eating on weeknights: roasted eggplant with hazelnut romesco

I am not afraid of roasts, tarts and pie crusts. When a recipe says that it will need some time, I'm game. I turn on a podcast, roll up my sleeves, and thoroughly enjoy stirring polenta for 40 minutes or whisking egg yolks until my arms feel like they've been lifting weights. This makes me a weekend cook. Don't get me wrong - I too worship simplicity. I don't think that anything is more perfect that ripe avocado mashed on toasted sourdough; however, when it comes to weekday meals simplicity gets me into a bit of a rut. 
More often that not, when I am home from work and my hunger has already loudly pronounced its presence I find myself boiling a pot of water and chopping tomatoes for sauce or nuts and herbs for pesto. Alternatively, I find myself roasting the daylights out of whatever vegetables are in my fridge and dressing them up with nothing more than olive oil, salt and perhaps a touch of chili or some fresh herbs if I am up for the extra chopping. 

There is of course nothing wrong with a plate of good pasta or some deeply roasted vegetables; however, variety is something these two dishes do not represent. Comfort and reliability? Yes. But they also represent repetition. As anyone who has opened the oven door prematurely knows, curiosity kills the cake. However, it is also what defines a chef. It is easy to stay true to comfort food, but curiosity is what makes great cooks great. You have to wonder what will happen to your favourite dish if you use a different oil, a different herb, or a different temperature. 
Roasted Eggplant with Hazelnut Romesco is simple - making it perfect for a weeknight meal - but it isn't boring. It does involve a bit more work than boiling a pot of water and then drowning pasta in cheese (which you should save for the laziest of weekday nights), but not much more. The hearty sauce - with breadcrumbs, hazelnuts, honey, and quickly broiled red pepper, tomato and garlic - has a lot of depth of flavour. It is rich, slightly sweet and smoky all at the same time.
I've adapted the Hazelnut Romesco from a Melissa Clark recipe. The recipe is for Broccoli Salad dressed with the sauce and although the pairing is no question good, I like the Hazelnut Romesco best with roasted eggplant. It makes more than you need, so be sure to play around with the leftovers. 
I've been sitting on this recipe for a while. I first made it back in the fall, only a few weeks after getting home from Korea. Then I have continued to make it quite often. It is fast and it is flavourful and it is something other than pasta or a heaping plate of roasted vegetables. Amen to that. 

Roasted Eggplant with Hazelnut Romesco
Hazelnut Romesco is adapted from Melissa Clark 
serves 2 as a main with a salad on the side, or 4 as an appetizer
2 large eggplants
fine grain sea salt
1 tsp sesame oil 
1 tbsp olive oil
2 medium red bell peppers, halved and cored
1 tomato, halved
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts
1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp honey
1 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1/4 tsp chili flakes
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
Begin by washing the eggplants and then cutting them in half lengthwise. Use a pairing knife to make an incision in the centre of each piece, making sure not to cut through the skin. Salt the eggplant and let sit for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile heat the broiler. Line a baking sheet with baking paper. Place the red pepper halves (cut side town), tomato halves (cut side up) and garlic on the baking sheet. Put the baking sheet (on a rack) closest to the flame and broil until the garlic and peppers are slightly charred, about 3-5 minutes. Turn garlic and then broil for another 1-2 minutes until it is well browned but not burned. Remove the garlic and place it into a large bowl. Continue to broil the peppers and tomato until well charred, about 4-5 minutes longer. Transfer tomatoes and peppers to the bowl with the garlic. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until the vegetables are cool enough to handle but still warm. 
Turn off the broiler and preheat the oven to 425 F / 218 C / gas mark 7. Brush the bottom of a baking dish with sesame oil. Use paper towel to blot the excess water from the eggplant. Place the eggplant pieces cut side up in the baking dish and brush them with olive oil. Once the oven has heated, roast the eggplant for about 20-25 minutes and until the flesh is very soft and the skin is quite shriveled.
While the eggplant roasts, peel the tomatoes and red pepper once they are cool enough to handle.  In a blender or a food processor with the blade attachment, pulse the hazelnuts until they are coarsely ground. Add tomato, peppers, breadcrumbs, olive oil, vinegar, honey, paprika, chili flakes and salt. Puree until the sauce is smooth. Taste and then adjust the seasonings as you like. Scrape the sauce into a bowl.
Remove the eggplant and place on plates. Place a heaping amount of romesco on each slice of eggplant and, if you wish, drizzle with a bit of good olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Serve right away (although this also is delicious at room temperature).  

