Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Asian Eggplant Salad

“The theme of today’s yoga practice is: Get quiet, live loud,” proclaimed the yoga teacher A. Yes, there is always a theme that is supposed to focus our minds to facilitate the body movements during the yoga session. Even after an hour, my mind seemed to be stuck on the dichotomy between quiet and loud. Or is it yin and yang?

At IHCC this week, we continue to feature Jacques Pepin’s recipes, but with a twist. We are not cooking to his best known dishes, which are French. We are traveling the globe and cooking any Pepin’s non-French recipes. Sounds like fun. I chose something from the Far East: Asian eggplant salad, found in Pepin’s Fast Food My Way. A dish with eastern influence composed with the sensibility of a western, or French, chef. Well, why not?

I spotted these really nice purple eggplants, just perfect for a light dish of eggplant salad for a hot summer day. There are only two steps: roasting the eggplants in the oven and making the Asian dressing. It was fast and easy. I roasted one eggplant, making half of the recipe. Lunch service for one in quietude. What I didn’t expect was the incredible balance of flavor in this simple salad. That's huge!
The flesh of the eggplant was soft and meaty at the same time, but somewhat demure. The dressing was pungent, loud and very much in your face, but in a good way. You would expect that given the strong ingredients: soy sauce, chopped garlic, sesame oil and Tabasco sauce (which I substituted with Sriracha). None of them are shy. The crisp and spicy watercress went well with the eggplant and the sauce. I didn’t know I like watercress that much. Warm eggplant with cold greens was also compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed my lunch, teeming with excitement over a simple dish. A well-balanced and delectable salad full of amazing flavors. The quiet of the eggplant and loudness of the Asian dressing and watercress played well together — in perfect harmony. Each ingredient brings out the best in the other, creating a shining cohesive whole.

Like getting quiet inside in order to live a balanced life loud and clear. Thank you, A. I got it... Or not?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Muesli Spelt Rolls - BBB

Ah, don't be surprised — or be surprised — that the amount of rolled oaks, seeds, dry fruits and nuts total 78% of the flour weight of the muesli rolls, making them heavy weights in nutritional terms. These rolls are ideal to eat for breakfast, convenient to grab on the go or as energy food to pack for sports. More than just being a healthy bread, the addition of honey, molasses and chocolate imparts a sweet note and depth of flavor. See the cheat sheet below for the list of ingredients and the crucial steps in making the rolls. Yes, the list is very long, but they are all good, healthfully good... Rolled oats, flaxseeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, dry cranberries, apricots, honey and chocolate. Mostly bread pantry staple items. (This is what the Bread Baking Babes are baking this month. The chosen recipe is from the book Bread by Dean Brettschneider.) The red highlights in the cheat sheet show the changes I've made to the recipe.

80% bread flour, 20% spelt

Changes to the original recipe are intended to push the envelope further in the nutritional quotient. I doubled the amount of whole wheat flour from 10% to 20% of the total flour weight. Substituted spelt flour for whole wheat. Spelt is widely believed to be better tolerated by people with certain wheat allergies.

Soft and supple crumb

Every time when there is an increase in the amount of whole grains, the challenge is to produce bread that's light and moist with an open crumb structure — something less dense. I approached that by raising the hydration level. I put in extra water, little by little, at the start of bulk fermentation, to the upper limit at which I'm able to handle a sticky dough. Hydration percentage of the muesli rolls is roughly 80%.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Marinated Burrata and Tomato: The Rite of Summer

This is the simplest yet finest dish you can put on the table in the summer. It is such a simple and minimal dish that I have to think twice about posting it because it seems — somewhat trivial and insubstantial. But finding the ripe summery tomato and savoring the sweetly intense, juicy tomato, unlike any other throughout the year, gets the full force of my attention. The trick is to find tomato that has never seen the inside of a fridge or a chilled truck, only soil and sun.

Beyond the trick, I think I’ve also uncovered the perfect kind of mozzarella to partner with tomatoes — burrata.

