Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Fling Into Spring: Grilled Pomegranate-glazed Prawn, Sea Scallops,Fiesta Salad w/ Feta, & Campania Artichoke







It's March.

An auspicious calendar of events can be tallied up on its pages. St. Patrick's Day. Basketball's March Madness. Co-eds' Spring Break. Spring-training for Major League Baseball.  It's the month Caesar would have done well to beware the Ides of, back in 44 B.C..  It's also the breeding time for hares (known as March Hares) - when feminist bunnies bash potential playmates with their forelegs to separate the men from the boys. I can't understand why the English referred to them as 'mad', seems like a reasonable way to select a mate to me. Vincent Van Gogh, Dr. Seuss, Harriet Tubman, Harry Houdini, and Robert Frost were all born in March. In 1775,
on the 23rd of this March, American patriot, Patrick Henry, famously cried out "Give me liberty, or give me death." at the Virginia Convention, purportedly persuading his fellow delegates (the likes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) that revolution was the noblest course of action to take against the Imperialists. The first spacewalk took place in March in 1965. In March of 1886, Coca-Cola was invented. The swallows return to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano in San Juan, California on the 19th, St. Joseph's Day. They return to the old ruined church each spring knowing their nests will be protected within the mission's walls. Daylight Savings magically springs us forward into time in early March, and lets the blessed sun shine an hour longer through our venetian blinds (if you're like me, that is, with an expansive western exposure and a desk propped up right against a bay window). 


On March 20th, we welcome spring.  Far from being an arbitrary indicator of the changing seasons, March 20 (March 21 in some years) is significant for astronomical reasons. On March 20, 2015, at precisely 6:45 P.M. EDT, the Sun will cross directly over the Earth's equator. This moment is known as the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, and the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere.

Translated literally, equinox means "equal night." Because the Sun is positioned above the equator, day and night are about equal in length all over the world during the equinoxes. These brief but monumental moments owe their significance to the 23.4 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. Because of the tilt, we receive the Sun's rays most directly in the summer. In the winter, when we are tilted away from the Sun, the rays pass through the atmosphere at a greater slant, bringing lower temperatures. If the Earth rotated on an axis perpendicular to the plane of the Earth's orbit around the Sun, there would be no variation in day lengths or temperatures throughout the year, and we would not have seasons.
Historically, for thousands of years, cultures worldwide have recognized the vernal equinox. There is no shortage of rituals and traditions surrounding the coming of spring.  La Primavera! Renewal... Reawakening... Rebirth! Food... glorious crops of food are ripe for the picking, and the eating, and many festivities are held in celebration of Mother Nature's bounty.  In Christianity, the vernal equinox is significant because Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon that follows the vernal equinox. It is also probably no coincidence that early Egyptians built the Great Sphinx so that it points directly toward the rising Sun on the day of the vernal equinox. The day also marks the beginning of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The celebration lasts 13 days and is rooted in the 3,000-year-old tradition of Zorastrianism.

March is the schizophrenic's month; the month that proverbially goes in like a lion and out like a lamb. In most places in the U.S., it's truly a tale of two seasons: winter and spring - they straddle it, and battle it out. People spend the first half of the March shoveling snow out of their driveways, and the second half, planting their bulbs, and picking their asparagus. Unless, of course, you happen to live by the San Francisco Bay.  
Living in San Francisco all these years has deadened my sense of the advent of Spring. The frost doesn't thaw here... because it never forms. Yet surely there are natural signs of Spring's nose-powdering in preparation for the ball; other than the relative position of the sunrise and sunset to (respectively) the Transamerica Pyramid and the Golden Gate Bridge. It's not that we are sans seasons, it's just that the changes are far subtler. The wind blows harder here in the Spring, but in the city proper, the landscape doesn't change much. We haven't many deciduous trees. Magnolias bloom in February here... Camellias open their buds. Quince and cherry trees are few and far between, but they start to get all sexy now... Other than that? Especially in drought years like this year? Nada! Winter is our rainy season, but it's been sunny, warm and dry throughout most of it, so everything is already abloom here. Still, all the wantonness associated with Spring does have its effects here.

"In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin's breast;

In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish'd dove;
In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love."

At least in the world according to Lord Alfred Tennyson. And a life without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit. Ah... love. Yes, love. My associations with March are not necessarily to do with Lord Tennyson, nor the blossoming shrubs that enliven the pollen and add to the woes of allergy sufferers like me everywhere; nor the many pagan or religious rituals. No, mine are far more immediate and domestic. My long-suffering husband and I were married on March 8th, sixteen (or is seventeen??) years ago. Our wedding was not the usual thing. Far from it... Firstly, we told no one of our plans - well, almost no one. Only one girlfriend knew (and she blabbed it - this I assumed because the next day champagne and flowers showered on us from a gazillion people in our suite at the Lodge in Pebble Beach).

What can I say about married life, or more specifically, my husband, Garrett? El esposo
 is a tremendous sport. He takes me in stride (mostly). I must confess that I have a propensity for doing random ridiculous things to him as they occur to me during the course of the day. Invading his personal space. Disrupting his peace. All without warning or reason. Things that others might find inexplicable, if not downright disturbing and/or annoying. 


The odd bite of neck, shoulder or other reachable body part; the occasional tickle of exposed flesh; the casual tousle of his well-groomed locks if they appear too orderly to me at that moment; the hard sniffing into his ear to which he just says without looking up from his computer, "It's NOT me!" whilst I cackle like a cracked out hyena and ask him, "What's not you? What are you on about, man?". I also always take exactly one bite from whatever he's eating, or a sip from whatever he's drinking, preferably before he has, so that when he looks down, he sees that I've been there. Then I deny doing it, of course. Or the rare times I do choose to admit the undeniable,  I tell him he should be grateful to have a personal taster as the kings of yore once did. That, one day, I will likely save his life. Garrett remains relatively implacable during these little pantomimes of mine. He just sighs, resignedly, and continues to eat. 