Cover the bowl of extra sauce with plastic wrap and store in the fridge for a few days. The sauce can be made a day ahead making this an even better weeknight meal.


amsterdam + where breakfast is best

It is January alright. I am preserving lemons on a grey day and as my skin tingles from their juices and the coarse salt, I'm thinking of the places where you can pick lemons from trees instead of buying them from stores. But before we talk citrus and that week at the end of December that I spent in Marrakech, let's go back to early December. Let's first talk cheese and canals, tulips and chocolate cookies that are hard to forget. And because it is what I like best, let's also talk breakfast.  

Amsterdam isn't a city that is usually described as a culinary destination. Cheese might be an exception, but generally speaking it is much more often associated with things that you smoke rather than things that you eat.

 However, the winning combination that is curiosity and hunger, at least in my book, means that I consider all cities to be culinary destinations and I certainly ate well in Amsterdam.  

The Dutch seem to be practical eaters and dining times reflect this. Amsterdam has many hearty lunch places where you can fill up on bagels, sandwiches and salads to get through the rest of your day. Dinner is early enough so that once you've cleaned your plate, you usually still have the time and the energy to go for a few beers. But practicality certainly doesn't rule out pleasure.

Take for instance, Van Stapele Koekmakerij. On a very narrow street, this cookie shop sells only one type of cookie. At first this seems like over-specialization, but one bite into dark chocolate that hugs a soft creamy centre and you'll question if other types of cookies are even necessary. 

Before I took a bite, I wasn't quite convinced. So we only bought enough to eat while strolling around the city. Boy, was that a mistake. I returned to the store later in the day to buy a whole box to bring back to Munich. "Closed," read the door. Big eyed, I watched the young woman working clean up and put away the rest of the cookies. With my biggest smile (which looks like a mix between charming and desperate) and most precise hand gestures, I begged for her to sell me some cookies. Like I said, the Dutch are practical. Closed means closed. Now I'll just have to plan another trip to Amsterdam. 

People often talk about Belgian chocolate and now I think this discussion should include Dutch chocolate as well. In addition to those dreamy cookies at Van Stapele, we wandered past Vanroselen, a fine chocolate shop. Fine is certainly an accurate description. They have dried mango dipped in dark chocolate - a perfect afternoon pick-me-up - and creative chocolate truffles (which I did manage to pack in my suitcase) with flavours like earl grey.

Beyond chocolate, Amsterdam delivers. Indonesian food is a must and we tried Tempo Doeloe. The restaurant itself is quite refined and it serves rich dishes and flavours that certainly linger - small pancakes filled with shrimp mousse, tender beef in a macadamia nut sauce, prawns with lemon grass, rice turned a creamy yellow from coconut milk and tumeric. At the end of the meal, we were given a shot of cinnamon and cardamom schnapps. It is the type of thing where one taste provokes the question "why didn't I know about this and how come I haven't been drinking this for years?".

Another memorable dinner was at De Kas. Housed in a green house, this restaurant has no menu. You can ask your waiter what will be served that evening, or you can simply let yourself be surprised. Once you've cleared the basics like allergies and whether you eat meat or fish, you are at the mercy of the chef and I must admit that this is a position that I quite like. 

No menu means no expectations. You can't claim that what is on your plate doesn't match the description on the menu. The power dynamics shift. The chef is in control and not the customer. You are being taken care of instead of catered to. But this isn't why there isn't a menu. The chef works without a menu so that he can make sure to serve what is best that day. Some ingredients are grown right there in the restaurant green house. Others are grown on the restaurant's farm outside of the city and the rest are sourced with great care.

All the food at De Kas was great but like that cinnamon and cardamom schnapps, there are two dishes that I want to mention in particular to make sure that they start showing up more often. The first is smoked (!) mashed potatoes. The second is tarragon and white chocolate (!)  ice cream. Let's make this happen, folks.

Smoked (!) mashed potatoes aside (I am pretty sure that you can't write that without an exclamation point), the most delicious part of my time in Amsterdam was breakfast. 

