Eggplant- What’s Not to Love?

Eggplant at Farmer's market

Eggplant is a staple in my kitchen, but it wasn’t always. I hated eggplant with every fiber of my being until I was in fourth grade. My father, much to the chagrin of my mink-stoled doll collection, decided that following in my uncle’s footsteps as a furrier was not his dream. Instead, he bought an Italian restaurant and bar called the The Driftwood Lounge on Long Island, NY. They had a trusty bar crowd, live music on weekends, and some of the best damn Italian food anywhere. The chef, Tony, was a treasure of a cook from Italy.  And while I was not old enough to stand hip-to-hip with them while Tony taught my father the way around the menu and how to run a professional kitchen, my turn came a few years later when my father taught me how to cook. It was Tony’s, and then my father’s, eggplant parmigiana that turned my head to the deep purple, fleshy fruit (yes fruit), the eggplant.

 

Eggplant on end

Eggplant season in California, when you will find the widest variety of eggplants, starts in June with a high season that hits its stride later in August and September, then tapers off through October. The most prevalent eggplant I find are the big girthy globes called Black Beauty which tend to be available all year long; smaller, more slender Asian varieties like the Ichiban, and even white ones with a wash of pink like the Rosa Bianca tend to have a shorter growing season. Eggplants can be large and round, as small as a handball, or delicate and slender like a princess’ slipper. And while we can get eggplants all year long, the eggplants you get in February either come from somewhere else, or they’ve been in cold storage getting bitter, wouldn’t you? Ok there are ways around the bitterness; read on.

 

Eggplant in FieldOlder more mature eggplants have dull, matte-looking skin, and feel soft. These are often bitter as the seeds have started to get larger as they age and, as they do, bitterness sets in. It’s part of Mother Nature’s plan—make the seeds undesirable so the plant can propagate.

When buying eggplants, choose fresh, firm, shiny-skinned ones that feel heavy in your hand. Eggplants like these are usually not bitter because the seeds have yet to mature. They’re best kept at about 50º; just don’t let them sit around the kitchen looking pretty.

To minimize bitterness, many cooks salt the eggplant flesh before cooking. Salting may also minimize the amount of oil the sponge-like eggplant will absorb during frying or even sautéing resulting in a crisper finish. I actually always soak and salt eggplant for eggplant parmigiana, as that is how I was taught by my father. And in deference to him, and Tony before him, I have taught my daughter to do the same.

To prepare  eggplant for eggplant parmigiana, or for any dish where bitterness is a concern, first wash and slice the eggplant. Stack in layers in a large bowl, salting as you go and cover with cold water. Weight the slices down with a plate, to keep them submerged, for about 30 minutes. Then drain and place the eggplant between paper towels in layers, or clean cotton dish towels, and weight down again to get the moisture out. I usually put a cutting board on top and sit on it; it confuses the dog. By the way, if we’re grilling slices or roasting cubes in the oven, I never salt it and have never had a problem.

The beauty of eggplant, apart from being amenable to so many dishes that don’t require gluten or dairy, is that it can be roasted, fried, braised, sautéed, grilled, stir-fried, baked, even boiled. Grilled over, or even in, a  wood-fire produces the most sensuous smoky flavor, but how often do you make a wood fire? Coal will suffice, and a gas flame works too, maybe just not so well. But it’s somewhat relative. If you’ve never had eggplant roasted by, or in, a wood fire, you wouldn’t know.

The earthy flavor of eggplant pairs especially well with cheese, garlic, olive oil, basil, parsley, and it’s familial nightshade sisters, peppers, and tomatoes. It’s long been favored in Indian cuisine as this is where eggplant originated, Middle Eastern cuisine (baba ganoush), as well as the Mediterranean dishes of Greece (moussaka or papoutsakia/stuffed eggplant), Italy (parmigiana), and France (ratatouille).

 

Eggplant Melange

 

Some easy-to-prepare ideas to get you started:

Roast eggplant. Pre-heat oven to 375ºF.  Wash and cut the eggplant into about 1-inch chunks. Scatter in a rimmed baking dish and pour a few tablespoons of olive oil over all. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and/or chili flakes if you like, then stir to coat evenly. Place in the oven and bake for a total of about 20-25 minutes. Stir about midway through the roasting to ensure overall browning.

Grilled eggplant slices. Brush thick slices of unpeeled eggplant with olive oil and balsamic, grill then sprinkle with freshly chopped herbs and balsamic. Serve as part of a larger antipasto with roasted peppers, a nice sopprasata or thin slices imported prosciutto.

