Thursday, November 13, 2014

Feasting at the Table of a Friend…plus Bonnie’s Recipe for Eggs Baked on a bed of Greens

Last week I had the pleasure of spending a few days away with a group of very dear friends.  I wrote of another week with this same group a few years ago, spent at a house on Lake Michigan.  This time we were at Bonnie’s home in Minnesota. Up until the very end, I didn’t think we were actually going to be able to get away to do it.  Life is so busy.  Coordinating the schedules of four sandwich-generation women seemed an almost impossible task.  When three of us finally climbed into the packed car and made it to the interstate headed north, I think we were all a bit stunned that it was really happening.

As always, we had a wonderful time together.  What I will remember most from this trip is the hours spent lingering at Bonnie’s inviting table….and around her kitchen island....sipping coffee (freshly roasted in Bonnie’s garage, of course!), nibbling on the remains of delicious meals (or the bits and pieces of meals in progress), sharing and talking on and on about the happenings in our lives, big and small.  What a privilege to get to take a break from the busyness and just be…  together. 

Since all four of us work—or have worked—as professional cooks, much of our time together is always spent talking about, preparing and eating(!) delicious food.  It is so much fun to see and taste some of the things each of us have been learning about food since we were all together last.  I learned a new technique for cooking baby potatoes (material for a short, future post) and got to have an impromptu “hand pie” lesson as Bonnie took a minute to nail down the final quantities for a recipe she is teaching in an upcoming class.  

For my part, during the past few months I have been intermittently experimenting with a new technique for fresh pasta, and having the opportunity to make pasta with my friends…sharing the things I’ve learned....was a treat. 

One of the things Bonnie made for us was a delicious breakfast she has gotten into the habit of making for herself…eggs baked on a bed of wilted greens.  She served it with toast, her homemade granola, some yogurt, and fresh berries.  It was loaded with flavor and very satisfying.  

I liked it so much, that when I got home I prepared it for a light dinner…with some roasted potatoes on the side.  I had it for lunch a few days later (with toast).  

When I shared a picture of this beautiful dish (Bonnie’s version) on my personal Facebook page, a friend requested the recipe, so I am including it in today’s post.

This easy little dish is amenable to all kinds of variations.  Instead of grape tomatoes, you could add a handful of sautéed mushrooms…or some diced roasted winter squash or sweet potatoes…anything you like in partnership with greens and eggs.  (Just make sure your addition is something that will cook through in a minute or two or that has already been cooked and only needs a brief reheat.)  I can see many a Sunday night meal coming from this simple and delicious idea.

I should tell you that we didn’t spend all of our time sitting and eating.  We also walked the trails into town…   to get wine…and bread….  and taste olive oil.  And we visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (revisiting paintings we remembered from previous visits…and making friends with ones we hadn’t noticed before).  Of course after an afternoon on our feet we had to stop at a coffee shop on the way home for some sustenance.

For the most part our meals were not grand affairs….a quick roast chicken with salad and potatoes….breakfasts of scones or toast, yogurt, fruit and granola…and on our final night, a simple spread of bread and fruit and cheese and wine (after overindulging a bit on the pastries at the aforementioned coffee shop….).  But whether simple or involved, I will cherish the memory of these meals for months to come.  It is not often that any of us have the time for such an extended feast.  But I like to believe that with a little bit of effort we can have small moments like this every day, in our own homes, sitting at our own tables…as long as we make the time—however brief—to pause and connect with those we love.  Because it doesn’t matter if the food is a multi-course extravaganza or a humble dish of eggs and toast, it is the company around the table that makes the feast. 

 Bonnie’s Eggs Baked on a Bed of Greens

Olive oil or 2 strips of bacon, cut in thin strips cross-wise
1 or 2 shallots, peeled and sliced
5 oz. baby spinach (see note)
3/4 cup grape tomatoes, halved
2 to 6 eggs (room temperature—see note)
Blue cheese crumbles (optional)
Minced parsley…or other soft herb (chives, dill, etc.)

Warm the olive oil over moderate heat.  Or, wilt the bacon and cook until crisp.  Lift the bacon out of the pan and pour off all but a tablespoon or so of the fat.  Add the shallots to the pan and sweat until softened and sizzling in the fat.  Begin to add the greens to the pan, a handful at a time, waiting to add each handful until the previous one just begins to collapse.  When the greens are mostly collapsed (they shouldn’t be completely wilted), push them to the side and add the tomatoes to the pan.  

Cook briefly—covering the pan if necessary—until the tomatoes are just warmed through and have a bit of give when you press them with your finger…they shouldn’t be collapsing or disintegrating.  Season well with salt & pepper, add the bacon back to the pan (reserving some for garnish, if you like), and toss (or fold) to distribute the tomatoes among the greens.