Yes, all in all, I am fortunate not to find cyanide in my coffee, or arsenic-laced strawberries. I like being a pest. It's my nature. He knows and accepts this. The backbone to every good marriage is the ability to endure each other's barrage of nonsense with saintly forbearance. Nothing sustains a marriage like having each partner feel like a martyr to a worthy cause.  In fact, sometimes I believe he enjoys my antics. Poor man. When asked by friends and family how at his age he has such a full head of hair, but virtually no gray ones, he always says, "Because I married well." So, either he likes it, or he's a beautiful liar. 


Looking back at why, when and how we got married amuses me.

It wasn't a shotgun wedding. 

It was more like the groom was at knifepoint. My well-honed tongue at his throat. I'd spent the night explaining who I was to his work associates at a boondoggle conference in Scottsdale. A place, interestingly enough, called The Princess. "This is Lori Gomez." is how he always introduced me to people - skipping off to the next hand to shake. Leaving me to fill in the blanks. After 9 years of cohabitation, I suppose he thought calling me his 'girlfriend' was insufficient. Using the phrase 'significant other' seemed trite and awkward, so he didn't. He'd just move on after identifying me by name, sans status.


"So what do you do for the company?" asked a middle-aged, overweight, balding male. Directing his query to my tits. Already having anticipated his question, this time I opted for truth over tact. "The boss.", says I. 


I walked away without bothering to watch his jaw hit the laces of his topsiders. Fast forward to our resort suite later that evening, wherein I inform my man I would no longer be his InstaDate. Nor stand by his side as 'Lori Gomez' to charm the smarm out of over-aged prom attendants. I suggested it was time to consider a merger. Adding that if he could not sign the contract, there would be no hard feelings, I'd move back to New York and he could keep his surname pristine and virginal, however my days as 'always the bridesmaid’ whilst essentially being a wife in everything but name were over.


This was not the first time we discussed ye olde holy state of matrimony, but with his "Name the time and place, and I'll be there." in response to my offer, I think we both understood it would be the last.

The nuptials soon followed.  
The best line of the long weekend of our 'honeymoon' came from Sally Scilabba: "You are so lucky to have us on your honeymoon. When we got married all the company we had was each other." I thought I heard a deathknell ring whilst she said it... Romance had died and was being buried. 


Sally and her husband Dave were our surprise wedding guests. By surprise guests, I mean they were surprised. They had ZERO idea they were going to attend a ceremony. We Shanghaied them and had them drive us to the spot. They had just flown in from New York. Oyster Bay was where they called home. Dave and Garrett were participating in the Second Annual Pebble Beach Two Man Golf World Championship (some made up boondoggle for middle-aged males who played the game to get away from work & wives). We four had planned this trip for eons. Neither Garrett, nor I saw any reason to inform them we were getting married the night before the tournament. 


There I was in my little ivory St. John's suit that Trish Garrabrandt (the loudmouth) helped me pick out, and Garrett was in a lovely dark blue Kiton suit. Dave and Sally were in their jeans and khakis having just disembarked from their six-hour United flight. We met them outside before they entered their room. We were all staying in the same little bungalow. Their room was just above ours.


"WOW! You guys look great. Where are you going?"

"We're going to a wedding."
"A wedding?"
"Yep. You can come along with us."
"Won't the couple mind? We can't go dressed like this."
"Sure you can. You need to drive us there. You're dressed perfectly. They won't mind."
"How can you be sure, Lor?" 
"Because we're the couple."

Silence.


Sally starts crying and runs upstair to get tissues and her camera.

All Dave says is  "I need a drink." as he tugs at his popped collar.

Once we were all re-assembled, we piled into their rental Jeep. They drove us to Monastery Beach in Carmel. A female minister whom I had hired from a service called By-The-Sea weddings (the first listing under 'Weddings' that I saw on the Carmel Chamber of Commerce website) met us at the parking lot there, and we all hiked about a mile (me in the borrowed ivory pumps Trish provided - as she insisted I needed something borrowed. I wore sapphire earrings for the something blue). 


We got to a promontory- a giant boulder and ledge that looked like it was created for our wedding stood against the backdrop of a sparkling blue ocean... The sun was setting. Harbor seals were stretched out on the rocks below, settling in for the night... sea otters were floating on their backs in the Pacific Ocean, cracking little oyster shells and having an early evening snack. Garrett and I laughed and smiled though our 'I Dos' (I chose the 'short' ceremony from the options list), and as Dave was driving us back to the lodge so we could all get ready for dinner after the ceremony, he said "THAT was the best wedding I've ever been to!"


I must say, I agreed with him at the time. I still do. That night we dined on pristine seafood and the season's loveliest offerings from the garden. I thought I'd recreate one of the dishes in honor of my wedding anniversary.




The following recipe (if you call what is basically an assemblage of ingredients a recipe) is the blast off into a Spring-inspired regimen utilizing the best of what the Bay Area has to offer in this eternal season of renewal. We will use a store-bought Pomegranate Sauce from Stonewall Kitchen, a really superior product that saves me time & tastes remarkably similar to a sauce I would make from Pom juice, aromatics & herbs. We marinade the seafood in the sauce with a bit of Extra Virgin olive oil and fresh ground pepper up to an hour ahead or as little as 15 minutes; grill the shrimps and scallops; and then reduce a 1/3 of cup of the Pomegranate sauce in a small pan with a touch of soy sauce and a splash of whatever wine you happen to be drinking at the time; until it's thick & glaze like. While the seafood marinates, prepare the sriracha aioli, the artichokes, the salad veggies and the dressing - keeping them separate until ready to serve - then toss the ingredients together. Simple!

