Friday, July 25, 2014

Halloumi and Seared Red Peppers, Olives and Capers

I do love Deborah Madison's massively informative cookbook, Vegetable Literacy, even though have posted about it only once. It is chock full of inspiring information, and in this age of marrying informed gardening, thoughtful cooking with delightful eating, it's a rich cookbook to have on one's shelf.*

*I guess I find this book very, um, informative, given that I have used the adjective, noun, and attributive verb form of "inform."

In this section on the nightshade family, Madison writes a lovely essay on peppers and chiles (reminding us that "the word for the hot pepper is chile, and the name of the dish of meat seasoned with hot peppers is chili"). In addition to detailing the Scoville scale wherein chiles and peppers are ranked according to heat units, Madison talks about the terroir of the pepper, much like one would for wine. Too little water, a little more sun, and your peppers from the same mother plant might act quite differently. Now a New Mexico dweller, she understands that the Southwest doesn't have the only hold on chile flavorings--she gives Louisiana its due and points to Florida's long history with the scorching Datil chile (since the 17th century, in fact). While Madison does not count herself a chile expert (a self-depricating nod to those who are), she does count Cliff Wright among them, and her recommendation of his cookbook Some Like it Hot means I know what I am getting my heat-loving brother for Christmas. And if you're reading this, dear brother, pretend you don't know.

While Madison laser focuses her keen observational skills on the pepper, a little internet research leads to a wealth of information on the "cheese that grills" (or so claimed the packaging on my halloumi). Halloumi, for those of you who were like me and thus not really in the know about this wonderful little cheese, is a Cypriot semi-hard cheese.  (Those of you already on top of this food trend, please share some of your yummy recipes with me.) A mix of goat's and sheep's milk, it has a high melting point, so slap this durable white cheese on the grill or throw that in your frying pan. Very salty for it used to be preserved in a salt brine, it is often served with mint leaves (as it is here) and some suspect the cheese and mint were often paired due to the anti-bacterial qualities of the mint.  Indeed, this cheese has a heck of a history, dating back well before refrigeration in the 16th century. Further, it is a communal cheese, as most 16th-century families had only a few small animals to produce a little bit of milk. The families would come together as a community (usually led by women), pool their resources, make some halloumi, and leave with their own adequate supplies of this dense cheese. Nowadays, it is commercially produced, of course. This website has a wealth of other halloumi information, including the chemical composition from different animals' milk. The Guardian even has a recipe for how to make your own halloumi.  Invite some friends over.  It will be fun.

Halloumi in the frying pan.
Post pan halloumi

But beyond all this information about the Scoville scale and halloumi making, this is a wonderful mid-summer salad. The sweetness of the peppers, the acidity of the tomatoes, the saltiness of the cheese, and the refreshing quality of the mint all come together to make a solid dinner. In fact, we had it as a main course with a lightly dressed salad of spring greens, and we had leftovers. Enough to for lunch the next day. Truth be told, however, the halloumi was best straight from the pan; thus, if you expect leftovers, fry up the remainder of the cheese when you serve the rest of the peppers.

Enjoy your Cypriot cheese and sweet capsicums.  We sure did.

Halloumi and Seared Red Peppers, Olives and Capers

2 very generous helpings for a main course dinner; 4 as a first course


A big handful (say 1 cup) cherry tomatoes, quartered or halved
12 olives (Kalamata recommended), pitted and halved
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon capers
2 tablespoons olive oil* (See note)
2 bell peppers, red, yellow, or orange
4-8 ounces halloumi cheese, 1/2 inch thick (depends on how much cheese you need)
1 tablespoon mint, chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
Salt and Pepper
Pita bread, for serving

1.  Combine the tomatoes, olives, garlic and capers in a bowl and moisten with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

2.  Heat 1/2 tablespoon of the oil in a skillet over high heat.  When the oil is hot, add the peppers and saute until softened and seared, about 7-8 minutes.  Add them to the bowl with the tomato mixture.

