Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I've moved!

Both physically (goodbye Boston, hello San Francisco!), and virtually. Please come visit me here: www.miamorgenstern.com.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Monday, May 31, 2010

American as....


Ah, three-day weekends. There is something so naughty and refreshing about having a Monday all to yourself; about eating breakfast in casual nibbles and bites from the kitchen over the course of an hours-long morning. And of course it's always nice to spend Sunday afternoon cooking out and sprawled in the sunshine, but it's so much sweeter when it then tumbles into a lazy Monday, too.

For me the three-day weekend is perhaps less exciting than it is for most, given my gainful unemployment and the fact that I've been pretty much coasting on a month-long weekend since the beginning of May. So, relatively speaking, Memorial Day Weekend hasn't been that special, even if in absolute terms it's been quite special indeed. There is a certain urban energy that flows more magnanimously, more freely and happily, when everyone (not just me) gets to enjoy a free Monday.

This year, since the mere occurrence of a three-day weekend seemed less special than it has in years past, I decided to celebrate Memorial Day a little bit more than I usually do. When I decide to celebrate something, it usually involves baking, and this was no exception. Instead of the usual cookies, brownies, or chocolate bundt cake, though, I was inspired, on this particular three-day weekend, to make something unmistakably American: pie.

To be clear, I am not a pie person. In fact, I've always been puzzled by pie: why would anyone eat pie when they could have cookies, or a thick wedge of moist cake, or even a scoop or three of good ice cream? And why bother making a crumbly, sloppy pie when you could instead turn out a dainty tart with a pate sucre? I realize that many people are pie people; that their mothers and grandmothers spent years perfecting their flaky crusts, that Thanksgiving was really just a glorified pie-baking marathon, that a simple slice of homey pie was really a piece of comfort flanked by double-crust.

But not for me. My family isn't a pie family. The only pie we ever had was a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, which, given that the crust came from the freezer and the filling recipe came from the label on the can, didn't really inspire the emotional attachment that I imagine homemade pies might inspire for others. Which isn't to say that other foods we ate didn't inspire that attachment, but pie just wasn't one of those foods.

Which is probably why I'd never really been inspired to bake a pie before this weekend. To me, pie seemed to embody the unfortunate dichotomy of being incredibly fussy, what with the chilling and rolling of the dough, that only in the hands of the most skilled bakers would turn out acceptably (or so I believed based on everything I've read about pie-making), and also being decidedly homey - not particularly pretty on the plate and not particularly interesting in its combinations of flavors. In other words, a pain in the ass to make, and nothing special to taste.

I guess I'm like the Scrooge of pies. It shouldn't come as a shock that I've never been partial to the all-American fare that has recently been popularized as "comfort food," and I considered pie to be the sweet equivalent of macaroni and cheese or fried chicken: Sure, I'd love to read a good essay about it, but keep it out of my kitchen, please.

I can't say exactly what it was that created the shift in my sensibilities that resulted in me rolling out a buttery-rich crust on my kitchen table yesterday afternoon. But it certainly had to do with an utterly charming book I just read on the history of cooks and meals in the United States. Now that I've rediscovered daylight freedom, I've also rediscovered this cool thing that I had all but forgotten about called "reading books." Instead of oscillating between tabs on your web browser, alternating between "work" and sneaking peaks at blogs and other internet ephemera, you actually sit down (preferably outside, in the sunshine, on a blanket) with a book and then you devote a whole hour, maybe more or less, depending on how hungry you are or when you have to go to yoga class, to reading it. It's quite lovely.


Anyway, I read a book titled From Hardtack to Homefries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals, by Barbara Haber, that is a combination of women's history and American culinary history, and covers topics as diverse as the Puritanical food influences of Sylvester Graham and the first post-Slavery black cooks of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I'll spare you the full book report, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend it to anyone who gets a kick out of historical gastronomic voyeurism or reading recipes for gelatinous tomato soup-and-mayonnaise salads.

And wouldn't you know that among the historical recipes included in the book was a recipe for Liberation Cherry Pie, a similar version of which was handed out to American soldiers when they were liberated from internment camps in the Phillipines at the end of WWII. Since I was so smitten with the book, and since I had a patriotic three-day weekend that called for a bit of celebration, it seemed like the perfect occasion to try out a Liberation Cherry Pie. If for some reason it didn't pass muster on taste, well, at least it fit the holiday it was meant to celebrate.

