Wednesday, April 8, 2020

HOLIDAYS: A Very Unusual Passover + Recipe: Short Ribs with red wine, coffee, apricots, and almonds


I'd written the opening of this blog post last year, and never posted it in time for Passover as I'd just had a baby, and blog posts were, honestly, not at the top of my priority list. I didn't really think much would overturn giving birth as the top game-changer in my life, but here we are in 2020 (that's 5780 on the Jewish calendar) and, well, consider life's fan officially hit with fecal matter. We're living during a pandemic, an actual plague, so you don't get more meta than celebrating Passover this exact week during this specific year. 

Passover Seder for 40, in more convivial times
In normal times, Passover is a paradox for me and many Jews of like mind: it's a fresh start, the beginning of spring, time for a cleanse, and a great way to jump-start a low-carb diet with enough time in advance of beach season to actually make a difference (beach season! remember that?!) -- but because of this, it's also a time of some suffering, at least for 8 days. A few years back, I developed this recipe for clients of mine who wanted something a little less traditional for their Passover seder: they'd done the brisket and matzo ball soup thing, so why not move on to something a little more adventurous? Enter this short rib dish.


To be fair, I braise short ribs all through the autumn and winter. It is for me, in all its iterations, the classic comfort food dish that brings me back to my youth, when my Dad would request short ribs for a special cool weather dinner. My Dad loves ribs of all kinds, but especially meaty, fall-off-the-bone beef ribs. A rich red wine-beef broth braising liquid reminds me of childhood dinners. Fast forward to the graduation dinner prepared by our class in culinary school for our family and friends: my friend Courtney and I were on main course duty, and our main course happened to be Korean-style braised short ribs with a silky roasted garlic potato puree. I'm pretty sure that dish alone convinced my father that culinary school had been the right career move for me. And now, so many years later, I seem to return to slow-braised beef short ribs as a crowd-pleaser, but also as a kind of signature dish that impresses clients, and can be served to the strictest of kosher diners as well (assuming the beef ribs are kosher, obviously). And like most braised dishes, this kind of cooking is slooowwwww cooking comfort food -- what we all crave right now, and what we all have time for during lockdown, quarantine, shelter in place, pause, and every other form of social distancing we have to suffer through in the time of Covid.

This needn't be a meal for Passover, though it works well for a Seder main course. It's got a bit of the agrodolce or sweet-and-sour thing going on, which is a very historically Jewish way of preparing savory foods. Here, the touch of brown sugar or honey along with the wine and vinegar give it that depth of sweet-sour flavor. Coffee ramps up the rich bitterness, and the almond-dried apricot pairing is redolent of Mediterranean/North African and Sephardic flavor pairings. I like to serve it over a celeriac-potato purée, though for those non-kosher-for-Passover cooks, it's great over polenta as well. I served this to clients with some concia, a Roman Jewish sauteed zucchini dish. It works well here.

So, this Passover, whether you're celebrating it in traditional style, or making up new traditions in these unusual times, instead of fighting for the same old first cut of brisket like everyone else (#covidsedershortage), indulge your quarantine family with a more unusual main course for your meal. While the ribs are braising, you can binge-watch your latest distraction series. I suggest HBO's The Plot Against America (adaptation of Philip Roth's excellent novel, created by David Simon of The Wire fame), Netflix's insane docu-series The Tiger King, Unorthodox, and the always-excellent Ozark. And, as is the Passover tradition -- and extra called-for during this pandemic -- lots of good wine. At least 4 glasses is the rule!



Braised Short Ribs with Red Wine, Coffee, Apricots, and Almond

(6 people)

 

Approx. 4 lb. boneless beef short ribs cut into 3-in pieces
olive oil
6 cloves of garlic, peeled but whole
1 red onion, cut into small dice
4 stalks celery, cut into small dice
3 TBSP flour
1 bottle dry red wine
2 cups beef broth
6 oz. balsamic vinegar
4 oz. espresso or strong black coffee of choice
3 Tablespoons brown sugar OR honey
1-2 bay leaves
½ pound baby carrots, peeled and diced
1 1/2 cups dried apricots, chopped roughly
1 cup roasted almonds, chopped roughly
fresh parsley, chopped
Salt & pepper to taste

- In a heavy-bottomed large skillet or roasting pan, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the cooking vessel. When hot, take the pieces of beef, salt them, and place in the oil. Sear (brown) on all sides, turning as necessary. Repeat until all the pieces of beef are browned but not cooked through.

