Belle of the Ball

Today’s recipe doesn’t come with a story, just a warning: If you make this eggplant caponata this weekend for a barbeque, or maybe a picnic, or maybe even a college reunion get-together, people will flock to you. You’ll be surrounded, inundated by compliments. It can get embarrassing, and I just want to give you fair warning.

You’ll start getting e-mails from people you didn’t even know you’d met at the party. Maybe they’ll find you through Facebook, maybe they’ll look you up in a Student Directory or Google you. I don’t know how they’re going to find you, but they will. At a certain point, you’ll just keep this recipe on your desktop, or just embed it into your email so you can just send it out without thinking about it.

With great power comes great responsibility, and I feel I’d be setting you up without the warning.

I have Mario Batali to thank for this recipe. It’s his take on the Sicilian eggplant classic caponata. He makes his with an entire tablespoon of hot red pepper flakes, which is much too much for most people. I usually stick to a teaspoon, maybe a second if I’m feeling bold. The last time I made the dish, I accidentally made it with the tablespoon, but saved it by melting about 1/3 cup of chocolate chips into a hot spot in the pan. The chocolate danced perfectly with the cocoa and cinnamon; if you’re curious, I say go for it.

This is one of those dishes whose flavors need to date for a while and get to know each other. If you want to make this for a party on Sunday, I’d suggest making it Saturday, or even Friday night. Like a nice wine or Ray Allen, it just gets better with age.

Every time I cook this, I wonder what it would be like if I steamed the eggplant first. If you do end up steaming yours, please let me know how it turned out. I cook it for much longer than Mario suggests, softening things as much as I can. He calls for ¾ cup of basic tomato sauce; I’ve discovered that a box of Pomi marinara sauce works perfectly.

Eggplant Caponata (Caponata di Melanzane) Adapted from Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large Spanish onion, cut into ½ inch dice

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons pine nuts

3 tablespoons dried currants

Up to 1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes (I salt the eggplant to remove the bitterness while I scurry around the kitchen prepping the onion and gathering my spices. Be sure to rinse the salt off before cooking.)

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

2 teaspoons fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried thyme

¾ cup basic tomato sauce, or 1 box Pomi marinara sauce

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. In a 10-to-12 inch sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the onion, garlic, pine nuts, currants and red pepper flakes and cook until the onion is softened and translucent, around 15 minutes.
  2. Add the eggplant, sugar, cinnamon, and cocoa and cook until the eggplant has softened. Sometimes it takes as much as 20 minutes for it to lose its firmness. Just keep on stirring it to make sure it doesn’t stick and brown.
  3. Add the thyme, tomato sauce, and vinegar and bring to a boil.
  4. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Bring to room temperature before serving.

When you bring it to the party, serve it on crostini, or some slices of baguette. I also enjoy tossing it with some pasta and making it into a meal.

Wednesday Morning

At 7:53 Wednesday morning, I took the photo over here on the left. I’ve read that many bloggers prefer taking their pictures in the morning light, but I must admit that I wasn’t thinking about the sunlight. All I could think about was my lunch. It had been the third day in a row of the exact same thing and I could have eaten it all week. The day before, my lunch only lasted in the work fridge until 10:30, then I had to go and get it. So I’ve decided it’s time for a new category on Cheap Beets: My Lunchbox.

Lately, I’ve fallen into bean salads. I soak a cup of beans overnight in a bowl on the counter, cook them in the pressure cooker, and once they’ve cooled down, store them in the fridge until I need them. Of course, you could just open a can of white beans and be done with it.

That cup of beans was enough for three separate lunches for me, so whenever you are ready to make this — it can be packed the night before — I’d suggest using about six ounces of beans.

To those beans, depending on the season, toss in what veggies you have lying around, about a quarter of a cup. Maybe some halved cherry tomatoes, chopped cucumbers, or some steamed broccoli. On top of that I added about a quarter of a red onion which I toasted in the toaster oven at 400F for 8 or so minutes, as I’d learned from Abby’s amazing Tarragon bean salad.

But on top of all that — and what had me digging out the camera at that hour — I draped these zucchini pickles. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with these when I saw the recipe, but I knew they had to be made. Sweet, sour and salty, these chartreuse pickles would work well on a burger, meat or veggie. I had seen these tossed by their creator, Jason Neroni of L.A.’s Osteria La Buca, with radicchio (which he soaked to take out some of the bite), mint, parsley, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and olives.

