Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Simple Market Dinner: Pan Seared Salmon with a Medley of Late Summer Vegetables

I just returned from a wonderful visit with friends and, as always after a nice vacation, it is taking me a few days to resume the usual rhythm of my life. Consequently, I don't have a complicated or technique-heavy recipe to share here today (or even pictures of the process)...just a simple, market-inspired, meal of salmon and vegetables. It was delicious and came together very quickly—making it perfect for those final days of summer when (no matter how much you love to cook) you really just want to spend time out of doors with your family and friends.

Most of the time when we eat fish, it's because I'm at the grocery store shopping for other things and I see some extra nice fish and realize I'm hungry for it. On Saturday, as I stood there in the store looking at the beautiful Coho salmon I mentally began to run through the things I had purchased at that morning's farmers' market to make sure I didn't need to buy anything to go with the salmon. I knew I had some green and yellow wax beans that I wanted to use. They had just come back into season after a break during the worst of our summer heat and were especially beautiful. I also had some nice potatoes and cherry tomatoes, which when combined with the green beans would be the makings of a nice vegetable medley. I thought some bacon (good with just about everything, but especially nice with salmon) and thyme from the garden would pull it all together nicely. And it did.

If you are a novice at pan-searing fish, you can check out last year's Spicy Sautéed Halibut post, where I went over some of the basics. Pan-searing fish isn't difficult—it just takes practice. Make sure you have a nice heavy sauté pan that is just large enough to hold all of the fish you are cooking. I think cast iron and French steel are the best—they are inexpensive, non-stick and can go from the stove straight into the oven (it's nice to be able to "finish" the fish in the oven). Get the pan hot before adding the fish (you can always turn it down once you have added the fish—but if the pan isn't hot enough initially, the fish will stick). Remember that fish is delicate and it is best to turn it with a spatula instead of tongs. When it's time to turn the fish (after it is crisp and golden on the first side), if it is acting like it wants to stick, gently shake the pan back and forth. This will encourage the fat in the pan to slide under the fish and help the fish to release itself from the pan. Finally, don't skip the addition of a little bit of butter to the pan as the fish cooks. The milk solids in the butter will brown, rounding out the golden color of the seared fish and adding a nice nutty flavor at the same time.

Pan-Seared Coho Salmon with Bacon & a Medley of Late Summer Vegetables

3 strips of bacon, cut cross-wise into 1/2-inch strips
3/4 lb. small potatoes (Yukon, Baby Red, etc.), scrubbed and cut into fat wedges
several sprigs of fresh thyme, picked
1/2 lb. mixed green and yellow wax beans (can you all of one color), topped, tailed and cut into 2- to 3-inch lengths
4 to 5 oz. mixed cherry/pear/grape tomatoes, halved
2 filets salmon—skinned or not, as you prefer
salt & pepper
olive oil
1 to 2 t. unsalted butter

Place the bacon in a cast-iron (or other oven-proof skillet) set over medium-low heat and render until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon to a double thickness of paper towels and set aside. Increase the heat in the pan to medium-high. When the pan is hot, add the potatoes and toss to coat in the bacon fat. Cook the potatoes until they are golden brown in spots—turning occasionally—5 to 10 minutes. Season the potatoes with salt & pepper and a scattering of thyme leaves and transfer to a 375° oven and cook until they are a nice golden brown and tender (check occasionally, giving the pan a shake to redistribute the potatoes and make sure they aren't burning)—about 20 to 30 minutes.

While the potatoes cook, blanch the green and wax beans (in two batches—it might not take the two kinds of beans the same amount of time to cook) in boiling salted water until tender. Lift the beans out and spread on paper towels. Set aside. Halve the cherry tomatoes and set aside with the beans and bacon.

