Love Lost, Makhouda Found

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Makhouda D’Aubergine 

 

When I moved to Ireland for a year in 1997, I had one cookbook with me. It was an impulse purchase I had made about two weeks before leaving, and although I hadn’t intended to sacrifice any of my precious luggage allowance to something as frivolous as a cookbook, this particular one seemed to hold me under a spell. It was Kitty Morse’s North Africa: The Vegetarian Table, the first full-price hardback I’d ever bought, cookbooks in those days representing a major financial investment for a starving college student. Although I had amassed quite a collection of cookbooks at home over the years – most of them slim limited-focus volumes I’d found on the bargain table with titles like Philadelphia Cream Cheese Classic Recipes, The Taming of Tofu, or Brownies: Over One Hundred Scrumptious Recipes for More Kinds Than You Ever Dreamed Of* – none of them were close enough to my heart to consider stashing in my bags when I traversed continents. This one, however, was different.

It was a beautiful book of coffee-table quality, with luscious photographs and glossy, elegant print. I kept it on my bedside table in my bleak Trinity College dorm room, and often picked it up to look at the pictures of gilded platters overflowing with jeweled couscous and honeyed tagines. They transported me away from the incessant rain pounding outside my window and took me to sunny places where the scent of woodfires and spices drifted lazily on the breeze, and where vegetarian cooking was exciting and exotic (and didn’t necessarily involve sprouted wheat and soy protein). In addition, whereas all the cookbooks I’d acquired up to that point were just about recipes and exploring slightly different ways to use familiar ingredients, this one was as much about people, culture and geography as it was about food. The only problem was that I had never managed to actually cook anything from it. Despite the fact that I drooled over every recipe and laid out dinner plans in my head that included a feast of luscious North African delicacies, the logistics of the recipes intimidated me – these dishes, as much as I wanted to eat them, were outside my comfort zone and I didn’t even know where to go to find the more exotic ingredients they called for. I was also, I think, secretly afraid of being disappointed, of realizing that this beautiful, mysterious food was not that spectacular after all. Whatever the reason, the book lay there, dog-eared from reading but unused in the kitchen.

About this time I also started dating a guy I had met in Dublin. He had a wonderful Irish accent, but apart from that I can’t quite recall what the attraction was. It certainly wasn’t culinary – this guy had been raised on his mother’s lumpy potatoes and boiled beef and tended to eye anything that hadn’t been mashed, boiled or deep-fried with no small amount of skepticism. I didn’t realize how deep our differences ran, however, until the night I convinced him to accompany me to a newly-opened Indonesian restaurant. Despite the fact that I found the flavors incredibly Westernized, it took all of two bites of an elaborate rijstafel for him to decide that this alien food had no place in his stomach, and all of another minute for him to remind me that I had offered to treat him to this expensive mistake. It was a lesson learned, and should have clued me in to our long-term potential. Instead it took another couple of months of greasy, tasteless meals together before the end came, and even so it was he who dropped the bomb on me, telling me he had decided to get back together with an ex-girlfriend (who was probably as happy eating fish and chips every night as he was).

Needless to say, I was heartbroken, and I moped around for days until a strange idea for redemption took shape. Out of spite as much as hunger I decided to prepare an elaborate meal I knew he would have hated – the kind of exotic, spicy, opulent food I had been denied while dating him, and I would invite all the friends I could find to share it with me. And of course it would be North African – after all, it was the only cookbook I had. I scoured the city high and low for ethnic food shops and finally found everything I needed; I set a date and invited everyone to my tiny university kitchen to share in my first nervous foray into this unknown cuisine. Luckily, I needn’t have worried – the dinner was a huge hit. From the syrupy pumpkin and prune tagine, to the assortment of hot and cold vegetable mezze to the brimming pot of fragrant couscous, everything I made was spectacular. The undisputed star of the evening, however, was something unexpected – it was a Tunisian specialty called a makhouda d’aubergine, a thick, spicy frittata oozing sweetly stewed onions, peppers and eggplant, chunky cubes of gruyère cheese and a wonderfully aromatic spice blend of cinnamon, pepper and rose petals. It was heavenly – and has been each and every one of the dozens of times I’ve made it since.

Years later, my memory of that particular guy is rather hazy; the memory of that meal, however, is still crystal-clear. And to be honest, I’m much happier having the makhouda around instead of him.

*I kid you not.

