July 29th, 2010 § § permalink
As a kid, I loathed eggplant. No wonder. My first taste of it came in the form of a bland and watery eggplant Parmesan. One bite of the floppy, cheese-coated, sauce-logged vegetable and I wrote it off for good. Or so I thought.
A decade later eggplant landed on my plate again. This time, though, it looked far more palatable. In fact, it looked downright delicious. Sliced into strips and then seasoned with olive oil, salt and black pepper, it had been grilled until slightly charred around the edges. A tentative taste left me hooked on its mild tang and supple, melting texture. With that my hatred of the purplish-black, teardrop-shaped veg ended and my love affair with eggplant began.
Known in Great Britain and France as an aubergine, the eggplant – along with the tomato and potato – is a member of the flower-bearing nightshade family. Reputedly originating in China, it first hit European shores during the 13th century. There it became the backbone of such renowned dishes as French ratatouille, Greek moussaka, Spanish escalivada and Sicilian caponata.
Today the Middle East, India and Asia cook with this roly, poly fellow far more than Europe and America do. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel roast and mash it to create baba ghanoush. Northern India features it in a curry known as baingan bartha while Southern India serves it in a chutney called brinjal kosthu.
Whether I use it in curries, ratatouille, or baba ghanoush or just broil, fry or grill it, I should ensure that my eggplant is young and healthy. Otherwise, no matter what I chose to make, I’ll end up with a spongy, bitter tasting dish.
When searching for a good candidate, I look for smooth, firm, blemish-free skin and an overall heftiness. Once I’ve purchased it, I either use the aubergine immediately or store it in my vegetable crisper for up to four days. By the fourth day it invariably begins to wither and should be composted.
Young eggplant doesn’t need to be skinned. Simply slice and cook it as you would squash. Keep in mind, though, that it will readily absorb oil so either employ oils sparingly or coat your eggplant with batter or bread crumbs before cooking.
Although available year-round, eggplant peaks in late summer. Needless to say, now is the perfect time to drop by your local farmers’ market and pick up a few.
Serves 4 to 6
¼ cup olive oil
1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 zucchini, washed, sliced and then cut into quarters
2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ cup yellow onions, chopped
2 green bell peppers, washed and cut into 1-inch squares
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste
1½ cup of canned, diced, organic tomatoes
dried oregano, to taste
¼ cup fresh basil, washed and finely chopped
Heat the oil in a large Dutch Oven. Add the zucchini and eggplant and cook until golden and tender, about 10 minutes. Add the onions and 2 tablespoons olive oil and cook until softened. Add the peppers, garlic, salt and pepper and cook for 5 to 10 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and oregano. Reduce the heat to low and cook until everything is soft and well-blended. Sprinkle with fresh basil, stir and serve with slices of crusty baguette.
July 22nd, 2010 § § permalink
Hosting a summer soiree, I invariably face the dilemma of what thirst-quenching drinks to provide. While iced tea and lemonade remain obvious choices, I know that some will crave a beverage with more of a kick than chilled raspberry lemonade. That’s when I haul out my blender, pitchers, barware and kitschy, paper umbrellas and start whipping up seasonal cocktails.
Among my go-to recipes is Sangria Blanco. Typically, when I hear “sangria,” I think of the red wine punch found throughout Spain. In fact, this crimson drink gets its name from the Spanish word for “bleeding.” Yet, in the dead of summer bartenders will replace the signature red wine with a cold white and offer Sangria Blanco to their parched clientele.
Although I love both versions, I tend to think of white sangria as my “everything but the kitchen sink” drink. Into my punch bowl go dry white wine, white rum, triple sec, gin, brandy, fresh orange juice, canned pineapple juice and simple syrup. After stirring the ingredients, I cover and then squeeze the bowl into my refrigerator. There the flavors will meld together for up to 24 hours. Topped with slices of frozen peaches, plums and lemons, Sangria Blanco serves a small army or, in my case, 10 to 12 cocktail-loving friends.
