Monday, November 8, 2010


Yuca, als known as cassava or manioc, is the root of the cassave plant, not to be confused with the ornamental yucca. The root vegetable, high in starch and calcium, is a dietary staple in many countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, much like our potatoes. The high starch content also allows its use as flour for bread and pastries. The root can be fried, boiled or steamed, and contains a high amount of Vitamin C.

The root itself contains significant amounts of cyanide so do not eat it raw. Boiling, frying or steaming the vegetable will eliminate the poison.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Crushed Mice and Chocolate Hail

Holland, or the Netherlands, is one of the largest bread consumers of Europe. Many a tourist, when stepping inside a Dutch bakery, is surprised by the large amount of bread varieties. Two out of the three daily meals consist mainly of bread: breakfast and lunch. Dinner is seldom a "bread meal" and will most often be a "warm meal" such as meat and potatoes.

Breakfast is 2 to four slices of bread, depending on whether you prefer open or closed faced sandwiches. The Dutch spread butter or margarine on their bread to hold on to the toppings. One sandwich will have a savory topping such as cheese, liver paté or sandwich meat, and the other one will have a sweet topping. From early on, Dutch children learn to eat the savory sandwich first, and save their appetite and creativity for the sweet one. Because it's not just jam or jelly that's available to the Dutch: in regards to bread toppings, they are the master decorators!

Koninklijke De Ruijter, in existence since 1860, is the main producer of bread toppings in the Netherlands. They carry a solid array of favorites and introduce every so often a new variety. The following bread toppings are by far the most favorite.

Chocolate Flakes

Children in Holland have it good: by liberally sprinkling chocolate hail or, as pictured here, chocolate flakes or vlokken on their sandwich, they can assure themselves of eating at least the equivalent of half a chocolate bar in one sitting. Chocolate vlokken come in dark chocolate, milk, white and a combination of all three. The cacao content is at least 39% on average, which makes it a sweet, sugary but also a quality kind of bread topping!

Chocoladevlokken were introduced in 1955, as the first chocolate product to decorate a slice of bread. Barely two years later, chocolate hail followed.

Pink Mice

"Pink mice" is the name of a sweet breadtopping that consists of pink and white sugar coated aniseed. Because of the seed stem, the shape often resembles that of a little mouse. Pink mice, or "roze muisjes" are traditionally served on a Dutch rusk when celebrating the birth of a girl. For a boy, it's blue and white mice, or "blauwe muisjes". The birth of royalty, such as a prince or princess, is celebrated nationally with orange mice, in reference to the name of the royal family, Oranje.

These nativity mice, as they were called, were the first product that was sold by De Ruijter in 1860.


Speculaas, or spice cookie, is a crunchy, buttery cookie made with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, white pepper and cardamom. It's similar to the American windmill cookie but contains a larger variety and amount of spices. Traditionally a December treat, speculaas cookies are now available year round. Straight out of the package, speculaas cookies are served with morning coffee or afternoon tea. After several days in the cookie jar, the cookies absorb moisture and soften and are no longer presentable to guests. This is when they become a desirable bread topping, especially for children. The softness of the bread, the slightly salty taste of the butter and the spicy sweetness of the speculaas cookie is a winning combination, and one that is engraved in many a Dutch child's memory. For a recipe for speculaas, click here.

Chocolate Hail

The story goes that, after receiving several letters from a young boy imploring him to make a chocolate bread topping, Mr. De Ruijter introduced chocolate sprinkles, or in Dutch "chocolate hail", in 1957. The earliest advertisements showed a boy and a girl, hiding from a chocolate hailstorm under a giant umbrella. These children were so smart as to have a slice of buttered bread with them: they stuck it out from under the umbrella, had their sandwich hailed on and enjoyed a buttered slice of bread with top notch chocolate!

Nowadays you will find dark chocolate and milk chocolate hail. In order to call chocolate sprinkles "chocolate" they have to have a cocoa content of at least 37.5%. The combination of salty peanut butter and sweet chocolate hail is one of the most favorite toppings for both children and adults.

Fruit Hail

Fruit, or sugar hail, combines three bright colors: orange (orange), pink (raspberry) and yellow (lemon) and is a sweet, crunchy, slightly powdery confection. It melts into the butter and leaves bright colors on your bread but the flavors are not distinguishable. Fruit hail was first introduced in 1928 and was an immediate success. Initially, fruit hail had four colors: the aforementioned three and a white hail (anise). In later years, the white hail was separated from the colored sprinkles and received its own packaging and product line as anise hail. In 2003, De Ruijter introduced a new fruit hail, the Berry Hail, made with berry juices and in the colors purple, pink and fucsia.

