Saturday, April 12, 2008


Stir-Fried Capsicums, Tomatoes and Capers with Hummus on Pita

This morning I had my heart set on making pecan pie. This is not the sort of dessert my angelheart Eric would have expected on his birthday (he is of the group of humans who either wants chocolate in a dessert dish, cake or ice cream - and, often, both), but the chill in the air begged to be buffered by the richness of this buttery-tasting nut, with additional depth provided by a good Canadian or Vermont maple syrup (my preference is for the dark amber syrups). Of course, today, I could not find pecans anywhere. And in the course of shopping, I was presented with another problem - forget the cake for now, what about lunch?

Recently Lucy of Nourish Me asked her readers what they tucked into their weekday lunchboxes. This morning, a Saturday, the very same question struck me. While I do not have to worry about the constraints of a lunch box or other vessel to take to the office, I could technically make anything. That thought is overwhelming to my somewhat rigid (selectively flexible) nature - parameters are nice at times.

The luxury of weekend lunches, though, is that one has the time to cook, if he or she chooses. But what to cook? I did not really feel like cooking for any great length of time, and I had it fixed in my mind that I would not just pick something from the fridge or grab something ready to go from a bakery or delicatessen either (I'm bloody difficult at times, I know). I wandered the market aimlessly, thrown off by not achieving the only plan I had for this morning (to find pecan nuts). I halted in front of a display of shiny capsicums (bell peppers).

I love the solanaceae family, not only because the members of its clan have the coolest names in the botanical world (datura and deadly nightshade - the belladonna genus is the deadliest of the bunch with high levels of alkaloids) but because the plants that are edible produce either fruit (like capsicums, aubergines and tomatoes) or berries (such as wolfberry) - and you know of my looooooooovvvve for aubergines.

I do not like capsicums in their raw state, say in a standard salad offering, but cooked in any fashion, they impart a smoky and sweet quality to any dish. It was only a few weeks ago that I made a Moroccan salad of roasted capsicums and tomatoes (Chakchouka), and I suddenly felt like having it again. I decided on a shortcut to get around roasting the capsicums; thus, I could also work on my version of hummus - and the two would be combined in a warm pita pocket.

Stir-Fried Capsicums, Tomatoes and Capers
(adapted from the recipe for Chakchouka in Kitty Morse and Danielle Mamane's The Scent of Orange Blossoms)

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 capsicums, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tomatoes, peeled and coarsely diced
1 teaspoon sumac
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed

1) In a saute pan over medium-high heat, warm up the olive oil, then add the capsicum slices.
2) When the capsicum has softened, add the garlic.
3) When the garlic is fragrant but has not coloured, add the tomatoes (the point is to warm them through).
4) Let the sumac hit the bottom of the pan for a few seconds before turning it into the other ingredients.
5) When the capsicum slices have completely softened, take the pan off the heat, add the capers and season the dish with salt and pepper

With respect to the portions of ingredients, think one capsicum and one tomato per person. The presence of sumac should be subtle, adding a slight citrus spike to the capsicum and tomatoes, heightened by the capers. Using this recipe as a stand-alone salad is a great possibility for busy gatherings, for it is traditionally served at room temperature, which allows you to get on with other things.

My version of hummus is a combination of recipes for Hummus Habb (chickpea puree) and Hummus bi Tahini (chickpea puree with tahina). It is a cinch to make and preferable to many prepared ones because the fresh citrus juice is allowed to sing beautifully, accenting the richness of the puree. Also, I have found no significant difference in making hummus from scratch with chickpeas in their raw state and soaked overnight to making it from chickpeas in a can.

(Adapted from recipes for Hummus Habb and Hummus bi Tahini in Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food)

450g canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon cumin, ground
1 large clove garlic, minced
juice of half a lemon
1/4 cup tahina (a paste made from hulled sesame seeds)
1/3 cup warm water
3 tablespoons olive oil, approximately

1) In a blender mix the above ingredients. The liquid is to encourage the puree to become creamy. If you find the above liquid measurements do not work for you, add more olive oil (or argan oil). Add seasoning or more lemon juice to your liking.

Slice a warm pita such that you create a pita pocket, slather the internal walls with Hummus, and fill with the stir-fried goodies. Each mouthful should be warm and rich. While an incredible stomach-filler, the acidic and salty additions clear the way and encourage continued bites until one has had too much (I had two and could not bear a light dinner until very late). While this is the perfect lazy, weekend lunch for me, I hope it is not too long before I can satisfy my sweet tooth with a great pecan pie. Bring on Autumn!