If you’ve never tried it, or have never heard of it, please let me to explain briefly and embellish slightly. Burrata is a ball of mozzarella, stuffed with mozzarella curd scraps and fresh cream inside. Twisting the ball of cheese together in a little knot — and a kiss, seals the whole package. The name "burrata" means "buttered" in Italian. It is mozzarella on the outside with filled cream inside. There is nothing creamier or silkier than burrata. Paired it with the best and juiciest tomato the season has to offer, it's heavenly. I've adapted Ottolenghi's marinated buffalo mozzarella and tomato recipe and used burrata instead. This simple dish, unabashedly, is the rite of summer in my kitchen.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Peach and Lavender Clafoutis

white peaches in batter infused with fresh lavender
baked in gratin dishes 

White peaches and lavender are synonymous with the fruits and scent of summer. They firmly have me grounded in the here and now, not letting my mind wander to other times and places I may be tempted to go to escape the summer heat. The lavender patch along the front walkway of the house also conspires with an eye-catching display. The bees are noticing the bright purple blossoms; so do I. The seasonal forces of nature are in full swing. I feel compelled to look for ways to showcase these summer delights: the luscious peach and the floral note of lavender. A peach lavender clafoutis (a recipe from Diana Henry) seems ideal to bring out the best taste of the two ingredients together more than they'd on their own individually.

Clafoutis, a sort of fruit flan, usually consists of cherries arranged in a buttered dish and covered with a fairly thick batter. This recipe does not resemble or taste like the classic cherry clafoutis. The peach flavor is much lighter. The scent of lavender adds another sensory appeal. If you love the smell of lavender, you'd surely appreciate this. Diana Henry's recipe calls for lavender honey which I don't have. Plain honey was used instead and without sacrifying much. I used a few extra sprigs of fresh lavender and infused them in cream, milk and honey for about 20 minutes. I may have gone overboard with more lavender than was needed. The smell of the herb was front and center! I need to restrain myself when it comes to lavender; sometime less is more.

There are three straightforward steps in making the clafoutis. First, saute the peaches to soften them. Next, make the batter by combining eggs, sugar, flour and the lavender infused milk. Last, assemble the peaches in a buttered gratin dish, fill it with the batter, then bake.

I prepared several small gratin dishes with a single piece of peach in each of them and a larger gratin with five pieces of peach. Filled the dishes with the batter until they were three-quarter full and baked them. The winsome small clafoutis dishes appeal to the eye. In terms of taste, the larger gratin wins, with a satisfying balance of fruit to batter. The toasted almonds on top add a nice crunch to this delectable and beautiful dessert. My summer season would be incomplete without making this clafoutis, at least a few more times.

toasted almonds add a nice crunch

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Brown Rice Porridge Bread

It may sound odd to put rice, let alone rice porridge, in bread. Well, the recipe is adapted from Chad Robertson’s Tartine Book No. 3. Robertson explains that one of his first daily jobs, while working with Richard Bourdon at his bakery in the Berkshire mountains, was to rinse the organic brown rice and cook it long and slow in a big steam kettle. In this recipe, the rice is rinsed three times before cooking to remove excess starch. That’s just the prep work in making the rice porridge bread. Why all the extra steps? What are the benefits?

There is the long-held belief within the macrobiotic movement that bread was not good for the human digestive system. The approach here is to combine the cooked brown rice and the highly hydrated whole-wheat dough, then to fully ferment them with natural levain. The finished bread is expected to make the nutrients contained in the grains more readily and easily digestible.

Whatever the theory, the resulting bread is a very tasty, tender and wholesome country loaf. I like making porridge bread for the ease of it — using an electric rice cooker (not a steam kettle) to automate one step among a whole sequence of hands-on procedures. Modern, yet ancient… More than that, I have cooked other grains, such as farro in the farro porridge hazelnut bread, the same way with stunning results. I am fully onboard for all the benefits and promise of making porridge breads.

Very open crumb for a 50% whole-wheat bread

Topped with sunflower seeds for some extra crunch

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Brandade (salt cod) au Gratin

Puree of salt cod, garlic & potato emulsified with olive oil
There is much to know about the cod. Mark Kurlansky in his book, Cod: the Biography of a Fish that Changed the World, has given me a lot of food for thoughts and conversations. Mark Kurlansky tells the tales of cod in the context of human history and enterprise. For about six hundred years, wars have been fought over the cod, revolutions have been triggered by it, national diets have been based on it, and economies and livelihoods have depended on it. More details on the book can be found here.

When the Basque whalers in the Middle Ages applied to cod the salting techniques they were using on whale, they discovered a particularly good marriage because the cod is virtually without fat. If salted and dried well, it would rarely spoil. It was a fascinating piece of history and a miracle comparable to the discovery of the fast-freezing process in the twentieth century, which also debuted with cod. Not only did cod last longer than other salted fish, but it tasted better too. Once dried or salted and then properly restored through soaking, this fish presents a flaky flesh that to many tastes superior to the bland white meat of fresh cod.