 
Makhouda D’Aubergine

Source: Kitty Morse’s North Africa: The Vegetarian Table
Serves: 4-6
Notes: Serve this as a side dish with sweet or savory tagines, or as a light main course with a fresh green salad. Tunisians also apparently love to stick slices of it inside crusty bread spread with a little harissa and eat it as a sandwich.

1 large eggplant
salt for sprinkling
1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded, deribbed and diced
8 large eggs
a handful (about 1/2 cup packed) chopped fresh parsley or coriander/cilantro leaves, or a mixture (I use coriander)
4 garlic cloves, minced
8 oz (225g) gruy
ère cheese, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup (50g) dried bread crumbs
1 teaspoon bharat (Tunisian spice blend; you can substitute 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon rosewater)
about 3/4 teaspoon fine salt

harissa (North African hot pepper paste) or cayenne pepper, to taste (optional) 
lemon wedges 

Peel and cut the eggplant into 1/2-inch dice. Sprinkle generously with salt and place the cubes in a colander to drain for about 20 minutes. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels.

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil and cook the eggplant, onion, and pepper, stirring occasionally until golden and soft, about 20-25 minutes. Transfer this mixture to a colander to drain off as much of the oil as possible.

In a medium bowl, mix the eggs and add the herbs, garlic, cheese and bread crumbs. Add the eggplant mixture. Season with the bharat, salt, and a small spoonful of the optional harissa or cayenne pepper.

Grease a 2-quart soufflé dish. Pour the egg mixture into the dish and bake in the middle of the oven until golden brown and puffed in the center, 40-45 minutes (a knife inserted into the center should come out clean). Let cool for 10 minutes before unmolding onto a serving platter (you can also just leave it in the dish). Cut into wedges or squares to serve. Serve hot or at room temperature with lemon wedges on the side. 

 

Playing Favorites with Bônet

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Bônet alla Piemontese

 

Chocolate, caramel, nuts, custard. I sometimes joke that my heart is torn between these four great loves of my life, at least when it comes to dessert. While other people are happy never deviating from their one favorite flavor (my dad, for example used to ignore the rest of the menu if there was anything containing lemon on it), I can spend hours weighing the relative merits of a dessert menu that forces me to choose between a pot de crème and an almond tart. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I am entirely to blame for this; I suspect there may be a touch of astrology muddying the waters as well. I have the peculiar fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it), to have been born during a solar eclipse, a rare alignment of the sun and moon – the two most important astrological determiners, supposedly – in which both are briefly to be found in the same slice of the celestial pie. According to experts, the condition that results from this rare convergence is an effective doubling of the characteristics of that sign on the individual. Having been born exactly at the moment these two crossed paths in the house of Libra, I acquired in exaggerated form everything that Librans are typically known for, including plenty of optimism, diplomacy, and unfortunately, the crippling inability to make decisions.

My decision disability (or, as my dear husband likes to call it, my ‘decision neurosis’) strikes me often, and usually in the most inconvenient of situations – situations which, now that I reflect on it, seem to usually concern food: supermarkets, restaurants, ice cream counters, and in front of the menu for the Indian take-out place down the street. It can be as simple as not being able to decide whether I should buy raspberry or plum jam while doing my weekly shopping, or it can be as difficult as standing at the sandwich counter knowing I have to choose between thirty different fillings before the people waiting behind me start to contemplate attacking me with sharp objects. Considering my sweet tooth, however, no decisions are as difficult as the ones that concern dessert, and thus you can imagine what a relief it is to not have to make them at all. For me, the holy grail of dessert menus is one that offers me something that combines at least two of my favorite things, in which case I can let simple numerical weighting do the job: for example, anything that contains chocolate and nuts would naturally trump custard alone. Offer me a dessert that contains three of the four, and I’ve decided what I want even before the menu hits the table. Combine all four, and well… chances are I have a brand-new favorite dessert, and chances are, these days its name is probably net.

