Archive for September, 2007

Saturday Caponata

Caponata

On Saturday afternoon I was home alone with two beautiful shiny eggplants, one deep purple and the other silky white. 

(Can I just say I cannot believe that today is Thursday, and only now am I writing about what I did on Saturday? Need. More. Time. Please!)

OK, enough of the breakdown, let’s get back to the eggplants. I had bought them at the farmers’ market the previous weekend, and they had been languishing in the refrigerator all week. These spongy vegetables needed to be cooked and consumed, fast. I could have made Pasta alla Norma again, but I decided to go the carb-less route and make some Sicilian caponata.

The recipes for both dishes are pretty similar, but I like to think of caponata as Norma with a Mediterranean kick, its flavors intensified by the addition of vinegar, capers, and olives. Eaten at room temperature as an antipasto or side dish, the caponata would be a sly addition to the junk food we’d enjoy during the Steelers game on Sunday. Could it break past the pretzels and beer to win acceptance as football fare? The odds were not in my favor.

After chopping both eggplants and sautéing them in olive oil until they browned, I gradually added the rest of the ingredients and let everything simmer for a while. As the pan cooled, aromas of tomatoes, acidic red wine vinegar, and salty capers intermingled above the stove.

Finally I heaped a pile of the saucy, wonderful mess onto a cracker and bit in. Chunks of eggplants fell off the cracker and onto my plate, but I did manage to guide some of the caponata into my mouth. Flavors of salt and brine spread over my taste buds, but the eggplants had still retained their creamy firmness.

The next day I casually served the caponata during the game. Our friend Diego’s initial “I’m not that fond of eggplant,” turned into “Hey, this is pretty good.” I guess sometimes there is room for something new, even during a football game. We’ll see what else I come up with this season.

Recipe for Caponata (Adapted from Jamie’s Italy)

  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 eggplants, any color you like, chopped into medium chunks
  • a large handful of fresh basil, minced
  • half a medium red onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • a small bunch of parsley, leaves picked off, stems chopped
  • 2 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed, soaked, and drained
  • a handful of green olives, pits removed
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 5-6 large tomatoes, roughly chopped. Half of the tomatoes can be cored, seeds removed

Heat some a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan. Add the eggplants and basil and sauté for a few minutes, turning often, until the eggplants brown. Add the onion, garlic, and parsley stems and cook for a few minutes. (I have to say, Oliver’s frequent use of herb stems in his recipes is brilliant. They add so much flavor to the dish). Add the capers, olives, and the vinegar. When all the vinegar has evaporated, add the tomatoes. Cover and simmer for about 15 minutes, so that the tomatoes soften. If the dish seems too watery when you take the cover off, simmer a little longer until some of the liquid evaporates. Once the dish cools, sprinkle the parsley leaves and olive oil over it. Serve with crackers or crusty bread. It will keep for about two days in the fridge. I warm the caponata up in the microwave to take the chill off. I also recommend sprinkling it with olive oil each time you serve it. Enjoy!

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Farmers’ Market Find: Husk Tomatoes

Last Sunday we made a new discovery at our local farmers’ market. After we purchased some parsley from the friendly, burly man at the W. Rogowski Farm stand, he called out a simple question as we turned to walk away. Talk about some good marketing skills:

“Hey, have you ever tried these before?” he asked. He held out a small yellow tomato. It was sitting serenely between several beige, parchment-like petals, which were gently folded back to reveal their sunny center.

Husk Tomatoes from R.W. Rogowski Farm at the Carroll Gardens Farmers’ Market

As Jim and I popped two of the little orbs into our mouths, we weren’t expecting much. I mean, they were just tomatoes after all, right?

The flavors of these diminutive suckers exploded as soon as we bit into them, and they were like none we had ever tasted before. Jim thought they tasted like citrus; I disagreed by saying they reminded me of melons. But I’m not sure that’s accurate either. Whatever their exact flavor, they popped with intensity and freshness.

