PANKO-CRUSTED PORTOBELLOS

Sometimes I just have to write about something that has nothing to do with food.

As many of you already know, I am an eighth grade English teacher by day, a job that I love, love, love, love, love.  Right now it’s especially easy to be in love with it because we are in the middle of reading Fahrenheit 451.  Originally published in 1953, the book serves for many students as an introduction to “real” literature, their first piece of the canon, a real, adult novel.  And it’s so perfect for fourteen-year-olds.

The themes of censorship, corrupt authority, man’s search for happiness, and the impact of a dysfunctional, technology-dependent society ring true for them, leading to fantastic discussions and debates.  I’m especially blessed to work with a thoughtful, passionate co-teacher named Ben, with whom I have collaborated,  aligning my English curriculum with his history lesson plans.  To teach this book at the same time he is discussing the Cold War, Stalin, Eastern Europe, and the nuclear arms race with our students is, for lack of better language, the coolest thing ever.

To throw even more synchronicity into the mix, this week is National Banned Books Week.  As our kids have learned, schools and libraries around the country are still removing books from shelves, usually on the objections of a small, fear-mongering minority.  They were rather indignant to learn that this kind of thing happens in the world they live in, and surprised to discover that many of the Ten Most-Challenged Books of 2009 are ones they themselves have read.

If you haven’t read Fahrenheit 451, a book about banning books that is often, ironically, banned itself,  my students and I would love to recommend it to you.   We are having a blast discussing the similarities between Bradbury’s dystopian world and our own, analyzing what seems unchanging about human behavior, and feeling pretty badass for reading a book some people don’t want us to.

PANKO-CRUSTED PORTOBELLOS

This is a take on the marinated-and-fried mushrooms of my childhood, which were always thickly breaded and served with ranch.  Not that I would turn my nose up at them now; they’re the kind of nostalgic bar/patio food I have a hard time resisting when in front of me.   At the same time, when I tasted this slightly sophisticated version a few weeks ago at The Grove Grill in Memphis , I immediately knew I wanted to try and recreate them.  They went like hotcakes last weekend, so I know I’ll be making them again, probably by request (Sonya says it’s one of her new favorites).  I think they’d make an elegant starter for a small dinner party.

for the mushrooms:

4-5 portobellos, wiped clean with a damp paper towel
2 eggs
2 cups Panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs

Remove the stems from the mushrooms and discard.  Using a grapefruit spoon, scrape out the gills from each mushroom cap.  Slice the mushrooms into thick slivers, like fat French fries.  The pieces should be very dry.

In a wide bowl, whisk together the eggs with a little water.  In a separate bowl, pour in the breadcrumbs.  You can add seasoning if you like, but I left mine plain and let the dipping sauce impart flavor.

Heat several inches of canola or other vegetable oil in a deep, sturdy pot.  You want medium-high heat until the oil is shimmery; once you start frying, you can adjust if the mushrooms are browning too quickly or too slowly.

Line an oven-safe plate with paper towels and place inside a low oven.  Since you will be frying in batches, this way you can ensure all the mushroom pieces are crisp and ready at once.  Or, ahem, your spouse & friends can just devour them as you go.

Use the “wet hand, dry hand” method to batter the mushrooms.  Working in batches, use your left hand for the egg wash, coating each mushroom piece thoroughly.  Then plop a few pieces at a time into the breadcrumbs, using your right hand to press down on all sides and thickly coat each piece.

I recommend you bread all the mushrooms ahead of time, so you can wash your hands and focus on frying.  Drop in a single sacrificial mushroom to assess the oil temperature, adjust as necessary, and then fry in batches, turning once, until the mushroom pieces are an even, medium-brown.  Drain the mushrooms on paper towels, then tuck into the oven to keep warm.

Serve the mushrooms with dipping sauce.  If you plan to serve plain, sprinkle with a bit of sea salt.  Either way, they will go quickly!

for the dipping sauce:

½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup honey
2 T fresh ginger, minced
1 T rice wine or plum wine vinegar
1 tsp. sesame oil

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl.  Leftovers will keep indefinitely in the fridge, and also work for wanton dipping, glazing meatballs, adding to soups, etc.

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MARINATED EGGPLANT

I’m afraid I don’t have anything profound to say about this eggplant.

You of course should know that it tastes great, is easy to make and healthy, and goes perfectly with the rosemary flatbreads from earlier in the week.  And I recommend you try it!  I just can’t come up with anything further, I fear, because I just saw video of my father for the first time since he died.  I’m totally out of words.

