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KASHMIRI GREENS

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As always, March is a challenge. It’s such a fretful month: Snow is still on the ground and the wind has the force of winter behind it, but blazing blue skies, a sun the color of a rich egg yolk, and longer days make it impossible to stay inside, even though I lost my gloves.

In our kitchen, March’s shiftiness translates to ennui. Here in the Northeast, we won’t see local asparagus and other spring vegetables until late April or, more likely, early May. Instead, we’re stuck with the same-old, same-old winter vegetables and greens.

So this is the time for buying a new tub of the Korean chile paste called gochujang and using it with abandon. For tossing broccoli and carrots with gingered butter or lightly coating wedges of sweet potatoes or winter squash with a minimally processed “virgin” coconut oil before roasting to give them a deep coconutty flavor. And as far as pot greens—you know, collards, kale, and other dark leafy greens for braising—are concerned, it’s time to look beyond the influences of the American South (ham hock or other seasoning meat and pepper sherry) or Italy (garlic and red pepper flakes). March requires different flavors to spark interest and appetite.

Perhaps because my sister-in-law is gallivanting around India as I write this, that is where my culinary druthers are taking me. Although Kashmir, up in the mountains of northern India, is renowned for its meat dishes and Persian-style pilafs, the greens there are treated splendidly as well. The recipe below is from New York City chef Floyd Cardoz. About eight years ago, I had the good fortune to work with him on his book, One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors, and this recipe is one of many that has stayed in my repertoire ever since. It’s simple, delicious, and versatile: In Kashmir, you will see it made with kohlrabi greens or collards, but you can use any hearty braising green. Adding bok choy or pea shoots to the pot provides finesse and freshness.

The only specialty ingredient you’ll need is asafetida, a spice that comes from the dried gum resin of the giant fennel plant. It stinks to high heaven (the name comes from the Latin foetidus, “fetid”), but don’t let that put you off; like fish sauce, anchovies, or shrimp paste, it gives balance, a mellow depth, and resonance to a dish. (It’s said to be one of the mystery ingredients in Worcestershire sauce.) It’s also considered a digestive aid, which is why it’s often added to legumes. Asafetida comes in lump or ground form; the latter is easiest to deal with, and Floyd’s brand of choice is Vandevi, available at Indian groceries and any number of online sources. You’ll want to store the tin in a tightly sealed container; kept in a cool, dark, dry place, it will last for ages.

Kashmiri Greens

From One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors, by Floyd Cardoz and Jane Daniels Lear (William Morrow, 2006)

Serves 6

These greens are wonderful with steak, chicken, or fish, but are so full-flavored they can turn a bowl of rice into supper.

4 pounds collards or other pot greens

1 tablespoon canola oil (preferably a non-GM brand) or extra-virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon asafetida

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

2 large shallots, sliced

½ cup julienne strips peeled fresh ginger

1 small (about 2 inches long) dried red chile, broken in half (or into smaller pieces, if you want a spicier dish)

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Discard any tough stems or center ribs from the collards. Chop the tender stems and set aside, then roughly chop the leaves.

2. Heat the oil in a 4-quart pot over moderately high heat until it shimmers and add the asafetida and cumin seeds. Cook, stirring, until the spices are fragrant, about 1½ minutes. Add the shallots, ginger, and chile, and cook, stirring, until the shallots are translucent, 3 or 4 minutes.

3. Add the tender collard stems and season with salt; cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add the collard leaves and cook, tossing occasionally with tongs, until just tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Discard the chile and season with salt and pepper.

THOUGHTS ON CLAM CHOWDER

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There are about as many versions of chowder as there are cooks who make it, which is perfectly reasonable when you think about it. Like vegetable soup or gumbo, it’s more a product of circumstance and soulful interpretation than an actual recipe. 

I myself was raised on a brothy Hatteras clam chowder, which tastes of the ocean, not of cream or tomatoes, but this dratted weather (we’re eagerly awaiting an alleged “warming trend”) calls for something more substantial and nourishing. You might think that living in New York City would incline me to Manhattan chowder: Bright with tomatoes, it has a clean, piquant flavor that’s very appealing. The food writer John Thorne, who grew up on Down East cooking, suspects Manhattan clam chowder is a New World variation of the very similar Neapolitan zuppa de vongole. In a masterful essay on chowder in Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots (you can pick up a signed copy at John’s Simple Cooking website), he also noted that some Yankee cooks were putting tomatoes in their chowders from the middle of the 19th century, when tomatoes, whether fresh or canned, provided novelty, much like chiles do today.

“However, if there was one place left mostly untouched by the great tomato craze it was Down East Maine,” John wrote. “In 1855, a decade after the rest of the country was consuming them as if there were no tomorrow, the Maine Farmer was reporting that folks here were just beginning to acknowledge that they might be edible.”

Milk is more of a newcomer to chowder than the tomato, he added, “but it enhanced rather than changed what was an established taste …. The very word ‘chowder’ is simply and unreflectively evocative of a liquid elixir built on a foundation of salt pork, onion, and potato, aswim with seafood in a broth tempered with milk and thickened with a handful of crackers. And there’s no reason in the world to want that to change.”

I couldn’t agree more. And hewing to the New England tradition certainly simplifies a shopping list. Even though salt pork is the quintessential Down East chowder ingredient, I’ve given up finding a convenient source for good-quality stuff in New York. Yes, I know I can actually make salt pork from scratch, but until I get around to it, I’ll automatically substitute bacon. In this household, we’re never short of that, let alone potatoes and onions. I straddled the milk/cream debate by buying a pint of half-and-half at the corner store; it provides richness without slip-sliding into gloppiness. In a perfect world, I would have foraged farther afield for common crackers, but it was so raw and cold, the box of oyster crackers in the pantry would do nicely.

More on the seasoning meat: The richness of salt pork or the smokiness of bacon are marvelous building blocks in a chowder, but given great clams and potatoes, you can certainly live without them—a real boon if you are casting about for Friday-night fish suppers during Lent.

