GRILLED VEGETABLE CAPONATA

I like to play this game with my students at lunch.  I roam around from table to table, peeking into their lunchboxes or checking out their cafeteria trays to see what they’re eating.  My rule?  Your lunch has to consist of three distinct colors or it’s not a meal.

Dessert items & drinks don’t count toward the three, and artificial coloring of any kind is also verboten.  You have to consider color families when assessing—mashed potatoes and a roll are both basically beige, so they don’t count as two separate things.  As I’m sure you can imagine, many of my kids fail “the lunch test” on a regular basis…but then again, sometimes, so do I!

Last year, my students began to police each other—and me—at lunch.  “Ms. Mehra, lunch check!” they’d call out, peeking into the contents of my Tupperware to ensure that I wasn’t being a total hypocrite that day.  (Few things make teenagers as angry as adult hypocrisy; it’s something we have in common.)  This caponata, which is easy to throw together and makes a satisfying lunch or appetizer, is also terribly colorful, ensuring that you’ll have your bases well-covered when the food police come-a-callin’.

GRILLED VEGETABLE CAPONATA

adapted from Steven Raichlen’s The Barbecue! Bible

1 large or 2 medium-sized eggplant, cut into ½-inch rounds

4 medium tomatoes, diced or a good handful of cherry tomatoes, halved

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 green bell peppers, seeded & cut into flat strips

2 yellow onions, quartered

1 red bell pepper, seeded & cut into flat strips

1 fennel bulb, sliced thin (save a few fronds!)

¼ cup pine nuts, toasted

¼ flat-leaf parsley, chopped

3 T balsamic vinegar

2 T green or black olives, pitted & chopped

1 T capers

1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa (yes, really)

olive oil

salt & pepper

Toss the eggplant, bell peppers, & onions with olive oil, then cook on an outdoor grill or indoor grill pan.  Set aside to cool a bit while you combine the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl.

When the grilled vegetables are cool enough to handle, chop roughly and add to the bowl.  Drizzle in olive oil generously & season with salt and pepper.  The caponata is best if it sits for at least an hour before serving and will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for a week.

I like to serve the caponata with thick slices of crusty Italian bread, but it also tastes delicious tossed with pasta.

PEANUT BUTTER/ALMOND BUTTER COOKIES

I know it’s kind of cheesy, but I love the idea of a Bucket List.

Much as the name makes me cringe (is it just me, or does it sound a little crass?) the idea of composing one has lingered with me for the last few months.  I started writing one this summer, at a lunchtime table with a glass of wine in New York, inspired I know by the wonder of that trip and the feeling of aliveness that comes when we exist in our own skin, somewhere else, for a while.

I tucked the six-or-seven-line list into a letter I was mailing to a friend, who responded with a list of his own in kind; few better ways to get to the substance of a person than that.  And really, few better ways to get to the substance of myself.  What is it that I care about?  Do I really want to do that, or am I just saying it because it sounds good?  The act of writing these things down builds something, generates an energy, creates a realness and substance:

*    See my mom hold her grandchild
*    Take Jill to India
*    Write a really great play
*    Attend an opera at the MET
*    Bake a wedding cake for one of my friends
*    Keep a basil plant alive

See, not everything on one’s Life To-Do list has to be deadly significant.  I think the joy comes in imagining the experiences, no matter how small, that would bring one satisfaction and pleasure.  The one item I’ve crossed off, “Make pasta from scratch”,  required just a day’s worth of planning and was a great deal of fun, though I’d like to now amend that item to read “Make really good pasta from scratch.”

Last week, I asked my students to start their own lists.  And I’d love to hear what you fine people would put on yours.


PEANUT BUTTER/ALMOND BUTTER COOKIES

adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Necessity, as they say, is the parent of invention, and so when I found myself one day without enough peanut butter to complete a peanut butter cookie recipe, I fudged with almond butter.  The results were delicious, and so–viola!

ingredients:

½ cup butter, softened
½ cup peanut butter
½ cup almond butter
½ cup brown sugar
¾ cup white sugar, plus a little extra for rolling
1 egg
1 T milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 ¼ cup flour
¾ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt

optional but delicious add-ins:  1 cup chocolate chunks or chips
½ cup chopped, roasted peanuts

oven: 350˚

Combine the butters in the bowl of a stand mixer, blending well before adding both sugars.  When the mixture is smooth, crack in the egg and blend again.  Stir in the milk and vanilla.

Whisk the dry ingredients together, then add to the wet.  Stir in chocolate and/or peanuts.

Form the dough into half-inch balls, then roll in white sugar before baking on well-greased or parchment-covered baking sheets, 10-12 minutes.  Do not over bake!  I promise they’re done.

