Monday, August 25, 2008

Sicilian Eggplant Spread / Stew / Sauce

Did this eggplant turn into a pumpkin because it did not get back from the ball by midnight?

Last week, we got some Sicilian eggplant in our CSA box, and yes, it does look like a purple pumpkin. These pudgy cuties were so tasty that I ran out to Russo's and got some more. How are they different from regular eggplants? Fewer seeds and more flesh -- which results in better overall texture.

I used these lovely eggplants to make a sauce for the home-made orecchiette that we prepared in my Pasta and Gnocchi Workshop this weekend. The leftovers were excellent cold and I served them as a sandwich spread and dip the next day. I would eat the whole bowl in one sitting, but it's rich stuff (eggplant sucks up a lot of oil), so I had to use all my will power to save some for the next day. My reward for not inhaling it yesterday was an eggplant stew that I served over brown rice today. How to turn this spread into a stew? Just warm it up. That's at least three dishes in one! It would, of course, make a fabulous accompaniment to fish, lamb, chicken, and pretty much any protein. I might not serve this over ice-cream, but other than that it's quite a versatile little dish.

Eggplant Spread / Stew / Sauce

2 large eggplants (if possible Sicilian)
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
1 large yellow onion, diced small
4 garlic cloves, minced
14.5 oz can diced or crushed tomatoes with juice
1/2 cup red or white wine
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar or to taste
Salt and pepper
  1. Peel the eggplant and cut into 3/4 inch cubes. Put the eggplant in a colander set in the sink or over a bowl. Sprinkle very generously with salt and toss. Don't worry about the dish being salty. Most of this salt will be released with liquid. Let sit for at least 30 minutes. The eggplant will release a lot of liquid.
  2. While waiting for the eggplant, cook the onions the following way. Set a heavy, 12 inch skillet over medium-low heat. Add 1 Tbsp olive oil, onion, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until the onion is translucent and golden brown. Remove the onion into a bowl and reserve.
  3. Remove the eggplant from the colander and lay it out in a single layer on paper towels. Press and other layer of paper towels on top to dry the eggplant very thoroughly.
  4. Add 2 Tbsp of oil to the skillet and set it over high heat. When the oil starts to ripple, put the eggplant in the skillet and stir well. Cook stirring occasionally until nicely browned. Add more oil as necessary to keep eggplant from burning and to maintain good browning. Don't worry about the eggplant sticking to the bottom. All those yummy bits will get deglazed when you add the tomatoes and wine. Be patient and don't add the wet ingredients until the eggplant is very tender and browned.
  5. Add the garlic and cook stirring until aromatic, 1-2 minutes.
  6. Add tomatoes, wine, and reserved onions. Bring to a simmer while scraping the bottom of the skillet to dislodge whatever eggplant got stuck. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until most of the liquid evaporates and the stew thickens, about 35-45 minutes.
  7. Take off heat, stir in the vinegar, taste and correct seasoning (add more salt, black pepper, or vinegar as necessary). Serve hot or cold.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Grilled Fish: Skin-side down or skin-side up first?

It must be the glasses. Seriously -- I am convinced that the reason Alton Brown is so cool and Chris Kimball is so un-cool is the glasses. Well, maybe the haircut has something to do with it too. But when it comes to actual results rather that "personality," Chris's institution, Cook's Illustrated, wins hands down. What I mean is, if we gave one home cook Alton's instructions for say grilling fish, cooking steak, etc. and gave another home cook Cook's instructions, I'd bet my money on Cook's. They don't just talk science, the use scientific method. Not the chit chat about the molecules and proteins that makes TV personalities look smart. They take the empirical approach to evaluating cooking techniques. In other words, they test the same old boring technique (like pan searing steak) hundreds of times to find the best way. It doesn't make for the best entertainment, but it makes for some very tasty food. Sorry Alton. I don't mean to pick on you. It's just that the few of your recipes that I've tried were somewhat disastrous.