Fruit hail was the first bread topping that De Ruijter exported to the Dutch soldiers in Indonesia, in 1946.


Stroop, or syrup, is a sweet, sticky spread made from reduced apple juice. Boiled down to a sticky, dark goo, apple stroop is favored on bread and on pancakes and in flavoring certains meat sauces such as "zuurvlees". Of all the bread toppings, it's probably the healthiest one as it contains large amounts of iron and vitamins. Stroop is pleasant by itself as a topping but will often be used in combination with cheese.

Stroop is traditionally made in the province of Limburg where, nowadays, only two families have continued the tradition of "stroop stoken", "boiling down stroop". A lengthy process, apple and pear juice is reduced in large copper kettles while stirred down continuously. A more tart version called "rinse appelstroop" is made with apples and sugar beets.

Crushed Mice

Gestampte Muisjes, or crushed mice, is another variation on aniseed bread toppings.  The anise hail that was mentioned under fruit hail is now pulverized and presented as a white, powdery substance. Bread with a thin layer of butter and dusted with gestampte muisjes is delicious but certainly messy to eat. Do not inhale when you are about to take a bite, the light powder will get in your throat and cause you to cough! Gestampte muisjes are a key ingredients in a variety of baked goods of which the most famous one is Oranjekoek.

And the most humble bread topping of all:


Holland has certainly known hard times, especially during and after WWII. Little food was there to eat but for the white bread loaves of American and Canadian relief agencies. Sandwiches, or slices of bread, were served with the bread topping "tevredenheid", contentment. A single slice of dry bread reminded the Dutch that, even though these were rough times, we could still imagine bread was topped with something.

*The majority of these bread toppings were found at Tres Bonne Cuisine, on Overland in Boise.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hungarian Paprika and a recipe for Gulyás

Holland has cheese, Germany has beer and Hungary has, you guessed it, paprika. As one of the key producers of sweet and spicy red paprika in the world, Hungary cultivates a large variety of peppers, and therefore produces different types of paprika.

The variety largely depends on the heat of the paprika, on its bite. Édes Nemes is a type of paprika that is bright red, sweet and only with a hint of spice. It's the most popular kind for export, and will be most likely the one you will cook with. But other varieties, although more difficult perhaps to find, sound equally interesting and exciting. Csípös Csmege is a spicier paprika that is very popular in Hungary and in Hungarian cuisine, Különleges is a variety with bright red color and a very mild, sweet flavor. For the brave amongst us, Erös is the hottest variety. Its color varies from rusty red to light brown because yellow and green peppers are used additionally for the production of the paprika powder.

The two regions in Hungary most famous for their pepper and paprika production are Szeged and Kalocsa. Right around this time of year, in September, the two areas start harvesting and processing their peppers. Within a month and a half, from harvest to milling and packaging, paprika hits the stores in beautifully decorated cloth bags, boxes or cans. As you can imagine, it's a great souvenir to bring home if you visit the country and Hungary most definitely will not allow you to forget its culinary pride: there's even a Paprika museum. As the natural spice loses its pungency, flavor and color with time, it is best to seek out the freshest and most recently produced paprika. In America, we will most likely encounter the canned Édes Nemes variety from Szeged, but it would be interesting to pursue the use of other specialties as well.

Gulyás, or goulash, is Hungary's national dish. The Hungarian herdsmen, or cowboys if you will, are credited with creating this dish, a one pot stew scarce in a variety of ingredients but rich in paprika. In an effort to create an original version of this wonderful beef stew, I read many blogs, recipes, translated Hungarian websites and emailed with Hungarian cooks. Not often did they agree on too many of the ingredients or cooking instructions, as can be expected with a dish so universally adopted (and adapted) to different tastes and product availability. The one thing most cooks did seem to agree on, though, is absolutely no tomatoes. The redness and flavor of the sauce has to come solely from paprika powder and, if necessary, paprika paste. But no tomatoes.

As I did not have a traditional bogrács, a traditional heavy pot or cauldron that the Hungarian herdsmen used to cook their gulyás in, I used a cast iron enameled pot which worked just as well. Every household has its own variation of gulyás and therefore I added my own two (euro) cents. I did omit the tomatoes and thus honored the original version, but did add two red peppers for lack of paprika paste, some garlic and a generous dollop of ajvar to spice things up a bit.