As per the author's suggestion, I used two jars of Trader Joe's Morello cherries in the filling, which also included a bit of thickener (I used flour and cornstarch), sugar, and a dash of cinnamon. All-American simplicity at its best. I am very happy to report that the filling, though requisitely gooey and juicy, thickened properly and didn't create a runny mess on the plate when served. Since my more eclectic kitchen personality isn't quite ready to roll over in the face of all-Americanism, the pie crust that I made included whole wheat pastry flour (instead of white flour), and lots of butter (100% butter instead of half shortening, half butter).

The slight roughness of the whole wheat pastry flour made the dough a bit trickier to work with than it would have been if it had been made with white flour, and the all-butter factor made a quick hand pretty essential when it came to rolling the bottom crust and creating the top-crust lattice (I'll admit that this makes for an extremely attractive finished product). But, all in all, my first go at a real pie crust went pretty well, and I think the results may even have been "flaky." I suppose reading about pastry as much as I have can do in a pinch when you don't have generations of passed-down pie wisdom upon which to rely.


And the verdict on taste? Well, the pie disappeared in a flash at our Sunday barbecue, and I have to say that I was quite pleasantly surprised by its flavor and texture. It certainly did have that homey look and taste - all crumbly and sticky and nearly impossible to cut into picture-perfect slices - but it was also richly buttery and just tart enough from the cherries, and had a fruity, wholesome quality that might explain why "comfort food" seems to have some staying power.

Now that I'm more experienced (though still a novice) in the art of pie, I think that the beauty of pie lies in its homeliness. In one bite you get a sweet mouthful of fruit that bursts and squirts as you chew, and in the next you get the depth of burnished crust, complemented by an oven-hardened slick of cherry syrup. There are mouthfuls of somewhat soggy crust redeemed in the next by a crisp-crackly specimen of top lattice, and just as you finish tasting that spectrum of tastes and textures, you realize you've practically licked your plate clean.

In case you're curious, no, I don't think I've been fully converted to a pie person. But now I at least feel that I understand the institution of pie, and am happy to have made it in the name of celebration. And who knows? Perhaps my next well-deserved three-day weekend (July 4? Labor Day?) might just call for a little more all-American, crusty goodness.

The recipe for Liberation Cherry Pie can be found on p. 149 of From Hardtack to Homefries, by Barbara Haber. If you're dying to try it and don't have the book, any simple cherry pie recipe will likely do - Haber's recipe is about as simple as they get. I do, however, recommend using the Trader Joe's jars of Morello cherries (2 jars for a 9-in pie), which are sour and delicious and much better than what you'll find in a can.

Monday, May 10, 2010

New beginnings



In lieu of apologizing, how about I just tell it like it is: it's been a pretty long time since I've hung around here at Red Ramekin.

Although this space has always been a sort of creative haven for me to come and tell stories of heroic whole grains and demure spring vegetables, I decided to take a little break from blogging a few months ago, when other endeavors and changes began to take up more than their fair share of my time and mind space.

Luckily, though, my time and mind have been much freer lately, and I'm oh-so-happy to be making my triumphant (and anxiously anticipated?) return to blogging, obsessive Google reader trolling, and all of the other things that go along with telling the stories that bubble out of my wee kitchen.

But, in case you're wondering what I've been up to in the interim, here it is: I completed 200 weekend hours of yoga teacher training and became a certified yoga teacher, I started teaching/assisting two Sunday yoga classes (so much for Sunday evening cooking extravaganzas), I logged a few too many late nights at the office, I decided to quit my day job (prompted by a few too many late nights at the office), I began planning for my upcoming move to San Francisco, and I got engaged(!!) to the best sous-chef a girl could ask for. Aware of my ambivalence towards less-than-functional things like diamonds, Jonathan proposed with a pristine copper pot. Aren't you jealous?


Yes, it's been a fun ride so far, and the fun has really only just begun. In a little more than a month we'll be heading due West, copper pot in tow, to see what kinds of adventures, both food- and life-related, we can dig up. And we'll be planning a wedding to boot, which sounds like quite the adventure in and of itself as far as I can tell.

