Food

The history of the Cucurbitaceae (gourd) family is surprisingly complex, as I recently found. They are one of the first cultivated foods; there is indication they were domesticated as far back as around 15,000 years ago. The Cucurbitaceae family is broken into five main groups, all important to humans for different reasons:

1) the Lagenaria genus, indigenous to Africa, includes bottle gourds (aka calabash), used as a container and musical instrument.
2) the Citrullus genus, also from Africa, includes watermelon and egusi (whose seeds remain an important food in Africa today).
3) the Cucumis genus, is of unknown origin (but likely the Middle East) and includes cucumbers, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon.
4) Luffa is a genus of fibrous gourds, grown in Asia and eaten when immature, or matured and dried on the vine for use as body scrubs (this is where the word “loofa” comes from).
5) and finally, the Cucurbita genus encompasses today’s subject – pumpkins and squash.

As you probably know, the winter squashes we know today – pumpkins, acorn, butternut, and the like – were first domesticated in the New World, and are relatively new additions to other cuisines. But when you look up the origins of other squashes, like zucchini, the results are not so clear. As I dug through recipes for Kousa Mahshi, many would describe this dish as an ancient favorite, as if this delicious stuffed squash was enjoyed in Constantinople a thousand years ago.

In truth, zucchini (and all summer squashes) are simply immature cultivars of the Cucurbita genus, eaten while the rind is still edible. Zucchini in particular was first developed in Northern Italy, and not introduced to the rest of the world until the 1930s – a far cry from the Byzantine Empire!

So in the face of these facts, it’s safe to say that Kousa Mahshi is a relatively new invention, likely a reinvention of the older Sarma/Dolma (stuffed grape leaves) dish common in the Mediterranean, Balkans, and Persian Gulf.

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I’m currently sitting at my computer with a blanket and a cat on my lap, and wearing a hoodie and house slippers for the first time this year. Sounds like the perfect time to break out a stew recipe.

Pichelsteiner is a very typical stew, found in similar shapes and sizes all over the world. There are several stories to explain its invention, a common trait among stews. One folk tale details how a farmer’s wife fed the stew to a group of marauding soldiers, saving the day (and her family) with this new culinary invention. Another tale explains how a Bavarian chef prepared Pichelsteiner for party atop Büchelstein mountain (allegedly, the name of this dish morphed from there). Finally, the small Bavarian village of Regen, along the Czech border, claims ownership of this dish as well, which they have communally served at the anniversary of their church’s dedication in 1874.

Pichelsteiner shares another feature with other regional stews: it serves as the solution to those pesky leftovers that creep up in the fridge. As truly communal fare, the stew incorporates a spectrum of ingredients available to pre-industrial Germans: mushrooms, onion, carrots, leeks, cabbage, potatoes, and three types of meat. So if you don’t have all the ingredients, or if you have a couple extra that aren’t listed below, don’t fret – there’s a lot of wiggle room here.

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Salad Shirazi is a herb and vegetable salad from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz. It’s enjoyed year-round as a side dish, but is often served as a full meal during the hot summer months. While the vegetables are often diced – giving them an appearance not unlike Pico de Gallo – I have found that using larger chunks give each ingredient a bit more distinction, and results in a livelier eating experience.

There isn’t much to this recipe; theoretically, you could just throw all of the ingredients together and chow down. But I prefer to soak the onions in cold water first, which removes some astringency, and to salt the tomatoes and cucumbers to leech out a bit of their juice. That way, most of the salad’s moisture comes from more flavorful sources, like olive oil and lime juice.

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The weather is starting to cool down, so it’s time to share one of the many soups in my repertoire.

Caldo Xóchitl is a simple chicken soup from Mexico, a carryover of traditional, pre-Columbian fare, when soup (and corn) were dietary staples in the region. The word Xóchitl itself means “flower” in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language, but the original meaning behind this name is lost to history. I’ve read that this soup may have originally coincided with the daysign Xóchitl in the Aztec and Maya calendars; think of it like the astrological or Chinese zodiac signs, based off a specific day of the year that is governed by the goddess Xochiquetzal. Another, perhaps more practical theory is that squash blossoms may have simply been added to the soup when in season.

While chicken is more commonly served in this soup today, chickens were likely first introduced after Columbus’ voyage to the Americas in 1492 (there is some evidence that there were chickens in South America, via Polynesia, but that debate rages on). Either way, turkeys were available, so if you’re up for it, use turkey meat instead. We’re going to season the soup broth with a few New World spices, to give just a hint of depth to the recipe.

