Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Eggplant Onion Gratin

I love eggplant. I love the creamy texture you get when it's cooked that can go anywhere from baba ganoush to eggplant parmesan. I am passionate about an Italian marinated pickled eggplant appetizer I've been making for years.

Recently I've been contemplating making an eggplant gratin. This is kind of a risky dish because eggplants are so mild in flavor that they can simply be overpowered by the other ingredients you pair with them. At first I thought I'd slice the eggplant very thin and stack the layers, alternating with cheese. But ultimately I decided to cube it and toss together the ingredients. Oregano is a great flavor partner with eggplant and I grow it in my garden, so that would be a part of this experiment. So would onions. And garlic. And panko combined with my favorite Trader Joe's grated parmesan romano combo. And goat cheese. That would add the necessary creaminess plus create a little tartness without being too overwhelming. Instead of using butter, I'd use olive oil. I received a sample of olive oils from Baja Olive and decided to use both the natural and garlic flavors for this dish.

All this would go into an 8 1/2-inch oval au gratin dish I have. At just under 2 1/2 cup volume, I figured I'd get about three servings.

The dish is a little time consuming to make but not too labor intensive. I figured the eggplant should be pre-cooked to make sure it had a soft and lush texture by the end. The onions and garlic need to be sauteed to create sweetness. After that you just combine everything and put it in the oven until it's bubbly and brown.

The result was just what I'd imagined--creamy and crunchy, with a bright flavor from the punch of oregano, sweetness from the onion and garlic, tartness from the goat cheese. That distinctive mild eggplantiness came through. I enjoyed the dish with a piece of roasted chicken. And I have leftovers--which will be easy to reheat. In fact, you can make this dish for a dinner party ahead of time and simply reheat it before serving.

Eggplant Onion Gratin
(printable recipe)

Serves 2 to 3 depending on your generosity


2 3/4 cups eggplant, cubed
2 tablespoons olive oil
pinch of salt
1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced

1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup goat cheese

For topping:
Goat cheese
1/8 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/8 cup panko crumbs
Drizzle of olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Toss eggplant with 2 teaspoons olive oil and a pinch of salt. Spread on a baking sheet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes until soft and just becoming brown.

While the eggplant is baking, saute the onion and garlic in olive oil (about a tablespoon or more). Don't brown them. You just want them soft. Add the oregano and cook for another minute. Set aside.

Remove the eggplant from the oven and mix with the onions in a bowl. Add milk and cheeses. Mix well.

Coat the inside of a gratin dish with olive oil. Add the eggplant mixture. Dot with goat cheese. Combine the 1/8 cup parmesan cheese with the panko and evenly spread over the eggplant and goat cheese. Drizzle with olive oil.

Bake uncovered at 400 degrees for 25 minutes until brown and bubbly.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

La Jolla Salt Company: From the Pier to the Plate

We Americans love our salt. But as we grow more conscious of using it judiciously, the emphasis focuses on the quality and flavor of this powerful mineral. You likely grew up with the idea that salt magically manifested from a blue cardboard cylinder sporting a young girl in a yellow dress with an over-sized umbrella. Morton Salt may still be the go-to for most households and restaurants, but the market for artisan salts--particularly finishing salts--is rising. In San Diego we have several options, now including La Jolla Salt Company.

La Jolla Salt Company's salts are different from some of the "artisan" sea salt brands you may already buy since those often start out coming from a business called SaltWorks. The salts are then mixed with flavor ingredients and repackaged. There's nothing wrong with that. The salts are usually quite good.

But La Jolla Salt Company harvests its salt from the Scripps Pier in La Jolla. Chris Polley, the founder and owner of La Jolla Salt Company, started out in this venture as a chef for Matt Gordon at Urban Solace, where he's been working for three years. Given that the restaurant makes so many of its own condiments, Polley thought it would be a good idea to make their own salt, too.

He admits that the salt at first wasn't all that good, but he continued to make adjustments to perfect it--working on this project at his home during his off time.