The Limoncello Drop likewise ranks high among my party favorites. A variation of the vodka-based Lemon Drop, this sweet but tart drink reminds me of a childhood treat, Lemon Drop candy. I’m not alone in this impression. Supposedly, the original was named for that confection.
Differing from the Lemon Drop in ingredients as well as name, the Limoncello Drop consists of the Italian liqueur limoncello, triple sec, peeled lemons and sugar. To make this sweet but tart repast, I plunk everything into my blender and blend until smooth. I then strain the drink into a pitcher and refrigerate it until the guests arrive. Cold and smooth, it’s an excellent choice for a steamy summer night.
When I’m not pressed for time, I often opt for watermelon daiquiris. An invention of the late 19th century, the daiquiri hails from the Cuban mining town of the same name.
Unlike the original cocktail of rum, lime, sugar and ice, my concoction includes chunks of frozen watermelon. Here time becomes a factor in that I must cut up and freeze a watermelon. If the cubes don’t harden by the time that I toss them into my blender, I end up creating batches of spiked watermelon smoothies. Tasty but not what I had intended on serving.
Serves 10 to 15
2 1/2 to 3 bottles of dry white wine
3 ounces white rum
3 ounces triple sec
2 ounces gin
brandy, to taste
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup pineapple juice
1 cup simple syrup
Wash and cut into cubes the peaches and plums. Wash and slice in half the lemon and then slice into thin half-moons. Mix the fruit together and then place equal amounts into empty ice cube trays, leaving enough space to add water. Add water to the trays and freeze. (Note: These should be made at least several hours before mixing and/or serving the sangria.)
In a large bowl or pitcher pour in the wine, rum, triple sec, gin, brandy, orange and pineapple juices and simple syrup. Taste and adjust flavors accordingly. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Before serving, stir so that the ingredients are well-blended. Tumble in the fruit-filled ice cubes and allow guests to help themselves to cold, fruity, Sangria Blanco.
July 15th, 2010 § § permalink
Last week I moaned about the prospect of cooking in the oppressive heat. This week it’s the humidity that keeps me from hanging out in the kitchen. Thanks to a sultry summer, I’m still fixated on soothing, cold soups.
For lunch today I enjoyed a bowl of the crimson, Andalusian version of gazpacho. Originating in southern Spain, this red soup resulted from the 16th century introduction of tomatoes from the New World. Unlike Spain’s other chilled soup, ajo blanco, gazpacho features a puree of tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, garlic, vinegar and olive oil. Some cooks add diced onions, celery, lemon juice, fresh herbs, tomato juice or hot sauce. Others slip in breadcrumbs to thicken the soup.
When serving this dish at home, I occasionally strain the pureed vegetables and ladle out a velvety smooth soup. Other nights I leave in the veggies and dish out a chunky, hearty meal. That’s the beauty of Andalusian gazpacho – one recipe, two different results. Serve it the first night as a thick, vegetable-studded stew. Strain and present it the second evening as a light, satiny soup.
Another refreshing option is cold beet soup. Commonly known as borscht, this purplish, Eastern European delicacy consists of sliced or diced beets simmered in their own broth and then mixed with lemon juice, sugar, and minced onions. It is not to be confused with hot borscht, which has a meat-based stock and may contain beef as well as mushrooms, cabbage and potatoes.
Reminiscent of borscht, the Polish soup chlodnik starts with a refrigerated stock of grated beets, water, vinegar and sugar. Cucumbers, onions, radishes, dill and other herbs join the mix. Sour cream or yogurt is stirred in to give the dish its eye-popping pink color. In some parts of the country cooked crayfish or veal finish off the chlodnik. Elsewhere slices of lemon or hard-boiled eggs accompany it.
When the heat really has me beat, I whip a ridiculously simple version of chlodnik. Chopped pickled beets and their juices join together with low-fat Greek yogurt and a dash of white wine vinegar. Whisked until well-blended, these ingredients form a tart but tasty meal.