But even I, Cook's biggest fan, approached Fish 101 section in the May 2008 issue with some degree of arrogance. "What can they teach me about fish?" I thought. "They barely even publish fish recipes." I changed my mind after reading the article. It was surprisingly good and crammed a lot of info into 2 pages. None of it was new to me until I got to the Grilling section.

I've grilled fish so many times, there was something I took for granted -- you place it on the grill skin-side down first, then flip onto the flesh-side. At least, that's the way the fish authorities, James Peterson and Mark Bittman, do it in their books, and that's the way I've always done it. It made sense because that's how the fish is seared in the skillet (another direct dry cooking method). If the fish fillet is thick and needs to be finished in the oven after pan-searing, you want it to end up skin-side up toward the end of cooking. Juices tend to leak out of the fish when it's in the oven and you don't want them to make the skin soggy.

Imagine my surprise, when Keith Dresser's article in the Cook's suggested placing the fish on the grill skin-side up. That just seemed wrong. I was even more surprised when he suggested placing a disposable aluminum pan upside down on the grill while preheating to "superheat" the grill. "What fussiness!" I thought. Sure, the grill has to be very well heated for the fish not to stick, but I am sure it would be hot enough even without this aluminum thingy.

Curiosity got the best of me, however, and I decided to put this method to the test. Luckily, I had a disposable pie plate in my pantry and a salmon fillet that needed cooking?

Revelation number 1: The pie plate really works! The fish does brown significantly better and sticks less.

Revelation number 2: grilling skin-side up first produces better results. The grill marks on the flesh side are cleaner and there are fewer flare ups. Did the skin suffer? Not at all. It was just as crisp as the piece that was grilled skin-side down first. The fish on the left was grilled my old way (skin-side down first), the fish on the right was grilled Cook's way (skin-side up first).

Thanks Keith for your research and a fabulous organization of results.
Thanks Chris for sticking with your mission to improve real home cooking.

Tips on grilling fish
  1. Choose the right fish type. The fish to avoid are flaky fillets that are sold skinless like cod, haddock, sole, flounder, sable, and tilapia. These fish are likely to fall through the grill. All other fish types can be used for grilling. Salmon, bluefish, halibut, stripped bass, swordfish, tuna, and small whole fish like red snapper, sea bream, trout, and branzino are particularly delicious grilled.
  2. Scrape the grill clean. Place a disposable aluminum pan upside down on the area where you'll be placing the fish. Cover the grill and preheat on high heat for 10 minutes. Do not remove the upside down pan until you are ready to place the fish on the grill.
  3. Dry the fish very thoroughly with paper towels. Don't feel bad that you have to wipe off all your marinade. It will only stick to the grill, or prevent browning, or create flare ups.
  4. Rub the fish all over with 1 tsp canola oil per pound of fish (if you used an oily marinade, skip this step).
  5. If the fish wasn't seasoned earlier, generously sprinkle with salt and pepper on all sides right before placing it on the grill.
  6. Remove the upside down pan from the grill. Dunk a wad of paper towel in canola oil. Hold it with tongs and wipe the grill with oil 4 times where the pan used to be.
  7. Place the fish on the grill (skin-side up if grilling fillets), diagonal to the grill grates. Cover the grill and cook for 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness or until the fish gets grill marks.
  8. Slip the tins of a fork between the grill grates and gently push up on the fish. Do it in couple of places until the grill lets go of the fish. When flipping delicate fish, do not try to lift it in the air with tongs and flip onto the other side. Instead, turn it onto empty grilling space next to it, like turning a page. Grill on the other side until cooked through, 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness.
  9. Err on the side of undercooking. Grilling can easily dry out the fish. Estimate total cooking time to be 8 minutes per inch of thickness for steaks and fillets and 10 minutes for whole fish. Start checking for doneness 2 minutes before the estimated time.
  10. To remove the fish from the grill, dislodge it with a fork like you did when turning it. Then lift one side of fillet or whole fish barely off the grill, slip a spatula underneath, and lift the fish off the grill.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Melissa at Baking A Sweet Life has done something no other food blogger was able to accomplish for months. She got me to participate in a food blogging event. Her secret weapon was quinoa. "Quin-what?" you say. Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). It's been one of my favorite grains since I tried it 4 years ago. It has a slight crunch and goes particularly well with seafood and poultry. But I've served it as a risotto-style first course and topped it with roasted veggies for a great vegetarian meal.

