8.08.2014

Cardamom Cilantro Fairytale Eggplants. F is for Fairytale.

I am aware that I may isolate many sane readers who will question the practicality of buying many miniature eggplants.  Especially as they are preciously named after a childhood ideal that conjures up strong, white steeds and ladies with impossible hair.  Furthermore, I suspect at first pass my addition of vanilla is not going to win over very many hearts.

Bear with me.  My thirty-one years have left me nothing if not at least a little wiser.  And also comfortably aware that most of the bow-tied stories we sell are hooey. Unless, of course, your fantasy includes a woman alone in the kitchen with an eggplant à la Laurie Colwin-style.  Then you’ve got a real shot, friend. (Unless, of course, you have children.  Then your chances are probably back to make-believe.)

The fairytale eggplant is a facsimile of your standard aubergine, except it’s shrunken to an eighth its size and is often found violet-hued, antiqued with white streaks.  When cooked, they collapse and shrivel slightly away from their skin, poetically turning brown along the way.

I find them much simpler to manage than the football-shaped grocery store Italian variety. Which makes them fast charmers.  They are a low grill risk for becoming charred beyond pleasurable consumption and simultaneously tough.  They are not bitter. Their skins are thin and edible and their flesh, soft.

Thus, no salting, no skinning, and minimal swearing in the kitchen.  So I prefer them, despite their name.  And there may come a time when you find yourself face to face with some.  You’ll want to be ready. 

I have a fairly standard vegetable treatment, which includes olive oil, more salt than recommended by the American Heart Association, fresh lime, and cilantro.  If you have cardamom and cumin, it's wise to employ them.  And—I swear—adding a little vanilla adds intensity and softness, especially paired with the smokiness of the grill. 

Since I am without open flames this summer, I can assure roasting will do in a pinch.  What should result is small, slumped, deeply flavored eggplants.  They are good hot out of the pan. They are wonderful eaten all by their lonesome.  Or on toast.  And probably sing tossed into a cold pasta salad.  When chilled they act as a marinated vegetable and behave wonderfully this way.

So you make the marinade.  You toss the fairytales.  You roast.  You eat.  And you all live happily ever after. At least until it's time to do the dishes.

Cardamom Cilantro Fairytale Eggplants

Ingredients:

10 fairytale eggplants, sliced lengthwise
juice of ½ a lime
5 or 6 cardamom pods, shells smashed and discarded and seeds ground
pinch cumin seed, ground
4 to 6 tbsp olive oil (start with less and add more as needed)
kosher salt, to taste
3 to 4 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
½ tsp vanilla extract 
splash of orange blossom or rosewater

Instructions:

Set the oven to 425 degrees.  In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, spices, olive oil, and pinch of salt.  Add in the cilantro and remaining extracts.  Taste and adjust the seasoning as you see fit.

On a sheet pan, toss the eggplant halves well in the marinade until fully covered and glossy. (You’ll need enough oil so they can slide around to help prevent sticking to the pan.)  Sprinkle a bit more salt over them.

Roast for about 30 minutes, until they are tender, have turned brown, and are starting to slightly shrivel.

Serve warm or chilled.

Makes enough for about 4 as a side

Notes:
-I usually leave the stems on, but wouldn’t recommend eating them.  Quite woody.

-If you don’t have whole cardamom you can use ground; start with a pinch.  I use a mortar and pestle to do the smashing and grinding for both the cardamom and cumin seed.

8.03.2014

Rosemary Focaccia, Built to Roam

It’s 8:13 AM.  On the street below a man is hosing down the entryway to a shrine for Saint Agrippina, garnished with over forty red roses.  There has been an Italian feast here in Boston’s North End, waging a war of sweets, meats, and muddied acoustics outside my window for days. 

The best way to describe it is to call to mind a state fair; the Great New York State Fair is my reference point.  Except picture more teeth and truncated consonants and swap out the secular wine slushies and spiedies for tents filled with blessed arancini balls and cannoli shells.