 Run by Peter, Wolter and their beagle Tommie, B&B Kamer 01 might have only three rooms but I am quite certain that it serves the best breakfast in Amsterdam. Breakfast here is a five course affair. It sounds serious, but I assure you that the only seriousness goes into sourcing the best ingredients and products in Amsterdam. The view of the canal, Peter's perfectly dry sense of humour and Wolter's warmth makes breakfast relaxed and cozy. Add Tommie the beagle to the mix and it is easy to forget that you want to get out into the city and see the sights. You kind of feel like you are in town visiting friends and that your only plan of the day is to eat breakfast. It is easy to linger, drink another cup of coffee and just enjoy.

My four day stay meant that I was lucky enough to have breakfast three times. The first course is always fruit. Arranged architecturally under a glass dome, it is waiting for you when you arrive for breakfast (just like strawberry tarts were waiting for me when I checked in). The second course, if you are in the mood, is yogurt with some granola that is made at a bakery on the other side of the canal. Or, you might just want to drink a cappuccino. Then there is the cheese course and then the meat/fish course. There are also flaky croissants, a bread basket and local jams with flavours such as apricot and elderflower, strawberry and rose. For special occasions or for extra perky eaters, then there is the pastry course.

A plate of kiwi and blueberries, pomegranate yogurt with crunchy granola, cheese with cloves, raw milk cheese, chicken sausage, Italian salami, a pear and raisin tart with orange zest, smoked herring, mango and pomegranate, cheese with walnuts and fenugreek, raw beef sausage (traditionally Dutch) served with strong mustard, duck pate with port, a croissant with lemon and orange liquor jam and raspberry lavender jam, goat brie, fresh cheese with chunks of cucumber, dried figs 

B&B Kamera 01 has certainly earned its place in my top three best hotel breakfast experiences. In no particular order, the other two that it shares this title with are the Taj Mahal Mumbai and the Rรถsler Haus here in Bavaria. So beyond tulips and coffee shops, Amsterdam is now a city that I associate with creamy chocolate cookies and the best breakfast.


unlearning what we know: how to fry an egg

The first recipe I want to share this year is like so many ones I've shared before - it really isn't a recipe at all. Instead it is an idea, a formula, a nudge to think about certain ingredients in certain ways. And this one in particular is about unlearning what we already know.

When I was in high-school my mind grew faster than my body. I never experience a physical growth-spurt, but I did go through several mental ones. I discovered the works of writers like Milan Kundera, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mary McCarthy. I discovered feminist theory and queer literature. I learned about performance art and deconstruction. I could actually feel my brain growing. There was so much that I hadn't known existed and once I did, I wanted to know it all.

I still remember a lot from this period in which I was really starting to learn about the world and my place in it. One of the things I remember most is the importance of unlearning. Gloria Steinem says it best: "The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn but to unlearn."

Unlearning is how we are able to confront and overcome the prejudices that society has handed down to us. It is how we are able to really think what we want to think instead of what we are told to think. In many ways, it is how we learn and grow the most. It ends bad habits and destructive rhythms.

Like many things, I don't remember ever learning how to fry an egg. I just knew. I had watched my family fry eggs. I had watched staff at dinners fry em'. It is something that you know and not necessarily that you learn. However, cooking is no different than other things we do and know. Sometimes the greatest lessons are to be found in unlearning what we know as opposed to learning something "new".

For years I mindlessly fried eggs without ever thinking about how I was frying them. Pan on stove. Temperature to medium-high. A smudge of Butter. Or, maybe some olive oil. Butter melts. Shake pan to make sure it is evenly coated. Crack an egg into the pan. Fry. It was even less mindless than setting an alarm clock. With an alarm clock you at least have to think about what time you want to wake up. Frying an egg, I didn't have to think about anything. 

But what about frying an egg in a pan that starts off completely cold? This technique/formula/suggestion comes from Sarah's very thoughtful and delicious blog: The Yellow House. I read her stories like I read her recipes. They are suggestions for how to live well, how to eat well, how to think well, and how to write well. 

Sarah says to use a cast iron skillet, but my smallest pan is just a regular ol' frying pan and for frying an egg in this way you really want to use a small pan. That regular ol' frying pan of mine works just fine, so use whatever pan you have as long as it is a small one. 

This is now my preferred way of frying an egg and I've been practicing it regularly the past few weeks. It yields an egg worthy of great praise. It is creamy and evenly cooked. The bottom is a pure white with no greasy bits or overcooked crispy parts. The yolk is soft and the whites are set.

