Crouton Cook-off

The problem with spending your whole Sunday thinking it’s Saturday is that you arrive to Monday morning out of breath and without a post to share! Good thing it’s still summer for this absent-minded professor.

This week, instead of a complicated recipe, I thought I’d do a little experiment. Since I can’t make bread pudding all the time (fitting into my summer wardrobe is nice), and I refuse to toss the crusts from my weekly sourdough loaves* but I do still need room in the freezer for other things, I’ve been playing a lot with seasonings and cooking methods for croutons. My favorite way to flavor them, besides good old salt and pepper is, curiously enough, a healthy shake of poultry seasoning. The mix of herbs adds depth, and it’s nice to use that little canister more often than just on Thanksgiving Day. To lighten them up, lemon zest is also a frequent addition.

As for cooking method, I vacillate between baking the seasoned cubes and frying them in a skillet. Since in between salads I forget which I prefer, I decided to conduct a cook-off experiment, seasoning the whole batch exactly the same and then baking half the cubes and pan-frying the other half.

Ultimately, although the oven version came out a fraction crunchier, we determined the main difference between cooking method lies not in end result, but in investment of effort. The oven batch had merely to be tossed onto a cookie sheet and stowed in a preheated oven for about 20 minutes. The stovetop version had to be stirred frequently for about the same amount of time; leaving it unsupervised resulted in quickly burned bread. So we wind up with a win some, lose some set of options. On one hand, preheating and baking probably heats up your house more, but produces a slightly crisper end result with less effort from you. The stovetop method probably doesn’t warm up the room as much, and it doesn’t require as long to preheat, but if you aren’t willing to babysit the croutons, there’s less margin of error for achieving an even crunch without burning any edges. So… for perfect crisp croutons and very little effort on your part, bake your seasoned bread cubes. If it’s summer and you don’t have or want to use air conditioning, bake them in the morning, cool completely, and store in something airtight until the rest of the salad is made.

* If you still have more crusts than you know what to do with, I recently learned stale bread can be composted; see here for a short how-to.

Crouton Cook-off
Enough for 3-4 salads
zest of 2 small or 1 large lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt or ½ teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼-½ teaspoon poultry seasoning
generous ¼ cup olive oil
2 cups bread, torn or cut in cubes of your desired size
  • If you are baking your croutons, first preheat the oven to 350F.
  • Whisk all ingredients except bread together in a large bowl.
  • Add bread cubes and toss well for even coating.
  • To bake, spread seasoned cubes on a cookie sheet and stow in the oven for 15-25 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want your end product. 15 minutes preserves some give in the middle; 20-25 minutes results in fully crunchy cubes.
  • If you are pan-frying rather than baking, heat a skillet over medium heat and add the seasoned cubes. Cook 15-20 minutes, stirring and flipping frequently for even browning.
  • For both cooking methods, set croutons aside to cool before serving. They will crisp just slightly more as they cool down, but not significantly.

BBQ Tofu Salad

I’m back! At least for the moment…

At the end of the semester, I got stuck. There are many reasons for this, but one is that I fell into familiarity. There are some foods we love, and we make over and over again, but they just don’t feel “blog-worthy.” One of the challenges of this format is the urge for new, insightful, creative, beautiful dishes (that are also, somehow, affordable, easy, and don’t take very long to prepare), and while I’m usually up for that, a little cruise through the standards can be comforting. (Interestingly, it’s also probably more environmentally friendly: the book I’m currently teaching in my composition courses – Edward Humes’ Garbology – includes findings from a study that people tend to create less food waste when they eat the same thing over and over. Less adventurous, perhaps, but more sustainable – since we know we like it, we don’t throw away the unexpected results or less-than-beloved leftovers.)

But we recently did our almost-annual road trip up to Oregon and back, and if there’s one thing I typically gain from vacation with friends and family, it’s ideas. Enter S. She’s a frequent contributor to this site, both in terms of feedback and inspiration. Living in Los Angeles has increased our meat consumption considerably, and being back in Eugene and staying with S. (who is vegetarian and whose current job requires her to think and live sustainably) reminded us sharply of meat’s high carbon footprint and resource use. It also reminded me how much fun it is to work one’s way around that protein-center on the plate and develop other flavors.

