April 18, 2014

Delicious Dish: Versatile Parmigiana di Melazane

Just about this time of year I start dreaming about Italy.  Well, truth be told, I’m always dreaming about Italy, but now, as spring creeps forward on tippy toe feet and the pale green shoots are breaking ground in my barren garden, I imagine a more fertile, far-away landscape. 
 
Places linger, but people make every moment in Italy come alive, and nowhere does this happen than through the glorious food of Italy, and nowhere is it more delightful than when you get to eat - or better yet make - that food alongside a passionate Italian.  

Lunch at Fattoria di Montechiari winery in Tuscany 

I was reliving one of those moments when I pulled out a recipe for parmigiana di melanzane recently.  Let’s be clear.  I don’t mean eggplant parmesan, that greasy, gooey and way too cheesy stuff slathered with tomato sauce that’s a shade too red for comfort.  No, this is the real deal, made with care in a few simple steps with truly excellent ingredients.  The best thing about parmigiana di melanzane is its versatility: an elegant starter for a dinner party; part of brunch spread, or even as a lovely side for grilled meats.

The wizard behind this brilliantly simple and delicious recipe is Paola Zocchi, co-owner with her husband Stefano of the magical La Palazzetta del Vescovo in Umbria.   If you are venturing to the green heart of Italy, as Umbria is known, seek out this secluded gem of an inn within viewing distance of Todi.  

 
Breakfast al fresco at La Palazzetta del Vescovo

While there is plenty to do and see in the area, one of my favourite memories was the afternoon we spent in Paola’s immaculate kitchen, learning to cook Italian classics.  Paola's recipe for parmigiana di melanzane has become a go-to staple.  The perfect make ahead dish, and freezable to boot, these mini melazane treats are a great addition any meal, all year long.

 Paola in her element in the kitchen, making pasta and preparing gelatin for panna cotta

Paola’s Parmigiana di Melanzane
makes 8-10 individual ramekins

3 medium eggplants
Kosher salt
3 large mozzarella balls, preferably bufalo di mozzarella, chopped into ½ cubes
1½ c finely grated parmigiano reggiano cheese; more as needed
Tomato sauce, either homemade (see recipe below), or any good quality unseasoned commercial tomato sauce, about 2 cups  
Breadcrumbs (optional)

8-10 1 c ramekins; aluminum cups work fine here too! 
  
1. Preheat oven to 350˚F/180˚C.

2.  Line two large cookie sheets with paper towels.  Peel the eggplant, cut into ½ inch slices, and lay out the slices, slightly overlapping to make them fit.  Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and let sit for 30 minutes.  

3.  Rinse the eggplant to remove the salt and dry the slices well by laying them out on fresh paper or tea towels.  Using a griddle pan, stovetop grill or barbecue, lightly grill the eggplant slices until golden.  Set aside.

4.  To assemble: spray the ramekins with nonstick spray and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.  In each ramekin, place one slice eggplant, followed by a tablespoon or two of tomato sauce, a few cubes of mozzarella, and a tablespoon or two of parmigiana.  Repeat until each ramekin is nearly full. Finish with a slice of eggplant, tomato sauce and final sprinkle of parmigiana.


 5.  Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes, or until the cheese is melted, golden brown and bubbling.

6.  Cool slightly and serve warm or at room temperature.  If freezing, cool completely before freezing.


Paola's Homemade Tomato Sauce 
makes about 3 cups

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, whole, peeled
1 whole, dried peperoncino or red pepper flakes (see note below)*
1 700 ml bottle Italian passata**
Water
Two pinches salt, or to taste 
½ tsp sugar 
 
1.  Put the oil, garlic and peperoncino in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and heat until the garlic and peperoncino are fragrant.  Remove garlic and pepperoncino.

2.  Add passata and about 1¼ cups water.  Add two pinches of salt (or to taste) and 1 tsp of sugar.  Simmer for one hour. Can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen.

*Peperoncino: You know the shaker jars of red pepper flakes at your local Italian restaurant?  That is the more common version of peperoncino that is readily available in the spice section of your bulk food or grocery store.  Do try to find the whole small peperoncini (about the size of your baby finger); they will impart a bit of barely perceptible zing without overpowering your sauce.  If you are using the flakes, tie a small quantity in a bit of cheescloth so you can remove them easily.

