In Sapporo, Japan: Shopping for traditional lacquerware by way of a cultural exchange

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I liked the elegance and simplicity of this lacquerware dish that I bought at a department store in Sapporo. Lacquerware comes in a large assortment of shapes and sizes and can be found all over Japan.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photo, except where noted. All rights reserved.

On previous trips to Japan, I had admired lacquerware’s elegance and practicality, and had in mind that I might purchase a nice piece in May 2014 on my fifth visit to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Lacquerware is made by applying multiple layers of sap from the lacquer tree (a relative of poison oak) over a wooden, metal, paper or leather form. The dried sap imparts strength and durability to the piece, which can also be decorated simply or elaborately.

The traditional art, requiring great skill, patience and attention to detail, dates back more than 2,000 years in Japan.

Tea cups, rice bowls, trays, boxes and vases are just a few of the shapes made into lacquerware. When hand-painted designs, mother-of-pearl inlay or gold leaf are added to solid midnight-black backgrounds, the contrast is stunning. The price can be too.

Lacquerware can also be red (vermillion pigment is added to the sap) with black accents and artwork. All are buffed to a high sheen and are silky smooth to the touch. The finished product can differ from region to region, some being known for specific floral or avian motifs and colors.

The pieces are generally lightweight, and if not too large, easily portable, so I knew that if I found something I liked, I would probably be able to tote it home in my backpack.

I had left my shopping for my last day in Sapporo, which turned out to be a good thing, because it was chilly and drizzly, and not conducive to more outdoor sightseeing.

Japanese department stores are wonders to behold. Not only are the goods beautifully displayed on par with a museum exhibit, but they are of excellent quality and workmanship. In my experience, Japanese-made arts and crafts are often produced at the master craftsman level.

The stores can also be entertainment in and of themselves. A man sitting cross-legged on a platform sharpening a series of fierce-looking knives was among the interesting activities I witnessed on this trip.

On the lower floors, all manner of food is sold. Among the delights I’ve sampled are green tea (aka matcha), sake, sushi and mochi (chewy, bean paste-stuffed rice cakes), offered on small trays by smartly uniformed young women (often wearing white gloves).

Busy workers mix/chop/grill ingredients to be sold at the glass-fronted prepared food counters, and for the grab-and-go set, a wide array of compartmentalized bento boxes packed with a mound of white rice, a main (usually seafood, chicken or pork), pickled ginger, and a side vegetable make dining options a breeze (and reasonably priced).

I don’t think I need to elaborate on the fact that seafood is among the freshest for sale anywhere in the world.

I was in Daimaru Sapporo on the seventh floor, where the store brochure told me I’d find Japanese ware and Japanese tableware.

I spotted the lacquerware, which was in a department next to the ceramics and porcelain. The ceramics were of very high quality, with beautiful colors and designs. When I mentally converted the price from yen to dollars, I thought I must be doing it incorrectly because the ceramics seemed so reasonably priced.

I went to the counter to talk to the saleswoman, dressed in a skirt and jacket, to try to figure out if my calculations were faulty. What I wanted to know specifically was if the price for the ceramics was for one piece or the quartet displayed together.

Alas, I hit a roadblock, because my Japanese is nonexistent, other than a few words, and her English was in about the same league.

After much smiling at each other, the saleswoman excused herself, and came back almost immediately with a flip phone in hand.

The woman she called spoke excellent English (many stores have in-house translators). There ensued an animated, three-way conversation — me to the woman on the phone, woman on the phone to the saleswoman, and woman on the phone back to me — about the price.

The total was for four ceramic pieces. They would not be sold individually.

I thanked both women. Arigato is one word I do know. Now that I had an idea of the pricing, I went to study the lacquerware.

After about 30 minutes of considering nearly all the items, I settled on a graduated round dish with a small lip, about 9.5 inches across. In the center was a fan-shaped gold design that reminded me of a ginkgo leaf, encircled in gold. I took the red “chop” on the right to be the artist’s signature.

I showed the saleswoman the piece I wanted to buy, and she bent down to look under the display unit to find a new one in its box.

As she stood up, a look of panic crossed her face. I didn’t know quite how to interpret her expression, but it seemed likely there wasn’t another dish like the one I wanted to buy.

Out came the phone again, the saleswoman brought over the department head, and there ensued a four-way conversation with the translator.

A call was made immediately to other stores in the chain to see if the dish was in stock.

One was found, but logistically, it couldn’t be transported to the branch where I was until the following week. That wouldn’t work because I was leaving Sapporo the next day.

