Monthly Archives: July 2012

All the fond memories that eggplant has inspired.

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Does anyone have any really cute stories about eggplant? I’m at a loss. Sure, Mom made eggplant parmesan when we were kids and it was good. I can’t get enough Thai eggplant with Thai basil – in fact I had some last night – but that’s hardly an endearing memory.

Here’s the best I’ve got: Eggplant is from the family Solanaceae which includes tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and other members of the nightshade family. It is susceptible to many of the same pests and diseases including soil borne fungi. For that reason, farmers have to rotate crops and let several years pass between growing more eggplant  in the same soil. Fascinating, right?

When I was a young plant nerd selling super-cool plants for Quansett Nurseries, I had the opportunity to meet Victory Garden host, Roger Swain. Trust me kids, this is like sitting next to Justin Bieber on the bus. He told me about a process they had developed in Japan to graft disease-resistant root stock onto eggplant plants to avoid the need for crop rotations, AND they were doing this with robots. Cue the fainting couch – I was over-nerded. (This is like playing video games on your couch with Grant Morrison while talking about his runs on Animal Man and Doom Patrol – freakin’ cool, right?)

So, no fond memories behind this dish. It’s adapted from my vegetarian cookbook girlfriend* Deborah Madison, and the combination is inspired.

*To be clear, a “cookbook girlfriend” is an author whose recipes I feel a strong connection with. I have never actually met her.

Sweet And Sour Eggplant

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2” x 2” sticks
  • 1 red onion, minced
  • 2 large tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • 1/4 cup Roasted Red Pepper and Blackberry Vinegar*
  • 2 tbs honey
  • 1/2 lemon
  • 2 tbs. mint, chopped
  • 1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • Olive oil

*From Sapore of course! Buy it online here or substitute a good, complex Sherry vinegar.

Directions:

  • Sprinkle eggplant with 1 tbs salt. After 30 minutes, rinse and pat dry. This takes the bitterness out of the eggplant and makes it easier to brown.
  • Heat 2 tbs olive oil over medium heat. Sauté eggplant for 12-15 minutes until browned on all sides. Season with salt and pepper.
  • In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté onion in 1 tbs olive oil until softened and starting to brown on edges.
  • Turn up heat, add vinegar, honey and tomato. Cook, stirring frequently until vinegar evaporates, about 3-5 minutes.
  • Stir in eggplant, mint and cheese.
  • Sweet and sour is all about the flavor balance between sugar, salt and acidity. Check the flavor and add vinegar, honey, lemon juice, salt and pepper as needed.

My first cocktail. (Mom is so proud!)

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My mission: create a watermelon martini using Sapore’s new Ruby Red Grapefruit White Balsamic Vinegar as bitters. My thought? “I don’t know the first thing about mixing cocktails, and today’s tipplers have a discerning palate.” My first mistake? Publicly throw down the watermelon martini gauntlet on Facebook.

It turns out the same skill set you use to hone a recipe for farm-fresh produce works pretty well for cocktails. I wanted something that showcased bright, clean, sweet watermelon flavor, like the fruit, not the Jolly Rancher. I wanted cool, herbal notes to ground it and lend some depth.

Fresh pressed watermelon juice was the place to start. Gin gave it herbal depth as did basil simple syrup, whose sugar brought out the sweetness in the fruit. The Ruby Red Grapefruit vinegar lent that certain je ne sais quoi – depth, brightness? A squeeze of lime made it pop.

I’m no mixologist, but I’ve got a new favorite cocktail, at least for the next few weeks.

The Mid-Summer Ruby

Ingredients for one cocktail:

  • 3 ounces fresh pressed watermelon juice (see below)
  • 1 ounce smooth gin – use Bombay and save the Beefeater for a great gin and tonic!
  • 1/4 ounce basil simple syrup (see below)
  • 1/2 tablespoon Ruby Red Grapefruit Vinegar*
  • lime round to garnish

*You can find Ruby Red Grapefruit Vinegar at Sapore – order it online – or look for grapefruit bitters at your local specialty liquor store.

Directions:

  • In a cocktail shaker with ice, add watermelon juice, gin, simple syrup and vinegar. Shake and strain in to a martini glass or a lowball with ice. Garnish with a lime round. Squeeze over the cocktail before drinking.