Perhaps my favorite thing S. made us while we were in Eugene was a salad. That doesn’t sound exciting, but for the five of you still reading, hang with me. Years ago, S. worked at California Pizza Kitchen, and fell, as many have, for their BBQ Chicken Salad. Of course she developed a vegetarian version and made other tweaks of her own to the original, and I found the bright, sharp, fresh and spicy bowl she put in front of us so craveable it was the first thing I wanted to recreate when we got home.

Like S., my version uses thick slabs of tofu drenched in BBQ sauce – either make your own or find a bottled version you like that isn’t too sweet – and then grilled. Toss together everything you like in a Mexican or Southwestern direction that belongs in salad with mixed greens – here we’re pulling together black beans, tomatoes, avocado, green onion, cilantro, and the non-negotiable coup de grace of fried tortilla strips on top. The original salad from CPK uses chunks of jicama and adds basil along with the cilantro; you could certainly do that as well.

As for dressing, S. used a tasty ranch, and added chunks of Monterey jack cheese to the salad. I went in a different direction, whipping up a blue cheese drizzle with equal parts buttermilk, mayonnaise, and blue cheese crumbles. We decided upon reflection we liked S.’s dressing choice slightly better, and in future incarnations of this dish we’ll swap out for that, and maybe some crumbles of queso fresco instead of the rich funk of the blue cheese or the neutral creaminess of the jack.

As you can see, this salad looks really nice in a composed presentation, either positioning all of the non-greens in sections around a center like spokes on a wheel as I did, or Cobb salad style, arranged in rows next to each other atop the lettuce mix. At the last minute, add on the dressing, another drizzle or two of BBQ sauce if you want, and the tortillas in a crispy stack. But if you aren’t feeling fussy, tossing everything together to serve will be easier and just as delicious.

Note: I tend to find in salad recipes that nearly everything is negotiable and, at best, quantities are approximations. That is, some people like more tomato than others, and some want to amp up the cheese. Some might not want as much dressing, and some think a whole can of black beans sounds excessive. To that end, I have provided you with quantities, but you should feel free to adjust as desired. Want more corn? Great. Use three ears. Want less green onion? Okay, do that. Want to backwards engineer the whole thing and replace the tofu with chicken? That would be tasty as well. The point is, it’s an outrageously delicious entrée salad that, minus frying the tortilla strips, requires nothing from your stove or oven, and would pair just as well with a margarita or a cold beer as it does with a frosted glass of lemonade. Certainly, my dog-friend here would have happily gulped it down even without an accompanying beverage.

BBQ Tofu Salad

Historical connections to CPK, though I’ve only had S.’s version of their original

Serves 4-6

2 ears corn on the cob

1 TB olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

16 oz. extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry

1 cup BBQ sauce of your choice (not too sweet)

6-8 cups mixed greens (I like a combination of romaine, red cabbage, and a kale slaw mix from Trader Joe’s I’m currently obsessed with)

¼ cup thinly sliced green onions, dark green parts only

¼-½ cup cilantro and/or basil leaves, roughly chopped

1 can (14-15 oz) black beans, drained and rinsed

1-2 avocados, pitted and cubed (I like this method of pitting from the kitchn)

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

½ cup cheese chunks or crumbles: either blue cheese, Monterey jack, or queso fresco

2-3 corn tortillas cut into thin strips

vegetable oil to fry

additional salt to season tortilla strips

~ 1 cup (or desired amount) blue cheese or ranch dressing

Additional BBQ sauce, if desired

Optional: lime wedges to serve

 

  • Preheat a gas grill or grill pan over medium high heat. While you wait, shuck the corn, removing the husk and as much silk as possible, but leave on the stem for easier kernel removal later. Rub the ears with the 1 TB olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper on all sides. Place on the preheated grill and cook over direct heat for about 8 minutes total, turning every two minutes or so, until the corn is fully cooked and has a healthy golden brown char. Set aside until it is cool enough to handle.
  • Slice the tofu block into 4 slabs and dredge each in BBQ sauce. Reduce the grill heat to medium and grill over direct heat for about 4 minutes per side, until nicely marked. Set aside with corn to cool while you make the rest of the salad.
  • In a large bowl, toss together the mixed greens, green onions, and cilantro and/or basil. Arrange or toss the black beans, avocado chunks, tomatoes, and cheese chunks or crumbles as desired on or in the greens mix.
  • When the corn and tofu are cool enough to handle, cut the tofu slabs into chunks of your desired size. For the corn, cut off the kernels by standing up the cob on your cutting board (you can use the stem to hold onto, if you’ve left it attached) and carefully cutting straight down the ear with a sharp knife, sawing the blade back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. When you get to the bottom of the ear, rotate the cob a half turn or so and cut again, repeating until you have removed all kernels. Add both tofu and corn to the salad.
  • For the tortilla strips, heat about ¼ inch of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium high heat until the edge of one of your strips sizzles when dipped in. Add the sliced tortillas a handful at a time, spreading them out in the skillet so they don’t overlap too much. Fry about a minute on each side, or until they are light brown and crisp. Remove to a paper towel lined plate and immediately sprinkle with salt. Repeat as needed.
  • To finish the salad, add the dressing over the top in a rough circle. If desired, drizzle 1-2 TB more of the BBQ sauce right over the dressing for a nice contrast of red on white. Collect the fried tortilla strips in two hands and arrange them loosely over the center of the salad like straws. Serve with lime wedges to squeeze on if desired.

