Monday, June 22, 2009

Chickpea Fries with Romesco Sauce

Louis and I had our 10th wedding anniversary back in March. My mom offered to take Ella for the whole weekend, so Louis and I went off to celebrate in the way that we usually do. By eating lots of good food and drinking lots of good wine, in a beautiful place. Arguably, one of the best places in the country to do such things is the Napa Valley. A year or so ago I had imagined that a 10th wedding anniversary would be a great time to go to the French Laundry. But as the time approached for me to try my hand at winning the lottery (a.k.a booking a reservation at the French Laundry), I just could not justify spending that amount of money on one meal. Not when there were so many different places that I wanted to try.

One of the places that I had been wanting to go to is Ubuntu. Ubuntu was recently named one of the ten best new American restaurants by the New York Times and the chef nominated for a James Beard Award. Ubuntu is a vegetarian restaurant with a yoga studio upstairs. As you eat you can see the silhouettes of people doing yoga poses. It is all quite fitting to the nature of the food. The food forces you to be in the moment. To experience the essence of the artfully prepared vegetables. But I guess if you're not in the mood to experience the wonder of biodynamically farmed vegetables you might be pissed off that you just spent $12 for a pile of radishes with a few slices of cheese. But I loved it. I appreciate when dishes are prepared thoughtfully and reverence is given to the ingredients used.

Although Ubuntu excels with their use of vegetables, one of my favorite dishes on the menu was the Chickpea Fries with Romesco Sauce. Chickpea fries are made with garbanzo bean flour and the batter is actually very similar to polenta. In fact, I think I prefer it to polenta. The garbanzo bean flour has a sweet earthy quality and a creamy texture. I haven't tried it grilled yet, but the fried version is delicious. It develops a delicately crisp crust that I found totally addictive.

I made some chickpea fries recently when some friends came for dinner. I realized the following day that I hadn't put the memory card in my camera when taking pictures of dinner. Fortunately the Foodie Hunter was also capturing some lovely images with her camera. She posted some photo's and had some very lovely words as well. I have to say that the most I can ask for when preparing food for others is that they "get" the food. I never haphazardly throw a menu together. I definitely put thought into what I feed people. I take their preferences into account. I also consider the weather and which fruits and vegetables are at their peak. Overall, I try to convey a mood through my food. I think most people would agree that I'm a good cook, but to me, the highest praise comes when someone actually understands my food and my process. So I would like to thank the Foodie Hunter for her understanding. She will always be welcome at my table. This particular menu ended up being:

Grilled Asparagus and Chickpea Fries with Romesco Sauce
Grilled Salmon with a Balsamic Butter Sauce on a bed of Sautéed Corn and Shitake Mushrooms
Honey Roasted Apricots with a Chez Panisse Almond Tart and Olive Oil Ice Cream

Chickpea Fries
Adapted from Ubuntu via Oprah Magazine

1 ¼ cups chickpea flour
½ cup cornmeal
1 clove garlic, finely grated on microplane
1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons parsley chopped
vegetable oil for frying

In a stainless steel pot over high heat, combine chickpea flour, cornmeal, 3 1/2 cups of cold water, garlic and salt. Whisk gently to prevent sticking on the bottom.

Once the mixture begins to thicken and bubble ( after about 3-4 minutes), reduce heat to medium and switch to a rubber spatula. Stir constantly and scrape the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching. Add the parsley. Continue cooking for 6-8 minutes. Taste and correct for seasoning. Lightly oil a 13x9 inch baking dish and pour in the batter. Spread the mixture out evenly and top with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 4 hours until completely cold and set.

Cut into "fries" about 3 inches long. Heat about 1/2 inch of oil in a non-stick pan to 375F. If the oil isn't hot enough, the fries will soak up too much oil and fall apart. Cook until the fries are golden brown on all sides, about 2 minutes each on top and bottom sides. Remove and set on paper towels. Sprinkle with kosher salt to taste and serve with romesco sauce.

Serves 4-6

Romesco Sauce

Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Romesco sauce is great as a sauce for vegetables and fish. I usually serve it in place of cocktail sauce with poached shrimp. It can also be mixed with a bit of mayonnaise for a romesco aioli.