The footage is from the Father-Daughter Dinner Dance my all-girls’ high school throws every year; after the meal, each father gets up and gives a tribute to his daughter and there’s nary a dry eye in the house.

Frankly, I had forgotten this video existed, but somehow it cropped up and so tonight I slid it into our antique VHS player (seriously how bulky do these things seem now?), and there he was, with dimensions, with his beard and his accent that I fear I am forgetting, telling me that he loves me and is proud of me, smiling the smile I inherited.  The most amazing gift—to see him, to have him there, as if he might step out of the screen at any moment and come sit down with me, shoving aside my piles of used Kleenex.

I want to be okay in my life; I don’t want to live looking backwards, angry and wondering.  After all, I am bound to encounter much more death in this lifetime, including my own.  But just when I think I’ve reached some place, that grief and I may have made some kind of arrangement, it just flat-out breaks my heart all over again.

I don’t ever want to stop missing him, and I do not think that I will.

MARINATED EGGPLANT
adapted from Gourmet
While I love this dish, it doesn’t keep very well, so make only as much as you think you’ll need.

ingredients:

3-4 thin Italian or Asian eggplants, sliced into thin rounds
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
¼ cup mint, chopped
2 T capers
olive oil
red wine vinegar

oven temp: broiler

Toss the eggplants in a bit of olive oil, then arrange in one layer on a baking sheet or sheets.  Broil for about 10 minutes, turning once to brown on both sides.

Once the eggplant is out of the oven, stir together with the herbs, capers, and a few tablespoons of both olive oil & vinegar both.  Add a bit of salt & pepper to taste, then let the eggplant marinate for 15-20 minutes.

Serve with flatbread, pita, or crackers.

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ROSEMARY FLATBREAD

I know that we limit ourselves when we make blanket pronouncements, that we sometimes cannot predict who we’ll be and what we’ll want or be attracted to and so it does not behoove to rule things out in their entirety.  And still, I can promise you this—I will never, ever, ever give up bread.

Bread is one of the most beautiful things we have invented as human beings.  It is near-universal and universally satisfying.  Bread can be rustic or elegant, dead-simple or decadent, sweet or savory, mixed in one bowl or proofed over many hours.  I unabashedly love bread in all its forms—I have a whole file cabinet of food memory devoted to bread products of one kind or another: garlic knots from Brooklyn Pizza Company in Tucson, the really soft rolls of my Southern childhood, Jill’s mama’s hot water cornbread, the incredibly pilowy Roomalli roti I ate in India, fresh tortillas from my favorite bakery here, Friday challah at my Jewish school, my mom’s whole wheat carrot bread, and on and on.

While I’m not a bread-making expert, we have dabbled a little bit here—foccacia, ciabatta, challah, and fall-perfect apple muffins.  These little rosemary flatbreads deserve to be added to the filing cabinet under the folder headings “good for guests,” “crackly,” “sprinklings of salt.”  While the process of rolling and cooking them isn’t quick, they are not technically complicated to make and are a great bread “bridge” for those of you scared of/intimidated by yeast.

And I could eat this whole stack of them by myself.


ROSEMARY FLATBREAD

adapted from Gourmet magazine

These guys pair perfectly with all kinds of dips, cheese, & olives, making them a great addition to a wine happy hour or tapas dinner.

ingredients:

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 T chopped rosemary, plus a few extra sprigs
1 tsp. baking power
¾ tsp. table salt
½ cup water
1/3 cup olive oil, plus extra for brushing

flaky sea salt

oven: 450°

Place a pizza stone or heavy baking sheet in the oven as it preheats.

In a large bowl, stir together flour, chopped rosemary, baking powder, & salt.  Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the water and oil.  Stir the wet ingredients into the flour with a wooden spoon.  Gently knead the dough until it comes together.

Keep the dough covered in the bowl to keep it from drying out, pinching off a golf-ball sized piece to roll out on a piece of parchment paper.  Roll the dough nice & thin, but don’t worry about making a circle—asymmetry is good here.

Brush the dough with extra olive oil, pressing in extra rosemary leaves on top.  Sprinkle with a little sea salt, then slide the dough—parchment & all—into the oven, baking until it’s puffed and golden-brown in places, 8-10 minutes.

While the first flatbread bakes, roll out another.  When the first is done, cool it on a rack, discarding the parchment paper.  Continue until all the dough has been used.