Dessert Latkes

One of the great shames of holiday food, I feel, is how assertively we restrict it to holidays. Every Thanksgiving when I eat that first piece of turkey straight off the carving fork (there are privileges to being the cook), I think to myself, “why do I only make this once a year?” Of course, that’s after I’ve already had a glass of wine and a few snacks, so I’m repressing the amount of work I’ve just undergone to get that thing defrosted, prepped and suitably accompanied, and haven’t yet allowed myself to think about the labor to come of denuding its carcass, fabricating broth, and dreaming up leftovers.

But turkey is only one example. There are so many other foods that we reserve strictly for their special day. In my family, the challah my mom taught us to make gets trotted out on Christmas Day, and sometimes on Easter. It was a surprise to me to learn that my aunt N. makes it multiple times a year, whenever she and her husband want a slice. But this is a silly thing to be surprised about. Why shouldn’t we make whatever foods we crave, whenever we crave them? I don’t think gingerbread would cease to be special just because I make a batch in March and in October as well as the night before Christmas. Besides, holding onto these foods as once-a-year-sacred means we don’t get an opportunity to experiment with them, since whatever masses you’re feeling probably want THE dish, not a derivative thereof. And okay, I admit, the old standard is good in itself, but the opportunity to play is one of the great rewards of cooking: what if I added apples to the gingerbread this time around? How would the turkey be with dill and mustard powder rubbed into the butter?

One of the great injustices of this restriction of holiday foods is that people are not, I suspect, ingesting as many latkes as they rightfully should be. While it’s true that these carry a slightly more meaningful symbolic link to their holiday than gingerbread does, indulging their delectable crispiness without pondering on the miracle of the oil lasting a full eight nights feels to me like sensible celebration rather than sacrilege. And once you get into the habit of eating latkes throughout the year, rather than just during Hanukkah, you start to realize that potato and onion are nice and all, but there are other options out there that deserve attention in crispy fried form.

This time around, I wondered what would happen if you moved latkes from the dinner to the dessert course. Sweet potatoes seemed like a natural choice, and instead of onion, I went with apple – it adds a tart sweetness that mellows as it cooks, and it would contribute, I thought, similar water content as the onion in the original. A toss with flour and eggs, some cinnamon to lend extra autumnal feeling, the requisite bubbling fry, and then a stack dripping with maple syrup, or sweetened sour cream, or maybe a drizzle of honey for really tooth-aching indulgence.

When I dug in, I found the combination of frying and sweetness reminded me ever so slightly of funnel cake – the snowy sprinkle of powdered sugar on top would have fit right in. I do suggest using orange sweet potatoes (often marketed as yams) if you are serving these for dessert; they are a little less firm in texture when they cook, but they are definitely sweeter. On the other hand, if you are looking for an interesting, produce-led alternative to pancakes, use the slightly less-sweet yellow or white fleshed sweet potatoes, and these could slide right in as a breakfast – perhaps for the holidays, okay, but in the spirit of not restricting ourselves, perhaps for any cool morning the urge for something special arises.

* though these are designed to be sweet, they could easily edge back toward the savory camp with the addition of black pepper or sage, and a more traditional topper of plain sour cream. Or you could make them even more dessert-like by adding other wintery spices we associate with pies and cakes – maybe even pumpkin (pie) spice in all its polarizing glory, as a nod to the season.

