Saturday, February 26, 2011

Treat Days (and the secret to perfect Eggplant Parm)

At my office, every week there's a designated "treat" day. It used to be Monday's but for some reason, on this latest round, it has become "Treat Tuesday" perhaps for its more alliterative title. One person is assigned to provide a treat for the office and help alleviate some of the drudgeries of the day. The treats can vary and have included everything from cheese platters from Artisinal to a breakfast shmorsgasboard from Russ & Daughters to cupcakes, muffins, and these awesome little marshmallow-caramel-chocolate-pretzel things that I occasionally dream about. Part of the fun is waiting for the treat to be unveiled. So when my turn rolled around, I decided to go a little over the top and sent a warning that staff probably wouldn't need breakfast, or lunch, or a snack on that day.
We started out with my version of a bread and muffin basket. I had a honey whole wheat loaf that I had in the freezer taking up space so that was the bread portion. Once defrosted and toasted it was the perfect foil to be slathered with butter or cream cheese and really good strawberry preserves. For the muffins I decided to go for a combination of savory and sweet. The sweet were whole wheat carrot ginger muffins that were spiked with orange juice and zest. The savory were my favorite muffin recipe - a leek and chevre muffin that, when eaten while still warm just melts in your mouth.

A few hours later, I rang the lunch bell for eggplant parmigiana, baked rigatoni and a tossed green salad. The masses descended rapidly and before I knew it there were just three empty trays with just a few streaks of marinara left.

The eggplant is my Mom's recipe and both she and I have been told there is no better eggplant out there. The trick I think is to make sure that you slice the eggplant very thin and then salt it well. I also always peel my eggplant for this. Layer the slices in a colander, with a hefty handful of coarse kosher salt between the layers. Then, weight the whole thing down with a heavy plate on top and let it sit for a good 20 minutes on the counter (a little longer sometimes depending on what else I'm doing). I usually use two medium eggplants to make one 9 x 13 baking dish. When you're ready to begin frying the eggplant, remove the plate and you'll see a lot of brown liquid has drained out of it. That liquid is what can give the eggplant a brackish and bitter taste. The salt draws it out and you're left with a much more delicate flavor. Rinse it well of the salt and the remaining liquid that sometimes clings to the eggplant. Then pat it dry and dredge it in flour seasoned with a little black pepper and dip in a combination of beaten eggs, grated pecorino and chopped parsley. Fry the eggplant in batches in vegetable oil and drain on paper towels.

To make the parmigiana, spread marinara on the bottom of a baking dish (my marinara is a simple combination of olive oil, garlic, good crushed tomatoes, a slug of red wine and fresh basil). Then, put down a layer of eggplant, top with thinly sliced mozzarella, a good handful of grated pecorino and a few torn up basil leaves. Repeat until you're out of eggplant (easy to do if you're like me and snack on the fried eggplant while you're making your layers). Top with a final spread of the marinara, another handful of pecorino and a few more basil leaves. Cover with foil and bake at 350 until the cheese is melted and the whole thing is bubbling and you want to stick your face in it - 3rd degree burns be damned!

The baked rigatoni is about as simple as simple can get. I use rigatoni instead of ziti because I find it sets up better as ziti can become a tad mushy when baked. Cook one pound of rigatoni until it just begins to soften. You want it really al dente because it will finish cooking while baking in the oven. In a large bowl (or the macaroni pot you just cooked it in as I always do), mix it with some marinara, one pound of chopped mozzarella, one and a half cups of ricotta and spread in a baking dish (that you've already spread a bit of marinara in the bottom). Top with more sauce, grated cheese and fresh torn basil leaves. Cover and bake it at 350 till its hot and bubbling. I usually uncover mine for the last 10 minutes so the edges get nice and crispy. That always was my favorite part.
For dessert (because there had to be dessert) - I put a twist on one of my office traditions. Instead of doing a large tiramisu, I made small individual ones. I lined a muffin tin with cupcake liners and made layers using vanilla wafer cookies, my standard tiramisu cream, and then topped them with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkling of cocoa powder. They set up over night in the fridge and came out as little tiramisu cupcakes. Perfect for portion control (unless of course you eat six of them....).

Of course, at the end of all of this I think I sent the entire floor into a food coma and productivity took a nose dive for the rest of the day. But every once in a while, its worth it.

Happy Eating!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Benedict comes to Breakfast

I love Saturdays. They're my favorite day of the week because it means not only can I sleep late today, but I can sleep late tomorrow too! Don't get me wrong, I love Sundays as well...but there's something about the blank slate of an unplanned Saturday to really get the relaxation going.

As per my usual Saturday morning musings, one of the first things I thought of this morning when I woke up was what would the morning's culinary adventures bring. I could have done a simple scrambled egg with a whole grain English muffin but I wanted something more. I was in an adventurous mood - but what to do. I flipped through my favorite Judith Jones The Pleasures of Cooking for One for ideas which all sounded good but I was missing many of the necessary ingredients for either baked or shirred eggs. Then I came across her recipe for Eggs Benedict. Having never made hollandaise sauce before, and seeing her "easy" recipe to make it for one person I figured I'd give it a shot.

One of the things I hate most about making breakfast is that for some reason, I find it hard to keep everything hot at the same time. This morning would prove no different. First I read, and then reread her directions for the hollandaise. I got out my small heavy pot and set it in my cast iron of barely simmering water. Add egg yolk and whisk till its lemon colored and thick - ow, my arm hurts even with this small pot. Then whisk in four tablespoons of cold butter cut into twelve pieces. Whisk slowly, steadily, and add the butter continuously to keep the temperature from getting too hot. Have pan of ice water nearby in case the sauce starts to break (which, Judith assures me won't happen as long as I whisk slowly and surely).

