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October 31, 2010

Filé powder, a Pantry Special (Recipe: gumbo ya-ya)

Gumbo ya ya

When Ted and I moved to a wooded part of Rhode Island, we never intended to become gumbo filé farmers. We didn't know that in our woods, among the pine and oak and maple, we would find several sassafras trees, or that sassafras -- often associated with the southern states -- actually is native to New England. And we didn't know that we could make filé powder from the dried, pulverized leaves of our very own sassafras trees. Filé (pronounced FEE-lay, and also called gumbo filé) lends an exotic, flowery, "root beer" flavor to gumbo, and when stirred in at the end of the cooking (as it always should be), it acts as a thickener. Though filé is most often associated with Cajun and Creole cuisine, it was the Choctaw Indians who first used it in their cooking, long before the Acadians arrived in Louisiana. I use it for gumbo, of course, and to thicken stews and lentil soups.

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October 14, 2010

Hilopites, a Pantry Special (Recipe: leek moussaka)

Leek moussaka

Every now and then, when I'm very lucky, a super special ingredient finds its way to my pantry. Last week, Laurie from Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska sent me a box filled with wonderful foods from Greece, including handmade cheeses, olives, thyme picked from a hillside overlooking the sea, and hilopites -- short, skinny egg noodles made by her cousin. (If you've been reading here for a while, you know I've never met a noodle I didn't love with all my heart.) The noodles resemble those used in Middle Eastern rice pilaf, or fideos, or small toasted strands of angel-hair pasta, all of which can substitute if you can't find hilopites or aren't lucky enough to have a Greek cousin who will make them for you. Hilopites (pronounced hee low PEE tes) -- which can be square, or wide, or long and flat like linguine -- are delicious in soup, in tomato sauce, as a thickener in stew, or on their own, tossed with a bit of butter and cheese. I've been having a great time experimenting with them.

According to Laurie, hilopites traditionally are made once a year, between July and September, when the weather is hot enough to dry the dough and there's an ample supply of fresh eggs and sheep's milk. Please visit Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska for photos that show the process of making these noodles by hand.

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August 24, 2010

Vanilla powder, a Pantry Special (Recipe: cinnamon and vanilla challah French toast)

Cinnamon and vanilla challah French toast 

Vanilla powder (also known as ground vanilla), a very recent arrival in my pantry courtesy of Cousin Martin's eclipse-watching trip to Tahiti, takes the bean out of vanilla beans. It's made by grinding whole dried vanilla beans into a powder. No fuss, no muss, no leftover slit vanilla pods (after all, how many of those can you stick in the sugar jar?). You get pure vanilla flavor without the additional alcohol in extracts, and, unlike extracts, the powder can be added directly to warm liquids and the flavor will not dilute. Best of all, you still can see the little flecks of vanilla in your dish. Be careful when purchasing, as some vanilla powders (including some popular brands) also contain sugar; read the label to be sure you are getting 100% pure vanilla powder. When baking, add vanilla powder with the dry ingredients. If your recipe calls for one teaspoon of vanilla extract, substitute one-half teaspoon of vanilla powder and add one more teaspoon of liquid (milk, buttermilk, etc.) to the wet ingredients.

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July 25, 2010

Japanese seven-spice powder, a Pantry Special (Recipe: chicken yakitori)


You've probably heard of Chinese five-spice powder, a pungent blend of star anise, clove, fennel, cinnamon and Szechuan peppercorns. The Japanese have gone one -- no, two spices -- better, with shichimi togarashi, or Japanese seven-spice powder. Also known as shichi, it's one of the most popular table condiments, trendy in Japan and now gaining popularity in the West, where small bowls of it sit on restaurant tables next to the soy sauce. Used to add both heat and flavor to soup, noodles and rice, Japanese seven-spice combines orange or tangerine peel, black and white sesame seeds, cayenne, ground ginger, Szechuan pepper and nori. Sometimes the blend contains poppy seeds or hemp seeds, but the basic seven spices remain pretty much the same. The bite of citrus with the kick of red pepper, Szechuan pepper and ginger hits the back of your tongue with a bright, full flavor, like a very fresh but much more interesting black pepper.

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June 22, 2010

Bacon, a Pantry Special (Recipe: asparagus, cheese and bacon pizza on a pita)

Asparagus cheese and bacon pizza

In the 12th Century, a small church in England promised a side of bacon to any married man who could swear he had not argued with his wife for a year and a day. A husband who could "bring home the bacon" was highly prized! My husband Ted (also highly prized) loves bacon, and -- true confession -- occasionally I eat bacon, too. Not ham, not proscuitto, not pork chops or any other part of the pig, but I do eat real bacon, the stuff Europeans call streaky bacon, the most ubiquitous bacon sold in the United States. Like many foods, bacon was created as a way to preserve meat in the days before refrigeration. Bacon is cured, brined meat prepared from the belly, back or sides of pork (and from other animals, too, such as duck and wild boar). It's often smoked in large slabs, sometimes with a dry rub. Bacon (especially the fat) lends a smoky, salty flavor to soups and stews. These days, low-sodium and extra-lean versions are easy to find in most supermarkets, and artisanal bacon often shows up at farmers markets.

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my tiny kitchen in Boston's South End, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives. Thanks so much for visiting.

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