Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Baked Eggplant and Bell Pepper in Ricotta

Do you have a favorite vegetable? I do. Surprising even to me it's not tomatoes, which I do adore. Instead I'm going to go with eggplant, mostly because I love its adaptability. True, you can't eat eggplant raw. But, oh, the dishes you can prepare with them when cooked. Fry them, bake them, roast them, marinate them... the list goes on and on. And you find them in so many cultures around the world, which adds even more to their versatility and the range of flavor profiles you can create. Right now I have peeled and sliced eggplants tossed in salt and draining excess moisture in preparation for my favorite Italian marinated eggplant appetizer that I like to have in my fridge. On my shopping list is my favorite baba ganoush that I buy at Balboa International Market. I often stir fry eggplant with oyster sauce to top on brown rice. I'll cook it in coconut milk with spices to make a curry.

And in my refrigerator is the beautiful Baked Eggplant and Bell Pepper in Ricotta casserole that I made a couple of days ago. I love this dish. It's got some wonderful elements accompanying the sliced, roasted eggplant: roasted, peeled red and yellow peppers; a tomato sauce I had in the freezer, rich with spicy Italian chicken sausage and mushrooms; and lots of garlic mixed into the ricotta, parmesan, egg mixture. Oh, and I don't want to forget the panko mixed with grated parmesan that tops it all off.

All of these ingredients are layered into a deep 9 X 9-inch ceramic baking dish and baked at high heat for about half an hour. It comes out of the oven brown and bubbling from the cheese. Cut into it and you have layers of sublime flavors all complementing each other. Pair it with a salad and serve with a crisp white wine. Make it ahead and freeze before baking or freeze baked slices well wrapped to enjoy later.

Baked Eggplant and Bell Pepper in Ricotta 
(printable recipe)
Serves 4 to 6

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus about a teaspoon for the baking dish and to drizzle on the casserole
2 large eggplants, sliced lengthwise, about ½ inch thick
3 bell peppers (any color but green, which is too bitter)
15 ounces ricotta
3 eggs
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup grated parmesan cheese plus ¼ cup reserved for topping
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups marinara sauce
¼ cup panko crumbs

1. Preheat oven to 450°.
2. Place eggplant slices on two half sheet baking pans and brush lightly on both sides with olive oil. Roast for about 25 minutes, turning slices over halfway. The eggplant slices should be golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside.

3.     While the eggplant is roasting, roast the peppers on your stovetop or alongside the eggplant until all sides are blackened. Remove and place in a brown paper bag with the top rolled up to steam the skins off the peppers. Wait about 10 minutes and remove the peppers and peel the skins off. Slice in half and remove the core and seeds. Then slice into segments and set aside.
4. In a medium bowl mix together the ricotta, eggs, garlic, parmesan cheese, herbs, salt, and pepper. 

5. To put the casserole together, brush an 8-inch baking dish with olive oil. Then layer half of the eggplant on the bottom of the dish. Follow that with half of the marina sauce and a layer of the peppers. Spread with half of the ricotta mixture. Repeat these layers and end with the ricotta mixture. Sprinkle the top with the ¼ cup reserved parmesan cheese and the panko crumbs. Drizzle with olive oil and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the casserole is bubbling and golden brown. Let cool about 10 minutes before serving.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lemony Spinach Soup with Chicken and Barley

Last week I was gifted with a large bag of baby spinach, already cleaned and prepped and looking for a recipe. I had just made spanakopita so that was out. There's only so much spinach salad one person can eat, so that wasn't going to do it. And San Diego was about to get hit with another storm so a cold salad didn't appeal to me anyway.

But soup did.

I already had the remains (meaning the breast meat) of a rotisserie chicken I had bought at Costco. (Existential question: Does anyone really enjoy a market rotisserie chicken beyond the convenience factor?) I had feta cheese and a just wrinkling jalapeño pepper I needed to use, a huge head of garlic, a quart of vegetable stock and an onion, fresh herbs and Meyer lemons in my garden, and purple prairie barley in the pantry. As I scoured my kitchen and garden I figured I had the makings of a big pot of soup.

Now you can, of course, add other vegetables to this. Mushrooms, carrots, potatoes, or winter squash would all be nice. You could leave out the chicken for a vegetarian soup or add sausage or other proteins to make it even more hearty. Couscous or rice would work instead of barley. It's all up to you. But what you really want to keep in--besides the spinach, of course--is the lemon juice. It's the magical ingredient that makes this soup special. It turns a very nice conventional soup into something bright and interesting. And makes it the perfect go-to for a chilly cloudy weekend. In fact, my mom has already made a batch for herself and gave some containers to friends.

