The Midwest Mango-Green Pepper Mystery

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If you grew up in the Midwest, you are familiar with the weird phenom of green bell peppers being called ‘mangoes’.    Finely chopped mango was that special addition to my mother’s holiday cheeseball, that took it up a notch – it balanced the sweetness of the grated pineapple folded into the cream cheese.   I had always heard them referred to as mangoes at home and knew no better until college when introduced to the international cuisine around the university.  

This was like the breakfast dish I knew of as a ‘dippy egg’, was actually called an ‘egg-over-easy’ by the rest of the civilized world.   My parents coined the term ‘dippy egg’ when we were kids.  You ‘dipped’ your toast in the soft yolk to soak it up, and it made sense to our childhood brains.  

But green peppers and mangos are vegetable and fruit.   They taste completely different, so there’s no chance they’d be mistaken.   A mango is dense, sweet and tangy, and a green pepper is crunchy, vegetal and hollow.     So how were these two foods mistaken for each other?     Did some local German grocer look up the English word for the green peppers he had and mistook them for mangoes?

Many old local recipes call for ‘mangoes’ when really meaning green peppers.   In Cincinnati, in the Forest Hills School district in the 1960s and 70s, the term ‘stuffed mangoes’ was used on the school menu.  There are many Amish cookbooks that also use the term ‘stuffed mangos.’   And, in the supermarket, up until probably only a few decades ago, retailers labelled green peppers mangos in the Midwest.    Most of us now know the difference, but older folks in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri still call green bell peppers mangoes.       Some seem to think that this originated with coal miners in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1870s.   The Pennsylvania Board of Agriculture referred to them as mango peppers in 1879, and the Ohio Board of Agriculture referred to them the same in their 1896 annual report.

Imagine my surprise when Lifesavers came out with a mango flavored candy in the 80s, that tasted sweet like a fruit, not spicy like a vegetable.   They really missed that mark.

But an article in the New York Times claimed the real reason had to do with food preservation in colonial times.   When mangoes were first imported to the American colonies in the 1600s, they had to be pickled, because of lack of refrigeration.   Other fruits also had to be pickled, and came to be known as ‘mangoes’, especially green peppers.      People mistook the term mango as the process, rather than the fruit they were getting.   In 1699, an early American cookbook refers to a “mango of cucumbers” and a “mango of walnuts.”   By the early 1700s, almost anything that could be pickled – apples, peaches, apricots, plums – was called a ‘mango.’     One of the most popular of these ‘mangoes’ was a bell pepper stuffed with spiced cabbage and pickled.  

It’s maybe an example of Midwestern provinciality, that the term mango for green pepper existed for over 300 years and has only recently been corrected.   Thankfully, we now know the difference between fruit mangos and mango peppers.  

Scungilli Salad – The Christmas Treat of the Real Housewives of New Jersey

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I am a super-fan of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. I love their over- the-top personalities, their botched plastic surgeries, and their poor handle on the English language. And, I really connect with their closeness to family and their ethnic Italian heritage.   They get my brownie points by teaching and speaking Italian to their children.

Christmas is as big a deal to New Jersey Italian- Americans as it is to Cincinnati German-Americans, so I also identify with that.  We German-Americans have as many holiday foods as the Italians do.   Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, or 12th Day, when most German-Americans sadly take down their decorations. But to Italian-Americans it’s also the day that La Befana, an old woman who, according to legend, steered the Magi to the Baby Jesus, arrives.   She brings gifts and candy to children to put in their shoes, sweeping the house on her way out, or batting bad ones with her dense broom.

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Although my family is German, we always had Italian food on Christmas Eve.   It was usually a nice lasagna, or meatballs and spaghetti, and usually a green Jell-O salad.      Italians on Christmas Eve celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a tradition of seven fish courses for dinner.

I recently learned of one traditional dishe no Italian-American passes Christmas Eve without having, called scungilli salad.   It’s apparently an integral part of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.   It’s one of those immigrant dishes like goetta that you can’t find in its exact form back in the Old Country, but has a unique flair of the homeland.     It’s a result of immigrant frugality with what’s inexpensive and available in the New World. Take the word, for example.   Scungilli is a New Jersey Italian corruption of the Neopolitan dialect word, sconciglio.   The characters of the Real Housewives truncate it to ‘scungeel’, like they do ‘mazorell’.

Scungilli is a gastropod or sea snail commonly known as Atlantic conch, murex, or welk.   Scungilli are the larger version of the welk, sometimes called channeled or knobbed welk, and typically caught off of Long Island Sound, Cape Cod, and Peconic Bay.   Like squid and monkfish once were, they are a by-catch – something that comes in the fishing net while targeting other fish.   They’re not in great demand, except in New Jersey and other East Coast Italian communities at Christmas time.   And, no one seems to know what they are outside of the New York/New Jersey metro areas.

