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Lidia’s Italy: What to Do With a Greenmarket Haul

smothered eggplant and summer vegetables, Anna’s spaghetti and pesto Trapanese

AddingBasil2Lidia’s Italy is another cookbook I bought through a club and hadn’t used until now. Lidia Bastianich is a cookbook author, TV personality and restaurant owner (most notably New York’s Felidia), and it is clear she knows her way around Italian cuisine. The book is organized by the regions of Italy, with a wonderful range of flavors and ingredients within each chapter and from region to SpaghettiWithPesto2region.

I chose two recipes from the chapter on Sicily. This seemed appropriate; the Sicilian climate is hot and intense, which meant the summer selection of Greenmarket produce would find good use here. I wanted something I could make ahead, because I was having friends over for a sewing party, so I wanted to spend most Eggplants2of my time out of the kitchen once they arrived. I opted for a caponata or eggplant dish, which I could offer as a snack while we worked, and a fresh tomato sauce for spaghetti, which I could add to noodles when we were ready for dinner.

The smothered eggplant dish took a bit of preparation. I began with the eggplants, three modestly EggplantChunkssized beauties from the Greenmarket, which I cut into chunks about an inch wide and two inches long. More or less. Quite a few chunks were closer to an inch and a half or an inch, but I didn’t think that would matter. I tossed the eggplant chunks with some kosher salt and put them in a colander for the excess moisture to be drawn out and drained away. Next, I cut about OrangePlumTomatoes3two pounds of plum tomatoes into wedges, scooped out the seeds, and put them in a sieve for their excess moisture to drain as well. The tomatoes were orange, a lovely but unexpected color. I also chopped up some onions, celery and green olives, drained a jar of capers, and plucked and rinsed 12 large basil leaves and set them aside.

CeleryOnionsOlivesI took a few minutes to set up the flavoring syrup: I combined half a cup of red wine vinegar, half a cup of water and two tablespoons of sugar in a saucepan and brought the mixture to a boil, then let it cook until it was reduced by about half. This was easy to do, but I quickly discovered that it’s a bad idea to be downwind of the gust of steam from a pan in which you are CaponataIngredsboiling vinegar. That is one intense smell. My sinuses sterilized, I moved to the other side of the stove and set about frying the eggplant, which I had rinsed and dried after its salting time was up.

I put about a cup of canola oil into a large pan — the cookbook says to use a skillet, but I thought my big Calphalon pot would be a FriedEggplant3better choice — and heated it to medium, then added the eggplant and fried the pieces, stirring often to ensure even cooking and coloration. I removed the fried pieces to a dish lined with paper towels and let the excess oil drain off; I then discarded the cooking oil, wiped out the pan, and added a smaller quantity of olive oil to heat. When it was warm, I added the onions and celery and a AddingOlivesCapersbit of salt, and cooked them until the onion had softened and just begun to brown, about 8 minutes. Then I added the olives and capers, and stirred the mixture until the new ingredients began to sizzle a bit. I added the tomato wedges and a little more salt, stirred everything up, and let it cook for about 5 minutes.

AddingTomatoes2At this point I added the eggplant back to the pan and mixed it in, then poured in the vinegar syrup. I let this mixture cook for a few minutes, then drizzled in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and let the mixture cook for about 10 minutes more. When the timer went off, I turned off the heat, tore up the basil leaves and added them to the pot, and pulled the whole pan aside to cool to room temperature. I also began AddingEggplant2to rethink my serving plan. I had expected the vegetables to fall apart into a softer, more indistinct mixture, based on comments in the introduction such as “use it as a sauce for pasta or as topping for bruschetta.” The chunks in the pan were certainly soft, but still far too large to make an effective topping for bread or crackers. I decided to postpone any further PestoIngreds2decision until the mixture was cool, and turned to my other dish.