½ ounce raw almonds (about 2 tablespoons)

1 ounce hazelnuts (1/4 cup)

½ cup coarsely chopped tomatoes

1 red bell pepper roasted peeled and chopped

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 ancho chili

2-3 garlic cloves peeled

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, more to taste

1 teaspoon hot paprika

½ teaspoon mild paprika


Preheat oven to 325F

Roast the hazelnuts until the skins darken and start to split, 10-15 minutes. While they are still hot, bundle them in a towel, then scrunch and massage them to rub off most of their skins. Pick out the nuts and set aside.

Turn the oven to broil. Spread the tomatoes ½ inch thick in a small, shallow baking dish. Trickle with a little of the olive oil and place under the broiler. Cook until the tomatoes char slightly and bubble. Remove fro the broiler.

Meanwhile, pour a few cups of boiling water over the chili and leave to swell for a few minutes. Drain, then stem and seed the pepper.

Thickly slice the garlic, then pound to a paste in a mortar. Scrape into a processor and add the chili, almonds, and hazelnuts. Grind to a fine, moist paste, scraping the sides. Scrape the tomatoes and pepper and process to a paste. Add the vinegar, paprika, the remaining oil and salt to taste. Taste again adding more salt and vinegar to taste. It should be bright with acidity, otherwise it may taste a little flat or bitter.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Warm Potato and Purslane Salad

Several years ago there was an issue of Saveur magazine focused entirely on California. One of the articles featured a Chez Panisse reunion picnic. I have fantasies about being at that picnic. In fact, that picnic is the perfect picture of my ultimate food fantasy. It took place in Bolinas in a grassy meadow dotted with trees. There was an old barn near one end, and it was all nestled between coastal hills. There was a long wooden table piled with dishes brought by the various guests. Can you imagine being at a pot luck with Judy Rogers, Alice Waters, Paul Bertolli, David Tanis, Michael Wild, Margaret Grade and Deborah Madison?!

Margaret Grade brought a warm potato and purslane salad. I had never used or tasted purslane before. Not long after I saw that article, I found some purlane at the farmer's market and decided that even though I couldn't be at that picnic, I could still have one of the dishes that was served there. It is essentially a German potato salad with the addition of purslane.

Purslane is often considered a weed, but it is delicious. It is one of the best vegetable sources of omega 3 fatty acids and is high in vitamin C. It is a succulent which gives it a sort of irresistible texture. It is soft but toothsome with a slightly acidic and peppery flavor. It is good raw in salads or sauteed like spinach.

Every time I see purslane, I think of this potato salad and that Chez Panisse reunion picnic. I will probably never go to one of those picnics, but I do have a long wooden table that my friends can sit around to enjoy good food and conversation. I think I'm getting pretty close to realizing that fantasy.

Warm Purslane and Potato Salad
adapted from Margaret Grade

1 lb. sliced pancetta, cut into pieces about 1/2 inch square
3-4 cipolline onions or shallots, peeled and chopped
2 lbs. baby fingerling or Yukon gold potatoes
4 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and Freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. purslane, cleaned

Cook pancetta in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, 15-20 minutes. Transfer pancetta with a slotted spoon to paper towels to let drain. Add onions to skillet and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Set pan aside.

Put potatoes and stock into a large pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until tender, 10-20 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the stock . Place potatoes aside in a large bowl with the purslane and pancetta. Return reserved stock to pot and boil over high heat until reduced by half, 2-3 minutes.

Return pan with onions and pancetta drippings to stove. Heat over medium heat until hot. Stir in the honey, reduced stock, vinegar, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour hot dressing over potatoes and purslane, toss quickly and serve.

Serves 6-8

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Turnip Soup with Foccacia Bread

A couple of weeks ago my new copy of The Greens Cookbook arrived. My original copy was a small paperback version that I bought in London in 1997. That little book turned out to be invaluable to me. Not only because I was working for a family and was responsible for making dinner every night. But because it had tables converting American measures, temperatures and ingredients into British. At that time I had no idea that an eggplant was an aubergine or that zucchini was courgette. When I went to South Africa for a year following London, that little paperback came with me. It turned out to be a great resource in South Africa as well since their English and measures are British. So that little book had been through quite a lot, and was starting to fall apart.

