baba ganoush, eggplantNow that it is Spring, we have an obligation to leave our homes, go out of doors, start fires, and roam through creek beds. In my neck of the woods, the weather has not completely taken the hint:  Just today I woke to a 31 degree morning and scraped a thin layer of ice from my windshield. But even though the weather is not currently suited for outdoor jaunts, I will act as if every day is 72 degrees and sunny. I will wear shorts. I will plant seed in the ground. I will roll the windows down. And you should too.

This week, I had the great pleasure to take a trip back to the Kentucky River, to see my mother and my father, my brother and my sisters. One evening, my brother and I built a fire on the crest of a hill overlooking the stony creek below. Over hot coals, we cooked flatbread, grilled chicken with spicy red chili oil and lemon, and made baba ganoush. If you’re not familiar with baba ganoush, have I got a treat for you. Put simply, baba ganoush is roasted and mashed eggplant. But such a description does not do it justice in the least. Baba ganoush is a dish whose preparation is just as enticing as the flavors of the finished product. The process is primal, intense, and ruggedly beautiful.

baba ganoush, coals, eggplantThe eggplant is rubbed with oil and then thrown directly onto hot coals. The skin burns, turning black and grey and blue. As it cooks, the eggplant softens, and the smoke permeates deeply into the flesh. The flavor rivals the smoky earthiness of barbeque, and if I were a vegetarian, this would be my go-to grill-out food. Consider this recipe your excuse to get outside! Go! Post-haste!

baba ganoush, eggplant, mediterranean

Baba Ganoush, or, How to Play with Fire (makes a bunch)

Ingredients:

2 medium eggplants

3 tbsp tahini

1 tbsp good olive oil

1/2 tsp black pepper

juice of half a lemon

3/4 tsp salt

1 head of roasted garlic, smashed

za’atar, optional

 

Preparation:

Begin by starting a fire. You could use charcoal, as well. I do not recommend using anything other than natural hardwood charcoal, as it is not made with harmful chemicals. It’s also important that you do not flood the charcoal with lighter fluid. You will, after all, be cooking the eggplant directly on the coals. When the flame has died down and the coals are red and roaring hot, place the two oiled eggplants into the coals. Let them cook on each side for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, slice off the top of an entire head of garlic, drizzle it with oil, place it in foil and throw it into the coals.

Once the skin of the eggplant has collapsed and the flesh is completely tender and yielding, carefully remove the eggplant from the coals and place it in foil to steam for 5 minutes. Remove the garlic from the coals. After 5 minutes, peel off the burned outer skin of the eggplant and chop off the tops. On a cutting board, chop the eggplant until it becomes smooth and nearly homogenous. Lots of folks like to give their baba ganoush a spin in the food processor, but I appreciate a more natural consistency.

When the garlic is just cool enough to handle, squeeze out the softened and roasty flesh. To a large bowl, add the mashed eggplant, garlic, tahini, olive oil, lemon, salt, and black pepper. Mix it together with a spoon. If you have it, sprinkle a little za’atar over the top. At this point, it’s ready to eat. You can serve it with vegetables or charred flatbread and olives. If you have time and patience, you could let the baba ganoush cool in the fridge overnight. You might be wondering, why? Why not enjoy this delicacy forthwith? Here’s why: overnight, the smokiness continues to permeate the dip, so that by morning, it becomes almost obscenely smoky. Of course, it’s up to you.

baba ganoush, eggplant, coalAs it is Spring, we will end today’s post with a bit of seasonally-appropriate prose poetry written by yours truly. Enjoy!