Pasta Norma. Toss sautéed or roasted eggplant cubes,  with a douse of tangy tomato sauce serve and add some crumbly ricotta salata, or shaved pecorino.

So if you’re already a fan, or didn’t know what to do with them, get thee to a market and start your own little love affair with these succulent beauties.

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Italian Roasted Red Peppers

Final Roast Peppers

Free from: gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, yeast, and nuts. Vegan.

The first time Ernie fed me at his home, he served these rustic roast peppers steeped in peppery olive oil with a touch of sweet balsamic. Roasted over a fire, redolent with garlic, and accented with freshly chopped basil, these silky, blood-red slivers were so succulent and sensuous they made my head spin.

Preparation 1 Trio 2

Served with a small palette of sheep and goat cheeses, some paper-thin slices of prosciutto, crusty bread*, and of course, a smooth, dry Italian red. This was in fact, a calculated event to lure me closer to the fire. Indeed, I was already smitten, but this unassuming little spread and, in particular, these peppers, presented a culinary profile of the man I was going to fall in love with shortly thereafter. This recipe is his.

Pepper prep 2-duo

* Pre-awareness of our gluten intolerance

Ingredients
4-6 shiny, bright red, organic peppers free of spots or blistery bits
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons dried oregano or chopped fresh to taste
1 teaspoon sea salt or crusty salt flakes (I use Maldon)
½ cup olive oil (use the good stuff)
3 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar (don’t scrimp here either)
½ cup fresh basil, roughly chopped
a few grinds black pepper

Preparation
1. Place peppers on a  hot BBQ grill. You can do this in a toaster oven or even over a gas cooktop flame (I have put them right on the grate; just keep an eye on them). Grill until the skin is charred black, about 10 minutes. Turn and grill on each side about 6 minutes more per side.
2. When peppers are charred all over, remove from grill with tongs and place in a brown pepper bag to sweat. This loosens the skin from the flesh.
3. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, place on a cutting board and with a sharp paring knife cut around the stem and gently pull the stem from the body of the pepper. If you’re lucky you will have removed most of the seeds.
4. Using your fingers and the paring knife, carefully scrape the skin from the peppers along with any seeds still inside the cavity.
5. Slice the peppers into thin strips about ½ to ¾-inch wide and place in a bowl large enough to hold all the peppers.
6. Add the garlic, oregano, salt, olive oil, and balsamic. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
7. Add some fresh ground pepper and the basil.

Serve at room temperature for the fullest flavor as a side dish with any kind of grilled meat or fish, or make it part of a roast vegetable platter. Use the leftovers for peppers and eggs. Yowza.

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Almond Coconut Milk Sweetened with Date

Almond milk duo

Free from: gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, yeast. Vegan.

I love my morning ritual of heating milk, adding a shot of espresso, and a bit of hot water. When I had to give up half and half, I needed an alternative. I’ve tried lots of coconut and almond milks and some are ok; some are downright awful. Why not make my own? Once you do, it is very hard to turn back. Suddenly store-bought almond milks tasted chemically or like plastic. So here it is, my most favorite recipe.

I typically get raw almonds from Massa Organics at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market in SF; their almond butter is also dreamy. By the way, California grows nearly all the almonds for the US market. Does that mean we get the very best? One would think so.

Not a coffee drinker? One way to enjoy it not with coffee is with chamomile tea infused with lemon. Tess and I had this at a uber chaming breakfast place in Santa Barbara called the Scarlett Begonia. Highly recommended for breakfast if you are in town. To prepare: make your favorite chamomile tea; add two thin slivers of lemon rind per cup while steeping; then add steamed almond milk. It’s very soothing right before bed.

If you live in the SF Bay area you have some other options for fresh almond milk. You can buy fresh, raw almond milk from Marin Living Foods available in Marin (of course), SF, and Berkeley, but not the Peninsula where I live. If I’m in the city I go to Rainbow Grocery (milk is delivered on Friday). And then, it turns out these two companies deliver almond milk; old style, in glass bottles, right to your door: Milk Man SF and Can Can Nut Milk. There are delivery limitations, so I’m afraid this is a very local tip.