Now, about the clams: All Atlantic hardshell clams are all the same bivalve species—Mercenaria mercenaria. Also called quahogs (pronounced “KO-hogs”), they are distinguished by size. The beauts you see in the above photo are so-called middleneck clams (seven to nine per pound) from the Eastern Shore of Virginia—specifically, from the pristine waters of Quinby Inlet, on the north end of Hog Island. A few years back, I watched them being harvested by Tom Gallivan, who, in addition to running Shooting Point Oyster Company with his wife, Ann, works with JC Walker Brothers (est. 1889) and HM Terry Company (est. 1903) to sustainably cultivate millions of clams and oysters for raw bars and restaurants nationwide. It has been too long since I last visited Tom’s part of Virginia, but Pisacane, our neighborhood’s seafood market for 50-plus years, had plenty of sparkling-fresh littlenecks on hand. I was in business.

About the potatoes: Avoid russet (baking) potatoes, which dissolve in a chowder, and new potatoes, which as John pointed out in Serious Pig, “refuse to interact with a chowder at all.” Instead you need a plain all-purpose potato such as Kennebec, Superior, or even Yukon Gold. Don’t peel the potatoes ahead of time for efficiency’s sake; you want all their lovely starch to thicken the chowder instead of the cold water you’ve put them in to prevent discoloration.

Although I’m usually a huge proponent of cutting potatoes (or any other ingredient) into same-sized pieces so they cook evenly, that is not the case when it comes to chowder. Instead, I’ve learned to cut traditional “thick-thin” slices by standing each peeled spud on end and using a paring knife to whittle off bite-size pieces around the outside so that each piece has a thin edge and a thick edge. “The thin edge cooks off and helps thicken the chowder,” explained food historian Sandy Oliver in Maine Home Cooking. Potatoes cut thick-thin are an essential but too little known trick, John Thorne wrote. “Bits of the edge break away to meld into the liquid as the potatoes simmer in the pot, creating a uniquely creamy body.” And how. My next batch of leek and potato soup is going to be all the better for it.

About the crackers: “You can improve any chowder with a trick my mother taught me,” wrote John. “Crumble a few common crackers in your fist or under a rolling pin and sauté these in the fat with the onion, before pouring in the broth. Then split and toast a few more—or, even better, fry them until golden in melted butter in a small skillet—to float on top of the chowder at the point of serving.” My new favorite croutons.

And there you have it: an alluring balance of spare simplicity and warming good cheer. I could live on this chowder for the entire month of March.

New England Clam Chowder 

With thanks to Serious Pig, by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne (HarperCollins, 1996), Maine Home Cooking, by Sandra L. Oliver (Down East, 2012), and The Gourmet Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Makes about 5 cups

3 dozen small hard-shelled clams (less than 2 inches wide), such as littlenecks or middlenecks, scrubbed well

1½ cups cold water

2 or 3 medium potatoes such as Kennebec, Yukon Gold, or “all-purpose” potatoes, plus another 1 or 2 for the pot

Unsalted butter

2 slices bacon, chopped (optional)

Common crackers, split horizontally in half, or oyster crackers

1 small onion, chopped

1 cup half-and-half

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Put the clams and cold water in a 4-quart pot and bring to a boil over moderately high heat. Cover and steam the clams until they open, 5 to 10 minutes, checking frequently after 5 minutes and transferring them to a bowl as they open. Discard any clams that have not opened.

2. Pour the broth though a fine-mesh sieve into another bowl, leaving any grit in pot. When the clams are cool enough to handle, remove them from their shells and coarsely chop. Add any liquid from the shells and clams to the bowl of broth.

3. Peel the potatoes and cut into “thick-thin” wedges (see above note on potatoes) or, if you choose, irregular cubes roughly the size of the chopped clams. Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over moderate heat. Add the bacon, if using, and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 4 minutes. Crumble a handful of crackers into the pan, add the onion, and cook, stirring, until the crackers start to disintegrate and the onion is softened, about 5 minutes.

4. Stir in the potatoes and strained broth. Bring to a simmer, and simmer, covered, until the potatoes are very tender and just barely holding their shape, about 10 minutes or so; the timing depends on the type of potato and the size of the pieces. Stir in the clams and half-and-half; season with salt and pepper. Cook (do not let boil) until heated through, about 1 minute. Let the chowder sit on the back burner for an hour before gently reheating until it’s steaming hot (again, don’t let it boil). You can also make the chowder earlier in the day and let it cool completely before refrigerating it.

4. While reheating the chowder, melt a generous pat of butter in a small skillet over moderate heat and fry a generous amount of crackers. To serve, float the crackers and (gilding the lily here) a thin pat of butter on top of each serving.

KITCHEN SYNC: FREEZE-DRIED SHALLOTS

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The shallot is a workhorse of the restaurant kitchen. It’s reliable and available year-round, and its flavor—delicate, nuanced, and intense all at the same time—gives finesse to dishes that range from classic French sauces (beurre blanc, bordelaise, mignonette) to the seasoning pastes and hành phi, the crisp caramelized shallots that add depth and richness to many Southeast Asian dishes. It’s a chef’s stealth ingredient, in other words—and one that has, in the United States, happily migrated from restaurants and luxurious little specialty foods shops to farmers markets and supermarket bins, where those of us who cook at home can easily get our hands on them.

Except when we can’t. If you don’t happen to live close to a market that carries fresh shallots, or if those you come across are soft in spots, withered, or moldy inside, you are plumb out of luck. Especially if you are devoted to homemade shallot vinaigrettes, this is a hardship—I, for one, really miss that suave, rounded sweetness if it’s not there.

Enter freeze-dried shallots from Wisconsin-based Penzeys Spices. I discovered this genius product through my friend and former Gourmet colleague Zanne Stewart, who has a flair for sussing out culinary shortcuts that don’t sacrifice quality. Even if you happen to have shallots at home, “there’s no rotting, no fiddly peeling,” Zanne said. “My salad dressing ALWAYS has them as a base. About a tablespoon of them, a couple of tablespoons Moscatel wine vinegar to rehydrate them, then mustard, salt, extra-virgin olive oil. The vinegar turns them pink and tender, and they brighten every salad.”

