Sunday, January 31, 2010

My Preserved Lemon Obsession, Part II: Tunisian Sandwich with Homemade Harissa

My obsession with preserved lemons began here, and it came about thanks to a job I got working in the kitchen of a vegan cafe. I was tasked with coming up with a sandwich, and rather than settle for yet another incarnation of the ubiquitous veggie wrap, I wanted to make something surprising.  Something different. Something just bursting with seasoning and spices - something that,  let's face it,  you don't always find at a vegan eatery.

And then I read about the Tunisian sandwich. Now, a traditional Tunisian sandwich contains tuna and egg - obviously not vegan. But I thought that the other ingredients that are often used - potatoes, capers, black olives, harissa, and of course, preserved lemon - sounded as if they'd hold up pretty well on their own.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tunisian Tuna Tart; Plus, I Survived Day Two of Culinary School


Welcome to the first of several posts featuring an ingredient I am obsessed with right now: preserved lemon.  I am at a loss to explain to you how mere lemons and salt have the power to transform an ordinary dish into something absolutely thought-provoking, but somehow they do.

Often found in Moroccan and Tunisian dishes, these little flavor bombs are the kind of ingredient that make people scratch their heads and try (in vain)  to figure out what in the world you did.  I swear to you, it's magic! Here I've used preserved lemon to turn a humble tuna tart into something that deserves to be written - and spoken - with capital letters: Tuna. Tart.

I've been using these guys in everything lately, but I thought I'd post the tart first because I've got crust on the brain. Pie crust that is - today in class we made flaky pie dough and pate sucree, or sugar dough. Even though I am bone tired, I am minding this whole being-one-of-the-oldest-people-in-class thing less and less.  There's zero social pressure - I'm not wasting my time worrying about whether or not the scrawny kid to my right thinks I look dorky in my chef's hat, or giggling with a girlfriend over our exploits, past or planned,  while Chef is demonstrating the right rolling technique.

And thankfully, unlike my very young - albeit sweet -  lab partner today, I don't have to fret over the fact that I couldn't get my acrylic nails off in time for class.  You read that right. After watching her sadly struggle with her dough and the sticky, messy, crumbling Frankencrust she was cobbling together, I ended up helping her out and crimping the edges of her pie for her.

"I guess it must be my nails that's making this so hard," she said. Um ... you think?  (Don't get the wrong idea, I'm no saint: It's my fervent and selfish wish that someone's around to take pity on me when it's time to decorate cakes.)

But back to this tart. The crust is simplicity itself: I used the same combo of olive oil, salt, water, and whole wheat, spelt, and AP flours that I used in my tuna tomato tart, a recipe I adapted from Citron et Vanille's gorgeous blog. For seasoning, I just used 1 T of black sesame seeds in the dough. The key to a good crust here is to not overwork the dough or it will get tough.

For the filling, mix together:
1 medium chopped onion
2 cans of oil packed tuna, such as Cento, drained
1-2 T Dijon mustard (to taste)
3-4 springs of thyme
1-2 T chopped preserved lemon, seeds removed (I bought my preserved lemons at Whole Foods, but you can also make your own.)
Pepper & Salt, to taste
*Very Important: Don't add the salt until you've tasted the mixture, as the lemons are very salty, even if you rinse them.

Next beat together 2 eggs, 1/3 cup of cream, and 1/3 cup milk, and mix this with your tuna mixture. Spread evenly over your tart, and top with some oil-cured black olives and a bit more pepper and thyme:
I'm not going to lie to you, I didn't think it looked too appetizing at this point, and I was afriad that perhaps I had pushed my magic lemons farther than they were willing, or able,  to go. But I shouldn't have worried.  After 35-40 minutes in a 375 degree oven, yucky miraculously emerged as yummy:
To check that your tart has set, make sure that when you tap the center with your finger, the middle is firm, not mushy and jiggly. The preserved lemon subtly scents the entire dish, offering surprising bursts of bright tangy zing that go perfectly with the earthy thyme, olives,  and tuna. Served with a glass of wine and a nice salad, this is the kind of satisfying, flavor-packed meal that makes you forget it's not really that fattening at all. And given what I'll be baking and tasting this semester, that's a very good thing.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Homemade Dim Sum A Go-Go!