To make this almond milk you’ll need: a blender, fine cotton cheese cloth, and a fine strainer

Ingredients
1 cup raw organic almonds (they’ll have their skins)
½ cup unsweetened, raw, organic, shredded coconut
1½ cups water or enough to make 2½ cups as measured in your blender
1 Medjool date, pitted
Pinch of salt

Preparation
1. Put almonds in a bowl, cover with water, and soak overnight. If I forget this step and need fresh almond milk in a hurry you can soak the almonds in hot water for about 20 minutes.
2. Rinse the almonds under cool water. Depending on where your almonds come from or if they are sprouted the peels may have wrinkled and pulled away from the nut. Now, you don’t have to peel the almonds but I find if the skins come off easily by squeezing the almond between you thumb and index finger, I end up peeling the whole batch. I’d like to say it’s a zen experience but in fact I often just feel stupid for doing it. I’ve tested the milk with and without skins and it doesn’t taste that different.
3. Put all the ingredients in a blender. I have a Blendtec that can grind an umbrella apparently; don’t try that at home.

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Salmon with Tomatoes, Fennel, and Ginger

Salmon with tomatoes and Ginger

Gluten, dairy, egg, soy, yeast, and nut free.

My 87-year-old mom, a Catholic all her years, does not eat meat on Fridays. That means that we eat fish that night. As a kid, I hated Friday night fish dinners except for creamed tuna on toast; preferably with frozen green peas. It meant I didn’t have to eat something that actually tasted, or looked like, fish.

Now I consider seafood on par with meat. And, wild caught, oily fish in particular, is healthy for you—packing a powerful mix of Vitamin A and D and omega-3 fatty acids and lacking any added hormones or antibiotics. So I eat fish often. Ernie, on the other hand, sometimes makes a face when I tell him what we’re having fish on Friday. Not because he doesn’t like seafood, but simply because he hates abiding by rules. That said, I try to create recipes that give him some flavor complexity and meet my mother’s religious leanings too.

There are several reasons to like this dish: it’s healthy, quick to prepare, has an interesting flavor profile that leans towards Indian, but not quite. The vegetable sauce the salmon bakes in came about because I spent a weekend sampling dishes from “The French Kitchen Cookbook” by Patricia Wells. At first, the recipes seemed very simplistic and not what I would expect from a book that was going to show me what a French kitchen was all about. The recipes meander from Provence to Italy, on to Thailand with Japanese accents. I guess it’s about a particular French kitchen and once I accepted that I warmed up to the recipes more easily.

Patricia Wells Medley

After all, kaffir lime leaf dust. What was that? I had fresh kaffir lime leaves in the refrigerator already. I picked four dishes from the cookbook and made them over the course of a weekend: Asian mixed nuts with Kaffir Lime Dust; Fricassée of Chicken with Fennel, Capers, Artichokes, and Tomatoes; Eggplant in Spicy Tomato Sauce with Feta; and Fresh Ginger Sorbet. And from this medley of flavors, the following recipe was born.

Salmon with Tomatoes, Fennel, and Ginger

This combination of vegetables—eggplant, fennel, tomatoes, green olives, and onions—is a perfect Mediterranean medley. Add to that a hot infusion of freshly grated ginger and the subtle nutty sweetness of ground cumin and you’re suddenly traveling east towards India.

Pre-heat oven to 375°F
Serves 6

Ingredients

1 large eggplant, cut roughly into 1-inch cubes
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
Sprinkle of sea salt
2 Tablespoons coconut oil
2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons ground cumin
1 Tablespoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon sea salt
Several fresh grinds of pepper
1/2 cup white wine
2 Tablespoons ginger, shredded
1 28 ounce can chopped or diced tomatoes
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup pitted green olives
Juice of 1 lemon
1 1/2 lbs. Alaskan king salmon steaks or thick fillets

Preparation

1. Spread eggplant cubes on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with 2 Tablespoons of olive oil. Sprinkle with a 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Toss to coat, then bake for 20 minutes stirring once.
2. Heat coconut oil in large ovenproof skillet that will fit in your oven
3. Add sliced onions and fennel and saute over low-medium low until onion and fennel are soft, but not browned about 10 minutes
4. While vegetables are cooking add the cumin, turmeric, cayenne, salt, and pepper and stir
5. When onions and fennel are soft, add white wine, raise the heat a bit and let wine cook off by about half
6. Add the ginger, tomatoes, and tomato paste. Stir to blend. Add olives.
7. Let sauce cook stirring occasionally until sauce starts to thicken and vegetables are soft,15-20 minutes
8. Add lemon juice and stir. Turn off the heat.
9. Place the salmon in the sauce making sure to cover with a bit of sauce
10. Bake for 20 minutes or when fish reaches 135°F

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Dreamy Dairy-free Chocolate “Ice Cream”

Chocolate Sorbet

Gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, yeast, and nut free.