In the spirit of beginnings, how about a recipe for this carrot salad that I whipped up during some recent weekday afternoon? I made it thinking I'd spice up our regular Indian repertoire, and it's a great way to use those cute little carrots that are popping up right about now.

Feel free to use it as a fresh beginning to a nice meal, or you know, as the fresh beginning to a new life. Yes, it may just be the most versatile carrot salad I've ever eaten.


I went the extra mile here and roasted my cashews with a freshly-ground spice mixture. But then again, I don't have a job and can do stuff like that at 4pm on a Wednesday if I want. A nice alternative is to give the cashews a light toast in a skillet and just use the spice mixture to season the assembled salad to your liking.

As for the coconut, well, it's not exactly essential. It does, however, add some nice visual contrast and lightens up the overall carroty-ness of the dish. Besides, I had a bunch of fresh coconut in my fridge and what else was I supposed to do with it?

Given the Indian-inspired flavors in this salad, it pairs quite well with a homey bowl of dahl and rice, but I'm sure it would go well with more substantial proteins, as well. Enjoy!


Carrot-Coconut Salad with Spiced Cashews

4-5 large or 6-8 smaller carrots
3-inch chunk fresh, raw coconut
small handful fresh cilantro, finely chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 c. raw cashews
1 tsp. each coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and fennel seeds (or substitute 1/2 tsp. each of the powdered versions)
1/2 tsp. poppy seeds
~2 tbs. egg white
salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Make the spiced cashews: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If using the whole spices, toast all seeds in a skillet just until fragrant, about 5 min. Use a mortar and pestle to grind the spices to a powder. In a small mixing bowl, mix the cashews, egg white, and about 2 tsp. of the ground spice mixture (or use the pre-ground spices). Add a pinch of salt and pepper and stir everything until the cashews are coated with the spices. Spread the cashews on a baking sheet and roast in the oven until crunchy and fragrant, but not burned, about 8-10 min. Let cool slightly, then chop coarsely and set aside. Grate the carrots using the larger holes of a box grater or food processor grating blade. Set aside in a medium mixing bowl. Use the small holes to grate the chunk of coconut and add to the carrots. Add the chopped cilantro and cashews to the carrot mixture, and stir gently to combine. Dress with the juice of 1 lemon, and season with salt and pepper. Add some or all of the remaining ground spice mixture to taste.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Secret Ingredients


As is likely evident from the nature of this blog and the eclectic quality of my cooking projects, I don't need to be convinced that cooking is exciting. Whether it's the marvels of wild yeast or the joys of homemade pasta dough, cooking never fails to intrigue me. But for those that are less enthused by home-canned jam and freshly-churned ice cream, I'd imagine that cooking can seem, well, not so exciting. A chore, perhaps, or that necessary hurdle that comes before eating. Which is why, I think, the idea of the "secret ingredient" was created.

For all of the culinary trends that come and go, the secret ingredient has been a mainstay of cookery for a pretty long time. I'm not sure if it's documented anywhere, but it seems like it's been around forever. Who doesn't have a grandmother (or great-grandmother) with a recipe for such-and-such that includes her own secret ingredient? Secret ingredients add a bit of mystery - even excitement - to things that might ordinarily be a bit mundane.


And there is something exciting about tasting a dish advertised as being made with a secret, isn't there? We take a bite of a secret-ingredient chocolate cake not knowing if it will be uncannily delicious or atrocious; not knowing if the secret is something virtuous (pureed spinach?) or sinful (mayonnaise?); not knowing if we'll even be able to taste the secret ingredient at all.

Then again, there are many reasons that a chef might deem an ingredient "secret." Perhaps she's discovered the thing that elevates the dish to new heights, and doesn't want copycats ripping off her masterpiece. More likely though, the ingredient is a mere convenience; something that does the job but doesn't necessarily sound as appealing as one might like (my use of baby food in baking recipes falls into this category). Or maybe the secret ingredient is just there for its novelty value; not really adding much of anything but a little flair of personality. Of course there are also those secret ingredients that aren't really secrets at all - adding new spices to an old dish (too obvious), a cup of espresso to something chocolatey (trust me, this combination is no secret), or butter to anything (too easy).