At this point you may proceed in a couple of ways: 

For a dish that is more about the eggs than the greens and is intended to serve as the protein for a breakfast or brunch for 3 to 4 people, simply make 4 to 6 depressions in the mixture of greens and tomatoes and carefully crack an egg into each depression.  Cover the pan and transfer to the oven.

For a light lunch or dinner for two, when you begin to wilt the greens place two buttered/oiled individual casseroles in the oven to warm through.  When the greens are ready, divide them between the two casseroles, making one or two depressions for the eggs as you do.  Carefully crack the eggs into the depressions, cover tightly with foil and place in the oven.

After 7 minutes, uncover the eggs.  The whites should be mostly set and the yolk still liquid, covered by a thin film of cooked white (because of the nice steamy environment created by the covered pan).  At this point, you should remove the pan from the oven whenever the yolks are cooked to your liking…anywhere from another minute or two to seven minutes.  Season the eggs with salt and pepper and scatter with cheese if you like…or the reserved bacon…and some fresh herbs.   Serve immediately (placing the large pan directly on the table and the individual casseroles on heatproof plates) with some nice, crusty toast.  Serves 2 to 4.

·         Any young green that is tender when just wilted will work in this recipe—baby spinach, young chard, arugula (Organic Girl’s Super Greens is a good choice)
·         If your eggs are refrigerator cold, submerge them (in the shell) in a bowl of hot tap water for five minutes or so, to warm them up.
·         You could use both the bacon and blue cheese if you like, but I like this dish with one or the other.  

Printable Version

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Wild Rice Salad with Apples & Roast Chicken

October seems to have slipped by me.  It had been my intention all month long to share the recipe for this wild rice salad…and now the month is gone.   It is a salad that is appropriate for the warmer days of autumn, but I also think it would be a delicious addition to a holiday buffet….or potluck gathering…not to mention the fact that it would make a delicious boxed lunch just about any time during apple season.  So, before November gets away from me, I thought I would start the month off right by posting it now…on the first day of the month. 

I love grain salads (and pilafs) so when I started working on a new apple class for this year I wanted to include a grain salad.   A wild rice salad seemed like a good idea.  Wild rice and apples are linked in my mind because I associate them both with fall in Minnesota.  When I was a kid we moved to Minnesota for a couple of years.  We arrived in the fall and it would have been about that time that I first tasted wild rice, which is of course native to Minnesota. 

But apples grow just about everywhere, so you might wonder why I associate apples with Minnesota.  I would say it is most likely because it was there that I was first exposed to apples in all their regional diversity.  Even my kid’s limited and picky palate was able to delight in the unique flavors and textures of Cortland, Haralson and Prairie Spy apples.  Since none of these varieties are available in the lower Midwest where I have spent most of my life they were quite exotic to me and gave me a whole new appreciation for apples.  When I returned to Minnesota for college I was so pleased to discover that every fall a nearby orchard trucked in a load of these wonderful regional varieties on Friday afternoons to sell outside the campus center. 

Wild rice is the featured grain in this salad, but since munching through a salad of all wild rice would be a bit of an exercise, I have cut the wild rice with some brown Basmati.  (You can use any long grain brown rice you please, but I particularly like fragrant Basmati.)  The advantage of pairing the wild rice with a long grain brown rice is that the brown rice will cook in the same amount of time that it takes the wild rice to soften.  This makes it possible to cook them together in the same pot.  Since there are a lot of elements in this salad, this is a great advantage.  Cooking them together will also force you to remove the rice from the heat when the brown rice is done...thus preventing the wild rice from getting so soft that it splits open and curls.  Wild rice taken to this point has been cooked too long.  I recently read on the bulk bin at Whole Foods an excellent description of what wild rice should look like when it is perfectly done:  It should have begun to split down the length of the grain and will look something like a hot dog bun…it should not look blown open like a popcorn kernel.  At the correct doneness, it will still have texture, but it will also be tender.

When you choose an apple for this salad, make sure that you choose something crisp with a sweet—or possibly sweet-tart—flavor profile. Softer apples will fade in competition with the other lively textural elements (in addition to the crunchy-chewy wild rice, there are crunchy pieces of celery and pecans as well as chewy dried cranberries).  Apples that are too tart will fall flat…the salad needs sweetness to lift the flavors.  Hints of sweetness come from a bit of honey in the dressing and from the orange juice soaked dried cranberries, but these are not quite enough.  Something like a juicy Honey Crisp or Pink Lady…or a super-crisp Gala….will add a vibrant splash of flavor.  If you have a local apple that you love that is crisp and sweet, you should definitely give it a try in this salad.