The dressing for the whole bean, veggie and roasted onion salad was a very simple vinaigrette, two parts olive oil to one part red wine vinegar, a chopped clove of garlic, pinch of salt, teaspoon of agave nectar, shaken with a dash of mustard to emulsify.

Bread and Butter Zucchini Pickles

From The Tasting Table, which adapted this recipe from Jason Neroni of L.A.’s Osteria La Buca


1 zucchini, sliced into 1/8 inch-thick discs (a mandolin works best for this)

1 cup white wine vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon turmeric

1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

1/4 cup salt

Place the zucchini in a heat-proof, lidded container (I use a cleaned out pickle jar, as a matter of fact)

In a medium saucepan, combine the white wine vinegar, sugar, 1/4 cup salt, turmeric and mustard seeds and bring to a boil. Pour the hot mixture over the zucchini slices. Cover the container and refrigerate the pickles overnight.

Goats? Totes!

Last spring, right around this time, my cheese certificate class took a field trip to two goat cheese farms in Vermont, Twig Farm in West Cornwall and Blue Ledge Farm in Salisbury. Spring is goat cheese-making season, when animals give birth to their young and begin producing milk to feed them. It’s also when goats munch on lush, fresh, vibrant green grass. You are what you eat, and that fresh grassiness comes through in the finished product. The timing was just perfect for my classmates and me to see how goat cheese is made.

Cheesemaking is a morning activity, so for us to get there in time, we gathered well before dawn at our instructor Ihsan Gurdal’s shop, Formaggio Kitchen, in Cambridge. The ride north was hours long, but fortunately I ended up in a car with Ihsan, who made the time fly with tales of his adventures from Istanbul to California to Cambridge and everywhere in between.

When we arrived at Twig Farm, we were greeted by the most adorable baby goats.

Before there was any cheese making to be done, we spent a little time with the goats and picked morels. Whatever we found we put into Michael’s baseball cap.

We were warned in advance to wear our Wellies, and before we were allowed into the cheesemaking rooms or the cheese caves, our footwear was washed down and sanitized.

Because we were such a large group, we had to take turns in the cheesemaking room, and I wasn’t able to photograph all the steps. (I also can’t find my notes from the class, so I am double-checking my facts using the book Hay Fever by Angela Miller, which I won, quite randomly, last month at a Formaggio Kitchen event.)

The milk that was collected from the 40 goats that morning was placed into a large vat and heated to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Then cultures were added to begin to ferment the milk, followed 30 minutes later by the rennet, an enzyme that breaks down the milk proteins, which then coagulate into a more solid form. Together, the cultures and rennet turn milk into curds.

The next phase of the cheese-making process is flocculation, which takes between 12 and 18 minutes. It’s important to track that time precisely because it tells the cheesemaker when to cut the curd — to separate the curds from the whey. There are specific recipes based on the type of cheese being made.

When the time was right, Michael began cutting the curds using what looked like a dull butter knife and his bare (but very very clean) arm. He showed us what some of the curds looked like in process.

Then he began to drain the vat. Quickly and elegantly, Michael began scooping up the curds and putting them into sanitized white plastic molds, perforated to drain the whey. It probably took less than 10 minutes for Michael to fill all the containers. Once that step was over, he began to flip the curds, which had already begun to look like cheese.

Our group was scooted out at this point, so I can’t say for certain what immediately happened next, but the cheeses eventually found themselves in the cheese caves, where the temperature is carefully regulated so that the cheese ripens properly over a number of months.

Then it was time for some lunch.

After our cheese and wine, we piled back into the cars and headed to Twig Farm. Sadly, I don’t have any really good shots from that visit, but Hannah gave us a wonderful tour of the farm and barn, and I picked up what was then their newest product, a terrific fresh goat cheese resting in local maple syrup. Yes, it was as good as it sounds.

If you’re in the Boston area and want to enjoy these cheeses, Ihsan and his amazing staff at Formaggio Kitchen, either in Cambridge or in Boston’s South End, can help you.

A special thank you to my classmate Holly D. Sivec who snapped that photo of me making new friends. You can check out more of her photos and thoughtful words on her blog Good Karma Housekeeping.

