Battle Mandram: A family history

Judy Cromwell is a longtime friend who frequently comments on my recipes. She agreed to share her Mandram recipe and contributed this bonus description of her family’s tussles with this dish through the decades.

Chef Otis’ interest in recreating southern salads from his childhood brought to mind a southern salad prepared by my family as I was growing up in Long Beach CA. Chef and I discussed Mandram, a relish-like salad that originated in the West Indies at some point before 1900 when my grandfather moved to SoCal from Central Alabama.

Here is the original as made by my mother, and subsequent versions of hers and my Uncle Nip’s. They were competitive with one another, and here Battle Mandram raged.

Mandram – Childhood Version circa 1947 and before
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and rough chopped
2 large tomatoes, peeled with a paring knife, seeded, and rough chopped
1/4 red onion, rough chopped (less if the onion is really strong)
1 green pepper, seeded, inner white parts removed, and roughly chopped
Apple cider vinegar
Vegetable oil to taste
Salt and pepper

Mix all together. Salad can be refrigerated or left at room temperature until serving.
Comment: Way too much vinegar. As a kid, I picked out the vegetables.

Mandram – Uncle Nip’s Version circa 1976
Years later, after my mother and uncle retired, they began to experiment with the recipe. The first change I remember was from my Uncle Nip — the addition of chopped, canned Ortega chiles. In all honesty I don’t remember ever eating this version, but it sounds delicious, similar to salsa fresca.

Mandram — Mom’s Updated Versions – Globalization of Groceries Version circa 1980
No. 1 Then my mother began making it with rice wine vinegar instead of apple cider vinegar. Thank God she did this. The mild, sweeter vinegar was a blessing to the recipe. Now I was able to eat the whole thing, vinegar and all. When I was growing up there was no rice wine vinegar in the supermarket. Culinary globalization at its finest!

No. 2 Once hothouse cucumbers began appearing in the market, they replaced the old fashioned fat, seedy cucumber. This truly transformed the dish by increasing both flavor and crunch, although my mother continued to use both varieties, for no reason in particular that I know of.

No. 3 When Vidalia and Maui became available, they replaced the red onion. What these babies lacked in beauty and crunch they replaced in flavor. So delicious!

Mandram — Nip’s Update circa 1984
I believe that my Uncle Nip also made a version with scallions. My mother made this for us once but I didn’t care for it. The white part of the young onion was too strong and had the same adverse effect as did the apple cider vinegar. The green parts would be delicious, with perhaps a bit of sweet onion also included.


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Recipe: Mandram (Chopped Vegetable Salad)



Mandram is a chopped vegetable salad that may have originated in the West Indies, according to Mandrang or Mandram | The Vintage Cookbook Trials. I learned about it from my friend Judy Cromwell, who provides her own history with the dish in a guest post. It’s refreshing and pleasant on its own or can be used as a relish. Makes about a quart.

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and rough chopped
2 large tomatoes, peeled with a paring knife, seeded, and rough chopped*
1/4 red onion or sweet Vidalia onion, rough chopped (less if the onion is really strong)
1 green pepper, seeded, inner white parts removed, and roughly chopped
1 T rice vinegar (not sweetened sushi vinegar, just plain rice vinegar)
3 T safflower or other vegetable oil
½ t Kosher salt
¼ t ground pepper

Method: prepare the vegetables as described, mix with liquids and salt and pepper in a serving bowl. Refrigerate at least an hour; it will throw off additional liquid during that time. Serve as a side salad or for spooning on meats and savory items.

* Judy told me her mother always peeled tomatoes with a paring knife so I tried it and it works. Best if the tomatoes are on the ripe side so the skin is loose. The results are similar to my standard method which is to parboil tomatoes until the skins split, but faster because you don’t have to wait for the water to boil.

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Looney for uni (sea urchin gonads)


Fresh uni shown for scale with a copper penny, with which it shares certain taste characteristics

The email from Catalina Offshore Products brought some exciting news: premium uni, normally $18.99 for a 120 g tray, was on sale for $13.99 for one day only. There was a minimum purchase of $50, meaning I had to commit to a full pound of this magical ingredient–a decision which took me about 30 seconds to reach.

The next day a perfectly packed refrigerated box arrived. I tucked in and was surprised at the mild flavor. I guess I had never experienced uni the day after it was harvested. Day two was more what I expected: briny with the taste of the sea and a mysterious texture somewhere between oysters and caviar.

Did I eat several of these “tongues” straight of the tray? Yes I did, since there were no others who wanted to share. The fresh taste did not waver over 4 days, even though the purveyors recommend 2 days, and then it was time for experimentation.