Pesto Trapanese is a much faster dish to make. I rinsed and dried about three-quarters of a pound of globe tomatoes, and put them into a food processor with 12 large basil leaves (clearly a popular quantity), one clove of garlic that I’d peeled and crushed with the flat of a knife blade, 1/3 PestoPureedcup of toasted almonds, a pinch of red pepper flakes and about half a teaspoon of kosher salt. I processed the mixture until it was a smooth liquid, then drizzled in about half a cup of olive oil and kept processing until the puree was a bit thicker and even in texture. I think it may have been meant to be thicker, but my tomatoes were a little larger than the cherry tomatoes called for in SpaghettiWithPestothe recipe and probably had a bit more liquid in them. If I had been making the pesto closer to dinnertime I could have just set it aside, but since I was working ahead I put it in the refrigerator.

Not long afterward, my friends arrived and we sat down for a snack before turning on the sewing machine. The eggplant mixture was indeed too chunky to easily spread on bread or a cracker, though we tried. But it tasted phenomenal. The flavors of the individual vegetables came through, and the overall mixture had a great tangy undertone (from the vinegar syrup, no doubt) and a richness, with a thick base from the portion that had broken down a bit. I think that if I were to make this again and wanted to use it as a dip or bruschetta topping, I’d throw it in the food processor and give it three or four pulses to break it down just a bit more. But in its chunky form I’m itching to try another of the suggestions from the recipe header: “use it as a sauce for pasta.” That’ll be Wednesday night, I think.

When we were ready to have dinner I cooked a pound of dried spaghetti. I realized while the water was coming to a boil that I was supposed to have brought out the pesto earlier so it could come to room temperature. Luckily it was fairly warm in the kitchen, and the sauce wasn’t really cold by the time the spaghetti was done. I drained the noodles and put them into a large pasta bowl, then added the pesto sauce and tossed the mixture together until the spaghetti was evenly coated. I passed around a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a microplane zester, and invited people to add cheese if they wanted it. Everyone raved over this one, including me. I know it’s bad form to praise your own cooking, but I didn’t feel I’d really done that much, just followed excellent and simple instructions. I’m going to have to make this one again and again. In fact, I may have to do a serious Greenmarket run and make a large batch to freeze in portions. I don’t know how well the sauce freezes; we didn’t have enough left over to find out. But I think this deserves to be in weekly rotation for as long as tomatoes are in season.

Verdict: Success. Both the work-intensive dish and the easy one were well worth doing again.

The Spice Box Vegetarian Indian Cookbook: More Spicy Fun

turnip koftas curry (shalgam ke koftas), lemon rice (neebu chawal)

DinnerPlated2It’s time for Indian food again! Unlike Curries Without Worries, The Spice Box is a fully vegetarian cookbook. Author Manju Shivraj Singh provides introductory sections that explain different spices and ingredients that are key to Indian cooking, as well as a list of places to find the ingredients. One of the stores listed is only about ten minutes by subway from my home, but as LemonRiceIngreds3it happens I was able to find nearly everything I needed in my usual neighborhood grocery stores. Or, in the case of most of the spices, on my pantry shelves.

I decided to try the turnip koftas curry because I’m a big fan of the vegetable kofta, a sort of Indian veggie meatball. I accompanied it with lemon rice, which recommended itself in part FryingMustardSeeds2because it’s supposed to be as good cold as warm — meaning I could make it ahead and let it sit while I made the koftas, which were a bit labor-intensive.

For the rice, I started by cooking some rice, starting with about three cups’ worth of dry rice. I let it cool a bit while I prepared the vegetables for the flavor mixture. I heated some oil in a skillet and ChilesSplitPeasadded some mustard seeds, which I cooked until they started to pop. Then I added some diced chiles and yellow split peas, and cooked them all together a bit longer. At this point I added some turmeric, cashews, and lemon juice. I was also supposed to add curry leaves, but that was the one ingredient I hadn’t found, so I substituted a little parsley and cilantro; I don’t know if that was LemonRiceIngredsclose, but it was something. I cooked this mixture for five minutes more, then stirred in a little salt, and then stirred the whole mixture into the rice and mixed it up well, until the chunky ingredients were evenly distributed and my rice paddle was a lovely fluorescent yellow. (Hooray for turmeric!) I put the lid back on the rice pot and turned to my koftas.

