Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Of Capers, Caper-Berries and the Salty Sea

Capers. The delightfully salty little cousins of the olive, at least I've always thought of them that way. I'd heard they were unopened flower buds, but what about the caper-berry, darling of the martini craze from a few years back? The caper and the caper-berry are not the same thing but they come from the same plant. When I came to Greece for the first time I found out the real deal:

Here is the caper plant, itself, a rugged coastal Mediterranean plant, it seems to thrive on sea air alone, growing through cracks in rocky cliffs along the shore. The disk-shaped leaves are succulent, juicy and are still used in cooking by the very few older folks who still remember how to cook "horta", the wild-growing greens of Greece. I'll try out a recipe in my Greek cookbook as soon as I translate the thing, gimme a week or two.

The buds start coming up in early summer and flower throughout the month of July (at least here in Pelion, Greece). Here you see a branch with a tiny, non-pareil caper at the tip, a couple large ones further up and a rather spent flower. As I said before, the caper is the flower bud but the caper-berry is actually formed after the flower dies (see photo at top). It is the seed sack that,when saved from the martini glass, grows to the size of a small pear and bursts open to shower the rocks with seeds for next year's capers.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Heading to Greece

See you soon everybody! We're packing our bags and heading to Greece tomorrow. This here's our swimming hole and sea urchin hunting grounds. Hope y'all have a great summer. Be back in mid-August to tell you all about our Greek culinary adventures. See you then!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Tart Plum Tart

The other day I bought a kilo of lovely-looking red plums at the open-air market. I sliced the first one open, a rich dark red tending toward purple with soft but not mushy flesh. It looked and felt perfect. Then I bit in and tasted juicy but sour and actually a little bit bitter plum flavor. I got a kilo of bad plums. This happens; we all know it. Even Jerry Seinfeld once said; "Fruit is a gamble. I know that going in." And so, I started to think of a way to use these plums without having to make tart plum wincy faces every day until they were finished. I started thinking about making a tart plum tart.

Julia Child has somewhere a fabulous recipe for plum and yogurt tart that I made last summer. The result was sooo delicious and sooo beautiful to behold that I thought, "Why not make Julia Child's plum yogurt tart out of these red plums and just add a bit more sugar?". So a plan was born. Except that going online, I couldn't find the same recipe again. Has anyone heard of Julia Child's plum yogurt tart? I'd love to have the real recipe. JANUARY 26TH, 2007 UPDATE: LOOKING FOR INSPIRATION IN MY "BAKING WITH JULIA COOKBOOK, I FOUND THE RECIPE! IT WAS NOT ON LINE BECAUSE IT COMES FROM LESLIE MACKIE, WHO IS ONE OF THE CHEFS WHO BAKES WITH JULIA IN THE BOOK. NEXT TIME I'LL DO THIS RECIPE RIGHT WITH GOOD PLUMS AND THE ORIGINAL RECIPE.

So I winged it trying to remember as much of the recipe as I could. I know there was a base of yogurt whisked with sugar and an egg and then sugar-macerated, quartered plums. Here's the recipe I remember:

1 lb plums, pitted and quartered
6 tbsps sugar
1/4 tsp allspice
1 tbsp lemon juice (that I didn't put in since the plums were tart enough)

1 sm container of plain yogurt
1 lg egg
6 tbsps sugar

1 recipe of standard pate brisee This recipe works well for me.

Combine the plums, sugar, allspice and optional lemon juice and let macerate until the sugar has dissolved, about 30 minutes. Whisk together the yogurt, egg and sugar. Add the yogurt mixture to your rolled-out pie crust then arrange the plums on top in any order you like. Music to arrange macerated plums by: "I Want It All" by Eve's Plum Pour on the syrup that has formed around the plums evenly onto the pie. Bake for 1 hour in a 350F oven.

This ISN'T Julia's recipe, though. There's something other than the substandard plums that makes this summer's tart so much less desirable. Again, if anyone out there knows Julia's plum yogurt tart recipe, let me know and I'll print it out next time. I have to say the plums taste better in tart form than they did out of hand, but still what TV chefs say is really true: you should use impeccable fruit even in your pies and tarts because good ingredients make a good recipe.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Roasted Poblano Soup

The Scoville units of Poblano peppers can range so greatly that sometimes you want to use a poblano as a vegetable and other times, as a condiment, and you never really know if you've got a vegetable or a spice until you bite in to it. Adventurous, no? Yesterday, I made roasted poblano soup out of my fall stash of balcony-grown poblano peppers. Some of them had turned a bright red while others remained the classic dark forest green. After following the recipe, I took one taste and immediately gulped down 1/2 liter of water, which actually doesn't help much. If you find that your poblanos are too spicy for your palate, you can doctor this soup in a few ways to calm the heat down: add in some green or red bell pepper to soften the impact of the poblanos, add a bit of sugar to contrast the heat intensity or add lots of milk products. I prefer yogurt for thickness but take your pick of milk, sour cream or crème fraiche. Sprinkling on some Mexican queso anejo wouldn't be a bad idea either. The soup is delicious, wakes you up and gets the endorphins kicking. Here's the recipe:

6 green (or red, if you can find them) poblano peppers
4 cups chicken stock
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
2 cups yogurt (more or less depending on the scoville units of your particular poblanos.)
1 tsp sugar (optional)
salt to taste
cilantro (a delicious option)
queso anejo (another yummy option)

First, roast the peppers on a barbecue grill, over a gas flame on the stove or on the top rack in your oven until the skin is blistered and charred all over. Take off the heat and place in a plastic bag, seal well and wait for about 5 minutes until the steam loosens the skin. Peel the peppers and seed them. (I did this last fall and these roasted poblanos have been in the freezer since. They were in great shape when thawed, so I highly recommend freezing.)

