July 28, 2011

Think Globally, Act Locally

Being of Irish/Dutch heritage, "caponata" wasn't exactly part of my vocabulary growing up.  I was introduced to it about 6 years ago and since then it has been a work in progress to duplicate that recipe.  It took a few tries, but I think I've pretty much nailed it.  I've had my fair share of different caponatas since then, but none have really stood up to that first one.

Those of you that are familiar with it can sing it's praises,  but to those of you who aren't... let me tell you what you're missing.

Caponata is the epitome of Sicilian flavors.   It is sweet, sour and a little salty. It has a depth of flavor that comes out even more after a day or two, and like most things: every Sicilian household has their own variation.  It is basically a condiment. It is meant to be eaten along side a main course.  

The main ingredient is eggplant, which is the signature vegetable of Sicily. It is earthy from the eggplant, salty from capers & olives, bitter from vinegar and gets texture from the pine nuts.

That pretty much sums it up, but believe me when I tell you there is nothing I can say that will do it justice.

You know that saying:  She might not be the prettiest girl at the party,  but she has a great personality.  Well, THAT is caponata.  It isn't the most appealing thing in a bowl, but for me it was love at first bite... cartoon style: stars in my eyes, birds singing over my head, heart beating visibly out of my chest.  

Since discovering my unabashed love for this mouthful of deliciousness, when I make it... I make alot.  It freezes beautifully and can be taken out whenever the mood strikes you.  Caponata is a great thing to make ahead for a party because the flavor gets even better after a day or two. It's perfect as a topping for toasted bread (crostini).  It can be eaten room temp, warm or even cold (right out of the fridge as a late-night snack), but I also like it stirred into warm pasta.

Making caponata is a leisurely activity.  It shouldn't be rushed, let the pot simmer away filling your house with the most delicious smells imaginable while you give it the occasional stir thinking of the blissful smile that will creep across your face as you think "she was right,  this IS good."

  • 3 medium eggplants, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 red bell peppers, 1/2 inch dice
  • 3 TB tomato paste
  • 1/2 bunch parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 bunch basil, chopped
  • 3 TB capers
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 3 TB currants (sub raisins if currants aren't available)
  • 3 TB sugar
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 1/4 cup green olives, rough chop
  • 1 can diced tomato (14 oz)
  • 1/8 cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, small dice
  • 3 stalks celery, small dice

Caponata bubbling away...

  1. Place the cubes of eggplant in a large bowl or plate.  Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and place another bowl or plate on top to press it down.  Let the eggplant drain for about an hour.  Rinse the salt off the eggplant and drain the liquid that has come out of the eggplant.  Pat dry with paper towel just to absorb some of the water.
  2. Heat the olive oil and add the onions, celery and pepper. Cook for a few minutes to soften, then add the tomato paste and let that cook out a few minutes.  Add the eggplant, stirring occasionally.  We are building layer upon layer of flavor... 
  3. Let the eggplant cook down a little.  Add the vinegar, chopped tomatoes and sugar.  Simmer for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally.  (get a glass of wine & check back in a half hour)
  4. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the basil & parsley.  Simmer another 10 minutes, check for seasoning and adjust if needed. (salt, pepper, vinegar, sugar, etc to suit your taste)
  5. Turn off heat and stir in basil & parsley to combine.  Cool down before putting away.
  6. If freezing, it will keep for up to 2 months if stored properly.

Now about that eggplant...

It's no secret that I feel strongly about supporting local farmers and locally grown produce.
We are in the middle of summer and now is the perfect time to get to know your local farmers. Building a relationship with the people who grow your food is a wonderful thing if you can do it and when they get to know your face,  maybe they'll even set aside some really good stuff for you!

Growing up in a rural area, I have always felt a certain connection to nature. All of the fresh vegetables for this recipe were grown no less than 100 miles from where I live.

Consider the impact of transporting produce the next time you are at the grocery store. If you can get apples from 50 miles away, why buy apples that sat on a truck for 4 days travelling 2,000 miles to get to your local store?  Besides the fact that the apples from your area will taste better, be fresher and are probably cheaper because there wasn't as much cost in transporting them.

