Monday, October 29, 2018

Baked Rigatoni alla Norma (with Roasted Red Peppers…)

We had an early hard freeze this year.  In most years I can count on being able to get tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini and other late season vegetables until the end of October…and sometimes even into the first few days of November.  But this year, a freeze early in the month put an end to the growing season for these crops.  So a couple of weeks ago when growers brought the last of these favorites into the market, I bought all that I thought I could reasonably use up in the foreseeable future. 

Saturday I decided that their moment was truly over.  I had one large eggplant, a couple of poblanos and two large red bell peppers left.  I roasted all the peppers.  I packaged the poblanos and stuck them in the freezer.  The roasted bells that remained and the eggplant seemed like they had great potential for saucing some pasta for dinner that night.    

I have been thinking about Pasta alla Norma for a while now.   For those unfamiliar with this classic Sicilian pasta—it is a simple, but intensely flavored, pasta sauce of fried eggplant in tomato sauce.  It is typically seasoned with basil and finished with ricotta salata. I have been thinking about it because it seems like recipes for it have been crossing my path with some regularity in recent weeks.  Joshua McFadden has a sausage enhanced variation in his Six Seasons (which is a recent addition to my cookbook library.)   There have been others, but the one in the October issue of Bon Appétit—a baked riff on alla Norma, served burnished and bubbling in a cast iron skillet—looked particularly beguiling.

So, I decided to take advantage of the contents of my pantry and make my own variation.  I followed Bon Appétit’s lead and baked the sauced pasta in the same cast iron I used to fry the eggplant.  Since I seem to recall seeing several recipes that included capers, I decided to add some of those.  And if Joshua McFadden can add sausage to the classic, then I can certainly add some roasted red peppers.  My fresh basil succumbed to a fungus a while back (and would have died during our recent hard freeze, in any case), so I added a shower of dried oregano.  And since I love baked pastas filled with pockets of fresh ricotta, I substituted fresh ricotta for the salted and drained version.

In ordinary years I would have made my tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes from the market, but I used up the last ones in a sauce of some kind over a week ago (and didn’t get around to freezing any this year…).  Fortunately, I had just this week stocked my pantry with canned San Marzano style tomatoes.  So I used a can of those to make a basic sauce.  If you have a favorite sauce you like to make, you should feel free to use it—you will need 2 cups. 

Before I finish, I want to comment about my method for the eggplant.  In general I am not a fan of pre-salting eggplant.  Pre-salting is used as a way to draw out the juices from the eggplant that tend to become bitter as the eggplant sits in storage.  Since I mostly use fresh, peak season eggplant, I usually don’t find it necessary to salt it ahead.  But for the eggplant I wanted to use in my pasta—that had been hanging out in my produce bin for at least two weeks—I decided salting ahead would be a good idea.  Since pre-salting has the additional benefit of making the eggplant flesh less prone to absorbing oil, I was able to use a bit less oil for the frying.  If you use recently harvested eggplant that doesn’t need pre-salting, you might need to add a touch more oil during the frying process. 

I honestly had no intention of posting this recipe…I really just wanted to be a good steward of the produce so carefully grown by our local growers.  But it turned out to be fantastic—one of those baked pastas that you have to force yourself to remove from the table so you won’t continue to nibble away at it until you’ve eaten way more than your fill.  I just had to share it.  Not only was it delicious right out of the oven, it reheated beautifully to make a very satisfying lunch the next day (with a fresh drizzle of oil…and a sprinkling of more pecorino or parmesan).  Sadly—since I’m all out of peppers and eggplant—I won’t be able to make it again this year.  But perhaps you still have some peppers and eggplant in your pantry…in which case, you really should make this.  As for me, when the season for eggplant and peppers arrives again…this pasta bake will be at the top of my list.    