- Remove the beef from the pot and keep in separate bowl. Add onions and celery and garlic to the pan and cook in the remaining oil until they become translucent/tender. Sprinkle with flour and cook for another 3 minutes.

- Add half of the vinegar and half the bottle of red wine to “deglaze” the pan, scraping up all the brown bits from the meat. Add broth, espresso and brown sugar or honey. Cook another 2 minutes.

- Add the meat, and add the rest of the wine, with the bay leaf. Cover and place either in an oven (at 375 degrees F) or covered on the stovetop on medium heat for approximately 15 minutes. Lower the heat to medium-low (350 oven) and cook for another 60-75 mins, mixing to turn the meat occasionally.

- Remove from oven/stovetop and uncover. Add the carrots, apricots, almonds, and rest of the balsamic, and cover again. Put back in oven, or if on stovetop, cover and lower flame to low heat. Cook for another 45-60 minutes depending upon size of beef pieces. You want the beef to be very, very tender.

-  Strain the meat and vegetables from the cooking liquid, reserving the  liquid and placing it in a smaller pot. Return the meat and vegetables to the original cooking vessel. Heat the cooking liquid on medium-high and stir to thicken. Cook until it reaches desired consistency, tasting for salt and pepper, then pour back into roasting pot with stew and reheat all together. Stir in freshly chopped parsley just before serving.

*Delicious served over mashed potatoes or soft polenta.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

RECIPE: Italian Wedding Soup

To be honest, I had been planning to write a blog post on Italian Wedding Soup, a perennial favorite, for quite a while. But now, with a worldwide epidemic on our hands, and my beloved Italy stuck as the primary western country to have suffered through the outbreak, somehow this post becomes even more relevant. For all of us all over the world who are hunkering down, locking in, sheltering in place, and whatever else (hopefully by now, everyone is starting to realize that social distancing is NOT ENOUGH) -- soup is a palliative. It allows you to use your pantry items to produce something that, here, is much greater than the sum of its parts. The weather of late, both here in the NY metro area, and in Italy as well, remains mostly wintry. Gray. Bleak. It even snowed a bit in Rome and Umbria the day before yesterday, which rarely happens. This weather, and staying inside (#iorestoacasa), creates an atmosphere at home that's perfect for slow cooking, for soups, for a bubbling cauldron of something nourishing and delicious -- and one that will last for days if cooked in a big batch.


Which brings me to...Italian Wedding Soup. It sounds so festive, no? Like it has a long history rooted in Italian matrimonial banquets and traditions of amore. But in reality, this is a dish that seems to be Italian-American in origin, although certain regional soups up and down the Italian peninsula look a lot like Italian Wedding Soup, give or take a few ingredients. And to get it out of the way, its name has nothing to do with when or where or to whom it's served. Instead, it's a reference to the "marriage" of fairly disparate ingredients that all come together in this soup -- a harmonious blended family, if you will, of greens and meatballs, vegetables, sometimes beans, perhaps an egg whisked into the finished product, and of course a little pastina (this is Italian, after all. Did you expect it to be carb-free??). E basta. More or less. And in true Italian fashion, at this matrimonio, the more the merrier.

My version depends on my mood when I'm making it. In a recent version, I left out the carrots to please my husband, who is only eating lower-carb veggies at the moment (and to keep the peace in our marriage, ovviamente!) -- so it made for a darker, mostly green soup, plus a little purple kale and the meatballs. But normally I like carrots as part of my mirepoix, so I am including them in my recipe below. Hell, toss in some finely diced red peppers if you love punchy color in your food, like I do. If you're going completely low-carb, you could leave out the tiny pasta -- or just get creative if you're including it (try finely broken angel hair). Some add in beaten egg at the end just before serving, though I tend to leave that tactic to classic Roman stracciatella soup or Chinese egg drop soup. But, every marriage is different, and every wedding is its own thing. So make Italian wedding soup in your own individual way, to your own taste. That's what home cooking is all about, vero?