4 slices of salt pork (or 3 tablespoons of bacon grease)
1 large onion, diced
4 tablespoons of paprika
2 lb of beef (chuck rib or pot roast)
2 carrots
2 cloves of garlic
2 medium red peppers
2 medium sized potatoes
1 tablespoon of caraway seeds

Optional: two tablespoons of ajvar

Heat your cooking pot and render the fat out of the salt pork. If you have bacon grease you can skip this step. When the fat is hot, remove the salt pork if used and add the onions. Stir until they are translucent. Take the pot off the stove and stir in the paprika. Note: you want the paprika to hit the hot grease and release most of its flavor but you don't want it to burn as it will turn bitter and spoil the dish.

Put the pot back on the stove and add the beef, cut in bitesize chunks. Sauté the meat in the hot fat and mix it in with the onions and the paprika, then turn down the heat and add 2 cups of warm water. Let the beef braise in a covered pot for about a good hour, keeping an eye on the amount of liquid. Make sure you have enough liquid in the pot at all times!

Peel and cut the carrots in bitesize pieces or slices, whichever you prefer. Peel and mince the garlic, and slice the peppers into 1 inch pieces, after removing the seeds. Add the carrots, garlic and peppers to the pot, add three more cups of water and let the stew slowly simmer for another hour.

Cube the potatoes after you peel them and add them to the pot with three additional cups of water. Stir in the tablespoon of caraway seed and simmer until the potatoes are done. On a slow simmer, the potatoes will thicken the stew and bring all the flavors together. Before you serve, taste and adjust with salt and pepper, if needed, and stir in a spoonful of ajvar if you wish. Served best with a big slice of pogacha.

Enjoy your meal!

*The Hungarian paprika was found at Tres Bonne Cuisine, on Overland in Boise.

Ajvar (Roasted Red Pepper and Eggplant Spread)

Ajvar (pronounced EYE-var) is a traditional relish from the Balkan area (Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia). It's made from roasted red peppers and eggplant, garlic, olive oil and, for a spicy variant, hot peppers.

It comes in three varieties: mild (pindjur), moderately hot (ajvar) and hot (ljuti or ljutenica). Often used warm as a savory condiment with meat dishes such as cevabcici, it can also be used cold as a spread on wraps, sandwiches or added to flavor soups or sauces. The roasted pepper spread is often served on the traditional pogacha bread as an appetizer.

Ajvar is prepared in the Fall months, when red peppers and eggplant are abundant and at their best. The preparation often involves family, friends and neighbors and is a celebratory event that often lasts two or three days. The red pepper variety is not the sweet, square bell pepper that we know in the United States but it will make a good substitute. The Balkan red pepper is a smaller variety, with a pointed end, that has a certain sweetness to it but also a little bit of a bite, just enough to add an interesting hint of heat.

As with everything that is traditional and home-made, every family or culture has its own way of preparing foods. Some roast the peppers whole, others de-seed them before roasting, some boil the sauce down or add parsley, yet others chop the roasted vegetables up and serve them lukewarm as is. Whichever way you do it, it's all good. Compare it to the way we make potato salad in this country: everybody likes or makes theirs a little different, but after all is said and done, it's still potato salad.

You can chop the ajvar in a food processor, or grind it to a paste in a mortar and pestle. If you plan on canning it, bring it to a simmer and boil it down to about half. Do process this in a pressure canner as the acidity of the vegetables is too low to be safely processed in a water bath canner and keep the jars refrigerated.

Six to 8 large red peppers
1 medium size eggplant
2 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoon of white wine vinegar
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
Parsley (optional)

Roast the peppers and the eggplant on medium fire until they are charred on the outside. Place them in a plastic bag or in a covered bowl and let them sweat for an hour: it will loosen up the skins and will be easier to handle. Peel the peppers and remove the seeds. Chop the peppers into small pieces. Peel the eggplant and remove the seeds, cut the rest into small pieces. Add both vegetables to the food processor and pulse a couple of times. Add the garlic, the oil and the vinegar and pulse again, two or three times, depending on how smooth you want the sauce to be. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Serve warm by grilled meats or cold on bread and cream cheese as a snack or breakfast item.

TIP: The bottled ajvar in the picture was purchased at Bosnia-Express on Emerald and Orchard in Boise, ID.