Watermelon juice and simple syrup:

  • Watermelon juice can be made by pressing cubed watermelon through a food mill and then straining it through cheese cloth. Or, you can purée it in a blender, strain it through a sieve and then strain again through cheese cloth.
  • Make the basil simple syrup by stirring together 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water over medium high heat. Let cook until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, and add 1 packed cup whole basil leaves. Let steep for 15-20 minutes and strain to remove solids.

“Tomatoes and zucchini again?!”

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Boredom is an occupational hazard of seasonal cooking. By the end of July you have served summer squash and tomatoes exactly 47 1/2 times and the season is just approaching its peak. This week when I mentioned tomatoes and summer squash to Nancy, a weekly attendee at my Eastern Market demos, she asked pointedly, “how are you going to make it different from the other tomato and zucchini recipes you’ve made over the past 8 weeks?”

She had me. I had combined tomatoes and squash in meatloaf and goulash. Sautéing them and tossing them together with fresh herbs is a treat in early summer, but it doesn’t cut it as we head into August. Somewhere between fried zucchini and a cherry tomato sauce Nancy said, “This sounds like Zucchini Parmesan.” And so it is. Stovetop style.

The zucchini is breaded with Panko and Herbes de Provence making it crisp and light. The fresh cherry tomato sauce gets depth from anchovy paste and brightness from a nicely acidic Late Harvest Zinfandel Vinegar. The flavor is rich like a winter braise and light like a summer sauté. It’s anything but boring and everything that summer veggies at their peak are meant to be.

Summer Squash Parmesan

I’m going to beat you to the punch. Yes, you need to fry the summer squash in plenty of olive oil. I tried going light with a tablespoon or two, there wasn’t enough depth to reach in between the Panko crumbs and make the squash really crispy. You want healthy, try this zucchini meatloaf. Otherwise, go right on ahead and indulge yourself. You deserve it!

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbs milk
  • 2 tbs Herbes de Provence
  • 2 cups Panko bread crumbs
  • 1 medium summer squash or zucchini, sliced in 1/3” inch rounds
  • 4 -6 tbs olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp anchovy paste
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 tbs Late Harvest Zinfandel Vinegar**
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

**I don’t know how Renee found a red wine vinegar that has this much acidity while still maintaining balance. It packs a punch without being overbearing. Buy some online at DC’s Sapore  or use a good red wine vinegar from your home pantry.

Directions:

  • Whisk together eggs and milk in a shallow bowl, season with salt and pepper.
  • Mix Herbes de Provence and bread crumbs in a bowl. Put half in a pie plate.
  • Dip squash in the egg wash and then in the bread crumbs. Press the crumbs onto squash. When the Panko in the plate gets wet and clumpy, discard it and add the reserved half of the mix.
  • Fry squash over medium heat in 2-3 tbs olive oil until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
  • In a separate pan sauté garlic over medium heat for 30 seconds. Add anchovy paste and cook another 30 seconds until fragrant.
  • Add tomatoes and cook 5-6 min until softened.
  • Add the vinegar to the pan and scrape up all the tasty brown bits in the bottom. Let the vinegar reduce to coat the tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Serve the fried squash topped with the tomato sauce and sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Reflect on how good life is.

Is our bread too big?

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With the exception of Jesus, no one ever seems to encounter the problem of having too little bread. Just look at the myriad recipes created expressly to use up leftovers: crostini and croutons, bread pudding and bread crumbs. With all due deference to good bread and skilled bakers, are we simply making our loaves of bread too big?

The simple answer, is no. Leftover bread is a gift, and its value is no more apparent than in Panzanella, and Italian salad of stale bread and tomatoes. The salad is dressed with sharp vinegar and olive oil to soften the bread. Paired with garden fresh tomatoes, the large croutons make the salad light, not heavy.

You don’t even have to wait for the bread to get stale. Grab a fresh, toothy, crusty, country loaf, cut it into large 2″ cubes and fry it up in a little olive oil. You may never encounter leftover bread again.

Tomato Panzanella

Make sure the bread has toasted through so it holds up to the dressing.

For Salad:

  • 6 cups country bread cut in 1” pieces
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 large, perfect tomatoes, cut into 1″ pieces. My favorites are the heirlooms Brandywine and Black Cherokee.
  • 1 Candy Sweet red onion
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced basil

For Dressing:

  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/3 cup Late Harvest Zinfandel Vinegar*
  • 2/3 cups Tuscan Blend Olive Oil*

*More wonderful products from DC’s Sapore Oil and Vinegar. A good, strongly acidic red wine vinegar and a rich, buttery olive oil will fit the bill nicely here. Or you can order them right from Sapore online.

