary magic.
Masalas are provocative spice mixtures which are the basis for Indian cuisine. I demonstrated, to the twenty or so attendees, how to toast, grind and mix three masalas and provided spicing techniques for making a large variety of Indian dishes with the authentic flavors achieved only through the freshly ground spices. The intoxicating scents of toasting urad dal, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods and a multitude of other whole spices wafted through the quiet neighborhood.
Inn Season Cafe provided a delicious Bengali Rice Salad which satiated the wetted appetites. Most of the guests took my cookbook home with them.
Saturday: At 7:30am I arrived at the Royal Oak Farmers Market, the bustling 81 year-old indoor market. Don, Donna and Anthony Cinzori welcomed me as if I were long lost family. They have one of the largest certified organic farms in Michigan and tirelessly provide some of the best produce I have seen anywhere. The Cinzori family is warm, generous and knowledgeable. I always look forward to discussing the latest in produce and organic trends with Don.
There wasn’t much time for that this day. The market started to buzz and customers hummed around the colorful Cinzori stall like bees looking for sweet nectar. The market is like a second home and I was able to speak with one person after another about the cookbook and the Don’s produce, which had inspired many of the recipes.
At about one o’clock, my son Spyros and I headed over to the Wellness Training Institute in Sterling Heights. Dr. Michael Dangovian was celebrating the first anniversary of his new clinic and I was honored to be the featured speaker. Over two-hundred people attended the event which included food from Inn Season Cafe, talks by Dr. Dangovian and various teachers who participate in his program of integrative medicine and preventative cardiology.
My lecture was organized around the importance of connecting the dots with your food–knowing where it comes from and supporting your local farmers. I also spoke about food and community, food being not only the primary nourishing element in life, but the primary nurturing element. All the great food cultures of the world weave food into the daily fabric of life and see it as a measure of life’s quality. Without it, there is no benefit to longevity.
Most of the questions fielded were about specific ingredients I recommended and the health benefits they provide. The afternoon was a success and as a result, Dr. Dangovian and I are planning future events with targeted information for attendees to gain specific tools they can apply toward a healthier life. This was just the beginning and we are excited by the possibilities. If there is one thing I have missed about running the restaurant, it was seeing the fulfillment in the faces of our guests. This Saturday afternoon, I saw the same looks.
Sunday: I arrived early at the Birmingham Farmers Market, an empty parking lot with a few tents going up. As I set up my booth, the market began to take shape; trucks pulled up with bushels of fresh corn, potatoes, zucchinis, pumpkins and fresh flowers. A number of organic farmers came together on the south side of the lot with their splendid hand-picked vegetables.
Cousin Donny Hobson, the market master, is not just a farmer, he is a showman. This day he planned to attract shoppers with Hay-Day. Antique tractors, farm implements and bales of hay decorated the market with a festive county fair-like atmosphere.
Two of my favorite farms at the Birmingham market are Natures Pace Organics and Blue Water Organics. Natures Pace is family-operated with a core dedication to sustainable foods.
Each week there is something new at the market. I loved being in Michigan at the beginning of the harvest with the trees displaying the vivid colors of autumn.
Alu Methi Tikki
Few culinary ingredients evoke more passion or have the sensual complexity of vanilla. In its direct, pure state, it is like heavenly ambrosia. More often, it is the secret ingredient which compliments other spices and flavors, putting the final balancing touch to a dessert, pastry or the occasional savory dish.
Most of us have experienced vanilla through extract, a process that produces vanilla flavor through a medium of alcohol or glycerin. The cheaper varieties are not even real vanilla, but a synthetic flavoring called vanillin. When purchasing vanilla extract, I suggest making sure it is made from pure vanilla beans.
The modern culinary revolution in America has increased awareness of long treasured, and often rare, culinary staples. One of indispensable products used in high-end cuisine are vanilla beans, or more botanically correct: vanilla pods. Not long ago I was contacted by a long-time friend living in South India who now lived on a farm and was growing Ayurvedic herbs as a livelihood. He was also growing vanilla and wanted to know if I was interested in his crop. When I asked whether the vanilla was organic, he described his product:
“I sun dry them, so they are organic sun dried vanilla pods. Or beans as most people call them. Vanilla is from the orchid family and the bean is actually a seed pod. You have to sun dry them and keep them wrapped in cotton and a wool blanket in a wooden box at night so they ferment. This fermentation brings out the aroma. Some big producers probably use some type of hot air blower in a warehouse to dry them.”