Stay safe and healthy, everyone. And stay home!


RECIPE: ITALIAN WEDDING SOUP
Serves 4-6
For the Meatballs:

5 ounces ground beef
6 ounces ground pork
5 ounces ground veal 
1/2 onion, grated
1/3 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 large egg
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
Freshly ground black pepper

For the Soup:

1/4 cup good quality olive oil
1 medium onion, small dice
2 medium carrots, small dice
2 stalks celery, small dice  
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Optional: 2 leeks, small dice
12 cups rich homemade chicken broth
14 oz. cooked cannellini (white) beans, or similar beans of choice (drained and rinsed) 
8 oz. small pastina: ditalini, orso, stelline, fregola, acini di pepe, etc.
1 pound greens: Tuscan kale, purple kale, escarole, curly endive, etc.: coarsely chopped
1/2 cup minced flat leaf parsley
4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Meatballs:

- Place beef, pork, and veal in a large bowl. Add in bread crumbs, onion, parsley, oregano, parmigiano, egg, 1 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper
- Gently toss and break up mixture with hands to evenly coat and distribute. Shape mixture into very small meatballs, about 1/2 - 3/4 inch, and transfer to a large plate.
- Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of the meatballs and cook until browned, turning occasionally (to brown all over), about 5 minutes total.
- Transfer meatballs to a plate lined with paper towels while leaving oil in skillet. Repeat process with remaining meatballs (note that meatballs won't be cooked through at this point; they'll continue to cook through in the soup) 

 Soup:

- While meatballs are browning, heat 3 Tbsp olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add carrots, onions and celery and saute until veggies have softened, about 7 - 8 minutes.  Add garlic and saute for one more minute.
- Pour in chicken broth, season soup with salt and pepper to taste and bring mixture to a boil. Add in pasta and meatballs, reduce heat to light boil (about medium or medium-low).
- Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until pasta is tender and meatballs have cooked through, about 10 minutes.
- Add in your chopped greens during the last 3 minutes of cooking (and don't cover the pot). Taste for salt and pepper. Stir in chopped parsley.
- Serve warm, sprinkled with parmigiano and a drizzle of great quality extra virgin olive oil.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

RECIPE: Cauliflower, Broccoli, and Chickpea Spiced Soup

Ahhh, January. The dead of winter. If ever there was a time for making and enjoying soups, it's in the first few months of the calendar year. Winter, post-holidays in particular, calls for meditative cooking, low-and-slow dishes that eke out all of the nutrients from bones, vegetables, tubers, and aromatics. So for the next few months, I'll be highlighting all of the soup and stew dishes, the multi-step baking dishes, the read-the-Sunday-Times-in-your-fluffiest-socks kind of cooking that I find comforting when the mercury dips below any temp that might tempt a sane person to venture outdoors.

The recipe below was one I created last week, and I really liked the results. A lot. I wanted to use the leftover cauliflower and broccoli I had from cooking for private clients. It's cruciferous vegetable season and though I love the old reliable Italian garlic/olive oil/peperoncino pan-roasted preparation for these (and all!) veggies, I wanted something different. I also like the idea that vegetable soups are wonderful ways to both A.) eat a delicious, filling, meatless meal, and B.) retain all of the nutritional value of the veggies that gets "cooked off" in other preparations. Veggie soups are essentially vegetables stewing in their own vitamin and mineral-infused broth. Brilliant! And, I might add, easy. Add to all of this the fact that soup freezes really well, and it's clearly the perfect large-batch, meal-in-a-bowl cooking that lends itself to accompanying Netflix binge-watching. Or napping. And freezing for easy meals all winter long.