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

A few months back, I attended the kickoff event for the Boston Food Bloggers website. Rachel, the mastermind behind the website, had teamed up with Christine from Urban Spoon, who waved some sort of magic wand and made it rain free samples and restaurant gift cards. The event was hosted at The Gallows, who plied us bloggers all night with sliders so big they barely slid and paper cones of poutine.

But it was the massive bowls of spiced, caramelized popcorn that were the hit of the night. I grabbed a handful and started munching. “Rich, try this popcorn,” I said between bites. “It’s the strangest thing, but there’s a flavor that I can’t seem to put my finger on. It’s sweet, but salty, and there’s this smoky flavor. What is this? Why don’t I recognize this taste?” I asked to no one in particular and wandered off in search of more free samples.

A few minutes later, Rich came up to me. “Um, honey?” Rich began. “What?” I asked as I popped another fistful of the mysterious popcorn in my mouth. “The taste? The one you’re having trouble with,” Rich said with a sly smile creeping across his face. “Yes?” I stopped crunching. “That’s bacon.”

Argh. Stupid bacon. I dumped my fistful of the porcine popcorn and wandered off to wash my mouth out. Along the way, I spotted a fellow blogger I knew to be vegetarian who was popping the kernels into her mouth. “Stop!” I said. “That popcorn has bacon in it!” “Oh, I know,” she said with a shrug. “”It’s just so good!” And she wandered away to top off a bowl of SoCo Creamery ice cream with some of the illicit popcorn.

I’ll be so happy when the bacon trend is over and people stop putting it into everything from cupcakes to mixed drinks to popcorn. As I write this, there’s an advertisement for something called “Baconalia” at Wendy’s on the television. It haunts me, I swear.

I’ve wanted to make my own spiced popcorn after the bacon debacle, and last week, when I catered my vegetarian friend Jonathan’s 30th birthday party, I deemed the Kentucky Derby-viewing portion of the evening, complete with fancy hats and mint juleps, the perfect time to give it a shot.

There’s no super secret to this recipe. I took a Martha Stewart one and dabbled with it a little bit. I used fresh thyme instead of ground, because that’s what I had in the house. I added some sugar to give a layer of sweet to the spice. I pop my corn in a large pot, but you can just as easily pop a bag in the microwave and toss in the spices and give it a shake. I used butter, but to keep things vegan, you can use margarine. It’s also a great pantry recipe. Gourmet popcorn, minus the stupid bacon.

Sweet and Spicy Popcorn

3/4 cup corn kernels

1/3 cup oil

3 tablespoons shortening, melted

Spice Mix

In a bowl, mix together:

1 1/4 teaspoons paprika

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

3/4 teaspoon onion powder

3/4 teaspoon ground pepper

3/4 teaspoon dried oregano

3/4 teaspoon ground thyme (I used fresh and was very pleased)

1/2 – 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons sugar

Directions

Heat the oil and one kernel in a large pot. Once it pops, add the rest of the kernels to the pot. Wearing potholders, lift the pot occasionally, holding onto its lid and give it a shake. Once your popcorn has popped, pour in the melted shortening, give it all a shake, then add the spice mix and shake it like a Polaroid picture.

This stuff is crazy addictive. I ate most of it while trying to photograph it and had to make great efforts to make sure there was some left for Rich.

Stupid bacon.

To Market, To Market

Fresh eggs at La Boqueria, Barcelona

The “activities” on my Facebook profile are pretty accurate. I really do enjoy melting cheese on things, experimenting with my pressure cooker, riding my bicycle along the Charles and exploring international grocery stores. Of course, when you’re in another country, every grocery store is an international one, and on our trip I made a point of wandering through markets both famous and quotidian.

La Boqueria in Barcelona has existed in some form since the 13th century, first as a meat market.

They love them some pork in Spain.

Today, vendors still sell meat — everything from pigs’ heads, to hanging charcuterie — but alongside a kaleidoscope of fresh produce, eggs, spices, cheeses, fish, nuts, chocolate and sweets.

Fruity candy...

And fruit as sweet as candy.

I bought marcona almonds at this stand. Shhh, don't tell customs.

La Boqueria is frequented by Barcelona residents, but it’s very touristed as well. In order to see how the natives shopped everyday, we popped into the French grocery store chain Carrefour, three storefronts down Las Ramblas. The refrigerator cases were nowhere near as photogenic, but I got a kick out of the juice boxes of gazpacho and mass-produced Spanish Easter cake offerings.