Lemony Spinach Soup with Chicken and Barley
Serves 4 to 6
(printable recipe)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, minced
1 pound baby spinach, thoroughly washed, dried, and chopped
1 quart vegetable or chicken stock
2 cups water
Juice of 1 lemon
8 ounces shredded chicken or other protein (optional)
6 ounces barley
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
crumbled feta for garnish

1. Heat a large Dutch oven and add olive oil. Add the garlic and onion. Sauté until golden. Add the pepper and sauté another 30 seconds.

2. Add the spinach in batches, stirring until it cooks down.
3. Add the stock and water, stirring to mix. Then add the chicken and barley. Bring to a boil, then reduced to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 40 minutes or until the barley is tender.
4. Add the herbs and lemon juice. Stir. Let cook another 5 to 10 minutes.
5. Serve with feta.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Joe Magnanelli's Saucisson Sec

It isn't often I walk into a restaurant kitchen and am greeted by a pig face. In fact, what greeted me at Cucina Urbana wasn't just the head but the entire broken down small pig that was the work of executive chef Joe Magnanelli and chef de cuisine of Cucina Enoteca in Newport Beach, Cesar Sarmiento.

Joe had invited me to come in while he made a batch of saucisson sec for his April Beast Feast that features pork. The dinner will feature porchetta, roast loin, bacon, headcheese, a ragu, and other dishes using almost every part of this local 130-pound Guinea Hog.

"The idea is to utilize the whole animal, to respect the animal, and not let anything go to waste," he explained.

Before getting started on the sausage, Joe spent some time working on the side of the pig, trimming one half for a roast loin and bacon. The other was for the porchetta, which he rolled up and put in the walk in.

Then he got to work on the saucisson sec. It takes two months to cure, which is why he started on it in February. But I have his recipe for you below if you'd like to have the fresh, uncured version.

Joe taught himself the techniques for curing sausage, reading books on the subject--yes--but also just learning through trial and error. For saucisson sec, the recipe calls for 20 percent pork fat and 80 percent meat, along with dry white wine, roasted garlic, black pepper, salt--and then the curing ingredients (external bactoferm, pink curing salt, and dextros. The idea is to get the pH to go down and the acidity to increase even as the water in the mixture evaporates. Joe prepares the filling, presses it out into casings, ties them up, and pricks them all around to release the water and air. He keeps a small amount, rolled in plastic wrap as a tester, using measuring equipment to test the pH.

"I want to get it below 4.9," he explained. The sausages then incubate for 24 hours in a CVap Thermalizer--a machine that controls food temperature and humidity. Joe checks them again, looking for a pH measurement below 4.0. He weighs and dates each sausage.

"Eventually you want it to weigh 30 percent less," he said.

Then he moves them into the curing chamber. Covered in a wash of bactoferm 600, the sausages develop an exterior white mold. This is important, Joe explained. "It adds a little bit of flavor, it prevents the casing from getting too dry, and protects the sausages from letting in harmful molds."

The process of making cured and fresh sausages are the same, minus the curing ingredients and curing process. Joe prepped the fat and meat, cutting them into 1-inch pieces before putting them on a tray and into the freezer until they were firm. This is hugely important. The chill keeps the protein from sticking to the grinder blades and smearing. Then he mixed together the fat and meat with the flavor ingredients--minus the wine--and began feeding them into the grinder. While he used a commercial grinder, if you have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, you can use the grinder attachment.
Once the mixture is ground, it's time to blend it and get it to the right texture, using a paddle attachment.

"The texture is the most important," he said. "You want the protein and fat to bond together into an emulsion."

At that point you slowly pour in the wine. Then you can increase the speed a little for a couple of minutes. Once the mixture is sticking to the sides of the bowl, it's ready to be stuffed. Or you can cook the ground mixture to make a crumbled sausage for pizza or pasta.

Joe made me a fresh sausage to take home. His instructions were to place it uncovered on a plate in the refrigerator for a day or so until the case grew firm and tight. Then I put it in a 325-degree oven, and roasted it for 12 minutes on one side, then turned it over and continued roasting it for another 8 minutes.