 

Dessert Latkes
30-45 minutes
Makes 9-10 3-inch latkes
2 medium sweet potatoes – orange fleshed for a sweeter product, white fleshed for less sweetness
1 medium granny smith apple
2 eggs
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½-¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Vegetable oil to fry
Maple syrup, powdered sugar, honey, or sour cream mixed with some brown sugar, to serve

 

  • Peel the sweet potatoes. If using a box grater, shred them with the large holes. If using a food processor, cut them down into large chunks that will just fit in the feed tube. Quarter and core the apples. Use a box grater or food processor fitted with the shredding disc to shred the sweet potatoes and apples. Scrape the shreds straight onto a clean kitchen towel and wring it out vigorously into the sink. When you’ve exhausted your arm muscles, let the towel-wrapped shreds sit for two minutes, then squeeze again. You should be able to extract a little more.
  • In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, the flour, the baking powder, the salt, and the cinnamon. Dump in the drained sweet potato and apple shreds and mix well – I find a fork works reasonably for this, but nothing is as good as your fingers to ensure even integration.
  • Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; you want enough to come about ½ inch up the sides (the quantity will vary depending on the size of your pan). Cast iron is my vessel of choice for latkes.
  • When the oil is shimmering, carefully place small heaps of the latke mixture straight into the skillet – I use my hands for this, but of course you’ll need to be very careful. Ensure the small heaps don’t touch one another. Use the flat side of a spatula to gently flatten each heap.
  • Cook over medium-high heat 4-5 minutes, until the bottoms are crisp and well browned. Flip and cook another 3-4 minutes, then remove from heat and repeat with remaining mixture.
  • While you are cooking the latkes, it’s useful to store each batch in a 300F oven on a wire rack placed over a cookie sheet. This keeps them warm and lets any excess oil drip off.
  • To serve, stack up a pile of latkes and drizzle, sprinkle, or pour on your desired topping. Eat hot.

Tempura Fish Tacos with Wasabi Seaweed Slaw

2016-food-blog-october-0287Wedding week has come and gone, and yes, it was as magical and as maniacal and just as much hard work and hard play and hard dancing as you might expect. I fully intended to keep an instagram record of food we made and food we ate, but as often happens when I return to the family fold, I clean forgot about the internet for – gasp – full days at a time, and thus no record was made. You’ll have to trust me when I say it was delicious.

2016-food-blog-october-0264But I’m back now, and treading water to catch up at work, while I allow myself to sink deeply back into my kitchen. For a few weeks before we left, I was drowning in recipe-writer’s-block, but on the plane on the way home I made my “meals for the week” list in about three minutes flat, and had already constructed the one for next week by the time we got home from the grocery store. It helps that Los Angeles has declared at least one week of autumnal weather, so all that roasting and winter veg I’ve been itching for is making its way into my fridge.

2016-food-blog-october-0261Although these tacos aren’t really all that autumnal, they were a product of my plunge back into post-wedding cooking. I had originally planned to sauté the fish very simply, but a bag of rice flour in my pantry whispered at me, and suddenly I was whisking flour with seltzer water and a touch of baking powder, and watching my simple tempura batter puff, crisp and light, around the frying filets.

2016-food-blog-october-0256I always make a cabbage slaw when we have fish tacos; usually it’s just a toss of green cabbage, cilantro, lime juice, and a bit of salt. But given the Asian direction of my frying method, I decided to play a bit with the flavorings. Instead of lime juice, I’m using rice vinegar here, and for a creamy, brightly spicy slaw, whisking in mayonnaise and wasabi sauce. For extra intrigue and a texture that shifts in a moment from crisp to chewy, strips of nori get tossed in at the last minute.

2016-food-blog-october-0260Other additions: I thought about nestling thin slices of radish in alongside the fish for a fresh crunch, and though at the last minute I forgot, I still think they would be a nice addition. If you really wanted to fancy things up from a texture perspective, topping each taco with a tangle of sliced, fried won ton wrappers would be fantastic. I like a slightly puffy flour tortilla for these, toasted (or slightly charred) over a gas flame, but corn tortillas, hard or soft, would be lovely as well.

2016-food-blog-october-0266Note: the downside of tempura is that time is an enemy. It doesn’t stay crisp for all that long, especially if what is lovingly encased inside is moist, and it doesn’t keep at all well. Plan to make only as much as you intend to eat at one sitting.