3.  Return the pan to medium high heat and add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil.  When the oil is hot, add the cheese and cook, turning to color both sides.  You need only about 2 minutes per side.  Remove the cheese from the pan.  Return the pepper-tomato mixture to the pan and cook for 1 minute, then turn off the heat and add the mint and parsley. Season with salt and pepper.

4.  Place the cheese on a plate, and cover with the pepper-tomato mixture, sizzling from the pan.  Serve with warm pitas and a simple salad for a main course meal.

*Note:  Madison recommends 3 tablespoons, but we cut down.  I found even the 2 be a little heavy handed.  You know your palette.  Decide how much oil you need.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Grilled West Indies Spice-Rubbed Chicken Breast with Equatorial Fruit Salad

We spent yesterday gardening, cleaning up the backyard, and puttering around outside.  To reward ourselves for a job at least adequately done, we grilled.

A few weeks ago, the husband's parents made this Grilled West Indies Spice-Rubbed Chicken with the cookbook-recommended grilled banana, which was so good we had to make it ourselves.  However, I find that the grilled banana can become a bit cloying, so we switched out the accompanying fruit for a far zingier Equatorial Fruit Salad with lime and jalapeño.  

We walked away with five important messages about the salad from the meal:
1.) The Equatorial Fruit Salad is phenomenal.  The sweet acidity of the pineapple next to the smoothness of the papaya just tastes like a tropical summer.  The lime gives a further zing that plays off of the creaminess of the bananas.  I was a little worried about the heat, so I put in only 2 jalapeños.  However, because you seed them, the jalapeños end up not being that hot.  Go ahead and put all three in. 
2.)  Definitely splash in some of the rum.  First of all, it's rum.  Second, it adds a hint more sweetness to a fruit salad that is remarkably not overly sweet. 
3.)  While the salad is mouthwatering--and, in its leftover status, served as a fine accompaniment to today's lunch--it is not the best counterpart to the spice-rubbed chicken.  The spice-rubbed chicken does need something creamier and sweeter than this particular salad to balance the heat of the cayenne and ginger in the rub. Save this salad for another grilled meal, but certainly eat this salad.  Period.
4.)  Despite my earlier protestations, the grilled banana was the better counterpoint to the heat of the spice-rub. 
5.)  To grill the recommended banana, simply place an unpeeled banana  (one for each person) on the grill and forget about it until it's black (say a couple minutes on each side). Indeed, while the skin will turn  an unappetizing black, the interior of the banana will be soft, very sweet, and a little smokey.  Remove the banana from the grill and unpeel. Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, cookbook writers extraordinaire, recommend brushing the banana with a little molasses and butter once you have peeled off the skin. I would say it's sweet enough without it.  

Now that said, the spice-rub is well-layered, could be used on any meat (pork?  Yes, please), and could be tweaked depending on what you have on hand or your palette prefers (More cumin?  Why not?  Out of ginger?  No problem.).  We served this alongside a dollop of yogurt--which counterbalances all that spice--and a helping of padron peppers* dry sauteed and then finished with a little salt and olive oil.  It was a fine way to cap a productive gardening day.  Ahh, summer.

*These little peppers hail from northwestern Spain.  I have heard them described as a little like playing Russian roulette.  Most of the time they are sweet, but occasionally, when you pop one in your mouth you get the surprise of a hot one.  If you see a basket of them at your farmer's market, pick them up.

Grilled West Indies Spice-Rubbed Chicken Breast with Equatorial Fruit Salad
Adapted from  The Thrill of the Grill

4 servings

For the spice rub and chicken:
3 tablespoons curry powder
3 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons allspice
3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons powdered ginger
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons freshly cracked black pepper

For the fruit salad  
1 ripe banana
1 ripe mango
1 ripe papaya
1/2 pineapple
6 tablespoons lime juice (about 3 limes) and additional lime juice for serving
3 diced fresh jalapeno peppers, seeded
Dark rum

1.  Mix all of the spices for the spice rub together, rub the mixture over both sides of each chicken breast, cover, and refrigerate for 2 hours.