A bottle of freeze-dried shallots is extremely portable, which means it can travel to a weekend party or ski or beach house with ease. During this snowbound winter, I’ve relied on the shallots more and more: They make a great addition to almost any marinade, and can be rehydrated in a little water, drained well, then sautéed and added to mashed potatoes or an omelet.

I’ve also been experimenting with Southeast Asian–style crisp shallots. As usual, Zanne was a few steps ahead of me, although after reading her caveats, I don’t feel so bad about my first attempts, which were more along the lines of sacrificial burnt offerings.

“First, I set a fine sieve over a glass jar in the sink,” she recounted in an email earlier today. “Then I put about a quarter inch of (organic) canola in a small skillet with enough of the dried shallots to cover the bottom. Next, I heat the oil over moderate heat and keep an eagle eye on the shallots. No diversions permitted, because the instant you detect a golden tinge to a few of the shallots, you have to lift the pan from the heat and IMMEDIATELY (did I say, immediately?) pour into the sieve. The shallots are such tiny bits that they burn before you know it, in fact, right in front of your eyes. If all goes well, and, as I said, it doesn’t always, you get golden shallots to spread on several layers of paper towels and then sprinkle with salt. I use them like crazy on soups, in salads, you name it.”

This is a two-fer recipe, for the aromatic shallot oil that’s a byproduct of this venture goes into the refrigerator for another day. And even if crisp-fried shallots do belong in the “Attention Must Be Paid” section of your recipe file, they are worth it. You can stir them into bread crumbs for a pasta topping, or sprinkle them over a steak or burger. You can embellish a stir-fry, Thai curry, or plain-old steamed green beans. They add texture to a creamy soup such as winter squash or sweet potato, and enliven soups that run the risk of being stodgy—lentil, for instance, or split pea or black bean. Or you can simply eat spoonfuls of them when no one is looking.

OBSESSION: MODERN MANNERS

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I’m sure the folks who insist on lumping the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln together under the vague-sounding “Presidents’ Day” mean well. It’s tidier than having two separate holidays so close together and gives hope to retailers who won’t have another excuse to slash prices until Memorial Day. But it has the unfortunate effect of diminishing both great men, and I’m delighted that the official name for the federal holiday we observed yesterday, the third Monday in February, remains Washington’s Birthday, as specified under Section 6103(a) of Title 5 of the United States Code.

I spent the latter part of it prone on the sofa, absorbed in the newest etiquette book in my collection, What Would George Do? Advice from Our Founding Fathera modern context for the first president’s Rules of Civility, precepts of refinement compiled by French Jesuits in 1590, translated into English around 1640, and transcribed by many young colonials, including George Washington, in the 18th century.

WWGD, which should be required reading for every member of Congress, is the genius idea of the mother-and-daughter team Nan Marshall and Helen Broder. Nan is my stepsister-in-law—more accurately, my ex-stepsister-in-law, since my father and stepmother divorced after ten years or so of matrimony. They’d been colleagues at the Savannah paper before they married and remained great pals after they parted company. I was dubious about that development, but “Why let a marriage get in the way of a beautiful friendship?” Nan said philosophically. She has great dignity, elegance, and wit, and if she hadn’t had such a successful career in business, she could have taken the diplomatic service by storm.

Nan and Helen’s first chapter, “Making Time,” sets things up nicely. “We all need to slow down. Busyness is a poor substitute for genuine living, and it doesn’t fool anyone.” They point out that many people have become addicted to stress, and go on to categorize the various types (self-important, guilty, frightened, crisis-driven, etc.) who use busyness as a prerequisite for feeling good about themselves.

Washington, on the other hand, never appeared to be in a hurry. “Despite the hustle and bustle of war, politics, and farming, he always maintained an elegant air of comfortable ease …. The truth of the matter is time-management challenges have been around forever. Fortunately, so has the cure—social contact …. Detained in Philadelphia and desperately trying to raise the money to pay his army, Washington missed the fellowship of his officers away on the southern campaign. He wrote General Greene, ‘To participate and divide our feelings, hopes, fears, and expectations with a friend is almost the only source of pleasure and consolation left us ….’ ”

I made myself another cup of tea and turned to Chapter Seven, “At The Table,” and Rule 105: “Be not Angry at Table whatever happens & if you have reason to be so, Shew it not but (put) on a Chearfull Countenance especially if there be Strangers for Good Humour makes one Dish of Meat a feast.”

WWGD isn’t interested in finger bowls (“outdated”) or escargot forks (“irrelevant”), but points out that simple common sense underlies table manners. “The rules of communal dining may seem arbitrary, but they are not merely ceremonial …. Seventeen of the Rules of Civility that [Washington] painstakingly memorized dictate ways to keep the experience of eating focused on the pleasure of the food and the company, not on the distractions and distresses introduced by thoughtless diners … They are all based on four indispensable and practical principles: “cooperation, cleanliness, composure, and conversation.” That works for me.

My fascination with etiquette books stems from a very young age, when my parents gave me the Munro Leaf books. There was The Story of Ferdinand, of course, about the world’s most contented bull, which was just as instructive in its way as Manners Can Be Fun (first published in 1936 and just as fresh and spot-on as ever) and How To Behave and Why (1946; ditto)I read them over and over. “Having good manners is really just living with other people pleasantly,” is how Manners Can Be Fun begins. “If you lived all by yourself out on a desert island, others would not care whether you had good manners or not. It wouldn’t bother them …. Most of us don’t live on desert islands so this is what we do—”

I found it reassuring to read about a world in which there was so little uncertainty. In due time, I progressed to Emily Post’s Etiquette (first published in 1922), with its entertaining cast of characters—including  Mr. Bachelor, Mr. Newgold, Mrs. Oldname, Mrs. Neighbor, Mrs. Stranger, Mrs. Kindhart, Mr. and Mrs. Nono Better, the Worldlys, and the Gildings. In our home library, Emily had her place on the shelf next to the dictionary stand (with its solid little step stool, for children), alongside Vogue’s Book of Etiquette (1948; available at abebooks and other online sources), by Millicent Fenwick, the impeccably mannered yet outspoken Republican congresswoman from New Jersey, who was an associate editor at Vogue at the time. Her topics included “A Girl on her own,” “Entertaining without a maid,” “Debutantes,” and “Being invited to the White House,” but I think I enjoyed the chapter on misused words and phrases the most. “Costly,” for instance, may describe a battle but never a fur coat, and “high-toned” has no “permissible simile.”