2016-food-blog-october-0280

Tempura Fish Tacos with Seaweed Wasabi Slaw
45-60 minutes
Serves 3
For the slaw:
¼ cup mayonnaise
2-3 tablespoons wasabi sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar or mirin (rice wine)
3 cups shredded or very finely sliced cabbage – I used a mixture of green and red
½ cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves
1 ounce sheet of nori (sushi seaweed), cut into thin strips, to add at the last minute
For the tacos:
1 pound firm, meaty white fish like mahi mahi or halibut, cut into long, slim fingers as in the photo above.
1½ cups vegetable oil, for frying
1 cup rice flour or all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
8 ounces seltzer water
6 tortillas

 

  • 45-60 minutes before dinner, start the slaw: whisk the mayo, the wasabi sauce, the rice vinegar, and the sugar in a small bowl. Combine the shredded cabbage with the cilantro in a large bowl, then drizzle over ⅔ – ¾ of the sauce and toss – you are looking for a light coating of sauce. Save the remainder to drizzle over the tacos last minute. Once the cabbage is dredged in sauce, set it aside until you are ready to serve – at least 30 minutes.
  • Heat the vegetable oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until it is around 350F.
  • While the oil warms, make the tempura batter: whisk the flour with the baking powder and salt in a medium bowl or right in a pie plate. Add the seltzer water a little at a time, whisking to combine, until you have a smooth batter. The seltzer will fizz considerably as you add it, making things hard to see, so be assiduous and make sure you have incorporated all of the dry pockets of flour.
  • When the oil is suitably hot, add the fish strips to the tempura batter and turn them over a few times to coat evenly. Lift each piece, let it drain briefly, then lay it into the skillet gently, letting it go away from you in case of a splash. The oil will bubble up rapidly with each addition.
  • Add as many of the fish pieces as you can in a single layer without touching each other, then let cook until puffed and brown, turning once, about 3-4 minutes per side.
  • If you absolutely must hold the fish for a bit while other components are finalized, place the cooked pieces on a wire rack positioned over a baking sheet and stow it in a 250F oven. Try to minimize how long it sits in the oven, though, as it will quickly overcook and lose its crispness.
  • During the last two minutes of cooking, toast the tortillas over a gas flame and add the nori strips to the slaw, tossing briefly. Alternatively, you could reserve the nori strips and just layer on a few atop the slaw to serve.
  • To make the tacos, stuff the tortillas with a piece of fish, a drizzle of the extra sauce if you wish, and a nice scoop of slaw. Serve immediately.

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Fried zucchini and eggplant sandwiches

2016 Food Blog August-0626What is it about summer and fried food? It doesn’t make sense. Why would we want, on the hottest of afternoons, foods at nuclear temperatures encased inside hot, thick, sometimes greasy breading that, should we make them ourselves, require rivulets of sweat and a pot of shimmering, toe-endangering oil? Is it the hazy memory of a thousand state and county fairs of collective childhood, studded with corn dogs and funnel cake and battered oreos? Is it the only kind of seafood we would eat for lunch as kids, and thus required for a beach day? Is it just that green tomatoes are only really worth eating when they are lovingly smothered by a cornmeal crust?

2016 Food Blog August-05902016 Food Blog August-0606I’ve done this height-of-summer-frying thing before, and here I am again, dunking breaded vegetables in hot oil to create a sandwich inspired by Disneyland and babaganoush (there’s an unexpected pairing, eh?), that ticks all the flavor marks including that deep, primal urge for crisp coated, meltingly soft centered fried food, on a sun-streaming, fan-screaming kind of week.

2016 Food Blog August--22016 Food Blog August-0613I said Disneyland and babaganoush, and that truly is how the sandwich was imagined. A few months ago on a trip to that happiest of places, I ordered a fried green tomato sandwich. It was good – the tomatoes were tangy and sharp, and the sandwich format made creamy, fatty remoulade a requirement – but I thought it could be more. Instead of just the green tomatoes, there could be zucchini. There could be eggplant. There could be, rather than a mayonnaise based sauce, something with yogurt, with herbs, with lemon. There could be tahini.

2016 Food Blog August-With the addition of that idea of sesame, I was suddenly in babaganoush territory, that lovely roasted eggplant dip, soft and pulpy and aromatic.* From there, all links to green tomatoes were cleanly severed, and I was daydreaming Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavor combinations.