About 10 minutes before the potatoes are done, heat an oven-proof sauté pan (cast iron or French steel are best) over medium-high heat. Dry the fish with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. When the pan is hot, add enough olive oil (could use canola oil...or another bland oil) to just coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil shimmers, add the fish to the pan "service side" (the side that will face the diner—this will be the skin-side if you left the skin on and it will be the other side if you took the skin off) down. Adjust the heat as necessary to maintain an active sizzle (the fish shouldn't sputter and smoke). After a minute or two, add a teaspoon or two of butter to the pan. When the butter is melted, scatter the remaining thyme leaves over the butter. Gently shake the pan back and forth on the burner—this will allow the melting butter and thyme leaves to slide under the fish. When the fish is a beautiful golden brown color (after a total of 2 to 3 minutes cooking time) gently slide a spatula under the fish and turn it over. You may continue to cook the fish on the burner, or transfer it to the oven to finish. The fish should only take another 3 to 5 minutes to cook. It is done when it is springy to the touch and a skewer inserted in the flesh is warm to the touch—an instant read thermometer will read about 110° to 115°. Transfer the fish to a plate and pour the thyme-infused butter in the pan over the fish. Let the fish rest while you finish the vegetables.

Divide the roasted potatoes among two dinner plates. Place the pan back on the heat (medium to medium-high) and add the beans and bacon to the pan. Warm the beans, stirring frequently. If the pan seems dry, add a bit of olive oil. When the beans have begun to get hot—after a minute or two—add the tomatoes to the pan and continue to heat until the tomatoes are just warm. (You aren't cooking the tomatoes—just warming them. They should soften just slightly—they shouldn't fall apart). Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper (if the vegetables are well seasoned, but still taste a bit flat, add a splash of sherry or red wine vinegar). Divide the vegetables and bacon over the potatoes and top with the salmon. Serve immediately.

Serves two, but quantities can easily be increased to serve more.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Guest Post: A Lesson in Scandinavian Baking

While taking a bit of a summer break I asked my dear friend Bonnie to write a guest blog post for me. Bonnie is an all around talented writer, baker, cook and cooking teacher. She is especially knowledgeable when it comes to the Scandinavian baked goods that are part of her family's heritage (I have mentioned her fantastic cardamom bread on my blog a couple of times).  As much as I admire her for all of her accomplishments, I admire her even more for the way she is able to make people feel at home in her home...Bonnie's kitchen is one of the most welcoming places I know. I don't think I have ever arrived at Bonnie's for a visit when she did not have something wonderful—and often warm from the oven—to share with me along with a nice strong cup of coffee. I was so pleased when I saw that she had written a post about a traditional Swedish treat that you will be able to share with your friends over a cup of coffee. Her skorpa look delicious (I can't wait to bake a batch) and I hope you will enjoy reading about them as much as I did.  Thank you Bonnie!

Swedish Skorpa

Scandinavian baking is what I love to do best, so when Paige asked me to post an entry on her blog I went straight to my Swedish roots and baked some skorpa. Skorpa, you may ask, what is that? These versatile cookies are best described as Swedish Biscotti. They are not as jaw-snapping hard as their Italian cousins which often taste delicious, but require a serious drowning in coffee to prevent shattering the cookie upon taking a bite. Skorpa on the other hand are made with butter, which promotes a tender crumb; so while they are toasted in the oven to dry them to a pleasant crispiness, they remain very easy to bite. They make a wonderful complement to a strong cup of coffee or cappuccino, which is of course the only way a true Swede would eat them.

My mormor, (mother’s mother), usually had a tin of these in her kitchen, where they stayed fresh for a long time kept in an airtight container. At least that’s what she said; they didn’t survive long when us grandchildren arrived and sniffed out mormor’s cache of skorpa! Oh how we loved them, and what happy young coffee drinkers we all became.

The recipe that I’m sharing with you is for Cardamom Almond Skorpa.  Cardamom and almond are two classic flavors in Scandinavia, but you could certainly adapt this recipe to include your own flavor or nut of choice. Pecans and orange zest make a nice combination, as do walnuts and bits of dried cherries. The way they are finished may vary too. If I’m in a hurry, my skorpa have plain tops, but for special occasions I dress them up with Swedish pearl sugar, turbinado sugar, chopped nuts, or even drizzled with chocolate.

When baking, I find it easiest to gather all of the ingredients and equipment before mixing anything. The almonds have been lightly toasted and the butter is best at room temperature. Because I didn’t remove it from the refrigerator early enough, it is sitting on an old copper cake pan.  Copper is the best conductor of heat and will bring the butter to the perfect consistency (soft, so it will take a thumbprint, but not oozing) very quickly. 

