An Egg by Any Other Name

This just in from Jenn Digby;
“Any ideas on what to do with eggplant (other than deep fry and serve under melted cheese)? it seemed a lot less intimidating when I was a vegetarian, but now they cheer and bump fists when I close the fridge door in defeat.”

Oh let’s whip those saucy little buggers into shape, shall we, girlfriend! The eggplant is much maligned because, like tofu, it, in and of itself, is not a stellar performer, but use it for the qualities in which it shines and you’ll be a happy camper, (And the little buggers will sit in stony silence when you shut the fridge door…). Eggplant, (Aubergine in French), is another member of the same family as tomatoes, sweet peppers and spuds; they are a great source of dietary fiber and have a bunch of nutrients, so let’s give them the shot they deserve, huh?

So, you ask, what IS that stuff good for? Well, again, just like tofu, it can take on a variety of textures and sucks up and holds good flavors like nobody’s business; eggplant needs just a little work to truly shine, so watch them prep steps, eh?

Jenn noted she wants something other than deep fried under melted cheese, and the first thing that comes to mind is a variation on Eggplant Parmigiano made with a lighter hand; it’s a wonderful dish, basically a veggie lasagna, if you will!

Eggplant Veggiano with Homemade Ricotta Cheese

2-3 good sized eggplants
5 – 6 fresh tomatoes of your choice, (Canned/preserved is fine too!)
1-2 carrots, shaved with a peeler
1-2 small shallots, minced
1-2 sticks celery, minced
½ cup fresh basil, chiffenade
Dash of balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, fine diced
Olive oil
Thyme
Rosemary
Salt, Pepper to taste

Blanch your tomatoes, cool and remove the skins. Puree/blend/motor boat until a nice smooth consistency. In a couple tablespoons of olive oil, sweat your shallots, celery and garlic on low heat. Raise heat to medium low and add tomato puree, dash of balsamic vinegar, then add basil, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper to taste, allow to simmer for about 20 minutes or so. Pour your sauce into a bowl to cool and leave the pan just as it is, ‘cause you’re gonna use it again in a sec or two…

Choose eggplants that are nice and shiny purple and firm; avoid really big ones or anything where the skins are white; remember the adage; baby tender, old guy tough! They may look gnarly, but they’re actually a pretty sensitive veg; store them whole, unwashed, at about 45 to 55 degrees, ideally, and no longer than any other fresh veggie.

OK, so to prep the eggplants, check ‘em for dirt and critters; wash gently, cut off the ends and then you’re ready to go. Use a stainless steel bladed knife when cutting the eggplants; they have some nutrients in ‘em that will turn them a nasty black color if you introduce them to carbon steel!

For this recipe, we want the eggplant to emulate pasta; cut them into roughly ¼” slices. If you have a mandolin, (The kind for hand slicing, not the kind Sam Bush plays), you can slice quite thin and that’s just fine. Lightly salt the slices and stick ‘em in a colander, or on a tight weave wire rack, with a cookie sheet underneath as a drip pan; let ‘em sit for about 30 minutes: This is kind a room temperature sweat, if you will, just designed to pull some moisture out of the eggplant and tenderize them a bit. While that’s working, it’s cheese making time…

“Cheese making time,” you say, “In 30 minutes?! Yeah, gang, yeah; it’s that easy; OK, so maybe you could do this first if you’re worried about time, but… Everybody needs to try their hand at homemade cheese; that’s my story and I am stickin’ to it – The quality is like nothing you’ve ever bought, short of very good artisanal offerings. It is super simple, incredibly satisfying, and your guests will gaze on you with wonder and admiration as they chow down… Ricotta is a great first effort; it’s so simple it’s silly. The buttermilk does all the work for you, so let’s get after it!

Homemade Ricotta:

½ gallon whole milk
½ gallon buttermilk

Pour all your milk into a non reactive pan over medium high heat; use the best pan you got, preferably one with a nice thick bottom to store heat well.

Stir the milk just about non-stop, taking care to check the bottom of the pan often, making sure that things aren’t burning.

