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Comfort Food

Every culture has its comfort foods. In the USA, our comfort foods vary from region to region. If you live in Los Angeles, a cheeseburger may top your list, or you want macaroni and cheese, a grilled cheese sandwich with some hot soup, or chicken and waffles. In New York, a slice of cheese pizza, bagel with cream cheese, lox, and onion, or your mother’s chicken soup – everyone has their personal favorites. South, north, east, and west – every state and country has unique flavors. 

It can be fun to try the comfort food of other countries when you travel – here are a few dishes people turn to in some of my favorite countries:

French Comfort Food

The French are world-renown for creating delicious dishes, and their comfort food is no exception. 

  • Cassoulet: While a cassoulet has white beans as the main ingredient, the French method of combining the flavors of sausage, pork, duck fat, garlic, onion, and duck confit takes this dish over the top.
  • Croque Monsieur: The French version of a toasted ham and cheese, this sandwich goes above and beyond the USA version. The sandwich is made with Béchamel sauce, ham, cheese, and Dijon mustard and then grilled until the cheese oozes out from the crust. Super delicious.
  • Gratin Dauphinois: Imagine scalloped potatoes, but simmered – twice – in rich cream, and then cooked with gruyere cheese until the dish is soft, rich, creamy, and comforting.

Swiss Comfort Food

  • Cheese fondue: Dipping cubes of bread into a silky cheese sauce is a common way the Swiss, and visitors to the country enjoy creamy Swiss Gruyere cheese.
  • Raclette: A traditional Swiss raclette is made with a cheese of raw milk of cows that have grazed in the mountains of Switzerland. “Raclette” means “to scrape.” The cheese was melted (in the past on fire, but now on a special heating plate). As the cheese melts, it is scraped off the cheese wheel and eaten, a restoring treat after a day on the slopes.
  • Rosti: A potato pie, crusty on the outside, soft and savory on the inside – the Swiss Rosti can be served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, with added cheese, apples, onions, or whatever your heart desires.
  • Landjager: A semi-dry Swiss sausage made of beef, port, lard,  sugar, red wine, and spices. The sausage can be stuffed in a backpack before a hike or cooked with potatoes, onions, and fresh greens.

Italian Comfort Food

  • Gnocchi: Gnocchi is an irresistible Italian comfort food, with light, airy potato dumplings simmered in a sauce. These little ovals were once a peasant staple, but are now served in the finest restaurants, and one of the most famous Italian comfort foods.
  • Pizza: We all love it, but the Italians do it best. Rather than the American versions, which are heavy on the tomato sauce, Italian pizza is more like a crispy, cracker-like flatbread, typically with just one or two toppings, rather than loaded with multiple ingredients as people like it in the USA.
  • Risotto: Endlessly open to creativity, risotto can be the perfect comfort food to warm your heart and your body. The word “risotto” comes from the Italian word for rice (riso). The Italians cook it with a special technique, adding broth while stirring throughout cooking to create a creamy (never runny) dish, enhanced with mushrooms, seafood, or any other ingredient.

There is nothing more comforting on a cold, rainy, or snowy winter day than comfort food to warm the body and bring back the flavors of home and youth.

Egypt, Where History Lives

Egypt was once the home of a large and complex civilization, an advanced culture, flourishing from 6000 BC to 30 BC. The accomplishments of the culture are evident in the pyramids, incredible feats of engineering, along with a vast number of other advances, including the development of paper, the use of the lever and geometry in construction, modern irrigation techniques, and advances in shipbuilding and medicine. 

The Egyptian civilization endured for over three thousand years, but through a series of events, it slowly fell apart, with only the remnants left for modern archeologists and researchers to decipher. It is believed that a combination of changes in climate leading to crop failures, foreign invasions, epidemics, and the growing power of the nobility and the priesthood affecting the influence of the Pharaohs led to constant wars and power struggles, and finally, the end of one of the world’s greatest civilizations. 

While the power of the Egyptian Pharaohs faded into obscurity, the majority of the population were regular people, concerned with the issues that concern us today – caring for and feeding our families. The Egyptians of long ago ate many of the same dishes you can try in the finest restaurants or from the many, many street vendors.

Egyptian Traditional Dishes

Koshari is a combination of rice, noodles, lentils, garlic, garbanzo beans, and onions, and one of the most popular street foods in Egypt. 