FARRO, FENNEL, & TUNA SALAD

Jill has taken to calling farro “the ancient grain of the ancients.”  Quinoa, which we’ve also come to enjoy as a pasta and rice alternative, is known in our house as “the ancient Incan grain of the Incas.”

There’s this thing I like to do; I like to go through people’s wallets.  Not in order to take anything, of course, and not without their permission, but I take great pleasure in unpacking the business cards and receipts, membership notices and frequent buyer cards, pieces of plastic, movie ticket stubs, and general detritus of everyday life.

If I were to unpack my relationships in the same way, what might I find scattered across the coffee table?  Long dinners shared, favorite books in common, nicknames, emails, hazy memories of piquant nights, crisp remembrance of things they said that I loved hearing.

But probably most of what I’d find, and incidentally what I value the most, are the pennies-and-lint equivalents like “ancient grain of the ancients.”  The goofy, we-don’t-know-where-that-came-from particularities of a love or friendship.  The little, inexplicable things that accumulate as we walk through life with another, witnessing them and having them witness us.

FARRO, FENNEL, & TUNA SALAD
adapted from Food & Wine, October 2010

1 cup farro
3 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water
2 large carrots, sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cans tuna of your choice
1 can chickpeas, drained
1 ½ cups arugula
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
juice of 1 lemon

olive oil
salt & pepper

Bring the broth and farro to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the farro is tender and all of the liquid has been absorbed, about 25-30 minutes.  Remove from the heat and cool.

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat, then add the carrot and garlic and cook until just softened, approximately 3-4 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir into the farro.

To the farro mixture, add the tuna, chickpeas, fennel, & onion.  Squeeze in the lemon juice & season with salt and pepper.  Stir to combine, garnish with arugula.

VADOUVAN SPICED CASHEWS

Is it just me or is the cashew underutilized?  Underrated?  Downright neglected, I say, which is a shame, given how delicious they can be.

I had never heard of Vadouvan spice before encountering this recipe and I’m still not sure how to pronounce it, though I am now aware that it’s a delicious fusion of French and Indian flavors, always involving garlic and shallots, a position I wholeheartedly support and that goes excellently well with the aforementioned nut.

You may need to head to the Indian grocery store or a gourmet grocery to get some of the spices listed here, but getting your hands on the ingredients is really the hardest part of the recipe.  If you keep the ingredients on hand, as I plan to, and grind a double-batch of the spice mix, you’ll be minutes away from a rather addictive and happy-hour-suited snack.

Here in Houston, we’re lucky to be smack in the middle of a season that lends itself perfectly to patio sitting and al fresco dining, which frankly we feel we have earned since we suffered through a long, hot, and humid summer. So I’m betting I’ll bust out these cashews as sophisticated patio-sitting fare many times over.

SPICED CASHEWS

source: David Grossman, chef at Branchwater Tavern here in Houston

My friend Ben, who receives the majority of my kitchen leftovers, would like you to know that these cashews will give you wicked garlic breath.  But he also says that they are worth it.

ingredients:

1 cup raw cashews

1 shallot, peeled & very thinly sliced*

4 garlic cloves, peeled & very thinly sliced*

2-3 T Vadouvan spice (see below)

½ tsp. salt

Fry the garlic & shallots in a bit of vegetable oil over medium-high heat until brown & crisp.  Remove & let them drain on a paper towel.

In the same pan, over medium heat, cook the cashews, stirring constantly, until golden brown.  Drain these as well, then toss with the Vadouvan spice & top with fried garlic & shallots.

*Use a mandoline if you have one.

for the Vadouvan spice:

1 T cumin seeds

1 T fresh curry leaves or 1 tsp. dried

1 tsp. fenugreek seed

1 tsp. mustard seeds

1 tsp. ground cardamom

¾ tsp. turmeric

½ tsp. grated nutmeg

½ tsp. Kashmiri chili powder*

½ tsp. ground cloves

In a dry pan, toast the fenugreek, cumin and mustard seeds. Let cool & then combine with all other spices in a spice grinder and grind.

* If you can’t find this one, substitute ½ paprika & ½ cayenne

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CARAMELIZED ONION TART

Patience is not one of my particular virtues.

As evidence, I will cite my rather aggressive driving style, the way I get bossy and dictatorial with indecisive friends, the fact that I never make it to someone’s actual birthday before giving them their birthday present, my intolerance of chronic whiners, and the extreme distractedness I feel in the days leading up to a party or concert or other much-anticipated event.

There are two zones of exception for my impatience, my classroom and my kitchen.  With my students, it’s easy for me to be patient in a way that I just can’t muster with adults.  And when I cook, the patience comes without effort, whether it’s whipping meringue, tempering lemon curd, or caramelizing onions.  Something about the process of coaxing a chaotic jumble of raw ingredients into an elegant, composed, good-tasting dish calms me down and makes me feel much more patient than I actually am.

