Monday, December 31, 2007


Aubergine with Mint

One can always tell when it's Summer at my place - wherever it may be - because it is the time of year that I go mad for aubergines (eggplants) and plums. Their gorgeous purple skins sing to me, as do their plump bodies. Neither requires that much work to cook, but both react very differently to heat. Plums become juicier and more intense, whereas aubergines develop a smokiness. Earlier this year I escaped the chilly and tempestuous New Zealand Winter and spent Summer in the US, where I made a gorgeous Savoury Aubergine "Jam". It was perfect to have on toast, a light and flavourful lunch. Like many during Summer, my diet tends to be comprised of goodies that are quickly cooked - if cooking is at all necessary - because the oven's heat sends me overboard during times of heat and humidity.

Over time, I have come to really appreciate the flexibility of the aubergine. Its mallowy texture can take on many heavy sauces and dressings, whether they be of a base that is soy, sesame or olive oil, and they pair so well with the best of the hardy and hearty herbs: mint and oregano. Mint is too often maligned amongst my friends due to many a bad roast lamb served with overpowering mint sauce that has all too often come from a proprietor of ill-repute. With powerful dressings - especially those that contain garlic cloves instead of minced shallots - mint adds a coolness to the palate. There are myriad uses of this herb, and we only need to look to the Sicilians and Greeks for guidance and inspiration. I hope it makes its way into your salads this Summer as it is the herbal version of a tall glass of anything cold.

To prepare large aubergines, use a vegetable peeler to remove some of the skin in strips so that you are left with a zebra pattern; this is to remove some of the bitterness. To further extract bitterness, slice the aubergines in the desired manner, then layer in a colander with a dusting of salt. Put a small plate over the top layer and weight with a heavy item, such as a canned product from the pantry. After 30 mintues have elapsed, rinse the slices of aubergine and dry them thoroughly. Small aubergines should not necessitate this step before any cooking.

The following makes a great salad for one or two for lunch, or it can be incoporated as a side dish or into a mezze for four. I have very slightly adapted the ingredients to suit what I had at home. Original specifications are in parentheses.

Aubergine with Mint
(From Diana Henry's Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons)

2 aubergines (or 3, if medium-small)
olive oil
salt, pepper

For the dressing:
1 teaspoon vermouth (white wine vinegar)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 garlic cloves, minced (crushed)
1 teaspoon white sugar, superfine
50ml/2 fl. oz extra virgin olive oil
a handful of mint, torn

1) Cut tops and bottoms off the aubergines. You can slice them length-ways or across, as I did. Slices should measure approximately 1 cm/ 1/4".
2) Brush the aubergine slices with olive oil and season on both sides with salt and pepper.
3) You can either put a frying pan or griddle on until very hot, grill on both sides and then turn heat down to cook through. I find this quite laborious as I actually hate having to get out more than one pan when a dish has so few ingredients. So, I lay the slices on a baking tray covered in foil and grilled on both sides. Once grilled, move to middle rack and turn oven on to 180 C/375F until cooked through, approximately 5-6 minutes.
4) Whisk all the dressing together except for the mint.
5) Put aubergines on a serving platter and dress immediately so the aubergine can absorb the dressing. Drop in the torn mint leaves.
6) Leave to soak for a couple of hours and serve at room temperature.

Mint is a herb that is best added at the end of any dish in order to retain its zing, which rings through the smoky aubergine - a perfect match, satisfying in a way that leaves your stomach full and your palate pleased. The dressing is perfectly Sicilian, both sweet and sour. This was lunch for me, but that is because I'm a glutton for aubergine - I would have been happy to share it. Though not the prettiest salad in the world, it packs a punch without a lot of effort. All you need is a few simple ingredients...and, as you know by now, one should always have aubergine on hand over the Summer when it is at its most plentiful. A great way to enjoy the last sweltering afternoon of the year.

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Friday, December 21, 2007



The breaking of bread marks the beginning of many traditional meals. Though one is oft laden with back-breaking stress at this time of year, we sometimes lose sight of the simple fact that traditional meals mark occasions. The one that we - as in, the human race - commonly share is that of the New Year (though it occurs at different times depending on the calendar one follows), but within cultural divisions, there are celebrations of puberty rites, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Eid, engagements...What about theses? Though I do not intend to make a tradition out of writing academic documents, I do intend to mark this singular occasion with the breaking of bread: challah (or challot in this case, for I made three loaves).