Although it wasn’t our intention, our visit to medieval Bruges coincided with the town’s weekly market, where local villagers shop for their produce, cheeses, meats, candies and plants.

Tourists dominate in Bruges, but the natives come out for market day.

Gummy smurfs. La la la-la-la-la...

I’ll be quite honest and say that I was not enamored by this quaint, Flemish, walled city. My advice is to rent In Bruges; at least some shots in the film that weren’t overrun with tourists. Despite the entire town being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the place feels Disney-fied.

Our friend Brian told us Bruges was too touristy. We should have listened.

Many of the buildings have been almost too well-restored, as if they exist solely to serve as a backdrop for pictures taken by thousands of tourists who swarm the main square daily to see the belfry and take a canal ride. Rich and I much preferred Antwerp, where medieval castles are integrated into a working city of half a million.

We preferred Antwerp's mix of medieval and modern to Disneyland Bruges. Also, Antwerp had better beer.

My musings on the authenticity of Bruges extended to the produce at the weekly market in the town square. We Americans have an idealized notion of the European market, but I couldn’t help but wonder what Michael Pollan would think of the pallets of Driscoll’s strawberries, straight from the farm… in California.

As in Spain, my market visits in The Netherlands weren’t limited to the photogenic public markets. In Rotterdam we stopped at Albert Heijn, a chain supermarket, to buy provisions for our picnic among the flowers. I enjoyed browsing the jars of pickled vegetables, the prepared salads, the mass-produced chocolate and confections (think Cardullo’s), the cheese case and the deli. (Rich, meanwhile, was agog at the baseline quality of Dutch supermarket beer.)

It turns out the Europeans also like convenience, and the produce section had an entire wall of pre-peeled boiled potatoes and beets, a la Trader Joe’s. I was surprised to see that bagged lettuce is not just an American phenomenon. The Dutch also enjoy that convenience, albeit with their own twist; there you can buy curly-cues of pre-cut, pre-washed Belgian endive.

Belgian endive in its natural habitat.

Our first night in Rotterdam, our hosts served us stampot, a mash of potatoes and endive so common that the recipe is on the back of the bag. It was delicious, especially with the garlic and shallots our friends added to spice up the typically bland Dutch fare. But I had another dish on my mind. “If I could get this at Star Market, there is a salad I would eat every day,” I said dreamily to my hosts. Well, I’ve been back just a few weeks, and although I’ve had to chop my own endive, I’ve already enjoyed this salad three times. And now I share it with you.

Endive Salad with Radish, Crumbled Egg and Anchovy Vinaigrette

Ingredients for Salad

5 heads of endive, cut into 1/4 rounds

6 radishes, thinly sliced

1 hard-boiled egg

A few notes: Sometimes a head of endive is a good four inches thick, sometimes it’s barely two. Last week I was able to produce a salad with five heads of endive that fed four comfortably, but the four heads I had on Friday night barely filled one salad plate. I’ve seen very good prices at Market Basket, but it really does vary from week to week and store to store. If you’re unhappy with what you’ve found, this recipe will also work very well with escarole.

To prepare the endive, peel off the first layer of bitter leaves. With a sharp knife, cut half-moons approximately 1/4 inch thick. Stop when you get to full moons; these rounder pieces are very very bitter.

Place half-moons on an appropriately-sized serving platter, followed by the thin discs of radish. I prefer adding the vinaigrette at this stage, then topping off the salad with a hard boiled egg that I’ve simply crumbled with my hands. Then, if I’m feeling it, I drizzle some more dressing on top of the egg.

Anchovy Vinaigrette

In a small jar, shake together:

3 anchovies, minced

About 2 cloves of garlic, minced

Scant teaspoon of mustard — I use mustard sparingly in my dressings, as I’m not a big fan of the flavor, but it does such a good job emulsifying things. If you like mustard, add more; I’m sure it will taste delicious.

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

6-7 tablespoons olive oil

The vinegar-to-oil ratio is entirely up to you. As I’ve admitted in the past, I love tart things, so I enjoy a little pucker, but I know that’s not the case for most people. I’ve left salt off the ingredients because many people will find the anchovies salty enough, but definitely season to your taste.

Bonus Recipe: I recently came across this anchovy vinaigrette from Rendezvous in Central Square, Cambridge. If you’ve got the ingredients in the house, I say go for it. I’ll freely admit to wanting to drink this straight from the bowl.