I said arigato to all three women again, and they suggested I have a second look around the lacquerware to see if I liked another piece equally as well.

This was not, I repeat, not, a ploy as it would be in some other countries, to get me to buy something more expensive. In a culture that prizes etiquette and politeness, they were not showing me other items just for the sake of making a sale.

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This 15-inch tall lacquered sake bottle (circa 1700-1750) features pine trees, bamboo and family badges. The artist is unknown. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

While there were many pleasing options, I still liked my original selection best.

My solution was to propose buying the display piece, if, after a close examination, I didn’t find any scratches or nicks marring it.

Reconnecting with the very patient woman on the phone, she said this was highly unusual — selling the floor sample — but they would do so, the underlying sentiment seeming to be that they wanted to accommodate me — the customer.

But the transaction would only go forward if the lacquerware’s condition passed muster with the department head.

So, with gloved hands, the department head personally inspected the piece, wiped off all fingerprints and polished it repeatedly with a soft cloth. She placed the dish in a paper sleeve, and tucked it into a very dark green, almost square box.

Also in the box was a rectangular piece of paper with a red stamp that I took to be its provenance and another sheet of paper. Both are totally in Japanese. Tips for the care of lacquerware (keep out of direct sunlight, polish with a few drops of vegetable oil) were, fortunately, in English.

All parties could not have been nicer or more more eager to help while this series of conversations went on for more than an hour.

But wait, there’s more.

At their insistence, I was given a 10 percent discount because the lacquerware had been on display. Obviously, I wasn’t going to say no to that.

Finally, the receipt was hand-written and paperwork filled out so that I could collect the tax refund in cash in-store. Often, the refund has to be pursued at the airport upon departure.

Lacquerware is widely available in Japan, so, yes, I could have purchased something in Nagasaki, where I was before Sapporo, or in Tokyo, where I was headed.

I might have ended up with a different piece of lacquerware, but I’m pretty sure I would have been treated with equal courtesy wherever I was shopping.

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At a port wine lodge in Portugal: The science and history behind the country’s signature alcoholic beverage

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Long-oared, flat-bottom hulled boats, known as barcos rabelos, bring wine casks from Portugal’s Douro Valley to the port wine lodges at Vila Nova de Gaia on the Rio Douro. The bridge is the Ponte de Dom Luis I, designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the fifth post on my spring 2017 trip to Portugal. See June 2 for a post about unexpectedly meeting author/TV travel host Rick Steves in Lisbon, July 30 for a post about the Casa da Musica in Porto, August 20 on cork and its importance to Portugal, and September 3 on custard tarts.

The last thing I expected to see on a self-guided tour of a port wine lodge was a freely roaming peahen and her fluffy chicks pecking at the English-style garden lawn outside the tasting room.

Huge casks of aging spirits? Sure, loads of them neatly stacked in cool, dark warehouses at Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman, one of several port wine lodges open to visitors in the Vila Nova de Gaia area south of Porto (also known as Oporto).

An elegant dining room, its white linen-covered tables set with china and crystal, with the added enticement of a panorama over the red-tiled roofs looking north across the Rio Douro? Of course.

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Peahen and chicks in residence at Taylor’s.

But the peahen and chicks — and a noisy rooster, too — were certainly surprises. The rooster, particularly, wasn’t shy about wandering through the open doors and around the nearly empty, barrel-motifed tasting room, where my tour ended with a sampling of two of Taylor’s ports, and a chance to consider buying potable souvenirs in the gift shop.

The grape varieties used in Taylor’s port aren’t grown at this city location. Instead, they’re expertly cultivated on steep hillside terraces farther north, in the Douro Valley, where the vines thrive on the climactic conditions.

I didn’t have time to see the valley, easily reachable by boat, car or train, but it’s known to be one of the most scenic areas of Portugal.

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The names atop the buildings designate the locations of some of the port wine lodges. 

In Porto, visitors looking south across the Rio Douro can make out single-name signs stretched atop some of the buildings that house port wine lodges. Not just Taylor’s, founded in 1692, but Kopke, Noval, Sandeman and others.

I am not a connoisseur of fortified wine, which is what port is. It’s generally sweet, and usually served at the end of a meal or with dessert. Cheese, nuts and chocolate pair particularly well with port.