A warm wind rolls gently through the window, and I raise my hands as if to rejoice. Standing before the opening, as the light shines through, my feet are still covered in thick winter camp socks. In fact, my entire outfit, from the old crocheted wool hat, to the heavy quilt draped awkwardly across my shoulder suggests that I believe this warm respite is something winter might soon take away. I am shirtless, warm-bellied and well-slept. Through the salt-stained glass, beyond the edge of the porch and across the road, I can see the beginning of spring’s verdant rapture; tender shoots driving up toward heaven from the dirt and ice. In my mind’s eye, this tiny fleck of green instantly grows six months into the future, and my front yard is now enveloped in an emerald blanket, and there is a grill that emits a spicy perfume of cedar and animal fat, and over us all, my closest friends and my love, there lays the gentle touch of the third beer. The music from an old stereo dictates the mood, punctuates the experience, like an exclamation point, an unspoken, internal shout for joy. And as I consider the moment, distilling it down into a strong and sweet emotion, I get a feeling of childlike excitement so intense that it almost takes hold of my body and wills me to dance. In the vision I’m dancing like Lazarus, raised from the dead.

 

seared salmonIn my younger days, the height of culinary mastery was a piece of seared salmon. I’ve mentioned it before, but in our little tiny village, seafood was (and still is) hard to come by. And so, for that, it was exotic, even sexy. On one occasion, I made a trip to a well-stocked grocery out of town, purchased all the ingredients to make the salmon, and set out to delight and wow my family, thereby proving my superiority as an epicure. I had everything before me: a few center-cut fillets of atlantic salmon, fresh dill, pickles, lemon, I even bought creme fraiche (which made me feel pretty special).

After much ado, I plated each portion of salmon and we sat down to eat.The result was, in my eyes, not all that great. To my younger sisters who, at the time, subsisted on a diet made up of Cheez-Its and apple juice, the bitter and briny bite of the pickles, the salmon which tasted of the ocean, the herbaceous twang of fresh dill, did not sit well with them.

If I’m being honest, the salmon was undercooked. In my efforts to keep it moist, I did not cook it long enough. The innards were mushy and wet. The sauce, which was intended to be creamy and rich, had the consistency of curdled milk, and it slipped from one side of the plate to the other. We sat there at the table, in silence. I did not let on to the fact that the meal was no hit. Meanwhile, two sets of eyes set sights on the kitchen cabinet, where behind the door lay two unopened boxes of Cheez-its. salmonSince then, a lot has changed. I’ve cooked this meal many times. I’ve learned how to mess it up. But I’ve also learned how to make it well. This preparation was my wife’s favorite in our college days. In making this dish, I’ve learned how to properly sear, how to make an aioli, how to properly season protein, the list goes on. If you have never tried your hand at salmon, now is the time. Fortunately, you won’t have to make the same mistakes I have. I’m here to guide you through it. Let’s do this:Tartar Sauce ingredientsLet me be honest and tell you that, this morning when I made this, we ate it with a big ol’ buttery biscuit on the side, and I wasn’t mad about that. You could definitely explore the joys of the ultra-brunchy Salmon Biscuit.seared salmon with a biscuitPan-Seared Salmon with Dill-Cornichon Tartar (serves 2)

Ingredients:

2 6 oz portions of salmon (center-cut)

1/4 cup canola oil

1 egg yolk

1 tsp dijon mustard

1 tbsp shallot, minced

1 tbsp fresh dill, chopped

3 tbsp cornichons, finely chopped

1 tbsp lemon juice

2 dashes Tabasco

 

Preparation

Start by placing the yolk of one egg into a bowl. You’re going to make an aioli. Here’s the idea. Add the oil slowly. A few drops at a time. And don’t worry about vigorously whisking. Instead, with each new addition of oil, gently incorporate it into the egg yolk. Over time, you will notice that the mixture thickens to the point that it seems to coagulate on the whisk itself. This is a good sign. Let the aioli relax for a moment while you prepare the shallot, dill, and cornichons. When you’re ready, add the dijon, lemon juice, and the tabasco to the aioli and stir to combine. Now add the shallot, cornichons, and the dill. Place the mixture in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.

Heat a large pan on medium-high with a teaspoon of canola oil. Season both sides of the salmon with a generous amount of peppery and coarse salt. When the oil in the pan is nearly smoking, place the salmon fillets skin-side down in the pan. Apply gentle pressure to the salmon so that all parts of the skin receive even heat. Let the salmon cook for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, turn the salmon and let it cook 5 more minutes. If the sides of the salmon are still bright pink in color, they are still not quite cooked. In this case, roll them over on their sides and let them cook one minute longer. Once cooked, place the salmon on a plate, give it a good squeeze of lemon, and spoon the dill-cornichon tartar over the center of the fillet.