Directions:

  • Toss bread in 1/4 cup olive oil, salt and pepper. Toast bread in a 375 degree oven or a sauté pan over medium heat until golden brown and crisp.
  • Toss together tomatoes, onion and basil.
  • Make dressing: pound garlic and a pinch of course sea salt into a paste. Whisk in vinegar and black pepper.
  • Whisk in oil in a thin stream.
  • Check the dressing with a piece of tomato. Season to taste with additional, salt oil or vinegar.
  • Add bread to the tomatoes and toss through with the dressing.

This is what you taught me Mom.

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If I were forced to identify only one dish that summed up my Mom’s cooking, one dish that burned bright in my memory and lingered on my palate years later, it would be – no, not apple pie, meatloaf or lasagna – zucchini pancakes. Amidst her Dilly Beans and mac and cheese, the Christmas Eve cheesecake and barbecued spareribs with artichokes, zucchini pancakes are the quintessential summation of Mom’s work in the kitchen.

They were born out of both creativity and desperation. They appeared late each summer when zucchini exhaustion set in and the dark green squashes grew larger and larger. With the din of dinner complaints rising, Mom found an exciting new way to put zucchini on the table. And could a recipe be any cooler? As anyone who has eaten zucchini bread knows, it is equally comfortable being both sweet and savory. We would joyfully sit down to a plateful, dripping in real maple syrup. They were practical, delicious, inventive and comforting. Stepping way out of the late 70’s comfort zone she created a family classic. That’s what you taught me in the kitchen Mom. That’s what I carry with me today.

I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit over the years. Bisquick gave way to potato starch whose flavor sits happily in the background. Fresh basil – and tarragon, when I have it – replace parsley. The ratio of zucchini to batter  is much higher. Less like breakfast cakes, the ones I make today are cooked over medium low heat, getting brown and crisp on the outside while remaining wet and gooey inside. These days I usually serve them with a yogurt sauce, bright and fresh with mint and paprika or cayenne. But I have to admit, maple syrup is still my favorite.

Mom’s Zucchini Pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups grated zucchini, about 2 medium
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 tbs fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
  • 1/4 tsp Spanish Paprika
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 cup potato starch
  • Cream, as needed

For sauce:

  • 1/2 cup yogurt
  • 2 tbs chopped mint
  • Paprika or cayenne

Directions:

  • Place grated zucchini in colander, sprinkle with 1 tsp salt and leave for 15-20 minutes.
  • Squeeze water from zucchini with your hands and place in large bowl with egg, basil, garlic, parmesan, paprika, pepper and potato starch. Mix. If the batter is too dry, stir for a minute and then add a tablespoon or two of cream as needed. This is pretty thick batter.
  • Mix together the yogurt, mint and paprika or cayenne to taste.
  • Cook one small pancake to check seasoning and adjust with additional salt and pepper, fresh basil and cheese, as needed.
  • Cook over medium-low heat in 2-3 tbs pancakes, turning once. The low heat allows the outsides to get crispy and brown, while the centers remain creamy.
  • Serve pancakes with a dollop of the yogurt sauce.

Love from the C’bus.

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C’bus is short for Columbus, OH and this week it played host, along with my dear friend Ray, to a wonderful evening of good food and even better company. The experience started with a trip to Columbus’ North Market for groceries. Big shout out to Lan Viet for her generous gift of Thai basil and to Ben and co. at North Market Spices for beautiful ground cardamom – I can’t wait to stop back and stock up before my return to DC!

These ingredients, along with fresh, ripe summer fruit, were the inspiration for our dessert: peaches and blueberries, macerated in sugar and cardamom and topped with Thai basil-infused, hand-whipped cream. The spicy, licorice-y Thai basil was pleasantly herbal, but chopping it finely with sugar covered the grassy flavor. The warm, bright cardamom brought out the rich sweetness of the peaches and acidity of the blueberries achieving perfect balance.

It was a simple finish to a spectacular evening. Thank you C’bus. It is always a pleasure.

Peaches and Blueberries with Thai Basil Whipped Cream

Macerating means letting the fruit soften in its own juices. If your peaches don’t release a little juice on their own, add a squeeze of lemon juice.