So, what are you secret ingredient recipes? I've heard of (but never tried) of chocolate cakes made with mayonnaise, and my grandmother's recipe for sweet and sour meatballs included the seemingly unfortunate combination of ketchup and concord grape jelly. I've always been fascinated by the infinitesimal pinch of nutmeg that perks up French and Italian dairy-based dishes, and I'm hooked on adding vanilla to anything chocolate, and a splash of bourbon to anything vanilla. I know someone who insists on adding dried fenugreek leaves to chicken soup. Go figure.

But, my favorite secret ingredient comes courtesy of Jonathan, who tells the tale of someone-or-other's grandmother, famous for making the best matzah balls in town. Her secret ingredient? Yeast.

I'm not exactly sure what this says about the nature of secret ingredients, but I do believe that there are some good ones out there. Take my new favorite: malted barley flour. You've probably heard of it before - it appears in just about every decent bread or cracker that you can find. (I say this with confidence, since my beloved Acme bread even lists it as an ingredient).


I know I've mentioned malted barley syrup before - it makes a fine granola - so think of malted barley flour as its significantly less messy cousin. Instead of a thick syrup, it's a fine, floury powder, made from grinding sprouted and dried barley grains. The sprouting gives the barley a distinctly sweet and malty taste, and it also serves as potent yeast food when making bread (you can use it in place of a teaspoon of sugar when activating dried yeast).

The best thing, though, is the somewhat intangible deliciousness it imparts to everything baked. It improves the rise and flavor of yeasted breads, and adds a touch of maltiness to everything else - cookies, scones, etc. And, although it might cost you a pretty penny or take a while to track down (or just look here: Bob's Red Mill), you'll find that a little goes a long way. I add just a teaspoon or two to a loaf of bread.


But here's the thing: like many secret ingredients, malted barley flour isn't going to radically improve everything it touches. Instead, it will give it just a little hint of something - something that makes it taste that much more like your favorite Acme loaf or your preferred brand of $6-per-box artisan crackers. And it smells wonderful.

The bread dough pictured here is just some homemade, whole-wheat, seeded goodness that I whipped up the other day. Although the loaf itself was a bit dense (on account of all of that bran, I suppose), it had the most incredible flavor from the combination of malted barley flour and pumpkin, sunflower, and poppy seeds. I ate it all up in a shocking short amount of time, but shhhh. Don't tell anyone. Let's just say it's our little secret....



Dense and Yummy Whole-Wheat Bread

Note: this is just a loose recipe, because I'm rather enamored with making bread in a wholly unscientific way. Make sure to allow enough time for the dough to rise thoroughly (although it probably won't double, like white doughs). Also allow plenty of baking time - I baked mine for over an hour. You want the internal temperature of the bread to be about 200F when it comes out of the oven.


Ingredients
Pre-dough:
1 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/2 c. warm (not hot) water
1-2 tsp. malted barley flour (or substitute sugar)
2 tbs. vital wheat gluten
1 1/2 tsp. instant yeast (I use SAF)

Dough:
1 c. + additional 1 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. oat bran
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tbs. neutral oil
1 tbs. molasses
2 tsp. honey

Seeds:
~1/4 c. each sunflower and pumpkin seeds
2 tbs. poppy seeds

Directions:

Mix ingredients for the pre-dough in a large mixing bowl. Stir about 50 times to start activating the gluten. Cover the bowl and let rest for about 1 hr., until the mixture is bubbly (this occurs after the pre-dough has risen and then fallen).

To the pre-dough, add the ingredients for the dough, reserving the additional 1 c. of whole wheat flour. Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon, and then turn out onto a heavily floured surface. The dough will be very sticky, so cover it liberally with your reserved flour. Begin kneading the flour into the dough, until the dough is still tacky, but no longer wet and sticky. Let the dough rest for about 5 minutes, then continue kneading the dough, adding a bit more flour only if necessary to prevent sticking. Knead for a full 15 minutes (trust me!), until the dough is pliable and slightly tacky, but relatively smooth and even. Form the dough into a ball, place it in an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise until puffy and almost doubled, 1 to 1 1/2 hrs.