Serves 6 to 8
3 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped into quarters
1 yellow bell pepper, trimmed and cut into chunks
1 green pepper, trimmed and cut into chunks
1 1/2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
1 small Spanish onion, quartered
3 cloves garlic, peeled
¼ cup sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
sea salt, to taste
Using a food processor, puree the tomatoes. Add the remaining ingredients to the food processor and puree again.
If desiring a smooth soup: Using a chinois or fine-mesh sieve, strain the soup into a large container. Be sure to press down on the pureed vegetables to extract all the liquid. Discard the solids and refrigerate the liquid for a minimum of three hours so that the flavors can meld. Serve cold.
If preferring a chunky soup, skip straining the liquid and just refrigerate the soup for a minimum of three hours. Serve cold.
CHILLED BEET SOUP
Serves 6 to 8
You can take the time roast and then peel the beets but, since I’m trying not to increase the heat in my kitchen, I’ve opted for canned beets in this recipe. Not as authentic or flavorful but certainly a lot cooler for the cook!
2 (16 ounce) cans of beets
4 cups water or vegetable stock
juice of 1 ½ lemons
1 tablespoon sugar
8 ounces sour cream
salt, to taste
freshly ground white pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
In two batches place the beets, water or stock, lemon juice and sugar in a blender and blend until smooth. Add salt and white pepper to taste then pour the soup into a pitcher and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 3 days.
Before serving, pour the soup, along with the sour cream, into a blender and mix the two together. Ladle into bowls, sprinkle with dill and serve.
July 8th, 2010 § Comments Off § permalink
As East Coast temperatures top 100 degrees and I’m convinced that I really could fry an egg on the sidewalk, I’ve started to reconsider my dinner options. While tired of take-out, I’m far from thrilled by the prospect of standing over a hot stove in my simmering kitchen. As refreshing as that half-gallon of rocky road ice cream in my freezer seems, I doubt that it will tide me over until morning.
Around the time that I reach for a box of breakfast cereal, I remember two magical words – cold soup. Sometimes referred to as “liquid salads,” chilled vegetable soups provide the perfect way to cool off on sultry summer nights.
From Spain comes icy gazpacho. Introduced by Arab occupiers sometime between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, this familiar crimson soup began as a cream colored, garlic- and bread-based peasant food. To make the original gazpacho, cooks would pound stale bread, garlic, olive oil, and salt together in a mortar. They then added water to reach the desired consistency and splashed in vinegar for a tart, invigorating taste.
I make the modern incarnation of this soup, ajo blanco, not with a mortar and pestle but in my food processor. I simply toss in blanched almonds, garlic, bread, olive oil, salt, sherry vinegar and water and pulse the ingredients together until they’re finely chopped. I then refrigerate the soup until chilled. Served with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, sliced grapes or chopped nuts on top, ajo blanco remains one of my favorite ways to chill out on a hot night.
There is something about a white soup – its cool color and smooth texture – that seems especially soothing. That’s why, along with ajo blanco, I often blend together such simple, yogurt-based fare as tarator and cacik.
Hailing from Bulgaria and with variations in Albania and the Republic of Macedonia, tarator is made from plain yogurt, garlic, cucumbers, walnuts, and olive oil. Thinned with cold water, tarator is served chilled and may even contain chips of ice.
Turkey has a similar summer dish, cacik. Akin to Greece’s tzatziki, cacik acts not only as a soup but also as a salad or dip. Comprised of yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt and dried dill or mint, it’s served in small, chilled bowls. In a further effort to beat the heat, it may also include ice cubes.
On days when temperatures soar into the triple digits and my exhausted air conditioner concedes to the heat, I no longer have to reach for take-out menus, cold cereal or ice cream for my meals. Thanks to chilled soups, I now have allies in the battles against my steaming kitchen and the oppressive weather.