Place the peppers in the bowl of a food processor and whiz until they are reduced to a smooth puree. Add as much chicken stock as necessary to get the peppers moving.

In a medium saucepan, add the butter and melt over medium heat. Add the flour and mix to form a paste called a roux. Fry the roux until it is blonde, about 2-3 minutes. Raise the heat to maximum, add whatever chicken stock you didn't add to the poblanos and whisk to smoothness. Now you have a thin sauce veloute. Add the pureed poblanos with the rest of the stock and whisk in. Add one cup of yogurt and taste for heat. Continue adding more yogurt until your soup is mild enough for you. Add a teaspoonful of sugar to help calm the heat. Music to make hot poblano soup by: "Hot Hot Hot by Buster Poindexter (a.k.a. David Johansen of the New York Dolls) My poblanos were super hot, so I added both cups of yogurt and the sugar. Correct for salt. Serve hot or cool.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Sourdough Naan

Calcutta (Kolkata) by way of California, this is traditional Indian Naan bread made with a San Francisco sourdough starter, a recipe I took word for word*, step by step** from Hindu-convert, Yamuna Devi's (nee, California Hippie-chick, Joan Campanella's***) "The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking". The curries in here are not stellar but the breads and sweets are fit for Lord Krishna, himself. Devi's suggestions for naan bread include a traditional sponge starter method, a packaged yeast method and happily, a Sourdough Starter Method. If it's one thing I have an endless supply of, it's sourdough starter, so I rolled up my sleeves and got kneading.

***Ok, ok, I'm only assuming the Hare Krishna cliché. I admit it's almost too easy to make fun of the sincerity of someone from California who went to India to become a Hindu in the late '60s. Maybe I've read too much Salman Rushdie to not be cynical. Anyway, here's the recipe:


1/2 cup liquid sourdough starter
5 tbsps vegetable oil, divided
1/2 cup yogurt
3 cups bread flour
2 tsps sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsps kalonji or poppy seeds (*ok, so I substituted nigella (black onion) seeds because I couldn't find kalonji. Actually, I don't even know what kalonji seeds are; does anyone out there know?)
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Mix the sourdough starter with 4 tbsps of the oil and yogurt in a small bowl. In a larger bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt baking soda and your seeds of choice. Pour the sourdough mixture into the dry ingredients and mix first with a spoon then with your hands adding a bit of flour if it is too sticky. Knead for 6-8 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Cover and let stand for about 4 hours until well risen.

Punch the dough down and roll out with a floured rolling pin until the dough is about 1/4 inch or 1/2 centimeter thick. Divide into 6 pieces. (**This next part is a divergence from the original recipe in which I do not heat up the oven and bake the naan on a cast iron skillet inside it, but get great results with a covered cast-iron frying pan on the stove.**) Heat a cast iron skillet with a small amount of vegetable oil and with its cover on, on the stove to the smoking point. Take off the cover, slap a piece of dough flat onto the skillet and replace the cover. After 30 seconds, check the naan. It may be burned already or still quite pale. Adjust your heat accordingly and move forward. Like crepes, the first flatbread off the skillet often ends up an offering to the gods. Flip with a metal spatula and prepare a plate to receive the baked naans. After another 30 seconds, check the other side and remove from the pan. Repeat until you've a.) baked all the naans and b.) you've gotten the hang of this stovetop naan baking thing.
Music to munch naan by: "Dear Prudence", dedicated to Mia Farrow's sister Prudence, by John Lennon during the Beatles' own short-lived Occidental Hindu phase. Serve as an accompaniment to an Indian meal or informally with chutney.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Gazpacho Blanco

Last summer I made caraffe after caraffe of delicious, zingy Andalusian gazpacho because a.) it's eaten chilled and just feels so good on a hot, unairconditioned day and b.) it doesn't get cooked so you don't heat the house up making it.

For a little excitement, I have a variation for you that's as traditional but probably a surprise for anyone who isn't from Southern Spain: White Gazpacho. No tomatoes or red peppers but you get the smooth creaminess of blanched almonds and the cool of fresh cucumbers:

1 cup skinless blanched almonds
crumb of 4 pieces of white bread (not wonderbread, but something more flavorful and substantial)
2 medium cloves garlic
2 medium cucumbers, peeled and roughly chopped
4 cups cold water
2/3 cups olive oil
salt to taste

In the bowl of a food processor, pulverize the almonds and the garlic until they are in very fine pieces. Add the chopped cucumber and process until you have a paste. Add the water and process for 1 minute to make sure that you get a smooth, liquid consistency then open the "feeding tube" (you know that thing in the lid of the processor that you can pull off to add stuff while you're already processing? Well that.) and add the salt and drizzle in the olive oil. You will have a green-white creamy soup. Strain though a mesh strainer, chill and enjoy.

What I've made for you here is a variation of the classic Arabo-Anzalusian soup, Ajo Blanco. The original dish has no cucumber and adds halved green grapes as garnish. With or without cucumbers, it's a rich and delicious way to chill out and relax. Music to chill out and sip White Gazpacho By: "Chill Out" by Carlos Santana. Happy Dog Days!

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