Tuesday, July 27, 2010


How many eggplant recipes do you know? Until a couple of days ago my repertoire was limited to griddled eggplant with various accoutrement depending on the season and what I had on hand, and that old standby eggplant parmigiana.

Thanks once again to my mom and her insatiable appetite for food from the flea, (she returned from work the other day with three enormous specimen to add to some we had purchased from Kelly Farm Stand) I've got a couple more recipes to add to that list.

The best part about starting with a raw ingredient is the 'research'. I love pulling my books off the shelf, thumbing through well worn pages, writing down notes and envisioning the outcome of each recipe read. Of course the internet is also a rich source of ideas and techniques. I usually spend more time than I need to looking up recipes. Not because it's necessary, but because I get so caught up in all the possibilities.

Eggplant is such an alluring fruit. It comes in many varieties, its shape varies from slender and elongated to small and oval, and the color can be rich deep aubergine, variegated purple and white, vivid green and even red. My eggplants were fairly common. I had a two of the large, firm, oblong shaped variety as well as a few of the long, thin Japanese eggplants.

I've been doing a bit of experimentation with spices lately and so a recipe for Madras eggplant caught my eye first. Madras sauce originated in the South of India. It is made up of blend of chili, cumin, coriander, anise, cinnamon, paprika and turmeric. Some savory ingredients used are garlic, fresh ginger, lemon and chilies. The dish varies and can include some or all of these ingredients depending upon the cook. Typically it has a tomato base and can be used with meat, fish or vegetables.

I began by roasting the eggplant until it was browned but still firm. Then I set to work on the sauce. I finely diced onion, garlic and ginger and cooked them in a pot on medium with olive oil, ground chili, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and smoked paprika.

The recipe I had also listed fenugreek seeds which I had heard of but never used. I didn't have any on hand so I looked up its flavor profile and any substitution suggestions. It was described as combination of bittersweet and maple. There were suggestions to use fennel, mustard seeds or vinegar instead of fenugreek. Given that information, I put together a blend of dijon mustard, maple syrup, fennel seed and red wine vinegar and added it to the pot.

I let the alliums and ginger cook until they were translucent and imbued with the flavor of the combined spices. I added one can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes and let it all simmer. I cut the cooled eggplant into half inch cubes and drained a can of chick peas to add to the simmering sauce. I finished the dish with a handful of roughly cut cilantro and fresh grated nutmeg.

My second eggplant dish was inspired by Alice Waters. Alice listed an eggplant and tomato gratin that sounded so Chez Panisse, simple, highlighting just the ingredients. I imagined it, elegant and concise accompanying a rustic dish of grilled lamb. Just right. It was my intention to reproduce it just as it was written but part way through I thought to make a couple of subtle changes.

I diced a bit of garlic and enough onion to cover the bottom of a gratin dish and sauteed them with bay, thyme olive oil and butter. To that I added oregano. I sliced the eggplant into discs about a quarter of an inch thick and the tomato twice that thickness. When the onion was soft and sweet I spread it into the bottom of a buttered gratin dish. A sprinkling of diced kalamata olives and capers was my addition. Then I layered the tomato and eggplant, drizzled olive oil and seasoned the whole thing with salt and pepper. I baked the dish, covered in the oven at 400 for 45 minutes. I finished it uncovered for another 15 minutes and then let it cool and set before serving it.

My timid additions of oregano, kalamata and capers were a success. The finished dish felt Mediterranean and tasted earthy and brite at the same time. The original recipe is, of course, perfect as is. But, I think, Alice would approve. I hope she would.

Even today, a few days after this eggplant cooking extravaganza, I am still eating eggplant! I have enjoyed it and I'm already thinking of new and different applications for all that I learned.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mom's Pick

My mom sells amazing jewelry and miscellany at the Wellfleet flea market all summer. Vendors at this market run a pretty broad gamut. There are t shirt and sock folks, faux Rolex watches and designer handbags, antique dealers, vinyl record and tape cassette sales persons, shoes, rugs, kitchen appliances... you get the gist.

Rather recently, there are also gardeners and farmers pawning the fruits of their labor. My mom is a sucker for a good deal and this produce is certainly a bargain. Not to mention she is a very sociable person and is inevitably lured in by the open, friendly personalities selling honest food.