Note: 
Le Roy Ladurie, in his book Les Paysans de Languedoc, has documented the spread of artichoke cultivation in Italy and southern France in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, when the artichoke appears as a new arrival with a new name, which may be taken to indicate an arrival of an improved cultivated variety:


“The blossom of the thistle, improved by the Arabs, passed from Naples to Florence in 1466, carried by Filippo Strozzi. Towards 1480 it is noticed in Venice, as a curiosity. But very soon veers towards the northwest...Artichoke beds are mentioned in Avignon by the notaries from 1532 onward; from the principle towns they spread into the hinterlands ... appearing as carchofas at Cavaillon in 1541, at Chateauneuf du Pape in 1553, at Orange in 1554. The local name remains carchofas, from the Italian carciofo ... They are very small, the size of a hen's egg ... and are still considered a luxury, a vaguely aphrodisiac tidbit that one preserved in sugar syrup.”


The Dutch introduced artichokes to England, where they grew in Henry VIII's garden at Newhall in 1530. They were brought to the United States in the 19th century, to Louisiana by French immigrants and to California by Spanish immigrants.

The Campania, I used here, is a large red artichoke. Redder than the Anzio, but not quite as red as the Fiesole. It is the world's largest red artichoke as some have been harvested that weigh over 2 pounds. Like the Lyon, it also comes from extensive breeding program in Southern France and its usage is similar to the Lyon. The Campania artichokes really have a beautiful almost fuschia-colored tinge to the leaves & are much more tender than the usual Globe choke; so they require less cooking time and preparation. If you can't find them at your market, simply replace with the Globe variety, cook longer and trim more, carefully removing the tough outer leaves and spines.

The gomasio for the court bouillon is a Japanese condiment that provides a more savory alternative to plain sea salt. It is comprised of sesame seeds, sea salt, & sea vegetables: organic dulse, nori and kombu. It really works well with the chokes imparting a nutty but still greenish flavor 
(is green a flavor? yes it is!) to them. You can just substitute toasted sesame seed, sea salt & maybe nori, if you have some around. I like the Eden Organics brand. 






Grilled Pomegranates-Glazed Prawns, Sea Scallops, Fiesta Salad,  Campania Artichokes with Sriracha Aioli




Ingredients:

For the salad:
1 fresh jicama, peeled, cut into batons
1 handful of fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
10 cups of organic field greens (about 5 oz.), rinsed & dried
1/2 pint of grape or cherry tomatoes, halved lengthwise (from stem end to stem end)
1 Hass avocado, cut into 1 inch chunks
1 shallot, minced finely
2 ounces of feta (mine came from San Rafael), crumbled but not too finely
1/2 Meyer lemon
1 Tablespoon of Stonewall Kitchen's Pomegranate Grille Sauce
1 Tablespoon of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil
sea salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
1 Ziploc gallon-sized plastic bag



The ingredients all assembled - ready for action




Jicama cut into batons


The mise en place for the salad





For the Artichokes:
2 Campania artichokes, stems lightly trimmed, tops sheared
1 bay leaf, whole for the court bouillon
2 tablespoons of seaweed gomasio (optional)
2 cloves of garlic lightly smashed (substitute garlic powder for it, if you must)
freshly ground pepper
8 quarts of boiling water that has been acidulated with lemon or rice wine vinegar

Campania Artichokes... so pretty...


For the sriracha aioli:
2 Tablespoons of lowfat mayo
1 clove of garlic finely minced & mashed with 1/4 teaspoon of coarse fleur de sel
1 Tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
the juice of a 1/4 Meyer lemon
1 and 1/2 teaspoons of Sriracha hot sauce (or add to taste, you can find it in any Safeway supermarket, check the archives for a link to the product or google sriracha sauce)
1/4 teaspoon of Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce (or a 1/4 teaspoon of high quality anchovy paste)
freshly ground black pepper



Sriracha-chili aioli dipping sauce for the Campania Chokes


For the scallops and prawns:
1/2 lb of fresh sea scallops, adductor muscles removed (see photo)
1/2 lb. of #10-#12 prawns, removed from shells and deveined
1/3 cup of Stonewall Kitchen Pomegranate Grille Sauce (see note)
1 Tablespoon of Meyer lemon infused extra virgin olive oil (or the juice of 1/2 a lemon & 1 Tablespoon of EVOO)
1 teaspoon of soy sauce
1 teaspoon of agave nectar (or honey)
freshly ground black pepper
sea salt to taste (optional, I personally think both the pomegranate and the soy sauce have ample amounts of sodium so I wouldn't add it; but that's just my preference)



East Coast sea scallops and #10 prawns, sorry locavores!