I agreed to purchase his crop and am now selling these wonderful heavenly pods. If you are interested, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once you get the vanilla, my friend offers further suggestions:
“You can make an extraction out of some also with alcohol, I have heard that even Stoli vodka works. A friend of mines’ wife also told me she put some with the flour she bakes with for three weeks and it worked good. I am sure you know about putting it with sugar, coffee, etc. Cut length wise and keep in glass jar with sugar for three weeks.”
I usually prep the pods by cutting a slit lengthwise and scraping out the black vanilla paste to add to recipes. I save the scraped pods and add them to jars of organic sugar, Grand Marnier or other infusible product. After 2 to 3 weeks, the infused product is as strong as vanilla extract. It makes the expense of the pods economical compared to the price of a good quality extract.
Across the country, top chefs have adopted serving a series of small bites to their discerning customers in order to present food at its purest and freshest state. In those culinary emporiums of the celebrity chef, the goal is to immerse the senses in the wonders of gastronomy. Through visual presentation, tactile sensation, aromatic teases and tasting stimulating flavors chefs are wowing their guests with magnificent plates and anticipatory service.
While the specific experience may be new, there is a long history for this kind of eating. While the great cuisines of Europe are directly rooted to the indulgence of monks in abbeys of the middle ages (and indirectly in Roman high-society excesses), there are also culinary traditions from areas of the world less exposed to the American palate, such as China, Thailand, Vietnam and India. One of these is the cuisine of Yogic India. Entwined with the ancient medical science of Ayurveda, as well as religious philosophies which espouse spiritual cooking and distribution of food, the yoga of cooking has been refined over fifty centuries of recorded history.
Many years ago, my personal culinary journey placed me in Vrindavan, one of the yoga epicenters of India. This was Krishna’s hometown and continues to thrive as a philosophical retreat with over 5000 temples and numerous spiritual schools, particularly inclined toward bhakti-yoga. I became enamored by the attention to detail placed on the food, not only in temples, but in households and street food as well. With a different approach than Western chefs, the food not only had to look good and taste perfect, but it had to be cooked “a-la-minute” and more significantly, also digest well.
The Ayurvedic philosophy of balance was present everywhere, but especially noticeable in the traditional main lunch meal, called a thali. This is where small bites came into play. Originally served on banana leaves with clay cups or stainless steel trays for the common man, it was also served pure silver trays for the aristocrats. Rice is placed in the center and small bowls of vegetables, savories, dahls, pickles, chutneys and raita surround it. In addition, freshly made pillow shaped chapatis are served with steam still spouting through a crack in the top.
The meal balances the five tastes and five mellows of Ayurveda to create an ideal healthy meal with abundant complete proteins, phyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants. Like the fine dining cooking in America, it is a complete sensual immersion, but unlike the West, one feels nourished and vitalized in body, mind and spirit with both sensual stimulation and dietary engagement. The senses are wowed, but they are also brought on board as partners in health. All ingredients were local and, without refrigeration, we shopped the market daily. In my mind, this is the gold standard for us to strive for. There were no leftovers and extras were shared with local sadhus and animals.
While my explanations cannot do them justice, it can be said some of these meals were instances that created rare tears of joy as I ate. The food was that good! The cooks who prepared those meals are still my culinary heroes and inspire similar attention to detail in every meal I prepare.
As the seasons change, the Hillcrest market transforms to accommodate the wares of the moment and the people who provide them. The throngs who frequent the bazaar style market are participants in this grand and timeless exercise of humanity.
This visit did not disappoint. Jenny, visiting from British Columbia, joined me exploring booths I tend to neglect, but nevertheless find interesting. The Eye of Buddha booth had singing bowls complimented by colorful clothing and sweet scented incenses from Tibet and Nepal. They sponsor monthly singing bowl concerts, (www.deepsoundmeditation.com). We also ran our fingers through French cotton tablecloths and sampled raw Peruvian truffles from Guanni chocolates.
Jenny bought an Indian stainless steel “tiffin,” which is like a stacking lunchbox or indelible carryout container. Jenny found some wonderful fresh mango juice and I purchased some sugar snap pea plants for the garden. Of course, we stopped by my usual haunts, such as Koral’s Tropical Fruit Farms where Barry had just returned from a raw foods immersion trip in the Caribbean. He had 4 kinds of avocados, chermoya, guava, Meyer lemons, Persian limes, kumquats, Paige tangerines and blood oranges.
Down the aisle, La Milpa Organica was clearly in between harvests, yet provided a variety of beets that turned out tempting and sweet. Sage Mountain Farms was also somewhat low in stock, but I managed to find some beautiful radicchio, Swiss chard, romaine lettuce and baby bok choy. We finished this week’s journey buying fresh organic pomegranate juice and Satsuma tangerines.