Recent editions of Emily Post are as authoritative as ever, but lack the personality found in the earlier ones. These days, the most diverting etiquette encyclopedias are those by Miss Manners, a.k.a. Judith Martin. Miss Manners’ Guide to Domestic Tranquility, for instance, is a boon to anyone who has to deal with complex or blended family ties, and it is far less expensive than therapy.

But her definitive work is Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (first published in 1979). Miss Manners isn’t as sedate as Mrs. Post; her forthrightness is more along the lines of Millicent Fenwick, and she’s very good at disentangling etiquette problems from moral or psychological ones. She’s famously funny, to boot. “Fruit occupies the place in the food world that the ingenue does in society,” she explained. “That is, it is usually fresh (but occasionally stewed), and although welcome anywhere for its charm and simplicity, it requires more complicated treatment when going about socially than it does when it is just hanging about the house.”

Like President Washington, Miss Manners is arbitrary, pragmatic, fearless, and views etiquette as something simultaneously fundamental and noble. I could go on and on, but I really must write a couple of thank-you notes, and then call a dear friend and invite her to supper. Somehow, there’ll be plenty of time.

STIR-FRIED GARLIC LETTUCE: FOR THE LUNAR NEW YEAR, VALENTINE’S DAY, AND BEYOND

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A simple stir-fry gives finesse to any meal. It can also make you look at a supermarket staple in a whole new light. Romaine lettuce is a great example of what I mean: Twenty-five years ago, it was either that or iceberg in our salad bowls. Nowadays, it’s usually passed over for more delicate varieties or the Provençal blend called mesclun, which is often a too-bitter or too-bland mix of flabby little leaves. But although the cool crunch of romaine can be just the ticket after a rich meal, it pays to think of it as more than a salad green: Lightly cooked, it turns sweet and succulent, and you can pair it with everything from a mild fish such as halibut to boneless chuck top blade steaks, which balance tenderness with deep flavor.

The practice of cooking lettuce, by the way, is nothing new. In Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, Will Weaver noted that the Romans ate lettuce raw only when it was very young; otherwise, it was cooked like spinach. I’ll take a stir-fry, thanks, and celebrate the Year of the Horse while I’m at it.

Almost every time I set our wok on the stove, I think of Grace Young, whose cookbooks are at once inspirational and practical. The recipe below, from her second book, The Breath of a Wok, is staggeringly easy. The ingredients list is short and the only thing that needs chopping is the lettuce.

As it turns out, “lettuce is an auspicious vegetable to stir-fry for the Lunar New Year,” Grace wrote in the recipe’s headnote. “The word for lettuce in Cantonese, saang choy, sounds like that for ‘growing fortune.’ ” Iceberg is most commonly used in stir-fries, but she prefers hearts of romaine, which, she noted, have crunch and sweetness, while still being tender. “The garlic cloves are edible and delicious, too.”

From overheard conversations at farmers markets and in the grocery store’s produce aisle, I’ve come to realize many people presume lettuces have little nutritional value. That’s a real shame. Lettuces are tender and fragile, true, but they contain vitamins C and K; beta-carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A); minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium; dietary fiber; and even a bit of protein. All lettuces aren’t created equal when it comes to nutritional value; in general, that value increases as the green in the leaves gets deeper.

So what’s the Valentine’s Day connection? Well, the cultivation of the vigorously upright lettuce we call romaine or cos was perfected by the Egyptians, who considered it the symbol of the Egyptian god of fertility, Min, and thus an aphrodisiac. What a really, really fun topic to research! The Smithsonian spells out the details in a piece titled “When Lettuce Was a Sacred Sex Symbol,” and here, an Italian ethnobotanist tries to reconcile the dichotomy between lettuce’s frisky reputation and its purpose as a mild narcotic—which Beatrix Potter surely knew about when she wrote, in The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, that “the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific.’ ”

What shouldn’t make you soporific, however, is the knowledge that all you need to make something delicious year-round (and as quick as a bunny) is some lettuce, garlic, and a few other bits and bobs. And if you’d like some stir-frying tips from Grace, see this week’s food-advice column for TakePart.com.

Stir-Fried Garlic Lettuce

From The Breath of a Wok (Simon & Schuster, 2004), by Grace Young

Sesame oil comes in two varieties: an aromatic, golden brown oil that is used as a seasoning, and a lighter-colored oil that’s used for cooking or to dress salads. Here, use the darker variety and choose a pure oil instead of one that’s blended with another oil. Grace Young prefers Kadoya brand, available at Asian markets, some supermarkets, and amazon.com. As for the Shao Hsing rice wine, avoid brands labeled “Cooking Wine”; they are, predictably, awful. Grace likes a brand called Pagoda, but if you can’t find it, dry sherry makes a good substitute.

1 tablespoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry

1 tablespoon soy sauce

¾ teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

5 medium garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 pound hearts of romaine, cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide pieces

1 teaspoon sesame oil (see above note)

1. In a small bowl, combine the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and salt.

2. Heat a 14-inch carbon-steel flat-bottomed wok [or a 12-inch heavy duty stainless-steel skillet] over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil, add the garlic, and stir-fry 5 seconds. Add the lettuce and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes, or until the lettuce is just limp. Stir the sauce, swirl it into the wok, and stir-fry 30 seconds to 1 minutes, or until the lettuce is just tender and still bright green. Remove from the heat and drizzle on the sesame oil.

RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS: OVEN-BRAISED BEEF WITH TOMATO SAUCE AND GARLIC

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A braise, with its deep, soulful flavor and lush texture, is a stellar example of what can happen when household economy meets benign neglect. Take an inexpensive cut of meat, put it in a heavy pot, brown it (or not, as the case may be), add a small amount of liquid, and let it cook, covered, in the oven for a few hours. In the interim, you can get another meal working on the stovetop. Or, since a braise is such a great party dish (it’s virtually impossible to ruin and at its best when made a day ahead), you can plan an impromptu dinner party. Or, like Zanne Stewart, who developed the recipe below for Gourmet close to 15 years ago, you can get comfortable on the floor and play with your child.