Of course we bought a pint, and we’ve been shelling and eating these flavor bombs all week in our salads. Every time we bite into them, I wind up asking, “Jim, what do you think these taste like?” Exciting dinner conversation, I know.

Apart from trying to define their flavor, we also just wondered what they were. Tomatillos have a similar appearance, but they are larger than husk tomatoes and impart a very different, tart taste. After a little research we learned that husk tomatoes are also known as ground cherries, strawberry tomatoes, and even cape gooseberries. Supposedly they grow very well in home gardens. Good to know, as always.

Maybe our friend at the farm stand described the husk tomatoes in the best way. As we walked away on Sunday (for real this time) I heard him asking the vendors at the next stand, “Have you ever tried these before? They’re really unique.”

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The 7th Annual International Pickle Day

Pickle Guy Balloon at 7th International Pickle Day

On Sunday I found myself in a bit of a pickle. But don’t worry, I wasn’t in any sort of danger. I was simply surrounded by pickles at the 7th Annual International Pickle Day Festival on the Lower East Side. The only possible peril was to my stomach, as I was tempted by too many pickled wares. Oh, the pain of it all.

Pickled cucumbers, peppers, beets, turnips, okra, and more were available for tasting on the crowded stretch of Orchard Street between Broome and Grand Streets. You see, pickles actually refer to any type of food that has been preserved and flavored in acid. These acids can include vinegar, salt, alcohol (such as vodka), citric acids like limes or lemons, and savory spices such as garlic. I didn’t see any meat or fish being offered, but with the crowds of pickle fanatics crowding the stands, it’s quite possible I missed them.

At the turn of the century, the Lower East Side was known for its Jewish immigrant population of Germans, Eastern Europeans, Russians, and Greeks, all contributing to the neighborhood’s pickle history. On Sunday more recent waves of immigrants also made their pickled presence known. Kalustyan’s had incredibly spicy Indian mango chutney for tasting, while the Korea Agro-Trade Center hosted one of the longest lines for their pickled cabbage known as kimchi.

The neighborhood stalwarts held their ground as well, with Guss’ Pickles and the Pickle Guys enduring serpentine lines of pickle lovers. I couldn’t sample everything, but I soon discovered that my favorite pickles came from the Brooklyn-based purveyors. Who knew that Brooklyn boasted such an impressive pickle community?McClure’s Pickles from International Pickle Day on the Lower East Side Confronted with Wheelhouse Pickles’ amazing array of fruit and vegetable pickles, I found it almost impossible to walk away from their sweet pickled pears. Somehow I wound up with two jars of cucumber pickles from McClure’s Pickles: spicy garlic ones for Jim and garlic and dill spears for my parents.

Even on such a small strip of street, pickles were well-represented in all their glory by a plethora of products and information. I wasn’t surprised to learn that cucumbers are 96% water, but I  had no idea that that pickles existed in so many varieties. It’s no wonder they get their own festival every year!

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The Great Flank Steak Disaster

Tomato Salad with Basil, Scallions, and Olive Oil

See that picture up there? What a cute little salad. Just a simple mix of snappy farmers’ market tomatoes, fresh basil, and scallions, tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper. One look at this picture and you might think I created a lovely dinner the other night. With a dazzling side dish like this, how could anything go wrong?

Well, everything did. You see, I tried to cook flank steak. However, red meat and I do not get along. I like to eat it but I cannot cook it. I fail every time and nothing makes me feel worse. It’s almost as bad as when the dentist tells me I have a cavity. 

Perhaps I am being a bit dramatic. In any case, Tuesday’s meaty mishaps were entirely my fault, part of an effort to put a speedy dinner on the table by cutting some corners along the way.

My night of infamy began when I returned home from work and saw that the hefty flank steak in the refrigerator had not completely defrosted. Problem #1. But instead of patiently waiting for it to thaw, I went ahead and rubbed the meat with olive oil and spices and then threw it back in the fridge to marinate for an hour. When I took it out of the fridge for the second time, it was still a cold brick. Problem #2. Or maybe Problem #1.5, since this still-frozen meat was really an extension of Problem #1. Oh who cares, I can’t keep count.