The quinoa you'll see in most stores is white (like the one in the picture). Red and black quinoa are a little harder to find. Here is a picture of the black one tossed with tuna to make a salad. If you are in the Boston area, you can get red and black quinoa at Christina's spices in Inman Square. What's the difference in taste? Black and red quinoa have more crunch than white. Think of it as wild rice vs. white rice.

How do you cook quinoa?

Let's start with the basics. First of all, ignore the directions on the box. They are pretty bad for most grains, but particularly for quinoa. You'd think that the people who sell these products would know the best way to cook them. But I am guessing they are constrained by how much info will fit on the back of the box and by consumers' laziness. If the instructions imply that it's a little harder than "combine x cups of grain with y cups of water, bring to a simmer, and cook 20 minutes" the helpless home cook will get so overwhelmed, he won't buy their product.

But stick with me, and helpless home cook you'll be no more! Here is how to prepare quinoa that will knock the socks of your guests.

Quinoa with Onions

This recipe uses the risotto technique of toasting the grain in the pan and then gradually adding the liquid until the grain is cooked al dente. Luckily, quinoa risotto is much easier to prepare than true risotto. Quinoa doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot the way rice does, so there is no need for constant stirring. You might want to hang around in the vicinity of the kitchen, but most of the time, you'll be free to do something else (like make a nice little mushroom ragu or roasted veggies to put on top of your quinoa ;)

To adopt this recipe for quinoa that is served cold, skip the onions in the beginning and the butter in the end. Reduce oil to 1/2 Tbsp, and when the pan is hot, start by toasting the quinoa (Step 2). I prefer white quinoa for hot preparations and red/black quinoa for cold, but you can experiment until you find your favorite way to eat them.

Serves 4

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 cup quinoa
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups boiling water
1 Tbsp butter
  1. Set a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the oil, onions, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until onions are nicely browned, 12-15 minutes. While the onions are cooking bring 2 cups of water to a boil.
  2. Add quinoa to onions and cook stirring constantly for 2 minutes.
  3. Add the wine and wait for it to absorb.
  4. Add 1.5 cups water and 1.5 tsp kosher salt (=3/4 tsp table salt). Regulate the heat so that the liquid simmers very gently. Cook stirring occasionally until most of the liquid is absorbed. You don't need to stir much in the beginning, but as the amount of liquid in the pot gets low, start stirring every couple of minutes.
  5. Taste the quinoa. If it's too hard, add another 1/4 cup of water and continue to cook stirring occasionally. Continue to taste and add water until it's almost soft, but still retains a bit of crunch. The total cooking time after you add the water is about 20 minutes.
  6. Take off heat, stir in the butter. Taste and add more salt if needed.
Can be made in advanced and rewarmed on medium heat with a little water to prevent sticking. Stir frequently when rewarming.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

CSA cooking class

Dear students of the CSA cooking class,

I can't wait to meet you all and to cook with you today. This is the first time I am offering a class on cooking from a farm-share (a.k.a. CSA), so it will be a learning experience for all of us. What's so special about this class? It's the mystery. Since the CSA box arrives 2 hours before you show up at my house, not even I know what we are going to cook. But there is something I do know about this class. I know that as soon as you get here, you'll ask, "Do we get the recipes for what we are making today?" In all my other classes, the answer would be "yes," but this class is the exception. Not only do I not know what recipes to print for you, I think that the recipes would be a distraction. The goal of the class is to learn to cook with what you have and to improvise. That being said, I think there are all kinds of resources that would be useful to anyone subscribing to a CSA or thinking about it for next year. Here is my brain dump on the subject.