Ingredients:

  • 3 peaches, sliced*
  • 2 cups blueberries
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs roughly chopped Thai Basil
  • 1-2 tbs sugar
  • 2 cups heavy or whipping cream

*You can peel the peaches if you have a fuzzy texture issue, but that just seemed like a lot of work to me. You can slice as thin or thick as you like. Thin slices give each bite a better balance with the blueberries.

Directions:

  • Toss sliced peaches and blueberries together with cardamom and sugar. Let macerate in fridge for 30-45 minutes. If they don’t release any liquid after the first 15 minutes, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. How liquify this gets depends on how juicy your fruit is. Just go with it.
  • Sprinkle the roughly chopped basil with the sugar and chop together until the basil is broken down almost as finely as the sugar.
  • Whisk the cream to soft peaks. Then whisk in the basil sugar.
  • Serve the fruit topped with a generous dollop of cream. And by “dollop” I mean “giant spoonful.”

I’m bringing salad back (Part 2 of 52)

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Raw kale is a current darling of the food scene, and kale salads have appeared on hip restaurant menus across the country. Why? Well, it’s good for you. It’s also fairly inexpensive and counter-intuitive. Hey, who doesn’t love a counter-intuitive vegetable?

Here’s the problem. It’s still kale. No matter how freshly-picked those leaves are, they are still tough and still a little bitter. One solution the food hipsters have identified is to massage your kale. Now, while I love my veggies, that’s a lot of affection just to get a salad on the table.

Here’s my solution: make a fresh, bright vinaigrette with just a pinch of sugar to offset the bitterness. Chop the kale thin –  chiffonade – and let it rest for 5 minutes after you dress it to wilt the greens slightly. That’s a salad you can love.

*As some of my demo audience noted last Saturday, this vinaigrette was closely inspired by a recent tropical cucumber salad. The good news? That bottle of tropical spice vinegar can do double duty!

Kale With Tropical Cucumber Vinaigrette

This vinaigrette would also be great over a piece of grilled fish like tilapia or over mesclun greens.

Ingredients:

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/3 cup Tropical Spice Vinegar*
  • 1/2 cup seeded, minced cucumber
  • 1 tbs cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 tbs mint, finely chopped
  • 2/3 cup Lime Oil*
  • Sugar
  • 1/2 pound kale, ribbed and thinly sliced
*No lime oil tropical spice vinegar? You can order them online from DC’s Sapore or sub a good quality white vinegar and olive oil with 1/4 tsp lime zest and a splash of tabasco for heat.

Directions:

  • Mash garlic into a paste with 1/2 tsp coarse sea salt using the back of your knife or a mortar and pestle.
  • Whisk together garlic paste, vinegar, cucumber and herbs. Let dressing rest for at least 5 minutes for cucumbers to soften and flavors to blend.
  • Whisk in olive oil. Season to taste with sugar, salt and pepper. Correct vinegar and oil balance with kale.
  • Dress kale and let rest for 5 minutes to soften.

“I’ll take ‘things you can make from scratch’ please, Alex.”

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It’s not often I pull out a cookbook and follow a recipe step by step. Usually faced with an ingredient or inspiration, I pull book after book off the shelf combing them to profile flavors and techniques before hitting the kitchen to experiment. But recently I was bored.

Armed with thick-cut, bone-in pork chops, the season’s first fresh peaches and young zucchini, I wanted to do more than salt, pepper, olive oil and fresh herbs. I went to my go-to, Chris Schlesinger, the chef of Cambridge, MA East Coast Grill, and he didn’t disappoint. I made his barbecue sauce and marinated, grilled zucchini as written. It was delicious!

No longer bored, I was inspired. The grilled peaches were delicious, but I wanted that peach flavor right on the grilled pork. I started by cooking down fresh peaches into a thick pulp, then deglazed the pan with peach infused vinegar. Cumin, cardamom and dry mustard gave depth, chili powder and fresh ginger heat, and a chili oil delivered smokiness. Glazed grilled pork chops were delicious. as were the Asian Barbecue sausages from Eastern Market’s Canales Meats.

Peach Barbecue Sauce

Rule #1 of barbecue sauce: use it toward the end of your cooking and place your sauced ingredients just to the side, not directly over, the hot coals, so it glazes. Otherwise the sugars will burn. About 2 minutes per side, right at the end.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbs butter
  • 1/2 Candy Sweet red onion, diced, about 1 cup
  • 2 peaches, diced.
  • 1 tbs minced ginger
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1 /2 cup Peach Vinegar*
  • 1 /2 tsp cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp dried mustard
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/4 cup Red Chili Chilean Oil*

*Order these online from DC’s Sapore Oil and Vinegar or substitute with white vinegar and a chopped chipotle chili.