Let me tell you a little bit about my love affair with bônet. I was casually browsing Italian recipes online, not even looking for a dessert at all, when I happened upon someone’s account of a meal they’d had in Piemonte, that green and mountainous corner of Italy sandwiched between France and Switzerland. The writer praised all the food highly, but especially recommended the dessert, a caramelized chocolate and almond custard supposedly typical of this region. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I run across a description of a dish that a) I have never heard of before, particularly from a cuisine I thought I knew inside-out, and b) contains all of my favorite things, the rest of the world’s demands on my time seem to magically melt away until I have learned everything I can about this mysterious delicacy. In my research, I learned that bônet is a dessert of long-standing tradition in this part of Italy, the type of thing that if you were lucky enough to be born here, would have been made for you by your nonna on a regular basis. It’s a homely, rustic dessert, and thus carries along with it all the connotations inherent to this genre, namely, a multitude of variations and strong opinions on whose version is best. The basic concept of a bônet, though, is constant and is probably what flan would be if I had invented it myself. At its most fundamental it’s a custard baked inside a caramel-lined mold – but not just any custard, one that has been buoyed by chocolate and pebbled with nutty crumbs of amaretti, all of it soused in a generous glug of booze. It can support additional flavorings as well – there are recipes including a few drops of espresso, or the grated rind of a lemon; some call for only milk and others for cream. A lone recipe even spices up the mix with cinnamon. The booze component ranges from dark rum to Amaretto, and occasionally seems to be forgotten entirely.

The version I finally decided to make, strikes, to my taste, the perfect balance between simplicity and sophistication. I decided to forego what I considered the distracting flavors like coffee and lemon, in favor of letting the chocolate and almond stand up for themselves. I added cream for unctuousness, just enough eggs to solidify it, and the haunting perfume of sweet Marsala (an admittedly untraditional touch), whose indescribable fragrance penetrates its wobbly magnificence to the core. The result is a dessert that combines my four favorite things in such perfectly balanced proportions that it somehow manages to even exceed the sum of its parts. It’s quite simply – and I don’t say this lightly – one of the most delicious desserts I’ve ever eaten.

It’s just a pity bônet is so scarcely known – if only it found its way onto dessert menus more often, so many of my decisions would be already be made.

 
Bônet alla Piemontese

I’m very partial to the flavor of Marsala in this recipe, but if you can’t find any or can’t justify buying a bottle just for this, please feel free to substitute just about anything you feel like. Rum is the traditional choice, but if you’re willing to deviate from tradition, the possibilities are nearly endless – Amaretto, Cognac, Grand Marnier and Kahlua all spring to mind as possible alternatives.

Source: Although I consulted many recipes, the one I ended up loosely basing my proportions on is Cindy Mushnet’s version in Desserts: Mediterranean Flavors, California Style.
Serves: 8

For the caramel:
1/4 cup (60ml) water
2 cups (400g) sugar

For the custard:
1 cup (250ml) coarsely crushed amaretti cookies
2 cups (500ml) heavy cream
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
5 large egg yolks
2 large eggs
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
pinch salt
4 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/4 cup (60ml) sweet Marsala

Equipment: 8 (6oz) ramekins or custard cups (you can also make one large bonet instead by using a 2-quart souffle dish) 

First, make the caramel. Place the water in a medium saucepan, pour the sugar into the center of the pan (this helps prevent crystallization later), and set the pan over medium heat. Swirl the pan frequently until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear. Turn the heat to high and boil rapidly, swirling the pan occasionally (do not stir) so the sugar cooks evenly, until it turns a deep amber brown. Don’t be tempted to take it off too soon – the flavor will be weak. It may smell a little burnt by this stage, but it will still taste fantastic (trust chocolatier Michael Recchiuti, whose signature flavor is burnt caramel!). Remove the pan from the heat and immediately pour the caramel into the custard cups. Working quickly, swirl each cup to distribute the caramel evenly around the bottom and sides, about an inch up from the bottom–be careful, the caramel is very hot. Set the cups in a roasting pan large enough to hold them all.

Preheat the oven to 325F/160C. Position an oven rack in the center of the oven.

To make the custard, place the cream and milk in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to just below a boil. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, whole eggs, sugar and salt. Sift the cocoa powder over the top and whisk until well blended. Slowly whisk the hot cream into the yolk mixture and blend well. Pour the mixture through a fine strainer into a pitcher or large measuring cup with a spout. Stir in the crushed amaretti cookies and the Marsala.

Divide the warm custard among the caramelized custard cups. Place the pan in the oven, then pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the cups. Cover the pan with foil and crimp it loosely around the edges (don’t make it airtight). Bake just until the centers of the custards are barely set, about 45 minutes to an hour (they will jiggle like jell-o instead of looking liquidy).

Use a pair of tongs (or your hand protected with a kitchen towel) to immediately remove the cups from the pan and place them on a rack to cool, about 40 minutes. Refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for at least 6 hours or overnight before serving.

To unmold the custards, run a thin, sharp, flexible knife around the edges of each cup. Fill the roasting pan with about 1/2 inch of boiling water, and set the cups inside for a minute to loosen the caramel. Place a serving plate upside down on top of each cup, then, holding the two together, flip the plate right side up – the custard should slide out of the cup and onto the plate. If the custard is a bit hesitant, pick up the plate, hold the cup in place on the plate, and give the two a firm but gentle shake once or twice. If there is still a good bit of caramel hardened to the bottom of the cups, add a tablespoon of water and heat the cups in the microwave (or set inside a larger pan with a bit of water inside on the stovetop) until the caramel all melts. Believe me, this stuff is too good to waste.

The custards may be baked up to 2 days in advance. Store in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap.

 

Seductions of Pork

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Pork Paté with Port and Hazelnuts 
 

 

The meat counter inside the Whole Foods supermarket in New Orleans, Louisiana, is in the back of the store, past the organic vegetables, the bulk spices and the expensive imported cheeses. In front of it a girl is pacing, more than slightly uncomfortable and clearly indecisive about what she wants. She has already waved away two meat counter assistants, telling them she’ll let them know when she’s ready, but to be honest she doesn’t know if she’ll ever be ready – she’s considering dropping her plan entirely and retreating back to the tofu cooler. She sizes up those glistening piles of scarlet animal flesh and wonders what on earth they feel like: are they wet, firm, mushy, cold, slippery? She shudders involuntarily, and then feels her pulse rise. What if I can’t bring myself to actually swallow it? She briefly considers asking one of the counter assistants for advice. It sounds too crazy in her head, though: "what would you recommend for someone who has been a strict vegetarian for so long that she can’t even remember what meat tastes like?" They would laugh, or at least look at her with disdain – it’s one thing to be a confirmed carnivore, but a lapsed vegetarian is something else entirely; it connotes failure. And part of her feels like a failure for giving up on a way of life she has lived happily for so long. Nevertheless, she can’t ignore the signs, which in her case have been coming in strengthening waves, sometimes in the middle of the night as she wakes up from a dream in which she has been eating a plate of sweet, sticky ribs or a big juicy cheeseburger, and sometimes in the middle of dinner where all of a sudden she wishes her soup tasted like ham hocks instead of celery. She finds it ludicrous to think that she is craving something whose taste she can’t even properly remember. But cravings happen for a reason, she tells herself, and that is why she is here – not necessarily to embark on a new, carnivorous life, but just to see what happens if the cravings are fed. And just so she knows what she’s getting herself into, she’s buying and cooking that meat herself, no matter how squeamish she feels. With that thought lingering in mind, her eye catches something. It’s a sausage, a pork sausage. A whole pile of them, actually, shimmering pink and white in the corner of the display. Her eyes light up, and she beckons over the assistant.

"A half-pound of those, please."

The rest, as they say, is history.

I was a vegetarian for nearly ten years, from the age of 12 until just shy of my 22nd birthday. While the last couple of years were marked by the very occasional appearance of fish on my plate, in all that time I consumed not so much as a single bite of land-dwelling animal (or, at least, not to my knowledge). Unlike many other reformed vegetarians I have known, however, when that moment came to make the transition back to carnivore, what helped me along was not the easy bland innocuousness of chicken breasts (though that may have had something to do with a particularly traumatic event in my childhood which involved me, a chicken leg, and a blood-filled vein under my fork which put me off fowl for quite a while), but instead the sweet seductions of pork.

Pork, in my book, is a miracle meat. It may not be as omnipresent as chicken or as sexy as beef, but of all the forms meat takes on this planet some of the most delicious come from the humble pig. Whether it’s a fresh pork sausage for the grill, a whisper-thin slice of prosciutto di Parma, a knobbly, spicy, rock-hard cylinder of salami, showers of crumbled crispy bacon or a thick slice of chunky paté de campagne, pork lends itself to more delicious and varied preparations than any other animal. During those early days of meat-eating, when the sight of a whole steak would still render me weak at the knees, I consumed pork in all of these forms, and to this day, count a meal of barbecued sausage or charcuterie and bread to be one of the most perfect things the universe can deliver. Of course I eat plenty of chicken now too, and am open to just about anything else that happens to walk across my plate, but nothing, absolutely nothing, can take over that little corner of my heart which has been loyal to pork ever since that first bite of Whole Foods sausage passed these lapsed-vegetarian lips so many years ago.