 Wild Rice Salad with Apples & Roast Chicken

3/4 c. (125 grams) wild rice
1/2 c. (90 grams) brown Basmati rice

2 chicken leg quarters (about 1 lb. total weight)
olive oil
salt & pepper

1 small red onion (5 to 6 oz.), trimmed and thinly sliced
1 T. olive oil

1/2 c. dried cranberries
Juice and zest of 1/2 orange
1/4 c. cider vinegar
2 t. honey
1/4 c. olive oil
2 medium-sized (5 or 6 oz. each) crisp, sweet to sweet-tart apples (Gala, Honey Crisp, Pink Lady, etc.)
1/2 c. pecans, toasted and coarsely broken
1/2 c. thinly sliced celery (from one large or two small stalks—if the stalks are fat, halve lengthwise before slicing)
2 handfuls arugula (1 1/2 to 2 oz.), roughly chopped if leaves are large

Rinse both kinds of rice and drain well.  Place in a medium saucepan and cover with five cups of cold water.  Add 3 or 4 good pinches of kosher salt (about 3/4 t.) and bring to a simmer.  Simmer gently—uncovered—until the rice is tender, but still has texture...about 40 to 45 minutes.  Don't allow the wild rice to blow open like popcorn (when done, wild rice has a vertical split, giving it the look of a split hot dog bun).  Drain the rice and spread on a sheet pan to cool.

While the rice cooks, rub the chicken with olive oil and season well with salt & pepper.  Place in a casserole or roasting pan that is just large enough to hold the pieces without touching.  Roast in a 450° oven until the juices run clear and the skin is crispy—about 40 minutes.  Transfer to a plate to cool.  Pour the fat off from the pan and discard.  Deglaze the pan with a splash of water.  When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin.  Pull the meat from the bones, tearing it into large bite-sized pieces. Toss the shredded chicken with the pan deglazings and any resting juices.  Taste and season with salt & pepper.  Set aside.

While the chicken and rice cook, warm a sauté pan over medium to medium-high heat.  Add a tablespoon of oil to the pan, followed by the onions along with a pinch of salt.  Sauté the onions until tender & golden...about 10 to 15 minutes.  Set aside to cool.

Place the dried cranberries in a small bowl and toss with the orange juice.  Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes.  While the cranberries soak, make the vinaigrette.  Place the zest, cider vinegar and honey in a small bowl.  Season with salt and pepper.  Whisk in a quarter cup of olive oil.

When ready to pull the salad together, quarter and core the apples (peel them only if the skin is tough).  Cut the quarters in half lengthwise.  Cut these eighths crosswise a scant quarter inch thick.  Place the apples, rice, chicken (with its juices), onions, craisins (with any unabsorbed orange juice), pecans and celery in a large bowl.  Season with salt and pepper and pour the vinaigrette over.  Toss well.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt, vinegar and honey.  Add the arugula and toss in just before serving.  Serves four generously as a salad entrée.

  • After roasting and shredding the chicken legs, you will have 7 or 8 oz. (200 to 225 grams) cooked meat. If you have leftover (or rotisserie) chicken, you can use it in this salad. Simply weigh out this amount and add it to the salad instead of cooking fresh.
  • I only add arugula to what I will be serving immediately…and then add fresh arugula to leftovers as I eat them. It is fine to add it all at once, but the arugula in the leftovers will have softened and lost its crispness. 
  • If you don’t like arugula, baby spinach would be a good alternative.
  • If you don’t have an orange on hand, you may substitute apple cider (or juice) for the orange juice (use about 3 T.) and simply omit the zest from the vinaigrette.
  • This salad would be delicious with shredded duck confit or roast, shredded pheasant in place of the roast chicken.
Printable Version

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rigatoni al Forno with Ratatouille Vegetables

Even though it is mid-October, I am still bringing home my favorite late summer vegetables from the farmers’ market (eggplant, tomatoes, summer squash and peppers). 

Unfortunately, the weather has cooled to the point that more often than not I’m not in the mood for the dishes I usually prepare with these foods.  Still, because these vegetables are still so beautiful…and because I’m not quite ready to let summer go for the year, I continue to purchase them.  Fortunately, these vegetables also lend themselves to a few treatments more appropriate for the cooler days of early fall   Favorites like ratatouille, moussaka, and eggplant, pepper & chickpea stew are all likely to appear on my table during the cooler days of September and October. 

