Monday, September 30, 2013

Eggplant Involtini

Having lived for years with someone who is lactose intolerant, I have a ridiculously low bar for excitement when it comes to dairy products. If a caterer lays out a boring old tray of econo-cheddar and crackers at a reception, my heart thrills. I recently attended a weekend full of gourmet food of all sorts, but what I remember more than anything is a simple buttery grilled cheese. It's possible I have a problem.

But I would wager that, despite the extenuating circumstances, my fascination is not all that unique. Because cheese? It is really, really good. And even though it's not usually put at the top of such lists, I'd argue that ricotta — good ricotta — is one of the best cheeses of all. And when that ricotta is wrapped in fried eggplant and baked in tomato sauce, well...

I had been lusting over this recipe for a while, and it seemed like the perfect time to give it a try. The last of the summer eggplants and tomatoes are still in the markets, and the rising autumnal chill calls out for just this sort of oven-baked, cheesy warmth (as making a long-baked dish is my favorite tactic for delaying turning on the furnace). I had my doubts about the lemon juice and zest— would it destroy the cheesy comfort with its sourness? But really, it's just perfect. There's no sourness, just a fresh flavor, that's a lovely match for the long-cooked tomato sauce and caramelized eggplant. And, of course, the cheese.

Eggplant Involtini

adapted from Tartine Bread
serves ~6 (~18 rolls)

2 globe eggplants
coarse salt
oil for frying (they recommend olive oil, but for those with tighter budgets, any other high-heat oil, or a mix of that and olive oil, will be fine)

2 cups whole milk ricotta
~1/3 cup dry, unseasoned breadcrumbs
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

~ 2 cups tomato sauce (I used the late great Marcella Hazan's tomato butter sauce)
~1/4 cup heavy cream
Parmesan (or a similar cheese) for serving

Slice the eggplant, using a mandoline or a sharp knife, the long way into 1/4-inch planks. Layer in a colander, salting generously with coarse salt between the layers. Let sit at least an hour, then give a good press to push out the liquid. Blot dry.

Pour about an inch of oil into a heavy skillet, and heat to temperature over a medium-high heat (if you have a thermometer, you want it to read 360° Fahrenheit). Fry the eggplant slices (without crowding the pan), until they begin to color, ~3-4 minutes. Remove the slices with tongs, and set on a paper-lined plate or a rack/colander to drain. Repeat with the remaining eggplant (if desired, you can do this step a day in advance). If the slices crisp up a bit, you can put them in a covered container, and they'll soften back up (another reason cooking them in advance works beautifully).

When all of the eggplant has been fried, heat the oven to 425° Fahrenheit. In a bowl, mix together the ricotta, breadcrumbs, lemon juice and zest, thyme and salt. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

To assemble the casserole, pour the tomato sauce down on the bottom of a mid-sized casserole dish (or a couple small ones). Take a slice of the fried eggplant, and place a lump of filling at the wide end (~1-2 tablespoons, depending on the size of your eggplant), and roll it up. Place in the casserole dish, seam side down. Repeat with the remaining eggplant and filling. When you're finished, pour a bit of cream over each of the rolls to moisten (it's fine if it runs into the sauce).

Bake, uncovered, until the sauce cooks down around the edges of the pan, and the rolls darken a bit, ~20—25 minutes. Serve warm, with a grating of cheese over the top.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Chocolate-on-Chocolate Loaf Cake

After a deliciously fruit-filled, flaky summer full of hand pies, and galettes, and hand pies (again!), it's time for a different sort of dessert. A dessert with a bit more heft. A dessert with chocolate.

A came across a picture of this chocolate loaf a few weeks ago, and just had to have it. I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it was Nigella Lawson's promise of "squidgy" texture, or the cocoa cake with melted chocolate + chocolate chunks + chocolate syrup, or the fact that it looked like it would be absolutely perfect with a cup of tea or coffee. And yes, it totally delivered on all counts. But it's also just kinda fun to take chocolate cake out of the birthday realm, and into your afternoon tea break. And as the rains roll in, we could use a little fun. And chocolate.

And speaking of good old fun, and striking out onto new ground, I had the (soggy) pleasure of spending a recent afternoon with a bunch of folks reenacting the drama of the Oregon Trail. No, not the backbreaking, dysentery-laden, 2,000 mile journey. The video game. Yeah, that one. You can take a listen over at the Northwest News Network.

Chocolate-on-Chocolate Loaf Cake

adapted from Nigella Lawson's Feast, as filtered by Like A Strawberry Milk

1 2/3 cups (200 grams) flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
scant half cup (50 grams) cocoa powder
hefty pinch salt

1/3 cup (80 grams) heavy cream
1 cup (175 grams) roughly chopped chocolate, plus additional handfuls set aside if you'd like a chunky cake (optional)

1 1/2 sticks butter, softened to room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar (275 grams)
2 eggs

half a cup (125 grams) boiling water

1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
scant 1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar

Preheat your oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Butter a loaf pan, and line it with parchment paper (seriously, you need both fronts — this cake is a sticker).

Sift together the flour, baking soda, cocoa powder and salt, and set aside.

In a small saucepan, heat the cream until it's steamy and thinking about simmering. Turn off the heat, and toss the chopped chocolate in the bowl. Let sit for a minute or two to soften the chocolate, then stir until smooth. Let cool slightly.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar together (it doesn't have to be super fluffy). Add the eggs, stir to combine, then add the chocolate mixture. Stir in the flour/cocoa powder, then the boiling water (carefully, of course!). If you're using the reserved chocolate chunks, fold them in as well, then pour the whole mixture into your prepared loaf pan. Bake until a tester almost comes out clean, ~ 1 hour. Remove and let cool.