There’s a company in New Jersey, La Monica Foods, that for four generations since 1923, has cleaned, cooked and canned the sliced scungili specifically for these salads.     Some parts of the large welks are tough, so they benefit from being sliced thin. If you get fresh welks/conch/murex you have to purge it of its waste, a two day process, then cook, shuck, and slice them.    At first glance of the sliced product, you might think they’re clams or calamari, but the taste is somewhat different.   The meat of the larger welks used for scungili are pinkish and chewier than the smaller welks, typically seen at Italian fish markets, which are less chewy and brinier in taste.

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For the Feast of Seven Fishes, scungilli can either be served in a peppery tomato sauce with spaghetti or marinated in olive oil and herbs, garlic, celery, olives, beans, and grated cheese.     Some chefs in the East Coast have started to integrate the smaller versions into chowders, as fritters or serving them like oversized escargot, with garlic butter and parsley for dipping, but the most popular version is the scungilli salad.

As far as I’m concerned, as long as they keep flipping tables and pulling out each other’s weaves, the Real Housewives of New Jersey can keep eating their weird cheap mollusks for Christmas.

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The Hot Dish – A Minnesota Threeway

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We think we’re so unique with our Cincinnati Threeway.   And we are, in a sense.   We’re the only city in the country that puts ‘chili’ on top of spaghetti and covers it with a mountain of shredded cheddar cheese. But, if you deconstruct the threeway into its basic components, meat in a sauce, a starch, and dairy, we’re not really all that unique.     New Mexico has a threeway in its Frito Pie (see my blog on 5/26/2105).   Montreal has its Poutine.  And then Rochester, New York, has its Garbage Plate, that I’ll be discussing shortly.   But the Land of the Lutherans, Minnesota, has a long tradition of their version of the threeway.   Invented by budget conscious farmwives, it’s been known since the early 1930s (only shortly after the introduction of our threeway).    This Church-lady classic is called the Hot Dish.

While the Cincinnati Threeway had sordid beginnings in a parlor next to a Burlesque theatre, the Minnesota Hot Casserole has much more respectable origins, in church basements.    It’s the difference between a hoochie-coo and a hymnal.   The first written record of the Hot Dish appears in 1930 in the Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid Cookbook, from Mankato, Minnesota.   That recipe called for two pounds of hamburger, i.e. ground beef, Creamette brand elbow macaroni and canned peas.

Since then many versions of the hot dish have popped up, especially since 1933 when Campbell’s debuted its condensed creamed soups, with flavors like cream of mushroom.   Known in the Midwest as “The Lutheran Binder,” cream of mushroom soup became the go-to sauce for the Hot Dish or Minnesota Threeway.     Serve it in a large casserole dish, and it can feed the faithful in big numbers.

The formula for the Hot Dish is pretty standard.   Start with a protein like ground beef, shredded chicken or canned tuna.   Then you add a canned vegetable like canned corn or green beans.   Add a starch like wild rice, macaroni, or mashed potatoes.   Then add a binding sauce like cream of anything soup, or cheddar cheese soup, and then top with something crunchy like French fried onion rings, chow mein noodles, crushed potato chips (I’d choose Husman’s Barbecue Chips) or Tater Tots.

The year 1953 holds significance to the evolution of the Hot Dish.   It was this year that one of the most popular toppers was invented by brothers Nephi and Golden Grigg, the owners of Ore-Ida potatoes. They had a surplus of scraps from frozen French fries (which U.S. GI’s were introduced to in Belgium during WWI), and they invented a new product.   The inventive brothers chopped up the slivers, added spices, flour, then extruded the mash, cut off in bite-sized chunks and deep fried.

At first the inexpensive product did not catch on, as people saw no value.   But when the price was raised, people began buying it, and now we Americans consume 70 million pounds of them a year.     And, they found a home in school lunch counters and Lutheran Church basements.   Originally, without a name, Ore-Ida held a contest and Clora Lay Orton, then a young housewife, came up with the name.

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While most go to a chili parlor to have their Cincinnati Threeway, in Minnesota, there’s always someone’s Grandma who can make the Hot Dish best.       That made it difficult to take the Hot Dish out of the basement and into the restaurant. But there’s a New York chef, Gavin Kaysen, who returned home to elevate the Hot Dish at his Minneapolis restaurant Spoon and Stable.   But in order to pass muster, he had to invite the Ladies Aid from the Mount Olivet Lutheran Church to approve his items.    Chef Kaysen integrates international flavors and upgraded ingredients into his Hot Dishes. One calls for harissa spice, while another replaces cream of mushroom soup with a wild mushroom gravy with fresh rosemary and thyme.   Now the Lutheran Ladies call Chef Kaysen a ‘hot dish.’

Going Old School with Mad House Microbrewed Vinegar

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Another big trend for 2016 is micro cuisines, which include hyper-regional foods, grown within close proximity to where the food is served.   We’ve already seen this Locavore Movement in Cincinnati the last few years.   Some of these items could come from actual growing or producing resources in the restaurant itself, like Chef Kelly at Orchids and his rooftop garden.   Or, they could be a result of chef-farm or brewer-producer collaborations.