2.  Peel all the fruit and cut them into 1/2-inch cubes.    In a large bowl, combine all the fruits with the lime juice and jalapenos and mix well.  For a little jolt, add a splash of rum (dark is better, but light will do in a pinch).

3.  Over a medium fire, grill the chicken breasts for 7-8 minutes, until well browned and heavily crusted.  Turn the chicken breasts and grill for an additional 10 minutes.  Check for doneness by nicking the largest breast at the fattest point: the meat should be fully opaque.   Remove the chicken from the grill and let it rest for 5-10 minutes.  Serve with fruit salad and a dollop of yogurt.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Spaghetti with Lime and Rocket

Keeping with the simple, a la Donna Hay, theme, here's another fast dinner.  Combining the bitter arugula (rocket) with the bright lime, creamy cheese and sweet prosciutto, Hay whips up an easy weeknight meal perfect for a hot summer night.

Arugula is one of my favorite greens--it's hard to know if you should call it an herb or a lettuce, as you can use it as either one.  Chop it up and toss it on a bruschetta or slip it on a sandwich; give it a quick rinse and leave it whole and throw it in a salad on its own or with other greens--either way, you cannot grow wrong.  It is bitter and quite sharp, though, which personally I like, but the husband prefers to pair arugula with something, anything when eating it.  Lucky for him, there were other mouthwatering ingredients from which to select.

Makrut (or kaffir) lime leaves, found usually in the herb section of your supermarket, are not the same as regular old lime leaves.  This Southeast Asian lime itself is generally not eaten (apparently it is commonly used in cleaning products) because it can become quite bitter and tough.  Further because the term kaffir is considered a racially offensive term in many parts of the world, there has been a movement to call these little globes makrut limes, given that this is how they are termed in Thailand (home to a cuisine that makes ample use of the lime).

Indeed, the makrut lime leaf can be tricky to find and adding more lime juice or some lime zest is an inadequate but acceptable substitution if need be.  The leaf itself is quite aromatic and lends a specific, bright, citrus taste found in many curries, soups, and stews.  When the leaf is used whole (say to season a broth or a curry), it is removed or not eaten; however, when it is shredded or chopped, it can be eaten. 

Finally, a word or two on prosciutto and the mozzarella.  Prosciutto--as many of you already know--is a lovely dry-cured ham that is sweet and savory and has a bit of substance in the mouth.  It should be chewy without being rubbery.  Get confused about the differences between prosciutto and pancetta (and even bacon)?  See here for the scoop.  

Mozzarella traditionally is made with buffalo milk but is more readily (and cheaply) available made from cow's milk.  The miniature balls we used were already soaking in herbs, so there is an extra kick of herbs in this pasta, but you can also purchase them plain.  Feta would make a fine substitute, but I like the texture of mozzarella--the outside is chewy without being rubbery, the inside creamy and soft.  I find feta a little too zingy sometimes, and this recipe has enough zing, what with the rocket and lime, but you make your own call.  It's your weeknight meal.

One Year Ago: The Best Shepherd's Pie

Spaghetti with Lime and Rocket
Adapted from Donna Hay's Flavours

Serves 4

12 ounces spaghetti
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon shredded makrut lime leaves or lime zest
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 red chili, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
8 slices prosciutto, chopped
5 ounces arugula (rocket), shredded
3 tablespoons lime juice
5 ounces marinated feta or mozzarella in oil

1.  Cook the spaghetti in a large saucepan of rapidly boiling water until al dente. Drain.

2.  While the spaghetti is cooking, heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the lime leaves (or zest), garlic, chili, and capers and cook for 1 minute or until fragrant.