The smell of things fried in oil wafting up to a bedroom window may sound charming.  It can be.  The sound of when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie while cooking dinner may sound romantic.  It can be. 

The resonance of a cover of Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” at 10:15 PM when you are trying to sleep is neither charming, nor romantic.  Especially when it is not—in fact—the last dance of the evening.  Under the auspices of broken promises, the age of disco continues to rage for another half hour.

For most of July, I took things to the limit traveling up and down the northeastern coast to the Cape, Vermont, and Rhode Island.  Trampling across beaches, up mountains, and settling on green grass to listen to banjos and acoustic guitars.

I mention this because during these weekends away from the city I’ve felt stronger, often on less sleep, and more booze. I also found myself reflecting a good deal as, I think, traveling tends to nudge. There are things to help this process if you are willing to listen and open wide.

Recently, this has included a Texas gentleman who goes by the name Shakey Graves.  I saw him in Newport last weekend at the epic folk festival. His gritty, soulful lyrics are matched by his lone guitar and suitcase kick drum.  And I haven’t felt this way about music since I was thirteen and discovering The Beatles for the first time. 

The man can sing.

So sit back and watch me go
Bored and lazy
Yeah, watch me go, just passin’ through
Follow me beyond the mountain
Yeah go howl at the ol’ big moon
Oh strip them clothes right from your body
Dress your skin in sticks and stones
Doesn’t matter where we’re headed oh
Yeah cause some of us were built
Yeah, well, some of us were built
Yeah, well you know that some of us
Oh we were built to roam

So there’s that. 

There’s also been this here focaccia that has done its fair share of traveling.  To Barnstable County accompanying pan-fried fish and a tomato casserole.  To Newport alongside smashed avocado and six-minute eggs.  To a motor lodge with cheese from a farm in Vermont with rosé drank from Styrofoam cups. To my beloved wineshop on Hanover Street because those wonderful folks deserve good bread.

It goes most places, easily. With pockets of olive oil in its open crevices.  Seasoned with pins from a spindly rosemary plant I’ve had for a scant decade.  It’s soft, and chewy, and incredibly simple.  The recipe is worth holding tightly to and the focaccia slab is suitable to share with as many people as you can.

I’m not spiritual in the sense of god, or saints, or shrines.  But I do believe in the power of an acoustic guitar and of things made of flour and of heart.  And for me, right now, that’s enough to fill a soul full.

Rosemary Focaccia

Ingredients:

6¼ cups (915g) all-purpose flour, sifted
2 scant tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp instant yeast
3½ cups warm water (a little warmer than room temperature)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan and to drizzle overtop
pinch coarse sea salt
pinch red pepper flakes
2 to 3 tsp minced fresh rosemary

Instructions:

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and yeast; add the warm water and stir until all the flour is incorporated and a sticky dough forms.  In a 6-quart container (the bowl of most Kitchen Aids will do) pour in ¼ cup olive oil.

Pour the dough on top of the olive oil and scoop a little oil that pools at the sides of the bowl over top. (It will look like you’ve made a terrible mistake here, the dough will be very loose, almost like porridge.) Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for at least 8 hours and up to 2 days (I’ve been averaging about 24 hours).  The dough will rise and puff up.

When ready to bake, take the dough from the fridge, oil a baking sheet (about 18 x 13), and pour the dough onto your prepared pan.  Using your hands, spread the dough gently out to the corners, or as close as you can get it.  Let the dough rise until it roughly doubles in volume (about 1 hour).  It is ready when it is puffed up and spread out. 

Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine a tablespoon or two of olive oil with a pinch of red pepper and salt, plus the rosemary. 

Set the oven to 450 degrees.  Make a number of indentations in the puffed dough with your fingers, like you are playing the piano.  Give the olive oil mixture a quick stir and drizzle it evenly over the top of the focaccia, allowing it to pool in the dimples created.

Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the top turns golden brown.  Let cool on a wire rack and then cut into slices in the pan.

