Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The eggplant experiment.

Sweating eggplant
Earlier this year, while visiting my mom in San Luis Obispo, Calif., she paid me a compliment I carry with me. It hides beneath my mess of hair, about an inch from my ear, nearly in the back crook of my neck, so it's easy to forget about completely. But every once in a while, it asserts its presence in a whisper: "Who would've thought," mom said, "that my daughter would be a great chef?" Her pride simultaneously warmed my heart and filled me with anxiety, because even though I've come a long way since I nearly burned the house down attempting to cook bacon for the first time at age 14, I feel like I'm harboring a dark secret: most of the time, I have no idea what I'm doing. I don't think I'm supposed to say things like that, but it's true. My brother says I'm an idea person, which means simple thoughts often lead to hours spent online researching how to pull said ideas off, or asking around to get a feel for what people I trust might do. I usually do things my own way, despite my findings, and lately I've been lucky.

Silver-dollar eggplants

A few weeks ago, confronted by a dozen or so eggplants from my CSA share, I asked a coworker if she knew a way to preserve them. She suggested pickling, which sounded like a fine idea, except I've only quick pickled a few things -- garlic and watermelon rind -- so, of course, I had no idea where to start. My online research turned up a wealth of recipes and stories; like so many age-old recipes, each was slightly different. That, of course, empowered me to do what I do best. So, I took to the kitchen, and began to experiment. I used four or five small eggplants, thinking it would yield more than one jar; I should've known they would shrink. Ever the optimist, I reasoned it was good my test batch was small. It might, after all, taste awful, or worse make me sick (in all my reading, I found only one mention of botulism, and it was brief, essentially suggesting following the proper precautions and consuming eggplant within a few weeks. I also read that, if stored in the refrigerator, pickled eggplant is good for up to one year).

Pickled eggplant in olive oil

Thankfully, the experiment was a delicious success -- the eggplant was just vinegary enough and surprisingly firm in texture, although dripping with a slightly spicy olive oil. I'd added a few cloves of garlic to the pickling mixture, and crushed red pepper flakes as well as a small hot pepper to the oil. I also had added some fresh basil (this was a few weeks ago), which provided a gorgeous -- if not slight -- aroma. I ate the entire jar in one day (on a sandwich, with some mozzarella, as a side) and used the left-over oil to dress salads. Then, as soon as I got my hands on more eggplant, I made another batch. I spiced the second batch differently, using dried herbs instead of fresh and omitting the garlic, and it was just as good. I served it at breakfast the other day, something I'd never thought to do. Again, we ate almost the whole jar. Good thing I had doubled the recipe.

Pickled eggplant packed in olive oil


4-5 small eggplants
Sea salt
1 cup white wine vinegar
2 cups water
2 cloves garlic, peeled and whole (optional)
Crushed red pepper flakes
Dried oregano
Extra-virgin olive oil

Slice eggplants into silver-dollar sized rounds, put slices in a colander, and sprinkle generously with sea salt. Weigh slices down with a plate and allow to sweat for at least four hours (when sweating eggplant, be sure to put a deep plate under your colander to catch the run-off). This tenderizes the flesh of the eggplant and helps reduce bitterness. Remove excess moisture with a towel.

In a medium sauce pan, combine vinegar, water and garlic. Bring to boil.

In batches, boil eggplant slices for approximately 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a sterilized jar, tightly layer cooled eggplant slices and chosen herbs.

Cover in extra-virgin olive oil.

Store at room temperature until opened. Pickled eggplant can keep in the refrigerator for up to a year.

Yields one 12-ounce jar.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thursday morning No. 2.

I was planning a real feast for this Thursday morning; while trolling the neighborhood the other day, I picked up some gorgeous flint corn polenta and a big can of San Marzano tomatoes at Marlow & Daughters. I bought some eggs there, too, and for the past two days I've been dreaming about a bowl of creamy polenta topped with simmered tomato and a fried egg. My mouth waters every time I consider it -- even now, when I'm no longer hungry and I ate something else entirely different. Maybe next week, because today I didn't have time. I have a friend in town and all spare moments have been spent seeing shows, visiting New York friends and getting caught up on life. Last night, we chatted and giggled well past 2 a.m., so when the alarm buzzed at 9, I immediately rewrote my breakfast plan. Today would be an eggs and toast day. Besides, I justified through half-dreaming eyes, we're having lunch at Tabla, so we can't be too full.