It is not my intention to get "preachy" here... just giving you food for thought. 
Support your local farmers  :o)

July 23, 2011

Sweet Relief

With a majority of the country suffering from a blistering heat wave,  the thought of turning on the stove is honestly nauseating.   I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but when it is this hot I can barely stand the thought of eating anything warm so I decided to raid the freezer to see what I could make that did not involve cooking.

Luckily for me, I had stored a few pints of summer berries at their peak and I had some left-over simple syrup from the Summer Sangria so I was in business.

When I was younger, a slurpie was one of my favorite summer treats.  However, knowing what I know now I realize that perhaps all that sugar isn't the best thing for me so I've started making my own version of a "slurpie".  (I still get a frozen coke when I'm visiting home, it's just a food memory that I can't go without, but more on that another time)

When berries are at their peak in the summer months, it is a great thing to store in the freezer and take out in the winter when you are craving a little taste of sunshine.   The easist way to do this is to put them on a sheet pan in a single layer and freeze for 2 or 3 hours, then they can be transferred to a freezer safe container.  It is important to only use pristine berries when doing this. If the berries are bruised or mushy, it really isn't worth the effort in the end.

Berry Slushy
  • 2 and 1/4 cups frozen berries (Use what you have... I had blueberries and raspberries)
  • 1/4 cup simple syrup
  • 1 cup crushed ice
  • 1 1/2 cups seltzer (I used orange-flavored seltzer)

  1. Put the ice, seltzer, syrup and 2 cups of berries in the blender and puree.
  2. Pour into glasses and top each with a few frozen berries. (frozen berries help keep it cold)
*makes 4 cups

Happy Eating.

July 16, 2011

Get this Girl a Drink.

Summertime is for enjoying time outside with friends and family, both of which are on their way to stay with me at this very moment.  To get the festivities underway, I've made a Summer Sangria.  It's light & fruity without being overly sweet.

It is quick & easy to make and because it's made by the pitcher you aren't stuck making drinks all night for your guests.

This sangria goes well with any BBQ food, try it the next time you find yourself outside with the people you love.

Summer Sangria
  • 1 bottle white wine  (I like Pinot Grigio or a white Rioja, but use whatever is on hand)
  • 1/2 liter seltzer
  • 3/4 can peach nectar (11.5 fl oz)
  • 1 cup simple syrup
  • 1 peach, cut into chunks
  • 2 plums, cut into chunks

  1. For the simple syrup, combine 1 cup water with 1 cup sugar.  Bring to simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar has completely dissolved.  Cool.
  2. Combine the rest of your ingredients in a pitcher, give it a good stir and refrigerate.
  3. Cheers!

July 09, 2011

Viva Espana!

I love Spain.  I love almost everything about it.  The energy, the food, the language, flamenco, the art, architecture, the history, the culture, the TAPAS, etc...  I have had a near obsession with all things Spanish for a very long time.  The first time I set foot on Spanish soil,  it almost seemed like I was home.  I know that is an odd statement,  but it is honestly how I felt.  It was as if I belonged there.  From that moment on,  it has been a long-distance love affair.  Spain is where I truly fell in love with food.

I remember vividly the first time I had tapas.  I was at an outdoor restaurant/tapas bar called Qu-Qu in Barcelona next to one of the main roads.  I still have a paper-wrapped toothpick from there that I keep in my jewelry box.  It's been 12 or 13 years since that first trip and it left an impression on my soul that I still feel today.  I had never tasted anything like the food I had on that trip and it resonated with me in a way I had never experienced before.  The food was completely foreign to a Midwestern girl from a small town, but reading the menu and ordering things I had never seen or tasted before was exhilarating to me.  I almost felt like I had never really tasted food before.  I remember exactly what I had that day.
  • Patatas Bravas
  • Croquetas de jamon
  • Mahon & Manchego cheeses
  • Jamon Iberico
  • Tortilla Espanola
(I can't figure out how to add the proper accents/tildes here, sorry!)