**Italian passata: There's a link above that explains what passata is: basically a very pure version of uncooked tomato puree.  If you can't find this at your grocery store or you don't have an Italian grocer nearby, use whole peeled canned tomatoes, pureed and strained to remove seeds and skin, enough to measure approx 3 cups.

August 26, 2013

A Taste of Summer: Perfect Peach-Ginger Pie

There are certain foods that have a fleeting life, their peak flavours sharpened by memory and desire.  Tomatoes have long been my obsession;  I can't bear the thought of not having my fill of that juicy, sweet and acidic burst of summer.

But lately I have a new diversion.  How is it that I never noticed how perfect a perfectly ripe peach really is?  The joy of finding one that is both firm and juicy, not too soft, the juices running down my chin, the flesh ripping away cleanly from the stone at the centre.   

When I can buy them by the basketful that’s when the fun really starts.  Peach salsaButtery peach briochePeach-plum ginger jam. And my newest peach obsession: peach pie.   

I wanted to think about how to create a new flavour profile for this pie; something that added depth without overpowering the indescribable taste of a fresh peach.  The lovely ginger zing of my peach-plum jam was playing in my mind, but I knew that, sadly, the lone piece of ginger in the house was well past its due date.

As with so much of cooking, the answer was right in front of me, or rather right in my fridge.  At this year's Big Summer Potluck, I came home with a treasure trove of Gourmet Garden goodies.  Do you you know Gourmet Garden? It's the brilliant solution to having every fresh herb you could wish for at your fingertips, beautifully preserved and ready to use a dollop at a time.  No more soggy cilantro or past-its-prime parsley.  Best of all, no more withered stub of gingerroot hidden at the bottom of my crisper.
 
With a tube of Gourmet Garden's fresh ginger paste at hand, I knew I had the perfect complement to my perfect peaches - and the makings of a peachy pie.  Fresh made easy, indeed.

Peach Pie
makes one 9" pie

2 ½ lbs peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced
¾ c sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice (Meyer lemons if you have them)
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tbsp fresh grated ginger or 1 tbsp Gourmet Garden Ginger Paste
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp mace
¼ tsp salt
3 tbsp instant tapioca, ground
½ c ground gingersnaps 
Your favourite pie dough, enough for a double crust pie. Mine is here.  
1 egg, lightly beaten

1. Preheat oven to 425F.

2. In a medium saucepan, cook peaches, sugar, lemon juice, zest, ginger, cinnamon, mace and salt over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.  Take off heat and stir in tapioca.

3.  Prepare pie dough by rolling out a 10" inch round for the bottom.  Fit the dough into your pie pan and sprinkle the gingersnap crumbs evenly along the bottom.  Let the dough rest in the fridge for 10 minutes before proceeding.

4.  Pour the peach mixture evenly into the pan.  Brush the edges of the dough with the beaten egg.  Top the pie with another round of dough and crimp the edges.  Make a few decorative slits on the pie top.  Let the dough rest again for 10 minutes before baking.  This pie is very pretty with a lattice top too.*  

5.  Bake the pie on the middle rack of the oven for 10 minutes at 425F.  Lower the heat to 350F, and bake for another 40 to 50 minutes, or until the top is golden and the juices of the fruit are bubbling.


*Hint for lattice top lovers: make the lattice top on a piece of parchment paper, and once done, slip it on a cutting board and into the freezer for a few minutes.  It will be much easier to position on the pie.

August 13, 2013

Storytelling and a Big Summer Potluck



 Part of the generous breakfast feast at BSP4

I’ve been trying to find my way into a story about the latest Big Summer Potluck. I had an idea that I would write about storytelling itself; the power and magic that’s inherent in hearing someone share something deeply personal, meaningful, or just plain funny.  The way that a room full of half strangers, half friends, can be woven together over tales of beekeeping, bread, ice cream bars and boyfriends.  About why hunger is more than handouts and how determination and a small idea can grow and help create community.  Or maybe the moment when, with a startled gasp, you recognise yourself in the story being told. 

I’ve been thinking the story would be about wearing green to remind myself to be good to the earth; about the incredible will of a lone woman to win over a powerful tortilla machine; about shortbread cookies and rhubarb shrubs.  

