Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bruschetta (without the bread)

It's spring here in New York City, and I couldn't be happier about that fact. As soon as temperatures rose above 50 degrees, I retired my winter jacket--perhaps a bit prematurely--and immediately starting craving spring/summer crops like strawberries and tomatoes. Also somewhat prematurely. While the strawberry plants on my deck will probably bear fruit within a few weeks, my tomatoes won't even show their first flowers until June. For the moment, it seems, I'll have to make due with the produce available in my local grocery store. That explains how I, ever powerless to resist or even wait out a craving, found myself with a bag of sub-par supermarket tomatoes last week. I wanted tomatoes, and I got tomatoes.

So how to best utilize an ingredient, like the tomato, that when purchased at the store is almost always woefully lacking in the flavor department? The key is to try your darnedest to deepen and enhance what flavor is already there. In the post I just linked to I suggested slow-roasting tomatoes in order to do just that; and today I'm going to share a fresher, faster alternative to that method. What I did with my most recent batch of wan tomatoes was to make a no-cook tomato sauce that sits at room temperature, marinating undisturbed for as long as your hunger can hold out, increasing in lusty flavor all the while. What you do is dice tomatoes and plop them in a bowl along with minced garlic, shredded basil, a generous amount of salt and a good glug of olive oil (use your best; you'll really taste it here).

This recipe, as you might notice, is pretty much exactly what you'd pile atop toasted bread and call bruschetta (it's just as good with pasta). What happens is that the salt draws out a lot of liquid from the tomatoes, and as the liquid goes, you taste the fruit's flavor more. Same theory behind roasting any fruit or vegetable. In this instance, that liquid mixes and mingles with the olive oil in the bowl, making a sort of dressing that nicely coats the pasta that you will cook and add in. And the warmth of that pasta will heat up the garlic just a little bit, taking away some of its raw edge but leaving a nice spicy bite behind. So until you can get your hands on some nice, fresh, locally grown and seasonal tomatoes, try this move on your everyday tomato and tell me that it doesn't make the waiting that much easier.

No-Cook Tomato Sauce
Serves 2


4 plum tomatoes or 2 larger tomatoes, cut into a small dice
3 cloves garlic, minced
A generous handful of basil, cut or torn into thin strips
Olive oil
2 servings of dried pasta


1. Combine tomatoes, garlic, basil, salt and olive oil to taste in a bowl. Let sit at room temperature for a minimum of 20 minutes and ideally for at least an hour.
2. When you're ready to eat, set a pot of water to boil. Cook the pasta to al dente, drain, and add it to the bowl of sauce. Toss to combine, check for seasoning, and serve.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Just saying no to takeout

I'll admit it: I love takeout. I live in New York, and there is no shortage of reasonably priced local restaurants whose varied cuisines I would be more than happy to see arrive, like magic, at my doorstep. For me, ordering takeout is akin to what I imagine getting room service to be like: a luxurious, I'm-just-going-to-sit-here-watching-movies-while-someone-else-prepares-my-dinner type of indulgence.

That being said, I can probably count on two hands the number of occasions that I have actually gotten takeout in the past 2 years. Not only am I ridiculously cheap frugal, but I also, obviously, love to cook, and therefore rarely do my stove the dishonor of letting it stand idly by while I eat the fruits of some stranger's labor.

One of the best things about becoming confident in your cooking is that, eventually, you'll probably be able to recreate or at least approximate some of your favorite dishes in your own home, without having to waste money on (nor unwittingly ingest the various chemical additives of) takeout. Anyone reading this blog of late will have noticed that I have become extremely enamored of cooking Asian, particularly Chinese, cuisines. And my increased facility with once-mysterious ingredients such as fermented black beans and preserved vegetables is perhaps my best armor against the siren song of restaurant food. That is because for me, and, I would wager, for a lot of people, my number one takeout craving happens to be Chinese food. Nowadays, in moments of tired-after-a-long-day-at-work weakness, I can look into my pantry and avoid the (you know you have one) takeout menu/miscellanea drawer.

Earlier tonight I was sorely tempted by thoughts of the excellent Thai restaurant down the street from me. But before I picked up the phone I checked out what was in the fridge: a lone lean pork chop and the last remaining member of a bunch of Japanese eggplants. Suddenly I was all caught up in a craving for Chinese eggplant with garlic sauce, with tender slivers of pork throughout. I was now committed to the cause, and duly chopped my ginger and garlic and set my wok to heat up. Working very, very loosely from a recipe I found online, I was soon rewarded with a plate full of creamy, tender eggplant and soft bits of pork suspended in a pungent, slightly spicy sauce. Delayed gratification, in this instance, was just as satisfying--if not more so--than the instant kind.

Eggplant and Pork in Chile-Garlic Sauce
Serves 3 - 4
Adapted from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


3 medium Japanese eggplants, about 1 pound
2 thin, lean, pork chops, trimmed of fat and sliced into small strips
1 tbsp. plus 2 tbsp. light soy sauce, divided
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tbsp. plus 2 tbsp. rice wine vinegar, divided
1 tbsp. plus 2 tbsp. rice cooking wine, divided
Red pepper flakes
2 tbsp. chile garlic sauce
1 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. finely minced ginger
2 tbsp. finely minced garlic
2 scallions, thinly sliced
Vegetable oil for frying


1. Marinate the pork: In a small bowl combine the pork with 1 tbsp. soy sauce, 1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar, 1 tbsp. rice cooking wine, 1 tsp. sesame oil and a dash of red pepper flakes. Stir to combine and set aside.
2. Slice the eggplant into thick (about 1/2") medallions. Discard stem.
3. Make the sauce: in a small bowl, combine remaining soy sauce, vinegar, cooking wine, and sugar.
4. Heat a generous amount of oil (about 3 - 4 tbsp.) in a wok set over a high flame. Just before it begins to smoke, add the eggplant. Cook, stirring or shaking constantly, until eggplant starts to soften, about 8 - 10 minutes. Remove eggplant to a plate.
5. Add one more tbsp. of oil to the wok and heat over a medium flame. Add the garlic and ginger and cook briefly; then add the pork and cook, stirring, until it is no longer pink, about 3 minutes.
6. Add the eggplant back to the wok and stir in the sauce. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for about 8 - 10 minutes or until pork is cooked through and eggplant is very tender. Garnish with scallions and serve with rice.