Rejoice.

 

 

 

 

fennel and grapefruit salad

Sometimes, I consider my own health. Sometimes, I even write about it. When I say this, I don’t mean that I stand in front of the mirror to point out my superficial flaws: a sparsely and incongruously hairy chest, a pocket of fat on my lower stomach that has resided there since birth (despite countless exercise regimens), big ol’ monkey ears, or two tiny matchstick legs with the knobbiest of knees. When I consider my own health, I think about the things I eat and drink. I think about how I treat my body. More recently, I’ve been thinking about how strange it is that, so often, the things that give us the most pleasure are often the most damaging to our bodies and our minds: a hamburger, a piece of chocolate cake, too much wine, a cigarette. With these kinds of pleasure, there is payment: heart disease, diabetes, alcoholism, lung cancer.

That which is “good” for us does not typically provide the same satisfaction. But why is it that, every once in a while, we find ourselves almost drunk with pleasure, soul weeping and rejoicing, over a bowl of the most perfect lettuce? Is this pleasure somehow deeper, somehow more true? I come to you with questions only. Today, I found myself almost tearing up while eating a salad. I understand that, to you, this might seem like very strange behavior. You might assume that such a reaction indicates emotional instability(as if our emotions are considered more stable when they are hidden from our faces). But we laugh and cry when moved by the strings of the violin, or the perfectly ordered brushstrokes on the canvas, the images of a film, the words and the story of a great novel. Are these things, created by men, somehow more deserving of our deepest emotion? We know the author by her work. And thus, we taste, touch, see, smell, breathe her work through the lines of the broken canyon, the great burning globe of sun, the downy hills of snow white snow, the sour apples in spring, the very lettuce in our fridge or on our plate.

Perhaps, we should reconsider our pleasure.fennelfennel bulb

The salad I present to you today is pretty special. Of course, it was not my idea to pair fennel with grapefruit. But I’ve done my best to elevate this from being something more than just pretty. It starts with fennel bulb, shaved impossibly thin, with perfectly balanced segments of pink grapefruit. It is dressed with sherry-shallot vinaigrette, sprigs of fresh mint, roasted cashews, and finished fresh fennel fronds. Normally, I’m not one to worry too much about the exact amounts of ingredients, but this time was different. The amounts I have listed are right on the money. Follow them correctly, and you’ll be happy. I’m not being hyperbolic when I tell you that this is the greatest salad that I have ever eaten, and that the whole sensual experience of it is beyond compare.fennel and grapefruitfennel and grapefruit salad

Fennel and Grapefruit Salad (serves 4 small portions, or 2 large)

Ingredients:

For the Salad

1 fennel bulb, shaved

2 grapefruits, segmented and removed of all pith and skin

1/2 cup roasted cashews

1/4 cup whole fresh mint leaves (do not pack them in the measuring cup)

fennel fronds, for garnish

 

For the Sherry-Shallot Vinaigrette

3 tbsps shallot, chopped finely

3 tbsps sherry vinegar

1/4 cup canola oil

1 tbsp white sugar

1/2 tsp salt

juice of 1/2 lemon

 

Preparation:

When all the ingredients have been chopped and measured, add the shaved fennel to a large mixing bowl. In a separate, smaller bowl, mix together all of the ingredients for the vinaigrette and stir to combine. Once mixed, add 3/4 of the vinaigrette to the bowl of shaved fennel and gently mix until the fennel is well-coated. For me, this was enough. But if you have a large fennel bulb, you may need to add more. To the large bowl, add the grapefruit segments, mint, and roasted cashews. After plating the salad, add a few sprigs of mint and fresh fennel fronds. This dish is to be eaten alone and in silence in front of a large window overlooking a row of matured maple and oak trees.

Enjoy.