1 pint plain yogurt
2 cucumbers, seeded and diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried mint
two sprigs of fresh dill, finely chopped
1 to 2 cups ice water
handful of ice cubes, for serving
Add the cucumbers, garlic, mint and dill to the yogurt and whisk to combine. Dilute the mixture with the water until the desired consistency is reached. Whip with a whisk again. Pour into small, chilled bowls and toss an ice cube or two into each bowl before serving.
July 1st, 2010 § § permalink
With Independence Day and a long weekend of picnics and BBQs just around the corner, it seems like the perfect time to talk about condiments. Whether sweet, sour, spicy or a tad salty, these toppings have added flavor and flare to food for centuries. While ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise still reign supreme, there are plenty of unusual dressings to spice up your summer meals.
Love some heat with your meat? Spoon on the fiery, North African condiment harissa. This crimson sauce consists of hot chilies, garlic, cumin, caraway seeds and sea salt. As an indicator of just how spicy it can be, commercially produced harissa comes in cans decorated with erupting volcanoes.
Usually harissa accompanies couscous. In Tunisia, though, it’s used as a sandwich spread. It also gives an extra kick to vegetables and seafood. Some cooks add a little yogurt to their harissa and offer it as a dip.
If harissa sounds too searing, try the milder North African chermoula. It starts with a base of cilantro, parsley, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil but can go on to include ginger, red pepper oil, saffron, paprika, cayenne and even vinegar. Every country and cook in North Africa seems to have a unique chermoula recipe.
Unlike the multipurpose harissa, chermoula primarily serves one role – to dress fish. It acts as a marinade for firm, white-fleshed fish and as a cold sauce for fried fish and shellfish.
If you like saltiness, slather on some tapenade. Based on the French word for “capers,” tapenade is a thick, dark paste of pureed capers, black olives, anchovies and olive oil. Variations exist, including tapenades with garlic, lemon juice, mustard, green olives and/or tuna.
In Southern France cooks daub tapenade over crisp baguettes and serve it as an hors d’oeuvre. Elsewhere it flavors seared fish steaks, grilled vegetables, crackers or warm pita bread. It also acts as a stuffing for oven-roasted tomatoes and works as a savory spread for grilled fish sandwiches.
Prefer to cool off your palate? Spread refreshing tzatziki over your grilled lamb, chicken, vegetables or fish. A staple of Greek cuisine, tzatziki couldn’t be simpler to make. Just whisk together strained, plain yogurt, chopped cucumber, diced garlic and minced, fresh mint.
In Greece this creamy sauce tops such dishes as gyros and souvlaki. It can likewise be used a dip for vegetables. Paired with pita bread, it becomes a simple appetizer.
Makes roughly 1/3 cup
6 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered
1 ½ teaspoon crushed chili pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon paprika
generous handful of cilantro, washed and stems removed
handful of parsley, washed and stems removed
juice of 1 ½ lemons
2 ½ tablespoons olive oil
ground black pepper to taste
Using a food processor, pulse all the ingredients together until they have formed a paste. Alternately, you can use a mortar and pestle and combine the garlic with the chili and black pepper, cumin, paprika, cilantro and parsley. Add the oil and lemon juice right before using.
Makes 1/3 cup
warm water, enough to soak the chili peppers
12 medium-sized, dried ancho chili peppers
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon hot pepper paste
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
Remove the tops and seeds of peppers and place them in a bowl with enough warm water to cover them. Allow them to soak for about 45 minutes or until they are soft.
Meanwhile place the cumin and coriander seeds in frying pan and toast the over medium heat until golden and aromatic. Remove from the heat, cool and then grind in either a spice or coffee grinder or pulverize with a pestle and mortar.
Drain the chilies and place them in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Add the garlic and pulse until they have become a crunchy paste. Add the ground spices, hot pepper paste, olive oil, salt and pulse twice. Remove the harissa from the bowl and place in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to use.