The only brand I was conscious of before my trip was Sandeman, which I had seen in local stores. Its bottles have a distinctive logo, a mysterious black-cloaked silhouetted figure in a wide-brimmed hat, in the style of an old Spanish gentleman/horseman. Known as “the Don,” the logo bears a passing resemblance (likely unplanned) to Zorro.

To get to Taylor’s, I hopped onto Porto’s clean and efficient metro, riding Line D (yellow on route maps) across the Ponte de Dom Luis I, a two-level arched bridge completed in 1886. The metro train and pedestrians utilize the top span; vehicular traffic dominates the lower. If the structure brings to mind the Eiffel Tower’s criss-crossing metalwork, that’s no coincidence. Téophile Seyrig, a German student of Frenchman Gustave Eiffel, emulated his teacher’s designs.

I disembarked at the General Torres stop, and wound my way through a warren of steep, twisty streets trying to find the entrance to Taylor’s. Road signage was not particularly helpful, but some locals who were kicking around a soccer ball pointed me in the right direction.

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The entrance to Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman’s port wine lodge. The company was founded in 1692.

I decided to visit Taylor’s because of its long history, and because it was among the lodges that didn’t require a reservation.

The self-guided tour can take an hour or more, depending on how many of the short films you watch and how much of the information your read on the mounted displays. Some of the data covers Taylor’s founding, history and its quintas (wine estates), some is about port production and some covers the manufacturing and maintenance of equipment such as oak barrels.

Grape-growing has a lengthy history in Portugal, at least 2,000 years. Roman soldiers are credited with planting the first vines, possibly as early as the second century B.C.

A trading, military and political alliance between England and Portugal was established by treaty in 1386. English merchants (and later Scottish) settled in Portugal (and vice versa), and wine became one of their significant exports.

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The largest oak vats at Taylor’s hold up to 20,000 liters of wine. Their size means the port and wood have less contact during aging. The fruitier ports are aged in this size vat.

A commercial spat with France in the 17th century curtailed the importation of its wine to England, thus opening up further opportunity for larger quantities from Portugal. But the long distance between the countries presented a problem.

The idea of fortifying wine by adding brandy at the time of shipment in order to protect it from spoiling on the journey began in 1678. It was not sophisticated, but it worked.

Adding the brandy earlier, before fermentation is finished, revolutionized the process, though it took quite some time — into the 1800s — to be accepted as the industry standard.

Taylor’s still relies on the age-old practices of hand-harvesting the grapes and crushing them by foot. The grapes are picked around mid-September, then sorted and stemmed before being placed in granite tanks.

Some of the same employees who picked the grapes form two facing side-by-side lines and become “treaders,” methodically marching left, right, left, right for two hours at a time, and slowly advancing toward each other as directed by a line commander.

It looks messy — people clad in shorts and Taylor’s T-shirts are thigh-high in grapes and their juice — but in the second phase, the serious work has turned into a party atmosphere. Released from their human chain, the treaders stomp enthusiastically in unencumbered style. (Go to the Taylor’s website to watch a film about this similar to the one that I saw on my tour. Managing director Adrian Bridge does a good job of explaining the process.)

When the treaders are finished, fermentation accelerates. The brandy addition follows, after which time the wine is left alone until spring. Incidentally, this brandy is not to be confused with brown-colored alcoholic beverages such as Calvados or cognac. The brandy used to make port is 77 percent alcohol by volume, clear and colorless, and sometimes called “grape spirit.”

In earlier years, the casked wine was loaded on to flat-bottom hulled boats known as barcos rabelos for the often hair-raising trip from the Douro Valley to the lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. Negotiating fast water, rapids and skinny gorges dictated that the man steering with one long oar had to be a master of his craft.

Today, Taylor’s has a modern warehouse in the valley, reducing the amount of wine that is transported downstream. A series of 20th-century-built dams has also tamed the river for the boats that still make the journey.

Once at the lodge, the length of aging and type of receptacle (cask, vat or bottle) determines the final product, which has many variations and can range from fine ruby to classic vintage to 40-year-old tawny. The longer the ports age, the lighter in color they become.

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Visitors to Taylor’s tasting room collect their glasses of port wine from the stand at left. The gift shop is behind the arches in the rear of the photo.

In the tasting room, I sampled Taylor’s Chip Dry Port and Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage Port (2012).

Pale straw-colored Chip Dry Port, introduced in 1934, is a blending of white grapes aged two to three years in oak vats to produce a “sophisticated aperitif.” The yield is a “crisp dry finish” with a “complex nuttiness,” the website says.