So, the recipe. I was looking for something more tasty than a simple, straightforward vegetable soup. The spices are vaguely Indian in flavor, though this is no traditional dish that I know of -- even though, if not pureed, this might be a vegetarian stew inspired by an Indian chana-gobi (chickpea-cauliflower) curry. I sauteed the broccoli, and then the cauliflower, in a large rondeau/pot to the point of getting a bit of caramelization on the florets. Then I cooked a base of sauteed onions, garlic, ginger, and spices, added some chopped fresh tomatoes, and then returned the broccoli and cauliflower to the pot, along with vegetable stock and the cooked chickpeas. Then you just let time and the stove work their magic. Note that I used two Indian spices that are likely not in everyone's pantry: amchoor and tamarind powders, which give the soup notes of fruity-sourness that amps up the interesting flavors here. They're not necessary, and you could substitute a little tamarind paste or concentrate, or even a bit of lime zest, if you like.

At the end of the cooking process, I added a touch of coconut milk and I used an immersion blender to blend half of the soup (as in the photo here), for a mix of textures and to leave it a little bit chunky in a mostly creamy pureed soup (with no cream, of course). You can puree it all, if you prefer a velvety-smooth soup, or puree very little of it if you like more of a vegetable stew feel to the dish. Here, the taste is what shines through. 

My advice? Serve with a crusty piece or two of toasted bread -- best are the darker, multigrain, sourdough, or brown bread varieties. There's so much good bread out there these days (or make your own!). I toast mine and drizzle it liberally with great Italian olive oil. It goes with everything. And it makes this soup an utterly satisfying winter meal.


CBC Spiced Soup (Cauliflower, Broccoli, and Chickpea)
Serves 4-6 

1 head broccoli, cut into florets (and stems)
1 head cauliflower cut into florets
5 cloves garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, sliced thinly
2 vine-ripened tomatoes, diced
2 knobs fresh ginger, finely diced
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. dried tamarind powder (optional)
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
1/2 tsp. ground mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon ground amchoor (dried mango powder), optional
pinch of peperoncino 
Approx. 12 cups rich vegetable stock (or enough to fully cover the vegetables)
1 14-oz. can of cooked chickpeas, drained
2/3 cup coconut milk

Squeeze of lime juice
Prosciutto slices, cooked in a little olive oil in a pan, on both sides, until crispy (optional)
Cilantro to garnish
 
- In a rondeau or large round soup pot, on medium heat, warm a few tablespoons of the olive oil with a clove of garlic. Heat for 30 seconds.
- Toss in the broccoli and cook until bright green and starting to caramelize (brown) in the pan. Salt, add a mini pinch of peperoncino, then remove from pan and set aside. Repeat with the olive oil, garlic, and cauliflower.
- Heat the remainder of the olive oil in the same pot, add remaining garlic cloves, and warm for one minute. Add the onions and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Add all of the spices and the chopped tomato and cook to activate the aromas of the spices, about 2-3 minutes.
- Return the broccoli and caulflower to the pot, and stir to mix all of the flavors together. Cook for another 2-3 minutes.
- Add the vegetable stock to the pot to cover the vegetables, along with the chickpeas. Cover and cook until it all reaches a boil, then turn the flame down to low and let the soup simmer for approximately 30 minutes.
- Uncover the soup, stir in the coconut milk and the lime juice, and add salt and pepper to taste.
- When the flavor is where you want it, puree half of the soup (or all, or only a small portion of it) with an immersion blender, in the pot itself. Stir to mix the chunkier vegetables throughout the pureed soup. 
- Garnish with cilantro and crispy prosciutto slices, if you like. And serve with crusty toast.

Like most soups, this gets better with a few days of sitting in the fridge, allowing flavors to meld. Keep for 4-5 days in the fridge and freeze any leftovers -- you'll be happy you did!

Monday, December 23, 2019

HOLIDAYS: Hanukkah, Italian Style: Fritti




The essence of Hanukkah foods comes down to one important adjective: fried. In Italian, this is a category of food unto itself, called fritti (plural for fried thing). And why not? Fried foods, when done well, can encapsulate the essence of said food, whether it's fish or meat, potato or herb, sweet or savory dough...you get the point. (Ask a Scot about fried food and you may encounter a person waxing poetic about candy bars you never imagined should be battered and cooked in bubbling oil. But I digress). Yes, good fried food is great.