LemonRice2I started by peeling, slicing and boiling a pound of turnips. While they cooked I finished the rest of my veggie prep: I diced chiles, ginger root and cilantro for the koftas, and chopped onions, garlic and tomatoes for the sauce. I also chunked up some onions and garlic and pulsed them in the food processor until they were very fine. Once the turnips were cooked, I drained and mashed SlicedTurnips2them. Then I stirred in the processed onions and garlic, some chickpea flour, some Cream of Wheat (semolina flour would have been OK too), and some turmeric, cayenne, coriander and salt. This mixture made a coarse sort of batter; in fact it was a little moist, which I think was because I hadn’t perfectly drained the turnips before mashing them, but I added a little more chickpea StuffingKoftaflour and Cream of Wheat until the consistency seemed right: a loose dough that would hold its shape if formed into a ball without breaking apart or giving up moisture.

I shaped lumps of this into round — OK, sort of round — balls that were probably too big, but I had to shape them to contain a center mixture of diced chiles, diced KoftasBeforeFryingginger root, cilantro and raisins. I think in the future I might mince the filling mixture fine, but the chunky filling worked well enough this time. While I continued to shape and fill koftas, Scott fried the shaped balls in oil, following the detailed instruction in the recipe (“Deep fry these balls and set aside”). They did fry up nicely, with a beautiful golden crust and a nicely light, flavorful interior. FryingKoftaOne of the koftas broke apart when Scott turned it, but it still tasted good, and the others held their shape beautifully.

For the sauce, I heated some oil in a skillet and added some cumin seeds, which I fried for about two minutes. These did not pop. I then added some onions and garlic and cooked them until the onions were golden, about seven FriedKoftasminutes. Then I added some hot water, the chopped tomatoes, and spices: salt, turmeric, cayenne, and coriander, and let the mixture cook for about 10 minutes, until the sauce had thickened. I took it off the heat and stirred in some garam masala, then carefully added the koftas.

The rice was delightful: spicy and savory, and not as hot as you KoftaSauceCooking2might expect. (I fully expect the heat to build as the leftovers sit in the fridge, though; oh, darn.) The koftas were savory, with a crunchy outside and a perfectly cooked interior. Good work, Scott! The sauce was thick and spicy, and went nicely with the koftas.

Verdict: Success. I may not make the koftas again soon since they were rather work-intensive, but the rice was pretty easy and will definitely have to go into the rotation.

Martha Stewart’s Cooking School: Overcoming My Fear of Frying

fried chicken

Martha Stewart’s Cooking School is one of my big, thick comprehensives. It’s organized by kind of food and technique; for example, the chapter on stocks and soups is divided into types such as white stock, brown stock, dashi and consomme; the chapter on meat, fish and poultry treats roasting, grilling, braising, steaming, and frying rather than being organized into beef, chicken, and fish. Detailed steps and the kind of stunning photographs for which Martha Stewart is known make it easy to see what to do at every stage of the process.

With over 250 recipes to choose from, why did I pick fried chicken? Because it scared me. I don’t fry much. It’s not that I’m concerned about eating fried food (although I probably should be); it’s the mess. Spattering oil, cleaning up the pan, cleaning up the stove. I’m also a little bit afraid of burning and smoke, so I thought that Martha Stewart’s instructions might be the ones to use to make sure I’d accounted for everything and prevented any problems.