Poached egg w/ radish greens

Eggs and toast is my favorite breakfast, and this variation -- poached eggs over sautéed greens with garlic and hot pepper -- took less than 20 minutes. While I brought the kettle to boil for coffee, I also boiled a small pot of water with an added dash of vinegar (I use rice, but white is fine). Then, in a heated skillet, I sautéed a handful of washed and dried radish greens in a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil. When the greens started to break down, I added a minced garlic clove, a pinch of salt and a big pinch of crushed red pepper flakes. When the garlic began to release that wonderful cooked garlic smell, I removed the skillet from the heat and dropped the bread to toast. By this time, the water was boiling. While the coffee steeped (I use a French press), I carefully poached two eggs. As they took shape (2 to 3 minutes), I drizzled our toast with a little more olive oil and topped it with the greens. I finished that with the eggs and a dash of black pepper. The coffee was ready, and Camera Obscura was playing that way they do. It was -- without planning -- exactly what I wanted.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A new routine.

My friend has the enviable habit of taking himself to Balthazar every Wednesday morning. Ever since I learned of this, I've longed for a morning tradition of my own. I love the idea of being a breakfast regular, your server knowing how you take your coffee before you even sit down. I wonder if I'd be the type of person to order the same thing every time, or if I'd eat my way through the menu? Likely, it'd be the latter, because as much as I dream of having a routine, I'm not that kind of girl. Hence, I'll enjoy farina and dried fruit for breakfast one day, cold pizza with market arugula the next. Coffee, it seems, is the only constant in my daily routine.

A new routine.

I was thinking about this, just now, as I chopped some leafy greens and a perfect orange pepper for an impromptu omelette. I love making myself a proper breakfast, but often I don't make time. It's a shame really, because sitting down to an omelette or a plate of pancakes is pure joy, especially when you can do it in your pajamas. I adore blogs such as Simply Breakfast, where a single image can capture a quiet morning, early light, ambition.

I am not a photographer. I like photography; I even took a few classes in college. But I am a writer, a writer who loves breakfast, and today I'm starting a tradition of my own: Thursday breakfast at my house, wherein I'll share a photo or two, and a little how-to. I hope you enjoy, and are inspired to treat yourself to something special and enjoy the morning calm. The omelette above I filled with sautéed garlic, greens, pepper and sun gold tomatoes (all from my CSA share). I served it alongside a toasted bagel and Greek yogurt topped with a spoonful of honey and red pepper flakes. I made myself a cup of China Rose tea, my favorite. And I licked my plate. You can't do that in a restaurant, which is why it's better I eat at home.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A potato salad for all seasons.

Picnic tools
I gave up French fries for summer: an admittedly silly attempt to watch my waistline and heart health, because things felt a little out of hand. Initially when I swore off the chips, I thought I'd discover worthy substitutions. But I didn't even try. Not seriously, anyway. I did slow roast countless batches of spuds in olive oil with fresh herbs (the ones below were with dill flower and garlic scapes, and they were spectacular), but I decided almost immediately upon taking my fry-free oath that the only way I would succeed (and survive) was to simply ignore my cravings and ride out the season. I confess to cheating twice: once on vacation (so it didn't really count), and once when I was eating mussels and so ordered the compulsory fries and failed to even remember my vow until I was down to maybe 10, and at that point...

Roasted spuds

A month into my experiment, I came across a recipe on the consistently lovely Blue Hour blog: salt and vinegar potato salad. Like chips, but not fried. It was the answer to my summer dilemma, so I bookmarked the recipe and promised myself I'd make it as soon as I could. But as the days passed and I kept thinking about that recipe, I realized that potato salad, like mussels, has stipulations. Mussels need frites, and potato salad needs a party, preferably in the park, with a gentle bit of sunshine and a slight breeze.

Of course, my fry-free summer was shy on garden parties, due to travel, weather and that thing we call work. But last Monday, on what may have been the last day of summer, I whipped up 10 pounds of this salad for a little soirée in Prospect Park. And it was awesome -- the perfect complement to the fresh-shucked oysters and pulled pork sandwiches. The vinegar onions are much more subtle than you'd expect, almost sweet. And the oil and vinegar dressing was, as always, perfect. Thankfully, there was enough left over for me to eat two more helpings when I got home, at which point I made one last promise: I'm going to make potato salad an all-seasons food, because this salad is as good as French fries. 