As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, stir together the syrup ingredients in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer, and cook until it thickens slightly, ~5 minutes. Poke a few holes in the cake with a skewer if you like (if your cake didn't crack on its own accord), then pour the syrup over the top. Let cool fully (overnight is fine too), then slice and serve.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Simple Stuffed Zucchini

There are so many zucchini recipes — especially as summer draws to a close, and fatigue sets in — that seek to sort of bury the squash. Shred it into a cake, where it's hidden behind chocolate, or perhaps a brown butter cornbread. And there's good reason to do this. Zucchini actually excels in these treatments, where it gives otherwise-starchy dishes a healthy dose of green, and some moisture to boot. Also: So! Much! Zucchini! But even in the midst of the onslaught, it's sometimes nice to have dishes that really let the zucchini shine. Like this stuffed zucchini.

There are versions of stuffed zucchini heaping with cups of breadcrumbs, or layered with gooey cheese, or spicy chorizo, or lord-knows-what. But this one is all about the zucchini. You scoop out the innards, and then cook them down with onion and tomato while the shells soften up a bit in the oven. You can add some basil (or not), and just the merest sprinkling of cheese (or not). Then a sprinkling of just enough breadcrumbs to bind the mixture, and the whole thing goes back in the oven. The end result doesn't have big bold flavors, or a magical where's-the-squash transformation. It tastes simple, rich and sweet. And a lot like zucchini.

Simple Stuffed Zucchini
serves 4

4 good-sized zucchini
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for the pan and topping
1 onion, diced fine
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 good-sized tomatoes, diced
1 handful basil (optional), torn or chopped
scant 1/4 cup breadcrumbs (or as needed)
1 handful grated parmesan, optional
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to 400° Fahrenheit. Rinse the zucchini, and slice off the stems and any woody blossom scars on the ends. With a spoon, scoop out the innards (setting them aside), leaving a small rim around the end to keep things together. Drizzle a little olive oil in a large casserole dish, salt the insides of the zucchini, and lay them, cut side down, in the casserole. Drizzle a little more oil over the tops, and bake while you prepare the remaining ingredients (~half an hour).

Heat a large frypan or Dutch oven over a medium-high heat, and pour in the 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onions, along with a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are softened and translucent but haven't browned, ~5-7 minutes (adjust the heat as needed). While the onion is cooking, chop the reserved zucchini innards into a rough dice, and set aside. When the onion has softened, add the garlic, and cook for another minute to soften. Then add the zucchini innards and tomatoes, and basil if you've got it. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the zucchini is all cooked through (~10 minutes, give or take). It will give off a lot of liquid. Remove from heat, and add enough breadcrumbs to sop up the liquid into a moist stuffing-like consistency (the exact amount will vary depending upon how much liquid your particular zukes and tomatoes have given off, and how much of that has cooked away). Allow to cool slightly, then add parmesan, and season (rather aggressively) with salt and pepper to taste.

Remove the zucchini shells from the oven, and flip them back to boat position (being careful to avoid the steam!). Mound the filling back into the shells, and top with a drizzle of olive oil. Return to the oven and bake until everything is sizzly and delicious and just beginning to brown — about half an hour. Serve warm.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Corn, Cherry Tomato and Basil Pizza

I tend to like my pizza — my home-made pizza at least — topped with strong flavors. Kale, blue cheese and walnuts. Garlic scapes and potato. Asparagus, goat cheese and anchovies. But a hot, late summer night calls for a different kind of pizza. A more delicate pizza. A summer pizza. A corn, tomato and basil pizza.

I know that corn on pizza doesn't sound very Italian. And I know that I used a hippie whole wheat dough, that my crust is entirely devoid of char, and my mozzarella started to brown. It was just that kind of night. But even so — this pizza was delicious.

The sweet corn only gets sweeter in a hot oven, and the punchy bursts of tomato (I went with some never-disappointing Sungolds a friend was kind enough to share form her garden) and fresh basil come together in a way that just feels perfect. It's sweet and juicy (from both the corn and the tomatoes), but it's also savory and aromatic. And even though it's pizza, it's surprisingly light. It's summer.

Corn, Cherry Tomato and Basil Pizza

1 ball of pizza dough, ~10 oz
semolina or regular flour for dusting
1/4-1/3 lb mozarella, shredded
kernels shaved off 1 ear of corn
2 dozen small cherry tomatoes (preferably Sungold), sliced in half
olive oil
coarse salt
1 handful basil leaves, torn if large

Preheat your oven, with a pizza stone if you have, to 500 degrees for an hour. If your pizza dough has been refrigerated, let it come to room temperature for an hour.

Place the pizza dough on a lightly-floured counter top, and press outward into a thick disk (leaving a 1" unpressed area along the edge as the crust). Pick up the disk and let it drape over the backs of your hands, letting gravity help you stretch it into a 12-14" circle. If the dough resists, let it relax for a few minutes, then try again. Place the stretched dough on a peel (or overturned cookie sheet or cutting board) that's lightly dusted with semolina or other type of flour.

Scatter the mozzarella on top of the dough, then the corn and tomatoes. Drizzle the whole pizza with a small amount of olive oil, and a sprinkling of salt. Slide the pizza onto the preheated stone in your oven, and bake ~7-10 minutes, until the crust browns and the cheese melts.

Remove the pizza from the oven, and let cool for a moment (if you're making one pizza, you can leave it on the stone, otherwise I like to transfer to a rack, or just slide a knife or such between the peel/cutting board and the pie, to let the steam vent so it doesn't soften itself). Transfer to a cutting board if you haven't already, and scatter on the basil. Slice and serve.