Most of the aforementioned dishes are a bit time consuming to make…ratatouille (my favorite), in particular.  And, as I mentioned in my last post, my schedule has been pretty busy of late.   Consequently, I haven’t had the time to make a big batch of ratatouille this year.  But this past week I was still able to satisfy my craving for the flavors of ratatouille by making a relatively quick baked pasta that uses the same combination of vegetables.  

To make the pasta, the eggplant, peppers and squash are simply roasted and then combined with pasta, cheese and a quick tomato sauce.  It could hardly be easier.

I should mention that the tomato sauce is quick because it uses canned tomatoes.  I’m still bringing home beautiful vine-ripened tomatoes from the market, but their supply is dwindling to the point that I only want to enjoy them raw since I know it will be many months before I can have them that way again.  Good canned tomatoes (use imported San Marzanos, if you can) make a very nice sauce.  And if you happen to have a couple of cups of homemade summer tomato sauce in your pantry or freezer, you can of course use it in this dish (it would be super delicious).

My baked ratatouille pasta really hit the spot.  It doesn’t have the rich depth of a long simmered ratatouille, but on a cool night—in the midst of a busy week—it tasted oh-so-good…   perfect for my mood….and the season. 

Rigatoni al Forno with Ratatouille Vegetables

2 T. olive oil
1 small to medium onion (6 oz.), minced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
28 oz. can of whole plum tomatoes in juice (preferably San Marzano)
1 eggplant (2/3 to 3/4 lb.)
2 to 3 zucchini (about 8 oz.)
2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded
3/4 lb. rigatoni, or other short sturdy, tubular pasta
6 oz. coarsely grated Fontina
2 oz. freshly grated Parmesan and/or Pecorino

Warm the olive oil in a shallow saucepan set over medium heat.  Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and sweat, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden—about 10 to 20 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant—about 2 minutes.  Pass the tomatoes, along with their juice through a food mill fitted with the coarse disc (or pulse in the food processor or simply break up with your hands).   Add the tomatoes along with salt & freshly ground pepper to taste. Simmer sauce, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thickened—about 20 to 30 minutes.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt.   When finished, you should have about 2 cups tomato sauce.

While the sauce cooks, prepare the rest of the vegetables.  Top and tail the eggplant and zucchini.  Cut the eggplant lengthwise into 1/2-inch thick slabs, then crosswise into 1/2-inch sticks.  Slice the zucchini on the diagonal a scant 1/2-inch thick, then slice into strips so that each piece resembles the quill shape of the pasta. Toss the eggplant and zucchini in 2 to 3 T. of olive oil and season with salt & pepper. Spread the vegetables on a rimmed baking sheet (if your baking sheet is too crowded, divided the vegetables between two sheets and rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom half way through the cooking time).  Roast the vegetables at 425° to 450°. Do not stir the vegetables until they have begun to take on some color—and then do so carefully, using a pancake turner-type spatula to scoop the vegetables off the sheet and turn them over. You should only need to stir once...if at all. The vegetables are done when they are golden and tender—about 20 to 25 minutes total. 

While the vegetables roast, cut the peppers into 1/2-inch strips.  If the strips are very long, cut them in half horizontally.  Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Season well with salt (it should taste salty—you'll want at least 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons per quart of water). Add the rigatoni and cook until almost al dente (pastas that will be baked should be a bit firmer than those that will be sauced and served right away), drain.

In a large bowl, combine the pasta, tomato sauce, eggplant, zucchini and peppers. Stir to combine. Add the Fontina and fold in just until evenly distributed—the cheese does not have to melt. Transfer the mixture to an oiled 2 1/2 quart shallow baking dish. 

Scatter the Parmesan and Pecorino over the top.   

Transfer to a 375° to 400° oven and bake until hot through, tinged with brown on the top and bubbling around the edges—about 20 to 25 minutes.  For even more browning, run the pasta under the broiler after it is hot through.  Serves 5 to 6.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An Old Favorite....Russian Tea Cakes

Many of my childhood food memories revolve around my maternal grandmother’s kitchen and dining room table.  She was a fine cook and baker…from a long line of fine cooks and bakers.  It is therefore a bit strange that there are really only two cookies that I associate with her:  a soft, cake-y, chocolate drop cookie (with raisins and topped with a smear of chocolate frosting) and Russian Tea Cakes.  The name of the former is lost to me—I’m not sure I ever knew it.  They were just “Grandmom’s cookies” to me.  I have never run across them anywhere other than in her home.  The Russian Tea Cakes, on the other hand, are familiar to most Americans…although the name varies from family to family.  Some know them as Mexican Wedding Cakes….and sometimes you will find them called Pecan Snowballs (or some variant thereof).  I learned to call them Russian Tea Cakes in Junior High Home Ec class.  My grandmother called hers, “Tea Balls.” 