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Shakshuka is a dish of tomatoes, peppers, and poached eggs, ubiquitous in North Africa and the Middle East. Countries across the Middle East, from Yemen to Turkey, claim to have first created the dish, where it then supposedly spread across North Africa. Regardless of origin, I like to think the best Shakshuka embodies many of the countries and cultures that claim ownership of this dish, so I like to incorporate many influences, like Harissa from Morocco, or olives and artichoke hearts from across the Mediterranean.

And that’s the beauty of this dish – there are so many possible variations, all readily available in most pantries and fridges, that this dish can be cooked up most any morning; it only takes a few extra minutes to turn your typical fried eggs into something magical. Today’s recipe hosts an all-inclusive mix of possible additions, a tapestry of what you could use – but if you’re missing an ingredient or two, it’ll still turn out spectacularly. And if you don’t have any pre-made Harissa within arm’s reach, and want to capitalize on the spontaneous nature of this dish, simple replace the Harissa with some tomato paste and cayenne (measurements in the recipe below).

On a separate note, my friends at ButcherBox are celebrating their two-year birthday (just ahead of our youngest son, Elliott!). To celebrate, they’re throwing in a package of two 10oz ribeyes (a $25 value) for new customers’ first orders – that’s in addition to $10 off that The Domestic Man readers already receive by using my affiliate link. I’m a big fan of ButcherBox, and I look forward to receiving my customizable box every month – stocked full of staples and new cuts of beef, pork, and/or chicken every time. This offer expires at midnight on Tuesday, October 3rd, so don’t wait!

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Hey folks, we’re going to enjoy a short, simple dish this week. I’m in the middle of prep for a two-week stretch of recipe development, hopefully my last big push in the kitchen before I focus on writing other parts of my next book!

I think there’s something unfairly simple about wedge salads. They’re a cinch to put together at home, but I often find myself ordering them at restaurants, despite the fact that I’m paying someone to simply chop a head of lettuce into quarters. This week’s recipe is the classic preparation of the dish, which is wonderful in its ease and approachability; for something a little more challenging, I encourage you to check out my Muffuletta Wedge Salad recipe from last year.

A little history on wedge salads, from The Ancestral Table:

Salads served wedge-style date back to the 1910s and reached peak popularity in the 1960s. Iceberg lettuce, the staple lettuce used in this dish, has slowly been replaced by leaf lettuces over the years, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for this crispy, blank-canvas lettuce; it stays fresher longer than leaf lettuces and pairs better with creamy dressings and heavier toppings, as in this recipe.

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Guess what? It’s getting noticeably cooler here in Virginia, which means it’s just about roasting weather. I love making roast dishes once the temperatures dip, because it’s an easy (and aromatic) way to warm up the kitchen during chilly weather. In truth, I developed this dish a few months ago, when I was working on a particular chapter for my upcoming cookbook, but decided to hold off on sharing this recipe until we had appropriate weather.

Roasting duck can be daunting. I know this because I spent the first 30 years of my life not roasting any ducks, because it seemed like an intimidating bird to cook (although to be fair, I wasn’t roasting much of anything during the first 16 years of my life). Turns out roasting duck is in many ways more appealing than roasting chicken, because a) the whole duck could basically be classified as “dark meat”, which means it is more forgiving if you overcook it, b) duck can be served at a wide range of internal temperatures (135F-165F), depending on how you like it, and c) duck skin is so fatty that you’ll inevitably render a bunch of delicious duck fat to use in other recipes.

For today’s recipe, we’re going to trim the excess skin from the duck (around the neck and cavity), render it separately, and use that fat to roast the vegetables. I like this technique because you can then use the fat that accumulates below the roasted duck for other cooking adventures. My recipe from The Ancestral Table also rendered duck fat to roast the veggies, but the vegetables were placed under the duck as it roasted. This technique required one fewer step, but it is always a challenge to get everything finished at a reasonable time; too often, my duck was ready while the vegetables were still cooking. By separating the two cooking processes, we have more control over the timing of each dish, and makes for a more synergized eating experience.

One last step, which I think is worth mentioning. I have found that it’s worth it to refrigerate the duck overnight, uncovered, so that the duck skin is nice and dry. This technique is used by Chinese restaurants when making Peking Duck, albeit more elaborately (using a bike pump, blanching, and stationary fan), and gives you a layer of crispy duck skin that pulls away easily from the meat.

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The word tagine (tajine, الطاجين) is both the name of a North African stew, and the conical earthenware pot in which it is usually cooked. The use of ceramics in North Africa was the result of Roman influence, and these dishes have been enjoyed for thousands of years.

