Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Farmers' Market Eggplant and a Favorite Recipe

I love eggplant.

I especially love small, tender young eggplant!  I don't know the names of these varieties, but I know they are among my favorites, and I bought some at a recent Farmers Market.

One of my all time favorite eggplant recipes is Sweet-and-Sour Eggplant with Ricotta Salata.  See the link for the recipe; here's what I did.

I caramelized sugar in some water in a saucepan, and then added vinegar, tomatoes, garlic and oil.  I seasoned with salt and white pepper (the white pepper really makes a difference).  This simmered for about 1/2 hour.

Meanwhile, I sliced up my eggplants, laid the slices out on a baking sheet, brushed them with oil, seasoned them, and roasted them in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes, turning them in the middle.

I then spooned tomato sauce over it to cover, and baked it for 20 minutes more until it was bubbling and browning.  When it came out of the oven, I sprinkled over the mint and cheese.  I substituted a Greek feta - I've used this substitution in the past, and it works just fine if ricotta salata is difficult to find.

The finished dish can be served, hot or room temperature, with any remaining tomato sauce on the side.  I think the flavor is beyond compare - the combination of the sugar and vinegar in the sauce taste almost candied, and the slightly bitter and salty flavors from the eggplant and cheese soften the sweetness.  It's a wonderfully rich taste experience!

While the recipe suggests serving this with a Sicilian white or a Pinot Grigio, I really love it with a medium bodied red, such as a Chianti or Barbera.  Enjoy!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Inedible Rubber

That’s my sorry verdict on my first pasta making attempt.  Here's the story.

My friend Joseph, a Personal Chef and one of the chefs at the CIA in St. Helena, was among the folks sharing a glass or three of wine in honor of a friend’s birthday a while back.  We were chatting about cooking matters, and he gave me a pasta making challenge.  I told him I didn’t own a pasta maker, and he said I didn’t need one.  This is the recipe Joseph gave me:

1 cup semolina flour
2 eggs
Pinch of salt

He told me to mix, knead, and roll out the dough as flat as possible, cut and cook for a short period of time.

Joseph was – intentionally I'm sure – vague about any additional instruction.  I think he wanted me to learn stuff for myself.

I confess I did consult a few cookbooks for guidance.  None of them contained Joseph’s exact recipe.  However, they all generally discussed kneading the dough (5-8 minutes), rolling the dough out, and cutting it or putting itthrough the pasta machine.

So here is what I did.

I measured 1 cup semolina flour, and got out two eggs.  I threw a pinch of Kosher salt into the flour.  I beat up the eggs with a fork. 

I poured the beaten eggs into the flour.  At first, I mixed the eggs into the flour with the fork.  Once it was pretty much blended, I turned the dough out onto a lightly floured plastic sheet and began kneading.  After some kneading and adding small (very small) amounts of flour, the dough stopped sticking to my hands.  I found it very difficult to work, and it felt tough and very un-pliable to me.  Here is my dough after about 8 minutes of kneading.  Looks tough, doesn't it?

I rolled the dough out as best I could.  It was very difficult to do.  Getting the dough to budge took all my strength, including leaning on the rolling pin with my elbows.  I couldn’t roll it out any larger than this.  The sheet was, I would estimate, 1/8 inch thick.

I cut the dough into very thin little strips about the size of linguine with my sharpest paring knife. 

However, I may as well not have done this, since I realized once it was time to pop the pasta into the boiling water that it was stuck to the plastic board.  I had to pry it up with a knife, and the effect of all my carefully cut almost perfect little strips was lost.
I didn’t want to overcook it (I wonder if it would have mattered); the mess boiled somewhere between 2 and 4 minutes.

Well as I say, the result was, sadly, pretty inedible.  It tasted like polenta and that was fine, but the texture was hard and rubbery.

What went wrong?  Clearly the problem occurred in the mixing or kneading stages.  I intentionally didn't consult any pasta making videos before my attempt, but I have done so since (and I did find something very close to Joseph's recipe), and the texture of the dough in the videos was very different from mine - much softer.  If I had to speculate, I’m guessing either I worked the flour into the eggs too quickly, or there was perhaps a bit too much flour, or perhaps it was something about the temperature of the eggs (they were straight from the fridge), or perhaps all of the above.

So it was an amusing little experiment (fortunately it didn’t take long), and I’ll be going back to Joseph for a good laugh and, finally, some real instructions.

Or better yet, I’ll see if I can convince him to give me and some of my friends an in-person lesson, because I have a feeling that this is one of these cooking techniques I have to watch, preferably in person, in order to learn.

So stay tuned for the next installment of pasta making experimentation.  We have only one direction to go, my friends, and that is up!

All my pasta making friends out there - give me some advice in the comments, I beg you!

P.S.  The pesto I made to go with this pasta was killer – and the pesto, at least, has not gone to waste!