Generally speaking, braising means long, slow, moist cooking—a pot roast, in other words. This unhurried, transformative technique, which incorporates boeuf à la mode and its gently poached cousin pot-au-feu, is one of the cornerstones of French cuisine, as Jim Peterson points out in his Glorious French Food. He goes on to explain how a traditional boeuf à la mode is made with red wine and beef broth, which, in old-fashioned farmhouse cooking, is taken straight from a pot-au-feu—a welcome reminder that “thrift” is often a synonym for “delicious.”

And on several different levels. The last thing you want is the sort of expensive cut of meat that yields steaks and roasts. Nope, the key to success is a cheap, semi-tough cut such as beef chuck roast, known for its balance of rich meat, beautiful white fat, and collagen, which breaks down into silky gelatin during long, moist cooking. The correct cut, not the braising liquid, is primarily what keeps the meat juicy. Other key factors include the right-size heavy pot (the meat should fit fairly snugly inside) and braising liquid that stays at a bare simmer.

Although you can braise a dish on the stovetop, it’s much easier to regulate the temperature in the even, indirect heat of the oven, which is also closer in spirit to the original method. “When cooking was carried out directly on the hearth, braising meant cooking slowly in hot embers,” states the encyclopedic Larousse Gastronomique (2009 rev. ed.). “The cooking container had a lid with a rim on which embers could be placed, so that the heat came from both above and below.” If I had one of those, it would almost make me want to go camping.

A braise will not be rushed. It cooks in its own good time, and there is really nothing you can do to chivvy it along, which is rather freeing, when you think about it. As far as doneness goes, you should be able to slide a kitchen fork in and out of the meat with absolutely—I mean, absolutely—no resistance. That’s one definition of “fork-tender,” but trust Webster’s to cover all the bases; the term also means “tender enough to be cut by a fork.” Although you’ll need to cut slices of the braised beef below with a knife, the slices themselves are cuttable with a fork—a boon if you haven’t let the lack of a dining table prevent you from inviting people to dinner.

The recipe below is staggeringly simple, and it achieved immediate cult status among the Gourmet staff. It’s fabulous with orzo, the suggested accompaniment, but mashed potatoes are delicious, too. Later in the week, shred any leftover meat and serve it and the remaining sauce, ragù style, over egg noodles.

Oven-Braised Beef with Tomato Sauce and Garlic

From The Gourmet Cookbook

Serves 6

This recipe calls for chopping the tomatoes in their juice in a food processor. I rarely take the time to haul ours out of the cupboard; instead, I fish the tomatoes out of the can (saving the juice) and chop them by hand. Or, in a Peg Bracken–style maneuver, I just hack away at the tomatoes in the can with a pair of kitchen scissors. As far as tying the meat goes, I learned from the New York City butcher Stanley Lobel to use a light hand so the string doesn’t cut into the meat (thus releasing juices) as it cooks. The chuck roasts I see are thick and blocky, so I just make one or two loops around the sides; that’s enough to keep the roast together for those hours in the oven. And, like all braises, this improves in flavor if made a day ahead. Cool it completely in the braising liquid, uncovered, then cover and refrigerate. Remove the excess fat before reheating.

1 (28-ounce) can of whole tomatoes in juice

1 (3- to 3½-pound) boneless beef chuck roast, tied with kitchen string

1 head garlic, separated into cloves but left unpeeled

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Accompaniment: cooked orzo

1. Put a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 300ºF. Coarsely chop tomatoes, with their juice, in a food processor. Put the chuck roast in an ovenproof 4- to 5-quart heavy pot or casserole dish with a lid, pour tomatoes over it and scatter garlic around it. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Cover and braise in oven until very tender, 3 to 4 hours. Remove and discard string. Cut into ¼-inch-thick slices and serve with sauce, orzo, and garlic.

A SALAD FOR A SNOWY NIGHT

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The snow started earlier than predicted this morning, and soon settled in to enjoy itself. In a perfect world, I’d have lamb shanks braising in the oven, but since my time is not my own this week, roast chicken will do nicely. The kale and roasted squash salad I’ll serve with it is hearty enough to qualify as a side and requires practically no effort at all. It can also be pulled together on the fly, as evidenced by Katherine Redd, a longtime friend (36 years and counting) who’s been juggling work, overseeing construction in a new home and the subsequent move, and keeping body and soul together for husband and child. Life, in other words.

Recently she invited us over for an apartment viewing and nothing more complicated than take-out pizza, but I should have known she’d throw in a culinary flourish or two. “Doesn’t kale and roasted squash sound good together in a salad?” she asked. “With jicama, apple, and cheese. Goat or feta?” Fourteen-year-old Cornelia—my goddaughter—and I looked at each other and simultaneously voted for goat. Katherine started removing things from the fridge. “Oh, look, we have ginger. What about a little of that grated in the dressing?”

I wasn’t standing on ceremony, but poking into every cabinet and drawer. Katherine is on her fifth kitchen renovation, and her knack for optimizing every iota of space is ingenious; the woman could design yacht interiors. Her husband, Bill, blew in with plenty of wine and joie de vivre. And even though Katherine was surrounded by unpacked boxes, she unerringly pointed out the one that contained the corkscrew. We were in business.

Katherine based her salad on one she’d had at the Candle Cafe, an ahead-of-its-time (since 1994) vegan restaurant so cozy and inviting that carnivores don’t miss the meat. Or goat cheese. But the beauty of the salad lies in its ease and versatility. You can keep prep time to a minimum, for instance, by buying baby kale and cubed winter squash. For food safety reasons, give the kale a rinse (even if it’s labeled “triple-washed”), and if the cubes of squash are fairly large, cut them into smaller pieces for quicker cooking.