What is CSA?

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a great way to get local, seasonal produce. You pay an up-front fee to a farm and get a weekly box of freshly picked produce during the summer and fall.

When to subscribe to a CSA?
In winter. That's right -- you have to start thinking about your farm-share at the time when eating a ripe tomato seems as impossible as flying to the moon. Some farms sell out of shares by the end of winter.

How much does it cost?
It depends on the farm. In New England, the prices for the season subscription (June - October) range from $400 - $650.

How to find a CSA in your area?
Here is a list of CSAs in Massachusetts

If you are not in MA, just Google: "town, state CSA"

I subscribe to Brookfield Farm CSA. They are located in Amherst, MA, but deliver in Cambridge, Newton, Lexington, Arlington, and Jamaica Plain.

How to clean and store produce?
That's probably the biggest hurdle you'll have to jump over when it comes to cooking from a CSA. Real farm produce is extremely dirty. Salad doesn't come pre-washed in a bag. But the taste will more than compensate for the work you'll have to do to get the grit out of your veggies.

I strongly suggest you get yourself a salad spinner. It makes it a cinch to wash and dry all the herbs and leafy veggies. I like OXO good grips spinner. Just don't put it in the dishwasher (no matter what OXO says). I once did and it got warped.

When to clean produce
I have a slight disagreement with the recommendation I've gotten from the farmers to store all produce dirty, and clean it right before cooking. If you have unlimited time to spend in the kitchen, sure -- you can clean your veggies as you need them. But most home cooks don't have this luxury, so we need to make this process more efficient. I clean all my vegetables the day I get the box. If you don't have time to clean everything, at least do all herbs and leafy produce. This way you only have to get the salad spinner out once. Just make sure that everything you clean in advance is dried very thoroughly. Moisture can promote spoilage.

How to clean leeks
Leeks are the only vegetable that I don't clean until I am ready to cook them because it's impossible to get all the grit out of leeks without chopping them first. Here are instructions on how to clean leeks.

How to clean herbs and leafy greens
I wrote a post a while ago on working with herbs (cleaning, storage, and cooking tips). The same cleaning and storage tips apply to everything green and leafy. I wrap each cleaned and dried leafy vegetable in a dry paper towel, then place in a labeled, large plastic shopping bag, and store in the fridge. Stored this way, leafy produce lasts 1 week with no problems.

Fridge or room temperature?
I find that not only leafy greens, but most produce (carrots, eggplants, zucchini, summer squash, beets, leeks, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, etc) will last best in the fridge. I keep them in unsealed plastic shopping bags. Keeping the bags open (or even poking a few small holes in them) allows the ethylene hormone, produced by ripening produce, to escape. This slows down spoilage.

Tomatoes are an exception to the refrigerator rule. Do not refrigerate your tomatoes or they'll turn mealy. Store them at room temperature, stem side down (this way, they stay fresh longer).

Garlic, onions, shallots, and fall root vegetables (white potates, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, and celery root) are not hurt by refrigeration, but they'll last just fine at room temperature in a dark, dry, cool place for several weeks and sometimes over a month, so there is no reason to take up your fridge space with them.

Menu planning
I try to use up the fragile leafy greens and corn as quickly as possible, because they last worse than other veggies. If I got some extremely ripe tomatoes, I try to get to those sooner rather than later. Other than that, I cook whatever inspires me first. Try to make a rough plan of what you'll cook each day to make sure you don't run out of veggies or have any leftovers before the next share pick up.