In the shared pursuit of culinary perfection one memorable friend was Gordon W. Over the years since first meeting in India, our paths would cross periodically either with my visits to Toronto, or his to Detroit. During a stint in Washington D.C. I had acquired a stainless steel food cart to cater events with. Detroit’s inclement weather and urban sprawl allowed only limited usage, so I offered the cart to Mr. W, who was able to take advantage of the concentrated foot traffic in Toronto. Eminently creative, he placed a griddle, a burner and propane cappuccino machine on top of the cart. He stored home-cooked subjis and chutneys in heated compartments in the cart to compliment his “cart top” cooking. Every morning, playing drums and cymbals, he and an assistant or two would parade the cart to Queen Street on a bicycle and foot. Arriving at the auspicious corner, he set folding chairs around the cart and began making chapattis, immediately creating appetizing aromas which began wafting down the street. Lines would quickly form to get one of his sandwich wraps, freshly cooked, filled with vegetables, dressed with a chutney condiment and still steaming. As customers took a bite, flavors would explode in the mouth, instantly creating dedicated patrons. In a short amount of time, Gordon W became a fixture on Queen Street with his combination of performance art and culinary excellence. He perfected the art of the street chapati which continued for almost a decade. If there would be a chapati hall of fame, Gordon W would certainly be there. His knack for turning every meal into an event was awe-inspiring. Beyond showmanship, he did it as an art-form and incorporated meaning and passion into every aspect of the meal. Gordon thrived on sharing this with anyone willing to bite into a fresh chapati wrap sandwich. As of late, he resides in Berlin… playing tablas and cooking for many.
All sorrows are less with bread. ~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
The chapati may be the original bread…flat, without yeast and prepared over open fires. The technique has been used for millennia and is adaptable to many different cooking circumstances, such as hot stones, coals or open flame. The art of chapati making is often meditative and conducive for simple, yet elegant meals that focus on fresh and local flavors.
My first exposure to Indian food started in Cleveland in 1972. The marvelously flexible and flavorful bread was served at the Hare Krishna temple on Sundays. Soon, I became a regular, helping to make hundreds of chapatis in the clean and unpretentious kitchen that once belonged to John D. Rockefeller’s daughter. I was shown proper ratios of flour, water and oil along with the best methods for making the dough by hand. Taking on the job of kneading, I also learned how the dough was similar to the clay I was working with in pottery class at school. Kneading and resting the dough were important for good chapatis: Ten minutes of kneading, then fifteen minutes of resting. Sometimes, we would change the technique and “age” the dough in water overnight, which made the dough elastic and with a slight tang. Often, we would seek the help of Indian women who learned the art of chapati making in early childhood. I marveled how they deftly handled the thin rolling pins, turning a ball of dough into evenly rolled, thin, flat and perfectly round breads in a matter of seconds. A talent passed on from mother to daughter for millennia, vividly displayed with fluid hand movements and perfectly puffed breads.
Living in the Northern Indian town of Vrndavan, I was immersed in a culinary yoga which maintained a strong emphasis on the balance between chapatis, rice, dahls and subjis. The total chapati experience was revealed with the invite to lunch in local homes where I was able to witness this sweet perfection of Indian hospitality. First and foremost, Vaishnava Hindu households always made a small portion as an offering to Vishnu first, thus “spiritualizing” the food and stressing the importance role food play in a life. In a social setting, this was rarely shared with company, as the guest was made to feel as they were the only object of attention. In my case, a desire to learn about food often brought extra demonstrations and detailed information about the preparation of food. The menu was usually simple local fare such as mung dahl, basmati rice studded with black cardamom, a subji such as begun sak (eggplant and spinach) and, of course, a steaming fresh chapati. Not just warm, but cooked to perfection, puffed up with a small vent of steam pouring out the top, just at the very moment the bread was placed on my plate. As my fingers lifted the last morsel of tender bread off the plate, another fresh, perfectly prepared chapati would be placed in front of me…the steam swirling and beckoning. This gastronomical ritual would continue until my belly could consume no more. The most amazing part was that these experiences were merely daily lunches. The sophistication of the food, high etiquette and attention to detail were simply how life was lived.
A “white” whole wheat flour works well. The best flour to use is the durum whole wheat “atta” flour sold at Indian import stores.
To make this recipe vegan, place the chapatis directly in a covered container to keep the steam in.
The chapatis will retain moisture and be soft for serving.