Remove the dough from the bowl, punch it down gently into a large round, and cover with the seed mixture. Gently knead the dough to incorporate the seeds, but only as much as is necessary. Form the ball of dough into a tight ball, sealed edge on the bottom, and place on a piece of parchment paper on an upside-down baking sheet. Cover with a towel and let it rise until puffy and almost doubled, about 45 min. - 1 hr.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven, with a baking stone if you have one, to 375F. Slide the loaf (with parchment paper) onto the baking stone and bake for about 1 hr., until internal temperature is about 200F. Let the loaf cool for an hour before slicing into it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Starting Fresh


I'm back! Which I guess is the great thing about blogging: you can check out for two months, then announce "I'm back!" and make it seem like you were away on some exotic journey that didn't include 15-hour workdays, two ho-hum holiday parties, a few sick days, lots of nights in, and a bunch of clean-out-the-refrigerator vegetable soups. Not like that's what my little blogging hiatus consisted of, or anything. But if it did, you'd never know it.

My usual approach to returning to Red Ramekin after some time spent away is to apologize profusely to my dear and numeriferous readers, but this time I think I'll skip all of that. Suffice it to say that I've been busy indeed, with work of course, but also with entire weekends filled with yoga, a trip to Minnesota for Thanksgiving, more holiday cookie-baking than one would think is humanly possible, and even a bit of writing*.

But I've missed blogging, and I've missed sharing the tasty things that tend to come out of my kitchen every now and again. And so, I'm back!


There have been too many instances over the past few weeks that were so close to being blogging moments; those kinds of moments where the dinner is on the table or the cookies have just come out of the oven and I've thought that surely this would be the recipe that brings me back here, to share and pass it along. And maybe I'll eventually share the fruits of those almost-moments, but today I have to share something that just could not be anything but blogged. And eaten, obviously.

Here's the thing: I own just about every kitchen appliance and cooking implement that you can think of. Ravioli stamper? Check. Vitamix? Oh yeah baby. Tagine? You'd better believe it. The one thing I've never had is a waffle maker. When I was growing up, my mom had one and would make the most delicious waffles on a lucky Sunday morning. Ironically, even people I know who don't do much cooking tend to at least have a waffle maker. But it never seemed like a practical investment (both of money and counter space) when pancakes required no special equipment and were made with essentially the same batter. Besides, the last thing I needed was one of those dreaded single-purpose items that tend to make a flurry of appearances at first and then slowly fade into the dark recesses of the storage closet.

Which all made perfect sense until I discovered the existence of vintage waffle makers. We're not talking electric plugs and red lights and non-stick surfaces, here. We're talking two irons, heavy and checkered, ready to be greased and thrust into the cooking fire. Truly old-fashioned, and truly adorable. Since I just so happen to be the luckiest girl in the world, Jonathan ordered me such a device (not quite an appliance, but not merely a pan) while he was making another purchase from Lodge (so great I've been known to write poetry about it). It is now my incredibly bad-ass waffle iron: two inter-locking, waffled pieces made of cast iron that fit snugly and turn out deliciously thin and homey waffles. I even had to season it myself.


I pounced on the first Saturday morning I could to make my first batch of waffles using the new iron, and it was quite the experience. It took a bit of getting used to, but by the end of the batch, my waffles were ever-so-slightly crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. They may essentially be made of pancake batter, but these are no pancakes. The only setback was the timing. Since I don't have a gas stove or a huge firepit in the middle of my kitchen, I had to heat the irons and then cook the waffles in the oven, which, even at 450 degrees, took nearly 15 minutes per waffle. Not exactly quick and easy, on-the-go breakfast material. But on a Saturday, especially a well-below-freezing Saturday, sitting around and waiting for the waffles wasn't such a bad thing.

And what of the recipe? To maintain the whole vintage-novelty theme, I went with my trusty old Joy of Cooking, useless for anything fancy or inventive, but truly invaluable when it comes to things like Saturday morning waffles. I went with the basic recipe, which calls for whipping the egg whites separately to provide extra fluff and lightness to the finished waffles. I also used whole wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose or cake flour, which probably counteracted some of the egg white lift, but no matter. These were hearty, and maybe even a tad bit healthy, and were quite the decadent vehicle for our Grade B, extra-mapley syrup. Next time I might try the fancier yeasted waffle, or maybe even do something savory, but for a first go with my new favorite toy, these were pretty darn good.