Not better, but better for you. And wasn't that my whole point?

Salt and vinegar potato salad

Salt and vinegar potato salad
Adapted from Gourmet


1 large red onion, cut into 1/4" segments and separated
5 pounds medium potatoes (Gourmet recommends Yukon Gold, I used russet)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to finish
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 teaspoons sugar

In large bowl, mix 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add onion and toss. Marinate at room temperature, tossing occasionally, until onion softens and turns pink (1 hour).

In large pot, cover potatoes with cold salted water. Bring to a boil, then simmer uncovered until tender (20 minutes). Drain and allow to cool, then peel and slice into 1/2" wedges.

In separate bowl, whisk together Old Bay seasoning with sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar.

Add potatoes to onion mixture, and toss with vinegar mixture and extra-virgin olive oil.

Season to taste. Finish with additional oil if necessary.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 10-12.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The morning after.

The morning after...Roma
I've been devouring (or, I could say re-devouring) the letters of Martha Gellhorn, a/k/a Mrs. Ernest Hemingway III; I'm absolutely crazy about her. Her writing is candid and sharp and admirably self-deprecating, and I wish she were still alive so I could write her letters half as good as the ones in this book. I know loads of people -- myself included -- who lament the death of letters. Reading Gellhorn's, I'm reminded of a time in which I journaled and wrote little notes to my family and friends. I was too young then to practice the sort of discourse Gellhorn was clearly born for, but now...well, now is different. The only thing stopping me is my lack of ability. Or, is it my lack of time?

These are the same excuses I use for not cooking a certain meal or entertaining certain groups of friends. Like conversation and letter writing, dining (both in and out) is an art, and it's one I strive to practice well. These all are traditions that nurture familial bonds, friendships and romances. They inspire conversation and ideas. They nourish both literally and figuratively. I believe all this, but I believe this, too: "... I think parties are really the last refuge of the empty and shrivelled brain, and are more destructive to the body than cocaine and more destructive to the spirit than jail." Martha Gellhorn wrote that to Alexander Woollcott in 1942, the morning after. I take from it this: our time is precious, let us use it wisely.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Central Park, how green your garden grows.

Green Central Park
Central Park was bustling yesterday, as New Yorkers celebrated Labor Day with picnics and books, on bikes and with balls, but I trekked uptown for another reason: Wildman Steve Brill's foraging tour. A few weeks ago, my friends Michael and Liz took Wildman's tour of Forest Park, and the abundance of that trip inspired another. Turns out, New York City is teeming with edible plants, and yesterday I spent four hours learning to identify those in-season, gathering and taking notes. We even managed a quick picnic of our own, but the day's culinary highlight was our dinner salad of foraged Asiatic dayflower, lady's thumb, lamb's quarters and yellow wood sorrel. I know it sounds and looks rustic, and I'll gladly admit it was heartier than the salads I'm used to eating. I snapped the picture below after washing my finds, but before I leafed through them (pun intended) to remove stems and other plant parts I found unappetizing.

Edible plants

The sturdy, tear-shaped leaves pictured on the lower right are from the Asiatic dayflower, which flowers a beautiful purple and has kernel-like seeds -- all edible. Sadly, my flowers had closed by the time I got home, but they reminded me of pea shoots in texture and a bit in flavor, too. The leaves, however, were so...weedlike, I opted to chiffonade them, making them easier to eat and prettier to look at. The lady's thumb and lamb's quarters were also pretty hearty, and Wildman warned us about the flowers on the former, which taste -- go figure -- like plant. Wanting the full experience and the health benefits of the latter (lamb's quarters is an excellent source of B-complex vitamins, beta-carotene, calcium, fiber, iron, potassium and vitamin C), I used everything I had of both, cutting and tearing where I found appropriate.

The most naturally edible looking of the foraged plants -- and by far the tastiest -- was the yellow wood sorrel, which looks like clover and tastes like lemon. Its delicate leaves were a welcome addition, but despite its presence I couldn't help but think, "This salad looks foraged from a compost pile." Quickly, I added the only other raw edible I foraged: a red devil apple from the apple trees behind The Met. These red-fleshed gems were new to me, and pretty tart on the apple spectrum. I picked up four or five (you can't very well erect an apple ladder in Central Park, so we shook a branch and collected ours off the ground), and I might bake the rest. I also read they make a lovely pink-hued hard apple cider.