Whisk, add, whisk add, all the while with the idea in the back of my mind that this is going a little too well - any minute the phone is going to ring with my Saturday morning phone call from Mom and I'm going to have to run and answer it and it will all go to hell. Whisk, add, whisk, add, listen for phone, whisk, add...and before I know it all the butter has been incorporated and the damn thing looks like hollandaise. I add a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of salt and hot damn if it doesn't taste like hollandaise! I set the whole thing off to the side with a lid and, as Judith instructs, give it a whisk every few minutes to keep it smooth.

Ok, now its time to poach the eggs. I have a love/hate relationship with poached eggs. I love to eat them, hate to cook them. But here goes. Boil water, lower to simmer, add salt and a splash of white vinegar (that's not from Judith - that's from my many trials and errors) and add the eggs very very gently. And still they freaking spider out in every which direction. But slowly, slowly fold the whites over the yolk gently gently to not break it and sure enough they start to look like poached eggs. Cook for four minutes.

Crap! Forgot to split and toast the (light wholegrain) English muffin! (I haven't completely foregone the healthy eating....yet....). Stick that in the toaster oven and grab two slices of Canadian Bacon out of the fridge and slap them in a pan to brown up. Uh oh, the eggs are done and have to come out or they'll be over poached. But my muffin isn't toasted yet! And oops! Forgot to stir the hollandaise. Oh shoot! It's separating! Now what? Oh yes, insert into pan of ice water and whisk whisk whisk again. Whew. It's smooth, but now its cold. Damnit! Back into the pan of simmering water and whisk whisk. What's that sound? Oh the toast is done! ARGH!!!!!

Somehow, I managed to get everything onto the plate with perfectly runny yolks, slightly browned bacon and a smooth, creamy hollandaise with a zing of lemon and a rich indulgent finish. Wash it down with a cup of really good coffee and I think I'm going to be satisfied for quite a while.

And now, to help work off some of those delicious but naughty butter calories, I get to wash all the dishes, and for one small individual breakfast believe me, there are quite a lot! Feel free to come on by if you just love washing dishes.

Happy Saturday! Happy Eating!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I'm Top Chef (of my own kitchen anyway)

So after a long hiatus I've caught the blogging bug again. Over the past eight months there were so many times I could have posted - but for some reason the thought of sitting at my computer and writing when I didn't actually "have" to was a daunting task. I attribute it to post graduation syndrome - where why the heck would I ever want to write something that in any way shape or form resembled a paper if I didn't have to. Thankfully enough time has passed that I'm over it and ready to start again.

And what a way to start than with the discovery of my new favorite spice blend! Those of you who know me know that I have a complete and absolute obsession with Top Chef. In Season Four, Richard Blaise (who's now on this season's All Star version) kept using a spice blend called "Ras El Hanout". In multiple dishes he kept mentioning it and, intrigued as I was, I began doing a little research. Essentially, ras el hanout is a Moroccan spice blend that reminded me in many ways to the Indian garam masala. There seem to be as many versions of the blend as there are individual households with the number of spices involved ranging from 9 to 99 and more. Over the past few months I have tried a few different varieties, from Kalustyan's here in NYC as well as a few I've ordered from various sites on the internet. Recently I decided I'd try to make my own simple version and I think I came up with a winner (for my own purposes anyway).

I looked at a number of recipes and from there decided on the spice blend that I'd try. Here's what I came up with:

2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds - toasted and crushed in a mortar and pestle (but mainly b/c I didn't have ground coriander or I would have used that)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

I combined all of the spices together and then started the rest of dinner. I pulled the skin off of a package of chicken legs and thighs and gave them a good rub with the spice blend. Onto a baking a sheet that I lined with foil and sprayed with Pam and into a preheated 400 degree oven. Meanwhile I broke down a head of cauliflower into small florets, tossed it with some olive oil and another sprinkle of the ras el hanout. Onto another baking sheet (also foil lined for easy cleanup) and into the same oven to roast. Roasted cauliflower gets so incredibly sweet and delicious that I can eat the whole head without thinking about it. Its a long way from the steamed cauliflower my mom used to give us once in a while (oof did I hate that - Sorry Mom....).

While the chicken and cauliflower did their stuff in the oven, I prepared a quick side of whole wheat Israeli couscous (much bigger pearls than your standard couscous) with fresh herbs. I sauteed up a small onion in a tablespoon of olive oil, and then added in a cup of couscous and let it toast quickly. To that pan I added about 1 1/4 cups of chicken stock and slowly let the whole thing simmer, giving it a stir every once in a while. While that cooked I chopped up a good handful each of parsley and cilantro. When the couscous was done I stirred in the herbs and about 1/4 cup of slivered almonds for a little crunch.

After 45 minutes the chicken and cauliflower were done, the kitchen smelled amazing and I was starving! (I should also mention I started this whole thing way too late in the evening so it was about 10PM at this point and I was starving!) I served myself one thigh, one leg, a good scoop of the couscous and some cauliflower. It looked beautiful and everything went together beautifully. The cayenne in the ras el hanout gave the chicken the perfect zing to just warm you up on a cold winters night.

My favorite thing about that dinner was not only that it was delicious but that it was really good for you too. Minimal added fat, whole grains, lean proteins and vegetables with enough flavor to leave you completely satisfied. I don't know how long this whole healthy eating kick will last, but as long as I keep coming up with meals like this, I think it might be a while! Happy and Healthy Eating Kids!