As the milk gets hot, you’re gonna see curds starting to rise to the surface. As you see this happening, use a flat whisk or spatula to scrape the bottom and free up more curds, (Yes, they will get their whey… Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

Snag a large colander or chinoise, the wider the better. Line the colander with cheese cloth; if you use real cheese cloth, you need a good 6+ layers to avoid stuff running through too much.

On a tip from Michael Ruhlman in his book, Ratios, I bought some cheap, plain white handkerchiefs and use them for straining and after a good washing; they do a much better job, are reusable and are generally more satisfying to work with.

When your milk mixture gets to roughly 175º F, you’ll see the curds and whey begin to separate; (The curds are the white globs and the whey is the watery leftovers, FYI).

Pull your pan off the heat and with a ladle, carefully transfer your curds to the lined colander; do NOT press on the curds; let the moisture leave of its own accord! Gently grab the corners of your cloth, draw them together and tie ‘em with kitchen twine, (You DO have kitchen twine, right?) Let the cheese drain and cool for about 20 minutes. Makes about 2 cups of finished cheese; placed it in an airtight, glass container to store; it’s good for a few days refrigerated, but it really shouldn’t even last that long, should it?

Rinse your eggplant thoroughly under cold running water until you get all the salt off. Reheat the pan you did up your sauce in to medium high heat and add another tablespoon of olive oil. Place your eggplant and carrot slices and lightly sauté them.

Preheat your oven to 375º F. Lightly grease an appropriately sized glass baking dish with a little olive oil. Place a layer of eggplant down, followed by carrots and then layers of sauce and your fresh ricotta. End with sauce and if you’re feeling frisky, sprinkle on a little hard cheese like Parmigiano or Pecorino.

Bake for +/- 35 minutes, until sauce and cheese and browned and bubbling.

Enjoy!

Variation: If you don’t want as much olive oil in your dish, (Although I can’t imagine why not…), as an alternative to browning your eggplant and carrot slices, you can steam them; it’ll give a very nice, lighter taste note.

Cucina Romana

I blame Tony Bourdain for lighting the memory fire, in a recent episode titled simply, Rome, and shot entirely in black and white to honor the work of Federico Fellini… As often happens watching No Reservations, M and I saw something prepared/served/enjoyed that made us look at each other for a moment, and then say, almost simultaneously, “Tomorrow night?” Yup…

Pasta Cacio e Pepe was the thing; pasta with cheese, butter and black pepper and not a damn thing more. If this doesn’t fly in the face of the common sentiment that making pasta dishes takes too long and is complicated, I don’t know what does. I do not remember specifically eating Cacio e Pepe when in Rome, but I do remember spaghetti Carbonara; add eggs and bacon to Cacio, and in fact, that’s what you’ve got, so maybe that was the memory nugget, eh? In any case, fall is coming and that signals a slow shift to the wonderful comfort foods of the cooler seasons, and what better way to start than this?

Note that our version used Parmesan instead of Pecorino Romano, which is probably blasphemous, but it’s what we had and we love it and, if nothing else, if affords us an opportunity to try it again down the line with the real cheese, right?

Our meal shaped up as follows; while prep and cooking were certainly a collaborative effort, the credit for this goes to Monica, who put everything together and had it ready to assemble and finish off when I got home from work.

Pasta Cacio e Pepe with homemade angel hair noodles,
served in a parmesan cheese bowl.
Haricots Verts
Fresh green salad
Peach crisp.

For the pasta, M combined 50% Semolina flour with 50% general purpose and eggs; this was our first run with genuine Italian Semolina flour, which we bought online from A. G. Ferrari. I have to say that this was a big reminder about the origin and quality of ingredients. Homemade pasta is great; homemade pasta with the best ingredients is as good as it gets anywhere… The pasta dough was phenomenal; it was the prettiest golden brown, it was a joy to handle, dried wonderfully, cooked well and tasted out of this world; how’s that for high praise?