Makes enough for 12 sandwiches (or 24 narrow strips for snacking)

Notes:
-Start this recipe a day ahead.  This may seem annoying, but it’s not a lot of work: there's no kneading.

-The focaccia will last up to 2 days sealed in a plastic bag on the countertop.  If you won’t use all of it right away, it freezes brilliantly.  (If you want it for sandwiches, slice before freezing.)

-See Shakey sing. (Lyrics from "Built to Roam.")

7.17.2014

Parsley Cake with Crème Fraîche and Honey, It's Vermont After All


I was in Waitsfield, Vermont last weekend.  Nowhere is vacation mode more apparent than a town that seems to propel itself on beer, bikes, and National Geographic hair.  The town is perpetually breezy.  I get the feeling July is alive and well there all year round.

I visited a vineyard and sat in the grass with friends, and a baby, and listened to a local band named the Grift, and drank wine in jam jars.  We ate Israeli couscous salad and shards of sharp cheese and rolled up cured meats surrounded by grape vines.

In the morning, we went to the farmers’ market where we had blackberry Danish and looked at sheepskin rugs touting local origins and tasted beer jelly made from Vermont brew. We bought red-skinned potatoes and haricot vert and dill, all of which found entry into a potato salad drenched with local crème fraîche later that evening.

We sampled smoked chèvre and an aged ash cheese called Black Madonna from the Sage Farm Goat Dairy lady, and I felt closer to France than I have in a long time.  Then we went on a search for Heady Topper, for which there was none in the entire state.  Apparently, we were too laidback in our acquisition efforts—even compared to native Vermonters, who all seem to know that the beer delivery happens on Monday and must set their watches accordingly. 

So we hiked. Then went on a bar crawl for three. Chatted with the owner of Localfolk Smokehouse about his recent perfection of a spicy barbeque sauce recipe.  And finally found some loosies of Heady Topper at the bar of Hostel Tevere, run brilliantly by a husband and wife team.  All the while in the company of a three-month-old possessing a very chill Vermont-y attitude, until the witching hour of 7 pm.

That evening I saw fireflies after dinner, and felt closer to childhood than I have in a long time.  And in the morning we had parsley cake for breakfast.

Which I will file away as the unofficial dessert of the Green Mountain State.  It is fern-colored and pleasantly grassy, if you will permit me to use such a ridiculous phrase as a selling point. It carries laidback sweetness, which allows the herbs to become softened by dairy. 

For this role, I recommend crème fraîche spiked with honey.  Old-fashioned vanilla ice cream would work equally as well, though less traditional as a breakfast option.  As one friend put it, the sweetened fraîche tasted of “warm ice cream.”  So there’s that, too.

I interpreted this positively, since he had multiple servings throughout the weekend.  No judgment on either account. It’s Vermont, after all.

The recipe is from a restaurant in Brooklyn called Roberta’s with a cult following.  In full disclosure: I haven’t been, though it wields an inspirational vibe and appears to be the kind of joint that can make pizza and parsley infinitely interesting, and unexpected.

Kind of like beer in jelly. Babies in bars.  And parsley in cake.

Parsley Cake with Crème Fraîche and Honey
Adapted from Food52 and Roberta’s Cookbook

Ingredients:

130 grams (about 3½ tightly-packed cups) parsley leaves (stems removed)
50 grams (about 1½ tightly-packed cups) mint leaves (stems removed)
165 grams (¾ cup) extra virgin olive oil
290 grams (2 cups plus 1 tbsp) flour
15 grams (1 tbsp plus 2 tsp) cornstarch
7 grams (2¼ tsp) kosher salt
8 grams (1½ tsp) baking powder
4 large eggs, room temperature
330 grams (1 2/3 cups) sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 lime
zest of 1 lemon

serve with
crème fraîche (sweeten with vanilla bean and honey or maple syrup, if desired)
honey (to drizzle on top)

Instructions:

In a food processor or blender, place 1/3 of the herbs and process until well crushed and broken down.  Add the remaining herbs in one or two more additions, depending on the size of your machine, and puree, stopping occasionally to stir the herbs and scrape them off the sides and toward the blade.