CARAMELIZED ONION TART

adapted from Food & Wine

for the dough:

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

8 T unsalted butter, cold & cut into pieces

6 T ice cold water

¼ tsp. salt

Combine flour and salt, then use your fingers to cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles wet sand.  Drizzle the water over the flour mixture and stir until it just comes together.  Press the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

for the filling:

2 lb. sweet yellow onions, peeled & thinly sliced

4 T unsalted butter

2 T crème fraîche, sour cream, or plain yogurt

2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves or 1 tsp. dried

salt & pepper

In a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet (I like to use my coated cast-iron), melt the butter.  Add the onions and thyme and cook over medium-high heat until nice and soft, about 10 minutes.  Reduce the heat to low and cook until the onions become golden brown, another 20-25 minutes.  I find that covering the skillet for the first half of the 20 minutes, then leaving uncovered and stirring more frequently during the second half works well.

Once the onions are caramelized, remove from the heat and stir in the crème fraîche, sour cream, or plain yogurt, plus salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat the oven to 375˚.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Roll the dough out into a large circle (about 12” in diameter).  Spread the onion filling all around the dough, leaving a generous border (about 2”).  Fold the edges of the dough up and over the filling.  Brush the edges with egg wash (optional):

for the egg wash:

1 egg beaten with 1 T milk

Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the crust is nice and browned. Cool for a bit on a rack before slicing the tart into wedges and serving warm.  Goes very well with a green salad for a simple dinner.

CUPCAKES WITH NO NAME

Our memories are unreliable.

I’m a nonfiction writer by training and trade, and so I’ve spent some time thinking about the way the filing cabinet of my mind is built; in a rather unorganized fashion, I’m afraid.  We humans are storytellers by nature, narrators in perpetual search of an angle.  Not just those of us who call ourselves writers, either.  Story helps us make sense of our lives, form much-needed meaning, work out issues, and communicate things we couldn’t otherwise.  But since we’re telling stories about ourselves, we’re clearly biased.  Which means our memories are, too.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can make things complicated.  Memory leaves us, it changes shape, it butts up against the contradictory memory of another.  (Ask any couple to recount an argument, who said what, who did what, and you’ll see what I mean.)  Trick is, some memories are so good that we really don’t care if we made them up or not.  A glance from across the room, a kind word, a really good night, how happy we were then.

My Southern girlhood dessert memory includes a favorite which I finally managed to recreate: coconut, pineapple, pecans.  It’s like an Ambrosia cake without the oranges, a Hummingbird cake without the bananas.  Did it actually exist when I was small?  Have I had this cake before or did I simply conjure the idea of it in my mind?

The unreliable narrator that is my mind has no idea, but urges you to make these regardless.

CUPCAKES WITH NO NAME

first things first:

2 cups chopped pineapple, preferably fresh

¼ cup sugar (omit if using canned)

a generous spash of dark rum

Combine in a nonreactive bowl & let hang out while you make the batter.

then:

1 cup sugar (dial back to ¾ cup if using sweetened coconut)

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

1 T vanilla

1 ½ cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

½ cup milk

1 cup toasted pecans, chopped (plus more for garnish)

1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut (plus more for garnish)

oven: 375˚

pan: muffin tins well-greased or filled with paper liners

Beat the butter and sugar at medium-high speed until pale and smooth.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly between each addition, then the vanilla.

In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then add in three batches, alternating with the milk:

dry ingredients

milk

dry ingredients

milk

dry ingredients

Stir in the pineapple and all its rummy juices, pecans, and coconut.  Yes, the batter will look a little thin but FRET NOT!  All this means is that moist cake is in your future.

Fill the muffin tins about three-quarters of the way full, then bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean and the tops of the cupcakes are golden brown.

After 10-15 minutes, remove the cupcakes from muffin pans to cool completely on racks.  Frost with butter cream and garnish with extra chopped pecans & coconut.

for the butter cream:

1 ½ cups sugar

½ cup water

6 egg whites

4 sticks (1 lb) unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into cubes

1 ½ T rum (optional)

Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over high heat until it dissolves.  Boil the mixture until it reaches soft ball stage on a candy thermometer.

While the sugar’s boiling, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.  With the mixer running at medium-high, gradually pour in the hot sugar syrup, taking care not to pour the syrup into the egg whites and not onto the metal (where it will instantly form sugar strings).

Reduce the mixer speed and beat the meringue until it cools to room temperature.  Beat in the butter a few tablespoons at a time.  Drizzle the rum in very slowly to incorporate.  Use immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container.

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