Uni Ramps Linguini

Linguini with uni and ramps

Search for “sea urchin roe recipe” (if you search for “uni” you’ll get colleges) online and you’ll find a few recipes. I’m suspicious of those that want you to use maybe a pound of uni (value $50-100 or more) in a way that masks its taste. Feels like the recipes were incubated in a food lab and you could easily substitute another protein.

I had some ramps on hand so tried this pasta recipe but the taste of both the ramps and the sea urchin disappeared in the sauté pan. Much better was Mario Batali’s linguini recipe (apparently sea urchin is very plentiful in Sicily where it originated) in which the heat of the just-cooked pasta is used to warm ripe tomatoes, thin slices of yellow squash and the uni. It was good, but not $20 per serving food cost good.

Batali uni linguini

Mario Batali uni with fresh tomatoes and squash; sprinkle some uni bits on top so you get full credit for the ingredient

My final experiment was with a sea urchin mousse published in Gourmet, and originated by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. It was fussy but I followed it to the letter with one exception: uni will not pass through a sieve, so I beat it up with a whisk and removed the bits that would not puree. The result was unmistakably uni umami, but cloaked with the civilizing influences of cream, lemon and ginger. I’d serve this to an “I don’t like uni” crowd, so long as I’m able to sneak into the kitchen and finish their uneaten portions after.

Uni Mousse

Sea urchin mousse with ginger vinaigrette

By this time a week had passed and I’d lost some tasting days to a business trip. The final tray was not yet gamy and suspect (and was certainly better than some uni I’ve been served as fresh in certain sushi restaurants) but it had lost its subtlety: it was coppery and a bit bitter. Time to move on.

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New York is to craft beer as California is to wine

Beer Sample

Shmaltz founder Jeremy Cowan gets a pour from a visiting brewmaster

Well, maybe that’s a bit aspirational. But I was quite impressed with the quality and depth of the state’s craft beer movement as exhibited at yesterday’s first ever “New York Statewide Collaboration Brew Day”.

The event was hosted by Shmaltz Brewery in Clifton Park, where in the morning visiting brewmasters got together to brew a unique ale featuring New York-grown ingredients. I arrived in the afternoon for the collaborative tasting session, where the brewers were pouring for each other from the jugs they’d brought along. A special treat was strong ale from C.H. Evans of Albany, brewed in bourbon and rum barrels procured from their neighbor across the street Albany Distilling Co.

Tanks of Beer

Forest of tanks at Shmaltz Brewing Co

I spent some time with Paul Leone, Executive Director of the New York State Brewers Association, a trade group representing what he says is a $3.5 billion craft beer industry in the state. His group excludes national brands with local facilities, though not Rochester’s Genesee, a big brewer which I learned is also experimenting aggressively with craft beers. I asked Paul if there were legal or legislative barriers in this over-regulated state that he’d like to see removed and he said really no, the legislative environment is quite positive for brewers.

I also spoke with Greg Chanese of the Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce, who told me about his Adirondack Craft Beverage Trail map which will soon be interactive and is now available in pdf form. Print it out and get it stamped by each of the breweries on the trail and get a free commemorative beer glass.

Shelby and Paul

Shmaltz’s Shelby Schneider with brewmaster Paul McErlean

The event culminated with a walkthrough of the facility with Shelby Schenider, Shmaltz Marketing Director. I was reminded that when I arrived in the region some six years ago Shmaltz was brewed on a contract basis at Olde Saratoga Brewing Company. Now they’ve got row after row of gleaming tanks and capacity sufficient to be a contract brewer to other folks. That’s quite a trajectory and good news for beer lovers, because strong sales have been an impetus to try new things.

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Recipe: Olive Bread with Rye Starter

Olive Bread with Sourdough Rye

Olive Bread with Sourdough Rye

I have to say this is the best olive bread I have experienced, with wonderful tartness due to large amounts of rye starter plus a long fermentation. Makes two 1 1/2 lb loaves.

225 g  rye starter at 100% hydration*
500 g all purpose flour
340 g water**
1 c pitted olives, coarsely chopped (I used a mixture of Kalamatas and Mediterranean green olives)
1 1/2 t Kosher salt
1 t lemon zest, grated or finely copped
3/4 t Herbes de Provence, dried

Method: Mix rye starter, flour and water and autolyze 30 minutes. Add salt then knead with your preferred technique (I did four sets of stretch-and-folds, 15 minutes apart) until gluten is well developed. Cover and bulk ferment at room temperature for 3 hours, then transfer to refrigerator and proof for at least 48 hours. Bring back to room temperature; flatten dough on your work surface and knead in olives, lemon zest and Herbes de Provence. Shape into two loves and proof in bannetons till nicely risen, about 2-4 hours. Preheat cast iron dutch ovens or baking stone in a 500 degree oven. Load the bread and immediately reduce heat to 475 degrees. Bake covered for 20 minutes if using dutch oven, then remove cover and bake 25 minutes more or until nice and brown.

