by Pam Vukelic
Our modus operandi in finding restaurants while traveling is to avoid the chains we can access at home and seek out those establishments that are popular with the locals or feature local ingredients. When we were in North Carolina recently our smart-phone search (most stars and fewest dollar signs) yielded a couple of great finds – The House of Fish and Neomonde.
At The House of Fish the chef/owner calls out through the kitchen window to his regulars and delivers to the tables more than you order. He solicits your input on items he is considering adding to the menu. You get the impression, though, that a menu isn’t really necessary. Just walk in, say “feed me,” and you’ll be happy with the results.
We also found Neomonde, a Lebanese restaurant, with so many choices on the line that making your selection was a daunting mental exercise. Fortunate to have been tipped off by a regular customer who was going through the parking lot the same time we were, I ordered a lunchbox, which consisted of three items. I chose a falafel sandwich (in a pita with shocking pink pickled turnips), tabouli, and pistachio baklava. It was the variety of pitas they offered and the versatility of the pocket bread that inspired this Inspired Woman article.
Flatbreads, such as the middle eastern pita, seem to be a part of every culture. Think of the places these breads and crackers will take you on a gastronomic world tour – tortillas, lefse, flatbread, fry bread, naan, roti, focaccia, lavosh, pizza, kisra, and cheese straws are just some of the examples.
Preparation of these flatbreads can nurture family traditions. I have fond memories of lefse-making, recipe sharing, and tip-swapping. Lefse is one of those flatbreads that is best prepared as a family project, probably in large part due to the peeling of potatoes, and thus its preparation is often associated with a holiday when lots of people gather.
Other flatbreads, such as tortillas, are quick and easy, and consequently prepared in the home kitchen every day. Use of a tortilla press and comal greatly facilitate this process. A comal is basically a cast iron skillet without sides.
The pieces of equipment associated with making these items often acquire the status of family heirlooms and as such are passed along to the most-deserving in the next generation. My lefse stick was made by my father. My rolling pin was hand-crafted by an elderly Norwegian woodworker, and gifted to me by one of my mother’s best friends. These items would both make the list of things I would grab if I had to leave my burning house in a hurry.
Flatbreads also connect us with cultures not our own. The ubiquitous pizza is a prime example. Lynne Rosetto Kasper, host of NPR’s The Splendid Table, says the thinner and crispier the pizza crust, the better. In other words, the more like a flatbread it is, the better. Pizza Margherita, consisting of fresh mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes, is named after Queen Margherita and replicates the red, green and white colors of the Italian flag. Dimpled focaccia bread topped with rosemary and olives is another Italian favorite flatbread.
Closer to home, what would a street fair or powwow be without fry bread or Indian Tacos? Fry bread, according to Smithsonian Magazine, “connects the present to the painful narrative of Native American history.” Fry bread probably originated about 150 years ago when Indians were forced to relocate to reservations, leaving behind the land that had supported their staples of vegetables and beans. The government provided rations, chief among them flour, sugar, and lard, which were used to make fry bread. Because of the lack of nutritional value, along with high calorie and fat content, there are those who would like to see less emphasis on fry bread. When Heid Erdrich was writing her 2013 cookbook “Original Local” she considered not including any fry bread recipes. They represent an unwelcome transition to a colonial diet. But, she acknowledged, “we love fry bread” and ultimately included a recipe for Pumpkin Bangs. Bangs are the Turtle Mountain version of fry bread which she remembered her mother making for special occasions. The addition of pumpkin puree as an ingredient provides a “slightly decolonized” recipe.
I’ve written before in this column about my fondness for using Indian naan bread as the base for pizzas on the grill. This remains a summer staple for us. I’ll stock my freezer this summer with pizza sauce using the fresh basil, oregano, and Italian parsley growing off my back patio. The naan bread pizzas can easily be prepared under the broiler in the oven all year.
My new grill favorite, however, is roti. This flatbread is from northern India and resembles a potsticker wrapper except that it is about eight inches in diameter. I’ve found they cook up wonderfully on a preheated grill pan (or Mexican comal!) on the grill. Only a minute or two on each side yields a slightly golden and gently puffed bread. It is the perfect wrapping for a brat as it holds your condiments without adding all the bulk, calories, and carbohydrates of a typical bun.
Many flatbreads are made from grains other than wheat providing options for those who have gluten sensitivities or intolerance. A little thinking outside the box in terms of their uses will provide many interesting options.
Pam Vukelic is a food and nutrition instructor with Bismarck High School