Lots of restaurants serve sorbet—basil, key lime, pear with hints of coriander, lemon, lemon, or lemon. Made from fruit, sometimes coconut, and very occasionally chocolate, plus water and sugar. Sorbet is usually the only dessert option, other than fruit, for those of us who can’t eat gluten, dairy, or eggs. It gets boring. Sorbets, even in some very good restaurants are often too sweet, too icy, or too blah. Just putting something cold in my mouth at the end of a meal doesn’t always cut it.

While living in London, we discovered a few Italian restaurants (Locanda Locatelli and Osteria Basilico are two favorites) that made what they called chocolate sorbet; really good chocolate sorbet. It was creamy and rich and almost as good as ice cream. But, I couldn’t go out to eat everyday (could I?).  We did finally discover Booja-Booja Hunky Punky Chocolate organic “ice cream”; a true dairy-free alternative to real chocolate ice cream. Sadly, it hasn’t made its way across the pond, but if you are ever in London look for it at Planet Organic or Whole Foods. They have those little one serving containers like we used to get from the ice cream truck when I was growing up.

So when we reluctantly returned to California, I set out to make a dairy and egg-free “ice cream” that would deliver a balanced (chocolate to sugar) and creamy, decadently rich “ice cream” without the dietary consequences.

Mind you, I had never made ice cream or sorbet and I didn’t have an ice cream maker. Fortuitously for me, a friend from Chicago, whom had been a pastry chef for Charlie Trotter, visited a few days after our return. She suggested an ice cream maker warning me ahead that it was expensive. “What’s expensive?” I asked. She said “maybe a thousand dollars.” Now, even I don’t have any countertop appliances that expensive, but still my mind was running around trying to rationalize why $1000 would be okay. In fact, it was more like $4000. $4000!  I wasn’t ready to chuck it all and become a professional, dairy-free ice cream maker, so I went back to her for a less pricey option.

She then said buy a Lello gelato maker. It’s Italian. Italians know a thing or two about ice cream, or rather gelato. So that’s what I got — the 4070 Lello Gelato Junior.  It makes one quart of frozen deliciousness in about 30 minutes.. It has a compressor/freezer which was the primary thing I was looking for. It cost about $250 on Amazon. Score!

Now I needed a recipe. My first thought was David Leibovitz, a former pastry chef from Chez Panisse turned food writer and blogger who lives in Paris and seems to be living a perfectly lovely life. I found his recipe for chocolate sorbet. I made the chocolate recipe to spec. The family was wowed, but for me, it was too chocolatey. So from his sweet inspiration I adapted the recipe below. I don’t know what to call it. It’s technically not ice cream or sorbet, and may indeed be more like dairy-free sherbet. Does it matter?

Chocolate Ice cream Ingredients

Dairy-free Chocolate “Ice Cream”
The magic behind this deliciously satisfying, silky dessert comes from the thick, fat-rich coconut cream and of course good, dark, non-dairy cocoa and bittersweet chocolate.

Chocolate Ice cream chips
Servings: Just less than a quart serves 4-6

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups unsweetened almond or coconut milk, or a combination of the two
3/4 cup Baker’s sugar (or 1 cup granulated)
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa (I use Rapunzel Organic or Scharffenburger unsweetened))
6 ounces bittersweet (at least 70%) chocolate (E.Guittard makes little disks that are easy to work with)
1/2 cup coconut cream (I like the Trader Joes brand; all cream, no milk)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (I use bourbon vanilla)
Pinch of salt
2 Tablespoons Cognac, Armagnac, or vodka (optional however it helps manage icy crystals). Or if you’re feeling wild you can use an orange-based liqueur like Cointreau.

Preparation
1. Put almond or coconut milk, sugar, and cocoa in top of double boiler; heat and stir until sugar dissolves; about 5 minutes
2. Remove pan from double boiler and add coconut cream and solid bits of chocolate; stir to blend and chocolate pieces melt
3. Add salt, vanilla, and alcohol (if using)
4. Put in a blender and whirl until very smooth
5. Put in a bowl and chill until cold, at least two hours
6. Put mixture in ice cream maker, following ice cream maker’s instructions, freeze until done. Mine takes about 30 minutes.

