Thursday, September 9, 2010

eggplant caviar

eggplant caviar

A few things first. One, my friend Tina thinks the name “eggplant caviar” is an abomination and is misleading, but that’s about the only name I know for it. Blasphemy, she said to me, do you see any caviar here? Alas, I do not. She’s, technically, in the right. So this is partially an apology to her – I don’t mean to mislead. Two, there are two schools of eggplant caviar making that I’m aware of insofar as Russian eggplant caviar making goes. Both parties cling to their version as the version, but the weirdo that is me, likes them both equally – they are quite different from one another. And like a mother to two very different children of the same origin, I cannot pick a favorite.

like little hats!

The first is the method my friends from the Ukraine have taught me – which involves baking an eggplant, removing its skin and combining it with a seductive and potent blend of pureed tomato, onion, garlic, vinegar, salt and pepper, and stirring a bit of finely minced cilantro. It is simple and addictive, and if you’re a fan of garlic, you can’t go wrong here.

halved!

The second is a bit more labor intensive, and hails, at least according to my Uzbekistan-born grandmother, from Central Asia (think former Soviet republics that end in “stan”). It involves slow cooking the eggplant with tomatoes, onion, garlic and red peppers for many hours, until the vegetables combine, disintegrate, fall apart, and grow brown. Their transformation is magical, as things go from acidic, to sweeter, more caramelized, more seductive. While it’s uncommon for brown food to be considered sexy, this dish smolders. If you think you don’t like eggplant, try this and talk to me after. I would be surprised if you didn’t reverse your stance on eggplant.

pretty from the top
looking sadder

Normally eggplant caviar is served during the “zakuski” portion of the meal. For those of you who are not Russian speakers, “zakuski” describes a spread of snacks served at Russian banquets or parties, or in my mother’s case, whenever anyone shows up at the house. Originally, the word stems from the Russian word “kusok” or “kusochik” which means, piece, or little piece. The prefix “za” denotes that you are using these little pieces, or snacks, as a follow up to a drink, a chaser, so to speak. When Russians drink vodka (which they do at most celebratory gatherings), they invariably do it in shots and follow up shots with either a pickle, slice of salami, Russian sauerkraut, a pickled mushroom or a piece of dark, rye bread with something tasty spread over it. Like this eggplant caviar. Zakuski are intense, powerful bursts of flavor designed to quell the burning of alcohol in your mouth.

sad :(
onions tomatoes
cubed peppers

But sometimes you’re not in the mood for a drink (watch the entire Russian clan disown me after this sentence), but what you want is a taste of home, because you miss the food you grew up with. And after you spy eggplant piled high at your favorite farm-stand, you greedily load your bags with the necessary ingredients and then cook the brown mess for hours while you translate your mother’s recipe from Russian, filling in instructions she takes for granted as “given”. And laughing at her description of cooked eggplant as “sad”. If you’ve ever seen a wilted, browned eggplant, you know what she means by that. But invariably, reading that makes me smile.

eggplant caviar eggplant caviar

Looks, my dears, caviar it is not. But were I to really choose between actual caviar and this, I would go for this, hands down. Especially if my mother is making it.

eggplant caviar eggplant caviar
eggplant caviar

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

noodle kugel

noodle kugel

A few weeks ago a reader emailed me and asked me for a recipe for noodle kugel. A delicious mix of egg noodles, cottage cheese, sour cream, cream cheese, eggs, and other awesome stuff, noodle kugel is a traditional Jewish dish particularly popular around the holiday time. Popular, but here’s the kicker – noodle kugel is yet another traditional dish I grew up without. I think this is unacceptable, considering I have some pretty deep shtetl roots to show off. Mom, I’m looking at you – kasha varnishkes, and now this! What else are you hiding from me? This guilt thing, well it can work in reverse too.

yum

Despite being so deprived in my childhood, I’ve made various versions of noodle kugel before, mostly because friends would ask for it, but, frankly speaking, it always left me wanting more. I was the Goldilocks of noodle kugel. It was either too sweet, or not sweet enough, or too goopy, or too noodly. I was looking for the perfect noodle to custard ratio, and I couldn’t find it. It was never just-right. And though it’s in my nature to challenge notions when I hear the I-don’t-like-such-and-such, for some reason, in this particular instance, I just accepted what I thought was a fact about noodle kugel – it was just one of those things that was never going to excite me. In other words – I gave up!

eggshells

But that email above, gave me pause. Maybe it wasn’t the noodle kugel giving me problems. Maybe it was the fact that I failed to think properly about the recipe. What would make it good? What would make it so good, in fact, that I would want to eat it all the time? This weekend, determined to make it work for me, I got in the kitchen and played around with enough proportions and combinations, that by the time Andrew was up and ready to have breakfast, I had the winning recipe, cooling on the table. Andrew, an experienced noodle kugel eater, pronounced it a success, and I’m hoping he wasn’t just being nice because he ate a pretty large piece. I ate two whole plates, which hardly constitutes a “proper” breakfast, but I felt that given my 7 o’clock waking time and making a few batches, I felt I was owed a “treat”. Owed by whom – I’m not so sure, but owed nonetheless.

noodle kugel

I look back on this year (and by year I mean the Jewish calendar year) and I have to say that the second half of it has been particularly, ridiculously good to me. It’s been pretty much the bees’ knees kind of a year, all in all. With a year like this, I can’t wait for what the new one will bring. On the almost-eve I enter the New Year with a delicious, new recipe I perfected, a new tradition, and some second helpings of noodle kugel. If this is what the year is foreshadowing for me, I can’t wait. Shana Tova.