Even if you are starting from scratch, so to speak—with a whole butternut, say, and a bunch of kale—the prep isn’t especially onerous or time-consuming. Get the squash in the oven first, of course. It helps if your butternut has a long neck in proportion to the bulbous base; when you see how efficiently my former Gourmet colleague Kempy Minifie deals with peeling it (and using it in a favorite weeknight recipe), it will change your life. If you are really pressed for time or want a lighter, more delicate dish, then forgo the roasting and go with paper-thin shavings of uncooked squash. And consider branching out from butternut; two other winter squashes I’m very fond of are sweet bonbon and red kuri, which is chestnutty in flavor.

As far as the kale goes, if you can find the variety called lacinato, with its green-black leaves, pounce. The signature ingredient in any self-respecting minestrone, it’s a breeze to work with since there’s generally no need to strip out the stems and center ribs: They’re usually tender enough to eat, even when raw. The trick is to slice the leaves into thin ribbons, and the fastest way to do that is to stack a few (washed) leaves, then roll them up like a cigar. Cut the cigar crosswise into thin pieces and before you know it, you are D-O-N-E, done.

You need something crisp and fresh-tasting to offset the richness of the roasted veg and the meatiness of the kale, and this is where things start to get really interesting. Matchsticks of crisp, juicy, sweet jicama (hee-ka-ma) are just the ticket, but kohlrabi or celery root would be delicious, too. An apple, also cut into matchsticks, brings tartness to the party, and chunks of creamy goat cheese add a different sort of tang.

Katherine plumped a handful of raisins in a warm garlicky vinaigrette before dressing the salad, and I was all set to follow her lead until I realized we were 1) out of raisins, and 2) out of garlic. I do not understand how this happened, but never mind. As I said earlier, this salad is versatile. I could see it working with a maple or sherry vinaigrette, but I ended up just supplementing the olive oil in a very basic dressing with some of the drippings (and flavorful brown crunchy bits) from the roast chicken and a handful of dried cranberries that’s been kicking around since Christmas.

The muffled thumps at the door meant Sam was home and kicking off his Bean boots. A minute later, he padded into the kitchen in his socks and surveyed the situation. “You said salad for supper, but I didn’t know you meant this,” he said. “Dinner is going to be good.”

Salad Dressing with Roast-Chicken Drippings

1/3 cup mild extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Drippings (including some brown crunchy bits) from a roast chicken

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Whisk the olive oil into the lemon juice, then whisk in drippings to taste. Season with salt and pepper.

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KOHLRABI SLAW: A MARKET STORY

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The weather whiplash we’ve been experiencing lately requires agility, both at the market and in the kitchen. Take last week, for instance: Those single-digit days had me entertaining thoughts of a fork-tender chuck roast or choucroute garni, fragrant with juniper, but no, I didn’t act fast enough. The forecast turned balmy, and the morning I set aside for shopping was improbably warm, with wispy fog and a low sky the color of an oyster shell. Rich, heavy food was suddenly unappealing—I didn’t want to buy or cook it, let alone eat it. I tore off a good bit of my shopping list, threw it in the nearest trash can, and opened myself up to opportunity.

The mild day had lured a few unexpected purveyers to the Union Square Greenmarket, including the folks at Keith’s Organic Farm, who usually finish their season at Christmas. Among their crates of potatoes, carrots, and garlic was one of kohlrabies (pronounced “coll-rahb-ees,” and yep, that’s the correct plural). Propped on top was a copy of The Art of Simple Cooking II, the latest cookbook by Alice Waters, smartly turned to a spread of kohlrabi recipes. Now that is the way to sell an ingredient that’s unfamiliar to many.

I wrote about kohlrabi about a year ago, but a few things bear repeating: It’s delicious cooked or raw, and swings from the seasonings of Eastern Europe to those of China and India with ease. What really spoke to me when I saw it on Saturday was the fact that it’s clean-tasting and hearty, all at the same time—exactly what’s called for in an unseasonably warm spell in January.

Technically speaking, kohlrabi is not a root vegetable, but instead a bulbous stem that grows above ground. It plays well with root vegetables, however, so it allows for some fancy footwork on your part: In a winter salad or the slaw below, try mixing it with turnip, rutabaga, or celery root. A member of the nutrient-dense Brassicaceae family, it’s particularly high in potassium and vitamin C.

Alice Waters suggests serving serving the slaw alongside a bit of salami or prosciutto, some fried vegetables, or a spicy baked Dungeness crab. I ended up splurging on a duck breast and cooking it the way Floyd Cardoz taught me, but can’t wait to pair the slaw with fat grilled sausages next week. That is, if the weather holds.

Buying & prep notes: You can use either green or purple kohlrabi for this recipe; they are both white underneath the skin, and I can’t detect much difference in flavor. I prefer one medium kohlrabi to two small ones here, as it will have a greater ratio of flesh to peel. Lastly, when peeling, remove any fibrous layer beneath the surface.

Kohlrabi, Carrot, and Apple Slaw

Adapted from The Art of Simple Cooking II, by Alice Waters

Serves 4

1 medium or 2 small kohlrabi bulbs

1 red, orange, or yellow carrot

½ apple (such as Cox’s Orange Pippin, Pink Pearl, or Braeburn), cored

1½ teaspoons cider vinegar

1 teaspoon coarsely chopped parsley

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Peel the outer woody skin from the kohlrabi. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, cut the kohlrabi into thin pieces. Then cut the pieces into matchsticks.

2. Cut the carrot into pieces and then into a matchstick julienne as above. Cut the apple half into slices, then matchsticks.

3. Stir together the vinegar, parsley, and olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Taste for salt and acidity and adjust as needed, then toss with the fruit and vegetables.

VARIATIONS

  • Omit the apple, use lemon or lime juice instead of the vinegar, and cilantro instead of parsley. In a small dry pan, heat ½ teaspoon each nigella seeds and black or brown mustard seeds until they pop. Stir them into the slaw.
  • In addition to (or instead of) the kohlrabi, use radishes, turnips, rutabagas, beets, or celery root. Fennel is also a great addition.

SCARLET POACHED PEARS FOR CHRISTMAS

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Desserts that are both easy and spectacular are all too rare. That’s why it pays to keep a running file of them, and if they happen to be gluten and/or dairy free, or not terribly fattening, then so much the better. This time of year, at the top of my list are the scarlet poached pears developed by my former Gourmet colleague Paul Grimes, for the September 2008 Paris issue.