Ta’miya is the most well-known Egyptian fast food, what we call falafel. These tasty, deep-fried fritters, in Egypt, are made of dried fava beans (rather than chickpeas) and spices, and served with tahini (sesame paste sauce), and typically enjoyed stuffed in a pita with fresh veggies.

Hawawshi is the Egyptian take on a hot beef sandwich – but so much more delicious. Ground beef, onions, peppers, and parsley, spiced with cumin, paprika, and chili are baked into a pita or wrapped in bread dough and baked, and served with cooling yogurt sauce.

Kabab and Kofta are popular dishes of veal or lamb, served with a tahini dip, green salad, rice, or rolled in a pita and topped with tahini. The skewers of meat, whether in chunks (kabab) or ground meat (kofta) are grilled over hot charcoal for a juicy bite.

Molokhiya is a delicious and healthy vegetable dish made from the leaves of green Molokhiya leaves, or “jute mallow.”  The mint-shaped leaves are minced into tiny bits, simmered in chicken broth, seasoned with coriander and garlic, with the flavor profile enhanced with ghee, a dash of sugar and a bit of tomato paste to add some tartness. This dish can be eaten with rice, as a soup, or scooped up with pita bread. Some people find it slimy, but once you become familiar with the texture, you can’t turn it down.

Baba Ghanoush is an eggplant dip that originated in Lebanon and is also a staple in Egypt. Roasted eggplant is combined with olive oil, tahini, garlic, lemon juice and salt. This creamy, tasty side dish is often served as an appetizer or served alongside a main dish.

Ful is an everyday breakfast meal, made from fava beans cooked with oil and salt, served with eggs, cheese, pita bread, or Ta’meya. 

Mahshi is a vegetarian dish that every cook customizes to their own taste. It is essentially the vegetable you choose, such as zucchini, eggplant, peppers, cabbage, or grape leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice, parsley, cilantro, dill, tomato sauce, and a dash of cinnamon. Non-vegetarians often add ground meat to the filling mixture.

Traveling to Egypt is an unforgettable experience, with incredible historical sites, museums, luxurious modern resorts, and traditional hotels with a more authentic experience – you’ll find it all, and once you have visited, you will want to return again and again.

 

Ariel Emrani

To Wheat or Not to Wheat

Commercial wheat almost unrecognizable from the original grain that sustained the world for thousands of years. It has been altered through many generations of genetic engineering to yield more grain, be more resistant to diseases and insects, it led to alterations in the proteins and starches. 

Beyond the changes in structure, commercially grown wheat is sprayed with pesticides that leave a residue, which is then consumed in every sandwich, piece of toast, cake, or muffin. Thankfully, organic wheat ancient grains, and other types of flour are now widely available. I like to try out recipes with organic almond flour.

In commercial white flour, the nutrient value of the grain is essentially lost. Many people have reactions to wheat, which may be a reaction to the chemicals rather than a wheat intolerance, but whatever the cause, the alternatives, such as almond flour, make it possible to bake delicious baked goods, but it takes some special baking techniques to create a result that everyone enjoys. Almonds are rich in protein and healthy fats, vitamin E, magnesium, and potassium – all good for you!

You can substitute almond flour for wheat flour in any recipe but will need to adjust the ingredients. Egg whites can be whipped before being added to the batter to create a fluffier result. You can add xanthan gum, guar gum, psyllium, chia seeds, or flax seeds to make your batter more elastic or to replace the eggs. I like to experiment with new recipes with almond flour to see which ones come out as I envision, taste good, and satisfy the craving for baked goods without the added carbs. Almond flour does not contain the gluten in wheat to create the stretchy texture of yeast bread, so yeast recipes don’t create the same effect with almond flour, but for muffins, it works well.

Almond Flour: A History

Almonds have been with us for millennia and mentioned in Greek mythology and other ancient texts. It is believed they were first cultivated in Asia and China. Back in time, about 100 AD, newlywed couples were showered with almonds as a fertility charm. Almond trees were common in Spain, Morocco, and Greece from 600 to 900 AD, and were part of the diet of traders travelling along the Silk Road. 