Baked Rigatoni alla Norma

1 large globe eggplant (about 500 to 550 g.)
Kosher salt
2 large red bell peppers (about 400 to 450 g.)
6 T. olive oil, divided
4 to 5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 t. hot pepper flakes (more or less, to taste)
2 t. dried oregano
2 T. capers, drained and rinsed
3/4 lb. rigatoni (or other short sturdy pasta)
200 g. whole milk ricotta
2 oz. (2/3 c.) finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino…or a mix of the two

Preheat the broiler to high.

Top and tail the eggplant.  Slice the eggplant cross-wise into 1/2-inch thick rounds.  Cut the rounds in half.  Cut the halves into 1/2-inch wide sticks.  In a large bowl, toss the eggplant with a slightly mounded teaspoon of kosher salt.  Transfer the eggplant to a colander and let drain for a half hour. 

While the eggplant drains, roast the peppers.  Rub the peppers with a thin film of oil and place on a small baking sheet.  Run the peppers under the broiler, turning them as they char until they are charred and blistered all over.  Remove from under the broiler and set aside to cool.  Place the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°. 

When cool enough to handle, peel and seed the peppers (working over a sieve set over a bowl so that you can capture any juices released by the peppers).  Discard the skin and seeds and cut the flesh of the peppers into 1/2-inch wide strips.  Cut the strips in half so that the pepper strips will be similar in length to the eggplant pieces.  Add the pepper strips to any pepper juicers and set aside

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce.  Place a medium sauté over moderate heat.  Add a quarter cup of olive oil to the pan along with the garlic and pepper flakes.  Cook until the garlic is sizzling and just beginning to acquire a faint golden tinge.  Add the tomatoes (that have been pulsed in the food processor or run through a food mill fitted with the largest disc).  Bring to a simmer.  Add the oregano.  Simmer until the sauce is thickened and reduced to 2 cups.  This will take about 20 minutes.  Taste and correct the seasoning.

When the eggplant has been sitting for half an hour, quickly rinse under a spray of running water.  Shake the colander to get rid of the excess water and transfer the eggplant to a double thickness of kitchen towels.  Place another double thickness of kitchen towels over the eggplant and press and scrunch to absorb the water and dry off the eggplant.

Place a large cast iron skillet over medium high to high heat.  Add 2 T. of olive oil.  When the olive oil is shimmering, add the eggplant, spreading it out into a snug single layer.  Cook, turning the eggplant pieces occasionally and regulating the heat to prevent scorching (while maintaining an active sizzle) until the eggplant is golden and tender to the tip of a knife.  This will take about 20 to 30 minutes (you will probably need to reduce the heat to medium after about 10 minutes of cooking).  When the eggplant is tender, add the tomato sauce, capers, and the peppers along with their liquid to the pan.  Bring to a simmer before reducing the heat to the lowest setting to keep the sauce warm and allow the flavors to blend while you cook the pasta.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.  Add the rigatoni and cook for five minutes. It will still be quite al dente.  Drain, reserving a small amount of the pasta water.  Transfer the pasta to a large bowl—or return it to the pot.  Add the sauce to the bowl/pot (scraping the skillet well with a heatproof rubber spatula) and fold the sauce and pasta together.  If the pasta seems dry, add a splash of pasta water.  (I didn’t find this necessary, but it is conceivable that you might if your tomato sauce is very thick.)  Transfer half of the pasta and sauce back to the cast iron skillet and dollop evenly with half of the ricotta.  

Scatter half of the Parmesan/Pecorino over all.  

Repeat this layering with the remaining pasta and sauce, ricotta and Parmesan/Pecorino. 

Place the skillet in a preheated 375° oven and bake until the ricotta is tinged with golden brown—about 25 to 30 minutes.  Serves 4 to 6.