Whatever you call them, they are an addictive and delicious little cookie….tender, buttery, nutty and not too sweet.  I have been hungry for them recently.  I used to make them all the time, but for some reason I haven’t made them in a while.  So yesterday, I made a batch…just for me…just because.  I am sharing the recipe here, not because it is rare or unusual, but because they were what I happened to be baking at home…and because it has been a while since I have posted anything.  (It has been an unusually busy late summer and fall season for me.  Perhaps this accounts in part for my desire to make a cookie that reminds me of a simpler, slower time.)

As I said, this is not an unusual recipe.  The recipe I use is the one I learned to make in Junior High…it’s most likely from Betty Crocker.  (I can’t imagine it’s too different from my grandmother’s recipe.)  Over the years I have made two small changes to it.  Around the time I started cooking/baking professionally, I switched to unsalted butter for all of my baking (and cooking).   I’m sure the original recipe used salted butter.  If you like, you can increase the salt to a half teaspoon to account for this change, but I never have.  I like the pure, butter-y, nutty flavor as it is.

The second change came about one time when I was feeling particularly lazy and instead of chopping the pecans by hand, I threw them into the food processor with all of the flour and processed until the nuts were very finely chopped—much more finely than if I had chopped them by hand.  (Without the presence of the flour you would never be able to process them so fine without turning them into an oily mess.) The resulting cookies were especially moist and tender.  I have prepared them this way ever since. 

The Tea Cakes I made were just the thing…perfectly satisfying my craving for something familiar and special, all at the same time.  New recipes are great, but sometimes an old friend is even better.  If you are feeling a bit nostalgic—and I find that Fall, with the return of school and the coming of the holidays, brings on those kinds of feelings—take a minute to prepare a recipe that is old and well loved.  It just might be the perfect momentary antidote to a too busy schedule, a gray afternoon, or a bad day at work.  And if you have never made a version of these delicious little pecan cookies, you should give this recipe a try.  It’s fast, easy…and I think there’s none better.     


Russian Tea Cakes

1 cup (1/2 lb.) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (2 oz.) powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla
2 1/4 cups (9 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/4 t. salt
3/4 c. (3 oz.) pecans

Briefly cream the butter and sugar.  Beat in the vanilla.  Set aside.

Place the flour and pecans in a food processor and process until the pecans are finely ground—some will have disappeared into the flour, but there should still be small, discernible pieces of pecans.  

Add to the butter mixture with the salt.  Stir to form a soft dough.

Mold into 1-inch balls and bake on an ungreased or parchment-lined baking sheet at 400° until set—about 8 to 10 minutes.  The cookies will have lost their wet look, will have puffed slightly and cracked.  The bottoms of the cookies will be golden brown.  

Remove from the oven and cool for one minute on the baking sheet.  Transfer the cookies to a wire rack and let cool for five minutes. 

While the cookies are still warm (not hot), toss in powdered sugar (be gentle, they break). 

Finish cooling on a wire rack. 

If you like, use a sieve to dredge the cookies lightly with a final coating of powdered sugar.  Store air tight.

Makes 48 cookies.

Note:  The cookies should still be slightly warm when tossed in the powdered sugar so that the sugar will adhere…but they shouldn’t be hot.   If the cookies are too hot, the sugar will melt to a frosting-like coating.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Grilled Cheese with Caramelized Apples, Shallots & Prosciutto

There are a lot of things to like about Jon Favreau's movie "Chef".  Even if you don't love to cook (or eat), the idea that it is possible to (re)discover—and pursue—your passion (and at the same time make a living) is universally appealing.  The movie is also a well-drawn reminder of the value of investing time in the relationships that in the long run are what give our work and our lives meaning.  But even if the movie as a whole didn't make for an enjoyable couple of hours, as a cook, seeing the movie—and the out-take at the end—would be worth it just for the grilled cheese sandwich.  Crisp and buttery on the outside...filled with soft, perfectly melted cheese on the looked (and sounded) amazing.  It would be interesting to know how many people went home and made a grilled cheese sandwich after seeing the movie.

I thought of this sandwich when I was putting together my slate of recipes for a new apple class.  I have taught apple classes in the past—always focusing primarily on the different cooking techniques that can be used with apples.  For this class, I was more interested in flavor partners for apples.  And what goes better with apples than cheese?  So, with the movie fresh in my mind, I added a grilled cheese sandwich with caramelized apples to the syllabus.  I wasn't sure how people would feel about the inclusion of something as ostensibly mundane as a grilled cheese sandwich in a cooking class.  I hoped they would like it.  I was not prepared for it to be the hit of the class.  I guess everyone likes a good grilled cheese sandwich.