In lieu of the simple JoC recipe, and in the spirit of favorite new kitchen gadgets and the fact that we've now entered the present-centric time of year, what are your favorite kitchen tools? Although it surely is nothing new to post a list of the "Essential things I cannot cook without," I'll admit that I love reading what other people call their "essentials." Here are a few of mine - perhaps they'll serve as gift inspiration:

1. Dutch oven. Le Creuset if you can afford it, Lodge if you can't (I can't). So great for everything - soups, stews, roasts, etc.

2. Rimmed baking sheets. Essential for cookies, but also for roasted vegetables, granola, and toasting nuts.

3. Small whisks. More versatile than a large whisk, and good for everything from breaking up clumpy flour to tempering eggs.

4. A good, super-sharp chef's knife. Seems obvious, but you wouldn't believe how many people don't have one. I use Global knives, but anything sharp and sturdy will do.

5. Large iron skillet with lid. Works on the stove and in the oven. I use mine for frittatas, chicken, sauteed vegetables, and cornbread.

6. Food processor. Not necessarily one of the absolute basics, but O.M.G. is this thing useful.

7. Kitchen scale. For fussy recipes, especially ones that you want to scale up or down, a kitchen scale is a hundred times more useful than a measuring cup.

8. Silicone stirring spoons and spatulas. Not only are these easy to clean, but they are essential if you're cooking for someone with a wheat/gluten allergy.

9. Recycled, quart-sized yogurt containers. Super classy, I know. But these are always the perfect size for leftovers, and they're (basically) free! I always save mine, and don't feel bad tossing them when they start getting a little ratty.

10. Pretty cake server. OK fine, this isn't essential. But it will make your life (and your parties) so much better, believe me. Just buy one.


And of course, if you're like me, you can go ahead and add "old-fashioned, vintage, cast-iron waffle-maker" to the list. Perhaps it will never be the most used tool in your kitchen, but it will certainly make it easier on those chilly winter Saturdays to start fresh.

* So, about this writing thing. I've been lucky enough to do some guest writing for the online newspaper The Faster Times. Check me out in the "Sweets" column, where I have articles on boozy desserts (always popular), gluten-free baking for the holidays (completely useful), and (coming soon!) holiday cookies (obviously amazing). Check it out and tell me what you think!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Leftovers


Leftovers are truly a staple here at the Red Ramekin kitchen. I can't start my week without making a big pot of something on Sunday night so that I can bring the leftovers to work for lunch. I bake big batches of muffins, banana bread, and granola bars and freeze them individually so that Jonathan and I can grab a quick snack whenever the urge strikes. I've even taking to saving my quart-sized yogurt containers to store all of these leftovers, because that 32-piece set of tupperware I bought a while back is really not adequate for my food storage needs. Seriously. I think there are at least five yogurt containers in my fridge right now, and that doesn't even include the one that actually contains yogurt.

But tonight I'm not writing about how to make a pot of soup that will last you the week, or how to whip up some spicy daal to have on hand when you get home from yoga and need some proper nutrition (though I just happened to have done that and would highly, highly encourage it...).

The leftovers I'm writing about are in the form of a lovely, delicate little cake that I've meaning to write about for a long, long time. And frankly, if I'd had it my way, I wouldn't be sharing the leftovers of this cake, but the fresh, baked-today version; the one that doesn't have a few slices missing or a few crumbled crumbs providing the incriminating evidence of being a day old.

I first made this rosemary grape cake several weeks ago, after having bought a sticky container of seedless Concord grapes from my beloved farmers market. Now, I know that fall baking is all about apples and pumpkins. And trust me, apples and pumpkins get plenty of attention around here. In addition to eating at least two apples a day, I've been known to get an impromptu crisp into the oven in five minutes flat. But grapes are one of those overlooked fruits that you don't hear much about when the season starts to change. It's unfortunate, really, because real grapes - not those gumdroppy ones you find in the produce section in February - are a fine treat indeed. I'm partial to scuppernongs and muscadines, but a Concord grape has this kind of genuine grapiness that you just can't find anywhere else.