2016 Food Blog August-0616The sandwich we ended up with – the one that ticks every box (or perhaps every taste bud) – has the crunch-into-barely-resistant-softness of panko-coated fried vegetables, a tangy, rich spread of yogurt and tahini lightened with lemon and a mixture of herbs, and a shower of tangy crumbled goat cheese. It has pickled onions for a sour astringency, and the sticky sweet coup de grace of a drizzle of pomegranate molasses. You don’t want too much of it, but this wouldn’t be the same sandwich if you left it off. The bread is lightly toasted, and the breading for the vegetables carries a light dusting of cayenne pepper for a suggestion of heat. What’s more, you can eat the leftovers – if there are any – without the sandwich: stacked up kindling style and sprinkled and drizzled with the extras, the vegetables shine even more brightly. I had them for lunch this way the day after our sandwiches, and I’m kicking myself for not taking a photo or two before I plunged in.

2016 Food Blog August-0617A few notes: the pomegranate molasses can certainly be purchased if you don’t want to make it yourself – look for a Middle Eastern grocery store – but it’s pretty easy (and much cheaper) to make if you don’t mind taking the time. You will probably wind up with extra, which could be drizzled over everything from salad to grilled poultry to ice cream. Because it takes a while, to speed up the dinner prep you could make the molasses the day before, and store it in a glass jar in the fridge, where it will thicken considerably overnight. A minute or two before you are ready to assemble the sandwiches, immerse your jar of pomegranate molasses in a bowl of very hot water. It will warm and liquefy enough to be pourable again. As for the bread, we ended up with ciabatta rolls, but I think something seeded might also be nice for these sandwiches – perhaps these shaped like hot dog buns instead of full loaves. In any case if you use a roll or a bun instead of sliced bread, you’ll want to dig out the soft center so there’s room in the middle to stack up plenty of the vegetable slices.

2016 Food Blog August-06202016 Food Blog August-0622* I realize not all babaganoush contains tahini, but the ones I’ve liked do, along with lemon, and some herbs, and a shower of pomegranate seeds.

2016 Food Blog August-0628

Fried Zucchini and Eggplant Sandwiches
Quantities listed are for two sandwiches, but are easily doubled
About 45 minutes
Pomegranate molasses:
1 cup pomegranate juice (I like the POM brand)
Tahini yogurt spread:
2 tablespoons tahini paste
4 tablespoons (¼ cup) greek yogurt
1-2 teaspoons lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint
¼ – ½ teaspoon salt, to taste
Sandwich:
1 cup vegetable oil
2 zucchini, cut into long planks
1 Chinese or Japanese eggplant, cut into long planks
¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt + more for post-frying sprinkling
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
¼ cup crumbled goat cheese
2 tablespoons pickled onions or to taste
2 sandwich rolls of your choice about 6-8 inches in length; we used ciabatta

 

  • Begin with the pomegranate molasses, as this takes the longest: pour the pomegranate juice into a small pot and boil over medium heat until you have only about 2 tablespoons left; 20-25 minutes. The juice will have a slightly thicker viscosity, and you’ll know it’s seconds from being done when the whole thing seems to be a frantic stack of bubbles. Set it aside to cool – it will thicken into a syrup. (You can also refrigerate overnight – see note above.)
  • While the pomegranate juice reduces, make the tahini yogurt spread. In a small bowl, whisk together the tahini and yogurt with the lemon zest and juice. Add the herbs and the salt, whisk again to thoroughly combine, and taste for seasoning. Adjust quantities of salt and lemon juice as desired. Set aside.
  • For the sandwich filling, set up a three-part breading station: you will need three plates or shallow bowls. Pie plates work very well. On the first plate/bowl, combine the flour with the salt and cayenne, mixing well with a fork or a small whisk. Spread out the flour mixture in an even layer across the plate. In the second plate/bowl, crack the eggs and beat well to combine. In the third plate/bowl, dump 2 cups of the panko and spread out in an even layer.
  • In a large, deep skillet with straight sides, heat the oil to about 350F. While it warms up, bread the vegetables. First coat each slice of eggplant and zucchini in a light layer of flour. Then transfer to the egg and coat again, being sure all dry flour is covered. Finally, press lightly into the panko on both sides. Set each slice on a separate plate or a wire cooling rack until the oil is ready. Set another wire rack over a baking tray and place in an oven set for 300F. This is to keep the finished slices warm and crisp while the rest are frying.
  • When the oil hits 350F, begin adding the vegetable slices. Carefully place them into the oil individually, only adding four or five at a time to avoid crowding the skillet – the more you put in there, the lower the oil temperature gets, which can lead to a greasy end product. Fry over medium to medium-high heat until the panko coating is nicely browned and crisp, about 3 minutes per side. As the slices are finished frying, sprinkle them lightly with salt and add them to the wire rack set-up in the warm oven until you are ready to assemble and serve. Repeat until all slices are fried.
  • Split the sandwich rolls lengthwise and dig out most of the interior, leaving a thin layer of crust on all sides (you can keep the hunks you dug out for bread crumbs). Lightly toast the remaining crust in the oven with your fried vegetables or in a toaster oven, just until it is warm and slightly crisp on the outside.
  • To assemble, smear a tablespoon or two of tahini yogurt spread on each side of the sandwich rolls. Stack a few slices of vegetables onto the bottom of the roll, being sure you have both zucchini and eggplant on your sandwich. Strew on a few slices of pickled onion, about 2 tablespoons of crumbled goat cheese, and drizzle over about a tablespoon of pomegranate molasses. Clamp on the top of the roll, cut the sandwich in half with a serrated knife for easier eating, and serve immediately.