How many meals in your life can you remember every single detail?  I remember the weather,  where I sat, what the restaurant looked like from where I was sitting, the sounds of the traffic outside, etc.  This is worth noting because I don't always have the best memory...

Having tapas in Spain is a social event.  It starts anywhere from 8:00 to 10:00 at night. People have a drink of some sort and a small snack (tapa), move on to another place and do the same thing. Repeat a few more times before finally having dinner anywhere from 10:00 to sometimes as late as midnight.  Tapas are basically appetizers or "little bites".  They can be anything from a dish of olives to razor clams or chorizo.  The list of tapas is quite literally endless.  That is part of the excitement of it.  Every region of Spain is so unique and the food is representative of that particular place. Most tapas are accompanied by a glass of wine, but sherry, cava (sparkling wine) or beer are also common.

There are a few regions of Spain that have their own language and culture apart from their national one and some of the regions of Spain are as different from each other as could possibly be.  Spain was occupied by the Moors for almost 800 years until Ferdinand and Isabella took the throne and drove the Moors out in 1492. (does this year sound familiar?...)  This occupation had an everlasting impact on Spain and it's culture.  The history of this peninsula is fascinating (to a nerd like me) and while I could drone on for hours about it,  this is a food blog...  so back to the topic at hand.

There is a food market in Barcelona called La Boqueria.  It has everything anyone could ever imagine under one roof.  Barcelona is located on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea and thus La Boqueria was swimming! with seafood.  I saw things that I had NO idea what they were, but was completely mesmerized by. 

That first trip to Spain was an experience that I will never forget.  Although I haven't been able to go back for some time now, I carry the memories of Espana with me in my heart right where they belong.
There is a fountain in Barcelona at the beginning of Las Ramblas and it is said that if you drink from that fountain,  you will always return to that place. 

Looking back on that first trip and realizing THAT is where it all started makes me love Spain even more...

I am making the quintessential tapa:  Tortilla Espanola.  There are few ingredients, but the simplicity is part of what makes it so delicious.  This can be eaten warm or at room temp, which is how I prefer it, and it can be made ahead and kept for a couple of days.

Tortilla Espanola
  • 2 potatoes, peeled and sliced about 1/8" thick
  • 1 spanish onion, halved and sliced thinly
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 cup olive oil, preferably Spanish (Arbequina is my favorite)
  • salt & pepper
- Do not be alarmed by the amount of oil,  you won't be consuming all of that...

  1. Heat the olive oil in an 8 or 9 inch saute pan and carefully slide in the potatoes one at a time so they don't stick to each other.
  2. Next, add the onions.  Let these cook for a few minutes until they are soft.  Basically you are boiling the potatoes and onions in the oil.
  3. Remove them and let them drain.  Pour the olive oil out, reserving about 3 tablespoons. (Save the oil for future use,  it is perfumed with the onions and potato you just cooked)
  4. Beat the eggs and set aside. (remember to season as you go...)
  5. If there are some bits stuck to the bottom of your pan, wipe it out and then heat it back up before adding the 3 tablespoons of oil back in.
  6. When the oil is hot, pour in the eggs and put the potato and onion mixture in.  Press down with the back of your spatula so the egg gets in between the layers.  This will be the glue holding everything together.
  7. Once it is browned underneath, you have to flip it over and brown the other side.  When the eggs are mostly set, place a plate of the same size on top of the pan.  In one smooth motion, flip the tortilla out onto the plate.  Then, slide it back into the pan to brown the other side.  This sounds much trickier than it actually is...  just do it with confidence,  no fear!

   8.  Let the tortilla cook a few more minutes until
        you can see that it is completely cooked through.
   9.  Remove from heat and let it rest in the pan
        a few minutes. I find it much easier to cut
        when it has cooled a bit.
  10. Take your golden brown masterpiece out of the pan,
        cut into wedges and EAT!