And so, as we celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of lights, I look to the Italian Jews and specifically the Roman Jews of my beloved second home in the Eternal City's quartiere ebraico, known as the Jewish Ghetto. It was in this ghetto that I gorged myself on carciofi alla giudea, which are "Jewish style" artichokes that are twice deep fried, opened up like a flower, with a tender heart and outer leaves like the best verdant version of Cape Cod potato chips you can imagine. It was here and in the nearby streets leading to the Campo de' Fiori that I enjoyed filetti di baccalà (fried codfish) at places like the fry shop known simply as -- you guessed it -- "Filetti di Baccalà" which served only fried codfish and fried zucchini. And it was great. Oh -- and that fried zucchini, when served marinated in some vinegar, chili pepper, and garlic with some fresh herbs (basil, mint) -- is called concia. That too is a Roman Jewish specialty, and it's killer. Try it on a panino with mozzarella and a slathering of harissa. Buoooooono.

Of course, every Roman pizzeria serves their classic fritti as antipasti to pizza, and this includes the Roman specialty of fiori di zucca, the zucchini or pumpkin flowers stuffed with mozzarella cheese and a kick of anchovy for salt and umami. Like everything else in Italy that's delicious, alas, these items are seasonal. So fresh fiori di zucca are available in warmer months, and artichokes are available now, in the cooler months from roughly November to April. This means I include them in most of my Jewish holiday menus for both Hanukkah and Passover.


Perhaps the most surprising Hanukkah food that Italian Jews eat is actually something we Americans consider our own specialty: fried chicken. Pollo fritto. Of course, we're not talking KFC or standard fried chicken of the American South, here. This is made, in Italy, with heritage breed chicken that's not plumped up by commercial feed and penned in to get American-sized, overgrown breast meat. So in North America, the least commercially-raised chicken would be the best approximation. These chicken get butchered into 10 pieces so they're all more or less the same size. Then, they're marinated overnight in lots and lots of freshly-squeezed lemon juice. I add a little yogurt or buttermilk as well, plus a glug of olive oil, garlic and rosemary. When frying the chicken, a bit of spiced flour with lemon zest and chopped herbs is all you really need. Italians cook everything in olive oil, and you can deep fry in it as well. In this country, I usually use half olive oil, half vegetable oil or safflower oil. The chicken is served with fried and fresh lemon slices, and fried herbs like sage and rosemary. Plenty of Sicilian sea salt finishes it off. And that's it. 

It's a simple preparation for a fried Hanukkah main course that's a real crowd-pleaser. But then again, most fried food is crowd-pleasing by nature. And I just can't celebrate Hanukkah without latkes, no matter what kind of meal I'm making. (Any excuse to have the trifecta of potato, fat, and salt, amiright?)

Celebrating Hanukkah through food means a celebration of foods cooked in oil. So from antipasti like Roman Jewish-style artichokes, to a fried chicken main course, through to fried sweetened dough in any iteration (castagnole are Italian fried donut holes -- try them drizzled with honey!), a menu consisting of fried Italian specialties makes a perfectly delicious, crispy, Italian Jewish meal worthy of a most interesting Hanukkah celebration stateside. It beats the same old matzo ball soup and brisket any day!

Enjoy this year's festival of lights. Happy Hanukkah, everyone!




Tuesday, November 5, 2019

QUICK BITE: Whole Vegetable Eating

I'm an October baby, and autumn is my favorite time of year (okay, besides the warmth and fun of the summer. That's pretty great too). Fall's many harvest-season gifts make it a pleasure to cook, and eat, now. What many people don't realize is that the popular ethos of "nose-to-tail" eating can be applied to vegetables as well. You don't need to eat the whole hog to go, well, whole-hog. Often the skin and seeds, roots and leaves of vegetables are just as delicious as the thing itself.
 