* This is a lot more starter than I usually use, and an important factor in the tartness of the bread. If you don’t have rye starter you should make some, using the method described here using whole rye/dark rye flour and an equal measure of water by weight. I guess you could substitute white flour starter if you don’t want to wait to build a new starter, in which case I’d recommend using 125 g rye flour/375 g white flour.

** UPDATED: dropped the water volume slightly after further experimentation. If you are comfortable shaping very wet dough, feel free to add more.

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Recipe: Grilled Corn Mexican Style

Grilled corn Mexican style

Grilled corn Mexican style

Those street vendors know what they’re doing. The intense heat of the grill causes the corn kernels to caramelize. You know it’s hot enough when they start to make a cracking noise, like popcorn. Serves 4-8.

4 ears good fresh corn (cut in half if you want smaller portions as a side dish)
Mild chili powder
Lime juice (optional)

Method: Shuck the corn and soak in salted water for a couple hours. Grill over high heat, turning so each side gets dark kernels but is not burned (see photo). Remove from heat and sprinkle with chili powder and optional lime juice before serving as an accompaniment to grilled foods.

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Recipe: Secret Recipe Ramen Burger

Mmm... Ramen Burger

Secret Recipe Ramen Burger towers above conventional counterparts

Don’t be distracted by those ironic burgers using dried ramen noodles instead of a bun. If you like ramen and you like burgers, here’s the secret way to have the best ramen burger. Makes 4 burgers.

1 lb. good quality ground beef
Noodles from 1 package dried ramen noodles for soup (I used Shin Ramyun)
1 vegetable packet from the ramen package
1/2 to 1 spice packet from the ramen package (if you use the full packet it will be pretty spicy)
1/4 c beer (I used Ithaca Flower Power) or soju

Ramen Burger mis en place

Ramen Burger mis en place

Method: Crumble up the ramen noodles and mix into the ground beef along with the seasoning packet ingredients and beer. Allow to rest 1 hour for flavors to mix and beer to be absorbed by the ramen. Shape into 4 patties and cook according to your preferred method. Serve with standard burger condiments or experiment with sriracha mayo, kimchee etc.

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15 Church shows how to make a good restaurant great

Fried Oysters at 15 Church

Fried oysters with liver pate at 15 Church, Saratoga Springs NY

Had Mother’s Day dinner at 15 Church in Saratoga Springs, NY, a place that’s been open just about a year and has recalibrated our definition of fine dining in this amiable but touristic destination. The pre-opening expectations were high: a centrally located but long abandoned historic building rehabbed at great expense (I remember walking by in the dead of winter as heated sidewalks were in the process of installation), a legendary chef in local icon Jason Baker, and a solid management team led by Paul McCulloch, a guy with a lot of big restaurant experience. 15 Church has not disappointed, and didn’t miss a step when Jason Baker departed for health reasons and was replaced by Brady Duhame, a locally raised chef who is a CIA graduate.

I’ve had a few meals at 15 Church at this point and none has been short of superb. This consistency is unusual in a tourist town where often crowds of transient diners, who may not ever come back, cause the house to scramble and possibly resort to shortcuts to ensure everybody gets fed. Tonight I found myself musing on why 15 Church has become a world class restaurant in an environment when even a little dedication would put them ahead of the many local places that charge almost as much for mass-produced food.

Empty butter dish at 15 Church

Cultured butter, now transferred to the house focaccia

Aside from the usual food excellence (why WOULDN’T you want liver pate with your fried oysters?) I took pictures of two telling pieces of evidence. First is the empty cup of cultured butter sprinkled with sea salt which is served (not empty at that point) with excellent focaccia as you sit down. This butter is at the perfect spreading temperature/consistency. A couple of degrees colder and it would be stiff; a couple degrees warmer and it would start to melt. But 15 Church has figured out the ideal temperature and the butter comes out at that temperature precisely, night after night.

Paul McCulloch tends to business

Co-owner Paul McCulloch setting tables at 15 Church, Saratoga Springs NY

My second piece of evidence is the picture of the gentleman setting the table, who happens to be Paul McCulloch. Everybody pulls their weight there and everybody supports everyone else; if a table needs to be prepped and Paul is nearby, why wouldn’t he help out?