M’s Homemade Angel Hair

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup Semolina flour
3 large eggs
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
Pinch of Salt

Combine flour and salt in a large bowl; make a well in the middle of the flour and add eggs and oil. Incorporate eggs into flour mixture with a fork by gently turning the flour into the eggs. Work by hand until well kneaded and very elastic. Cover with a dry cloth and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Flatten out dough and cut into quarters to work into noodles.

We contemplated using the pasta attachment on our KitchenAid, but to be honest, we haven’t used it very much, so when we got out that, plus the required sausage maker, and started looking at pieces and instructions and… We looked at each other and M said, “Let’s do it by hand,” so out came our trusty Marcato Atlas and we were off to the races. This maker is the king as far as I am concerned; they are not cheap, so if you ever find a good working used one for under, say, $40, snap it up, (They go around $75 new).

M’s recipe serves 4, so we took the ‘leavin’s,’ (The short sections of noodles), and froze them for later use in soup or more pasta, or… We hung the cut pasta up to dry on a rack for about 20 minutes or so while we got ready to cook.

M grated a whole bunch of Parmigiano; for the bowls, she used a small sauté pan and glass ramekins for molds. She melted a layer of cheese in the pan on medium heat, and when it was nice and bubbly and starting to turn golden on the cooking side, she flipped them onto the molds and let them cool.

Pasta water was prepared with a little olive oil and plenty of Kosher salt, (Your pasta water should taste like it has salt in it, FYI; not knock your butt over sea water, but definitely present!).

For the Haricots Verts, M trimmed the ends as needed, then trimmed the fat from and diced bacon. She sautéed the bacon until almost done, then added diced shallot. She deglazed the sauté pan with a little red wine, added about ½ cup chicken stock and reduced the mixture by about 50% for plating.



Terminology digression:
What is deglazing and why would I do that? Excellent question, invisible Muse! Deglazing is done when foods are sautéed, fried, etc; what you’re doing is simply leaving the heat on, and then using a liquid to loosen up and incorporate all the little naughty bits the cooking process left behind. By getting all that stuff loosened up and in suspension with your deglazing liquid, you get all the wonderful depth and breadth of flavor you’d missed if you didn’t deglaze. In M’s example above, she used the red wine to pull all the bacon and shallot flavors off the pan she might have missed, then combined that with the chicken stock to get a really nice background flavor profile, then reduced it all to concentrate the flavor further. Deglazing is one of another easy little secret that makes a huge difference in taste, so DO IT! You can deglaze with wine, stock, vinegar, marinade, juice, what have you. Try a flavor you feel will be complimentary; experiment and develop your own favorites!

M did a nice green salad, and added fresh wedges of avocado, which was a super touch; the creamy cool of the avocado was amazing with the pasta!

For fruit crisps, M makes the crisp in bulk and freezes it; that way, when she finds some nice fruit, she just pulls some crisp out of the freezer, does it up and viola!


Fresh Fruit Crisp

Choose whatever you like and find in season! Apples, pears, berries, peaches, you name it! Add sugar to taste, cinnamon or nutmeg, maybe some chopped nuts as you see fit. For the crisp;

¾ Cup all purpose flour
¾ cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup rolled oats
4 ounces of unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ¼” cubes
¼ teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients and mix by hand or with two knives until the butter is pea sized, about half the size of your original cubes. That’s it! Spread an even layer over your fruit mixture in ramekins or a fairly shallow baking dish.

Bake at 350 for about an hour, or until crisp is brown and, well, crispy!

A meal like this needs to be coordinated in preparation to come out just right; you can see we had several balls in the air at one time, so working as a team is not only a joy, it gets it done right. Fresh pasta is gonna wanna cook for maybe 2 minutes, max. You do not want it sitting around for longer than a couple minutes after cooking or it will want to get sticky, so you need to have everything ready to go. We plated the cheese bowls and salad and then finished the pasta.

I took fresh Tellicherry pepper berries and worked them in the molcajete to a medium grind. A rounded teaspoon of berries is plenty for darn near anybody’s taste; be careful with adding the pepper, taste steadily so you don’t go uberbort! I ground extra to fill a shaker with for the next few days use, just ‘cause…

While the pasta water heated, I put a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil in a sauté pan with 4 ounces of unsalted butter on medium-high heat. I browned the butter to a nice medium tone and then added roughly 1 teaspoon of ground pepper and ½ cup of pasta water and incorporated quickly.