A trip to the farmer's market at this time of year is a revelatory experience, the changing colors of the leaves on the trees reflected in the market haul of reds and greens in apples and pears, oranges and yellows and umbers in all varieties of pumpkins and squash. The cruciferous vegetables of winter are coming in, even as Indian summer golden peaches are still being sold alongside them. This is the perfect time for what I call "whole vegetable eating" -- sometimes called root-to-fruit, or some such rhyming variation. What's most important is not what it's named, but how it's done. I'll give you a little help.
As the weather turns cooler, we look to root vegetables and foods that start producing in autumn to last us through the winter. We know that carrots and beets are healthy root veggies, but often the greens (or carrot tops, in the case of carrots) are overlooked, or worse, removed before we can use them. And they're delicious!

 



I love serving the Greek dish skordalia, which is a whipped potato-garlic puree (try this with purple potatoes!) along with roasted beets and wilted beet greens. It's the perfect dish served warm or at room temp, so it's incredibly versatile. And it looks beautiful as well.



 For whole-vegetable eating with carrots, I love making a carrot-top pesto (with nuts and cheese) or salsa verde (with other herbs, capers, and scallions), and roasting the whole carrots, serving them drizzled with the sauce made from their greens. It's also a gorgeous presentation, and...no waste!

Just as we know these roots better than their stems and stalks, we know the stalks of celery and parsley better than celery root and parsnips -- though all parts of these veggies are tasty and worth exploring in their own right. I love using celery root raw, slicing it into a thin julienne and tossing it with homemade mayonnaise for celeriac remoulade, the simplest of French treats. And I love, especially during cold months, using celery root to replace potatoes by 80%, making a puree for all of the stews and slow-cooked braises I cook at this time of year. 

Parsnips are another great substitute for potatoes, but they also provide a delicious pairing with roasted carrots -- they look a lot like white carrots anyway -- and their sweetness when roasted mimics that of carrots' sweetness, so they're great hit with a bit of acid, tossed in either a balsamic vinegar or some citrus juice before and after roasting. I also love a good celeriac or parsnip soup. They puree so nicely and they have a verdant undertone that potatoes don't. Again, they pair well with sweet and acidic, so I usually top off the soups with a maple gastrique or some kind of sweet-sour accompaniment.
Though usually summer squash is found -- you guessed it! -- in the summertime, you can usually find zucchini and yellow squash well into the fall in many markets. And often, the zucchini flowers are actually pumpkin flowers (fiori di zucca in Italian), so these are also a part of the pumpkin to be utilized in whole vegetable eating. We know we can clean and roast pumpkin seeds. Of course the flesh itself works for preparations from savory to sweet, and even the flowers of the pumpkins are a great gastronomic delight -- stuffed, fried, sauteed and tossed in a pasta or risotto. This is the definition of whole vegetable eating.

Stuffed zucchini flowers
My homemade gnocchi with cherry tomatoes and chive blossoms
And speaking of flowers, many people don't realize that most herbs go to flower if allowed. Usually, for the purpose of the herb itself (which is generally comprised of a leaf), we pick the leaves before they go to flower -- but not always. And the flowers can be an intensely flavorful and beautiful form of the herb itself. I love snipping chive blossoms into salads and main courses, adding a burst of purple color to otherwise monotone dishes. The coriander flower (cilantro is the herb, and coriander as a spice is the dried seed) is also a lovely floral version of an already fragrant herb. I remember the first time I saw prodigious use of coriander flower to transform dishes from simply delicious to ethereal, by chef Iñaki Aizpitarte at Paris's excellent Le Chateaubriand restaurant. I always note the innovation of a chef when she or he uses all parts of produce so that nothing is wasted, and we get many different aspects of the primary ingredient's flavor profile at once. It's something I try to practice in the kitchen as often as possible.

And in this approaching season of cold weather and soup-eating, there's no better opportunity to practice whole vegetable eating than by making a vegetable stock out of any and all vegetable trimmings and scraps you have on hand from making any produce preparations. Just toss all the "unwanted" parts into a large stock pot, cover with water, and keep it going on a low rumble on the stove for hours on end. Skim the scum (yes, that's the actual technical name for the discolored bubbly foam that should be discarded from any stock preparation) and then just ladle out what you need from the pot. The stock will continue to get richer with time.