Kurlansky surveys history from a cod point of view. Cod preserved en masse became food for the masses. The salty stuff sustained the Vikings and large populations throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. And when explorers began claiming territories in the New World, cod became the food that fed colonialism.

However, there is no happy ending to the tales of this once prolific and most profitable fish in history; cod is now faced with extinction.

Served with freshly-baked bread

Brandade, a puree of salt cod, olive oil and milk, is a specialty of Languedoc and Provence regions in France, and Catalonia and other Mediterranean countries. Potato was added in brandade, as filler mostly, as cod prices skyrocketed. Jaques Pepin's brandade au gratin is my introduction and guide to working with the salt cod.

Brandade is an ordinary and humble dish made from the salt cod — beset with the most extraordinary biography and history. A conversation topic that’d undoubtedly enliven any party! Make sure to check out the food party scene at full swing at IHCC this week.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Whole Branzino with Pine Nuts and Lemon

On top of baked potatoes infused with lemon
Stuffed bronzino

I like the idea of eating fish — sustainable fish; cooking fish is a whole different matter. When I saw the list of mystery ingredients in this week’s IHCC challenge, I knew a fish dish was in order. Then I went to Yotam Ottolenghi for inspiration and found the recipe for whole black bream (or bass) with pine nuts and lemon on his website. Sea breams are not readily available in my area. I substituted with branzino (or bronzino), which has shown up frequently on my dinner table. It’s a European relative of striped bass and is considered by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as the most important commercial fish widely cultured in Mediterranean areas.

The approach of stuffing a whole fish with pine nuts, rice and preserved lemon, and marinating it with spices and more lemon intrigues me. Cinnamon, paprika, all spice and cayenne pepper add a warm, welcome, mildly spicy flavor to the fish. More of a chef-like dish. Not something I normally do to fishes but certainly works to wake up my taste buds and, importantly, test out another fish cooking technique.

I don’t have preserved lemon; I wish I do. Bronzino is a delicate fish and the mellow flavor of preserved lemon makes it a perfect complement. I don't know whether it is worthwhile to pickle some lemons myself or pay the high price to buy the preserved lemons. Any thoughts? In the end, I used slices of fresh lemon instead, given that lemon juice is one of the ingredients and the lemons will be cooked. To satisfy the IHCC three-ingredient challenge, dill is purposed as a garnish and as part of the trio (white fish, dill and pine nuts) of featured mystery items. There you have it...

A light dinner from the sea. The fish dish evokes the sensibility of the sea with the appearance, taste and smell of it. A neat and whole package indeed!

 Reduced cooking time of the fish to a total of 30 minutes 

Garnished with dill

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Pain Au Bacon

It has been a long detour before I got the chance to bake this bread. This was the bread I've wanted to bake since I first read Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast a few months ago. Then I thought I owed it to myself to take baby steps in honing my bread-making skill before I jumped the gun. So I stepped back, baked the most basic Forkish’s levain bread, the overnight country blonde. That was my first attempt at Forkish’s, a somewhat different process than the Chad Robertson's Tartine methodology, which is my good-old standby. Dare I say the rest is history: I like the studied steady progression I've attained as well as the wonderful breads that have come out of my oven lately.

If you like a BLT sandwich, this bread will do it for you. The bacon in the bread adds a complex savory element — to any salads, soups or eggs. The bread sings when served with seasonal heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella. Just enough animal fat to brighten any vegetable dish and without any guilt whatsoever... The bacon bread also goes well with summer fruits spotted lately in the market: apricots, peaches or cherries. I love the versatility and the extra savory kick of this bread.

The dough needs a shorter overnight fermentation time than the overnight country blonde. The bacon fat makes the yeast extra happy and the dough develops more quickly. I would decrease the amount of salt from 20 g to 15 g since the bacon has enough salt in it. I proved one loaf in the refrigerator overnight in excess of 12 hours while another one sat at room temperature for about five hours. Invariably, the cold proof has resulted in a greater oven spring as it bakes. My oven runs hot, I let the bread steam in the dutch oven covered for 20-25 minutes at 475°F, instead of 30 minutes the recipe calls for. Then uncover and bake for another 20 minutes.

