Saturday, January 26, 2008


This story goes back a fair distance. Rocco (a Sicilian), Judy, Madame and I went to eat at Daniele Osteria in Dallas a couple of years back. Good Sicilian food with an especially tasty caponata. I figured it should be possible to deconstruct this, so tried for one of our "Sundays at Four" events. It came out well, but of course I have forgotten what I did.
Fast forward to this year. We came home from shopping to find a jar of caponata that Rocco and Judy had bought in Chicago and left for us. It was delicious.
Ever up for a challenge, I decided to make more. There seem to be a couple of keys to this.
First, cook the ingredients separately. Even though the dish eventually comes together, the major ingredients require different amounts and kinds of heat. For example, the eggplant is fried at a high temperature to get some browning, while the onions and garlic are sweated in extra virgin olive oil to develop flavors, but no browning.

6-8 sticks celery, cleaned chopped into 3 inch lengths
4T Extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
3 cloves of garlic, minced finely
some red pepper flakes
1 28 oz can plum tomatoes (I used Muir Glen Organic). Keep the juice handy you may or may not need it
4T Capers - rinsed and drained
8 oz olives (green, Sicilian if possible) chopped roughly into quarters
A few basil leaves in chiffonade
2 T neutral oil for frying
1 1/2 lbs eggplant (Italian preferably)
2T sugar
4T red wine vinegar
Salt/pepper to taste

Put the celery into a large pot of cold water and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 10 minutes - until tender. Set the celery aside
Meanwhile, in a large pot warm the olive oil gently over low heat, add the onions, garlic and hot peppers.
Drain the tomatoes reserving the juice. Break the tomatoes into a pulp - I used an immersion blender, but you could equally use a food processor or a regular blender.
Cut the eggplants into 3/4" (2cm) cubes. Do not bother to peel them first.
Heat the oil over medium heat until almost smoking. Add the eggplant and fry tossing occasionally until fairly browned.
Meanwhile drain the celery and cut into fine dice
When the onions are translucent, add the tomatoes. Stir and then add the chopped olives and capers. Simmer for a few minutes, then add the chopped basil leaves.
Add the eggplant, celery and stir
Mix the vinegar and sugar together and add the mixture to the cooking pot. Stir again, put the lid on and simmer for about 8-10 minutes - until thickened. If it is looking too thick, you can add some of the reserved tomato juice - otherwise make bloody Marys!
Turn the caponata out of the pan into small bowls and chill overnight. Serve inverted garnished with carved olive rabbits, orange slices, basil chiffonade and some sea salt, with fresh crusty bread or crackers

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Last week I was in the land of the chai drinkers - Silicon Valley. Since I don't drink coffee and I needed to be sociable, I learned to drink chai at $starbuc$. To my surprise, I liked it - maybe a bit sweet but steamed milk and spiced tea was a great combination - except for the price. At $3 for a medium sized drink, I wasn't going to have many of those.

So time for deconstruction. Reading the label told me that there was lots of sugar, but more importantly a nice mixture of spices and black tea. So, on coming home, I thought I would give it a go. I have most of the interesting spices at home, so made up a recipe. If there are no posts following this one, it means I have poisoned myself!

Typically tea in hot water takes 3-5 minutes to brew, and I knew this would not be long enough to extract the flavors from the spices, so I let them stand much longer.

Ingredients - the quantities are not (yet) very precise
4 quarts (that is 1 US gallon, .8 of a UK gallon, a little under 4 litres) of water.
2T whole cardamom - preferably green, they taste stronger than the bleached white cardamom
1T whole white peppercorns
1T whole black peppercorns
5 inch piece of cinnamon - broken up into pieces
6 cloves
pinch of salt
2T whole coriander
2oz crystallized ginger
6T strong black loose tea (English breakfast is what I used).

Lightly crush the whole spices in a pestle and mortar. Put the water, spices and salt into a nonreactive saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes and allow to cool (overnight in my case). Strain out the spices, put the spiced liquid back into the pan, bring to the boil and add the tea. Turn off the heat, and allow to steep for 5 minutes. Strain, allow to cool and serve with the appropriate amount of hot milk and simple syrup.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

When Celestina delivers lemons....

Celestina, one of Madame's former students, is a girl from the "Valley" that fertile stretch of South Texas down near the Mexican border. She has provided us with some of the sweetest, juiciest lemons imaginable. So many that we were wondering what to do with them all. After all one can only drink so many gin-and-tonics!

At various times, I have wished I had some preserved lemons to go with some of the middle eastern dishes that we like to eat. Unfortunately when the middle eastern muse strikes there isn' time to make preserved lemons. They do, after all, take about 30 days to mature.

So, with the bounty from Celestina and a bit of forethought, preserved lemons are under way. They are simple to make - you just need salt, some common spices and time (yes time, not thyme).

8-10 lemons
1/4 cup of table salt (1/2 cup of kosher salt)
2 inches of cinnamon stick
a few coriander seeds (whole)
a few whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Wash the lemons thoroughly

Slice a little off the top and tail of each lemon - enough so it will stand on the chopping board either way up. Stand each lemon up, and make a vertical slice through the middle almost to the bottom. You definitely want to make sure that the halves are still attached. Turn the lemon the other way up and do the same from the other end - at right angles to the first cup. So now you have the 4 quarters still somehow attached, but with their innards exposed.

