One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Monday, August 22, 2011

Broiled Figs with Feta, Mint and Balsamic Syrup

Every year around this time, something magical starts to happen in western Turkey: Figs start to come into season and their perfume permeates the air, thick like a blanket. There are some who find the heavy, sweet smell cloying, but to me, the aroma of fig trees always brings back fond memories of countless childhood summers spent at our beach house on the west coast. We have a fig tree in the yard and to this day, I always stop and fill my lungs deeply with the fig-scented air whenever I pass by. 

A ripe fig is a delicious, beautiful, sensual fruit. I love the interplay of textures it provides. Its thin skin yields easily to teeth, giving way to the quick crunch of the seeds and a burst of sweet pulp. Unfortunately, the figs that I've been able to find in the States are expensive and nowhere near as good as those grown near the Aegean. To make up for the disappointment of getting mediocre fruit, I created a recipe which uses a tasty assortment of toppings. Each fig gets a nub of feta and a splash of olive oil, before being broiled and topped with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and some fresh mint. The heat of the oven makes the figs jammy and sweet, which is offset nicely by the salt in the cheese and the tang of the vinegar. Of course, I needn't mention that while this appetizer is delicious with so-so figs, it will be absolutely amazing with good, ripe ones! 

Broiled Figs with Feta, Mint and Balsamic Syrup 
These figs can also be prepared on the grill, over indirect heat. The balsamic vinegar is simmered to thicken it and concentrate its sweetness, but you can skip this step and drizzle it on straight if you'd rather not bother. Serves 5.

10 figs, halved length-wise
Olive oil
1-2 oz feta or goat cheese, roughly crumbled
A few mint leaves, stacked and cut into very thin strips with scissors
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1. Turn on the broiler and place a rack in the top third of the oven. Line a baking sheet with foil and brush the foil with olive oil.

2. Gently push a hazelnut-sized bit of cheese into each fig. Line the figs, cut-side up, on the prepared baking sheet and drizzle them with a little olive oil.

3. Put the figs under the hot broiler. While the figs are broiling, simmer the vinegar in a small pan over medium-low heat until reduced by about a third, then take it off the heat. 

4. Check the figs after five minutes. The cheese should be slightly melted and browned. Broil for a minute or two more if that is not the case, then take the figs out of the oven.

5. Put a drop or two of the reduced vinegar over each fig, followed by a few strips of fresh mint. Let cool for a few minutes before serving. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Peach Mojito Granita

The weather has been completely dreary in Boston for the past few days. If it weren't for the peaches and tomatoes at the farmers' market, you wouldn't believe that it's still summer. To combat the rainy weather blues, I whipped up this easy granita. Granita is a simple Italian shaved ice dessert: Freeze a flavored liquid and scrape it with a fork to obtain crystals. This version has rum, lime and mint like a mojito, and makes good use of ripe summer peaches. Tart, fruity and a little boozy - a wonderfully refreshing treat.

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Peach Mojito Granita
Adapted from here. Using 1.5 cups of hulled strawberries instead of the peaches makes a tasty version as well. The rum can be replaced by white wine or even champagne. You can refreeze the dessert if not all of it is consumed at once. If serving to people who don't consume alcohol, omit the rum and increase the sugar by a couple of tablespoons. Serves 4-6.

2 cups (0.5l) water
2 ripe peaches, pitted but not peeled, diced
6 tbsp (90 g) sugar
6-10 large mint leaves
Juice of 1 lime
5 tbsp (75 ml) rum

1. Simmer the sugar, water and mint over medium-low heat until the sugar melts. Let cool. 

2. Blend all ingredients together in a blender. The top of the mixture will become foamy. That's OK.

3. Strain into an 8 or 9 inch wide glass baking dish and freeze for at least 4 hours, until solid.

4. Scrape the whole mixture with a fork to obtain crystals. Serve immediately.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Crispy Roasted Okra

The older I get, the more I realize that the old adage of "never say never" holds very true. The latest confirmation of this came, funnily enough, from a vegetable: Okra. As a child, I would categorically refuse to eat my mother's beloved okra stew. I mean, when you are six years old, any vegetable is the work of the devil, but okra is a special case. It's slimy. As in thick, viscous, stick-to-your-fingers-and-tongue bitter ooze. Heck, Wikipedia calls it "mucilaginous". Doesn't that sound appetizing?