(And happy birthday to my angelheart Eric.)

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Saturday, April 05, 2008


Aubergine and Fennel Seed Fettuccine

Sometimes being in between seasons is a bother. Do you carry an umbrella on a day that appears to be sunny? Do you leave behind a sweater because it might not be that cold? Do you risk going outdoors at all? Being in a liminal space such as this forces one to second guess. The same applies to cooking at these times of the year. I had one last, good Summer aubergine on hand, but I didn't want baba ghanouj or a smoky aubergine with barbecued meat...I decided to take the best of the Summer and combine it it with something that hints at the colder climes: a touch of cream.

I suppose today's offering is not only a "changing seasons" dish but is one that builds on the notion of compromise, for it marries northern and southern Italian ingredients - well, in my canvas of broad strokes it does.

Aubergine is very popular in Sicilian cooking, where it is used to carry and not compete with the salty and sweet combinations for which the glorious island of volcanic rock is famous: capers, chilis, vinegar, marsala...Aubergine is a recognised ingredient largely because of the international popularity of the Sicilian dishes: pasta alla Norma, a combination of aubergine, ricotta, tomatoes, basil and preferably either of these two pastas maccheroni or paccheri - the dish is named after the grandest work of Sicilian composer Bellini, Norma; and caponata, a fiery relish of fried aubergine and peppers mixed with celery, capers and olives bound with a bittersweet sauce of vinegar and sugar. What I largely associate with southern Italian preparations of pasta are tomatoes. And while tomatoes are also used in northern pastas, I tend to be lulled by the creaminess of their pasta dishes more than anything else - made so usually on account of cheese or cream itself.

Today is one of those grey but not cold days, where there is an autumnal chill in the air, enough of one to make you put on an extra layer, but it is not so cold that you're pining for stew and wearing two pairs of socks. A marriage of summery aubergine and a touch of comforting cream. (And I am sure by now, but especially following my post from 1 March, 2008, you know that fettuccine is my favourite pasta - you use whichever long pasta you prefer.) In the interest of meeting halfway, the hinge of all good and long-lasting relationships, I've added fennel seeds and fronds, which are popular in Roman cooking - the best fennel, itself, is purportedly from Florence, but that is only a minor detail of - remember? - generalisations.

The following recipe can serve four. As is typical of most of my recipes, I give you the steps in the order that I do things, so that the ingredients come together at once, which is easy if this is all you're preparing, which would be more than adequate for lunch.

Aubergine and Fennel Seed Fettuccine

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
1 1/2 tablespoons fennel seeds
500g/16oz aubergine, cut into bite-size pieces
salt & pepper
150ml/5fl. oz cream/heavy cream
1/4 cup parmesan, grated
1 1/2 tablespoons fennel fronds, chopped
350g/12oz fettuccine
extra parmesan (prepared with a vegetable peeler) and fennel fronds (chopped)

1) Boil water that is heavily seasoned with salt in a large pot.
2) Heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add fennel seeds.
3) When the seeds give off an aroma, add the rest of the olive oil and the aubergine pieces. Toss together and cook until aubergine is very soft - 10 to 15 minutes.
4) In the meantime, the water should be boiling, so add pasta to the water. Follow the instructions of the pasta your purchase, if you do not make it yourself, as to when your chosen pasta should be al dente, or to your liking if you prefer it without the slightest resistance.
5) Season aubergine with salt and pepper.
6) Add the cream and parmesan over a very low heat.
7) When the cream bubbles lightly, remove from the heat and add fennel fronds. Stir to combine.
8) By now the pasta should be ready, so drain it in a colander and then add it to the creamy aubergine. Toss together and serve with shavings of parmesan and a scattering of chopped fennel fronds.


Well, only if you enjoy the aroma and finish attributed to anethole as I do - fennel, licorice, star anise, sambuca, you name it. Luscious, earthy, smacking of early Autumn in Oceania, this comforts without any gastronomic suffocation. Of course, the perfect match is Sicilian nero d'avola, which is typically medium of body with notes of figs and pepper.

While I eagerly anticipate the Fall bounty to come, I particularly love being caught in-between seasons and blurring boundaries.

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