Removing the adductor muscle from the scallops



Directions:


  1. Prepare the marinade ingredients for the seafood. Using a mixing bowl whisk together all the wet ingredients with the pepper, whisking in the oil last to form an emulsion. Taste, adjust seasoning &/ or marinade ingredients & when prepared to taste. Set aside for a moment.
  2. Clean and prepare the scallops & shrimp, being sure to remove the adductor muscles from the former, and the shells, intestinal tract, pleopods and pareopods (the front "arms" & back "legs") from the latter.
  3. Add the seafood & the marinade to the ziploc bag, shaking the bag around a bit to be sure that the marinade is evenly distributed. Set aside & allow to marinate at least 15 minutes up to an hour.
  4. Place the seasonings in 7-8 quarts of the boiling water for the artichokes, then add the chokes covering with lid & allow to boil for 10 minutes. When you smell them & can pierce the bottom of the chokes easily with the tip of a knife, you know they're done. Remove them from the water & set them on a towel, cut side down, to drain.
  5. While the artichokes are cooking & the seafood is marinating, prepare the sriracha aioli. The best way is with a large mortar & pestle but you can mix it in a small bowl. First crush the garlic & salt together to form a paste, then add the lemon juice & some freshly ground black pepper to the paste, incorporate well. Add the lowfat mayo, stir in. Add the sriracha & fish sauce. Mix well. Whisk in the olive oil, which just provides flavor for this dip, not emulsion, the prepared mayo provides that. Then taste & adjust for seasoning, thickness & heat. If it's too spicy add more mayo. Too thick, add more lemon juice. etc. When done spoon into individual small bowls for dipping.
  6. Next prepare the salad dressing, whisking the ingredients together & set aside until you are ready to serve the salad.
  7. Add all the salad veggies, except the avocado, to a large bowl & toss together. Set aside. DO NOT add the dressing, yet.
  8. Prepare your grill pan by brushing it with grapeseed oil or another vegetable oil with a high flash point. DO NOT use olive oil. It burns too easily. Place over medium/high heat.
  9. Place a 1/3 cup of the Pomegranate Grille Sauce in a small sauce pan set over medium/high heat, add a dash of soy sauce, the agave nectar & a splash of olive oil. Whisk it in & allow it to reduce while you cook the seafood. Keep an eye on it by stirring occasionally to be sure it doesn't burn.
  10. Remove the scallops & shrimp from the marinade. Drain excess marinade & pat dry with a paper towel. When the grill is hot, place the shrimp in pan making sure not to overcrowd the pan. Grill about 1-1/2 minutes per side or until they pinken & just start to curl. Remove from pan & set aside on a warm plate while you cook the scallops.
  11. Next, wipe the grill down with a wet paper towel held with tongs. Then brush grill surface with grapeseed oil; let it heat for 30 seconds or so & place the scallops in, careful not to overcrowd them. You want them to grill not steam. Cook the scallops about two minutes each side, less if they are small; more if they are large. When done to your liking, remove them from the grill pan & set aside in a warm place with the shrimp.
  12. Add the remaining marinade to the grill & heat until bubbly & thick. Remove from heat & place seafood in the sauce, gently tossing to coat the seafood. Turn off the sauce pan with the pomegranate sauce, giving it a quick stir.
  13. Toss the salad with dressing, avocado & feta.
  14. Plate the dish by placing a smear of pomegranate glaze on 1/3 of the dinner plate & topping with half the shrimp & scallops. Drizzle a little additional glaze on top, if desired.
  15. Plate the salad next to the seafood. Place the artichoke & dipping bowl on the last 1/3 of the plate. Serve.
This recipe serves 2 hungry spouses looking for a little "Spring" fling. ;P

Le Creuset grill pan:
 An apartment dwellers best choice for grilling




Pomegranate-marinated scallops grilling



Voila...
Simple with a few short cuts but still yummy!





The Colors of Spring

(from a little floral arrangement I created
These are shy peonies & tulips, peeking at you) 






Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Delicious Gluten-free Lasagne




 So... a new year has begun, and you have decided for any one of innumerable reasons, you want to try a low-carb, low-glycemic diet. Something that eschews the daily consumption of tortilla chips and foot-long subs.


You have one of the following:

Adult Onset Diabetes

Or

An allergy to gluten

Or 

Your 20 year high school reunion and you want to show those guys who used to snap their towels at you in the locker room during gym how well geeks hold up over their beefier muscle headed counterparts.

Or

You are one of those naturally skinny bitches, but you have finally had an epiphany and realized that Pop Tarts and Diet Coke do not extend nor enhance your health over the long-term despite a nuclear holocaust surviving shelf life due to their remarkable preservative-laden ingredients.  

Or

None of the above 

(Look, don't judge me, okay? I'm trying to write an introduction to be whimsical and amusing, though I am failing mightily. I mean, just posting straight recipes is so Martha Stewart and I may be a bored privileged hausfrau with no life to speak of, but I have my artistic integrity. Just ask my Yoga instructor, she says I flow like the Ganges. ) 


Now, you figure you can easily sacrifice the rice, the bread, the chips and - if push came to shove - all those raw carrots and beets you were always meaning to eat for their Vitamin A content.

HOWEVER.... 

There is one food, you simply cannot do without...
I mean, hell, Columbus practically drowned the Spanish Armada bringing it back from China to Europe. HOW could any civilized person expect you to give up that staple food of  Italian cuisine; that delicious belly-warming, chewy, tongue tantalizing thing of sensual pleasure that even the Taccuino Sanitatis of 15th century fame devoted a chapter to?


 http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/6-alimenti%2C_pasta%2CTaccuino_Sanitatis%2C_Casanatense_4182..jpg



What am I talking about?

What else?

PASTA!!!!


http://digitalphotopix.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/monalisa_original.jpg 

(What do you think put the smile on the Mona Lisa?)

 


Well, sadly, you must give it up,
BUT here's one way to eat a classic pasta dish without using the pasta!

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and he is keeping the lasagne flying sans noodles but with oodles of luscious silken eggplant,  Italian sausages, and acres of CHEESE!!!




Eggplant Lasagne: Even better than the real thing




Yes, Yes, YES!!!
Eggplant slices definitely satisfy both the palate and the dietary considerations in this dish.
So... let's dig in, shall we?