When Poppa Trix and I lived in New York, we loved to go to Chinatown for dim sum on the weekends. Sometimes we'd satisfy our bun and dumpling cravings at Vegetarian Dim Sum House, which was nice because there was zero chance of biting into a piece of pork or beef based on a linguistic misunderstanding.  This was a  calm spot for dim sum; here, you ordered off of the menu and ate in relative peace and quiet.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Focaccia with Tomatoes & Oregano; Plus, My First Day Back to School as a Baking & Pastry Arts Student!

So, why would a perfectly sane(ish) grown woman with a graduate degree in literature and a freelance writing career decide to take on unpaid work and go back to school to learn an entirely new trade, possibly embarrassing or even humiliating herself in the process?

That is an extremely good question.  I was asking myself that very thing this morning as I was pulling on the most unflattering pair of checkered chef pants you have ever seen and tying my hideous-yet-sensible black nun-like kitchen shoes,  part of my required uniform as a brand-new culinary student in the baking and pastry arts program at a local, respected-yet-affordable school that I'll call U of Trix. 

And what does all this have to do with focaccia?

You see, yesterday,  as I was making sure my chef's coat and apron were pressed, gathering together notebooks, pens, Sharpies, my knife kit, text books, and going over all of my course requirement lists and checking them twice, I had something of a panic attack: "What was I thinking signing up for this? I have no idea what I'm doing! I do not want to be in a kitchen full of teenagers! I'll feel old! I AM old!" And so on.

I realized that what I really needed to do was try to remember why I had felt compelled to embark upon this mad path in the first place. I needed to bake some bread.

When you decide to bake bread at 4 in the afternoon your options are somewhat limited, so I decided on focaccia. It turned out to be the perfect choice; after all, this was the first real bread I ever made.

As soon as I started to mix the ingredients, I felt myself begin to relax.  (The glass of wine didn't hurt either.) That yeasty smell, the feel of the dough, the way my spinning brain began to slow down and focus ... these were the things about baking I had fallen in love with right from the start.  I felt my courage returning. 

And guess what? I needn't have been so worried. I was over prepared for class, a fairly usual state of affairs in my life,  thanks to my OCD. The whole age thing didn't bother me like I thought it would.  I mean, if being that young means being simultaneously bored, terrified, and extremely awkward, as so many of my fellow students appeared to be, then I'm glad to be past all of that. Besides, there's one guy in there who I swear must be at least 5 years older than I am. What a grandpa!

After listening to a lecture about baking processes, we did some straightforward leavening experiments in the kitchen, so I didn't even have a chance to make a fool of myself. (There will be plenty of time for that later, when we do macarons.) Of course I plan to faithfully record my (modest) successes and inevitable kitchen failures right here.

But what about the focaccia, you ask? What's the recipe? Is this a food blog or isn't it?  I used the exact same recipe I did the first time I made it, only I changed the topping based on what I had: this time it was tomatoes, garlic, black olives, kosher salt, and oregano.

I was certainly tempting fate - if my bread had come out badly, I would have been a complete wreck for class! Who knows? Maybe I would have stayed home with my head under the covers. But fate decided otherwise, and it came out beautifully. Whew.

I know that doing something professionally is a far cry from doing it as a hobby, and I realize that I'm running the risk, however small,  of ruining something I love to do.  But that's a risk I'm willing to take. No, working in a frenzied kitchen is not my long-term goal, though I'd certainly give it a shot. I know that many chefs crave the adrenaline rush that comes with being impossibly, insanely slamming busy, but I most definitely do not. Is there a little Tasty Trix bakeshop in my future? Maybe.  Half the fun is not knowing what the future holds. 