The Greens Cookbook is an incredibly special book to me. It is chock full of great recipes, including a sesame noodle recipe that is my potluck standby. But the reason that it holds such a special place for me is because it is representative of the first year that Louis and I spent together. We met at a youth hostel in Paris and a couple of months later, I went to London to be with him. We were only able to see each other on weekends because he was working in South London and I was in Northern London. A few months later he went back home to South Africa to finish his final year of college, and I went with him. It was great to finally be together in our own space. Louis was studying to be an engineer and was studying all the time. We had no T.V., no radio, no computer. My only source of entertainment was when Louis would take breaks from the books to serenade me with his guitar. It was actually pretty great.

I would spend the majority of the evening cooking. One of the things that I made most frequently was foccacia bread. I made many kinds of foccacia, but one of my favorites was also the most simple. The dough is topped with sliced onion that has been tossed with olive oil and some thyme or rosemary and salt. The onions become soft in some areas and crispy and caramelized in others. It is the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of soup.

So when the new hardbound Greens Cookbook arrived, I began flipping through it. It was like reminiscing with old friends that I hadn't seen in a while. My eyes became transfixed on one particular recipe, Turnip Soup with Turnip Greens. I hadn't even known that recipe was in there! And it was just the perfect thing because I had a bunch of turnips in the fridge and the weather had turned cold. So it was time to make soup and foccacia bread and remember our days in Cape Town.

Turnip Soup with Turnip Greens
adapted from The Greens Cookbook

This soup is delicious. Milk is used as the broth, so it is creamy without being heavy. The turnips are blanched to remove any bitterness, and they become sweet stewed with the leeks and milk. I just love that this recipe uses the turnip and its greens. The sharpness of the greens is a lovely counterpoint to the sweet turnips.

1 1/2 pounds small turnips (about 1-2 inches across) weighed without their greens
5 tablespoons butter
2-3 leeks, white parts only, sliced
6 branches thyme
4 cups milk
2-3 cups turnip greens

Peel the turnips (thickly, if they are large and mature) and slice them into rounds about 1/4 inch thick. Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil; then add 2 teaspoons salt and the turnips. Cover the pot and cook for 1 minute; then drain.

Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a soup pot with 1/2 cup water. Add the leeks, the blanched turnips, the thyme, and 1 teaspoon salt. Stew them, covered, over medium low heat for 5 minutes, and then add the milk. Slowly heat it without bringing it to a boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the turnips are completely tender.

Cool the soup briefly; then puree it in a blender. If necessary, thin it with additional milk or water. Season to taste with salt, if needed, and freshly ground pepper.

Sort through the turnip greens and remove any that are bruised or especially tough looking, and wash them. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a pan, add the turnip greens, and cook them over medium heat until they are tender, about 5-10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove the cooked greens to a cutting board and chop them, roughly or fine, as you prefer; then add them to the soup and serve.

Serves 4-6

Focaccia Bread
adapted from The Greens Cookbook

1 package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
1 cup warm water
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
pinch sugar
2 1/2 cups unbleached white flour or a mixture of whole wheat and white
Coarse sea salt

1 large red or white onion sliced
1 teaspoon thyme chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water with the salt, olive oil, and sugar. Stir in the flour in two or three additions. Once a dough has formed, turn it out onto a board dusted with flour, and knead it for several minutes, adding only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. When the dough is smooth and shiny, set it in a lightly oiled bowl, turn it over once, cover and put it in a warm place to rise, until it is doubled in bulk, about 30-40 minutes.

After the dough has risen, turn it out onto an oiled baking sheet, and pat it out about 1/2 inch thick. Toss the onion with the thyme, 2 tablespoons olive oil and salt to taste and spread out over the top of the dough, pressing lightly on the onions so that some of them sink into the dough. Let the dough rise for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450F. Bake the bread in the top third of the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the bread is nicely browned.