Serve as is or, for complete decadence, serve with whipped coconut cream.

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Spicy Fried Chickpeas from Moro Restaurant in London

Spicy Chickpeas-600pix

Gluten, dairy, egg, soy, yeast and nut free.

The first time I went to Moro Restaurant was last September when Tess was moving to London for graduate school. Moro was on my restaurant radar since 2010 when Ernie and I first moved to London. Sam and Sam (Samantha) Clark opened Moro in 1997 to serve inventive Moorish dishes with all day tapas. Both had worked under Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray at The River Café, whose overarching philosophy is to source the best and most authentic ingredients and then not getting in their way with overly complex preparation. (This is another restaurant I always try to get to when I’m in London and in fact get cranky if I can’t go. More on The River Café later.) When we left London two years later, we still had never been to Moro. Truth is, I did try. It was enough of a trek from where we lived that you wouldn’t want to get there and not get in. That meant booking in advance. We’re not great at that.

During that ridiculously stressful week of trying to get Tess settled in an apartment, we were actually staying a short walk from Moro; we had to go. I called the restaurant about 6PM on a Friday evening. Of course there were no tables. But there was room at the bar if we got our tails there right away. We walked quickly in the mist, worried that the bar stools with our names on them would be gone. We walked in, got seated, and audibly both let out a sigh.

Moro_interiorBar_Kitchen

The dining room is bathed in a golden glow from subtle lighting that outlines the dining room at the ceiling. The wall is painted above the booths a Spanishy green with off white above to the lighting. The effect is calming despite the convivial clamor of conversation. There’s a long steely bar that runs the length of the restaurant leading to the bee hive of an open kitchen across the back. The decor overall is low-key and casual, but sophisticated and inviting. We felt immediately comfortable and probably too excited.

We ordered a beautiful bottle of Tempranillo described simply as gutsy, uncomplicated, and fresh (hey, that’s how I’d like to be described). The wine came, we described our food issues to the patient bartender and ordered several small plates: olives, fried chorizo for me, anchovies for Tess, babaganoush, padron peppers, patatas bravas with aioli, and the vegetable mezze platter with babaganoush, an eggplant salad, probably some greens, piquant harissa sauce—a hot red pepper paste used frequently in North African cuisine—and their signature fried spiced chick peas that Tess would describe as magical morsels of crispy perfection. They even brought to us gluten-free rice cakes for the dippy things. The dishes are not too complex individually, but the balance of flavors when eaten side by side creates an overall flavor collage that I would go back for over and over again. It’s Spanish, Moroccan, and Middle Eastern fare at its best.

We went to Moro three times during the ten days I was there and we haven’t tried Morito, their laid back tapas bar next door.

Chickpeas and ingredients

Fried Spiced Chick Peas
Adapted from the Morito Cookbook. Download the app at  Morito: Inspirational Tapas & Mezze
Serves 2-4 as part of an appetizer plate.

1/2 cup olive oil
1 jar chickpeas, drained, rinsed, and dried
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon toasted whole cumin seeds ground
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground salt or salt flakes ( I use Maldon salt flakes)
3 Tablespoons washed, dried, and roughly chopped Italian parsley
Juice of half a lemon

72dpi_Chickpeas drying on a towel

1. Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch pan until a drop of water spatters; oil should be about 350°F.  Then test oil by dropping one chickpea into the pan. If it sizzles excited the oil is hot enough.
2. Fry the chickpeas in the oil, in batches giving each batch of chickpeas enough room to cook evenly and uncrowded.
3. While chickpeas are cooking mix all the spices together in a bowl
4. As chickpeas start to get golden brown and crispy, remove from oil with a slotted spoon and drain in a bowl lined with paper towels.
5. When all the chickpeas are done, carefully put the chopped parsley in the hot oil; in my experience the parsley will make the oil splatter, so stand back. As the parsley starts to darken remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
6. Remove the paper from the chickpeas, add the drained fried parsley, the spice mixture, and the juice from half a lemon.toss lightly and enjoy.

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Lemony Brussels Sprouts with Mint and Beans

Brussels sprouts with beans1

Gluten, soy, dairy, egg, yeast, and nut free.