Stay tuned!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Laganophake: Roman Lentil & Red Wine Stew

If your entire idea of ancient Roman food and eating habits was formed by Caligula, then this healthy, hearty, and downright sensible lentil stew will certainly challenge that assumption.  And if you're thinking, "Laganophake? That sounds Greek. Who is she kidding with this Roman stuff?"  you get a gold star! Although this is a traditional Roman dish, its origins are Greek.

But wherever it comes from, this lentil stew has definitely withstood the test of time. The fragrant spices, wine, and onions come together to lend a subtle sweetness to the earthy flavor of the lentils; somehow it tastes simultaneously of the past and present.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Libum: Ancient Roman Cheese Bread

Let's see, my whole post-holiday "I'm not gonna eat any carbs for awhile" thing lasted, oh, what?  ... Two days? Two-and-half, if I'm being generous. Sigh.

In my defense,  there are extenuating circumstances. You see, Poppa Trix went and bought me a whole mess of cookbooks, most of which include irresistible bread recipes, like this one for libum, an ancient Roman cheese bread, from Mark Grant's Roman Cookery. And as long as I'm passing around some blame for my carb-o-mania, I might as well include The Winter Guest, a Madrid-based blog chock full of beautiful breads and starchy sundries that I absolutely covet. This was the site that introduced me to Roman Cookery, via a post about staititai, a scrumptious honey and sesame pizza.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Simple, Succulent, Spicy: Shrimp in a Chipotle, Lime, & Cilantro "Remoulade"

Look at me, getting all fancy with my plating! But who am I kidding? Dinner actually looked more like this:

Now that's more like it. 

That baked corn tortilla in the above photo notwithstanding, I am going pretty light on the carbs for the next couple of weeks.  Don't worry, I haven't gone all Atkins on you! Shudder. It's just a temporary  post-holiday measure - I could never live without my beautiful breads, savory pies, or pillow-y pastas for too terribly long.

That said, I didn't miss a thing with this meal. The shrimp were tangy, spicy, and juicy mouthfuls, and the guac - just mashed up avocado with a bit of lime juice, salt and pepper - was a fresh, filling, and satisfying companion to my zesty little camarones.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Plain, Stuffed, and Stacked Sky-High: Kids, It's Omelette Party Time!

"Welcome to the Omelette Show!"

I have become a bit ... single-minded lately. Some might even say obsessed. All I want to do is make -  and eat - omelettes. Not exactly post-holiday diet food, but at least they're no-carb, right?

It's all Poppa Trix's fault. He just couldn't bear to be predictable and get me Julie & Julia for Christmas, oh no. It's just as well, really.  I'll see it eventually, but I have absolutely no doubt that the Julie character's incessant whining is going to irritate me to no end.  So instead he got me something that's (in my opinion) far superior: a collection of The French Chef, Child's groundbreaking PBS cooking show. 

Sunday, January 3, 2010

For Top Chef Fans: My Late December Lunch at Volt

Happy belated New Year everyone! (Did you miss me?)
Welcome to my first post since the 12 Days of Feasting ended two weeks ago.  Honestly, I think it's taken me this long to recover from posting every day, not to mention cooking (and eating!) all those medieval meals. ...  Let's just say I still have a lot of bread pudding, slices of Ember Day tart, and egg nog to work off.

For those of you following along at home, in my last post I promised to share the deets of my  late December lunch at Volt.  Top Chef fans will recognize Volt as the restaurant of finalist and first runner-up Bryan Voltaggio,  brother of winner Michael Voltaggio. If you don't watch the show, there's a good chance you've never heard of the place, unless you happen to live in Frederick or the Baltimore/DC metro area. That's too bad: The vibe at Volt is definitely more urban than the Western Maryland location would lead you to expect, and I'd happily drive double the hour-plus it takes me to get there to enjoy both the (mostly) spot-on food and the impeccable, knowledgeable service.