You could start with a pre-cut-up chicken, but I chose to follow Stewart’s instructions to cut up a whole chicken, including cutting the breast piece into two for more even cooking. I’m not very good at cutting up a chicken, though I’m getting better with practice. It helps to flex the bird at the joints so you can get a clearer idea of where the sockets are and cut more easily between the bones; that makes for neater pieces. I did fairly well with this one, though when I cut the breast pieces in two I did a messier job with one; instead of a neat sort of triangular piece, I had a kind of raggedy piece. It definitely helps to have a good sharp chef’s knife, which is very good for cutting through the breastbone and any other tougher areas. You want to end up with 10 pieces: two each of wing, thigh, drumstick, upper breast half and lower breast half. The back will be left over; I froze it for making stock later this year.

The chicken pieces are marinated in the fridge for at least three hours in buttermilk seasoned with mustard powder, Old Bay seasoning, cayenne, salt and pepper; I let mine marinate overnight. About an hour before it’s time to start frying, you take the chicken out of the fridge and lay the pieces on a rack over a baking sheet; this allows the chicken to come closer to room temperature, the excess marinade to drip off, and the remaining marinade to get a bit tacky so it will hold the coating better.

While the chicken rests, you whisk together some flour, yellow cornmeal, cayenne, salt and pepper. Stewart’s instructions recommend starting with only half the dredging mixture; I mixed the full amount but put only half into a shallow bowl for dredging, and held the rest aside in case I needed more. That half turned out to be plenty to coat the chicken, so I was able to save the remainder for another use knowing it hadn’t been in contact with raw chicken.

I used my cast-iron skillet; you have to get the oil very hot, about 375 degrees, so I wouldn’t have wanted to use a cheap or flimsy pan. I poured in only about half an inch — after all, you’re not immersing the full piece of chicken but cooking each side and turning partway through. While the oil heated, I dredged the chicken. Then, borrowing a technique from an episode of “Good Eats,” I used one set of tongs to handle the not-yet-cooked pieces and to turn them partway through, and another set of tongs to remove the finished pieces from the pan, to avoid any risk of contamination. (I won’t go into my rant about why it’s insane that food industry practices are such that individual consumers are now instructed to handle raw meat as if it’s radioactive waste.)

This recipe calls for heating the oil to 375 and cooking the pieces for 5 minutes per side. I thought that sounded awfully fast, but clearly it was ample time. The recipe also says to put as many pieces into the skillet as will fit without touching; I didn’t think I could fit in all 10 pieces without crowding, so I chose to do five pieces at a time, one of each variety, so that both batches would be the same. With a slightly larger skillet or a slightly smaller bird I might have been able to do it in one batch.

As soon as I started to add chicken to the oil, the moisture caused bubbling and a bit of spattering. You have to be very careful at this stage; you don’t want to drop chicken pieces into the oil, and you want to make sure there isn’t any extraneous moisture on the chicken or your tongs that could pop and spray hot oil at you. That would be bad. I got a little bit spattered when I added the first batch of chicken pieces — nothing serious, and a quick rinse under cold water put me right. The recipe also says to cover the pan to prevent spattering and ensure even heating, but I didn’t have a lid that was large enough, or a splatter guard. A splatter guard might have made the after-dinner stovetop cleaning a bit easier, but I think a lid would have trapped steam as well as oil, which I don’t think could be good.

So the cooking itself is very simple: add pieces skin side down, cook for five minutes, turn, cook another five minutes, then remove to a rack to drain off excess oil. Stewart suggests holding cooked pieces in the oven if you’re doing more than one batch, but I didn’t bother. For one thing, fried chicken is good at any temperature; for another, it was hot enough in my kitchen without turning on the oven as well; and for yet another, I didn’t think the first batch would cool enough in 10 minutes to make a real difference.

Verdict: Success. The chicken was delicious, with moist, juicy meat and a crispy, satisfying crust. Of course, the whole process was rather messy, and I had a fair bit of oil to dispose of when it had cooled down. (I don’t plan to fry again soon, so thought that if I filtered and saved the oil for re-use it would be very likely to go bad before I could use it.) I think it might make sense to do this for a large gathering, or at least it would be for someone whose friends aren’t mostly vegetarians. But I’m pretty unlikely to try it again before the weather cools down.