So, how does it work? Polley goes to the Scripps Pier, where there's a purified water hose available for public use. Filling buckets of water that he takes to his new space rented from graphic designer Daniel Heffernan of Clove St Press in Barrio Logan, Polley evaporates the water over three induction burners to create sheets of salt that fall and break into crispy flakes. The process takes two days. He keeps some of the salt in its natural state. He also creates several flavors--lime, black truffle, smoked, ghost chili, rosemary, lavender, and bacon. Polley then packages the salts in pouches, jars, and even small tins that you can take with you to a restaurant to use when you eat out.

I've been besotted by the flavor and texture of these salts. I love sprinkling the bacon sea salt on scrambled eggs. You get a smokey crunch that complements the creamy eggs. I've taken to sprinkling the lime salt on salmon and other fish. The black truffle salt is perfection in a baked potato, on popcorn, or blended into a vinaigrette.

I'm not the only fan. Richard Blais uses the salts at Juniper & Ivy. Gordon, of course, uses the salts at his three restaurants. And Matt Richman uses them at his Table 926.

You can buy La Jolla Salt online and at several retailers in San Diego, including The Heart & Trotter Butcher Shop, Geographie Shop, Teter, Urban Beach Girl, Urban Beach House, and Azucar.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Tarragon Thyme Rub

Now that water restrictions are bearing down on Californians, I look around my little garden and have to prioritize what I want to spend my limited water resources on. Ornamental flowers are pretty much out. I have mostly succulents these days. There are some vegetables and some dwarf citrus. And herbs. Oh, my, herbs--rosemary, sage, basil, thyme, oregano, chives, and tarragon. I love these herbs and rely on them in the kitchen.

About six-and-a-half years ago, I wrote about this rosemary oregano rub I learned how to make from Judy Witts Francini and David Lebowitz. It's become a staple in my pantry. I use it for pork, chicken, and turkey. I sprinkle it on eggs. I immerse it in olive oil to create a dip. And as much as I love the flavor, it's the overwhelmingly seductive aroma it creates in the kitchen that is the real impetus to making it. It makes me so happy to walk into my house when I have a batch drying on a sheet pan in my kitchen.

French tarragon
But I realized I needed to come up with a new version. I have two varieties of tarragon--French and a thicker leaf Mexican that is more heat tolerant and produces beautiful little yellow flowers in the summer. Why not create a rub with them? I combined the herbs with chives, garlic, and coarse sea salt. No chili flakes this time. I may add lemon zest next time. What resulted was a heady fragrance with an anise flavor punctuated by salt and a little garlic. Perfect for seafood and chicken.

Mexican tarragon with silver thyme
Like the other rub, this is very easy to make. You'll gather up your herbs, wash and dry them, then strip the leaves from the stems. Peel the garlic cloves.

Then gather all the ingredients together and, with a sharp chefs knife, start mincing (or put it all into a food processor).

Clockwise from the upper left photo, the chopping process
Ultimately, you want the herbs, garlic, and salt minced enough to just still have some texture but not so well ground (if using a food processor) that you've created a paste.

Spread the mixture on a sheet pan and let it air dry for about three or four days, depending on how much moisture is in the air. Everyday you'll want to mix it around to keep it from sticking to the pan, get more exposure to air, and eliminate clumping. Don't slow dry it in the oven. You'll lose those aromatic oils that create the flavor.

Once the rub is dry you can pack it in tins or glass jars. Just don't store it where it will be exposed to light. Then add it to poultry (great in chicken salad) and seafood, to a vegetable or seafood soup, or sprinkle on steamed or roasted veggies.

When my rub was ready, I put about a teaspoon in a little bowl and filled it with extra virgin olive oil. Then I let it sit for about an hour. Dunking slices of fresh baguette into this flavor-packed little bowl provided a real rush of anise and salt, with overtones of sweetness from the thyme, a bit of heat from the chives--all punctuated with a rush of garlicky goodness.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Make Your Own Hot Sauce!

Photo courtesy of Todd Renner

I love hot sauces, but I know people who are so passionate about them that they treat them as collectibles. I think they're mostly focusing on the labels.

Now marketing is all well and good, but you and I? We love the flavor, right? And that means a sauce that has a kick but isn't going to knock you on your keister. After all, if your mouth is scalded, you're thousands of taste buds away from enjoying your food.