Foraged pink apples

Tossed with this oil and vinegar dressing (along with some foraged wild mustard seeds from Forest Park), my Central Park salad almost looked conventional. It certainly tasted like salad, and -- to my relief -- we all lived to tell the tale. I look forward to joining Wildman on future tours (he's leading one at Stone Barns Center on Sunday, Nov. 8), and to sharing those experiences with you. Mostly, I'm excited to have a garden to call my own, especially one I don't have to tend to.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Something happened today...

Happier than a pig...
Actually it happened Wednesday, and chances are if you read Our Daily Table on a regular basis we already know each other and are therefore connected via The Internets. Please bear with me while I pretend otherwise for a moment. Because something happened, and it filled me with joy and excitement and a little bit of nerves, too, which I think is a good thing. Wednesday, I had a little interview published over at Jauntsetter, a fantastic travel sight for New York ladies, but a friend of mine on the west coast was quick to argue it's useful for anyone who loves to travel, if for nothing more than inspiration. I couldn't agree more. In the couple months I've been receiving Jauntsetter's weekly newsletter, I've considered a heap of new travel destinations (like this gorgeous eco-retreat in Vieques, Puerto Rico). I've also spent a good deal of time reflecting on my own.

I've seen a few things, and writing about them made me want to see more. It made me want to take a few more photos and keep a better journal (because this memory of mine isn't getting any better). It reminded me of my desire to speak other languages beyond being able to translate a dinner menu. But the truly exciting part -- the part that has me happier than a pig in...well, you know -- is that it affirmed a decision I made about a year ago to alter the way I live my life. At the time, I worked so much I hardly had time for my family and friends, let alone a little time away from home. I had fallen into a trap, and I was not that happy. And so, I mustered up some courage and I changed. I quit my job, and I did a little soul searching. I got a new job, and I started a few projects (Our Daily Table being one of them). I learned the difference between "my job" and "my work."

The changes have not come easily; I'd say that I am -- like this blog -- a work in progress. But I'm getting there. One step at a time, with a little help from my friends, my eyes and my heart open wide. If you've made it this far, thank you for indulging me. Now, let's get back to that business of food...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The heat goes on...

Triple Double-Double
I arrived home tonight from another trip to Southern California, and I realized on the flight back that these last five days may well have been the last of my summer jaunts. Sadly, they weren't spent relaxing, but wrapping up some family business. Still, I found time for a Double-Double and chocolate shake from In-N-Out (aren't they pretty up there?), and I even did a little cooking. As always, I was amazed by the local produce: in my aunt and uncle's kitchen, I was greeted by a heaping bowl of pomegranates (a fruit I associate with Christmas, but was surprised to learn grows this time of year in sunny SoCal); their garden was over-flowing with little cherry tomatoes, summer squash and squash blossoms; and even the larger supermarkets had plentiful displays of local greens (and red and yellows).

Bruised and beautiful heirlooms

The above tomatoes aren't from California, they're from Garden of Eve Farm on Long Island. Just as I started to write off this year's tomato crop, my CSA share turned out some gorgeous heirlooms and slicing tomatoes. Typically when the weather is warm, my cooking amounts to little more than a few chops and slices, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. The thing I am willing to turn on the stove for (and the dish I keep turning to for an easy hors d'oeuvres, quick lunch or savory side dish) is crostini, or bruschetta. As far as I can tell, the difference between bruschetta and crostini is in the treatment of the bread. For bruschetta, bread is rubbed with garlic and olive oil, and for crostini, it is not. I suppose, then, that bruschetta is a type of crostini, I also bet there's a nonna somewhere who will gladly correct me.


Crost -- err, bruschetta -- makes great use of tomatoes. Simply thinly slice bread (I like Amy's seeded wheat), rub each slice with a garlic clove and drizzle with olive oil, then top with tomatoes and Parmiggiano-Reggiano. I prefer to broil everything together -- allowing the flavors to melt into one glorious garlic-tinged cheesy tomato crouton -- and top with fresh basil. If you prefer your tomatoes a little sturdier, toast your garlic-rubbed and oiled bread before proceeding with raw tomatoes. When those are gone, you can substitute pickled eggplant or stewed peppers or whatever else comes to mind (raw corn, roasted peaches, poached apples, sautéed kale...I could do this all day).

Call it what you want. Just don't call me late for dinner.