Late Bottled Vintage Port spends four to six years in vats, then is transferred to a bottle and is ready to drink. Its “deep red youthful color and intense fruity flavors [are] reminiscent of cherry, blackberry and blackcurrant,” the website says.

After my tour and tasting, I wandered down to the buzzing riverside area, listening to the musical performers and watching the small boats pulling up to the quay. Many were carrying wine casks in the barcos rabelos tradition. Since this was May, it’s entirely possible the casks were en route to the port wine lodges.

With the sun beginning to set, throwing a beautiful shimmer on the river, I walked back over the bridge and climbed hundreds of stairs to return to Porto proper.

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In the summer months, guests at Restaurante Barão de Fladgate can dine on the terrace.

Quick reference: Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman, Rua do Choupelo, no. 250, Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal. Admission: Adults, 12 euros (about $14.70), includes audio tour and tasting; ages 8 and up, 6 euros (about $7.35), kids get grape juice and crackers. Private tours and groups may be booked through the website. Hours: Cellars, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Tasting room and shop, 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Closed December 25. Restaurante Barão de Fladgate: 12:30 to 3 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. The website (www.taylor.pt) is packed with information, enough to satisfy the port wine novice and the expert alike.

In Scotland: 20 years into retirement, Royal Yacht Britannia still shipshape and welcoming visitors at Port of Leith

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Queen Elizabeth II entertained guests in the Royal Yacht Britannia’s state drawing room. Sometimes a film would be shown. On occasion, Princess Diana or Princess Margaret would play the baby grand piano (left, out of frame). The style is more comfortable country house than over-the-top opulent.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In October 2017, I visited Scotland for 10 days. This is the second in a series about my wanderings. For a post about Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford, see December 15, 2017.

Over its 44-year lifetime, the Royal Yacht Britannia sailed more than 1 million nautical miles around the globe, serving as a river- and ocean-bound ambassador for the British Commonwealth and a floating residence for Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family.

It’s been widely reported that the queen has said the yacht was among the few places where she could be totally relaxed and at ease, even as she carried out her daily, never-to-be neglected monarchial duties.

So it was with much regret that the queen, with Prince Philip and royal family members in attendance, watched as the Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned on December 11, 1997, in Portsmouth, England — shortly after its farewell clockwise circumnavigational tour of Britain.

All the clocks were frozen at 15:01 (3:01 p.m.) as the queen was piped ashore for the final time.

With her black-gloved left hand, the queen, wearing a bright red coat and matching hat, wiped away tears trickling down her left cheek, an extremely rare — possibly unprecedented — public show of emotion from Her Majesty. Such was her affection for the Britannia.

Today the yacht is berthed at the Port of Leith, in greater Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s among the most-popular attractions in the city, which I can attest to, having navigated the crowds on a Saturday visit in October.

Much of the furniture, color schemes, silver, artwork and decorative items on display are the 1950s (and later) originals, having been little updated from that decade. While elegant, there isn’t a hint of over-the-top opulence.

The queen and her husband had detail-oriented input when the ship was being built, right down to selecting the particular shade of deep blue for the hull.

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An 11-foot scale model of the Britannia made from Lego blocks is in a glass display case at the Visitor Center in Ocean Terminal. At quayside, it was impossible to get a full-length photograph of the yacht.

Access to the ship is via the Visitor Center on the second level at the Ocean Terminal shopping center. Pass the 11-foot scale replica in Lego blocks, and enter a small gallery, whose walls are lined with historical information, photos and memorabilia spanning the yacht’s life.

Stepping aboard is like a mini-journey back in time. Everything is shipshape to royal standard, all polished brass, gleaming glass and highly waxed teak decks, as if expecting the queen and her retinue to arrive at any moment.

When she was in residence, the crew — known affectionately as “Yotties” — always wore rubber-soled shoes so as to quash any noise, and they were to complete their topside chores near the state apartments by 8 a.m. so as not to cross paths with the queen. Should this happen, they were to freeze, stare straight ahead and wait for her to pass. Royal protocol was rarely breached.

Visitors can wander freely over five decks, checking out such locations as the state apartments, state dining room, state drawing room, sun lounge, the wardroom, the petty officer’s mess, the royal deck tea room, the operating theater, the galleys, the engine room and the laundry, the last two being nearly nonstop hives of activity when the yacht was under way.

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With more than 240 crew aboard, and the royal family and guests, the laundry was one of the busiest places on the yacht.

A typical day in the steaming-hot laundry would include at least 600 shirts being washed, starched and pressed, in addition to sheets, towels, tablecloths and whatever other linen needed attention.