Challah is a bread that I truly love but have not had for a while as it does not seem to be sold in New Zealand bakeries, presumably on account of the small Jewish representation in the Kiwi population. Technically, challah refers to a "portion" of bread that is to be kept aside to represent the manna that aided the Israelites during 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt. It is a payment of tithe (tax levy) to the kohen (Jewish priesthood). Actually, there are debates within Judaism about the contemporary legitimacy of tithe, so I am going to quit while I'm ahead, for the purpose of mentioning it in the first place was only to refer to the origins of naming the bread.

Challah is probably as recognisable as baguette, for its most common formation is in a three-strand braid. It looks lovely when it has been executed well. As you can see from my "effort," I need to make a few more loaves in order to perfect the technique of braiding. Let's blame it on post-thesis trauma that I could not remember how to braid. In case you have forgotten, line up your three strands and pinch them together at the top. Pull the left strand over the centre strand, then the right one over the centre strand (which is now the left strand that was pulled over) and repeat.

There seems to be a proliferation of food bloggers' attempts at recipes from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Traditions from Around the World. I also have this interesting book and have decided to take my first directions for making challah from it. The recipe yields three loaves. Do not be concerned if you do not use all of the flour, for you might not need all 2 1/2 cups suggested for the kneading process (a lot is called for as it is quite sticky), but absorption depends on the age of your flour and on the weather conditions prevailing on the day you make challah.

(from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Traditions from Around the World)

2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
5 1/2 to 7 cups all-purpose flour
3 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 to 1/2 cup mild vegetable oil
egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water)

1) In a large bowl, stir yeast into the warm water until dissolved.
2) Stir in two cups of the flour until a smooth batter has been formed.
3) Cover with cling-film and let rest at room temperature for 2 hours, by which time the batter should be frothy.
4) Stir eggs, sugar, salt and oil into the batter.
5) Stir in 2 1/2 cups of flour in 1/2 cup increments. Ensure smoothness after each addition.
6) Add an additional 1/2 cup of flour, which is to be folded in. There is no explanation as to why it is folded instead of stirred in until smooth, but I suspect this is to aid in making it a little less sticky when it is first tumbled out for kneading.
7) Sprinkle flour on a cold surface and knead the bread, which is to say that you fold the dough over on itself, flatten it, then repeat. This creates a firm yet elastic texture that aids the dough in rising. You will need to add sprinklings of flour to your hands, the dough and the surface during this process, until you have a very smooth dough.
8) Place dough in a well-oiled bowl and cover with cling-film. Leave for 6 hours or overnight. The authors don't tell you what to expect when you come back after leaving the dough overnight. You can imagine my fright when I saw what is pictured on your left. I guess enough carbon dioxide was given off by the yeast over night. This was a very active dough indeed. I decided not to throw it out in despair and was surprised at how well the dough pulled together when I gathered it into a ball before putting it on a lightly floured surface.
9) Divide the ball into three equal portions.
10) Take one portion of dough and divide it into three parts. Roll each of these three parts out to form strands, approximately 46cm/20" long, tapering at both ends.
11) Pinch together at top end and braid per instructions above. Tuck ends underneath.
12) Place bread on a baking sheet and cover with cling-film.
13) Repeat with the other two portions of dough.
14) Let the loaves of bread rise for 45 minutes to one hour.
15) Preheat oven to 190 C/375 F.
16) Just before baking, brush egg wash on the loaves.
17) Place bread on lower third rack in the oven and bake for 15 minutes.
18) Brush egg wash on the loaves again, and turn oven down to 177 C/350 F.
19) Bake for a further 20-25 mintues. The loaves should sound hollow when rapped.
20) Place loaves on a rack and let cool for approximately 20 minutes before slicing.

This is a slightly sweet bread, especially the crust. I found that the inner layers still had a bit of a tang, but I suspect my yeast was overactive, which you can see in the little bumps that formed on the crust in the photo that introduces this post. I love seeing the tension in the crust; it makes the bread look like strands of rope. The texture of the interior is incredibly light and fluffy. It reminds me of French pastry in the way the layers separate like leaves of paper.