Almond flour was first introduced to Europe from the Middle East, where cooks often used almond flour, almond meal, or pistachio meal or flour. A cookie favored by Catherine Medici in the 16th century, called a maccherone originated in Sicily. In the 1700s, Franciscan monks brought almonds from Spain to California, which is now the major almond producer of the world, with more than half a million acres of almonds grown in the state.

Almond trees are exceptionally beautiful, with abundant white and pink blooms, and the almond fruit looks like a small peach, and is in fact, in the same family as peaches, plums, and cherries. The trees grow about 10 to 15 feet high and are a favorite for bees. 

Wheat or no wheat? Its up to you, but I like to try new recipes with almond flour to see what I can create, and am always interested in new recipes to see what will taste the best.

Ariel Emrani

Holiday Baking – A Family Tradition

Every family has holiday traditions they pass on. Take a deep breath and inhale the scent of baking cookies, cakes, and pies and you know the holidays are here! No matter where you come from, the smells of baking have special meaning, bringing back warm memories of childhood and the people we love.

One of our family traditions I have recently revived is a holiday baking party. Friends and their children come over and bring a family cookie recipe or two. I have all the ingredients they need to create their holiday favorites, and we get to work, sharing time with the scents of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg filling the air. We work together creating mountains of cookies, and everyone takes home a variety to share. 

The Cookie Traditions of the World

My friends come from many different countries and cultures, and every area has its own special flavors that are associated with the holidays. In the USA, we love our gingerbread men, sugar cookies, snickerdoodles, and the perennial favorite, chocolate chip. 

In Germany, the holiday means the smells and tastes of pfeffernüsse (spice cookies) and lebkuchen, a softer version of our gingerbread cookies. In Scandinavia, they enjoy crisp, very thin gingersnaps in heart and flower shapes or ring-shaped Danish butter cookies made with vanilla sugar and almond flour. The French create Madeleines, little vanilla-flavored sponge cookies with a hint of orange zest, or the ever-popular macarons, flavored with almond. The Italians create pizzelle cookies, made with a special waffle iron, crispy and traditionally flavored with anise, or rolled when hot and then filled with fluffy, sweet cream. 

Bulgarians bake jam-filled maslenki for the holidays, a cookie filled with rosehip, plum, or apricot jam. Russian pryankiki are spiced and stamped with a wooden press or topped with a sweet glaze or frosting. In Iran, Persian walnut cookies, or rice cookies called nan-e berenji, fragrant with cardamom and sugar-infused rose syrup are part of the holiday celebration of Yalda, a celebration of the winter solstice. 

The Love of Celebrations 

People across the globe love their celebrations, and no season arrives without some type of event. In the dark of winter, we stay cozy indoors, creating holiday flavors, spending hours in the kitchen to present a feast. Celebrations are a reason to get together, set aside the troubles and stresses of life, and just enjoy each other. 

Back in Time… Winter Celebrations Through the Ages

The winter holidays are celebrated in every culture and have been since time began. The Pagans celebrated the winter solstice, called Yule. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia, which began on December 17 and lasted seven days, was held to honor Saturn, called the “father of the gods.” During the celebration, wars were interrupted or postponed, and grudges were forgotten for seven days. 

The Feast of Juul originated in Scandinavia, honoring the god Thor. A Yule log was burned, with various countries having traditions about the ashes. French peasants kept the ashes beneath the bed to protect against lightning storms, and other countries spread them every night on the fields or used them in charms or medicines – the belief in magic was alive and well. Some of the best medicine is sharing time with our friends and family and enjoying each other – the true magic of the holidays.

Ariel Emrani

Try it Twice

New flavors, or combinations of flavors can be a surprise – or even a shock – to the palate. Familiar foods are comforting and deliver the expected flavors or may have a tweak or two make a traditional dish more interesting. However, I love to venture into uncharted waters when it comes to food! When travelling to new cities or countries, I take the time to research restaurants worth visiting, and enjoy the research and then the real world experience.

Adventures in Food

Searching out new restaurants with creative chefs can open your mind to phenomenal new flavors, with unfamiliar herbs and spices and cooking techniques make a lunch or dinner a journey to the unexpected. I follow a “try it twice” rule – I try a dish twice before deciding I don’t like it. Surprisingly, the second time I try it, I enjoy the experience. If not – there’s always another one to try! 