Once it was cooked, I sliced some pieces and enjoyed them with mustard. The pork was sweet and just salty enough and each bite was filled with a definite flavor of wine and gentle garlic. What's next with it? Joe suggests slicing it and adding the slices to a bowl of lentils or beans. They can flavor soup or a stew. They can top a pizza or flat bread or be chopped into a tomato sauce. Or become part of a sandwich. Just enjoy it.

Joe Magnanelli's Fresh Saucisson Sec
Yield: 2 or 3 large sausages, depending on the size of the casings
(Printable recipe)

4 pounds pork shoulder
1 pound pork fatback
25 grams roasted garlic
45 grams salt
7 grams finely ground black pepper
125 milliliters dry white wine
75 milliliters ice water

1. Clean the pork should of any silver skin and sinew and dice with the fatback into 1-inch pieces or what will fit into your grinder top.
2. Place the trimmed, diced meat and fatback on a tray and put in the freezer until the pieces are firm but not frozen.
3. Grind with the roasted garlic into the bowl of your Kitchen Aid.
4. Add the salt and pepper and mix using the paddle attachment on medium speed. While it's whipping, slowly add the white wine and ice water.
5. Whip for about 2 minutes or until the meat starts to have a sticky or tacky texture. When it's ready you can case the pork. If you're not going to case it, don't whip it as long after the wine is added and omit the water.

Note: If you are going to case the sausage, hog casings (scrubbed, salted pig intestines) are the best. You can find them at Sisel's or Iowa Meat Farms or ask a butcher like Heart and Trotter if they carry them. If you are in the market for a stuffer, you can buy a 5-pound sausage stuffer from Northern Tool for about $100. There are lots of videos online that demonstrate sausage stuffing technique.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Spicy Pork and Vegetable Stew

I spent Monday morning with executive chef Joe Magnanelli at Cucina Urbana and the little pig he and Newport Beach's Cucina Enoteca chef de cuisine Cesar Sarmiento broke down in anticipation of April's Pig Beast Feast. Joe taught me how he makes his saucisson sec--and I'll show you how with his recipe for a fresh sausage version next week.

But I left craving pork. So I stopped off at the market before the rain started and picked up the makings of a pork stew. I had just written about Sabor Imports for my Close to the Source blog on Edible San Diego and had bought a jar of their Chintestle (smoked mole) Paste at Specialty Produce. Owner Sara Polczynski had suggested a little teaspoon of it could be added to flavor stews, soups, and sautéed vegetables. So I was interested in trying it out.

So on a chilly blustery day, I put together a spicy pork stew that will last me for several meals. It's a little time consuming at the beginning but once you've prepped all the ingredients, it goes smoothly without your presence and the kitchen smells so warm and comforting. Even better, you wind up with a veggie-filled pot of porkilicious comfort food. It's a little spicy and smoky from the Chintestle but every bite is speaks to the flavors of the vegetables. You could add cut up potatoes to it, but I decided to leave them out and have the option of ladling it over a grain like brown rice or scooping it up with warm corn tortillas.

Spicy Pork and Vegetable Stew
(printable recipe)
Yield: 4 servings

1 ½ pounds pork shoulder (often called butt), cut into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons ground masa or AP flour
Salt and ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 medium white onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded, cored, and diced
1 poblano pepper, charred, peeled, and diced
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon smoked mole paste (I use Seasons of my Heart Chintestle paste)
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 cup frozen peas
1 bunch cilantro, minced
Salt and ground pepper to taste

Place pork in a large bowl. Add masa, salt, and pepper. Using your hands, toss the ingredients to coat the pork pieces.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large Dutch oven. Add just enough of the pork to cover the bottom of the pot, but don’t crowd the pieces. Let brown on one side. When they can easily be turned, brown them on the other and remove to a medium bowl. Add more pork and repeat with remaining pork. It may take three times.

Add the remaining oil to the pot, heat, and then add the garlic and onion. Saute for 2 minutes, then add the peppers. Saute another 2 minutes. Scrape the bottom of the pot to loosen the brown bits. Add the chicken broth, bay leaves, tomato paste, and smoked mole paste. Stir well and bring to boil. Reduced heat to medium-low, cover the pot, and simmer for 50 minutes.

Add the peas and ¾ of the cilantro. Simmer uncovered until the peas are tender and the stew sauce thickens—about 5 minutes. Remove and toss the bay leaves. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Serve over grains like brown rice or with warm corn tortillas. Sprinkle with remaining cilantro.