By Tessa Tapscott

Remember how Brussels sprouts used to be the terror of the dinner table? Not anymore. These tiny cabbage-like vegetables are coming up in the [foodie] world and they’re delicious. I guess I can understand how the plain boiled, greenish-grey sprout would not be the most appetizing to a child or most adults for that matter, but who just boils things anymore, really? Roast them; sauté them; bake them; grill them-Brussels sprout kebabs anyone? Okay, I haven’t tried that last one, but the point is that the Brussels sprout holds great potential and not only as a side dish.

My mother taught me that peeling the leaves away from the sprout, rather than leaving them as a dense mass, allows for more of those lovely crispy bits that always get picked off the plate first. So, if I chopped them, logically, I might achieve a similar effect, no? I had been working through a large bag for several days and had grown tired of roasting them, so instead, I would sauté them. At this point “Operation: Chopped Brussels” went into action, I roughly chopped the Brussels sprouts and tossed them into a pan slick with melted coconut oil and bits of garlic. Then I quickly zested half a lemon, coarsely chopped a handful of fresh mint leaves, and drained and washed a can of chickpeas (for protein) and dumped it all in. I shook the pan a few times then transferred the pile to a dish and gave it a generous squeeze of lemon. Lovely (as they say here in England).

In my humble opinion, “Operation: Chopped Brussels” was quite a success. This dish offers the right amount of golden brown crispiness in proportion to the soft, sweet core of the sprout. I used small white cannellini beans, but it would also be great with chick peas.

Serves 2-3
Ingredients
10-15 Brussels sprouts, washed and roughly chopped
2 Tablespoons coconut oil
3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
1 lemon, for zest and juice (preferably unwaxed and organic)
1 handful of mint, washed and roughly chopped (about ½ cup when chopped)
½ teaspoon salt
Cracked black pepper to taste
1 can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

Preparation
1. Heat the coconut oil in a large sauce pan
2. Add chopped garlic when oil is hot, then reduce heat
3. When garlic begins to turn golden add Brussels sprouts and stir to coat with oil
4. Stir periodically to ensure even browning of the sprouts
5. Zest about ½ of the lemon
8. Add zest, mint, and beans once Brussels sprouts have started to brown
9. Mix and cook for about 2-4 more minutes
10. Add salt and pepper to taste
11. Remove from heat and serve with extra lemon juice over top

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Preserved Lemons

Preserved Meyer Lemons

Gluten, dairy, egg, soy, yeast and nut free. Vegan

Everyday, lemon zest and juice can lift a dish from bland to delicious while adding bright fresh flavor to a myriad of dishes from leafy salads, to roasted chickens, to savory soups and of course boozy, ice-clinking cocktails. Preserve lemons in salty brine for a month or more and you can exponentially catapult the lemony citrus effect. The remarkable aroma and taste of salt-cured, preserved lemons are at once familiar but also complex; salty and sour—like fresh lemons on overdrive.

Salt curing is an age-old method for preserving food that inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungus; no doubt useful for a trek across the desert on a camel. Today we preserve lemons, or at least I do, because they taste so darn good.

To prepare preserved lemons, look for unwaxed lemons, unless you have a tree or a friend who does. In London, lemons were marked waxed or not. I haven’t seen that distinction here; you’ll have to ask. Typically, organic lemons are not waxed, making them a good choice to preserve. In fact, it makes them a good choice for any use of lemons. If you don’t know if your lemons are waxed, scrub them like the dickens under warm water with a vegetable brush. When in season, January to May, try Meyer lemons. They are most similar to the prized thin-skinned Moroccan doqq lemon and have a sweetness that pushes the flavor a bit towards tangerine (why not preserve tangerines?).

Lemons have three parts— the outer yellow rind or zest, the bitter white pith, and the juicy flesh. Once preserved, the entire rind including the pith becomes edible. Many Moroccan recipes call for using just the rind and pith and would have you discard the flesh. I don’t necessarily agree, but then again, I’m not Moroccan. For marinades and stewy dishes that cook a long time, I chop and use the entire lemon. For sautéed vegetables, I just use finely chopped rind and pith, then squeeze the juice over all to finish the dish.

Since my first batch of preserved lemons, I’ve added them to roast chicken cooked in a brasier; risotto with wild mushrooms or shellfish; sautéed wild Alaskan salmon with dill; lentil, chicken and vegetable soups; lamb and vegetable tagines, marinades for meat and seafood; sautéed greens and many other chicken dishes like chicken and green olives, a classic Moroccan dish that uses preserved lemons.  I keep a mixture of chopped garlic and preserved lemon rinds with a smattering of harissa chile covered in olive oil in the refrigerator to use for an instant flavor boost for vegetables, roast meats, or fish.