What’s surprising is that the yacht doesn’t seem very large overall. The state bedrooms that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip occupied were not only small — the word cozy comes to mind — but separate, connected by a door. Each is utilitarian, with a bed, desk and chair, bureau and other furniture.

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Part of Queen Elizabeth II’s bedroom on the Britannia.

The yacht was used four times as a honeymoon hotel, first by the queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, and Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, next by the queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, and Captain Mark Philips in 1973.

Prince Charles and his bride, Diana, the Princess of Wales, honeymooned around the Mediterranean in 1981. Diana famously visited the crew below decks and joined them in some singing. In 1986,  Prince Andrew and Sarah, the Duchess of York, were the last royal couple off for a post-ceremony cruise.

Eagle-eyed viewers of the Netflix series “The Crown” may think they’re seeing the real Britannia, but this is not the case. The HMS Belfast, berthed on the Thames in London, stood in for her illustrious cousin as a filming location.

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The informal sun lounge, where breakfast and afternoon tea were often enjoyed, was said to the the queen’s favorite spot on the Britannia. Board games and a bar area were stored in the bulkheads. The stuffed corgi, sitting on a chair at left, was part of a contest to count how many of the little dogs could be found around the Britannia. Corgis, of course, are the queen’s beloved companions.

Britannia’s keel was laid in June 1952 at the John Brown & Company Shipyard in Clydebank, Glasgow, where the ocean liners Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary were also constructed. (The shipyard closed in 2001.)

The then-unnamed yacht, referred to as No. 691, and one of the last fully riveted ships, measures 125.65 meters (412 feet, 3 inches) in length overall. It was equipped to carry 330 tons of fuel oil, and its range was about 2,000 miles, cruising at 20 knots. Tanks stored 120 tons of fresh water, with additional tanks available to increase fuel and water capacity. (For more statistics, see the website.)

Many thousands attended the launch on April 16, 1953, where Queen Elizabeth II, mindful of continuing post-World War II austerity, christened the Britannia with a smashed bottle of Empire wine — not champagne. The name had been a closely guarded secret, and when it was announced, an audible gasp emanated from the assembled mass, according to press reports.

Though this Britannia ruled the waves for many decades, nowhere on the yacht’s hull is its name proclaimed, now or in the past.

Its crew of commanding officer (usually at least the rank of rear admiral or vice admiral), and 20 officers and 220 yachtsmen were all hand-picked, some serving their entire naval careers — and turning down promotions — aboard the yacht.

Their varied duties could range from polishing the state silverware to a daily dive beneath the hull, a step required to survey the integrity of the structure and to ensure the security of the seabed below.

The crew included a band, 25 members strong, each of whom was proficient not only on a string instrument but in playing a wind instrument also.

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The state dining room was the scene of many a banquet, hosting such guests as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and South African President Nelson Mandela. On the walls are gifts from many locales given to the queen during state visits.

Yotties also comprised the wait staff for state banquets, when the queen would play hostess to such luminaries as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, India’s Rajiv Gandhi, U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

On a state visit, five tons of luggage were the usual fare, including, of course, the crown jewels required for such an occasion, and a household staff of 45. A Rolls-Royce went along too.

The queen’s daily schedule would depend on whether the voyage was for a state visit or simply a family outing. Most days she arose by 7:30 a.m. and retired around 11 p.m.

The Britannia is the last of a long line of royal yachts, 83 to be exact, dating to 1660 and the reign of Charles II.

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This quayside Yottie statue pays tribute to the tireless efforts of the Britannia crew over many decades. Ellis Norrell, the longest-serving of all the Yotties, from January 1954 to September 1988, was the model.

When the upkeep, about £60 million a year, and needed improvements proved too costly, the decision was made in 1994 by John Major’s Labour government to retire Britannia. A move is afloat to build a new royal yacht at a cost of up to £120 million. Prince Philip is in favor and it has some backing from Cabinet ministers. The idea of funding it by lottery has also been put forth.

Britannia can be rented for special events, so if you’ve ever wanted to be treated like royalty, here’s your chance.

But you’ll have to provide your own tiara.