Add the pasta to the sauce and toss thoroughly; we did not add cheese to the sauce/pasta mixture until it was plated, but you can add and toss that as well if you prefer.

Load a generous portion of pasta into a cheese bowl, add haricots and garnish, (We used more cheese and fresh garlic chives from the garden) and serve right away!

The pasta was simply amazing; truly unbelievable the depth of flavor just from cheese, pepper and butter. Impossible to describe adequately, so y’all will just have to try it yourselves: As Mario likes to say, Buon Appetito!

Chiles Rellenos

OK, now don’t get skeert – We’re gonna open with the mother of all chile dishes, the Relleno! This is one of the finest uses for great peppers and this is my take on an all time fave style.

You’ll see that I’m offering the complete homemade version, but listen, if you don’t wanna go whole hog right off the bat, just buy some sausage and some cheese and do the relleno part; just make sure you do the whole thing afore too long, hear? So, get you some of those HUGE, beautiful Poblanos I saw over at Grant and Christy’s and get to stuffin’, y’all!

😉

REMEMBER: This is interactive as you want it to be, so if you got questions, ask ’em!

Eben’s Oaxacan Chiles Rellenos

Chorizo:

2 lbs pork butt
1 pound beef chuck

3 Tbsp salt
½ cup apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp smoked paprika
1 Tbsp chipotle, flaked or ground
4 cloves garlic, fine diced
1 Tspn Mexican Oregano
1 Tspn ground black pepper
½ cup water

Grind the meat, add all ingredients to that in a non-metallic bowl.

Stuff into 1.5”/40mm hog casings.

Allow to hang and dry overnight.

Queso Blanco:

One gallon whole milk
1/2 cup lime juice
Salt to taste

Heat the milk in a non-aluminum pot on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until it looks like it’s just about to boil (DON’T let it boil!); temperature should be 185 degrees.

Add lime juice. The curds will separate from the whey and the mixture will look grainy, kind of like you’ve just thrown a bunch of corn meal into a pot of skim milk. Simmer for a few minutes.

Pour contents into a cheesecloth-lined colander and let it drain thoroughly: To save the whey to make ricotta, put the colander over a pot.

Sprinkle the curds with salt; go saltier than you normally would; the salt will drain from the cheese as it dries. Now is the time to add any herbs, spices or chopped chiles if you like.

Gather the curds in the center of the cheesecloth and tie the ends; hang the cloth on the faucet to drain for a few hours, (At least four hours, overnight is better.

Refrigerated, it keeps about the same as fresh milk.


Oaxacan Rellenos:

Sauté chorizo and allow to cool; combine with queso 50/50;
add ¼ cup fine diced roasted or sautéed almonds and set aside.

Heat 3 Tbsp of lard or pork fat in a sauté pan top medium heat.

Add 1 medium onion, diced; sauté onions until well browned.

Puree 6 medium tomatoes and add to onions.
Add:
½ tspn cinnamon
½ tspn ground black pepper

Raise heat to medium high and reduce to a thick tomato sauce consistency, then reduce heat to low.

Prep fresh Poblano chiles, and heat a skillet with at least 1” of oil to 350º F and fry the chiles for a minute or two until well blistered. Remove and cool chiles.

Stuff chiles with filling mixture and stitch with a tooth pick.

Separate the whites and yolks of 6 eggs; add ½ tspn salt to the whites and whip until they hold a stiff peak; beat the yolks into the whites until thoroughly blended and then beat in 2 Tbsps flour.

Set 1 cup of flour on a plate as a dredge.

Take each chile, roll it on the flour dredge, and then dip it thoroughly into the batter, and then fry about 4 minutes on each side until golden brown.

Heat oven to 375 and place chiles on a baking sheet for about 15 minutes to heat thoroughly.

Bring tomato sauce to a low boil.

Ladle sauce into a bowl and place a relleno on top of the broth. Garnish with cilantro and serve hot!