Firstly, it is lasagne with an "e"; like Liza with a "z", but even more delicious.
You can, however, spell it anyway you like, some things are more important than pedantry.

It's really just an assembly line dish. 
Very simple to make and requires no real cooking skills.
Once you've cooked the eggplant, the sausages, the tomato sauce, shredded the mozzarella, and prepared the ricotta, you just slap it together in a nice baking dish.

Wikipedia spells it wrong, but says this about the dish:

"... The word lasagna comes from the Greek λάσανα (lasana) or λάσανον (lasanon) meaning "trivet or stand for a pot", "chamber pot". The Romans borrowed the word as "lasanum", meaning "cooking pot" in Latin. The Italians used the word to refer to the dish in which lasagna is made. Later the name of the food took on the name of the serving dish."

So there's part one of your history lesson for the day!

Eggplants are great this time of year.  I am using "Globe" eggplants which are large and nearly round. I slice them lengthwise into 1/3" to 1/2" thick slices, so that after I saute them, they approximate the size of a cooked lasagne noodle. When in doubt, err on the side of slicing them more thickly. Do NOT cut it into rounds.

You can use Japanese eggplant, too, obviously, but they are more expensive, quite small and have more (bitter) skin to (tender) flesh ratio, which means you would spend a fortune buying a bushel of them. Not that eggplants are sold in bushels, but you get my point. Actually, eggplants are the perfect edible medium for exploring the human story of agriculture, technology, immigration, politics, economics, linguistics and taste.

"Eggplant...the familiar dark purple, ovoid form sometimes called the 'Japanese Eggplant.' In West Africa, eggplants ...[are] called 'garden eggs.'...in the West Indies...a variety of names including 'gully bean,' "susumber,' and 'pea aubergine.' Known in much of the world as "aubergine" and in the Middle East as "poor man's-caviar,"...Common names and synonyms: Apple-of-love, Asiatic aubergine...brinjal...Guinea squash...Italian eggplant...melanzana, melongene...pea apple, pea aubergine...terong..."
~~Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas [Cambridge University Press:Cambridge] 2000, Volume Two (p. 1770)


When Europeans first encountered the fruit, it had gained an intimidating reputation due to its relationship to the nightshade family.  Its cousins, the poisonous Jimson weed or Datura as well as Belladonna, are poisonous and sometimes called Deadly Nightshade. Even after the eggplant received acceptance, it was still called mala insana, meaning "bad egg, mad apple, or apple of madness."

"Mandrakes, like most nightshades, were poisonous, so at one time, people thought that eggplants made those who ate them insane. The myths and legends surrounding eggplant substantiated the fears the people had of eating them. Some scholars have identified eggplants as the Dead Sea fruit of the Bible and of John Milton's Paradise Lost, in which fallen angels wandered by the Dead Sea in hunger and found purple fruits that looked delicious, but upon eating them discovered that the pulp of the fruit turned to ashes. 


This strange legend may have had a factual basis. Eggplants indeed grew along the Dead Sea near Sodom, the biblical city of sinners that God destroyed, and while the eggplants of Sodom appeared plump and ripe on the outside, an insect invaded the inside, causing the pulp to decay and create a powdery substance inside the seemingly perfect skin. Farmers later learned what destroyed these fruits and how to combat the insect infestations; but early on, people could only speculate on the cause. They knew that God reduced the evil city of Sodom to ashes, so they easily attributed a similar evil to the ash-producing fruits they found growing there."
~~Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology, Tamra Andrews [ABC-CLIO:Santa Barbara] 2000 (p. 85)

Historians believe the eggplant may have its origins in India, but early written accounts from a 5th century Chinese record on agriculture called the Ts'i Min Yao Shu indicate its cultivation in China, but it was the conquering Moors who brought it to the continent during their invasion of Spain in the 8th century. Louis XIV, King of France during the 1600s, took great interest in impressing diners at his royal table with new plant foods and was the first in France to introduce aubergine (eggplant) into his garden. The fruit was not universally enjoyed with the following description: "fruits as large as pears, but with bad qualities." The urban legend of the time was that eating eggplant caused fever and epilepsy.

When the first eggplants were brought to Northern Europe during the 1600s, they were not the beautiful, purple, plump one-pounders we find in today's supermarket bins. John Gerard, a 16th century horticulturist, saw a different fruit altogether and provides this description:"the fruit . . . [is] great and somewhat long, of the bignesse of a Swans egge, and sometimes much greater, of a white colour, sometimes yellow, and often browne."

The late 1700's brought the French enlightenment and changed attitudes about the fruit. Devouring grilled eggplant became a fad of the rowdy incroyables and the elegant merveileuses who partied at France's Palais Royale. In America, Thomas Jefferson was said to have imported a few seeds and planted them in the famous gardens of his magnificent Monticello, but it was used mostly for ornamental purposes in America until the mid-19th century when President Andrew Johnson claimed it as one of his favorite foods, especially Stuffed Eggplant Spanish Style. Prepared for intimate gatherings at the White House, the eggplant was first halved and the flesh chopped. The stuffing was a combination of tomatoes, onions, breadcrumbs, and celery, and seasoned with basil butter, salt, pepper, and a touch of sugar. Before they were served, the eggplants were garnished with overlapping fresh tomato slices and a strip of broiled bacon.

Which brings us back to our recipe. Copious amounts of olive oil will be used in this recipe. Eggplants are thirsty, greedy little bastards  that soak up oil like Charlie Sheen once soaked up tiger blood so prepare to use almost a whole pint of olive oil. Be sure to use an olive oil of good quality, but don't use your best Arbequina cold-pressed, hand harvested by Tibetan monks while pissed on by the Dalai Lama EVOO (extra virgin olive oil for you noobs) because the cooking process will breakdown its finer more intoxicating olfactory qualities, and the sauce will mask the nuances of the finest olive oil. On the other hand, don't go using Crisco either... The eggplants will taste exactly like whatever oil you use. 

