Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Deconstructed Baba Ghanouj

Usually, recipes of deconstructed nature have an air of superciliousness to them, as if only the most learned and sophisticated gourmands can appreciate the subtle alterations of the original dish. If the requisite perceptiveness and irony goes over your head, well, then you're just left with a bunch of isolated components on a plate that probably taste good, but aren't cohesive in theme. Kind of how I felt after I watched Season 7 of Mad Men. Apropos to television, the elusion doesn't bother me because I still find the show extremely entertaining. If I didn't realize I was eating a deconstructed lobster roll, I'd be pissed!

Luckily, we can throw all of this highbrow nonsense out the window with Deconstructed Baba Ghanouj. Here, deconstruction is characterized in the simplest of ways: your eggplant remains whole.  Ergo, it is not mashed. The very obvious integral ingredients of baba ghanouj—eggplant, tahini, garlic, and lemon juice—stay in tact for the world to see, tasting just as delicious as the traditional dip we all know and love but boasting an easier and quicker prep time.

Then there's the mastermind of the recipe: the tomato mixture that finishes the dish. A fresh, fragrant bruschetta, the acidity of the tomatoes perfectly compliment the earthiness and smoke of the eggplant. Enter the tahini, offering a complexity (easily grasped, promise!) with its innate nutty, acerbic undertone. The combination is divine. The presentation—showcasing the eggplant flesh, delicately fanned, and warm coral tones of freshly grated tomato, is beautiful—something that cannot be said of your run-of-the-mill gray-hued baba ghanouj.

I served the dish with a side of homemade pita chips, alternating between scooping out the fleshy eggplant and its accouterments with a fork to top each chip with just eating the eggplant whole via fork and knife. Though roasted vegetable dishes are usually served as sides, this one looks and feels like a main—and definitely garners a lasting impression. Who knew baba ghanouj—er, its deconstructed cousin?—could be such a beauty!

Deconstructed Baba Ghanouj (from NY Times feature Revel In The Bounty Of Spring, With A Feast From Yotam Ottolenghi) 
Serves 4 to 6

4 large eggplants, approximately 3 pounds (use smaller eggplants if cooking on a stove to decrease prep time)
 Flaky sea salt or kosher salt, to taste
4 tablespoons tahini paste (re: previous post, I recommend Seed + Mill)
2 plum tomatoes, roughly grated
1 small garlic clove, crushed, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves (can substitute dried)

  1. Char the eggplant. To cook on a stove*, place each eggplant directly over an open medium flame, and cook for 15 or 20 minutes, using tongs to turn the eggplant a number of times, until the skin is charred all over and the flesh is soft and smoky. To cook on a gas or charcoal grill, place the eggplants on the grill, and cook over medium-high heat, using tongs to turn the eggplant until the skin is charred all over and the flesh is completely soft and smoky.
  2. Remove the eggplants from the heat, and place on a rack to cool and drain, approximately 15 to 20 minutes. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel away the skin, leaving the stalks intact, and place them on a large plate. Using your fingers, coax each eggplant into a fan shape, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and drizzle with a tablespoon of tahini.
  3. Meanwhile, mix the grated tomato in a medium bowl with the garlic, oil, lemon juice and another pinch of salt. Spoon the mixture over the eggplants and tahini, leaving some of the eggplant visible, and then sprinkle with the oregano leaves and a final dusting of salt.

*Make sure to stab each eggplant with a fork in multiple places to prevent it from exploding!

Monday, May 16, 2016

From Chelsea Market: A Seed, Without a Doubt

To find the most popular condiment of a region, just look at what commonly sits atop a piece of toast.  In Serbia, ajvar, a chunky red pepper and eggplant spread, is the most popular ingredient to slather over bread and meat. In Sweden, Kalles kavier, a tubed fish paste, graces the presence of the famed quadrilateral carbohydrate.  Here in America, you’d be hard-pressed to find the usual suspects—butter, peanut butter, mayonnaise, mustard—absent from any household pantry.