Tagine pots are unique in that they trap steam and return the condensed liquid to the dish, enabling chefs to make tender foods with minimal added water, which is ideal in areas where water is scarce. For today’s recipe, I’ve provided instructions to create this dish with a dutch oven or deep skillet; so long as the lid has a very tight seal, you should be able to closely mimic the original dish – some folks like to cover their pots with tin foil before adding the lid, to ensure a completely tight seal.

There are countless spice options when preparing a tagine, but for this particular recipe I modeled my approach after a traditional Mrouzia, a tagine that is often served during Eid al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice). This Muslim celebration honors Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command, only to be provided a sacrificial goat at the last minute instead. During this celebration, a lamb (or sometimes goat) is ritually sacrificed and shared among family, neighbors, and the needy; in many settings, they prepare Mrouzia using the sacrificed lamb.

Mrouzia is served with toasted (blanched) almonds, and typically flavored with saffron and Ras el Hanout, a popular North African spice mixture. Commercial versions of Ras el Hanout exist, but it’s not too challenging to put together your own fresh spice blend (my recipe is below); you’ll likely have most of these spices in your pantry already, except perhaps for mace. While potatoes aren’t a typical accompaniment to Mrouzia, I find that they add a hefty balance to the sweet/salty mixture of the dish; steamed basmati rice (or couscous, if you’re not gluten-averse) also works well as a starch.

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Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people ask me to develop a recipe for Chicken Karaage. It just so happened that this past weekend I needed a break from developing recipes for my next cookbook, and I was craving fried chicken, so it felt like the perfect time to work on this fan favorite.

In Japanese, Karaage (唐揚げ) is not necessarily a direct translation of the dish, but rather the cooking method. The first kanji character, 唐, translates to “Tang Dynasty”, or more loosely, “China”, which suggests that this dish was influenced by Chinese cuisine. Chicken Karaage itself has only been recently popular in Japan, mostly over the past 50 years, but it was likely first developed during the Edo period (1603-1868).

The key to a crispy Karaage is to toss the chicken in potato starch to form a light coating right before you drop it in hot oil. I like to use lard when frying chicken, but I’ve heard some amazing things about Chicken Karaage fried in duck fat, so if you have any on hand, maybe try that instead. I like to pair my Karaage with a citrusy Ponzu dipping sauce, but many people also prefer Japanese (Kewpie) mayo.

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Potjiekos has all of the things I like in a good stew: tender and rich meat, sauce that’s bursting with deep flavors, subtly-seasoned vegetables, and a good backstory. I’ve been watching a lot of Game of Thrones lately (well, once a week), and digging into the show’s theories and lore, so I’m most interested in the backstory part right now. Let’s dig in.

Cast-iron cooking was first popularized in Europe during the 1500s. During the Siege of Leiden, South Holland, in 1573-1574 (part of the Eighty Years’ War between the Netherlands and Spain), the local townspeople turned to communal hodgepodge cooking to survive – in small cast-iron pots, with any meat and vegetables they could find. This communal dish bore the name hutspot, and remains popular today.

Hutspot cooking was carried by Dutch explorers who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope (in present day Cape Town, South Africa) in 1652; over time, the dish started to incorporate new spices brought in from the Dutch East India Company, and took on the name Potjiekos (“small pot food”), using a small three-pronged cast-iron pot called a potjie pot, and cooked over an open fire.

Potjiekos eventually spread throughout South Africa when Voortrekkers (Dutch pioneers), dissatisfied with the then-British colonial administration of Cape Colony, migrated eastwards in 1837 into much of what makes greater South Africa today. Locals appreciated the practicality of potjie pots over their traditional clay pots, and they were integrated into several tribal cuisines – often to cook maize-based porridges such as putu or pap. It’s striking to see these medieval cauldrons take root in a place so far from their origin, and it’s a testament to the adaptability of humankind.

Today, Potjiekos remains a communal dish, cooked outdoors among friends (and a bottle of wine). If you are comfortable with cooking over an open fire, it’s definitely worth the extra effort. For everyone else, adding a bit of liquid smoke can replicate the experience while remaining in the kitchen. I even added Instant Pot instructions below the recipe, for good measure. This dish can be made with any meat, from lamb to chicken to fish, but I prefer the naturally rich flavor that comes from simmering oxtails.

Potjiekos is distinct from traditional stews in that the ingredients are not stirred together until right before serving; instead, the vegetables are layered over the meat and steamed, giving each ingredient its own distinct flavor. Additionally, you don’t want to add much liquid to the pot – just enough to cook the oxtails – since the vegetables will release plenty of liquid as they steam.

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