The size of the baking pan you use is important, as well. It must be at least 2" deep or else you will not be able to layer the casserole properly. You can use a regular lasagne baking dish. I used two Le Creuset baking dishes that were 12" x 9.5" x 2" with a 3-quart capacity because there are only two of us here and I wanted to store one pan uncooked in the freezer for another time. This is the kind of dish that keeps well, reheats well and can be prepared a week ahead of time.

I used both Sweet and Hot Italian sausages made from chicken instead of pork, but you can use pork Italian sausage if you like, or omit sausages altogether and replace them with sauteed spinach, portabello mushrooms (anything you like). That's the beauty of cooking, you adjust the recipe to suit your needs. If you do use the sausages, be sure to slice them lengthwise as well after cooking them and before assembling the lasagne. It's a bit unusual but it gives the dish a lovely rustic feel. If you prefer, however, you may simply cook the Italian sausages into crumbles by releasing them from their casing and sauteing them as though they were ground beef.

To those who are vegan or lactose intolerant, firstly... I offer my condolences and secondly, I say that tofu and soy cheese products serve admirably as a substitute here. I ate many a tofu lasagne as a young dancer. My choreographer insisted inflicting it on us when she made us her meals - it has a slightly chalky texture, but those of you who can't eat from things that moo are probably accustomed to it.

Be sure to preheat your oven while you are making the sauce and sauteing the eggplant.




Eggplant Lasagne





Note: No wheat products were harmed during the making of this dish. 
(I bet PETA can't make that claim!)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Make sure to place the oven rack in the middle of the oven before heating it.
This dish will serve 8-12 hungry conquistadors.
I know for a fact Christopher Columbus loved this dish! 

Ingredients 

For The Eggplant:
  • 4 large eggplants, sliced length-wise to 1/3"-1/2" thickness, placed on paper towels.       (Be sure to season the eggplant slices to taste with salt and pepper and set them on paper towels to drain some of their moisture while you prepare the tomato sauce. The eggplant will taste sweeter that way.)
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil, enough for sauteing the eggplant, about 1 pint 
  
For The Pomodoro Sauce:

  • 4 Mild Italian Chicken Sausages
  • 4 Hot Italian Chicken Sausage
  • 1 Large Sweet Onion, sliced thinly
  • 4 large cloves of garlic, smashed & very finely minced
  • 3 750g containers of chopped "Italian" or Roma tomatoes, I use Pomi brand which has virtually no added sodium, but you may substitute any low sodium brand.
  • 2 Tbsp of Extra Virgin Olive Oil for sauteing the onions
  • 1/3 cup of red or white wine (It really doesn't matter which you use, we just need it to deglaze the pan, but do use wine that you would drink. Do NOT use cooking wine. That stuff is horrid & suitable only as a disinfectant)
  • Fresh Basil Leaves, about a handful, julienned (Do NOT use dried basil, it tastes like rancid seaweed)
  • Fresh Oregano, four sprigs, leaves stripped & chopped fine (1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano may be substituted, it imparts a different flavor than fresh, but it is still quite pleasant)
  • Fresh Parsley, a very generous handful, both leaves & stems chopped fine
  • Salt & Freshly Cracked Pepper, to taste

For The Lasagne Filling:

  • 2 lbs. of Mozzarella, shredded
  • 1/2 cup of Parmigiano Reggiano, grated (plus more for the topping)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Fresh Grated Nutmeg, or 1/4 teaspoon powdered
  • 3 Large Eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3 lbs Ricotta


Instructions

For the Pomodoro sauce:
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Farenheit (Or 190 degrees Celsius)
  2. Heat a large Dutch Oven over medium-high heat, when hot add a splash of olive oil and then add the Italian Sausages making sure not to overcrowd the pan. 
  3. Saute the sausages about 4 minutes on each side until golden brown. When sausages are browned, remove them & place them on a cutting board to rest. If there is excessive fat in the pan, using tongs, place a paper towel in the pan to soak up excess and discard soiled paper towel. Be sure to leave some fat in the pan.
  4. Lower heat to Medium. Add one TBSP of olive oil to pan & when shimmering, but not smoking, add the sliced onions, a pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions have softened (about 8-10 minutes)
  5. When onions have softened, add garlic and cook a minute longer. Then add wine, deglazing the pan by scraping up all the pan fond (the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. When wine is reduced by half, add the chopped tomatoes & then the sausages back to the pan with any accumulated juices.
  6. Add all of the oregano to the pan, half of the basil and half of parsley. Stirring well...  Reserving the rest of the herbs to add later, just before assembly of the lasagne. Now TASTE your sauce and adjust for seasonings. Does it need more pepper? More garlic? More herbs? Remember, a good cook tastes everything throughout the duration of the cooking process. Be careful about adding more salt. Salt can always be added, but never subtracted. So don't go crazy. Once you've adjusted your seasoning, set the heat to low, let the sauce simmer & prepare your eggplant.
For the Eggplant:
  1.   Place a large saute pan over medium. When pan is hot, add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Then add the eggplant slices a few at a time, cooking them in batches about 2 minutes each side, until they soften & become golden brown, adding olive oil to the pan as necessary.
  2. Be sure to have plenty of paper towels on the counter next to the saute pan, so that you set the cooked eggplant slices down on them to drain excess oil . When all the eggplant are cooked, prepare your cheeses for the filling.