*leftover tortilla espanola is delicious on a nice baguette with a touch of mayo...  just fyi.


July 03, 2011

Thai One On...

Salty, sweet, hot & sour.  These four words describe the flavors of Thai food.  Thai food is all about balance and that is one of the things I love most about it.  The flavors hit your tongue on every level.  There is an element of all of these tastes in every bite.  The beauty of Thai food is that none of the flavors overpower the others,  they all exist harmoniously on your palate and it is some of the most unique food you will ever have.

One of my favorite things to have in warmer weather are summer rolls.  They are light and refreshing with a nice bit of crunch to satisfy the need for some texture.  The ingredients can be anything you want them to be, so if you are in the mood for these but need to use what is already on hand, no worries.
From traditional summer rolls to the ones I'll be making today; which are a bit of a twist on tradition,  they are a great summer meal and best of all, they are easy on the wallet and on the waist.

Duck Summer Rolls with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce

  • 1 magret duck breast (if you don't like or can't find, omit or use chicken)
  • 6 rice paper spring roll wrappers (find in asian markets or some grocery stores)
  • 1/2 bunch mint, chopped
  • 1/2 bunch thai basil, chopped (use regular basil if you can't find thai)
  • 1 large carrot, julienned or shredded
  • 1 med. seedless cucumber, julienned
  • 1/2 of an avocado, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 pkg. cellophane noodles
The first bit of business here is to cook the duck breast.
- Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Score the fat and season with salt & pepper. When scoring the fat you need to have light touch.  The purpose is to get through the fat without touching the meat.

- Put on a low flame and let the fat render out. 
- Once the skin is a deep golden brown, turn the duck over & put it in the oven for 6-8 minutes.

   (Duck cooking in it's own fat...  I mean be serious here!  does it get ANY better than that?!)

Duck isn't something I usually just have laying around,  but I happened to have one and thus a recipe evolved...  It is my luxury item here, as it isn't cheap but well worth it.

- Once the duck is cooked, remove from heat and let it rest.  Never, ever cut into meat right away.  It needs to be left alone so the juices can re-distribute and it will be juicy.  If you cut it open right away, all the flavor will end up on your cutting board instead in your food.

- For the vegetables: if you own a mandoline it is easiest to julienne or shred them on that.  If not, use a box grater.  We all have those and while it won't be exactly the same,  it still works.  (Many stores sell Japanese mandolines, which is what I use. They are inexpensive, versatile and worth every penny). 

- The cellophane noodles just need to soak in nearly boiling water for a few minutes and they are ready to go.  The same goes for the rice paper wrappers (except less time).

Before you start assembly, it is important to have everything ready to go.  The rice noodles should be soaked and drained, the meat cut into thin slices, the vegetables shredded and the herbs chopped.  This little bit of prep will make the process go more smoothly and will save you time in the long run.

Slide the wrappers into the hot water, one by one, and let them sit for about 30 seconds.  Pull them out (carefully) and lay them out on a flat work surface. Try to leave a little space between each one so they don't touch,  they tend to get sticky and if they do get stuck together,  pull them apart very slowly so you don't tear them.

Lay the ingredients on top of one another in a line along the bottom third of the wrapper. 

Begin rolling up, when you are at the halfway point, fold in the two sides like you are making a burrito and continue rolling to the end. 
Lay seam side down so the weight of the filling will help hold the seal.  When all the rolls are done, set aside and start the sauce.

Spicy Peanut sauce
  • 1/2 c. peanut butter
  • 2-3 TB hoisin sauce
  • 2 TB rice wine vinegar
  • 1 TB sesame oil
  • 1 1/2 TB Sriracha (hot sauce)
  • 3-4 TB soy sauce
  • 2 TB tamarind paste (if you can't find, omit)
  • water

    - Whisk everything together until it is a smooth paste and thin with water until desired consistency.

    And the libation of choice with this delicious summer supper?  The new ginger lemongrass drink I've been working on, of course...  Recipe coming soon!
    Happy Eating  xo