Cardamom is the wonderfully aromatic spice that the Vikings so kindly delivered from India to Scandinavia, where it has been loved in baked goods ever after. It is important to purchase cardamom in the correct form, which is as whole seeds that have been removed from their pods (called decorticated cardamom)I purchase mine at Penzey’s. Using a spice mill, a coffee-free coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle, the cardamom should be ground to about the consistency of a fine grind of coffee beans, as you might use for espresso. Don’t worry if some slightly bigger chunks remain in your cardamom; chomping on a piece is a delicious bonus. Keep in mind that already-ground cardamom is too finely ground, giving your baked goods a grayish color, and very little flavor.

Decorticated Cardamom before it is ground

Cardamom ground in a home coffee grinder.  A few slightly larger pieces remain.

Serving strong coffee with skorpa is part of the “Fika” culture in Sweden, which refers to everything from taking a coffee break from work, to gathering with friends for coffee and an elaborate spread of baked treats. Fika is an important word that became part of the Swedish vocabulary in the 19th Century. It is derived from taking the sounds of the word for coffee, caffe, and reversing them. The word fika is both a noun and a verb. One might say, “You are invited for fika,” (noun), or “now we will fika.”(verb).

With your lovely batch of skorpa baked, you will be ready for a lovely fika. It is wise to keep a tin of skorpa in your freezer at all times, because you never know when a friend may stop by and an impromptu fika may need to happen.

Cardamom Almond Skorpa

makes 75-80 cookies

1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
3 T. sour cream
2 eggs
1 t. almond extract
1 t. cardamom, freshly ground
1/2 cup chopped almonds, lightly toasted
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1/8 t. baking soda
1/8 t. salt
egg white for brushing the tops (optional)
pearl or turbinado sugar for decorating (optional)
3 oz. good quality chocolate (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If your almonds are not already toasted, lay the chopped nuts on a baking sheet and place in oven until they are lightly golden. Cool.

Cream butter and sugar together in a stand mixer. Add eggs one at a time. Add sour cream, almond extract and cardamom. Add chopped almonds. Sift dry ingredients together and add.

Mix together on lowest speed just until the dough is uniform. Remove dough from bowl and divide into four portions.

Form each portion into a roll the length of a 12 x 16 inch baking sheet, and place two rolls lengthwise on each pan. You will have two pans with two rolls on each.

Brush each roll of dough with egg white and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, rotating pans half way through baking.

When cookies are baked remove from oven and decrease oven temperature to 300 degrees. Slice cookies diagonally cross-wise every half-inch while still warm.

Arrange cookies on the baking sheet on their sides. Toast in oven for about 7 minutes. Flip cookies over, and toast again on the other side. When cool, store in an air-tight container.

If you desire your cookies to have chocolate drizzled on top, carefully melt chocolate in a small bowl over a pan of hot water, being very careful to not get any water or steam into the chocolate. Set the cookies in rows so they are close to each other. Using a fork, drizzle thin lines of chocolate back and forth over the tops of the skorpa. Separate the cookies from each other, and allow the chocolate to cool and solidify.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mediterranean Eggplant & Barley Salad

I taught a class this week called "The Bounty of Late Summer"—all about ways to use and enjoy the abundance that fills the Midwestern farmers' markets in August and September (eggplant, summer squash, peppers, tomatoes....). I included a recipe in the class for a Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad that I found several years ago in Gourmet. It is one of my favorite recipes. As I told my class, the variety of tastes and textures make this salad something a good friend would call "a party in your mouth". I mentioned this pilaf in a post I wrote last year on how to "build" a grain and vegetable pilaf but didn't think I would ever devote an entire post to it since the recipe is available on line at Epicurious. But every time I make it, I am struck by how good it is, so I thought I would go ahead and post it on my blog so that even more people will be exposed to this fantastic salad.