Happy Harvest Season, everyone. Enjoy your autumns!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Late-summer tomatoes


On late summer days, when the sun hung low in the sky an hour or so before tramonto, we'd drive home with the windows rolled down on our way back from the beach at Sperlonga. This whitewashed coastal town perched on a hill between Rome and Naples is not only a gorgeous spot for a day trip to dip into its crystalline waters and overflowing plates of pasta con le vongole. It's also nestled beside seemingly endless fields of tomatoes, which are grown next to where the water buffalo of northern Campania happen to graze. These water buffalo supply the milk for the world famous mozzarella di bufala. It's basically like driving past a living, breathing caprese salad!

So, when heading back to Rome after a day toasting ourselves in the hot Italian sun, we'd pick up the still-warm, freshly made mozzarella and some of those tomatoes grown in the nearby fields, with a mazzetto (bunch) of fresh basil -- che profumo! -- from a roadside stand selling just these few items. Our predetermined dinner on those nights was light and hit the spot, along with a very-chilled glass of crisp Falanghina. The sensory memory surrounding those Sperlonga trips that's strongest to this day for me? The smell of those tomato fields. It was the smell of sweet, ripe pomodori warmed by the sun just enough so that the scent would waft above the fields and greenhouses, and make its way into our open car windows. It was Pino Daniele or Jovanotti playing on the car radio. It was that time before dusk, when the waning sunlight signaled the promise of what the evening held in store for us in Rome. 

Pomodorini grown on my friend's terrace in Rome
My Turkish tomato salad

And in that Eternal City, on market trips to Campo de' Fiori (the closest major market to my apartment in the Jewish ghetto), I always relished my August and September visits to Claudio's stand, where he displayed a variety of tomatoes so extensive, it was hard to wrap your head around them all. You had pomodori al grappolo (vine-ripened tomatoes), San Marzano (plum tomatoes that are actually genuine San Marzano DOC, grown in the volcanic soil in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius). 
You had pomodori d'insalata (half-green salad tomatoes, which stayed firm when you sliced them) for salads, and pomodori da riso to be stuffed with rice and baked in the oven. There are at least a half a dozen other varieties I'm forgetting, before moving on to the varieties of pomodorini, or small tomatoes. These range from standard ciliegine (cherry tomatoes) and those specifically from Pachino, Sicily, to datterini (little date tomatoes, like very mini plum tomatoes -- a variety of which is dubbed a grape tomato in the U.S.). These small little gems were always my favorite, perfect crimson orbs seemingly ready to burst (and burst they do, in my burst cherry tomato pasta sauce!) -- so good, Claudio would let me pop a few in my mouth like candy. They were just as sweet. 

We've come a long way in the U.S. with the rise of the farmer's market, and the bevy of heirloom varietals of produce that abound now. There are green and black and red, yellow, and orange tomatoes, striped tomatoes, and everything in between these days, if you know where to shop, and at the right time. Hell, I come from the garden state where we're infinitely proud of our homegrown Jersey beefsteak tomatoes. And they have a place in our American culinary canon. I love a wedge salad with beefsteak tomatoes and red onion and some blue cheese to begin a steakhouse meal, for example. And I've been overwhelmed at the sight of overflowing market tables with gorgeous specimens of endless types of tomatoes, locally grown and tended, sharing display table space with fresh mozzarella (cow's milk, natch) and hydroponic basil with leaves the size of maple leafs. And while that's progress, it's still not perfection. 
Italy, I can state with certainty, has perfected the tomato. They took a New World fruit and made it into so much more, and they consistently grow the most delicious tomatoes I've ever tasted. Or smelled, for that matter. Now, when I return to Italy, I always make my way to a market, especially in September. They sell tomatoes at this time of year, especially Rome and south, where summer weather lingers well into October. And I breathe in the scent of the tomatoes baking beneath the sun and azure sky, and my heart breaks a little bit -- for the gorgeous smell, for all that this smell holds for me, and for the fact that I can't have this sensory-memory experience anywhere else in the world. 