Add to this the fact that Chef Brady Duhame has a hell of a lot of fun at his job. He effortlessly turns out the traditional dishes the high rollers demand (one of our party had a massive $50 NY strip that was worth every penny) while indulging a lively personal curiosity about rare and raw fish, Kewpie mayo and uni. His zeppoli (like donuts, but stuffed with ricotta cheese and served with a sweet cream sauce and caramel sauce) have become as locally prized as a winning ticket for a trifecta at the Saratoga Race Course.

I’m hardly the only one who has noticed what is going on at 15 Church. It’s very difficult to get a reservation (but not impossible, so try if you’re in the area) and many of the key dates during track season are completely booked months in advance. But they’re opening a patio next door where 50% of the seating will be first-come-first-served and the central attraction will be a raw bar. I’m there.

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How I made sourdough bread in a hotel room, sort of

The Finished Product

Hotel Room Sourdough?

Staying this week in a hotel room with a kitchenette, I decided to build on my experience with hotel room kale salad. Was it possible to come up with an edible loaf using only flour, water, store-bought yeast and salt? This experiment aims to find out.

It starts with a pinch of yeast

It starts with a pinch of yeast

The first night I mixed a pinch (maybe 1/8 t) Fleishmann’s Rapid-Rise Yeast from a packet into ½ c warm water then added 1 c Trader Joe’s White Flour. 24 hours later, I was gratified to see a frothy surface like a well tended sourdough starter.

Sponge after 24 hours

Sponge after 24 hours

I then added another 1/8 t yeast, 2 c flour, 2/3 c water to make a dough that my calculations was about 68% hydration. I autolysed it, mixed in 1 ½ t salt (the ingredients actually had little taste at this point so lots of salt was important) then did 4 stretch-and-folds over an hour, left it to bulk ferment for another hour and then covered with plastic wrap and stuck into my mini-fridge for 3 days.

Dough after 3 days

After 3 days

When I pulled it out I was pleased to see some nice bubbles accompanied by a faintly sour aroma. I brought it up to room temperature, divided it into a boule and two mini-batards, and let those rise for a couple of hours.

Loaves after rising

Loaves after rising

Baking was a challenge because the heat source was a confusing combo convection/microwave oven. After some experimentation I settled on 450 degrees (as hot as it would go) with the convection setting. I put the bread on a plate and a large stewpot upside down on top to capture some humidity. 20 minutes with that setup, then another 20 minutes with the stewpot removed so the bread could brown.

Oven seup with upside down stewpot

Oven setup with upside down stewpot

The result was what you see here and while not really sourdough, was pleasant and entirely edible, sort of like a Pepperidge Farm white sandwich bread. My tasters happily tried it with butter and with cheese and half a loaf was quickly consumed.

Crumb shot

Crumb shot of finished loaf

I’ll try this again, but will probably experiment with milk and some added nuts and fruit from the breakfast bar. (And maybe a packet of instant oatmeal?) Still got lots of that flour to use up.

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David Murdock, the pineapple king

Last Can of Dole

What if this was the last can of Dole pineapple in the world?

While writing my recipe for Carrot Pineapple Jello I experienced the following unusual economic behavior:

  • Unlike almost other canned fruits and vegetables, there was no store-brand alternative available in my local supermarket. Only Dole.
  • Unlike other products which offer a substantial discount when you buy scraps rather than perfect pieces, Dole Pineapple costs the same whether you are buying rings, chunks or bits.
  • Unlike other products which which charge a modest penalty if you don’t buy the bigger size, Dole nearly doubles the price per ounce for a slightly smaller can.
  • I later found a store brand pineapple in another store and it was truly terrible, as if somebody had cut off supply of all the good pineapples.

Clearly a not-so-invisible hand is at work here, and I did some research. It turns out Dole pineapple is owned by ONE GUY, David H. Murdock. (Not to be confused with Rupert Murdoch, who has less money.) Murdock bought the legendary but nearly defunct Castle and Cook in 1985, which included the Dole pineapple plantations. The stock traded publicly at one time but he took it private with a leveraged buyout in 2013.

I realize you can’t say David Murdock owns all the pineapples in the world because he deals with some independent growers. But how successful would they be at getting to market without him? Also, when billionaire Larry Ellison bought an entire Hawaiian island (Lanai) to turn into a private resort somebody had to sell to him. Yep, it was this guy.

So what happens if David Murdock decides to stop selling pineapples, dye them pink, or double the price? We really don’t have anything to say about that, do we? David Murdock seems to be a benevolent dictator but I was certainly surprised to see one of my favorite foods under such monopolistic control.

And one more thing: Murdock was born in 1923, which makes him 92 years old as of this writing. Let’s hope he stays alert and healthy. Wikipedia tells us he’s funded health and longevity research, which is encouraging.

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