The recipe is self-explanatory and easy to execute as written...I will only elaborate on a couple of points. First, the barley. Make sure the barley is rinsed before it is added to the onion-spice base. This will rinse off some of the surface starch that might cause the final pilaf to be gummy. Any extra water that is still clinging to the grains will be removed when you cook the barley in the hot oil before adding the liquid. This brief sauté of the grain is important—it helps to harden off the surface starches (a further protection against stickiness). I always tell people when sautéing a grain for a pilaf, continue to cook and stir until the grain is well-coated in the hot fat and literally sizzling and snapping.

The other thing to pay close attention to is the roasting of the vegetables. If you are a novice when it comes to roasting vegetables, check out my post from last year on the basics. The most important thing to remember when making this pilaf is that while any vegetable will take on better color and remain more intact during the roasting process if it isn't stirred too much, it is particularly true of vegetables that become very soft when they are cooked (like eggplant and zucchini). Wait until the surfaces have begun to seal and you can see that they are beginning to color before you start to stir.

The eggplant and zucchini in this recipe are diced small and are cooked in a very hot oven—they only cook for about 20 to 25 minutes. They really shouldn't be stirred until after at least 15 minutes (near the end of the cooking time). Stirring too early or too frequently, will result in a lumpy pile of mashed eggplant and zucchini rather than a sheet pan filled with beautiful golden cubes of roasted vegetables. Not stirring them at all during the roasting process would be preferable to stirring them before the surfaces have had a chance to begin to caramelize.

And when/if you stir, be efficient and purposeful with your motions. The goal is to turn the vegetables over. Use a large pancake style turner to scoop under the vegetables (cleanly releasing them from the sheet) and then flip them over. When all of the vegetables have been turned over, give the sheet pan a quick shake to make sure the vegetables are once again in an even, single layer. Simply "stirring" randomly will encourage the vegetables to break apart.

The recipe directs you to use two cookie sheets. This is not just a way to get you to dirty more dishes. It is to make sure that the vegetables aren't too crowded while they are roasting. If they are crowded and piled on top of one another, they won't caramelize well (if at all) and are more likely to cook into a steamy, lumpy blob. The vegetables need to be in a single layer on the sheets—and not too crowded—so that the moisture in the vegetables has room to escape as they cook. These vegetables are full of water. You will be amazed at the amount of steam they give off during early stages of the roasting process. When you open the oven at the half way point to rotate the pans, you will be greeted by a cloud of steam (which you will particularly notice if you wear glasses). When the vegetables are done roasting, wait for them to stop steaming before you combine the two pans.

Recently I have begun to occasionally prepare this pilaf with Semi-Pearled Farro instead of Pearled Barley. It is delicious either way, but I think I may even like the Farro version better. If you do prepare the pilaf with Farro, you will need less liquid. Reduce the total amount to 2 cups. As with the Barley, rinse the Farro before adding it to the hot fat.

I have also successfully prepared this dish with water in place of the chicken stock. I think the recipe was written with canned stock in mind, so there is no mention of adding salt to the grain while it cooks. If you use water, you will need to salt the water in which the Barley (or Farro) is cooked.  A nice advantage of using water, is that it makes this a vegetarian dish. Another advantage of using water instead of stock is that you can feel a little bit better about making this salad for a picnic or potluck. Foods sit out at unsafe temperatures for long periods of time at potlucks and picnics—far longer than would be advisable for something prepared with a meat stock.

This recipe makes copious quantities of salad. But this is actually a good thing since it keeps well—neither the Barley or the Farro will become soggy. The salad is also highly portable, so besides making an excellent contribution to a picnic or potluck, the leftovers make good lunchbox fare. Add a piece of cheese and something tasty for dessert (some fresh fruit...or a brownie...) and your coworkers will be eyeing your lunch with envy.

Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad

1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, white & green kept separately
1 1/2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. ground coriander
1/8 to 1/4 t. cayenne, to taste
1 1/4 c. pearl barley (8 oz.), rinsed
1 3/4 c. chicken stock
3/4 c. water
1 1/2 lb. eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 lb. zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
10 T. olive oil
Salt & freshly ground pepper
2 T. fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1/2 lb. cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered, depending on their size
1/3 c. Kalamata or other brine-cured black olives, pitted & halved
1/2 c. thinly sliced red onion, rinsed & drained
2/3 c. coarsely chopped parsley
1/4 to 1/2 c. basil or mint chiffonade

Heat 2 T. oil in a 3- to 4- quart heavy pot over medium to medium high heat. Add the white part of the scallions and cook until tender. Add the cumin, coriander and cayenne and cook a moment more, or until fragrant. Add the barley and cook, stirring, until well coated with oil and sizzling—about 2 minutes. Add the broth and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until all of the liquid is absorbed and the barley is tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, covered, 5 minutes.

While the barley cooks, arrange the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Toss the eggplant and zucchini in a generous amount of olive oil (about 5 T.) and season with salt & pepper. Spread the vegetables between 2 rimmed baking sheets. Roast the vegetables at 425°. To insure even cooking, rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom half way through the cooking time. 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. Cool briefly before combining the vegetables in one of the pans. Let them cool completely while the barley finishes cooking.

When the barley is done cooking, transfer it to the second vegetable pan (now empty) and spread so it will cool quickly to room temperature—this should take 20 minutes or so.

In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, garlic and salt & pepper. Whisk in 3 T. olive oil. Add the barley, roasted vegetables and all of the remaining ingredients and toss to combine well.

Serve at room temperature as an accompaniment to grilled meat or chicken or as an entrée with a few slices of Ricotta Salata or Feta. Serves 4 to 6 as a main course and 8 as a side dish.

Note: The salad can be made ahead. Store, covered, in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Variation: The salad is excellent made with Semi-Pearled Farro instead of Pearled Barley. Reduce the total amount of liquid from 2 1/2 cups to 2 cups. The Farro will cook in 25 to 30 minutes. When it is tender, allow it to rest (covered) for 5 minutes as for the Barley.

(Recipe adapted from Gourmet, September 2006)

Printable Recipe

Monday, August 15, 2011

Farfalle with Heirloom Tomatoes, Roasted Peppers, Capers & Olives

There are three or four growers at my farmers' market that grow such beautiful things that no matter what the season, I always stop to see what they have. I almost always buy something from each of them. One of them--Nature's Choice Biodynamic Farm—grows the most spectacular array of heirloom tomatoes imaginable. I have to be very careful not to buy too many. They are so beautiful. And they taste amazing. I eat most of them raw...but I occasionally cook with them too (particularly the red ones). Recently, inspired by a pasta on the August cover of Martha Stewart Living and a Green Zebra and Yellow Tomato Pasta in the August issue of Food & Wine, I made an "uncooked" pasta sauce with some of the multicolored heirlooms.

I actually started planning my dinner that night around some beautiful red and yellow sweet peppers that I had purchased at the farmers' market. I love roasted peppers dressed with olive oil that has been infused with thinly sliced garlic and capers. This simple concoction is wonderful on top of a crostini smeared with ricotta or goat cheese. And with the addition of a squeeze of lemon it makes a marvelous sauce for Halibut. I thought it would also make a fine sauce for pasta.

When I walked into the kitchen to start preparing the peppers, my eyes fell on the big bowl of multicolored tomatoes sitting on the counter. One of my favorite quick summer pastas is made by tossing hot pasta with chopped vine ripened tomatoes that have been allowed to marinate briefly in a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and basil. As I looked at the bowl of tomatoes on the counter, it occurred to me to combine the two sauces—using the roasted pepper-garlic-caper mixture as the marinade for the tomatoes.

And this is pretty much what I ended up doing. In addition to the capers and garlic, I threw in some olives, too.  Once you begin to think about all of the things that go well with peppers and tomatoes, the possible variations begin to multiply. Anchovies...added with the capers to the sizzling garlic...would add some interesting depth to the sauce. Hot pepper flakes always add a nice bit of heat and could be added to the sizzling garlic and capers—or for a more subtle heat they could be added when the pepper mixture has cooled to room temperature. Herbs are another obvious addition. Rosemary, marjoram (or oregano), basil or parsley would all be appropriate. I would be inclined to add the rosemary with the capers (to allow it to sizzle a bit in the hot oil) whereas the other, softer herbs would be better added once the oil has cooled. The aforementioned balsamic or lemon can be used to balance the acidity of the sauce....but red wine vinegar would be fine too.