As with all simple foods, unfortunately it is easy to make a bad grilled cheese sandwich.  Making a really good one is all about paying attention to the details:  The kind of bread...    the choice of cheese...   butter....  the temperature of the pan....   butter....

The kind of bread is not something I had thought too much about before I had to write and test a recipe for a grilled cheese.  I keep substantial, artisanal-style loaves around (I don't remember the last time we had a loaf of commercial sandwich bread in our kitchen), and as it turns out these are the kinds of breads that make a good grilled cheese.  They have a presence about them.  Consequently, they toast to a tender—yet substantial—crunch.  If your bread happens to be a bit stale, so much the better.  I would even say that it is worth waiting for the bread to stale a bit before making a grilled cheese.  "Older" bread—because it has less moisture—can absorb butter as it cooks without getting soggy, giving a solid surface from crust to crust of golden, crunchy toast as opposed to a grilled cheese that is crisp around the perimeter and a bit soft and squishy towards the center.

As far as the choice of cheese is concerned, choose a good (real please), flavorful cheese that melts well (it should soften, not separate as it's heated).  I like Cheddar, Gruyère, Dubliner, and Gouda-style cheeses.  Cheeses like Fontina, low-moisture Mozzarella and Provolone are also good options, but not my favorite. These latter cheeses tend to become very stretchy as they me the feeling that I might choke on a large impenetrable glob of gooey cheese as I try to eat my sandwich.  I like cheeses that soften nicely—and have a bit of stretch...but not so much that I feel the need to set the sandwich down and use my hands to sever a rope of cheese stretched between the sandwich and my mouth.   But I admit that this is a personal thing...  You should choose the cheese you like best.

While on the subject of cheese, I should mention that I think you can have too much of a good thing.  Just as overly stretchy cheeses seem a bit choke-inducing, so I find that too much cheese causes the same problem.  I have given what I think is a nice range in the recipe below—about 2 to 3 oz. of cheese for a standard to slightly large slice of bread.  Two might seem a bit spare to some and three is on the outside edge of what I think is just right.  Many recipes I have seen recommend four ounces of cheese per sandwich.  This is way too much for me...but if it's what you like, go for it.

Now, for the final detail:  the cooking.  I like to cook my grilled cheese sandwich in a cast iron or French steel pan.  These are both non-stick and because of their weight they also hold a nice uniform temperature.  Warm the pan up over medium to medium-high heat and butter  the side of the sandwich facing you while the pan heats.  Place this buttered side face down in the heated skillet.  You should hear a distinct, but gentle sizzle.  If you don't hear anything, increase the heat.  If the sandwich sizzles loudly and aggressively, turn the heat down.  Slide the sandwich around a bit to spread out the melting butter so the bread is uniformly and evenly coated.  As the sandwich cooks, occasionally move and rotate the sandwich—and the pan—over the heat as necessary to obtain a uniformly golden and crispy slice of fried bread.  If the pan seems dry, add butter in small increments—you don't want a greasy sandwich, but neither do you want one that is austere and dry.  If there isn't enough butter, the bread tends to scorch...or just dry out.

While the first side cooks, butter the side of the sandwich that is now facing you.  When the first side is golden and crisp—after 2 or 3 minutes, carefully flip the sandwich over and continue to cook as for the first side...another 2 to 3 minutes.  When finished, the bread on both sides should be uniformly golden brown and the cheese should be just melted.  Pay attention to the heat.  If it is too low, the cheese will be drippy and gooey—possibly even beginning to separate—before the bread is done.  If the heat is too high, the cheese will not have a chance to melt.  The goal is crisp, golden bread and soft—not liquid/curdled—cheese. 

You may have noticed my assumption that you will use butter in your grilled cheese.  I suppose you could use olive oil...or possibly bacon fat...(both delicious fats), but butter is the taste I want in a grilled cheese.  You will also get better color with butter since the milk solids in the butter brown and caramelize as the sandwich cooks. 

A plain grilled cheese...just bread, butter and a very fine thing.  But cheese is so tasty with so many things, that the desire to shake things up a bit occasionally by adding a flavorful tidbit or two is hard to resist.  I think the key when adding things is to use a light hand.  Just enough to give flavor and compliment the cheese....  The cheese should always be the star of the show.  Also, if you are going to add something, make sure it is arranged in and amongst the grated cheese so the melted cheese can hold the sandwich together.  It is disconcerting to have to hold the sandwich together as you eat because there is a solid sheet of something in the center that prevents the cheese from doing its work.

Since the apple, shallot and prosciutto recipe from my recent class is really the reason for my post, I'm including that recipe.  The salty, tangy, and sweet flavors of all of these ingredients are delicious with the cheese.  A mix of Gruyère and sharp white Cheddar is my favorite choice for this sandwich.