Anyway, ignoring everything I had ever read about how meat should be defrosted and brought to room temperature before cooking, I threw the beef under the broiler. I hoped I could beat the system by simply cooking the still-frozen steak for a little longer than the prescribed ten minutes. So I cooked it for twelve. Brilliant.

When I took it out of the broiler, the meaty slab looked gorgeous and perfectly browned. “That smells great,” said Jim. I beamed with pride. I touched the meat with my finger, and the beef joyously bounced underneath. Should I get the meat thermometer? I thought. I looked at the steak again. No, it’s perfect. I’ve finally done it.

After resting the steak under foil for five minutes, I confidently started to slice it. But then my muscles tensed as the deceiving brown exterior revealed a pink, raw interior. Oh no, not again. I threw it back in the broiler, my face as red as the uncooked meat. I must have removed and returned that stupid piece of beef to the broiler three or four times. Yes, that’s right, it was a stupid piece of beef, I said it.

I finally committed the ultimate act of destruction: I cut the whole steak into slices and finished them under the broiler just so we could sit down and eat. At this point I had been preparing dinner for an hour and forty-five minutes. For what? For dried little hockey pucks that required at least one hundred chews before swallowing.

I’d show you a photo of it all, but it’s really too depressing. Instead, just enjoy the bouncy little tomatoes. And please, learn from my mistakes.

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A Tale of Two Pestos

Jim met me in Florence after one of my printing jobs a few years ago. It was his first trip to Italy, and he was not disappointed. Firenze is an amazingly beautiful city, full of history and art, and of course fabulous food and wine. Each meal was a decadent adventure, filled with pasta, salumi, cheese, and more. We truly ate our way through Tuscany. And in the process of our culinary research we discovered pasta with arugula pesto at Trattoria 4 Leoni.

Arugula is our favorite salad green, and our two meals at Trattoria 4 Leoni were revelations, largely because of this pesto. It’s since become one of our summer staples, and unlike some of our other favorites, this year we didn’t wait until Labor Day weekend to make it. Each time I purée a bunch of peppery arugula with some walnuts, parmesan cheese, olive oil, and garlic to create this light, fresh sauce, I think back to the dinners we so enjoyed as we sat outside on Leoni’s tranquil piazza. Our small kitchen table in Brooklyn isn’t quite the same, but somehow we make it work.

Arugula Pesto with Pasta Rustica from Caputo’s

Pesto is a wonderful way to use raw ingredients at the height of their fresh goodness. Whether made from traditional basil and pine nuts, or sun dried tomatoes, or any green such as arugula or watercress, this quick, easy sauce is practically guaranteed to explode with flavor. It even works with other dishes besides pasta. For example, last week I slathered some leftover arugula pesto on bread as a condiment for grilled chicken panini. I’m always willing to try a new pesto combination because of the promise it fulfills. It has rarely let me down.

So this weekend I opened my September issue of Food & Wine and turned to the recipe for Orrechiette with Pistachio Pesto. I was especially eager to try this recipe because the two Franks (Castronovo and Falcinelli) from the restaurant Frankies 457 Spuntino created it for the magazine. Frankies Spuntino is located around the corner from our apartment, and it has been one of our regular haunts since we moved here three years ago. Congrats on being featured in the magazine, guys!

I followed the recipe to the letter, and since it cited the importance of good-quality pistachios, we went to Sahadi’s to find the best. Once puréed with olive oil, fresh mint, garlic, and romano cheese, the golden bits of meaty pistachios created an incredibly nutty, flavorful sauce whose strong aroma wafted through the apartment as soon as I combined it with some cavatelli. (I thought I had some orrechiette in the house when I started cooking, but of course I was mistaken. Cavatelli would have to do.)

Cavatelli with Pistachio Pesto from Food & Wine Magazine

Although full of vibrant flavors, this pesto was a little too rich for us. Perhaps it is better suited to cooler weather, as a kind of comfort food. But we still enjoyed it very much, and it’s always good to broaden the pesto possibilities. You can never have too many.