Everything changed when I saw this recipe for crispy okra in a food magazine. The minute I read the word "roasted", a bell in my brain went "ding-ding!" and I rushed to the store. Thirty minutes later, I was sitting down to a delicious and healthy snack. Mellowed by the heat of the oven, the astringent okra becomes nutty and almost sweet. The pods get crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside, like a great french fry. And most incredible of all, the slime completely disappears! Who'd have thought that a vegetable I had sworn would never pass my lips could end up being so good? 

I should have known, of course. Roasting is, after all, a pretty magical way of cooking vegetables. Toss any vegetable with oil and roast at 400F for 25 minutes and you'll be amazed at what emerges from your oven. Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, kale and sweet potatoes regularly get this treatment in my kitchen, and now, okra too. Just goes to show: Never say never.

Crispy Roasted Okra

Try to pick larger okra pods. Can be served warm or room temperature. You can add cumin, coriander, garam masala or hot sauce to jazz these up. Serves 4 as a side dish or appetizer.

1 lb (0.5 kg) okra
1-2 tbsp olive oil
Juice of half a lemon (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400F (200C) and line an oven tray with foil. 

2. Halve okra pods lengthwise. Toss the pods with olive oil and place them, cut-side down and in a single layer, on the oven tray.

3. Roast on the middle rack of the oven for 25-30 minutes, until the cut sides of the pods are browned. 

4. Season with salt and toss with some lemon juice. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Easy Broiled Salmon

I'm not one for expensive, fancy kitchen equipment. More often that not, a knife and a chopping board are all you need to turn out a good meal. However, there is one piece of equipment that has slowly become indispensable to me in the past few months: My cast-iron pan. I love its versatility. It can go from the stove to the oven to the middle of a raging bonfire. Properly taken care of, it becomes naturally nonstick and won't release toxic fumes like teflon nonstick pans when heated.

While you can use a cast iron skillet to make everything from pizza to scrambled eggs to a perfectly seared steak, perhaps my favorite use of it is in this supremely easy salmon recipe. Some fish filets are spread with a tasty mixture of mayonnaise (you can substitute creme fraiche or sour cream), mustard and spices, then broiled in a preheated skillet for about five minutes. The mayo coating keeps the fish moist and the blistering heat of the skillet sears the skin beautifully. Speaking of the skin, a lot of people don't eat it but crisped up this way, it becomes just as delicious as chicken skin - it'd be a shame to discard it!

Easy Broiled Salmon
Adapted from Rick Moonen's book "Fish Without a Doubt", free excerpts of which can be viewed here. Don't skimp on the preheating time for the pan: It is essential for cooking the fish quickly and achieving a good sear. Only use cast iron for this recipe as other nonstick cookware is not broiler-safe. You can season the fish with cayenne pepper or cumin if you don't have smoked paprika.  Serves 4.

1.5 lb (750 g) salmon filets, with or without skin
4 tbsp mayonnaise or creme fraiche or sour cream
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
0.5 tbsp whole-grain Dijon mustard (optional)
Pinch of smoked paprika (optional)

1. Turn on the broiler and heat your cast iron pan under it for 15 minutes. If necessary, cut the filets so that they will fit into the pan in a single layer. 

2. While the pan is heating up, season fish on both sides with salt and black pepper. Brush the skin side with oil.

3. Mix the mustards and mayonnaise in a small bowl. Brush this mixture onto the flesh side of the fish and sprinkle with a little smoked paprika.

4. Using a pair of tongs, carefully lay the filets, skin side down and in a single layer, in the heated pan. Broil for 5-6 minutes, until the top coating is browned and bubbling.