So when I found my Concord grapes - seedless Concord grapes - I thought of making them into something special. I wanted a cake that was light and not too sweet; something that would go well with a cup of tea after dinner. And while I do love my simple, not too sweet cakes, I like them to have a distinctive flavor and textured crumb to prevent them from slipping into blandness. So for this cake, cornmeal and olive oil popped into mind, and from there the lemon zest and rosemary just seemed like a natural, if unorthodox, extension.

Needless to say, I baked the cake, it tasted lovely, and it even made for a great midnight snack after I'd finished cleaning up the remains of the dinner party at which I'd served it. And I wish I could have told you about it earlier, but despite all of my pre-packed lunches and ready-to-go snacks, time has been rather elusive these days. And despite my best efforts, it seems that the only time Red Ramekin has been getting lately has been the leftovers - after work, after making dinner, after yoga, after self-medicating with a leisurely gander at the Sunday Styles, I save the leftovers for my blog.

But, no matter. Leftovers are certainly not a bad thing in my book, and in fact, they often just hit the spot. Yes, it would have been nice to share my pretty grape cake with you at its most pristine, but frankly I've never been one to turn down a piece of cake, fresh from the oven or a day (or two) old. I'd even go so far as to say that, whether it's slivers of cake or slivers of nighttime just before bed, sometimes it's the leftovers that really make the whole thing worthwhile.


Rosemary Grape Cake

1 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. cornmeal (polenta)
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/4-1/2 tsp. very finely crushed rosemary
3 tbs. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 eggs
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 c. plain yogurt or buttermilk
zest of 1/2 lemon
A couple big handfuls of seedless Concord grapes
1-2 tbs. turbinado sugar, for sprinkling

Directions:

In a medium bowl, mix flour, cornmeal, sugar, rosemary, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. In a separate bowl, mix eggs with oil, yogurt, and lemon zest. Combined wet ingredients with dry ingredients and stir gently just until everything is evenly mixed. Pour batter into a greased 7-inch round cake pan. Scatter whole grapes over the cake batter, and press them down lightly. Sprinkle with a bit of turbinado sugar. Bake the cake at 375 degrees F until cake is just starting to turn golden and brown slightly at the edges, about 20-25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool before slicing and serving, preferably with a cup of tea.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Refreshed


Since last I posted here on Red Ramekin, Jonathan and I took a lovely (if too short) vacation to Italy - Tuscany, to be more precise - where we ate, relaxed, and found a bat (like, the animal, with wings) in our bathroom, among other things.

We were there for a week - the perfect amount of time to break the routine, get some sun, and just be somewhere else for a few days. And it didn't hurt that we had the good fortune to stay in an extremely spacious and beautiful villa in the Tuscan hills. Except for the whole bat-in-the-bathroom thing, the place was absolutely magnificent. Old stone walls, huge windows, a gorgeous kitchen, and a crystal-clear swimming pool overlooking the valley below. Yes, it's a tough life, but somebody has to live it.

Our plans didn't include anything terribly exciting; we mostly walked around quaint little towns, did some extensive nocciolo "research," and hiked around Cinque Terra, a series of tiny seaside towns built into cliffs along the ocean. Our flight home was out of Rome, so we took a train there on Saturday morning, spent the afternoon walking, sightseeing, and completing more of the afore-mentioned gelato research. After much waffling and indecisiveness, we even found a place to eat dinner, where we enjoyed our last few hours in Italy before leaving early Sunday morning for the airport.

[boats at Cinque Terra]

But let's get to the point. Everyone knows that the real reason one goes to Italy is the food. Real, live, Italian food, at the source. Needless to say, this was the part of the trip about which I was most excited. And for the most part, I wasn't disappointed.

I'll be honest and say that the food in Italy didn't blow me away. Of course, we didn't eat at the best restaurants, and were fairly limited in our choices due to the location of our villa. We stayed in a pretty remote part of Tuscany, far from major cities, so our cuisine was mostly local, simple, and basic. However, we still managed to have several lovely farro salads, some delicious pasta dishes, and a good salad or two, filled with olive-oil-soaked Italian tuna. And let's not forget the nocciolo (for those unfortunately uninitiated, nocciolo is hazelnut-flavored gelato).