3.  Add the prosciutto and cook, stirring for 2 minutes or until the prosciutto is crisp. Add the spaghetti to the pan and toss to coat and heat through.

4.  To serve, toss the arugula and lime juice through the pasta and pile into serving bowls. Top with the marinated cheese, a little of its oil and cracked black pepper.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Chili-Crusted Lamb Cutlets with Cucumber Yogurt


Certainly lamb is a spring dish, but here I am, posting in summer.  Indeed, summer is upon us.  The niece is visiting California again.  This is a not-so-subtle ploy to convince her that she should move to our fair state when she is ready for college—which seems simultaneously eons away (four years) and just around the corner.  So much can happen in that short amount of time, and she has entered into those vulnerable first two years of high school.  Let’s face it—middle school is just all around generally unreasonable for most of us; however, it’s the first two years of high school where teenagers begin to define about what they are passionate, which paths they are going to take, and just who they are going to be.  Myself, I was sullen, melancholic, and ready to break out of my small town.  As I write this, I am sitting in a small town (or even just outside of it) up the coast in Northern California.  However, the sullenness and melancholy have dissipated, the passion for literature, food, and art still remains fully formed, and while tinged with a bit of worry about the world—particularly my family, extended or otherwise—contentment has certainly arrived.  This last part is what I hope most for my niece. 

And hopefully these annual trips to California provide a little bit of that.

While she is here, we embark on two culinary themes:  cooking and eating.  Generally, we take her to restaurants she would not normally be able to find in central Illinois.  Thus, Indian, Korean, Ethiopian cuisines all see their due as do restaurant-quality mac & cheese and Pixar-name-checked ice cream.  Yet, at home, we cook—sometimes simply (jambalaya, hamburgers, salads) other times in a more complicated manner.  This recipe, however, would fall under the simpler, and should you need a little lamb in your life, this is a fine, quick, and delightful way to shuffle this into the rotation.  (Disclaimer:  It’s true, we did not make this with the niece, but she is here while I am writing this, thus she is on the mind despite her absence from this meal.)

As always, I am a fan of Australian darling, Donna Hay.  Not only are the photographs in this book beautiful (as they always are with her work), but the recipes are also uncomplicated and satisfying.  She can fit four recipes on a page; thus, she’s not particularly interested in elaborate steps or fancy footwork.  She makes a charming meal, particularly appropriate for a weeknight when you’re not in the mood for a Fred Astaire level spread.  The lamb is prepared with a chili paste and is accompanied by a yogurt sauce to cool any lingering heat. Serve with a salad (I made a simply-dressed arugula) and possibly a flatbread, and you have yourself a full, simple, satisfying meal.

Finally, a last word about the niece’s visit.As I type this, she is upstairs asleep.  One of the cats is sitting (illegally, I might add) on the dining room table clicking and squeaking at the birds as they swoop in and out from the feeder outside the window.  The fog has not yet entirely rolled out, and you cannot see the line where the ocean meets the sand.  There is sweetness here.  May she recognize it now, so that she can know it when she meets it again.

 One Year Ago: David Lebovitz's Peach Amaretti Crisp

Chili-Crusted Lamb Cutlets with Cucumber Yogurt
Adapted from  Donna Hay's Flavours

Serves 4

1 cup thick plain yogurt
1/2 cucumber, finely chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
salt and pepper
8 lamb cutlets
4 large red chilies, seeded and chopped
2 green onions, chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil

1.  Prepare the grill.

2.  Combine the yogurt, cucumber, mint, and salt and pepper (to taste) in a bowl.  Set aside.

3.  Trim the lamb of any excess fat.  Place the chillies, spring onions, lemon juice, cilantro and olive oil in a food processor and process until roughly chopped.

4.   Spread the paste on both sides of the cutlets.  Cook on a hot grill for 3-4 minutes on each side.

5.  Place the lamb cutlets on plates and serve with the cucumber yogurt.  Hay suggests also serving with flat bread and salad leaves.