Fusion Cuisine – Blending Cultures for the Ultimate Taste

Fusions of tastes blended from diverse cultures, when a chef with a talented palate gets creative, can be simply amazing. Unusual combinations of Japanese, Middle Eastern, French, and American cuisines are just a few of my favorites. Chefs choose exotic combinations of tastes and textures to create a unique flavor profile. It is said that the original fusion ingredient was pasta, born in China as a noodle, and brought to Italy in the 13th century, and tomatoes from the North American continent – and where would we be without pasta, marinara, and Italian food! 

The Beauty of a Plate 

Plating creativity is another art, with Japanese cooking tools now becoming commonplace in many American kitchens. Can’t eat gluten or want to avoid starchy foods? Many families now own a Japanese spiralizer tool that can make any firm vegetable into a noodle, satisfying the eye and the stomach. Garnishing with thin strips of citrus, carrot, or ginger can make a standard dish a little more special. 

With the instant communication possible with the internet, and travel by air, the world is getting smaller. We can learn from other cultures, not just in traditions, fashions, and philosophies, but in flavors. Middle Eastern spices such as Za’atar, a combination of sumac (a slightly sour powder made from berries), sesame seeds, marjoram, salt, thyme, and oregano, or Baharat, or Lebanese seven spice blend, or rose water, cardamom, saffron, and pomegranate molasses are all found in the toolkits of chefs all over. 

Japanese spices such as seven spice blend, wasabi, citrus chili paste, ponzu sauce, and chili oil are appearing in unexpected ways to enhance flavor. Umami, or the “essence of deliciousness,” differing from the other four tastes, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty is the savory facet of a dish, pursued by cooks and chefs throughout the centuries.

I look forward to my next travel adventure, and the opportunity to experience another culture, as well as the culinary arts. Until then, it is parties and gatherings at home with friends and family. Sharing a table with people I love is the flavor I enjoy most of all. 

Ariel Emrani

Food Presentation & Taste. It’s All in the Details

The perfect plate is so much more than taste – it’s also about the food presentation and the setting.

Imagine the pleasure of sitting outside at a French boulangerie, surrounded by chatting couples, groups of friends, and people lingering over coffee, comforted by the street sounds, and inhaling the scent of freshly-baked croissants, baguettes, and pastries. The entire experience makes a morning cup of coffee something special. 

There is an undeniable thrill in being served a single perfectly crafted ravioli, resting in a delicate, tasteful broth, with every soft bite reflecting the chef’s desire to please your senses. The simplicity of the presentation, and meticulous attention to detail with which every dish is prepared, makes enjoying food more than feeding the body – it nourishes the soul.

Good food presentation is an art and where I find it, there I will go.

A Feast for The Eyes

A salad where every ingredient is carefully placed for maximum aesthetic appeal, with tastes that mingle in fresh and unexpected ways,  rather than thrown into the mix in a jumble makes every bite a journey to share with the people you love. 

The cultures of food presentation and production are very different in Europe and the USA. Take a European friend into an American supermarket and they are shocked by the massive volume of food, and the uniform size and shape of the produce. We may have abundance, but the quest for uniformity leads to a sacrifice in flavor. For taste, I like to search out locally-grown organic produce. A tomato grown naturally has a completely different flavor than the beautiful, but bland options grown commercially. 

In Italy, they take their food presentation very seriously, and have a government regulated quality assurance program for both wine and food. A “DOC” seal means that the food, whether olive oil, wine, or a tomato, was made with the traditional practices of their culture. 

In European food, flavor reigns supreme. The size and shape of the vegetable is not the concern. Carefully sourced ingredients, bursting with natural flavor are sought out by the best chefs and home cooks. A salad, no matter how lovely, created with commercially grown produce will never win the battle for flavor. 

A Table that Invites Conversation

Sharing food and drink with friends or family invites conversation and builds relationships. Creating an aesthetic table enhanced by the food presentation makes any meal sweeter. With my table, just like a recipe, I love to create the details – little touches create a more inviting meal. A softly folded napkin, a tumbling cascade of blooms, or candles can create a warm ambience that inspires confidences, smiles, and laughter.

In the end, it is the people sharing your table that make a meal a joyful experience that is truly unforgettable. 

 

food presentation coffee