Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cheese Blintzes

A few summers ago, I did a lot of canning. A lot. I scoured the neighborhood for free fruit, calling up friends with plum trees and trekking out to favorite blackberry-picking spots (despite the fact that picking blackberries is about as much fun as being scratched by cats). I took over the neighbor's fridge with cheesecloth-lined jars slowly drip-drip-dripping Concord grape juice for jelly, and nearly made us late to a dinner party by insisting we drive back past the free boxes of canning jars that I'd seen on my bike ride home. It's possible things got a bit out of hand.

But this past summer -- not so much. I got swamped with work and other obligations, read a terrifying article about how sugar will kill us all, and let my canning fall by the wayside. I made a batch of sour cherry jam (and a delicious tart) after harvesting from a neighbor's tree, but that was about it. No more wedding gifts of boxes groaning with rosemary plum jam, grape jelly and blueberry preserves. A few months back I was dishing out some yogurt for breakfast, only to realize that I had actually run out of jam. Who am I these days? It's all something of a shame, especially when you realize how very good jam can be.

I was recently reminded of the goodness of jam by Marisa, the canning master behind the inspiring website Food in Jars. We met up for coffee when she was in town recently (an event I nearly missed, due to creative calendaring), and in addition to sharing stories, she gave me a jar of nectarine-lime jam. It was a jar of jam so intense it nearly glowed, full of aromatic soft fruit brightened up with lime, with a delicately soft set (probably softened further by baggage handling). This was jam that brought my mind right back to summer. This was jam that cried out for something more than just PB&J to showcase its brilliance. This was jam that needed blintzes.

I was never a huge fan of sweet blintzes as a kid, preferring their savory potato-filled cousins instead. But having recently been won over by Russian cottage-cheese pancakes, I figured cheese-filled pancakes might be equally delicious. For this traditional Eastern European delicacy, thin crepes are pan-fried, filled with a sweetened cottage cheese mixture (I went with lightly-sweetened, to justify a more liberal jam application), and then folded up in the crepes and pan-fried in good amount of butter. Serve hot, with plenty of jam.

As the description suggests, these blintzes are a good amount of work. And truth be told, I think I might prefer the syrniki, which are both easier and more addictive. But it's nice to have an opportunity to brush up on my crepe-making skills, and turn out tidy little packages that my Russian forebears would approve of. And really, when you have jam this good, you've got to give it something special.

And speaking of special occasions, Mostly Foodstuffs is heading off for a special European edition: two weeks in the Basque Country! Expect some culinary hijinks, jet lag, and a whole lot of salt cod to follow.

Cheese Blintzes

adapted, quite liberally, from The New York Times Jewish Cookbook
makes ~12 blintzes (depending upon the size of your pan and the amount of batter you waste getting the hang of things), serving 6

1 cup milk
1 cup flour (I substituted 1/2 cup rye flour, as is my latest obsession, but straight white flour works great as well)
2 eggs 
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar
oil for frying

1 lb cottage cheese
1/2 tsp salt
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp vanilla

To Finish:
butter for frying
jam for serving

To assemble the blintz pancakes: Mix all ingredients in a blender, and blitz until a smooth batter is formed. Let sit for half an hour.

When the mixture has rested, heat a small skillet (8" or so) over a medium heat until it's good and hot. Add some oil, and then add a swirl of ~3 tablespoons batter, enough to coat the bottom entirely to form a thin pancake. The name of the game is working fast -- add your batter, and then immediately swirl it around, using enough force to make it happen quickly (you can ask the internet to show you videos of this). I kept forgetting to act quickly and forcefully (in my life as well as my blintz-making), but really that's the key. If your batter is too thick to do this, add a wee bit more milk/water and try again. And really, don't worry if your first attempt or two end in failure.

When you've formed the pancake, let cook until the top no longer looks wet and the edges have peeled back from the pan, ~45 seconds. Peel it off (they only need to cook on one side), and transfer to a plate to cool. Add a bit more butter to the pan, and fry up the remaining batter (pancakes will stack without sticking).

When you have formed all of your blintz pancakes, clean out the blender, and add the filling ingredients and pulse a few times to mix them well and break up the cottage cheese curds a bit.

To fill and finish the blintzes: Add a pat of butter to the frypan. Take a blintz pancake, and lay it flat, cooked side facing down.  Add a few spoonfuls of fillings, and roll up the blintz like a burrito. Place, seam side down, in the pan, and fry until golden, ~2-3 minutes. Turn over gently (they're a bit delicate while hot), and fry the other side. Repeat with remaining blintzes and filling. Enjoy hot, with a lot of good jam.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Green Tomatoes

I was going to open this post with a picture of my tomato plants themselves. But really, it's just sad. The stalks and leaves are yellow-brown, wilted, hanging off of their wire cage exoskeletons. And the tomatoes themselves? Green, green, green. It's been a slim harvest this year.

