Monday, October 7, 2013


 Cooking in Italy.

 Packets of polenta, rice and legumes were stuffed into my cupboard like never before. Grains are a poor man’s food, a poor man’s feast, I learned. Hardy, healthy, filling, grains to feed and nourish in thick times and thin, the fat and the lean. A shower of yellow grains into a pot of water; just watch how they cook, watch how they melt into a thick mass, popping and bubbling like quicksand in an old black and white horror flick. Thick and creamy, blended with butter and Parmesan and I can still feel, taste the individual grains.

 Grains of rice, arborio, carnaroli, vialone nano, baldo where to begin ? Nonna Anna taught me that the secret to the perfect risotto was stirring, stirring, cooking and adding liquid until the grains of rice melt together creamy and unctuous. Handfuls of Parmesan or the golden color of zafferano, a hint of wine or a chopping block of fresh garden herbs. But choose your rice well.

 Contadina di legumi e cereali. We discovered these packets of a colorful array of tiny beans and grains, split green peas, red beans and white beans, lentils and broad beans, faro and barley. Simmered in water or broth with sautĂ©ed onion and garlic, a carrot or two finely chopped, salt, pepper and fresh thyme, rosemary and sage… and toss in the rind of a wedge or two of Parmesan…until all the beans and grains are soft and tender. Top with grated cheese and bowls of Contadina di legumi e cereali got us through many a winter.

 My mother made kasha varnishkas with a box of kasha, good old-fashioned buckwheat groats, and bowtie pasta. Kasha and bowties! we would scream! We adored them! The nutty, woodsy flavor of the kasha against the simple taste of the pasta, was heightened by being simmered in chicken stock, or maybe she’d stir in a bit of schmaltz, chicken fat. Or she simply simmered the groats in water then topped the whole with butter or gravy. But kasha varnishkas how I loved kasha varnishkas. The brown, earthy foods of my Eastern European ancestors – like the meat-filled noodle kreplach and heavy, rather bland matzah balls floating in chicken soup, potato knishes and cabbage soup, kasha varnishkas are a part of my culinary heritage, foods from the shtetl. So misunderstood by many who turn up their noses at this odd array of dishes, so brown, so unadorned and unattractive.

 Spoonfuls of kasha on the plate, the creamy brown and beige grains, once cooked, remain separate, singular yet soften as if looking through a Vaseline-coated lens. Chewy with a gentle give, soft yet resistant, like my people. The pale yellow bowties, clearly defined, gay and cheerful, pop out like colored sea shells on the beach. An odd paradox, a funny contrast, but just the right balance for the perfect, comforting dish of my childhood.

 Grains of sand squished between my toes, searing hot and dry or cool and damp. Scoop up a remembrance of this beach, this desert and push the grains of sand deep into a little plastic vial. Snap on the cap and tuck it into my pocket and carry it home. Little plastic vials like a pharmacy shelf all lined up one two three four the Negev Desert, the beach in Cape May, the sands of a Brittany coastline on a honeymoon weekend, memories in each microscopic grain. 

 Grainy photographs lie scattered across the table, fall out of photo albums, the edges curled or frayed. Faces grainy with time and distance, smiling faces in black and white or kodachrome bright, laughter and noise frozen with the click of a button, the pop of a flashbulb.

 How easily we snap pictures now one two three, scroll through the images one after the next as we stand on the spot, immediate gratification. Transfer the images to a laptop or computer, send them around the world with a click of button, shared by one and all, family, friends and strangers. Click and look, click and delete.

 But my grainy old photographs I pick up off of the table, brush the dust that has gathered on the shiny surface with my fingers, softly so as not to muss the memory, are like the rings gathered in a box in my drawer, rings given to me by my mother or my husband, precious gifts one pulls out and shifts through lovingly, holding each one and squinting into the glittering gems, the glittering eyes of those laughing up from the picture. Snapshots rare, carefully preserved, shared one by one only with someone special sitting next to me, elbow to elbow, bringing back and brushing off each memory now grainy with time and distance.

 Grains of semolina, couscous, steamed gently, tossed and fluffed with a fork to separate the grains so they don’t clump. Light and delicate, add butter or olive oil and serve. Ladlefuls of vegetable broth, chunks of bright carrots, pale turnips and zucchini that falls apart with the merest gentle prod. The give of chickpeas, the sweetness of raisins plumped and warmed before serving, the bite of harissa, the freshness of handfuls of chopped coriander leaves each give depth and meaning to this comforting meal. The spicy, rich broth, the tender vegetables, herbed grilled lamb against the delicate, wheaty backdrop of the grains. Exotic as it is, as complex as the flavors, couscous is comforting, reassuring, convivial.

 Grains of semolina softened in lemon juice tossed and fluffed with a fork, stirred up with a wooden spoon as the grains swell and soak in the flavors of lemon, ripe tomato and onion, overnight in the refrigerator. The smoky sweetness of roasted red peppers and strips of charred zucchini, crispy kernels of corn, mint or fresh coriander, the saltiness of feta. TaboulĂ© a summer treat, colorful and bright. 

 Grains of semolina cooked in milk, warm and comforting as porridge. Add raisins and dried apricots or berries, sweeten with sugar and flavor with a dusting of cinnamon, a drizzle of maple syrup or the crunch of chopped nuts. Healing, plumping, a child’s delight.

 These multi-grain muffins are surprisingly light and tender, almost cakelike. The flavor of the blend of grains makes this perfect bread to accompany a savory meal, yet the hint of honey makes these muffins perfect as a snack, slathered with butter and jam or the perfect foil for a spicy dish such as chili. This recipe comes from one of my favorite cookbooks, Vegetarian Epicure book two, a delightful book I have been cooking and baking from for thirty years. 


¾ cup (90 g) wholewheat flour 
¾ cup (125 g) yellow corn meal (I used semolina for Polenta) 
½ cup (50 g) rye flour 
2 tsps baking powder 
½ tsp salt 
½ cup (45 g) rolled oats 
1 ½ cups (375 ml) milk 
1 large egg 
¼ cup (62 ½ ml) vegetable oil 
¼ cup (85 g) honey 
2 Tbs light sesame seeds or poppy seeds 

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Butter or line with paper cups a 12-cup muffin tin. 

In a large mixing bowl, sift or stir together the wheat flour, corn meal, rye flour, baking powder and salt. Stir in the rolled oats and a heaping teaspoon of sesame or poppy seeds. 

In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, oil and honey. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry vigorously until well blended. 

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins. Sprinkle a generous amount of sesame seeds on top of each muffin. Bake for 20 minutes until risen, golden and set in the center. 

Remove from the oven and lift the muffins from the tins onto a cooling rack. These muffins are best eaten fresh, warm or just room temperature. If you have leftover, gently reheat them in an oven or slice and toast before eating.

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  1. Grains are fabulous. They are healthy, fulfilling and so versatile. This post is a beautiful ode to them.

    Lovely muffins! Perfect for breakfast.



  2. Love the neutral colors this week and the great muffin recipe. A true Ode to grains.

  3. Love this muffin! And I cherish old, pre-digital pictures so much! You never knew, unless you were a very good photographer, how they would turn out!