Master Recipes for common and obscure produce
Grilled Corn (it's a tuna post, but there is a grilled corn recipe in the end)
Swiss Chard
Whole Beets
Watermelon Radishes (works with any radish)
Zucchini Risotto
Mashed Celery Root
Tomatoes Confit
Honey Garlic Grilled Eggplant
Cole Slaw
Scallion Spread
Braised Collard Greens
Rutabaga or Sweet Potato Fries
Butternut squash soup

And there is always

Now I am off to pick up the CSA box for class. Happy cooking to all :)


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Operation Kona Blue, Part 3

Operation Kona Blue, Part 1
Operation Kona Blue, Part 2

In case some readers are joining us in the middle of this fishy investigation, let me reprint Cathy's question that got this saga started.
My fish monger has recently began carrying Kampachi and I was excited to try it. You described a delicate fish with skin similar to salmon. What I purchased had thick rubbery skin that felt like sandpaper, much like shark. It tasted very much like shark as well. I was not really impressed especially with the $22/lb price tag. I am thinking that my fish was actually shark or swordfish and not Kampachi. What do you think?
So, is kampachi worth the hype?

First of all, let me clarify that the kampachi I'll be talking about in this post is farm-raised by Kona Blue in Hawaii. It's not the kampachi that Cathy got. I've tried that one a year ago and was very underwhelmed for the same exact reasons that Cathy described.

The kampachi from Kona Blue does indeed have some outstanding qualities. It's skin is one of the most delicious I've ever eaten. Seared, it turns beautifully crisp. When cooked, the flesh itself is soft, succulent, sweet, and just like I remembered it from my first encounter. To my surprise, the more rare I left the fish inside, the less I liked it. Normally, it's just the opposite. I love salmon and tuna very undercooked, and ideally, completely raw. But even Kona Blue's kampachi is very firm and doesn't soften to that delicious tenderness until it's almost opaque. When I say "cooked through" I mean removed from the heat when it's still translucent in the center allowing the residual heat to finish cooking the inside. Don't get me wrong. I don't mean you should be overcooking this fish (God forbid!), but I personally prefer it just done.

In it's raw state, it had an interesting texture, reminicent of squid -- a bit crunchy, but not chewy. In other words, there was no connective tissue that got stuck in your teeth, but the fish had a certain snappiness to it (somewhere between the creaminess of salmon and the crunchiness of squid). When the fish was cut relatively thin, it didn't bother me and was even somewhat pleasant. Jason enjoyed kampachi sashimi more than I did, and thought it was one of the better fish he'd eaten raw. But since I prefer melt on the tongue fish, I doubt I'd want to eat a whole bowl of raw kampachi. I haven't tried mincing it into a tartar. This idea occurred to me only after I ran out of fish. My guess is that tartar might show off it's raw texture in the best light.

Would I get it again? If I saw a fishmonger carrying it, I'd be willing to pay up to $30/Lb for fillets (assuming it's a Kona Blue's fish). If I order it from Kona Blue, it's $40/Lb (once you take shipping into account). That's a bit much. If I go to downtown to pick up a whole fish from Specialty Foods, that's roughly $24/Lb, plus 2 hours of work (driving, scaling, gutting, and filleting). That's a bit much too. Hmm, so this leaves kampachi and me at an impasse. I don't think it will be gracing my table with its presence just yet. Hopefully, this lovely fish will eventually become affordable enough for the high-end Boston fishmongers to start carrying it. Till then, adieu dear Kampachi!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Operation Kona Blue, Part 2

Operation Kona Blue, Part 1

What I love about Susan the most is her adventurous spirit. If there is an adventure to be had in the sleepy town of Belmont, Susan will be there. We were having our Tuesday morning coffee at Vicky Lee's (our weekly ritual). Carrie, Susan's 11 year old daughter, joined us. This was Camp Mom week (a.k.a. do fun stuff with Susan).

"Are you teaching today?" asked Susan.

"Yes, Knife Skills tonight," I said. "That is, if I come back alive," I added nervously. "I have to drive to some scary, industrial part of Boston to pick up a Hawaiian fish called kampachi."