Sterilize a quart jar, dry it and put a table spoon of the salt in the bottom and a few of the coriander seeds and pepper corns together with a chunk of the cinnamon stick. Sprinkle salt on each cut surface of the lemons, and push the lemons into the jar, pressing down firmly. When the jar is about 1/2 full add the remaining spice bits. Make sure you fill the jar well, and if necessary add fresh (yes I mean fresh...) lemon juice to cover. There should be a small gap between the top surface of the juice and the rim of the jar. Cover the jar tightly and leave to rest in a warmish (i.e. not the refrigerator) place for at least a month. Turn the jar over every week or so to make sure the ingredients are well combined.

When you use them, make sure you rinse them pretty thoroughly. You will be eating the peel, so you can discard the juice/pulp, although I imagine you could reuse that juice for covering the next batch..

Thanks Celestina!!!!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Years Day 2008

We had a simple celebration of New Year's day. Vince and Gayle, and Steve and Ellen came over. Starting with tea and Christmas cake at 5, moving on to dinner of b;ack eyed peas and a French salad, finishing with a plate of cheese (Lincolnshire Poacher, Stilton, Brie and Manchego) and a bottle of port. This was an excuse to use the new crock pot for the first time. We are now all feeling incredibly lucky for 2008.
The vinegar in the recipe is to keep the contents slightly acidic (hardly noticeable in the finished dish) but it does keep the black eyed peas from going mushy or gummy. According to Alton Brown (and Shirley Corriher), acid in legumes is a good way to ensure that the legumes retain their texture even when cooked for a long time. Hence the use of molasses in Boston baked beans.

Black Eyed Peas
2 12 Oz packets fresh black eyed peas
2 8 oz ham hocks
4 Oz bacon, fried crisp
2 medium red onions sliced (not chopped or minced)
4 cloves garlic (sliced thinly)
1 Bay leaf
3 Cups water
2 Dried cayenne peppers
1t Cider vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
Cilantro for garnish

Place black eyed peas in a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer for an hour. Meanwhile in the crockpot place the onions, ham hocks, garlic, salt, pepper, cayennes and bayleaf and 3 cups of water. Bring the crock pot to a high setting and leave on high until the beans have finished simmering.
Stir the beans (without the cooking liquid) into the crockpot and add the vinegar, leave on high until bubbles start to form on the surface. Stir the contents and cook in the crockpot on then turn to low and simmer for 7-9 hours. Once cooked through, shred the meat off the hock bones, discard the bones and serve, garnished with shredded cilantro leaves..

We have some small (12 oz size) individual Staub enamelled cast iron bowls, with lids. They are idea for this kind of dish because they can safely be heated in the oven ubtil they are really hot. They then manage to keep the individual servings piping hot - just what is needed on a raw winter evening.

When will it be cooked?

This posting is a bit technical, but it is all to do with predicting when something will be cooked/ready to serve. Let's assume that we want to eat at 8pm, and the dish is some giant thing like a turkey which is to be roasted. It's going to need to rest for about 30 minutes for the juices to redistribute and while you do the other things that have to get done. That means you want it leaving the oven at 7:20 - to allow for time to carve it. Now the big question, how do you know whether it will be done at 7:20?
I use a "rate of change" based method. I use a probe thermometer, and look at what rate the temperature is rising. Because the probe is deep inside the roast, the temperature will rise very slowly at first. So for the first hour of cooking, you may only see a 5-10 degree increase in temperature. However, now imagine it is 6pm - you want to take the thing out of the oven in 1 hour and 20 minutes, but you notice that its current temperature is 140 and it has risen 30 degrees in the last hour. A quick, back of the envelope calculation suggests that it will be ready in about 20 more minutes - a whole hour sooner than you would like. So, what to do? Turn the heat down - in this case quite a lot! So if you were cooking it at 350, back the heat off to 275 and pay attention. After 30 minutes longer, see what has happened. If it has reached its target temperature, take it out and let it rest longer. If not, see how much it has moved. If it has risen another 15 degrees or so, you are well on track.
So the thinking process is, don't just look at the instantaneous temperature, look at how fast the temperature has been rising - remembering that the temperature rises faster the nearer the thing is to being cooked. If it looks like the temperature is rising too fast, turn the heat down some. If it is rising too slowly, turn it up.
It is better to use a permanently inserted probe than one of the pop-ups. A pop-up will tell you that something is done. What you need is to be able to predict is when it will be.

Oven temperatures

My friend Judy, from Germany has asked that I post temperatures in Celsius and Fahrenheit. She mentioned that she had ruined a dinner because of an error in conversion, so here goes. Oh, and while I am about it, I have added the gas marks that are used widely in British gas ovens. The "Cooking Instructions" column is imprecise, so a bit of judgment is needed if you are to rely on it. Of course, the conversions are not directly accurate - they are all rounded. So if you are using Celsius, you may need to check more frequently/earlier.
Cooking InstructionsFahrenheitCelsiusGas Mark
Very Hot4752459
Very Hot4502308
Quick/Fairly Hot4002056
Moderately Hot3751905
Very Slow/Very Low2751351
Very Slow/Very Low2501201/2
Very Slow/Very Cool2251101/4