In the Middle East, that staple condiment is tahini: known exclusively to American grocery-shoppers as a bitter jar of sesame seed paste that within weeks of refrigeration, separates into a thick layer of gluey oil followed by a hard, crusty base. We may find its raw form simply unappetizing, but for Israeli cum New Yorker Lisa Mendelson, this gross misconstruing of the tahini namesake sitting on our supermarket shelves was downright appalling.  Vexed by both the quality and compromised integrity of her beloved native food stateside, Lisa set out to perennially change the American standard and perception of tahini. Her contrivance? A New York City production mill dedicated to making superior tahini; its name, Seed + Mill, a reflection of the humble process. The local shop is less than a year old, yet already making an indelible mark on our epicurean city.
“Tahini is this super trendy food right now,” co-founder Rachel Simons told me brightly one morning at the Seed + Mill kiosk, a sun-drenched white marble counter basking in the middle of foodie-haven Chelsea Market. “But people need to understand that this is an ingredient that can stand on its own.”
 Since the entity is literally just crushed sesame seeds, both “sesame seed paste” and “sesame butter” are appropriate monikers for tahini.  But try Seed + Mill’s product—their seeds are milled on site— and the latter definitely becomes the more fitting name. The thick liquid is impossibly creamy and wonderfully sweet, with a uniform consistency apropos to the inside of a perfectly-cooked molten lava cake. One doesn’t need to be convinced of its toast-topping potential—the whole jar begs to be consumed by the spoonful.

In fact, the Seed + Mill tahini is so unexpectedly saccharine that I wondered if sugar was utilized as an additive. This nuance, Rachel assured me, is simply the result of the superior quality of their seeds. “The reason we were having such a difficult time finding good tahini in New York was because of a lack of good seeds,” she explained.  Theirs are sourced from a small town in Ethiopia called Humera, where particular climatic conditions beget natural sweetness.
With a quality tahini product under their belt, Lisa, Rachel, and third partner Monica turned to their next goal: educating customers on the versatility of the product.  “It’s such a great, multi-purpose ingredient that no one is using the way that they can,” Rachel exclaimed. “We  want it to become a pantry item. What gets us really excited,” she added, gesturing to a stack of recipe cards for tahini truffles near the register, “is all of the sweet things you can make with it.” Indeed, the nutty, buttery undertone lends itself perfectly to claiming the primary fat base for any cookie, brownie or blondie—and thanks to its inherent sweetness, sugar quantity can be drastically reduced (or eliminated altogether, as seen in their two-ingredient truffles).  

This is not to say that Seed + Mill ignores the savory capabilities of their sesame butter, however. In an effort to counter the widespread belief that tahini’s foremost use is in the overly garlicky dip that complements any falafel, Seed + Mill created a “green herb” version, simply mixing parsley, dehydrated garlic, and salt with their house-milled seeds. Verdantly sublime, the concoction is like a viscous, nutty Green Goddess dressing. Add a squeeze of lemon, and it’s Rachel’s go-to accoutrement for everything from rainbow carrots to roasted potatoes.

On-site, Seed + Mill serves goat milk tahini ice-cream and over a dozen rotating flavors of halva, a popular Middle Eastern dessert with a crystalline, mousse-like texture. Through different mediums, both showcase tahini’s signature nuttiness, subtle sweetness, and innate versatility. They are remarkably excellent.
But if the hallmark of an enduring foodstuff is its ability to couple with a piece of toast, let’s bring tahini back to the bread. Do you prefer a multigrain loaf, or are you a classic Wonder white bread type? Is the mood calling for sweet or savory? If the former, try mixing Seed + Mill classic tahini with date syrup, pomegranate molasses, or honey. Slather generously atop said piece of toast. Top with sliced banana, coconut flakes, and a smattering of black and white sesame seeds.
If salt and spice are on the mind, start with green herb tahini (you can easily make your own by adding minced parsley, garlic, and salt to the plain version) plus a quick squeeze of fresh lemon juice.  Spread amply atop said piece of toast. Top with sliced avocado, crushed red pepper flakes, and a sprinkling of sea salt and assorted sesame seeds.
Mealtime and occasion are inconsequential; everyone knows that toast is a sensible option at any hour of the day. What is of note, however, is the restored integrity that is brought to tahini by simply consuming on a piece of toast. Rendering what was obsolete to the every day—a sesame seed mindshift, if you will—this is Seed + Mill’s ultimate aspiration. When its home becomes the comfort of your own kitchen, one thing’s for sure: this seed, without a doubt, is here to stay.