When the herbs are fairly well pulverized, stream in half the olive oil and pulse until combined.  Add remaining oil and blend for 10 seconds longer.  Scrape into a bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cornstarch, salt, and baking powder; set aside.

In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, whip the eggs for 30 seconds; add the sugar and mix on high speed until light yellow and fluffy (about 3 minutes).  On low, slowly stream in the herb mixture and mix until combined.

With the machine on low, add the flour mixture a third at a time (do this quickly and don’t allow the flour to incorporate in before adding the next bit—this shouldn’t take more than 10 or 15 seconds).  Stop the mixer and add the vanilla and zest and stir with a rubber spatula until just combined (the flour should be fully incorporated but take care not to overmix). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 and up to 24 hours.

When you are ready to bake, set the oven to 340 degrees.  Butter a loaf pan (I used two narrow ones—10 x 3½ and 7 x 3½), line with parchment paper (with the paper hanging over the sides), and then butter the parchment.  Pour in the batter and smooth with a spatula.

Bake for about 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center of the cake. (The reference recipe has the cake bake for only 15 to 20 minutes, but they use a sheet pan which makes for a shallower cake and a faster cooking time; watch closely depending on your baking receptacle.)

Let cool in the pan.  Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche and a drizzle of honey.

Serves about 12

Notes:
-Any leftovers can be stored in the freezer.

-Note the batter hangs in the fridge for a least 6 hours before baking.

7.09.2014

Salty Vanilla Bean Cake with Black Pepper Balsamic Berries. Bang. Boom. Cake Feet.


Four people are sitting around a kitchen table.  It’s the fourth of July.  It’s raining. There’s prosciutto and capicola with some salty cheeses, sour cherry jam, and a rosé (a Lagrein sturdy enough to handle the charcuterie aggression). It’s a primer for what’s coming.


Chickpeas are tossed in the first pesto of the summer with local beans sautéed in Pernod.  There’s also a tomato basil salad with peaches and mozzarella, drizzled in balsamic vinegar and a grassy olive oil.

Plus homemade fettuccini made earlier in the company of warm rain.  Rain that canceled the scheduled fireworks.  So the freshly made nests of pasta will have to do.  Boom.

They are served with spicy tomato oil littered with dried peppers and sweetened with a spoonful of honey.  By the pasta course, another rosé has been taken down and most of another bottle of red is gone.  The evening has begun its descent towards an Amarone assigned to cover dessert.

And dessert does come.  By this time the votives are flickering their final breaths and Frank Sinatra’s crooning has mellowed full bellies.  Laugher is louder. Opinions with hearty conviction take hold. All this is preparation for the pleasant destruction that follows.

A salty vanilla bean cake with pastry cream insides.  It’s dense and unapologetically onerous. Slightly mellowed by a sidecar of summer berries tossed in Saba, balsamic, black pepper, and a spoonful of strawberry jam. A dessert that isn’t for the timid, yet is pretty much incapable of being disliked by anyone.

A dessert that causes body parts to puff.  There is a whole tablespoon of salt hidden in the cake, mind you.  But the wine and salty accoutrement do little to help the cause.  Feet swell a whole shoe size. So much so that it becomes difficult to put rain boots back on.  Cake feet, as they are quickly nicknamed in response.

But the cake. Oh, the cake.  Its thick slices have soft, creamy middles.  The dessert could easily stand on its own; in fact, it becomes forked at later in the evening by sated guests who still can’t stop.  But the berries add a spark of summer, and so they come highly recommended.

The night crackles.  Everyone rumbles home.  Slightly banged up, and fully satisfied.