The idea is to produce a sauce filled with lively, but not overpowering, flavors. Maybe just choose one herb...and perhaps only one or two of the three salty ingredients (capers, anchovy or olives) mentioned above. It's almost always better to opt for fewer, rather than more, ingredients—in this case remembering that all of the additions are supporting players to the sweet roasted peppers and ripe heirloom tomatoes. They are so good that it would be a shame to drown them out with too many other competing flavors.

I loved the way this sauce turned out. Since sweetness and acidity levels vary from one variety of tomato to another, opting for a mixture of heirlooms gave a much greater range and depth of tomato flavor than the pasta sauce would have had if only one variety of tomato had been used.  Beyond that, when you use a multicolored variety of tomatoes, the marinated peppers and tomatoes are astonishingly beautiful to look at. Besides dressing pasta beautifully, they would make a pretty fine topping for bruschetta—where their juices would be absorbed by the toasted bread and their colors would be on display.

As much as I would love for people to sample this dish of marinated heirloom tomatoes and roasted peppers, I am really much more interested in encouraging people who have never tasted an heirloom tomato to rush out and get some before the summer is over.  They are not too hard to find.  Any local farmers' market should have them in abundance.  In the past few years even grocery stores have begun to stock them from local sources.   If you love tomatoes, once you have tasted an heirloom, you will begin to seek them out.  And when you discover that you are waiting with eager anticipation for your personal favorite (mine is Green Zebra) to appear at the market each year, you will know you are hooked. 

Farfalle with Heirloom Tomatoes & Roasted Peppers

2 bell (or other sweet) peppers—red, yellow or orange
2 1/2 to 3 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled, trimmed and sliced
1 T. capers
8 oz. multi-colored heirloom tomatoes, cored and diced
pinch hot pepper flakes—to taste
10 to 12 Kalamata olives, halved
Salt & Pepper
juice of half a lemon
2 T. chopped Italian parsley
8 oz. farfalle (any noodle with a wide flat surface will work well for this dish)
Finely grated Parmesan (optional)

Rub the peppers with olive oil and roast over an open flame, on a grill or under the broiler until the skin is charred and blistered. Allow the peppers to cool. Remove the skins, cores and seeds (do this over a sieve placed over a bowl to capture the juice from the peppers). Cut the peppers into ½-inch squares; place in the bowl with their juice. Set aside.

In a medium sauté pan placed over medium heat, sauté the garlic in 2 to 3 T. of olive oil until it is fragrant and just beginning to turn a pale golden color.

Add the capers, followed by the peppers, and toss to coat with the oil. Cook just until hot through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and allow to cool in the pan.

Core the tomatoes and cut into a rough half inch dice. Place in a large bowl with the hot pepper flakes and olives. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the cooled pepper mixture. Add the parsley. Add lemon juice to taste. If time allows, let the mixture to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes or so.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water, until al dente. Drain and add to the bowl of marinated tomatoes and peppers; toss to combine. Transfer the pasta to a large serving platter or divide among individual plates. Sprinkle with Parmesan, if desired. Serves 2 to 3.

Printable Recipe

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pasta with Eggplant, Tomatoes & Red Peppers

I seem to be on somewhat of an eggplant binge.  This will be my third post featuring eggplant in the past couple of weeks. But that's OK...it is, after all, eggplant season. From now until the end of September—and even into October if we are lucky—the market stalls will be filled with these beautiful oval globes (as well as an abundant supply of the more diminutive varieties). If you have never tried eggplant...or think you don't like it...today's post is for you.  When smothered in a sunny pasta sauce of vine ripened tomatoes, alongside tender chunks of sweet bell peppers, eggplant is easy to love.  

I have been making this pasta sauce from Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking for twenty years. It is one of my all time favorites and I am passing it along to you virtually unchanged from the original. This sauce is truly the essence of simplicity. Other than the three main ingredients (eggplant, bell peppers and tomatoes) there are only two other ingredients—olive oil and hot pepper flakes.  Even the method of preparation is simple:  The eggplant is sautéed and removed from the pan.