But luckily, green tomatoes can be the source of some truly delicious recipes. With their firm flesh, punchy astringency, and juiciness, they bake up surprisingly well. Over on NPR's Kitchen Window, I turn the harvests' forlorn remainders into some lovely early fall recipes: green tomato pesto, cheesy green tomato and pimento cheese biscuits, and my favorite of all, this South Indian-style green tomato pickle. You can check out the recipes, and my paean to the thrifty waste-not-want-not ethos, over here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Royal Eggplant

When I think of how to best describe eggplant, a few words come to mind. And they're not terribly flattering. Oil sponge would be first term, then slightly bitter. And, unappetizingly, squeaky. But royal? Hardly. Until I tried this recipe.

Like many Indian recipes with this descriptor, royal eggplant comes from the culinary tradition of India's Mughal empire. These dishes are strongly influenced by Persian and Turkish cooking, scented with warm spices and softened with cream and butter. And this dish is no exception. The eggplants are roasted until they soften to mush, dispelling any squeaky tendencies and scenting them with a lovely smoky undertone. They're cooked up with the usual savory mix of onion, cilantro and tomato, but they're given a sweet note from cinnamon and nutmeg, and a surprising flavor from the fenugreek leaves. And to make things even better, the savory-sweet-smoky mix is rounded out with a rich dose of cream.

I served this up with some rice, yogurt raita, and a sour-salty shot of green tomato pickle (more on that soon). But I've also paired it with other Indian dishes, or scooped it up with a bit of naan. I like it so much that I've tinkered with the recipe, increasing the yield and upping the spice-to-eggplant ratio to create an even more richly-seasoned dish. Because it's just that good. Royally good.

Royal Eggplant

adapted from Neelam Batra's The Indian Vegetarian
serves ~6-8, depending on how many other dishes are involved

3 medium-large eggplants (~2-3 lbs)
3 Tbsp vegetable oil, ghee, or coconut oil
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp minced garlic
2 Tbsp peeled and minced ginger
2 cups finely-chopped onions
2 cups finely-chopped tomatoes
1 cup packed finely-chopped cilantro (leaves and stems), plus a few spoonfuls for garnish
4 jalapeno peppers, split
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp dried fenugreek leaves
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 cup cream
1 tsp salt, or to taste

Pierce the eggplants a few times with a fork or knife, and place on a pan underneath the broiler. Broil, turning a few times, until they're totally collapsed (~30-40 minutes). Let cool, and then peel and mash until smooth. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a pot over a high heat. Add the cumin seeds, and cook until they sizzle (just a few seconds). Add the garlic and ginger, stir, and then add the onions and cook until golden, ~5-7 minutes. Add the tomatoes, cilantro, and peppers, and cook until the tomatoes release their liquid and it cooks off, ~10 minutes. Add the spices, stir for a minute to toast them, then add the reserved eggplant.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the cream, and cook another 5 minutes to blend the flavors. Adjust salt to taste, and serve sprinkled with additional cilantro for garnish.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Eggs Poached in Summer Squash Saute

A few weeks ago, I was trying to help a friend come up with some quick and easy dinner plans. She was swamped at work, her husband was out of town, and her two young kids needed the usual amount of attention. I asked what she'd been cooking lately. She listed a handful of dishes, nothing fancy but certainly nothing to sniff at. Also, she admitted with some level of embarrassment, they'd been having a lot of breakfast for dinner.

There always seems be some shame in having breakfast for dinner. Every time someone scrambles up an egg, or plops some pancake batter on the griddle, there's an accompanying feeling of not being a Proper Adult. PA's clearly know the difference between breakfast and dinner, and feed their family the appropriate meal for the hour (and also never, say, get past-due notices for their forgotten health insurance co-pays). But I argue that we should let go of those prejudices. Pancakes, eggs and the like make wonderful dinners. As long as you do them up right.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big fan of poaching eggs in a sauce. They absorb flavor, the whole mess is deliciously fun to sweep up with a piece of bread (or tuck inside or tortilla), and, most importantly, it's just really easy. This dish is no exception. Taking inspiration from a blog post I read a few months back, I cooked up a saucy saute of onions, fresh tomatoes, grated summer squash, and fresh basil. Then I made a few divots, cracked in some eggs, and covered and cooked til they were set to my liking. Add a slice of crusty flatbread, and it's perfect. A delicious, one-pot, near insta-meal, with a healthy helping of vegetables. Where's the shame in that? Breakfast for dinner, you do not disappoint.

And, if breakfast for dinner isn't your thing, I present an article I wrote on the flip side: dinner for breakfast. You can check it out in The Oregonian.