Salty Vanilla Bean Cake with Black Pepper Balsamic Berries

Ingredients:

pastry cream (makes extra)

4 cups whole milk
½ cup (100g) granulated sugar, divided
pinch kosher salt
¼ cup cornstarch
9 large egg yolks
2 ounces (55g) cold butter, cubed
3 tbsp vanilla paste

butter cake

16 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
16 ounces (450g) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla paste
3 large eggs, room temperature
13 ounces cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp kosher salt

peppered berries

1 cup blueberries
2 cups cherries, pitted
½ cup currants
splash saba (grape must)
splash balsamic vinegar
few cracks of fresh ground black pepper
1 tbsp strawberry jam
pinch of salt

Instructions:

For the pastry cream, place a medium bowl inside a larger bowl filled with ice; set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, ¼ cup sugar, and salt and set on medium heat.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and remaining ¼ cup sugar. When the milk has come to a boil, reduce the heat to low (watch the milk and turn it off if it starts to bubble).  Whisk the yolks into the cornstarch mixture.

Slowly whisk a little (about ¼ cup at a time) of the hot mixture into the yolk mixture; continue to mix in a little hot liquid in small amounts until the yolks become warm to the touch. Whisking constantly, slowly pour the warmed yolk mixture into the saucepan with the remaining milk. Cook over low heat, stirring, until it thickens (stay close by to prevent the eggs from getting too hot and scrambling).

Remove from heat and whisk in the butter and vanilla bean paste.  Transfer the pastry cream to the prepared ice bath.  Cover with plastic wrap pressed to the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming.  Allow to cool slightly and then place in the fridge to completely chill. 

Once the pastry cream has chilled and you are ready to make the cake, set the oven to 325 degrees. Butter one or multiple springform pans (see notes for sizing), line with parchment paper, and butter the parchment and sides.  Flour the pan, tap out the excess flour, and set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, scrapping down the sides of the bowl every minute or so.  Add in the vanilla paste and then the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Scrape the bowl and then add the dry ingredients on low speed until just combined.

In two pint glasses, place a pastry bag or ziplock bag and open each wide so batter can be filled in one of the bags and pastry cream in the other.  Smooth down the cake batter so it fills the bottom of the bag (clip a small corner of the bag if you are using a ziplock) and pipe a ring of batter in the bottom of your prepared pan, starting at the outer edges of the pan and slowly working in towards the center so that the entire bottom is covered.  Then pipe another ring along the inside perimeter of the pan on top of the first layer (see here for pictures).  This will hold the pastry cream inside. 

Fill the pastry cream bag, again ensuring the liquid collects in the bottom (clip a corner of the bag, if necessary) and pipe pastry cream along the inner ring, inside the space created with the batter.  Essentially, the batter will hold the pastry cream.  (You will not use all the pastry cream.)  Pipe another layer of batter on top, keeping it level with the ring of batter and sealing in the pastry cream.  (You may have extra batter.)  With moistened hands, gently smooth down the top of the cake.  Repeat with the second pan, if using.

Place a baking sheet under the cake pan(s) to collect any dripping batter. Bake the cake for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the top is deep golden brown and set.  Avoid opening the oven door for at least 50 minutes; try to rely on your oven light as necessary.

Allow to cool to room temperature before unmolding.  While cooling, combine all ingredients for the berries and chill until ready to serve.

Serves about 12

Notes:
-You can easily cut the pastry cream recipe in half. I served extra with the cake and made the remainder into popsicles. I’d advise making the cream ahead of time (it will keep at least 2 days). 

- I used an 8-inch springform and had enough batter leftover for a scant fill of a 6-inch springform pan, as well. I didn’t have any issue baking the smaller cake and leaving it in the oven for as long as I did the 8-inch. (The pastry cream and high percentage of fat helps to keep everything nice and moist.)  Of note, the cake really rises so you’ll want the pans to be at least 2½ to 3 inches high.

-Any cake leftovers can easily hang in the fridge for a few days, or can be stored longer in the freezer.

-I mail-ordered vanilla paste (which is essentially vanilla bean plus sugar and thickener).  Theoretically, you can substitute one 1 vanilla bean pod per tbsp of the paste, though I’m not sure how this would affect the texture.