A couple of days ago she came back from work with tomatoes, some summer squash, a few very ripe peaches and way too many, extremely ripe plums. She told me that the woman selling them would have thrown them out, that they were free and that she was sure I could find something to do with them. I was less than thrilled.

Task at hand... make use of plums. Furthermore, make use of peaches soon to be equally as over ripe. I reluctantly accepted the challenge and began washing off each piece of bloated, soft stone fruit. I would not have chosen to bring these pieces home. They were uninspiring and seemed to have little to offer any 'good' recipe. Maybe a fruit smoothy, but that is hardly a challenge. I decided to spend a little time looking up recipes. Maybe I'd find something that would move me.

After an hour or two plowing through my few unpacked cookbooks and scouring the web, I had a couple of ideas. I also gained a little cache of plum recipe knowledge that I know will come in handy somewhere down the road.

I decided that the seven or eight plums that were literally balls of juice wrapped in taught dark purple skin should become some sort of condiment. I peeled the skin off and then slowly simmered any and all contents until I had a 'jam'. While it was simmering, I added a bit of brown sugar, some cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and a dash of cayenne. It took a bit of time for it to thicken, but the result was great.

Spiced Plum Jam
was delicious on a cracker with a piece of aged Manchego, it was also a treat warm and drizzled over vanilla bean ice cream. I envision it working as a sweet foil for a simple grilled steak or stirred into warm rice for a subtly sweet and spiced flavor base.

In addition to the jam, I also made use of the remaining, slightly firmer peaches and plums in a simple crumble. I combined the stone fruit with frozen blueberrys that gramma and I had picked over Fourth of July weekend, then added a bit of honey, lemon zest and torn basil. I made a quick topping with flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and butter. I put the fruit into a gratin dish, mounded the topping over it and baked it until it was golden and bubbling.

Talk about satisfying... I felt like I had saved the world. Well, maybe just a few forlorn plums but, nonetheless, it was an accomplishment. Nothing went to waste, I learned quite a bit along the way and we all got to eat some pretty delicious fruit well past its prime.

The moral of this story is that moms do, sometimes, know best.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Back on Track with Summer Zuppa

Let's see... Last post June 6th. That's a long time ago. I wish I could quickly update you on all that has transpired since then, or at least list the highlights. Unfortunately, when time flys all those hours and days seem to meld together. That's not to say nothing has happened. I'm just hard pressed to come up with any really juicy details that might keep you reading past the first day or two. I will work on including some of the highlights in these new blogs.

Chris and I are making the Cape our new home. We decided that rather than recreate our SF life here in the East, we'd try something a bit different. We know we love city life, people, places etc... But, there has always been something about the Cape.

It has been an incredible Spring and early Summer. We planted our first garden, a bit haphazardly as we were rushed putting it in. There were more than a few failures but the wonders of mother nature never cease. We've had beets, some lovely radishes, salad bowls full of spicy, wild arugula and snap peas that couldn't be sweeter if we dipped them in honey. I just picked two zucchini this morning and, last but not least, we are eagerly awaiting the tomatoes.

In addition to our meager harvest, my mom's friend Tom has supplied us with treasures of his own. Yesterday he arrived with zucchini, summer squash, green beans and corn.

Today, I decided to put those veggies to work. It's hot as heck, but for some reason I was inspired to make a summer vegetable soup. My thought was to make it chunky and light on the broth. Basically a pile of delicious, farm fresh produce served at room temperature, not too hot, over a crusty chunk of good bread with a drizzle of basil pesto.

I had some chorizo in the fridge so that served to create a base along with some extra virgin olive oil, thyme, oregano, bay, fennel, onion and garlic. To that I added cubed, red potatoes and tons of diced zucchini and squash. I put my covered soup pot in the oven and let it all cook together until almost soft. Then I put it back on the stove and added some chicken stock and water to just cover the contents. In went green beans, fresh corn, a little red pepper and sweet grape tomatoes to simmer for another 15 minutes or so.

I was very hot, and very happy with the result. The soup tasted fresh. It looked like a rustic garden on a plate. I quickly made a fresh pesto from basil, spinach, garlic, olive oil and salt. I crisped a loaf of bread in the oven and tore off large pieces for the bottom of the bowl. Then I ladled the zuppa over the top and drizzled the pesto. Yum!