Or maybe it would be about once-a-year friendships that rekindle over pulled pork and coconut cake.  About sponsors who give much more than products and prizes.  About generosity of spirit and a welcoming hospitality that’s as big as the state of Pennsylvania and as intimate as a family gathering.
  
                  The beautiful Anderson home: cool and serene on the outside, 
warm as a bear hug on the inside

As I pour through my too few photos and my fulsome memories, I'm reminded that stories unfold over time and space, that the telling in one place of a singular event might capture the essence, but not the whole.  But that's okay.  Because I know I will be telling stories, as I have already done, about this extraordinary weekend for months to come.
 
 The official kick-off potluck dinner

 
Sabra fed us in the morning and gave us great snacks for the 
journey home
 
 OXO treated all BSP attendees with the tools of their choice and hosted an Instragram contest...

 
 ...which I won in the Bakers' category! Can't wait to pick out my new OXO tools


With special thanks to:
Maggy, Erika and Pam, our amazing hosts
Joe, Jeni, Jessica, Robyn, Coach Mark, Jessamyn, Brian and Abby,
 our inspiring speakers and teachers
OXO, KitchenAid, Gourmet Garden, and the rest of the generous and delicious sponsors

January 30, 2013

Sliding into the Super Bowl: Chicken and Apple Sliders

Growing up in Windsor, a small Canadian city in southwestern Ontario just across the border from Detroit, you could not help but be immersed in American culture, no matter what your passport said.  Mega American malls, with their low prices, huge selection and a Target at every corner, were just 30 minutes away.  Grocery stores beckoned with seemingly endless aisles, full of exotic foods we couldn't get at home (marshmallow Fluff! Vernor's gingerale! Swiss Miss cocoa mix!). 

The American food culture wasn’t just confined to those US shores.  Windsor was the perfect test market for fast food, American style, of every kind.  The city could boast of Canada’s first Arby’s and Taco Bell, and Domino’s Pizza was as familiar – if not as good – as our own hometown choices. 
 
But perhaps my favourite guilty pleasure was something that never did find its way across the river into Windsor.  White Castle burgers, with their thin distinctive square shape, holes for faster frying, and bite sized proportions, could be eaten by the bagful, and they were.  The strangely quaint stores, with their faux turrets, somehow didn’t seem out of place in the urban sprawl of the Motor City. 

It's been many years since I've had a White Castle, and, I confess, quite some time since I've craved one.  But I still love a flavourful bite-sized treat, and these chicken and apple sliders are a grown-up take on a snack that you can eat by the handful.  So, in honour of that most decidely American annual tradition, the Super Bowl, make a dozen or three of these, adapted from another American classic, The Joy of Cooking.  They may not conjure up nostalgia, but they'll be a winning addition to your Super Bowl feast.


Chicken and Apple Sliders
makes approx. three dozen small patties
(adapted from The Joy of Cooking)

¾ c apple cider
¼ c Calvados
2¼ lb bone-in chicken thighs with skin
2 oz dried apple rings
1 scant tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 tsp rubbed sage
⅛ tsp cinnamon
⅛ tsp ground ginger
 
To finish and garnish:
3 dozen mini hamburger or ciabatta buns, toasted
Lettuce of your choice (I used micro arugula greens)
Carmelised onions (make your own or use a good quality store bought brand)


1. Preheat oven to 350˚F.
 
2. In a small saucepan, bring apple cider and Calvados to a boil and then simmer, reducing liquid to 3 tbsps. Let cool.
 
3. Bone the chicken thighs, reserving the skin. Cut the meat and skin into strips. Coarsely chop the dried apple rings. Grind the meat, chicken skin and dried apple pieces together in a meat grinder. (If using a food processor, cut the meat, skin and apples into small cubes).
 

Using a meat grinder ensures a uniform texture and a good blending of the dried apple and chicken
 
 4. In a large bowl, combine the ground meat mixture with the reserved apple syrup and the remaining spice ingredients. Blend the mixture thoroughly with your hands until all of the ingredients are well combined. Form the meat into small patties, big enough to fit on a mini hamburger or mini ciabatta bun. *
 
5. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until cooked through.
 
6. To serve, place a piece of lettuce on each bun, top with a slider and finish with a generous dollop of carmelised onions.
 
*NB. The uncooked patties can be frozen at this stage for up to two months. To serve, bake from frozen on an ungreased baking sheet at 350˚F for 20-25 minutes, or until cooked through.