 

Preserved lemon, garlic, harissa chili pepper

 

I usually preserve about 8-9 Eureka lemons at a time, in a half gallon jar. For Meyer lemons (pictured at the top of post), a one quart jars holds about six.

Ingredients:
8-9, unwaxed Eureka or 6-7 Meyer lemons
1 Tablespoon Kosher or sea salt* for each lemon
3- 4 lemons, juiced

* Don’t use ordinary table or iodized salt; it affects the flavor of the preserved lemons.

Preparation:
1. Scrub lemons with a vegetable brush and warm water
2. Cut 3-4 deep gashes diagonally around each lemon through the rind to the pulp
3. Put salt in a bowl large enough for two hands, then one by one pack salt into the gashes of each lemon placing salted lemons in clean glass jar as you go
4. Push lemons down tightly into the jar trying to squeeze lemon juice from the lemons
5. Pour additional lemon juice over all until lemons are completely covered
6. Screw a tight-fitting lid on the jar and place in cool, dark place. I put mine on a shelf in the garage in the Fall and Winter; in the refrigerator in the Spring and Summer.
7. For the first week push lemons down every day. I also jostle the jar a bit as the salt can settle at the bottom.
8. Wait 30 days at least and your lemons are good to go.

Tip: quickly rinse lemons before using to wash off some of the salt.

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Turkish Ezme Meze

Ezme Meze SpreadGluten, dairy, egg, soy, and yeast free.

This simple, spicy spread was inspired by a similar dish we have had at our local Turkish restaurant in Redwood City, New Kapadokia. Unlike anything we had in Istanbul, ezme is from the Southeast region of Turkey and is usually served with other “meze” (dolma, hummus, babaganoush) as tapas or small plates would be with cocktails or wine. As we were in California, not Kapadokia (Capadokia?), we enjoy it as a rather addicting appetizer before dinner. In fact, we keep it at the table to plop spoonfuls on our main course of roast lamb or stuffed eggplant.

I developed this recipe based on the list of ingredients on the menu and overall flavor of the New Kapadokia version. Different kinds of peppers can be used: roasted, in paste, or I suppose even dried flakes mixed with olive oil, to impart peppery aroma and heat. I’ve used a “Turkish” pepper that I’ve bought from Tierra Vegetables, at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market in San Francisco. I also use “cherry bombs”, technically known as paradicsom, that are all the name implies. Both of these peppers are spicy but not overwhelmingly when tempered by the sweetness of tomato confit.

 

Ezme ingredients vertical

 

We recently went back to New Kapadokia and while we had an excellent meal, I decided I like my version of ezme even more. Do your own thing; the trick is in adjusting spices to your taste.

In researching this recipe online, it appears there are many versions of ezme.  Some are wildly different from this that call for parsley, cucumbers, and onions and some that call for pomegranate molasses instead of, or in combination with, lemon juice. I didn’t have any pomegranate molasses. I’m not sure where to buy pomegranate molasses (online no doubt) and can only imagine taking the seeds from many, many pomegranates to make molasses.  I might try tossing in some pomegranate seeds… that could be good.

I used freshly roasted tomato confit and charred hot peppers. You could try it with tomato paste and pepper paste (look for harissa chili paste), again adjusting the seasoning to your taste.  However, I do think cooking these two primary ingredients — tomatoes and peppers — from scratch is what gives the ezme a truly rich, fresh flavor.

Ezme Ingredients:
1/2 cup tomato confit or 1/3 cup tomato paste
1/4+ cup roasted hot red peppers (Turkish, cherry bombs, even red jalapenos; seeds and veins removed*)
Juice of one big lemon, ideally a Meyer lemon
1 Tablespoon ground cumin seeds plus 1/2 teaspoon whole toasted seeds
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2-1 teaspoon salt flakes
Several grinds fresh pepper
1/2 cup toasted walnuts, roughly chopped

Preparation:
Pulse all ingredients except walnuts in food processor until chunky smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Add the walnuts last and pulse lightly keeping the walnuts chunkier than the rest. Serve with raw vegetables; gluten-free crackers or chick pea pancakes (farinata or socca); or as a condiment for grilled fish and meat. I even use it on toast with bacon for breakfast.