Because poached pears rarely look as good as they taste, Paul took a cue from a dessert at Le Chateaubriand, which uses a beet to intensify the pears’ hue. I think the red glassware that you see at Paris flea markets may have also had an impact; Paul’s informed, very painterly eye is one of the reasons he is such an extraordinary food stylist.

If you or yours don’t happen to like beets, no worries: You can’t taste them in the least, and the fresher and juicier the beet, the deeper in color the fruit will become. My beet was less than optimal; I’d forgotten to buy one at the farmers market, and the gnarly root I picked up at the grocery store had been languishing in the bin a bit too long. Still, it did the trick, and the poaching transformed not just the pears, but the less-than-stellar beet—it was almost candied, and I ate it standing over the sink.

Beets have long been used as a dye for textiles and food. Before the advent of artificial colorants, they put the “red” in red velvet cake, for instance, and they turn Easter eggs a delicate mauve. The vegetable’s saturated color, like that of bougainvillea, amaranth, and the flowers of some cacti, comes from pigments called betalains (from Beta vulgaris, the Latin name of the common beet), specifically, a purple pigment called betacyanin and a yellow one called betaxanthin.

Betalains are extremely unstable—they leak when cut, cooked, or exposed to air or sunlight. They aren’t nearly as common in plants as the anthocyanin pigments found in all manner of foods—including berries, grapes, cherries, plums, carrots, and black rice—and so are considered a relatively new class of dietary antioxidants.

Now, about poaching, one of the gentlest culinary techniques. Although it isn’t complicated, you do want to be mindful of the heat. You don’t want the liquid to vigorously boil—otherwise, whatever it is you’re cooking will either break apart or toughen. A lower flame allows you greater control and precision. The end result—whether you are poaching chicken, say, or eggs or fruit—should possess the quality of moelleux (mwall-yew)—a soft, velvety mouthfeel that is completely, captivatingly French. No surprise, really, that there’s not an English equivalent of the word.

Covering the pears with a round of parchment paper as they poach encourage them to cook and color evenly. To help them stay covered with liquid, try placing a small saucer on top of the parchment as they cook.

If you are at all resistant to the idea of poached pears, you’ve likely been scarred by having to grapple with one that threatened to skid across the table when pierced with a fork. This usually happens during a first date or dinner with the boss. But understanding moelleux—the pears should be so tender they practically melt in your mouth—is a real game changer.

The key to success is very, very basic: You must cook the pears until they are done. Since the pears may be of slightly different sizes or at different stages of ripeness, test them all instead of just one. When you insert a small skewer (a turkey lacer works brilliantly) or paring knife, it should glide in but the flesh should still feel solid, not mushy. Then don’t delay—take the pears off the heat and cool them down quickly, so they don’t overcook.

Paul calls for Forelle pears, an old variety that holds its shape well during poaching; small Bosc pears also work. (If you’d like to know more about pears in general, you’ll find my shopping, cooking, and eating guide to pears here.) The recipe also specifies Orange Muscat, which isn’t the easiest dessert wine to find. Although another muscat won’t have the same alluring orange-apricot aroma, it will still be delicious.

You’ll want to serve these with a fork, for stabilizing the pear, and a dessertspoon, for scooping flesh and juice.

Merry Christmas! Happy Hols! See you soon in 2014.

Scarlet Poached Pears

Recipe by Paul Grimes, Gourmet, September 2008

If your pears are very small or ripe (instead of firm-ripe), then set the kitchen timer for 20 minutes, say, instead of the 35 to 40 minutes specified below. And if the pears are indeed done more quickly, then transfer them to a bowl to cool, remove the bay leaves and cinnamon stick, and continue to simmer the poaching liquid until thickened and syrupy.

2 cups Orange Muscat such as Quady Winery’s Essensia (from a 750-ml bottle)

1 medium red beet (¼ pound), peeled and sliced

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

2 Turkish bay leaves or 1 California bay leaf

3 small firm-ripe pears (¾ to 1 pound total), such as Forelle, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cored

1. Bring wine, beet, sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon, and bay leaves to a boil in a 1½- to 2-quart saucepan, stirring until sugar has dissolved.

2. Add pears and cover with a round of parchment paper. Reduce the heat and simmer, turning occasionally, until pears are tender and liquid is syrupy, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer pears to a bowl. Discard cinnamon stick and bay leaves and pour syrup over pears. Cool completely in syrup, about 30 minutes. Poached pears can be made 1 day ahead and chilled in the syrup. (The color will deepen the longer they stay in the syrup.)

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SMOKED FISH: YOUR HOLIDAY GUIDE TO SHOPPING & EATING

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Holiday entertaining has a certain glamour about it. And although a magnificent standing rib roast, for instance, or a caramel-caged croquembouche are tried-and-true showstoppers, the extravagance and formality they represent are an uneasy fit for many of us these days. There’s the expense and time involved, obviously, but also lighter, leaner diet preferences, or a hectic life in which a relaxed lunch or cosy Sunday supper is more achievable—and appealing— than an elaborate meal.

That’s why my go-to delicacy for the past few years has been smoked fish. It is chic and versatile: For brunch, say, you can serve paper-thin slices of smoked salmon with cream cheese, butter, and assorted bagels and Eastern European–style dark bread, or, for a first course at lunchtime or supper, drape a few glistening slices of gravlax on small plates with a dollop of a dill or mustard sauce. You can buy a whole salmon fillet that’s been sliced and then reassembled on the bone—very nice for a buffet—or add coarse flakes of smoked chub or trout to a horseradish dip, a salad of watercress and crisp apple, or bowls of hot borscht. And don’t forget about Danish smørrebrød, the open-faced sandwiches eaten with knife and fork. This one, from The Gourmet Cookbook, is made with smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, and is reason alone to keep a few bottles of Tuborg or Carlsberg in the house. We had it just the other night, after we came home late-ish from a cocktail party. Then we went to bed and slept like lambs.