  • My large cast iron skillet measures 11 1/4-inches across the top (it is slightly flared, so it would have a slightly smaller diameter at the bottom).  It holds 3 quarts.  If you don’t have a cast iron skillet that is about this size, you can of course use any heavy oven proof skillet that has the same capacity.  You can also mix up the pasta and sauce and then layer it into an oiled 3-quart casserole (13- by 9-inch or equivalent).  Bake as directed in the recipe.
  • You can make the roasted red peppers and tomato sauce ahead.  In a pinch you could use a good quality prepared tomato sauce.  You can also use your favorite homemade sauce.  You will need 2 cups.  I have never found a processed/jarred roasted pepper that I thought was worth eating.
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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Honey & Walnut Cake (with a Shiny Chocolate Glaze)

I have had my eye on the Honey Walnut Cake in Maria Helm Sinskey’s The Vineyard Kitchen ever since I added her book to my cookbook library…which is to say, for a long time.  Last week I finally got around to making it.  I wanted to include it in the next installment of a series of classes I have been teaching with recipes (and variations of recipes) from cookbooks that are organized around the seasons. 

I admit that I was disappointed in the result.  In fairness, I think that my reaction had more to do with the cake I had been imagining all of this time rather than any flaw in the recipe.  The cake I produced from her recipe was firm and fine grained (rather pound cake-like, in fact) and lightly sweet.  I think I expected something softer (honey cakes tend to be soft)…and sweeter.   So rather than adjust my expectations, I decided to try and come up with the cake I wanted….one that kept Sinskey’s delicious flavors (honey and toasted walnut…with just a touch of orange), but had the texture and sweetness that I had imagined.

As I began to look around, I was surprised to discover that there weren’t a lot of honey cakes made with nut flour with which to compare her recipe.  I finally ran across a plain honey cake at King Arthur.  As I compared the recipes it seemed to me that if I substituted walnut flour for the whole wheat flour in the King Arthur recipe that I might have a cake that, with the addition of a little vanilla and orange zest, would actually be the cake I wanted—loftier from the addition of an egg…and softer and sweeter because it was sweetened with all honey (and quite a bit more of it at that).  I’m happy to report it worked beautifully. 

Neither cake in its original form is frosted.  The King Arthur cake includes a scattering of almonds…and Sinskey decorates her cake with a few honey glazed walnuts.   There is of course nothing wrong with this.  I think that if you make this cake and serve it plainly—with maybe a light sifting of powdered sugar—that you will have a delicious little snack cake.  But from the beginning, I have thought that this cake was crying out for some chocolate.

 Not only does the chocolate taste delicious with the honey and walnut flavors of the cake, but the shiny chocolate and honey glaze I made looks fantastic as a background for Sinskey’s honey glazed walnuts.  The cake still makes a fine afternoon snack…with a cup of tea…   But with the chocolate glaze it becomes elegant enough for a dinner party or other special autumn occasion.  And since honey cakes have excellent keeping qualities (staying moist and delicious for several days), you can make this cake at least a day ahead…leaving you free to work on other things the day of your party.  Basically it’s a perfect autumn and holiday dessert….which is sort of what I had in mind all along…. 
Honey & Walnut Cake

142g (1 1/2 c.) walnuts
112g (1 c.) all purpose flour 
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
170g (12 T.) unsalted butter, at room temperature (very soft)
Zest of 1 orange
340g (1 c.) honey
4 large eggs (at room temperature)—beaten until smooth
60g (1/4 c.) yogurt
1 t. vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Spread the walnuts on a small baking sheet and toast until golden and fragrant—about 8 minutes.  Remove the nuts from the oven and let cool.  Using a rotary nut grinder, grind the walnuts to a flour.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F.  Lightly butter a 9-inch round cake pan (2 inches deep). Line the pan with a round of parchment.  Butter the parchment.  Flour the pan, tapping out the excess. 

In a medium bowl, whisk together the walnut and all purpose flours, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

Place the butter and orange zest in the bowl of an electric mixer.  With the machine running, add the honey.  When the honey is mostly incorporated, add the eggs in the same manner. Scrape down the sides and mix briefly until the mixture is mostly smooth (there may still be flecks of butter visible…this is OK.)  

Fold in the reserved flour mixture.  Stir in the yogurt and vanilla.  Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to be sure everything is evenly moistened.  After scraping, mix again just until you have a smooth, medium-thick batter.  Over mixing will result in a dense, slightly greasy, cake. 