Once cool, the flatbread will keep for a few days in an airtight container.

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GREEN BEAN-LENTIL SALAD

I do not think like a Chef.

Folks who distill complex philosophy, who sew their own clothes, who know exactly what color paint a room needs, whose eyes frame perfect photographs, whose hands build and fix furniture.  All of these I know, and in them I recognize the same thing; I can’t do that.

Our brains work the way they work—certainly we can stretch and challenge them, but I know my limits.  I shan’t be fixing my own car anytime soon, for example, unless I want to break it.  And though I love food and think about it most nearly all the time, I know my brain does not work like a chef’s.

I can tell you when a dish is working, or when it isn’t, but it’s 50-50 whether I’ll be able to diagnose how to repair it, or even what’s in it in the first place.  I can follow recipes, tweak them, streamline them, know a good one when I see one and an overly complicated one when I see those, too—but it’s rare that I generate a downright amazing dish on my own.

Which makes it all the more fun to watch and learn from folks who think about food and flavor and technique in ways I can only dream of, hoping that a little bit of that genius will rub off.

GREEN BEAN-LENTIL SALAD
adapted from Alex Seidel of Denver’s Fruition in this year’s “Best New Chefs” edition of Food & Wine

This salad was absolutely delicious—grilled green beans, who knew?—but its leftovers didn’t hold up very well.  To that end, I recommend serving this to a crowd (it would make a lovely side dish for a roast chicken, for example) or cutting the recipe in half.

ingredients:

1 cup black beluga or small brown lentils
1 lb. green beans, washed & ends trimmed
8 baby patty pan squash, quartered
2 tomatoes, sliced
4 oz. piece of pancetta, cut into a large dice
2 shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. fresh or ½ tsp. dried oregano
pinch of crushed red pepper
olive oil
sherry vinegar
fresh basil, for garnish

Sauté half of the shallot and half the garlic in olive oil until translucent.  Add the lentils, bay leaf, oregano & 2 cups of water and bring to a boil.  Simmer the lentils until cooked through; remove from heat, discarding the bay leaf.  Drizzle generous amounts of olive oil & sherry vinegar atop the lentils, dressing them as you would a salad.  Stir in the remaining shallot & garlic.  Set aside.

Heat a cast-iron grill pan over medium-high heat.  Toss the green beans with a little olive oil, then season with salt & pepper before grilling them over high heat, turning when they char.

At the same time, cook the diced pancetta in a large skillet over medium-high heat until lightly browned.  Add the squash, crushed red pepper, & a bit of salt and cook until the squash begins to soften. Toss in the tomatoes at the end, if you like.

Arrange the green beans on a large platter, then arrange the squash on top.  Pour the lentils atop everything and garnish with a little fresh basil.

FRUIT-INFUSED TEQUILA

No time to waste on paragraphs.  Here’s a list of reasons you should make this:

1)    Tequila drinks are delicious.
2)    This tequila drink is delicious even when you use relatively cheap tequila (like I did).
3)    It’s amazingly simple to make.
4)    You can easily make it for a crowd.
5)    If you prep it today, it will be ready to drink on Monday.

Convinced?  Okay then.  Labor Day weekend–go!

FRUIT-INFUSED TEQUILA
adapted from Bon Appetit

The original recipe calls for the use of watermelon, which I don’t find I enjoy in cocktail form, so I substituted pineapple.  I also used crystallized ginger instead of regular, because that’s what I had on hand, but I will repeat that choice when I make this in the future.  Without the added sugar, I think the straight tequila would be a bit much.

ingredients:

1 small to medium bottle tequila (approximately 4-4 ½  cups)
half a ripe pineapple
2 mangoes
3 peaches or other stone fruit
4 limes
¼ cup crystallized ginger

optional: homemade grenadine

Peel & dice the pineapple, then place it into the bottom of a pitcher fitted with a lid.  Squeeze any juice from the pineapple rind into the pitcher as well.  Peel & dice the mangoes, discarding the pit.  Add to the pitcher.

No need to peel the stone fruit; just slice & toss it in.  Chop the crystallized ginger roughly, then add it to the pitcher as well.  Squeeze in the lime juice, then pour in the tequila.  Use the back of a large spoon or potato masher (it works!) to press down on the fruit, extracting all juices.

Store in the refrigerator for 3-5 days.  When ready to serve, strain the tequila and discard the fruit (or serve it to the brave).  Pour over crushed ice, drizzle with grenadine (if using), & serve with lime.

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