I enjoyed breaking from the thesis with challah. I froze two loaves once they had completely cooled...the other one was gone in no time.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007


Student Food: Coffee, Eggs and Books

I know it is such a cliché to consume copious amounts of coffee, but what can I say? While it is not necessarily good for one's blood pressure, coffee is mood-enhancing; I, for one, am relaxed in pose and steely-eyed in my concentration after drinking a cupful, and these effects are absolutely necessary when one is hunched over a desk all day at the computer or scribbling on one piece of coffee-ringed paper after another. Truth be known, I don't usually have but two cups per day, but they are loaded by the strength of the coffee - utterly dependent on the type of roast and quality of roasted beans - and the coffee machine itself.

My angelheart Eric is enjoying sole custody of our faithful espresso machine. Since moving back to New Zealand, I have purchased a moka pot, which is the closest fake-espresso one can have at home because it is also functions by creating steam to activate the water that funnels upwards towards to beans, extracting a very strong brew (not to be confused with percolators, in which boiled water seeps downwards through coffee grounds). I am happy with it; in fact, I am in love with it. If it wasn't for this invention, I would probably not be able to work from home but would have to work in the city, where good cafés abound. This is an important consideration for most students, I venture.

One of the main reasons I have not posted of late is because my diet has not greatly varied these past couple of weeks. Lunches consist of a sandwich of some description and fruit; dinner is whatever my parents put on. Occasionally I make linguine with garlic oil and peperoncino. Although I seriously miss taking my time in the kitchen to explore, it is time I cannot afford. On the days that my tastebuds get depressed at the notion of yet another sandwich (no matter how delicious I make them with fresh bread), I turn to my protein superfood: eggs.

From the days of 5th form and 7th form year-end examinations in high school, I make sure to have eggs when I need to be mentally alert. The effects this has seems to wear off if I follow it for too many consecutive days; however, I have learned to harness the power of the mighty egg and ensure that I consume them for lunch at least twice a week. The mental clarity gained is impressive.

Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking is my book to go to for recipes on eggs. There is a so much variation in the provinces of France on ways to prepare fried eggs, poached eggs, hard boiled eggs, omelettes, soufflés, tarts...I find never-ending satisfaction from these pages. Ms. David does remark that in most cases, people are very particular about how they prepare their eggs. I clarify that this is not because people are always picky and difficult but that, in most cases, egg dishes feature eggs as the star and if they are not prepared to one's liking, then the entire dish is ruined.

I confess that I generally prefer poached eggs to fried eggs, but every now and then I do crave the combination of nutty butter and tart vinegar, a combination that defines Oeufs Frits au Beurre Noir. I do not prefer my yolks to be set too hard, but this is a call that you can make. Ms. David doesn't specify the vinegar to be used for this quick dish. I have tried the following vinegars for this recipe: tarragon, white wine, and red wine. The latter is my favourite on rainy days, providing both a savoury fruit and tart bite; tarragon vinegar is better on other days. I have yet to try it with champagne vinegar. This very simple recipe provides enough for one in a hurry.

Oeufs Frits au Beurre Noir
(from Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking)

1 3/4 tablespoons butter, divided use
2 eggs
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (see note above)

1) Set oven to low and place inside a heat-safe serving dish.
2) Melt one tablespoon butter (or light, frying oil) over medium heat.
3) Into a plate with sloping sides, crack one egg.
4) Sprinkle egg with salt and pepper.
5) When butter has melted, gently slide in the egg so that the yolk does not break.
6) Tilt the frying pan so that the butter completely surrounds the egg.
7) Cover and fry gently until just before done to your preference. They should cook a little further while hanging out in the oven.
8) In the meantime, crack the other egg into the plate and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
9) Transfer done egg to the waiting warm serving dish and get on with frying the other egg.
10) When both eggs are done, clean the frying pan, then add remaining 3/4-tablespoon of butter. When it is foaming and gently transforming colour, pour over the fried eggs, which are staying warm in the oven.
11) Pour the vinegar into the frying pan and let it boil. Pour over the eggs and pool of nutty butter. Serve immediately.

Of course, when it all gets a bit much and a break is needed instead of food, there is another sort of food: that contained in the pages of my cookery book collection. Currently at my side are the latest offerings by Diana Henry, Cook Simple: Effortless Cooking Every Day, and Simon Hopkinson, Week In Week Out: 52 Seasonal Stories, the first by Australian chef Skye Gyngell, A Year in My Kitchen, and the Elizabeth David stalwart French Provincial Cooking. Each one is uniquely comforting, but full of insight and imagination.

Bear with me. There are only two more weeks to go, and then I will be free of the ball and chain that is my beloved thesis.

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