 

“Rumpled Donuts”

2016 Food Blog January-0343Some of the blog search terms I’ll be using for this year’s project are straightforward, and some made proto-recipes fly immediately into my head. This one did not. Part of the reason I chose to do it first was simply because I wasn’t sure what “rumpled donuts” should be, and wanted to figure it out before I was too deep into the spring semester.

2016 Food Blog January-0316Though I can think of what many “rumpled” baked goods might look like – particularly rumpled pancakes, which might be crepes, or maybe that lovely giant Dutch baby or German pancake that rises up past the edges in the pan – I couldn’t fathom what a rumpled donut might be. If you’re still out there, searcher, what were you after? When I think “rumpled,” I think unmade bed sheets. It’s uneven. It’s piled and layered, and that meant my dough, whatever I opted for, would also have to be uneven. Clearly this is a problem for regular dough – in almost all baked goods you want your dough or batter to be rolled or spread or patted out to the same thickness all the way across, for even cooking. It would need, then, to be a non-traditional dough.

2016 Food Blog January-0319I’m not sure what eventually led me to phyllo. Certainly I thought of my favorite donut, the perfectly delicious but sometimes overlooked apple fritter, and somewhere in the contemplation of apple and cinnamon and unmade beds, I thought of a crumpled layer of phyllo dough, and I knew exactly what I would do. Phyllo would get twisted and wrapped around a ring of apple, then fried until crisp and dredged in a healthy layer of cinnamon sugar. Bingo. Rumpled donut. The apple slices would have to be cooked for a while first, though, since the phyllo would fry so quickly.

2016 Food Blog January-0312Next to making caramel, frying is the cooking project that puts me most on edge. The oil takes a long time to come up to temperature, it seems like so much, and there’s always the fear that, well, you have a vat of boiling oil on your stove right next to your hands, and arms, and legs, and all those body parts you’d prefer remained un-fried. In this case, there was also the complication of working with phyllo, which needs to be treated quickly and delicately to avoid tearing or drying out. For that reason, even after deciding exactly what I would do, I put off making these for three weeks. Surely, I thought, they would be more trouble than the end product was worth.

2016 Food Blog January-0330Untrue. I’m not in a rush to make them again, but for a pure experiment they were amazing. The apple rings are meltingly tender after a sauté in butter and brown sugar spiked with a cinnamon stick. The loose buttery caramel they leave behind is the perfect slick to brush between phyllo layers to help them cook through and to sweeten the tasteless, papery dough. Once fried, which only takes about a minute on each side, the phyllo is impossibly crisp, not particularly greasy, and deeply golden. It’s like a croissant and an apple fritter had a beautiful affair. I made six of these, since that’s how many rings I divided my apple into, and since each one consisted only of one slice of apple and one sheet of phyllo, N. and I felt no compunction whatsoever about eating three each over the course of the afternoon and evening.

2016 Food Blog January-03392016 Food Blog January-0337Here’s the thing, though. Most of the recipes I post here, I want you to cook. I try to make them precise, and organized, and exact, so you can replicate them successfully, with your own touches, if you wish. This one is different. Unless you’re really into what you’re seeing here, don’t make these. They were outstandingly delicious, yes, but they were also a giant pain to execute. The apples tore, the phyllo tore, there was sugar everywhere, and as you’ll see below, the process of folding and twisting and wrapping is tricky to describe and to do (and impossible to take pictures of – I gave up). What I’d advise instead, and what I will likely do when a craving for fried phyllo arises, is to forget about the donut ring shape. Just make packets – twist or roll or wrap up a sautéed slice or plank of apple in phyllo layers and drop it into the oil that way. It will still produce sweet, tender apples in flaky, crispy layers of dough that shatter everywhere upon impact, but you’ll save yourself a lot of irritation in the construction phase. And if apples aren’t your jam, I’d imagine you could use almost anything: a smear of pesto, a dollop of nutella, a slice of brie spread with fig or apricot preserves and wrapped in prosciutto inside that papery crispy envelope.