 In the summer, I like to add thinly sliced, vine ripened tomatoes to my grilled cheese sandwich...  A little Dijon, smeared on the inside of the bread, is good with this one.  As is some crisp bacon... or a bit of basil...  or possibly a smear of pesto.....

Earlier this honor of National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day (April 12)....I made one that was filled with Gouda, arugula and prosciutto.  

I didn't know it was grilled cheese sandwich day until right before lunch, so I had to make do with what I had on hand.  But it was, as I'm sure you can imagine, delicious.  If you start poking around your refrigerator...or pantry...I'm certain that you'll find a few items with which to create your own delicious grilled cheese.  Truly the possibilities are endless.

Grilled Cheese with Apples & Prosciutto

4 T. (or more, as needed) soft butter, divided
1 large shallot (about 2 oz.), trimmed, halved and thinly sliced (to make 1/2 cup)
1/2 t. roughly chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 small to medium flavorful apple (Braeburn, Pink Lady, Jonathan, etc.), peeled, cored and thinly (1/8-inch) sliced)
1 1/2 to 2 t. sugar
4 1/2-inch thick 4- by 6-inch slices (or 6 1/2-inch thick 4- by 4-inch slices) of sourdough or other favorite bread (see note)
Dijon mustard
4 to 6 oz. coarsely grated cheese—I like a mix of Gruyère and sharp white Cheddar
2 thin slices (a scant 1/2 oz. each) prosciutto, trimmed of excess fat and torn into large bite-sized pieces

In a large steel, cast iron or other style of non-stick skillet, melt a tablespoon of butter over medium-high heat.  When the foam subsides, add the shallot and thyme with a pinch of salt and sauté until tender and golden—about 3 to 5 minutes.  Remove to a plate.  Add another tablespoon of butter to the pan.  When melted, add the apples and sauté until limp—but still with a bit of texture—and caramelized in spots—about 2 to 3 minutes.  Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the apples and continue to cook and toss/stir until the sugar has melted and the apples are uniformly golden—another minute.  Scrape the apples onto the plate with the shallots and toss to combine.  Let cool.

To build the sandwiches, arrange the slices of bread in pairs on your work surface.  Smear all of the slices with a scant amount of Dijon.  Divide a third of the cheese among half of the slices.  Arrange the prosciutto evenly over the cheese.  

Top with another third of the cheese.  Evenly arrange  the apple-shallot mixture on top of the second layer of cheese.  

Finish with a final layer of cheese.  

Starting and ending the layers of the filling with cheese--and
 including a layer in the middle--is important.
It helps the sandwich stick together!

Top each with a slice of bread (Dijon-side down).  Smear the tops of the sandwiches with half of the remaining butter (making sure to spread the butter all the way out to the edges). 

Heat a steel, cast iron or other non-stick skillet over medium to medium-high heat.  When hot, add the sandwiches buttered side down to the pan.  There should be a faint, but audible, sizzle when the sandwich hits the pan, if not, increase the heat slightly.  Slide the sandwich back and forth to spread the butter out as it melts.  Move and rotate the sandwiches and the pan over the heat as necessary to obtain a uniformly golden and crispy slice of fried bread.  While the first side cooks, smear the remaining butter on the slice of bread that is facing you.  When the first side is golden and crisp—after 2 or 3 minutes, carefully flip the sandwiches over and continue to cook as for the first side...another 2 to 3 minutes.  If at any time the pan seems dry, add more butter in small increments.

When finished, the bread on both sides should be uniformly browned and crisp and the cheese should be just melted.  If the heat is too low, the cheese will be drippy and gooey before the bread is done and if the heat is too high, the cheese will not have a chance to melt.  The goal is crisp, golden bread and soft—not liquid—cheese. 

Cut the sandwiches in halves or quarters.  Recipe makes 2 large or 3 medium-sized sandwiches....serving 2 to 4 people, depending on appetites.

Note:  Choose any bread you prefer.  Because Farm-to-Market is the bread that is most available for me, that is what I use.  Their sliced loaf-style sourdough makes an excellent sandwich, as do their Rosemary Olive Oil and Semolina rounds.

Printable Recipe

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Zaalouk: Moroccan Mashed Eggplant and Tomato Salad

I can't let summer slip into autumn without sharing one of my new favorite summer recipes:  a Moroccan eggplant and tomato salad called Zaalouk.  I included it as part of a meze spread (along with olives, homemade ricotta and crisp, olive oil-drizzled toasts) in a class I taught early in the summer featuring Mediterranean foods. I have intended all summer long to post the recipe....but the summer kind of got away from me this year.  Since autumn will begin tomorrow has to be the day.