For the Cheese Filling:

  1. Place ricotta, parmigiano & eggs in a large mixing bowl and combine well.
  2. Add grated nutmeg, stirring in well, then season with salt & pepper to taste. (Once again, err on the side of caution when salting. Parmigiano adds quite a bit of sodium on its own. Taste, taste, taste...adding only miniscule amounts of seasoning at a time)
  3. Grate the mozzarella and place it in a bowl
  4. Now check your tomato sauce, turn it off the heat, remove the sausages, placing them on a cutting board and slice them lengthwise into thirds (yes, cut them into 3 slices), add the remaining reserved herbs to the dish, adjust the seasoning and prepare to assemble the dish.

Assembling the Lasagne:

  1.  Place your lasagne pan (or pans) on a larger foil-lined cookie sheet (for easy clean-up later. I guarantee that the sauce will bubble over and spill on the floor of your oven, if you don't. It's Murphy's Law... he's a cunning, nasty bastard. Don't tempt him)
  2. The assembly is simple. Start with a layer of sauce, then layer the eggplant allowing them to overlap slightly, then layer the ricotta mixture evenly over the eggplant, then layer the sausage, then sprinkle it all with mozzarella and repeat the process until the pan is full... The last layer of eggplant should receive a liberal dose of sauce, mozzarella and a final dusting of parmigiano.
  3. Place the lasagne in the preheated oven and bake for 45 minutes until it all looks and smells done to your liking. When ready, remove it from the oven & let it rest for 15 minutes before cutting into wedges and serving... Voila
  4. Mangia!



Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Weather Outside is Frightful...We've Really No Place to Go... Let it Braise, Let it Braise, Let it Braise!




To quote Yukon Cornelius, a character in the Christmas classic, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, "It's not fit for man nor beast out..."

A huge winter storm hit the Bay Area.

The rain was pummeling the streets and lashing at the windows; rendering it nearly impossible to contemplate doing anything more adventurous than staying at home with an old movie and a cup of hot cocoa. Although, I can't seem to watch television these days without falling asleep exactly 53 seconds after my head hits el hubby's lap - my preferred mode for viewing ye olde boob tube which has become the de facto modern day hearth. It is not quite as a romantic as being mesmerized by the flame of a yule log while drinking hot toddies (or whatever it is folks used to do before electronic devices usurped the fire's throne), but  I have a comfy old red cashmere throw el hubby (being the good fatherly hubby he is) makes sure is wrapped around my body so that I am swathed like that child in the manger of lore - snuggled up cozily, ready for Morpheus to do his stuff and lead me to the land of nod.

Of course, this is not the White Christmas-ed December that Bing Crosby sang so wistfully about in his films and television specials. This is a grey-faced wolf howling in the wind, warning San Franciscans to stay indoors whilst he's on the prowl. Although outdoor excursions are rendered virtually impossible by it, this weather does lend itself to other activities of a stay-close-to-home nature -- braising.

Braising, you say? Please lower the eyebrow and hear me out. Nothing says comfort more than a bowl of something savory and steamy when the weather is raw. Remember your Brillat-Savarin: "The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas; it mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us for their departure." That master of the gastronomic knew of what he spoke. Nothing immediately relieves our sense of deprivation as the bite of something delectable. I mean look at what a bit of apple did for Eve, granted she and her poor clueless spouse Adam were booted from heaven for it afterward, but that first flood of pleasure tasted as the juice of that fruit spread over her tongue must have been exquisite.  Allow me to properly define braising. Too many people confuse it with stewing:


Braise - 
to cook (meat, fish, or vegetables) by sauteeing in fat and then simmering slowly in very little liquid


Etymology:

v. 1797, from French braiser "to stew" (17c.), from braise "live coals," fromOld French brese "embers" (12c.), ultimately from West Germanic *brasa(as is Italian bragiaSpanish brasa), from PIE *bhre- "burn, heat" Related: Braised braising.






Braising it yourself helps fill the home with wonderful aromas and gives you something to do that exerts little effort for lots of reward. It's a great way to clean out the pantry and the fridge, too; something that my small rental definitely requires on a periodic basis.

This recipe only needs one pot, which makes clean-up a cinch. The pot, however, should be a good heavy braiser or dutch oven. Le Creuset is the best, accept no substitutes (unless you have no choice, of course. I mean, people who own All-Clad need to eat, too.). Now, typically, one would take a tough cut of gelatinous meat such as beef chuck roast or short ribs and braise it until it is plush and tender. Toughness in meat works to your advantage during braising. Collagen, a key connective tissue that makes tough meat tough, converts to gelatin when cooked slowly in water, which softens the surrounding muscle.

However, 
it is the holiday season, and taking a little respite from all the rich, gooey, rib-sticking dishes that we ply ourselves with during these alcohol-fueled, diabetes-inducing celebrations is welcome relief. You will sacrifice neither health, nor flavor here - just calories. We will turn to the Japanese for our inspiration. My husband and I spent many a Christmas holiday on the Big Island of Hawaii at a resort called Hualalai on the Kona Coast, and there was where I first encountered fish "Nitsuke", or braising fish, one of the very common Japanese rustic dishes. Nitsuke is a Japanese word that means “to boil with spices and add flavor.” Hawaii has incorporated the cultural influences of many of its nearest Asian neighbors (who quite frankly are not very near, truth be told, but have managed to find their way there over miles of Pacific ocean), and the Japanese has certainly exerted a powerful influence over local cuisine.


Ahhh.... Hawaii. 


There are few places in the world like it.