Then the tomatoes are added to the still hot pan where they quickly reduce into a nicely concentrated pulpy sauce.

The eggplant is then returned to the pan along with diced bell peppers and pepper flakes. The whole thing then gently simmers until everything is just tender and the flavors are well blended—about an hour.

For a few years I made a more complicated version of this recipe that involved sweating the peppers with onion and garlic before adding the tomatoes and eggplant—more along the lines of a traditional tomato-based sauce. It just didn't make sense to me to stew the peppers in the sauce without sweating them in some olive oil first. Furthermore, it seemed to me that adding onions and garlic would add some nice depth, subtlety and sweetness. And I suppose it did add all of these things. But somehow the clean, vibrant summer flavors of the original dish were lost. As for my idea of sweating the peppers first, I came to appreciate the fact that the original method of gently cooking the raw peppers in a tomato-y bath yielded soft, tender peppers with no trace of toughness or bitterness. Truly sometimes things are best left just the way they are.

I have probably included this sauce in almost every summer pasta class I have ever taught. One year someone came up to me after a class on a totally different topic and said they wanted to let me know that they had taken my summer pasta class and that they were so glad that I had taught this particular sauce in that class. They then said that when they signed up, they thought this would be a dish they wouldn't like because they didn't like eggplant.  They had gone ahead and taken the class because they had known they would get four other good recipes to make up for it. As it turned out, the eggplant sauce was their favorite. So for all of you out there who think you don't like eggplant, if you have read this far, I encourage you to give this recipe a try. You will be amazed at how good it is.

Pasta with Eggplant, Tomato & Peppers

4 T. olive oil
1 large eggplant (about 1 lb.), cut into 3/4-inch pieces
3 large or 4 medium red bell peppers, cored, seeded & cut into 3/4-inch pieces
2 lbs. tomatoes, peeled, seeded & chopped—juices reserved
1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1 lb. Fusilli, Penne or Rigatoni

Heat 2 T. of oil in a large, deep-sided skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the eggplant, and cook for several minutes, stirring and turning occasionally, until browned on all sides. If the eggplant is sticking, or seems a bit dry, add a bit of the remaining 2 T. of olive oil.

When the eggplant is golden all over, remove to a plate and add the remaining oil to the pan. Add the tomatoes along with their juices. Because the pan is still quite hot from sautéing the eggplant, the tomatoes will bubble furiously when they hit the pan. This is as it should be, you are trying to concentrate the tomatoes a bit. Cook the tomatoes—regulating the heat to maintain a rapid simmer—stirring from time to time, until thickened—about 10 minutes. Return the eggplant to the pan along with the bell peppers. Stir and season to taste with the hot pepper flake, salt & pepper. Cover and simmer gently until the peppers are tender, the flavors have blended and the sauce is no longer brilliant red in color—about 1 hour.

Just before the sauce is ready, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2-3 Tablespoons of salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss well. Add some pasta water if the sauce seems dry. If you like, stir in some extra virgin olive oil to enrich the sauce and add a nice sheen. Taste and correct the seasoning. Serves 4 to 6.

(Recipe adapted from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Eggplant-Tomato Gratin

Last weekend I purchased some leeks from one of my favorite farmers. I don't ordinarily think of leeks as being a summer food (probably because most of the farmers at my market don't grow leeks), but there they were...and I knew they would be really good...so I bought them.  Because I'm not in the habit of cooking with  leeks during the summer months, I didn't know at first what I would do with them. But then I remembered an eggplant-tomato gratin that I haven't made for several years. It is definitely summer food...and it's built on top of a bed of wilted leeks. Perfect.

If someone were to tell you that they were going to serve you an eggplant-tomato gratin, it is likely that you would immediately have a mental picture of something like eggplant parmesan...layers of eggplant in a rich tomato sauce. I love that type of gratin. I posted a French version last summer. But this gratin is nothing like that. It has much more in common with the Summer Squash Gratin that I posted last month—layers of vegetables with herbs, olive oil and breadcrumbs. Unlike that gratin (and the aforementioned eggplant parmesan-style of gratin), this one is relatively quick to prepare—provided you have all of the ingredients on hand. And as with many of my recipes, if you have a few herbs growing in your garden, and you shop at your farmers' market, you probably have most of these ingredients in your refrigerator (or your pantry) already.