Believe me, I've tried.

The beauty of a simple tomato and basil salad

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

RECIPE: Berenjena con Miel


It's no secret that I love eggplant, melanzana, aubergine, berenjena -- it's right there in the name of my company and blog, after all. And there are countless ways to enjoy the consumption of the glorious eggplant. What's most important is treating the berry (technically, that's what it is) with respect. Seriously! Some people laugh when I make such a sweeping statement about a nightshade -- and one which so many people claim to dislike. But that's only because they haven't had an eggplant prepared properly, which is to say with love and care and consideration. This is how I treat eggplant. And it's also how Spanish cooks treat it, particularly those in Andalucia who've been working with the eggplant since the time of Moorish rule in Southern Spain, when eggplants were introduced into the culinary lexicon and quickly became a favorite food of Iberian Jews.
This brings us to the centuries-old, incredibly delicious dish made famous in Southern Spain and now enjoyed all over the country, often served as a tapa, called berenjena con miel, or eggplant with honey. It is the perfect encapsulation of Iberian-Arab cooking with Sephardic roots. And it's the ideal savory-sweet snack one can enjoy, particularly smack in the middle of summer, when eggplant season is at its peak (though honestly, for me, it's always eggplant season!) The photo here is from an amazing dinner my husband and I shared at Bar Cañete in Barcelona last year. Each dish was better than the last, but this preparation really stood out for us both. The honey used was a deep amber local honey, and it was a really amazing experience in taste and texture, deceptively simple but layered and complex in flavor.


There are a few ways you can prepare this classic dish, varying the technique. First and foremost, the slices of eggplant need to be quite thin -- thinner than most people will be able to get with just a chef's knife -- so using a mandoline is your best bet (I've used a meat slicer in a pinch). Second, I usually salt the slices to draw out the bitterness and some of the water content of the eggplant. This also keeps it from absorbing too much oil in the frying, while seasoning the slices in advance as well. Just remember the slices must be dried before frying. I use top quality olive oil, even for frying, as do cooks in this part of the Mediterranean. Others will claim it's better to use a vegetable oil or a lighter oil with a higher smoking point, but since the ingredients are so few, the oil you use makes a big difference in the taste of the final product. So, great olive oil it is, for me. 

The final question in the preparation is to flour or not to flour. You can either coat the slices in a dusting of AP flour before they go in the hot oil, or just pat them dry and toss in the pan as is. I've done both. Coating with flour makes the chips slightly more substantial, and possibly less oily, though they often don't have the light crunch and texture of a "bare" eggplant chip. Ultimately it's a matter of personal taste. Experimenting here is part of the fun! Of course, there are pretty much as many types of honey as there are flowering plants out there, so you can get innovative with the kind of honey you drizzle on top. You can change the flavor and intensity with the seasons, too. A light wildflower honey might be nice in summer, while a richer chestnut or cranberry honey might be good come autumn or winter. The only requirement is that the consistency be "drizzle-able". So, get creative!


BERENJENA CON MIEL

*2 medium-sized eggplants
*1-2 cups good quality olive oil, or other oil of choice for frying
*1 cup AP flour (optional)
*Good quality honey of choice -- must be of consistency to drizzle
*Chopped parsley or chives, optional

- Slice the washed and dried eggplant very thinly using a mandoline. Salt lightly and layer between paper towels or clean dish towels. Let sit for 20-30 minutes.

- Heat the oil of choice in a cast iton skillet or deep frying pan. Pat dry the eggplant slices and either dredge them lightly through the flour, or just place them directly into the skillet once the oil reaches temperature (it will sizzle immediately when you put the sliced eggplant in the oil).

- Cook about a minute or two on each side and flip to cook the underside. The slices should be golden brown. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate or sheet pan. Continue in this way with the rest of the eggplant slices.

- Once all the slices are fried, taste for saltiness. If they need salt, sprinkle on the fried slices. Pile on a serving platter or bowl, and drizzle generously with the honey. Top with chopped chives or parsley, if using. Serve immediately.