The perfume of the plumeria is everywhere. The spirit of Aloha permeates everything and everyone in it. You can just feel the tension drain out of your body as soon as your foot hits the tarmac and that first waft of warm fragrant air greets you.  Alo means to share in the present moment. Oha is joy. Ha is life energy. Therefore Aloha translates to meaning “The joyful sharing of life energy in the present” or “joyfully sharing life.”  Viewed another way, Aloha means living in harmony. Remember Hawaii is known as the Aloha state, and its multi-ethnic population attests to its living up to its name.

Hawaii seems to be suspended in some time/space warp: you co-exist with the rest of the known universe but nothing in it can affect you. Senate hearings, stock plunges, ebola scares.

None of it matters.


Not here. It is heaven. Everything is beautiful, everyone is happy. Everyone who works at the resort stops no matter where they are or what they're doing to watch the sun sink into the sea every night. Hoping to catch a glimpse of that elusive 'green flash'. (Green flashes and green rays are optical refraction phenomena that sometimes occur right after sunset or right before sunrise at the horizon. When the conditions are right, a green spot is visible above the upper rim of the disk of the sun. The appearance of green usually lasts for no more than a second or two.) 

A favorite expression among the locals, the rare time you may experience a mauvais moment, is "It's all good!" Always said not as a rebuke but just as a gentle reminder of your good fortune to be experiencing such an earthly paradise... and how right they are. 
How I wish I was on the Big Island today. But Hawaii is not just a pretty place on the map; it's also a state of mind, and since the weather system we San Franciscans are braving this week comes courtesy of Hawaii - a system fueled by the "Pineapple Express" (meteorologists describe the Pineapple Express as a long, narrow plume that pipes moisture from the tropics into the western United States that delivers a steady stream of moisture directly from Hawaii to the West Coast), I offer you my adaptation of a wonderful entree so that you, too, could share a taste of paradise when the weather outside is frightful, and you've got nowhere else to go, so let it braise, let it braise, let it braise... 

Mahalo for reading, my friends. 
  
Mahalo – expresses gratitude and is used to say thank you. It is as important as Aloha in the Hawaiian language and conveys much sacred and spiritual meaning. The root words are Ma  which means in, ha which is breath or life energy and alo which is in the presence of. Mahalo means "In the presence of the Divine".

Just close your eyes... can you hear the song of the ocean?



 Fish "Nitsuke"with Shitake Mushroom and Fennel Broth





A quick note, the ling cod just happened to be the freshest fish in the market today. Use any firm fleshed white fish like white bass, mahimahi, red snapper, sole or halibut; even salmon would work well. For those of you opposed to eating all things piscine, thick slices of tofu is lovely. Braising imparts a silken texture to tofu that other methods of cooking do not, it also  allows it to fully absorb the flavors of the broth.  You can braise firm, fibrous fruits and vegetables, too. Vegetables and fruits that braise well include onions, parsnips, yams, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, fennel, carrots, beets, pears and apples. Unlike most, this is a really fast braise to make, but it is just as hearty and satisfying as the more traditional braises. I'll be including other types of braising in future articles because tis the season to be braising, tra la la la la, la la la la.


Ingredients:
  • 1 lb. of 1-1/2 " thick ling cod fillets (about 2 large fillets, cut in half), seasoned with a small amount of salt & pepper on both sides
  • 2-3 Tablespoons cooking oil(either peanut or extra virgin olive oil).
  • 1 small fennel bulb, sliced
  • 1 large shallot, sliced
  • 1 tsp of red chile flakes (optional)
  • 3 slices of fresh ginger root, finely minced
  • 1 large or 2 small cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 1/4 lb. fresh shitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 bunch of broccolini or bok choy, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup high quality, low sodium chicken or vegetable broth (Wolfgang Puck's brand is great)
  • 2 Tablespoons of reduced sodium soy sauce
  • sea salt (I use Pink Himalayan) and fresh cracked pepper to taste
  • 1 small bunch scallions, chopped
  • half a handful of fresh cilantro leaves, minced
  • 1 lime, cut into quarters
  • Toasted sesame oil, to taste

Directions:

  1. Heat a large braiser or dutch oven over medium heat.
  2. Add 1 Tbs. cooking oil, red pepper flakes and a tiny pinch of salt. Add the fennel, cook until softened slightly.
  3. Add shallots and ginger. Saute' for two minutes; then add shiitakes and the remainder of the olive oil along with another pinch of salt and some fresh black pepper.
  4. After shiitakes have softened, add the garlic, making sure the incorporate it into the stir fry.
  5. When garlic is softened, deglaze the pan with the wine; stirring well to get up all the vegetable bits at the bottom of the pan.
  6. Add the broccolini, stirring in well to coat with the aromatics. Then add 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce, stirring until evenly absorbed.
  7. Add the stock, stirring it in. Lower heat to a bare simmer. Then carefully place each fillet over the vegetables just above the level of the broth.
  8. Drizzle the remaining soy sauce evenly over the fillets. Sprinkle half the cilantro and half of the lime juice over the fish.
  9. Cover tightly with lid and allow the fillets to poach for 7 minutes.  Check for doneness, fillets are done when center is almost opaque (there should still be some sign of translucency at the very center) and edges are slightly flaking. Do not over cook. Remove from heat. Season with sesame oil to taste. Remember to be sparing with the sesame oil, it's strongly flavored and could easily overwhelm the dish.
  10. Place the fillets in warm bowls. Ladle the broth and veggies over the fish, and sprinkle remaining lime and cilantro over each dish. You can also serve it over jasmine rice or buckwheat soba noodles by placing them in the bottom of the bowl then adding the fish and broth.

Serves 2 hungry people as a soup or 4 people if you ladle it atop rice or noodles.