Saturday, February 20, 2010

No food, no whiskey.


A few weeks ago some friends introduced me to their (mostly) secular versions of Lent--they set aside something dear to themselves--crutches as one succinctly put it.

This year it was time I tried it out for myself. After all, that's masochism! And if a masochist lives in me I should know. I have forty days to discover him, study him and prepare him for the hedonist secret sharer he'll meet sometime in early April--provided that Bacchanalian-on-hiatus is still breathing by then.

This is only week two, not even halfway through, and already my sacrifices of alcohol, red meat and the other white meat are producing vibrant disciplinary and spiritual symptoms.
My experiment began with a 48 hour fast, followed by 24 hours of raw vegetables and fruit juices. At night long, fearsome dreams of shitty jobs from long ago, messed-up romances and estranged life plans greeted me. Each morning I awoke tired and puzzled. It is a fitting detail of one's psyche to know contentment not by what colors dreams, but by what fails to discolor nightmares. When all one does in the waking hours is fuss over food and drink it is reassuring to know he doesn't dream of starvation--it would confirm all the worst neuroses of life in the first world--not to say comparable evidence of that kind of cultivated depravity doesn't exist elsewhere. Anyhow some narrative device operating in my sleep juggled my oldest troubles: Having enough to eat was not among them. Nor was having enough to drink, sufficed to say.

All moral fine tuning aside, with a tightened budget the narrative turn into frugality and creative restriction only made sense. As I dream up innovations for pantry dearth feasts enjoy this one last snack food combo that sustained me for well over a week--basically til the first hints of sourness visited the eggplant.

Warm tomato salad and baba ghanouj

Celebrity chefs love to encourage you to take chances and work with what you like, to make your own creative variations on their instructions. That's fine, but for such a simplistic pair of flavor complements I couldn't imagine changing a thing. Add Rice Krispies or guanciale at your own risk...

The salad

1/2 lb. soaked and simmered white cannellini beans, with several tbsp. reserved cooking liquid.
1 lg. can San Marzano tomatoes
1 med. sweet onion, grated, juices reserved.
1/2 lg. bulb fennel, finely diced
1 1/2 tbsp raw honey
1 sm. tin anchovy fillets, finely chopped (since this recipe is very nearly vegan you could substitute 1/3 c. mashed picholine olives for anchovies and get a comparable salinity)

4-5 cloves of garlic
1 sprig fresh rosemary (or 1 tsp. dried)
1 lg. lemon, halved, plus 1 sm. lemon, halved (reserved for baba ghanouj).

As far as a few days but no later than a half an hour in advance preheat oven to 350 and roast garlic, rosemary and lemon in olive oil--use a small enough vessel that the ingredients sit fully submersed in oil. Depending on the oven this could take up to 40 minutes--keep an eye on it.

Remove garlic cloves to a small mixing bowl and mash-they should succumb easily to the back of a fork. Strain in olive oil, pressing firmly on the lemon halves to extract all juices. Discard solids, then whisk juice and oil to a loose emulsion.

In a saute pan over medium high heat add 2 tbsp. of prepared oil emulsion. As this comes to near smoking temperature add anchovies and grated onion, cooking til juices evaporate and the onion flesh begins to brown. Add an additional tbsp. of oil followed by the fennel. Repeat this process with the beans and finally the tomatoes, allowing each phase to cook til the pan is nearly free of simmering liquid. Whisking vigorously add the remaining oil along with the mashed garlic paste. Stir in honey, season with salt and pepper, cover and reduce heat to low.

The baba ghanouj

1 lg. eggplant, quartered lengthwise
3-4 tbsp. olive oil
3/4 to 1c. tahini paste
1 bunch of med. chopped Italian parsley
juice of 1 med. roasted lemon, reserved from salad preparation
2 raw cloves of garlic, mashed to paste
1 tsp chili flakes

Under a broiler roast eggplant til skin is singed and peels easily from the softened interior. Transfer to a large mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap to steam. Once cooled to touch strip the eggplant of burned skin, rinsing hands in a bowl of cool water as you go--the skin will stick. Some residue of the blackened skin will adhere to the eggplant, but shouldn't be picked over as it will add a crucial smokiness. In a large clean mixing bowl add skinned eggplant and any collected roasting juices. Mash eggplant, adding all additional ingredients one by one, beginning with the tahini. With each addition season with salt and pepper to taste. In the end you may need to add a few tablespoons of olive oil or water to thin the paste to your desired consistency.

Lightly char pita over direct stove flame until spotted black. Top. Finish with black sesame seeds and more olive oil.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The baguette in winter.

Snow clouds the senses.

The baguette.

Fond, if you've watched any two consecutive minutes of food tv is the browned-on junk at the bottom of a pan after you've cooked in it. Last night I made some farfalle with olives and Zamorano, and consistent with my character did not wash up afterward. There was fond. Mind you for health reasons I should caution against leaving pans sit unwashed for so long as rumors of illness and foul taste follow them. Personally I find it all perfectly false and unduly worrisome.

Bring the fond-stained skillet back to a medium heat, scudding in olive oil to loosen the remnants. Once you've made a rough sludge of it add some aromatics; I chose sweet onions, shallots and fennel. Season the mixture shortly into the saute as the salt will speed the softening. Add diced tomatoes and all juices. As the liquid cooks out continue to season and moisten--my pal, Crystal, brought a grand Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon to dinner last night: It was on hand and did the trick nicely. Once incorporated the red sauce will take on a rusty caramel color. Add a liberal pinch of sugar and let simmer til the solids have largely been broken down. As the last of the dousings dry in the pan stir in a healthy soak of olive oil. Whisk. Once emulsified it will both fortify the body of the sauce and tame the color a bit.

This too provides an essential boost in substance. Matching the dimension of the oil with the caviar-like richness of the eggplant will prove among the most satisfying elements of the dish--not to mention a subtle unifying factor.

Slice the eggplant into discs and salt, leaving them to sit for 15 minutes--this will remove moisture that might otherwise prevent bread crumbs from adhering. Pat dry with paper towels. Dredge and fry the eggplant in batches: Lightly flour (I toss them into a brown bag with a half cup of all purpose flour and shake). Next into egg wash then into a mixture of fresh bread crumbs, plane-grated Parmigiano Reggiano and parsley. Fry and transfer to a newspaper to dry.

In the halved, still-warm baguette begin with a layer of sliced Taleggio, topping with overlapping eggplant discs. Spoon the reduced red sauce overtop along with thinly cut fresh buffalo mozzarella. Finish with parsley, chile flakes Parmigiano and one last splash of olive oil.

It goes under the broiler til the bread is nearly blackened and all visible cheese bubbles.