noodle kugel

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Friday, September 3, 2010

tarte tatin

tarte tatin

I can’t help, but cheat on summer a little. I’m just so tired of being so hot all the time, of dreading to turn my oven on, of running air conditioner non-stop. I’m even sick of tank tops (gasp!), and white wine (blasphemy). I’ve been sweating for three whole months, and now I just want it to stop, you know? This heat thing is getting old. East coast folks, are you with me?

tarte tatin

What I want are things that belong firmly to autumn. I want to take a walk in the rain in my jeans and a sweater with a scarf around my neck while holding hot cider in my hand. I want to stand over a huge pot of simmering apple sauce and smell the cinnamon. I can’t wait for that morning chill in the air, and that first red leaf I spot on the ground. Fall is full of such good things, it’s no wonder I’m more than ready for it.

nekkid apples

I have been long entertaining visions of tarte Tatin, but someway or another it always eluded me. I first had it when I was backpacking through France right after graduating college. A friend and I found ourselves in Nantes and after speaking with a few locals about where they like to have dinner, managed to find our way to the restaurant. I don’t remember much of the meal other than it was very good, rustic French home-cooking. There was little pretense and the focus was on making real, honest food that people might want to eat at the end of a long week. I remember thinking it was delicious.

tarte tatin tarte tatin

When we got to dessert, I ordered a tarte Tatin. I didn’t really know what it was, but I knew I liked tarts, and after our waiter said something about apples, which my limited French picked up, I was sold. I thought what I was ordering was a tradition French apple tart, a favorite pastry of mine. What arrived on a plate (accompanied by a glass of Sancerre) was something altogether different. The apples were not splayed out in a meticulously thinly sliced array, but instead sat atop a pastry – quartered, brown, and caramelized. At their bottom was this thick amber-colored syrup. The puff pastry had soaked a bit of that syrup where the two met. It was a strange and unexpected sight, and before I gave myself a chance to analyze this unfamiliar pastry, I grabbed a fork and dug in. I can still taste that first, revelatory bite. I even remember the plate the tart arrived on – white, with tiny blue flowers around the border.

tarte tatin

You would think that this would have been the first thing I would have made upon returning to the United States. You wouldn’t think that nine whole years would pass before I’d actually get around to making it. Well, embarrassing as this is, nine years did pass. And I finally got my act together and made the tart for my book club dinner. I can’t tell you why it took so long, but I am sometimes horribly disorganized, and, well, there it is. I have no excuse, just some lost time I need to make up. And so should you. Perhaps this weekend, as you welcome fall, this could be just the dessert to bring to your Labor Day barbecues. Summer won’t mind, I don’t think. It’s had three whole months to reign over us and I think it needs to move over and give fall a chance. I’m only trying to be fair.

tarte tatin
tarte tatin

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

chicken provençal

provencal chicken

Dinner for one is a thing entirely different than dinner for two. In the last two years, I’ve cooked a lot of dinners-for-one. I’ve become a pro at a legitimate meal, made quickly, efficiently, economically, with little or no waste. But for the last several months, I’ve been making a lot of dinners-for-two, and I must say, I quite like the change. It’s much more satisfying to make dinner you share with someone on a regular basis than sitting at the table alone with your dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I think that meals eaten alone are precious and to be treasured. But there’s something to be said for a quiet, simple weeknight meal you cook for just the two of you. I am liking this change.

provencal chicken

But dinners for two are also quiet different than dinners for a crowd. Your average dinner party is not the quiet, intimate dinner full of quiet, languid moments. Dinner parties tend to be a bit more lively – with boisterous conversation, multiple bottles of wine, the host (or hostess) scurrying about to make sure all guests are tended to. It’s a job you either love or hate. I happen to revel in it, but I’m a strange creature that way.

provencal chicken

What I’ve discovered, at least for myself, that while I love putting dinner parties together, I prefer to have not more than one complicated recipe. If I’m going to labor over something for a long period of time, something tricky and time-consuming, I like to select other dishes to be relatively stress-free. A simple summer soup that needs no cooking time; a vegetable side that’s festive, yet unfussy.

cooked

And, I think, chicken, particularly the dark meat, is especially forgiving in the low-maintenance department. Especially this chicken here. After washing and drying the drumsticks (I only had access to drumsticks after my local butcher got raided by a family throwing some kind of a crazy block party, taking nearly everything, the nerve!), you throw about some tomatoes, sliced onion, garlic cloves, and herbs into the roasting pan and then arrange the chicken in between the supporting cast. You then cook this whole mess, barely checking-in with the chicken (it can fend for itself, not to worry). This kind of chicken independence, if you will, leaves you with time to tend to some other things for dinner. It also allows you to claim some rewards – after all that slaving in the kitchen (wink, wink!). Perhaps you’ve earned yourself another piece of cake, or an extra scoop of sorbet. Even though, this is the kind of thing you live for – cooking for a crowd – it’s also about the little indulgences you allow yourself for embarking on such a journey. After all, the crazy amount of pleasure you get from cooking for dinner parties might raise eye brows with some folks – it might just sound crazy, so just keep it to yourself, ‘k?

the aftermath

So just sigh, pretend like you slaved over dinner, wipe your brow, and pour yourself that glass of wine, as if to lessen the burden a bit, even if it was a ridiculously fun adventure for you. “Reward” yourself for you “pains”.

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