2016 Food Blog January-0309Just in case, though, what follows is my procedure, as clearly as I can describe it, for my attempt to invent the “rumpled donut.” Enjoy!

2016 Food Blog January-0344

Rumpled Donuts
Makes 6
45-60 minutes, roughly, depending on how many donuts you fry at a time
1 large green apple
4-5 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of salt
6 sheets phyllo dough (or however many apple rings you end up with)
1-2 quarts vegetable oil
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon

 

  • Begin to heat the oil to 350F in a deep pot. I use one with straight sides, but a wok would probably also work nicely. Oil should be at least three inches deep.
  • While the oil heats, prep your ingredients. Skin the apple and core it, leaving a hole down the center at least 1 ½ inches in diameter. Cut the cored apple into ¼ inch thick rings – for me, this made 6 even slices.
  • Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the brown sugar, the cinnamon stick, and the pinch of salt and stir or whisk together the sugar is fully dissolved into the butter. Add the apples in a single layer and sauté until tender, about 2 minutes per side. When apple slices are tender but not mushy, turn off the heat, remove apple slices from the pan, and set them aside to cool until room temperature, or just barely warm.
  • While the apples are cooling, combine the granulated sugar and cinnamon in a small dish, and prepare a work station for the phyllo dough. You will need a large board and two slightly damp kitchen towels. Lay one towel down on a countertop, place the 6 sheets of phyllo on it, then cover the phyllo with the other towel. Phyllo dries out fast, and when it dries it becomes brittle and even more difficult to work with. Set out a wire rack with paper towels, or a cookie sheet, or a large plate underneath – this is where you will set your finished rumpled donuts.
  • Carefully separate one sheet of phyllo from its companions and spread it out on the large board. Cut it in half width-wise so you end up with two fatter rectangles (as opposed to two thinner ones, as you would if you cut it lengthwise). Use the leftover butter and sugar mixture in your pan to brush lightly over each rectangle (if this has solidified and seems unbrushable, add the additional tablespoon of butter, put it over low heat, and stir or whisk together until melted and spreadable again). Fold each phyllo rectangle in half lengthwise for two longer, thinner strips. Repeat, brushing and folding again, for each piece so you have two thin strips of phyllo.
  • Now comes the pesky part. Take one of your apple rings and carefully insert one of the phyllo strips through the hole in the center. Pull the apple through about ¼ of the length of the phyllo, and wrap that ¼ back around the apple ring. Draw the remaining phyllo strip around the apple ring and back through the hole. This is easiest if you draw the end of the phyllo through as though you were threading a needle, rather than pushing from the middle of the phyllo strip, which can encourage tearing. Continue to draw the phyllo through and carefully wrap it around the apple ring in a spiral, and repeat with the second strip. You will need both to form a full spiral of dough around the apple, completely encircling it. Tuck the ends of phyllo into the central hole of the apple to secure.
  • Repeat with the remaining apple rings and sheets of phyllo.
  • When you have wrapped your apples and your oil has reached a temperature somewhere in the window of 350-365F, you are ready to fry. Use a skimmer or a kitchen spider to carefully lower the “donuts” into the oil one at a time. If your pot is wide, you can fry more than one at once. I just did one at a time.
  • Fry the “donuts” until deeply golden, then flip and repeat. For me, this took about 1 minute per side. Carefully remove with the skimmer and let it drain over the pot of oil for a few seconds, then sprinkle liberally with the cinnamon sugar mixture (be sure to get both sides!), and set gently on the wire rack to cool for at least 5-10 minutes. This will ensure that all surfaces stay crispy. Keep an eye on your oil temperature, ensuring that it remains in the 350-365F range.
  • Repeat with remaining donuts, and eat as soon as they are cool enough to handle, with plenty of napkins at the ready. We did not save any, so I don’t know how they store, but my guess is the phyllo will not retain its perfect crunch overnight.