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.  Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until the edge of the cake pulls back from the edge of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  The cake will also be springy to the touch.  Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool for 10 to 15 minutes before removing from the pan.  Cool the cake right side up on a wire rack.  The cake may be served plainly (with a dusting of powdered sugar), or with a chocolate glaze. 

Serves 12. 

(Recipe adapted from King Arthur and The Vineyard Kitchen by Maria Helm Sinskey)

Chocolate Honey Glaze (from Cocolat): Place 3 oz. of chopped bittersweet chocolate in a microwave safe bowl along with 2 oz. of unsalted butter (cut into pieces) and 1 1/2 T. (32g) of honey. Microwave on medium (50% power) until almost melted. Stir gently until completely smooth. Cool until the glaze mounds briefly before disappearing when dropped from a spoon. Place the cake on a wire rack set over a parchment lined sheet pan.  Pour the glaze directly over the center of the cake and using an offset spatula, spread the glaze out to the edges allowing it to drip naturally down the sides.  When the glaze is mostly set, garnish with honey glazed walnuts, if desired.

Honey-Glazed Walnuts:  Choose 12 attractive, walnut halves.  Toast in a 350° oven until golden and fragrant (5 to 8 minutes).  Remove from the oven and while still warm, place in a bowl and drizzle with 1/2 to 1 T. of honey.  Stir until well coated.  Transfer to a rack.  Garnish the edge of the cake with the glazed walnut halves.

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Monday, October 8, 2018

Early Autumn Medley of Roasted Eggplant & Peppers with Chickpeas and Freekeh

Although eggplant and bell peppers are technically summer vegetables, they continue to appear on my table all through the early weeks of fall.  I may even like them better in the fall.  During the late summer I am so busy consuming my fill of corn and tomatoes and summer squash that these rich jewels of late summer are sometimes pushed to the side.  But when the weather begins to turn cool…and the light begins to fade before we sit down to eat…I am really in the mood for the savory and substantial gratins, tarts, pastas, ragouts and stews in which these two really shine.

The recipe I’m sharing today is a perfect example of this.  It has more substance than the things I am likely to prepare on a warm summer day—but it is perfect for a cool evening.  Furthermore, as a person who is very attached to the light, it is cheering to be able to serve these vibrant fruits of summer during the rapidly fading light of an early fall evening.    

There are really two recipes embedded in this one recipe.  One is for a medley of chickpeas and roasted eggplant and peppers—all dressed in a lemony vinaigrette.  On a hot summer day, it would make a fantastic side for grilled lamb or steak.  Just add herbs (parsley, basil, mint or marjoram)…and maybe a few olives....

The other recipe is for a spiced freekeh pilaf.  I have posted several freekeh pilafs in the past and this is only slightly altered from those.  The first time I made this dish I spiced my pilaf with cinnamon and cumin.  The second time, I was measuring out the cinnamon when all of a sudden it occurred to me that fennel seed would be delicious instead of cinnamon.  I preferred the fennel…but you should use whichever you like best.  If you don’t have any freekeh…or don’t like it…simply substitute medium bulgur.  Bulgur only takes 15 to 20 minutes to cook (rather than 20 to 25), so adjust the recipe accordingly.  You could also simply serve the medley of vegetables on a mound of plain couscous.

This moment when the time is right for hearty eggplant and pepper preparations is short.  In a couple of weeks I know I will be totally ready for winter squash…and root vegetables…and rich, meat stews and braises.  But for now, dishes like this one are the perfect way for me to ease into the new season without quite letting go of the one that came before.