The salad is super easy to prepare.  To make it, simply roast whole eggplant and then allow the flesh to drain of as much of the bitter liquid as possible.  While the eggplant cooks and drains, prepare a concentrated, garlic, cumin and paprika spiked tomato sauce.  To finish, mash the eggplant in to the sauce and season with salt and lemon juice.  When the salad is cool, add fresh cilantro and parsley.  That's it.

For such a simple recipe, Zaalouk is loaded with flavor.  But since it is a recipe of few ingredients, good results will depend on high quality ingredients and good technique.  Look for eggplant that are heavy for their size and recently harvested (the stem should look recently cut and the green cap should still be snuggly anchored to the fruit).  The eggplant shouldn't have any soft, sponge-y parts...but neither should it be rock hard.  As far as the tomatoes are concerned, look for dead ripe, vine-ripened tomatoes.       

When it comes to technique, first, take the time to really drain the eggplant well.  Even if the juices aren't bitter (they won't be if the eggplant is super fresh), failure to drain the eggplant thoroughly will result in a watery salad.  

Part of what makes this salad special is the concentrated flavors of the vegetables.  Likewise, the tomato sauce too should be reduced until thick.  When finished, it will have a glossy sheen and a rubber spatula or wooden spoon drawn through the sauce will leave a path.

Like all dishes that involve a chunky purée of roasted eggplant, getting the uninitiated to give it a try can be a bit of a trick (smashed, roasted eggplant isn't the most attractive thing).  However, once people do try this deeply flavorful dish, they can't seem to get enough.  Served salad-style—accompanied by a few olives—it is pretty great.  But my favorite way to enjoy it is on olive oil-drizzled toasts.

Fortunately, even though the calendar tells us that Autumn is upon us, beautiful, local eggplant and tomatoes will still be available for a couple of least through the end of September, and if the weather holds, into October.  Furthermore, unlike the fresh and raw of many of the foods of summer, the rich flavor of roasted eggplant really seems appropriate for the early days of fall.  

So, if you are planning a gathering of your friends in the near future (and right now—while the days are still warm and the evenings are pleasantly cool—really is the perfect moment for entertaining out of doors), this little salad/spread would be a great thing to include in your menu.  But you don't have to have a party to enjoy this special little dish.  You can make it for yourself (and your family...should you feel like sharing).  Then, take a moment to enjoy it on the patio—or the deck—briefly stopping to welcome autumn....and watch summer draw to a close.   

Moroccan Mashed Eggplant & Tomato Salad

1 1/2 lb. eggplant (2 medium)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 lb. tomatoes, peeled, halved, seeded and diced, juices reserved
1 to 2 t. double concentrated tomato paste, optional
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (about 1 T.)
1 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. sweet paprika
1/4 t. cayenne (or to taste)
1/2 to 1 T. lemon juice—more if tomatoes are very mild
2 T. minced cilantro
2 T. minced flat leaf parsley
salt to taste

Pierce eggplants in several places with the tip of a knife.  Place on a baking pan and roast in a 475° oven until very soft (test with a knife toward the stem end).  The skin will be wrinkled and the eggplant will be beginning to collapse—about 45 to 55 minutes.  When cool enough to handle, peel and transfer the flesh to a colander placed on a plate or in the sink.  Drain until cool.  Transfer the flesh to a cutting board and roughly chop.  Scrape the eggplant back into the colander and sprinkle with a half tablespoon of lemon juice.  Toss to coat and allow the eggplant to continue to drain—stir and smash occasionally, you want the flesh to be very well drained.

While the eggplant drains, warm 3 T. of olive oil in a medium skillet set over moderate heat. Add the tomatoes along with their reserved juices, the tomato paste (if using), 3/4 t. kosher salt, the garlic, and the spices.  

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are reduced to a thick sauce—about 20 minutes.  The sauce should have a glossy sheen and when you draw a path through the pan with the spoon, the path should remain. 

Add the drained eggplant and mash it in.  Taste and correct the seasoning with lemon juice (the amount you will need will depend on the acidity of your tomatoes) and salt.  

Let cool to room temperature.  Stir in the herbs. 

The Zaalouk may be served right away, but it tastes best if made a few hours ahead.  If making more than a few hours ahead (the day before, for example), cover and chill.  Bring to room temperature to serve.  Stir in the remaining 3 to 4 t. of olive oil just before serving. 

Makes about 1 1/2 cup, serving 6 as a side dish...more if being served as part of a Meze platter. 

(Recipe adapted from Arabesque by Claudia Roden and The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert