Caponata – A Sicilian Palate & A Painter’s Pallet

April 13th, 2011 / comments 7

I couldn’t ignore the colors of the fruits and vegetables piled high in boxes and baskets at the open-air market in Ortigia. I shopped as if I were in an art supply store choosing tubes of paint.

eggplant 01 Caponata   A Sicilian Palate & A Painters Pallet

Watercolor by Carol Egbert

I bought a deep violet eggplant,

pepper 01 Caponata   A Sicilian Palate & A Painters Pallet

Watercolor by Carol Egbert

a sweet pepper that was sap green on one side and cadmium orange on the other, white cippolini onions with forest green leaves, a bunch of celery with chartreuse leaves attached to leaf-green stems,

olives 01 Caponata   A Sicilian Palate & A Painters Pallet

Watercolor by Carol Egbert

blue-black olives cured in oil, a scoop of grey-green salt cured capers, six Windsor yellow lemons and two kilos of blood oranges.

I created an ad hoc still life as I unpacked the market bags and thought about what I would cook. The caponata I had eaten in Taormina earlier in the week came to mind. Considered a Sicilian classic, caponata, like pasta, couscous, oranges and lemons, was brought by the Arabs when they conquered Sicily in 827 AD. The Arabs, then called Saracens, also introduced sophisticated methods of irrigation that made vegetable farming possible. Making caponata, a salad of cooked vegetables with a sweet and sour sauce, is an opportunity to combine colorful vegetables and Mediterranean history. Here’s how I did it:

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Artichoke and Planning for Ortigia

February 23rd, 2011 / Comments 0

This time next week, we will be in Sicily and it’s difficult to think about anything else. The thorny, green artichokes I saw at the grocery store here last Monday reminded me of the market stalls piled high with artichokes in Ortigia. That evening, Charles and I sat by the fire and made lists and plans for our trip. We remembered the men fishing for octopus on moonlit nights, the calls of the vendors in the open air market, and the fields of artichokes growing near groves of lemon and orange trees, and we looked out at the frozen pond while we had dinner that began with California grown artichokes.

Artichoke ce egbert Artichoke and Planning for OrtigiaI was twelve when I bought my first artichoke. My mother worked in a large grocery store that had a much more exotic range of foods than the market we usually shopped in. I loved to wander the aisles in search of mystery foods. I discovered lobsters and artichokes at the same time. Two foods that left piles of debris on my plate that were larger than the initial servings. My mother was always willing to indulge my curiosity as long as I promised to eat, or at least taste, what I brought home. Armed with a huge cookbook, actually a binder filled with fifteen small booklets that I had purchased one at a time, I was always able to find appropriate recipes to use in my culinary explorations even before the existence of the Internet.

The name artichoke comes from the Arabic term Ardi-Shoki that means ground thorn. Globe artichokes are harvested as unopened flower buds and, other than the name, have nothing in common with Jerusalem artichokes, which are lumpy roots of some varieties of sunflowers. If allowed to flower, the violet-blue blossom, similar to a thistle, can measures up to seven inches in diameter.

I chose two of the greenest and heaviest artichokes with sharp thorns on the tips of tightly closed petals. Although there are varieties without thorns, I prefer the flavor and texture of the thorny ones. I trimmed the petal tips and stems before cooking. Here’s how I did it: … read more

Super Snacks for Super Bowl

January 31st, 2011 / comments 11

Sunday is Super Bowl Sunday, the day that many Americans have been anticipating since this time last year. For most Americans, Super Bowl Sunday is celebrated with an all day party and an unending spread of finger food.

pd Football c egbert 02  Super Snacks for Super BowlPre-game activities begin after lunch, the game, liberally dotted with commercials, starts at six, is interrupted by the half-time show, then more of the game, and finally the wrap-up. It’s no wonder that most hotels offering Super Bowl packages have a four-day minimum stay – it must take at least two days to recover.

I’m not a football fan. My mind wanders with the interminable delays. I worry about mortal injuries to the referees and camera operators when I see enormous bodies, protected by even more enormous plastic helmets and shoulder pads flying through the air and landing in heaps. I’ve been told that the creative commercials that debut on Super Bowl Sunday are enough reason to watch but I’d rather be putting finishing touches on Super Bowls, Super Platters and Super Sweets to sustain Super Friends who are eating and drinking, cheering and booing in front of the television.

One Super Bowl party website suggested, “serve everyone’s favorite high fat, finger-licking snack foods. After all, your television set is the focal point, not the food.” (Those are fighting words to a cook.) Another site suggested serving “salami, pepperoni, cheese whiz, chips and dips, beer and hot sauce, zingers like salami & cheese stuffed pepperochini.” (I wonder if beer and hot sauce is new mixed drink?) Tailgate classics like Buffalo wings, chili, and layered dips are all possibilities, but I want Super Food, healthy food that is not fussy to prepare and has enough flavor to be a bit of a distraction from the game.

PT Megaphone c egbert Super Snacks for Super BowlChickpeas and chickpea flour, also called besan and gram flour, are on the Super Food team I’m inviting to be part of my Super Bowl menu. They taste good and are an excellent source of protein, fiber, iron, potassium and B vitamins. It takes only a minute to make the batter for Besan flatbread that can be served either hot from the oven or at room temperature. It meets my requirements for a super finger food.