Bacon adds an irresistible savory element

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Soft-Shell Crabs with Curry Butter

I’ve been a fan of the weekly food section of the New York Times for as long as I can remember. It is my must-read. I look forward to it every week. It keeps me informed of the latest happenings with chefs, food trend, fine dining and restaurant reviews. Last week, it alerted me of the arrival of soft-shell crabs as the summer heat rolls in. The Eastern blue crab miraculously sheds its hard outer shell and the entire crab becomes edible. The season for these crabs is short.

The Times article came with a recipe: soft-shell crabs with curry butter. Now I have the perfect excuse to treat the family, and myself, with these delicacies while trying out another way of preparing soft-shell crabs. I don’t mind making extra curry butter. It'll keep for a long time in the fridge. This compound butter uses dry spices of cumin, coriander, fennel, clove and turmeric. Some grated garlic, ginger and chopped scallions. Lime and lime zest. Roasted almonds. The list is fairly long. But it would make any vegetable, fish or egg dish sing. It's benefits extend beyond the soft-shell crab season.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Onion Soup Gratinée Lyonnaise

The lure of French onion soup is hard to resist. What’s more irresistible? It'd be making the soup at home. Starting with caramelizing the onions, then simmering the onion soup base, topping it with cheese, to finishing in the oven, the rich aroma wafting through the kitchen tells the tale of some serious good eats on the home front. Watching the lava-like cheese melt and bubble with a rapid pulse while gradually being transformed into a golden brown crust under the intense heat in the oven was pure excitement. Tasting the food was almost an afterthought.

The irony of the French onion soup: the cheeses are stealing the show. First, you can't keep your eyes off the bubbly browned cheese on top. Then you have to turn your head right and left to tackle the saliva-like string of cheese catching the soup spoon and the bowl of soup. It brings out the child in you eating it.

Recipes of the French onion soup are varied: some with white or red wine, some with fresh or dry herbs. It’s tough to decide which one to make, especially I haven’t made onion soup before. I’m not counting the one time I made a Medieval onion soup as a school project when my daughter was in third grade. More than anything else, I want to replicate the classic onion soup. Gratinee Lyonnaise style is the closest to what I’ve had in mind.

Julia Child in Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home had this to say about French onion soup: “In Paris, we used to go to the big open market in Les Halles in the old part of the city at four in the morning when the day began. Around six a.m., everyone in the market would stop in one of the café for onion soup and a glass of red wine. They still do at Rungis, the vast new market outside of Paris.” Julia Child's advice on making a good soup: the proper and thorough cooking of the onions. She suggested to start cooking the onions covered slowly until tender, then brown them over medium high heat to deepen the color. Very sound advice, Julia!

This soup is easier to make than I've thought. Once you've made the onion soup base, which takes about half an hour, the rest is just assembling bread and grated cheese in a bowl. Then off it goes into the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes. You can get this ultimate comfort soup on the table for less than an hour.

Topped with a mix of Emmentaler and Gruyere cheese 

French onion soup is truly a classic. It is getting harder and harder to find a good bowl in restaurants around here — in the metro New York area. It seems to be disappearing from the menu. Someday, the old will become new and trendy once again. For the time being, I’m more than happy savoring onion soup gratinee Lyonnaise made with some freshly baked sourdough bread from my own kitchen. I was in such a hurry; I almost burned my tongue!

This is the week when IHCC home cooks are bringing out their cheese dishes. There will be plenty of delicious and exciting dishes to satisfy your taste buds. Bon Appetit!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Watercress Salad with Quail Eggs and Seeds

The beauty of this salad is with the key ingredients: watercress, quail eggs, ricotta and seeds. When watercress is available, I like making this salad adding exciting treats like quail eggs. Quail eggs are the smallest eggs you can find, but their visual impact is huge and commanding.

The biggest story with this salad has to do with the seeds. They provide the real boost in look, texture and flavor. I followed Ottolenghi’s recommendation of making a load of the seed mix. Store them in jars (labeled them awesome foursomes seeds) ready to be sprinkled on any salad, grain or rice dishes that need some crunch. I don't see why you can't put the seeds in yogurt and have them for breakfast! Just a thought.

The foursome is the combination of almond, pumpkin, sesame and nigella seeds. That’s a very useful trick I got from this recipe of using the seed mix to give quick finishing flourishes to any otherwise ordinary dishes.

When I couldn’t find nigella seeds, I use black sesame seeds as substitute.

Make extra seed mix to sprinkle on any dish that needs a crunchy element

Quail eggs are tiny but add huge visual impact