Early Autumn Medley of Roasted Eggplant & Peppers
with Chickpeas and Freekeh

This recipe might seem a bit complicated and lengthy, but it isn’t really.  It is difficult to express in the instructions, but many or the steps can be accomplished simultaneously.  I have kept the instructions for the “topping” of roasted vegetables and chickpeas together and separate from the preparation of the freekeh pilaf for clarity, but when you make it, it will be most efficient to sort of do everything at once.  Start with the bell peppers.  While they are roasting, start the onions for the pilaf.  Then, make the lemon-garlic vinaigrette and add the chickpeas.  When the peppers are done, put the eggplant in the oven.  At that point the onions will be done and you can add the freekeh and spices.  The eggplant will roast while the freekeh cooks.  You will be free during this time to peel and seed the peppers and mince the herbs.  The nuts can be toasted after the eggplant comes out of the oven.  (Or, if you prefer to do some of the work ahead, the bell pepper can be roasted, peeled and seeded ahead…and the nuts can be toasted, chopped and seasoned ahead.)

1 to 1 1/4 lb. red bell peppers (2 large or 3 medium)
Olive oil
2 T. lemon juice
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1/4 t. cayenne
1 15-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 lb. eggplant, topped & tailed and cut into 3/4- to 1-inch cubes
1/4 to 1/3 c. pistachios
1 medium red onion (about 8 oz), finely diced
1 1/3 c. freekeh, rinsed
1 t. fennel seed, crushed in a mortar & pestle
1 1/2 t. ground cumin
1 1/2 c. water
1/2 c. golden raisins
1 to 2 T. minced parsley
1 to 2 T. minced mint
Strained yogurt, Greek yogurt, or Labneh for serving

Roast the bell peppers:  Preheat the broiler to high.  Rub the peppers with a thin film of olive oil and place on a baking sheet.  Slide the peppers under the broiler, allowing them to char before rotating to expose all sides to the heat of the broiler.  When the skin is blackened and blistered all over, remove from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle.  Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and set the oven to 450°.

While the peppers roast, place the lemon juice, garlic and cayenne in a large bowl.  Whisk to break up the garlic.  Whisk 2 T. olive oil into the lemon mixture.  Add the chickpeas and toss to coat.  Peel and seed the peppers and cut into a rough 1-inch dice.  Add the peppers to the chickpeas, folding to distribute.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt.

Meanwhile, toss the eggplant in a generous amount of olive oil (about 3 T.) and season with salt & pepper.   Transfer the eggplant to a rimmed baking sheet that has been lightly sprayed with pan spray.  Roast in the preheated oven, rotating the pan from front to back  half way through the cooking time.  If you like, "stir" the eggplant once as it cooks by turning it over with a pancake turner.  The eggplant is done when it is golden and tender—about 25 minutes. 

When the eggplant is done cooking, remove from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 350°.  Let the eggplant cool on the sheet for few minutes.  While it is still hot, add it to the bowl with the chickpeas and peppers and fold in.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt, cayenne pepper and lemon juice.  

While the peppers and eggplant roast, cook the freekeh.  Warm 3 T. or so of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot set over medium heat. Add the onions and stir to coat in the fat. Sweat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and translucent and just beginning to take on a bit of color at the edges—about 10 to 15 minutes. Increase the heat to medium high and add the drained freekeh along with the spices and a generous pinch of salt. Continue to cook for a minute  or so until the grains are coated in the oil and sizzling in the hot oil. Add the water and bring to a full boil. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cook, covered until the freekeh is tender—20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and scatter the golden raisins over the surface of the freekeh. Cover and let rest for 5 minutes.  Add the herbs and fluff with a fork.  Taste and correct the seasoning. 

While the freekeh cooks, spread pistachios on a baking sheet and lightly toast in a 350­° oven until fragrant and tinged with a bit of color.  Don’t overdo it—you want the nuts to remain bright green.  Cool, chop coarsely and drizzle with a small amount of oil.  Season with salt.

To serve, mound the freekeh on individual plates or on a large platter.  Spoon the roasted vegetables over the freekeh and scatter the toasted pistachios over all.  Pass strained yogurt or labneh separately.  Serves 4 to 5.

  • Substitute ground cinnamon for the fennel seed in the pilaf.
  • Scatter crumbled Feta over the finished dish instead of passing labneh on the side.
  • Substitute Bulgur for Freekeh.  Cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Use 1 2/3 c. water.