Bonus: Ezme with Roast lamb: Buy a boneless leg of lamb. Cut the string holding the lamb together and flatten out the meat; discard the string. Make slits in the meat on both sides and slather ezme spread into all the slashes, nooks, and crannies. You can add more crushed hot pepper too if you like very spicy. Place the meat in a bowl large enough to hold the meat somewhat flat and cover with dry red wine. Let sit at least three hours. This is best grilled over a fire. You can trim thicker hunks of meat off for use later (in curry for instance) so that the meat is roughly the same thickness for even cooking. A flattened, four pound leg of lamb, three inches thick, will take about 30-40 minutes total time for medium rare. Of course factors such as heat, charcoal vs. gas, how much wine is consumed while cooking, and alignment of the stars might have some bearing on the cooking time. I leave it up to the BBQ guy. It’s perfect medium rare.

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Gluten-free, Vegan Pumpkin “Pie” with Gingersnap Crust

Gluten-free Vegan Pumpkin Pie with Gingersnap crust

Ok so I missed getting this up before Thanksgiving but pumpkin is good for you all year long. It’s low calorie, low fat, full of B vitamins, beta carotene (for Vitamin A), potassium and fiber. It’s also smooth and creamy and the perfect foil for ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves. Tess adds it to smoothies. I like pumpkin soup and of course, pie. I’m not sure this is technically a pie as it is made in a springform pan. Is there a name for things made in springform pans?

I used a 9-inch springform pan for this, however if you use eggs, which helps the filling stand up a bit better, you could opt for a 6-inch springform pan and the effect is more like this. (I made this last year.)

Pumpkin Souffle Pie with Gingersnap Crust

I make gluten-free/vegan gingersnaps for the crust (recipe to come). You can also use packaged gluten-free gingersnaps instead. Tess used the gluten-free/vegan gingersnaps from Mary’s Gone Crackers and said the crust was delicious. This year I used ground hazelnuts with the gingersnaps but I’ve also used almond meal with equally good results.

A word about fat. I can’t eat soy, so most types of non-dairy margarine are off limits to me. Instead I use Earth Balance Organic Coconut Spread which is actually a tropical oil blend plus some canola oil.  I combine that with straight coconut oil, which is actually fairly solid. This crust is not as tricky as a true vegan pie crust. If you’re not a vegan you can use butter instead of vegan margarine. The point is to make the final mixture moist enough to hold together when squeezed between your fingers, but not too fat drenched.

Gluten-free, Vegan Pumpkin Pie with espresso

This crust is also great for baked cheesecake and probably some kind of chocolate puddingy filling however I haven’t tried that yet. If you end up with too much crust mixture sprinkle some on top of the pie about half way through the baking like I did in picture on top.

Gingersnap Crust
Ingredients:
2-2 1/2 cups gingersnap cookies (enough to make 2 cups of crumbs)
1 cup toasted, ground hazelnuts (or almond meal)
1/4-1/2 cup brown sugar
5-6 tablespoons vegan “butter” or margarine (see notes above)

Preparation:
1. Grind gingersnaps to a small crumb in a food processor or blender.
2. Toast hazelnuts, being careful not to burn them, in a toaster oven or in a frying pan on top of the stove, then grind as for gingersnaps.
3. Place gingersnaps, nuts,  brown sugar and “butter” back in food processor and pulse until evenly blended. The mixture should hold together when squeezed between your fingers.
4. Rub a bit of fat on bottom and sides of springform pan, then press crumb mixture firmly into bottom of pan (or pie tin if using) and partially up the sides. The crust is ready for filling.

Pumpkin Filling
Ingredients
2 cans organic canned pumpkin (15 ounces each)
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup almond milk
2-3 Tablespoons maple syrup (start with less, taste and adjust)
3 Tablespoons ground flax seed whisked with 5 Tablespoons warm water or use 1 whole egg and two egg whites whipped to form peaks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg (I sweep fresh nutmeg on a microplane)
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Preparation
Preheat oven to 350ºF
1. Put all the filling ingredients, including flax mixture, into a large bowl and blend with a hand mixer until smooth (if using eggs; don’t add yet).
2. Taste and adjust the seasoning. I like a full-flavored pumpkin mixture; you can start with less of each spice and add more to bring it up to desired spiciness. If using eggs, now add the whole egg, then fold in egg whites last.
3. Pour pumpkin mixture into prepared springform pan.
4. Bake 60-70 minutes until pumpkin starts to crack slightly around the edge. Center will be a bit soft to the touch. Let cool at least 30 minutes, then refrigerate for a few hours before serving.

 

 

 

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