Good thing I didn't look at the map when I placed my order with Specialty Foods or I might have chickened out. I am a terrible driver. I have no sense of direction. People like me get trampled in Boston. Real Bostonians can change 4 lanes in 3 seconds with no signals, know which one of the three lefts is the right one, and think that street signs are for wimps. I am that wimp, and I get mercilessly beeped at and cut off.

"Would you like us to come?" asked Susan. I started protesting realizing that poor Carrie might be roped into this. "Oh no, it's no trouble at all," replied Susan. "I know that part of Boston well, so I can give you directions. Wouldn't it be fun, Carrie?" Carrie didn't look so sure. "It'll only take 20 minutes to get there," I told her apologetically. "Beside, you might get some good material for a story." That day was story writing day at Camp Mom.

With Susan's help, we soon arrived at New Market Square. "That's where all the restaurant suppliers are!" I thought. The rows of warehouses seemed endless: seafood, meats, oriental products -- it was all there. We followed the loading platform, peeking behind the huge trucks for the names of the suppliers. Finally, "Specialty Foods" read a white truck in front of us. We parked, found the stairs onto the loading platform, climbed up, and rang the door bell. "We are here to see Thomas," I said.

Thomas greeted us with a big smile and a vegetable box (the kind I get from my CSA). It was filled with ice. Inside the box was buried a 5 Lb kampachi. A few more of these unassuming gray fish lay in a big plastic box filled with ice. "Who buys them from you?" I asked Thomas. He fired of about 5 names of some expensive hotels and restaurants, like Grill 23. "See how you like it, and let me know if I can get you more," he said.

We paid $50 for our kampachi, took a picture of Thomas with the cousin of our prized new possession (it was easier than unpacking ours), and headed back to Belmont.

"What will you do with this fish?" asked Susan. "I'll try it raw and cooked to decide whether it's worth all the hype. But first I need to get this fishy cleaned." Scaling and gutting is something I prefer to leave to the professionals. When I used to do it at home, it was a huge mess. Specialty Foods was not set up for fish cleaning. Since they are a wholesaler, they sell stuff exactly as it comes in. I called Frankie, my local fishmonger, and explained the situation. Worst he could do was say no.

"No problem, come on in. I'll clean it for you." he said on the phone. "By the way, I have really fatty bluefin tuna." He sounded a little worried, realizing that I already had over 2 Lbs of fish to eat. But this is bluefin tuna we are talking about. "I'll take a pound," I replied.

We arrived at Frankie's, unloaded kampachi, and waited our turn. I took a look at the tuna with the "Wild Bluefin $19/Lb" sign under it. It didn't look at all fatty, and if someone didn't tell me what it was, I might have thought it was yellowfin. But I wasn't going to offend Frankie and $19/Lb was reasonable even for yellowfin. "The tuna looks good," I said when it was my turn. "Oh, Helen," said Frankie waving his hand, "That's not THE tuna." He lifted the top fillets and a layer of parchment to reveal a whole new layer of fish. I gasped. It was something that looked like well-marbled beef. "Here is THE tuna," said Frankie proudly. "I wonder if anyone understands the difference between these tunas," I thought out loud admiring this king of fish. "No, most customers don't." I wouldn't be surprised if bluefin freaked most people out. I could totally see customers asking Frankie for the "good, red" tuna, not this pale one.

In no time, our kampachi was scaled and filleted. "Susan, would you like to take some home?" I asked. "Oh no, I don't really like fish. I am just here to document the adventure," replied Susan snapping pictures of the shop, the fish, Frankie, and me.

"Well, Carrie," I said, "There is a story here waiting to be written." I am not sure if Carrie agreed with me. The poor kid thought the Boston aquarium smelled fishy, and here we were dragging her to the fishiest places in Boston. But all is well that ends well. By 12:30pm, Carrie and Susan were finally freed from the kampachi quest.

The fun was only starting for me.

To be continued...

P. S. Wouldn't this make a good series on HBO? Just kidding. I don't mean to leave you hanging. It's just that I haven't written the end yet! As soon as I do, I'll post it.

Operation Kona Blue, Part 3