While I admit to having some favorite ready-made hot sauces, I have a few I enjoy making because a) it's a great way to control the flavor you want and b) it's so easy! Years ago, I learned how to make a dynamite hot sauce from some friends during tamale-making season. This is Consuelo's Hot Sauce and I love it! Yes, it's hot but in moderation it can create the most wonderful mouth tingle and chile flavor. I enjoy incorporating it into salsas or adding to soups or drizzling on fish. Then Lorri Allen taught me her thick sriracha-style sauce and it's always in my refrigerator. The tangy heat that comes from the combination of chiles and vinegar, with a garlic finish just makes me swoon in happiness.

Recently I interviewed Chef Todd Renner of Tender Greens in downtown San Diego. The interview was for a piece I wrote for my Edible San Diego blog, Close to the Source, on their new breakfast menu. But Renner started telling me about his passion for condiments, especially hot sauces. He's working on a signature line of them that Tender Greens will sell.

And, then he invited me to come back to learn how to make them.

Renner loves canning and preserving. He also loves mixing savory and sweet. After all, he was trained as a pastry chef. So, his ideas for new sauces basically come from that background--he has all sorts of various flavor combos in his head.

What was fascinating to me as he talked me through the process is just how versatile it is--and the very reason why you should make your own sauces. We made a classic thin Louisiana-style red hot sauce--ready to pour on everything from scrambled eggs to a shrimp taco. Then we made his Mango Habanero Sauce. The mango flavor pops, for reasons you'll understand in a moment. But that mango? It could easily become pineapple or coconut or banana. Renner even suggested adding spinach or beets. You don't even need to use habanero chiles. Jalapeños or serranos will do just as well. And you can switch up the vinegars. Renner is not a rigid traditionalist. As he says, "It makes it exciting!"

At first glance, the quantity of ingredients called for in both these recipes will seem pretty high. But it all cooks down to a reasonable amount--meaning if you like canning, you can have a couple of jars for yourself and some to give to people you really like to enjoy.

A couple of tips from Renner:
  • To get the smoothest consistency, be sure to blend the mixtures while they're still hot--just be careful since steam will create enough pressure to blow the blender lid off. Make sure the lid is on firmly and use a folded towel while holding the lid to protect your hands.
  • If you want to change the yield but don't want to do the math when it comes to the liquids, Renner says the idea is simply to cover the ingredients with the vinegar in the pot. 

Classic Red Hot Sauce
from Todd Renner
(printable recipe)

This sauce is hugely versatile. Really, it can be your go to for just about anything you'd add hot sauce to. Renner enjoys it on fish--as do I.

Yield: 4 pints

1 pounds Fresno red chiles, destemmed
5 ounces or 30 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 gallon distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup salt to start

Place all ingredients into a pot. Simmer 30 minutes until tender. Blend until smooth. It will be loose. Strain through a chinois.

Taste and add more salt or vinegar if necessary. Fill bottles or jars.

I recently made my favorite spicy coleslaw for a party. Instead of using Tobasco sauce, I used this Classic Red Hot Sauce and it was sublime.

For the Mango Habanero Sauce, Renner you'll fine that the recipe calls for dried, not raw, mango. He uses dried mango for two reasons--it doesn't add water so you just get pure concentrated flavor and you also get a consistent flavor. You can pick up dried mango--or other dried fruits--at most markets. Renner likes to get his from Trader Joe's.

Mango Habanero Sauce
from Todd Renner
(printable recipe)

I love the pure mango sweetness blended with the heat of the chiles and sourness of the vinegar. It's bright and tropical. And the color? Like the setting sun. Not sure about what to use this sauce for? Renner suggests grilled chicken tacos, jerk-style pork, and ribs. Make sure you apply it as a finishing sauce. It'll just burn up on a grill or under a broiler.

Yield: 5 pints

1 pound dried mango
7 ounces or 26 habanero chiles
4 ounces shallots( 2 or 3 shallots)
1/2 gallon unseasoned rice vinegar
Zest of 3 oranges

1/4 cup salt to start

Combine the first four ingredients in a pot and simmer 30 minutes until tender. Add the zest and salt.

Blend until smooth. Taste and adjust the salt and vinegar if necessary. Fill bottles or jars.

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