This gratin is patterned after one I found in the cookbook Chez Panisse Vegetables. The original recipe uses sweet summer onions instead of leeks. So even if no one at your farmers' market has leeks, you can still make a similar gratin since there will certainly be several growers who will have onions. To make the gratin with onions, thinly slice or finely chop two or three onions and wilt them in the butter and olive oil instead of the leeks.

In looking back over previous posts, I'm a bit surprised to see that I have not yet written a post that included a description of how to clean a leek.  Leeks grow in sandy soil and can be very gritty—they should always be carefully cleaned. There are few things more unpleasant (or irritating if you have spent a lot of time preparing a dish) than taking a bite of food and getting a mouthful of grit. 

To clean a leek, first cut as directed in the recipe.  Drop the cut leeks into a large bowl filled with water. Swish them around and then allow them to stand for a minute or two so that any dirt, sand or grit can settle to the bottom of the bowl. Lift the leeks out of the bowl with a large slotted spoon or a bowl sieve and transfer to another bowl or a colander. (Don't pour the contents of the bowl—leeks and water—into a colander because all of the dirt and grit will be poured back over the leeks.) Rinse the bowl and fill with water again. Add the leeks and proceed as before. Repeat the rinsing and draining process with fresh changes of water until there is no grit remaining in the bowl after the water has been poured off.  

Whether you use leeks or onions, this light and flavorful gratin will make a wonderful side dish for a hot summer evening. It can of course be served piping hot, but the flavors seem more pronounced when it has been allowed to cool until it is just tepid. It is the perfect accompaniment to grilled or sautéed lamb or chicken (along with a green vegetable). Or, if you prefer a meatless meal, you could serve it with a green salad, some goat cheese and a nice loaf of crusty bread.

Eggplant-Tomato Gratin

3 medium leeks, white and tender green only, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced and rinsed in multiple changes of water
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bay leaf (fresh, if you can get it)
salt & pepper
1 T. butter
2 T. extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large globe eggplant (about 1 lb.)—see note below
3 tomatoes (about 1 1/2 lbs.)—see note below
2 to 3 T. chopped herbs (winter savory, thyme, marjoram and/or oregano)
1/2 c. Toasted breadcrumbs (recipe below)

In a large sauté pan set over medium heat, wilt the leeks in the butter and olive oil with the garlic and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper. When the leeks are tender and their liquid has evaporated (after 20 to 30 minutes), spread in an even layer in the bottom of an oiled gratin or 2 1/2 quart shallow baking dish (discard the bay leaf); set aside. (Leeks may be wilted ahead. Bring to room temperature before building the gratin.)

If the peel of the eggplant seems tough, "stripe" the eggplant by peeling uniformly spaced strips of peel off in lengthwise strips. Slice the eggplant and tomatoes into ¼-inch thick rounds.

Arrange the eggplant and tomatoes on top of the leeks in overlapping rows of alternating slices of eggplant and tomato. Each slice should cover the previous slice by at least two-thirds. Season generously with salt and pepper and scatter the herbs over all. Drizzle generously with olive oil and cover with foil.

Bake in a preheated 400° oven until the eggplant is very tender—about 45 minutes.

Remove the foil and cover the gratin with the toasted breadcrumbs. Continue to bake until the juices are reduced and thickened—another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven. Let the gratin rest for at least 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Serve hot or tepid. Serves 6

Note: Try and select eggplant and tomatoes that are roughly the same circumference. In some cases this may mean using 2 or 3 Japanese eggplant instead of the globe eggplant.

Toasted Breadcrumbs: In a food processor, process sliced/torn bread (crusts removed if very hard), until bread is in uniform soft crumbs. Spread crumbs on a rimmed cookie sheet and “toast” in a 350° oven until golden brown and dry, stirring occasionally (about 10 minutes). Drizzle with some olive oil and toss to combine. Crumbs can be used immediately or cooled and stored airtight at room temperature for a week or so.