Quick reference: Royal Yacht Britannia, Ocean Terminal, second floor, Leith, Scotland. Hours: 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. January-March and November-December, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. April-September, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. October, closed December 25 and January 1. Admission: £16 adults (about $21.75), £14 (about $19) seniors and students with ID, £8.50 (about $11.50) ages 5-17, free younger than 5. Family tickets available. Tickets may be purchased online. Price includes audio tour. Private tours can be arranged but must be pre-booked. www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk. Transportation: From the city center, take Lothian bus number 11, 22 and 35, or Skylink 300. Or hop on the Majestic Tour Bus at Waverley Bridge.

Brrrrrr. Two healthful soups to take the chill off an Arctic blast (and help you keep your New Year’s diet resolutions)

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Carrot and Parsnip Soup pairs two mild, sweet root vegetables with the stronger spices of ginger, cumin and coriander.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Cold enough for you? If you’re anywhere in the continental United States or Canada, the answer is probably yes. Even here in the sunny South.

I like soup any time of year, but a bubbling hot pot is particularly welcome these first few days of the new year when the temperature has been below normal — and way below freezing in the upper Midwest, Northeast and northern plains.

Whether warming your hands around a steaming mug and then sipping its contents, or spooning it out of a heaping bowl, there’s no wrong way to eat soup.

The beauty of these two recipes is that they’re simple to make, nutrition- and fiber-rich and contain almost no fat. They’re also very economical, with easy-to-find ingredients.

So if eating a healthier diet and trimming some of those indulgent pounds you might have put on over the holidays are your goals, then get out your favorite knife and cutting board and start dicing.

I’m a latecomer to the delights of parsnips, featured in Carrot and Parsnip Soup below, but I’m fully on the bandwagon now. For those unfamiliar with the root vegetable, they look somewhat like white carrots. Cut off the root and tips ends and peel as you would a carrot.

To my palate, they have a faint cinnamon finish with a sweetness similar to carrots. I usually cook them, but because I like their crunch, I sometimes dice them and toss into a mixed green salad.

Served raw as a sturdy crudité, they hold up to any dip.

The pairing of mushrooms and barley can be found in many international cuisines. This is a thick soup with a lightly chewy element thanks to the barley.

Many recipes call for pearl barley, as does the one below, which means that the bran has been removed and that the grain has been steamed and polished.

As with all the recipes I’ve posted, start with the basics, then make them your own.

Carrot and Parsnip Soup

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Serves: 4 to 6

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, diced (I prefer Vidalia onions)

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

1/2 pound carrots, peeled and cut into half-moons about 1/4-inch thick

1/2 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into half-moons about 1/4-inch thick

1 teaspoon ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon ground coriander

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 cups vegetable stock (or chicken stock)

1 cup water

Sour cream or yogurt and chopped chives to garnish (optional)

Saltines (or your favorite crackers) or pita bread for serving (optional)

In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often, until softened. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 1 minute more.

Add the carrots, parsnips, cumin, coriander and some salt and pepper to taste. Sauté for 1 minute more, stirring often.

Add the stock and water and bring to a simmer. Partially cover and cook for 25 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

I like to see the vegetable half-moons nestled in the stock in my soup bowl, so I serve it as is. If you prefer smoother vegetables, puree the soup in a blender and return it to the Dutch oven to reheat. Or use an immersion blender for the same result.

Garnish with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, and chives, if desired.

Adapted from “Hip Kosher: 175 Easy-to-Prepare Recipes for Today’s Kosher Cooks” by Ronnie Fein (Da Capo Press, 2008, $16.95)

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Many cuisines around the world feature some version of Mushroom and Barley Soup. This recipe contains soy sauce, one of the more unusual ingredients for this traditional soup.

Mushroom and Barley Soup

Hands on: 20-30 minutes

Total time: 65 to 75 minutes

Serves: 6

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, coarsely chopped (I prefer Vidalia onions)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (use any type of fresh mushroom or a combination adding up to 1 pound)

1 cup pearl barley

3 carrots, cut in 1/4-inch coins

2 ribs celery, diced

6 cups vegetable broth

1/2 cup white wine

3 tablespoons snipped fresh dill (optional)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste

In a large Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and mushrooms. Cook for 7 to 8 minutes, stirring often, or until onion and mushrooms soften.

Add barley and stir to coat all the grains. Cook, stirring often, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add carrots, celery, broth, white wine, dill (optional), soy sauce, marjoram, thyme and black pepper. Bring to a boil, cover and lower heat to simmer. Cook for 45 minutes, or until barley is cooked through and vegetables are tender. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

Adapted from “Gourmet Grains, Beans, & Rice: Simple, Savory, and Sophisticated Recipes” by Dotty Griffith (Taylor Publishing Company, 1992)