Recipe for Pasta with Arugula Pesto
As mentioned above, I followed the recipe for the Pistachio Pesto straight from September’s issue of Food & Wine. However, I created the arugula pesto recipe below, which is inspired by the one I tried at Trattoria 4 Leoni in Florence, Italy.

  • 1 large bunch of arugula, washed, with leaves picked off the stems
  • 1/4 cup of fresh basil, washed
  • 1/2 cup fresh walnuts
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan
  • 1 clove of fresh garlic, minced
  • 8 cherry or grape tomatoes, quartered
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound of pasta: bucatini, penne, fusilli, or farfalle. Any kind of pasta with ridges to hold the sauce is fine.

While the pasta is cooking, combine the first six ingredients together in a food processor and purée. Add salt and pepper to taste. Please note that I use the measurements above as rough guides. Once I combine all of the ingredients in the food processor, I taste the pesto and adjust the seasoning as necessary. For example, if the garlic seems slightly too strong, I’ll add a little more olive oil or cheese. When the pasta has finished cooking, drain and reserve a bit of cooking water. Combine with pesto and add a little of the cooking water if the pasta seems too dry. Ladle pasta into bowls and top with tomatoes. Garnish with parmesan cheese and fresh pepper. Serves four. Enjoy!

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End-of-Summer Summer Rolls

Summer RollsIn my mind, Labor Day signals the end of summer. So this weekend I started thinking of my activities in terms of their seasonal finality: the last after-dinner ice cream walk, the last weekend to enjoy the neighborhood pool.

But this summer, which flew by especially quickly because of trips to Italy and Baltimore, was also threatening to close without certain culinary accomplishments. On Sunday I wound up asking myself about some non-realized summer dishes. For example, why hadn’t I made my favorite corn salad yet? Infused with garlic, fresh basil, and balsamic vinegar, this salad symbolizes all that is fresh and wonderful about the hottest season’s bounty. I usually make it at least once every summer.

Also, I had yet to make Mark Bittman’s Vietnamese Summer Rolls. I had cut out this recipe from the New York Times Dining Section at the beginning of July, and posted it on my refrigerator so that I wouldn’t forget to make these cool, minty treats. The sheet of crinkled newsprint had been staring at me since then, taunting me every time I opened the refrigerator door to pour a glass of water or reach for some salad greens.

Roasted Corn Salad with Tomatoes and BasilSo after musing over these questions for a little while, I dove into action. I started with the corn salad, which is really quite simple and needs only a few minutes to prepare. I just sautéed some corn kernels from my CSA in some garlic, then added some fresh basil, chopped tomatoes, and a dash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. So simple, and so very, very good.

Then I moved on to the Summer Rolls. And that’s where the real work began.

First of all, the author of this recipe is known as “The Minimalist.” Well, there was nothing “minimal” about this recipe. I started by cleaning and grilling the shrimp, which was no small task. Then I cooked the vermicelli noodles. After setting them aside, I washed and chopped some lettuce, basil, mint, and cilantro, shredded the carrots, and then folded and assembled the rolls in some rice paper. Whew! This was full-on hard labor.

But the rolls were worth it. Refreshingly stuffed with minty herbs, freshly grilled shrimp, chewy noodles, and sweet carrots, these rolls were perfect end-of-summer fare. Not so perfect: the recipe for accompanying sauce. A mixture of fish sauce, fresh ginger, water, salt and pepper, this sauce was poured down the drain after I took a tremendously salty sample. Poor Jim was sent to the corner bodega for a suitable replacement, and returned with some pre-made peanut satay sauce. I was disappointed at having to revert to the local bodega, but what can I say, we were desperate.

So, we may not have feasted on the traditional hot dogs and hamburgers on this Labor Day, but we did enjoy our own version of seasonal, summer fare. Good-bye summer, hello fall. Bring on the butternut squash.

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