Directions:

  • In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, sauté onion in butter until softened.
  • Add peaches and ginger. Cook until they are soft and mash with a fork. If your pan gets dry add a little water or peach juice to keep peaches from burning.
  • Add all remaining ingredients except Chili oil and simmer for 20 minutes until thickened.
  • Add chili oil and simmer for 2 additional minutes to bring together.
  • Season to taste with additional oil, vinegar or molasses, salt and pepper. You are looking for a nice balance of acidity, sweetness and fruit.
  • Use immediately or store in the fridge. I don’t know how long it will hold. We keep eating all of ours.

Alice Waters, this combination is divine.

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Corn and Zucchini Pasta’s inclusion in Chez Panisse Vegetables is more of a concept than a recipe. Alice provides ingredients and technique leaving the vagaries of measurements and time to the individual cook. This is recipe trading grandmother style. “What do you mean measurements? You can just feel when you’ve got it right.”

It’s a gift. You learn more in the making than you ever could in rote execution. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Practice your knife skills. Cut the zucchini down into a 1/4″ dice, approximately the same size as the corn kernels.
  • Fresh pasta isn’t just un-dried. Fresh pasta is traditionally made with eggs and soft wheat “00” flour while dried pasta is made with just hard durum wheat and water. An easy rule of thumb is to use fresh pasta for light dishes and cream sauces. Dried pasta is your choice for heartier sauces like Bolognese and Carbonara.
  • Large pasta is tough to mix with small ingredients. When tossing the corn and zucchini with the fresh fettucini that Alice recommends, you end up with all the veggies in the bottom of the bowl. Orzo is easier to mix through.
  • Butter is a condiment. Add it at the end. Don’t even think of leaving it out. It adds a necessary richness.

Corn And Zucchini Pasta

This tastes just as good hot as it does as a cold pasta salad.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 1 large candy sweet or yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 jalapeño, minced
  • 2 cups zucchini, finely diced (about 1-2 medium)
  • 2 ears corn, kernels removed
  • 1 cup Orzo, uncooked
  • 2 tbs butter
  • 2-3 tbs chopped cilantro or parsley
  • Champagne Mimosa or Sherry Vinegar

Directions:

  • Bring a 4 qt pot of water to a boil and salt heavily, 2 tbs.
  • Heat olive oil in a 12” sauté pan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until softened.
  • Add garlic and jalapeño and cook 30 seconds until fragrant.
  • Turn up heat to medium high and add zucchini.
  • When you add the zucchini to the pan, add the pasta to boiling water.
  • When zucchini is softened but firm add corn and cook 1 minute.
  • When pasta is still undercooked – firm in the center, strain it, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid. Add pasta and liquid to vegetables. Cook until water has evaporated.
  • Add cilantro and butter. Season to taste with vinegar, salt and pepper.

Credit where credit is due.

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I’m insecure about ideas. I blame it on education.

Remember in school how it was drilled into our heads to credit ideas? Footnotes, bibliographies and quotes ensured that original ideas were separated from those you learned. This was not friendly acknowledgement of those who had travelled an intellectual path before you, no, this was punitive. Signed ethics statements made it clear this was about fear and cheating.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in offering credit where it is due, but learning is supposed to be about becoming our own thinkers. We should take joy in watching our ideas grow up, move out of the house and go on to live new, exciting lives of their own.

For a long time I struggled with claiming recipes as my own or writing them down. After all, I thought, I knew the inspirations that had created each of them: a flavor combination from Alice Waters, technique from Christopher Kimball. It’s what I’ve learned from Julia Child, Deborah Madison, Rosso and Lukins, Mollie Katzen and my Mom that inspire my cooking. Every pat of butter I add reminds me of Joanne Creelman’s shirred eggs. Every vinaigrette is a testament to Sean Holland.

Crediting inspiration for me has become less about transparency and more about surrounding myself with the company of dear friends: those I know and those I keep close on the book shelf. Every recipe is a team effort, and the joy comes in watching those techniques and discoveries come together right in front of me, then sending them home to be practiced and enjoyed by someone new.