I am tempted to say that I will never fry an egg in a pan that starts off hot, but in the spirit of unlearning I'm always willing to try a technique that challenges what I think I know.  

John Besh's Sunny Side Up Fried Egg


1 egg, preferably a good organic egg
1 tsp butter, unsalted
sea salt

 Liberally rub a small frying pan with butter. Crack the egg (or two) into the pan, gently and carefully.

Place the pan on the stove and turn on the heat to medium. Make sure that the butter doesn't brown much and that the egg doesn't sputter by adjusting the heat accordingly. Slowly the white will become opaque. Once fully white, gently touch the yolk. It will most likely feel cold. Continue to cook until the yolk feels warm.

Remove the pan from the heat and let it sit for a minute or two. The yolk will continue to cook. 

Sprinkle with sea salt and eat right away.



the year in breakfast: 2013

December has become January and 2013 is already last year. 

Yesterday was its first day and as I flew from Marrakesh to Munich, I finished reading a book that I mentioned a few weeks back: The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik. The flight was bumpy. My head was also experiencing turbulence due to a few glasses of Moroccan rose from the night before. Between staring out the window and closing my eyes in an effort to feel still, I read the last couple chapters. I read them slowly, a few pages at a time. I read them the same way that I eat brunch. A few bites of this, a few bites of that and then a rest to talk and to ponder. 

 The book itself is structured like a meal, and one that you never want to end. Even though the dishwasher is moaning ever so softly and your guests wear sleep in their eyes, you want the night to go on forever. You want to keep chatting. And maybe you even want to keep eating. Above all, you want to stay at the table in that moment. 

Fittingly, the last part of the book is titled "Leaving the Table" and this part really solved the question of why I am so attracted to the table - to eating and to cooking - in the first place. Over the years, I've collected a few answers, but Adam Gopnik has given me a new one. 

"What is it that we want from eating? Comfort? Absolutely. A symbol of love shared? For sure. But above all, food matters for us as a daily symbol of the sacred, which means for secular people that it is a kind of sacred-in-itself. Questions of food are all just questions of living refracted outward, like the imaginary mountains explorers see in the Arctic, projections forward of their own ice-breaking boats. (308)"

"For people who believe in this life alone, trying to decide how best to live, questions of food will always be of great importance. (307)" 

I grew up without religion. Even my grandparents are atheists. I read existential books written for children growing up. I go to churches and temples for their art and for their stories, not for their morals or rules. I am more comfortable with the idea of spirituality than organized religion, but even spirituality I think of in very abstract ways. Now that I've read The Table Comes First, I realize that food plays into much more than my understanding of my world. It is a philosophy that helps me understand so much more than food. 

Following Gopnik's idea of food being the daily symbol of the sacred, then breakfast is the closest that I ever get to a morning prayer. It is my way to start the day thoughtfully and with grace. 

The past year was kind to me and for that I feel blessed. However, I firmly believe that we make our own blessings and if you start the day with a breakfast that is beautiful and thoughtful, well, what better start to a day can you have? 

I shared my breakfasts from 2012 and I thought that I would do the same for 2013. I started the year in Oaxaca, Mexico and ended it in Marrakesh, Morocco. Munich was where I mostly was in between. It is a city that likes good coffee and good bakeries and, therefore, a city that I like. I wrote about my spring breakfasts already, so here I've mostly focused on all that came after. 

May your breakfasts this year be inspired and your year inspiring!

2013 in Breakfast

the Bread Exchange Brunch, Fischbachau

grapefruit and jalapeno jam, Dallas

oatmeal with pomegranate and pumpkin seeds and a green smoothie, Dallas 

avocado toast, Munich

oatmeal, Alphonso mango and whiskey, Munich

life-changing loaf of bread, toasted, with a fried egg and sauteed spinach, Munich

Malin's sourdough with seeds, Berlin

wild asparagus with a fried egg, Munich

yogurt with apple, white currants, figs and honey, Munich

waffles, salad and eggs, Seoul

croque monsieur, Suwon

matcha latte, Munich

cinnamon wreath, Saarland 

breakfast buffet, Berlin

fresh orange juice, Venice

roasted spaghetti squash and kale with a fried egg, Munich

fresh orange and grapefruit juice, Marrakesh  

* * * * *

Happy 2014!

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