A great example of the latter is Mad House Vinegar, a collaboration between Chef Justin Dean, former COO of the Relish Group, also a Maisonette alumnus, and Richard Stewart, farm manager at Carriage Hill Farms in North Bend, Ohio, west of Cincinnati.

Chef Dean used to just receive the spent grains from MadTree Brewing to be used for composting and feed stock at Napoleaon Ridge Farm in Gallatin, Kentucky, which raises heritage breed hogs, lamb, goat, chicken, duck, and a small herd of Dexter cattle, for the Relish Group.

After discovering more about the brewery process and its byproducts, Dean asked MadTree if he could use their waste wort, ferment it into beer, and then make it into malt liquor. They replied, “Why not?”

So now, he’s receiving leftover wort, or unfermented beer, from both MadTree in Oakley and Listermann in Evanston.     Stewart and others add the fruit and herbs to the wort and ferment into vinegar.   Carriage Hill Farms produces grapes which they will use to make red wine and white wine vinegars, as well as Asian pears.

The collaboration effort is in the early stages of making artisan vinegars in flavors like blackberry, spice bushberry, anise hyssop and strawberry mountain mint.   You can get some of their vinegars at Bridgetown Finer Meats on the West Side of Cincinnati.

Making vinegar is a two-step process.   First they pitch the leftover wort with yeast and ferment it into beer, which usually takes over two weeks.   Then, a second fermentation, called the acetification, is done using a thick acetic acid called the “mother”, which eats the alcohol and turns it into malt vinegar.

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Small batches of vinegar fermenting at Mad House.

The great thing is that every single beer from every brewery in Cincinnati is going to make a different vinegar.  A Kolsch, for example, will taste very different from say Listermann’s Peanut Butter Porter.   Dean is also making drinkable vinegars (that help in digestion), herbal-infused vinegars, and even a pawpaw vinegar, all from locally sourced ingredients.    The flavor profiles will be as varying as the beers themselves and the final artisan vinegars will display the wonderful “terroir” of the Ohio Valley region, just like a fine wine.

The coolest part of this process is its greenness.     Unwanted wort that breweries would otherwise flush down the drain and cause huge BOD (biological oxygen demand) spike in the local wastewater, and thus burden on the Metropolitan Sewer District, are being upcycled for artisan vinegars.

Labneh Cheese and the Savory Yogurt Revolution

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At the beginning of the year every industry looks into its proverbial Magic 8 ball and decides which trends will be most important.       The Food industry is no different.   Last year we saw an even larger rise in consumption of Greek yogurts – with higher protein than our runny sweet Dannon and Yoplait types.   We even saw the introduction of skyrr, a Scandinavian high-protein yogurt, invade our dairy shelves in places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.   Both Greek and Scandinavian came in a variety of sweet flavors, honey, berries, and desserty.

Following along with the high-protein yogurt is a new trend for 2016 – the savory yogurt.   With this comes such high-protein versions that they almost cross between yogurt and cheese.   Enter Labneh cheese, a sibling of the high-protein Greek and Scandinavian yogurts.       Labneh cheese is a yogurt that has been strained to remove its whey.   What results is a relatively thick product.   At what viscosity does a high-protein yogurt actually become a cheese?   That question might have to be answered for us in 2016.

So, last year we were adding sweetness to savory – think candied bacon.  This year, expect the trend to be upside down.   We will be adding savory to sweet things.   Savory yogurt is tied to the trend for more Middle Eastern flavors.   Also part of this trend is the push for more healthy, vegetable-centric dining.

Labneh is an Arabic word, and is popular in the Levant and Arabian Peninsula, where it is eaten for breakfast in small balls, often drizzled with olive oil and herbs and eaten with pita.   In Iran, labneh and strained yogurt is used as dips and various appetizers with a whole host of ingredients.   Cucumbers, onions, shallots, fresh herbs (dill, spearmint, parsley, cilantro), spinach, walnuts, and garlic are some of the savories mixed with labneh.

We Americans have a love for dipping a la lunchables and small sized hummus packs.   We are also looking for snacks that have proteins, are customizable and take different shapes and sizes.   Savory labneh seems to fit this bill perfectly.

You will start to see savory yogurts with ingredients like beets, carrots, savory spices, herbs, and olive oils.     There may even be a sriracha labneh.     Instead of vanilla or fruit, you’ll be seeing tomato or pumpkin. Not only will we see this on our grocery shelves, it’s also predicted to infiltrate into the QSR or Fast Food market as well.     We may see it alongside a savory oatmeal with roasted red peppers and a poached egg on the menu of say a chain with golden arches.

I doubt that we’ll be wearing turbans and headscarves this year, but the flavors of the Middle East are definitely coming to America.