Hummus, a party regular at my house, is also a Super Snack. This blend of ancient ingredients – chickpeas, sesame seeds, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil is readily available at the market but when made at home it is absolutely fresh, with a minimum number of ingredients and is preservative free. When combined with warm pita bread, it is a complete protein that will build muscles so necessary for passing and blocking on the gridiron. (Not bad for a non-sports writer!) Best of all, homemade hummus costs half as much and is at least twice as good as store bought. I took a bowl of hummus, surrounded with carrot sticks to a potluck lunch last Sunday and it disappeared before the chocolate chip cookies.

Here’s how I made Besan Flat Bread and Hummus: … read more

Gravlax – Swedish Cured Salmon

October 20th, 2010 / comments 7

In the mid 1980’s, at the end of a two-month trip that took us, with our five year old son, through Asia and Russia, we stopped in Sweden on our way home.

boat c egbert Gravlax   Swedish Cured Salmon

We had been living in Singapore for two years, enjoying an incredible variety of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Indonesian food. Our first meal in Stockholm was gastronomic culture shock. There were endless varieties of meat, fish, cheese, vegetables, breads and berries artfully arranged on a breakfast buffet. I began by tasting a little bit of almost everything. When I tasted the thinly sliced, cured salmon I was expecting salty lox and was surprised by the fresh, slightly sweet, dill flavor and delighted by the sauce that accompanied it.

two trout c egbert Gravlax   Swedish Cured SalmonI went back to the buffet for a second helping and knew that I would order it at every meal until we left Stockholm. A friendly Swede at the buffet table explained that what I had fallen in love with was called gravlax. She explained that the word gravlax is a combination of two Scandinavian words – grav meaning grave and lax meaning salmon – and was in fact a description of how fishermen in the Middle Ages prepared salmon by salting it and burying it in the sand, above the high tide line, to ferment. Fortunately the salmon on the buffet had been cured with salt, sugar and fresh dill in a refrigerator rather than fermented in sand. It was a lovely shade of orange, thinly sliced, served with buttered brown bread and a sweet mustard, dill sauce called hovastarsas. Months later, after we had recovered from our trip half way around the world, I remembered my salmon binge in Stockholm and decided to try to make gravlax. It was a remarkably simple process and I make it frequently.

Salmon and trout are in the same family with the distinction that salmon migrate and trout don’t. Salmon come from both the Atlantic and Pacific and may be either wild or farmed. Varieties of salmon include: Chinook, Coho, pink, sockeye, steelhead and chum. Gravlax can be made with any variety of salmon, and I choose the variety based on guidance I get from Alex, the guy behind the fish counter at my market.

The last time I made it was for a dinner party to welcome our friend, Kay, back from her recent trip to Sweden. Following Alex’s recommendation, I chose a one-pound fillet of steel head.

I prepared it three days before the party so that it would have time to cure. Here’s how I did it:

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Szechuan Cucumber Pickles & Sesame Noodles

August 11th, 2010 / comments 7

In 1980, our friend Tom went on a trip to China. Tom was an architect who loved adventure, and in those days, going to South America was exotic but a trip China was unimaginable. Tom had a wonderful time and, as an intrepid cook, he brought back exotic recipes and memories of extraordinary meals.

Asian pat c egbert Szechuan Cucumber Pickles & Sesame Noodles

Soon after his return, he invited us to dinner. When we arrived, he was emptying the wood shavings from his pencil sharpener into the wok. We watched as he added the contents of two tea bags to the wood shavings. He explained that he was going to make tea smoked chicken for dinner. He put a bamboo steamer filled with raw chicken over the tea and wood shavings, covered everything with aluminum foil, put it on the stove and turned on the heat. The tea and wood smoldered and I worried about the yellow paint from the pencils, but Tom explained that it wasn’t a problem and that the smoke imparted a wonderful flavor to the chicken.

duck c egbert Szechuan Cucumber Pickles & Sesame Noodles

While we waited for the chicken to smoke, we enjoyed a cucumber salad that Tom had learned to make in China, and he described the all-duck banquet in Beijing that marked the end of his trip. He described, in detail, dishes made from duck innards, head, wings and webs. We neglected the wok and concentrated on the salad that was spicy, loaded with garlic, Szechuan peppers and peanuts. Unfortunately, the bamboo steamer that held the chicken above the smoke caught fire and so did the chicken. Our dinner was a bit meager, steamed rice and cucumber salad, but we laughed a lot and I went home with a great recipe for Szechuan Chinese pickles. We call it Tom’s Chinese Cucumber Salad and the recipe is my souvenir from his trip.

On a steamy evening a couple of weeks ago, I made Szechuan Cucumber salad and sesame noodles for dinner and we drank a toast in memory of our friend Tom and his love of exotic food. Here’s how I made it:

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Recipe from the ’50s – Crab a la Fitzgerald

August 2nd, 2010 / comments 5

crab 50s c egbert  Recipe from the 50s   Crab a la Fitzgerald

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