My favorite purveyor is the renowned Russ & Daughters, on Houston Street. Founded in 1914 by Joel Russ, it is the quintessential Jewish-American “appetizing store”—specializing in all manner of mouthwatering preserved fishes (there’s a sampling in the top photo), dairy products, and confections. Not being a native New Yorker, I first learned about the shop in the 1970s, when Calvin Trillin started writing about it in his food pieces for The New Yorker.

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Russ & Daughters is now headed up by the fourth generation of Federmans, and in Trillin’s marvelous foreword to Mark Russ Federman’s memoir, Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built (published this year by Schocken), he noted that the smoked salmon is still sliced by now-manager Herman Vargas, a Yiddish-speaking Dominican who has worked at Russ & Daughters for more than 30 years. Herman produces “slices thin enough to read The New York Times through,” he wrote, then clarified: “Not the big-print edition; I’m talking about the regular.”

Whether you buy smoked fish from Russ & Daughters (they ship nationally, and, if you live within striking distance, are open Christmas Day and New Year’s Day) or another purveyor, below you’ll find a cheat sheet to the different styles and types of fish. In general, everything you see labeled “smoked salmon,” is cold-smoked, meaning the smoking takes place at below 90ºF (that sold at Russ & Daughters is smoked at 75°F). The gentleness of the technique results in fish with a silky texture, which allows for thin slicing. Most cold-smoked salmon, by the way, is made with farmed Atlantic salmon. Hot-smoking, on the other hand, literally cooks the fish at temperatures ranging from 150° to 170°F, which results in a flaky texture. In both cases, the fish is either “wet-cured” in a mild brine or “dry-cured” with a rub of salt and brown sugar before it’s smoked. And the color, which is not an indicator of quality or flavor, should range from pink to orange.

SALMON: CURED BUT NOT SMOKED

Gravlax: This salmon isn’t smoked but simply seasoned with salt, sugar, and dill, then weighted and refrigerated for a few days. As the salt and sugar penetrate the fish, excess moisture is drawn out, creating a brine. It has a characteristic  tender, compact texture and rich yet clean flavor. Store-bought gravlax (literally “buried salmon”) is available, but you can make it at home, too. Serve it in ultrathin slices, with a dill- or mustard-based sauce, or on small, thin pieces of buttered brown bread.

Lox: Here, the salmon isn’t smoked, but salt-cured in an assertive brine; it needs the counterpoint of cream cheese and a bagel to bring out its best. It’s also absolutely delicious in lox chowder à la Russ & Daughters. The word lox, by the way, which is derived from the Yiddish laks and the German Lachs, simply means “salmon.” Because of its brine bath, lox is frequently whiter than the usual smoked salmon. Belly lox, from the fatty belly of the salmon, has a very full, salty, and surprisingly delicate flavor.

SALMON: CURED AND SMOKED

Irish: If you see wild Irish smoked salmon, pounce: It is superb—salmon and smoke at its most elemental. And the kind labeled “organic Irish salmon” is more deeply flavored than other farmed smoked salmons.

Kippered (baked) salmon: The hot-smoking process imparts a succulent texture and rich flavor to this appetizing classic. Pair it with a cold-smoked salmon for two different smoked-salmon experiences. It’s best to serve kippered salmon in a single thick piece (so it won’t fall apart) and let people cut off large, enjoyable forkfuls.

Norwegian: With a good balance of smoke and salt and a firm yet yielding texture, this is a terrific choice for people who are new to the world of smoked fish.

Nova: This term once referred to wild Atlantic salmon caught off Nova Scotia, or in the case of Gaspé Nova, from the Gaspé Peninsula, along the south shore of the St. Laurence River in Quebec. Today, though, with wild Atlantic salmon nearly extinct, the term more correctly refers to how the salmon is treated—first it’s briefly wet-brined, then gently smoked. Nova is the standard New York–style smoked salmon; it’s uniformly tender and mild.

Scottish: The genuine article—that is, salmon that has been caught (most likely, from a screened pen at a salmon farm), dry-brined, and smoked in Scotland—is smokier, firmer, and more distinctive than Nova. It makes a lovely first course, whether served on its own or shredded and tossed with pasta and cream sauce.

Wild Western or Pacific: The term wild salmon is nearly synonymous with Pacific salmon (you can meet the species here). They are more muscular (i.e., leaner) than farmed salmon, and contain more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The flavor is smoky, salmony,  and more complex than any farmed salmon.

About whole sides of salmon: An entire side of salmon has a definite wow factor, and a purveyor like Russ & Daughters will trim and thinly slice whatever type of smoked salmon you choose, then reassemble it in presentation-ready form. And the firm of H. Forman & Son, Britain’s oldest salmon curer (and the last smokehouse in London’s East End) sells its luxurious “London cure” at Williams-Sonoma.

SPECIALTY FISH

Chub, whitefish, and cisco: These closely related fish, which come from the cold, deep lakes of North America, are becoming hard to find; as Mark Russ Federman explains in Russ & Daughters, their primary fishery, the Great Lakes, has been overrun by accidentally introduced non-indigenous species such as the zebra mollusk and the lamprey eel. Their flavor is rich, sweet, and smoky—well worth the effort of peeling back the skin, turned golden by hot-smoking, and removing the meat from the bones, leaving the fish frame intact. Enjoy, as Federman suggests, on a bed of lettuce accompanied by thick slices of tomato and onion, with a buttered slice of rye or pumpernickel bread or toasted bialy.

Sable: Smoked sable was once known as “poor man’s sturgeon,” sold on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for 70 cents a pound. Also known as black cod (which isn’t a true cod at all), it owes its buttery richness to its habitat—the deepest waters of the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean, stretching from Alaska down to California, and its diet includes crab and squid. Sable can handle something spicy or sharp in flavor; try serving it with a horseradish sauce or even an olive relish or tapenade. It’s also wonderful flaked and tossed with potatoes and a lemon-spiked mayonnaise.

Sturgeon: Widely considered to be the crème de la crème of all smoked fish, hot-smoked sturgeon is firm, full-flavored, and velvety in texture. Most of what you’ll find in the United States is sustainably farmed.

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