Thursday, February 19, 2009


As is customary, in the late afternoon hours, my thoughts today drifted toward what I might put on my dinner plate later in the evening. Thanks to my cushy new job at Food & Wine magazine--my office is located around the corner from the test kitchen--I've been eating abundantly, and well. As a result, I've been craving loads of vegetables for dinner, lately--you know, to sort of cancel out all the fried chicken, coconut cream pie and various bacon-wrapped items that I consume during the day. Last night, for example, I ate a plate of lentils (like the one in the post below) followed by a light and refreshing endive, apple and walnut salad. Anyway, back to this afternoon. Thinking about my dinner, a vision of an eggplant--smooth, dark purple and shiny--popped suddenly into my head. I wanted to cook it, but how? Roast it whole until the flesh turned creamy, then mash it up with some tahini to make baba ghanoush? Grill some slices and then top them with herbs and goat cheese, as a sort of light version of eggplant parmesan? Either of those options would have been satisfying, but no--I realized that what I wanted was caponata, that Italian specialty of sweet, salty, tangy eggplant that gets its bite from olives and capers. But no, wait--maybe I wanted ratatouille, that rustic French combination of soft eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper and tomato: spicier and lustier than its cousin across the Alps.

I couldn't choose--and then I realized that I didn't have to. Instead, I made a relatively straightforward ratatouille which I finished with the traditional caponata flavorings of olives, capers and vinegar. I got the best of both worlds in this dish: the sweet/sour tang that the combination of slow-cooked onions and vinegar lends to a caponata, as well as the warm, earthy mellowness with which bell peppers and tomatoes infuse a ratatouille. Call me a flip-flopper; I don't mind. Isn't the adapting and blending of traditions what cooking is all about?

Oh, and I almost forgot: I happened to enjoy a nice, rare, sliced sirloin steak alongside my dish. It was delicious, especially when eaten with a little forkful of the vegetables on top. But, as you can clearly see, it took a backseat to the eggplant.

Warm Mediterranean Vegetables (Ratatouille/Caponata)
Serves 4

1. Preheat the oven to 375°.
2. Cut 1 small eggplant, 1 large zucchini, and 1 large red bell pepper into medium-sized chunks. Place them on a rimmed baking sheet and toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in the oven, stirring occasionally, until they are browned and quite soft, about 20 minutes. Shut off the oven.
3. Over a medium flame, heat about 2 tbsp. of olive oil in a large, deep, heavy-bottomed pan. Add 1 large red onion, cut into a medium dice, and some salt. About 2 minutes later, add 3 cloves of garlic, chopped. Cook, stirring, until onions are soft and sweet, about 10 minutes.
4. Add 3 - 4 ripe plum tomatoes, cut into medium-sized chunks, to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have released some of their liquid and begun to break down. Add the roasted vegetables, cover the pan partially, and reduce the heat to low. Cook until the vegetables are completely soft, about 5 - 10 more minutes.
5. Shut off the heat and add a small handful of olives, pitted and chopped, as well as a small handful of capers, rinsed and drained. Add about a tbsp. of red wine vinegar, stir to combine, and check for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper and vinegar as needed. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sometimes simple is best

I've been doing a lot of cooking lately, but not a lot of blog posting, and it's because my style of cooking is often not very photogenic. I'm a big fan of straightforward, uncomplicated recipes that heighten the flavors of their ingredients, allowing them to shine through and not obfuscating them under layers of butter, oil or heavy seasoning. So many times when I throw together these modest, unembellished but nevertheless delicious meals, I look at them and decide not to take a photo or write about them--rather, I just enjoy them. But I thought I'd make an exception tonight and share what I ate for dinner: a plateful of lentils. Pure and simple lentils, sauteed with aromatics and cooked in chicken broth, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkled with salt and much freshly ground black pepper. Okay, okay, so I did have a green salad on the side, but that was just the icing on the cake--so to speak.

Simple Stewed Lentils
Serves 4

1. Place 2 tbsp. of olive oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan set over medium heat. Add one small carrot, peeled and finely diced; one rib of celery, finely diced; and 1/2 a large onion, finely chopped. Season with salt and pepper and sweat the vegetables for about 5 minutes.
2. Add some dried thyme and red pepper flakes, to taste, to the vegetables in the pan. Add 1 cup of small brown, yellow or green lentils, rinsed, and cook them briefly before adding 2 cups of chicken broth. Cover the pan and raise the heat. When the broth begins to boil, drop the heat down to low and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes, until lentils have absorbed almost all of the liquid and are cooked through but still firm. Serve, as is or over rice, garnished with olive oil, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, salt, freshly ground black papper and chopped fresh parsley.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Eating locally

Undoubtedly the hottest topic in the culinary world today is that of the importance of eating local, sustainable food. For several months now, I, too, have been trying to eat locally--but in a different sense than people like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver advocate. What I've been attempting to do is to incorporate more of the distinctive ingredients for sale in my neighborhood into my cooking. I live in south Park Slope (South Slope to us locals), an area with a large Latino population, and ever since I moved here in September I have--slowly but surely--been modifying what I cook to include a wider variety of the foodstuffs I see in my nearby grocery stores and supermarkets. Corn tortillas, for example, are now a staple that I keep in my freezer at all times. On a rarer occasion, I might, say, slow-roast a huge pork shoulder in the common Puerto Rican style. I think it's important to adapt your habits--including your shopping and cooking--to where you live. Personally, putting this idea into practice makes me feel more a part of my neighborhood, and more in touch with the people who live in it.

I kept this mantra in mind when, looking to satisfy an intense steak craving, I went shopping for my dinner earlier today. I found a nice-looking skirt steak--an inexpensive and reliable cut of beef--and decided to marinate it in a mixture of olive oil, lime juice, cumin and salt, then sear it, slice it, and fold it into the aforementioned tortillas resting in my freezer. I wanted to make a quick tomato salsa to crown the tacos with, and as I instinctively reached for the bunch of cilantro in the produce section of my local Associated supermarket, I noticed its more seldom seen cousin, culantro, lurking nearby. I had heard of culantro on the PBS cooking show Daisy Cooks!, and knew that it made an acceptable, if stronger-tasting, substitute for cilantro in recipes. In my continued effort to try out new ingredients, I decided to purchase it in cilantro's stead. Here's what it looks like:

Before I put it into my salsa, I tasted a bit of it. For me it's similar to cilantro, but more peppery-tasting, with a stronger bite. Its leaves are also a bit thicker than cilantro's, and lent a more substantial textural element to the finished salsa:

And, finally, the main event: skirt steak tacos with avocado and fresh salsa. Local eating at its best.