I was pleased to find that the local markets had plenty of good produce and other foodstuffs. On my first day in town (Bagni di Lucca, in case you're interested), I picked up a large carton of juicy, green figs - by far the best I've ever had. I've always loved figs, but I didn't know they could taste so good. In terms of the dry goods, Jonathan and I stocked up on farro (we brought about 5lbs. home with us, and would have brought more if space had permitted), and our favorite giant white beans.

[figs]

But the most memorable of our eating experiences had to be the dinner we had at our new friends' house. We met a nice Australian couple one morning at the local cafe who were around Jonathan's mom's and stepdad's age (did I mention that we traveled with them?). We got to talking, and before we knew it, had an invitation to dinner at their house, not far from where we were staying. However, this was no ordinary dinner. It was pizza, made in a real, outdoor pizza oven. Now, I'm a big fan of homemade pizza, but I've never had the opportunity to use a real pizza oven. I've read about it, seen it on television, have spent hours exploring the possibility on all manner of pizza-devoted websites, but this was my first chance at actually using one.

And it did not disappoint. I came prepared with some homemade, whole-wheat dough to complement the white that Cheryl, our hostess, had on hand, and we got to work topping them both (after a tour of their grapevines and some prosecco, of course). The pizza had the distinctive char and crunch of real pizza - something you just can't replicate in a regular oven. I'll admit that the white-dough pizza was a tad tastier than the whole-wheat (I don't usually eat white flour but give me a break - I was on vacation), and had a crackly texture that the chewier whole-wheat couldn't muster. But both were delicious. And the company wasn't bad, either. We finished off our meal with little drams of sambuca, an anise-flavored liqueur that I found surprisingly refreshing.

[cantuccini, and other yummy treats]

The second-best food of the night, however, was the amazingly delicious eggplant caponata that we ate before digging into the pizza. It was my first introduction to the stuff and damn, was it good. Eggplant, peppers, olives, capers, pine nuts, vinegar and plenty - and I do mean plenty - of olive oil. Although I haven't had the chance to recreate that night's amazing pizza, I've already given that caponata a couple of tries. I haven't quite made anything as good as Cheryl's, but I've come close. And with an ingredient list like that, how can you really go wrong?

So, for today, no pictures, as I haven't quite perfected my caponata technique. But here is a starter recipe for basic caponata. You can also find plenty of recipes online and in cookbooks - this stuff is a staple, and for good reason. One good tip is to salt and drain the eggplant before cooking. It helps get rid of excess water and also helps to mitigate the eggplant's natural sponginess. The measurements here are very rough - just taste and adjust as you go along. Buono appetito!

[me and Jonathan at Cinque Terra]
Copycat Caponata
2 Japanese or other small eggplants
Kosher salt, for sprinkling
2 red bell peppers, diced
1 small, hot pepper (optional, but good), diced
2 ribs celery, sliced thinly
1 large onion, red or yellow, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
~1 small can crushed tomatoes
~1/4 c. each capers and chopped green olives (or to taste)
2-3 tbs. toasted pine nuts
big handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
3-4 tbs. red wine or sherry vinegar
1/4 - 1/2 c. olive oil
1 tsp. sugar
Italian herbs (oregano, basil, etc.), to taste
salt and pepper, to taste

Dice eggplant into 1/2-inch cubes. Set in a colander and sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Allow to sit for about an hour. After an hour or so, squeeze eggplant to remove excess water. Pat dry with a paper towel. In a heavy pot, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When hot, add eggplant and cook, stirring, until eggplant is soft, about 5 minutes. Remove eggplant from pot and set aside. Heat a bit more oil in the same pot, and add onion, celery, and peppers. Cook until very tender, about 10-15 minutes. Halfway through, add the minced garlic. If vegetables start to brown, add a splash of vinegar, white wine, or water to the pot. Once vegetables are cooked, add tomatoes and eggplant back to the pot, and cook for a few minutes more, until everything is thoroughly cooked and incorporated. Season with the sugar and a bit of salt, pepper, and herbs. Add the capers and olives to the pot, along with a few splashes of vinegar and another drizzle of oil if the mixture looks a bit dry. Once everything is heated through, add the fresh parsley. Taste for seasoning, and add extra vinegar according to your tastes. Add the toasted pine nuts at the very end, reserving a few for garnish. Serve with bread or crackers. Serve the leftovers with rice or pasta for a delicious lunch.