Many thanks to both Kate Hill and Judy Witts for inspiring these memories by organizing the blogosphere’s first Pig Blogging Extravaganza!

 

Pork Paté with Port and Hazelnuts

Coarse, country-style patés have always been one of life’s greatest pleasures for me while traveling in France. Most larger French supermarkets make and sell their own versions of paté de campagne which I usually find quite wonderful, though I’ve heard that many French people would never dream of buying a paté from anyone but their local butcher (who naturally guards his recipe like the holy grail). I don’t know how those people would feel about my version, but I’m pretty fond of it with its hint of winy sweetness and toasted hazelnuts studded within the intensely aromatic, moist and almost creamy meat. If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at making your own charcuterie, paté is the perfect place to start. There are no hard-to-find ingredients like sausage casings or special equipment needed; there’s no hanging in the cellar and praying that the weather cooperates. As long as there’s enough fat and salt, very little can go wrong, and believe me, the results will be worth the tiny bit of extra effort involved. Okay, it is quite a bit more effort than ripping open a package from the supermarket, but everyone you serve this to will be mightily impressed that you made it yourself, and surely that must count for something!

Source: this recipe has been heavily adapted from many sources, but the most important part of the instructions – that of the pork – comes from Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for Paté de Campagne in his Les Halles cookbook. I hope he’ll forgive me for my deviations. 
Yield: one 3-lb paté, enough for 10-12 people

1/2 pound (225g) pork liver, diced
1/2 pounds (225g) pork fat, diced
1 pound (450g) pork shoulder, diced
2 1/2 – 3 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon mace
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
1 tablespoon minced fresh sage
2 bay leaves, crumbled
3 tablespoons butter
5 garlic cloves, minced
6-8 medium shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2/3 cup (160ml) port (doesn’t need to be anything pricey)
1 egg
1 cup (100g) whole hazelnuts, blanched and toasted
1/2 pound (225g) bacon (or fatback) slices, for lining mold

In a large bowl, combine the liver, pork fat, pork shoulder, 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, pepper, allspice, herbs and cover. Refrigerate this mixture overnight. 

The next day, remove the mixture from the refriger
ator, and pass everything through a meat grinder which you have fitted with a medium blade. The grind size should not be too small (paste) nor too large (chunks). As Anthony says, you’re looking for a grind size about that of meat loaf. If you don’t have a meat grinder, you can either pulse the mixture in your food processor until it is a coarse chunky paste, or dice it into oblivion by hand (which supposedly gives the best texture, but which will give you *quite* a workout). I did a mixture of the two, which seemed to work fine.

Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat and gently sauté the shallots and garlic until soft but not colored – about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, cool, and add to the meat along with the port and egg, stirring to combine (don’t put the pan away yet). At this point take a small spoonful of the mixture and fry it in the pan until cooked through. Taste for seasoning – it should be well salted (remember that the saltiness will be muted when the pate is cold). Add the remaining salt to the rest of the meat if necessary, then add the hazelnuts and mix thoroughly. Preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C).

Line a terrine mold or loaf pan crosswise with strips of bacon so that they hang over both edges. Fill the terrine with the ground mixture, packing it tightly. Lift the terrine and firmly drop it onto the work surface (easy, don’t go nuts) a few times, to knock out any air pockets. Fold the bacon ends over to neatly cover the paté, adding a couple extra strips down the middle if the ends don’t quite meet. Now cover the whole thing with a double thickness of foil.

Place a deep roasting pan in the preheated oven. Put the filled terrine in the center. Boil some water and pour it into the roasting pan – you want just enough water so that it comes up just below the rim of the terrine. Cook the terrine in the water bath in the oven for about 2 1/2 hours, or until the internal temperature is 160°F (70°C).

When done, remove from the oven and allow to cool. Place a weight on top of the terrine (still wrapped in foil) and refrigerate overnight (a few cans should do the trick). The next day, remove the weight. To unmold the paté, immerse the bottom in a pan of just-boiled water for a couple of minutes. Run a knife around the sides and unmold onto a cutting board. At this point you can run the paté under the broiler to color the bacon a bit, if you want (obviously not on the cutting board, but on a baking sheet of some kind). Return to the refrigerator and chill for another couple of hours before serving. The paté will keep in the refrigerator for at least 5 days. Serve thickly sliced with toasted bread, mustard, cornichons, cheese, butter – or whatever sounds good to you.