Eggs Poached in Summer Squash Saute

inspired by The Kitchn, but tweaked to my taste/groceries
serves 2

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped in a fine dice
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 large tomatoes, diced
1 summer squash, grated on the coarse holes of a grater
1 handful fresh basil, chopped
salt and pepper
4 eggs
crusty bread or flatbread, for serving

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over a medium heat. Add the onions and a sprinkling of salt, and cook until softened but not colored, ~7 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook for a few more minutes. Add the tomatoes, squash and basil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down and get saucy, and the squash is tender, ~10 minutes. The mixture should give off a lot of liquid, which is what you want (it will absorb/cook off when you cook the eggs). Add salt and pepper to taste. Make 4 divots in the mixture with the back of a spoon, and crack an egg into each divot. Cover, and let cook until the eggs are set to your liking. Top the eggs with a bit of additional salt and pepper, and serve with bread.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Concord Grape Focaccia

I can be prone to hyperbole, especially when talking about my latest recipe obsession. But if I may: this concord grape focaccia is the Best Thing Ever. For reals. To illustrate: I have made it twice in the past two weeks, even though it involves painstakingly seeding several bunches of concord grapes (a process that takes much, much longer than you'd think it should). But the end result is so heavenly that it's totally worth it. I'm thinking of making it again. Right now.

This recipe is a riff on schiacciata con l'uva, a Tuscan flatbread topped (or stuffed) with grapes. But instead of subtle European wine grapes, it uses our own native-bred, growing-in-everyone's-backyard, blustery Concord grapes. The focaccia is dusted with both salt and sugar, creating a savory-sweet combination that, when paired with the rich purple grapes and airy-yet-crusty dough, is totally addictive. It makes for an elegant hors d'oeuvre or cocktail party snack, or a slightly sweet dessert to enjoy with your glass of wine or coffee. You can substitute store-bought pizza dough for the focaccia in a pinch, though I can't guarantee that the end result will be the Best Thing Ever. Perhaps second best.

And in other news of Italian-inspired deliciousness, my roasted figs with dolcelatte were profiled on Design*Sponge. You can check out the recipe, along with photos far more beautiful than those that come out of my kitchen, over here.

Concord Grape Focaccia

yields two 9" focaccia, enough for appetizers for 6-10, depending on their level of hunger/restraint
note: this recipe is started the day (or two) before you bake it

1 cup water
1 tsp active yeast
1 Tbsp coarse salt, divided
3 Tbsp sugar, divided
1/4 cup olive oil, divided, plus additional for greasing the bowl and handling the dough
2 ¼ cups (10 ounces) bread flour 

heaping cup halved and seeded concord grapes (warning: seeding the grapes may take longer than you think)
2 tsp fresh rosemary needles

Combine the water and yeast in a bowl, and let sit for a minute or two to allow the yeast to soften and bloom. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, 2 tablespoons of the oil, and the flour. Mix with a large spoon until fully blended, then cover and let sit for 5 minutes to fully hydrate. Mix for an additional minute or two, until the dough becomes smooth. Grease another bowl with a bit of oil, and, using a spatula, transfer the dough into the bowl. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

After the dough has rested, using wet or oiled hands, reach into the bowl under one end of the dough, and pull it gently to fold the dough in half. repeat with the other three sides of the dough, then flip the whole doughball over. Let rest 10 minutes, then repeat 2-3 more times. After the last folding, cover the bowl, and refrigerate overnight, or up to three days. These folds may seem a bit fussy, but achieve the dual purpose of folding in some air holes into the dough, and firming it up without using additional flour.

About 1 1/2  - 2 hours before you’d like to bake (depending on how warm your kitchen is), take the dough out of the refrigerator, and allow to come to room temperature for ~45 minutes to take the chill off. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, or brush them heavily with olive oil. Gently divide the dough into two balls (they might be a bit more like blobs then balls), and place them on the prepared sheets. Let sit 10 minutes to relax, then, with oiled or wet hands, use your fingertips to sort of pat-and-push the dough out into 9” circles from the inside out, dimpling them without totally compressing them (if they resist, you can pat them out a little, let the dough rest ~5-10 minutes, then pat them out a little more and repeat as needed -- it’s important you press the dough out to out least this diameter, otherwise it will be too thick to cook properly).  Let rise for 45 minutes to an hour (depending on the heat of your kitchen). While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 500.

When the dough has risen, brush the focaccia with the remaining oil. Sprinkle them with the grapes, rosemary, and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and 2 teaspoons coarse salt. (that's 1 Tbsp/tsp per focaccia). Place the trays in the oven, then turn down the heat to 450. Bake for ~20 minutes, until the focaccia has cooked to a golden brown (it may seem a little underdone in some parts around the grape divots, but as long as the non-grape parts are browned it will be fine). Let cool slightly, then serve warm or at room temperature (ideally within a few hours for optimum deliciousness).