Seed + Mill is located in Chelsea Market at 409 West 15th Street, New York, NY 10011. To view products and flavors, visit their website. To place an order, email shipping@seedandmill.com.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Fish Tacos with Creamy Cilantro-Lime Slaw

I’ve yet to meet a fish taco I didn’t like, but I’ve met many a fish taco that left my voracious appetite seriously disappointed. At restaurants, I understand a mere taste is often the intention of the dish—deliberate bite-sized morsels of flavor to share an an appetizer amongst the table, amuse-bouche style. Usually I make do with my two gulps of fish taco, as I am also eating my body weight in guacamole on the side. But sometimes, I just really want a substantive, filling fish taco for dinner. Not a pint-sized duo, or a trio, but like 12. Except with an average going rate of $7 a piece, 12 trendy NYC restaurant tacos would cost my projected craving a total of $84. Yikes!
Enter tonight’s easy, budget, and hearty dinner: Fish Tacos with Creamy Cilantro-Lime Slaw. Fiber-packed cabbage and protein-rich Greek yogurt comprise the majority of ingredients in this zesty spicy slaw, promising true satiety with each heaping spoonful.  The bright flavors jazz up whichever mild white fish you choose, but that’s not to say the fish is bland: most of the ingredients that give the slaw so much pizazz are repurposed to marinade the fish.  

Equally palatable is the weeknight dinner practicality of this dish, one of those under-30-minutes prep-and-serve types that is so appealing to the time-crunched cook.  What’s key to these types of dinners is that they taste like they are true labors of love, i.e., big flavors that feel effortful, though are secretly effortless. These tacos fit the bill.
Buying pre-shredded cabbage can help to expedite prep time, proactively multitasking helps in this department too.  Prep both the slaw dressing and fish marinade simultaneously, so you can cook the fish (thinner slices of cod, tilapia or mahi mahi only need about 6 minutes in the pan) while you chop the scallions and cilantro to finish up the slaw. Two minutes before the fish is done, throw the tortillas in the microwave under a damp paper towel.  (I prefer the Serious Eats tortilla-warming method, just know that it requires a second pan and 1-minute prep time per tortilla plus 5 minutes of steaming at the end. Good for small batches, more labor intensive for multiples).
I like green chile salsas with a flaky white fish taco—right now, I’m partial to Trader Joe’s Hatch Valley Salsa, which pairs the peppers with tomatillos and lots of lime. Sliced avocado is another great add on, but just a few slices, no need to fill up on guacamole here! Perhaps you choose this taco recipe to ring in Cinco de Mayo? If so, a side of margaritas is certainly required.  

Fish Tacos with Creamy Cilantro-Lime Slaw (adapted from Epicurious)
Serves 4

1 cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt (or ½ cup mayonnaise + ½ cup sour cream, though any combo of these 3 ingredients will do)
2 limes (4 Tbsp fresh lime juice)
1½ tsp finely grated lime peel
1 serrano chile, seeded, minced
3 garlic cloves, pressed
1 tsp cumin
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
8 cups thinly sliced green cabbage (option to sauté in advance to soften)
4 green onions, minced (about ¼ cup)
1¼ lb white, flaky fish such as tilapia, cod, or mahi mahi
8 to 12 corn tortillas
Green chile salsa
1-2 avocados, sliced

1. Start the slaw dressing. Combine yogurt/mayo/sour cream, 3 Tbsp lime juice, grated lime peel, ¾ of serrano chile, 2 garlic cloves, and cumin in a large bowl.
2. Make the fish marinade. Combine rest of lime juice (1 Tbsp), rest of serrano chile, 1 garlic clove, and salt and pepper in a small bowl.
3. Cook the fish. Heat 1 Tbsp of olive, canola, or avocado oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Rinse fish under cold water, pat dry with paper towels, and place in pan.  Season with salt and pepper, pour marinade over fish. Cook for 3-4 minutes on each slide, until flesh is cooked through and flakes easily with a fork.
4. While the fish cooks, finish the slaw. Add scallions, cabbage, and cilantro to the large bowl. Mix thoroughly, season with salt and pepper, adjust seasonings to taste.
5. Heat corn tortillas in microwave or pan.

6. Assemble tacos to serve. Distribute a small portion of fish and heaping spoonful of slaw over each flat tortilla. Add a dollop of salsa and a few slices of avocado. Garnish with extra lime juice or cilantro sprig just before serving.